Monday, February 18, 2008

“What Have We Who Are Slaves And Black To Do With Art?”

Up and down the ladder I go, chasing after 'truths' then grounding myself in realities. In that vein I ran into this interesting piece at n + 1 about Ralph Ellison, high art, and black culture. Even if you are unfamiliar with Ellison, as I am, it offers some worthwhile contemplations on the role and value of pursuing universal, humanistic truths and thought systems, particularly as a non-white. It caught my attention with this about one of my fave authors, Jorge Luis Borges. It seems impossible to read widely and deeply without coming across thinkers with beautiful ideas but odious, annoying prejudices so it didn't strike me too negatively (there's also something to be sid about context); anyway what caught my thoughts was the sophisticated excuse for Borges bias and what the article's author, as well as Ellison, have to say about it.

"Some time ago I came across a skinny little book bearing the title With Borges. It is the recollection of a brief stint in a young man’s life spent reading to the Argentine giant of letters, Jorge Luis Borges. Much in the book was familiar – Borges lived with his mother into his sixties, he devoured books with a fiendish voracity, his blindness in old age necessitated that others read aloud to him – but one tiny passage, an aside, was new and striking to me: in it, the memoirist notes that though the great cosmopolitan boasted a taste for everything under the sun, from ancient Nordic folk verse to kabbalistic number games to cheap Westerns and detective stories, Borges nonetheless remarked that there was absolutely nothing he could find of universal importance in American Negro culture. It was simply too provincial. And because, as he saw it, Negroes had failed to produce a “universal culture” – like that of the ancient Greeks, the English, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Jews – because they could offer nothing of equal worth to the rest of the world, they were therefore in a sense inferior. This was Borges’s view and it is something that I have come to think about often. "
"What Have We Who Are Slaves And Black To Do With Art?”, T.C. Williams, n + 1