I will try to remember what I wrote this afternoon. I recall once reading the phrase that no man is free unless he has slaves. The question is: What is freedom? What is slavery? Is it power over others? Is it economic power? cultural superiority over others? belief that one's race gives one freedom that other races do not enjoy? sexual power? religious power to believe that one's credo gives one the right to subjugate or destroy people who do not believe as you do? the power or freedom to quote the Bible or any other religious text to justify one's beliefs, no matter how inhumane these beliefs are.
Henry is an exampe of this thirst for freedom. When his father beats him with a stick to teach him how slaves suffer, Henry breaks the stick over his knee and says "This is how if feels to be a master." His lasck of empathy if furthur illustrated when he commands that Elias's ear be cut off. This is in direct violation of the Bible's injunction in Leviticus that if a Hebrew has a slave for 7 years, he must offer the slave his freedom in the 7th year. (hence the etymoloygy of the word "sabbatical) If the slave does not want his freedom, the owner must pierce a hole in the slave's earlobe with an awl which does not hurt ( I know because I have pierced ears) to signify that the slave has heard the call of freedom and chose to refuse it. Here, Elias heard the call of freedom and is punished most severely.
Moses also does not live up to his Biblical namesake's name. He seeks freedom byattempting to marrying his owner and sends his own family to what he believes will be their certain death. Instead, he is hobbled for the rest of his life while the heavenly Celeste, who does limp has descedants who make it to the the land of the free and have descendants which are as numerous as the stars. Alice alsso reminds me of Klinger from the TV show MASH. She uses insanity to gain sanity and freedom.
Minerva is another interesting character who is wise enough to outgrow the oral stage of dependent slavery and rather gives her meat to hungry dogs and follow a man in Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) than be a petted daughter who "will answer to the name of Minnie."
I love Jones' style of writing. It is poetic, utilizes forshadowing, is non-linear, and uses an omnicient narrator which entices and intrigues us instead of spoils the ending. It is poetic fiction of the highest order. I taught Jones' story "bad Neighbors" to my college class and they loved its irony and character development.
History, especially literary historical fiction, is always written by the winners. It is refreshing to read Morrison, Kumanyakaa,Richard Wright, Baldwin, Soyinka,Maya Angelou,Hayden, Paul Dunbar,Dinaw Mengetsu, and Countee Cullen to understand how the downtrodden feel.
Too ofen the majority or the privileged do not understand how those they humiliate feel. These authors do let us see what slavery not only did to the slaves, but also to the owners' hearts.
Since I led 2 discussions of Everyting is Illuminated I would love to participate in Foer's book review of Everything is Illuminated. It is the funniest sad book I have every read.
I hope this email finally is sent. Macduff
What a great and thought provoking comment. I hadn't reflected on the irony of the names assigned in this book.
I was impressed throughout with how bravely Jones takes on the incredibly uncomfortable subject of blacks, whose own claim to be free is as fragile as paper itself, enslaving other blacks. (Note also the Native American slave catcher, whose power over others is just as ironic and fragile.). And how well he develops a clear and to my way of thinking, accurate thesis on how corrupting and blinding power is to those who hold it. Only people who are powerless or stripped of power really see clearly or deal fairly in this book.
I was very impressed with both of Hungerford's lectures too. I had not picked up Jones points about the fragility of words versus plastic arts, for example. And this book is even more deeply through- written than I'd realized.
I also was impressed with the analysis in Hungerford's lectures, but I especially liked the opening section of the first lecture, because the students' observations about their reading experiences were interesting. The first student, in particular, talks about how disorienting Jones' narrative choices are, which got me thinking about why he might have made that choice.
Emphasizing the omniscient perspective that way was, for me, rather distancing. I felt like I was looking at the world of the novel from a point over the characters' heads, rather than being immersed in it. Usually, I prefer an immersive experience, but I wonder whether Jones's choice relates to the final student observation, which brings up morality in the book. Would an immersive experience created the possibility of too much reader sympathy with the characters and their situation? Did Jones not want that risk of emotional engagement and possible distortion of moral judgement?
This is not to say that I felt blocked from developing sympathy for the characters, because I didn't, especially as the book drew out more of their stories. I really appreciated the complexity that Jones brought to the characters. Despite feeling like I was more of a detached observer most of the time, what the characters were experiencing and how they reacted felt very real to me.
Yesterday I saw the Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera production of Enchanted Isle which fused A Midsummer Night's Dream together with The Tempest. As the opera opens, Ariel is begging for her freedom from Prospero and Caliban and his mother are dispossed from their land by the tyrannical Prospero. At the end, Neptune, sung by Placido Domiingo on his 71st birthday (who else could celebrate a birthday by enacting and singing like a god on the stage of the Met and in 300 theaters around the world) shames Prospero into giving Ariel her freedom and into giving Caliban and his mother back their island. Interestingly, the part of Ariel was sung by an African American soprano and the baritone playing Caliban was wearing black make up. The lines which evoked a gasp from the audience and made me think of The Known World were sung by Neptune as he leaves the sea and confronts Prospero. He urges Prospero to be merciful and says "When Gods become human, humans act divinely." Prospero was humbled, gives his slaves their freedom, and Ariel grabbed her suitcase and ran triumphantly off the stage. Our movie audience clapped for a full minute.
I agree with you both. The student comments were great, and I too agreed with the student who commented on how distanced one feels through much of this book from the characters. Not only is the reader far away for much of the book, but the deliberate fragmentation of stories and disorienting moves through time are confusing and distancing. But the book draws one very closely and involvingly in the last third, as the stories and the world at issue come clearly into focus. This book actually cries out to be re-read immediately on finishing it, like The Magic Mountain, another book with tremendous narrative sweep and confusing, disorting treatments of time and history. I have to say I appreciate a book that makes me think so hard about our lack of perspective and complete understanding of other people's histories, times and personal stories.
And, Macduff,, I love your analogy to the Tempest performance and quote. Particularly since that story, too, is set in its own remote and isolated world. It is an uncomfortable truth that some things are simply wrong, and one either transcends ones own place in history to do right, or not. There is no middle ground which is morally acceptable.