Sameness and Difference in a Time of Coronavirus

The eagle of Divine Justice, while most pertinent in the Heaven of Jupiter in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth cantos of Paradise, has its precursors earlier in Paradiso, primarily in Canto VI. The Byzantine emperor Justinian states that “Constantine had turned the Eagle/counter to heaven’s course” (Paradiso VI.1-2). In this context, the Eagle represents empire, implying that empire must follow the course of heaven from east to west; in moving the capital of Rome east to Constantinople, Justinian implies that Constantine was defying the will of the divine. Justinian subsequently moved the capital westward in an attempt to reunite the East and West Roman Empire, thus showing an understanding of the need for unity in empire and an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and the political (that is, that the spiritual guides the political). 

The Eagle in the Heaven of Jupiter thus, in some sense, hearkens back to the eagle of Empire presented in Canto VI. However, the Eagle is not a symbol or an object but rather a collective being created out of individuals. However, before forming into an eagle, the stars that shape it first appear to Dante by spelling out the phrase Diligite justitiam qui judicatis terram, meaning “Love justice you who judges the earth” (Paradiso XVIII.90-3). The relevance of this spelling out is twofold: first, this phrase is the first line of the Book of Wisdom thought to be written by Solomon. Solomon is regarded as the wisest ruler (judge) of the Earth, as he asked God for the wisdom necessary to know how to best rule his people. Second, the actual act of spelling, like some sort of cosmic graphic design job as Dr. Herzman puts it, puts a focus on the act of writing. 

The souls then form into an eagle, which Dante describes: “There before me, with wings outspread,/was the beautiful image those souls had woven/and whose fruition they now enjoyed./Each of them looked like a little ruby/ in which a ray of the sun burned so brightly/ that it was refracted into my eyes” (Paradiso XIX.1-6; emphasis my own). The eagle is one being comprised of many souls that shine so brightly — like rubies sparkling in the sun — with a reflected light that the light is in turn reflected in the Pilgrim’s eyes. This collective being then goes on to speak, with Dante hearing it’s voice and saying, “For I saw and heard that beak speaking / and sounding with its voice the words I and my / that had been conceived as we and our” (Paradiso XIX.10-12). Thus, he shows the Eagle as a being composed of individuals who speaks for a collective “we” every time it says “I.” 

Dante and the Eagle primarily discuss the subject of salvation, as the Eagle spends the next two cantos addressing Dante’s question of why only Christians can be saved. Dante questions the justice of punishing someone for not being saved when they have not been exposed to knowledge of Christianity but have still lived a just life. The Eagle addresses this question in three ways. First, the Eagle observes that it is impossible and, indeed, arrogant for the human to presume that they can judge the justice of the creator. The Eagle then criticizes Christian rulers on Earth, for being less just than Ethiopians and Persians, who are further from Christian knowledge but closer to God (there are racial implications to be unpacked here). The Eagle then reveals, in Canto XX, the six lights that make up its eye, which are six souls: David, Hezekiah (both Old Testament figures who thus did not know of Christ but who did believe in a messiah to come), Emperor Constantine (converted), Trajan, Ripheus (from Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante is the only one to have narrated a salvation for him), and William II Hauteville – William the Good — of Sicily. Only one of these men was born a Christian, with the rest having been converted, saved, or not at all. Thus, Dante finds that it is possible for non-Christians to be saved. Indeed, he finds through the Eagle that it is not so much through action that someone is saved but through intention; those who intended well, such as Constantine, are still able to hold a place in the Eagle’s Brow. 

The ancestors of those in Ruby built the Oven when they established Haven; Morrison writes, “The Old Fathers did that first: put most of their strength into constructing the huge, flawlessly designed Oven that both nourished them and monumentalized what they had done” (7). The Oven was placed in the center of the town and served as a gathering place, a place where the food was made and where people gathered together to eat, plan, and celebrate. It served as a communally-made and -utilized monument to what they had created in Haven. When it became clear that Haven was falling apart, that people were flooding away from the town to younger places, bigger places, richer places, nine families decided to again move west. And they [the men] brought the Oven with them. Brick-by-brick they packed it up and brick-by-brick they built it back up in Ruby, just as it had been in Haven, in the center of the town. The movement of the Oven westward reflects Justinian’s movement of (perhaps it is better to say the return of) the Eagle of the Roman Empire westward in Canto VI of Paradiso. The Oven moves from Haven — a place of safety or refuge — in the east, to Ruby in the west, thus following the cosmological path of empire established in Dante (east to west, like the sun). The name Ruby seems to reference Dante’s statement that the stars that compose the Eagle shine like rubies in reflected light, thus, the name of the town (in the context of Dante) implies a collective nature, one that is emphasized by the taking apart and rebuilding of the Oven brick-by-brick (“Tell them, Sargeant, how delicate was the separation, how careful we were, how we wrapped them, each and every one” [86].). 

In Ruby, the Oven is not the same as it once was in Haven. In the early years in Ruby, it served as a gathering place, to warm, dry, and celebrate, after baptisms. Soon, however, the many churches were built and had baptisms of their own, and “The Oven that had witnessed the baptized entering sanctified life was now reduced to watching the lazy young… The Oven whose every brick had heard live chords praising His name was now subject to radio music, record music — music already dead ” (111; I’m intrigued by the personification of the Oven, the assignation of verbs such as “witnessed” and “heard” to it.). Indeed, Soane thinks about how “Minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value. What was needed back in Haven’s early days had never been needed in Ruby”; she thinks that the Oven is “a utility [become] a shrine… and like anything that offended Him, destroyed its own self” (103-4). What was once a place for nourishment, once a monument, once a gathering place, both physically and spiritually, became a place of division, where conflict — generational, sexual, interpersonal — is played out. The Oven is where the idle gather, where K.D. hits Arnette, where the men plan to hunt the women of the Convent (I think it is notable that trash is often seen near and around the Oven). 

The Oven is constructed from mortar made by the men of Haven, and “When it was finished — each pale brick perfectly pitched; the chimney wide, lofty; the pegs and grill secure; the draft pulling steadily from the tail hold; the fire door plumb” a five feet by two plate, hammered by a Morgan ancestor, with a half-dozen words forged into it, was set at the base of the Oven’s mouth (7). The words that are still readable on this plate are “… the Furrow of His Brow.” The Oven is described as “Round as a head, deep as desire” (6). This description invokes imagery similar to that of a womb or of a vagina. This imagery, in turn, invokes the vesica pisces, (), the symbol of a heavenly portal so often invoked in Dante’s Commedia. Additionally, the younger generation paints a black power fist, punching sideways, with red-tipped fingers on the Oven; the red-tipped fingers of the fist seem to imitate the stars in the brow of the Eagle of Divine Justice. Thus, the Oven, especially in its former role as a place of gathering for baptisms and its current status as a type of shrine for ideologies, serves as a connection between Ruby and the divine. In being moved from east to west, following the divine course of empire, in cementing the collective identity of Haven first and supposedly Ruby later (again, brick-by-brick), the Oven seems to enact and cement Ruby’s adherence to the wishes of the Divine. 

This divine purpose of the Oven is cemented by the words on the aforementioned plate. While it only reads “… the Furrow of His Brow,” the older generation of Ruby maintains that the plate reads “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” Controversy roars, however, when the younger generation begins to voice the opinion that the plate actually reads “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” This dissension first began among the Baptists, but soon spreads to the Methodists and Pentecostals of the town as “Young members in their own churches began to voice opinions about the words” (83). This controversy over the meaning of the Oven has enormous implications for the town, as the Oven serves as a validation of their connection to divinity and thus as validation of their actions and intentions; the words on the Oven guide this divine connection, placing the town of Ruby within the wider context of Divine Justice. The controversy overcomes any difference between the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals (the presence of these different denominations are important, I feel, in that they are constantly emphasized but I need to push on it a bit more, I think), as “The Oven didn’t belong to any one denomination; it belonged to all, and all were asked to show up at Cavlary” (83).

Interpretations over the text on the Oven’s lip seem to split along generational lines, as opposed to denominational lines. The older generation, the generation who established Ruby, maintains that by the word of young Esther Fleetwood, the Oven says “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” For the older generation, “Beware” serves as a command, an order to obey God; Harper Jury says,  “‘It says “Beware.” Not “Be.” Beware means “Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it”‘” (87). For them, “Beware” means putting Justice into the hands of God alone, it means that Divine Justice is not a thing to be defined by humanity but to be obeyed. They are offended by the youth’s attempts to redefine “Beware” to “Be,” with Sargeant saying that “‘Be’ means you putting him aside and you the power'” (87). To the older generation, this attempt to redefine the concept of Divine Justice communicated by plate is presumptive, arrogant and ungodly; they interpret “Be” as an attempt to presume to know God’s intentions and, in turn, to know Divine Justice. They see the youth’s attempts to “Be the Furrow” as an attempt to be God, an attempt to state that they know God’s power better than God Himself does. This parallels the Eagle’s first answer to Dante’s question about salvation, in which it (they) chastises, “Now, who are you who want to sit on the bench/and pass judgment from a thousand miles away/when you can’t see your hand in front of your face?/… As my song’s notes exceed your understanding,/such is Eternal Judgement to all mortals” (Paradiso XIX.79-81; 91-99). In this sense, the Eagle is asking Dante who he is to judge the judgment of God, when he knows so little of the Divine and of truth; just as Dante cannot fully understand the harmony of the Eagle’s speech and its song, mortals cannot understand the harmony of Divine Justice. 

The youth, in turn, are distressed (“Destry, looking strained and close to tears, held up his hand and asked, ‘Excuse me, sir. What’s so wrong about “Be the Furrow”?'” [87].) by the older generation’s unwillingness to accept a new interpretation of the Oven’s text. To them, “Be the Furrow” means “being His instrument, His justice,” it means to be a  part of God, or perhaps an extension of God, not to be God (87). They want to say “Be” in order to emphasize that they are an extension of God’s power, saying that through following “His commandments, we’ll be His voice, His retribution. As a people'” (87). In the opinion of the youth, they are still obeying God, they simply think that through obeying God, they are also a part of God and are playing a part in His Divine Justice. Thus, their view is not far off from that of their elders. However, the parallels between the Oven and the Eagle make it clear that the argument is larger than one of generational identity; rather, it is about cosmological identity. To change the meaning of the Oven is to seemingly(!) change the place of Ruby within the universe. 

This is particularly interesting in that the youth’s view has its own parallels to the Eagle. While the view of the elders reflects the Eagle’s statement that it is impossible and arrogant to presume that you can judge God’s justice, the view of the youth reflects the Eagle’s later revelations about the souls who compose its brow. As stated earlier (in Move 1), the Eagle reveals to Dante the six souls that make up its brow and eye, showing that of the six, five were not born Christians and two were never exposed to Christian beliefs; thus, the Eagle shows that while you cannot truly know Divine Justice, you can still act as a part of Divine Justice, even having not known God; the focus is on intention, not on action. Thus, both interpretations of the Oven reflect understandings of Divine Justice offered by the Eagle.

In this context, then, I think that Sydney’s point, made during our collaborative discussion, that the interpretations come closer to defining the true meaning of Divine Justice when they are defined together is very relevant. These definitions of Divine Justice are not so much, to use language that Professor McCoy brought up earlier, oppositional but appositional (that is, side by side). In Paradiso, the Eagle addresses Dante’s questions about the divine justice of salvation in not one but three ways. This type of answer, spoken by a being composed of a group of individuals speaking not as a “me” but a “we,” serves as emphasis of Dante’s focus on sameness and difference throughout Paradiso. Dante emphasizes that sameness and difference can exist concomitantly throughout Paradiso in order to emphasize that God, and thus Paradise/eternity/what-have-you, is also composed of sameness and difference; that is, God is both three-in-one and one-in-three at the same time. Divinity is, in Dante’s conception the concurrence of sameness and difference. To make this clear, take for example, the screenshot that Professor McCoy has posted at the top of our prompt for Move 3 of the word “interpret” and its definitions. Here we can see that there are four definitions for this one word. Yet, none of these definitions are wrong, they are simply different meanings but for the same word; thus, in some sense, they are the same (that is, they are all “interpret”) but, of course, in another sense, they are different (that is, they all have different meanings/uses). However, that these definitions exist at the same time does not cancel out the validity of any of these definitions. In the same way, the differing interpretations of the Oven are not truly oppositional; rather, together, they work to define different aspects of the same Divine Justice. 

One thing that I want to devote more thought to is that a divide over thoughts about the Oven does not only seem to form on generational lines but also on gender-based lines. Not only did the women resent the space that the Oven took on the journey from Haven to Ruby but Soane and Anna both expressly, though only to themselves, consider alternate interpretations of the text of the Oven. Soane contemplates: 

‘Beware the Furrow of His Brow”? ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’? Her own opinion was that ‘Furrow of His Brow’ alone was enough for any age or generation. Specifying it, particularizing it, nailing its meaning down was futile. The only nailing needing to be done had already taken place. On the Cross. Wasn’t that so?  (93)

Later, as the women of the Convent rile up and liven up K.D. and Arnette’s wedding, Anna ponders, “The young people were wrong. Be the Furrow of Her Brow” (159). Soane’s interpretation seems to be a synthesis (maybe this isn’t the right word) of the two interpretations, in that she seems to say that no one is right and no one is wrong; rather, Divine Justice simply is. Anna’s pondering I do not yet know what to do with. It’s bringing to mind connotations of some things I’ve been reading in Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels about the gnostic belief that God was a dyad (I think a dyad of trinities) of both feminine and masculine. However, I had trouble with placing her thoughts within the wider context of the debate.

As previously mentioned, the different interpretations of the Oven seem to work together to define different aspects of Ruby’s relationship to Divine Justice. As Pat points out, the person to whom the Oven is speaking — the implied “You” — is never defined, meaning that the wording on the Oven can be “not a command to the believers but a threat to those who had disallowed them” (195). She thinks about how it must have taken Zechariah months to think up the words on the Oven so that they would have “multiple meanings: to appear stern, urging obedience to God, but slyly not identifying the proper noun or specifying what the Furrow might cause to happen or to whom” (195). In this sense, then, she realizes how the youthful interpretation is “more insightful” than they may have thought. Pat’s thought process iterates how interpretative processes are inherently open to collaboration due to the multiplicity of language. As I discussed in the previous move, different definitions are like singular stars that make up the wider, singular constellation of the word itself; thus, interpretation itself is a communal experience, meant to bring together individual identities into a collective understanding. It is important to consider, however, that difference is inherent to this collective understanding; sometimes, a definition will work well in one context but will not work well in another. 

Upon further thought, this seems as though it may shed some light on my confusion over the dissenting interpretations of the text of the Oven by some of the women of the book, particularly Anna’s comment that “The young people were wrong. Be the Furrow of Her Brow” (159). Anna makes this comment in the context of the Convent women disrupting K.D. and Arnette’s wedding; the liberated women of the Convent poke holes in the (older) townfolk’s rigid idea of their relationship to God as shown through the Oven. Their demeanor, their lack of propriety, their wildness, their togetherness and their overt ownership of their own womanhood propose a different type of community and a different relationship to God than the older and younger generations have seen. The women of the Convent propose a new type of community, one distinctly lacking the dominance of men that Ruby is so defined by. he Convent and Ruby are the same-but-different: both isolated, both attempts to achieve access to utopia or to paradise but in ways that are distinctly different. While Ruby is a town dominated by an Old Testament-like dominance of men, the Convent is instead created and led by women who are separated from men — to them Godliness is not in manhood (“His Brow”) but in their collective womanhood (“Her Brow”). 

The attempt by the nine men of Ruby to dominate the Convent and rid it of the women who communicate is one that is more than meant to rid the town of a bothersome influence. It is meant to confirm the dominance of their own interpretation of God and community, one that is threatened by the new, different type of community, paradise, and Divine Justice that the women propose. It is a collaboration in that it crosses generational lines but it does not in any way reconcile the interpretive disagreement had by the readers of the Oven because it does not take into account the idea that there may be other legitimate interpretations of a relationship between God and humanity. That is, the men’s act of violence against a different interpretation of Divine Justice is an act of violence against themselves, as they are unable to realize the constellation-like nature of their relationship to the Convent — that they are all different aspects of the same wider oneness. However, as this act is carried out, the Oven slips in the rain and shifts onto its side, reflecting, perhaps, a broken relationship between Ruby and God. It is only when Ruby is forced to come to terms with the reality that there are differences within themselves (see Deacon and Steward, Coffee and Tea) that they begin to realize their collectiveness does not mean or need sameness. 

The graffiti that appears on the Oven after the disappearance of the women seems to emphasize this changed relationship with God. “We Are the Furrow of His Brow” reflects a new, collective connection to the Oven. In this case, the words are no longer unspecific in who they are addressing; rather, they bring every reader of the Oven into its fold.

I further think it is important to note the aspect of trying to reconcile differences in interpretation in the prompt for this move. Not all collaborative attempts work (see: violence, war) to bring people together; sometimes they work to preserve purity and myth as opposed to bring people into a new reality and a new understanding together. There is, thus, a both/and to interpretation and collaboration as they cannot occur in a vacuum; if interpretation reflects the validity of other interpretations and work with those interpretations, there is a movement toward wholeness. However, if too much faith and too much devotion is put into a single interpretation this divide different aspects of the same whole.

 One of my main — and I think our main — grounding points for this course has been the idea that the literature we read, particularly in this course, has only become more visceral, only more integral since the coronavirus pandemic began. We (as a class but also as a college as a country and as a world) have been forced into a position where we must now consider every thought and every action within the context of our connectivity to others. Of course, that context existed before, we were all as interconnected with one another as we are now, but now it has become so clear that we are inexorably intertwined with one another, stars in a collective constellation.

It is strange, then, in the midst of this global realization, to feel at the same time so isolated. I am connected to all of you, yet, I cannot be near you. I cannot hold you, as the narrator of Jazz wishes to be held, or let you be close to me. But this cannot happen because I am so connected to you, and you to me, and us to others, and everyone to everyone else. Through isolation we have found connection, on a global scale. Yet, of course, within this sameness, there is difference — we are all in different places, with different jobs, different backgrounds, different governments. 

To use Professor McCoy’s language, Paradise‘s appropriation of Paradiso utilizes and builds upon Dante’s emphasis of sameness and difference throughout paradise. For Dante, Divinity is composed of sameness and difference — you only have to look to the idea of the trinity for confirmation of this. God is three in one and, yet, one in three; the square of the circle; the sound of the name and the name of the sound. God exists simultaneously in the trinity and in the entirety of His oneness. This concomitance of sameness and difference is seen throughout Paradiso, from the Circle of the Moon, where souls tell Dante that while everyone is not blessed equally, they are as blessed as they need to be, to the Divine Eagle of Justice, composed of many souls, speaking as one. In all iterations, the sameness is integral to the difference and the difference integral to the sameness — the one exists because of the three and the three because of the one. This sameness and difference serves as a throughline in Paradise, as Morrison builds varied and seemingly warring interpretations of the same one thing. That some of these interpretations are seemingly warring shows the violence of the different parts of the same wider oneness turning on one another. 

Our collaboration throughout this semester, my final semester at Geneseo (with Geneseo? associated with Geneseo?), has shown in expected and unexpected ways how the concomitance of sameness and difference permeates our lives. We are all functioning as separate individuals, separate aspects of the same collective situation. This is what the collaboration in our class emphasized, what our early attempts at learning one another’s names and working in groups together helped us begin to realize. In all of our separate and different interpretations, we were working together to contribute to a wider collective interpretation. This was a pursuit we undertook well before the specter of the pandemic was even close to being realized. However, once the wave of the pandemic came crashing down — particularly on our state — I, and I hope others, began to realize how absolutely integral and necessary our collective interpretations were. If it were not for my contact with my group and the open and often very emotional conversations of our class, I think I would have felt much more alone not only as someone isolated from everyone else but also as a reader. Even in the best of times, I find that I have a tendency to get caught in a swirl of looping thoughts when I am reading and writing; I become unsure of whether or not what I am thinking has any basis, I find that there are holes in my thought process, I am overwhelmed by ideas and unsure how to pare them down. Inevitably, I turn to a friend, to a roommate, to a professor, to an unwitting barista at Cricket’s, and ask them their thoughts, talk to them (or at them), and learn from them. In the best of times, this is how I have always worked, my cogs turn when they are turned by others. My awareness of this process has been sharpened, heightened by new amplification of our separateness-for-the-sake-of-togetherness. Once the easy ability to turn to others for help was taken from me — in order to help myself and others — I realized how important it was to all of us. I think that our collective experience as a group, class, and world, has made us all aware of how we are separate but together, and how it is the concomitance of these two realities that knits us into a wider firmament. 

As I move into a different world, different from college, different from classtime, different, even, from the world as we thought of it before, I will be holding onto this realization. I will hold on to the fact that I am a star in a wider constellation. Together, our separate entities compose harmony. 

 

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