Paradise and the Painful Practice of Growth.

In the interest of clarity, I think it worth starting this move, and by extension this essay, by confessing that after all the work we’ve done in class this semester, and all the discussions we’ve had about Morrison’s novels and Dante’s divine comedy, there is still much about both that confuses me. The Eagle of Divine Justice, most prominently featured in cantos 18,19, and 20, is chief among the aspects of both Morrison’s and Dante’s works that I find perplexing. Throughout our process of reading, discussing, interpreting, and writing about both Paradise and Paradiso, I found myself struggling, as I repeatedly tried and failed to find the larger significance and meaning to this imposing figure. I understood the basics of it: the Eagle, as we see it in Paradiso, is formed from an “array of fire” (line 107), made, as Dante tells us, out of the numerous “blessed spirits”(line 88) of “saintly being”(line 76). These same spirits, before taking the form of an Eagle, write out a phrase in the sky with their bodies: “ Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram”(lines 91-93), which translates to “Love justice, you who are judges on Earth”. From the moment I read Dante’s description of the Eagle’s formation and the phrase the spirits wrote with it, I knew both the phrase and the Eagle were significant. Where I found myself struggling however, was trying to pin down their significance, especially in the context of Morrison’s novel. I found myself searching for a meaning or message displayed through the Eagle and its phrase that I could assuredly and persuasively argue Morrison’s stance on in relation to Paradise, and consistently came up empty. I realise now that I couldn’t find such a message or meaning because one simply doesn’t exist. The confusion I was feeling about the Eagle, and frustration and turmoil I felt in my fruitless search for answers that didn’t exist, were in fact, exactly what I should’ve been focusing on all along, because in the end, it was never the answers that mattered, but the question, and the thoughts and discussions it could spark. 

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is a symbol of tradition, but also of legacy. The oven was a fundamental part of the original town of freed slaves, Haven, and was brought with the descendants of those freed slaves when they left Haven and went on to found Ruby.  More importantly, to many of the citizens of Ruby, the oven is one of the last connections they have to not only Haven, but to the generations before them who were turned away by everyone and had to build a community and town from nothing. To those citizens of Ruby, the oven is the one material reminder of the countless stories that the community of both Ruby and Haven passed down from generation to generation of the struggles and hardships the founders of Haven faced, and what they accomplished. The oven’s historical and cultural significance to the people of Ruby is only compounded by the fact that it served as an important tool during the early days of Haven, as well as a communal gathering place for decades following Haven’s establishment. On top of this, however, the oven finds itself a new significance in Ruby during the events of Paradise, as a debate over the words on the ovens lip, as well as the meaning of those words, occurs throughout the whole town. Importantly, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines, with the vast majority of the older generations in Ruby believing that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” and that this was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement of God, while the vast majority of the younger generations of Ruby believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God. The oven’s appearance also plays a role in its significance, particularly after unknown members of Ruby’s younger generation paint a “fist, jet black with red fingernails” on the Oven’s back wall. This symbol of black power goes to further illustrate the generational divide between the old and young people of Ruby. As for how the oven is in conversation with Dante’s eagle of divine justice, the main feature of the oven is the message on its lip. Either interpretation of the words all refer to the eyebrow of Dante’s eagle. More than that, however, the nebulous and interpretable nature of the words on the Oven’s lip directly mirror the Eagle and the phrase associated with it. To some, the eagle might come across as a warning, an ever vigilant watcher of those on Earth, there to constantly witness who follows it’s commandment, and who does not. Others may see it as a role model, a symbol of how those “who are judges on earth” are supposed to act, constantly looking for injustice to correct. Others still might see it as the very embodiment of the justice that the Latin phrase tells us we are supposed to love. After all, it is quite literally referred to in this very prompt as “the eagle of divine justice”. This inherent interpretability of the Eagle in relation to “Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram” is the perfect backdrop for the dueling interpretations of the words on the oven.

The residents of Ruby find themselves in a rather heated debate over the exact words and phrasing of the phrase on the Oven’s lip.  As mentioned in a previous move, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines. Most of the older adults in Ruby argue that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” before the Oven was moved to Ruby, at which time, a few of the letters fell off.  Most of the younger adults and teenagers, however, believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow”. What I find interesting about this argument as that while both sides, especially the older side, of this debate seem to attach a lot of values and moral significance to these phrases, the debate is consistent with most debates over literary interpretation, as every individual person has a slightly different idea of what their side’s phrase means. We as readers are never given an exact summary of what either side’s message means in contrast with the other. Sure, we’re given glimpses as to what individuals on both sides believe their side’s phrase signifies in contrast to the other’s, like when Harper Jury explains that “‘Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ‘Be’ means you putting Him aside and you the power.”(Morrison page 87), but these glimpses don’t give us the whole story, as they come from arguments that are inherently biased toward one side or another, because everyone who’s arguing feels strongly that their interpretation is the correct one. An overall summary of the two sides would be that the older side believes that “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”  was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement and power of God. They see this as a connection to the history and plight of their community, who were wronged many times by people that they view as not having properly bewared the furrow of God’s brow, and see the act of remembering that message on the Oven as a championing of all that the people of Haven accomplished in spite of those that wronged them.  Therefore, they become incredibly angry at the younger people of Ruby’s interpretation of the message, as they see it as an insult to the legacy of Haven and its inhabitants, and view the switch from Beware to Be in the Oven’s message as an arrogant assertion not only that those on the younger side of this argument believe themselves to be equal to god, but are also too self-involved to respect a message that does not directly involve them in some way.

The younger side, however, believes in the message of “Be the Furrow of His Brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God.  They seem to believe this as they are clearly unhappy with the way things are both in Ruby and the world at large, and want a force of change able to help them fix what disappoints them about the world. As such, their interpretation of the oven’s message is almost a call to arms, asking them to be the force of change they want to see in the world. This is further demonstrated by the black fist with red fingernails that they painted on the Oven, as the black fist is a prominent symbol in the black power movement, which sought to change the status quo in order to promote equality for people of color as well as pride in their heritage. They see this as honoring the legacy of Haven and its founders by following their example and coming together to do something great. 

It seems to me that the citizens of Ruby have proven by the end of the novel that they are incapable of large scale, inter-generational collaboration. We see throughout the book examples of small groups within Ruby using collaboration to accomplish their goals, but we never see the entire population of the town willing to work together on anything. I think this is intentional, as Morrison is trying to show us that the town is falling apart due to the inability of its citizens to work together as one to achieve something. Every time they even get close to a semblance of unity, an argument or violent incident occurs that causes them to divide again amongst themselves, either on generation lines, familial lines, or even gender lines.  I also think Morrison does a good job at showing us that things didn’t always used to be this way in Ruby, part of what makes the falling apart of this community so catastrophic to those who love it is that there was a time when everyone in it could collaborate without it devolving into argument and conflict. I believe Morrison shows us this not just in the stories the older generations treasure so dearly, but also more recently in the timeline of the novel. I’d argue that the last time all of Ruby was able to collaborate in earnest was at the horse race over a decade before the start of the novel. I think that’s, in part, why the older generation of Ruby citizens value the Oven and it’s legacy so much, as it stands as a reminder of one of the last great feats accomplished through the collaboration of everyone in their community, the founding of Ruby. One thing I find especially important about the citizens of Ruby is that even when they can’t come together as one, collaboration in the town does not disappear, it just occurs in smaller units. The younger generation collaborates to come up with a new interpretation of the words on the Oven, the Older generation comes together in what could be seen as collaboration to condemn and scold the younger generation for their new interpretation. The Morgan twins collaborate in almost everything they do up until the end of the novel, especially in the molding of K.D. into a suitable heir to the Morgan business and reputation. I would also like to point out that there is a very clear message that the shift from the whole town as one collaborative community to these smaller familial and generational collaborative groups is a negative one, as collaborative efforts can be used for good and evil purposes alike.  It is demonstrated throughout the novel that these smaller groups dedicate most of their collaborative efforts to the purpose of battling a common enemy. The generational groups may be collaborative within their group, but they’re engaged in an ideological battle against the other.  The men Lone spots at the oven are indeed collaborating with each other, but the goal of their collaboration: to either drive away or kill the women of the Convent, is unambiguously unethical. It seems to me that Morrison is warning us all that if we become so intolerant to the people and communities around us that we are unwilling to collaborate with them for any reason, we will inevitably find ourselves trapped in an “us against them” mentality that continuously divides us and consistently leads to conflict, violence, and destruction.  

One thing about Paradise, and indeed, all of Morrison’s novels that we’ve read as a part of this class, is that throughout them all, Morrison uses every means at her disposal to raise questions to the reader that seem to be of dire importance, and in every instance, leaves those questions unanswered. I have to believe that this is an intentional decision on her part, in order to provoke careful thought, introspection, and discussion on the part of her readers. While I realize there’s an argument to be made that this is another aspect that she appropriates from Dante, I found it much more prominent, and much more powerful, in Morrison’s work. Throughout this course, I found myself frequently finding small bits, a character detail here, an interaction there, a repeated word or phrase here, an interesting description there, that raised so many questions. Questions like “Why does Toni Morrison keep talking about things that “wear her[Denver] out”(Beloved page 15) in the beginning of Beloved?”, “Does Violet have some sort of precognitive abilities?”, and “Who is the man that appears to Connie on page 251 of Paradise? Is it the same man that Soane calls her ‘friend’? ”  Each time this would happen, I’d take a mental note of the question, and as I continued to read, a part of me would be searching through the remainder of the book for an answer to these questions, for the payoffs to what felt to me like fascinating and incredibly important setups, but each time, I came up empty.  If I’m honest, this was disappointing and occasionally frustrating for me, as in the case of each of these questions, I felt like I had found something deeply significant to understanding the novel as a whole. However, in time, and due in large part to discussions and conversations I’ve had throughout this class with both my fellow classmates and Professor McCoy, I have come to realize that these questions aren’t meant to have answers.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve picked up on this sooner, as Paradise is full of people searching for answers that don’t exist. Each of the girls at the convent ended up there in search of the answer to a question that haunted them, and none of them find it. For Mavis, that question is “how do I escape the grief I feel for my children and the guilt I feel at being responsible for their death?”. For Gigi, it’s “how do I get a terrible memory out of my mind?”. For Seneca, it’s “What do I do with my life?”. For Pallas, it’s “How can I  recover from the trauma I’ve faced?” (Note: While Pallas does physically recover, there’s no easy answer to how to emotionally and mentally recover from what she went through). For Connie, the question is raised twice, but both times, the question is the same; “How do I cope with someone I loved leaving me?”  While none of the women find the answers they’re looking for, they do find each other, and in doing so, find different ways to resolve the problems in their lives that their questions are trying to solve. The citizens of Ruby have a less fortunate ending, as the question that they as a collective seem to have on their mind, especially the older generation, is “how do we keep Ruby from falling apart, and stop its citizens from dividing and eventually scattering?”. Throughout the novel, we see that every attempt to find an answer to this question, and all efforts made in service of accomplishing the goal outlined in the question, inevitably backfire, because, much like I was when starting this class, the citizens of Ruby (especially the older generation) are so obsessed with finding an answer to their question that they forget the purpose of the question in the first place. That is why, in the end, Ruby’s most devoted citizens end up having to bear witness to their town and community suffering the fate they tried so desperately to avoid. It’s why things don’t work out for the citizens of Ruby, and why, I think, my earlier attempts in this class to understand Morrison’s works (especially Paradiso) in a meaningful enough way to write something substantial about them were so fraught with frustration. In both the case of the citizens of Ruby, as well as my own struggles with Morrison’s work, the whole point of the questions we find ourselves asking is not to find an answer, but to get us to think both critically and introspectively, and challenge our own assumptions. This is especially fitting, because for me, that’s what this course has been all about.

Before this course, I assumed that essay writing was an exclusively solitary activity. I assumed every question raised in a piece of literature had one or more answers embedded within that same text. I was confused by the very concept of both/and because my learning was built upon the concept of either/or. Each time, my old ways of thinking were challenged and eventually proven wrong. Our collaborative essay and abstract have been some of the best writing exercises I’ve done, I’ve learned the hard way that Morrison doesn’t do clear-cut answers, and I’ve begun finding both/and’s everywhere I look. This process has been uncomfortable, fairly challenging, and a bit painful at times, but I can tell that I’ve grown as a reader, writer, student, thinker, and person, and I wholeheartedly believe that the way I look at literature has been changed. And while I will be the first to admit that I’m still grappling with finding meaning and making sense of certain aspects of Morrison’s works, I’m no longer searching them for answers, but rather for the discussions and dialogue they encourage. Had the people of Ruby been able to do the same, I believe they might’ve found a way to stop their community from dissolving out from under them. 

As far as how I can apply what I’ve learned in this class going forward. I’m only a sophomore at Geneseo right now, so I have the incredible good fortune to make use of my new understanding of collaborative writing, the importance and relevance of both/and, and the necessity of letting go of the desire for answers in literature, as a student here for two more years. After that, I intend to become an English teacher at a high school or middle school level, and I can say without a doubt that I will certainly be applying all of the previously mentioned skills in reading and analyzing literature not just to understand it for myself, but to help shape the way my future students understand it as well.

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