Sower What About L.A. Podcast?

In Spring 2020, I taught “Expulsion and the Housing Crisis,” a SUNY Geneseo literature course contemplating narratives flowing into and out of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Students read William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and Calvin Baker’s Dominion. They watched The Old Man and the Storm, Inside Job, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and they experienced a guest lecture by Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston, who spoke about money laundering.

As we interpreted literature, we engaged key course concepts: credit, bonds, fraud, moral hazard, trust, accountability, performance, effigy, and liquidity. We engaged practical matters from checkbooks to toxins to credit scores.

The course’s final assignment asked students to consider Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower alongside episodes of L.A. Podcast they’d been listening to all semester. 

When COVID-19 scattered us into the digital world, the students persevered in that project, helping each other to build the essays that follow below. 


Although I don’t live in L.A., L.A. Podcast allows me to bring the expulsion in Parable of the Sower closer to home and both past, current, and future circumstances have felt more personal due to these connections. Expulsion is more than the loss of a shelter, but the devastating loss of lives and livelihood mirrors the environment they fall under. An underlying realization that runs through both texts is that there is an experience of new normalcy accompanied by trauma that surrounds the old normal and a solution involving empathy is in our control yet seemingly unreachable.

A correlation that hadn’t occurred to me right away between both the texts, the housing crisis, and the current events are the effects on racial minorities.  There is already a race discrepancy between socio-economic classes, and this leads to a discrepancy in the effects of expulsion as well. In the “I Wanna Lord Your Land,” the hosts talked about this correlation resulting in a higher housing loss and deaths. We saw this in the housing crisis of 2008 and are expecting to see it during the current epidemic.  Although there’s a temporary hold on evictions, it’s not going to go away, and once the pause is over then there will be a spike in evictions and the supports, as unstable and few as there are, may crumble completely.  However, regulations on policies during and after this time of uncertainty are difficult to judge, and even despite the devastation of the housing crisis, there was an act of returning to normal. While hearing the candidate’s campaign speeches in Parable of the Sower, Lauren raises a question that many people wonder today: “…worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board. What’s adequate, I wonder” (27). I find myself also wanting to push for security for those who need housing and those who provide it, but also wondering how any policies would be regulated or enforced to ensure that it would be successful in the long run. Unfortunately pauses on evictions are temporary and the money offered by the government isn’t enough to be self-sufficient. This was discussed in the “I Wanna Lord Your Land” episode as well. Landlords feel left out of government support and when things go back to “normal,” we may see even more housing failures. There was an obscene amount of evictions during the housing crisis yet support ended soon after and things were pushed to return to normalcy as soon as possible. I hope that during these times of uncertainty, however, there will be sufficient support for those who need support not only now but going forward when the situation starts to improve.

During the episode “Hotel It on the Mountain,” the hosts of the L.A. Podcast discussed how this new way of living which was so foreign a few months ago has become the new normal.  Actions such as social distancing and wearing masks in public when leaving the house have become a habit and there is an almost trauma and sense of terror concerning the old normal of going without either of those things. The readers catch glimpses of the old normal through Lauren’s parents in Parable of the Sower and although this natural disaster is relatively recent, Lauren cannot imagine anything except her current reality. In the episode “SoCal Distancing” the hosts brought up a both/and about fear being used as a tool of manipulation. At first listen, I had an initial opposition to fear being used against people, yet I began to think of the positive outcomes. On one hand, I don’t condone fear mongering, but on the other hand, I wonder what would happen if this fear was used as a tool to save lives. Do the intentions behind the actions overrule the action itself? When people’s lives are at stake or the necessities in which they need to survive are threatened, where is the line in enforcing safety? In Parable of the Sower, conditions have become so dire that trust becomes a double-edged sword, and violence against others is normal just to ensure the survival of oneself. However, even a weapon to defend oneself is a luxury many cannot afford, and in terms of the housing crisis, thousands of people were left without any support to survive, some more than others.

Continue reading “Sower What About L.A. Podcast?”

Building a Community Through Communication: How Interpretation Creates Division in “Paradise”

In writing Paradise, Toni Morrison suggests to readers that through open communication, a community based on collaboration and understanding can be developed.  Playing off of Dante’s Paradiso, Morrison demonstrates how a lack of communication can lead to a collaboration aimed at violence, through the justification of interpretation.  Morrison’s Paradise challenges the notion of divinity and justice as not interpretable, suggesting that people should find meaning in their own lives, rather from a higher power.   

Through Dante’s many interactions with the souls of those in the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, it is when he comes upon the Eagle of Divine Justice that he and readers are able to gain an insightful understanding of justice through Dante’s conversation with the Eagle.  The Eagle itself is composed of the souls of rulers who displayed justice and mercy during their time on Earth and are introduced in with Dante’s arrival “within the torch of Jupiter” (Canto 18, 70).  The souls of Paradiso are content within their respected spheres, no matter how close or far away they are from “The Sun” (God).  This is verified through Dante’s description of the lights forming, stating “and they climbed, some high, some low, just as the Sun that kindles them assigned positions” (Canto 18, 104-105).  Dante is again confirming his repetitious belief that the souls in the Divine Comedy are exactly where they need to be from the souls suffering in Hell for their sins to those rewarded in Paradiso with Heaven’s light.        

In conversing with the light-formed Eagle, Dante pleads for the sinful transgressors of Earth to face justice from Heaven (Canto 18, 118-120), against those that belittle the values and practices exemplified by the souls that compose the Eagle.  The Eagle retorts with a lesson on divine justice from the perspective of mortals, “the vision that your world receives can penetrate into Eternal justice no more than an eye can penetrate the sea” (Canto 19, 58-60).  The Eagle in its address asserts the belief that people on Earth cannot perceive divine justice, even if they believe they are able to.  This is further expanded upon the Eagle’s relation of divine justice with the sea floor: “for though, near shore, sight reaches the sea floor, you cannot reach it in the open sea; yet it is there, but hidden by the deep” (Canto 19, 58-63).  The Eagle’s lesson on divine justice serves as an exclamation becoming a declamation for Dante, whose initial request for justice was a false pretense of knowledge on justice, gradually becoming an enlightening lesson for Dante and readers by the end.  From this, it can be claimed that judgment and justice are not the responsibility of people to establish or control, as they are not recognizable and clear to people on Earth.  This can be surmised from the Eagle’s statement “Now who are you to sit upon the bench, to judge events a thousand miles away, when your own vision spans so brief a space?” (Canto 19, 79-81).  Through the conversation with the Eagle of Divine Justice, Dante and the readers are better able to understand divine justice.

In reading Paradise, an observable, important foundation for the town of Ruby, is the Oven that lay at the heart of the town.  Originally built in 1890 in the town of Haven, the Oven was the first structure built by the former slave community after their rejection from society.  The Oven itself is composed of many pale bricks, with a chimney, plumb, iron plates, and a hearthstone.  Round and deep, the Oven in sense served as the source of nourishment for the community of Haven, who would collectively use the Oven for preparing meals.  The Oven had also come to serve as a monument to the struggles the men of Haven had to endure to finally form their own town, amidst their rejection.  Upon their return to Haven from their service in World War II, twins Deek and Steward Morgan dismantle the Oven to bring with them in their quest to establish a new community, after seeing and experiencing the unchanged bigotry of society.  Disassembled piece by piece, the Oven again became the first structure installed in 1952, in the newly founded town of Ruby.

With the Oven again becoming the center piece of a community, the representation and use of the Oven had evolved from its original purpose.  Where in Haven the Oven was used to “nourish them” and “monumentalize what they had done” (Morrison, 7), the Oven in Ruby had come to represent the troubling past of Haven and serve as a reminder to “what they might become if they did not begin anew” (Morrison, 6).  No longer serving the practical use of cooking food, the Oven has shifted in purpose to become a meeting place for the community.  However, the removal of the Oven from Haven to the town of Ruby causes conflict in its purpose and interpretation of the quote etched on it.  While the older community of Ruby fervently claim a quote on the Oven to read “Beware the furrow of His brow”, the younger generation of Ruby claim the quote to read “Be the furrow of His brow” (Morrison, 86-87).  The differing interpretations on the true meaning of the quote causes division in Ruby’s residents, with the older generation maintaining the Oven as “the meeting place to report on what done or needed or what needed” (Morrison, 111). 

While the Oven’s intended purpose is to establish a location within town that brings the community together, the town of Ruby becomes fractured through the differing interpretations of the quote etched on the Oven.  The separation between those that read the quote to be “Beware the furrow of His brow” versus those that read the quote as “Be the furrow of His brow” demonstrate Morrison’s ability to create tension and conflict through contrast on the perspective of authority.  This contrast in perspective does not completely divide the community, but more or less re-organizes the community into the older population against the younger population.      

The older population of Ruby adhere to the Oven exclaiming “Beware the furrow…”, as their memory of the hardships faced by their forefathers through slavery and during the Restoration has become associated with the will and power of God, something to be wary and respectful of.  The older population of Ruby’s belief in the quote to warn of the power and wrath of God is echoed through Reverend Pulliam’s claim “God’s justice is His alone” (87), as well as Harper Jury’s statement that “[The Oven] says ‘Beware’.  Not ‘Be’.  Beware means ‘Look out.  The power is mine.  Get used to it.’” (87).  The interpretation of the quote to mean the acceptance of God’s power and will transparently align with the older generation’s perspective of authority and governing ability, with this portion of Ruby’s residents accepting the rule of the Morgan twins within the town.  Several times, Morrison makes it clear that the Morgan twins have come to be viewed as the unofficial leaders of the town, through their own justifications, as well as the conscious acceptance of the residents.  The Morgan twins read the quote as “Beware the furrow…”, and through this unquestionable acceptance of their interpretation, the rest of the town unquestionably accepts their decision.  In this essence, the town does not question the authority of the Morgan twins, just as they do not question the power of God.  Even Richard Misner, who challenges the Morgan’s interpretation, recognizes an ownership of Ruby, stating “It’s sort of [Deek’s] town, wouldn’t you say?  His and Steward’s?” (115).

The younger population of Ruby interpret the quote as “Be the furrow…” reflecting the belief that the leadership within the town should change in their perceptions and judgment of others.  The “Furrow of His brow” can come to represent the brow of the Eagle of Divine Justice, that holds the souls of just and merciful kings throughout history.  Being the “Furrow of His brow” in this sense is releasing judgment to a higher power, and acting more merciful in just in our interactions with others.  In relation to the context of Paradise, the younger population can be seen as demanding change from the town of Ruby’s rigid hierarchy, disapproval of outsiders, and overall strict nature that has been largely present since the town’s foundation.

Through interpretation, the debate of “Beware” vs. “Be” transpires into the debate whether to engage in violence or not, based on collective collaboration of the different interpretations. The townspeople’s decisions and actions are a result of their interpretations of the Oven’s quote.  Residents who read the Oven as “Beware the furrow…” act in what they perceive as divine justice in the form of massacring the Convent.  Deek and Steward Morgan, the town’s two “leaders” and proud proponents of the Oven reading “Beware”, organize nine other men in town to assist in eliminating the women of the Convent.  Their self-righteousness in killing the Convent women is further progressed by their belief that this act is for God: “God at their side.  The men take aim” (18).  While the men of Ruby believe they are carrying out Divine Justice, Dante’s Eagle of Divine Justice had already addressed human perception of divine justice as being short-sighted, unable to see the larger picture of justice at work.  It is even hinted that some of the men know what they are doing is wrong: “He does not want to see himself stalking females or their liquid” (9).  While the names of the nine men involved slowly is revealed, Morrison’s exclusion of revealing their names too soon suggests that anyone can fall into this dangerous mindset of carrying out violence. 

Residents who read the Oven as “Be the furrow…” act reserved in passing judgment, favoring more inclusion within the rigid system of Ruby.  “Be the furrow” readers can be viewed as the younger population of Ruby, who through Richard Misner, attempt to instill change within the unaffected Ruby.  At the culmination of the violence being perpetrated by the nine men of Ruby against the Convent women, Lone gathers the townspeople to save the Convent women.  Lone’s act against the men of Ruby, specifically against the Morgan brothers, demonstrate residents of Ruby beginning to act as the “Furrow” through the challenge of the unjust and the capacity for mercy.  Other residents such as Pete Best, demonstrate acts of mercy/justice in attempting to bury the bodies of the women from the Convent.  It is important that these two residents act as they are both victims of the unjust hierarchy of Ruby.  The collaboration between readers of “Be the Furrow…” act together to develop some form of change within the rigid system of Ruby, evident by the changing nature of Ruby at the Paradise.

A third category present, but largely in the backdrop is the Convent women.  This third category is particularly different from the other two, in that the women may or may not recognize what the meaning to the quote on the Oven readers, but simply don’t care.  As a third party outside the tension of Ruby, the Convent women live without concern of meaning.  The residents of Ruby believe in some divine intervention on the town of Ruby that has provided its stability.  The women of the Convent live in the Convent because they simply desire so, and it represents an escape from the pressure of societal living.  Upon first meeting, Mavis meets Grace sitting in the front yard of the Convent naked, with little care or regard.  The grand question of meaning in their lives in utterly washed away with the simplicity of the lives they are living at the Convent, thus this fixation of the meaning of a quote has no effect on them.  Life for the women at the Convent is free in responsibilities and overall worries, implying that a debate on an interpretation of meaning, whether it be an Oven or anything else, is ridiculous.  Morrison may be suggesting that life should be lived on our own terms, and not through the notion of being or acting on account of some divine power.   

In thinking about both collaboration and interpretation as a part of Paradise‘s appropriation of Paradiso, both can be viewed as crucial in instituting change, but also dangerous when they are used to justify violence.  Ruby is different at the end of Paradise than it was in the beginning.  There appears to be a more open line of communication between residents, such as Richard Misner and Deek.  Death has finally caught up to the town with the death of Save-Marie, however this demonstrates the passage of time and a change beginning to develop.  Division remains, but the town has changed nonetheless.  However, this change was a result of violence through the collaboration of men arming themselves to carry out a perceived interpretation of “divine justice”.  The contrasting interpretations between “Be the furrow…” vs. “Beware the furrow” produced an antagonistic attitude from the “Beware…” interpreters that resulted in the deaths of the Convent women.  From this, collaboration and interpretation can be viewed as dangerous when some individuals have the power and ability to impose their belief. 

Reflecting on the contrasting collaborations and interpretations of the residents of Ruby, Morrison can be seen suggesting true collaboration through accepting life with the given circumstances.  This is evident through the women of the Convent.  The residents of the Convent are attempting to escape from their past: Mavis from the death of her twins and un-supporting family, Grace and Seneca from their previous, abusive relationships, Divine from her family and previous boyfriend.  Coming to the Convent, the women find meaning in the freedom they experience while residing there.  They’re free to come and go as they please, their responsibilities are to themselves and maintaining the Convent, and the pressures of the outside world are almost completely lost to them.  In essence, through shutting themselves off from the rest of the world and finding meaning through their collected living, the women of the Convent attain the town of Ruby’s initial goal of building a prosperous, isolated community.  In the end, the women of the Convent are able to experience closure with the people they left behind, reconciling peace through communication.

Morrison’s trilogy persistently revolves around the lack of communication that drives characters further into conflict.  The lack of communication between Sethe and Denver welcomes Beloved into their home, further escalating the tension between these two women.  The lack of communication between Sethe’s family and their community also serves as a source of conflict.  Violet and Joe’s relationship issues in Jazz can trace back to their lack of communication, and inability to talk through their problems.  Again, it can be observed that these two intimate characters are shunned from their community, lacking an outside voice to communicate with.  The culmination of lack of communication is evident from the town of Ruby, that functions through a rigid hierarchy of families based off of color, shunning those with lighter-skin or marrying a person of lighter-skin.  Communication is again a major issue in the town, with competing interpretations escalating the division of the town, and as a result a division in communication.  Morrison’s focus on communication suggests that an open conversation on individual issues may present a more collaborative community and stronger relationships as a result.  In the end of each novel of Morrison’s trilogy, readers are able to witness the community of the novel growing through abrupt arrival of communication: Sethe’s community exorcise Beloved from her home after Denver’s plea for assistance; Joe and Violet’s relationship becomes mended through the open communication from Dorcases friend Felice; the women of the Convent are able to reach “paradise” after communicating with people from their past.  Through the resolves of each novel, it can be reflected upon that open and honest communication is the meaning behind a collaborative community. 

In reflecting on the current situation of the world, I find it more apparent that communication is necessary in building a community.  Given the pandemic the world is facing, I find it less scary when there is an open line of communication to work through.  Through open communication, this semester and course was able to progress through the efforts of those willing to work and talk, even if being separated by a screen.  The distance between family, friends, and classmates has presented new ways we as people are able to engage with each other. Leaders are actively engaging with each other on how to combat the Coronavirus, forging new ties and making it apparent those willing to communicate in order to meet success.  It is important that we hold on to the value of communication, even after the pandemic is resolved, as it has demonstrated through literature and reality that through an open conversation, people are able to collaborate and become stronger as a community.             

Finding Paradise through Collaboration and Unity

The understanding of Dante’s eagle of divine Justice doesn’t come easy to mortal beings. We simply can’t just look upon it and firmly grasp at all there is to tell us without having done either outside research and/or atoning for our sins and learning the true meaning of justice as in the pilgrim’s case. Dante’s journey began as he was wandering around in a forest, lost from the righteous path as he questions why his lover was taken from him as well as how proper justice is determined amongst individuals. He attempts to get her back, avoiding the necessary trials to do so, which lands him a place in hell, with Virgil, sent by his lover to guide him through his journey to Paradise, and ultimately to her, being a changed man who now sees the rights in his wrongdoings. 

If that sounds familiar in today’s world, it should. Like Dante, we as a society are lost in our own forest. We wrongfully question why we must be separated from one another, and try to find ways to hang out in person, despite being told by higher authorities that it’s wrong and careless to do so. Our judgments are clouded, and a select few care more about partying with friends than flattening a healthcare curve we can’t tangibly grasp at or see. If there was ever a time to read Dante’s Divine Comedy Trilogy it would be now. Like the pilgrim, we have been put into a hell that we could never have imagined taking place: quarantine and social distancing due to COVID-19. 

Dante and the eagle meet and converse in Paradiso throughout cantos XVIII, XIX, and XX of which Dante is in the sixth sphere of Heaven. The eagle is comprised of those who ruled with justice, namely David, Constantine, Trajan, William the II, Hezekiah, and Ripheus. Dante learns that humanity’s concept of justice is far from the divine, and that one simply can’t understand it as a whole by themselves. The souls of the rulers speak of God being the source of all that is good, and that believing in him is merely just a part of the whole truth, much like how the souls alone were great leaders in their own right, but together form a divine and devote being. 

This all ties into Morrison’s Paradise with the core lesson being community and collaboration help strengthen us and keep us on the path of morality, and only by helping one another can we all reach heaven. Simply put, one can’t make it on their own as they lack the knowledge and truth of the divine justice. Located at the heart of the town of Ruby, an all-black town, is the communal Oven with a faded inscription “the Furrow of His Brow.” The Oven was built to serve all, nourishing the community members by saving resources and representing the strength and achievements of the people. After Haven, the town preceding Ruby, fails, the families that leave forsake other supplies to move and rebuild the Oven, using it as a commual meeting place for all. 

There’s a rift forming in Ruby between the older, “more pure” residents and the younger, “more rowdy” generation as they argue behind the meaning of the inscription, and what it represents. Whether the word before is “be” or “beware,” both have a significantly different interpretation that widens the rift between the generations and is causing Ruby to held down the same fate as Haven. The question over who holds divine justice is Morrison’s modern interpretation of Paradiso and Dante’s learned understanding of it: is the power of justice only held through God’s will and his alone, or through the collective souls of the people who worship him? 

The older generation believes that “beware’ means that He alone holds the power and that it shouldn’t be questioned, but rather feared. They warn of such power and that the events that led them here are sealed and they should follow in the footsteps of the previous generation to avoid the wrath of God as seen in the old testament. To question Him, in this case the Morgan twins, Steward and Deek, who make up the leadership of the town, is to question the ability to lead, and the power and respect they have. On the other side, the younger generation takes from the new testament, in that Jesus was sent by God to be a symbol to the people, and that His will stretches beyond that of himself.  Instead, it is the duty of every individual working together in a less rigid leadership to take action and make sacrifices to help the town prosper and grow. They seek the Morgan twins to do more than just lead, and that if the “all” follow a select “few”, the path to heaven will diverge, becoming Dante lost in the forest, unable to achieve or find what he seeks. 

The main difference between these interpretations is how to handle problems that have arisen, and how to avoid others from coming about in the future. Is it one’s duty to sit back and let fate play out as deemed by God, using fear and power as their tactic, or should they work together to fix the issues now, and avoid being like the ones who came before: prejudiced and discriminating towards outsiders and their beliefs. 

The peak of the problem is how to handle the Convent, an all-female homestead who the elders believe to be the root of their problems. The Convent serves as a safe-haven for runaways, be it from abuse or neglect from husbands, or violence and betrayal from family and friends. However, nine men who can’t see through the smoke and mirrors massacre the Convent one night, reportedly killing many on sight, including a white woman, while taking injuries themselves. They deny responsibility for what has taken place, yet also fear trouble will come from white law. This causes a separation of power as Deek decides to take the blame unlike Steward, but then upon investigation, the bodies of the women are unable to be found and everyone has a different account of what actually took place, meaning justice and proper execution of law cannot be upheld.

It’s important to note that before this event, the town of Ruby lacked a jail or cemetery as death and sin have never come to Ruby, hence the belief of the older generation that they should keep doing as they have been. As Reverend Robert Misner and Anna Flood, wanting to know the truth of what happened, look through the Convent mansion and it’s surrounding land for any signs of struggle or death, they come upon an empty crib in a nursery with the word “Divine” on the door, which ties together the ideas of sacrifice and justice of God’s will as Save-Marie, a disabled child, has died and a funeral takes place for the first time in Ruby, signaling great change will inevitably come as faith, along with leadership and power distribution is now questioned by the townspeople. 

Acceptance, that’s the first step to solving any problem. It’s taken me so damn long to accept that this is life now. It’s remote, online learning, and I have to use the strengths I have gathered throughout my life to keep me going. I very nearly fell apart this semester. Just when I thought things were going well, another obstacle came to block my path. The town of Ruby, while good on paper— no need for jail or cemetery, strong community, efficient use of resources, etc. — has underlying flaws that stem from decision making, differing beliefs, and a deunified justice system. Morrison shows the strength a community can achieve. Each individual is prospering on their own, each town on their own, but coming together causes an unforeseen clash that could have been avoided from the start if the towns weren’t built upon isolation and denying of outsiders. 

Being in a current state of isolation, it’s important to keep collaborating and working together so that when the time comes, we can build a stronger bond between each other, holding accountability and respect for our wrongdoings to avoid, or in this case, better handle issues that are likely to arise. Nobody is right on their own. It takes a wide arrangement of differing viewpoints to see the whole picture. We can’t see what’s behind us without either looking back, in which we lose what’s in front of us, or standing back to back with our community, speaking what we see and what we have learned in order to achieve divine justice and find our Paradise together. 

The Limitations of Collaboration Revealed Through Morrison’s Trilogy and The Divine Comedy

Two heads are better than one and three are better than two and so on; many hands make light work. The benefits behind the ability of “the many” may seem obvious at first glance, as it is apparent that tasks can be accomplished quicker in such a manner, but it is extremely rewarding when you observe the merit beyond dexterity and efficiency. When one takes into consideration the quality possible through cooperation and the growth possible to each party afterwards, the weight of collaboration becomes extremely apparent. Collaboration exists as one of the most powerful devices in human existence. Its weight has been constantly reinforced and acknowledged throughout history—some might even argue it a quintessential aspect or defining characteristic of humanity, as most substantial progress in this world has been realized through years and years of collaboration between a multitude of people passing on and exchanging information. This level of collaboration that expands beyond temporal boundaries or physical space is commonly observable through notated literature. Toni Morrison’s trilogy, specifically the novel Paradise, reinterprets some of the material from Dante’s The Divine Comedy and provides several layers of collaboration within and without (between the authors’ writing and the characters’ of her novel) the text that reveal the long lasting benefits of collaboration. Morrison’s novel allows for a modern perspective of some of the material from Dante’s Paradiso, offering a conversation on the justice system and the long lasting difficulties pushed onto African Americans within the United States as a result of slavery, injustice, discrimination and exclusion. Continue reading “The Limitations of Collaboration Revealed Through Morrison’s Trilogy and The Divine Comedy”

Distant Engagement: Understanding the Importance of Collaboration within the Scope of Toni Morrison’s Paradise

Exploring Paradiso within the context of Morrison’s Paradise, Dante’s Canto 19 is the main canto location where Dante is using the eagle of divine justice to explain earthly/divine justice. To begin, the eagle of divine justice seems to be ever-moving, and continually constructed to be in harmony. The eagle of divine justice’s continual movements are juxtaposed with the idea of “Primal will” or “Supreme good”. This “Primal will” is ultimately described as God’s goodness on earth included as scripture, and is deemed to be never moving by Dante. By having God’s earthly teaching be never-moving but the eagle of divine justice be ever-flowing and in-movement, Dante is preparing to unfold his main idea behind the boundaries between justice on earth and divine justice. Dante first lays out God’s manifestation in man, creating a difference between man’s justice and the personal souls’ justice. By highlighting the difference, Dante is engaging with the belief that earthly justice cannot be introduced to eternal justice, because the two cannot be viewed in the same light. This idea of “viewing” is a focal point in Canto 19, undoubtedly related to the strength of an eagle’s eyes. Dante uses the eagle of divine justice to explain how easy it is to judge others without thought but have no idea about the life of that person being judged. The eagle of divine justice is engaging the idea that even if you are a believer of God’s kingdom, your earthly judgement on others and how you view your perception of the world will be taken into your soul’s divine justice. Toni Morrison’s Paradise includes a number of examples of earthly vs. divine justice, as well as defining justice as both a force in the universe as well as a force in one’s personal soul.

                Within the context of the novel as a whole, I believe the oven to be the carrier of time for both Haven and Ruby, as well as a site where inter-relational conflict dwells. Within the course epigraph, Morrison’s statement “Black literature is taught as sociology” is the first sentence noted. I believe that through the oven, Morrison is constructing the sociological functions of Ruby and its society similarly to her conventions of how black literature is taught. When considering the oven as a bearer or holder of time, it is important to follow the chronology of the oven and how it has been physically changed.  We learn when the oven is first introduced that it has been brought from its original town of Haven by its founding fathers to the new town of Ruby. It is also said to have been a place of socializing, even towards the latter decline of Haven. With the slogan on the oven being not fully visible, the eventual conflict between the youth and elders of the town rises with reverend Misner’s meeting. With the elders lashing out on the younger generation of Ruby for believing they could believe in a God-mimicking slogan, there is an overall theme of time being explored. Morrison’s usage of time within the oven creates a difference between the elders and youth, a difference that can be seen between the town of Ruby and of the Covenant. With time, both the covenant and Ruby became their present selves, with one location being on the grounds of acceptance, while the other being on the grounds of difference and solitude. With time, the “disallowing” of Haven founders and the creation of Ruby to combat light-skinned/dark-skinned prejudice had come full circle, with the oven being the center of the city’s changes.

                The oven as a site is dominantly shown as a breeding ground for complications and conflict. It is the site where K.D. and Arnette’s relationship first declines, as well as where the Covent’s members are first outed as odd by dancing around the oven. Placing the oven as the center of disruption for Morrison’s plot, she is actively using the oven to engage and bring to light the concealed problems of Ruby. The physical appearance of the oven can be related to the relevance of Dante’s eagle. With the oven being marked with a black fist with red fingernails, along with eventual foundation destruction, I believe that the oven’s physical appearance is an explanation into the individual justice vs. overall justice within the town of Ruby. Dante’s eagle explains that the individual’s idea of justice cannot penetrate God’s divine justice, which maybe can be representative in the state of the oven. With each fingernail marked in red over a cast of a black fist, I think that the women of the Covenant could represent individual justices, intertwined within the overall justice structure of Ruby. Although I am still tackling this idea of individual justice being seen within the covenant, I plan to expand my ideas in the upcoming move. 

                Ruby’s residents interpret the text on the oven’s lip in different ways, focused mainly around the idea of age and generational differences. On one hand, the elders of Ruby believe that the oven says “Beware the furrow of his brow”, with the younger generation believe the slogan says “Be the furrow of his brow” or just “the furrow of his brow”.  Through the text, we can see the overall reasoning behind the argument intersecting both history and respect. Although these interpretations of the oven are not the same, the connotations behind why the residents take sides and why they argue their points are extremely similar. Beginning with the older generation, we have a distinct opinion that Reverend Pulliam displays, shouting “Beware the furrow of his brow. That’s what it says clear as daylight. That’s not a suggestion; that’s an order!” (86). This quote in my opinion best encapsulates the relationship between the older Ruby members and their beliefs regarding the history of Haven/new presence in Ruby. With an adherence to preservation, I believe the elders in Ruby interpret the oven as a message from their past, a past that although they have left physically (Haven), the oven still stands as a message. A message that proves important to them because of its reminder; that they founded Ruby on the principles of justice for themselves, and to have anyone but the divine power of God over the townspeople would be a destruction of the freedom they set out to gain in Ruby. With the elders message directly pointed towards the younger generation in opposition to what they believe, Destry stands up  to defend the youth- saying “Sir, but we are obeying him, if we follow his commandments, we’ll be his voice, his retribution. As a people-” (87). Destry best describes the notion of acting out justice, with a focus on not trying to imitate or replace God but to live life with a direct correspondence to his proclamations. If the youth is interpreting the oven as “Be the furrow of his brow”, then the conversation must include a shift in power that both the younger generation need, and the elder generation do not want. It is obvious that both sides have different representations and beliefs when it comes to what the lip of the oven says/means, but their fight is actually quite similar. On one hand we have the youth fighting for freedom/power over authoritative figures representative in acting out the “Be” in the slogan. On the other, the elders trying to reclaim their past identity tied within the oven, an identity that previously had been fought for so that they may live in peace. Both arguments are similar in the way they are fighting for a group, a group that has been discriminated against in which they are trying to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

                The townspeople of Ruby try to reconcile their interpretative disagreement through an engagement of collaboration. Although this point may seem untrue due to the language and oppositional viewpoints being stated, it must be recognized that this meeting between citizens should be ruled as a collaborative effort (although eventually broken up into plain argument). In the beginning of the ovens discussion, reverend Misner seems to be the mediator between the two groups. When Pulliam asked reverend Misner to keep the young Beauchamp from interrupting, Misner replied, “Why would I want to? We’re here not just to talk but to listen too” (85). Just from this quote, we can see Morrison creating a somewhat balanced dialogue of collaborative disagreement. By at least engaging with one another’s thoughts, we see a connection of two ideas that previously were never brought to light. Within the debate on what the oven’s lip phrase may see, there is cooperation between the two parties to debate their points. Looking at Morrison’s use of collaboration and interpretation as a whole in Paradise, I ultimately see the covenant as the center of misunderstood collaboration. Creating an intersection between interpretation and collaboration, Morrison uses the covenant as a place of “looking-in” to see collaborative use. To the eyes of the men of Ruby, the covenant was a place that was good for nothing but enchantments and satanic worshiping, deemed unfit for society and needed to be exterminated. However, Morrison structured Paradise in a way that engages readers to view the covenant not just as a place of solace, but as a collaborative tool. The servitude of the covenant as a place for the women to divert from the implications of their past lives and start anew can and should be the main thought behind its reasoning. By constructing the covenant as a place of both paradise and evil for certain individuals, Morrison is using personal interpretation as a craft into what can be deemed collaborative. To the women of the covenant, this place provided them the strength to speak their minds and engage with each other (collaboration); to others, to fostered lawlessness and a disdain towards religion. Through a larger scope, this collaboration can be linked to the collaborative efforts made by my fellow peers during this pandemic.

                Morrison creating Paradise’s appropriation of Paradiso tells you not only the both/and of interpretation and collaboration, but the purposefulness to Morrison’s craft. The way in which Morrison has intertwined these works had produced an effect that could be best described as an understanding of possibilities. From looking into divine justice through the scope of a mortal man to the residents of Ruby looking into the view of the distant covenant, interpretation seems to be the focal point for actions made. This both/and logic when resonating Morrison’s work is a steppingstone into the bigger picture; to use the work presented to us in order to sought out truth. To find the reasoning and truth behind the problems we are given, interpretation and collaboration is a necessity. For the individual, it is important to engage personally with your interpretation, because without your own views to display for others to take notice, collaboration cannot happen. However if people work together and are not afraid to collaborate, make mistakes, and understand other viewpoints- beautiful things can happen. As a hopeful future educator, I feel as if this collaboration of peers to explore Morrison’s craft will stay with me, and will not be forgotten. I have always believed in that the truth will be better and more accurately found through working together, and with this collaboration with my peers I am now certain of it. Although this semester had been cut short and the complications in which individuals endure are complex and disheartening, this collaboration still survived. I admittedly had anxiety from the first time switching from a in-person to an online format to collaborate, but then I realized. I realized that even though everyone is going through personal issues, the collaboration continued. We still met as a group, still cared and listened to our peers opinions, and were able to grow as a student even amid stagnation in our world. The only thing I wish I could have done on a deeper level is to encourage motivation to others in my life. A collaborative space helped me stay on top of my daily motivation, and I just wished I had encouraged those around me to engage with their peers more often and find the motivation I have been feeling. Through this class and the collaborative space we all share, I feel as if I look at multiple outcomes for the future. I have destroyed my definition of the rigid absolute truth, happy to look forward to the future in a more inclusive way.

Paradise and the Painful Practice of Growth.

In the interest of clarity, I think it worth starting this move, and by extension this essay, by confessing that after all the work we’ve done in class this semester, and all the discussions we’ve had about Morrison’s novels and Dante’s divine comedy, there is still much about both that confuses me. The Eagle of Divine Justice, most prominently featured in cantos 18,19, and 20, is chief among the aspects of both Morrison’s and Dante’s works that I find perplexing. Throughout our process of reading, discussing, interpreting, and writing about both Paradise and Paradiso, I found myself struggling, as I repeatedly tried and failed to find the larger significance and meaning to this imposing figure. I understood the basics of it: the Eagle, as we see it in Paradiso, is formed from an “array of fire” (line 107), made, as Dante tells us, out of the numerous “blessed spirits”(line 88) of “saintly being”(line 76). These same spirits, before taking the form of an Eagle, write out a phrase in the sky with their bodies: “ Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram”(lines 91-93), which translates to “Love justice, you who are judges on Earth”. From the moment I read Dante’s description of the Eagle’s formation and the phrase the spirits wrote with it, I knew both the phrase and the Eagle were significant. Where I found myself struggling however, was trying to pin down their significance, especially in the context of Morrison’s novel. I found myself searching for a meaning or message displayed through the Eagle and its phrase that I could assuredly and persuasively argue Morrison’s stance on in relation to Paradise, and consistently came up empty. I realise now that I couldn’t find such a message or meaning because one simply doesn’t exist. The confusion I was feeling about the Eagle, and frustration and turmoil I felt in my fruitless search for answers that didn’t exist, were in fact, exactly what I should’ve been focusing on all along, because in the end, it was never the answers that mattered, but the question, and the thoughts and discussions it could spark. 

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is a symbol of tradition, but also of legacy. The oven was a fundamental part of the original town of freed slaves, Haven, and was brought with the descendants of those freed slaves when they left Haven and went on to found Ruby.  More importantly, to many of the citizens of Ruby, the oven is one of the last connections they have to not only Haven, but to the generations before them who were turned away by everyone and had to build a community and town from nothing. To those citizens of Ruby, the oven is the one material reminder of the countless stories that the community of both Ruby and Haven passed down from generation to generation of the struggles and hardships the founders of Haven faced, and what they accomplished. The oven’s historical and cultural significance to the people of Ruby is only compounded by the fact that it served as an important tool during the early days of Haven, as well as a communal gathering place for decades following Haven’s establishment. On top of this, however, the oven finds itself a new significance in Ruby during the events of Paradise, as a debate over the words on the ovens lip, as well as the meaning of those words, occurs throughout the whole town. Importantly, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines, with the vast majority of the older generations in Ruby believing that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” and that this was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement of God, while the vast majority of the younger generations of Ruby believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God. The oven’s appearance also plays a role in its significance, particularly after unknown members of Ruby’s younger generation paint a “fist, jet black with red fingernails” on the Oven’s back wall. This symbol of black power goes to further illustrate the generational divide between the old and young people of Ruby. As for how the oven is in conversation with Dante’s eagle of divine justice, the main feature of the oven is the message on its lip. Either interpretation of the words all refer to the eyebrow of Dante’s eagle. More than that, however, the nebulous and interpretable nature of the words on the Oven’s lip directly mirror the Eagle and the phrase associated with it. To some, the eagle might come across as a warning, an ever vigilant watcher of those on Earth, there to constantly witness who follows it’s commandment, and who does not. Others may see it as a role model, a symbol of how those “who are judges on earth” are supposed to act, constantly looking for injustice to correct. Others still might see it as the very embodiment of the justice that the Latin phrase tells us we are supposed to love. After all, it is quite literally referred to in this very prompt as “the eagle of divine justice”. This inherent interpretability of the Eagle in relation to “Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram” is the perfect backdrop for the dueling interpretations of the words on the oven.

The residents of Ruby find themselves in a rather heated debate over the exact words and phrasing of the phrase on the Oven’s lip.  As mentioned in a previous move, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines. Most of the older adults in Ruby argue that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” before the Oven was moved to Ruby, at which time, a few of the letters fell off.  Most of the younger adults and teenagers, however, believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow”. What I find interesting about this argument as that while both sides, especially the older side, of this debate seem to attach a lot of values and moral significance to these phrases, the debate is consistent with most debates over literary interpretation, as every individual person has a slightly different idea of what their side’s phrase means. We as readers are never given an exact summary of what either side’s message means in contrast with the other. Sure, we’re given glimpses as to what individuals on both sides believe their side’s phrase signifies in contrast to the other’s, like when Harper Jury explains that “‘Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ‘Be’ means you putting Him aside and you the power.”(Morrison page 87), but these glimpses don’t give us the whole story, as they come from arguments that are inherently biased toward one side or another, because everyone who’s arguing feels strongly that their interpretation is the correct one. An overall summary of the two sides would be that the older side believes that “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”  was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement and power of God. They see this as a connection to the history and plight of their community, who were wronged many times by people that they view as not having properly bewared the furrow of God’s brow, and see the act of remembering that message on the Oven as a championing of all that the people of Haven accomplished in spite of those that wronged them.  Therefore, they become incredibly angry at the younger people of Ruby’s interpretation of the message, as they see it as an insult to the legacy of Haven and its inhabitants, and view the switch from Beware to Be in the Oven’s message as an arrogant assertion not only that those on the younger side of this argument believe themselves to be equal to god, but are also too self-involved to respect a message that does not directly involve them in some way.

The younger side, however, believes in the message of “Be the Furrow of His Brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God.  They seem to believe this as they are clearly unhappy with the way things are both in Ruby and the world at large, and want a force of change able to help them fix what disappoints them about the world. As such, their interpretation of the oven’s message is almost a call to arms, asking them to be the force of change they want to see in the world. This is further demonstrated by the black fist with red fingernails that they painted on the Oven, as the black fist is a prominent symbol in the black power movement, which sought to change the status quo in order to promote equality for people of color as well as pride in their heritage. They see this as honoring the legacy of Haven and its founders by following their example and coming together to do something great. 

It seems to me that the citizens of Ruby have proven by the end of the novel that they are incapable of large scale, inter-generational collaboration. We see throughout the book examples of small groups within Ruby using collaboration to accomplish their goals, but we never see the entire population of the town willing to work together on anything. I think this is intentional, as Morrison is trying to show us that the town is falling apart due to the inability of its citizens to work together as one to achieve something. Every time they even get close to a semblance of unity, an argument or violent incident occurs that causes them to divide again amongst themselves, either on generation lines, familial lines, or even gender lines.  I also think Morrison does a good job at showing us that things didn’t always used to be this way in Ruby, part of what makes the falling apart of this community so catastrophic to those who love it is that there was a time when everyone in it could collaborate without it devolving into argument and conflict. I believe Morrison shows us this not just in the stories the older generations treasure so dearly, but also more recently in the timeline of the novel. I’d argue that the last time all of Ruby was able to collaborate in earnest was at the horse race over a decade before the start of the novel. I think that’s, in part, why the older generation of Ruby citizens value the Oven and it’s legacy so much, as it stands as a reminder of one of the last great feats accomplished through the collaboration of everyone in their community, the founding of Ruby. One thing I find especially important about the citizens of Ruby is that even when they can’t come together as one, collaboration in the town does not disappear, it just occurs in smaller units. The younger generation collaborates to come up with a new interpretation of the words on the Oven, the Older generation comes together in what could be seen as collaboration to condemn and scold the younger generation for their new interpretation. The Morgan twins collaborate in almost everything they do up until the end of the novel, especially in the molding of K.D. into a suitable heir to the Morgan business and reputation. I would also like to point out that there is a very clear message that the shift from the whole town as one collaborative community to these smaller familial and generational collaborative groups is a negative one, as collaborative efforts can be used for good and evil purposes alike.  It is demonstrated throughout the novel that these smaller groups dedicate most of their collaborative efforts to the purpose of battling a common enemy. The generational groups may be collaborative within their group, but they’re engaged in an ideological battle against the other.  The men Lone spots at the oven are indeed collaborating with each other, but the goal of their collaboration: to either drive away or kill the women of the Convent, is unambiguously unethical. It seems to me that Morrison is warning us all that if we become so intolerant to the people and communities around us that we are unwilling to collaborate with them for any reason, we will inevitably find ourselves trapped in an “us against them” mentality that continuously divides us and consistently leads to conflict, violence, and destruction.  

One thing about Paradise, and indeed, all of Morrison’s novels that we’ve read as a part of this class, is that throughout them all, Morrison uses every means at her disposal to raise questions to the reader that seem to be of dire importance, and in every instance, leaves those questions unanswered. I have to believe that this is an intentional decision on her part, in order to provoke careful thought, introspection, and discussion on the part of her readers. While I realize there’s an argument to be made that this is another aspect that she appropriates from Dante, I found it much more prominent, and much more powerful, in Morrison’s work. Throughout this course, I found myself frequently finding small bits, a character detail here, an interaction there, a repeated word or phrase here, an interesting description there, that raised so many questions. Questions like “Why does Toni Morrison keep talking about things that “wear her[Denver] out”(Beloved page 15) in the beginning of Beloved?”, “Does Violet have some sort of precognitive abilities?”, and “Who is the man that appears to Connie on page 251 of Paradise? Is it the same man that Soane calls her ‘friend’? ”  Each time this would happen, I’d take a mental note of the question, and as I continued to read, a part of me would be searching through the remainder of the book for an answer to these questions, for the payoffs to what felt to me like fascinating and incredibly important setups, but each time, I came up empty.  If I’m honest, this was disappointing and occasionally frustrating for me, as in the case of each of these questions, I felt like I had found something deeply significant to understanding the novel as a whole. However, in time, and due in large part to discussions and conversations I’ve had throughout this class with both my fellow classmates and Professor McCoy, I have come to realize that these questions aren’t meant to have answers.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve picked up on this sooner, as Paradise is full of people searching for answers that don’t exist. Each of the girls at the convent ended up there in search of the answer to a question that haunted them, and none of them find it. For Mavis, that question is “how do I escape the grief I feel for my children and the guilt I feel at being responsible for their death?”. For Gigi, it’s “how do I get a terrible memory out of my mind?”. For Seneca, it’s “What do I do with my life?”. For Pallas, it’s “How can I  recover from the trauma I’ve faced?” (Note: While Pallas does physically recover, there’s no easy answer to how to emotionally and mentally recover from what she went through). For Connie, the question is raised twice, but both times, the question is the same; “How do I cope with someone I loved leaving me?”  While none of the women find the answers they’re looking for, they do find each other, and in doing so, find different ways to resolve the problems in their lives that their questions are trying to solve. The citizens of Ruby have a less fortunate ending, as the question that they as a collective seem to have on their mind, especially the older generation, is “how do we keep Ruby from falling apart, and stop its citizens from dividing and eventually scattering?”. Throughout the novel, we see that every attempt to find an answer to this question, and all efforts made in service of accomplishing the goal outlined in the question, inevitably backfire, because, much like I was when starting this class, the citizens of Ruby (especially the older generation) are so obsessed with finding an answer to their question that they forget the purpose of the question in the first place. That is why, in the end, Ruby’s most devoted citizens end up having to bear witness to their town and community suffering the fate they tried so desperately to avoid. It’s why things don’t work out for the citizens of Ruby, and why, I think, my earlier attempts in this class to understand Morrison’s works (especially Paradiso) in a meaningful enough way to write something substantial about them were so fraught with frustration. In both the case of the citizens of Ruby, as well as my own struggles with Morrison’s work, the whole point of the questions we find ourselves asking is not to find an answer, but to get us to think both critically and introspectively, and challenge our own assumptions. This is especially fitting, because for me, that’s what this course has been all about.

Before this course, I assumed that essay writing was an exclusively solitary activity. I assumed every question raised in a piece of literature had one or more answers embedded within that same text. I was confused by the very concept of both/and because my learning was built upon the concept of either/or. Each time, my old ways of thinking were challenged and eventually proven wrong. Our collaborative essay and abstract have been some of the best writing exercises I’ve done, I’ve learned the hard way that Morrison doesn’t do clear-cut answers, and I’ve begun finding both/and’s everywhere I look. This process has been uncomfortable, fairly challenging, and a bit painful at times, but I can tell that I’ve grown as a reader, writer, student, thinker, and person, and I wholeheartedly believe that the way I look at literature has been changed. And while I will be the first to admit that I’m still grappling with finding meaning and making sense of certain aspects of Morrison’s works, I’m no longer searching them for answers, but rather for the discussions and dialogue they encourage. Had the people of Ruby been able to do the same, I believe they might’ve found a way to stop their community from dissolving out from under them. 

As far as how I can apply what I’ve learned in this class going forward. I’m only a sophomore at Geneseo right now, so I have the incredible good fortune to make use of my new understanding of collaborative writing, the importance and relevance of both/and, and the necessity of letting go of the desire for answers in literature, as a student here for two more years. After that, I intend to become an English teacher at a high school or middle school level, and I can say without a doubt that I will certainly be applying all of the previously mentioned skills in reading and analyzing literature not just to understand it for myself, but to help shape the way my future students understand it as well.

Collaboration With the World: Dante’s Eagle and Morrison’s Oven

Dante’s imperial eagle is formed in the sphere of heaven known as Jupiter, this sphere is specifically linked to the idea of divine justice. The eagle is formed of the souls of human rulers who had been deemed just during their reign. The imagery of the eagle stands out to me, it is meant as a representation of God’s justice. The Romans were pagans who worshiped many different gods but one of their most notable gods is Jupiter, the king of gods, and the god of sky and thunder. The animal most closely associated with Jupiter is the eagle. 

The eagle is a bird that takes prominent roles in many belief systems around the world, they are signs of power and courage. It is sometimes considered the closest connection to the divine because it flies above all other things. Some believe that it is a messenger to and from the divine. It was used to symbolize Roman emperors, as a way of showing their connection to Jupiter and cementing their authority.  Dante’s decision to connect such a strong spiritual symbol, such as the eagle, to God’s divine justice is a conscious one. An Eagle is both a bird who draws awe when seen Physically and respect when invoked spiritually. 

The oven in the center of Ruby is of great importance to the town and the people who live there. It came originally from the settlement in Haven, where it was built by the founder with brick and iron. It was built to represent the town’s unity. They relied on the oven and its function to birth their community’s success and for a while, it did just that. The oven sustained the life of their settlement, but over time it became less of a necessity and more a symbol.  When Haven eventually fell, the settlers of Ruby took the oven with them sacrificing space for it over more practical supplies. Once they founded Ruby they reconstructed the oven to be the center of their town, where it took the mantle as a symbol of everything they had overcome.  The most prominent feature of the oven is the writing forged on the front of it. Time has taken its toll on the oven leaving only “the Furrow of His Brow” on the front of it.

.Paradiso 18 – Digital Dante

I found the image above in another translation of Dante’s Paradiso. The eagle in this image is directly in the center. It stands as the most prominent thing in the image.  Much like the oven in Ruby the eagle of divine justice is prominent in Dante’s heavenly sphere of Jupiter. In the Musa translation, we get a zoomed-in look at the eagle’s face and particularly his brow. I did some searching on the names of the people in the brow and found that each soul was a human ruler who was considered to be just and good. The question that stems is what does it mean to be just and good? In Ruby, the men who control the town seek justice on the women of the convent for embracing a lifestyle different from their own. Some of the rulers in the eagle’s brow were known for the expansion of their kingdoms and conquering but they were also known for the peace that existed during their reigns.

The most prominent feature of the oven is the writing forged on the front of it. Time has taken its toll on the oven leaving only “the Furrow of His Brow” on its lip. This is where the town comes to an argument over the oven. The older generation of Ruby’s residents stick to tradition that the oven said “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” and the younger generation wants to change the slogan to “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” The older generation sees the slogan as a warning to be wary of the righteous justice that God can bring down upon someone. The younger generation sees the slogan as a code of arms in a way, a mantra for them to take justice into their own hands. Their ideas intersect at the idea of justice but diverge at who the justice comes from. There is an interesting BOTH/AND present here. We see that the older generation wants to support the belief that justice is God’s to take but they are the ones leading the raid on the Convent at the beginning of the novel. It is they who choose to “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” They have the meeting to make the decision of taking justice into their hands at the oven. 

This idea of taking things into one’s own hands is also present in the women of the convent. Mavis, for example, decides that she is not going to sit and give up after her car runs out of gas. Instead, she takes her survival into her own hands and becomes like the hitchhiking women, making her way to the convent. The convent is much like Ruby in its isolation from the outside world but inside the convent, women learn from women and embrace more self-expression and freedom. Gigi is another girl who spends her journey seeking self-expression and freedom, as shown by her desire to find the copulating people in an obscure town or the trees that look like they are making love but is led to the convent. During K.D. and Arnette’s wedding reception the Convent girls show up wearing clothes that are very different from what the residents of Ruby wear, like short skirts and revealing tops. The convent girls leave the reception and go to the oven to dance where other people have already begun to gather. The convent girls are eventually asked to leave the wedding because of their behavior. This reflects on how Ruby’s residents react to anything that is outside of their normal. 

The residents of Ruby meet to discuss their disagreement about the oven and its words but it ends with the older generation and the younger generation getting into an argument. Each side seems unwilling to hear the argument of the other. They are not willing to collaborate with each other, it is either their way or no way. This leads to the people of Ruby seeking out others to blame for the divergence that is happening inside their town.  It shows that in collaboration it is important to hear the points of every person to grow the group as a whole. We may interpret things differently but it is important to hear what others are saying and try to understand the meanings each person is interpreting. We can not truly collaborate if we are unwilling to bend our views. 

  It is at the oven where the men rally to blame the growing tension in their town on the convent, claiming them as evil. While the men prepare to raid the convent the other townsfolk gather at the oven when its foundation is weakened from rain. They hope that the men won’t do anything but chase the women away. The slow deterioration of the oven is representative of the community’s deterioration as it refuses to collaborate with the changing times. Ruby is scarred by the actions that were taken against the convent women. The oven is left-leaning because of its destabilization with graffiti on it now saying “We Are the Furrow of His Brow.” It is no longer to beware or be, they are the furrow now. My interpretation of this is that Ruby has caused the furrow in his brow, and now must face divine justice. Ruby sees its first death since the woman it was named after, the death of a child. The attack on the convent has brought God’s divine justice down on Ruby. Perhaps the men should have taken more heed to “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” It is because of their refusal to listen and collaborate with the others in the town that they have brought punishment down on the town of Ruby.

Morrison’s collaboration with Dante, throughout her trilogy,  relies on the interpretation of the works by the readers and writers. Morrison was a reader first. She engaged with Dante’s work and was able to draw meaning from it that she could apply to her own. Morrison did not simply take what she interpreted from Dante’s work and lay it on the surface of her writing for her readers to see, instead, she buried her interpretations deep beneath the surface of the text. This act of burying the meaning allows readers to form their own interpretations of the text they are engaging with.  As the writer, Morrison joins Dante in collaboration as their readers interpret and pull apart the texts they have created. Their work is in conversation with more than just one another, whether it is about sin, spiritual improvement, or justice, as authors and readers we are engaged in this greater conversation with ourselves and the world around us. Morrison’s stories start with seeds from the reality that existed around her, just as Dante’s Inferno is rooted in history and myth of Dante’s time. It is the conversation between every component that intrigues me the most about Morrison and Dante’s collaboration.   As a creative writer, who focuses mainly on fiction, I want to engage my readers in similar conversations with the world around them. I want them to be able to dig deep beneath the surface of my work and find something that makes them look at the world in a different way then when they began reading. I will also try implementing some form of collaboration and discussion like this in my classrooms when I start working as a teacher, with Teach For America, in September 2021. One of the biggest things I learned about collaboration throughout my time in this class is how it can be both affirming, in how others can agree and support your initial ideas, and eye-opening, in how others can point out profound things that you had overlooked.  I want my students to have that experience with collaboration, to learn how much can be created when we work together in good faith.

The Assuredness of Ambiguity and the Complexities of Collaboration: In Conversation with Toni Morrison’s Paradise alongside Dante’s Paradiso

Through the collaboration Morrison composes with structuring her works in symphony with Dante’s, the reader is able to delve how valuable complexity and interpretation are. Throwing off universalized rhetoric, Morrison presents a new attitude of ambiguity when looking at topics such as righteousness and justice, while Dante’s trilogy harmonizes with this attitude; overall the melding of Paradise/Paradiso present the value in differing interpretations, and the assuredness that can be found in ambiguity. Collaboration can not occur alone, and progress can not occur without collaboration.

Diligente Justiam…Qui judacis terram” is expressed within the song that prefaces Dante’s interaction with the Divine Eagle of Justice. Translated it states, “Cherish Justice….o judges of the earth”; this can be interpreted as an exclamation to all humans to pursue justice in their actions. The ambiguity of morality is a theme that can be traced throughout Morrison’s works; in Dante, there is a more dictated sense of morality as can be seen in Inferno.The Eagle of Divine Justice in Canto 19 expresses to Dante that justice, such as Morrison’s representation of morality, can not be fully perceived by mankind, as it states, “the vision that your world receives cannot penetrate into Eternal Justice, no more than an eye can penetrate the sea” (Canto 19, 58-60). Therefore a comprehension of justice that is expected by the Divine to be pursued however it must be accepted that it can never be fully understood. The Eagle, continuing, states that “for though near shore, sight reaches the sea floor, you cannot reach it in the open sea; yet it is there but hidden by the deep” (Canto 19, 58-63). This then expresses that there can be somewhat of a human understanding of justice as a concept, however the extent to which God practices and understands it surpasses this beyond all measures. To be drawn to Morrison’s work, in Paradise, the men who perform the massacre believe that they are enacting justice through it. In this, Morrison displays the danger and destruction that can come from believing one’s own ideals of righteousness and justice. Tied with the words of the Divine Eagle of Justice, the futility in pursuing a self serving and resolute ideal of justice can be viewed as it does not lead to redemption.

A theme of hierarchy can be revealed here as well; a theme expressed through the structures of Inferno and Purgatorio. Hierarchical presences can be seen in the understandings of Justice by mankind, by God, and by those who have been redeemed. In the depiction of the Eagle, David, as in the biblical David and Goliath, is exalted in the pupil. David additionally can be seen on the terrace of pride in Purgatorio, and through having been redeemed can be assumed to have some higher level of understanding of Justice as being portrayed in the pupil of the Eagle. However, men depicted in the stars on its eyebrow and eye are to be considered secondary in their understanding of Justice as it is established that God is the ultimate deciding factor in it all. Additionally in the depiction of the Eagle, it demonstrates the graciousness that despite the downfalls of the men, they are represented within the Eagle as symbols of the kind of justice mankind is capable of. 

The Eagle of Divine Justice institutes the deep complexities and ambiguous nature of justice for mankind. Through the representation of the Eagle, it is possible to perceive that whilst a divine understanding of justice is unattainable, those who pursue that which is, are in the running to be redeemed by the Divine. The voice and representation of the Eagle, both the reader and Dante are provided an understanding of justice and the ambiguity that lies behind concepts like it to mankind. This further establishes the power of the Divine in the narrative, and emphasizes to the reader the complexities of concepts such as righteousness and justice. 

In Haven, it had served a purpose, a hearth and gathering place for those in need, and a symbol of the founder’s endurance and unity. However, due to more modern appliances and the further development of the community, when it is moved to Ruby, its usefulness has dissolved. The community seems to cling to the symbol of the Oven, “Loving what Haven had been-the idea of it and its reach-they carried that devotion” (Morrison, 6). To the veterans and older generation, the Oven represents the solidarity of the people when they were rejected. However there is a menace in this devotion to the idea of something. While Haven was a community developed by unity, it was one that was forced to be due to racial gatekeeping and discrimination. Through holding tightly to an idea of something, a blind eye may be turned to the significant issues of the past that should not be repeated. The Oven being brought to Ruby can serve as a monument of what the people had done(6) as well as a grasp from older generations to preserve an idealized version of the past.

The Oven continues to be utilized as a gathering place, however there becomes a divide between older generations and new ones. The utilization of the Oven as a hang out spot or a place to discuss business causes tensions between the generations. This tension and division is furthered by the disagreements about the inscriptions on the Oven. The younger claim that it states “Be the furrow on his brow” while older believe it states “Beware the furrow on his brow”(86-86). Within this disagreement displays an Old Testament vs. New Testament interpretation of God. Destry argues for a more New Testament interpretation, expressing that Be the furrow on his brow means “being his instrument, His Justice…we’ll be his voice, his retribution”(87). Reverend Pulliam retorts that “God’s Justice is His alone”(87). Dante’s Divine Eagle of Justice serves to establish that although justice can not be fully interpreted by mankind, it should be pursued in the fullest extent possible according to God’s word. While Divine Justice may only be truly understood by God, Destry demonstrates an understanding of justice that can be likened to the men honored on the Eagle’s brow and pupil; he seeks to pursue justice as dictated by godly moral values. Steward Morgan ends the discussion, stating that if anyone takes action with the inscription that he “will blow their head off like you was a hood eye snake” (87). This threat of violence emphasizes the desperation with which the older generations strive to hold onto echoes of a familiar past even if that past is no longer useful or proven to be beneficial for the overall good. This claim can be applied to the Oven as well; once a place of solidarity, it is now a subject of discourse and division. 

Just as Dante’s Divine Eagle of Justice expresses the ambiguity and unattainability of divine justice, the Oven is a symbol of caution against absolutism. Its original purpose is eventually lost as the past fades into obscurity and idealization. Now to address the newspaper saying expressed at the beginning of this move, I would like to refurbish it. In application to the Oven, Older Generations felt as though they required such a monument in Ruby to remind them of their past and prepare them for the future. However when this symbol becomes the topic of disagreement, the older generation does not meet the younger generation prepared to meet them where they are. Instead of coming prepared with their past experiences and knowledge to learn from and collaborate, they came prepared with enforcing the ways of the past they were comfortable with. Enforcing ideals of the past onto the present, ends up replicating the same gatekeeping, and discrimination that was faced causing the founding of Haven and eventually the development of Ruby.

I would like to detail my claim made that the interpretations of the inscription on the Oven of the old generation replicate a persona of God that can be seen in the Old Testament; the interpretation of the younger generation leans more towards the persona of Jesus and God in the New Testament. 

With this and the tensions between past and present, old and new, Morrison weaves narratives within her works that pursue a discursive complexity. This replicates the realistic dualities of life as well as the equivocalness that surrounds concepts such as justice, and righteousness. By doing so, Morrison portrays the danger of having a mindset that is absolute, as well as the futility of a universal rhetoric for religion and spirituality. 

The older generation interprets the inscription as “Beware the furrow of his brow”. This reflects the behavior of the Old Testament God; stories such as Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues upon Egypt, and Noah’s Ark display violent unforgiving nature in retaliation to wrongdoings. When the spirituality and behavior of the women of the Covenant are deemed to be unacceptable, despite “irreconcilable differences among the congregations in town, but members from all of them merged solidly on the necessity of this action: Do what you have to. Neither the Convent nor the women in it can continue” (9-10). The nine men act on a version of righteousness that they deem necessary; acting similarly to the behavior of the God they respected in the Old Testament. The massacre is Old Testament worthy. In addition to this perspective, I would like to tie in a point that Jamie made, that in this action, the men are acting as the furrow of God’s brow; they themselves are being the brow of the divine they interpret to be as they are acting on what they believe to be the right thing. The difference between Jamie and I’s interpretation depicts the complex style with which Morrison presents concepts such as these as there is no set in stone correct response. Morrison’s stylistic choice demonstrates the ambiguity surrounding religion. 

The younger generation interprets the inscription as “Be the furrow on his brow” (87). This interpretation does not instill fear but instills actions of witness and activism. Jesus in the New Testament is depicted as being sent by God his father to be sacrificed for the world’s sins while also serving as a prophet and miracle worker. Through Jesus’s witnessing and the display of sacrifice from the Godhead, a more gentle portrayal of the divine is presented. Additionally this interpretation symbolizes the younger generations desire for a renewing of their town, tired of the isolationist, and racial divides that still prevail. 

Through portraying realistic, tense dichotomies within religion, Morrison critiques the inconsistencies with normative Christian practices, while still displaying that there can be hope. The town of Ruby itself cannot be successful as it is founded on similar dichotomies and revives the discriminatory, gatekeeping practices that caused the founding of Haven, simply flipped. The insight provided by Morrison, a black woman and a Catholic, provides a perspective that binaries are flawed and that disjuncture between past and present is unsustainable. 

In the discussion of how the inscription is interpreted, there is a respect on the basis that there is a discussion at all. As seen throughout the novel, older residents specifically the Morgan twins have been looked to as leaders of the town, overall authority; therefore the initiation of a discussion displays a respect that there are decisions and potential to collaborate on issues as a community. While the discussion is not peaceful, the Oven once again has brought the town together as “The Oven didn’t belong to any one denomination; it belonged to all and all were asked to show up at Calvary”(83). This acknowledgment alone displays collaboration in a way. 

The character of Reverend Misner can be claimed to be a symbol of intended collaboration in this debate. He shocks the group when in response to a request to reprimand Ray Beauchamp, he states “We’re here not just to talk but to listen”(85). Portrayal of Misner as bridging the two sides, gives a glimpse into the possible collaboration that could occur. However the juxtaposition of the binaries that Morrison prevents restricts this. 

Neither old nor young is guilty of truly approaching the debate collaboratively. The younger generation abruptly challenges the authority of their elders, as “They didn’t want to discuss; they wanted to instruct”(84). The older generation finds issue not just with the proposal of changing the inscription but with the audacity of the younger generation to approach making a change in the first place. They feel as though their intellect, authority, and histories are being collectively challenged by the younger generation. Roy Beauchamp, in an outburst states that “You all just don’t want us to talk at all. Any talk is ‘backtalk’ if you don’t agree with what’s being said” (85). Steward’s inner thoughts reflect this attitude as well as he wonders if this generation needed to be skipped over in order to have “…grand-and great-grandchildren who could be trained, honed as his own father and grandfather had done for Steward’s generation”(94). Tensions run high during the debate as what was originally intended to be collaboration and discussion dissolves into argumentation. 

Through this depiction, Morrison shows the reader not only the flaws of one side, but how both sides fall short of collaboration. As I’m sure many of us can agree, within debates such as these, whether they’re with our family, friends, or even in classes, it is comfortable to resort to an angry us vs. them mentality. The binary of one side or the other provides an agreeable structure, however Morrison, through the depiction of this intergenerational debate, challenges falling in line with this structure. Looking in on it provides insight not only to the overall narrative but to our own lives as well: When are we instructing instead of discussing? When are we labelling something we don’t agree with as backtalk? Through this commentary, the Oven not only becomes a symbol of the history of the town but the future as the intergenerational dispute is centered around it. Therefore in order to have true collaboration, we must approach situations with open arms, which can be done whilst still sticking to your guns. 

With collaboration, Morrison emphasizes that the rhetoric of a final definition and an absolute point of view must be discarded in favor of a better outcome. Therefore expectations and reservations about the “other side” must be removed in favor of the greater good. 

The structure of binaries, especially in “uncertain times” such as these are comfortable. Even before quarantine, at the beginning of the semester, I found myself comfortable in my views, in my role as a writer, a scholar, a student. I fell into the structure and binaries that existed within my political world, my intellectual world, and my world overall. This course, its material, and its influence on my mindset upset that comfortableness in the best way. Morrison’s outlook on Paradiso, calls attention to the deepest concepts such as justice, love, and righteousness; her approach demands that you reflect upon it in relation to your own life. The ambiguity called to these concepts in Morrison’s works and how they are related to Dante’s, relays an assuredness in complexity; it along with this course has taught me how truly valuable diverse interpretations are and how the complexities of each allow for a fuller understanding as well as the best collaboration possible. 

As a stubborn perfectionist, disagreement of the inscription resonated strongly with me. I’ve been seeing so many posts on Facebook about how we need to open back up, how Jesus would want the churches open, heard my own family members gripe about how they can’t go out. I wanted to be quick in reprimanding them, quick to instruct rather than discuss, as the younger generation had been with the inscription. The debate in Paradise truly allowed me insight, I felt like I was an outsider looking in. Although I strongly disagree with the posts I’ve been seeing, this relayed to me how true emotional collaboration cannot occur if I am ranting just as they are, instructing them on what they should be doing with their autonomy. The perspectives and interpretations of others in situations such as these are far more valuable to me now. I was incredibly hesitant for collaborative essays, while excited to work with others in a new format, I underestimated how beautiful our final works could be, truly displaying the “two heads are better than one” to me. We were able to produce genuine, thoughtful pieces that not only displayed our own interpretations but brought all of our interpretations together, making it even stronger. Collaboration cannot occur when you are on your own, nor can it occur when you underestimate the process itself. 

As for the concepts of love, justice, and righteousness, I found comfort in the proposed ambiguity in Morrison’s works and the Divine Comedy. The lesson taught by the Divine Eagle of Justice I believe can be applied to many aspects of life, these concepts are to be treasured and pursued but we cannot expect ourselves to ever fully comprehend them. Nor is there one universal interpretation. This adds even more depth to the valuing of diverse interpretations. 

This course and its material have shown me how much I still have left to learn, and given me a deeper understanding of how to work with others and a greater appreciation for it. Morrison’s trilogy along with Dante’s delves a penultimate mindset around the concepts and the collaboration that it offers, the collaboration that Morrison formed when she connected her works with Dante’s. Collaborative efforts to their fullest extent are not possible without valuing diversity of interpretations, and this appreciation can not occur if we’re too wrapped up in our own interpretations to acknowledge others. I not only have a better understanding of collaboration academically and intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually as well. The friendships formed from this course as well as the support that we have all provided for each other is collaboration. I have found out how truly the collaboration produces a better final result in many situations. Just the disjuncture between the older and younger generations in Ruby prevents progress, collaboration cannot be fully achieved if we do not set our sets on it and our expectations aside. 

Truth Through Collaboration

The eagle of divine Justice that appears to Dante in Paradiso is composed of the souls of the just, who speak to him as a collective being. Their individual accomplishments combine to form an image of divine justice, a concept beyond the mortal world and the comprehension of those within it. The Eagle says to Dante, “therefore, the vision that your world receives/ can penetrate into Eternal Justice/ no more than eye can penetrate the sea” (Paradiso 19.58-60). Therefore, the combination of these individual accomplishments may be the closest one can get to understanding true divine justice on earth. However, Dante still strives to understand the damnation of those who did not know God, yet were still just in their time on earth. He finds it difficult to comprehend the logic behind this damnation. Certain knowledge is necessary for salvation, but is not easily accessible by all. It seems that some are predestined for damnation when they are not put in a position to readily receive that information. The Eagle once again tells Dante that he is unable to understand divine justice, that he is not in a position “to judge events a thousand miles away, when your own vision spans so brief a space” (Paradiso 19.80-81). The most any single person can achieve while on earth is a small piece of true justice. On their own, they are unable to understand divine justice. However, through collaboration between multiple individuals, some version of divine justice can be reached.   

The generational conflicts within Toni Morrison’s Paradise reflect Dante’s conflicting feelings concerning divine justice in Paradiso. The oven was transported from the original town to the new town, Ruby. While it is a gathering place, it seems that the memories of past hardships have been transferred to this new town along with the oven. Thus, the oven has become a center for conflict. In the conversation surrounding which quote to place on the oven in Ruby, we are faced with an argument similar to the one between Dante and the Eagle. At the core of this argument is the younger generation’s belief in being an instrument of God, or to try and attain divine justice in the best way we can, to be a piece of his justice on earth. The elder generation believes that this is a form of blasphemy, that they should be wary of venturing into the realm of things beyond mortal knowledge, into the territory of God. he older generation the phrase “beware the furrow of his brow” calls them back to their past. The oven stands as a symbol of what they’ve gone through to reach Ruby. Their interpretation of the text is respect for where they’ve come from, as well as respect for their God. Reverence for their past holds the highest meaning. In this interpretation, the blasphemy in “be the furrow of his brow” is not only against blasphemy against God, but against their past. In order to “be” the furrow of his brow, the younger generation would be part of Him. To be his voice would indicate a sense of control over oneself, rather than being controlled by Him. This can be frightening, especially to an older generation who wants to retain a feeling of control by allocating power to that higher power.

Ruby is not Haven. Whether the oven in Paradise once read “beware” or “be” the furrow of his brow, the oven no longer says either; the letters fell off, the text no longer says what it once did. The different interpretations of the text are similar because they are what each generation knows the quote to be, what they have always believed it to say, even if not in words. The interpretations come from a similar place. However, through the failed attempts to agree on a quote brings the town farther apart. As with the pieces of the eagle’s brow, each interpretation in Ruby is a piece of the larger interpretation, and brings the community one step closer to truth. By failing to recognize this, the community is taking themselves farther away from truth, from divine justice. 

The men of Ruby also seem to feel a sense of responsibility for and power over the women, even those outside of their town, at the convent. They are brought together only in their need for control, over the quote on the oven and over their town. They are united in their disdain for the women at the convent, and their way of life. Until the argument over the text on the oven, the leadership in Ruby had never really been challenged. The younger generation, through their text, holds reverence for the future over the past, and the possibility of what their town can become, rather than what it once was. The younger generation has not lived through all the same things that the older has, they did not help to shape the town into what it is now, but rather, are participating in the process of shaping what it is about to become. They will “be the furrow of his brow” because they could help to define the new standards of justice in Ruby, or, leave it behind. Ruby is united, though, in this need for control over the future. The women at the convent are a threat to their interpretations of justice and of what is acceptable in society. After the events at the convent, the citizens wonder how their town can preserve “this hard-won heaven defined only by the absence of the unsaved, the unworthy and the strange? Who will protect them from their leaders?” (Morrison 306).      

The oven’s readers focus on the differences in their interpretations and become defensive rather than cooperative. There’s no room for open communication here. The oven breeds anger, argument and the violence against the women at the convent, as well as violence amongst the members of the town against each other. They’re trying to interpret the past, a past they were not present for, so they will never truly be able to reach a conclusion based in fact on their own. The residents of Ruby are not interested in compromise, so they would not be happy with any conclusion. True collaboration requires compromise and a genuine attempt to consider and understand other points of view. This argument seems to be a distraction from the real problems in their town, which leads to terrible action based on interpretations of divine justice. Sometimes, you can understand the present through the past. However, the residents of Ruby are too caught up in the past to evaluate their present. This prevents them from achieving a rational, honest debate. Additionally, interpretation itself is a collaboration between two parties. In this case, each resident and the text on the oven, rather than the two generations against each other.   

Paradiso does not always offer concrete answers, but rather points of interpretation that spark thought and conversation, and Morrison’s work highlights these points. The same can be said about Paradise. I tend to look for concrete answers when I read, and I struggle to make sense of things without them. However, there is a validity in each interpretation that lends itself to a both/and. Each interpretation that is based on and in conversation with the same source material could be true. No interpretation is any more true than another, yet each one contributes to a greater whole truth. This is something I continue to struggle with, as it’s difficult to know that you might not stumble upon a correct, concrete answer. The most correct answer is the one that is the most meaningful to you, based upon your own life experience and the moral system that you use to inform your decisions and interpretations. There is no proof that the oven said anything other than “furrow of his brow,” yet to some, it is fact that it once said something more simply because they believe in it. 

In terms of this process, it seems we are closer to finding truth through our combined efforts. Each individual interpretation contributes to a collective truth. Right now, as we’re all struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy, collaboration and communication are becoming more difficult, but are all the more vital. This is something I’m trying to hold onto personally right now amidst all the chaos, as it’s becoming more and more difficult to find ways to be creative. As creative people, we often feel unproductive, even useless if we aren’t constantly working on something. While this isn’t the case at all—it’s totally okay if you don’t feel like creating all the time right now given the state of the world—I find it’s so much easier for me to stay inspired while working on projects with or just bouncing ideas off of friends. Beginning a project outside of school with my friend gave me the inspiration I needed to come up with an idea for a creative project for class, and create something truly meaningful to me. Before, I had been struggling to find the motivation to work on the project. The connections we establish and foster during this time inform everything else going on in our lives. We are parts of a greater whole, a bigger picture, right now and always.

Collaboration, Interpretation, and the Celestial Rose in Paradise/Paradiso and during COVID-19

While I do not fully understand the eagle of divine Justice within Dante’s paradiso fully, I do understand bits and pieces of it in fractals. I think the eagle has multiple layers, and I am just brushing one of them–Paradiso is structured like the Celestial Rose and branching out from a divine center, and I feel as though I am the furthest branch out from reaching the deeper meaning of the eagle, but that is okay. My working understanding of the eagle stems from the brow, which I also tend to think about in terms of the Celestial Rose or fractals in that each part is working to create a greater whole. In Dante’s Paradiso, the eagle of divine Justice has a brow that is formed by five flames. These flames represent different souls who complicate ideas of justice. These flames within the eagle’s brow ultimately reveal that God wills his judgements to be overturned by human hope and love. The brow serves to represent the judgement placed on humans by God and humans’ ability to change it, which toy with a major theme within Morrison’s work: divine Justice. 

Throughlines throughout this course have started to reveal themselves as Paradise and Paradiso come to a close–directionality and mapping were key to understanding Beloved and Jazz, and are now key to understanding Paradise, as wellThe connections between Paradise and Paradiso for me were first facilitated by the image of the Celestial Rose. I found this image to illuminate how the structure of Paradiso is mirrored in Paradise: Paradiso is composed of multiple spheres that expand outward from a divine center point while Paradise is structured around the towns of Haven and Ruby that are centered around the Oven. The parallels between the structures in each work are further revealed by the phrase written on the lip of the Oven: “Be/Beware the furrow of his brow.” In Dante’s Paradiso, the eagle of divine Justice has a brow that is formed by 5 flames. These flames represent different souls who complicate ideas of justice. The eagle reveals that God wills his judgement to be overturned by human hope and love, which further reveals complications of divine Justice. The phrase on the lip of the Oven is tied to the Eagle’s brow and the complication of divine Justice, and the argument over whether the lip says “Be” or “Beware” strengthens this connection: If the people of the town were to “Be” the furrow of the eagle’s brow, they would be the souls who took actions that were granted repentance and and complicate divine Justice. If the people are to “Beware” the Eagle’s brow, they are to identify these souls and fear God’s imposition of Justice. The contrast between the two words demonstrates how Morrision toys with and identifies the idea of divine Justice throughout Paradise. 

Divine Justice, yet another through-line throughout the course texts, is why Morrison chose to present two interpretations of the text on the Oven’s lip. “Be the furrow of his brow,” which is the interpretation preferred by many of the younger men in Ruby, believe that this phrasing allows for the people to “[be] his instrument, his justice” (87). If the men are to be Gods brow and his instrument, they will follow in the paths of the five souls in the eagle’s brow–they may take actions that are unjust, but have a deeper meaning and gain repentance from God. Their actions may be wrong, but will ultimately be supported by human love and hope, which will overturn God’s initial judgement. To be the furrow of his brow complicates the sense of divine Justice because it implies that humans possess the power to overturn judgement cast by the divine.  The older generation in Ruby prefers the interpretation of “beware the furrow of his brow.” This interpretation instills fear in the followers of God: “It says ‘Beware.’ Not ‘Be.’ Beware means ‘Look out, The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ” (97) . This interpretation implies that God is the one divine power, and that human implications have no way of deterring His judgement.

While it is seemingly nice and easy to have two starkly different interpretations and to draw borders around each one, this is not really realistic. In reality, both interpretations have truths, and they each circle back to one another–there is not one that is more right than the other, and they are actually closer to defining divine Justice together. Additionally, to look at the eagle’s brow as a whole is important here. The brow is presented as one cohesive unit, but is really a unit composed of five parts. Although the two interpretations do not agree on whether to “be” or to “beware,” they do agree that the brow is one cohesive unit, and this demonstrates the belief of each group that parts function together to form a whole. Each interpretation is expanding outward from a divine center and does not function on its own, which is once again reminiscent of the Celestial Rose. 

In reflection, I feel that our current pandemic experiences are so similar to this. We are all experiencing the same thing in infinitely different ways, yet our experiences are all connected to both a divine center and to each other. It is important to remember that our experiences do function individually, but are much stronger when communicating and collaborating with the experiences of those around us. I think this is reflective of the text on the lip of the Oven–Each country right now is handling COVID-19 response differently, and many disagree with the way other countries are handing it. However, each one believes they are doing the best thing for the people within it. If each country could identify that it is connected to others at the center and is not functioning as an individual sphere, it would be easier for the world to collaborate and formulate the best response to this disease. This is also relevant on the smaller scale. I know I have started to lose the aspect of collaboration and forget that my experiences are tied to others at the center and are functioning as a petal within a greater flower, and to recognize this is to bring myself one step closer to functioning at a higher level of awareness. If I circle back to those around me, I will strengthen myself and my experiences. 

When looking at the Gibb’s reflective cycle, it is very much spherical and cyclical. I think this in itself is significant to reflecting upon the collaboration between Paradise and Paradiso because its structural similarities to the two make me feel like I am almost a part of their collaboration, which I essentially am–without a reader, Morrison would not be able to converse about and convey the discussion she is having with Dante’s work. However, I am not really collaborating with Dante or Morrison, but I am collaborating with my peers, which uncovers a both/and. When I discuss connections and the novels read in class with my peers, we often are able to uncover so much more than I would uncover on my own during a first read-through. Because of the collaboration between me and my peers, I am able to further partake in and understand the collaboration between Morrison and Dante. 

When collaborating with my classmates, we often run into the both/and of collaboration. Usually, it looks something like the interpretation of the text on the lip of the Oven in Paradise, and it always functions the same: by listening and valuing the interpretations that differ from mine, I am actually propelling myself closer to understanding the novel. This is reminiscent of the eagle’s brow in Dante’s Paradiso,  where five parts make up a whole. Without each part, the whole would be lost. 

Moving forward, there will be a multitude of both/and’s that are so relevant. There will be the both/and of who we were before the pandemic and who we are after. There will be the both/and of being carefree before the pandemic and being carefree after. The both/and of collaboration and interpretation are so important as we move towards defeating COVID-19 for so many reasons: we are on our own, but we must collaborate with officials and follow guidelines. Our interpretation of the guidelines put in place all vary to some degree, but almost everyone has the same end-goal. I lean heavily on collaboration when I am at school, and moving into distance learning shocked my system. I have found myself seriously struggling with online classes, and I am more stressed than I thought possible since forfeiting clubs and other extracurricular obligations, and that in itself is another both/and: we have more time, and we are more stressed. I think that identifying both/and’s such as these will be key to processing the trauma we are all enduring. It may never make complete sense, but to try to differentiate between either/or will make processing that much more difficult.

I will be student teaching in the fall, if everything is better by then, and I know I will need to take the both/and of collaboration and interpretation with me into that and into my teaching career. I will always need to be able to see multiple sides to problems, and I think that is why the skills we develop as English majors are so coveted in today’s professions. Using these both/and’s will help us to stay centered in a world that keeps adding new layers, not unlike the Celestial Rose.