“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find you have created a type,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Rich Boy,” one of his longer short stories describing the inevitable decline of just such a protean creature. “Begin with a type and you find that you have created – nothing.”
Not entirely clear from this reading is the question of whether Fitzgerald was referring to the act of creating a fictional character or perceiving a real one, though for the vast majority of our human interactions these pretty much amount to the same thing. The older we get, and the surer we become in our identities – as parents, as professionals, as amateur psychologists – the more likely we are to start filling in around the edges of what we empirically know about a person with what we think we might have heard. Or extrapolated. Or observed with analogous “types.”
We do this so easily – so insidiously really – it does not register as discrimination, indeed most of our markers for such things are positioned so low and so vaguely as to be even self-congratulatory.
All of the regular prescriptions against racism and nationalism and many other isms become strictly aspirational when we do not also trouble ourselves to prove their wrong-headedness with complicated stories about complicated individuals.
These do not need to run to the epic (though they can: Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way is quite literally a quilt of individual battles against the injustice of generalization), indeed we are arguably better served with the echoes of smaller, less clarion struggles. Davide Cali’s and Serge Bloch’s The Enemy may be framed by a very big conflict (World War I), but it finds its drama in a small and infinitely petty standoff, when two men who have never laid eyes on one another continue to occupy matching, adjacent fox holes, haphazardly shooting their rifles in the morning, then spending the rest of their time remaining hidden, lighting fires, gazing at the stars, and wondering desperately:
“Maybe we are the last two soldiers fighting. Maybe whichever of us survives will win the war.”
Sometimes they venture out in disguises (“Number Three” is a bush). Then once they even trade holes, where one of the soldiers happens upon a trove of his enemy’s belongings. Like pictures:
“I wasn’t expecting him to have a family.”
When is too early to hear such reminders? And why does it ever stop there? The lazy, finally unimaginative conclusions I have reached about neighbors I’ve never talked to, and voices on the phone, and waiters, and salespeople, and people on TV, and people who scowl, and bushy-tailed people, and people with weird heads – well, it’s enough to make me grimace sometimes in astonishment. That’s what this face is. I’m grimacing. Though you would not probably know it without talking to me, and possibly not even then - so I’ll leave it to Fitzgerald to explain:
“That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.”