Last Tuesday, Professor Eric Cheyfitz argued that the selection of Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us for next year’s Cornell New Student Reading Project raises serious concerns about the state of diversity at Cornell. In actuality, though, some of the sentiments expressed in Professor Cheyfitz’s column are the true causes for concern.
Professor Cheyfitz argues that the The Life Before Us, which tells the story of an Arab boy named Momo and Madame Rosa, the ex-prostitute and Holocaust survivor who raises him, presents a “deracinated Arab” and indulges in “both Arab and African stereotyping.” It fails to confront the “race issues in France in 1970,” continues Professor Cheyfitz, and presents Israel only “as a place that welcomes both Arabs and Jews, where he [Momo] and Madame Rosa will live together happily ever after in this fairy tale of Jewish-Arab bonding.” According to Professor Cheyfitz, these supposed failings are made all the more egregious in light of Cornell’s recent partnership with the Technion, as the book’s true force “is to deflect rather than engage the central issues of the Arab/Israeli and Arab/Jewish conflicts.”
Based on such a reading, Professor Cheyfitz asks: “How are our Arab and Muslim students supposed to read this novel? Where is their representation in it? More broadly, what kind of a message does it send to under-represented ‘minorities’ about their representation on campus?”
To answer the question directly, Arab and Muslim students might decide to read the work by interpreting it quite like Professor Cheyfitz does. They might challenge the notion that The Life Before Us is indeed a “persuasive portrait of intercultural coexistence,” as an article in the Cornell Chronicle described it, and argue that rather than exploring identity crises, the novel creates identity slippages that contribute to the formation of a “generic Arab.” Perhaps they will quibble with Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and her assertion that "Momo's exuberant and often hilarious view of his world provides a surprising affirmation of the possibilities for wisdom from the perspective of innocence, and of the endurance of love and beauty in the face of suffering.”
Or they might take a different approach.
Perhaps they will point out that many great works of literature indulge in stereotypes for any number of effects, that literature’s function is not to provide a politically correct description of world affairs and that the decision of a Jewish writer to construct an Arab narrator is a literary novelty that warrants serious consideration and thought. They might ask why Gary felt it necessary to publish this novel under the pseudonym “Emil Ajar,” and go on to explore the interplay between the author’s own identity tensions and those manifested in his characters. Finally, they might explore the irony that when the book was first published, some critics considered the book anti-Semitic, while others considered it an authentic Arab work. (Claude Michel Cluny, writing in “Magazine littéraire,” opined that “under the good of government of Vichy, people would have been falling over themselves to give [The Life Before Us] an award.”)
Regardless of which side of the debate students find themselves on, students will have succeeded in transforming oft-banal discussions of the summer reading book into opportunities for actual discourse and debate. If such occurrences in fact take place, they will hardly detract from diversity at Cornell — they will affirm it.
The true blow to diversity on this campus would come from accepting the suggestion that Arab and Muslim students are somehow incapable of reading a novel in which they do not find themselves represented. By asking how Arab and Muslim students are supposed to read such a novel, Professor Cheyfitz seems to suggest that finding oneself represented in a work should be a precondition for engaging with it. And yet, much of what makes diversity so valuable is that it allows all students to engage with ideas and people who represent differing viewpoints. That is, it allows students to engage with precisely those viewpoints in which they do not find themselves represented.
To suggest that we students are somehow incapable of reading texts that do not contain accurate representations of ourselves is not only misguided, it’s patronizing. More disheartening still, such an effort will detract from diversity at Cornell, not enhance it.
Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.