Sunday, April 18, 2010
Toni Morrison's road to Paradise
Why is it that so often in life the very thing you’re trying to avoid becomes you? Why do the oppressed become the oppressor? Why do the abused become the abuser? Why do those who demand openness and equality become insular and elitist? Why does the love that we strive so hard to obtain turn into a protective curse when we attempt to contain it vs. allowing its empathy and compassion to extend to all? These open-ended questions are only the tip of the iceberg in Toni Morrison’s Paradise. It is an incredible novel that incorporates many complex themes, mind shattering symbolisms and an obvious personal investment of experience, echoes of generations gone by and silent whisperings from history that we should heed and never repeat.
The idea that a group from any oppressed race can run from their problems, form their own society, and live by their own rules contains within it the basic dangers inherent in utopian thinking. So often, it is not applicable or realistic according to the complexities of human nature. In fact, the idea that this utopia can be acquired affirms the thesis of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. We can see this in modern society with the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Or the way that America has chosen to repress and exploit the Third World and the various racial/class/homosexual/religious/political groups at home. Here we have victims creating new victims…and the cycle continues. The REAL question is, how do we BREAK this cycle? It is only through immense courage, LOVE, empathy, compassion and strength that we step up and say NO. I forgive you for what has happened to me and to make that forgiveness concrete in my own life, I will strive to not become bitter and will do my best to not consciously or unconsciously pass it on to others.
The concept of Paradise in Toni Morrison’s novel is akin to looking into an endless sea of mirrors. It reflects back upon you over and over and over. Its meanings can go on to infinity, and those religious representations in the novel imply that Paradise CAN be infinity itself.
First we have the town of Ruby. It is an honest, and at first, noble idea of escaping exploitation. Ah, but here we have our first red flag. These African Americans are descendants of a group that has set out from the post-Reconstruction era in Louisiana and Mississippi to establish their own community VOID of whites, or for that matter, any inter-racial mixing. So the very idea of exclusion is there from the start. This is what gets us into trouble. While it is obvious that the group believed they were simply avoiding intense suffering, there was a deep dark seed of hate that had been planted by the white man. Now lest anyone come down on me, I am NOT saying that this hatred has no reason for being there. It would be quite impossible to be treated as chattel for centuries and not carry animosity. I am only pointing out that this is one of the great tests of life, and applies to ANY oppressed group. How do you handle this situation within a history of racism experienced? How do the Jews react to the Holocaust? How do the Palestinians react to Jewish oppression?
Unfortunately, the citizens of Ruby handled it by attempting to keep their society untouched by “contamination”. Contamination represents anything outside of their direct ancestors. This incorporates skin color (even as compared to other African Americans), an unspoken but expected moral code, a hierarchy in society that revolves around the founding families, and the expectation of keeping the generations continuous through marriage within the community. It revolves around purity in religion, in dress, in being a productive upstanding member of society, and, consequently, becomes patriarchal, authoritarian, repressive and a power struggle.
This is where we can introduce the Convent to the story. The book does it from the very beginning, but that beginning is actually the end of the story. Or is it the beginning of another beginning? Is the symbolism involved in how the women of the Convent treated the attacking men of the town only the beginning of another cycle of repression? Or, to put it more clearly, are the women plotting revenge at the end of the story that will then turn THEM into the oppressors? Again, they would certainly be justified. However, what will it accomplish? Only more and more violence.
The Convent is located about 17 miles outside of the town of Ruby. It was originally the project of a white collar criminal, but was taken over by a group of nuns who became yet ANOTHER symbol of oppression. The patriarchy that bleeds through the pages of Paradise is evident in the treatment of women by the Catholic Church. The nuns of the Church have been programmed with this repression to such a degree that they in turn act as the patriarchs in this very convent. It is an important point to understand, because of the way that Connie is affected. She believes that she needs this authority to survive. Connie is the perfect example of the woman who has been pushed down by patriarchy and authoritarianism to the point where her thoughts are not her own. She has not learned the process of discovering her own individuality, but she will and does.
A quick side note, as I’ve mentioned it before in my writing reviews, but Morrison doesn’t miss a beat with touching on what I refer to as “the benefactor syndrome” of missionary work. The convent was set up to take the message of Christ to the Native Americans and “wean them away from anything that was enjoyable in their lives”. It’s the idea that WE have it right; YOU are the sinner, so CONFORM to our way of thinking.
But the Convent is to go through another evolution centralized around Connie. After Mary Magna passes away, Connie is all alone. Mary Magna was the woman who rescued Connie from the poverty of being an orphan, and she was who Connie lived for. Connie never thought of the crucial process of discovery while Mary Magna was around, because she never felt the need. She never had to think for herself as long as she had the convent and the sisters. She didn’t realize that she was a prisoner. It was only the ability to “step inside” that was introduced to her by Lone that not only symbolized empathy, but allowed her to realize the importance of herself as HER OWN PERSON. Yes, this seeming display of supernatural power from Lone is symbolic of the power of Connie and the rest of the women she takes under her wing to realize THEIR OWN potential.
These free thinking women are precisely what a threat to the utopia of Ruby is. Women are a threat to this society because they stand in the way of “progress”. Female babies can not carry on the “holy” family names of the town. Female midwifes and child bearers stand between the successful births of healthy baby boys. To the men of the town, this is everything. Without the ability to continue the utopia, the dream dies. Any woman who is able to amass too much power is a clear threat to their authoritarianism. What if she doesn’t want to bear children? What if the 8-rock women gain so much power that they refuse to marry the men of the community, and instead go outside and inter-marry with others?
All their dreams, all their fears, their purpose for living, the very idea of the town of Ruby, the outside threats, the unsubmissive women, the impurity, the non-conformity, the strangeness of the other is all wrapped up in the women who have taken residence with Connie in the Convent. This is why they must be stopped. This is where the idea of PURITY and a way of life become more important than love and acceptance. This is the culmination of our narrative. The formerly oppressed (the citizens of Ruby) have made the transformation into the oppressors. The woman has become the victim.
It is perhaps no mistake that our story revolves around the Civil Rights era. For it is in this very movement that the fight for equality in the black community became patriarchal. The idea of freedom for the race did not incorporate the equally important drive for women’s rights. That fight would have to come later. It is symbolic and central to Morrison’s novel that the women are left out of “purifying” the town of Ruby. What the men have to say, and how they plan to execute their actions is no place for a woman’s involvement. In this, we can see the warning from Morrison that ANY fight for equality can become repressive in and of itself.
This idea of “Paradise” therefore involves many different elements to Morrison and our characters. Freedom is one common thread. Self-determination is another. The ability to ESACPE is a third. However, what many of our characters struggle to grasp is the all-consuming LOVE that is so important for Paradise to become a reality. Through the lens of love, everything becomes clear. One’s vision of a Higher Power (yet anther Paradise theme) is all about how love is incorporated. Without love our world falls apart. Love and its corollary, equality, is about EMBRACING the differences we see in the other. This CAN NOT be accomplished by a dogmatic adherence to principle, purity or structure. It is not done by taking sides. It is searching for the common ground that makes us all human.
In the end, the road to Paradise IS narrow. However, it is NOT a narrow experience or way of thinking. It is simple yet complex much like Morrison’s novel. Love is never easy, but in the end it is all we have. Love is meaning, our very existence, the essence of what we describe as “God”, and the ONLY way to Paradise.