The Limitations of Collaboration Revealed Through Morrison’s Trilogy and The Divine Comedy

Two heads are better than one and three are better than two and so on; many hands make light work. The benefits behind the ability of “the many” may seem obvious at first glance, as it is apparent that tasks can be accomplished quicker in such a manner, but it is extremely rewarding when you observe the merit beyond dexterity and efficiency. When one takes into consideration the quality possible through cooperation and the growth possible to each party afterwards, the weight of collaboration becomes extremely apparent. Collaboration exists as one of the most powerful devices in human existence. Its weight has been constantly reinforced and acknowledged throughout history—some might even argue it a quintessential aspect or defining characteristic of humanity, as most substantial progress in this world has been realized through years and years of collaboration between a multitude of people passing on and exchanging information. This level of collaboration that expands beyond temporal boundaries or physical space is commonly observable through notated literature. Toni Morrison’s trilogy, specifically the novel Paradise, reinterprets some of the material from Dante’s The Divine Comedy and provides several layers of collaboration within and without (between the authors’ writing and the characters’ of her novel) the text that reveal the long lasting benefits of collaboration. Morrison’s novel allows for a modern perspective of some of the material from Dante’s Paradiso, offering a conversation on the justice system and the long lasting difficulties pushed onto African Americans within the United States as a result of slavery, injustice, discrimination and exclusion.

In Dante’s Paradiso 19 he raises a question that, as Dante scholar Teodolinda Barolini stated in “Injustice On The Banks Of The Indus”, has existed with the reader and remained since the first canto of the Inferno with the introduction of the guide and pagan poet Virgil: what is just about the condemning of virtuous souls that never received the opportunity to worship or know about Christ. While the idea has existed as a temporal problem for figures like Virgil who lived and died before the birth of Christ, the pilgrim acknowledges that the dilemma does not stop with time. Here Dante breaks from the limits of time and brings forward to the Eagle of Justice acknowledgement of the disadvantage of geographical difference in regards to the ability to learn of Christ and reach heaven. In response the Eagle tells Dante that such injustice is beyond him, for “who are you to sit upon the bench, to judge events a thousand miles away, when your own vision spans so brief a space?” (Paradiso. 19. 79-81). As strange as it is, this idea of unjust justice immediately brings me back to the Inferno in the consideration of what is truly just, especially when thinking about Morrison’s work in relation to Dante’s Divine ComedyBeloved, for example, was a novel fill to the brim with an unregulated system of sin and consequence that simply did not make sense; those who committed terrible sin were not at the mercy of any direct consequence, while those like Paul D or Halle were at the hands of undeserved consequence (and the lack of justice does not necessarily end there, as there are several characters in Jazz who are at the mercy of a different kind of injustice, as well as Paradise, though they are all executed in a different manner. They also each move forward in time chronologically).

It makes me wonder if Morrison’s trilogy and collaboration with Dante’s work is just a giant conversation on several layers and types of injustice that exist and affect people, just as it exists in Dante’s trilogy—though in this case it might be a discussion on how it affects people of colour, who I don’t imagine had a voice in Dante’s work. (I know that wouldn’t exactly be it because Morrison said in an interview we read, that Beloved for example was not about slavery, but I still think there might be something there on the injustices towards African Americans in the United States throughout the last several centuries. I figured I would bring it up)

Moving forward, it is essential that Morrison’s novel Paradise be discussed in more detail in order to observe the author’s intent with the creation of the plot, setting, and characters within the work. At the focus of both the physical town and the collaboration within the narrative stands The Oven, a brick kiln and shrine to the town’s unity. It is often the center of a purposefully crafted idea or thing that holds the most significance, done so because it shall quickly catch the eye of all who lay their eyes on it; it is the center of attention and something of great significance—its placement in the center is done so in order to represent a physical importance, as well as a symbolic. As my classmates Randall Lombardi and Claire Corbeaux have pointed out, the transition and transformation of Haven—a town founded during the late 19th century in Oklahoma which mirrors the actual movement of African Americans in the United States at the time, in their journey to gain their own agency—into “New Haven” and eventually Ruby is marked by the centerpiece of the town in its reconstruction: The Oven. The piece holds power and weight in what it has done for the residents of Haven; the Oven exists as the first thing that was built by the town’s founders. It is a source of unity, community, and nourishment. Even with the fall of Haven that occurred during WWII, the oven remained and maintained its importance. With the development of the new town Ruby, it was cemented in the center as a symbol of their accomplishments—in this way it certainly parallels the accomplishments of the Oklahoma residents described in the above video.

The video on Oklahoma from the National Geographic provides historical context of the Oklahoma area and its significance to the development of African American people’s agency after slavery. While extreme issues of racism and discrimination still exist at the time and continue to affect African Americans at the time, the amount of progress and  they were able to create in these towns towards “the american dream” was remarkable—and so Reverend S. S. Jones documented it via short films, providing glimpses into these communities that served as a haven for African Americans. These actual events are evidence of Morrison’s adaptation of older literature of content in slightly more modern and extremely important events and issues (In terms of Dante’s gain in the collaboration, it certainly reveals the immortality of his work).

On top  the town’s most symbolic landmark, the oven which existed since the founding of the original town of Haven, providing warmth and stability for the town’s people who were suffering at the hands of discrimination and exclusion, exist the words: “the furrow of the brow”—though long ago it’s said that the full phrase was “beware the furrow of the brow”. The older generation of residents who were around  for the founding of Ruby, as well as the move and renovation of the oven, interpret the text in its original form; as Randall had commented in our canvas discussion, this interpretation might offer a conversation of divine action and the accomplishment of what is just. The exclusion and discrimination  that disabled the people of Haven and led to the town’s fall left behind a strong impression on the townsfolk that would carry on with them into the creation of Ruby, as well as create a subconscious bias in them as they attempt to maintain their community.

The younger generation shares a majority of the original text, with a simple alteration to the beginning of the phrase, which is likely the result of their own experience and experience with exclusion as residents of Ruby: “be the furrow of the brow”. This perhaps opens a conversation on the taking of one’s future through direct action, different from what has been laid down by their founders; it might even break away from the current system of exclusion that exists in Ruby—an exclusion that exists as the direct result of the anti-black discriminatory exclusion faced by the townsfolk of Haven, though it now functions to exclude those of lighter skin complexions in their community regarding the colour of their skin (such exclusion led to Ruby Smith’s death). The slightly different interpretation maintains the idea of commanding a better future, but centers around a slight shift in perspective only possible to those of the younger generation. 

Just as the older generation viewed exclusion in their time and responded by shifting and creating a new town, history appears to be repeating itself; the repetition of the past is giving the younger generation their own experience with  exclusion facilitated by the hierarchy of the nine original families and a concept of purity. When the men of Ruby refuse to find medical treatment for Delia Best, a light skinned woman, she ends up dying of childbirth; this event unfortunately mirrors the tragic death of the woman the town was named after: Ruby Smith. It is clear that while both groups believe in the development of agency for African Americans in the United States, they have slightly different perspectives and methods which have been  impacted by their own generational experience and the exclusion each group has faced. The younger group might be searching  for something broader in terms of inclusion (as seen with the interactions between the convent), while the older group appears to be aiming to contain the inclusion the small town has established for itself. (In a similar light the position of the oven has even shifted slightly, as Rachel pointed out, from a source of warmth and the culmination of the town’s efforts to an area of gathering and inclusivity).

The Oven connects all of the inhabitants of Ruby. It stands as both a symbolic device for the town’s founding & unity and a physical meeting area for both the younger & older generation. The device, as a meeting point, reveals collaboration that occurs in the town center between the two groups— more appropriately, as my classmate Randall put it, the oven reveals a lack of cooperation that highlights the necessity and benefits of collaboration. The dispute that occurs between the two groups regarding The Oven, leaves the two groups unwilling to come to terms and understand one another, ultimately facilitating an environment that either group does not desire; this is an environment that enables more discrimination and leads to potential violence, violence completely against the town’s intent—this leads to conflict against the convent which represents an area devoid of judgement, one that provides acceptance and nurturing and does not require purity or history. The entire situation provides a position for collaboration, it reveals a situation where an open ear and acceptance would have led to the best situation. As my classmates have stated, the younger generation could have been more understanding of the difficulties the older generation and the trauma of exclusion and discrimination—as Claire pointed out—that left them filled with a concern and vigilance and skepticism and worry. The same can be said about the older generation—though it is important to mention the weight of exclusion and trauma faced by the older generation; it is not easy to overcome such intense feelings. In that sense it might even further prove the necessity of collaboration which can open people’s perspectives and help people adapt and grow (though a willingness to collaborate is certainly necessary).

There are methods beyond apparent and surface level appropriation that an idea might be translated or interpreted into a different medium; ideas may be brought in elaborately and interwoven into a narrative through tendencies or through small nuances or a more general interpretation of an idea. It is with this “beneath the ground”, deeper translation, that collaboration is truly enabled. In this form of translation, extreme thought and effort are possible, resulting in something that both builds on the idea and offers something to the idea, and it is often with this—that is true collaboration, when the included parties might learn something from each other or gain together. While it might immediately appear questionable, whether or not a modern text would be able to effectively collaborate with and build with a staple in old literature written in the fourteenth century (one might think: how can someone collaborate, truly, with a text that has been completed or where the author is long gone), that is exactly what Toni Morrison’s Paradise does with Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso and it goes to show the powerful possibilities of collaboration—in fact, as Randall had pointed out, Morrison’s entire trilogy does an excellent job at collaborating with Dante’s Divine Comedy; moving forward on that, he points out Morrison’s ability to take Dante’s work and effectively apply it into her own.

I believe it important to note, at least in the acknowledgement of the collaboration that happens between the two authors and their works, that while Morrison’s work gains something through its translation of several of the ideas from Paradiso, Dante’s work is also gaining something. Similar to what Rachel said, I believe that Morrison’s work is an opportunity for the realization of certain ideas, or a “showcase”, in an important and more modern perspective; in this specific situation and text it would be the way people are judged on earth. This modern appropriation reveals the impact of such a text and the immortality in its meaning, as well as provides an opportunity to acknowledge serious issues that occurred in history or continue to occur (even if it occurs in the background of the characters’ lives and is not the main idea being communicated through the novels). It is apparent that Morrison is offering a conversation of different types of love through the lives of her characters and did not exactly want the meaning of each text to necessarily be centered on the horrible context of some of the characters.

That is at least what I take through her comment on what her novel Beloved was about—though each of the texts in her trilogy do speak out about some of the really large issues in history surrounding the unfair, un-right, and unjust treatment of African Americans in the United States, ranging from slavery and the fugitive act in Beloved, to an unjust legal system and the difficulties of an urban lifestyle in Jazz, to a more apparent conversation that happens regarding justice and the extreme difficulties for African Americans migrating to Oklahoma, dealing with the difficulties of discrimination and colourism which is well translated in Paradise through the inhabitants of Ruby, whose migrant ancestors were turned away from Fairly, built a new town of Haven, and after the collapse of Haven built Ruby.  Morrison’s work does an excellent job at its focus on the conversation of love and justice as translated from Paradiso, which takes the reader through the ten levels of heaven, discerning the reasoning behind several figures and the level of heaven they exist in—but with the historical coverage and acknowledgement she maintains, it ends up offering a lot more as well.

I think that ultimately the collaboration between such distant writers, at least temporally, reveals the limits of collaboration—quite frankly, it reveals that collaboration knows no boundary and tells us that there exists an infinite number of possibilities through collaboration and really the human condition of trial and error; community is something that exists as a facilitator of growth and I think that it is important to maintain that awareness, so they it might carry forward and continue a pattern of growth for our world. That is especially prominent given our current situation, amidst a global pandemic, where communication may not be the easiest, but is extremely important and useful and amazing. In regards to the specific path that I follow, I believe it just goes to show the strength in my own pre-existing opinions on the power of community—I truly  think that the ability to join, facilitate, and build communities is essential and that bringing in other people so that they might do the same and continue the cycle, growing even more interconnected communities through collaboration, is imperative to the development of our society.

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