The Pains of Responsibility

“Babamukuru was always impressive when he made these speeches of his. He was a rigid, imposing perfectionist, steely enough in character to function in the puritanical way that he expected, or rather insisted, that the rest of the world should function. Luckily, or maybe unluckily for him, throughout his life Babamukuru had found himself–as eldest child and son, as an early educated African, as headmaster, as husband and father, as provider to many — in positions that enabled him to organize his immediate world and its contents as he wished. Even when this was not the case, as when he went to the mission as a young boy, the end result of such periods of submission was greater power than before. Thus he had been insulated from the necessity of considering alternatives unless they were his own.” (88)

I chose this quote because it’s a very powerful, subtle insight into how Babamukuru has his own nervous condition to deal with, even if it isn’t entirely obvious or explicit. Indeed, this, in my opinion, is what makes Babamukuru’s condition all the more tenuous and difficult, because it doesn’t present as a condition at all. When I think of Babamukuru, I consider that he was among the first of his people to be educated in the western world. He is an otherness among the whites he learned from, but he’s also cast out from the normal circle of Africans to which he ostensibly belongs. They idolize him, which might be better than being ostracized, but the effect, I believe, is the same: isolation. Babamukuru has no one to consult, really, about what to do with the things he’s been given while being expected to do something different, to change something, and to make things better for his family and community. In my opinion this is a lot of responsibility. While it doesn’t necessarily excuse Babamukuru’s treatment of his daughter, and his attitudes, I believe that its worth crossing some distance to understand his character. Because I don’t think he is a monster. Babamukuru is as confused and lost as the other characters of Nervous Conditions, perhaps more so. But unlike many of them, he has the problem of influence over their fates.

Girl-in-a-Japanese-Kimono

I chose this image, a painting by the American painter William Merritt Chase, to represent a certain nervous condition I have. My aesthetic tastes (with regards to paintings, movies, books), I like to believe, are objective. And by that I mean I’ve long operated under the assumption that because I’m “Asian”, I can’t really be held accountable to regionalism or bias. But while looking through the collection of paintings I’ve saved to my hard drive, I realized that the great majority of them are paintings by western artists, usually pre 1800s, of nobility, country scenes, and biblical tales. The truth is that I consider the numerous styles developed after the Renaissance — realism, impressionism, modernism, even expressionism– to be far more compelling and variable in tone than the traditional paintings I could find from Korea, Japan, or China. I haven’t looked at the arts of countries like Thailand and Vietnam, but I feel safe in saying that it’s not likely I’m going to find much sublimity in those either. This sounds extremely snobbish, and of course biased towards the west, which is why when I thought of this consciously I realized my race doesn’t make me objective at all. I am in fact a metaphor of the painting above, someone who wears asian pride on my sleeve but holds western ideas inside. This is made all the more contradictory and grotesque (?) by the fact that I am in reality the reverse of this. Thinking about this I come to realize that I’m a cultural basket-case. There’s no way I’m going to change my attitudes, I still think snobbishly that there’s almost nothing that can match the supreme artistry of Caravaggio, or Michelangelo, or Picasso. But it makes me nervous.

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