ETHNIC WARP AND WOOF
The mistaken belief that there is no such thing as an unhappy American stems from the fact that, when unhappy, the American reverts to his roots: the unhappy Italian-American pouts, the unhappy Chinese-American apologizes, the unhappy Scotch-Irish-American twists up one corner of his mouth and gazes vacantly into space, the unhappy Native American looks as if he were made of wood, the unhappy African-American, eyes blazing, smiles to himself. Thanks to the ingenuity of the pharmacologists, the Americans certainly are an extremely happy people, but the happiest people, by nature, are the Indonesians, combining the quietism of the Japanese with the effervescence of the Indians. The Indians, like the Greeks, inhabit the ruins of a more advanced civilization, but while the Greeks are guileless and affable and possess a highly developed, if subtle, sense of honor, the Indians are hysterical and conniving and have no sense of honor whatsoever. In the Occident, the English have the strongest sense of honor, while Scottish honor has been diluted by too many allegiances and the Welsh repress theirs out of spite towards the English. The Irish sense of humor is stronger than the Irish sense of honor, and a good joke in a jolly pub has betrayed many an Irish secret. The Italian seeks honor through his children, the Swede through his vocational skills, the Swiss through home economics, the Belgian through the acquisition of consumer products, the French and Russians through devotion to political principles – with the Russian blindly following whatever philosophy is officially sanctioned, in the positive sense of the word, and the Frenchman laying his life on the line for whatever philosophy is officially sanctioned, in the negative sense of the word. The Japanese have the strongest sense of honor, the Chinese the feeblest. When the Chinese say, “Honor your parents,” they mean, don’t forget to burn incense on their tombs. The Chinese commit suicide only in despair, never from shame; in Japan it is just the reverse. Ever since it became a socialist state, Sweden has had the highest suicide rate in the world; before then, the Swedes were a hearty, extroverted people who, when distraught, became homicidal, rather than suicidal. Under Communism, the Russian national character underwent a similar about-face: from a nation of intense, brilliant, dissipated, psychologically tormented geniuses wracked by the great paradoxes of religion and philosophy, Russia became, overnight, as it were, a nation of sodden, unemotional, unimaginative hypocrites. The character of some nations can withstand social upheaval – the French were just as coldly patronizing and babbled just as incessantly before 1789 as after. The French – at least those with the classic Gallic physique (squat torso, short legs, oversized shoulders) – are most comfortable in groups. There is a gigantic strain of Frenchmen – to other Frenchmen what Morgans are to other horses – who prefer to remain aloof from the crowd. They are often somewhat doltish, although there have been geniuses among the Gargantuas as well – full-blooded, virile masters like Balzac, Hugo and Rodin. The gigantic de Gaulle must be classed as one of the dolts, however, judging from his vanity at playing a role created by a committee of Oxbridge war propagandists. French vanity is superficial, though, compared with that of the Spanish, the most vain nation in Europe. The greatest heights of vanity, however, are reached by the Coraillo Indians of central Paraguay, whose main industry is mining tin and processing it into large oval mirrors which they hang around their necks. One Coraillo will communicate with another only if he can see himself at the same time. Spanish-Coraillo intermarriage has produced that epitome of vanity, the Latin-American dictator. In contrast, the most modest people are the Irish, even though they tend to swagger when they are among friends. The three most celebrated episodes in the life of the great Irish hero, King Cuchulain, are his wandering, hungry and forsaken, across a mist-enshrouded bog, his crouching against an Atlantic storm in a lonely coomb below a spray-swept crag, and his weeping beside the bed of his wife, when she turned her back on him. In Mediterranean countries vanity takes the form of pomposity and is usually accompanied by a short, roly-poly Napoleonesque physique. Pompous persons can be found everywhere, but Japan has the fewest. The demeanor of Emperor Hirohito during World War II is a lesson in modesty. He was considered a divine being, the entire population of Japan was ready to die for him, if it were called for, yet he wore conservative suits from Brooks Brothers, eschewed all but the simplest ceremony, and walked in little, mincing steps, with downcast eyes. The most obnoxious people, when pompous, are the Germans; pomposity takes its most agreeable shape in the United States, where it is appreciated as a form of entertainment: note the pompous New England college professor, the pompous Hollywood film director, the pompous Southern senator. Russia now is so pervaded by a frugal, rigid pomposity that it is not even recognized as such; before the revolution, however, pomposity was rare in Russia, having to contend, as it did, with an autocracy as vast and mighty as the Russian landscape. Until recently, pomposity was reviled in China, the pompous suffering ridicule and ostracism under the Imperial Dynasties and forced labor and public self-abasement under Maoism. China is more tolerant of pomposity today, thanks to globalization, but globalization has done nothing to modify the extreme uncommunicativeness of the Chinese, who go so far as to refrain from keeping pets because they fear their behavior toward them might reveal some genuine feelings. The Americans, who keep the most pets per capita, are the most communicative people in the world; the Spanish are the most communicative Europeans and also boast Europe’s largest pet population, if songbirds are included. The Spanish love to sing. The Belgians hate to sing and do so only at gunpoint. The Swiss like to sing, but cannot carry a tune; the art of bell-making developed in Switzerland to ensure that everyone sang on key. (Yodeling, in which the Swiss excel, does not require perfect pitch.) The best singers are the Pakistanis. The greatest singers of opera are Jewish and Italian. In the arts, the Italians are always second-best: the best musicians are Austrian, the best writers are English, the best painters are Dutch, the best architects are Egyptian; the second-best musicians, writers, painters and architects are Italian. The French are best at pastel, the Mexicans at fresco, the Peruvians at tapestry, the Sudanese at basketry, the Nigerians at beading, the Russians at monuments, the Greeks at narrative verse, the Tibetans at chanting, the Bulgarians at whooping, the New Guinea aborigines at polyphonic vocal music, the Trinidadians at steel drum, the Iranians at oud, the Liberians at penny whistle, the Serbs at foot-stamping, and the Germans at tuba. The most aesthetically deprived nation is Scotland, with Walter Scott its best writer, Alexander Nasmyth its best painter and all its lovely ballads stolen from the English and Irish. The most artistically inclined nation is France – Cezanne! Flaubert! Berlioz! Paris! La rive gauche! But French cinema is weak. The best filmmakers are the Japanese. (The Italians, as usual, are second-best.) The best film audiences are in Malaysia, the best music audiences are in India, the best lecture audiences are in China, the best execution audiences are in Goa, the best drama audiences are in Manchuria, where Hamlet cannot be performed because of the likelihood of someone in the audience running on stage and plunging a kris into Claudius. The best dance audiences are in the Philippines. The best dancers are the Indonesians. The worst dancers are the Native Americans, which is ironic, considering how much of it they seem to do. The second-best dancers are not the Italians, in this case, but the natives of Central West Africa, carrying over into America, where the best dancers are the African-Americans. African-American dance, however, like all African-American art, differs from African dance in that it is primarily a reaction against the puritanical mores of the Reformation. Despite his reputation, however, the African-American male is not the best lover. The best male lovers are the Swedes – despite their neuroses (or because of them). The worst are the English, who are always thinking about their next cup of tea. The most imaginative are the Moroccan, the least imaginative, the Welsh. The most licentious people are the French, the least licentious, the people of Holland, where prostitutes must display themselves in storefront windows to rouse the interest of passers-by. Statistically, the Swiss are more continent than the Dutch, but the Swiss harbor strong sensualist tendencies, kept in check only by a highly developed sense of shame. Shame plays only a minor role in the Eastern psyche. The Chinese do not even have a word for it. Instead of shame, the Hindu or Buddhist experiences contrition – when he transgresses, the way to absolution is clearly defined, whether it is skipping lunch or committing hara-kiri. Hand in hand with the West’s acute sense of shame goes an acute sensitivity to justice. Both the English and the Jews share a profound sense of justice. The English Constitution and the Book of Leviticus are the pillars upon which modern justice is erected. French justice is undermined by political principles, Spanish justice by banality, Italian justice by family ties, German justice by rhetoric, American justice by confusion, Greek justice by certain events which occurred between 1945 and 1948, Irish justice by garrulousness, Belgian justice by arbitrariness, Albanian justice by aesthetic considerations (the attractive go free; the ugly are convicted); South American justice by greed, Chinese justice by indecisiveness, Croatian justice by an anti-Serbian bias, Serbian justice by an anti-Croatian bias, Israeli justice by anxiety, Arab justice by a lack of empathy, Polish justice by a surfeit of empathy, Swiss justice by bourgeois attitudes and Russian justice by peer pressure. The concept of justice is less pronounced in primitive societies, where a common spiritual bond has not yet been replaced by the social contract. The more primitive a culture, the greater its spiritual strengths: the Australian aborigine continues to exist in his arid desert thanks entirely to his telekinetic powers. If he is thirsty, a well springs up at his feet, if he is hungry, a nutritious cactus, with a plump kiwi entangled in its roots. He sleeps naked under the stars, protected by an aura so intense that it can ward off a pack of famished dingoes. The West, compared with the rest of the world, is a spiritual kindergarten, where religious experience requires emotional stimulation. Among the Europeans, the Germans are most capable of transcendence, since they get the most wrought up over abstractions. The least capable are the French; all the great French mystics – Saint Joan, Pascal, Michaud – were plagued by self-consciousness. This self-consciousness, when not in otherworldly guise, becomes French wit. The Germans believe they are as witty as the French, but no one else shares that view. Since national character is best expressed at the moment of death, one need only compare Duchamp’s “Up till now, it was always everyone else who died,” with Nietzsche’s surly, “At least now they will leave me in peace.” The Rumanian, an insufferable romantic, faces death clutching a memento of love – a ring, a photograph, a letter – his sentiments often reverting to the days of his youth. Imagine the distress of the spouse of an expiring Rumanian when suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a faded dance program materializes in the loved one’s hands and from the loved one’s lips there falls the name of a stranger, or worse. The dying Italian was described by Edith Gault Wilson, in an account of a tour through a Bolzano hospital in World War I: “How can anyone doubt the warm and loving nature of the Italian character after having walked up and down these wards and on every side heard the wounded and dying calling out the names of sweethearts (most of whom seem to be named Maria), or simply, ‘Mama! Mama!’ or ‘Sorella! Sorella!’” The Swiss addresses his final words to his lawyer or, if he is a lawyer, to his banker. The Belgian, if not already insane, becomes so at the approach of death and Belgian deathbed scenes are the most original – take, for example, the death of the surrealist poet, Jacques Osman, who died with a gloved foot and stockinged hand hoisted in the air and a calling card, with the word “Adieu” scrawled on it, clenched between his teeth. American deathbed scenes are mawkish, with Tad Lincoln’s “Tell Prissy I like her dress,” the touchstone of American last words. Often the dying American is engulfed in recollections of a childhood pet, and with his last breath utters, “Skippy,” “Muffin,” “Rexall,” or “Sam.” The dying Chinese remains careful to reveal nothing about himself. The Jew, always the intellectual, asks a question, like “Why?” or “What next?” or “Who’s going to call my sister?” The dying Russian cries out the name of the part of the body that pains him – see Bakunin’s “Eyes! Eyes!” Most Englishmen are surprised by death, which usually interrupts them in mid-sentence (either while calling for tea or making a comment about tea which has just been served), accompanied, if time permits, by “Damn! What a nuisance.” The Pole dies believing he is only going to sleep. The Spaniard dies in silence, gallantly, his chin thrust forward beneath a broad grin – picadors, imaginary or real, fat, dressed in beige, hats in their hands, stand around the deathbed, weeping.