Truth Through Collaboration

The eagle of divine Justice that appears to Dante in Paradiso is composed of the souls of the just, who speak to him as a collective being. Their individual accomplishments combine to form an image of divine justice, a concept beyond the mortal world and the comprehension of those within it. The Eagle says to Dante, “therefore, the vision that your world receives/ can penetrate into Eternal Justice/ no more than eye can penetrate the sea” (Paradiso 19.58-60). Therefore, the combination of these individual accomplishments may be the closest one can get to understanding true divine justice on earth. However, Dante still strives to understand the damnation of those who did not know God, yet were still just in their time on earth. He finds it difficult to comprehend the logic behind this damnation. Certain knowledge is necessary for salvation, but is not easily accessible by all. It seems that some are predestined for damnation when they are not put in a position to readily receive that information. The Eagle once again tells Dante that he is unable to understand divine justice, that he is not in a position “to judge events a thousand miles away, when your own vision spans so brief a space” (Paradiso 19.80-81). The most any single person can achieve while on earth is a small piece of true justice. On their own, they are unable to understand divine justice. However, through collaboration between multiple individuals, some version of divine justice can be reached.   

The generational conflicts within Toni Morrison’s Paradise reflect Dante’s conflicting feelings concerning divine justice in Paradiso. The oven was transported from the original town to the new town, Ruby. While it is a gathering place, it seems that the memories of past hardships have been transferred to this new town along with the oven. Thus, the oven has become a center for conflict. In the conversation surrounding which quote to place on the oven in Ruby, we are faced with an argument similar to the one between Dante and the Eagle. At the core of this argument is the younger generation’s belief in being an instrument of God, or to try and attain divine justice in the best way we can, to be a piece of his justice on earth. The elder generation believes that this is a form of blasphemy, that they should be wary of venturing into the realm of things beyond mortal knowledge, into the territory of God. he older generation the phrase “beware the furrow of his brow” calls them back to their past. The oven stands as a symbol of what they’ve gone through to reach Ruby. Their interpretation of the text is respect for where they’ve come from, as well as respect for their God. Reverence for their past holds the highest meaning. In this interpretation, the blasphemy in “be the furrow of his brow” is not only against blasphemy against God, but against their past. In order to “be” the furrow of his brow, the younger generation would be part of Him. To be his voice would indicate a sense of control over oneself, rather than being controlled by Him. This can be frightening, especially to an older generation who wants to retain a feeling of control by allocating power to that higher power.

Ruby is not Haven. Whether the oven in Paradise once read “beware” or “be” the furrow of his brow, the oven no longer says either; the letters fell off, the text no longer says what it once did. The different interpretations of the text are similar because they are what each generation knows the quote to be, what they have always believed it to say, even if not in words. The interpretations come from a similar place. However, through the failed attempts to agree on a quote brings the town farther apart. As with the pieces of the eagle’s brow, each interpretation in Ruby is a piece of the larger interpretation, and brings the community one step closer to truth. By failing to recognize this, the community is taking themselves farther away from truth, from divine justice. 

The men of Ruby also seem to feel a sense of responsibility for and power over the women, even those outside of their town, at the convent. They are brought together only in their need for control, over the quote on the oven and over their town. They are united in their disdain for the women at the convent, and their way of life. Until the argument over the text on the oven, the leadership in Ruby had never really been challenged. The younger generation, through their text, holds reverence for the future over the past, and the possibility of what their town can become, rather than what it once was. The younger generation has not lived through all the same things that the older has, they did not help to shape the town into what it is now, but rather, are participating in the process of shaping what it is about to become. They will “be the furrow of his brow” because they could help to define the new standards of justice in Ruby, or, leave it behind. Ruby is united, though, in this need for control over the future. The women at the convent are a threat to their interpretations of justice and of what is acceptable in society. After the events at the convent, the citizens wonder how their town can preserve “this hard-won heaven defined only by the absence of the unsaved, the unworthy and the strange? Who will protect them from their leaders?” (Morrison 306).      

The oven’s readers focus on the differences in their interpretations and become defensive rather than cooperative. There’s no room for open communication here. The oven breeds anger, argument and the violence against the women at the convent, as well as violence amongst the members of the town against each other. They’re trying to interpret the past, a past they were not present for, so they will never truly be able to reach a conclusion based in fact on their own. The residents of Ruby are not interested in compromise, so they would not be happy with any conclusion. True collaboration requires compromise and a genuine attempt to consider and understand other points of view. This argument seems to be a distraction from the real problems in their town, which leads to terrible action based on interpretations of divine justice. Sometimes, you can understand the present through the past. However, the residents of Ruby are too caught up in the past to evaluate their present. This prevents them from achieving a rational, honest debate. Additionally, interpretation itself is a collaboration between two parties. In this case, each resident and the text on the oven, rather than the two generations against each other.   

Paradiso does not always offer concrete answers, but rather points of interpretation that spark thought and conversation, and Morrison’s work highlights these points. The same can be said about Paradise. I tend to look for concrete answers when I read, and I struggle to make sense of things without them. However, there is a validity in each interpretation that lends itself to a both/and. Each interpretation that is based on and in conversation with the same source material could be true. No interpretation is any more true than another, yet each one contributes to a greater whole truth. This is something I continue to struggle with, as it’s difficult to know that you might not stumble upon a correct, concrete answer. The most correct answer is the one that is the most meaningful to you, based upon your own life experience and the moral system that you use to inform your decisions and interpretations. There is no proof that the oven said anything other than “furrow of his brow,” yet to some, it is fact that it once said something more simply because they believe in it. 

In terms of this process, it seems we are closer to finding truth through our combined efforts. Each individual interpretation contributes to a collective truth. Right now, as we’re all struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy, collaboration and communication are becoming more difficult, but are all the more vital. This is something I’m trying to hold onto personally right now amidst all the chaos, as it’s becoming more and more difficult to find ways to be creative. As creative people, we often feel unproductive, even useless if we aren’t constantly working on something. While this isn’t the case at all—it’s totally okay if you don’t feel like creating all the time right now given the state of the world—I find it’s so much easier for me to stay inspired while working on projects with or just bouncing ideas off of friends. Beginning a project outside of school with my friend gave me the inspiration I needed to come up with an idea for a creative project for class, and create something truly meaningful to me. Before, I had been struggling to find the motivation to work on the project. The connections we establish and foster during this time inform everything else going on in our lives. We are parts of a greater whole, a bigger picture, right now and always.