(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A consummate storyteller, Greenberg employs shrewd psychological insights to create characters that draw her readers into the plot, keeping them immersed in her story until the very last page.

“The Supremacy of the Hunza”

Joanne Greenberg’s “The Supremacy of the Hunza” is about the responses of two men to ninety-foot towers linked with cables that are erected on their land. Forty-three-year-old Westerbrook is an uncompromising idealist who is looking for a utopia. First he seizes upon the Chontal Indians on the southern Isthmus of Mexico, who are reputed to have a society free of violence and crime. Margolin, an anthropologist, who meets him at a protest organized against the towers, points out that the absence of crime only means the absence of the idea of private ownership. Their peacefulness is due to chronic malnutrition.

Westerbrook tries to enlist Margolin in his causes, conservation groups, fights against pollution, crusades, petitions, and marches. Cynically, Margolin throws away all the pamphlets. Margolin is relieved to be summoned by a therapist at a state institution to interpret the dreams of three Sioux patients so that he can escape from brooding over the towers that are defacing the landscape.

Margolin returns, exhausted by his failures. “The symbols of The People had become cheapened parodies, like Made in Japan trinkets.” The dreams that he had taped had been full of phony images from the movies, fake feather headdresses from cowboy pictures, and carried no cultural weight at all. He is oppressed by the pain of these Indians, “tongue-tied with tranquilizers,” and by his inability to help at all. When Margolin discovers a drawer full of leaflets about the air, the water, and the food, he begins, in a rage, to dial Westerbrook’s number to tell him that he does not want to be involved in any more of his crusades, but his wife informs him that Westerbrook is sick. Margolin then determines to be kind. He scarcely recognizes the “lowered, pinched quality of the voice; its youthfulness had been conquered, the naïve enthusiasm was gone.” There is so much pain in Westerbrook’s voice that “suddenly Margolin wanted to beg his forgiveness; for polluting his air and fouling his water and for permitting the hideous towers to stand.” When Westerbrook mentions his newest enthusiasm, the Hunza, Muslim herders on the slopes of the Himalayas who live to a vigorous old age because they exist simply on pure food, whose language has no words for greed or envy, Margolin restrains his usual cynical comments. For his restraint he earns a pounding headache and the reward of hearing Westerbrook’s voice recover its normal enthusiasm.

The conflict is between two contrasted attitudes toward civilization. The amateur romanticizes the simple life. The professional anthropologist refuses to be enlisted in any campaigns to clean the environment because he recognizes the hopelessness of the struggle, as well as the falsity of all the hyped-up reports from utopia. Margolin’s compassionate impulse angers him afterward because his fear of further wounding the idealist has cost him his honesty. His conciliatory remarks about the Hunza restore his friend’s dignity, however, and Margolin recognizes in this concession how much envy had been mingled with his previous responses to Westerbrook, and this is a humiliating fact to have to accept.

The imagery in this story is so unobtrusive that one has to search for it. The telephone poles that have upset both of the men remain standing. That is an inflexible fact. Neither organized protests nor private broodings have budged them an inch. Yet the ugly poles support cables which permit telephone conversations like the one which closes the story. The skeptic who had maintained his detachment ends by giving emotional support to a man whose naïveté he had scorned, whose social activism has made him feel guilty, whose faith in primitivism he felt was ill-informed, and whose belief that this world could be made better by means of committees he disagreed with. The poles carry the possibility of communication, flawed though it must be by individuals’ psychological distances from one another. They bridge the physical distances; one must make the emotional accommodations to bridge the psychic ones. Every technological advance carries its own psychic assault with it. The movie versions of Indian identity have supplanted any authentic feelings about what it means to be a Sioux, just as the tranquilizers have obliterated the dark passions that had placed him in the asylum in the first place. Civilization makes primitive truths difficult to recover.

The story is effective precisely because it permits no easy answers to these hard questions. It raises the possibility that there might be a superior language, like...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)