Crafting a Paradise on (Im)Possibilities through Collaboration

When Dante enters the Heaven of Jupiter, he encounters the eagle of divine justice and the five souls which form the constellation of the eagle’s brow. These souls are arranged in this particular constellation because they embodied divine justice while on Earth and now, in paradise, finally understand its true nature. Though these souls now bear an intimate understanding of divine justice, they warn Dante that it cannot be fully comprehended by human beings. Despite this impossibility, Dante does learn something about divine justice. Through the eagle’s recounting of the experiences of the souls which constellate its brow, the eagle reveals that human beings can and do participate in divine justice through their expressions of “fervent love” and “living hope” (20.95). Indeed, the eagle claims that  “The Kingdom of Heaven is subject to violence / from fervent love and from living hope” (20. 94-95). These lines are shocking, as violence does not seem to have a place in paradise. However, according to Dr. Ronald Herzman, these lines potentially refer to the work of Aristotle, who defined violence as unnatural motion. Thus, the violence in question does not signify harm, pain, and violation, but rather unnatural motion: unexpected reciprocity through the mediums of hope and love occurring between humankind and the divine. This reciprocity sheds light on one particular, decipherable aspect of divine justice: its participatory nature. Such is further exemplified by the experiences of two souls in the eagle’s brow, Trajan and Rhipeus, who hold a place in Dante’s Christian conception of paradise, though they lack Christian faith. Trajan and Rhipeus’ seats in paradise are secured through human participation in divine justice, specifically, through the love of justice these two souls expressed in their time on Earth. The eagle of justice thus illuminates the allegedly “unnatural” participatory aspect of divine justice.

The eagle also emphasizes the fact that divine justice’s nature is indeterminable during one’s time on Earth. This incomprehensibility creates an opening for interpretation; for human beings to attempt to define divine justice themselves. Additionally, the participatory nature of divine justice allows and encourages individuals to act on their own interpretations of such. While this participatory process could lead to justice and potentially the formation of paradise on Earth, interpretation can also, unfortunately, give way to injustice and destruction, as individuals may interpret divine justice in such a way that creates terrible injustice and great harm for others. Interpretations of divine justice can be extremely dangerous and capable of unleashing injustice upon the world, thereby turning the violence of unnatural motion, that is, the reciprocal exchange of hope and love, into a harmful violence that causes damage and destruction, as is demonstrated in Morrison’s novel, Paradise.

Morrison’s Paradise begins and ends with the massacre of five women, who live together in a place called the Convent. The Convent is located just outside of Ruby, the town where the men who orchestrated the murders reside. Ruby represents the second iteration of a town called Haven, which was established by the grandparents and great-grandparents of several of the men who participate in the massacre. In murdering the Convent women, these men claim they are ensuring that “nothing inside or out rots the one all-black town worth the pain” (Morrison 5), referring to Ruby and, by extension, Haven.

Haven was founded by Zechariah, the grandfather of Morgan twins, Deacon and Steward, along with several other families. However, before Zechariah and these families established Haven, they were turned away by “rich Choctaw and poor whites, chased by yard dogs, jeered at by camp prostitutes and their children,” all in their search for a place to call home. These painful and prejudiced refusals could not prepare Haven’s founders for the “aggressive discouragement” and wounding exclusion which they faced from the black towns already established in Oklahoma in the 1920s that warned settlers to “Come Prepared or Not at All” (Morrison 13). The founders of Haven were “stung into confusion” when they were denied residence and even mere entry into these towns (Morrison 14).

Deacon and Steward, upon hearing their grandfather’s story, attribute his discovery of “how narrow the path of righteousness could be” (Morrison 14) to the pain and suffering incited by the stinging denial and hurtful exclusion that the founding families experienced. The twins believe that Zechariah’s experience gave him insight into divine justice and, therefore, the authority to choose the words for the Oven’s lip. One of the words featured on the Oven’s lip is “brow,” which births a parallel between the Oven and the eagle. The souls which form the eagle’s brow communicate the nature of divine justice in Paradiso. Similarly, the words formed on the Oven’s lip were meant to communicate the understanding of divine justice that Zechariah believed he glimpsed through his suffering.

The Oven, whose lip holds Zechariah’s words, was essential in Haven. As Randall Lombardi states regarding the Oven’s significance, it was once a “necessity” that became a “symbol” (Move 2).  The Oven was where “people gathered for talk, for society and the comfort of hot game” (Morrison 15); it provided a source of nourishment and warmth for the entire community. Thus, the Oven was a sign and site of unity in Haven. The citizens of Haven understood that it had nourished Haven’s founders and that its sustained presence and importance “monumentalized what (their founders) had done (Morrison 7).” However, when Haven eventually fell apart, several families, led by the Morgan twins, broke down and loaded up the Oven to bring it with them to Ruby, their new home. This transfer was spurred from fear of the terrifying “Out There,” that “Ten generations had known,” where one’s “very person could be annulled,” a space occupied by both “random and organized evil” (Morrison 16). To protect what remained of Haven, the Morgan brothers forged a new Haven in Ruby and brought the Oven with them.

When Haven becomes Ruby, the unity the Oven provided and represented is lost completely. This loss is embodied on the Oven’s lip, as Zechariah’s words now only read  “…the Furrow of His Brow,” leaving the beginning of the phrase up to interpretation. The resulting process of interpretation threatens to dissolve the very fabric of Ruby through a tumultuous generational divide that ends in fatal violence. While the older generation believes the phrase begins “Beware,” the younger generation believes it begins with “Be.” Despite this apparent difference, each generation’s interpretation is not as dissimilar as they imagine and are instead intrinsically, though not obviously, connected. The older generation believes the Oven urges them to “beware” divine justice and to follow its narrow path in keeping with Zechariah’s experience. On the other hand, the younger generation’s interpretation, “Be the Furrow of His Brow,” seems to invite activity and agency, but also potentially force and violence. However, the young people of Ruby do not wish to carry out or permit this violence; rather, they seek to expose the violence they experienced at the hands of their elders as they imposed their own interpretation. Such violence is illustrated through the journal of Pat Best, who records how her daughter, Billie Delia, was shamed by the older generation in Ruby from the time she was very young because of the way she innocently found pleasure in riding a horse and because of the color of her skin and the fact that it differed from that of the other founding families. In these journals, Pat also recalls how the older generation forced Menus to “give back or return” the “sandy-haired” woman he wanted to marry and how they subsequently forced him out of his home (Morrison 195).

It is for these reasons that Pat states that “the teenagers…were more insightful than they knew” (Morrison 195) in their desire to challenge their elders’ interpretation. The teenagers form and defend their interpretation because they saw, and still see, felt, and still feel, their elders “subject the Kingdom,” that is, Ruby and all its citizens, to violence. By interpreting the Oven’s words in this way, the young people of Ruby are punching up at their elders who have continuously harmed them in the name of their interpretation. The youth argue that while it appears their interpretation is only encouraging obedience, many of the members of the older generation, particularly, the “New Fathers” (Morrison 194), do not intend to encourage but enforce obedience upon the citizens of Ruby, often through harmful measures, which Billie Delia, Menus, and several other young folks in Ruby experience first-hand.

Thus, the young people recognize that to beware is to be for the older generation in Ruby. This idea is corroborated by Pat’s realization that, for the New Fathers, “It wasn’t God’s brow to be feared. It was (Zechariah’s) own, their own” (Morrison 217). Their fear drives them to commit violence against Ruby’s youth and the women at the Convent since they feel that these two groups somehow threaten the promise of divine justice they believe Zechariah understood and earned for them. Pat suggests that the New Fathers think that by forcefully defending Zechariah’s interpretation of divine justice they will somehow perfectly preserve Ruby and its past. Pat maintains that the New Fathers so violently defend their own interpretation because they believe that in doing so they will establish and further ensure the damaging and disturbing notions of “purity” and “Immortality” (Morrison 217) in Ruby, thinking that these two alarming concepts will preserve Ruby and its past.

In this way, the dangers presented by Dante’s eagle are demonstrated. Divine justice, through its ambiguous and participatory nature, invites interpretation. As a result, interpretations of divine justice bearing catastrophic consequences can be unleashed. As the younger generation suggests through the insight of their interpretation, the older generation in Ruby dangerously interprets divine justice towards violent ends, as their interpretation subjects the “Kingdom of Heaven to violence” in a way that Dante’s eagle of justice would reject, since they do not “violate” with the “living hope” and “fervent love” that the eagle prescribes. Rather, the New Fathers forcefully manipulate, harm, and even take the lives of those who threaten their participation in their interpretation of the justice they believe Zechariah secured for them. The New Fathers’ warped interpretation of and participation in divine justice demolishes “living hope” and “fervent love” in the community of Ruby. Such is evident through the New Fathers’ destruction of Menus’ marriage, their constant shaming of Billie Delia, which eventually leads her to leave town, and their persistent shaming of K.D. in his marriage to Arnette. They do these things in the name of purity in Ruby and it is the New Father’s disturbing obsession with purity that heralds Ruby’s downfall as a community. Ruby is utterly divided by the older generation’s interpretation and by the tensions which arise from each generation’s formation and defense of their respective interpretations.

The two interpretations thereby perform a collaboration that mirrors waves undergoing destructive interference. Destructive interference occurs when two waves are said to be “out of phase,” meaning that the positive displacement carried by one wave is canceled out completely by the negative displacement of another. In physics, displacement refers to a change in position; however, in applying the metaphor of wave interference to Ruby’s community, displacement could be likened to the consequences inspired by each interpretation. In the face of this destructive interference, there is an opportunity for constructive interference; for the two generation’s interpretations to become “in phase” with and positively build upon each other. The older generation could learn to let go of the past and notions of purity and immortality. Their interpretations could be superimposed and, through collaborative efforts to honor each interpretation and why and how it was formed, a strong, accepting community could be built. Tragically, the community remains fragmented and is only united through the massacre at the Convent. The massacre represents a grisly collaboration, as K.D., a member of Ruby’s youth, participates in the massacre alongside the older generation, thereby becoming but continuing to beware their furrow. Thus, the interpretations of the older and younger generations collaborate towards the destruction of two communities, doubly forgoing the creation of a potential paradise on Earth.

However, the possibility of creating a paradise through collaboration arises with a third interpretation offered by Anna Flood, who claims that “The young people were wrong. Be the Furrow of Her Brow” (Morrison 159). Anna arrives at this interpretation by watching the Convent women at Arnette and K.D.’s wedding. Insight into Anna’s interpretation can be gained through recognizing the women’s correlation with Dante’s eagle of divine justice, as well as the collaborative healing and (re)construction of self and community that the Convent women perform across Morrison’s novel like stars dancing across the sky.

The five women at the Convent, Consolata, Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas, all faced trauma and violence in their lives and were excluded and shamed because of what happened to them. As a result, these women were said to lack the so-called purity that the older generation claims is necessary to experience divine justice. However, these women, through the healing they undergo at the Convent, learn that purity is not needed to enjoy divine justice and all that accompanies it, including a place in paradise, which these women ultimately gain, both on earth and beyond (or perhaps not beyond, as Misner and Anna’s experience with the door, or window, suggests). They locate an earthly paradise for themselves through the healing in which Consolata guides them; indeed, the Convent women learn to love themselves and understand that they are not what happened to them. They learn that they do not need purity to be privy to paradise. In doing so they find a paradise that is more than physical; it is a paradise within.

In this way, the women mirror the souls which constellate the eagle’s brow. They demonstrate that purity is not necessary in achieving a place in paradise, as do the souls of Trajan and Rhipeus in Paradiso. According to Dante, neither of these souls died a Christian, which represented a prerequisite of sorts for Dante’s conception of the afterlife; however, Trajan and Rhipeus, through the participatory nature of divine justice, nevertheless inhabit paradise, demonstrating that purity is not needed to experience and embody divine justice. Such is true also of the five Convent women who find paradise through healing. These women represent the “living hope” and “fervent love” the eagle claims can influence divine justice, as they hold hope and love for themselves and one another. Thus, the interpretation, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow,” illustrates the parallel between the women at the Convent and the eagle. Both form a constellation that rejects purity and illustrates the power of hope and love in ensuring divine justice for oneself and one’s community. The women and the eagle illustrate the participatory nature of divine justice and provide models for collaboration, specifically, one that can form a paradise. Indeed, the souls which constellate the eagle’s brow are physically part of paradise, while the Convent women form a paradise within themselves and for each other by building a community that fosters healing and love.

The collaboration inherent in Anna’s interpretation provides an alternative to the destructive collaboration which occurs in Ruby. In Ruby, both the older and younger generation are prevented from healing. The older generation yearns to preserve the past for they do not want to forget the paradise first crafted by their grandparents, the suffering they endured, and the justice they fought to secure. The younger generation desires to break away from the past and the violence it involved and now inspires. However, each generation fails to recognize that a community cannot live purely in the past or the future. A community must learn from its past to form a better future, rejecting notions of purity and immortality all the while, as paradise does not depend on these notions. Rather, paradise is a place where all can love and be loved, where one can live free from shame, free from fear, violence, force, and exclusion.

On Earth,  the construction of a paradise can be attempted through collaboration. This idea was explored this semester through the very form of this course. However, this exploration was interrupted by COVID-19. Collaboration, as it was performed earlier in the semester, was rendered untenable. In the aftermath of this loss, the class, which had formed a veritable community, was forced to create individual interpretations on how to proceed in a way that would be just for themselves and each other. In the process of forming my own interpretation, I found my nascent interpretations paralleling, to a degree, the three interpretations created by Ruby’s community members.

As a member of this class community, I felt that I could choose to “beware” the situation and harmfully compare the present to the past, when the class constellated a physical, as well as an intellectual, community. This interpretation, with its gaze fixed on the past, could lead the class community and the individuals within it to, like the New Fathers in Ruby, become preoccupied with notions of purity. While writing this essay, I found myself tempted to include every piece of Dante’s divine eagle and of Morrison’s Paradise such that my work might represent all aspects of these expansive texts. I realized that I was holding myself to an impossible standard of purity. Additionally, when class first moved online, I felt plagued by the distressing temptation of purity in the sense that I found myself attempting to perform and be exactly as productive as I was before circumstances changed. However, this drive to be perfect, to be just as productive in a global crisis as I had been previously, was extremely damaging. Rather than promoting productivity, the temptation of purity caused my work, and most importantly, my thinking, to stagnate, and, in this way, I hurt not only myself but also my peers and the community we created together. 

This, then, introduces the second interpretation that correlates to the interpretation of Ruby’s teenagers, who look primarily towards the future. While it is important to look ahead, as was illustrated by Dr. McCoy in her decision to reveal all the moves of this essay at once, it can cause one to forget the past and even the present. This was a risk to our class community, as well, since abandoning the past in favor of the future could lead to the forgetting of the firmament of collaboration previously established in-person. To an extent, the class did forget about each other and collaboration for a brief moment in the semester. It was and is difficult work to remain connected when we are so physically splintered, yet, I firmly believe that it is important and necessary work.

Finally, I turn to the interpretation I ultimately found to align most closely with my own: the interpretation the Convent women inspired Anna Flood to form. The Convent women are the furrow of the divine eagle’s brow. They illustrate the power of hope and love; how these aspects are capable of speaking to divine justice and of producing a community resembling a paradise on Earth. Though one interpretation is never more right or wrong than any other, I believe that the path prescribed by this particular interpretation is most conducive to our class’ collaborative formation of a paradise, specifically, a digital one. Indeed, after each virtual class meeting, I felt imbued with the love and hope that the community of this class offered each other during all of our meetings. I never felt as though my peers were holding me to standards of perfection and I very consciously refrained from holding them to the same. In our discussions, we collaborated to create a firmament that would bring the course’s established values forward into the new digital format it was forced to take. In this way, we honored our past but rejected the pressure of purity. We brought the priorities established in the past to our present in a way that would best benefit our future. We remembered each other and our commitment to collaboration in light of having almost forgotten it. But, most importantly, we did all this with hope and love. And, in this way, we have succeeded, to the best of our ability, in creating a nurturing environment, filled with healing from what we have experienced, free from shame, fear, force, and exclusion. We have collaborated in spite of current circumstances and we have created a paradise. Here we are and here we have been, “shouldering the endless work” that we “were created to do down here in Paradise” (Morrison 318).

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