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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 19-22)
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There are no classes in life for beginners.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Why did Cooper like the Swiss so much better than he liked the English? His ancestry was massively English, not Swiss, so family loyalty should have pulled toward England. (Full disclosure: I like both, a lot. Having spent two years living in England and only a little over two weeks in Switzerland, I hope to return to both.) So there, but where, exactly?
One avenue for approaching Cooper’s complex response is offered by Charles Dickens, who had, shall we say, issues with both England and America. His charming narcissist, Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, was “particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself” (Dickens 128). He considered any country other than England “a mistake” and considered all things British so far superior to all other things that he “had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him,” with the result that “Mr. Podsnap’s world was not a very large world” (Dickens 128), and his own and his wife’s inheritances enabled him to limit his world to those things with which he was satisfied. Alterity and shared human nature did not much interest him, and he would have been shocked, shocked, had he wandered anachronistically out of his book (1864–65) and into Cooper’s (1836), to discover that a mere American considered this triumphant provincialism to be, itself, something all too common and universal.
Cooper began the year 1828 in Paris, then, in his words, “went early to England; returning, however, to France, in June, by way of Holland and Belgium” (Switzerland 2). That summer he traveled with his wife, their five children, and nephew William to Switzerland. So his travels afforded him good bases for comparisons. Yet he thought he was going to Switzerland primarily to look at nature, and even in 1836, when Sketches of Switzerland was first published, he prefaced his account by writing that “little beyond descriptions of natural objects has been attempted; for Switzerland, enjoying probably the sublimest as well as the most diversified beauties of this sort that exist on the globe would seem to have a claim to be treated sui generis” (Switzerland 2). In his first letter, he writes of the “glorious anticipation” experienced once “fairly on the road to Switzerland,” that “a commonplace converse with men was about to give place to a sublime communion with nature” (Switzerland 5). And so it does, much of the time.
Cooper writes of his decision to “leave the impressions as they originally stood in his journal, or rather letters, for many of these letters were actually written at, or near, the period of their dates” (Switzerland 4). He does so, and those reading for an informed communing with sublime and picturesque nature will not be disappointed. Even so, in the immortal words of late-night television commercials for salvific technology, “But wait. There’s more.” People creep in. And wherever you have people, you will have politics.
Even before his assurance that he was heading from commonplace interactions with people to sublime contemplation of nature, Cooper began his Sketches of Switzerland (1836) by reflecting on “a certain peculiarity which all, who have seen much of different countries, must have observed to exist everywhere, simply because it belongs to human frailty. No nation is probably to be found, in which the mass of the people do not believe themselves to be more highly endowed with the better qualities of our nature, than any of their neighbors” (Switzerland 1). Cooper believed that it was “one of the fruits of traveling to cure individuals of this weakness” without plunging them into “a state of indiscriminating and generalizing indifference, on which those who are termed ‘men of the world’ are a little too apt to pride themselves, mistaking it for liberality and philosophy; while, in fact, they are nearly as far from the truth as when they were in the state of national complacency from which they have so lately emerged” (Switzerland 1). From Podsnap to multiculturalism is, then, not much of a journey and not much of an improvement. One loses charm without gaining sophistication. I have phrased these distinctions in synchronic terms for the sake of clarity, but Cooper is clearly in the business of making them, so this journey away from scenery to politics may seem extreme, but Cooper started it. His journey was not merely from provincialism to postmodernism. He journeyed on to a cosmopolitanism that we can read through the lenses provided by Brian Boyd, the Greek Stoics, Julia Kristeva, Toril Moi, Alan Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, and Kate Flint, among others.
He’d gone to Switzerland in 1828 and then gone back in 1832. Why? As Cooper pointed out in Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine (1836), his second book on the subject, “four years had made no changes in the sublime nature of the region.” They had, however, changed “the political condition of all Europe” and “had also produced a variance of taste and feeling in the author” (Rhine 1). So a second book was necessary. The books were more than albums of picturesque scenery, the journey more than merely physical. It was also about the formation of minds, characters, nations. This paper will explore those formations, not to impose our categories on Cooper, but to show how he informs them.
Cooper expected “some imputations on his patriotism,—for, in making the comparisons that naturally arose from his subject, he has spoken in favour of American principles much oftener than in favour of American things” (Switzerland 2), and when he wrote that the “superiority of Switzerland, in its peculiar excellence, however, is so generally admitted, that is to be hoped one may actually venture to assert that a mountain fifteen thousand feet high is more lofty than one of fifteen hundred, or that Mont Blanc is a more sublime object than Butter Hill!” (Switzerland 2), he was writing, of course, of nature, but maybe, just maybe, also of something more.
You do not need me to tell you that Cooper was quite sneaky, or if you prefer subtle, at using literary technique to alter conventional epistemology. Ten years earlier, in The Last of the Mohicans, he quietly compared American Indians, frequently despised as pagans, to other pagans whom his audience admired, the Greeks: Alice Munro looks at Uncas “as she would have looked upon some precious relic of the Grecian chisel, to which life had been imparted, by the intervention of a miracle” (Mohicans 53). This double remove from the living American Indian to the safe beauty of a Greek sculpture enables Alice, and by extension the reader, to get beyond the fear of alterity to an aesthetic perception that leads quickly to an epistemological one. Alice announces that she trusts Uncas both to do them no harm and to keep them from harm, and Heyward, formerly smug and now scrambling to catch up, has to defend white and even English men by invoking “the honour of our common nature” (Mohicans 53), a shift that suggests a little progress. But it’s not too much progress, and when Cora takes the next step, into the political, by saying, “who, that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shades of his skin!” we are told that a “short, and apparently an embarrassed, silence succeeded this remark” (Mohicans 53). They remember. And lest we leap too nimbly to worshipping at the altar of our own largely delusional superiority, so do we. But the trick in Cooper is not to notice less, but to notice more.
That also is the trick in literature and life. In On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, published just this year by Harvard, Brian Boyd links narrative and survival, as Cooper frequently did: think of Ellen Wade in The Prairie, who selects among stories to plot her own survival strategy. So Boyd speaks up for what he calls evolutionary criticism or evocriticism. He argues that “the art of storytelling” is a “specifically human adaptation” derived “from play” (Boyd 1). This “evolution by natural selection” offers us “the richest explanatory story of all” (Boyd 1) for the universality and work of literature as a biological adaptation increasing the odds for survival. It builds on our universal biological nature. We are hard-wired to feel empathy and to learn from the stories of others, whether fictive or factual. Indeed, these afford us what Rilke called “classes in life for beginners.” They give us massively more instances than we could ever gain from sole focus on ourselves and thereby provide the large number of variations on which natural selection thrives. As Boyd puts it, “Through mirror neurons and other systems we are wired for emotional contagion.” We “automatically have empathy for others. We know how they feel because we literally feel what they are feeling” (Boyd 163).
To let solipsism or prejudice limit the range of that empathy is to act against our own nature and our own survival. So the Greek Stoics argued, and they were among the first to argue for what is still called stoic cosmopolitanism, the astonishing notion that foreigners, slaves, and women have souls and are human beings. They also argued that to war on each other is to war on our own nature and on reason. Julia Kristeva updates this notion by arguing that “Hatred of those others who do not share my origins” (Kristeva 2) will lead, if we “withdraw into a sullen, warm, private world” of “family, ethnicity, nation, race” (Kristeva 3), to “Hatred of oneself” and the endless search for “the scapegoat of one’s depression” (Kristeva 3).
That we are closer to that fate than we may suppose is well expressed by Toril Moi in her essay on idealism in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, published in February of 2009. She argues that after modernism critics and scholars “routinely take for granted that anyone who reads…to gain a positive vision of what human beings can achieve, has no understanding of literature. Perhaps this is why the formalist, skeptical, ironic paradigms of modernism and postmodernism have come to seem increasingly empty: all they appear to offer is critique bereft of the utopian vision that ought to sustain their critical power” (Moi 293). She goes on to ask “What can they tell us about the task of art” and “What can art do” in our own time, and she concludes, “Unless we find answers to these questions, we leave the way open for the return of the death-dealing ‘claim of the ideal’ in ever more pernicious forms” (Moi 293).
One set of directions, if not answers, is offered by Alain Badiou, who tries to go beyond the local knowledge valorized by postmodernists and to investigate “the writing of the generic” (Badiou 251), to refute the sophist who “says that there are no truths, and that there are only techniques for making statements,” an argument that “transforms philosophy from the rational operation it should be into a suspect rite of initiation” (Badiou 18) that says, now you know how to write like a philosopher, but of course you do not know anything else. For Badiou, in philosophy as in “love, there is first the One of solipsism” (Badiou 281) but then “there is the Two, which occurs in the event of the encounter,” and “last, there is the Infinite of the sensible which the Two traverses and develops, and in which little by little deciphers a truth of the Two itself” (Badiou 282). “Thus,” in James Williams’s summary, “for Alain Badiou, the trace issuing from the past must be assumed in the present through an act of continued creation. This act brings eternal truth into appearance and projects a novel incorporation, new bodies created with the truth, into the future” (Badiou 172). So again, truths are out there, and we can figure them out. Knowledge exists, but it is infinite, growing larger without limit, so we can never know everything, but we can know lots of things and lots of truths about them.
In his new book, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Quentin Meillassoux urges us “to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossibility itself: to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not” (Meillassoux 27). Not easy, just necessary: “Our only aim has been to try to convince the reader not only that it is possible to rediscover thought’s absolutizing scope, but that it is urgent that we do so” (Meillassoux 128) now, and that we can do so by studying the past, where the “arche-fossil enjoins us to track thought by inviting us to discover the ‘hidden passage’ trodden by” thought in its earlier incarnations.
That kind of cosmopolitan multiplicity is one of the things Cooper found in Switzerland, especially on his second visit. On his first, he noted that “prejudices of origin and even of religion” (Switzerland 144) had limited freedom in a democracy that is “the result of accidental circumstances, rather than of principles” (Switzerland 145), with the result that “true liberty has no abode here” (Switzerland 146). On his return in 1832 he makes a “new pilgrimage to the mountains” (Rhine 147), finds himself “once more...in Switzerland” (Rhine 146), and learns “news of importance,” of “great political changes…in Switzerland since 1830,” a “counter-revolution” against a “conspiracy of the old aristocracy,” with the result that “Democracy is in the ascendant” (Rhine 159). The great diversity of times, languages, and conditions that had earlier seemed inimical to liberty now seem an occasion of it. Cooper thinks of “the Romans” and “Napoleon” (Rhine 209) walking the same path as he, and of the similarity between the reserve of the monks at St. Bernard and “the frigidity of the ordinary American manner” (Rhine 215).
As he journeys on, Switzerland becomes more familiar, and Cooper begins to notice and make common cause: “I found a good deal of feeling excited by the news [of the nullification crisis] from America. The Swiss, I have told you, with very few exceptions, wish us well, but I take it nothing would give greater satisfaction to a large majority of the upper classes in most other countries of Europe, than to hear the American republic was broken up” (Rhine 229). Now that American multiplicity threatens national unity, Switzerland’s record of retaining the federation with a great variety of languages and cultures seems a much better model than “the Prussian polity” extolled by American publications. For Cooper, the “Prussian government is a despotism; a mode of ruling that one would think the world understood pretty well by this time” (Rhine 230). By contrast, the “Swiss, as is natural from their greater antiquity, richer recollections, and perhaps from their geographical position, are more national than the Americans” (Rhine 221). In his gleanings in Switzerland, Cooper had been part of what Kate Flint calls “a transatlantic exchange of ideas that, in turn, informed consideration of how far each nation’s fiction could in fact be said to be part of a national literature” (Rhine 330). Where the English strove to sweep away difference and make the world one large England, the Swiss lived with difference and strove to make Switzerland one small world. Their diversity and cosmopolitanism had led to national unity. So might ours.
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