Sunday, February 15, 2009

Je Est Un Autre: Life In Dream City

Zadie Smith has an excellent essay in the New York Review of Books called "Speaking In Tongues" examining multiplicity and Obama's ability to speak "everyone":

"In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That's how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you're not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white. It's the kind of town where the wise man says "I" cautiously, because "I" feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun “we.”

Throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say we. He was noticeably wary of "I." By speaking so, he wasn't simply avoiding a singularity he didn't feel, he was also drawing us in with him. He had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can't see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives.

It was a high-wire strategy, for Obama, this invocation of our collective human messiness. His enemies latched on to its imprecision, emphasizing the exotic, un-American nature of Dream City, this ill-defined place where you could be from Hawaii and Kenya, Kansas and Indonesia all at the same time, where you could jive talk like a street hustler and orate like a senator. What kind of a crazy place is that? But they underestimated how many people come from Dream City, how many Americans, in their daily lives, conjure contrasting voices and seek a synthesis between disparate things. Turns out, Dream City wasn't so strange to them."

Smith is right, of course. Most of us do come from varied backgrounds and if we're honest, contain multitudinous voices and identities. This may seem like a shock to some, but it's a fact worth celebrating for the rest of us. As Arthur Rimbaud noted at sixteen, "Je est un autre" ("I is another"). This realization is the golden key to dream city, the elixir (aka: compassion) that allows us to cross boundaries, understand and even voice the "other" if we're lucky.

Smith also references the great American poet, Frank O'Hara who put it his own way:

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