Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Progression of Student to Teacher in the Post-Civil War South and in Charles Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”

The denial of formal education for slaves forced their stories to survive purely in oral form. These stories were “[m]ore than a mere description of the circumstances that they found themselves in,” and “always had survival and a quest for power as major themes (Perlstein). These oral stories were not without meaning; on the contrary, they were full of lessons. These themes are obviously in response to their lived realities. While “African folktales were entertaining to the enslaver, [ ]they were also a source of information and strategy for the enslaved” (Monaghan). The tales of Brer Rabbit “[t]hough one of the smallest and weakest animals in the forest, [he] was also one of the swiftest. He could outsmart the bigger and stronger animals by using his wit” (Monaghan). The passing of these stories from one generation to the next allowed the “listeners / students” to become the “tellers / teachers.”

It was a rarity for slaves to be taught by a “loving mistress” or for them to try to obtain knowledge via their own means. One of the most interesting points in Frederic Douglass’ biography is that he bribed children to teach him to write. Once this decision was out of the hands of white slave owners and in the hands and hearts of the newly freed former slaves their true desires became known. To use Georgia as an example, “[l]egislation passed in 1829 had made it a crime to teach slaves to read, and legislation and white attitudes discouraged literacy within Georgia's small free black community. Yet when schools for freedpeople opened in early 1865, they were crowded to overflowing. Within a year of black freedom, at least 8,000 former slaves were attending schools in Georgia; eight years later, black schools struggled to contain nearly 20,000 students”(Butchart). This education enabled a previously only oral history to become a written one.

Chesnutt’s writing embodies the transition of the student becoming the teacher in his short story The Bouquet. Mrs. Myrover, as an invalid, represents old regime—physically paralyzed but still alive / present. She (and the pre-Civil war South) “were “too old, and had suffered too deeply from war, in body and mind and estate, ever to reconcile herself to the changed order of things following the return of peace; and, with an unsound yet perfectly explainable logic, she visited some of her displeasure upon those who had profited most, though passively, by her losses” (Chesnutt 281). Though not monetarily, blacks could now receive an invaluable profit—an education. The receipt of this education was not free and “was not Northern charity, for the total cost of the Bureau, seventeen million dollars, was more than covered by a heavy tax on cotton, which by 1869 had yielded over sixty-eight million dollars” (Morison 18-20). Therefore, the Negros had prepaid for their education with their work in, and any job related to cotton, which would encompass almost the entire South.

In Chesnutt’s story the roses are a metaphor of Sophy’s knowledge. Sophy’s right to an education equals “the first buds of spring, and, when these appeared, [Sophy] had awaited impatiently their gradual unfolding. But not until her teacher’s death had they become full-blown roses” (Chesnutt 282). Miss Myover’s death transitions Sophy from the role of student /listener to the role of teacher / teller. Sophy embodies not only the ability for a Black voice to be heard, but a Black woman’s voice. This voice is now educated in the written word and will be able to make her voice heard in not only oral, but now written story. Sophy represents the hope of education as advancement of blacks and women. “[T]eachers…might be said rather to represent the new order of thing in which labor was in time to become honorable, and men were, after a somewhat longer time, to depend, for their place in society, upon themselves rather than upon their ancestors” (Chesnutt 270). Miss Myrover job search represents all non-White, males. As “Miss Myrover looked over the field of employment, never very wide for women in the South, and found it occupied. The only available position she could be supposed prepared to fill, and which she could take without distinct loss of caste, was that of a teacher, and there was no vacancy except in one of the colored schools. Even teaching was a doubtful experiment; it was not what she would have preferred, but it was the best that could be done” (Chesnutt 272). After being taught by Miss Myrover, Sophy will have the skills to obtain a job, also.

Both Sophy and Miss Myrover are representatives of a hopeful new generation. While “Sophy’s mother was a poor widow, who went out washing and scrubbing for a living,” Mrs. Myrover is a racist invalid (Chesnutt 275). Both of the women have recognized the power of education and the change it can bring to their worlds. Sophy’s feelings toward Miss Myrover are described as “devotion,” “admiration,” and “worship” because “to Sophy her beauty was almost divine—who had come to teach her” (Chesnutt 275-6). Miss Myover’s beauty does not lie in her features but in her actions. Sophy is grateful for the teaching and Miss Myover’s is merely the vessel. Miss Myrover also experienced the joy of teaching: “And though she was a woman of sentiment and capable of deep feeling, her training had been such that she hardly expected to find in those of darker hue than herself the same susceptibility—varying in degree, perhaps, but yet the same in kind—that gave to her own life the alternations of feeling that made it most worth living” (Chesnutt 278-9).

Sophy now has the ability to “write her own story.” after reading the cemetery sign “thanks to Miss Myrover’s painstaking instruction, could read this sign very distinctly. In fact, she had often read it before. For Sophy was a child who loved beauty, in a blind, groping sort of way, and sometimes stood by the fence of the cemetery and looked through at the green mounds and shaded walks and blooming flowers within, and wished that she might walk among them” Sophy’s stories will be identifiable to a new audience and generation like “the African in slavery, the Brer Rabbit tales became a source of identity. The African, in his lowly condition, felt a certain kinship to the rabbit (Monaghan).

Just as Sophy was the natural receptacle of knowledge from Miss Myrover, so too would Sophy educate the masses. She is the ancestor of the Harlem Renaissance and rap. She is the voice of the previously unheard. She is writing her story with black ink on a white page.

Annotated Bibliography

Chesnutt, Charles. The Wife of His Youth.

Palmer, R. Roderick, (1957). Colonial Statues and Present Day Obstacles Restricting Negro Education. In The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 26, No. 4. pp. 525–529.

Perlstein, Joshua. From Remus to Rap: A History in Theory and Practice of the African-American Storytelling Tradition

Morison, Samuel Eliot and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic (2 vols.: New York: 1942) II, pp. 18-20.

Monaghan, E. J. (2005). Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Webber, Thomas. (1978). Deep Like Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community 1831-1865. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Woodson, C.G. (1915). The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Butchart, Ronald E. Freedmen's Education during Reconstruction. The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

15th Amendment United states Constitution

The 15th amendment, ratified February 3, 1870 states that “. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Time's Arrow

A Soul's Schism

Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow can essentially be classified as a novel about the Holocaust, yet Amis’s style sets it apart from other novels within this genre. Told backwards, the story begins with a Nazi doctor’s death and proceeds towards his birth. Amis employs an unnamed narrator to accompany his main character, Tod / Odilo / John / Hamilton. This alter ego is aware of Tod, but Tod is not aware of him. Through this narrator and the disjointed form of the novel, Amis applies his ergodic style by forcing the reader to become an active participant in the story. The reader’s relation to the confused narrator ensures continuation of reading. This style allows the reader to experience Tod’s guilt-driven abortions, the narrator’s confusion, and the schism between the two identities. This separation within the main character serves as Amis's commentary of the moral and ethical detachment required by Nazi doctors in order to cope with the atrocities they inflicted.

The guilt of the main character presents itself most notably in his outlook toward babies. He has a healthy marriage and normal outlook toward children in his youth, but after his work as a Nazi doctor, his outlook towards children drastically changes. He dreams of a baby who “wields incredible power” yet despite the power it wields, the baby is weeping. Perhaps it weeps because of the sinister reversal—the new and desperate responsibilities that power brings” (45). The baby represents the future to Tod. This baby will grow up knowing what atrocities he has performed and because “the baby is more like a bomb” it must be detonated (i.e. aborted) (46). Whenever any of the main character’s “lady friends” becomes pregnant, “a rectangular placenta and a baby about half an inch long with a heart but no face [is] implanted with the aid of the forceps and speculum”(91). Because of the backward action of the novel, his actions are actually those of abortions. The narrator concludes “that these are the bomb babies of Tod Friendly’s dreams. It adds up. The babies, so to speak, are helplessly powerful. This is the power they wield: the mortal importance of no one knowing they are there” (91). This acknowledgement confirms Tod’s guilt regarding his actions as a Nazi doctor with his desire to prevent any continuation of his life via a child.

While Tod is determined to prevent any of his children from being born, a separate identity is “born” within him. The narrator says that “I’m like the baby taken from the toilet. I have a heart but I don’t have a face: I don’t have any eyes to cry. Nobody knows I’m here” (92). Amis repeats the aborted baby's description for the narrator to emphasize the blurred, intermingled perceptions of death and life present throughout the story. The narrator has no power over Tod but acknowledges himself as an extension. He knows that “into Tod’s mind, of course, I cannot see. But I am the hidden sharer of his body” (55). Tod does not acknowledge this other identity. Any acknowledgment on Tod's behalf would require personal introspection and acceptance of the horrors he has committed. The narrator believes Tod’s “isolation is complete. Because he doesn’t know I’m here” (14). Amis’s use of the narrator makes the reader question if he is Tod’s subconscious or if Tod suffers from a form of dementia, possibly schizophrenia. The narrator, however, identifies himself as Tod’s soul. The conversations with Irene “put it best—she certainly puts it most often—when she tells Tod that he has no soul. I used to take it personally, and I was wretched at first” (53). The narrator’s personal offense to Irene’s accusation of Tod having no soul most thoroughly outlines the schism of Tod and the narrator. Tod’s personality is itself soulless, while the unacknowledged narrator identifies himself as Tod’s soul. This separation gives readers an understanding of how Tod handles his guilt by compartmentalization and repression.

The narrator exists as a way for Tod to separate himself from his actions and also to protect him. The narrator’s responsibility in preventing Tod from killing himself is first addressed by the narrator with “suicide isn’t an option, is it. Not in this world. Once you’re here, once you’re on board, you can’t get off. You can’t get out” (25). The narrator becomes even more sure of the fact that suicide is not an option as the story progresses. There is no longer the questioning undertone in regards to killing oneself when the narrator states that “you can’t end yourself, not here. I am familiar with the idea of suicide. Once life is running, though, you can’t end it. You’re not at liberty to do that” (88). The narrator controls the fact that Tod cannot end his life. Amis suggests with this inability of Tod to commit suicide, that Tod does acknowledge morality. No matter his agency over other human life, Tod draws the line with taking his own.

The schism between the main character and the narrator allows Tod to proceed with his unethical life. He closes off all emotion and morals, forcing the narrator to make sense of the actions. The narrator's confusion allows for an ergodic experience on the part of the reader. The narrator supplies pieces of a puzzle that both he and readers try to discern along the way. One of Tod’s weekly nightmares involves “this enormous figure in the white coat, his black boots straddling many acres. Somewhere down there, between his legs, the line of souls. I wish I had the power, just power enough to avert my eyes. Please, don’t show me the babies…” (39). Neither the narrator nor the reader can look away, while both question who the figure is. Later in the story, readers are given the answer when it is revealed that “John Young, who daily straddles a storm of souls, which kick up in the wind like leaves” (91). The story's unraveling and slow dispersal of clues joins the narrator and the reader on a voyage of discovery encouraging acceptance of the fact that the whole truth is not constantly revealed. The reader must work alongside the narrator to understand the story of Tod’s life out

The ergodic style Amis incorporates in Time’s Arrow allows the reader to experience more personally the actions and emotions of a Nazi doctor. Amis does not give the reader the information of Tod being a Nazi doctor at the beginning of the story because this would obviously bias the reader. Amis’s telling of Tod’s life before and after his time spent at the camps and his use of a narrator, instead of the doctor himself enables a reader to experience the story with a more open mind than if he would have told the story chronologically and from a different point of view. The form, sequencing, and point of view of the narrator, allow the reader to actively experience Tod’s guilt, the narrator’s confusion and the schism between the two.

The Goddess Ligeia

October turns readers to stories of mystery, horror, and suspense.  Poe has spun many tales but my favorite is "Ligeia."  I loved reading this short story for the first time in a college American Literature class.  It is perfect for the season.

Poe gives a marriage true immortality in his short story “Ligeia.” Even death does not part these two. Ligeia’s husband loves her so intensely that his love is a form of worship. After her death, she lives on in his heart and mind. He continues his worship of her, builds her a shrine, and provides her with a human body to be reborn into. This parallels the underlying theme of idolatry throughout the story. The narrator’s love for his wife is so powerful that it enables Ligeia to be reborn, similar to the ancient Egyptian cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Ligeia’s previous lives have brought her a vast array of knowledge. Both this knowledge and physical beauty have a “strangeness” that her husband cannot place. He dwells instead on adoring descriptions of her perfection. In amazement of Ligeia’s immense learning, the narrator declares:

“I said her knowledge was such as I have never known in woman—but where breathes the man who has traversed, and successful, all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science? I saw not then what I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding; yet I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage. With how vast a triumph—with how vivid a delight—with how much of all that is ethereal in hope—did I feel, as she bent over me in studies but little sought—but less known—that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden.”

The narrator has submitted himself to his wife’s dominant intelligence; he takes on the role of student, with Ligeia as his teacher. She has directed his studies to “metaphysical investigations” in order to expand his mind toward her intentions. He feels in her an underlying knowledge of a concept unknown to him, but can’t conceive of this concept himself. Not only is she a smart woman, but she is smarter than any men the narrator knows. Ligeia has ensured her immortality by making the narrator love her so fully and deeply. She has subconsciously laid the plans for her rebirth within his mind, but he is not aware.

Along with the narrator’s worship of Ligeia’s knowledge and beauty, Poe interweaves idolatrous imagery of the Hebrews and Egyptians. These cultures / religions are those most commonly linked with the concept of idolatry. Reflecting upon the beauty of Ligeia’s nose the narrator muses, “nowhere but in the graceful medallions of the Hebrew had I beheld a similar perfection.” This brings to mind the image of the golden calf, made from the Hebrews’ melted earrings, and is probably the most widely recognized symbol of idolatry. Ancient Egyptians also practiced idol worship. The narrator’s believes that “the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.” Not only is their love idolatrous but the narrator believes it is being presided over by his own invented goddess. His imagination has produced a hybrid between Ashtoreth, the goddess of love and fertility and Tophet, a synonym for hell. He blames this creature for his loss of Ligeia. This submission to an imagined goddess is comparable to his worship of his own wife as a goddess.

With the parallels of the narrator’s love for Ligeia and Egyptian idol worship established, the occurrences after her death continue down these same paths. The belief of the divine and the afterlife was ingrained in Ancient Egyptian culture. After Ligeia’s death, the narrator never stops thinking about her and calls out her name to conjure up her image. She becomes a god-like figure and, unbeknownst to him, his continued worship is necessary for her rebirth. He chants for her; “I would call aloud upon her name” and wishes her back from the dead so he “could restore her to the pathway she had abandoned…ah could it be forever?” This calling of her name is similar to religious chanting.

The narrator’s worship, even after her death, results in both an internal and an external shrine for Ligeia. He tells of his internalized love “when Ligeia’s beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine.” The narrator remarries and actually builds Ligeia a physical shrine. He believes this bridal chamber containing religious and ritualistic artifacts is for him and his new wife, Rowena. The room’s ominous descriptions, “huge censer”, “gigantic sarcophagi”, “grotesque specimens”, “bedlam patterns”, and “ghastly forms” invoke dread and horror. The tapestry of “arabesque”/ Egyptian figures having sex draped over the floor, ottomans, bed, canopy and curtains, is comparable to hieroglyphics. These figures portray the physical act necessary for birth. Ligeia coming in and out of life in Rowena’s body at timed intervals is comparable to a common birth. The sarcophagi were stone tombs used by the Egyptians to place their mummified dead. Rowena’s enshroudment in linen is similar to the Egyptian wrapping of the body. When Rowena falls ill, the narrator still only thinks of Ligeia, his “one only and supremely beloved.” He has provided all the necessary tools, complete with a human vessel, to allow Ligeia to be reborn.

All of the unconscious preparations by the narrator for Ligeia’s rebirth are presented by him as acts from a marriage of reciprocated love. The fact that we only hear Ligeia speak through the narrator leaves reason to believe he may have exaggerated her love for him. His obsession for her may have produced an imagined equally intense love for him in return. Ligeia herself may have exaggerated her love to ensure his devotion even on her death bed:

“…in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more that passionate salvation amounted to idolatry.”

She is not truly professing her love, but instead, begging for him to fulfill the role she needs him to play. Her portrayed fear of death shows her ability to deceive. She has done this before, hence the ancient beauty and immense knowledge, so she knows what will happen. Her dramatics are merely a ploy to ensure the narrator’s love for her will continue after her death, ensuring her resurrection. Her repetition of the Joseph Glanvill quote also affirms this idea that her will is what will bring her back from the dead, not her love. Her final words were “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.” Her will and the preparations by the narrator together make the rebirth possible.

The narrator’s choice of a fair second wife to contrast the dark first wife implies dark conquering light. The resurrection of Ligeia conquers Rowena’s mortality is therefore evil and unnatural. This dark-haired imagery and the ability to be reborn are references to the Egyptians. Poe makes Ligeia a reincarnated goddess. The narrator worships her to the point of idolatry. She has lived many lives before and it is assumed that she will lead many more. She just needs to keep making men fall deeply in love with her. Ligeia is the worshipped goddess, the powerful, immortal female, just as in ancient Egypt. This story only gives us a brief glimpse into her long lifespan. It would be interesting to know if the narrator plays a recurrent role in her life or if he has a short, mortal scene. Is this an immortal love or simply an immortal goddess? The narrator will soon find out if his love is reciprocated: either she will find another lover to keep, leaving him dead, or she will find another lover to bring about his rebirth.