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. 

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