Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

source: brooklynbookgirl via tumblr

In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment hit like the plague. Rationality, human rights, and queries into sovereignty were the symptoms that festered. Of course, one does not wholeheartedly begrudge the Enlightenment, but it is of course nice to throw shade at it once in a while. In any case,  Dr. Mah argues, the French spread their own strain of civility and cultural values that made German intellectuals and society quite uncomfortable. Toujours français! Alas, German particularity was born. But, as Dr. Mah further suggests, these notions of national identity, which sought to create difference and superiority through divisiveness, were, in fact, “phantasies.” Or, that is to say, not really there. The fight over who had the right to dictate culture and cultural meaning led, Mah says, to Karl Marx’s ultimate repudiation of cultural identity, located in the proletariat–those without culture. 

Mah’s book considers leading intellectual and cultural figures throughout the German and French Enlightenment, who presented contrary behaviours. How could this be? In an immediate way, as a historian and reader, this book taught me that when I am reading (and living), I shouldn’t look for the ways a person conforms to what I already expect to be true about that person or their history. It also taught me that often times people, and those who become interested in those people, are incredibly caught up in their own contradictory behaviours—sometimes seething in a locked tower in an attempt to surmise just who they are. Just as I write this, the amazingly sunny weather has turned into a drastic-hurricane-like torrent. To go on a brief tangent, the rain is not tears, no, the rain is a moment of cleansing harmony. Perhaps, that is just what we all need–to be cleansed from our desire to seek out and create damning memoirs of our own contradictory behaviours.

The problem of contrariness stems from the need to put everything into narrow boxes of identification. This, of course, *rings bell of Enlightenment* stems from the Enlightenment. By attempting to classify, clarify, and justify the world according to their experience, Enlightenment thinkers paved the way for western institutions, Michel Foucualt argues. From a world in which power was displayed by inscribing power onto bodies through praise and punishment, to a panopticon-world in which man recorded and modified his own behaviour. Which is better? I don’t really imagine that is the right question to ask. Now that we are aware of how systems are manufactured, sold (by objectifying race and women), and digested (passive acceptance and aggression towards minorities) we should do our best to confound that system. If we all adhere to this world, wherein we identify as one thing and spend the rest of our lives finding our own contrariness, we deny the full spectrum of life. Inherently, any such binary will be fabricated in our own imagination. How we imagine we are perceived, rather than how we actually are. At any one time, we cannot be entirely sure of our identity. How does one adequately mark out their identity? Do we create lists, do we share stories, do we smile to someone’s face and cry when they leave?

I don’t think so. For if we start to create a list, by the time we’ve gotten to the bottom, there is no way for us to know if we are still aligned with the top. If we just are, rather than modifying to conform to the patriarchal world we live in, then we might just experience something new and worthwhile. Not to delegitimize anyone’s lived experience–no one’s life should ever be seen as less. It feels like always walking the plank—at what point am I stable in just being and when does the plank begin to shift under the weight of thinking. Ultimately, the goal is to no longer fear the water or the sharks we see below. Ultimately, the goal is to plunge into the unknown and live fearlessly. Ultimately, the goal is to realize the real.

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