I had planned upon revisiting this abandoned draft after beginning A Mercy and realizing that the novel took place in colonial America, but yesterday’s class reinvigorated my desire to finish the post and push it out, as we have just finished A Mercy and it’s not quite too late to post it.
In my other English class about modern western drama, we had read George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” a play that examines a bet between two professors of phonetics, Higgins and Pickering, to produce a civilized woman from the ‘guttersnipe’ Eliza. The play is meant to be a comedy with an underlying social commentary.
The final scenes of the play ask a question that Higgins and Pickering had not considered: what is to be done with Eliza now that she has been made into a civilized woman? Higgins and Pickering had not considered this question, as they had dehumanized Eliza so that they could experiment on her to transform her into quite a different human being.
Eliza exclaims “Oh! if I only could go back to my flower basket! I should be independent of both you and my father and all the world! Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes,” to which Higgins mocks, “Oh, it’s a fine life, the life of the gutter. It’s real: it’s warm: it’s violent: […] you can taste it and smell it without any training or work. Not like Science and Literature and Classical Music and Philosophy and Art. You find me cold, unfeeling, selfish, dont you? Very well: be off with you to the sort of people you like” (Shaw, 69-70). Eliza response by trying to show Higgins how he is blind to her humanity: “You know I cant go back to the gutter, as you call it, and that I have no real friends in the world but you and the Colonel [Pickering]. You know well I couldn’t bear to live with a low common man after you two” (Shaw, 70).
The morality of changing Eliza’s life entirely did not concern Higgins and Pickering, for they only considered their experiment to be a positive change to civilize Eliza’s life, and did not consider how she would live her life independently after leaving Higgins and Pickering. Pickering and Higgins, the scientists, objectified and distanced themselves from Eliza, their experiment, showing an element of inhumanity and objectifying of their subject through experimentation.
“Pygmalion” also evokes themes of colonization, where the wealthy white educated man feels obligated to ‘help’ those of lower class, and changes their lives (without knowing or willing consent), forcing them into the wealthy white educated man’s society. The most obvious example of this is the colonization of America, with forcing the Native American children into white European culture by separating them from their families and putting them in schools that essentially taught them to be white. These Native American children were allowed to go back home once they graduated, but they didn’t fit back into their original families once tamed and weren’t deemed quite fit enough for the colonies (or as this continued, for America), and so they became ostracized from both cultures at once.
This theme is classically associated with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (with obvious parallels to experimentation and the “gift of a real life” to the monster), but parallels can be found in Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, in America’s political climate today, and in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.
In our Feb. 24th class (over a month ago, if you can recall) we focused on the quote “When banking stops, credit stops, and when credit stops, trade stops, and when trade stops–well, the city of Chicago had only eight days of chlorine on hand for its water supply” (Lewis, 222). This chain describes a top-down flow of control, from the decisions of businessmen at the top trickling down to affect a 2008 Chicago as a city and its citizens on a personal level. Many businessmen still made away with millions of dollars in bonuses, as seen in The Big Short and Inside Job, and could duck away from their ruined economic playpen with quite still-large bank accounts; however, the Chicagoans were left with no warning leading up to their economic and water crisis, and faced a very real threat in the form of dehydration.
This highlights a massive separation between the wall street players, the scientists, and the everyday people who were affected by the manipulation of the housing market, the subjects of experimentation. We can see the dehumanization of the victims in these photos of law firm employees mocking victims of the housing crisis for halloween, and how the ‘scientists’ are so separated from their ‘experiment’ that they have no shame in making fun of the victims of their practice.
This is further highlighted by a question Lewis asks a few sentences later, “How do you explain to an innocent citizen of the free world the importance of a credit default swap […]?” (Lewis, 222-223). The victims are people who have been experimented upon by the unregulated wall street market, and the unethical economic practices surrounding credit default swaps continued for so long because all the parties involved – from the rating agencies to bond traders – were incentivized to make as much profit as possible, and could place blame on other parts of the CDO chain to prevent themselves from feeling guilty about the victims of their reaping.
This idea of economists being scientists is not far fetched at all, in fact we saw in Inside Job Ferguson mention how people from fields other than economics were coming to wall street to find new ways to manipulate the system, and created new markets with their unique and different mindsets. One example from the movie that stuck out to me was the speculative market around predicting the weather. My friend in high school had once spent all of gym class outlining the concept of weather derivatives to me and I struggled to grasp the ridiculousness of it all. People buying insurance on weather? People betting on the future’s weather?? Insurance companies trading their bets on the future’s weather?!?!
My mind was blown. And this market further blows my mind now, seeing how people could experiment with the world’s economics while distancing themselves from the people actually affected by their investments, such as the real people affected by climate change or natural disasters that an insurance company might be able to bet upon or against.
Such inhumane playing with the economic lives of people draws parallels to colonial imperialism, and the American belief that we have a right to improve the lives of the rest of the world – which is being heavily contested in todays political climate in the form of the MAGA slogan and America’s dubious place in foreign affairs.
We can see the lawlessness of the early European settlement of North America in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. The second ‘chapter’ of the book discusses the fluidity of claims to land ownership, and how many colonies all along the coast were “disputed, fought over and regularly renamed; their trade limited to whatever nation was victor” but the privately owned country of Maryland was stable enough to trade with foreign markets (Morrison, 15). This picture of a lawless new landmass almost begging for control, and the place of enslaved peoples in the novel fits right in with the colonial themes of what ‘the scientist’ perceives as “just” for his objectified ‘experiment.’
Supernumeraries are grouped together into irrelevancy, and because the victors write the history books, their stories are often not told from their own perspective. As the objectified subject of an experiment, supernumeraries are not allowed their own say in their study. The scientist is the one who controls the factors in a study and the presentation of the study’s results, and while the subject of experimentation may do the actual work in the study, it is up to the scientist’s scientific research ethics to properly conduct and write about their study. The importance of the subject can be lost in conclusions to experimentation, and so their supernumerary status remains.
In A Mercy we find that even though Florens is an enslaved person, she is still an extremely analytical human being, able to read into metaphors and situations, although not able to convey her ideas perfectly due to language constraints. Morrison humanizes Florens despite her status as a supernumerary, and this provides us with a strong reminder that all the horrible deaths of enslaved peoples in the novel were real things that happened to real humans in American history. It is easy to think of slaves as just in the past and just a group of people who (as a huge understatement) suffered massive hardships and casualties as a result of other people who thought they were better than the enslaved peoples. It is hard for us to grasp the intensity of the issue of slavery in America because simply looking at the statistics we see unfathomable numbers, and we struggle to imagine a culture that would promote such lifestyles. It is our job to humanize the supernumeraries, the objectified, the experiments, to understand the wrongs of our colonial days, and to understand other systemic wrongs in our world today and in the future.
I hope that this metaphor of the privileged, powerful white man being a scientist by objectifying his human and underprivileged subjects, the experiments, gives you a new lens to examine and think about the enslaved peoples in A Mercy.