Introductions

The introductions of literary works typically serve to convey a theme or themes and general sense of tone that will be seen throughout the work. Perhaps most bluntly, we are told immediately by Homer what the Iliad will be about: the rage of Achilles and the fulfilling of Zeus’ will. These themes lie at the center of the work and even with Achilles’ scant appearances in the first half of the story, he is frequently referenced by the other characters and one wonders when he’ll emerge from his tent and what he’ll do when he does. The anticipation of Achilles’ appearance throbs like a heartbeat, always beneath the action of the story and the characters’ feelings. Likewise, in Everett’s Zulus, Butler’s Clay’s Ark, and Morrison’s Home, we are very quickly introduced to the sort of worlds the authors place their characters, and each clearly seek to create this sense of a constant presence that may either be very apparent, as in the Iliad, Zulus, and Clay’s Ark¸ or less apparent as in Home.

Butler’s Clay’s Ark can be read as having two introductions. The very first chapter takes place in the past, while the following chapter takes place in the present, with the book shifting between past and present often. Both the past and the present’s first chapters places within our minds the idea of this world that Butler has created being dangerous. In the first chapter, Past 1, the very first sentence: ”The ship had been destroyed five days before” outright suggests violence, that is, destruction. We’re told a brief history of a man we follow, who was unsure of how the ship had been destroyed, how he’d been alone, how he “walked and climbed automatically”, and how he’s only moved by hunger and thirst. He’d hidden himself for five days, with “no goal but food, water, and human companionship.” And he killed animals “with his bare hands or with stones” which he “ate raw, splashing their blood over his ragged coverall, drinking as much of it as he could.” As in the Iliad, we’re told what will figure heavily in this story—instincts and killing. The next chapter, Present 2, further reinforces and adds to the world built in Past 1; we’re briefly introduced to three of the main characters, who are promptly kidnapped—at threat of violence—by another main character. By page 16 and before the next chapter, we’re already well aware that this story will be about violence, and this violence and the threat of this violence is constantly shown throughout later parts of the book in more or less obvious ways. Less obvious ways can be seen in the forceful transmission of a potentially fatal and invariably life-altering disease, in that there is inherently a violence done against a person when they don’t give informed consent but are experimented on anyway. More obvious ways can be seen in the overt physical violence that comes from shootouts, rapes, and a decapitation. The first half of Clay’s Ark focuses mostly on covert violence (in the form of transmitting the disease and kidnapping) and the threat of violence, while the latter half focuses on the more overt violence mentioned before.

Similarly, Everett’s Zulus begins with a violent scene. The protagonist is raped by page 11, and is then abandoned by the rapist who is never to be seen again. Though the rapist’s disappearing from the story makes it possible, even easy, to forget about this opening scene, it nevertheless follows us throughout the entirety of the story, as the plot hinges upon this opening scene having occurred, because it leads the protagonist to believe that she’s pregnant, which serves as motivation for her and almost every other character’s actions. After this initial violence, there are hardly any overtly violent actions committed in the rest of the story. For the most part, the story is quiet with only a threat of violence bubbling beneath. There is a threat of kidnapping, of experimentation, of death. The opening scene portraying extreme violence, therefore, can be interpreted as showing the reader an example of the kind of violences that can be inflicted upon someone in this world, as well as the extremity of that violence. The book doesn’t open with someone being slapped—it opens with someone being betrayed by a guest and raped on the floor. There is a seriousness in this initial action that lends itself to encouraging the reader to take seriously the threats of violence found within.

Similar to Zulus, Morrison’s Home opens with a violent scene that plants its roots within the rest of the story. Two of the main characters, in a past day when they were children, witness horses fighting and the burial of a person’s corpse. Unlike Clay’s Ark, this sort of violence does not find repetition over and over; rather, like Zulus, Home is quiet (barring one major scene) and the threat of violence is more pervasive. Contrary to either of the other two stories, however, the characters of Home, particularly Cee, are blind to much of the danger that surrounds them. Danger which in one important case seems to be wholly unclear without background information that can’t be found within the book. Cee’s time spent aiding the doctor she’s with seems to have no dramatic interest on its own whatsoever, and relies upon knowledge of the history of experimentation on blacks and on women to be used by the reader to project one’s own warnings of the potential danger to Cee onto Cee’s psychology, which is a psychology of naiveté. Regardless of whether or not this is a clever trick by the author or a failure in the novel, it’s clear by the opening scene and later scenes that the characters inhabit a violent and potentially still yet violent world.

The introductions of the three novels can be read with Washington’s Medical Apartheid in mind. The introduction of Medical Apartheid makes the aims of drawing attention to, and awareness of, the historical and contemporary exploitations of blacks and their relationship with medicine and medical communities. Iatrophobia, the fear of doctors or of going to the doctor, informs the rest of the text by providing a solid anchor point from which one can understand the relation of subsequent material. Through this idea of iatrophobia as anchor point, and through the subsequent material, one can see how the three novels relate to Medical Apartheid’s concerns of consent as a broad human right and of consent as a specific medical right. In Zulus the protagonist is raped and afraid that she’ll be experimented upon and that her child will be taken away; in Home we have Cee’s relationship with the doctor subtly suggesting imminent danger; and in Clay’s Ark we have kidnappings, murders, non-consensual transmission of diseases, and so on. The general themes of Medical Apartheid, so clearly laid out in the introduction of that book, therefore provide a useful framework for the reading of the novels, and helps orient the reader to a consistent understanding of the relationships between the various works.

The Use of Names in Zulus

“Race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.”

So it is with a name. Names carry with them enormous power though, like race, they don’t possess any substantive content. A name like “Julius Caesar” carries with it a host of different associations: Rome, Italy, Europe, war, barbarians, Egypt, and so on, but none of these things are representative of the name “Julius Caesar.” There is nothing in the essence of the person we know as Julius Caesar that suggests that this person is named “Julius Caesar”; rather, it’s the name he was given upon birth and has been passed down to us through history. Likewise, when we see the name of someone we know, we immediately conjure in our minds many things that we associate with that person, their voice, body, some history with them, and so on. So names are both not real and have a dramatic and obvious effect on the world, just as race does.

Titles like “Mr.,” and “Mrs.,” are also names which carry a great deal of meaning behind them, as they denote social status. We can be sure that a “Mr. Johnson” is a male whose surname is Johnson, that a “Mrs. Kim” is certainly a married woman whose surname is Kim. One’s social status is even more clearly displayed when honorific titles like “Sir” or “Lord” are used; both conveying a sense of elevation. Other titles, such as the epithets commonly attached to names in the Iliad and Odyssey, e.g. “resourceful Odysseus” and “swift-footed Achilles” largely exist for the sake of metre, but they nevertheless remind us of basic characteristics of who they’re attached to. In Zulus we also see such epithets used; Alice Acitophel is typically “fat”, Theodore Theodore is “tiny”, and Lucinda Knotes is “perfect.” Due to the nature of the novel not following any kind of metre to necessitate these epithets, it stands to reason that they have been put in to serve some other sort of purpose.

What then is the use of epithets and names in Zulus? The answer is: it isn’t at all clear. Lucinda Knotes’ name, for example, invites the reader to “note” something, or to think that Lucinda is the one “noting” something, but what exactly is being noted or by whom isn’t clear at all. Is the reader supposed to “note” Lucinda, in that we ought to pay careful attention to her, as she’s gradually revealed to be far in character away from her epithet “perfect”? Or is there something else? Why is Theodore Theodore’s name the way it is; what does the repetition imply in the context of the novel? In Fortune’s Bones we see a repetition in Fortune being named and re-named as his true name is forgotten and lost, and a clear connection is made between the loss of individual enslaved persons’ histories and Fortune’s name being lost, but in Zulus the connections are far less obvious and, unfortunately, rarely elaborated on. Perhaps the only place in the novel where names are given any kind of overt importance is in Alice’s debate with herself over the ethics of taking on the dead Esther’s name, but this is brief and seems to lack relation with the rest of the book. Even an overt reference to a name, like “June Imhotep” lacks clear relation to the rest of the story. Imhotep was a doctor; Alice was intended to be sterilized by the state, and to be taken advantage of by doctors by the rebels; June Imhotep herself was a patient in a hospital. “Imhotep” means “I come in peace” and, even if we allow the pun that Alice met June through her job collecting and carrying pee, what greater meaning does it have, if any?

Horace’s quotation in the book, “mutate nomine”—fully, “change only the name and the story is about you”—might be thought to provide some clue as to the use of names in Zulus, but it isn’t clear if that is at all the case. Rather, the use of the quotation in the book seems most closely linked to the theme of self-determination shown by Alice. Her quest to find meaning in her life is something that everyone can relate to, and the many obvious metaphors of entering and exiting caves and vaginal canals and of giving birth to herself make this clear. At the very least, we can understand Alice’s surname, “Achitophel” as a Biblical relation to the wise man who advised David, and we might imagine that Alice is “wise” because she is so bent on defining herself rather than letting those around her act upon her in that way, again echoing the main theme of the book. Theodore Theodore’s name, meaning “God’s gift,” might reflect Alice’s initial attitude towards him in the book as someone who is practically a saint to her, and one whom she falls in love with very quickly. Lucinda, meaning “light”, and relating to the roman goddess of childbirth Lucene, might suggest that Lucinda will be (or will try to be) responsible for the birth of Alice’s supposed daughter. Thus, perhaps, we’re supposed to “note” her first name and are given some foreshadowing for her later efforts to forcefully take Alice back to the camp to be used as a cow. But all of this is very unclear and I’m not sure, which is probably playing right into Everett’s hands with the amount of misdirection and teasing he does in Zulus.

Cruelty & Beauty Together

“Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. . . . The neighs were not as frightening as the silence following a kick of hind legs into the lifted lips of the opponent. Then it stopped. . . . One dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him. . . . They were so beautiful. So brutal.” So begins Toni Morrison’s short novel Home, and with it comes an important question: How can something be beautiful if it’s so brutal?

Joseph Addison, in the opening paragraph of his essay Pleasures of the Imagination, discusses the “pleasures of the imagination which arise from the actual view and survey of outward objects; and these, I think, all proceed from the sight of what is great, uncommon, or beautiful.” He asserts that regardless of whatever “horror or loathsomeness” an object may bear, there can still exist a “mixture of delight in the very disgust it gives us.” He goes on to elaborate on his use of greatness, by which is not meant “the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of a whole view, considered as one entire piece.” He provides examples from nature, such as “huge heaps of mountains” and “a wide expanse of water.” Finally, as far as this paper is concerned, he states: “Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity.”

 While Addison is surely correct in his assessment of physically great things in the mind—as testified by poets, who have been inspired by sunsets and sunrises, oceans and great mountains for thousands of years—, far more interesting is his idea of considering something “as one entire piece.” If we consider something in that way the actual size of the object becomes wholly irrelevant, and we can fill our minds with small things that nonetheless feel great in size. For example, a beautiful woman “considered as one entire piece” can enthrall one’s heart and imagination insofar as every part of that woman would be magnified in the mind many times, in spite of her actual relative lack of size compared to the Sahara or the Alps.

 “The most beautiful time is the first period of falling in love, when, from every encounter, every glance, one fetches home something new to rejoice over.”* Regardless of any feelings of love for this beautiful woman, one can “fetch home something new to rejoice over,” from any part of her, from her eyes, lips, fingers, laugh, or a common mannerism that appears great because she’s doing it. In other words, the actual size of the object isn’t responsible for its being great or not. Rather, its absorption and magnification within the mind makes it great. In this sense, the mind very much “is its own place” and it can be understood how even wholly abstract ideas, such as those found in religion, philosophy, or poetry, can be so beautiful.

In Homer’s Iliad it can easily be seen how an admixture of “delight” with “horror or loathsomeness” can exist within the mind, as similes are very frequently used to contrast the violent world within the war, and the more peaceful world outside, creating a very broad view of the world. In the following passage, Homer compares the violent killing of a soldier with a flower:

“The archer loosed a fresh shaft from the bowstring

straight for Hector, his spirit longing to hit him—

but he missed and cut Gorgythion down instead,

a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince,

and the arrow pierced his chest, Gorgythion

whom Priam’s bride from Aesyme bore one day,

lovely Castianira lithe as a deathless goddess . . .

As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,

drooping its head to one side, weighed down

by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,

so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,

weighed down by his helmet.”

When taken as an entire piece, the simile demonstrates that the beautiful can exist together with “horror or loathsomeness” or with butchery; the peaceful, idyllic outside world in which a blooming garden poppy can droop after a spring shower is contrasted with the slaughter of the war; the greatness of the contrast, between extreme violence and extreme peace, is enough to fill the mind, because the mind can easily become populated with the things that exist between those two states.

Another wonderful and similar comparison can be found in Crime and Punishment, which, in my own experience, created an enormous contrast between everything I’d ever heard or considered about “eternity” (or, as I considered when reading the passage, Heaven), with something opposite:

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?”

The beginning of Morrison’s Home follows the same principles. The young protagonist saw the contrast between these (to his eyes) physically imposing creatures, normally thought of as highly docile and even majestic, and their violence against one another. Within the paragraph there’s an obvious contrast created between winner and loser of the duel, with the winner boasting to the women: “[loping] off in an arc, nudging the mares before him” and the loser having “dropped his head and pawed the ground”—imagery that very much seems to evoke a plaintive suppliant or sulking child. 

There are countless examples of beauty found alongside cruelty within and without literature (e.g. in film, music, visual art). Toni Morrison’s opening to Home is but one small example, and it succeeds very well in introducing the reader to the beauty and cruelty to be found within the story; beauty in the sacrifices characters are willing to make and the pain they’re willing to suffer, and cruelty in the way they’re often treated by the outside world. Even in that cruelty beauty can be found, the very fact that such cruelty is possible can, itself, be a very beautiful thought.

*Spoken by the pseudonymous author A in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

Repetition in Fortune’s Bones

Early on in the course I noticed that Doctor McCoy emphasized something key to pay attention to while reading the course material. That key thing is the reviving of once-dead things, or the refusal to let already dead things remain dead. In other words, the creation of a repetition. The idea of repetition is most clearly shown in Fortune’s Bones, and supported in many parts of the early chapters of Medical Apartheid. In looking at Fortune’s Bones, we can create a timeline of Fortune’s life, death, and afterlife, as given to us by the book.

He and his family lived in the late 1700s, slaves to a Dr. Porter, for whom he worked the land, caring for animals and planting crops. He later died in 1798. Porter “preserved Fortune’s skeleton to further the study of human anatomy,” rather than having him buried. “He had two sons who were also doctors. They could learn from the skeleton, too.” Fortune’s bones were examined by Dr. Porter, who would later die in 1803. The bones would stay with the family; “Porter children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren used it to learn the names of the bones.”

The name “Larry” was written on the skull, and “Fortune’s name was forgotten for nearly a century.” The skeleton was lost, and eventually “discovered by a crew of workers.” After yet more time passed, “in 1993 Sally Porter Law McGlannan gave the bones to the Mattatuck Museum. [Where they were] to be assembled for display.” They were displayed there for decades, and “many stories were invented about the skeleton.” Pages 21 and 23 of Fortune’s Bones share people’s interactions with the bones, in 1800, 1870, 1890, 1907, and 1960. Finally, the book ends with an afterword that briefly discusses the, as of the publishing of the book, ongoing discussion of whether or not to display Fortune’s bones.

From this very brief biography, it is plain to see the many repetitions going on here. At the beginning of one’s life, one is typically given a name, but in Fortune’s case he was born, named, died, re-named, and his true name was forgotten for a century until discovered again. The bones would be studied by Dr. Porter, and then passed on to his children to be studied, or otherwise played with as in the case of the children playing with the skull in the attic. From the other things we’ve read and seen in this class, particularly the idea that many people were needlessly experimented on, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the medical experimentation on Fortune’s bones was probably also a form of play, a morbid satiating of curiosity.

Over time, the skeleton was lost until it was re-discovered, and once again the bones were given from someone to someone else; first from Dr. Porter to his children, and then from one of his children to the Mattatuck Museum. Indeed, Fortune was essentially owned by a great many people; Porter, his family, and the museum, and was never been allowed to be at rest. The bones were placed on display in the museum, once again allowing all who pass by to see Fortune, as if he were really still living in the world.

While the bones were on display in the museum, “many stories were invented about the skeleton.” Again, the repetition is plain. As you continue to act and interact with other people to any degree, a history is created. In Fortune’s case, he made history during his life, and was then forced to have a lengthy history long after his death. Finally, the discussion at the Mattatuck Museum regarding whether or not to display Fortune’s Bones is, at the end of the book, a matter of current debate.

The many repetitions shown in Fortune’s Bones seems to be a common theme found in other texts we’ve read in class, particularly Medical Apartheid. The fifth chapter of Medical Apartheid, The Restless Dead, discusses grave robbing, particularly of blacks. In it, corpses are dug up and forced to be objects of use by those with the power and will to do so. The morbidity of it all is perhaps best exemplified on page 136 of Medical Apartheid: “posing for professional portraits in anatomy laboratories with remains of dissected cadavers became an important professional ritual for medical students. . . Before 1920, the students were nearly always white and the cadavers often black. Images of African Americans who were lynched and dissected were treated alike in several telling ways. The dead bodies were often horribly mutilated: Body parts are excised and missing, and they are burned, castrated, or fresh wounds are visible. The bodies were also posed in undignified attitudes that accentuated whites’ dominance over them: The lynched were shown handcuffed, bound, hanging, gagged, and tied to stakes…” and so on for another half of a paragraph.

The epigraph for this course is “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” When paying attention to the repetitions in the course material it’s difficult not to notice the atrocities committed, or lack of dignity given for other human beings, and it’s difficult not to notice that the authors of these works, such as Fortune’s Bones and Medical Apartheid, believe that other people can notice these things, too.