ENGL 439 in conversation with ENGL 458

I was part of the ENGL 458: Major Authors class that Beth taught last semester focusing on the work of Toni Morrison, and how it related to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Throughout the semester, I (as well as my fellow classmates- many of whom are in this class as well) learned how to change the way I think and process information, working past the shock of different experiences and instead understanding causes/effects and the humanness of reactions and emotions. Also, Toni Morrison wrote novels that examine the wonder of language in regards to its specificity and limitations as well as certain themes that I believe are applicable to this course as well, including diaspora, disenfranchisement, memory/forgetting, and loss/gain (to name a few).

My aim for this post is to continue my thoughts from last semester that I’ve already seen in the content for this semester because I think it can be relevant to refresh those who experienced ENGL 454 with me and to share some knowledge and give the members of this class who do not have my background with Toni Morrison some food for thought.

Before even beginning a novel last semester, Beth spoke about the both/and (which happens to be my favorite saying now) and I think it is super important and applicable not only to this course, but to life in general. Our society likes to glamorize one side to issues too often and to remain well-informed, empathetic yet reasonable citizens of the country and the world, we need to be prepared to understand the views and thoughts of others. It is too easy to label situations (or people…which is even scarier) without any background knowledge or the desire to gain any insight. I think that in this course the both/and will be incredibly useful when looking both at groups of people who are the “victims” of the fallout of the housing crisis as well as the leaders who worked to come up with solutions (this point is very similar to what Alpha mentioned at the end of our class period on Friday).
Another way of thinking that we discussed last semester was the complicated relationship between individual power and structural power. When Beth has brought this up this semester she’s been using the word “affective” in place of individual, and whether it was purposeful or not I believe it is effective. This, I believe, will also be essential to our discourse this semester because we will have to see the balance between the economic and government role in analyzing the housing crisis as well as the individual stories of those affected, paying careful attention to what is said in their testimonies and what is left out (from what I know of the novels on the booklist- this probably will be discussed a lot in class). Last semester, one of Morrison’s novels that we read was Jazz, and from the beginning of the
novel, the reader is presented with the strange situation of learning that one of the main characters, Joe Trace, is guilty of murdering an 18 year old young woman named Dorcas and is not facing any trouble with the law. At first this was very unsettling to me (in fact, it still is). However, after grappling with these thoughts myself and discussing them with Beth, I realized that I was only focused on the individual or “affective” aspect because I was preoccupied with the loss of a young woman and the adulthood she never got the chance to reach. I did not consider that no one in the city had called the police because of the relationship between black people in 1920’s Harlem and law enforcement. With that context, I began to better understand the actions in the novel.

I could continue with other specific examples from Morrison’s novels and how I think they apply to what we’ve already tlked about regarding the texts we’ve already encountered, but this is becoming way too long for anyone to want to keep reading. So, to wrap this up, last semester we were also very encouraged to look up etymologies and the multiple meanings of one word (this is another thing Beth has already started this semester). Our study of purgatory was linked to the verb to purge which I think can have implications of a cleansing and expelling, just like when in The Old Man and The Storm, there was the discussion of rebuilding New Orleans to have “less poor people.” Another word we looked into when discussing Morrison was churning which can be linked with the cyclical nature we saw with the hurricane and the ideas that these scatterings repeat themselves over time.

I really was not expecting this post to be so long, but I’m hoping that it was helpful in some way. I’m very excited for this class and I hope that I can use more of the experience I had studying Morrison last semester in this course (I’m already eagerly awaiting A Mercy!)

One Reply to “ENGL 439 in conversation with ENGL 458”

  1. Erin,
    So nice to find another appreciator of the both/and(!!). Your voiced discomfort is valid, and your openness to why is just as important. I’m excited to see what y’all who’ve read A Mercy bring to class discussion. You’re right- the mayor and other developers did seem to treat Katrina as a cleansing for the city. Sort of a clean slate to build upon. It wasn’t typical gentrification- just easier because they didn’t have to worry about expelling(/evicting/abandoning/all the other words we came up with in class) of the folks in poverty. I like how you blended pretty seamlessly your thoughts from last semester and this one. Thanks for the context.

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