The Uncertainty of Interpretation and Experience

The eagle of divine hope is a divine being that Dante encounters when he reaches Paradise in Paradiso. The eye and the furrowed brow that lies above it contain the living souls of several leaders and men who have been saved, despite ill-choices or ill-effects from their time on Earth. When the eagle describes Constantine, he says: “now he has learned that, even though the world / be ruined by the evil that derives / from his good act, that evil does not harm him” (58-60, Canto 20). The importance of this statement, as well as the other justifications of the souls that make up the brow, is that they are saved regardless of what they have done because of the goodness within them. It shows, also, that mortals are powerless to control the judgement that will be brought on themselves or on others.

The eagle of divine justice represents a duality: the souls are examples of goodness but their mistakes are never forgotten nor washed away. As Micah said, it is difficult to tell “whether the souls that make up the eagle’s eye should be the goal or the warning” for other humans (Move 1). The souls are important figures of the past who are by no means pure, but they have been chosen by God. This leaves mortals to sit with that discomfort that purity will not necessarily bring them a divine end since the souls that have been chosen are not pure or even all Christian. The eagle thus tells us that the past is both a goal and a warning, showing us that we must strive for goodness even though our fate is out of our control. By the end of Canto 20, we are left with the sensation that mortals should both beware and be the furrow of the eagle’s brow — by trusting in God’s will, they may make mistakes and there is no way of knowing for sure that what they are doing is correct, but if the goodness is within them to begin with, they will find themselves in the brow.

In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, the Oven served as the center of the community for those living in Haven. It was a place where the entire town would gather to cook and be with each other as well as a symbol of perseverance: “No family needed more than a simple cookstove as long as the Oven was alive, and it always was” (Morrison 15). It signaled consistency and abundance – always hot and ready to sustain the people of Haven. Overall, the Oven was a symbol of community collaboration.

This symbol only grew more potent when the men of Haven deconstructed it and took it with them to the new town that would become Ruby. Yet the dismantling and rebuilding of the Oven is itself symbolic. In order to recreate the security that they enjoyed in Haven, the men took apart that symbol of community and collaboration and brought it somewhere else. This breaks down the dichotomy of ‘here’ and ‘there,’ if we are looking at Haven and Ruby as two separate entities. It begins to feel like the location does not matter so long as the Oven is present. It is at this point, when the men decide that the symbol of the Oven is more important than the function, that its meaning begins to shift. On one hand, we see the men who took apart and rebuilt it feel that they are owed credit for the creation of the oven rather than just the recreation. On the other, we see the women who “nodded when the men took the Oven apart, packed, moved and reassembled it. But privately they resented the truck space given over to it – rather than a few more sacks of seed, rather than shoats or even a child’s crib” (103). The Oven has become a living thing, something that the men take pride in, but something that is not necessary to the survival of their community: “A utility became a shrine” (103). When the adults argue with the youth of Ruby, they accuse the youth of attempting to change the meaning of the Oven and rewrite its history. However, we must look on this with a critical eye and consider whether the men did not already succeed in changing the meaning.

These men expect to receive recognition and prestige for their actions in reconstructing the oven, but their pursuit to keep this old legacy alive alienates them from their children. The adults read the oven to say “Beware the furrow of His brow,” invoking the idea of an ultimate power in God and in history that they believe the youth should obey. They believe that the youth are attempting to take power for themselves – and indeed they are. The youth of Ruby read it to say “Be the furrow of His brow,” believing themselves to be “His instrument, His justice” (87). However, the adults ignore the fact that they have already co-opted the power they presume to obey. They demand recognition and power for the role they played in the construction of the Oven and are afraid of the desire of the young people to do the same. Thus, the oven — which previously served as that important site of community and collaboration — is suddenly the site of disagreement and division.

The differing interpretations represented by the two groups in Ruby come down to a difference in perspectives regarding both time and humanity’s relationship to God. The adults believe that the youth are trying to rewrite the oven’s past by arguing that “That Oven already has a history. It doesn’t need you to fix it” (86). However, it seems that the youth, rather than trying to give it a different history, are hoping to give it a future. They are arguing that the Oven does not serve the function that the adults want it to and they want to make the Oven, along with the legacy that it carries, mean something to them for their own personal futures as well as for the future of Ruby and for all of their race. The difference in interpretation goes past a generational divide and instead reflects a temporal orientation that blocks each group from fully understanding each other. By looking back at Dante’s eagle of divine justice, it feels as though both parties are right, but only when they are taken together.

The eagle of divine justice is the culmination of a whole slew of dualities — it is a divine object made up of mortal souls, souls that are both a warning and an aspiration, souls that did both good and bad, and an object that instructs while it confuses us at the same time. In the same way, the Oven is representative of dualities — it is an object with both a past and a future, it shows the human limitations while empowering the human collaboration with the divine, and it is a symbol of both collaboration and division within this community. As humans, we are always searching for ways that the things we do and interact with can be meaningful to us. We thus interpret and make meaning of things in vastly different ways. The youth need the Oven to give them hope for the future, while the adults need the Oven to connect them to the bravery and message of their ancestors. The adults look back to their fathers and grandfathers and fancy themselves to be the legacy that they preach, but they stifle the youth from making their own moves in the same direction.

Paradise‘s appropriation of Paradiso invites us to consider interpretation and collaboration in terms of time. Part of the issue with the disagreement about the words on the Oven is that the readers seem to be approaching it from two different temporal perspectives. The adults are looking at it as a representation of the past — something that their grandfathers created that symbolizes the origins of their town. On the other hand, the youth of Ruby are reading it as a symbol for their future. They desire it to mean something for their empowerment and the furthering of not only them as individuals, but as furthering the African American race. Similarly, the eagle of divine justice asks us to look both back and forward when he tells Dante and the reader about the souls immortalized in his being. The souls making up the eye and brow of the eagle serve as both a warning and a goal — invoking both the past and a hope for the future. These two situations thus indicate to us that both the past and the future necessitate different interpretations of the same material and that the collaboration of those differing interpretations are both necessary to fully comprehend that which is incomprehensible. Humanity will never fully understand the eagle of divine justice because of the inherent duality of it and its relation to God’s unknowable will. The residents of Ruby will also never fully understand the Oven because they neglect to consider both temporal perspectives of the Oven.

This discussion of temporal perspectives and connections feels very close to me because I am drawn to Medieval Studies as a career path. While studying Medieval texts and cultures over the course of my time at Geneseo, I have struggled endlessly with the question “Does this really matter?” It is often difficult to focus attention on societies and ways of life that are gone while there are so many problems all around us today. Yes, you can argue that the past informs the present, but there is still the sense that a paper I might spend an entire semester on about the relationships in King Arthur’s court just do not have any impact the overwhelming number of things going on in our daily lives today. However, by wrestling with the both/and importance of interpretation and collaboration, I have been reading my situation differently. The skill of making meaning out of sometimes obsolete things is important. The ability to make connections between a past and a present and a future in meaningful ways is difficult, but it is important. Medieval texts are both separate and unique from our lives today and they are endlessly important and connected in ways that we may never fully comprehend.

Humans have a finite existence – we live at a specific point in time and usually in a few specific locations. There will always be an infinite number of experiences that we will never have, but we also know that no one will ever have the exact same experience as one of us. Not only are all people unique from each other, but each person is different depending on what portion of life they are in. There are some books or movies or other forms of media that mean vastly different things to me depending on when I am experiencing them. I was recently listening to Panic At the Disco!’s cover of “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2. A few months ago, I listened to it and enjoyed it as an upbeat song but did not feel particularly struck by it as I did with “Show Yourself” from the same movie. But this week when I listened to it as I drove along Nations road, remembering all of the plans I had made with my friends about taking graduation pictures on the bridge on Nations road at sunset, thinking about leaving this place that has become my home and returning to my original home, thinking about the uncertainty of the next year because of quarantine but also the uncertainty of a future pursuing a career in Medieval Studies (as if academia wasn’t difficult enough to find a job in), the song took on an entirely new meaning. I experienced it in a completely new way, and I am sure in 10 years I will experience it once again in a new way.

It is so important to remember each time our experiences change that every one of those experiences is valid and meaningful, even if they do not apply to our current experiences anymore. Humans and our experiences are dynamic as we move through time. We must lean into that, feel every emotion as strongly as we need to right at this moment and remember that it will change as we do, but it will never cease to have existed in the first place. Leaving undergrad right now is painful, my feelings of loss and mourning and a lack of closure are painful. One day, I imagine I will look back on this time without the pain and instead with pride at my perseverance or even with laughter thinking about how crazy this time was. All of those feelings are real and none of them are mutually exclusive. Our past and our future and our present will always be distinct, but they will also always all be wrapped up together – and that is the beauty of our rocky, dynamic, uncertain, imperfect, fully human experience.