Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beloved - I think it was the name of her horse

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

Okay, so after that last bit, I’m going to wrap up these blogs with what I really enjoyed not only about this class but about this book – the everything of it all. When reading Beloved, I was reminded time and again of the themes and aspects of so many of the other authors and poets that we read throughout this course. For example, I felt it necessary when Paul D. was singing to read his words aloud to find the rhythm and pacing of his songs, just as I’d done when reading Howl. Well, I kept finding these themes and I thought that I’d spend this last little time we have together discussing some of them.
The first thing that I happened upon when I began the novel was the role that race played and the conflict between African Americans and whites. This reminded me of the conflict between the classification of Modernist and Harlem Renaissance poets. Both movements of poetry were contemporaries of each other and utilized similar themes and features in their poetry, yet the Harlem Renaissance authors have been systematically excluded from classification in any Modernist anthology due to the role that race played in their poetry. I’m not saying that Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance were identical except for race or that every Harlem Renaissance poet belongs in the Modernist movement, but there are some. I came across this debate in my research on Langston Hughes and recently there has been quite a push to include some of his poetry in the Modernist movement, but its being rejected because of his other poetry that doesn’t really fit. Is that right? Can a poet – or anybody – really be summed up into one thing and not be allowed to straddle between two classifications?
Moving beyond this, what about the discussion we had on the conflicting styles of Hemingway and Faulkner? Aren’t there sections in Beloved when Morrison is intentionally vague and unclear and then others that give gruesome and horrific detail (I’m thinking of Schoolteacher finding Sethe at 124 here). Also, isn’t the novel told in a fashion similar to “A Rose for Emily,” with time switching around and events being told out of any sensible order until you can think back and see how it all fits together? I also saw the anger and abuse of Hurston and the inequity of Wright throughout the novel.
One thing that stood out to me significantly throughout the novel was how Sethe kept making me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” The idea of dealing with loss and the past then confronting that notion were so prominent in her character that I had to go back and re-read the poem after the end of the first book of Beloved. Also I thought of Roethke’s “Meditation at Oyster River” in Denver’s boxwood hollow and natural serenity that resided within. I thought of Brooks’ De Witt Williams when Sixo was set afire and Halle went mad, what do we have left of these typical men other than typical memories of slavery?
The novel also presents a startlingly surreal narrative through the ghost story, but I’ve covered that elsewhere, so I’m not going to get into it again. In order to achieve all of these similarities, I found myself thinking of the postmodern and current poets and authors that we read and began thinking about what the novel was trying to express about the world in which it was written. All that I could come up with was a line that I came across in the movie: Magnolia (which happens to have the 2nd greatest script of any film, behind Network (you disagree? I’ll go ten rounds with you on this one)):
And the book says, “We may be through with the past…but the past is not through with us!”
When it comes to Sethe’s committing murder and later attempt to commit murder, I thought of Plath and Sexton and the notion that it be best to abandon a life than face the horrors that have or might be. Also the crazy fits in here juuuust right. Also the title of the book reminded me of “Ariel,” Plath’s horse. Morrison’s book isn’t about the character Beloved, its about the world and lives that she is inserted into. Beyond this, the title is open to so many more interpretations than just that character. It could be Sethe’s growth from self-hatred to mere self-loathing, becoming more beloved of herself. Or it could be the manifest that while Sethe is so full of hate, the rest of her triad holds her beloved. Or it could be about a horse, I’m not ruling anything out.

Beloved - Weak Ass Ghost Story

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

So, at its narrative heart, this is a ghost story deeply infused with the history and folklore of the African American people. Yet, Morrison also betrays this folklore by modifying it to meet her own needs of the story. This isn’t done out of malice, yet by altering the traditional folklore of a people in order to present a story about those people really seems similar to casting Burt Lancaster as a Native American in Apache or the Yiddish actor Paul Muni in Scarface. For the most part, though, it works. I’m not fluent in every aspect of African American folklore by any means, however I know enough to know when Morrison is stretching way beyond the basic traditions. That being said, by stretching these traditions, she is able to balance her character of Beloved between the real and ethereal realms of nature.
This ethereal nature of the character is what started this and led me to question how in the hell the Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. don’t get that she’s a ghost and freak out! You know, when I read Huckleberry Finn and read about Jim’s tantrum at the thought of a ghost, I began to learn about the role of mysticism and the supernatural in African American folklore. I later learned that my favorite piece of southern folklore actually came out of the legends and folklore of African American culture: the blue porch ceiling. I’ve heard several stories about this, the most ridiculous being that it looks like the sky, but I’ll tell you what I heard from the deep woods of forgotten lore:
The tale is that the dead live in an upside down world and travel around at night, lost and looking to get home. They will enter and live in any home they find, but especially if they have a history there they will be drawn in and imprisoned. The way to keep ghosts out of a house is to paint the ceiling porch blue (the windows aren’t necessary because ghosts use doors, only dreams and aliens come in through the windows). Anyway, in the small Georgia town that I lived in years ago, there is a large cemetery just off of highway 27 (the Martha Berry Highway) that runs through town a block south of the town square. Half of this cemetery – the older half that dates back to Reconstruction – has a drainage ditch all the way around it. For my summer job, I used to work landscaping, and a fellow I used to install irrigation systems with told me all about it. The thing is, ghosts hate water and won’t cross it. The moat around the cemetery was to keep the ghosts from getting into the city buildings across the road. In early African American folklore, however, the ghosts existed in a topsy-turvy world, though, so by painting the ceiling of your porch blue, it made them think it was water and so would not cross it. I guess they don’t have good eyesight, either.
Anyway, so what I don’t get is that only Paul D. is kind of freaked out by the ghost of the murdered little girl showing up (and he winds up sleeping with her – yuck – he can keep her). But beyond that, she’s all wet, and if there’s anything these characters should’ve known, it’s that ghosts hate water! Witches, too! Throw this lady off a bridge already to see if she floats – Monty Python style!
I also don’t get that Paul D. leaves 124 and can’t find a bed or hospitality for several days (though he rejected it later when offered); but when Crazy-Town shows up sopping wet, sick, thirsty, and reminding everyone of the kid Mom butchered a few years back, she gets a ‘come right in.’ Seriously?
I’ll leave you now with Paul D., probably my favorite character in the book, and here’s why: a fellow I came across a few years ago named Estevanico. I’ll save you from my tedious retelling of his story, because in order to understand Estevanico’s story, I’d have to tell you all about a Spanish conquistador named Cabeza de Vaca; who, together with Estevanico, really shook the pillars of Earth (if you will allow me to interject at least one Big Trouble in Little China comment into this class). Anyway, Paul’s adventures reminded me of Estevanico’s, albeit a bit less fantastic. Take a read of an account of these intrepid explorers that I scanned for you here (it’s worth it, but you’ll have trouble finding much more about him on the internets).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Beloved – by the Numbers

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

So, one thing that I noticed as I read through Beloved was the repeated series of numbers “124.” The first direction that I took this was to 3, as 3 can be found in both 2+1 and 4-1, or 4/2+1, or 12/4. At any rate, the number three is featured heavily throughout this story: the three characters through whom the story is told (Sethe, Denver, & Paul D) are also the three members of a family, but there is also the three generations of characters, the three Pauls, the three stages in the lives of Paul and Sethe (slavery, imprisonment, & freedom), Sethe’s three surviving children (Howard, Buglar, and Denver), even the book is broken into three sections. There is also perhaps a holy trinity in here as well, but rather than the father, son, and holy ghost, we have Sethe, Denver, and Beloved.
The trinities created between the characters and representing their unbreakable bonds, however, are ultimately challenged by the presence of Beloved, who acts to erode those bonds between other characters and take over the relationship herself. For example, Beloved attacks the familial relationship (though strained already) among Sethe, Paul D, and Denver. Early on, Beloved rejects Denver, telling her that she needs a mother rather than a sister. Later, Beloved seduces Paul, straining the relationship between him and Sethe. Beloved attempts to destroy the power of the three by overtaking it with the direct and exclusive relationship between only two that she tries to establish with these characters.
Anyway, this was something I found interesting as I read the book.

Beloved – Who’s on First?

I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone

So, my greatest challenge when starting to read this book was with the regular shifting of perspective and time in the novel. This was something that I came to enjoy as I reached further and further into the novel, but as I neared the end of the first book, I noticed that of the four primary characters in the story, the omniscient narrator could only see into the mind of three: Sethe, Denver, & Paul D; not Beloved. Each of these three characters, throughout the story, becomes more and more realistic and human; and the emotional foundations and struggles that they face become concrete. On the other hand, Beloved’s mind is never exposed to the reader, and she becomes more and more of a mystery (so to speak, it’s pretty hard to top the mystery of a crazy wet woman in new shoes that shows up on your doorstep on afternoon). Her motivations are not revealed except through her actions and the perceptions of others, never through her own story.
What I enjoyed about this was that it gave the character an ethereal nature that wasn’t grounded in reality at all. As I read this, I’d really hoped that Beloved was a real person that had experienced some wild story rather than actually being the obvious supernatural manifestation of the ghost. I thought that seeing the other characters realize that Beloved was a ghost would be interesting for their internal struggles, and then Wham! – she was a real person all along running from an abusive white man who invades 124 and really upsets the ghost, who brings down the house on top of him. Luckily for Sethe and her crew, the house was insured for a pile of money that the Bodwins use to build a new house for them to live in, and since the ghost got revenge on the abuse of the white man, it is satisfied and disperses. Now, that would have been pretty cool.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

T.C. Boyle

In his story, “Chixulub,” Boyle presents a fascinating dual narrative, one in which the world ends for the all humanity and another in which a couple’s child is killed in a car wreck. Aside from the narrative aspects of this story, what I find fascinating is in how they are related. Of course there is the idea that your children are your world and their death is the metaphoric death of you, yet I think that there is some further underlying criticism of our modern America in this story.
James Kunstler, in a speech a few years ago, said that the reason that you don’t see windows on the sides of houses in our modern subdivisions is because we don’t want to see each other. I think that this is the point of this story. I feel very lucky to live where I do, where I know my neighbors and in fact almost everyone on my street. A few weeks ago, I was in the back yard of a friend’s house sitting around a fire having a beer. This friend, Shawn, got married in December and he and his wife moved into a nice two-story place in a newer subdivision just outside of town. I was telling him about Mary, the crazy cat-lady that lived across the street from me who’s recently announced that her two furball dogs are going to have puppies. As we were speaking, he asked me a disturbing question: “Do you know your neighbors?” I told him that I do and asked him the same question in return. He said that he didn’t even know the name of the couple living across the street and that he’d only had a couple of casual encounters with the family next door (the lot on the other side of his house is an overgrown field with nothing built on it yet).
This is what this story feels like to me. The loss of a child once affected entire communities because of the bond between the families within them. Today, we only think about ourselves; we don’t want to know our neighbors.

George Saunders

“Sea Oak” is a wonderful little story about the decline of American culture punctuated by zombies. At the core of the story are three young adults and their Aunt Bernie, all of whom have been paralyzed in modern life from seeking success. Aunt Bernie, though, has no regrets for the life she lived until death, or more correctly, she returns to life. In life, Aunt Bernie allowed those around her to dominate her life, and in death she finds the power to return to life and dominate those she left.
Zombie Bernie is truly the Bizarro version of herself, in which she no longer allows those she cares for from leading inconsequential lives. She drives them to achieve more in each of their lives, to reach the goals that the people who care about them wish them to reach. Unfortunately for Zombie Bernie, though, they all rejects her power, and her plans (and body) fall apart until they throw her into a garbage bag and bury her.
What I felt from this story is that it takes a special strength to escape from the paralysis of modern society that is so temptingly easy to live. When Bernie, who lacked that power in life, returns to instill it in her nieces and nephew, they reject her. For the stripper, it is embarrassing, and for the girls it is the difficulty of hard work, but that is what it takes to succeed. More than a condemnation of a society that presents the illusion that success comes from a lottery ticket or easy fame, I feel that the criticism here runs deeper. The true criticism is that the society in which these characters live doesn’t want them to succeed, and all the entertainment, tainted foods, and insecurity in their lives is driven by a society actively working to convince them that they should not try to succeed.

Sherman Alexie & Adrian Louis

The strong contrasts in Louis’ and Alexie’s portrayals of Native Americans are striking. Louis’ poetry focuses on the bleakness and degradation that have been inflicted on the Native American people, yet he does not reflect on the origins of the problem. Louis rather approaches the difficult condition of Native Americans in a contemporary manner in order to address the problems at hand. In doing so, his poetry maintains a bleak atmosphere of hopelessness and forgetfulness. Instead of trying to accomplish things in their lives, the Native Americans in Louis’ poetry are listless and lost in the American experience.
The Native Americans in Alexie’s poems are lost as well, but not listless. Rather than looking at the contemporary Native American experience, Alexie examines the way that Native American culture has been amalgamated into white culture and stolen from the Native Americans. In his excellent poem, “How to write the great American Indian Novel,” he accomplishes this expertly. Throughout the poem, he exposes the American myth of the Indian as hollow yet powerful, and ultimately leads to the culture being entirely absorbed into white culture.
I enjoyed contrasting these poets very much in their drastically different approaches to examining the Native American experience. Louis’ poetry is a call to arms for Native Americans to stand up to their lost culture displayed through his presentation of an abandoned and careless people. Alexie, on the other hand, presents the theft of Native American culture by the white race through humor. Both poets seem to be asking Native Americans to stand up for their own culture, though they also portray that culture as lost or stolen.