“Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself”: Applying Morrison’s Both/And to Collaboration

Toni Morrison is not interested in writing one-dimensional stories or one-dimensional characters. She said as much in a 1987 interview about her novel Beloved when she claimed that the novel was not about slavery; “Slavery is very predictable. There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it, or you don’t. It [the novel] can’t be driven by slavery.” Instead, she focused on the deeply intimate lives of her characters, the lives of whom were all affected by slavery and racism, but also so much more. This reminder that peoples’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to one aspect is a useful reminder in many ways, not the least of which is how it reminds us that when we collaborate with each other, it is beneficial to remember that those who we collaborate with are whole people with much deeper lives than they often let on. Morrison consistently and expertly depicts this complexity in her characters; almost all of the characters in her novels exhibit some form of contradiction or multi-dimensionality that influences their actions and provides a lesson on how to meaningfully collaborate in a multitude of circumstances. Given that real people are at least as complicated as Morrison’s characters, an understanding of our own multi-dimensionality and that of others is a critical component of a successful and equitable collaboration.

            Jazz, the second installment in Morrison’s trilogy, follows the healing journey of Joe Trace as he reckons with the lasting negative impacts of a difficult childhood and a failing marriage. From the outset of the novel, it is obvious that Joe is in need of emotional release. He acknowledges that there are things in his life, notably his affair with Dorcas and the state of his marriage, that he feels he cannot talk to anyone about, even his closest friends; “It’s not a thing you tell except maybe to a tight friend… but even if I had the chance I don’t believe I could have told him [Victory] and if I couldn’t tell Victory it was because I couldn’t tell myself…” (121). This admission and his affair with Dorcas are what start Joe’s ascension into Paradise out of his healing stages in Purgatory, represented by the seven changes that Joe claims he has made throughout his life (123). This presents the reader with a striking contradiction; it is hard to deny Joe the right to emotional healing, but it is also impossible to ignore the damage and violence that his healing journey causes to the women in his life. Violet is trapped in a marriage with a man who treats her like “a piece of furniture you favor although it needed something every day to keep it steady and upright” (123), and Dorcas is murdered at the end of the novel because Joe cannot accept that she has moved on with another man closer to her age. This ultimately results in a kind of collaboration, one in which Violet and Dorcas each play their roles in Joe’s healing journey, that is successful but not equitable or beneficial for most of the group. This inequity arises because Joe does not know what to do with this contradiction that has been sitting with him for so long, and instead of deal with it in a healthy and fair manner he follows his baser instincts to benefit only himself. Had Joe been able to tell Violet how he felt about their marriage, it is possible that Violet and Joe could have had a much different and much healthier collaboration and settled their feelings in a more equitable way. This acceptance of our own contradictions and the understanding of how to deal with them in a healthy and equitable manner is a critical aspect of collaboration, and one that extends far beyond an academic collaboration where the stakes are much lower than those seen in the end of Jazz.

            Similar contradictions and their consequences arise in the other novels in Morrison’s trilogy. The Morgan twins in Paradise truly have the best interests of the town at heart, but they cannot reconcile their differences with the younger generation of Ruby residents or the women of the convent who they see as a corrupting force. What results from this contradiction is a violent, inequitable decision to kill five women who had committed no crime and who’s deaths will ultimately harm the town as a whole by removing a valuable source of support that several residents of the town had been utilizing. The actions of the Morgan twins can be viewed as a complete lack of collaboration, since they unilaterally decide that the women of the convent must die instead of working out a solution with them. Sethe’s actions in Beloved provide the most contradiction of any character in Morrison’s novels. The murder of her child, an action that was, according to Morrison, “absolutely the right thing to do… but she had no right to do it,” presents the reader with a contradiction that they and Sethe must endure without any real resolution. Later in the novel after the appearance of Beloved, Sethe’s inability to reconcile her actions and her emotions with her conscious leads her into an unequal and parasitic relationship with a girl whom she believes is her dead child reincarnated. These contradictions, in the same way as Joe’s contradictions in Jazz, all result in collaborations that are one-sided, inequitable, often violent, and which never benefit the participants as much as they could have.

            The result of all of the failed collaboration in Morrison’s novels is a teaching moment; readers that pay attention to where and how these collaborations go wrong can take away valuable lessons about how to reach meaningful results in any kind of collaborative situation. This semester, I have had the good fortune to be able to take part in the kind of successful collaboration constantly throughout this class, and these collaborations provide a foil for the events of Morrison’s novels. The group work that I have taken part in this semester has started from a place of good faith and a genuine aspiration to reach a conclusion that is best for everyone involved, not just one person. This good faith is what so many of Morrison’s characters are missing; the Morgan twins have no real care for the opinions of others, Beloved has no regard for the harm she causes to Sethe, and Joe experiences emotional healing at the direct cost of Dorcas’ life and Violet’s happiness. The result of this genuine care for others has been clear; time and time again I have found myself heaping praise on my classmates that I have worked with for creating something more beautiful than what we each could have accomplished individually. During one of our collaborative essays, one of my group mates remarked that she had never been in a class that laughed so often. I think about that a lot.

            The lessons I’ve taken away from this class and Morrison’s novels are valuable beyond essay writing and academia, and it is important that we as readers integrate these ideas into every aspect of our lives. Good faith and genuine care can create an excellent essay, but I think a much more valuable outcome is the affect that the same care can have on other’s lives. Morrison’s novels are collaborative in so many ways; they are conversations with Dante, they are congregations of years of history and Black experience, and they are roadmaps for how to treat other people. Approaching every situation, not just academic ones, with good intentions can avoid the kind of harmful and violent events that Morrison’s characters endure. This is often easier said than done; Morrison’s characters are so often affected by things outside of their control like slavery, poverty, and pervasive racism, and the pain caused by this strain on their lives creates tension and anger. There will always be events in our lives that cause negative emotions that lead to anger and lashing out at others. Part of Morrison’s incredible intricacy is how she writes characters that are painfully human. They have flaws, they sin, and they make mistakes. Choosing to extend grace and good faith does not erase those parts of us, but it can help us to forgive ourselves and others for the inevitable mistakes that everyone will make at some point in our lives. It is important to note that Morrison’s characters survive and endure the events and hardships of their novels. With grace, kindness, and the lessons we take from Morrison, we too can endure the events of our own novels.

Thresholds of Understanding and of Departments (ENGL 431 Thresholds)

            This semester, we will be diving into three works by Toni Morrison, Beloved, Paradise, and Jazz. I’ve never read any of Morrison’s work, so such a focused look into a completely new author is an exciting chance to learn for me. At the same time, the coming semester presents me with some apprehension from multiple sources. We are connecting many of the themes in Morrison’s work to the writing of Dante, another author which I have never read. While it is exciting to explore new works, that much new material in such a high level class does bring a level of concern that I may not be able to keep up with the reading or with the comprehension of the rest of the class. In addition, I have recently been grappling with a feeling of “otherness” in my English classes this semester stemming from my STEM major and my focus on different studies. While we study the idea of thresholds in the writing of Dante and Morrison, these worries leave me, ironically, at two of my own thresholds to consider as we move into the spring semester.

             The first threshold to consider is that of understanding. Now that we have read some of Morrison and Dante, I have the beginnings of an understanding of why the two might be grouped and studied together. The themes present in Dante’s Inferno are starting to pop up in Morrison’s Beloved, and they interact in increasingly interesting ways. Dante’s idea of Hell in Inferno centers largely around the idea of contrapasso, that sinners’ punishments are fitting for their sins. Since Sethe killed her child, that sin would put her in one of the circles of Hell, most likely Caina, in which sinners are held under frozen water with only their heads sticking out. Despite her sin, after reading most of Beloved I would venture to say that Sethe does not deserve this kind of punishment, since the circumstances of her life before and after the supposed sin show her to be a good person put in a bad situation. Dante would seem to disagree, since the sinners in Hell refuse, or are unable to, answer Dante the Pilgrim when he asks for their stories and are condemned to Hell without concern for the context under which their sins were committed. If my interpretation of Sethe’s life is in line with what Morrison intended, I am interested to see how or if this apparent disagreement between Dante and Morrison over what sinners deserve is resolved. Not knowing anything about either author at the beginning of the semester, I feel like I am moving towards a greater understanding of the two authors and how they overlap, but I acknowledge that I still have a lot to learn and a lot of material to read. This leaves me in a state of both understanding and not understanding at the same time, an idea that struck me as ironically fitting due to our focus on different kinds of thresholds in our readings this semester. I have no doubt that a semester worth of reading and good-faith conversation with my classmates will push me through this threshold and lead me to a greater understanding and appreciation of both authors.

            I am much less certain of overcoming my second threshold. As a biochemistry major, I have felt more noticeably out of place in my English classes this semester than in previous semesters. After thinking on the feeling, it makes perfect sense. I had recently remarked to a friend that my chemistry classes had become much smaller and more competitive as we moved into junior year, since the only students left in chemistry classes this advanced are upper-level chemistry and biochemistry majors that really care about and love the subject. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that I feel out of place in my two four hundred level English classes. My classmates are largely English or English education majors who have decided to dedicate their college education to a subject that they really care about. This is not to say that I do not care as much as my classmates do, but I have realized that they have dedicated a much more significant part of their lives to the subjects we are studying than I have, in exactly the same way I have dedicated more time to chemistry than they have. That dedication showed in the first few days of my English classes, in which my peers were much more ready to tackle difficult readings and discussions of interpretations that had not even occurred to me yet. While I was a little discouraged that I was lagging behind my peers in some discussions, knowing that my peers are expected to have developed their reading skills more than I have is a comforting thought that provides me the motivation to catch up with my peers’ comprehension of the texts we are reading. My minor in English leaves me at my second threshold; both in and out of the English program. While I’m currently enrolled in two high-level English classes, I am now aware of the difference between me and my English major peers and how that is starting to manifest in the classroom. This semester, one of my goals for this class, as well as Professor Rutkowski’s Herman Melville class, will be to push myself to the level of my peers and share some of the dedication and the extent of the love that they have for English literature.

            As we move past the threshold and into the class itself, I am challenging myself to take these difficulties as a challenge more than an obstacle. It is true that I feel behind my peers in comprehension and skill, but that gives me a framework to center my improvement around. I have never read the two authors we are focused on this semester, but new authors give me an opportunity to both expand my literature lexicon and catch up with my peers in my reading and analysis. The thresholds I find myself in currently provide a fitting link to the class curriculum and an impetus to grow beyond my previous education and attitudes, a prospect that excites me as much as it does intimidate me.

Iterations of Apocalypse: a Growing and Changing Lexicon

Popular culture and media have ingrained the idea of an “apocalypse” in the minds of those who consume media.  So many of our favorite television shows, movies, and books are defined as “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” that we as a media-consuming society often only have one idea of what an apocalypse is.  This media defines an apocalypse as some event, a plague, asteroid, or alien attack, the results in the death of most of the planet and leaves the remaining population fighting for survival while struggling to retain their humanity.  Television shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and movies like Mad Max: Fury Road depict desolate worlds, mostly empty of people yet still full of threats, where the remaining survivors fight amongst themselves to survive.  This common formula, while not exactly a fresh idea, has been proved time and time again to be an interesting vehicle to showcase human emotion and stories, as evidenced by the massive success that these media enjoy.  However, these portrayals have done us a disservice by cementing only one idea of an apocalypse in our minds.  The texts that we have read so far this semester have all presented their own ideas and definitions of what an apocalypse could be, and in doing so have revolutionized what types of media can be considered “apocalyptic.”  In the past few weeks, I have been doing my best to distill the themes and ideas in each reading into each text’s definition of an apocalypse.  The essay and two novels we have read have not been easy texts to understand and defining the term apocalypse in terms of each text has been difficult, but in doing so I lead myself to another line of questioning.  If each text has a different, yet correct, definition of apocalypse, can these definitions be applied to the other texts we have read in class?

            Andrew Santana Kaplan’s essay “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought” was an incredibly dense read.  It was not meant for an audience of undergraduate students, much less a biochemistry major like myself.  Although it left me with many initial questions upon my first reading, the question that stuck with me the longest was “how is Afro-Pessimism apocalyptic?”  In the onset of Kaplan’s argument, they use the term “World.”  Throughout the essay, they capitalize World in a way that is likely immediately understood by those in their field, but not by me.  Via the context and content of the essay, I came to realize that Kaplan uses the term World to define a society with assumed values and attitudes towards certain races and peoples.  They write that the common ground of the Afro-Pessimistic and contemporary Christian Paulinism “lies in their shared conviction that true justice demands the end of the World,” providing some of the first evidence into how this essay might be considered apocalyptic (Kaplan 3).  Kaplan posits that, according to Afro-Pessimistic thought, true escape from an anti-Black World requires the end of that World.  Although Kaplan is discussing social revolution in which a new assumed set of values and attitudes is adopted, their wording comes off as distinctly apocalyptic.  In this essay, Kaplan suggests a definition of apocalypse in which the society, and all of its outdated and ingrained values, ends, not the entire world.  Moving from Kaplan’s essay to Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed and Percival Everett’s American Desert, I was interested to see what kind of through lines could be drawn between each text’s ideas of what an apocalypse could be and how these definitions interacted with each other.

            The two novels we have read were easier to understand but provided equally thought provoking depictions of apocalypses.  Butler’s Wild Seed provided an immediate opportunity for me to apply Kaplan’s definition of apocalypse, seeing as the characters Anyanwu and Doro underwent several of Kaplan’s apocalypses throughout the novel.  I found that Wild Seed and Kaplan had similar depictions of apocalypses, yet on very different scales.  While Kaplan thought of upheavals on a societal scale, Doro and Anyanwu’s personal Worlds were overthrown throughout the novel.  Doro’s destruction of the settlement that Anyanwu had created for herself and her people and Doro’s subsequent realization that he might lose his only truly life-long companion were significant upheavals in their lives that radically changed their values and attitudes in the same way that Kaplan’s apocalypse would radically change society and its views on race.  Doro had never once considered making concessions to Anyanwu before his realization that she might end her own life.  His “merging” with her at the end of Wild Seed seemed to force upon him a realization that he could not live alone for the rest of his infinite life (Butler 295).    Similarly to the interaction between Kaplan’s essay and Wild Seed, I found through lines between Wild Seed and American Desert.  Ted’s dream of the philosophers Hegel and Heidegger revealed another iteration of the small-scale, personal apocalypse found in Wild Seed.  The philosophers’ conclusion that “There is no more Ted.  There is only Ted-prime” is a sign that, unconsciously, Ted knows that his previous World has ended (Everett 51).  This world is not a society or a civilization like Kaplan suggests, but another personal World like Doro’s and Anyanwu’s.  Ted’s life as a professor is over, his dwindling marriage to his wife is beginning to be turn around, and he gains a newfound confidence and wit that he never had before his death.  These are all indications that Ted is indeed a new person, Ted-prime.  Although Ted himself questions whether or not he is the same person or just an imitation of his former identity (Everett 51), he has undergone an apocalypse in Wild Seed’s other sense as well.  A thought I had not considered until reading American Desert was that Doro’s intense, world-changing realization could also be considered a kind of apocalypse.  Upon his revival, or reincarnation, Ted is most impressed by his increased capacity for love for his family more than anything else (Everett 87).  This newfound capacity was not a completely new part of Ted, more so a realization that his personal apocalypse forced him to realize.  This realization was the through line I was looking for between the readings, allowing me to apply each iteration of apocalypse to other texts and the texts we will read over the course of the semester. 

            These texts provided a lot for me to think about in the past weeks, and the questions I have been reckoning with have provided me with more than enough motivation to consume these novels faster than any fiction in recent years.  After reading through these texts and answering the questions they had originally prompted, I am excited to read the rest of the novels on the reading list.  I anticipate being able to define apocalypse in even more ways and being able to apply these new definitions to other texts in turn.  The three definitions already provided, Kaplan’s societal revolution, Butler’s personal realizations, and Everett’s death and reincarnation, have interwoven so beautifully that I am looking forward to applying these ideas to future novels, as well as being able to apply new ideas to these novels in order to deepen and change my understanding of these instances of apocalypse.