We left off last time with an American couple watching an Amerindian maize-dance in a remote Mexican village. Lucky enough to stumble upon a truly rare event, they’re still frightened that an American will suddenly walk out of a nearby hut, or that the chief will walk over afterwards and ask them–in immaculate English–how they like his Sears catalogue. Bottom line: they’re beholding something unique and amazing, and they’re scared to death that it’ll turn out to be somehow inauthentic.
Percy explores this thread of the sightseer’s alienation from good touristy experiences. In summary from last week, we sightseers expect ourselves and our events to live up to our expectations of them, and these can be some high expectations—we form an idea of the perfect trip or experience in our minds, and then we’re disappointed if the actuality isn’t as picturesque or awe-inspiring as we feel it should be. This expectation prevents our engagement with the experience, choking off our ability to be sightseers and enjoy it. It also can put strain on our horizontal relations, placing the weight of whether or not the experience is valid on someone else’s enjoyment of it. Back to our couple in the village:
“We have another clue to [the spuriousness of their enjoyment of the village] in their subsequent remark to an ethnologist friend. ‘How we wished you would have been there with us! What a perfect goldmine of folkways!…You must return with us.’”
I think that this also speaks to a certain insecurity in human snobbishness—which is really just a desire for taste that we can believe is authentic. I can imagine myself saying to film critic friend, “You had to have seen that movie! What a perfect goldmine of photography” and then demanding he come along to validate my opinion. Thus our Americans in Mexico
“need the ethnologist to certify their experience as genuine. This is borne out by their behavior when the three of them return for the next corn dance. During the dance, the couple do not watch the goings-on; instead they watch the ethnologist!…What they want from him is not ethnological explanations; all they want is his approval.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve brought a friend along to a new restaurant or movie and placed that demand for approval on him, or the number of times I’ve felt that demand placed on me. Here the Law, expectation, and idolatry all become synonymous—I try to live up the Law of genuine experience by demanding that someone else certify it or stamp it as authentic. To map some Protestant categories onto a Catholic author, I think you could paraphrase: expectation kills, but freedom gives life.
Percy calls this freedom sovereignty—he wants us to be able to engage phenomena without any reference to what they ‘should’ be or to what we should be getting out of them. Regarding the sightseer’s loss of sovereignty, Percy asserts:
“A degree of sovereignty has been surrendered by the couple. It is the nature of the loss, moreover, that they are not aware of the loss, beyond a certain uneasiness…(Their consciousness of the corn dance cannot escape their consciousness of their consciousness, so that with the onset of the the first direct enjoyment, their higher consciousness pounces in and certifies: ‘Now you are doing it! Now you are really living!” and, in certifying the experience, sets it at nought.) Their basic placement in the world is such that…The highest satisfaction of the sightseer (not merely the tourist but any layman seer of sights) is that his sight should be certified as genuine.”
Even as tourists, humans crave justification, that ultimate and divine “Yes,” above all else. The ethnologist is just another form of the Law—we need someone who’s an expert to certify our experiences, and the need for certification swallows up the experience itself and our enjoyment of it. Percy nails it when he labels this a loss of sovereignty—we are slaves of sin, bound by our wills to cast everything in the categories of self-justification.
All that said, you really do have to see Midnight in Paris—it’s a perfect goldmine of twenties expatriate culture. Truly the real deal!
More later in the week on the problem in education and museum-visiting, and we’ll also see Percy’s attempt at a solution.