Paradise and the Painful Practice of Growth.

In the interest of clarity, I think it worth starting this move, and by extension this essay, by confessing that after all the work we’ve done in class this semester, and all the discussions we’ve had about Morrison’s novels and Dante’s divine comedy, there is still much about both that confuses me. The Eagle of Divine Justice, most prominently featured in cantos 18,19, and 20, is chief among the aspects of both Morrison’s and Dante’s works that I find perplexing. Throughout our process of reading, discussing, interpreting, and writing about both Paradise and Paradiso, I found myself struggling, as I repeatedly tried and failed to find the larger significance and meaning to this imposing figure. I understood the basics of it: the Eagle, as we see it in Paradiso, is formed from an “array of fire” (line 107), made, as Dante tells us, out of the numerous “blessed spirits”(line 88) of “saintly being”(line 76). These same spirits, before taking the form of an Eagle, write out a phrase in the sky with their bodies: “ Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram”(lines 91-93), which translates to “Love justice, you who are judges on Earth”. From the moment I read Dante’s description of the Eagle’s formation and the phrase the spirits wrote with it, I knew both the phrase and the Eagle were significant. Where I found myself struggling however, was trying to pin down their significance, especially in the context of Morrison’s novel. I found myself searching for a meaning or message displayed through the Eagle and its phrase that I could assuredly and persuasively argue Morrison’s stance on in relation to Paradise, and consistently came up empty. I realise now that I couldn’t find such a message or meaning because one simply doesn’t exist. The confusion I was feeling about the Eagle, and frustration and turmoil I felt in my fruitless search for answers that didn’t exist, were in fact, exactly what I should’ve been focusing on all along, because in the end, it was never the answers that mattered, but the question, and the thoughts and discussions it could spark. 

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is a symbol of tradition, but also of legacy. The oven was a fundamental part of the original town of freed slaves, Haven, and was brought with the descendants of those freed slaves when they left Haven and went on to found Ruby.  More importantly, to many of the citizens of Ruby, the oven is one of the last connections they have to not only Haven, but to the generations before them who were turned away by everyone and had to build a community and town from nothing. To those citizens of Ruby, the oven is the one material reminder of the countless stories that the community of both Ruby and Haven passed down from generation to generation of the struggles and hardships the founders of Haven faced, and what they accomplished. The oven’s historical and cultural significance to the people of Ruby is only compounded by the fact that it served as an important tool during the early days of Haven, as well as a communal gathering place for decades following Haven’s establishment. On top of this, however, the oven finds itself a new significance in Ruby during the events of Paradise, as a debate over the words on the ovens lip, as well as the meaning of those words, occurs throughout the whole town. Importantly, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines, with the vast majority of the older generations in Ruby believing that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” and that this was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement of God, while the vast majority of the younger generations of Ruby believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God. The oven’s appearance also plays a role in its significance, particularly after unknown members of Ruby’s younger generation paint a “fist, jet black with red fingernails” on the Oven’s back wall. This symbol of black power goes to further illustrate the generational divide between the old and young people of Ruby. As for how the oven is in conversation with Dante’s eagle of divine justice, the main feature of the oven is the message on its lip. Either interpretation of the words all refer to the eyebrow of Dante’s eagle. More than that, however, the nebulous and interpretable nature of the words on the Oven’s lip directly mirror the Eagle and the phrase associated with it. To some, the eagle might come across as a warning, an ever vigilant watcher of those on Earth, there to constantly witness who follows it’s commandment, and who does not. Others may see it as a role model, a symbol of how those “who are judges on earth” are supposed to act, constantly looking for injustice to correct. Others still might see it as the very embodiment of the justice that the Latin phrase tells us we are supposed to love. After all, it is quite literally referred to in this very prompt as “the eagle of divine justice”. This inherent interpretability of the Eagle in relation to “Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram” is the perfect backdrop for the dueling interpretations of the words on the oven.

The residents of Ruby find themselves in a rather heated debate over the exact words and phrasing of the phrase on the Oven’s lip.  As mentioned in a previous move, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines. Most of the older adults in Ruby argue that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” before the Oven was moved to Ruby, at which time, a few of the letters fell off.  Most of the younger adults and teenagers, however, believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow”. What I find interesting about this argument as that while both sides, especially the older side, of this debate seem to attach a lot of values and moral significance to these phrases, the debate is consistent with most debates over literary interpretation, as every individual person has a slightly different idea of what their side’s phrase means. We as readers are never given an exact summary of what either side’s message means in contrast with the other. Sure, we’re given glimpses as to what individuals on both sides believe their side’s phrase signifies in contrast to the other’s, like when Harper Jury explains that “‘Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ‘Be’ means you putting Him aside and you the power.”(Morrison page 87), but these glimpses don’t give us the whole story, as they come from arguments that are inherently biased toward one side or another, because everyone who’s arguing feels strongly that their interpretation is the correct one. An overall summary of the two sides would be that the older side believes that “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”  was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement and power of God. They see this as a connection to the history and plight of their community, who were wronged many times by people that they view as not having properly bewared the furrow of God’s brow, and see the act of remembering that message on the Oven as a championing of all that the people of Haven accomplished in spite of those that wronged them.  Therefore, they become incredibly angry at the younger people of Ruby’s interpretation of the message, as they see it as an insult to the legacy of Haven and its inhabitants, and view the switch from Beware to Be in the Oven’s message as an arrogant assertion not only that those on the younger side of this argument believe themselves to be equal to god, but are also too self-involved to respect a message that does not directly involve them in some way.

The younger side, however, believes in the message of “Be the Furrow of His Brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God.  They seem to believe this as they are clearly unhappy with the way things are both in Ruby and the world at large, and want a force of change able to help them fix what disappoints them about the world. As such, their interpretation of the oven’s message is almost a call to arms, asking them to be the force of change they want to see in the world. This is further demonstrated by the black fist with red fingernails that they painted on the Oven, as the black fist is a prominent symbol in the black power movement, which sought to change the status quo in order to promote equality for people of color as well as pride in their heritage. They see this as honoring the legacy of Haven and its founders by following their example and coming together to do something great. 

It seems to me that the citizens of Ruby have proven by the end of the novel that they are incapable of large scale, inter-generational collaboration. We see throughout the book examples of small groups within Ruby using collaboration to accomplish their goals, but we never see the entire population of the town willing to work together on anything. I think this is intentional, as Morrison is trying to show us that the town is falling apart due to the inability of its citizens to work together as one to achieve something. Every time they even get close to a semblance of unity, an argument or violent incident occurs that causes them to divide again amongst themselves, either on generation lines, familial lines, or even gender lines.  I also think Morrison does a good job at showing us that things didn’t always used to be this way in Ruby, part of what makes the falling apart of this community so catastrophic to those who love it is that there was a time when everyone in it could collaborate without it devolving into argument and conflict. I believe Morrison shows us this not just in the stories the older generations treasure so dearly, but also more recently in the timeline of the novel. I’d argue that the last time all of Ruby was able to collaborate in earnest was at the horse race over a decade before the start of the novel. I think that’s, in part, why the older generation of Ruby citizens value the Oven and it’s legacy so much, as it stands as a reminder of one of the last great feats accomplished through the collaboration of everyone in their community, the founding of Ruby. One thing I find especially important about the citizens of Ruby is that even when they can’t come together as one, collaboration in the town does not disappear, it just occurs in smaller units. The younger generation collaborates to come up with a new interpretation of the words on the Oven, the Older generation comes together in what could be seen as collaboration to condemn and scold the younger generation for their new interpretation. The Morgan twins collaborate in almost everything they do up until the end of the novel, especially in the molding of K.D. into a suitable heir to the Morgan business and reputation. I would also like to point out that there is a very clear message that the shift from the whole town as one collaborative community to these smaller familial and generational collaborative groups is a negative one, as collaborative efforts can be used for good and evil purposes alike.  It is demonstrated throughout the novel that these smaller groups dedicate most of their collaborative efforts to the purpose of battling a common enemy. The generational groups may be collaborative within their group, but they’re engaged in an ideological battle against the other.  The men Lone spots at the oven are indeed collaborating with each other, but the goal of their collaboration: to either drive away or kill the women of the Convent, is unambiguously unethical. It seems to me that Morrison is warning us all that if we become so intolerant to the people and communities around us that we are unwilling to collaborate with them for any reason, we will inevitably find ourselves trapped in an “us against them” mentality that continuously divides us and consistently leads to conflict, violence, and destruction.  

One thing about Paradise, and indeed, all of Morrison’s novels that we’ve read as a part of this class, is that throughout them all, Morrison uses every means at her disposal to raise questions to the reader that seem to be of dire importance, and in every instance, leaves those questions unanswered. I have to believe that this is an intentional decision on her part, in order to provoke careful thought, introspection, and discussion on the part of her readers. While I realize there’s an argument to be made that this is another aspect that she appropriates from Dante, I found it much more prominent, and much more powerful, in Morrison’s work. Throughout this course, I found myself frequently finding small bits, a character detail here, an interaction there, a repeated word or phrase here, an interesting description there, that raised so many questions. Questions like “Why does Toni Morrison keep talking about things that “wear her[Denver] out”(Beloved page 15) in the beginning of Beloved?”, “Does Violet have some sort of precognitive abilities?”, and “Who is the man that appears to Connie on page 251 of Paradise? Is it the same man that Soane calls her ‘friend’? ”  Each time this would happen, I’d take a mental note of the question, and as I continued to read, a part of me would be searching through the remainder of the book for an answer to these questions, for the payoffs to what felt to me like fascinating and incredibly important setups, but each time, I came up empty.  If I’m honest, this was disappointing and occasionally frustrating for me, as in the case of each of these questions, I felt like I had found something deeply significant to understanding the novel as a whole. However, in time, and due in large part to discussions and conversations I’ve had throughout this class with both my fellow classmates and Professor McCoy, I have come to realize that these questions aren’t meant to have answers.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve picked up on this sooner, as Paradise is full of people searching for answers that don’t exist. Each of the girls at the convent ended up there in search of the answer to a question that haunted them, and none of them find it. For Mavis, that question is “how do I escape the grief I feel for my children and the guilt I feel at being responsible for their death?”. For Gigi, it’s “how do I get a terrible memory out of my mind?”. For Seneca, it’s “What do I do with my life?”. For Pallas, it’s “How can I  recover from the trauma I’ve faced?” (Note: While Pallas does physically recover, there’s no easy answer to how to emotionally and mentally recover from what she went through). For Connie, the question is raised twice, but both times, the question is the same; “How do I cope with someone I loved leaving me?”  While none of the women find the answers they’re looking for, they do find each other, and in doing so, find different ways to resolve the problems in their lives that their questions are trying to solve. The citizens of Ruby have a less fortunate ending, as the question that they as a collective seem to have on their mind, especially the older generation, is “how do we keep Ruby from falling apart, and stop its citizens from dividing and eventually scattering?”. Throughout the novel, we see that every attempt to find an answer to this question, and all efforts made in service of accomplishing the goal outlined in the question, inevitably backfire, because, much like I was when starting this class, the citizens of Ruby (especially the older generation) are so obsessed with finding an answer to their question that they forget the purpose of the question in the first place. That is why, in the end, Ruby’s most devoted citizens end up having to bear witness to their town and community suffering the fate they tried so desperately to avoid. It’s why things don’t work out for the citizens of Ruby, and why, I think, my earlier attempts in this class to understand Morrison’s works (especially Paradiso) in a meaningful enough way to write something substantial about them were so fraught with frustration. In both the case of the citizens of Ruby, as well as my own struggles with Morrison’s work, the whole point of the questions we find ourselves asking is not to find an answer, but to get us to think both critically and introspectively, and challenge our own assumptions. This is especially fitting, because for me, that’s what this course has been all about.

Before this course, I assumed that essay writing was an exclusively solitary activity. I assumed every question raised in a piece of literature had one or more answers embedded within that same text. I was confused by the very concept of both/and because my learning was built upon the concept of either/or. Each time, my old ways of thinking were challenged and eventually proven wrong. Our collaborative essay and abstract have been some of the best writing exercises I’ve done, I’ve learned the hard way that Morrison doesn’t do clear-cut answers, and I’ve begun finding both/and’s everywhere I look. This process has been uncomfortable, fairly challenging, and a bit painful at times, but I can tell that I’ve grown as a reader, writer, student, thinker, and person, and I wholeheartedly believe that the way I look at literature has been changed. And while I will be the first to admit that I’m still grappling with finding meaning and making sense of certain aspects of Morrison’s works, I’m no longer searching them for answers, but rather for the discussions and dialogue they encourage. Had the people of Ruby been able to do the same, I believe they might’ve found a way to stop their community from dissolving out from under them. 

As far as how I can apply what I’ve learned in this class going forward. I’m only a sophomore at Geneseo right now, so I have the incredible good fortune to make use of my new understanding of collaborative writing, the importance and relevance of both/and, and the necessity of letting go of the desire for answers in literature, as a student here for two more years. After that, I intend to become an English teacher at a high school or middle school level, and I can say without a doubt that I will certainly be applying all of the previously mentioned skills in reading and analyzing literature not just to understand it for myself, but to help shape the way my future students understand it as well.

Collaboration With the World: Dante’s Eagle and Morrison’s Oven

Dante’s imperial eagle is formed in the sphere of heaven known as Jupiter, this sphere is specifically linked to the idea of divine justice. The eagle is formed of the souls of human rulers who had been deemed just during their reign. The imagery of the eagle stands out to me, it is meant as a representation of God’s justice. The Romans were pagans who worshiped many different gods but one of their most notable gods is Jupiter, the king of gods, and the god of sky and thunder. The animal most closely associated with Jupiter is the eagle. 

The eagle is a bird that takes prominent roles in many belief systems around the world, they are signs of power and courage. It is sometimes considered the closest connection to the divine because it flies above all other things. Some believe that it is a messenger to and from the divine. It was used to symbolize Roman emperors, as a way of showing their connection to Jupiter and cementing their authority.  Dante’s decision to connect such a strong spiritual symbol, such as the eagle, to God’s divine justice is a conscious one. An Eagle is both a bird who draws awe when seen Physically and respect when invoked spiritually. 

The oven in the center of Ruby is of great importance to the town and the people who live there. It came originally from the settlement in Haven, where it was built by the founder with brick and iron. It was built to represent the town’s unity. They relied on the oven and its function to birth their community’s success and for a while, it did just that. The oven sustained the life of their settlement, but over time it became less of a necessity and more a symbol.  When Haven eventually fell, the settlers of Ruby took the oven with them sacrificing space for it over more practical supplies. Once they founded Ruby they reconstructed the oven to be the center of their town, where it took the mantle as a symbol of everything they had overcome.  The most prominent feature of the oven is the writing forged on the front of it. Time has taken its toll on the oven leaving only “the Furrow of His Brow” on the front of it.

.Paradiso 18 – Digital Dante

I found the image above in another translation of Dante’s Paradiso. The eagle in this image is directly in the center. It stands as the most prominent thing in the image.  Much like the oven in Ruby the eagle of divine justice is prominent in Dante’s heavenly sphere of Jupiter. In the Musa translation, we get a zoomed-in look at the eagle’s face and particularly his brow. I did some searching on the names of the people in the brow and found that each soul was a human ruler who was considered to be just and good. The question that stems is what does it mean to be just and good? In Ruby, the men who control the town seek justice on the women of the convent for embracing a lifestyle different from their own. Some of the rulers in the eagle’s brow were known for the expansion of their kingdoms and conquering but they were also known for the peace that existed during their reigns.

The most prominent feature of the oven is the writing forged on the front of it. Time has taken its toll on the oven leaving only “the Furrow of His Brow” on its lip. This is where the town comes to an argument over the oven. The older generation of Ruby’s residents stick to tradition that the oven said “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” and the younger generation wants to change the slogan to “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” The older generation sees the slogan as a warning to be wary of the righteous justice that God can bring down upon someone. The younger generation sees the slogan as a code of arms in a way, a mantra for them to take justice into their own hands. Their ideas intersect at the idea of justice but diverge at who the justice comes from. There is an interesting BOTH/AND present here. We see that the older generation wants to support the belief that justice is God’s to take but they are the ones leading the raid on the Convent at the beginning of the novel. It is they who choose to “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” They have the meeting to make the decision of taking justice into their hands at the oven. 

This idea of taking things into one’s own hands is also present in the women of the convent. Mavis, for example, decides that she is not going to sit and give up after her car runs out of gas. Instead, she takes her survival into her own hands and becomes like the hitchhiking women, making her way to the convent. The convent is much like Ruby in its isolation from the outside world but inside the convent, women learn from women and embrace more self-expression and freedom. Gigi is another girl who spends her journey seeking self-expression and freedom, as shown by her desire to find the copulating people in an obscure town or the trees that look like they are making love but is led to the convent. During K.D. and Arnette’s wedding reception the Convent girls show up wearing clothes that are very different from what the residents of Ruby wear, like short skirts and revealing tops. The convent girls leave the reception and go to the oven to dance where other people have already begun to gather. The convent girls are eventually asked to leave the wedding because of their behavior. This reflects on how Ruby’s residents react to anything that is outside of their normal. 

The residents of Ruby meet to discuss their disagreement about the oven and its words but it ends with the older generation and the younger generation getting into an argument. Each side seems unwilling to hear the argument of the other. They are not willing to collaborate with each other, it is either their way or no way. This leads to the people of Ruby seeking out others to blame for the divergence that is happening inside their town.  It shows that in collaboration it is important to hear the points of every person to grow the group as a whole. We may interpret things differently but it is important to hear what others are saying and try to understand the meanings each person is interpreting. We can not truly collaborate if we are unwilling to bend our views. 

  It is at the oven where the men rally to blame the growing tension in their town on the convent, claiming them as evil. While the men prepare to raid the convent the other townsfolk gather at the oven when its foundation is weakened from rain. They hope that the men won’t do anything but chase the women away. The slow deterioration of the oven is representative of the community’s deterioration as it refuses to collaborate with the changing times. Ruby is scarred by the actions that were taken against the convent women. The oven is left-leaning because of its destabilization with graffiti on it now saying “We Are the Furrow of His Brow.” It is no longer to beware or be, they are the furrow now. My interpretation of this is that Ruby has caused the furrow in his brow, and now must face divine justice. Ruby sees its first death since the woman it was named after, the death of a child. The attack on the convent has brought God’s divine justice down on Ruby. Perhaps the men should have taken more heed to “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” It is because of their refusal to listen and collaborate with the others in the town that they have brought punishment down on the town of Ruby.

Morrison’s collaboration with Dante, throughout her trilogy,  relies on the interpretation of the works by the readers and writers. Morrison was a reader first. She engaged with Dante’s work and was able to draw meaning from it that she could apply to her own. Morrison did not simply take what she interpreted from Dante’s work and lay it on the surface of her writing for her readers to see, instead, she buried her interpretations deep beneath the surface of the text. This act of burying the meaning allows readers to form their own interpretations of the text they are engaging with.  As the writer, Morrison joins Dante in collaboration as their readers interpret and pull apart the texts they have created. Their work is in conversation with more than just one another, whether it is about sin, spiritual improvement, or justice, as authors and readers we are engaged in this greater conversation with ourselves and the world around us. Morrison’s stories start with seeds from the reality that existed around her, just as Dante’s Inferno is rooted in history and myth of Dante’s time. It is the conversation between every component that intrigues me the most about Morrison and Dante’s collaboration.   As a creative writer, who focuses mainly on fiction, I want to engage my readers in similar conversations with the world around them. I want them to be able to dig deep beneath the surface of my work and find something that makes them look at the world in a different way then when they began reading. I will also try implementing some form of collaboration and discussion like this in my classrooms when I start working as a teacher, with Teach For America, in September 2021. One of the biggest things I learned about collaboration throughout my time in this class is how it can be both affirming, in how others can agree and support your initial ideas, and eye-opening, in how others can point out profound things that you had overlooked.  I want my students to have that experience with collaboration, to learn how much can be created when we work together in good faith.

Compassion and Confusion: Morrison, Dante and the Transition to Distance Learning

As I mentioned in our English 424 class, something I immediately noticed as I looked at The Eagle of Divine Hope the first time was that there was a key of sorts presented along with it, telling those perceiving it how they should go about perceiving it. It especially interested me because all of the stars are the same, so the distinction being the only thing to differentiate them felt like something that stuck out for a reason, although I’m not quite sure why yet. It did remind me of something I’ve also noticed in Morrison’s writing as well as Dante’s, and that’s the idea of the author having control of the lens while you are consuming their work. Although it may seem open for interpretation and that it is at the reader’s discretion to determine how to digest the material, the author is able to manipulate the perspective of the reader without them realizing it. Confusion has been something that has felt like a struggle throughout this course for me personally, particularly as I navigate these texts on my own in this online format. However, through Dr. McCoy’s guidance I have come to see this as something that I can utilize to my advantage and work with in order to better understand the material and what I am learning from it.

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is representative of something larger than itself, similarly to the Eagle. One way that this is made clear by Morrison throughout Paradise is her use of capitalization. It it portrayed as a sort of entity rather than an object, and it is regarded in different ways by different groups of people inhabiting the town. This is something that interests me in conversation with what I wrote about the Eagle, and the way the key of sorts guides the perception of it. This reminds me in a way of Dante, his circles of hell and the guidance this structure and the structure of the cantos gives to the reader as they embark on the journey with him. The oven is subject to the perception of people based on their background and experiences, as is the eagle. However, the eagle has a key of sorts, which directs people to perceive  it in a certain way, and the oven does not. My peer, Micah, mentions that it is easy to get used to the capitalization of the Oven when reading the novel, and that its significance can go over one’s head as they read.

Beware the Furrow of His Brow or Be the Furrow of His Brow: these two interpretations of what is written on the Oven, separated by generations, mean completely different things. However, they are derived from the same thing, which I find very interesting. The same can be said about literature. We may all be reading the same texts, but our perspectives differ based on what we carry with us into our interpretation and understanding of it.

Speaking of interpretations: the fact that there are so many interpretations of the word interpret feels ironic to me. A word that is all about perception is perceived in so many ways, and none is more accurate than another. They are all accurate in different contexts. Perhaps the same could be said about the differing interpretations of the text on the oven’s lip. They are nearly composed of the same words, however, hold entirely different meaning. The youth of ruby interpret “being the furrow of his brow” as a sort of “justice” (87) while the older residents feel this is not accurate. Although there is a subtle difference in language and phrasing, the entire idea behind the text itself and what it signifies is flipped.

Collaboration is the through line of this course. It’s something I entered college afraid of after experiencing projects in high school that were meant to be a group effort and ended up becoming my individual work or the work of me and a couple other students because the group members would not contribute equally. The English department and this course in particular have emphasized for me the value behind collaboration and the meaning behind showing up for yourselves and your peers. 

This idea of collaboration is relevant within Morrison’s text because the oven’s readers need to utilize it in order to come to understand what the oven says and its significance. There are two opposing perspectives in this case, which can cause conflict and disagreement. These varying interpretations, in this case, mean very different things. However, Morrison emphasizes the subtle differences of these interpretations and how such a small difference in phrasing can make such a huge difference in meaning. Interpretation is a necessary step before collaboration: Morrison emphasizes that this generational difference is what causes these groups to enter into a collaboration, bringing their interpretations to the table in aim to best decipher this message and create meaning. Bringing differing interpretations to the table can be a trigger for conflict, certainly, but it also can allow for the meaning that is made to be much more wise and significant due to the varying perspectives coming into the process. 

In Paradise, Morrison writes, “Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.” To read this line of the novel now was incredibly validating. To know that paradise isn’t some perfect, ideal world, free from struggle or burden; rather having that responsibility and shouldering that burden is the whole purpose, the entire point. Collaboration, for me, has become liberating. It has become less about the individual with each day, each meeting; with this pandemic. It has become more about a conscious effort to focus on creating something powerful together, not just in spite of circumstance but perhaps even because of it.

While Paradiso functions on a larger scale than Paradise, they both ask questions about morality, punishment, and justice, and each attempts to answer them in their own ways. Something valuable I learned in working with these texts is that confusion is valuable and meaningful and not something to run from. Confusion was purposeful, it was something I was able to use to my advantage during this time rather than view as a roadblock, or something holding me back. Everything we attempt to accomplish during this time has come with its fair share of new obstacles. This is new territory for all of us. However, these circumstances and realities very greatly for all of us. This is always true, not just in a pandemic. And this, to me, is reflective of the work my classmates and I have embarked upon with these texts. Though the context may be more challenging for some than others, more familiar for some than others, our varying understandings allowed us to all come together and create something, to share an understanding and to grow as thinkers and humans.

I am extremely grateful for the humanity that was shown to me in this process. My peers and I are dealing with circumstances outside of this academic work and have been able to support each other through these challenges, even when it wasn’t about the coursework. This kind of camaraderie is a side effect of collaboration that I have always taken note of since starting at Geneseo, but it has become particularly important to me in these strange circumstances. I am grateful for a department that fosters such growth and compassion, and I am grateful to have worked with such kind and intelligent people throughout the course of this semester, and to have gone through these transitions with so much support behind me. I am also proud of my own ability to push through these circumstances and to navigate complex texts to the best of my ability and to contribute among personal and global challenges.

Collaboration using Dante and Morrison

The novel Paradise by Toni Morrison is the tale of the town of Ruby once thought of as a safe haven for its citizens but now facing a generational divide.  This novel, like many of Morrison’s works, draws heavily from Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, in particular the cantos from “Paradiso”.  One important part of “Paradiso” is the eagle of divine justice, which Dante meets in the nineteenth canto.  The eagle is described as being made up of souls “like a ruby”, an obvious connection to the name of the town.  Many other group members noticed this connection as well, though there are deeper connections to be made about the eagle.  One of these connections has to do with what the eagle really stands for, that being divine justice.  It makes the readers of Paradise wonder if the citizens of Ruby enacted their own version of divine justice when they decided the fates of the women living in the convent outside town.

Another important part of the symbolism of Paradise is the brick oven that stands in the middle of Ruby.  It was originally built in the town of Haven, where it was often used for cooking.  After Haven died out, the oven was moved brick by brick to Ruby.  The oven is meant to be a symbol of how the men of Ruby are willing to let go of the past.  An inscription on the oven was mostly lost in the move but a few words remain: “the Furrow of His Brow”.  The elders of Ruby believe it read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that humans should be fearful of God.  The youth of the town believe it to read “Be the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that they are acting as God’s instruments on Earth.  One group member pointed out that this divide goes further than just generational because of how the men of the town are obsessed with the oven while the women “see it most literally as a large object that isn’t needed anymore”.  Morrison could have crafted the phrase “the Furrow of His Brow” from the eagle of divine justice because of how the brow of the eagle is made up of stars representing great past rulers.  The night that the men of Ruby kill the women of the convent the oven begins to slide off its foundation, showing how Ruby is falling apart because of their actions and how divine justice is crumbling.

This interpretation of the text on the oven’s lip seems to drive the town farther apart.  The elders claim that the youth do not understand their interpretation because they weren’t there when Ruby was first built, just as the eagle of divine justice claims that humanity will never understand what divine justice truly is.  Another important part of this interpretation is that one person in Ruby thinks about the oven reading “the Furrow of Her Brow”, especially when the oven is defaced with an image of a black fist with red fingernails.  Women in this story seem to get the short end of the stick, with men running Ruby and deciding to keep the oven and eventually the women of the convent being shot.

The oven’s readers have a difficult time using collaboration to reconcile their differences in their interpretations of the oven.  When a meeting is called to settle this matter, the elders talk over the youth and preach about holding onto tradition and rejecting change to their way of life.  An important part of collaboration is listening to other ideas as well as stating your own, but the people of Ruby aren’t considering the other side’s interpretation in favor of their own interpretation being right.

Paradise’s appropriation of Paradiso tells us a lot about the both/and of interpretation and collaboration.  Both/and is used when comparing two different views of the same thing, like how the citizens of Ruby were quarreling over the meaning of the words on the oven.  Both groups had good meanings for their interpretations, the elders believing it has to do with where Ruby came from, while the youth believe it means that they are the only ones that can control their lives.  The elders claim that the youth will never understand their interpretation and how Ruby came to be, just like how the eagle of divine justice tells Dante that humanity would never understand God’s justice; though the eagle is made up of “soul[s] like a ruby”.

In a way this essay is like Morrison’s appropriation of Paradiso, taking parts of the story and putting it into our own work, albeit with permission.  When I was presented with the fact that we would be writing collaborative essays in this class, I was a bit skeptical because I wasn’t sure how multiple people could write one essay.  It turned out to be not as difficult as I thought.  I enjoyed hearing what others thought of a point that I was struggling to understand.  It helped knowing that I wasn’t doing this essay completely alone. 

Even though the collaboration in Paradise ended in murder, ours didn’t.

We Must Listen, in Order to be Heard

The illustration of the eagle of divine Justice has me thinkING about the Oven and the conflicts that have risen in Paradise by Toni Morrison due to the generational divides over what the slogan should be. The Oven is symbolic throughout the novel and seems to be the center of the town, similar to how David is represented in the illustration of the eagle of divine Justice as the center, or the eye.

Looking back at Paradiso Canto 19, I am struck by the unity of the voices that make up the eagle. Dante refers to each one of these souls as a “ruby” and describes the eagle as a “handsome image” with “united souls” which can be contrasted with the division of generations seen in Morrison’s Paradise. The Oven is supposed to bring people together since it “didn’t belong to any one denomination; it belonged to all.”  The oven in Toni Morrison’s Paradise, although once located in Haven, now stands in the center of the town Ruby. David, in the eagle of divine Justice, is also in the center with the stars surrounding him representing Trajan, Hezekiah, Constantine, William II of Sicily, and Rhipeus. The people of Ruby, especially the older people, seem to worship this oven and which is evident in the capitalization of the “o” throughout the entirety of the book.

The oven was transported by the “new fathers” of Ruby and was a place where people would come together to hang out and spend some time with one another. Some feel that it is a symbol of the town’s resilience, as mentioned in the novel, “even in 1934 when everything else about the town was dying; when it was clear as daylight that talk of electricity would remain just talk and when gas lines and sewers were Tulsa marvels, the Oven stayed alive.” The conflict over what the slogan should read surfaces in the chapter Seneca. The elderly strongly feel that it should read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” whereas the youth believes it should read “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” Although these differences in language are subtle, the meaning behind what the phrase is saying changes immensely. Destry argues that rather than trying to be God, by the slogan stating “Be the Furrow of His Brow,” the people of Ruby will be his voice and retribution. The younger people feel that the “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” suggests that they are scared of him and should be “ducking and diving, trying to look out every minute in case He’s getting ready to throw something at us, keep us down.” This clash shows the generational divide between the elderly and the youth and the elderly’s resistance to change. The elders invalidate many of the younger people’s opinions and seem to bash them for their feelings. 

Steward in particular feels that the youth “had no notion of what it took to build this town” but Soane argues that the oven has lost its significance and that “minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value. What was needed back in Haven’s early days had never been needed in ruby.” She also explains that although the women agreed back then to having the Oven moved to Ruby, “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.” 

The oven’s readers try and use collaboration to reconcile the interpretive disagreement by picking a side, the young or the elderly. The younger people came together to voice their opinions, since they often feel like they are silenced and their opinions are not valued. The Reverend Pulliam seems to be the mediator in this conflict. He acknowledges that it is the way in which they talk to one another that is the real problem. He says, “We’re here not just to talk but to listen too” which is something both the young and the elderly seem to have forgotten. Morrison’s Paradise addresses the importance of interpretation and collaboration and by showing that we must listen to one another in order to be heard. There is no wrong interpretation to anything. In the Seneca chapter of Paradise, everyone seems to be just talking over each other instead of absorbing and thinking about what the other is talking about. 

When thinking of Toni Morrison’s Paradise in terms of interpretation and collaboration, I am immediately brought back to the conflict over the oven and what slogan is represented. It is clear that the problem lies in the generational divide between the younger and older generations of Ruby and I cannot help but see something similar nowadays. Greta Thunberg, a 17 year old climate crisis activist, being mocked by the president is just one of many examples. Rather than encouraging the voice of the youth, adults tend to find ways to silence them. I constantly think about my future as an English teacher and hope to encourage my students to keep speaking and voicing their opinions, regardless of who is trying to stop them. This idea of adultism is not something that should be tolerated and we should work with one another to progress as a society. It is clear in Paradise that without considering the art of interpretation and collaboration, progress is not possible. 

Moving from face-to-face learning to distance learning this semester was definitely difficult and I thought it would take away from one of the main goals of this class: collaboration. All of our lives were abruptly interrupted and we still found time for each other, to set up zoom calls, to work with one another, to listen to one another, and give support during such a tough time. Collaborative writing is challenging, especially during a pandemic, but it is always rewarding. Hearing others shed light on something you would have never thought of or did not notice in a text is fascinating. By listening to one another, we were able to put together amazing work.

Collaboration as a Tool for Interpreting Justice and Ourselves

The eagle of divine Justice is a constellation creating of words from Canto 18, “Diligite Justitiam” (91) which means to cherish justice. Although the message is to cherish divine justice, Dante’s inquires make it clear that the term is open for interpretation. In Paradiso Canto 18, Dante equates the eyes, more specifically Beatrice’s eyes, as an image into Paradise: “Turn to him and listen—for / not only in my eyes is Paradise” (lines 20-21). Paradise can also be interpreted differently according to the eyes of the beholder as readers see in Morrison’s Paradise and the community’s different interpretations of what Ruby is supposed to stand for. In Paradise, the different generations within Ruby argue whether the inscription on the oven is “Beware the Furrow of His Brow? [or] Be the Furrow of His Brow?” (93). This debate can trace itself back to Paradiso and whether the souls that make up the eagle’s eye should be the goal or the warning. One of the souls on the eagle’s brow is Constantine who, according to Dante, went against Heaven when he moved the capital of the Roman empire from the West to the East which is in direct disagreement with the cosmos. However, even though Constantine went against Heaven, his soul can be found among the stars because it was his intentions that were good and that is what he was judged on. In Canto 19 of Paradiso, the eagle of justice claims that justice is beyond our comprehension because we are unable to see it in its full capacity: “vision that your world receives / can penetrate into Eternal Justice / no more than eye can penetrate the sea” (58-60).The different interpretations of what the words on the oven continue throughout the novel with the different interpretations of justice. This is especially prevalent when the community in Paradise justifies the massacre of the woman of the Covent and whether these actions were truly just. This raises even more questions on if their intentions were for the good or a reaction out of fear and the disappearing of the bodies may hint that the souls of the fallen were redeemed. 

           Paradise tells the story of a community called Ruby from the stories of various other characters. The novel itself is actually a collective whole made up of different parts similarly to the makeup of both the oven within the novel and Dante’s eagle. While Dante’s eagle is created star by star to create a constellation, the oven is constructed brick by brick. Both the eagle and the oven both represent something larger than themselves as well and have been created by souls preceding those whom the readers see the story unfold in front of. These messages, however, are subjected to different interpretations. The eagle calls into question what justice is and if the true justice that allows souls to move to heaven are judged by the actions or intentions. However, although the question of justice is brought into play with the massacre of the women of the Covent in Paradise, the oven’s message can be directly tied to the brow of the eagle. The debate between generations on whether the inscription on the oven is “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” or “Be the Furrow of His Brow” or even “We are the Furrow of His Brow” (298). The true meaning was lost long ago, yet each generation that rebuilds it, brick by brick, creates their own meaning for it. Similarly, justice cannot be viewed as a whole by people, but only glimpses are caught, and people create their own definitions from those moments of limited understanding. Even the title Paradise allows for different interpretations of the town Ruby and if this community built is paradise or in fact, it holds the opposite. When the oven is center of the community, the heart, but its usefulness has died out and yet the community continues to persist with it. This interpretation extends to the readers as well as fellow peer Katherine Johnson remind me: “The oven is subject to the perception of people based on their background and experiences, as is the eagle. However, the eagle has a key of sorts, which directs people to perceive it in a certain way, and the oven does not.” Dante guides the readers through his journey and through his perspective while the citizens of Ruby are left with a deteriorating structure to guide their varying interpretations. 

           The residents’ interpretations of the writing on the oven’s lip seems to differ from generation as the closeness and experiences of those who build the oven increase in distance over time. As beautifully pointed out by my classmate Cal Hoag: “After arriving at Ruby the oven had to be reassembled, but like the town itself there’s no telling if the assembled product is the same as what was there to begin with. The oven was no longer the town’s uniting force and its function had become purely symbolic…” Although the writing has worn to the point of ineligibility, there is a clash between what has been traditionally understood as the motto by the older generation versus what the younger generation believes the inscription should represent about the town: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow? [or] Be the Furrow of His Brow?” (93). The only difference in the words themselves is the ‘ware’ after Be, but these four letters change the meaning completely. The former serves as a warning while the latter offers itself as a guide for the community. Although Ruby as a community has shared beginnings and experiences, how the individuals perceive these experiences as well as going through their own has resulted in different understandings from the same piece of iron. In the end, both parties respect their ancestors and want the significance of the oven to continue as a connection between Him and the inhabitants of Ruby. The older generation views the relationship between themselves and God as his children, meant to obey the commands while all the power rests within Himself, an understanding. However, the younger generation’s interpretation falls under the definition of a performance of the ideas of Him and they believe in order to obey Him, they must become His vessel. These two groups of people literally fall under different interpretations of the word interpretation

           It feels as though the conflict with the oven is an underlying problem of the community as a whole and Morrison seems to be suggesting that when differences in interpretations are present, effective collaboration can make a difference. There was an attempt to collaborate when gathering the town to discuss the oven’s inscription. However, the older generation stubbornly held onto the past and rejected what the younger generation had to say about change. Although Reverend Misner attempted to mediate, both parties were set on their interpretation. The oven has long lost its functionality, yet the community continues to value it as though it hadn’t and even rebuild it by sacrificing other necessities. What the oven represents appears to be much more valuable than the object itself which is why the motto inscribed matters to the people while the words have little effect on the object itself. A key to successfully collaborating involves respecting the opinion of others even in disagreement and this lack of respect is clear during the public discussion from both parties. However, this conflict within Ruby only leads to a crumbling foundation and the readers eventually see signs of the younger generation persisting with the graffitied “We Are the Furrow of His Brow” (298) on the hood of the oven.

           An important revelation I had about Paradise and the current circumstances came about through a post made by fellow peer Ashley Daddona: “The process in which the readers of the Oven interpret, agree/disagree and collaborate, though not flawless, is still a process moving forward.” Although the collaboration within Paradise appears fruitless at first, it’s important to acknowledge and value that talking is the first step forward and any step forward, despite how small, is still progress. Paradise puts the both/and questions on a smaller and more realistic scale for the readers and although the questions raised in Paradise are far from simple, they may be more manageable to most than those in Paradiso. The conversation around interpretation brings me back to the conversation surrounding intention as well. I keep wondering if good intentions can justify bad actions and learning how to still seek and respect interpretations even though I don’t agree with them. This justification. In Paradiso, interpretation, especially on justice, is taken to a larger scale with the readers exploring qualifications in entering heaven. In the grand scheme, Dante ponders whether good intentions triumph bad actions or even a lack of religion. These questions become easier to relate to when exploring Ruby in Paradise and the readers question whether the actions of the residents are justifiable as well and the destructive force of inefficient collaboration on differing interpretations. Although interpretation and collaboration appeal to me as an English major, I’m more drawn to the connection with my Education major and hopefully a career. Collaboration may seem more obvious, but it’s importance in education and the transference into life outside academics as well cannot be overstated. However, interpretation has taken me years to fully appreciate for myself let alone realize its importance to teach within the classroom. Students, especially in high school, often feel as though the teacher’s answer is the right or the only answer. However, students should feel that their interpretation is valuable and that the thinking that got them there is just as important. Collaboration can serve as a tool to respect and value other’s interpretation of course material and these skills can be transferred to life outside of school. I was always worried during class to participate and say the wrong thing because maybe I didn’t understand the material the way I was supposed to or as well as I thought I did. The lack of participation increased my lack of self-confidence and the vicious cycle continued until college. I would become more likely to participate in class when I felt as though I was close to the professor and the students in my class so sharing potentially stupid thoughts was still safer. This class is among the several classes at SUNY Geneseo where I enjoy the class because I can participate in small and class sized discussions surrounded by those I trust and these classes also increase my self-confidence with every contribution. The common thread between these classes is that I was able to collaborate with my peers, even if it was just discussions in small groups, and my professors respected my interpretation of the material. However, unfortunately, it’s the lack of effective collaboration due to a difference in interpretations have resulted in more chaos during this time of uncertainty. I hope that soon, the majority of people will be able to reach an agreement for the betterment of people’s lives and successfully collaborate on the solution rather than remain divided. However, I now have hope that despite appearance, society is moving forward and that the process may take longer than it should, but it will eventually meet its end goal.

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.

Morphing Constellations and The Inevitability of Change

The most important piece of the process of interpretation and collaboration is that in doing so, there is often not a clear and solid answer or solution waiting at the end of the process. In fact, the process within collaboration is the valuable aspect of it, and is what creates an intersection between interpretation and collaboration. The process in which the readers of the Oven in Morrison’s Paradise interpret, agree/disagree and collaborate, though not flawless, is still a process moving forward. Being able to progress through this process of collaboration is a forward or upward movement, of course with obstacles, that is needed to reach the heights of paradise. 

Continue reading “Morphing Constellations and The Inevitability of Change”

Movement and Narration in Morrison and Dante

By: Cal Hoag, Ashley Daddona, Jenna Doolan, Margaret Pigliacelli, Kat Johnson, Micayah Ambriz, Ellie Walker

Movement, transition, and togetherness are major components of the lives of the characters in Toni Morrison’s Jazz as well as in the spiritual improvement of the sinners found in Dante’s version of purgatory in Purgatorio. Movement within the minds of sinners as they re-evaluate and repent for their actions on Earth is manifested in physical movement up and down Mount Purgatory. Canto IV describes the mount: “This Mount is not like others: at the start / it is most difficult to climb, but then, / the more one climbs the easier it becomes” (88-90). This journey appears to be a simple movement from bottom to top, yet the path is not so linear as it circles around and around the mountain as it comes to the precipice. 

Morrison’s novel follows this same roadmap laid out by Dante as a casual, seemingly omniscient narrator describes a fraught, loveless marriage between characters Joe—who had just murdered his young teenage lover, Dorcas—and Joe’s wife Violet—who assaulted Dorcas’ body in a rage as it was presented at her funeral. The start of the couple’s journey is difficult and full of pain as they attempt to rebuild and reconcile their relationship, yet as they move up their personal purgatorial mountains the journey gets easier because of the way they simultaneously move backward in time. 

With memory as a basis of time, movement of the characters and Jazz’s narrator is no longer progressively forward (or upward) based, mirroring the inconsistent rise and descent of a soul, or Dante and his guide Virgil, through purgatory. The specific movement of the forward into Paradise in which the original guides leave their pilgrims so that another will take their place is similar in both works. At the end of Dante’s Purgatorio, Virgil is suddenly replaced with Beatrice who will lead Dante through Paradise. At the end of Jazz, the narrator leaves Joe and Violet when Felice appears. The etymology behind the name Felice is ‘happiness’ and ‘luck’ which could symbolize Joe and Violet’s movement into Paradise hence the change in guides. This movement could also refer to their spiritual happiness and paradise as well. 

In Paradiso, Beatrice berates Dante for his previous physical love of her as he was only infatuated with her outside appearance and this isn’t true love. It is the spiritual love beyond the face that allows people to reach true happiness and become closer to God. In Jazz, Joe has moved from his excessive love of the flesh into a state closer to spiritual love which allows him to be happy with Violet and not seek out Felice the same way he did Dorcas. Dorcas was the object of his infatuation with the physical appearance and it took his movement through his own purgatory to reach this spiritual awakening.

The passage of time to the characters almost becomes irrelevant, as their versions of reality become rooted in the past, making it difficult for readers to identify how time passes and nearly impossible to trust the characters’ judgment or acknowledgment of time because it is strongly based on memory. The same could be said for grief: there is no linear path from start to finish, but instead, an individual must constantly return to the past in order to proceed further still. Our group had a similar experience while completing this project. Similar to Virgil being replaced by Beatrice, our guide was also replaced as we were exiled from campus. Our circumstances while doing this project are so different from what we did for the first collaborative essay that, separated from each other by long distances and from our memory of Jazz by time and stress, we needed to come together to remember what it was like not only to be a student but to be a person working with other people. In this way, we were also walking a recursive, complex path with no clear beginning or end.

Our Journey Through Beloved

James Bonn, Yadelin Fernandez, Randall Lombardi, Margaret Pigliacelli, Abigail Ritz, Rickie Strong, and Eleanor Walker

Written in the fourteenth century, Dante’s Inferno has become a famous cosmological depiction of Hell, as well as a narrative interpreted by various writers throughout the centuries.  Dante’s descent through the nine circles of Hell with his spiritual guide Virgil teaches Dante the consequences for sinning through the punishments he observes in each circle of Hell.  After passing the first seven circles and interacting with various historical and mythological characters, Dante and Virgil arrive at the eighth circle of Hell via the monstrous Geryon.  The Eighth Circle known as the “Malebolge” contains the fraudulent and malicious sinners and is organized in a succession of ten ring-shaped valleys, or bolgias, that go deeper into Hell as they get closer into the center. Each valley has punishments that are specific to the crimes that are committed in relation to fraud. There are bridges over each of the valleys that the pilgrim and guide take; however, the bridge over the sixth valley has collapsed. This collapsed bridge forces Virgil and the Pilgrim to descend into the valley, in order to continue the journey. Dante sees Jason, the Greek hero, being punished for being a seducer in the first bolgia, where the sinners are punished  by being forced to walk single file forever, while demons whip them to keep order. In observing these punishments Dante’s character rediscovers his moral consciousness through the shift in his attitude towards the suffering souls. Initially only pitying few, Dante by the end of his journey through hell has developed empathy for all the souls he witnesses suffering, thus demonstrating Dante’s recovering of his moral way of life and illuminating the act of moral consideration.        

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