In the end is the beginning: Toni Morrison's post-modern, post-ethical vision of paradise.
Among contemporary moral theorists, the notion that we have entered a strange new ethico-spiritual epoch seems to have become a theoretical given. Alastair MacIntyre refers to our contemporary milieu as "after virtue," a time in which "the language and the appearances of morality persist, even though the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed" (After Virtue 5). Though the title of his book (Before Ethics) might suggest otherwise, Adriaan Peperzak advances a strikingly similar thesis: "The once generally recognized source and support of all 'values' has been shaken by the overwhelming plurality of alternative possibilities. Because 'God' is dead, relativism and skepticism are inescapable" (9). According to John D. Caputo, life for the contemporary individual intent upon behaving morally is, quite simply, a disaster: "To suffer a disaster is to lose one's star (dis-astrum), to be cut loose from one's lucky or guiding light" (Against Ethics 6), so that "the ground on which I stand tends to shift, [so] that something that hitherto seemed to me firm and fixed is given to drift" (3). Also invoking an astronomical image, Richard J. Bernstein appropriates Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin's image of the "constellation" as a metaphor for our contemporary ethico-spiritual situation: "a constellation is a 'juxtaposed rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle; What is 'new' about this constellation is the growing awareness of the depth of radical instabilities. We have to learn to think and act in the 'in-betweeN interstices of forced reconciliations and radical dispersion" (8-9). (These are only four voices of a much larger chorus proclaiming the end of one ethico-spiritual epoch and the beginning of another. Other voices range from eminent Continental philosophers Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas to pragmatic postmodernists like Richard Rorty to contemporary Christian and Jewish theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and Peter Ochs.)
Despite their quite different proposals for navigating the transition (or, in Maclntyre's case, avoiding it), each recognizes the startling disparities between the old, seemingly stable moralities, which have been fragmented and destroyed and from which we have consequently been "cut loose;' and the radically unstable and overwhelming plurality of alternative possibilities. Whether, then, we refer to our new epoch as after virtue or before ethics, whether we wander aimlessly under a starless sky or gaze with wonder upon a new constellation, we find ourselves the inhabitants of a strange new ethico-spiritual landscape, ill-equipped and ill-prepared to meet the unfamiliar challenges we face; perhaps disillusioned by our loss of the world we thought we knew and disoriented in a world we never imagined; anxious, agitated, perhaps even appalled, but nonetheless called upon to think clearly and act responsibly.
As both Caputo and Bernstein suggest, what is startling about learning to think and act in this strange new ethico-spiritual world is the newness of each encounter, each experience, each interaction. When the ground beneath us begins to shift; when we are cut loose from our guiding star; when the source and support of all values is suddenly shaken; when we long for guidance, direction, and answers to our deepest questions but must content ourselves with "forced reconciliations and radical dispersion;' we find our long-established customs questioned, our cherished values challenged, and we tend to respond in one of two ways. We can, on one hand, recoil in frustration and fear, retreating to the rubble of the past, sifting the ruins, and trying to resuscitate and reanimate a dying way of life. In the theoretical realm, we witness this reaction when theorists like Alastair Maclntyre sound the alarm that the barbarians are coming and beat a hasty retreat to the city walls. "What matters at this stage;' Maclntyre insists,
is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. (263)
In the political realm, one need look no further than the radical religious right's recent revival (or hostile takeover?) of "family values" to discern the same movement backwards proposed by Maclntyre. On the other hand, rather than retreating to the known, we may choose to accept the radical uncertainty of this new place and time, embracing the challenge of finding fruitful ways of being and behaving in this unfamiliar new world, fixing our eyes firmly on the horizon of a perhaps frightening but potentially fertile future. Embracing the challenges of living morally in this new milieu means developing a readiness to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, and differences of opinion, navigating and negotiating rather than simply negating such differences by refusing to play if we can't make the rules. It may be not unlike undertaking a long journey without first consulting a map or programming our GPS: we are almost certain to find ourselves lost from time to time, maybe even perpetually so, but we are just as certain to enjoy unexpected encounters that enrich rather than impoverish our experience of living and being in the world, opening up vast vistas, whole new horizons, rather than circumscribing our vision within the safety of the same.
Toni Morrison's 1997 novel Paradise dramatizes our ethico-spiritual predicament and explores the two very different responses detailed above through the two communities of Ruby, Oklahoma, and the nearby former Convent-turned-boarding house. The novel chronicles the struggles of three generations of former slaves and their descendants to establish and maintain a haven from the violence, uncertainty, confusion, and corruption of the outside world. Though the initial result, a community appropriately named Haven, is a tight-knit community of wayfarers determined to stick together and care for one another at all costs, the difficulty and drudgery of daily life in the rural South of the Depression era and the promise of greater opportunities in larger cities eventually lead to the dissolution of the original community. When the sons of the Old Fathers return from their service in World War II, they are appalled by the atrophy of their former Haven, "whose once proud streets were weed-choked, monitored now by eighteen stubborn people wondering how they could get to the Post office where there might be a letter from long gone grandchildren" (17). But the veterans are also terrified at the prospect of civilian life in the broader world, where "every cluster of whitemen looked like a posse" and "being alone was being dead" (16). So rather than face the uncertainty and danger of life in the white world or witness the slow dissipation of their beloved Haven, the self-appointed patriarchs determine to "do it again" (6), to replicate the Old Fathers' creation of a socio-religious utopia isolated and insulated from the dangerous outside world. Hence, one August morning before first light, "fifteen families moved out of Haven--headed not for Muskogee or California as some had, or Saint Louis, Houston, Langston or Chicago but deeper into Oklahoma, as far as they could climb from the grovel contaminating the town their grandfathers had made" (16).
In order to prevent the "grovel" from contaminating their community, the patriarchs fix and enforce--even more aggressively than the Old Fathers--the rules, norms, and conventions governing social interactions and political discourse within Ruby (the new "Haven") and rigidly police the boundaries separating and protecting them from the outside world. But the arrival, one by one, of a group of spiritually bruised and physically battered women at the nearby former Convent and the spontaneous social interactions, sexual liaisons, and personal friendships--some short-lived, some lasting--that spring up between various members of Ruby and the Convent women eventually force the patriarchs to recognize the porousness of their well-policed boundaries and their inability to keep "in" their women and children and keep "out" the unwelcome outside world. Though the very proximity of the Convent (and its new residents) makes the patriarchs uncomfortable, the Convent women initially pose little threat to the socio-political status quo in Ruby because their interactions with each other and the outside world simply reflect and reinforce the exclusionary tendencies modeled by the patriarchs. Upon Grace's unexpected and unwelcome arrival at the Convent, for instance, Mavis protests, "I've been here almost three years, and this house is where we are. Us. Not her" (77). For years the women bicker, squabble, brawl, and engage in self-demeaning and self-destructive behaviors, and, as long as they do so, they are merely an undesirable nuisance the patriarchs manage to tolerate, though just barely. But the women's eventual establishment of a new kind of community, based on the healing of old wounds and the nurturing of new forms of togetherness, provides an alternative socio-political vision and hints at the existence of multiple ways of living and being together with others. The suggestion that there might be other equally valid forms of socio-political praxis, that, of all things, a community of women--which is to say not a convent but a "coven" (276)--might be able to survive and indeed thrive without masculine interference or guidance, without rules, norms, and conventions, enrages the patriarchs and steels their determination to get rid of the women in order "To make sure it never happens again. That nothing inside or out rots the one all-black town worth the pain" (5).
Perhaps not surprisingly, some critics have assessed the novel's treatment of gender as overly simplistic and formulaic. In her review for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani criticizes the Convent women as "two-dimensional" and dismisses the men of Ruby as one-dimensional (1). Similarly, Geoffrey Bent complains that the novel is too "schematic ... Virtue and vice seem to have been rigorously sorted along the convenient divide of gender; all the women are good, and all the men are bad" (1). Such a "schematic;' however, may result from a superficial reading of the novel and not the novel itself. One male character who defies the good/bad schema and can certainly not be dismissed as one-dimensional is Reverend Richard Misner, an outsider and newcomer who stands outside of and thus is able to critique socio-political praxis in Ruby and agitate for change. Neither simply good nor simply bad, Misner seems complicated in a rather human way as he labors throughout the novel to understand the tensions tearing asunder the town's social fabric, even as he acknowledges his part in increasing those tensions by inspiring and encouraging the young people to question the status quo and call for change. Even after being marginalized and excluded by the patriarchs, even after the cataclysmic events at the Convent, Misner decides to stay in Ruby, "because Deek Morgan had sought him out for a confession of sorts, but also because there was no better battle to fight, no better place to be than among these outrageously beautiful, flawed and proud people" (306). One might also point to the men and boys, among them Deacon Morgan, one of the patriarchs, who refuse to go along with the "official version" of events at the Convent as male characters who eventually transcend the good/bad schema. But, more importantly, reading the novel schematically as a battle--Morrison's working title for the novel was, admittedly, War (Mulrine 1)--between "good" women and "bad" men misses the larger point of the novel and obscures the deeper lesson we might draw from it. For the crucial battle in the novel takes place not along "the convenient divide of gender" but along the conflicted divide between competing conceptions of what it means to live and be with. one another respectfully and responsibly. This article seeks to examine the two competing conceptions of ethico-spiritual praxis at play in the novel, identify the lessons we might draw from their collision and the disastrous consequences of that collision, and suggest ways in which we might bring those lessons to bear on our own ethico-spiritual predicament.
The World "Out There" and the Politics of Purity
Returning from World War II, the patriarchs gaze with horror on the dissolution and dissipation of the only socio-religio-political world order they have ever "known:
The [Morgan] twins stared at their dwindling postwar future and it was not hard to persuade other home boys to repeat what the Old Fathers had done in 1890. Ten generations had known what lay Out "[here: space, once beckoning and free, became unmonitored and seething; became a void where random and organized evil erupted when and where it chose--behind any standing tree, behind the door of any house, humble or grand. Out There where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled; where congregations carried arms to church and ropes coiled in every saddle. (16)
To the Morgans, and the other men returning from the war, the world "Out There" represents commotion, confusion, chaos. "Out There" is a "void:' Space is "unmonitored and seething." Evil "erupts" unexpectedly, uncontrollably. The world "Out There" is a world of uncertainty and unpredictability. The patriarchs recoil (perhaps understandably) from that world and retreat to the familiar, seeking to establish an ordered and stable social hierarchy in which they and their women and children will be safe, a self-contained world in which rules and regulations are clearly articulated and consistently enforced and deviations from established social norms are dealt with swiftly and severely. If the world "Out There" is unpredictable and uncontrollable, then, the world "In Here;' insist the patriarchs, must be in every respect predictable and, most importantly, firmly within their control. (It must be acknowledged that the patriarchs' reaction to the white world "Out There" seems to be largely justified given their fathers' and grandfathers' experiences. "Ten generations" have known what lay "Out There;' after all. My purpose here [and Morrison's I believe] is not to castigate the patriarchs for their desire to protect themselves and their families but to critique the manner in which they go about it, tyrannizing others, as have other separatist groups, most notoriously the Puritans, even as they cry out against others' tyrannizing them.)
Thus, the "blood rule" (199), an unwritten but nonetheless determinative force in maintaining the community's genetic purity and social identity. According to this rule, no one is allowed to marry lighter-skinned blacks (not to mention members of other ethno-racial groups) from outside the community; those who do so are either ruined, as is Menus Jury, or forever shunned, as are Roger Best and his daughter Patricia. After his stint in Vietnam, Menus Jury returns to Ruby with a young light-skinned bride and incurs the wrath of the patriarchs. In her unofficial history of the community, Patricia Best recounts how the patriarchs forced Menus "to give back or return the woman he brought home to marry. 2he pretty sandy-haired girl from Virginia. Menus lost (or was forced to give up) the house he'd bought for her and hadn't been sober since" (195). Publicly, the patriarchs accredit Menus' drunkenness to his experiences in Vietnam, but, as Patricia indicates and the patriarchs themselves know, Menus' drunkenness is merely his attempt to drown his desperate but hopeless love for the girl he has abandoned and to blunt the pangs of regret he feels for having stayed on in Ruby, allowing the patriarchs to fix his future within their rigid prescriptions of racial purity and social conformity. Patricia recognizes in Menus' eyes "love in its desperate state" (195) because she has also seen it in her father's eyes. Like Menus, Roger Best brings into the community a light-skinned girl to be his wife, but, unlike Menus, Roger calls into question the patriarchs' presumed authority, violating the blood rule, thus openly defying the patriarchs' prohibitions. Patricia notes that until the day her light-skinned mother died, the patriarchs looked down on her, just as they continue to despise Roger "for marrying a wife with no last name, a wife without people, a wife of sunlight skin, a wife of racial tampering" (197).
On the abstract-symbolic level, the presence of lighter-skinned blacks in Ruby insults the memory of the patriarchs' forefathers, whose sons and daughters were not deemed worthy of marriage, or even friendship, by the lighter-skinned blacks in Fairly, Oklahoma, who wounded the Old Fathers and, by extension, their male descendants "in ways too confounding for language: first by excluding them, then by offering them staples to exist in that very exclusion" (189), solely because of their dark, "Blue-black" (193) skin. In her genealogical record, Patricia identifies the founding families of Ruby with an "8-R, an abbreviation for eight-rock, a deep level of darkness in the coal mines, a profound blackness" (193), which serves as the sign of the genetic purity of their blood and proof against the slightest degree of racial tampering, The rejection of the Old Fathers in Fairly--memorialized as "the Disallowing" (189)--means that "the sign of racial purity they had taken for granted ha[d] become a stain" (194). The reconstitution of that "stain" as the badge of their suffering transformed the Old Fathers from merely a rag-tag bunch of wanderers into "a tight band of wayfarers bound by the enormity of what had happened to them" (189). And in spite of Patricia's assertion that both the original dream and the memory of the Disallowing should have dissolved along with the original Haven, both the dream and the Disallowing are burned deep into the consciousnesses of the patriarchs: "So they did it again. And just as the original wayfarers never sought another colored townsite after being cold-shouldered at the first, this generation joined no organization, fought no civil battle. They consolidated the 8-rock blood and, haughty as ever, moved farther west" (194). The consolidation of the 8-rock blood forms the basis of the patriarchs' politics of purity, which governs everything in the community from social discourse to sexual intercourse and from bank transactions to church interactions.
On the more political-pragmatic level, the presence of lighter-skinned blacks within Ruby's physical parameters paves the way for the "miscegenation" of the community's genetic homogeneity and, eventually, the patriarchs fear, the disruption of its socio-political harmony. Like her mother and then her own daughter Billie Delia, Patricia Best is the very embodiment of the patriarchs' fears. Her marriage to Billy Cato, a descendent of one of the original 8-Rock families, legitimizes her status within the normative bounds of the patriarchs' politics of purity, even while her light skin forever links her to her father's transgressive marriage to a woman who "looked like a cracker and was bound to have cracker-looking children like me ... although I married Billy Cato ... I passed the skin on to my daughter" (196). Hence, Patricia's light skin signals "the first visible glitch" (196) in the patriarchs' program to annul difference and erase all traces of genetic and racial heterogeneity within their community. As such it represents an open threat to their attempts to fix and enforce not only the "blood rule" but other rules and norms designed both to protect and to keep in their proper places the women and young people of the community.
The patriarchs' use of words such as "rot" (5), "grovel" (16), and "contaminating" (16) to characterize those outside their own community indicates the depth at which the politics of purity operates in their rhetoric and socio-political praxis. Having witnessed the dissolution and dissipation of their earlier Haven, as well as all the other all-black towns they once visited with their fathers and grandfathers, the patriarchs believe they have finally discovered "how to protect a town" (16) against disorder, deception, and drift. In a parody of the "faith, hope, and charity" passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Consolata dubs these "The three d's that paved the road to perdition, and the greatest of these was drift" (222). Of course, "drift" is the very word Caputo uses to characterize our own contemporary ethico-spiritual condition: cut loose from our lucky or guiding light, what once seemed to us "firm and fixed" is now "given to drift" Acutely aware of the dire effect of drift in the dissolution of Haven, the patriarchs determine not to allow it a foothold in Ruby, and they believe that their best defense against it lies in the promotion (and, when necessary, the imposition) of purity in every facet of their individual and communal lives. It is "the imposition of an ideal of purity," argues Cynthia Ozick, which lies at the heart of all utopias (political, religious, social): "Masked as inspiration, it programs civic conformity to a prescribed definition of virtue; it demands compliance; it seeks ruthless perfectionism. A utopian society, even when it pledges the abolition of tyranny, is tyranny's dollhouse" because the ideal of purity always results in the violent restriction and prohibition of heterogeneity, creativity, and difference (Ozick 1).
Just as the blood rule seeks to protect Ruby's purity by prohibiting genetic heterogeneity and by effacing and, when possible, erasing indicators of difference, the patriarchs' reification of the Old Fathers' original vision as the only vision for the future seeks to anticipate and avoid drift and preclude change. Hence, when the young people attempt to update and revitalize the community's motto and orientation to the outside world, they pose an even more blatant threat to the patriarchs than Patricia's light skin. Whereas the threat of racial miscegenation is subtle, tacit, subversive, the young people's challenge to rename the communal Oven and revise the iron words nailed to its mouth are blatant, vocal, brazen. "Revealed" to Miss Esther in a vision and formed, shaped, and sealed in place by Zechariah Morgan, the words--"The Furrow of His Brow"--solemnly warn both those who originally refused to associate with the Old Fathers and those--inside and outside Ruby--who would question the legitimacy of the present political order. Considering the words' poetic power, Patricia recognizes they are not just a rule but a conundrum warning both the true believers and those who originally disallowed them: "It must have taken him [Zechariah] months to think up those words--just so--to have multiple meanings: to appear stern, urging obedience to God, but slyly not identifying the understood proper noun or specifying what the Furrow might cause to happen or to whom" (195). The powerful presence of these words in the community monumentalizes the founding of the original Haven in a quite literal way and buttresses patriarchal hegemony within the community. Even the skeptical quasi-outsider Patricia Best fails to recall or recognize what the recently transplanted true outsider Richard Misner points out during the town meeting convened to "reign in" the disorderly (another of "the three d's") young people: the words on the mouth of the Oven do not read "Beware the Furrow of His Brow" but simply "The Furrow of His Brow" (86). Recognizing the slight discrepancy between the "original" motto, which is said to have actually included the "Beware;' and its present form, the young people perceive an opening for further revision and propose the substitution of an explicit "Be" for the implicit "Beware"--"Be the Furrow of His Brow"--an attempt on their part to identify themselves not just as the dead end or even the culmination of a rich tradition and heritage, but as the agents of the still unfolding future of God's justice for all black people, and not just those within their own all-black community. As Destry Beauchamp proclaims, "If we follow [God's] commandments, we'll be His voice, His retribution. As a people-" (87).
But the politics of purity in Ruby, and everywhere as Ozick reminds us, demands adherence to and not adaptation of a prescribed socio-political vision, so the patriarchs are loath to embrace any challenge or modification to their well-protected hegemony within the community, which relies chiefly on maintaining the purity of the original vision of the Old Fathers to which the patriarchs and only the patriarchs are the rightful heirs. According to Deacon Morgan, "He and Steward were truer heirs, proof of which was Ruby itself. Who, other than the rightful heirs, would have repeated exactly what Zechariah and Rector had done?" (113). For Deacon, protecting the original vision means not only maintaining the purity of the bloodlines but reiterating the Old Fathers' refusal to associate with anyone other than themselves and making sure that subsequent generations understand the importance of seclusion and obedience. So when Richard Misner suggests that the young people are respecting the Old Fathers' vision by wanting to give it new life, Deek angrily retorts, "They don't want to give it nothing. They want to kill it, change it into something they made up" (86). And when Roy Beauchamp asserts that Ruby's history belongs to the young people, too, and not just the patriarchs, Deek scolds, "Then act like it. I just told you. That Oven already has a history. It doesn't need you to fix it" (86). According to the patriarchs, no one who was not there at the founding moment has any right to interpret the significance or ultimate meaning of that founding moment. Hence, when Misner points out that there is now no "Beware" fixed to the mouth of the Oven, Reverend Pulliam forcefully interjects, "You weren't there! Esther was! And you weren't here, either, at the beginning! Esther was!" (86). The young people's urging the patriarchs to see themselves as God's instruments, God's justice, meets similar resistance, first from Reverend Pulliam ("God's justice is His alone. How you going to be His instrument if you don't do what He says. ... You have to obey him") and finally from Harper Jury: "It says 'Beware" Not 'Be" Beware means 'Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it'" (87).
Reverend Pulliam's and Harper Jury's rebukes illustrate Ozick's assertion that the politics of purity always results in the rigid restriction and repression of whatever does not adhere to a particular ideal of purity. According to the patriarchs, one can be God's instrument only by obeying God, doing what He says. And the best way for the young people to do what God says is to begin by doing what the patriarchs say. Harper's and Pulliam's rebukes are warnings to the young people to obey not only God but the patriarchs and the political status quo. On one hand, then, the patriarchs' equation of God's authority with their own seeks to disarm dissent by appealing to a higher authority (always the God-of-things-as-they-are) and to reinforce the privilege of the powerful to interpret the dictates of spiritual authority in the material realm. On the other hand, their emphasis on obedience and doing as one is told reveals the degree to which their politics of purity depends upon complete and unquestioned control, which can be accomplished only through the rigid imposition of rules and regulations. The emphasis on obedience precludes authentic dialogue concerning the meaning of Ruby's past and prohibits meaningful conversation about alternative visions for the future. As Royal Beauchamp points out at the beginning of the town meeting, "What is talk if it's not 'back'? You all just don't want us to talk at all. Any talk is 'backtalk' if you don't agree with what's being said. ... Sir" (85). First and foremost, then, the young people want to talk, to be involved in the process of casting a new communal vision. But what they want to talk about is not the past but the future. "Be the Furrow of His Brow" provides an opening through which the young people glimpse the promise of greater inclusion and wider participation in the trials and triumphs of the broader black community; it means taking upon oneself and one's community the awesome responsibility of becoming--articulating and embodying--God's justice in the human lifeworld. But to the patriarchs, participation and inclusion upset the established order of things and disturb the sociopolitical peace. The fight for justice gets messy, is difficult to predict, curb, or control once underway. And, as Lone DuPres points out, neither Deacon nor Steward "puts up with what he [can't] control" (278).
"Rules are Rules"
The patriarchs establish their "paradise" on the premise that they are escaping not only the disorderliness and danger but the corruption of the secular white world. They are the "truer heirs" of the divine message revealed to their forebears, the "Deacons" the "Stewards" God's chosen. The streets of Ruby are "Gospel-named" (125)--each day, Deacon Morgan drives his black sedan from his house down St. John Street, passing the crossing streets of Luke, Mark, and Matthew on his way to the bank (107). One of Steward Morgan's sons is named "Easter:' But in spite of the trappings of Christianity everywhere evident in their community, the patriarchs produce not what Augustine called the City of God on Earth but, in Billie Delia's words, a "prison calling itself a town" (308). The townspeople themselves, returning home from the carnage the patriarchs create at the Convent, wonder how "so clean and blessed a mission [could] devour itself and become the world they had escaped" (292). It is clear that, rather than cultivating an ethos of Christ-centered compassion, the patriarchs practice coercion and cruelty. What is less clear is why. Why descendants of "families [who] shared everything, made sure no one was short" (108), men who want nothing more than to duplicate the kind of community they so vividly remember as the original Haven, why they produce not an earthly paradise but a kind of hell on earth. Put simply, it is the patriarchs' reflexive reliance on the rules and restrictions they place on individuals' abilities to determine their own emotional, psychological, and sexual affiliations as well as their political and spiritual commitments. Fearing the chaos and confusion "Out There," the patriarchs take refuge in rigid codes of conduct against which individuals' actions and behaviors can be observed, measured, assessed, and, when aberrant, as in the case of Menus Jury, "corrected" or at least punished: publicly, pitilessly. Their emphasis on enforcing the rules is the kind of thing that prompts Caputo to make his stand against "ethics":
Ethics makes safe. It throws a net of safety under the judgments we are forced to make, the daily, hourly decisions that make up the texture of our lives. Ethics lays the foundations for principles that force people to be good; it clarifies concepts, secures judgments, provides firm guardrails along the slippery slopes of factical life. It provides principles and criteria and adjudicates hard cases. (Against Ethics 4)
In strikingly similar language, Zygmunt Bauman complains that "Conventions make life comfortable: they safeguard life in the pursuit of self-interest. It only seems, on the surface that following conventional courtesy is the instrument of togetherness. In fact, separation is the effect. We use conventions as a means for keeping aloof from one another and for insulating ourselves" (Postmodern Ethics 78). Citing Knud E. Logstrup, Bauman argues that following conventions "calls for no thought and certainly no involvement: 'No one is more thoughtless than he who makes a point of applying and realizing once-delivered directions ... Everything can be carried out very mechanically; all that is needed is purely technical calculation'" (79). And the patriarchs are nothing if not mechanical in their reflexive enforcement of the conventions they have established and insist on maintaining.
The conventions clearly prohibit marriage to lighter-skinned blacks from outside the community; hence, it does not trouble Deek, though it deeply disturbs his wife Soanne, that Menus' depression and alcoholism lead to his debauchery and the eventual foreclosure of his home, which Deek takes as a second home in town for Soanne (91-92, 107). Deek's smug self-assurance when it comes to his harsh treatment of Menus reveals the degree to which his perhaps once-keen moral impulses have been blunted by his reflexive reiteration of the rules. Deek's easy adjudication of Menus' crime and punishment is exactly what Caputo fears when he warns against our tendency simply to "invoke a rule" when encountering our ethical other: "If things turned out badly I could always blame the rule, the universal. 'I would like to help you; injustice says, 'but rules are rules.' 'I understand your situation,' injustice declares, 'but it is the principle of the thing that prevents me" 'Don't blame me, I do not make the rules. I just work here. I am just doing my job'" (More Radical Hermeneutics 180-81). It is not difficult to picture Deek placating his conscience in just such a way (in spite of the fact that he and his brother do, in fact, make as well as enforce the rules in Ruby). "We warned you not to marry outside the community" one can imagine Deek saying to Menus, "and we warned you about those light-skinned girls. Now you have to face the consequences." No doubt, Deek believes convention is an "instrument of togetherness:' By confirming the conventions, he is, in his mind, protecting the community from "the three d's." He is reinforcing the boundary between "Out There" and "In Here,' keeping the "rot" and the "grovel" from contaminating "the one all-black town worth the pain:' The conventions the Morgans and the other patriarchs have established not only make things "safe" but make it easy to adjudicate hard cases and just as easy to salve their consciences and convince themselves that they are doing just as their fathers and grandfathers would have done in such a situation. "Imagine" Steward thinks to himself, "what Big Papa or Drum Blackhorse or Juvenal DePres would think of those puppies who wanted to alter words of beaten iron" (99).
It is no surprise, then, that the story of Deek and Steward's older brother Elder's defense of a black "whore" being beaten by two white men bothers Steward (and Deek, too, one imagines) a great deal, precisely because sexual immorality--of which the "whore" is the very emblem--is against the rules: "Steward liked that story, but it unnerved him to know it was based on the defense of and prayers for a whore. He did not sympathize with the whitemen, but he could see their point, could feel the adrenaline, imagining the fist was his own" (95). It is telling that Steward identifies not with his own noble brother but with the white men, largely because Elder's spontaneous defense of the woman springs not from clearly defined conventions but from an autonomous ethical impulse to protect the powerless. How easy it would have been for Elder--a decorated black soldier just returning from the war, eager to avoid trouble and just get back home in one piece--to dismiss the woman as merely a "whore;' as Steward clearly does, and reject the claim her bleeding body makes upon him by rehearsing to himself some platitude about the "wages of sin" and the woman's just deserts. How easy it would have been for him, like the priest and the Levite in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, to dismiss the scene as none of his business and pass by on the other side of the road. Steward recognizes only the rules the woman has broken; Elder recognizes the woman's brokenness, going beyond the rules and recognizing and responding to his responsibility to address injustice, even if it means finding himself on the "wrong side" of the rules. Although Deek and Steward deeply admire their older brother, they find his behavior disturbing and disorienting because it is unpredictable, hence, uncontrollable. Bauman points out that "the self-appointed spokesmen of postulated communities" an apt description of the Morgan twins and Ruby, respectively, always want to "expropriate the individual from moral choice... [they] are wary of individual initiative ... [they] bear ill the attachments and loyalties that individuals spin on their own, in the process of spontaneous, uncontrived and non-policed intercourse" (46). The endemic insecurity of postulated communities results from the fact that, in the words of Cornelius Castoriadis, "in the deepest recesses of one's egocentric fortress a voice softly but tirelessly repeats 'our walls are made of plastic, our acropolis of papiermache"' (Bauman 46). Elder's defending the woman illustrates his ability to contextualize moral claims, discern the lesser of evils, and act accordingly, on his own, by his own lights, without referring to the "rulebook." His defending the woman, his later guilt over abandoning her when the white policemen arrive, his determination to pray for her the rest of his life, his insistence on being buried in the uniform torn by the white men and stained with his own blood--an emblem of his experience and the lessons he learns from it--all reveal his ability to discern his own moral responsibilities as more than the simple application of abstract rules to concrete situations. Deek and Steward do not possess the same moral subtlety; rather, when faced with nuanced situations demanding discernment, they simply refer back to their well-rehearsed rules, acting always to maintain, first and foremost, the conventions they have established. When he subordinates his no doubt strong disapproval of the "whore's" sexual impurity to his even stronger disgust for the white men's brutality, Elder exercises moral freedom, whereas Steward's sympathizing with the white men suggests the degree to which he has subordinated his own moral self to the legislating agency of the rules he and the other patriarchs have set in place. Within that context, it is not difficult to discern why Misner and the young people pose a threat to the patriarchs' political order. Like Deek and Steward's own noble brother, "Reverend Misner often treated fodder like table food. A man like that could encourage strange behavior; side with a teenage girl; shift ground to Fleetwood. A man like that, willing to throw money away, could give [bank] customers ideas. Make them think there was a choice about interest rates" (56). That is to say that Richard Misner is that soft but tireless voice the patriarchs can't help hearing in the deepest recesses of their egocentric fortress.
The patriarchs' anxiety about Misner's insidious influence indicates the degree to which, perhaps unconsciously, they have come to love not so much purity as power. At least their politics of purity, one could argue, springs from a misguided but nonetheless sincere desire to protect their women and children and perpetuate the Old Fathers' vision of an earthly paradise. But, as Ozick points out, even the purest utopic intentions eventually turn tyrannical. Rejecting the positive Pauline virtues of faith, hope, and love, characteristics to be cultivated in one's heart and embodied in one's actions in the world, the patriarchs picture paradise purely in terms of absence, a place devoid of disorder, deception and drift. The original Haven, after which Ruby is supposedly modeled, thrived because neighbors embodied the Pauline virtues, caring about and taking responsibility for one another:
Cotton crop ruined? The sorghum growers split their profit with the cotton growers. A barn burned? The pine sappers made sure lumber "accidentally" rolled off wagons at certain places to be picked up later that night ... The man whose hand was healing from a chopping block mistake would not get to the second clean bandage before a fresh cord was finished and stacked. Having been denied by the world in 1890 on their journey to Oklahoma, Haven residents refused each other nothing, were vigilant to any need or shortage. (108-09)
This picture of the early years of Haven resembles that of the early Christian church in Jerusalem, in which "all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need" (Acts 2:44-45). Neither picture makes much worldly sense. Selling one's goods and distributing them to every man as he has need is not a sound investment, does not provide a "good return" But both pictures represent what Caputo calls "the rule of God," in which things happen "in God's way, not the world's ... The kingdom of God is not a place but a time, the time when God rules rather than the world. The rule of God contests ... the 'powers that be" the powers that have prestige and presence and all the weightiness of being ... The reign of God challenges the rule of the men of means, the men of substance, and the pomp of this world" (The Poetics of the Impossible 472).
Ironically, the patriarchs--the proud descendants of mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who were treated like "fodder" by not only the white world but other lighter-skinned black communities as well and who learned from their mistreatment how to treat one another as Christ commanded--set themselves up not as the champions of the widow and the orphan but as the men of means, the men of Substance, the powers that be ("It says 'Beware; warns Harper Jury. "Not 'Be.' Beware means 'Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it;'" ). Rather than the "aneconomy" of the kingdom of God, Caputo's term for the odd system of accounting that demands we forgive the offending brother not seventy times but seventy times seven and rejoices more over the one lost and found than the ninety-nine, the patriarchs insist on a strict calculus of conventions and consequences. In Ruby, the clocks are set not to God's time but the patriarchs':
Everything is tightly organized and regularized ... which is the basis of all the long-range planning that goes on in the world. The time of the world is the sort of time that you can count, the time that you can count on, the sort that economics depends upon. It is regular and reliable enough for us to calculate equivalences and fair exchanges and to do a close cost analysis. (Caputo, The Poetics of the Impossible 473)
For all their worshipful respect of the Old Fathers, the patriarchs fail to understand that what made their forebearers' brief paradise possible was their willingness to live in God's time and to eschew the world's economy in favor of the aneconomy of the kingdom of God. Hence, not only do the patriarchs fail miserably to "do it again," but they "become what the Old Fathers cursed: the kind of [men] who set [themselves] up to judge, rout and even destroy the needy, the defenseless, the different" (302). After the town meeting, which Steward ends emphatically by threatening to shoot any of the young people who seek to change the motto/command on the mouth of the Oven, Steward wonders to himself if "that generation--Misner's and K.D:s--would have to be sacrificed to get to the next one. The grand- and great-grandchildren who could be trained, honed as his own father and grandfather had done for Steward's generation" (94). But it is his own generation that eventually must be "sacrificed" rejected and replaced by the next generation (too late, unfortunately, for the Convent women) because of the patriarchs' stubborn insistence on following their own manmade rules rather than cultivating a community in which compassion rules.
Postmodern Ethics, or "Where Do We Go from Here?"
In Kafka's parable "My Destination;' a master gives orders for his horse to be brought from the stables. When his orders are misunderstood, he himself retrieves the horse, saddles it, and mounts. When his servant asks "Where are you riding to, master?" the master replies, "I don't know ... only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination"
"And so you know your destination?" the servant asks.
"Yes," the master responds. "Didn't I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination."
When the servant cautions the master that he has no provisions, the master simply responds, "I need none ... the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don't get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey" (1). Kafka's parable poses numerous ironies. Though the master's status qua master is not in question, his orders are neither understood nor followed by the servant. It is, in fact, the master himself who obeys an order, a command issued, it seems, to him alone, for when the master questions the servant concerning the meaning of the bugle call he has heard, the servant "knew nothing and had heard nothing" In fact, the master walks to the stable, saddles his horse, and mounts even before hearing the bugle call. His response precedes the command. Before the "Whom shall I send?" there is the "Here am I. Send me." Without knowing where he must go, he goes. Not knowing if or when he will arrive or return, he departs. Acknowledging his own inadequacy and uncertainty, he nonetheless responds. His seemingly quixotic response unsettles the servant, whose questions and misgivings reflect our own need to know where we are going before departing; to be reasonably sure of our ability to legitimate and justify our conduct before committing ourselves; to be certain, prepared, calculating, precise; to locate ourselves and others within a matrix of predictable and socially sanctioned forms of thought and action. Translated into moral terms, this desire for preapproved forms of behavior quickly degenerates, as the patriarchs illustrate, into the dangerous equation of moral action with what Bauman calls rule-guided reason (69). The servant's misgivings suggest our own anxiousness to know exactly where we stand, to identify our actions as positively right or positively wrong and to proceed accordingly. To the conventional conformist who has drunk deeply at the well of conservatism, the master's movement away-from-here with no map, no determined destination, and no provisions, must appear irresponsible, dangerous, even mad. But perhaps the movement awayfrom-here indicates not madness but a primarily moral orientation to the world: a refusal to rely solely on social norms, rules, and conventions; a determination to reject the safety and security of the city walls and set off on a truly immense journey toward an uncertain and undeterminable future in the hopes of establishing, if only provisionally, a better social order.
Where we witness "rule-guided reason'' and "rule-sponsored duty" (Bauman 182) in the patriarchs' reliance on the traditions of the past to determine the course of the future, the young people's attempts to revise and update the words on the Oven suggest their determination to view the past only as the foundation for the future, not its foreclosure. Unlike the patriarchs, for whom "past heroism was enough of a future to live by" (161), the young people understand that "the only way to be really loyal to a tradition, that is, to keep it alive, is not to be too loyal, too reproductive; the only way to conserve a tradition is not to be a conservative" (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 79). Hence, the young people acknowledge the past only insofar as it possesses within itself the seeds for a better future; their "Be the Furrow" literally contains within it the legacy of the past but with an eye to the future. The utopia they seek cannot be realized in a particular place and time but exists only in their imaginations as the always-yet-to-be-realized future of God's always-coming justice, that is to say, in God's time, not their own. Their attempt to critique, adapt, and expand the community's original mantra indicates an attempt not to undermine Ruby's past traditions and conventions but to reinvigorate them. In essence, the young people's call for change indicates their need for new stories about themselves and their community, narratives that open a space for individuals to be at least partially self-determined, to understand themselves as both protagonists of their own stories and characters in the stories of others, and to see themselves not simply as the teleological dead end of their forefathers' accomplishments but as part of an ongoing process of becoming, an endless movement away-from-here toward we know not where. The young people's emphasis on change, growth, and adaptation and their rejection of the past in favor of the future reveals their readiness to live in what Bauman calls "an uncertainty-stricken world" (239), a world Ozick cleverly characterizes as neither utopia nor dystopia but "messtopia" What rules in messtopia, according to Ozick, "is not blood but the rollicking and mysteriously workable compact of messiness" (2). Like Kafka's "away-from-here" messtopia precludes certainty, stability, and finality in favor of uncertainty, instability and an endless questioning of the present order. Such an orientation is what Emmanuel Levinas has in mind when he advocates "a revolt for a society that is other, yet a revolt that recommences as soon as order is founded" ("Ideology and Idealism" 9). As Sweetie Fleetwood realizes, as she struggles unsuccessfully to escape the drudgery of caring for her terminally ill children under the constant scrutiny of her family and community, "The only way to change the order ... was not to do something differently, but to do a different thing" (125).
The patriarchs establish their paradise, then exclude outsiders; reinforce the "same" and stifle creativity; restrict and prohibit; emphasize rules and regulations. The young people embrace the messiness of living together with others, struggling to articulate a vision for a more livable future in spite of the absence of clear direction and moral certainty. Where the patriarchs are content to "do it again" the young people want to do a different thing. The young people's attempt to challenge the socio-political status quo in Ruby reveals their resistance to the patriarchs' resolve forever to rely on past conventions and norms in an effort to maintain at whatever cost the present order. As such, Morrison's text reveals affinities with fabulation, Marleen Barr's term for"literature whose alien ingredients are concocted bythe female imagination" (Graham 58). According to Elaine Graham, rather than relying on the incongruities of the past to disturb the complacency of the present, fabulation summons up "cognitive estrangement" in a similarly iconoclastic way by "deploying alternative futures to displace the familiar, disturbing the inevitability of the norm and restoring to legitimacy alternative perspectives silenced by hegemonic world-views" (58). Such seems to be the movement initiated by Richard Misner and adopted and embodied by the young people in their calls for attempts to envision alternative futures for themselves and their community. But where the young people merely produce "cognitive estrangement;' the women of the nearby Convent unsettle the inevitability of the norm by actually constructing and inhabiting an alternative future clearly at odds with the patriarchs' hegemonic world-view and provoking the violence the patriarchs eventually visit upon them.
As previously noted, the women initially pose little threat to the patriarchs or the status quo in Ruby because the community that gradually develops at the Convent is not notably different from Ruby (except for the obvious absence of males). Like Ruby, the Convent is a place of refuge for those who have been wounded and scarred by the world "Out There" Abandoned as a child in a government housing building by her sister, Seneca more recently has witnessed her boyfriend's (in her mind) unjust imprisonment and has herself been subjected to sexual humiliation and abuse at the hands of a wealthy woman who paid her five hundred dollars for her services then abandoned her at the bus station; Pallas has had her boyfriend stolen by her own mother and then been harried by anonymous hoodlums who ran her off the road and attempted to rape her; Gigi has been swept up in a bloody race riot in Oakland, during which she watched a young boy carrying his own blood in his hands; after unwittingly suffocating her twin babies by leaving them in the car in blazing summer heat while she shopped for groceries and fearing her husband's retribution, Mavis has stolen his Cadillac and fled; and Connie, taken as an orphaned child from the filthy slums of an unidentified Portuguese city by Mother Mary Magna, has suffered the loss of the only "mother" she has ever known and been forcefully rejected and demeaned by Deacon Morgan after Steward discovered their lengthy sexual liaison and put an abrupt end to it. Unlike the patriarchs, the Convent women do not choose but are chosen by the narratives that haunt and harass them. Tortured by their individual traumas, the women helplessly rehearse their harmful pasts, which not only refuse to become the past but instantiate themselves as the women's perpetual present. By night the women replay their experiences in the form of nightmares and visions; by day they bicker, squabble, and brawl, projecting their own pain into the world "Out There" in the hope of exorcising their inner torment.
It is Connie who breaks the cycle of violence and degradation enslaving the women in a sadistic sisterhood of suffering and pain. Communicated to the others in an esoteric dreamlike monologue, Connie's epiphany offers the women a new vision in which what has been broken and divided is reunited and healed--body and spirit, good and evil, the past and the present--in a holistic vision that embraces the complexity and depth of human experience. Mother Mary Magna's ascetic discipline has taught Connie to despise her body and value only the spirit, until she meets Deek and discovers that "My flesh is so hungry for itself it ate him" (263). When she is "rescued" a second time from her body by Mary Magna, Connie struggles once again against the flesh, until Mother dies and Connie experiences a new and deeper truth of human experience: "Hear me, listen" she instructs the women. "Never break them in two. Never put one over the other. Eve is Mary's mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve" (263). According to Connie, Eve is no more a "whore" plain and simple, than Mary is the "snow white virgin" and mother of God. Rather, together they express the complexity of female (and human) emotional, sexual, psychological, and spiritual experience, to which we do violence when we seek to separate. Connie's revision of the biblical narratives concerning Eve and Mary also indicates the flexibility and malleability of all narratives, even religious metanarratives. In contradistinction to the patriarchs, who emphasize The Narrative, even when it proves irrelevant and indeed harmful to those it is meant to serve and encourage, Connie's new spirituality reflects the young people's conviction that the stories by which we live and through which we understand ourselves can never achieve closure but instead must connect our present experiences in meaningful ways to the stories of those who have gone before and those who have yet to come in a narrative full of continuities and discontinuities, odd twists and turns, and unpredictable outcomes.
It is significant, then, that Connie does not issue a rule to the women but instead offers them a narrative, an alternative future to the ones they have known and expected, a place where
white sidewalks met the sea and fish the color of plums swam alongside children. She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look and boys using rubies for dice. Of scented cathedrals made of gold where gods and goddesses sat in the pews with the congregation. Of carnations tall as trees. Dwarfs with diamonds for teeth. Snakes aroused by poetry and bells. Then she told them of a woman named Piedade, who sang but never said a word. (264)
Connie's narrative is characterized by the easing of old tensions between "fantasy" and "reality" the blending of the natural and the supernatural, and the healing of old divisions and hostilities. In this Edenic fabulation, there are no "pagans" to convert, no infidels to expel; instead pagan gods and goddesses peacefully coexist and commune with Christian congregations. The natural world is not raw material to be manipulated and transformed into available resources for human consumption but a space in which children and other creatures play, flowers thrive, and serpents, no longer at enmity with humanity, participate in the production of beauty. It is not important that such a place exist; in fact, it is vital that it not exist, except in the imagination. For, as Caputo argues, utopia, the "just world" of our dreams, is always "structurally" to come. Citing Blanchot via Derrida, Caputo recounts the story of a Messiah who is never actually going to show up:
a Messiah whose meaning or structure is never to be here, now, in the present, so that the Messiah is always, structurally, to come. In this story, when someone identifies the Messiah one day, dressed in rags, on the outskirts of the city, he approaches the Messiah and asks, "when will you come?" For the meaning of the Messiah is always that, to be the horizon of hope and expectation, and we should never confuse the coming of the Messiah, his venue, with actual presence. (More Radical Hermeneutics 178)
It is not necessary that Connie's utopic vision make sense in any literal way or prove itself as a rational or realistic representation of our everyday world. In fact, like most religious visions, its function is blatantly to contradict and subvert our experience of the world, to offer us a fabulation of another world toward which we always strive in hope and expectation. In the "loud dreaming" (264) initiated by Connie's fabulation, we read how "the stories rose in that place. Half-tales and the never-dreamed escaped from their lips to soar high above guttering candles, shifting dust from crates and bottles. And it was never important to know who said the dream or whether it had meaning" (264). What is important is that the women begin to take control of their stories for the first time in their lives, first merely recounting then revising the stories and the women's relationships to them: "accusations directed to the dead and long gone are undone by murmurs of love" (264). On the basement floor, they create templates of their own bodies, and onto these they project their pasts, inscribing on the templates, and no longer on their own bodies, the pain and suffering they have experienced. Envisioning an alternative future in which the pain of the past no longer need determine the quality of their present relationships or the arc of the future, the women begin to change: "With Consolata in charge, like a new and revised Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst, they altered" (265).
The women's sharing opens them up to a new orientation to themselves and one another. Instead of asserting the priority of their own individual rights and egos over those of the others, the women enter into the horrors the others have experienced: <'In spite of or because their bodies ache, they step easily into the dreamer's tale" (264). With Mavis, "they enter the heat in the Cadillac, feel the smack of cold air in the Higgledy Piggledy ... They adjust the sleeping baby's head then refuse, outright refuse, what they know and drive away home" With Pallas, "they kick their legs underwater but not too hard for fear of waking fins or scales also down below." Entering Gigi's tale, "Each one blinks and gags from tear gas, moves her hand slowly to the scraped shin, the torn ligament" And together with Seneca, each of the women "Runs up and down the halls by day, sleeps in a ball with the lights on at night" praying for the return of a long-gone sister (264). This process bears remarkable affinities to Levinas' concept of"substitution" the rupture of one's identity, the changing of one's self-identical being or ego into a subject answerable for the other; for Levinas, authentic subjectivity lies in the subject's unique answerability for the other ... here and now ... its subjection, its susceptibility, its vulnerability (121). Levinas' subject is a "self" only insofar as it is uniquely capable of answering for the other, of offering even its very existence for the sake of the other. By entering the others' horrors and allowing the others to enter her own, each woman finds herself vulnerable and susceptible but eventually healed and whole. Such a process follows no prescribed rule or principle; the loud dreaming is not normative but transformative, a reorientation which opens to the women the possibility of alternative futures. Free from the over-determining stories of their pasts, the women now glimpse the possibility of a completely new and different future. It is not their particular futures that are important, but their orientation to the future as that-which-is-not-yet, that-which-is-coming, that makes possible the move away from the determinative past toward the possibility of a new world, which is neither known nor predictable, but rich in possibility.
This reorientation is most fully glimpsed with the arrival of a long-anticipated summer shower, in which the women dance and finally release the harmful memories that have haunted them and bound them to the past. For dry and dusty Oklahoma, summer showers renew hope and life. Identifying themselves with the thirsty land, the women drink from this hope and receive new life: "Gathered in the kitchen door, first they watched, then they stuck out their hands to feel. It was like lotion on their fingers so they entered it and let it pour like balm on their shaved heads and upturned faces" (283). The erotic sensation of "hot sweet rain" finally and fully cleanses the women of their ties to their pasts: "Seneca embraced and finally let go of a dark morning in state housing. Grace witnessed the successful cleansing of a white shirt that never should have been stained. Mavis moved in the shudder of rose of Sharon petals tickling her skin. Pallas, delivered of a delicate son, held him close while the rain rinsed away a scary woman on an escalator and all fear of black water" (283). Through this mystical experience, the women's minds and hearts turn from the past and toward the future that may now approach. Caputo often speaks of the future as a venir, that which is to come, but, as with Blanchot's Messiah, Caputo distinguishes between the d venir and a literal future that eventually becomes a present. The a venir is never something that will roll around if we are patient, but rather something "that is structurally and necessarily to come, always still outstanding, never present, something 'wholly other,' which is beyond what is foreseeable from the present, beyond the horizon of the 'same'" (Deconstruction in a Nutshell 42). We glimpse something of this venir in Connie's vivid fabulation. The women's moment of release is not the achievement of that Edenic vision but their opening to and welcoming of it, a rejection of the world as it has been too long and a commitment to imagine it as it could be, a world in which pain and suffering not only can be purged and healed but perhaps need no longer occur. The fact that the patriarchs murder the women immediately after the women's liberation powerfully suggests the men's fear of any unpredictable, unknown, uncontrollable future. In that respect, their violence is as much a desperate act against the future itself as against the women.
Away-From-Here: How to Live in an Uncertainty-Stricken World
Paradise begins with a clearly defined narrative--the patriarchs'--and ends with a proliferation of narratives, many (mini-) narratives. Through their appropriation of the Old Fathers' original vision, the patriarchs attempt to offer a metanarrative which explains everything anyone needs to know about how and where their community originated, how it arrived at its present form, and what its future course will be. At the end of the novel, however, the hegemony of the original vision is undermined forever. Richard Misner concludes that there are at least two "official" versions of the catastrophic events at the Convent, suggesting that even the patriarchs can no longer agree on a single, unified narrative. Even the Morgan twins themselves disagree. Defending the men's motivation for the massacre, Steward insists that "The evil is in this house [the Convent] ... Go down in that cellar and see for yourself." But Deacon shockingly contradicts Steward: "My brother is lying. This is our doing. Ours alone. And we bear the responsibility" (291). And the narrator suggests that there are actually numerous accounts circulating through the community. Hence, no one, not even the normally certain and self-righteous sermonizers Simon Cary and Senior Pulliam, seems to be able to decide on the meaning of recent events. Further compounding and complicating the confusion is the circulation of the young people's new narrative: "No longer were they calling themselves Be the Furrow of His Brow. The graffiti on the hood of the Oven now was 'We Are the Furrow of His Brow'" (298). And, symbolically, the same rain that has cleansed and exorcised the Convent women has also undermined the very foundation of the patriarchs' beloved Oven: "Rain cascading off the Oven's head meets mud speckled with grout flakes washed away from bricks. The Oven shifts, just slightly, to one side. The impacted ground on which it rests is undermined" (287). The undermining of the Oven performs at the symbolic level what the proliferation of narratives is already accomplishing at the political level, permanently compromising the patriarchs' power to dictate the community's future. Thus, after the massacre, "Bewildered, angry, sad, frightened people pile into cars, making their way back to children, livestock, fields, household chores and uncertainty" (292, my emphasis). The inclusion of uncertainty in that series of otherwise concrete daily tasks highlights the degree to which moral, spiritual, and political confusion and instability has now almost instantly become as common an aspect of individual and communal experience in Ruby as tending to the house or the fields or the children. But the removal of certainty also clears the way for the townspeople to regain a certain amount of responsibility for the decisions they make and greater freedom to determine the direction their individual and communal futures will take.
Like the characters themselves, we as readers find ourselves confronted with and confused by the proliferation of narratives at the end of the novel. Like them, we are offered competing versions of events at the Convent. We encounter not only the "official" versions circulating through the community but competing versions such as that of Billie Delia,
perhaps the only one in town who was not puzzled by where the women were or concerned about how they disappeared. She had another question: When will they return? When will they reappear, with blazing eyes, war paint and huge hands to rip up this prison calling itself a town? ... She hoped with all her heart that the women were out there, darkly burnished, biding their time, brass-metaling their nails, filing their incisors--but out there. Which is to say she hoped for a miracle. (308)
Billie Delia's fabulation subverts the official versions of events at the Convent, recasting the women not as victims but as warriors, waiting "out there" seething, violent, the very embodiment of the patriarchs' worst fears. And her hope for a miracle prepares us for the miracles we encounter in the final section of the novel, a series of vignettes in which the women, one by one, return to the scenes of their former horrors and forgive their estranged lovers, fathers, mothers, and sisters; release those they have left behind to their futures; and then continue on toward their own unspecified futures. Epistemologically and ontologically, these vignettes read against the grain of our readerly expectations. What we know is that five unarmed women are murdered by nine armed men, their remains secreted away, the evidence of the crime concealed and blurred by the official versions of the events circulated by the patriarchs and their protectors. Yet Morrison refuses to privilege that reading; instead, she offers a final vignette picturing two women resting on the shore, gazing into the distance as a ship comes to harbor: a moment of solace, but only a moment. The ship carries "crew and passengers, lost and saved, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise" (318). The concrete circumstances and setting of the novel's opening are disturbed by the indeterminacy and lack of specificity of its closing scene. The locale is undetermined and vaguely dreamlike, the characters only partially identified, the tableau richly suggestive but ultimately unrecognizable. We know simply that the peace experienced by the two women--Connie and Piedade--is not a lasting peace, for the work they were created to do is endless. Hence, we conclude the novel not with a clear sense of closure but by experiencing cognitive estrangement from our normal practices of reading and thinking, living and being. As a final fabulation, the concluding vignettes offer us one last encouragement to reject the world as we know it--a world full of fear and violence--in favor of a better world that is not yet, a better world to come, a venir. By offering no definitive version of the events at the Convent and instead putting into play numerous interpretations, numerous alternatives, Morrison discourages us from seeking the interpretation, the answer, instead encouraging us to hold in mind numerous possibilities, numerous meanings. The text itself, then, becomes an exercise in postmodern ethics, transporting us away-from-here, away from the politics of purity, and inviting us on a truly immense journey toward a world we have never known. Paradise, the text reminds us, can never be an achievement but is forever a work-in-progress, permanently under construction, a rejection of the same, a moving toward the new. Our future lies not in the establishment of a moral, social, or political haven or the faithful execution of a moral program or dutiful obedience to rules and regulations, but in constantly setting off away-from-here, imagining a better future and reaching toward it, perhaps even realizing it, and then, as Levinas insists we must, setting off once again for an even better one. This, it seems, is the endless work we, too, were created to do.
Doing that work will be always challenging, often bewildering, sometimes demoralizing. For it is not easy to toil toward a goal forever receding before us even as we redouble our efforts to reach it. It is not easy to wade through an overwhelming plurality of alternative possibilities, to wander under a starless sky over ground forever shifting under our feet. What Morrison's novel makes clear is that we must nonetheless do it, and not by doing it again, retreating to the safety of what we have known, what we have been taught, what we have seen others before us do. Rather, we must do our work in the world, in Wislawa Szymborska's formulation, with love and imagination:
There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners--and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know." (1)
Because of their ostensible Christianity, one might read Morrison's scathing portrayal of the patriarchs and their "paradise" as a critique of Christianity in general. But the success of the first Haven, the presence of Richard Misner and the young people, even Deek's metanoia, his mysterious barefoot walk through the center of town and his forming a friendship with Misner all suggest that the patriarchs' problem is not Christianity but their failure to practice it with love and imagination. Deek's turning away from his brother Steward, who continues to insist on the righteousness of the patriarchs' violent assault on the Convent and to grasp at the straws of his swiftly slipping control over the community, represents his turning from what he has known and been toward what he knows not, his first movement away-from-here toward a better self and, perhaps, a better world he will help build and sustain. When, late in the novel, he acknowledges to Misner, "I got a long way to go, Reverend" (303), he speaks for all of us. We have a long way to go before we may even get a glimpse of the people we are called to become, of the qualities we are called to embody, of the world we are called to create and sustain. Like Deek, we got a long way to go. But, along with him, we can take heart from Misner's response: "You'll make it.... No doubt" (303). We, too, will make it, Morrison seems to be saying, but only if we are willing to labor endlessly, creatively, with love and imagination at the work we were created to do down here in paradise.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Postmodern Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.
Bent, Geoffrey. "Less Than Divine: Toni Morrison's Paradise." The Southern Review 35:1 (1999): 145-49.
Bernstein, Richard J. The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity. Cambridge: MIT P, 1991.
Caputo, John D. Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
--. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham UP, 1997.
--. More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.
--. The Poetics of the Impossible. The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology. Ed. Graham Ward. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
Graham, Elaine L. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002.
Kafka, Franz. "My Destination." Online. The Kafka Project. http://www.kafka.org/index.php. June 26, 2008.
Kakutani, Michiko. '"Paradise': Worthy Women, Unredeemable Men." Rev. of Paradise, by Toni Morrison. The New York Times 6 Jan 1998. The New York Times on the Web. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/01/04/dailv/morrison/book/review/rt.html.
King James Bible. Ed. Charles Caldwell Ryrie. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
--. "Ideology and Idealism." Of God Who Comes to Mind. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1998.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame: U of Indiana P, 1984.
Mulrine, Anna. "This Side of 'Paradise.' Toni Morrison Defends Herself From Criticism of Her New Novel." U.S. News & World Report. http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/980119/archive_003034.htm. Posted 1/11/98. January 19, 1998.
Ozick, Cynthia. "Utopia, Dystopia, Messtopia!" Zoetrope: All Story. Vol. 6. No. 1. Spring 2002.
Peperzak, Adriaan. Before Ethics. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1997.
Szymborska, Wislawa. Nobel Lecture. December 7, 1996. Nobelprize.org. Internet. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1996/ szymborskalecture.html. January 23, 2009.
Johnny R Griffith
Exeter, New Hampshire
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Griffith, Johnny R.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
|Previous Article:||The Savior of Zvenigorod.|