A few pages into my first ever Anaïs Nin book, A Spy in the House of Love, I had already concluded that Nin wrote some of the most beautiful sentences to ever exist. In the 136 pages of the novel, Nin explores the male gaze, gender stereotypes, intersectionality, feminine sexuality, hedonism, commitment and infidelity—all of which are all still very relevant in the lives of women today. Through the protagonist, Sabina, Nin articulates the many complexities and anxieties young women experience as married yet inhabiting a male-dominated society. She portrays Sabina’s as restricted due to the stereotypes of the perfect wife (i.e. docile and dainty) that are imposed on her.
Set in 1950s New York, the book takes the reader through the many ways in which Sabina navigates between the life she wants and the reality that is expected of her as a married woman. Sabina is married to a man called Alan. Her life with Alan is safe, ‘normal’ and mundane but she craves a life of adventure and excitement. She wants to live a kind of life where she can “enjoy the freedom that men are able to experience.” She also wants to have access to the security and stability that the life with Alan provides, whenever she wants, as she feels lost and incomplete without it.
Under the pretence of being an actress on the road, Sabina is able to live a completely separate life. She attends parties, mingles with the artists and creatives at night, has affairs with different men and assumes different identities. Through the different men she has affairs with, she assumes a different identity, highlighting previously unexplored aspects of her personality.
The binary opposition between her desires and reality causes her extreme anxiety, guilt and paranoia to the point where she is convinced that someone, who she calls “the Lie Detector” is following and spying on her with the intention of exposing her double life. Through all the lies and deceit, she engages in to maintain her duplicity in the pursuit of love and fulfilment. She comes to describe herself as “an international spy in the house of love”.
Here’s one of my favourite passages, in which Nin describes the male gaze: “He turned his eyes, now a glacial blue, fully upon her. They were impersonal and seemed to gaze beyond her at all women who had dissolved into one, but who might at any moment again become dissolve into all. This was the gaze Sabina had always encountered in Don Juan, everywhere; it was the gaze she mistrusted. It was the alchemy of desire fixing itself upon the incarnation of all women into Sabina for a moment but as easily by a second process able to alchemize Sabina into many others.”
Sabina’s situation, in which she wrestles expectations imposed and living the kind of life she wants is one to which most women today can relate. While she provides no answers, Anaïs Nin presents such complex anxieties in the most beautiful, dramatic, graceful prose.
For some time now, I’ve engaged myself in a very dismal exercise. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it involves logging into my computer, opening my web browser and typing into Google Images, “Nigerian bodies”. The first time I searched the Internet for Nigerian bodies, I was in London. More precisely, I was somewhere in-between reading American writer, J. X. Malady’s essay, “The Ghosts in Our Machines,” and attending “Burden of Proof: The Construction Of Visual Evidence” an exhibition held at The Photographer’s Gallery. In very unique ways, the essay and the exhibition looked at the relationship between images and death.
What happens when you conduct an image search for Nigerian bodies is, give or take two or three pictures of celebrities, entrance into a virtual museum of the dead. But the search results do not display just any kind of death. There is cohesion in the results, arrangement, theme and pattern the motif of which is a picture of corpses stacked atop one another—death, most likely, by some from of mass execution. By burning, shooting, hanging and by accident, the method is insignificant; the pictures all look the same.
This week, I am revisiting Teju Cole’s essay, “Perplexed… Perplexed”. First published in the Atlantic in 2012, and more recently, in his collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, “Perplexed… Perplexed” explores the rampancy of mob justice in Nigeria—on the face, at least. In the essay, Cole writes about the ALUU 4, the University of Port Harcourt students lynched in 2012 for alleged and never quite proven theft. A mob, Cole notably argues “is not, as is so often said, mindless. A mob is single-minded,” and exists to fill a judicial vacuum.
In asking why mob justice is prevalent in Nigeria, Cole’s essay touches on—and, perhaps, too briefly—something very interesting that I will be reading around this week. He describes the penchant for spontaneous acts of violence in places such as Jamaica, Pakistan, Kenya and Nigeria as driven by what he terms, a crisis of modernity, which has seen “people finding themselves sharing space with neighbours whom they do not know and with whom they do not share traditions.” For Cole, not only does mob violence emerge from the crisis, the crisis is also a manifestation of the impatience that comes with living amid limited or diminishing resources, ineffective governing bodies and inefficient resource-allocating institutions.
What makes Cole’s ‘crisis’ particularly compelling is that it is not limited to street violence but can also explain occurrences that are less physical than visceral. When Boko Haram killings, suicide bombings and aeroplane accidents—devastating incidents of national magnitudes—occur (and they often do in Nigeria), those of us that happen to be removed from these incidents very quickly experience a crisis of modernity. Our social media accounts become flooded with pictures of dead and fatally wounded strangers; inequalities in death emerge in how our attitudes towards victims become functions of the victims’ races and nationalities. We deliberate on uploading pictures of corpses, caught between the call of duty we feel towards raising awareness and our moral sensibilities about how to treat the dead. At the extreme, we not only upload these pictures, we exchange them as social currency, too. Always, in each case, our behaviour seems to suggest that some disharmony exists between humanity’s emotional capacity and our collective level of technological advancement.
Why is the Miracle of Chile not replicable in Chad, other than the obvious fact of Chad not being Chile? Can the democratic transformation experience in Poland be duplicated in Pakistan? Why is socialist Sweden a technologically advanced state in ways that Somalia is only able to dream about? What is particularly tricky about development where for every success story in the Pacific Rim and Latin America, there are twice as many stories of dejection, disappointment and fatigue? These are some frustratingly difficult questions Big Development has been largely unable to answer in the post-WWII era of Bretton Woods-oriented assistance. Could it be that there are cultural traits (beliefs, values and practices) in the Chadian, Pakistani and Somalian consciousness that act as constraints to sustainable growth, economic prosperity, liberalism and egalitarianism?
“The Central Liberal Truth,” the title of the book I am reading this week was derived from a quote by the late sociologist and US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who stated that “the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself”.
Seeking answers to long-simmering questions around Jewish and East Asian entrepreneurship, democracy in the Middle East, the divergent paths Haiti and the Dominican Republic have followed as well as the fabled “Nordic model”, American scholar, Lawrence E. Harrison, examines the way culture influences the ways countries develop. For developing countries, the typical limitations of geography, institutional development, poor policy implementation and lack of financial resources—legitimate as they are—also fail to consider the ways in which progress can be sped up by analysing cultural barriers to development and why some societies (and groups within societies) perform better than others with regards to democratic governance, social justice and economic prosperity.
In a simple way, it is difficult to argue against the notion that “culture matters”. If, for example, an intervention program fails to address specific social attitudes to female farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, all the foreign aid in the world will not guarantee that women in sub-Saharan Africa are able to farm. This does not require any kind of cultural relativism, and seems very straightforward. But this simplicity is perhaps the most fatal flaw of The Central Liberal Truth, the belief that we can apply the same positivist methodology to human behaviour as economists are used to applying to economic facts and figures.
Harrison argues that there are obstacles to development in Islam, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism and animism (part of what he refers to as “progress-resistant cultures”), while Protestant, Jewish and Confucian traditions fit within much more “universal progress cultures” (essentially an extension of Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic” thesis). For example, Ecuadoreans’ attitudes towards punctuality are chalked up to their Catholic past and “excessive individualism in Iberian culture”, but Buddhism is relative since some Buddhist countries are governed much better than others (for example, Myanmar is listed by Freedom House as one of the least “free” countries, while Thailand and Mongolia are considered more “free”).
How exactly Harrison arrives at this conclusion remains unclear, and in this instance, he ignores the very obvious history of repressive military regimes being supported by external actors in these countries. Essentially, Harrison ignores the very real possibility that societies aren’t linear and the possibility that societies do not operate within fixed boundaries. This idea fits within Pierre Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice theory, where societies operate such that participants in very complicated schemes constantly change the (usually undeclared) rules of interaction.
Nevertheless, the enormous amount of data compiled by Harrison (the book is well researched, if nothing else) will compel even the most skeptical to at least give consideration to the validity of some, if not all of his arguments, even as the Spanish and Irish “miracles” cited within the book increasingly look more like nightmares in the post-Brexit Eurozone.