Posts Tagged ‘hurston’

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

From Charlotte Brontë’s Villette:

‘Do other people see him with my eyes? Do you admire him?’

‘I’ll tell you what I do, Paulina,’ was once my answer to her many questions. ‘I never see him. I looked at him twice or thrice about a year ago, before he recognized me, and then I shut my eyes; and if he were to cross their balls twelve times between each day’s sunset and sunrise, except from memory, I should hardly know what shape had gone by.’

‘Lucy, what do you mean?’

‘I mean that I value vision, and dread being struck stone blind.’

This is how I felt about Hurston’s novel this time around. I’ve read it so many times that I don’t really see it any more. Maybe I felt this way because I was reading it to teach it, and we approach texts differently in such circumstances. Chapter 1, we discuss in medias res and foreshadowing; Chapter 2 we have the vision at the pear tree and the mule of the world, the symbols that represent the two conflicting ideologies for the rest of the book; Chapter 6 we have a lot of the anthropological information that Hurston collected for the WPA (Mrs Tony Robbins was a real person, though the name may have been changed); Chapter 19 we finally see the way white people treated black people back then, as well as the courtroom scene where a woman who spends almost two hundred pages discovering her voice suddenly loses it; we also talk about rabies, hurricanes, domestic violence, power relations, and speech acts, among other things.

What interested me the most about the novel this time is the student I’ve been reading it with. I’m teaching at a small language school, and in one of the more advanced levels the students have to respond to a novel. My student is working on her hopefully-eight-page essay this week, and she’s discussing the violence in the book. She’s from Saudi Arabia, and she identifies strongly with Janie. She enjoyed the book thoroughly; I don’t want to go into details, but I guess patriarchy is patriarchy, no matter where it is located or which religion is used to justify it.

Reading through drafts of her essay, she’s got me thinking about moral relativism. She mentioned it twice. The first time, in conjunction with the schoolteacher who rapes Leafy ca. 1882; do we cut Marse Robert some slack because as a slave owner he’s been conditioned to see slaves as property? Is the rapist worse because he lives after Emancipation, or because he’s given a position of trust over children? Hurston seems to use both men as examples of white men having absolute power over black women’s bodies, so is it useful to draw a distinction between them? I mean, Robert seems to have an affectionate relationship with Nanny, and the teacher/rapist comes back to marry Leafy, so maybe these arbitrary power relations are inherently morally ambiguous. If a white man loved a black woman in the United States in the mid- to late nineteenth century, what options did he have? The rapist seems so powerless; I picture him as a puny little man with spindly limbs, underdeveloped and possible a little effete. Then suddenly he rebels against his social training and lack of physical prowess to perform his life’s one act of violence, against his society’s ultimate victim. I can’t imagine the social pressures that lead to such an excessive display of force. I disagree with the people who see this as an example of social permissiveness – it’s not like people congratulate him, he’s hunted by bloodhounds – I see it as more the desperate act of a man who feels disenfranchised, so he exerts power over the only object he can find. It’s evil, of course, but it’s not a fallen-angel/operatic sort of evil; there’s no greatness in it; it’s a pathetic evil perpetrated by a little man who sees no other way to counter his own insignificance. And he immediately lapses back into the nothing he briefly emerged from.

The second place is when Tea Cake hits Janie. Janie didn’t have to deal with that with her previous husbands; Logan threatens once to kill her, and she immediately leaves him. Joe slaps her in the store once and she retreats inside herself and doesn’t come back out for a long time. Tea Cake, though, beats her until her face is bruised.

No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

All of which strikes me as fucked up. This is a different flavor of fucked up than the barely-existent schoolteacher; he’s an aberration, expelled from the community and the novel for his offensive behavior. Tea Cake’s beating is an aberration in their relationship to each other, but the rest of the folks on the muck see it as glorious. That beating reaffirms his masculine ownership and her feminine passivity. It confirms gender roles, and the two participants in it become heroes.

Now. Do I have problems with this because I live eighty years ahead of them in a society with different expectations, or do I have problems with this because domestic violence is intrinsically wrong? Is there something wrong with me because I see a similarity among these three characters? Tea Cake is coded in the novel as good, yet he perpetuates the myth that women are property. I don’t see a huge difference between him and Marse Robert, and though his personality is very different than the one I imagine for Leafy’s rapist, they both use violence against women to assuage their own insecurity and sense of powerlessness. Or, is there something wrong with a society that encourages men to use women in this way? I think there are some things that are intrinsically morally wrong, and intimate violence is pretty high on that list.

This may be because of my experience with it. The first guy I was with started choking me mid-lay, and when I tried to get his hands off my neck he said, “Don’t you trust me?” Of course I don’t trust you; I just met you four hours ago, and now it feels like you’re trying to kill me. The second guy told me I was the tenderest lover he had ever had, and ten seconds later he was backhanding me (hard) and calling me a bitch and a slut. Sex is not just a matter of physical intimacy; there’s a great deal of emotional vulnerability that goes along with it. Responding to that vulnerability with violence evinces a brutality that is inherently bad. Indifference is sufficiently harsh without actively punishing the person. Forcibly asserting that kind of control over another human being is wrong, regardless of time and place. Perhaps my viewpoint is culturally determined, but it’s still mine, and since this is my response and my blog, I will argue for my own viewpoint.

To sum up. Beautiful book, but with domestic violence triggers. Deserves its status as a classic of American literature, but with some problematic bits. Worth reading carefully, again and again, until you don’t see it at all.

It’s always interesting to find the receipt stuck in the back of a book (I use receipts as bookmarks) and think about my life as it was when I made the purchase. According to the receipt, I bought my copy of Fahrenheit 451 ten years ago in a store that has since closed. It was a chain store in my hometown, so I can picture the huge windows in the front, the regulated stacks, the cheerful signage, the in-house coffee shop. It was a little like the Walmart of bookstores. But the town I grew up in doesn’t have enough readers to support a bookstore, which is one of the reasons I no longer actually call it home. Ten years ago I was a newlywed, and the ex and I went everywhere together. The only memory I have of her in that store was the time we ran into two of my friends from high school. Of the two, she came across as perpetually angry and he as a major stoner, which isn’t how either of them was when we were close. I think that my friend’s anger came from the fact that our friend had become so comfortable with mind-altering substances; we met her again a few years later and she was fairly happy, secure in herself and her life. After the visit, the ex said, “Now I can understand why you were such good friends.” First impressions aren’t generally reliable.

Why am I going on about this? Because I’ve just finished reading a book on the importance of memory.

One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guild of the asbestos weaver must open shop very soon.

Yeah, people say that it’s about books, and in one sense it is, but I think that books are a vehicle to talk about something else.

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

Montag’s society has lost books, but they’ve also lost the world itself. They flip on the television to distract themselves, and live in a constant state of distraction. They don’t enjoy life. One of the opening scenes involves Montag’s wife accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills and getting her stomach pumped. It happens so frequently the medical technicians come to people’s houses instead of dragging them to the hospital. The techs don’t have any medical training, either; they know where to stick the tubes, they run their machines, then they move on to the next house. Reckless driving and suicide are fairly common. They don’t value their lives.

Bradbury seems to see this as a consequence of their lifestyle. People avoid contact with nonhuman life, and with their own emotions. Television manufactures relationships with the unreal, and if not managed appropriately, those fictive relationships can take the place of real ones. My mom leaves the TV on when she goes out so the cats feel like there is a human presence in the house with them, and I watch an unreasonable amount of television to distract myself from the unbearable loneliness of my real life. Like the other great dystopias of the twentieth century, this book is about the government taking control of our emotional lives. The essential freedom is the freedom to be honest with ourselves and others about our feelings; without that self-awareness and the ability to communicate it, there is no independent identity.

Books tend to fuck with our illusions. Behold, the reaction to a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Mrs Phelps was crying.

The others in the middle of the desert watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered with her display. She sobbed uncontrollably. Montag himself was stunned and shaken.

“Sh, sh,” said Mildred. “You’re all right, Clara, now, Clara, snap out of it! Clara, what’s wrong?”

“I – I,” sobbed Mrs Phelps, “don’t know, don’t know, I just don’t know, oh, oh . . .”

Mrs Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. “You see? I knew it, that’s what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I’ve had it proved to me. You’re nasty, Mr Montag, you’re nasty!”

Faber said, “Now. . .”

Montag felt himself turn and walk to the wall slot and drop the book in through the brass notch to the waiting flames.

“Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,” said Mrs Bowles. “Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you got to tease people with stuff like that!”

“Clara, now, Clara,” begged Mildred, pulling her arm. “Come on, let’s be cheery, you turn the ‘family’ on now. Go ahead. Let’s laugh and be happy now, stop crying, we’ll have a party!”

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, there’s a moment when one of the bad guys (Anne Wirthlass-Schitt) gets caught in a book of poetry and ends up trying to save someone. When asked to explain, Thursday says that our response to poetry reveals who we really are. The suicide and tears aren’t in the poetry; they’re in the people reading it. To borrow a phrase from Zora Hurston, poetry calls our souls from their hiding places. It reintroduces us to ourselves. One of the products of reading is self-awareness, which I suppose is why reading leads me to write such long articles about myself.

Mrs Phelps has plenty of reason to cry.

“When do you suppose the war will start?” he said. “I notice your husbands aren’t here tonight?”

“Oh, they come and go, come and go,” said Mrs Phelps. “In again out again Finnegan, the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours, they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be back next week. Quick . . .”

The three women fidgeted and looked nervously at the empty mud-colored walls.

“I’m not worried,” said Mrs Phelps. “I’ll let Pete do all the worrying.” She giggled. “I’ll let old Pete do all the worrying. Not me. I’m not worried.”

“Yes,” said Millie. “Let old Pete do the worrying.”

“It’s always someone else’s husband dies, they say.”

“I’ve heard that, too. I’ve never known any dead man killed in a war. Killed jumping off buildings, yes, like Gloria’s husband last week, but from wars? No.”

This book reminds me so much of my 1980s childhood that the first time I read it, I filtered out all mentions of war until it actually comes to the town at the end of the novel. The Cold War made the threat of mutual destruction normal, banal, uninteresting. The Russians were going to come and either destroy or enslave us all; this was an accepted part of my daily life. Sometimes there were frantic repetitions of the party line, as with Mrs Phelps, but by then they were less frequent. The constantness of the threat had inured the public to its severity. After all, it’s always someone else’s husband who dies. My grandpa made it through World War II; my dad made it through Vietnam; when the Russians come for us, we’ll survive that too. When I was nineteen, I saw Red Dawn, and I thought it was one of the most frightening movies I’d ever seen – not because of the Russian-Cuban invasion of the United States, that part felt familiar and even oddly reassuring, but because the redneck teenagers were so ready to become child soldiers. I don’t want my kids to have that kind of access to weaponry. On rereading Fahrenheit 451, though, I see that it’s a book drenched in the threat of war; it’s just that my childhood was spent blocking out the threat of war, and now I’m really good at it. No one I knew was involved in the first Gulf War, so it was easy to see it as entirely separate from my life.

For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain, that nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences and no responsibilities. Except that there are. But let’s not talk about them, eh? By the time the consequences catch up with you, it’s too late, isn’t it, Montag?

And that’s still true. September 11, 2001, was such a tragic day because suddenly we had to stop telling ourselves this lie. We’ve lulled ourselves back into a sense of security since then, which seems fairly obvious from the actions of the US Department of Defense. Sure, we can keep supporting Israel while they act like Nazi Germany; that’s never going to come back and bite us in the ass. If they were annexing sections of Czechoslovakia, we’d be losing our shit; but it’s just those little Arab countries that we can’t even identify on a map, so it’s okay. I mean, they’re not even white. I saw a New York Times piece about nuclear disarmament – apparently the Russians are working ahead of schedule and we’re way behind, and I’m really uncomfortable identifying with the country with the most nuclear warheads. Think of it as a neighborhood; we don’t attack the family next door because we like them, not because they have a lot of guns. In fact, when I see a family with a ton of guns, I avoid them whenever possible. Or, in cowboy terms, the most effective way to ensure that people are going to shoot you is to get a reputation as the fastest gun in the West.

But, books.

I spent my early childhood afraid. I wasn’t involved in any physical abuse, but my dad was undiagnosed bipolar and wouldn’t allow himself to use drugs or alcohol, so he self-medicated by hitting his older children. I was too little, but still petrified of him. My parents divorced a year before the Wall fell, so that gave me a different set of things to be afraid of. My mom has spent forty years creating and feeding a sense of insecurity in her children, delighting in their failures, finding the flaws in their successes, sucking the joy out of our lives unless it is a reflection of her own schadenfreude. After all, if you meet your children’s emotional needs, they’ll just be dependent on you for the rest of your life (the exact opposite of all the research in attachment theory, by the way – I showed all the signs of child abuse except poor academic performance). My older siblings seemed to form a clique that I could never belong to, despite occasional forays into togetherness, so I spent most of my time playing alone. I drew pictures of the toys that I wanted, colored them and cut them out, and played with the scraps of paper. I also read. A lot. I learned to read before I went to kindergarten, and reading was my favorite thing. I was more comfortable in the library than I was in my own home. I lived almost entirely in my imagination; I didn’t make close friends until I was eighteen. My social development still feels about ten years behind my peer group; I hit my adolescent rebellion around age thirty, when I was married and had kids. Five years later I’m mostly better, but I never feel quite mature enough. When I was a kid, the world seemed content to leave me out of it, too: once my mother went out with a bunch of her kids, but left my teenage sister home supposedly alone – they had forgotten that I was there too. If my sister hadn’t stayed, I would have been left home alone. A nine-year-old who lives in books is not likely to be a danger to himself or others, but the having been forgotten damages him. But there are the books, right? Books don’t say awful things about you; books have people who are more similar to you than the people you see in your real life; no one expects you to love them because you were born into the same family or attend the same school or church. Books have brighter colors and happier endings than the real world, and more than anything, I needed the hope that they provide. Then I married someone who taught me that my feelings are important, and books have been teaching me about myself ever since.

She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun.

Or in other words, Clarisse had a face like a book. The glowing certainty of books got me through the long night of childhood and has helped me move toward new sources of light.