Dreaming Up America
By Russell Banks
Seven Stories Press
New York: June 2008
144 pages, $21.95
There are unavoidable, direct links between economics and culture, especially when we're talking about those aspects of culture that are expensive to produce—films, public music, theater—or to own, like paintings and sculpture.
It's a kind of madness to think that you can always improve your life, financially, economically, generation after generation, with each generation succeeding further, and not recognize that this is simply an impossibility, one that ultimately, inevitably, like any Ponzi scheme, will lead to failure. And the economic demands and expectations that back this distorted dream are always going to be in conflict with the ideals of democracy. They demand and expect one person to trample on another. This conflicts with the democratic ideals in our sacred documents and in our hearts.
For a slim book, Dreaming Up America packs a hell of a wallop.
The work began in another medium, as narration for a documentary by French filmmaker Jean-Michel Meurice in which acclaimed novelist Russell Banks was asked, in his words, to "play talking heads in a film he was making for the French television channel, Arte. The film ... was to be about American history as told by American cinema--from The Birth of a Nation to Blackhawk Down." Once he was given the hours of recorded interviews to review, he realized he had the makings of a book in hand, and here we have it.
Interestingly, it's impossible to detect without Banks' introductory explanation that the book sprung from an examination of popular culture. Small references to very American movies are made here and there, but no more than would be usual in any work looking at America's society and politics. In fact, Dreaming Up America seems far more about American character, and the historical events that led to the nation's individualistic, isolationist, can-do, religious persona, than it is about culture--or film--at all.
Banks opens the work by looking at the beginning of America, at the diverse countries that were racing to claim the land and, more importantly, the three dominant ideas that sprung from the original divergent national cultures that were competing for dominance on the newly discovered (by Europeans, at least) continent. He suggests that there is no single dominant note for "the American Dream," but rather a threefold pitch: the salvational aspect of the Puritan settlers who wanted to found a City on the Hill, the get-rich-easy streak represented by Cortez's and Pizarro's search for the City of Gold, and Ponce De Leon's quest to find the Fountain of Youth.
We can think of there being three braided strands, or perhaps three mutually reinforcing dreams: one is of a place where a sinner can become virtuous, free from the decadence of the secular cosmopolitanism of old Europe; another is of a place where a poor man can become wealthy; and a third is of a place where a person can be born again.
The three together are much more powerful than any one of them alone. And they are there at the inception, at the very beginning of colonial America....
From this premise, Banks spreads out to look at how these three strains have shaped our history, how they have, as he says, "braided" themselves together, but also how they've competed, and when, and where. And he looks at how their sometimes competitive demands cancel each other out, creating an at-times schizoid American face--and foreign policy--to the rest of the world. He observes, for example:
American objections to and mistrust of international organizations like the League of Nations and the United Nations are connected to the fact that in our minds we already have all the partnership we need through our special relationship with God.
Yet as a nation, we have (or claim to have) an inherent impulse to "spread democracy"--an undertaking Banks clearly perceives as a ruse for citizen rubes, with capitalism driving that particular goodwill engine. And while the average American citizen may currently buy into the sacrificial "spreading for democracy" theme, Europeans, he claims, have a much more realistic sense of what America is all about and have learned to be skeptical and wary of our ways.
The turmoil and brutality that erupted in the late 1960s and early '70s, with the assassinations of Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, and the urban riots—that whole sequence of events altered the European perception of America in a significant way. Where before we had looked to them like the golden child, we now began to take on a somewhat different appearance. The United States now looked like a bully, out of control, violent, angry, short-sighted. No longer were we the brilliant innocent.
In Banks' view, one of the main reasons Americans themselves seem so unaware of their country's contradictions is a basic blissful ignorance about our own violent history. The American Revolution, he says, has been sanitized; in the first years after the war for independence, that conflict was indeed realistically perceived as a brutal, bloody wrenching-away and a violent beginning. However, the French Revolution's beheadings in the following decade dominated the international imagination afterwards, and in the century after that, the horrors of our own Civil War blotted out from our national consciousness this country's brutal birth. Today, Banks asserts, Americans are more inclined to think of the Founding Fathers less as warriors than as savvy political activists, huddling in taverns debating the rights of man, or meeting in Philadelphia to craft the Constitution. We overlook our violent founding at our peril, for it haunts us still, echoing down the centuries--subliminally, which makes it that much more uncontrollable.
This leads to a stark and unhealthy blend of Christianity, Capitalism and Civilization (appropriately capitalized when used together, as Banks does often) that comes out sometimes in a sort of cannibalism; when we don't have any native tribes to wipe out or Middle East countries to invade we will turn like wolves on our own, often the weakest of our own, and the results can be appalling. Turning our youngest into consumers (there's the capital "C" Capitalism at work), he maintains, is a disgusting form of colonization.
] It's a very dangerous situation. We've colonized our own children. Having run out of people on the planet to colonize, run out of people who can't distinguish between beads and trinkets and something of value, having found ourselves no longer able to swap some beads and axes for Manhattan Island, we've ended up colonizing our own children. We're now engaged in a process of auto-colonization. The old sow is eating its own farrow.
And worse, there's no end in sight because of our willful fetishization of our country. Banks points to one of the most disturbing collective psychological disturbances displayed by the official face of America to the world --the dark side of his triumvirate of God, cash and eternal youth -- the confusion of self and nation, of religious devotion to country confounded with patriotism, a brew that makes up one of the weirdest traits of American character:
I regard nationalism as a kind of secular religion, a substitute religion, where the state itself and one's identity as a citizen of the state takes on a religious intensity and passion. I suppose there is a lack that's highlighted by that identification. It has behind it the notion that one's identity as an American is some kind of ultimate definition of oneself and, therefore, without it one has no identify of one's own. One's citizenship isn't merely one's group identity, it's one essential identity.
Nationalism can do that to you. It can strip you of your individuality. And in periods of strong, nationalistic fervor in the United States, it has taken on a stubbornly religious quality.
Despite America's dark side, which is explored at length in this work, Banks also emphasizes throughout the nation's energy, innocence, determination and optimism. Indeed, in the end, he himself expresses a cautious optimism that we can regain our senses and become a force for good in a way that we only dream of now:
...I begin by recognizing that the way this country was formed, and the way it is still coming into being, is a powerful, combustible combination of energies. We would do well to recognize that we haven't yet finished making ourselves, and that we can still take mindful control of that process. Our American history is taking us somewhere. We just don't know where yet.
Dreaming Up America is a powerful, powerful work, but I recommend it with a word of caution to fans of Banks' fiction: this book is nothing like his novels, which I've always considered meticulously crafted and almost perfectly (if depressingly) shaped. This reads very much as an oral musing, completely unlike his other work, and at first this can be disconcerting if a reader comes to this (as I did) expecting to read this as a master wordsmith's first foray into a new non-fiction form. I suspect there's very little editing beyond taking out verbal fits and starts and ummms, and the book's genesis as narration to a documentary is quite apparent throughout. Once this expectation for polished prose is set aside, readers can get on with the absorption of the ideas and it's well worth the read. However, I will admit, on closing, that I would welcome a set of well-considered non-fiction essays from such an author and hope to see such a volume in the future.