Dante & Morrison’s Reminders about Control, Communication & Kindness Amidst the Pandemic

Morrison’s Paradise seems more relevant than ever in the face of a global pandemic that emphasizes the need for collaboration, at personal, local, communal, interstate, and global levels. What’s fortunate for this class (while remarking on the privilege that we bask in, being able to keep food on the table and shelter above our heads), is in this time of enormous uncertainty and anxiety, Morrison provides not a blueprint for a way out of this mess but a place for discussion.

Paradise, ironically enough, is not a Paradise. Built off the labour and sweat of many men and women who escaped persecution based off solely their skin, the older generation seem righteously proud and stubborn in the way that they hold onto tradition and markers of progress. Morrison embodies this in the Oven, a device that enabled the Founders of Haven (and later Ruby) to survive. The Oven is a physical manifestation, literally, where the generations collide. It is something that has been with the families of Paradise since their founding, proof of their struggle in the years when the original founders had worked “eighteen-to-twenty hour days Haven people once needed just to keep alive” (111) versus the younger generation who “could hunt quail for pleasure rather than the desperate pleasure needed to meet a wife and eight children at table without shame” (111). As quality of life improves, so does what is needed to thrive, from Haven to Ruby. As time goes on and the people of Haven relocate to Ruby, what is needed in Haven is no longer needed. On page 103, Morrison writes “Minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value. What was needed in Haven’s early days had never been needed in Ruby”. There is also the mention that during its move from Haven to Ruby, the women “resented the truck space given over to it – rather than have a few more sacks of seed, rather than shoats or even a child’s crib”.

These sentiments boil over in the inscription over the lip of the Oven, something that is not even remembered in full, or otherwise transcribed. The older generation states that the message, as they remember it, is “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” whereas the younger generation state that logically, it should be “Be the Furrow of His Brow”. The difference comes down to Beware and Be. The former, touted by the older generation, preaches respect of ancestors (filial piety?) and a fear of straying from tradition, whereas the latter seeks to challenge those same traditions set in stone (or metal).

I think as in real life, each generation has their ways – in a closed off community such as Paradise, these issues become even more intensified. As it says on page 103, in Ruby, the Oven had “no real value”, except for baptisms. As Ruby grew and Haven became a distant memory, “what was needed back in Haven’s early days had never been needed in Ruby”. The Oven had been an essential part of their life – “that had witnessed the baptised entering sanctified life – an was now reduced to watching the lazy young”. What gets lost in the intergenerational communication is perhaps both sides’ refusal to compromise – the older generation refuse to bend their stubborn minds, and the young, in all their haughty behaviour, are bend on being disrespectfully hanging around the oven, climbing it.

So, what to do? Should each generation come together in a mutual understanding that the town they share is something to be treasured, and that everybody has good intentions for the others, at the end of the day? One would hope so, but one does not read Morrison for a bubbly understanding of the human condition. An instance of collaboration (or lack thereof) is in Seneca’s chapter, during the “losing battle with Reverend Misner over words attached to the lip of the Oven … an argument, fuelled in part, what nobody talked about: young people in trouble or acting up behind every door”. The young are misbehaving, coping with past traumas by disappearing into thin air (Billie Delia), getting drunk to deal with memories from the Vietnam War (Menus), not leaving their bed (Arnette) and many others. As each denomination and the town of Ruby gathers around the Oven for this conversation, it is clear that collaboration is out of the question. The young “did not want to discuss; they wanted to instruct” and the older generation emphasizes mannerisms over communication with the young “You say ‘sir’ when you speak to men”, to which the young reply “What is talk if it is not ‘back’?”. That last retort is an all-too familiar reply by those called “smart-mouths” by stubborn adults, something I can empathize with.

Once again, the older generation’s arguments come down to tradition and heritage; Pulliam states that “Nobody is going to mess with a thing our grandfathers built. They made each and every brick one at a time with their own hands …. They dug the clay, not you … when their own shelter was sticks and sod …. And we respected what they had gone through to do it”. Where collaboration refuses to happen is the moment when they disagree on the intent of the writing on the Oven. Reverend Pulliam proclaims “Motto? Motto? We talking Command!” to which Destry, speaking for the young, replies “God’s justice is His alone… If we follow His commandments, we’ll be His voice”.

 The younger generation seems to resent the lack of pragmatism that the older generation brings to arguing about the Oven – in the stubbornness, the emphasis on mannerisms over actual debate, the way they are shot down by Deacon and authority. This is reflected in Dante’s writing, the first connection in verse 93 of Canto 18 of Paradiso, as translated by Baroliniano as “Love justice you who rule the Earth”, and the reluctance that the older generation, often translated through Steward, has in accepting change that the younger generation’s haughty remarks against the perceived conservative ways o the older generation. Baroliniano further describes the two “challenges” put forth by Dante to the Eagle, asking “Where is the justice that could condemn a man” / “Where is his fault if he does not believe?” to which the Eagle answers “Accept your limits as a human and give up trying to understand that which human intellects are not equipped to fathom”.

The relevant cantos accompanying Paradise, are obviously Paradise but beyond that, Dante takes us on a journey that describes dowries, clothes, sport, language, shares stories of origins, family names, and much more about Florence. These cantos take on a “peculiarly epic nature of the transmission and preservation of a specific people and their culture”. Rereading Patricia within Paradise shows that this novel too is an epic – it describes a people and their familial histories, the origins, ways and everything in between.

Paradiso Cantos 18-19 is a parallel to page 87 of paradise, where the older generation, voiced by Nathan DuPres, the Reverend and Misner and the young on the other side of the side of the conversation, arguing that “If we follow His commandments, we’ll be His voice, His retribution, As a people —”. The young in Ruby, just like Dante in Paradiso, question the logic of keeping the inscription / name of The Oven the same, saying that faith is in doing and following “His commandments”, not rituals passed down generations and the elders argue that “God’s justice is His alone”. Along these lines, Dante struggles with how a just God can be just, if he damns a “perfectly virtuous soul who was not exposed to the teachings of Scripture”, to which the Eagle answers “Accept your limits as a human and give up trying to understand which the human intellects are not equipped to fathom”.

The Oven that had birthed Haven and eventually been rebuilt in Ruby, had “was now reduced to watching the lazy, young”. I’m not quite sure the relations to Dante Eagle, but I’ll add to this (late) response with more after rereading Dante. 

On a personal note, this response reminded me of some politics in South Korea. Much like the United States, the “progressive” party in Korea relies on the votes of the educated urban demographic, while the “conservative” party relies on the votes of the rural workers whose lives are primarily spent farming. During my time as a draftee, I was told several things by my captain & other officers;

1) That the sole purpose of the South Korean army was to last three days, in the face of an invasion, until the U.S army could be there

2) That if there was an invasion, the only branch of the SK army / navy / air force that could last the necessary 72 hours, is the Navy

3) And that statistically, the North Korean forces outnumbered the South Korean forces 2:1 

But in the context of the poli-sci courses I had taken, general knowledge and the history I knew of the Korean conflict, I also knew that any hostile action, in this day and age from North Korea, would be a suicide move for the regime. In addition, I often overheard fellow draftees talk about how redundant and frustrated they were that they had to even be in the draft. After some talks with my sister who majored in sociology and political science in undergraduate & graduate school, I realised that the political machinery of Korea relies on the myth of the Korean War – whenever the conservatives hold majority votes in government, the draft sentence stays the same or is increased – and vice versa for the progressive party. 

To take it a step further, those who fought actively in the Korean War are old and will pass away soon – the generation that ran away during the war are old, as well. Many of the new generation and youth know this conflict as an inconvenience, much like the youth of Paradise see the struggles of their ancestors as theoretical, conceptual stories than anything else. Though a niche point, I thought it was an interesting connection to Paradise and my lived experiences. 

As an Creative Writing English major graduating in a week (as unreal as this all feels), I am reminded that writing is a solitary act – but the stories I write cannot exist in a vacuum. Human experiences, particularly the niche set of experiences that I alone inhabit, are what make me a writer. My writing about generational differences in regards to myself and my parents, perceptions of the Korean War, experiences as an international student (especially the last) cannot exist without the writings of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”, or countless stories of Korean-Americans’ immigrating to the U.S, whether it is in prose or media like “Kim’s Convenience”.

Something that was said in class on a Wednesday (I am not sure which) is that Toni Morrison’s appropriation of the classic works of Dante are not indicative of Morrison’s omniscience in all things life, race, or Dante but rather an attempt to create discussions and discourse around such topics. This is the same for Dante, whose depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (no matter how much they were a personal diss track toward his political enemies) were attempts at recreating these places, rather than him proclaiming his writing to be the next blueprint for the afterlife.

In that vein, while the act of my writing is a solitary act, it doesn’t live in a vacuum – whatever stories I write that are influenced by Morrison, shaped by Dante, all show that writing, even after publication, is a collaborative act.

At the macro, global level, there is a pandemic raging through the world. As I type this sentence on the 9th of May  at 6:34 pm, I am seeing tweets about a COVID-19 patient in Seoul who despite knowing that they have the disease, decided to go clubbing in Itaewon (the ‘American’ side of town where the first American military bases were created after the Korean War), and has exposed countless people to the disease. This has led to all bars and clubs closing throughout Seoul, just as social distancing rules and orders were lifted about a week ago. As I scroll through Facebook, I see that a man in Pennsylvania decided to drive his truck into a ceremony honouring EMTs and others on the frontline; there are also protests to reopen America through the United States, and presumably if a vaccine was to be perfected, anti-vaccine believers who would hinder the spread of such vaccine. I am reminded that creativity is a collaborative effort – but also that public safety and our very lives are. As South Korea gets COVID-19 under control, individual states are purchasing masks and other equipment from Korea, and I am seeing tweets about other nations who have shipped pallets of equipment to fight COVID-19 with beautiful poems about coming together in times of hardship.

What hinders collaboration most seems to be greed. I am reading articles about state governors who are keeping their PPE supplies & purchases a secret from the federal government, fearing that it would be seized. Next to these, I am seeing that Trump had stocks in a medical supply company who profited from his earlier statement that hydroxychloroquine is an effective way to combat COVID-19 – and many, many other forms of greed between the federal and state government’s. Trump’s touting that the economy needs to open up, for example, is driven by fear that without a strong economy and a sense of normalcy this summer and fall, he will not be reelected – another act of greed.

I think it’s naive to say that the world needs to remember that we are one, be united in our humanity and all those motivational speeches. Just as it would be naive for Morrison to write that after all those arguments, that the elder residents of Ruby bent their stubborn views on sexuality and embraced the changing mindsets of the youth – and that the youth started to respect and meet the elders halfway. Unfortunately, what seems to unify the bad news in the world is greed, xenophobia and sexism – which is unfortunately the case in Morrison’s writing, all throughout the trilogy. 

The Gibbs’ Cycle of Reflective Writing starts at a summary of what took place. Then evaluation, reflection, conclusion, and a plan forward. In quarantine with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company, I have spent a lot of time reflecting upon my four years as a student at Geneseo, and six years associated with the school (if I count the years away as association with the school). At the end of the marathon that is undergraduate studies, you really do only stand on that stage by yourself – but through it all are your peers. Whether it is advocacy through Student Senate, or organising events, or working for CAS (god forbid), or simply being a good partner in a team project (such as collaborative essays in ENG424), everything does come down to collaboration. This is hard to remember, given the physical distance (and emotional that comes with physical distance) in these trying times, but I think that it is an important thing to keep in mind.

What comes to mind is the Eagle’s caution that we must as accept our limits as humans and give up what we cannot know. In this time of uncertainty whether political (with the November elections coming up) or emotional or otherwise, I think that perhaps the Eagle was right; we must remind ourselves that we are only human, and only attempt to control what we can.