Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s finest writers and she comes from Steinbach, my home town. I read this book after I had already heard a lot of criticism about it. Most of that criticism came from Steinbachers. Some felt that Miriam Toews was not true to Mennonite colonies. They weren’t like that some said. Others didn’t like her approach. The book was largely about women talking with each other. The women had been subjected to horrific abuse by the Mennonite men in the colony and were meeting to discuss what to do about it.
My view is entirely different. I loved this book. To use the approach of Northrop Frye in the book The Educated Imagination, the book is not about abuse in a Mennonite colony. It is much more than that. It is a book about women talking about their own exploitation by men and what, if anything they should do about it. It is a book about rebellion from exploitation. And I don’t think there are many more important things than that. In Aristotle’s sense it is a vital and fundamental universal theme. And I think Toews was very true to that theme. For me, she made it come alive. And that is what great books do. They make it real. Even if it did not really happen. It was still real.
Many things were interesting in that book. The women wanted to have the freedom to think. Again a universal theme of vital significance. Did not every child in every home and in every country want exactly that? We all want to think and must escape from the domination of our family, our church, our clique, or our friends. We all want to break free and that is never easy to do.
I remember years ago I was at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. There was a circus-style show involving a trainer and some chimpanzees. During the show the trainer made a mistake in improperly chaining the chimp to his place on stage. The chimp took one look around and made a burst for freedom. It might have been entirely irrational. What was the chimp going to do in Winnipeg? But that burst for freedom was glorious. The chimp took off and the trainer ran after him. From the stage we saw them a city block away. The show was over. But the bolt for freedom was real and it lasted in my mind forever.
In the novel, the women challenge the patriarchy. Around the world women are doing that. One of the women says, “We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. We are grandmothers.” Yes. But they are rebels! They are talkers. And they are thinkers.
In this novel some of the women talked about making a bolt for freedom. Should they or shouldn’t they? I found it fascinating. I think this is one of Toews’ best novels ever. I think it is a great novel. Read it and think.
Ralph Friesen has written a fine book called Dad, God, and Me. Let me say at the outset that in reviewing this book I am not neutral. The author Ralph Friesen has been a friend of mine for many years. We grew up in the same town, Steinbach, and curled together from time to time. In fact I was a little bit younger than he was, and I and my friends considered him and his friend Patrick Friesen intellectual leaders of our generation. But I realized after reading this book that our experiences growing up in this town were very different.
Ralph’s upbringing as the son of a Kleine Gemeinde conservative Mennonite Church, was very different from my experience, the son of much more moderate Christians. My parents were much more liberal in the religion they doled out. I would say that Ralph’s life was soaked with evangelical religion. To me Ralph paints a picture of parents with a shockingly totalitarian view of Steinbach in which children were nearly suffocated with religion. In other words, it was religion that invaded all of life. Frankly, I found even the much more liberal theology of my parent’s church too stifling for my taste. More conservative members of our community considered it barely religion at all. I can’t imagine how I would I would have survived his upbringing.
The religion of the Kleine Gemeinde (little congregation) was, to echo of phrase of Albert Camus, religion without limits, making it as unpalatable as politics without limits. I thank Ralph for giving me a peek into his world. It was a fascinating look. Now I know how lucky I was not to be raised in that environment.
Not that Ralph’s family was not loving. They were certainly loving. The parents, the father in particular, just wanted to determine everything about his son’s faith. Nothing else would do. As Bob Dylan said, the parents were “Making you feel that you gotta be just like them.” Every book, every piece of music, every sporting event, every relationship was viewed through an evangelical lens. Nothing was off limits. That is what religion without limits is all about.
Before his father got saved or born again, thanks in part to an itinerant evangelical minister, Ralph’s father enjoyed life outside the church. In particular he loved movies. The theatre in Steinbach was driven out of town as some Mennonites, like the Kleine Gemeinde became ever more evangelical. I remember as a youth how sad I was at that. I loved going to movies and my parents did not discourage me from doing that. I remember one day I had gone to see the movie Heidi about a young Swiss girl. I loved the film. It was a joyful experience. But when I walked home all alone on a Friday night I was approached by 2 old crones who stopped me and asked me what I was doing out this late on a Friday night. I exuberantly told them about his wonderful movie I had just seen. The women were shocked. This was awful. Did I not realize I was bound for hell if I did things like that? I was totally mystified. What could be wrong with seeing a film about Heidi. I could not understand. In time I did of course but to a young lad this was a scary experience. These were the evangelicals of our town.
As Ralph explains in the book,
“The Mennonites mistrusted the arts, and all individual creativity, as belonging to the sinful world, distracting the Christian from the serious worship of God. Dad fell into line with that view after his conversion. If he was to express himself creatively, he would contain that expression within religious boundaries, as in composing sermons, or leading choirs, or signing hymns.”
Does that not sound totalitarian? Religion intended to dominate all of life. Some Mennonites, thank goodness, saw things differently. But to the Kleine Gemeinde religion was that absolute. It was everything.
Ralph describes that milieu with precision, but with compassion. He clearly loves his family, but did not allow them to choke him. Ralph, unlike most Mennonite youth in such circumstances managed to bolt for freedom.
I would suggest that no matter whether you are a Mennonite or not, Christian or not, you can enjoy this book. It is well worth the trip.
Toni Morrison returned to the subject of self-hatred and racism in her profound novel about slavery—Beloved. This is surely one of the classic novels of the twentieth century. It is also one of the most shocking novels you will ever read.
I want to give a warning here as I will spoil the ending for those who want to read it. I find that unavoidable. In that book a mother—Sethe—escaped from slavery with her two daughters Denver and Beloved. But when the slavers who were tracking them found them, Sethe did the unthinkable—she tried to kill her daughters. She took Beloved to the shed and cut her throat with a saw to save her from slavery, by killing her. Here is Morrison’s incredibly powerful description of that scene:
“Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it…Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning—that Beloved might leave. That before Seth could make her understand what it meant—what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life—Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that—far worse—was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dream about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled the daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter.”
These are things that a system of racism can accomplish. No individual acts of racism could do this.
In the Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s mother and father, the products of a racist society that created people without self-worth, had epic fights. They were poor and black. Yet those fights, “relieved the tiresomeness of poverty, gave grandeur to their dead rooms.” As a result her mother—Mrs. Breedlove—what a name—and Cholly her husband had an incredible relationship. They started out loving each other, but over time that love curdled into something contaminated. Yet, they needed each other. “If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would have never forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.
Yet Cholly needed Mrs. Breedlove just as much. They were not complete without each other. “No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires. Hating her, he could leave himself intact.”
That is what the impotent black man in America was reduced to. He could not fight back against his powerful white oppressors. He had to accept the domination and the hurt because as Toni Morrison said, there was nothing he could do about it. The only thing he could do was turn on those who were less powerful than him. Even though he loved them—his wife and his daughter—he could only try to quench his abject self-hatred by hurting those he loved the most.
Half-remembered injustices that were “humiliations, defeats, and emasculations… could stir him into flights of depravity that surprised himself—but only himself. Somehow he could not astound. He could only be astounded.”
When Cholly was young he loved Darlene a lovely young black girl. One day they were having sex—loving sex—when they were interrupted by a group of young white men bent on harm. They forced them to continue the sex as they watched shining flashlights onto the bodies of the disgraced couple. As a result, Cholly came to hate Darlene instead of the white boys. That is the terrifying logic of racism. The victim comes to hate himself and those he loves the most, instead of the lethal white predators. Morrison described that process this way,
“Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed, men. He was small, black, and helpless. His subconscious knew what his mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him, burned him up, like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was, in time, to discover the hatred of white men—but not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one whom he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.”
What Toni Morrison, like James Baldwin before her, realized, and so many of us, like me in particular have not realized, is the astonishing visceral power of impotent rage. It is helpless before overwhelming power so it turns on itself and those the victim loves the most. It is irrational of course, but that does not matter. Somehow, in some twisted pathological logic, it is better to hurt those you love than do nothing but accept the injustice.
In Canada we are often told, by the comfortable privileged, that the “aboriginal problem” is exactly that—an aboriginal problem. Most violence against aboriginals is inflicted by other aboriginals. It is entirely their fault. That may be, but that changes nothing! That is exactly the deadly awfulness of racism. It can impel the victim to turn on himself or herself and turn on others, even more vulnerable, loved ones, in a cruel metamorphism that bespeaks generations of abuse and imposed self-hatred. The vulnerable ones are then attacked from all sides. There is no refuge, no safe haven. Racism is much more powerful and much more awful than I ever imagined. It is thanks to writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin that I have come to realize that. Thanks.
After the recent incident in Minneapolis where a white police officer killed a black by kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes even though he was lying on his back with his handcuffed behind him and he was clearly having great difficulty breathing. That incident has energized and enraged people around the world including Canada.
I was already thinking about the issue of racism because I had recently read a fascinating book called White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to Talk About Racism, written by Robin DiAngelo. The book was given to me for Christmas by my half-indigenous daughter-in-law. I wonder what she was trying to tell me? But I have learned a lot from that book. I recommend that everyone read it. It is worth the read. I also heard DiAngelo on PBS’s Amanpour & Company.
I have never met anyone who admits to being a racist. None. There may be some out there who admit that they are racists, but they would be extremely rare. That does not mean, of course, that there are no racists. There are many.
No one likes being called a racist. It is generally considered one of the worst things you can say about someone, even people who are clearly racists.
Even many progressive or liberal thinking people however are racists. They just don’t know it. That does not mean they are racists about everything. It does mean that they exhibit racism. They express racism.
When white people are questioned about racism, even without a deliberate accusation of racism, people are very quick to respond viscerally ‘I am not a racist.’ The problem is things are not that simple. Robin DiAngelo, in her book, argues that there is an unconscious bias even among the most progressive of white people, including herself.
What does she mean by the expression ‘white fragility’? She puts it this way, “The expression ‘white fragility’ is meant to capture how little it takes to set white people off into defensiveness. For many white people the mere suggestion that whiteness has meaning is enough to cause us to erupt in defensiveness.” Many white people object to any such generalizations. “Individualism is a really precious ideology for white people and we don’t like to be generalized about.”
DiAngelo responds to such objections a sociologist. She is comfortable about generalizing about people. Social life is observable in patterned ways. But, she adds, “I am also a member of a social group and we all have to be willing to grapple with collective messages we are all receiving because we live in a shared culture.”
She is a professor of sociology but she came to her current beliefs through experience. She got a job in the 1990s as a diversity trainer. She felt confident she could lead discussion on such topics because of course, she was above racism. After all, as she said, “I was a vegetarian how could I be a racist?” Yet she exhibited all the classic liberal symptoms of racism and when she worked with people of colour some of them challenged her. And those challenges were uncomfortable. She had to learn to handle accusations of racism openly and with grace and honesty. That was not easy at first.
Until then, when she was in her thirties, she had never had her racial world-view challenged. She did not believe she had a racial world-view. As a white person she saw herself as “just human.” As she said, “Most white people have an unracialized identity.”
When she went to workplaces they were overwhelming filled with white people who were mandated to have such discussions. As a result she was met with deep hostility. After all none of them were racists. At one company seminar where there were 40 people and 38 of them were white, one white man pounded the table screaming that white people can’t get jobs. According to DiAngelo this position is a kind of delusion. As some people have said, ‘when you are used to 100% 98% feels oppressive.’
DiAngelo tries in her book to explain why whites feel uncomfortable about discussing race with non-whites. It is worth thinking about. I intend to blog more about what I learned from reading her book and others, as well as some personal experiences. All of us should think about racism. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Maybe, especially if it’s uncomfortable.
Some last thoughts on The Plague by Albert Camus. In that novel Camus challenges the religious approach to suffering. Suffering is of course a fundamental problem for anyone who believes in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. How can there be such a God if there is suffering?
In the novel a Catholic priest Father Paneloux tries to approach the problem. He did that in response to a horrendously painful death of a young child from the plague. He set himself a difficult task. He said that there was a fact that we should under all circumstances take into consideration. We should always bear in mind that “Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted, and how best to turn it to account.” We should not try to explain the plague; we should try to learn what it can teach us.
Paneloux acknowledged that “nothing is more important on earth than a child’s suffering.” He also refused to take ‘the easy way’ out of the dilemma. In his second sermon to the people,
“He, Father Paneloux refused to have recourse to simple devices enabling him to scale that wall. Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who could dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering? He who asserted that, would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. No, he, Father Paneloux would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross: he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony. And he would say to those who listened to his words to-day: ‘My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who, I ask amongst you would dare to deny everything?”
The priest considered this “the All or Nothing”, “the greatest of all virtues.” Father Paneloux did not want to dodge the question. He wanted to face it head on. He did not want to sleep-walk through this question. Again a real (though fictional child) in the novel faced that terrible suffering. Could he not do the same?
While on the one hand religious thinkers for millennia have seen suffering as a way towards spiritual enlightenment, others have seen suffering as the greatest spiritual challenge. Perhaps there is no inconsistency there. Perhaps that is the point. Father Paneloux is certainly not trying to get around the problem. He wants to go through it. Paneloux knew, “religion in a time of plague could not be the religion of every day.” Paneloux also concluded, “The suffering of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.”
This meant that Father Paneloux had to have “a total acceptance” of that child’s suffering. This entailed that “since it was God’s will, we too should will it.” As Collin Wilson in Problematic Rebel said, we have to say yes to it all. So Paneloux says “believe everything so, as not to be forced into denying everything.” What a terrible choice, but he took it. “The Christian should yield himself fully to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.” Paneloux would not allow a half-measure from the Christian. It was not good enough to say, ‘This I understand but that I cannot accept.” That was just a sorry attempt to weasel out of the piercing dilemma.
Paneloux’s position is certainly a courageous one. He said “we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in our power.” Once again like Tarrou and like Camus himself, we must be satisfied with the small good. We need not concern ourselves with the grand design. That is above our pay grade. Do what good we can. That’s all. We need not be or even try to be saints.
Yet this is a very tough position.
“There is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We could accept the dilemma; and chose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare to hate Him?…’the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours.”
But of course this was not Camus’s position, or at least Rieux, the narrator. Like Dostoevsky in that other classic, Brothers Karamazov, he could not accept a world that required a child to suffer, He was not prepared to “justify” the suffering of a child. He would even dare to hate God if necessary. How bold is that? Who could be that brave?
The 2019 Massey Lectures were delivered by Sally Armstrong. You can listen to them on CBC radio by using the free CBC app. A book on the lectures is already out called Power Shift: The Longest Revolution. The theme of the lectures was the arrival of women’s fundamental equality. Armstrong argues The better off women are, the better off we all are.
Many parts of it were very interesting. The last 5 minutes of the last lecture were one example. With passion she concluded her lecture series this way:
“Man the hunter is bogus. There is no evidence that woman was not right there beside him hunting. The ancient past is a flawed account that was history recorded mainly by men and mostly about men. In fact, for millions of years we now know that men and women had equal status. And then they didn’t. It was during the agriculture era when food became plentiful, when they could focus on development rather than sheer survival until tomorrow, then both men and women realized that the future depended on producing more labourers and only women had the sexual reproductive capacity to deliver a child. Pregnant women were appropriated by men to produce the next generation, as much as land was prioritized and acquired by men at that time. That was the birth of patriarchy and subordination of women. That subordination was heightened when religion was formalized and institutionalized in the early legal codes. It has taken 10,000 years and a million years to right those wrongs. The power shift came from goddesses and priestesses, seers, diviners, nuns, healers, writers, reformers, activists, suffragettes, and feminists who took on the prophets and the kings, the orators and the philosophers, the politicians and the bullies, to find justice, fairness, and equality for all. It has been indeed the longest revolution.’
It really is time for male dominance to end. Even men would be be better off if that happened.
When I saw the title of a book, The Monarchy of Fear, I was immediately attracted to it. Then when I saw who wrote it, I had no choice; I had to buy it. The author is Martha Nussbaum, considered by some, to be the finest philosopher in the United States. I had read an article about her in the New Yorker, but had not read any of her books. In that article I learned that she liked to write about emotions. To me, a graduate in Philosophy some 5 decades ago, this seemed unlikely. I was wrong. Emotions are important in so many ways and it is good that philosophers opine on them.
For quite some time I have thought fear is an emotion that can have extraordinary consequences, particularly in the modern political context. Fear is a natural product of the age of anxiety or the age of anger. What could be more important than that?
Nussbaum had important things to say in the very first paragraph of the book. Here is what she said,
“There’s a lot of fear around in the U.S. today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.”
This struck exactly the right note from my perspective. The real problem with fear is that it interferes with rational decision-making. And we see it everywhere. In Canada just like the United States, but I think it is particularly prevalent in the United States. That country is the richest in the world, has the best armed forces that money can buy, spends more on prisons and police than any other nation by a long-shot. Yet it seems to me to be a country infused, no saturated, with fear. Americans like to call themselves the ‘land of the brave,’ but over and over again, from gated communities, to elaborate armies, the country is hobbled by fear to such an extent and with such intensity that it constantly surprises. And as Nussbaum suggests, such fear often “blocks rational deliberation.” Nowhere is the effect of this powerful more evident than in the election of Donald Trump. What rational deliberation could have ushered in his presidency?
Nussbaum boldly asserted the following:
“What is today’s fear about? Many Americans, themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of loved ones. They fear that the American Dream–that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done–has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all to attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women. “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.”
How many of the important social problems of the day are encapsulated in that paragraph? There is a lot to chew over in that paragraph.
And of course with such fears rational deliberation is unlikely! It is hardly surprising as a result that the United States, in its moment of fear, has turned to a man who is probably more unlikely to solve its problems than anyone else we could consider. As a result of fear they made the worst possible decision imaginable. That is the monarchy of fear!
I have still not got over Toni Morrison’s novel–Love. It is that disturbing. The novel is actually much more about its opposite. Hate. It is about a specific kind of love—love that is transformed into hate. How can that happen?
Morrison has a fine understanding of hate. She described how the Cosey girls fought over the coffin of Bill Cosey, the patriarch of the family , until one of the women, L (does that stand for love?) restored order. But the hate lived on. Hate is darn hard to destroy. Morrison described the haters this way: “their faces as different as honey from soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”
The novel is deeply imbedded into a racist society infused with white male dominance, even though there are very few white characters in the novel and none of them is a major character. The natural product of such a society is that the dominated black males turn to dominate those “beneath” them. And of course that is only other non-whites.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey a 52-year old black man who rapes an 11-year old black girl with the consent of her family. The girl is so young and ignorant that she “grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” And as so often happens, the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends—end up competing for a 52-year old man, entirely unworthy of either of them, and the two become transformed into enemies in the process. They learn to hate. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Can you imagine a hate that is “almost holy”? Even the holy is turned perverse in a world ruled by hate and dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. That is the world that is a product of hate and in such a world even the holy turns evil.
Heed and Christine had a hard time maintaining their hatred for each other. Hate does not come easily and it is difficult to maintain. As Morrison said, “Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.” They had “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects…once–perhaps twice–a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped, never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness.”
Both of them ultimately realized that neither one could leave. They were married to each other in a dark perverse marriage. They both had “an unspoken realization that the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other.” That is what undying hatred is all about. It bonds the two in unholy matrimony. “There in a little girl’s bedroom an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
I came to appreciate Toni Morrison late in life. That is a pity. But at least I did it. I finished her book, Love, just a couple of days before she died.
Love is one of the best novels I have ever read. Of course, I think I have now said that about every one of Toni Morrison’s novels that I have read. She was a brilliant writer. When I started to write this review I said, “she is the finest living novelist.” The only writer I could think of to compare her to was Marilynne Robinson. Both of them were astonishing writers.
Loveis a difficult read. I was half way through the novel when I realized I had to start over from the beginning. I was missing too much. I had not caught on to enough. I hate to start over, but sometimes I just have to do that.
Though difficult, the novel, like any great novel, rewards the effort to understand it. That does not mean the reader has captured it. Far from it. It cannot be captured. But the reader can be captured by it. the novel is about 2 “love” stories. But they are hardly ordinary love stories.
The novel is a story about women and how they relate to a powerful man. The novel is told through or from the point of view of those amazing women and centres around a horrid incident at its core. Ultimately it is about the violence and its consequences inflicted on one of the women–but really all of them–by that strong man at the centre of the novel. It is a violence that is as unredeemed as it is chilling.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey—“the Big Man who with no one to stop him, could get away with it and anything else he wanted.” He is a 52-year old man who can molest an 11-year old child with impunity and then marry her to make it ‘all right’. her 12 year old friend saw this as a “real betrayal,” by her “friend who grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” She was only 11 and did not know better so she “grinned happily.” After all the adults who loved her would not abandon her to such a ravishing would they? Yes they would. As so often happens the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. She concludes, “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed the Night, as she is called, has learned that this world into which she has been thrust by her family with the connivance of his family, is a terrifying world where evil catches fire and is doused with sugar creating a sickening black “caramelizing evil.” It is a world haunted by perverse love. It is impossible for her to escape, so Heed became “grown-up nasty.” How else could this have turned out? Christine, Heeds friend, who is 12 years old, and is one of those women who betrayed Heed and ends up with a mother-in-law who is her friend but younger than she is. Of course as Christine says, “most people married young back then (the sooner a girl was taken over by a man, the better.” In the end we learn a bitter black truth in which “the problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have the time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer.” That sweet caramelized evil.
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends–competing for a 52-year old man are transformed into enemies. They learn to hate. Only hate is natural in this most unnatural world. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Even the holy is turned perverse in a world so infused with dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. The topsy-turvy world is a product of hate where even the holy turns evil. “There, in a little girl’s bedroom, an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
There is another “love story,” if the first can be called a love story. This is a passionate love story. Young lovers this time. Such love should be pure and innocent. It is the story of Junior and Romen. When Roman sees Junior, “she seemed to him as beautiful as it is possible for a human to be.” It starts out innocent, but nothing in the novel is innocent for long. In such a world how could it be different? All the principal characters in the novel are African-American. Of course, all are victims of white dominance and oppression that transforms their lives in the most ugly way imaginable. Mainly that oppression is entirely overt, but it is real. It curdles all love into caramelized evil where love is transformed into hate. Perverse love is the bastard child of oppression. As Women says, Junior “plays hard, that’s all. I mean she likes being hurt…She didn’t just like it. She preferred it.” And Romen in response, was “cold, unsmiling, watching himself inflict pain and suffer pain above scream level where a fresh kind of joy lay.” No wonder that when in the abandoned hotel she undresses for him she keeps on her socks, then ties one around his neck and into the other inserts her foot and “the foot she slipped into the sock looked to him like a hoof.” His innocent passionate lover becomes the devil incarnate–caramelized black evil again. After all, “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.” And he becomes her “Sugarboy.”
In the novel family is as twisted and s curdled as love. Junior is assaulted by her uncles (“the howling uncles”) who are “idle teenagers whose brains had been insulted by the bleakness of their lives, alternated between brutality and coma.” They are the products of a racist society. The uncles threatened to turn Junior over to another old man–Vosh. This woke her up. The threat was real. As she thought, “the possibility that it could happen, that she could be handed over to the old man in the valley who liked to walk around with his private parts in his hands and singing hymns of praise, jolted her up from the floor, out of reaching hands and through the door.” For Junior prison is a reprieve from the maniacal madness of family. Prison is better than life with her family!
The world of love is no paradise. “People with no imagination feed it with sex–the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that–softly, without props.”
One of Morrison’s novels is called Paradise. This is certainly no paradise. But it is real. It is the product of a profoundly racist society where those at the top dominate with impunity and those at the bottom accept the dominance while “grinning,” because they don’t even know anything better.