“Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.” — Victor Lavalle
As I begin writing my final reflection essay, I remind myself that at the same time, the act of writing this reflection marks not only the symbolic closing of a chapter — English 337: African American Literature, but the closing of a book: my college career.
The very first sentence that begins this paper is not even mine, but a course epigraph, attributed to Victor Lavalle. This alone looks and feels overwhelmingly cynical to the folks reading this. I am sure it does.
“Doubt is the big machine.”
Written on the course syllabus for English 337, there these words were, waiting to be read by Dr. McCoy, waiting for my classmates and I to notice it. When I heard Dr. McCoy read Lavalle’s words, I looked down and read the epigraph over and over again. I was unsure who Lavalle was, what he meant, or how these words would be meaningful to a class on African American Literature, but I was certainly stunned by it. The language felt powerful and unapologetic, and I knew it would stay resonate with me. Though in what ways, I was unprepared.
You know that moment when you hear an unfamiliar word or learn a new fact, and then, from that moment on, it follows you everywhere? Suddenly, it’s spoken by somebody on line at a restaurant, on TV, or its written in the text in other courses you’re taking? That is the way it was with “doubt.” It is not that doubt has ever been a stranger to me, but rather, now it felt more layered. More personal. At this point, I still did not know who Lavalle was, but his words felt like they could have been mine. I was not the creator of them, but I felt like the bearer. Honestly, I hadn’t even deconstructed these words, but I attempted to tack it on to every work we read within the first few weeks. Is this doubt? Oh, this character is definitely doubting themself. Why does doubt matter here?
Then, as I began to actually deconstruct this epigraph, I also began to construct my first blog post.
“Doubt is the Big Machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.” — Victor Lavalle
I stared at this epigraph for a long time, picking apart the words. Doubt is awful and evil. Machines are noisy, frightening.. Delusions are never good for people. Lavalle is trying to be cynical, I first thought, without actually thinking it through. When I began thinking through the words as separate entities (specifically “doubt” versus “delusions”), then with the syntax that Lavalle employs, it began to make sense. At least I thought it did. In my first blog post, I understood this quote to pose doubt as a positive quality. Delusions are usually thoughts that folks have a persistent belief in, but are largely untrue. And doubt does not necessarily mean to be void of all belief, but rather to be uncertain. Now this seems less cynical. Maybe what Lavalle is trying to says is that it is beneficial to step back and impose questions and uncertainty upon situations we are placed in. At this point in the semester, we were only beginning to join Ricky on his journey, and I saw how this kind of doubt could apply here. Ricky’s persistent questioning and doubt about the note he receives reminding him that he “made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002” and that it was “time to honor it” is, not what hinders him, but what allows the novel to begin. (Lavalle 6) It is also what propels Ricky to take the bus to Vermont, thus marking the beginning of his journey. Beth’s comment, void of spoilers, surprisingly suggested I was on the right track, and that both doubt would continue to be prominent to the novel’s progression.
As we read Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The America Play,” I noticed doubt manifest itself in other ways. Recursion, or the idea that things must constantly loop back in order to progress forward, is something that Parks explains in theater discourse. Though here she coins it “Rep & Rev.” (Parks 9) “Characters refigure their words and through a refiguring of language show us that they are experiencing their situation anew.” (Parks 9) This “refiguring” of words and language, I think, translates to the reshaping of thoughts. Isn’t that what can cause us to do? To reflect on our previous thoughts and “delusions,” to question them in response to where we are now, and then potentially reshape them? An opportunity arises in which doubt can lead to making better informed decision as opposed to leading with unbending conviction, thus allowing us to move forward. Here, doubt and recursion cross paths.
Being able to make this connection between doubt and recursion has allowed me to reflect on my narrative as a writer. When I wrote my first blog post, I had briefly pondered my role here, too. Being a writer, I have always been particularly doubtful of my writing process: whether my words possessed any value and whether they were important enough to be written down or to share. There have been lapses in time for years in which I avoided writing all together, because I was angry with my brain for the words that it chose. I was angry at it for not allowing me to be a ‘good’ writer. I have been told that this is a common, sometimes inescapable practice for writers. For our own doubt to invade the spaces in which we are supposed to feel recognized and comfortable in. Writing is integral to my identity. To have doubt constantly and effectively erode my being feels like a violation, but I let it. And that was the end of that.
From where I stood at this moment in time, I wondered how much doubt we should ideally possess. Whether I explicitly wrote it or not, in my first blog post I believed that Lavalle wanted his audience to uphold only doubt/uncertainty in situations. The meaning I seemed to extract from Parks was that doubt is useful if we use it to build off of what we already know. As Ricky’s narrative progressed, I realized I was stuck in the way I had interpreted Lavalle’s quote.
While Big Machine does deeply invest in and uphold doubt, it pays an equal amount of attention to trust and faith in what we already know. One cannot exist without the other, and the novel teaches readers that the balance between them is essential. Ricky’s relationship with the Washerwomen is an example of this. One of the first things readers learn of this is that Ricky and his family hold a tremendous amount of faith in the Washerwomen. “They seemed to shine like beasts of prophecy. Their vitality more persuasive than any words.” (Lavalle 163). As part of their regular question and answer session at the apartment, Ricky and his sister Daphne begin to question the Washerwomen’s motives one day. Ricky and the other children poke holes at their religious beliefs asking why they aren’t allowed to do things such as watch television, and eventually, if “this is all a mistake?” (Lavalle 202) His doubt at the at the end of this particular scene is partially what gives him a more cohesive understanding of his religion. He claims that this questioning nearly always leads to a “lesson” and “the wisdom” that the Washerwomen pass on. (Lavalle 205) At the same time, although Ricky is skeptic of the religion he follows, he carries faith with them until the very last page of the novel.
“… This is why my faith has always been valuable. Strip away all the magic and what does religion teach?” “… When I invest too much in my own powers, I rely on what the Washerwomen taught me. Doubt grinds up my delusions. It makes me humble.” (Lavalle 366)
While Ricky continues to believe the Washerwomen are acting in good faith, his added skepticism makes for a more concrete belief.
I saw myself in Ricky’s faith, too. I always believe people are acting in good faith. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone could be doing something out of malign intent or for purely self-interest. I’ve come to learn that it is ok to hold on to this part of me. It is ok to believe in people and the goodness they possess. However, carrying this lesson the Washerwomen have passed on to Ricky, and Ricky has inevitably passed on to me, I understand that we are supposed to have our doubts in people sometimes. Both doubt and faith can make for greater clarity, and perhaps greater trust in another person. Relating doubt to my own life and my own writing is one thing, but Lavalle’s words carry beyond our own selves.
This balance of doubt and faith in other individuals plays out in other readings as well. In “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, Gan holds too much faith and only faith in T’Gatoi intentions. When his mother turns away from T’Gatoi, Gan looks in confusion and thinks, “It was an honor to have T’Gatoi in the family.” (Butler 4) Gan has only faith in T’Gatoi until he sees and hears of the possible horrors that being implanted with her egg will be like. He then abandons this faith fully and leads with fear and doubt. “What are we to you?” Gan asks T’Gatoi. (Butler 24) At this moment Gan seems to abandon all the good he had previously thought of T’Gatoi. It is not until Gan begins to trust in T’Gatoi again that their relationship progresses. Perhaps he does not trust her completely, but both doubt and trust are shown at the very end. The tension between them subsides when Gan asks her questions about her previous experiences with implantation. “Would you have destroyed yourself?” (Butler 29) While this question seems out of place, it leads to T’Gatoi insuring she will take care of Gan. The story ends with Gan remembering the words of his mother who told him to also “take care of her.” (Butler 29) Here, part of Big Machine echoes through “Bloodchild.” Having a balance of both doubt and faith in other people is ok, and is essential in moving forward.
“Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of men and women.” — Victor Lavalle
It feels more fulfilling to look at Lavalle’s epigraph now and understand the different layers that come with it. Doubt is certainly a “big machine.” It is powerful and forces us to examine ourselves and the world around us with greater scrutiny. Rather than simply doubt everything all the time, Lavalle urges us to acknowledge where our faith stands, doubt, and ask why we doubt. Ricky is undoubtedly confused by what brings him to Vermont, but throughout the novel he attempts to hold faith in his mission. “I promised to be brave,” Ricky reminds himself at the Library, nearly halfway through the novel. (Lavalle 95) His simultaneous doubt and faith in the note and his journey at the Library allow for Ricky’s character and the novel to develop the same. The religious clarity Ricky exhibits by the end show that doubt and faith both stand the test of time, and both are essential in order to understand why we believe in what we believe.
I understand that Lavalle’s words are not mine, but it feels even more fulfilling to be able to see how valuable doubt and faith are, not only to his story, but to mine as well. Going back to my role as a writer, I had doubt, yes, but that is all I had. Without any trace of faith and without being able to acknowledge that I already held core truths about my writing, I was stuck. Being that my identity as a writer is not entirely shattered, Lavalle’s words remind me how important it is to balance between doubt and faith. I had previously thought that this paper marked the closing of a chapter and a book. Perhaps this is still true on one level, but Lavalle’s words make me believe that this is a bridge into my future, too. I plan to carry this epigraph with me into graduate school, as I venture further into literature and further into writing. As I am exposed to more challenges, Lavalle’s words serve as reminder to have faith in what I already know, and to acknowledge this faith. Outside of myself, both Lavalle’s words and that of Butler serve as a reminder that this simultaneous play of doubt and faith will occur in our relationships with other people, and this is valuable, too. This message will aid in my story’s progression.