February 15, 2017

Kulturkampf: Fiction Versus All We Hold Near and Dear

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The day following Donald Trump’s election, protests broke out on college campuses across the country and Cornell was no exception. Students came together across campus to showcase their collective rage, terror and sadness. These sentiments are just; I shared all of them and questioned our country’s future alongside my classmates. Yet another question continued to nag at my mind: how detached from reality are we?

Little effort is needed to recognize the political correctness on college campuses. Civil rights are protected, discrimination on any grounds is forbidden and consent is staunchly required (at least officially). When students perceive the state of affairs to be in violation of certain standards, they take action and are often met with a satisfactory response. In response to objections raised by students, Yale University recently announced that it would be changing the name of Calhoun College, contentiously named for the white-supremacist John C. Calhoun. Here at Cornell, when students advocated for free access to tampons in all non-residential campus restrooms, their request was granted in the form of a referendum passed by the Student Assembly. Granted, there is room to improve; Goldwin Smith is still named for a vocal anti-semite and I’ve yet to see any of such promised tampons in any restroom on campus. Yet overall, the atmosphere at Cornell remains one of political correctness.

In a sense, political correctness is the new currency of the academic world and to be considered intellectual, one must inhabit this mindset. For professors, failure to do so results in students demanding their instant removal from campus. For an author, this can take form in a scathing review in The New York Times. And for all involved, there is the grave danger of being labeled Republican. In the world of literature, this criterion is made obvious by the books selected as winners of prestigious prizes. Over the past two years, all books chosen as recipients for both the Man Booker and Pulitzer Prize awards for fiction were those which featured stories of racial inequalities, or the success of a marginalized underdog.

The Vegetarian, a novel by the Korean writer Han Kang and the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize in International Fiction, stands in defiance to such standards, offering instead an unapologetic tale of the grotesqueness of human nature. The story centers around Yeong-hye, a mentally ill young woman whose decision to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle is met with derision, condescension and even physical abuse from those closest to her.

Interestingly, Yeong-hye’s perspective is never brought into the narrative. Instead, the story is told from the viewpoint of three other characters, placing Yeong-hye’s own outlook in a place of relative insignificance. These three characters – her husband Mr. Cheong, her unnamed brother-in-law and her sister In-hye – attempt to assert their control over Yeong-hye throughout the novel as she succumbs to her illness. Through their eyes, Kang presents Yeong-hye as unstable and unreliable and in chronicling her experience from alternative perspectives rather than her own, Yeong-hye’s sanity is further discredited.

The novel does not paint a flattering picture of mental illness, nor does it appear to advocate for its de-stigmatization. As a mentally ill woman, Yeong-hye is depicted as selfish, incapable of caring for herself and with zero regard for social norms. However, as in other literary depictions of mental illness, such as Girl, Interrupted and Darkness Visible, these depictions do not elicit feelings of sympathy or understanding. Kang’s description of Yeong-hye’s behavior is viscerally disturbing, almost to the point of promoting revulsion. Kang portrays her as incorrigible and her mistreatment at the hands of her family is rendered acceptable, if not outright justifiable. Furthermore, Yeong-hye is subject to intense misogyny, from her husband who abandons her once she is unable to perform household tasks adequately, and by her brother-in-law, who takes advantage of her condition and rapes her. Once again however, these events are not recounted apologetically or with a disparaging tone; from the viewpoint of others, in provoking such frustration, the treatment Yeong-hye receives is substantiated.

I chose this novel with the knowledge that it was the winner of a prestigious award in fiction and as I read it, I felt that both the author and the selection committee were playing with my mind. The novel grabbed hold of my notions of political correctness and what is deemed respectable in academic communities and in the name of art, brazenly made a mockery of my high-minded ideals. Much as I was shocked by Trump’s election and that so many Americans existed with ideals so different from my own, I was astonished by the difficult nature of the novel and was reminded that in fiction, different rules apply.

I imagine that the members of the selection committee smirked as they announced The Vegetarian as the winning novel, knowing that in selecting this book, they were promoting a narrative that would be rejected by most other fields. While it was a difficult book to read, it was also thought provoking and forced me to reconsider the lens through which I view literature. At the very least, I could have used a trigger warning.

Zoe Lindenfeld is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].