Compassion and Confusion: Morrison, Dante and the Transition to Distance Learning

As I mentioned in our English 424 class, something I immediately noticed as I looked at The Eagle of Divine Hope the first time was that there was a key of sorts presented along with it, telling those perceiving it how they should go about perceiving it. It especially interested me because all of the stars are the same, so the distinction being the only thing to differentiate them felt like something that stuck out for a reason, although I’m not quite sure why yet. It did remind me of something I’ve also noticed in Morrison’s writing as well as Dante’s, and that’s the idea of the author having control of the lens while you are consuming their work. Although it may seem open for interpretation and that it is at the reader’s discretion to determine how to digest the material, the author is able to manipulate the perspective of the reader without them realizing it. Confusion has been something that has felt like a struggle throughout this course for me personally, particularly as I navigate these texts on my own in this online format. However, through Dr. McCoy’s guidance I have come to see this as something that I can utilize to my advantage and work with in order to better understand the material and what I am learning from it.

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is representative of something larger than itself, similarly to the Eagle. One way that this is made clear by Morrison throughout Paradise is her use of capitalization. It it portrayed as a sort of entity rather than an object, and it is regarded in different ways by different groups of people inhabiting the town. This is something that interests me in conversation with what I wrote about the Eagle, and the way the key of sorts guides the perception of it. This reminds me in a way of Dante, his circles of hell and the guidance this structure and the structure of the cantos gives to the reader as they embark on the journey with him. The oven is subject to the perception of people based on their background and experiences, as is the eagle. However, the eagle has a key of sorts, which directs people to perceive  it in a certain way, and the oven does not. My peer, Micah, mentions that it is easy to get used to the capitalization of the Oven when reading the novel, and that its significance can go over one’s head as they read.

Beware the Furrow of His Brow or Be the Furrow of His Brow: these two interpretations of what is written on the Oven, separated by generations, mean completely different things. However, they are derived from the same thing, which I find very interesting. The same can be said about literature. We may all be reading the same texts, but our perspectives differ based on what we carry with us into our interpretation and understanding of it.

Speaking of interpretations: the fact that there are so many interpretations of the word interpret feels ironic to me. A word that is all about perception is perceived in so many ways, and none is more accurate than another. They are all accurate in different contexts. Perhaps the same could be said about the differing interpretations of the text on the oven’s lip. They are nearly composed of the same words, however, hold entirely different meaning. The youth of ruby interpret “being the furrow of his brow” as a sort of “justice” (87) while the older residents feel this is not accurate. Although there is a subtle difference in language and phrasing, the entire idea behind the text itself and what it signifies is flipped.

Collaboration is the through line of this course. It’s something I entered college afraid of after experiencing projects in high school that were meant to be a group effort and ended up becoming my individual work or the work of me and a couple other students because the group members would not contribute equally. The English department and this course in particular have emphasized for me the value behind collaboration and the meaning behind showing up for yourselves and your peers. 

This idea of collaboration is relevant within Morrison’s text because the oven’s readers need to utilize it in order to come to understand what the oven says and its significance. There are two opposing perspectives in this case, which can cause conflict and disagreement. These varying interpretations, in this case, mean very different things. However, Morrison emphasizes the subtle differences of these interpretations and how such a small difference in phrasing can make such a huge difference in meaning. Interpretation is a necessary step before collaboration: Morrison emphasizes that this generational difference is what causes these groups to enter into a collaboration, bringing their interpretations to the table in aim to best decipher this message and create meaning. Bringing differing interpretations to the table can be a trigger for conflict, certainly, but it also can allow for the meaning that is made to be much more wise and significant due to the varying perspectives coming into the process. 

In Paradise, Morrison writes, “Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.” To read this line of the novel now was incredibly validating. To know that paradise isn’t some perfect, ideal world, free from struggle or burden; rather having that responsibility and shouldering that burden is the whole purpose, the entire point. Collaboration, for me, has become liberating. It has become less about the individual with each day, each meeting; with this pandemic. It has become more about a conscious effort to focus on creating something powerful together, not just in spite of circumstance but perhaps even because of it.

While Paradiso functions on a larger scale than Paradise, they both ask questions about morality, punishment, and justice, and each attempts to answer them in their own ways. Something valuable I learned in working with these texts is that confusion is valuable and meaningful and not something to run from. Confusion was purposeful, it was something I was able to use to my advantage during this time rather than view as a roadblock, or something holding me back. Everything we attempt to accomplish during this time has come with its fair share of new obstacles. This is new territory for all of us. However, these circumstances and realities very greatly for all of us. This is always true, not just in a pandemic. And this, to me, is reflective of the work my classmates and I have embarked upon with these texts. Though the context may be more challenging for some than others, more familiar for some than others, our varying understandings allowed us to all come together and create something, to share an understanding and to grow as thinkers and humans.

I am extremely grateful for the humanity that was shown to me in this process. My peers and I are dealing with circumstances outside of this academic work and have been able to support each other through these challenges, even when it wasn’t about the coursework. This kind of camaraderie is a side effect of collaboration that I have always taken note of since starting at Geneseo, but it has become particularly important to me in these strange circumstances. I am grateful for a department that fosters such growth and compassion, and I am grateful to have worked with such kind and intelligent people throughout the course of this semester, and to have gone through these transitions with so much support behind me. I am also proud of my own ability to push through these circumstances and to navigate complex texts to the best of my ability and to contribute among personal and global challenges.

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