Distant Engagement: Understanding the Importance of Collaboration within the Scope of Toni Morrison’s Paradise

Exploring Paradiso within the context of Morrison’s Paradise, Dante’s Canto 19 is the main canto location where Dante is using the eagle of divine justice to explain earthly/divine justice. To begin, the eagle of divine justice seems to be ever-moving, and continually constructed to be in harmony. The eagle of divine justice’s continual movements are juxtaposed with the idea of “Primal will” or “Supreme good”. This “Primal will” is ultimately described as God’s goodness on earth included as scripture, and is deemed to be never moving by Dante. By having God’s earthly teaching be never-moving but the eagle of divine justice be ever-flowing and in-movement, Dante is preparing to unfold his main idea behind the boundaries between justice on earth and divine justice. Dante first lays out God’s manifestation in man, creating a difference between man’s justice and the personal souls’ justice. By highlighting the difference, Dante is engaging with the belief that earthly justice cannot be introduced to eternal justice, because the two cannot be viewed in the same light. This idea of “viewing” is a focal point in Canto 19, undoubtedly related to the strength of an eagle’s eyes. Dante uses the eagle of divine justice to explain how easy it is to judge others without thought but have no idea about the life of that person being judged. The eagle of divine justice is engaging the idea that even if you are a believer of God’s kingdom, your earthly judgement on others and how you view your perception of the world will be taken into your soul’s divine justice. Toni Morrison’s Paradise includes a number of examples of earthly vs. divine justice, as well as defining justice as both a force in the universe as well as a force in one’s personal soul.

                Within the context of the novel as a whole, I believe the oven to be the carrier of time for both Haven and Ruby, as well as a site where inter-relational conflict dwells. Within the course epigraph, Morrison’s statement “Black literature is taught as sociology” is the first sentence noted. I believe that through the oven, Morrison is constructing the sociological functions of Ruby and its society similarly to her conventions of how black literature is taught. When considering the oven as a bearer or holder of time, it is important to follow the chronology of the oven and how it has been physically changed.  We learn when the oven is first introduced that it has been brought from its original town of Haven by its founding fathers to the new town of Ruby. It is also said to have been a place of socializing, even towards the latter decline of Haven. With the slogan on the oven being not fully visible, the eventual conflict between the youth and elders of the town rises with reverend Misner’s meeting. With the elders lashing out on the younger generation of Ruby for believing they could believe in a God-mimicking slogan, there is an overall theme of time being explored. Morrison’s usage of time within the oven creates a difference between the elders and youth, a difference that can be seen between the town of Ruby and of the Covenant. With time, both the covenant and Ruby became their present selves, with one location being on the grounds of acceptance, while the other being on the grounds of difference and solitude. With time, the “disallowing” of Haven founders and the creation of Ruby to combat light-skinned/dark-skinned prejudice had come full circle, with the oven being the center of the city’s changes.

                The oven as a site is dominantly shown as a breeding ground for complications and conflict. It is the site where K.D. and Arnette’s relationship first declines, as well as where the Covent’s members are first outed as odd by dancing around the oven. Placing the oven as the center of disruption for Morrison’s plot, she is actively using the oven to engage and bring to light the concealed problems of Ruby. The physical appearance of the oven can be related to the relevance of Dante’s eagle. With the oven being marked with a black fist with red fingernails, along with eventual foundation destruction, I believe that the oven’s physical appearance is an explanation into the individual justice vs. overall justice within the town of Ruby. Dante’s eagle explains that the individual’s idea of justice cannot penetrate God’s divine justice, which maybe can be representative in the state of the oven. With each fingernail marked in red over a cast of a black fist, I think that the women of the Covenant could represent individual justices, intertwined within the overall justice structure of Ruby. Although I am still tackling this idea of individual justice being seen within the covenant, I plan to expand my ideas in the upcoming move. 

                Ruby’s residents interpret the text on the oven’s lip in different ways, focused mainly around the idea of age and generational differences. On one hand, the elders of Ruby believe that the oven says “Beware the furrow of his brow”, with the younger generation believe the slogan says “Be the furrow of his brow” or just “the furrow of his brow”.  Through the text, we can see the overall reasoning behind the argument intersecting both history and respect. Although these interpretations of the oven are not the same, the connotations behind why the residents take sides and why they argue their points are extremely similar. Beginning with the older generation, we have a distinct opinion that Reverend Pulliam displays, shouting “Beware the furrow of his brow. That’s what it says clear as daylight. That’s not a suggestion; that’s an order!” (86). This quote in my opinion best encapsulates the relationship between the older Ruby members and their beliefs regarding the history of Haven/new presence in Ruby. With an adherence to preservation, I believe the elders in Ruby interpret the oven as a message from their past, a past that although they have left physically (Haven), the oven still stands as a message. A message that proves important to them because of its reminder; that they founded Ruby on the principles of justice for themselves, and to have anyone but the divine power of God over the townspeople would be a destruction of the freedom they set out to gain in Ruby. With the elders message directly pointed towards the younger generation in opposition to what they believe, Destry stands up  to defend the youth- saying “Sir, but we are obeying him, if we follow his commandments, we’ll be his voice, his retribution. As a people-” (87). Destry best describes the notion of acting out justice, with a focus on not trying to imitate or replace God but to live life with a direct correspondence to his proclamations. If the youth is interpreting the oven as “Be the furrow of his brow”, then the conversation must include a shift in power that both the younger generation need, and the elder generation do not want. It is obvious that both sides have different representations and beliefs when it comes to what the lip of the oven says/means, but their fight is actually quite similar. On one hand we have the youth fighting for freedom/power over authoritative figures representative in acting out the “Be” in the slogan. On the other, the elders trying to reclaim their past identity tied within the oven, an identity that previously had been fought for so that they may live in peace. Both arguments are similar in the way they are fighting for a group, a group that has been discriminated against in which they are trying to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

                The townspeople of Ruby try to reconcile their interpretative disagreement through an engagement of collaboration. Although this point may seem untrue due to the language and oppositional viewpoints being stated, it must be recognized that this meeting between citizens should be ruled as a collaborative effort (although eventually broken up into plain argument). In the beginning of the ovens discussion, reverend Misner seems to be the mediator between the two groups. When Pulliam asked reverend Misner to keep the young Beauchamp from interrupting, Misner replied, “Why would I want to? We’re here not just to talk but to listen too” (85). Just from this quote, we can see Morrison creating a somewhat balanced dialogue of collaborative disagreement. By at least engaging with one another’s thoughts, we see a connection of two ideas that previously were never brought to light. Within the debate on what the oven’s lip phrase may see, there is cooperation between the two parties to debate their points. Looking at Morrison’s use of collaboration and interpretation as a whole in Paradise, I ultimately see the covenant as the center of misunderstood collaboration. Creating an intersection between interpretation and collaboration, Morrison uses the covenant as a place of “looking-in” to see collaborative use. To the eyes of the men of Ruby, the covenant was a place that was good for nothing but enchantments and satanic worshiping, deemed unfit for society and needed to be exterminated. However, Morrison structured Paradise in a way that engages readers to view the covenant not just as a place of solace, but as a collaborative tool. The servitude of the covenant as a place for the women to divert from the implications of their past lives and start anew can and should be the main thought behind its reasoning. By constructing the covenant as a place of both paradise and evil for certain individuals, Morrison is using personal interpretation as a craft into what can be deemed collaborative. To the women of the covenant, this place provided them the strength to speak their minds and engage with each other (collaboration); to others, to fostered lawlessness and a disdain towards religion. Through a larger scope, this collaboration can be linked to the collaborative efforts made by my fellow peers during this pandemic.

                Morrison creating Paradise’s appropriation of Paradiso tells you not only the both/and of interpretation and collaboration, but the purposefulness to Morrison’s craft. The way in which Morrison has intertwined these works had produced an effect that could be best described as an understanding of possibilities. From looking into divine justice through the scope of a mortal man to the residents of Ruby looking into the view of the distant covenant, interpretation seems to be the focal point for actions made. This both/and logic when resonating Morrison’s work is a steppingstone into the bigger picture; to use the work presented to us in order to sought out truth. To find the reasoning and truth behind the problems we are given, interpretation and collaboration is a necessity. For the individual, it is important to engage personally with your interpretation, because without your own views to display for others to take notice, collaboration cannot happen. However if people work together and are not afraid to collaborate, make mistakes, and understand other viewpoints- beautiful things can happen. As a hopeful future educator, I feel as if this collaboration of peers to explore Morrison’s craft will stay with me, and will not be forgotten. I have always believed in that the truth will be better and more accurately found through working together, and with this collaboration with my peers I am now certain of it. Although this semester had been cut short and the complications in which individuals endure are complex and disheartening, this collaboration still survived. I admittedly had anxiety from the first time switching from a in-person to an online format to collaborate, but then I realized. I realized that even though everyone is going through personal issues, the collaboration continued. We still met as a group, still cared and listened to our peers opinions, and were able to grow as a student even amid stagnation in our world. The only thing I wish I could have done on a deeper level is to encourage motivation to others in my life. A collaborative space helped me stay on top of my daily motivation, and I just wished I had encouraged those around me to engage with their peers more often and find the motivation I have been feeling. Through this class and the collaborative space we all share, I feel as if I look at multiple outcomes for the future. I have destroyed my definition of the rigid absolute truth, happy to look forward to the future in a more inclusive way.