Collaboration as Personal and Social Growth in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy and All of Our Lives.

            It is no secret that collaboration is a necessary part of life. It’s easy to see this when we look around our school, workplace, or community; all sorts of groups, clubs, and organizations collaborate to accomplish both the tasks we appreciate, like having a well-prepared professor in a classroom to lead a group of interested students in discussion, and those we may take for granted, like having the floors swept or the trash removed every evening. However, often as humans, our pride, or spirit of self-reliance can cause us individually to imagine that we do not need to rely on others, that we can figure things out for ourselves. The most unfortunate result of such an attitude is often that we miss out the richness life offers when we make meaningful connections with others and allow them to influence our thinking and actions. This refusal to let others in is at the heart of most of the suffering we find in the three Toni Morrison novels we read this semester. Whether it was Sethe’s withdrawal from society in Beloved, Joe’s emotional distance from Violet in Jazz, or the division caused by a difference in interpretation of the words on the oven’s lip in Paradise, the inability to collaborate effectively, even if one or both parties have what we might excuse as a “good reason,” is the cause of most chronic problems for the protagonists of each story. What all these works can help us to see is that the mental safety barriers we put up to protect ourselves from disappointment or rejection are often precisely that, barriers, but barriers that prevent the flow of love, good-faith, and healing in both directions and that these need to be overcome if we want to achieve self-actualization.

         While I don’t equate what I’ve had to go through in my life in any way with what a person in Sethe’s situation would have had to endure in terms of “depth of suffering” her character helped me to understand that at times in life, we are presented with an impossible choice that we must make regardless. For Sethe, this was to kill her children rather than to allow them to return to slavery. For me, it was to face shunning by my family and friends rather than live my life professing beliefs that I did not genuinely hold. By leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which my wife and I had spent the first thirty years of our lives as members of, we knew we would be abandoned by nearly everyone we loved. Like Sethe, in the years that followed that traumatic event we withdrew into ourselves, afraid of jugement from the world, not fitting in, or simply just being too broken to care.

         What Morrison seems to suggest, through the arrival of Paul D as a sort of turning point where a bit of light begins to shine again into Sethe’s life after years of darkness, is that we often need someone on the outside of our situation to step into our lives and figuratively pull us, often kicking and screaming, out of our seclusion. The beautiful thing that often ends up happening, as it does in Beloved, is that Paul D receives just as many benefits as the person he is there to help does. It’s also noteworthy that Paul D, does not arrive with any secret information or magical ability to save Sethe. He simply loves her, in all the complicated messiness that that entails. As noted, this does not flip a switch for Sethe and solve all her problems, but is, instead, the beginning of a long, slow, painful process where she decides that trusting others and being a member of a community is worth the risk.

         In my own life, I’ve had more Paul D’s than I can count. People who saw my pain and took the initiative and overcame the discomfort to sit and talk or listen to me scream or cry, not just once or twice, but week after week and month after month. I have two aunts in particular, my father’s sisters who never joined the JW’s, who became the ones who refused to let me give in to the darkness. Their love was at the core, but it was the fact that they took the time to call, send daily texts, take me out for lunch, spoil our kids, and just generally never forget about me that was a huge reason I was able to see that it was worth rebuilding a new life, even if the pain of abandonment would always be there. Like Sethe, I couldn’t change the past, but I could choose to accept what had happened and move forward.

We don’t get a truly happy ending in Beloved, but what we are left with is hope. Hope that Sethe, Paul D. and by extension Denver now have a chance at finding some happiness in a world that, for much of their lives, they could not imagine that happening in. They will always be damaged people with deep, permanent scars, as the tree on Sethe’s back symbolizes, but they have each begun to let the light in. 

Being out of what I call “the cult” for eight years now, I can happily report that this crack of light, for me, has turned into a blinding ray that has illuminated my life in ways I never imagined possible. What Morrison’s work has helped me to recognize is that this is almost entirely the result of allowing new, different, and yet equally or exceedingly beautiful people into my life who have changed the way I think, feel, and interact with the world. Outside of my family, the students and professors at SUNY Geneseo have probably had the largest positive impact on me of anyone along this journey. From the agonizing discomfort I felt as the ONLY near forty-year-old at orientation day, two short years ago, to the elation of sitting in our small group, laughing hysterically with an accepting group of found friends as we worked on our collaborative essays for this class, I have felt, on the deepest level, the value of overcoming fear and choosing collaboration over isolation.

While Beloved, at least for me, seems to focus on the personal side of how collaboration can be healing, in Paradise, Morrison seems more interested in exploring how collaboration within the larger structures of society play a role in either promoting or disrupting harmony at a cultural level. We focused heavily on the disagreement between two groups, cut roughly along generational lines, over what the original inscription on the lip of the was; either “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” or “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” What struck me in this rift, was how each side was certain that their interpretation was correct, but it just so happened that that interpretation aligned with the values that group espoused. The older generation of Ruby residents weren’t convinced by any irrefutable evidence that “Beware the Furrow…” was correct, it was just that such a reading aligned with their more traditional religious values and the importance they attached to living in the fear of God. The younger generation had just as little proof that their reading was correct and instead were motivated by the agnosticism and individualism that pervaded their worldview. In each case, their inability to collaborate or reach a consensus was not motivated by facts, but by a refusal to accept that being right was not as important as maintaining a unified society.

Today, we live in a country where divisions run bone deep as the result of an inability to agree on the interpretation of our nation’s constitution and what its founders intended as the proper way to live in their experimental democracy. Just like the residents of Ruby, we can find ourselves sliding into divisive factions that are often motivated, not by a search for truth, but by the values their members have come to acquire over the course of their lives. Often, the result of such divisions is that organizations that attempt to transcend such discord, accepting everyone despite their differences, are targeted in much the same way that the convent is in Paradise, since they pose a threat to a traditional way of life that opposing groups cannot imagine living without. Some of the recent hateful attacks on LGBTQ+ spaces on campus come to mind where we see the harmful effects of people too afraid of others with different ways of seeing themselves or the world to allow them to exist, even peacefully. In Paradise, Morrison doesn’t offer any simple solutions, but she does provide a warning about what happens when, instead of trying to understand each other, we seek to eliminate those we don’t understand. The gang of men who attack the convent do not walk away triumphant but are as broken and confused by their own actions as the women they assaulted. Though they attempt to wrap themselves in religious authority and imagine they are doing God’s work, freeing their community from idolatry, once their crimes are committed, that lofty purpose rings hollow before the reality of the atrocities they have committed.

The question Morrison leaves us to ponder is how collaboration could have prevented this intolerance that led to such regrettable violence. For me, personally, I have felt the power of collaboration at work and seen its results in my own thinking and outlook. Coming from rural NY, working closely with the agricultural community, which is predominantly conservative, republican, white men, the attitudes they held toward the younger generation of “kids these days” had a powerful effect on my thinking. I was skeptical of many of their views on race, gender, climate change and myriad other political issues. However, after spending two years here at Geneseo I have come to a much more accurate understanding of the truly beautiful foundations of these values. Young people are not clueless, but neither is the older conservative generation evil, as at times the most vocal on each side might lead one to believe. What each side is pushing for comes from a desire for shockingly similar outcomes. Both sides want freedom to unapologetically be themselves, access to safe and vibrant communities, good jobs, and to be surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Where things get complicated is in how each side believes we can accomplish this collaboratively. What I take from this going forward, is a personal refusal to see either side as evil and to remain willing to have my preconceived ideas about people or groups almost always changed for the better the more time I spend around them. Good-faith conversations may not be a magical solution, but I see them as the best chance we have to overcome our differences and build the world we want to live in.

Morrison herself reached across centuries to collaborate with the works of Dante when she wrote the trilogy that we have spent the semester in conversation with. The richness that has resulted from making such an effort is evidenced by the countless papers like this that have been, are being, and will be written by students here at Geneseo and throughout the world, where we can pull new insights from Dante, Morrison, and perhaps most importantly, from the conversation that takes place between these two authors that we get to join in. Often the financial value of an English education gets called into question since we English majors pay the same tuition as many other students being trained for specific skills designed to earn them money. However, speaking from personal experience again, I can say that it is impossible to put a value on an experience that changes the way you see the world, from one that is small and afraid, to one that is wide-open, accepting, and always open to attribute to others the best of intentions rather than the worst. That is the work I believe I was “created to do down here in Paradise” and that is my aim moving forward (Morrison, 318).  

Love Disoriented.

Halfway through his life, Dante the Pilgrim, wakes to find himself lost in a dark wood.” As a thirty-nine-year-old approaching Morrison for the first time, the opening line of Inferno is a perfect description of the way I felt as I began reading Beloved. We awake in 124 Bluestone Road, thrown into a world quite unlike our own, a world where spirits interact with the physical, and the reactions of the humans who perceive these signs— shattered mirrors, handprints in a cake, overturned furniture— often seem strangely subdued. This disorientation, the inability to find solid ground to stand on, does not seem to be a problem that Morrison is working to solve as we move through the novel but rather a deliberate feature she maintains throughout the work. 

It is not in setting alone where I feel this disorientation, but also in my understanding of the characters, each incredibly complex and often contradictory in the ways they think and act. As a ghost, the “crawling already?” baby fills the house with “venom.” She is spiteful, full of rage directed not only at Sethe but at all the inhabitants of 124. She eventually drives the boys, Howard and Buglar, away, and with the death of Baby Suggs, finds herself alone in the house with Sethe and Denver. This seems to raise the question of whether she is angry with Sethe or if she just wants her all to herself since her intrusions into their lives become less violent once it is just the three of them left in the house. When Denver and Sethe attempt to conjure her once everyone else has fled from the home, “The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.” This might indicate that the ghost finds the present situation closer to ideal, but with Beloved’s emergence from the river and her subsequent treatment of Sethe, we quickly realize that the grounds we may wish to stake this claim on are not as solid as we may have imagined.

I am thinking particularly of the scene in the Clearing where Sethe asks to feel Baby Suggs fingers on the back of her neck. She does begin to feel them, but they soon change from a loving caress to an attempted strangulation. Denver understands that it was, Beloved, not Baby Suggs, who was responsible for the fingers on Sethe’s neck, and so we are once again unmoored: does Beloved love Sethe with a passion bordering on obsession, or does she want to kill her for what she did to her as a child? Perhaps both? We cannot be sure.

Morrison’s treatment of Beloved’s relationship with Paul D. is equally challenging to parse and possibly paradoxical. One of the questions I still do not feel like we get a satisfying answer to, again this may be intentional, is whether Beloved and Paul D. actually do have sex or if Paul D. only believes that they did. Either way, that particular union contradicts the way the two appear to have felt about each other up until that moment. There seems to be a mutual disdain for each other that causes each to continually be on the lookout for how one can remove the other from the home and, therefore, claim Sethe’s attention and love for themselves alone. 

When Beloved approaches Paul D. in the shed and asks him, “touch me on the inside part and call me by my name,” the request is surprising considering how clearly it seems she dislikes him. Perhaps we could see this as a calculated way of getting Paul D., using that deadly sin, lust, against him in a way that would ensure Sethe’s rejection of him. A lot is going on in this scene, and I am not going to take the time here to pull it apart completely, but as it relates to the argument I am making about disorientation, I find the final few sentences of the chapter that concludes the scene especially relevant: “when he reached the inside part he was saying, “Red heart. Red heart,” over and over again. Softly and then so loud it woke Denver, then Paul D. himself” (italics are mine). When I first read this, I took this to mean that Paul D. had dreamed this entire episode and that by crying out “Red heart!” loud enough in his sleep, he woke himself from the nightmare. However, later, when he prepares to approach Sethe outside of the restaurant where she works, he is terrified to reveal to her that he and Beloved have had sex. I either missed something in between or here we find another example of action taking place that we cannot quite square with logical, temporal reality. Beloved seems to possess knowledge that, while short of omniscience, is beyond the ability of humans, while Paul D. appears to become increasingly confused by the web-like relationship he finds himself caught in. As readers, Morrison seems content to keep us closer to Paul D.’s level of understanding, at least at this point in the novel. At the very least, this interaction between the two of them adds another layer of complexity to Beloved as a character and expands what methods we can imagine as possible for her to employ to possess Sethe in the way she desires.

Another issue that I’m thinking about, specifically as a common theme in both Beloved and Inferno, took shape for me today in a conversation Owen and I were having outside of class. It is the concept of love as an emotion or principle that can move one to perform an action that we typically would associate with evil. For Dante, my sense is that this began for him as the question, “How can God, who IS love, have created hell and damned numberless souls to spend an eternity in torment there?” Dante’s Christian faith required him to see hell as yet another expression of God’s love, but how could that possibly be? Morrison, as a Catholic, may have struggled with the very same questions, but Beloved asks it from another angle. When she came across the story of Margret Garner, I imagine that what caught her was the question, “How can the love of a mother move her to murder her own child?”

I have only read Inferno, not the rest of the Divine Comedy, and when I finish Beloved this evening, it will be the only book of Morrison’s trilogy I will have read, so I am unaware of how either author attempts to come up with satisfying answers to that question. But, already in Beloved, Morrison is proving this is a question worth asking and thinking deeply about. So many of Sethe’s actions are clearly motivated by an intense, ferocious love for her children. The agony she endures as she pushes her body to the brink of death in order to be reunited with them after she risks everything to free them from slavery is just one of many moments we can point to where her self-sacrificing love for them appears undeniable. Yet somehow, her actions in the shed upon the arrival of the four horsemen seem inconsistent with her former devotion.

Paul D. represents one side of the argument that I think both Dante and Morrison see as valid: there had to be another way. As Dante circles deeper and deeper into the inferno and the torments become increasingly disturbing, he, as well as his readers, seem to be justified in assuming that a God of love, who also possesses the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence, must have had other options available for dealing with sinners. Unfortunately, for true believers, this is not an acceptable position to hold, so the struggle becomes how to understand hell, or the murder of your own children, not just as an act of love but of perfect love. 

Honestly, for me, this is an impossible position to defend and is a core reason I left the fundamentalist Christian faith that I was raised in. Ever open to understanding how faith or beliefs work for others in ways they just do not seem to for me, I am intensely interested in exploring the rest of Morrison and Dante’s works to see how they continue grappling with this question. I am eager to find out if I can understand how, or perhaps if, they answer it in ways that allow them to come to peace with the version of love their God claims to be. Whatever the result, reading each author has been wonderful from an aesthetic perspective which makes the exploration of such heavy topics a delight, both intellectually and artistically. As dark and, at times, depressing as Beloved has been, there are certain moments and passages where I truly get carried away by the prose in the way that only the most talented of artists seem able to manage. Finding beauty in tragedy is something that each author is a master of, and it has been a pleasure to be a pilgrim on this voyage so far. I am looking forward to much, much more.