‘Or’: New Jewish Journal


If you’ve spent a lot of time on a college campus recently, particularly one with a storied tradition of intellectual excellence, you may have felt, at some point, some subtle metaphysical blues: your friends are cool, your professors are interesting, but the fire you’d hoped would consume you—that flaming obsession with big ideas that have big consequences—just isn’t there.

Celeste Marcus felt it, too. She entered the University of Pennsylvania last year, and was soon, she said, happy to be introduced to diverse groups of people she’d never met before and challenged by divergent ways of looking at the world. “But I also wanted to be around people who were as passionate as I am about sharing ideas that really move them,” she said, “and that was much harder to find.”

It wasn’t that other students were shallow, she said, or hurried, or more interested in Kanye than in Kant. It’s just that people deeply committed to ideas are hard to find these days, even—one is tempted to say particularly—on the campuses on elite universities. Undeterred, Marcus sat down and did what serious and dedicated men and women had done when moved by the spirit for at least six hundred years: she wrote a manifesto. …

The result is Or.

Clara Collier (Yale) on Shylock: ‘It will go without saying that Shylock is a terrible role model. He is small-minded, embittered; his obsession for revenge is a hollow perversion of a healthy desire for justice. But his monomania bears unintentional traces of Judaism’s radical unromanticism. Our scriptures do not promise us radical moral transformation or teach us to focus on an eternal reward. Human perfectibility is a matter of theological speculation; the details of shechitah [kosher slaughter] are a subject of intense debate. …’

Celeste Marcus (U of Pennsylvania) on Deism and Torah: ‘What is the nafka mina, the practical difference, between a deist’s religion and a Jew’s? In either, one absorbs his own dependence on God’s goodness constantly. But for the Jew, this is an abstraction made concrete, and constantly put before him through the rituals in which he engages. …’

Avinoam Stillman (Columbia) on Emerson and Rav Kook: ‘Emerson and R. Kook envisioned an ideal future in which the light in all things will be perceptible in a way that is hidden today. But their utopian vision had practical applications in the cultural life of their societies, and stood as a bulwark against stultifying conformism or reactionary cowardice. Authenticity and insight mediate between national pride and tradition on the one hand, and universality and innovation on the other. …’

Read the rest and more at Or. They’re on WordPress, so you can follow them if you have an account.

Socialism and Philanthropy

The same arguments that hold against socialism in the commercial sphere, also apply with equal or greater force, I think, in the world of charity and philanthropy.

A competitive free “market” of benevolent organizations ensures that I remain in charge of my charitable giving. If I learn or suspect that the ABC Foundation is abusing its donors’ trust, with its executives living in luxury while its purported beneficiaries receive scant aid, I can choose to withhold my donations from ABC Foundation and give instead to the better-reputed XYZ Foundation.

Entrusting charitable functions to the Government risks shielding those functions from scrutiny, and deprives the “donor” – that is, the taxpayer – of any direct control over how his or her funds are to be used. This is not to say that the Government should never attempt to “do good”, but it is to say that this is a slippery slope.

Socialism appeals to idealists who harbor a sincere and laudable desire to “make the world a better place”. The correct path to this goal is through liberty, not tyranny.

The Hours, the Days, and the Years

The Matrix (1999)

The Hours (2002)

There are no computers and no kung fu fights in “The Hours”; and when people fall out of buildings, they don’t get up again.  And yet, like the denizens of the apocalyptic world of “The Matrix”, many of the characters seem to live in an invisible prison – one they cannot “smell or taste or touch”.  And some of them, like Neo and the other inhabitants of Zion, choose to confront the reality of their world – even if it is unpleasant and dangerous, even if it threatens their very sanity.  Virginia Woolf has no use for the comforting retreat of the suburbs, and precious little patience for the well-intentioned efforts of others to “take care” of her.  She, too, prefers “always to look life in the face, and to know it … to love it, for what it is.”  She is a red-pill person.

But there are many kinds of prisons.  Mental illness – Virginia’s depression, Richard’s schizophrenia – can also be a prison.  Sometimes the only way to exercise your autonomy is to have some say (as Virginia says) in your “own prescription”, just as Neo must choose for himself which pill to take.  (Or like Richard, who simply takes too many pills.)  The choice is in your hands; but once the choice is made, you must live with the consequences.

I live alone, and spend a great deal of time in my own company.  Often, this blog is the only conversation I get during the day.  It’s a strange conversation, the one you and I are having:  we do not meet face to face, and with the exception of a few friends who read my blog, we are probably strangers to each other.  All you know about me is what you read here; and all I know of you is the anonymous statistics collected by SiteMeter.

Sometimes I have a certain feeling – as if something is wrong, it’s not fitting together somehow, and it’s not a problem that’s definable, and it’s not a problem that is fixable.  As if no matter where I go or what I do, I’ll always be surrounded by this invisible membrane that keeps me separated and locked away from the rest of the world, from humanity, from life.  I don’t even know what name to call it; I don’t know if it has a name.

I do know that I can make my own choices.  I do not want anyone making them for me.  I don’t want anyone telling me how to live, or what to read, or what to listen to, or how to think.  I don’t want anyone feeding me pre-digested answers like some kind of processed food.  And I do not want to be stuffed into some kind of mental coccoon and told that it’s for my own good.

We do not get a choice whether or not to die.  That decision is made for us, and in the end, without exception, it will always end the same way.  The choice we do get is whether to face each and every day.  Sometimes it is not an easy choice.  Even the most fortunate among us may inhabit prisons invisible to others.  Freedom from fear does not, alas, bring freedom from suffering.  To choose, consciously, to live each and every day that is given to us – to say, “Today is not the day” – this is the real test of our humanity.

We are at our most when we forget ourselves.  Clarissa is sustained through the difficult years – which seem to go on and on – by her duty to her old lover.  (“When I’m gone,” Richard mockingly reminds her, “you’ll have to think about yourself.”)  Neo can fulfill his mission only after the Oracle convinces him that he is not “the One”, the messiah of Zion.

When Virginia walks into the river, she makes a choice that many of us have contemplated at one time or another.  Perhaps, like many people who make the same choice, she is no longer the master of her own actions.  Do such people sin by this act?  Perhaps that is for the Righteous Judge to decide.  What we do know with a certainty is this:  That just as the actions and kindnesses of others have affected our own lives, so too do we affect the lives of others, even in ways that are hidden from us.  We have the choice to extend and accept such kindnesses – whether in the form of a fancy dinner or a simple cookie – at every moment we draw breath.  By choosing kindness and love, we also choose conflict and suffering; but we choose life.

Originally published 2005 May 6.

The Radical

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam‘ by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Daveed’s book interested me because his journey in some ways paralleled, and in some ways mirrored, my own. And I believe there are also important lessons to be learned about identity, will, and the spread of radical Islam today.

Daveed was born in 1976, into a liberal, secular Jewish family in Ashland, Oregon. They lived at what he describes as “the hippie end of a hippie town” and embraced a spiritual, multicultural ethos. In his activist college days, he became friends with al-Husein Madhany, who would provide Daveed’s introduction to Islam. Before long, Daveed embraced the Muslim faith and converted.

Al-Husein’s mystical, universalistic, Sufi-oriented brand of Islam appealed to Daveed. But as he became more deeply involved in Islam through the Al-Haramain Foundation, he quickly became exposed to a very different side of the faith – one bitterly opposed to the message of people like Al-Husein.

I recommend reading the book to find out how Daveed found his way out of radical Islam, and came to embrace another faith.

I found DGR’s book fascinating on a number of levels, some of them personal. Like Daveed, I’m a convert, but not to Islam or Christianity. Born in suburban New England about half a generation earlier than Daveed, I grew up in a home that, apart from my family’s lack of Jewish roots, sounds similar to Daveed’s in a lot of ways. My parents were nominally Unitarian Universalists, who had broken away from their conservative Christian upbringings and met in a Unitarian church. As a young adult I became interested in Judaism, learning Hebrew and attending Jewish services (first Reform and Conservative, later Orthodox) from my late teens to early twenties. At 25 I had an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

But I want to get back to DGR’s book. Reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam’, I was struck by the way the fanatical Salafi stream of Islam drove out the milder Sufi and Nashqibandi strains – and I was reminded of my friend Michael Totten’s book ‘Where the West Ends‘. Totten traveled throughout eastern Europe and western Asia, along the fault-lines of cultures. He witnessed many things, including the inexorable advance of radical Islam against the moderate forms of the religion. In my review of the book I wrote that

There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. …

The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav – and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.

It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not – as Westerners sometimes imagine – a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.

And I think that that’s the same thing Daveed Gartenstein-Ross witnessed in his time in the world of Islam.

My own relationship to religion is complicated and better suited to another post. But I do want to bring up Natan Sharansky’s central insight from his book ‘Defending Identity‘:

The enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own.

The widely-accepted fallacy is that “conflicts arise because of religious dogma, so if we get rid of religious dogma we’ll reduce conflicts”. But the danger in having no fixed set of doctrines is that you can easily get drawn into all kinds of crazy stuff. And that’s as true today as it was when Daveed was in college.

Devotion to a good doctrine can give you the strength and the faith to reject bad ones. What you believe matters.

As a Brother to Me: ‘Song of Solomon’ by Toni Morrison

’Song of Solomon’ (1977) is Toni Morrison’s third novel, and it’s the one that put her on the literary map, winning the National Book Critics award, getting chosen for Oprah’s book club, and inspiring at least two collections of critical essays and the name of a punk-rock band. Written following the death of Morrison’s father, it is her first book to feature male leading characters. The first part of the book is set in an unnamed city in Michigan. The part of the city called ‘Southside’ – i.e. away from the desirable lakefront property to the north – is implied to be the black neighborhood. (The geography is somewhat ambiguous, as some of the landmarks named in Chapter 1 are consistent with Morrison’s native Ohio.) And like Pecola Breedlove in ‘The Bluest Eye’, its chief protagonist, Milkman Dead, is born in the same year as Morrison herself – in fact, one day after TM’s own birth date. The main action of the story takes place in September 1963, in the days following the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

‘Song of Solomon’ is a family drama; unlike its predecessors, all of the principal characters of ‘Song of Solomon’ – with the seeming exception of Guitar Bains – are connected with a single family, the Dead family, by blood or marriage.

Macon III “Milkman” Dead has problems. To begin with, well, there’s that nickname. He’s not sure how he got it, and he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know. His father, the elder Macon, doesn’t know either, but thinks it sounds “dirty, intimate, and hot”, and correctly suspects that it has some connection to Milkman’s mother, Ruth. Enough said, then.

His girlfriend (who’s also his cousin, NTTAWWT) is hot, but clingy. When he dumps her (in a note, with which he thoughtfully includes a tip) she goes all crazy and tries to kill him. And his best friend has fallen in with some rather strange characters. Things just don’t seem to be going his way. So when he gets word of a lost family fortune – a bag of gold buried somewhere in Virginia – Milkman sees his chance to leave home in search of freedom.

The story centers around the legacy of the first Macon Dead, who was murdered by racists for the Virginia farm he had worked so hard to build. His two orphaned children (their mother died in childbirth), Pilate and the second Macon Dead (Milkman’s future father) escape. The brother and sister remain close until a dispute over their inheritance – a bag of gold, illegal to possess in the early 1930s – leads to their parting.

By 1963, Macon II has raised three children, and has achieved financial success, and a measure of power in the black community, on his own. His two daughters, now both over 40, remain unmarried and still live at home with their much younger brother. Macon still harbors hatred toward Pilate (lifelong sibling grudges are never pretty) and rules his house with an iron fist. Milkman’s first meeting with his aunt Pilate – against Macon’s strict orders – led to his passionate romantic involvement with Pilate’s granddaughter and his friendship with Guitar, both of whom are a few years older than Milkman himself.

Guitar Bains will play a central role in the story, and yet we are given remarkably little detail about his background. We learn that he lost his father at the age of 4 to a sawmill accident (which, in a grotesque detail, severed his body in half along the sagittal plane), and that he acquired a lifelong aversion to sweets when the mill owner callously handed out candies at his father’s funeral. Eventually, Guitar will fall in with a group known as the Seven Days, whose other members include Robert B. Smith (whose suicide begins the book) and Porter (whose clandestine affair with Milkman’s sister Corinthians is cut short after Milkman blows the whistle to Macon). The Seven Days are dedicated to avenging white violence against blacks, and the Birmingham killings give new urgency to their need for operational funds.

It is hinted (pp. 32 – 33) that Macon Dead enjoyed extramarital liaisons with “a slack or lonely female tenant” prior to Milkman’s birth; these encounters could have included Guitar’s mother prior to her disappearance (p. 21). If that’s the case, then it is not impossible that Macon is in fact the natural father of Guitar. This would make Milkman and Guitar brothers, for as Reba pointedly observes (p. 44), siblings may share a single parent. If, as Pilate asserts to Milkman’s confusion (p. 38), there are “three Deads alive”, this would make Guitar the third Dead, and the reference to the two as “brother[s]” at the end of the book is not a figure of speech.

Milkman and Guitar have different visions of life, and this is clearly shown by their different visions of what the gold will bring them: Milkman sees wealth as the ticket to comfort, independence, and a life away from his family and home; Guitar sees the gold as a means to further the goals of the Seven Days.

Milkman’s struggle began before his birth. When Ruth’s father, Dr. Foster, took ill, Macon murdered his father-in-law by destroying his medicine; Lena and Corinthians were toddlers at the time. Ruth and Macon stopped having marital relations after that, but as the years passed, Ruth, desperate for affection and for a third child, went to Macons sister Pilate – a healer – for help. In short order, the youngest Macon Dead, “Milkman”, was conceived.

When he learned of his wife’s pregnancy, the enraged Macon tried to force Ruth to abort her child, resorting to various strategies including knitting needles. But these attempts failed, and Milkman came into the world alive. It’s possible that a subconscious, prenatal memory of those knitting needles informs the wording of Milkman’s obscene suggestion to Hagar (p. 130) regarding the knife she is holding.

One of the themes running through ‘Song of Solomon’ is the debilitating effect of a life of ease and comfort. The city-bred Milkman is at a distinct disadvantage in both the physical and the human terrain of rural Virginia. Corinthians, whose elite education rendered her “unfit for work” and alienated most of the eligible black men in the community, is destroyed when her desperate affair with Porter is put to an end. And from the ghostlike figure of Circe we learn that Mrs. Butler, the white lady who inherited the stolen Macon Dead property, took her own life when the money ran out – preferring death to the menial work of keeping up the estate.

The shadowy, driven figure of Guitar accompanies Milkman throughout the book, as friend, confidant, mentor, and finally assassin. The novel’s narrative POV is tightly focused on Milkman, and Guitar appears only twice in Milkman’s absence: first, as one of the unnamed children at #3 Fifteenth Street (then being cared for by their grandmother, Mrs. Bains, following the mother’s recent abandonment – p. 21), and again in Chapter 13, where he attempts to comfort Hagar after her rejection by Milkman.

Guitar’s early rejection of sweets sets the pattern for his response to violence and oppression. From the beginning, he is motivated by a sense of purpose and despises material comforts. At an early age, he internalizes his grandmother’s declaration that “a n****r in business is a terrible thing to see” (p. 22) – a reference to Macon Dead, and to the power that Macon holds over her and much of the community as a property owner. Later, Guitar makes it clear to Milkman that he is willing to overlook, but not to forget, the “sins” of Milkman’s father (p. 57, p. 102).

Guitar repeatedly chides Milkman for being naive about white racism (pp. 82 – 88) and for generally lacking seriousness (p. 104). So it’s not too surprising when we learn about his induction into the Seven Days, a group dedicated to violent reprisals against whites:

‘But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites, and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him in a similar manner if they can.’

Joining the Seven Days gives Guitar the sense of meaning and purpose he craves. (In another place and time, it’s not difficult to imagine him joining a jihadist group.) He adopts a more disciplined, spartan lifestyle, giving up drinking and smoking. He must turn himself into an efficient killing machine.

And yet it’s Guitar who offers words of wisdom and comfort to the devastated Hagar (p. 306). Always more of a loner by nature than Milkman, he understands that “you can’t own a human being” and he understands the dangers of overly-enmeshed love. He also understands that Hagar is profoundly unlike her mother and her grandmother (both single mothers) and that being raised without the extended family of “a chous of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins … and what all to give her the strength life demanded of her” has taken a terrible toll on her.

Of Guitar’s love life we are told very little; he seems to find the solitary lifestyle of the Seven Days congenial. Only on p. 307 is there a hint of a romance in his past:

“But I did latch on. Once. … But I never wanted to kill her. Him, yeah. But not her.”

Anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family should read ‘Song of Solomon’. Milkman’s struggle for independence from his own smothering family of origin is also his journey towards the discovery of his larger family and heritage. In struggling with his parents (sometimes literally), he comes to understand their world and the forces that shaped them, and he learns to accept them for who they are, with their faults and their strengths.

In his relationship with Guitar, Milkman is forced to confront his own lack of purpose. In tramping through the swamps and hunting with the black rednecks of Virginia, he confronts his own weakness and pettiness. Having set out to find gold, Milkman ends up losing gold instead (his gold watch, p. 325), and so, like Frodo, finds that his purpose was to lose a treasure and not to find one.

‘Song of Solomon’ ends (as will Morrison’s 10th novel, ‘Home’) with a reburial – and the final showdown between Guitar and Milkman, which costs Pilate her life. What he gains instead is the capacity to sacrifice, and the readiness to sacrifice even his own life itself. Having discovered the wonderful secret of his family – the legend of the flying African children – he chooses, not to escape, but to struggle for life itself with his brother.

Who by Fire: ‘Sula’ by Toni Morrison


‘Sula’ is Toni Morrison’s second novel; it appeared in 1973, but TM states in the foreword that she wrote the book in 1969, while living in Queens and commuting to Manhattan, and raising two children as a single mother (Morrison was divorced in 1964). She recalls “The things we traded! … Daring especially because in the late sixties, with so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no turning back simply because there was no “back” back there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think up things, try things, explore.” She writes that she “began to think about what that kind of license would have been like for us black women forty years earlier.”

‘Sula’ is set mainly in the interwar years, with a final chapter set in 1965, in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The black neighborhood is located in the hills and is ironically known as “the Bottom.” On the edge of the town and bordering an unnamed river, a never-completed tunnel project hangs like an unkept promise over the story.

A ten-year gap divides the book into two equal parts. The story follows the lives of two girls, Sula Peace and Nel Wright (both born about 1910) as they grow up together. In addition to the principal characters – Nel and Sula, Sula’s mother Hannah, and her grandmother Eva – there’s also Shadrack, the shell-shocked Great War veteran who opens the story and who is, improbably, one of the few characters left alive at its end. Other characters include a light-skinned man known as Tar Baby (who is not connected with the later TM novel of the same name) and three boys who live as foster sons to Eva and are known collectively as “the deweys” (with a small d).

The plot of ‘Sula’ is dominated by three deaths and a betrayal. First, Eva’s youngest child Ralph (“Plum”) returns from the war with disturbing habits and a drug addiction; Eva ends his troubles by visiting him in his sleep with a can of kerosene. Thirty pages later, Hannah, Eva’s eldest child, catches fire and Eva tries desperately – and in vain – to save her. (“Eva mused over the perfection of the judgment against her.”) In between the two burnings, Nel and Sula witness the drowning death of the boy Chicken Little – under circumstances that will remain a source of contention for the characters throughout the book.

Nel and Sula’s friendship anchors the first half of the book; its dissolution, the second. The attraction Sula holds for Nel is in her wildness. On her only trip out of Medallion – a train ride with her mother to visit family in New Orleans – Nel sees her mother Helene smiling deferentially to an arrogant white conductor on the jim crow train; then, observing the contempt in the eyes of black men seated nearby, she resolves never to emulate her mother, and “to make sure no man ever looked at her that way.” Nel also feels Helene’s insecurity over Nel’s dark skin and African features (a theme TM will address more directly in ‘God Help the Child’) and Helene’s anxiety over own mother Rochelle, who is identified as “a Creole whore” and introduced fleetingly on pp. 25 – 27. “I don’t talk Creole,” Helene clarifies for Nel, “and neither do you.” Helene is determined to raise her own daughter properly.

It’s in this atmosphere that Nel meets Sula, and immediately prefers

Sula’s woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink, and where a one-legged grandmother named Eva handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream.

Eva’s one-leggedness is the source of much speculation, but the rumor has it that she “stuck it under a train” to collect a handsome liability payment. A penchant for self-mutilation seems to run in the family, as Sula later confronts a gang of bullies menacing herself and Nel, and slices off her own fingertip, saying, “If I can do that to myself, what do you suppose I’ll do to you?” So Sula cements her own reputation with Nel as a certified badass.

They remain intimate friends, sharing confidences and the guilty secret of Chicken Little’s drowning, all the way up to Nel’s marriage in 1927 to Jude Greene. Jude is a 20-year-old man eager for the responsibilities of manhood. Like many of the black men of Medallion, he dreams of being offered the chance to do dignified labor building the tunnel under the river to join Medallion to the neigboring town. He never gets that tunnel job – the work remains whites-only – but he does marry Nel, and Sula leaves town for ten years. When Sula returns, it is to catch up on old times with Nel – and then to wreck her marriage.

Eventually Nell, desperate for closure, visits the ailing Sula in hopes of a reconciliation, but finds none. (Years later – apparently a glutton for punishment – she will visit the aged Eva with the same purpose and the same result.) Sula dies alone and friendless, in her final moments dreading the impending permanence of death – and acknowledging the truth of a horrifying suspicion Eva had had about her.

For Sula, hell is permanence; for Nell, hell is change. (See p. 108.) And this may be the secret behind the mysterious word spoken by Shacrack to Sula on the bank of the river, where the water has closed over Chicken Little, as Shadrack recollects many years later:

… so she wouldn’t have to be afraid of change – the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath. He had said “always” to convince her, assure her, of permanancy.

It worked, for when he said it her face lit up and the hurt did leave. She ran then, carrying his knowledge … (p. 157)

A short time after Sula’s death (which Shadrack intuitively senses) the people of Medallion form “a pied piper’s band behind Shadrack” and giddily march to the river to take revenge on the unfinished tunnel that has mocked them for years. The tunnel has the last laugh, and a long list of characters meet their demise under water and mud on page 162.

The final chapter jumps ahead in time by 24 years, to 1965 when integration and gentrification have had their effects on Medallion and Bottom. Nel pays a visit to elderly Eva at her quarters in the Sunnydale home. After taking a moment to collect her wits, Eva promptly accuses Nel of having drowned Chicken Little all those years ago – leading Nel to the epiphany, “Eva was mean.” (No kidding? The kerosene would have been my first clue, but that’s just me.) Later, Nel visits Sula’s grave, and, after passing Shadrack on her way out of the cemetery, calls Sula’s name.

If the character of Sula was intended to be a sympathetic figure, I was unable to find her so. She has precious few qualities that I found likeable or even redeeming. She strikes me as a narcissist or a sociopath, and like many such people she has an almost supernatural ability to gain the trust of whoever she depends on for emotional sustenance – in this case, Nel, who is the perfect codependent. If at the end of the book Nel finds herself missing Sula more than her husband of ten years and the father of her three children, perhaps it’s an indication of Sula’s hold over her.

‘Sula’ is not my favorite Toni Morrison novel and I’m not going to tell you that it is. I found it depressing, tedious, and morally incoherent. But I am going to tell you that I was glad I took the time to read ‘Sula’, in which we can see some of the themes of TM’s later work.

Problem mothers, a Morrison trademark, first appear in earnest here. Veterans will appear again and again, most notably in ‘Home’. Skin color – as distinct from “race” – crops up throughout ‘Sula’, from Nel’s anxiety over her own “custard” mother (and her fascination with the “sooty” Hannah), to her concern over the “blows of the pitch-black truebloods” (p. 52), to the ambiguous racial identity of Tar Baby and the deweys. There is a detailed examination of the evil of racism and its pernicious effects on the human psyche, but there’s also a critique of some of the cliquish aspects of black society – for example the description of miscegenation anxiety among the black townsfolk on p. 113. (“In fact, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did.”)

The theme of accountability – What did you know and when did you know it? What did you do about it? Who did you tell? – is central in ‘Sula’, as it will be again in ‘Tar Baby’ and ‘Beloved’. Most conspicuously, though, there are no saints in this book. In ‘The Bluest Eye’, the character of Pecola was wholly innocent, wholly helpless, and wholly victim – the first and perhaps the last such protagonist in Toni Morrison’s novels. Here, TM seems determined to turn the “flawed protagonist” dial up to 12, perhaps over-compensating for the innocence of Pecola.

But the title character comes across for me as manipulative, lacking empathy, and wholly self-centered. If Sula learned her relaxed sexual habits from her mother (p. 44), fair enough. But Hannah also understood the unwritten codes by which a certain level of infidelity could be tolerated in the society of Medallion. Sula, on the other hand, remained so indifferent and oblivious to other people that she never absorbed those rules, or even suspected their existence. No doubt it’s true that “she had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude” – because she never took the trouble to educate herself about what kinds of behavior might cause pain to others, even the one woman she ostensibly cared about.

Sula’s attachment to Nel is that of a misfit child, who believes she sees in a playmate a kindred spirit, a loner like herself; but when the playmate shows signs of “fitting in” with the larger society, the misfit feels threatened and fears losing the playmate to the big bad world. “Now Nel was one of them. … Now Nel belonged to the town and all its ways. She had given herself over to them …” (p. 120). In Sula’s mind, it is Nel who has betrayed her.

The latter part of the book is weighed down by a great deal of exposition by and about the characters of Nel and Sula. I think it has a defensive feel, as if the characters – and their creator – are trying to justify themselves.

In the foreword, Toni Morrison explains that Eva, Hannah, Nel, and Sula represent different visions of freedom:

The sexual freedom of Hannah [Peace] was my entrance into the story …. Against her fairly modest claims to personal liberty are placed conventional and anarchic ones: Eva’s physical sacrifice for economic freedom; Nel’s accommodation to the protection marriage promises; Sula’s resistance to either sacrifice or accommodation.

Then perhaps there is something to be said for convention and accommodation. To an independently-minded young person such as Nel (and perhaps her creator), the anarchic, nonconformist atmosphere of Eva’s household seems exotic and appealing, when set against the conformity and hypocrisy of the community.

But I find something cold and mercenary in Eva’s character. When Hannah asks Eva if she ever loved her children, Eva responds indignantly and calls her a “heifer” and a “snake-eyed ungrateful hussy”. It’s undeniable that Eva made material sacrifices for her children – at least until she incinerated Plum – but I don’t think that’s the same thing.

(In her tortured justification for killing Plum, Eva claims that she feared Plum was going to sexually molest her. But there’s no evidence in the text that these encounters ever took place outside of Eva’s imagination – “when I closed my eyes I’d see him” – and it’s possible the oedipal feelings were entirely on Eva’s part. Perhaps her own arousal and guilt caused her such discomfort that she saw no solution but to eliminate the source of those feelings; cf. Frank Money and the Korean girl in ‘Home’. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Still, it is Sula (“although she does nothing as horrendous as what Eva does” – foreword, p. xiii) who presented the direct threat to the community of Medallion. It is not surprising that they responded as people everywhere do, putting aside their lesser concerns and grudges, and uniting in the face of the threat. The author presents this as evidence of the myopia and small-mindedness of the townspeople, but I think it’s just human nature. And at the end of the book, it was with these people – not with Sula or even Nel, but with the people of Medallion, all the minor and unnamed characters who wander in and out of the story – that my sympathies finally lay.

Where youth sees “hypocrisy”, maturity often sees pragmatism. Where youth sees the “unconventional”, maturity may see the dysfunctional. I think Toni Morrison succeded in conveying a great truth in ‘Sula’, but perhaps not the one she intended. “Outlaw women are fascinating,” Morrison writes in the foreword, but the consequences of irresponsible acts are painful and exceedingly dull. If there is a moral insight to be gained from reading ‘Sula’, it is the danger of romanticizing the ‘rebel’ – both in literature and in life.

Crippled Vision: ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s first novel, ‘The Bluest Eye’, appeared in 1970.  It’s set in Morrison’s native town of Lorain, Ohio, in the years 1940 – 1941; Morrison has stated that the story grew from her memory of an incident in her own childhood when a black schoolmate expressed the wish for blue eyes.

‘The Bluest Eye’ is the story of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who is raped by her father and becomes obsessed with the idea of having blue eyes.  It is the story of the damage done by a crippling ideal of “beauty” imposed on black Americans in segregated America; and it’s also the story of

the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident.  I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over.  Others surrender their identity; melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack.  But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it.

(Toni Morrison, from the 1993 foreword.)  The responses here enumerated by Morrison are embodied by the principal characters:  violence by Cholly (whose violent past, following his youthful sexual humiliation by white thugs, is hinted at) and, to a lesser extent, Claudia, who provides the main narrative voice for the story.  (Claudia’s violent impulses are directed toward the blue-eyed baby doll, and toward the white neighbor girl Rosemary.  But the introspective tone of Claudia’s narrative suggests that she has eventually learned to channel her anger.)  Surrender is the path chosen by Pecola’s mother, Pauline (Williams) Breedlove, who imbibes visions of beauty from the silver screen, and becomes wholly invested in her white employer, as illustrated by her response to the incident of the deep-dish berry cobbler.

Pecola is the “fourth child”, the child who cannot speak for herself.  After being raped by her father Cholly while washing dishes (“on a Saturday afternoon, in the thin light of spring”), the desperate Pecola seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church – who, as it happens, shares Pecola’s yearning for blue eyes.  (Soaphead’s back story further amplifies the theme of internalized racism.)  Eventually, Pecola retreats into herself, staring into a mirror and speaking to an imaginary friend (the first of numerous phantom companions in TM’s novels).

The book begins with a flash-forward to the fall of 1941, when marigolds failed to grow; how those marigolds came to be planted is revealed in the story.  This is our first hint of TM’s non-linear narrative style.  The narrative voice alternates between a third-person voice and Claudia, who is 9 years old at the time of the story and would have been the same age as TM; her name phonetically evokes TM’s birth name, Chloe.  Later in the book, some of the back story is filled in by Pecola’s mother Pauline (“Polly”).

The Breedloves’ perception of their own “ugliness” is intimately tied to their awareness of their dark skin in a racist environment, and to the tragedy of Pecola’s story.  As TM explains in the foreword,

The novel [written during the height of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement] tried to hit the raw nerve of racial self-contempt, expose it, then try to soothe it not with narcotics but with language that replicated the agency I discovered in my first experience of beauty.

When I first read ‘The Bluest Eye’ as a young adult, I did not understand the centrality of Pecola’s baby to the story.  This baby is the reason for the marigolds mentioned cryptically at the beginning of the story and not explained until near the end.  It is concern for this baby – conceived in an act of rape and incest – that draws Claudia and her older sister Frieda out of their shells and propels them toward emotional maturity.

“I thought about the baby that everybody wanted dead, and saw it very clearly.”  Claudia and Frieda have taken a job selling seeds door-to-door; in this step toward adulthood, they are exposed to the conversations of the adult world.  Slowly, they piece together the story of how their friend Pecola became pregnant by her own father.  They worry for Pecola and feel compassion for her – and they worry for the baby, whose survival is in question after “that beating [Pecola’s] mama gave her.”

And so, they respond with all the imaginative desperation of young children trying to propitiate forces stronger than themselves.  I’ll be good.  I’ll give up that bicycle.  I’ll pray.  The sisters do all of these things, to no avail.  We are notified in a laconic, brutal half-sentence that “the baby came too soon and died.”  Was it Pauline’s intention to terminate Pecola’s pregnancy by beating her?  If so, then this is the first abortion in Toni Morrison’s novels.  It will not be the last.

[Cross-posted at my LiveJournal page:  http://asher63.livejournal.com/520790.html%5D