Monday, September 26, 2011

The incidental American

Foster as my window to a wider world

This is the final in a series of posts about Jodie Foster as historian

Though I’ve lived most of my life thinking I was born just a little too late, I still grew up believing that I was in the middle of a great world civilization. As such, I often found myself wondering what would it be like coming of age in, say, Brazil in the 1970s, or Italy in the 1890s, or Japan in the 1730s – times which, even in the histories of such storied places, hardly seem that arresting. If you were a kid, I think you’d want to be Brazilian in the mid-sixteenth century, or Japanese in the late nineteenth century, or Italian at the time of the Risorgimento -- or the first century BCE. (Any turmoil, of course, would be more exciting than threatening.) But to grow up in a place that was not undergoing dramatic change or taking center stage seemed sad to me.
This is of course crude, even imperialist, thinking, though I confess it’s proven durable in my psyche. I suppose it’s akin to the wages of whiteness, a concept the great African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois used to explain why the white working class would never cast in favor of interracial solidarity against their shared capitalist oppressor: at least they’re not black. The wages of Americanness, by contrast, are not specifically racial, though of course white people have benefited disproportionately from the psychic dividend it has conferred. But all of us who have experienced it cannot help but suspect that this dividend is soon to be cut off, and that a reckoning is at hand.
It seems quite likely to me that if the work of Jodie Foster continues to have life beyond the mortal frame of the republic, she will be seen as a distinctively American artist, perhaps in ways we can only dimly perceive now. But for me, she’s functioned – in precisely that half-conscious, ill-formed, but nevertheless discernible way that I’ve been at some pains to trace in the preceding posts – as a living demonstration that you can have a full, complicated, and interesting life without caring all that much that you happen to be American. Again: she is an odd vehicle for that message, in that she herself came of age in Hollywood, the veritable cockpit of the American Dream. Perhaps that allowed her to take it for granted in a way I never did, and to become a true cosmopolitan, the way members of national elites often do. Or maybe it’s simply that she’s a female, and females have traditionally found their allegiances closer to home, whether or not they happen to be wives or mothers. In any case, it took an American for me to begin to imagine a post-American identity for myself and my heirs. Embarrassing, but true.
Now it’s my turn to be the brave one.

The Sensing the Past series will continue next month with a final set of case studies on the career of Meryl Streep.