In one of the essays included in William Gibson‘s book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he refers to the “personal micro-culture” that every artist creates around herself. “We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction.”
That notion of a micro-culture extends beyond formative creativity and primal concepts like “anxiety of influence,” Harold Bloom‘s provocative theory about the poet’s need to break free of those who were most influential. It is a description that applies to so many aspects of our lives. We get pocketed into a particular strata with demographic, economic and social dimensions. We are taught and we are imbued—as if by osmosis—with ideas and beliefs that may or may not be well suited for us. But moving in and out of those micro-cultures isn’t a given.
Class consciousness—the English version—is a familiar and prevalent theme. The Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies), is full of the problematic dynamics of a blacksmith’s son becoming the powerul confidante to a king. As Downton Abbey’s run in the U.S. came to an end last week, the show’s upstairs/downstairs setting in the mid-1920s offered premonitions of changes coming to the old order. But as we all know, class consciousness is still very deeply in tact in the English culture.
A recent production of H.M.S. Pinafore performed by Chicago’s high energy theater company The Hypocrites (at the American Repertory’s Oberon Theater through March 20), is yet another story based on a theme of class. In typical Hypocrite deconstructionist style, the cast and audience are blended together, gender roles are switched, and the set is a pajama party with lots of pillows and a slide. Fun abounds in this production, but the us/them, high brow/low brow themes still echo from the play’s 19th century roots. The revelation of two babies switched at birth, one high-born and the other a commoner, puts everything back in its proper place. Tip top.
Of course it isn’t just the English who have a long tradition of exclusion and class consciousness. August Wilson‘s brilliant How I Learned What I Learned, a memoir in monologue, (at the Huntington Theater in Boston through April 3) is a piercing view into the striated society of Wilson’s childhood in the disadvantaged Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson goes beyond the personal to the larger arcs that impact our lives:
My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.
During a jarringly ugly political campaign season in the U.S., I keep asking what it will take to shift old patterns, to move away from the us/them dichotomy that underlies so much of the hate and rhetoric. Admittedly that is a question some would call naive. But it is larger than social systems, religion, race, economics. It speaks to what it will take to dismantle the crippling notion of separateness, from each other and from our planet. So that’s a question I will keep asking.