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Friday, 21 August 2015

The Love of Complete Contempt

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird“For thus hath the Lord said unto me: Go, set a watchman; let him declare what he seeth!” (Isaiah, 21:6)
“I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again”. (Harper Lee).

Scene one: You’re reading a novel that is so compelling, its characters and what happens to them overtake reality. Then suddenly you’re finished; daily life resumes. You’re left bereft. It’s the end of a wonderful world and a fragment of your soul has gone with it.
Scene two: You’re not a natural writer; more someone who’s learnt to juggle words for a living. Still, you feel forced to pen the one genuine story you have to tell. It’s your own history. So, with a background in law and as a student of human nature with an uncanny ability to wrest the truth from anyone in reach, you rid it from your system before life’s vicissitudes overtake you.
This, I suggest, is the battleground on which the war of wills is being fought between Harper Lee and fans of her seminal novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Those who read and viewed the beloved book and following film fifty years ago, simply do not want to know the author’s real intent; the veracity of which emerges in the newly-released sequel, Go Set a Watchman.
No-one denies that Mockingbird and Watchman are effectively the same story, each written from an infant and adult perspective. Nor does any review I’ve so far read of Watchman dispute that it’s a lesser work.
But it appears that far from betraying Mockingbird fans, Watchman give us a hard life lesson: that the greatest treason we all suffer, is when we discover our parents’ fallibility as we mature.
First, Atticus Finch is a court-appointed defence counsel and as a consummate professional, he acts in any client’s best interests, no matter their background.
Next, there’s the trial scene in which he removes his watch, loosens some clothing and removes his jacket. This is the fleeting moment when we glimpse Atticus ‘unbuttoned’; where he behaves in a manner previously unknown even to his children and so layer by uncovered layer becomes relaxed enough to reveal the murky underbelly of white southern US society in the 1930s.
But Finch senior is as much a product of pre-civil rights America as the children’s teacher, Miss Gates who during a Current Events lesson with a look at Nazi Europe, offers unstinting praise to Jews but is overheard saying as she leaves the court house that her black neighbours are becoming self-important and “’.. an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us’.”
Both of them, if only they could realise it, seek an ideal of justice in the tradition of the Hebrew bible just like Jewish  philanthropist Julius Rosenwald,who is said to have built 5,300 schools for black children in the 1900s Deep South.
Mockingbird was first published in 1960 and it can be no accident that the actor Gregory Peck was chosen to play Atticus in the 1962 film version as in 1947, only two years after the end of World War II, he had starred in an earlier Oscar-winning classic, Gentleman’s Agreement. In it he appeared as non-Jewish journalist, Philip Schuyler Green who poses undercover as a Jew in an exposé of middle-class US antisemitism. The movie was based on a novel by Laura Kean Zametkin (Hobson).
Less well-known is that antisemitism was also tackled in another 1947 film, Crossfire which was based on The Brick Foxhole, a thriller by Richard Brooks about the murder of a Jewish veteran by a rabidly anti-Jewish army sergeant.
Interestingly, the American Jewish Committee, fearing it would exacerbate anti-Jewish prejudice, tried to halt production and have the victim’s character changed into an African-American. The bid failed and the film won two Academy Award nominations.
When Adam Kirsch wrote in The Tablet that Watchman “undoes the hypocritical fantasies of benevolent white power in Mockingbird”, I think he made a bad error of judgement, caught up in the rhetoric of a fictional hero who declares, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”.
The fantasies become those of the temporarily impassioned reader, not the author. Characters like Atticus and Miss Gates are purely well-bred, educated products of their environment. They may always admire Jews as a concept, but would not allow their children to marry one! Indeed, just as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt is now seen as having abandoned his adoring Jewish constituents just when they needed him most, so it was easy for Miss Gates to love Jews as there were so few in her neighbourhood.
Putting its own gloss on matters, the online BBC News Magazine has asked if people become more prejudiced as they grow older. I answer ‘no’. Go.Set.a.WatchmanTheir inherent leanings just become more apparent;  etched deeper by what happens to them.
But I conclude here, neither in the US Deep South nor in London, UK but in Trinidad, the birth-place of the Indian novelist V S Naipaul, who forever recalls a school Christmas show in 1941 and seeing a small black boy singing, ”Oh, I’m a happy little nigger and my name is John”.
Twenty-six years later, Naipaul had a character say “every educated black man is eaten away quietly by a memory like that”. The little boy and his song were loved, say Naipaul and his biographer, Patrick French, but within that love was complete contempt.
Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the September 2015 edition of Live Encounters magazine as ‘The Love of Complete Contempt’ ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

© Natalie Wood (21 August 2015)
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