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Veteran Poster
Username: Steve_s

Post Number: 426
Registered: 04-2004

Votes: 1

Posted on Monday, January 19, 2009 - 02:57 am:   

Hi dear Kola, how are you? Thanks for the nice things you said :-) I'll explain my recent remarks about "A Mercy," which I'm sure won't be sufficient. Happy Martin Luther King Day.

I know I said that I still haven't forgiven Toni Morrison for calling Ralph Ellison a "black literary patrician"-- an aristocract, in other words --- the same name she gives the little Vaark boy in "A Mercy" (het varken = "pig" in Dutch) who dies of a "cloven hoof." Does anyone beieve that that's not a symbolic death? When characters have names like "Patrician," "Sorrow," "Complete," "Malaik" - Swahili for "angel" (there may be a doubling because a ship called the "Angelus" took Rebekka to America) - and even "Messalina" (either the wife of a Roman emperor or a "whole mess 'a Lina"), it usually means that they're allegorical or stand for something larger than the story itself. "invisible Man," with its unnamed main character, is an allegory, and in my opinion, so is "A Mercy." And if I'm not mistaken, I think the blacksmith who can cure the pox is unnamed too, isn't he?

I read the book in a couple of nights in the large print edition, because that's all that was available at the library, so I'm mostly going by some notes I made. The narration alternates between Florence (Florens) and other narrators, with hers being the first and next-to-the-last sections (her mother narrates the final section). The story begins with Florence's narration in second-person, and as I remember, the "you" she's addressing in the story is the blacksmith, but I think it's also intended as "you" the reader. Florence talks about "reading signs" -- like the profile of a dog in the steam of a tea kettle, the position of a corn husk doll in the room, and the nesting of a pea hen. Then she asks something like, "you can read, can't you?" She's asking the reader to decipher, not the dog's profile in the steam, but the meaning in the symbolism of the novel itself. When novels begin this way, it's a reference to "semiotics" or systems of meaning in language. For example, "Steal away to Jesus" has a whole other meaning in black culture besides the literal one. Another example of this kind of novel is "Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje. It's about a young woman whose work as a forensic anthropologist takes her to trouble spots around the globe, where her job is to unearth mass graves and determine (by "reading the signs," as it were) how and when the people died. She visits an old blind religious man who reads the signs carved in stone artifacts. The remains of one of the victims that she nicknames "Sailor" become crucial evidence for the UN commission, and finally they try to smuggle either the bones or the report of the forensic investigation out of the country. I think this a metaphor for the novel itself, which, when read by readers around the world, may shed some light on the meaning of the civil war. It ends with an artisan piecing together a statue of the Buddha that overlooks the countryside that was vandalized by one faction in the fighting, which may have a parallel in the Buddhist monk who blew himself up in the presence of the prime minister at the start of the civil war (although the monk's sucicide is not part of the novel, I read that somewhere else and just inferred it).

I recently read Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not," and I remembered that Ms. Morrison had included it in her Norton Lectures monograph, "Playing in the Dark," so I re-read a little bit of her analysis. She's a professor at Princeton, not a glorified artist in residence like some writers (not that there's anything wrong with that), she has a Ph.D. in literature and knows linguistics inside and out. She reads for a living. I don't. She's basically interpreting the politics of racial representation in Hemingway's novel for a group of academics who probably don't usually consider that subject the way some of us do, but she's using the terminology of linguistics: "metonymic displacement," "pleonastic reinforcement," and all the rest. The main character is very macho - for instance, when he loses an arm, it's almost a joke that way he disregards it -- and he's very crass in the way he refers to African Americans (but also to Jewish and Chinese people, which, for her purposes, doesn't merit a mention). I agree with most of her observations, however, for me, when a woman dies her hair blond, I don't consider it a "reification of whiteness." That seems like some conventional wisdom of times past. And when the afro-Cuban man on the street makes some unwelcome comment to the main character's wife and he responds by punching him, Ms. Morrison describes it as "black sexual invasion thwarted." I don't. I've been in a similar situation, and I don't punch anybody out. I've also read her analysis of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, and while I find it interesting, it's not my interpretation, it's her subjective opinion. But why would she not want us to read her book in the same critical spirit that she reads other people's books?

"Sorrow" is raised at sea and survives a shipwreck when she's carried to shore by whales. In most literary universes, this would symbolize a person who's favored by the gods, if not a god herself. But she seems persecuted by Lina, the Native American character, who holds her responsible for the three boys' deaths. Sorrow has an alter ego, an "identical self" called "Twin," who disappears when she has her baby, at which time she changes her name: "Now I am Complete." (It's probably coincidental that the main character in Helen Oyeyemi's "Icarus Girl" also has a doppelganger; there are twins in Esi Edugyan's "The Secret Life of Samuel Tyne;" and there are characters named "Twin" and "Twin-Twin" in Zakes Mda's "The Heart of Redness." In the first two books, it might have some psychological meaning relating to adapting to two cultures, I'm not sure). Sorrow is described as "mongrelized." I think that's supposed to be the white equivalent of a "tragic mulatto."

I've mentioned the tragic mulatto, so let me say this. Ms. Morrison's "patrician" comments are in the Arnold Rampersad biography of Ralph Ellison, a book that's very dismissive of Ellison's "Juneteenth. That's okay, it's an opinion, like when she calls it "a book that didn't need to be written," however, when she labels it a "tragic mulatto story," I have to disagree. If you know the story, I think you'd agree that the chances of "Bliss" not being a "mulatto" are far greater than him being one. It makes more sense in context of Ellison's thesis about culture.

Another thing that Rampersad says about "Juneteenth" is that it's like Faulkner's "Asalom, Absalom!" because it's told in a series of flashbacks. Well, many stories are told in flashbacks, in fact, the book I'm currently reading, "Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone" by James Baldwin, is, so far, mostly a series of flashbacks. What's unusual about "Absalom, Absalom!" is that some of the flashbacks are "imagined," and as I remember, some crucial pieces of information about the "racial" identity of Charles Bon (or whether he is a "mulatto" or not) are contained in one of these "imagined" flashbacks.

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