Joyce’s Epiphanies and “An Encounter”

February 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Dubliners, by James Joyce, and James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann.

Reading next: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

I’ve been reading Ellmann’s biography of Joyce slowly, a chapter at a time here and there between other things, as part of my preparation for a trip to Ireland later this year.  (I’m not sure whether the voluntarily exiled Joyce would scoff at or be proud of this fact.  Maybe a bit of both.)  It is as great as everyone says, full of meticulous detail, useful insight, and a great balance between attention to Joyce’s works and information on his life.  And yet, now that I’m reading Dubliners, all of his incredible work tracking down real-life counterparts for characters and scenes can seem so pale and inconsequential — the stories are just that great.

But the book has been immensely interesting, and I’m very glad to be reading it.  Ellmann convinced me to take a look at the “Epiphanies,” some of Joyce’s earliest fictional or pseudo-fictional works to survive.  These very short works — we would call them short shorts or flash fiction now — are well known by just about every 20th century reader of literature, even if they’ve never heard of them, due to their immense influence.  Joyce explains them in his early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man entitled Stephen Hero:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.  He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

Forty of Joyce’s epiphanies survive.  They don’t all live up to his own sublime definition, and they are most important as apprentice examples of a concept which would transform literature.  Many of them make their ways into his masterworks, put into minds and mouths of characters, allowed to bloom in their new environments, as we’ll see later.  The epiphanic structure of so much of modern literature is due largely to Joyce and the immense power of his use of the tactic in his fiction.  (I’m convinced, incidentally, that Joyce is the most influential figure of 20th century literature.  Beyond the impact of his works themselves, the arc of his career from lyrical poetry to short stories to autobiographical novel to monumental works of avant-garde literature has become the basic template by which authors are judged, everyone expected to produce something as crystalline as Dubliners and to move on from it to something as opaque and challenging as Finnegan’s Wake.)

Because this is Joyce, we’d do well to remember the multiple meanings of the chosen term for his invention (or “invention,” if you prefer).  Beyond its common meaning as a sudden flash of insight, Epiphany is the Christian celebration of Christ’s revelation as man (his “manifestation,” to use Joyce’s word), the celebration of the Magi’s visit to the manger or, especially in Eastern Christianity, of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.  Joyce was constantly putting his Catholic education and upbringing to use in understanding the world in the most unexpected ways; here, he embues the Christian and emotional meanings of the word with new, Freudian significance.  An epiphany becomes a revelation of the true self to the world, or a revelation of the deeper self to the self.

One of the epiphanies (number 38 in the sequence as I read them, edited by A. Walton Litz, in Joyce’s Poems and Shorter Writings) appears, transformed, in “An Encounter,” perhaps the most controversial of the stories in Dubliners, central to its place in publishing purgatory for a decade.  Two boys skip school to see the sights and take a trip to the “Pigeon House” on the waterfront.  As the day wanders on they rest on a bank above the Dodder River and are met by a mysterious man.

"On the Dodder," Dublin, by Robert French, ca. 1880-1900. From the National Library of Ireland.

The 38th epiphany concerns a “Little Male Child” being asked about his “sweetheart” by two “Young Ladies” at a “garden gate.”  In “An Encounter,” this exchange is between the two truants, Mahony and the narrator, and this mystery man:

Then he asked us which of us had the most sweethearts.  Mahony mentioned lightly that he had three totties.  The man asked how many had I.  I answered that I had none.  He did not believe me and said he was sure I must have one.  I was silent.

-Tell us, said Mahony pertly to the man, how many have you yourself?

The man smiled as before and said that when he was our age he had lots of sweethearts.

-Every boy, he said, has a little sweetheart.

From there, things get very creepy indeed, the man revealing his interest in flagellation of young boys.  The complicated system of symbols and allusions in the story leads me to see a number of “sudden spiritual manifestations” in the encounter.  One is a possible reading of the incident as an allusion to the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness: the narrator, an innocent away from his Christian school for the day, visited by a man with a sexual interest in pain and suffering, an interest in seeing the innocent defiled.  The narrator’s sudden realization that the man has green eyes — trickster’s eyes, the color of the eyes of Ulysses in medieval tradition — may have significance here.

I think this allusion is there, intended by Joyce, but more powerful is a reading of the man as a kind of epiphany himself.  Once the man begins on the subject of “sweethearts,” the narrator says, “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit,” and he begins to focus on boys, girls, and flagellation.  This is about as vulgar as an epiphany can get, this manifestation of obsessive, unhealthy sexual desire.

But the encounter here functions as a more mental, spiritual revelation, to the author (whom we can understand as Joyce or “Joyce”) and his audience, of the twisted side of Christianity.  “An Encounter” could be the encounter with Catholicism as obsession with the torture of an innocent child of God.

Guilt Against Death

July 23, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

For all his theological concern, I’ve never been sure what Pynchon makes of Jesus. His concern is primarily with the lost and outcast — all of us, or damn close — and not with the saved and saving.

But one of the most surprising elements of JC’s teaching is his emphasis on love and his deemphasis of guilt. He talks to prostitutes and Samaritans, recruits tax collectors and peasants, asks forgiveness for his punishers. A revolution of personal orientation toward the world: doing good not because you’ve done bad and feel bad about it, but doing good because you love your neighbors and your God.

Of course Christianity has very little to do with Christ.  (Did it ever?)  But I do think Pynchon addresses himself in the long chapter covering pages 130-191 to the lack of love in our contemporary discourse, and the preponderance of guilt.

The startling passage that got me thinking on these lines occurs as we meet a Thanatoid, one of Pynchon’s underground people. Thanatoids are ambiguous beings, creatures of entropy. They “watch a lot of Tube,” living in ghostly communities like Shade Creek, where DL and Takeshi (the “Karmic Adjuster” almost accidentally killed by DL thinking she was killing Brock Vond with the ninjic “Vibrating Palm” — is anything harder to summarize than a Pynchon plot?) meet Ortho Bob Dulang, their first Thanatoid. They “limit themselves… to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death… the most common by far was resentment…”

After a cool exchange in which Takeshi is revealed as a kind of anti-Thanatoid, “trying to go — the opposite way! Back to life!” from his dead-man-walking condition as DL’s victim, we get this doozy, as Ortho Bob comments on the arrangement by which DL is assisting Takeshi for a year and a day to atone for her, you know, killing him slowly with her ninja moves: “My mom would love this. She watches all these shows where, you got love, is always winnin’ out, over death? Adult fantasy kind of stories. So you guys, it’s like guilt against death? Hey — very Thanatoid thing to be doin’, and good luck.”

He’s right: very Thanatoid thing to be doin’. But what does that mean? The Thanatoids are still quite slippery, Pynchon keeping their meaning ambiguous: sometimes they seem to stand for American culture as a whole, a culture glued to the TV and losing the will to do just about anything else; sometimes they seem to be presented as victims of Vietnam or the reactionary elite, made half-ghostly by their inability to overcome their desire for revenge; sometimes they seem simply a way of presenting the human condition: always moving towards death. But it’s the way Ortho Bob frames his argument, his sarcastic, typically Thanatoid comment that there’s no way that guilt (much less love!) could ever overcome death, that’s interesting.

Because the Thanatoids do practically nothing but watch TV, the idea of “love winning out over death” strikes him as an “adult fantasy.” In the arrangement before him, he doesn’t see love as entering into the equation at all: guilt is the emotion he sees, incapable of believing that DL could possibly have any other motivation. But of course, I think the point of the whole exercise from the SKA’s point of view is to move her past guilt, to a desire to operate in the world out of something more than rage and resentment. And it works, maybe — she’s still with Takeshi an undetermined number of years later, in a presumably platonic relationship that seems to bear many of the marks of love.

It’s a very cool, dense passage. It reminds me a helluva lot of DFW, with those extra commas, that broken grammar, the filtering through TV. And also in the way that love is dismissed from the discourse, as something too often exaggerated and mediated and sold to possibly be a real opportunity for salvation. And that does seem to me a Pynchonian commentary on the 1980s, in the time’s utter repudiation of something like “love” — say, concern for fellow citizens and humans, a desire to live peacefully and simply.

One more note here. We saw The Dark Knight last Sunday, and I was struck by what a strange movie it was, so very different from so much else that’s been released in recent years. What made it strange, I think, was its attempt to move past our societal obsession with blame and guilt — if only we can identify and punish the “evildoers,” surely everything will be all right — and its amazingly old-fashioned climax, a fascinating variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory set up by the Joker (and seriously, it’s not just hype: Heath Ledger is really unbelievably good as the Joker). It’s hardly a Batman movie at all: it’s a movie about wanting a man, a city, a country to move past guilt, towards decency, regard for fellow humans, something like love.

Doing Good, Being Cruel: The Tenth Day

June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

Travel, unfortunately, delayed this last post on Boccaccio, but I thought there was enough of interest on the tenth day to write a little something, however stale in my mind. (Besides, there’s no way the structuralist in me would allow a post on every day but the last.)

The stories on this last day, Panfilo’s, are largely a fun game of one-upsmanship: each teller tries to tell of the most munificent deed he can think of. Fortunes are awarded, wives bestowed, the “dead” returned to life. Many of these stories center on the deeds of the nobility or the enormously wealthy, and Filomena makes the excellent point that “Those people do well… who possess ample means and do all that is expected of them; but we ought neither to marvel thereat, nor laud them to the skies, as we should the person who is equally munificent but of whom, his means being slender, less is expected.”

The most interesting stories are the last, Panfilo’s and Dioneo’s. Panfilo’s is especially remarkable: it seems lifted from the Thousand and One Nights, and dramatizes the remarkably complex attitudes at the time toward Islam and the “East,” though I’m not sure whether Italians of the time would even think of it as such a thing other than directionally. It features Saladin, the Muslim ruler who recaptured Jerusalem and many other territories from the Christian crusaders. He travels to Europe in disguise as a merchant from Cyprus to scout his potential foes and is received very hospitably by a Messer Torello, whom he happens to unwittingly capture when the crusades actually begin. Saladin treats his servants very well and keeps Torello as his falconer; when Torello reveals his identity, Saladin does all in his power to restore him to his family and then some. I’m not an expert in medieval or Renaissance literature by any means, but the story seems remarkable to me for its depiction of respectful relationships between Christian and Muslim; it’s also remarkable in the Decameron for its use of magic, as Saladin’s magician whisks Torello back to Italy in one night to stop his wife’s marriage to another.

Then comes the last story, and this truly does seem a response to Emilia’s of the previous day, the wife-beating story. It is also remarkably cruel, especially for Dioneo. Gualtieri, a rich young man, succumbs to the pressure to marry and takes a very poor but virtuous wife, Griselda. After she gives birth to their child he “was seized with the strange desire to test Griselda’s patience, by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable.” (The setup resonates, for me at least, with King Lear, in that it concerns a capricious ruler demanding ridiculous levels of deference for no good reason of his remarkably patient beloved.)

So, for about twelve years, he “pretends” to hate her and despise her low condition. He pretends to have their children killed (he really sends them off to stay with relatives). He ostensibly divorces her, forcing her to return to her impoverished family in only a shift. He pretends to have a new wife coming and wants Griselda to prepare his house and wait on her, since she’s a good cleaner and knows where everything is. Then, finally, being convinced that this girl (her own twelve-year-old daughter) is to be her husband’s new wife, Gualtieri says, basically, “Gotcha! It was just a goof.” And, one would hope, out comes Griselda’s machete. But no: she accepts it all, patient as ever (just like maddening Cordelia).

This is adapted by Boccaccio, I think, from a French folktale. And Chaucer uses it too, in the “Clerk’s Tale.” So you certainly have that sense of suspended reality, of humans acting inhuman to make a point about humanity. But it’s a pretty crappy point, here. Dioneo does, at least, end his story by acknowledging that Griselda’s trials were “cruel and unheard of,” and that it “perhaps would have served him [Gualtieri] right if he had chanced upon a wife, who, being driven from the house in her shift, had found some other man to shake her skin-coat for her, earning herself a fine new dress in the process.” Perhaps? Perhaps it would have served him right if Griselda came after him with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. She certainly should have screwed around, according to the logic of the previous 99 stories.

(Actually, since I’ve been Tarantino-riffing, thinking about Kill Bill is interesting in comparison to this story.  Imagine if Bill had reconciled with the Bride at their climactic meeting.)

I’m not sure how to take this, and especially how to read its correspondence with Emilia’s story of a less psychological torture. It would be comforting to me to imagine that he’s actually being deliberately over the top to point out the cruelty and absurdity both of his own story and of Emilia’s, but it seems unlikely. Somehow Love and torture coexist — and can actually depend on one another — in this universe. (I suppose for many, it is a less foreign concept than I’d like to believe.)

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about the conclusion and epilogue, too, but I have to stop. (Too much good stuff in Dog of the South to think about.)

A Sitting Target of Evil

May 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

The first day is really fun. The ten, sitting in a circle, take their turns telling a story. The stories build upon each other, suggested by the theme or characters or setting of the previous. At the conclusion of the first day Filomena, named queen of the second day, declares a theme for the stories of the next day so they can each prepare a tale, so the very pleasant looseness of this first day might not be repeated. (However, I love that Dioneo, who told the dirtiest story of the first day, receives an exception from the theme should he choose to use it, and also volunteers to tell the last story of each day.)

Many of the stories deal with corrupt clergy in one way or another — Boccaccio’s humanism showing — and the most memorable line of the first day is probably this, from Filostrato’s introduction to his story, the seventh: “It is not unduly difficult, for anyone so inclined, to discuss, criticize and admonish the clergy for their foul and corrupt way of life, which in many ways resembles a sitting target of evil.” Catholic clergy remain easy targets: I’m reminded of that scene with the priests and nun in the restaurant in The Departed, which is utterly crass and cliche. (But then, like so much in that movie, it’s also strangely perfect in its telegraphing of the antiquated themes of societal corruption.)

Boccaccio has no qualms whatsoever about hitting that target, it’s already clear, but it’s also clear that he’s got bigger fish to fry. After the stories are done, the day ends with a good old-fashioned bathtime orgy, then song and dance after dinner. Emilia sings a bizarre song: it begins, “In mine own beauty take I such delight/ That to no other love could I/ My fond affections plight.” It gets much more narcissistic from there, and Boccaccio does tell us that “this little song caused not a few to ponder its meaning,” but “they all joined cheerfully in the choruses.” The lyrics are quite beautiful, and mysterious, and really do create this incredible image of a beautiful woman singing them in firelight; and this combination of joy and happiness with darkness and uneasiness is quite a master note, at the end of the first day.

Wet Hot Mississippian Summer

April 8, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished (but need to keep thinking about for a little while): The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Reading next: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, and The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.

A boy, Loch Morrison, patrols the outskirts of a summer camp for Christian girls and orphans, blowing reveille and fishing. Two girls from town are bedazzled by a firebrand orphan named Easter. A black boy tickles Easter on a diving board, sending her plunging into the lake, and Loch revives her with great difficulty. Later, exhausted, he undresses in his tent and the girls from town see him naked.

Doesn’t it sound like some coming-of-age movie? Kind of tired and nostalgic? It’s not. That’s the nutshell plot of “Moon Lake,” one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read. Like everything else in this book, it’s mysterious and complicated and its plot is crucial but can’t tell you what’s great about it. Just for starters, Easter’s name seems to really be “Esther”: but she pronounces it “Easter,” and Welty approves the decision. Certainly seems appropriate, for a girl who plunges out of the sky like Icarus and is brought back from the dead like Christ by Loch, a knight-errant if there ever was one.

It has layer upon layer, this story. Most obviously, it’s about community: in the ways that Easter remains aloof from Nina and Jinny Love, the town girls, and from everyone to some extent; and the ways that Loch and Exum, the black boy, circle around the camp, outside of its protective circle. There’s the scene when the girls try to take a boat out on the lake but Nina can’t get free of the chain binding it to the shore: she wishes she had Easter’s knife to cut it loose. (But would a knife do any good on a chain?) And there’s a lot of sex simmering here: there’s the girls with each other, there’s Loch, there’s Miss Moody, their minder, sneaking away for dates. But hiding in plain sight, I suspect, is Welty’s story about Christianity: about Welty’s strange view of Christian legend blended with a pagan, Greek sensibility. There’s the fold-up drinking cup that acts as a Holy Grail; the Easter resurrection; the swims in Moon Lake, like an extended baptism.

None of that, to be honest, is what makes the story so great. It simply has such a magical tone: a feel for incident, language, word play that seems to carry Welty away along with all of us reading her words. The girls are always getting slathered with Sweet Dreams Mosquito Oil, and the story is very dreamy indeed. There’s something unforgettable about Loch, the Boy Scout/Galahad, out in the woods, blowing his bugle in the morning: you can feel how he somehow loves this duty, his sacrifice of summer alone in his tent. Something so interesting in this pubescent boy in the swamps. There’s such a mystery in his resuscitation of Easter, after her plunge into the lake: the way it takes forever to revive her, the way he’s imagined as “joining with” her under the lake when he dives in to find her, and then as riding her like a horse as he tries to get the water out of her lungs. And the language: there are these amazing passages:

Nina and Easter, dipping under a second, unexpected fence, went on, swaying and feeling their feet pulled down, reaching to the trees. Jinny Love was left behind in the heartless way people and incidents alike are thrown off in the course of a dream, like the gratuitous flowers scattered from a float — rather in celebration. The swamp was now all-enveloping, dark and at the same time vivid, alarming — it was like being inside the chest of something that breathed and might turn over.

Or this:

Easter was lying rocked in the gentle motion of the boat, her head turned on its cheek. She had not said hello to Jinny Love anew. Did she see the drop of water clinging to her lifted finger? Did it make a rainbow? Not to Easter: her eyes were rolled back, Nina felt. Her own hand was writing in the sand. Nina, Nina, Nina. Writing, she could dream that her self might get away from her — that here in this faraway place she could tell her self, by name, to go or to stay. Jinny Love had begun building a sand castle over her foot. In the sky clouds moved no more perceptibly than grazing animals. Yet with a passing breeze, the boat gave a knock, lifted and fell.

And so much beautiful imagery, scenery, description. There’s also this passage early on:

As the three were winding around the lake, a bird flying above the opposite shore kept uttering a cry and then diving deep, plunging into the trees there, and soaring to cry again.

“Hear him?” one of the niggers said, fishing on the bank; it was Elberta’s sister Twosie, who spoke as if a long, long conversation had been going on, into which she would intrude only the mildest words. “Know why? Know why, in de sky, he say ‘Spirit? Spirit?’ And den he dive boom and say ‘GHOST’?”

Ghosts pop up in the book, or seem to, more or less always associated with or seen by the black population of the town; it’s another thing I haven’t figured out. But this passage, with its interesting juxtaposition of spirit/ghost (Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost?), is most mysterious.

One last rambling thing: at the very end of the story, Jinny Love says to Nina, “You and I will always be old maids.” In the very next story/chapter, we find that she married Ran MacLain, and has cheated on him. Something strangely both dark and sweet in this, it seems to me, this utterly incorrect prognostication at summer camp to a best friend — this utter lack of self-knowledge.

Crosses and Pyramids

March 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

What I’m reading here is a cheapo Penguin Classics edition of a 14th-century travel narrative/guide to the Holy Land/catalog of marvels and tales written (supposedly) by an English knight. Mandeville was really, really popular in his time and up through the Renaissance: tons of manuscripts survive in most European languages, there were a lot of printed editions, and the work was heavily anthologized, plagiarized, criticized, etc.

A lot of it is intended to be practical advice on geography, sight-seeing, and travel etiquette. But Mandeville’s digressions are most interesting, with their typical medieval tendency to filter everything possible through the Biblical narrative, folklore, and symbolism. So I’ll be jotting down some of the stories I thought most interesting here. To wit:

Chapter 2: Did you know Christ’s cross was made of four different types of wood? Mandeville did! The foot was cedar, to keep it from rotting (in case it took a long time for Jesus to die; apparently the thinking was that this was a kind of Jewish bet-hedging, in case Jesus was a bit divine and took days and days to die). The upright was cypress, which smells good, to keep the b.o. down. The cross-piece was palm wood, as an ironic fulfillment of an Old Testament statement that a victor should be crowned with palm. The INRI sign above Christ’s head was made of olive, which symbolized peace, which the Jews thought they would have once Christ died. And of course the symbols embodied by the woods, the choice of which Mandeville assigns to (unnamed, unidentifiable) Jews, can be neatly reversed to symbolize Christ’s power, perfection, victory, and peaceful reign.

Later in this chapter Mandeville claims to own a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. If there was, indeed, an actual John Mandeville, this is a nice piece of self-promotion.

Ch. 7: Did you know the Pyramids were actually the barns which Joseph (the Old Testament Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man) had built to store grain in during the seven lean years he correctly prophesied? As Mandeville says, “it is not likely that they are tombs, since they are empty inside and have porches and gates in front of them. And tombs ought not, in reason, to be so high.”

Mandeville (to assume there was such an actual person, and not a fictional construct, a handy name for a compilation by many writers, or a mythical being) actually seems to be a fairly free thinker, as medieval Westerners go: he says he’s served in the army of the Sultan of Egypt, and carefully presents alternative views to his own (see above). While he argues that the Holy Land should be under Christian rule, he also thinks that Christians have been unsuccessful in maintaining their hegemony there because they are unworthy of it, both in smarts and in sanctity. He seems genuinely interested in other places and peoples, and in their perspectives, even though he can’t break out of seeing Christ, the Bible, the dominant worldview in everything.

Confessions

March 9, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Just a few idle thoughts after finishing this late yesterday:

-Funny coincidence: while I was reading this, my wife Jaime was reading a book subtitled The Confessions of Ike Turner. Synchronicity!

-I kind of dismissed the title of this book without a second thought until after I’d finished, but now it has me thinking.  The significance of the title, which is also the title of the actual document written (and/or transcribed) by T.R. Gray based on the historical Nat’s statement (and the preface to which appears as the preface of Styron’s book), now looms large.  I credit some of the shriller criticism of the work with pointing this out to me: there were (are?) suggestions that the book be retitled The Confessions of William Styron or, if you want to be gratuitously insulting, The Confessions of Willie Styron.

I’m taking it a different direction, though: the book is a confession, but whereas the historical confession is a legal confession, detailing what happened when and, so far as Gray can surmise, why and how, this novel is a moral and personal confession, as well.   But Nat remains adamant to the end that he would carry out his insurrection again, given the chance.  So what has he confessed?  His lust; his disgust at the actions by some of his men during the insurrection, especially Will, and his guilt at killing Margaret Whitehead to assure the men that he was capable of killing; perhaps, just perhaps, his confusion (right up until the end) with why he was called to do this only to see it go to hell, and to see none of the effects he hoped for come to pass.  (There’s an ironic twist to the double-titling, too, in that both documents are supposed monologues by a black slave taken down by a white mediator.  I would think that a lot of this is coincidental, but then, from what I know Styron was quite deliberate with his titles: they were important to him.  It’s an obvious title but an interesting one, too.)

-My earlier thoughts on the lack of Jesus in a book so full of the Bible and Christianity (see “The Gospel of the Flies”) recurred to me as Nat has a vision of something like heaven on his way to the gallows, and thinks, “I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known.” In a moment, he thinks, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” It seems to be Styron’s final motion toward hopes of contemporary racial reconciliation, coming as it does after Gray smuggles a Bible to Nat in the jail the night before his execution.

-There are thickets of scholarship on this book, and I’ve just started poking around at the outlying shrubbery. One thing it’s got me thinking, though, is that my nonfiction reading on slavery has been too thin. (Another thing it’s gotten me to thinking is that we, as a country, are kind of in a weird time with the topic right now. I mean, it’s a topic that comes up constantly in public discourse, but so much of the discussion seems trite, facile, or assumptive. Is it exhaustion? Aversion? Or have we never been very good, as a culture, about confronting the actual mechanics of slavery? There was Roots, I guess. And, granted, like most cultures we tend to be more comfortable discussing the crimes against humanity of other people. Maybe this is just my own warped view of things.) Anyway, I’m in the market for some books on American slavery: I’m thinking detailed, well researched accounts of the trade and the day-to-day. Plus a sweeping narrative of broad trends from colonies to Civil War. I could do the legwork on my own, but maybe you’ll save me the trouble. Suggestions, please!

The Gospel of the Flies

March 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Jaime and I saw the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds in concert a few weeks ago. (They shared a twin bill with Solomon Burke, and last night we saw another twin bill of Booker T. Jones and the Maceo Parker Band. It’s been a good music month.) The Hummingbirds got me thinking about gospel music, for some reason; watching them, somehow gospel made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before.

I’m not an expert by any means, and I’ve never studied gospel, so what I’m about to say is probably blindingly obvious to many. Suddenly it made sense that gospel would be connected so intimately to Jesus, specifically. And it made sense that the profound connection of African American music to religion would be made through the figure of Jesus. He’s an almighty being, mysteriously connected to a father-figure, brought to a strange land, in thrall to his fate and his flesh. With the power, should he choose to use it, to stop the whole chain of events leading to his subjection, brutal abuse, and agonizing death. But choosing, instead, to go through with his physical and mental torture, sacrificing himself that others might be reconciled to their wrongdoing.

I had never thought about this before, how gospel music focuses to such a large degree on Jesus and on the prophets that (in the common Christian understanding of the Bible) prefigure his life and suffering. How of course, if gospel was born of slave songs, those songs would focus on Jesus, on suffering, on redemption. Duh.

Nat Turner, in Styron’s book, quotes compulsively from the Bible, but at least so far he is an Old Testament aficionado: Psalms, Proverbs, Job. His is a religion of people subjected and fighting to throw off their subjection, with a wrathful Jehovah’s encouragement. There’s a remarkable passage, early on, in which Nat watches a fly in his cell. He first thinks of a fly as “one of the most fortunate of God’s creatures. Brainless born… unacquainted with misery or grief.” But he quickly changes his mind, thinking of them instead as “God’s supreme outcasts, buzzing eternally between heaven and oblivion in a pure agony of mindless twitching.” He thinks, “Surely then, that would be the ultimate damnation: to exist in the world of a fly, eating thus [on whatever offal presented itself], without will or choice and against all desire.”

His thoughts connect to one of his masters “saying that Negroes never committed suicide.” And he realizes that this has been true in his experience. Then there’s this:

“…in the face of such adversity it must be a Negro’s Christian faith, his understanding of a kind of righteousness at the heart of suffering, and the will toward patience and forbearance in the knowledge of life everlasting, which swerved him away from the idea of self-destruction. And the afflicted people thou wilt save, for thou art my lamp, O Lord; and the Lord will lighten my darkness. But now as I sat there amid the sunlight and the flickering shadows of falling leaves and the incessant murmur and buzz of the flies, I could no longer say that I felt this to be true. It seemed rather that my black shit-eating people were surely like flies, God’s mindless outcasts, lacking even that will to destroy by their own hand their unending anguish…”

That’s rough stuff. “The righteousness at the heart of suffering” does seem, indeed, to reside at the very core of gospel music (Christianity in general, of course, from denomination to denomination in varying degrees). Music seems to have been part of a whole array of somewhat miraculous activities that, quite simply, kept slaves living, working, dying. It’s beautiful, profound music. And you can see that dark side, that side that Nat identifies in the end of the passage above. What to make of some of these songs now being part of most hymnal books, being performed in concerts as entertainment and part of the American songbook used by anyone, everyone, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, et al.?

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