We constantly read discussions of misogyny, rape culture, and the sundry, methodical new ways women are given to the male gaze in the media. With the seemingly interminable, ever resurgent reminder of violence toward women one might forget that we all had mothers. Perhaps it starts early. Many mothers these days seem to be the thankless servants of their children. How often do you see old women giving up their seats on the subway for a child to play with an iPad?
Jamaica Kincaid’s newest novel, See Now Then, confronts the ways culture divides us by focusing on the story of a woman who believes that her family despises her. Kincaid has warned in the past not to interpret her work biographically. Nevertheless, the facts of her life line up very neatly with those of her novel. Like the mother in the novel, Mrs. Sweet, Kincaid was married to Allen Shawn, penned Mr. Sweet, a white composer of classical music, with whom she had two children, a boy and a girl.
Mr. Sweet holes up in the basement, contemplating the transcendence of Schoenberg. Mrs. Sweet is relegated to the traditional roles of the matriarch, during which time she contemplates Mr. Sweet’s disgust with her. She worries that he thinks the family is dragging him down into mediocrity. She feels less human for coming from a different cultural milieu.
Their children are named Heracles and Persephone. Not only do the children’s names harken back to the western cultural tradition that Mr. Sweet holds dear, but these specific names emphasize the discord between the husband and wife. In Greek mythology, Heracles was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman Alcmene. Persephone, similarly, is a daughter of Zeus and Demeter, queen of the underworld. Naming their children after demigods reifies Mrs. Sweet’s knowledge that her husband sees her as a lesser being.
Never aggressive, Mrs. Sweet sublimates feelings of self-loathing she gets from her vitriolic husband. Kincaid writes things like: “He (Mr. Sweet) sensed she (Mrs. Sweet) was longing to go back to that much-hated room, the room in which she would commune with the vast world that began in 1492… burn it down, cried her children, burn it with her in it, cried Mr. Sweet”. This room is where Mrs. Sweet writes her novels. Plumbing her interiority is a pursuit that her family does not respect. They would prefer it if she would improve her crab soufflé. It seems that, to a degree, she cannot help but agree with their condescension.
We are shown all of the sources of Mrs. Sweet’s anxiety: her ignorance of classical music, her aging body, her blackness, her cultural exclusion, her femininity, to the most biting of all: the vulnerability of being a parent. The greatest sting in this book comes from the paradox that the greatest joy and pain can both come from parenting; mixing like two inconsistent blood types in a jaundiced baby.
This is what we are given in Kincaid’s new novel: the mother who feels rebellion seethe within, but cannot fight. It’s a heart-wrenching picture, if not a self-defeating battle cry. Should we be supporting a feminism that expresses itself through self-loathing?
Leaving aside the issues at stake in the novel, See Now Then is not a stylistic triumph. The metaphors are bountiful and overwrought, the symbolism clumsy and obvious, and the stream of consciousness running through the work sounds like writing. Worst of all though, is the titular conceit. Throughout, Kincaid repeats the phrase “See Now Then”, implying that the past and the future are connected in some vague, obtuse way. I have heard Kincaid called “The Proust of our time” and to this I have to say it’s obvious the person who said that has never read Proust. Kincaid’s mandarin (the title of a previous work of hers) deployment of literary devices verges on embarrassing.
And yet the truth Kincaid has to impart, although not metaphysical, is human. It’s almost as if she is plagued by the very same insecurity as Mrs. Sweet. They both feel the weight of a culture that would exclude them. Unfortunately, the result is that Kincaid employs the old tricks of the dead, white men of the literary pantheon, demonstrating her lack of dexterity.
Nevertheless, there is emotional meat to the book. As a white, male reader I was reminded of the troubling fact that despite taking myself to be a subversive, I frequently take shelter in theories that contribute to the patriarchal hegemony. Haute taste can rigidify class and status. I was confronted by how I have resented my mother for the very reasons I should have adored her; mistaking care for weakness, tenderness for ignorance. And I was struck by the, perhaps obvious, but important realization that I have transferred those feelings into dealings with women in my adult life. I have resented women for playing the subversive role that I secretly wanted them to play, simply because I was afraid of Women.
There’s an anger towards women in many liberal, sophisticated, erudite men. It’s important to be reminded that resentment is usually anchored in a feeling of similarity with the resented.