Some synthesized thoughts on Jazz/Purgatorio part 1

While I think there is a benefit to examining specific similarities between Morrison’s Jazz and Dante’s Purgatorio, I also believe that, in order to make more progress on this project, it is important to also see these similarities on a broader level. I’m almost finished with Purgatorio, but now I’ve read enough to be able to see some larger trends that are present in both texts. Through my reading, I’ve found four distinct threads that I feel are important for both Jazz and Purgatorio. These can then be further subdivided and of course are up for debate (and I definitely think my own thoughts would benefit from larger discussions). I thought perhaps this organized list would be the best way to show my thinking:

(I also really will come back to a more detailed account of my interpretation of the violent dream Dante the Pilgrim experiences in Canto IX– I’m still putting together all my thoughts)

This post gives my interpretations and thoughts on the first thought I see, which is movement.

Four Strands found in both Jazz and Purgatorio:

  1. Movement– Obviously, this has been the primary facet of the similarities between the texts that we are examining, and I think it is such a broad concept that there is a lot that can be done with it. Here, I’ve outlined the three subcategories of “Movement” that I believe are worth looking into.
    1. In Time: In Purgatorio, Dante is very conscious about the passage of time, both on his journey but also gives the reader the time of when it is that he is writing the poem. Often, the passage of time is measured in terms of the sun’s movement and the light. Also, Dante uses words such as “fast” and “slow” to denote the movement of the shades as well as the passage of time. Musa notes Dante’s frequent uses of time periphrases (defined by Google as circumlocutory/indirect writing). Morrison also uses time as an important marker in Jazz; I think it serves an important function in the “journey” of Violet and Joe from the South to the North, although time is also essential for other parts of the novel’s plot.
      1. Canto XV opens with six lines of introductory information that concretely establish the time. I think it’s particularly interesting that in line five he writes, “(and midnight here, where I am writing this)” since he clearly breaks from the narrative of his journey. I don’t really see why this was necessary for him to include, unless he’s trying to stress the divide between Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet. In Musa’s commentary, there is a helpful diagram that explains how Dante uses time in terms of reflection.
      2. In Canto XI, Dante uses the language of time to express the suffering that the Proud endure. Dante writes “those souls moved slowly bent beneath their weights– / the slowness that oppresses us in dreams–” (26-27).  
      3. In Jazz, there is an importance placed on time in terms of years. Joe and Violet leave Virginia for the city (Manhattan) in 1906. This is interesting because 1906 is before the peak of the Great Migration (The Warmth of Other Suns and When Harlem was in Vogue are both helpful sources in further research on the Harlem Renaissance/Great Migration). The novel is set, however, in 1926. By placing the novel here, Morrison is establishing the African American culture in which Jazz takes place. I particularly like the line “Any other kind of unarmed black woman in 1926 was crazy or silent or dead” (78). I think time and it’s passage/movement might play a more practical role in Jazz because it is a novel so it is necessary for plot, although Morrison does use an unconventional structure that revolves around shifts in time (which can be developed more).
    2. In Direction: The movement of direction was my first thought when thinking about movement in Jazz and Purgatorio. The mountain of Purgatory and the ascension towards Paradise dominated Dante the Pilgrim’s journey, so upwards mobility has been something I’ve been looking for in both texts. While of course the idea of North is different from “up,” I think that Dante’s journey can be paralleled in Jazz in Joe and Violet’s journey from Virginia to Harlem. Also, I have a new thought that perhaps this upwards mobility can also be paralleled in Jazz through the “building up” (literally/figuratively) of the city.
      1. So, of course, this diagram has already been a centerpiece of the discussion of Purgatory, but I believe that it is applicable now too. (The link to said diagram can be found here). Like through language of time, Dante also relies on his language to emphasize his movement in terms of direction, using words such as “up,” “down” fairly often.
      2. In Canto IV, the relative difficulty of the climb also revolves around movement. Dante is told, “This Mount is not like others: at the start / it is most difficult to climb, but then, / the more one climbs the easier it becomes;” (88-90).
      3. Sometimes the language of direction becomes almost garbled (unsure that this is the right word), though it is still understandable. One example I found of this is in Canto XI: “If they, up there, pray always for our good, / think of what we down here can do for them, / when praying hearts are rooted in good will!” (31-33).
      4. Perhaps this doesn’t belong in a discussion of “upwards” movement, yet I feel the need to note the presence and repetition of “flight” in both texts. I think it has more of a prevalence in Purgatorio, since I think its only connection in Jazz would be the scene where Violet sets the parrot free. (When I think of Morrison and flight, my mind turns to Song of Solomon, not Jazz, if I’m being honest)
        1. That Violet should not have let the parrot go. He forgot how to fly and just trembled on the sill… All she saw, down in the cellar well beneath the stoop, was a light yellow feather with a tip of green… Or did he get the message– that she said, ‘My parrot’ and he said, ‘Love you,’ and she had never said it back or even taken the trouble to name him– and manage somehow to fly away on wings that had not soared for six years. Wings grown stiff from disuse and dull in the bulb light of an apartment with no view to speak of” (92-93).
        2. Canto IV: “but here a man must fly: / yes, fly– that is to say, with the swift wings / of strong desire, and following that guide / who gave me hope, spreading his light before me” (27-30).
    3. Limitations: I’ve already posted about this, but I think this is the most interesting facet of movement in both texts. (Side note: I cannot find my blog post about this since it was marked private, so I don’t know where it went, but I think if we find it, it can become public now). Day/Night function for movement in totally different ways in both Jazz and Purgatorio. Whereas, the souls in Purgatory cannot move during the night, Joe and Dorcas are only really able to be with each other at night in Malvonne’s apartment. Also, the darkness provides an intimacy in Jazz, which is evidenced in the party scenes.
      1. Canto VII: “‘Look! After the sun has set / you could not go a step beyond this line. / There’s nothing that prevents our going up / except the darkness of the shadows: this, / alone, afflicts the will with impotence” (53-57).
      2. While the souls cannot move at night, Dante is the only one who needs to sleep at night, since he is still alive. This is important in the opening of Canto IX, since when he is asleep he dreams of sexual violence (a tie to Jazz that I’ll get to later in this gigantic list). Dante writes, “when I, who carried with me Adam’s weight, / conquered by sleep” (10-11).
      3. This directly contrasts the power of darkness in Jazz. Bodies are able to move freely at night. There is a slight discrepancy in this logic since the lights at these parties are sometimes on/sometimes off, but it is still at night when all this happens for Dorcas. “The stomach-jump Dorcas and Felice have agreed is the Sign of real interest and possible love surfaces and spreads as Dorcas watches the brothers. The sandwiches are gone now, the potato salad too, and everybody knows that the time for lights-out music is approaching” (66).
      4. Morrison also contrasts the necessity of sleeping at night. While Dante the Pilgrim has the human urge to sleep, Violet and Joe at the end of the novel have abandoned traditional circadian patterns. “Because of Joe’s work– and Violet’s too– and other things as well, they have stopped night sleeping– exchanging that waste of time for short naps whenever the body insists, and were not surprised by how good they felt” (223).

Here are the other three strands I see. I’ll update my posts as I keep working through these.

  1. “Harm” and Punishment
  2. Love (and its different forms)
  3. Narrative techniques (i.e. the use of “guides”)

Because this is so long, and this is a work-in-progress, and there is lots that can be edited and added here, so while I wanted to post this on the blog, I also created a google doc that is shared with you (and I can share it with anyone that wants). This is just some preliminary, yet synthesized, thinkING. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *