Interpretation is Collaboration: Toni Morrison’s Paradise and an exploration of working together while apart

In the conclusion to his Divine Comedy, Dante uses Paradiso to speak of the cumulative ideas of justice explored elsewhere in the trilogy. The poet accomplishes this particular task in Canto XVIII, where Dante meets an entity known as the eagle of divine justice. Paradiso’s eagle of divine justice is formed by the souls of just rulers in the sphere of Jupiter. The spirits in this sphere as a whole spell out the Latin words “diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram,which is a Dantean commandment of sorts for leaders to “Cherish justice, you who judge the earth.” It’s the souls that make up the phrase’s final letter—the M in terram—that ultimately rearrange in Canto XVIII to make up the eagle’s body. It’s ironic then, that the eagle of divine justice—the very being that preaches how incomprehensible God’s justice is to man—is born of a letter from the Latin word for “earth’s surface, as opposed to the heavens.” This speaks to the idea that, even when considering ideas of divine justice, the ideas themselves come from the earth and the humans who inhabit it.

The theocracy, lay people, and poets are all just humans attempting to interpret the divine word of God, and these interpretations are themselves collaborative acts of creation. The eagle of divine justice represents the culmination of these interpretations; born from terram the eagle is every just human’s feelings on justice combined to form the divine interpretation of the concept. I argue that every act of interpretation is a collaborative one, and this idea is supported by Dante’s eagle and further explored in Toni Morrison’s conclusion to her own sort of divine trilogy, Paradise.

In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, readers are introduced to a town called Haven, which was named such because the all-black town was a literal haven for its citizens. The town may have been a haven from segregation and discrimination from whites, but it wasn’t free from the disparate social structures that prevent lesser-developed communities to thrive in their individual homes. Lacking facilities necessitated the acquisition of a communal oven, and Haven’s Oven quickly became a source of warmth, sustenance, and community for the town and it took on a symbolic function as much as a practical one.

Despite the Oven, however, strife resulting from the second world war reduced Haven to a ghost town, so nine families decided to pack up, move, and start anew. A new town called Ruby was founded and the item that its founders considered essential to bring was Haven’s symbolic heartbeat. The Oven was deconstructed piece by piece and transported to Ruby, taking up space that could have been filled with more people or other essential materials. The method of transportation is telling, as it illustrates how Ruby is built on symbolic pride and ideals rather than any kind of actual empathy and care for the people living there.

After arriving at Ruby, the Oven had to be reassembled, but like the town itself there’s no telling if the assembled product is the same as what was there to begin with. The Oven was no longer the town’s uniting force and its function had become purely symbolic, the people of Ruby had their own individual methods to cook and stay warm. Within the novel, Ruby’s oven became a metaphor for the town’s status as a whole. On the night Ruby men attacked the neighboring Convent—a wayward home for lost women that the Ruby men believed had been practicing witchcraft—the Oven was sliding from its foundation due to heavy rain. This suggests that, like Dante’s eagle, the Oven is its own source of divine justice for the town of Ruby, and when that justice is blasphemed during the convent raid the Ovens begins sliding off its foundation and threatens disrepair.

Disagreements in interpreting the text on the Oven’s lip divided Ruby generationally, it “seemed at first to bless them; later to confound them; finally, to announce that they had lost,” (Morrison, 7). All that could be deciphered on the lip were to words “the furrow of His brow,” and older folk took a fire-and-brimstone, doom-and-gloom reading of those words. They believe the inscription reads “Beware the furrow of His brow,” but Ruby’s younger citizens take a more empowering reading by arguing they should “Be the furrow of His brow.” The first interpretation reads as a conservative, fearful warning to act as the town’s moral code. It’s also an act of submission; while the “Him” in question is obviously the divine, it could also be a stand-in for any person in a position of power—namely the men like the Morgan twins who run Ruby. “Beware the furrow of His brow,” then, is an interpretation that perpetually maintains the power of powerful men and so it is in their best interest to advocate for this interpretation.

On the other hand, the youth advocate that the text actually calls for people to “Be the furrow of his brow,” which is a more judicious and democratized interpretation that threatens the already-established power dynamics at play in Ruby. The divide then increases not only out of the moral argument between the two sects but because of the risk a changing mindset has on the Morgan twins and other powerful people that have cowed populations into submission because they beware their brows. The furrow of his brow imagery calls to Dante’s divine eagle of justice, which displays a prominent eye and eyebrow.

As previously stated, the eagle of divine justice is located in stars that spell the Latin for “cherish justice, you who judge the earth.” So, this guiding principle ties the two interpretations together as they both seek to morally guide the town and are both interpretations of what justice is. Therefore, the differing interpretations and the conflict arising from them are inherently collaborating to decide the moral direction Ruby will take. The question inherent in the division is who, exactly, are the people judging the earth. Is it the “Him” whose furrowed brow people are bewaring or is it the collective people striving to become the furrow of his brow?

The Oven’s readers attempt to reconcile the interpretive disagreement by brushing it aside altogether and instead finding common ground along the fact that the Oven’s general existence is important, regardless of what the words say. While Ruby’s citizens—old and young—remained unsure of what the Oven’s inscription read, the true surety was that “they could see the Oven; they couldn’t misread or misspeak that, so they had better hurry up and fix its slide before it was too late—which it already might be for the young people had changed its words again,” (Morrison, 298). This excerpt, and the wider Oven interpretive debate altogether, speaks to the intersection of interpretation and collaboration—which is to say that any act of interpretation is one of collaboration. Even when differing interpretations cause conflict, as they do in Paradise, the differing reads on a text continue to inform any individual’s personal interpretation of them and therefore makes that interpretation a collaborative act. Furthermore, any single person has their values, tastes, and personal sentiments raised by their upbringing and their community. Because those same things are what color and interpretation of any text, it results in those interpretations being a collaborative pursuit between everyone who has shaped individual people into who they are fundamentally.

The Morrison passage continues, going on to say “No longer were [the young people] calling themselves Be The Furrow of His Brow. The graffiti on the hood of the Oven now was “We Are the Furrow of His Brow,” which shows the collaborative experience of debating the oven’s inscription has further shaped their interpretation of it. Additionally, the passage speaks to the general mercurial nature of interpretation, illustrating how easy it is for those understandings to change and evolve. The both/and of collaboration and interpretation is that collaboration leads to differing interpretations, but the most important aspect is that there is a text to interpret in the first place. The oven’s readers reconcile their disagreement by coming to that conclusion themselves and realizing it’s in everyone’s best interest to save the Oven and ensure it’s possible for the discourse to continue.

Paradise‘s appropriation of “Paradiso” deals with the collaborative nature of interpretation altogether. In “Paradiso,” Dante discusses the nature of justice with a being composed of disparate souls—the divine eagle of Justice. The wisdom the eagle espouses in and of itself is a symbolic collaborative effort of all these legendary rulers and their collective understanding of divine justice and the being’s discussion with Dante then furthers this collaborative process. Morrison plays with this idea, but rather than exploring the 1:1 collaboration-to-interpretation relationship she explores the way that a more adversarial discourse can still lead to interpretations becoming realized. Even though the two sides aren’t working toward the same goal, the differing interpretations ultimately remain a collaborative effort due to how the people involved in the conflict influence one another.

Amid uncertainty, then, it is heartening to think about this and realize the varying faces collaboration can put on; it seems less daunting to try and pursue collaborative efforts while we remain separate once you realize that collaboration is never one specific thing. As I reflect on this class and the journey we’ve all taken together, what stands out is the mingled loss and joy inherent in our evolving collaborative efforts. Though we’ve been forced to separate, the shared mission we all undertook this semester remains and the support that transformed into was its own act of collaboration as it allowed us to continue the work at all. Even as the discussions became more strained and difficult, our relationships became about supporting and taking care of one another as much as it was interpreting text which is its own unique face of collaboration.

Looking forward to my career, I think about the Paradise passage about the sliding Oven. Ruby’s residents—old and young—concluded that it’s important to save the oven so they continue to have a text to interpret, despite the disagreeing interpretations. This reminds me of the cultural criticism career I’ve established during my time at Geneseo through The Lamron which is a thought process I intend to continue outside of school even if I can’t make it happen professionally. The nature of criticizing popular media is that, because potentially millions of people consume these works, it’s important to consider what messages the works are giving out. Yet, it’s rare to see different audiences or different critics ever agree on an interpretation or assessment, which is okay. Cultural discourse can often be toxic and adversarial, and the Oven conflict was toxic and adversarial, but even as people fight each other there is an underlying inherent sense of collaboration as those experiences color the involved individuals’ interpretations. When people are divided, whether by opinion or by physical circumstance, it is our intrinsic nature to remain collaborative.

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