Philip Davis, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and editor of the Reader magazine. Davis has written the first full-length biography of Malamud, a self-made son of Jewish immigrants who went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Come hear Davis speak at New York’s 92 Street Y on October 31st at 7:30 pm. This post originally appeared in Moreover.
The academic conference season is ending here in England. If you ever have the misfortune to find yourself in such a setting, you only need one word to get by. The word is “Otherness”, and it has been in tarnished vogue for some time now. If you are feeling really out of place, then try saying Alterity as well. Means the same, sounds even better. You sit in a conference room and you hear so many of these notional terms replacing the reality they purport to describe.
I was brought up in Nottingham, home of D.H. Lawrence, in the English Midlands. When I was a boy, I am afraid that “the Other”, in crude slang, meant Sexual Intercourse. As in: “I fancy a bit of the other.”
When I next came across the word, at university in Cambridge, it meant God. God was the Other, utterly beyond any anthropomorphic terms of understanding. Anything you can say about God, said the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart, is untrue.
No wonder I was a confused young man, not fitting in very well. And then there came along the Excluded Others, mainly vulnerable minorities, women and foreigners, especially colonials, and people of lower class or different sexuality. You gave yourself identity, it was said, precisely by unconsciously creating those “others” (inverted commas are important in academe). But they had their revenge: they caused you anxiety at the edge of consciousness. Later, they threatened the stable framework which their exclusion had helped to create.
Nowadays we all (in English academe) respect “Otherness”. Ironically it has become a rather comfortable form of liberal tolerance again. We respect Other People, Other Races and Other Cultures. Apparently one of the great virtues of reading literature is that we find out about Other People’s Experience (a subtler version of colonising, perhaps).
My friends kindly tell me I am not always very good with other people. And certainly I behave badly at conferences. But I got into the bad stuff a few weeks ago when I angrily said in a plenary session that I was bored by Otherness. That it was the refuge of those who were no longer interested in themselves.
I remembered a conversation I had when I was collecting material for my biography of Bernard Malamud. It was with one of Malamud’s former pupils, Danny Myerson, who now spends much of his time teaching in Egypt. I caught him on the telephone during a brief return to his native Brooklyn. At one point Myerson, excited and eloquent, said to me, “I am sorry I have just interrupted you. You interrupt me back.” Adding: “That’s what we call conversation in Brooklyn.”
It is what I call conversation too. It is about the melting pot into which we throw everything we’ve got when the talk is really cooking. All the exciting stuff happens in the uncertain place where differences get thrown together; the holding-ground between one culture and another, between the religious and the secular. There is no room for Otherness here, only Assimilation.
“Brooklyn”, said Malamud, “is the centre of the universe.” Another novelist, my old schoolteacher Stanley Middleton, thought it was somewhere in Nottingham. But it is wherever you really are–in the rich mix of things. (And it isn’t in conferences.)