Furrowing all the Brows: Interpretation and the transcendent in Toni Morrison's Paradise.
In a sense, there is nothing new about this: All the participants in Morrison's novels-characters, readers, presumably Morrison, and Morrison's narrator in Jazz-engage in serious work that usually furrows their brows. Readers are familiar with Morrison's tendency to delve beyond the what into the more problematic how and why, with her nonlinear, polyvocal, multi-stranded narratives; and with such challenging techniques as jump-cutting radically from one scene and/or perspective to another and dropping unexplained tidbits that leave readers suspended, waiting for more information. But in Paradise Morrison ups the ante. From its opening sentence, "They shoot the white girl first," readers are confronted with questions whose answers are usually delayed and sometimes never revealed: Who are "they"? Do they kill or only wound the girl? Which girl is white? Who else do they shoot, wound, or kill? Why are they shooting these women? Although readers eventually learn the identities and motives of the shooters, they ar e never told which of the Convent women is white or whether any of them besides Consolata is killed, just as they are left to wonder about many other details, such as who is related to whom in Ruby, what the motto on the communal oven says, or who the mysterious men are who occasionally appear (the walking man, Dovey's Friend, and the cowboy figure who talks with Consolata).
Just as Morrison moves beyond what to why and how, so should readers. The question is not what ambiguities arise in the text, nor is it how such ambiguities can be resolved. The issue centers on the effects Morrison creates through such an ambiguous and knotty text. The general effect is to require readers to work hard, so that they, like the characters and the author, become truly part of the fictional enterprise. Whereas Morrison's previous novels have invited readers to participate, have, in Morrison's words, left "holes and spaces so the reader can come into [them]" (Tate 25), in Paradise the reader is forced to work hard simply to enter into the text. Morrison takes a great risk here, since readers may not be willing to make such a commitment, may walk away rather than study and re-study the novel. She acknowledges this risk when she admits that this novel may not be her "most affecting or enjoyable" (Rose), but her comments suggest that her emphasis is on readers' participation rather than their enjoyme nt. For example, she left unidentified the races of the Convent women because "knowing about a person's race is the least amount of information an individual has when confronting another," and therefore readers will have to move beyond that conventional, but to Morrison less significant, piece of information and will thereby have "to be as creative as possible in responding to racial codes" (OnlineHost). In leaving open the question of the Convent women's deaths, Morrison again wants to require readers' full engagement: "The part that I want the reader to decide for his or her self is whether or not they want this redemption to take place...or do they prefer the more 'realistic' approach" (OnlineHost).
At the same time that such narrative strategies place heavy interpretive demands on readers, Morrison parallels these demands by focusing the novel's content on issues of interpretation. As the text requires readers' participation by forcing them into complex acts of interpretation, the characters struggle with interpretations of their worlds and each other. All the participants' brows are furrowed in hermeneutic concentration.
The novel's plot juxtaposes two opposing sets of characters--the residents of Ruby and the Convent inhabitants--who frequently interpret each other. Each set inhabits a locale that is in varying ways an attempted utopia, a refuge, a home, a version of an earthly paradise, but also an experiment whose success has become highly problematic and therefore subject to widely diverse interpretations. For Rubyites, the Convent is an open sign, freely available for interpretation but not sufficiently known to allow any single interpretation to achieve full credibility. For some, such as Soane Morgan, it is a place for quiet talks with a long-term friend. For others, such as Arnette Fleetwood and Wisdom Poole, it is a place for temporary refuge. The most significant of these interpretations is the growing sense among some Rubyites that the Convent is not a sanctuary but a "coven" (276), a place where abortions and lesbianism and other supposedly unspeakable horrors are committed, a place that is responsible for the ten sions and disharmonies within Ruby. The resulting extermination of the Convent is an extreme interpretation.
Within Ruby, the community members constantly engage in interpreting each other. The quarrel between the Morgans and the Fleetwoods arises over how to interpret K.D.'s past behavior toward Arnette, as well as his and her future plans. Relative outsiders within the community, such as Patricia Best and Richard Misner, are especially intrigued with trying to understand the town: Patricia wants to know why there are seven holy families instead of nine in the Christmas pageant, and behind that question what social rules govern the town; and Richard ponders, "What was it about this town, these people, that enraged him?" (160) and later concludes that he will stay "among these outrageously beautiful, flawed and proud people" (306). The range of things interpreted is unlimited, including not only events and human characters but mysterious figures like the three traveling males and the lady in the yard with a basket (102), as well as the Cross, dreams, and potential signs.
In two instances, the characters' interpretations focus on the meanings of words and thereby explicitly parallel readers' acts of contemplating the novel's text. One occurs when Reverend Pulliam makes his seemingly inappropriate remarks about the vast difference between God's love and human love at the wedding service for K.D. and Arnette. What follows are many characters' reactions to and interpretations of his text, which, like readers' interpretations of the novel, are variable and tentative. The second interpreted text is the mysterious motto on the town's community Oven. Here the residents' problem is not only how to interpret the text but how to determine what the text is. Was it-and is it supposed to be--"Beware," "Be," or "We Are the Furrow"? Not only are there multiple meanings of the text--multiple signifieds--but here there are multiple texts, multiple signifiers.
The progression is significant. "Beware" is the choice of the ruling generation, in particular the powerful men of Ruby who demand strict adherence to the old order, the old ways of running things, the old stories of the treks from Louisiana to Haven and from Haven to Ruby, and the rituals (like the Oven itself) that grew up around those legendary deeds. Requiring law, order, and the preservation of the status quo, they opt for an Old Testament deity whose furrowed brow enforces an implacable regime of cosmic justice. In contrast, Reverend Misner and the younger generation need to open up the town to change, to allow room for themselves and for new ideas, so they want a more participatory, New Testament relationship with God: "Be the Furrow of His Brow." Their further shift from "Be the Furrow" to "We Are the Furrow" (298), with its replacement of the imperative by the declarative mood, implies that they are indeed engaging in this participation, that they are explicitly joining with each other, with the othe r participants in the novel, and with the cosmos in a mutually ongoing process of creativity.
The multiplicity of the mottos is also instructive. That there is not one but are several possible mottos and that there is no reliable way of determining which one is accurate, not to mention of ascertaining a single authoritative meaning of any one of them, symbolize the values Morrison places on multiplicity. If there is one text and/or one meaning, then participation in the making of that meaning comes to an end. For example, Morrison says that she asked herself over and over whether during the raid the Convent girls escaped or died, and she finally realized that it was both (Rose). Two characters tentatively reach the same position regarding the motto: Dovey Morgan realizes that "specifying it, particularizing it, nailing its meaning down, was futile" (93), and Patricia Best concludes that it probably was meant to be a "conundrum" and "to have multiple meanings" (195). Multiple, continually created meanings allow--require--both the active imagination and the furrowed brows not only of the author but also of the characters and the readers.
The major event that is subject to such open-ended interpretations by all the participants is the raid on the Convent. Morrison calls attention to this multiplicity by narrating the episode twice--first without names, with many details missing, and with the outcome uncertain. As in The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Jazz, readers thus start with the bare and disturbing facts of the novel's central, violent event. Like those three novels, this one then circles backward to provide the context for the central event, in this case sweeping broadly to incorporate the histories of the Convent women, Consolata, and the founding of Ruby, and numerous interactions between the residents of Ruby and the Convent. Having provided all these circumstances--that is, having provided material for the how and the why--Morrison retells the story of the raid, this time with names and more details. Yet, even in this second telling, when readers expect closure, Morrison still leaves open numerous questions, such as which Convent girl is s hot first and is therefore white, whether or not the four Convent girls are killed, and whether Deacon or Steward kills Consolata. The repetition of the telling suggests that, from the authorial and narratorial perspectives, there is always more than one version, more than one authenticated rendition, and already therefore more than one interpretation of the event. The doubling of the narration of the raid is thus like the proliferating mottos on the Oven: Since no single text, version, or interpretation is adequate, the novel opens up the actuality and the potentiality for multiple perspectives of author, characters, and, Morrison assumes, readers.
Once the raid has occurred and been narrated a second time, characters begin their process of endless and multiple interpretations, ranging from "self-defense" to "prophecies of doom" and including almost everything in between (290). Since Richard Misner was out of town, he, like the reader, must be filled in. Just as there were two narrations of the event, in Ruby there are already "two editions of the official story" (296), which Patricia, acting as pseudo-narrator, provides for Richard. As the qualifier "official" suggests, however, there are more than two, and indeed Patricia has her own version, which she withholds from Richard. Like the brooms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the versions increase exponentially. Not believing either official story, Richard consults Reverends Cary and Pulliam, who cannot decide on the "meaning of the ending" and cannot "formulate a credible, sermonizable account of it." Richard then consults Lone DuPres, who does fill in many of the details but who is not credible in the ey es of most Rubyites. Soon, people begin to put their own spins on the story "to make themselves look good," to the extent that "every one of the assaulting men had a different tale and their families and friends ... supported them, enhancing, recasting, inventing misinformation" (297). Although this interpretive exercise is clearly self-serving for most of the characters, it is a good thing because it humanizes them, immersing them in the participatory process, as they, like the author and readers, become active agents in the making of the novel's meanings.
Patricia's role in narrating the two official versions to Richard reinforces her earlier actions as potential compiler of the town's genealogies. In her charts and notes, she tries to determine the facts of the complex histories of Ruby's families and tries to weave these facts into her theory of the "eight-rock" families (193), a theory that she hopes will explain the town's exclusion of her family and that will account for the power relationships in Ruby. In this role, Patricia is analogous both to the author and the reader. As compiler of charts and writer of notes, she parallels the author's production of a text about the novel's characters. At the same time, her efforts are attempts to decipher what has happened and is happening, and therefore resemble the reader's role. (2) Patricia is thus a kind of model author and reader, and by showing us her active responses to the town and to the raid, Morrison implicitly opens the door for our own engagement with the text and the events.
But then Patricia burns her charts and notes. Her project to pin down the relationships among Ruby's residents and therefore to trace the purity of African blood in the eight-rock and non-eight-rock families ends in apparent failure, as she accumulates more questions than answers and concludes that she can't figure it out (197) and that she doesn't "know what to think" (207). The dead-end of her effort and her destruction of her "text" suggest that, despite her role as model for author and reader, her methods do not receive authorial privilege. Whereas Morrison's construction of her novel values openness, multiplicity, and creative interpretation, Patricia's project, albeit well-intended, is based on a quest for facts, for closed answers. She seeks the kind of deterministic answers that Morrison withholds. When Patricia wonders if she has "missed something" (203), what she has missed is the deeper, holistic, transcendent perspective that her rationalistic methodology ignores. Tempting though it is to try to p in down the facts of the families' genealogies, Patricia's abandonment of her project testifies to the inherent limitations of such an approach. Like the Oven motto which is better left in creative ambiguity and like the multiple and competing versions of the raid, an understanding of the families and power structures in Ruby cannot be determined in such a monologic, deterministic, and authoritative way.
In the two chapters immediately following Patricia's chapter, Morrison implicitly suggests an alternative interpretive approach. Like versions of the African deity Legba, who interprets the workings of the cosmos to human beings, Consolata and Lone interpret and learn in intuitive, holistic, and open-ended ways, ways that provide a deeper understanding than do Patricia's charts and notes, and ways that jibe with the implications of Morrison's own rhetoric. These two women have access to non-rational, mystical ways of knowing, interpreting, and healing, ways that allow them, like the novel itself, to transcend binary logic. Throughout the novel, and especially in her chapter, Lone understands what is really happening in Ruby, what is happening beyond the apparent or conscious level. On the night of the raid, she narrates the "private thoughts" (278) of the nine men, having long "practiced" (245) the art of raising the dead or at least of holding the living back from death, and her magic may be what spirits awa y the bodies of the four Convent women. With Lone's encouragement, Consolata is instantly able to preserve Scout Morgan's life, and later she prolongs Mary Magna's. For Lone, this requires the healer to "step in" (245) to the dying person's body and soul, while for Connie it is more like "seeing in" (247).
Lone's and Connie's actions are extensions of the act of interpreting. For by stepping in or seeing in to another person and spiritually pulling him or her back to life, Lone and Connie engage in acts of extreme self-projection, of ultimate empathy, of total transfer of the self to the other. Reviving the dead goes beyond ordinary interpretation in at least two ways. First, the practitioner is the active agent, not passively reacting but becoming a new creator, almost literally breathing new life into the dying person. Thus, the practitioner approximates both the powers of the divinity and the powers of the author who has originally breathed fictional life into the characters. Second, the practitioner transcends the rationalistic sense of interpretation as factual or theoretical knowing and instead mystically unites herself with the other person. With such complete identification with the other comes complete understanding that transcends ordinary experience. Interpretation and creation become inseparable.
Consolata also extends the novel's exploration of interpretation when she helps heal the four Convent women through her use of "templates" (263) and "loud dreaming" (264). The templates--the outlines of themselves that Connie has the women draw on the basement floor--become self-representations through which they are able to gain much-needed perspectives on themselves and each other. Getting outside their hitherto closed, self-destructive egos enables them to see themselves, to interpret themselves, and thereby to begin to cure themselves. The templates are analogous to fictional selves, doubling the self and thereby allowing each woman to "see in" to herself, to interpret herself, and thus to find a viable identity. The other ingredient of the healing process is loud dreaming, through which Connie engages the women in sharing their life-stories. In loud dreaming they not only unburden themselves of their traumatic pasts, but as each one talks, the others enter into her story, in full empathy with her, in int uitive fellowship akin to Lone's and Connie's reviving of the dead: "In spite of or because their bodies ache, they step easily into the dreamer's tale." Just as Lone steps in to a dying person's body and soul, so Connie teaches the four women to step into each other's. Each loses herself in full identification with each other, in acts of total interpretation: With Mavis "they enter the heat in the Cadillac," with Pallas "they kick their legs underwater," and with Seneca each "runs up and down the halls by day, sleeps in a ball with the lights on at night." In this mutual therapy and transcendent group interpretation, they pass beyond the boundaries of individual and other, life and death: "In loud dreaming, monologue is no different from a shriek; accusations directed to the dead and long gone are undone by murmurs of love" (264). As they do so, they heal themselves, achieving individual harmony as they acquire communal harmony. They gain self and community: "They understood and began to begin," and the chan ges are soon evident, for they have "a markedly different look," something "sociable and connecting" (265), "an adult manner" (266), a calmness, a lack of being haunted.
When Richard Misner and Anna Flood revisit the Convent weeks after the raid, they "sense" (305) a closed door and an open window. This intuitive experience parallels Lone's, Connie's, and the Convent women's versions of empathetic interpretation. Like the previous examples, in this case Richard and Anna do not interpret by constructing charts or notes. Instead, they leap beyond the ordinary senses, beyond the usual binary oppositions between the real and the magical and between life and death. They glimpse the transcendent realm where Milkman leaps in Song of Solomon, Son runs in Tar Baby, Beloved disappears in Beloved, and Wild and Golden Grey reside in Jazz. At Save-Marie's funeral, Richard repeats the spiritual passage: "But when he bowed his head and gazed at the coffin lid he saw the window in the garden, felt it beckon toward another place--neither life nor death--but there, just yonder, shaping thoughts he did not know he had" (307).
In Paradise, and especially its last four chapters, Morrison constructs an elaborate model of reading and interpreting. She creates a fictional world in which many answers are not given or are hidden so well that readers are forced to look for answers. Like Patricia, they want to fill in the missing gaps, the apparent holes and spaces in the very surface of the text. But such attempts, like Patricia's, are bound to fail, focused as they are on narrow pursuits of facts and deductions. Instead, Morrison suggests that readers use their whole selves, pass beyond the merely rational, and truly become cocreators rather than merely passive respondents by emulating Lone's and Connie's stepping in, the Convent women's loud dreaming, and Richard and Anna's sensing of mystical portals to the unknown. Readers are urged to step into the fictional world, to share in the author's breathing of life into it, to join the characters and each other in voicing their co-creations of the novel's stories and of their own stories, an d to sense and perhaps even pass through the open windows of transcendent worlds. Readers are required to "make choices," to "meet the story with a story of [their] own," to participate in "a new, at times unnervingly overt kind of dialogue with the author and with reading" (Storace 69). By making such creative interpretations, readers, like Morrison's privileged characters, open themselves up to multiple perspectives, therapeutic renewal, and endless possibilities.
These two modes of interpretation-Patricia's logical deductions and the other characters' intuitions-are versions of a dichotomy deeply rooted in Western culture. On one hand there is step-by-step, worldly thought-Plato's thinking (dianoia) (6.509), Milton's discursive reason (5.486-90), and William James's nonreligious, "intellectual" experience (200). Paul Ricoeur terms this mode "explanation" and describes it as "methodic" ("Explanation" 165), as an explication or unfolding of "the range of propositions and meanings" (Interpretation 72). In Paradise, as in the systems of these philosophers, this earth-bound form of interpretation must be supplemented with a superior, transcendent form: Plato's intelligence (noesis), Milton's intuitive reason, James's religious, "affective experience" (201). For Ricoeur, this is "understanding," "the nonmethodic moment" ("Explanation" 165), the holistic discovery of meaning. Just as stepping and seeing in and loud dreaming demonstrate this kind of intuitive knowing in the m erger of self with others, Riceour asserts that understanding requires "the transference of ourselves into another's psychic life" (Interpretation 72-73).
The history of Ruby is replete with both kinds of knowing: the methodic attempts to find a safe refuge and the careful building and protecting of that supposed haven, as well as the transcendent intuition of following the walking man. But by 1975, the older generation in Ruby-particularly the ruling men-have not only limited themselves to the first form of knowing, but they have also gutted it by forbidding all but their official interpretations. They have locked into the need to preserve the status quo, which is based on a rigid adherence to the past. Their interpretation of their history and their sacred role in that history generated their ideology of the quest for home and freedom, an ideology very similar to the Israelites' flight from Egypt and to the American Dream. In the past this ideology served them well by providing justification, myth, and ritual for the treks from Louisiana to Haven and from Haven to Ruby. On the first trek, the apparent sightings of the walking man, who resembles an Old Testame nt representative of God, gave the trekkers a sense of divine mission. The Oven originally served to unify the community in its symbolic protest against the abuses that the community's women had suffered in white people's kitchens. The Disallowing, as it came righteously to be called, justified the exclusionary dogma of Ruby and of the eight-rock families within Ruby. As Patricia Storace puts it, the Disallowing becomes "a sacred experience" in which "the disallowed become the elite disallowers" (65). Even in 1975, the legend persists that nobody ever dies in Ruby. Both groups of trekkers were bound strongly together in a tightly harmonious community, a fusion that was necessary for surviving the treks and the building of each new town.
But the formerly useful ideology has become calcified by 1975. It has become a means of repressing meaningful change, a club by which the ruling generation of men silences the views of the new generation and of the town's women. Seeking to possess a space and therefore find a viable place in American space and time, the town is still dispossessed, living in its past with a stagnant present and no vision of a future. The ruling men have become as narrow-minded as the whites and light-skinned blacks who excluded them and their fathers. Formerly a "fortress of integrity," the town has become "a prison" (Storace 66), the victim of Fairy DuPres' curse. "Watch out He don't deny you what you love too" (201). As a result of the New Fathers' attempts to freeze the town in the monologic ideology of the past, new divisions spring up--between men and women, between generations, and between families, not only between eight-rock and non-eight-rock families but within the privileged group as well, for example between the Mo rgans and the Fleetwoods. The rivalries among Ruby's three ministers exemplify this fragmentation. The attempt to enforce an overly rigid community harmony is not only deadening but can easily disrupt the desired harmony. Unity that is too tight only precipitates the dissolution it is designed to prevent.
Central to this rigid unity is a refusal by the ruling fathers to tolerate divergent interpretations of the town's past. The men seek to preserve the town's identity by freezing its past, allowing only their own official reading of the treks, the Disallowing, and the establishment of the town. As Storace argues, they "claim the perpetual overarching authority of the creator at the moment of creation." In this formulation, creator can be taken in the sense of author as well as divine creator, for the townsmen are convinced that their past and their single interpretation of the past have divine sanction, and, unlike Morrison, they "want to stop the life of their work at the moment of writing" (Storace 66).
As a result of such tensions, the town is ripe for a shake-up. Richard Misner, an outsider with a critical perspective on the town who thus parallels the reader's likely position, senses the trouble well before the disrupting raid: The painting of the fist on the Oven makes him think that "it was as though something valuable had been pawned and the claim ticket lost" (117). Later, with Patricia he discusses the problems the Poole family is having, sensing that it, like the town, is disintegrating: "Something's tearing that family apart." He knows that "this community used to be tight as wax" but can't figure out what is happening to it, and Patricia Best, who also takes a critical view of the town, responds that "it still is" tight but that it also is "in a crisis" (207). After the raid, Richard renders his judgments against the nine men: "They had ended up betraying it all," "their selfishness had trashed two hundred years of suffering and triumph in a moment of such pomposity and error and callousness it fr oze the mind," and "soon Ruby will be like any other country town: the young thinking of elsewhere; the old full of regret" (306).
Nevertheless, just as Morrison has stayed with this town and these men and just as she wants the reader to stay with them, Richard knows, even as he passes judgment on them, that he must stay. Yes, Ruby "was an unnecessary failure," and its people are "outrageously ... flawed and proud," but they are at the same time "outrageously beautiful" (306). The closed door that Anna senses suggests that one phase, one life, is over, but simultaneously the open window that Richard senses suggests a new chance and new life: "He saw the window in the garden, felt it beckon toward another place--neither life nor death--but there, just yonder, shaping thoughts he did not know he had" (307).
As Richard's epiphany implies, the raid resembles a fortunate fall, a necessary loosening of the repressive bindings of the town's ideology, a needed jolt from the town's complacency. The raid changes Ruby drastically ("something seismic had happened" ), leading Rubyites into healthy disarray and therapeutic soul-searching: They wonder "how could so clean and blessed a mission devour itself and become the world they had escaped?" They are "bewildered, angry, sad, frightened people" (292), but such feelings drive them toward long overdue reconsiderations of who they are and who they want to be: "The difficulties churned and entangled everybody: distribution of blame, prayers for understanding and forgiveness, arrogant self-defense, outright lies, and a host of unanswered questions that Richard Misner kept putting to them" (298). Such confused pondering is only human--and fundamentally healthy. It valorizes multiple perspectives, allows room for varying interpretations, and provides room for change and gro wth. Lone DuPres, whose intuitive knowledge is repeatedly privileged, knows that "God had given Ruby a second chance" (297). The pattern of loss and recovery is suggested earlier in the novel by three passages presumably taken from hymnals: "Something within me that banishes pain; something within me I cannot explain" (211), "I once was lost but now am found" (212), and then "Was blind but now I see" (213).
The potentially positive changes in the town are figured in the effects of the raid on Deacon Morgan. Before the tragedy he was the kind of man who would rather open his bank on time than help Sweetie Fleetwood as she wanders down the street barefoot and undressed, and he and his twin Steward epitomized the rigidly controlling ideology of the town. But after the raid he is the barefoot one, trying for the first time in his life to have an intimate conversation with a man, as he vaguely confesses to Richard Misner about his affair with Connie. More profoundly, Deacon can no longer live with his former self (he "did not like himself anymore"  and his "life was uninhabitable" ) because, as Fairy DuPres' curse implies, he has become what his value system is built to defend against: "His long remorse was at having become what the Old Fathers cursed: the kind of man who set himself up to judge, rout and even destroy the needy, the defenseless, the different" (302). Since the raid's effect on Steward is th e opposite of its effect on Deacon--Steward is "insolent and unapologetic" (299)--Deacon is now for the first time on his own, fully separate from his twin. As he tells Richard about his grandfather Zechariah's separation from his twin, he indirectly expresses his own confusion and anxiety about his and Deacon's splitting up. This unsettling, however, is positive. The near-oneness of Deacon and Steward, like the tight harmony of the town, had once been useful but had become too binding. Deacon's need to grow on his own beyond his bond with Steward symbolizes the town's need to grow beyond its confining bond with its own legend. Deacon alludes to this need when he tells Misner, "I got a long way to go, Reverend" (303), with the emphasis on I and with the implication that his life's journey is far from complete, far from being confined in the past or in one ideological position. Like the town, Deacon moves from a restrictive fusion to a liberating fragmentation.
The story of the Convent is in some ways the reverse--from chaotic fragmentation to a liberating fusion. Its history indicates its extreme diversity--first an embezzler's pornographic mansion, then a Catholic school for Indian girls, last an anarchic commune for wandering young women. Each young woman is a case study in familial and psychological disorientation, and together they are radically heterogeneous and cacophonic. Consolata is also internally fragmented, unsure after the death of Mary Magnus why she is alive. But the five women move gradually and then rapidly toward individual and communal harmony. Then Connie's therapy miraculously centers each woman, brings their community together, and revitalizes Connie herself, who comes to think of herself in terms of her beloved Mary Magnus and who narrates Edenic visions of her childhood with her mother, Piedade. This individual and collective movement toward harmony by the five women is then transmuted into their mystical transcendence beyond life and death, as Connie seems to blend into her idyllic visions and each of the four Convent women is spiritually reunited with her family.
That the town is given a second chance and that the five Convent women transcend death suggests the presence of divine love in this novel. God's love of human beings and human beings' love of God constitute additional complex layers of the novel. The latter is problematic, for the sense of divine mission both enabled the bands of African Americans to find their way westward to new homes in Haven and Ruby and eventually became part of the exclusionary rigidity of their community. (3) The movement is from the Old Fathers, who, like Old Testament patriarchs, are full of religious zeal and insist on God's justice, to the New Testament overtones of a merciful God, suggested by Mary Magnus, Consolata, and her evocations of Piedade. (4) Similarly, the sequence of mysterious men--the walking man who leads the pioneers to Haven, Dovey Morgan's Friend, and the cowboy figure who appears in Connie's kitchen--suggest a movement from Old Testament visionary guide to New Testament comforter. The walking man reinforces the O ld Fathers' sense of their divine mission, and, like their sense of God, he is aloof, mysterious, and powerful; in contrast, the other two male figures suggest the immanent presence of God on earth--that is, of Christ--as they speak, listen, and empathize on intimate terms with Dovey and Connie.
The presence of this series of semi-divine men is reinforced by similarly ambiguous presences of other figures who blur the usual boundary between human and divine. Soane Morgan has a vision of "a lady in the yard smiling" and holding an empty basket (102), which she interprets as a sign of her forthcoming miscarriage; Richard Misner feels that Jesus is literally walking with him as he struggles to understand Ruby (161); and Mavis is frequently consoled by an unnamed "night visitor" (260). Similar mysterious figures also blur the usual boundary between the living and the dead, as in the imagined presence of Mavis' dead daughters, Merle and Pearl (258); Patricia's communion with her dead mother (197-202); and Connie's evocations of her mother, Piedade (263-64, 284-85, 318). Together, the presences of these figures and the characters' beliefs in them suggest that the fictional reality in this novel extends beyond the material and the perceived. Ordinary methods of knowing and interpreting--exemplified by Patric ia's charts and notes--will not suffice, but instead deeper, more transcendent, more holistic kinds of knowing and interpreting, as modeled by Lone and Consolata, are required.
If human beings' love of God is shown to be problematic, God's love of human beings is unqualified. The nine men who raid the Convent are blamed but not condemned, and Ruby is given new life. The Convent girls are transported beyond the life-death dichotomy into a kind of living death reminiscent of African religions. Like Pilate in Song of Solomon, they are Christ figures, who must die so that others may soar. The human characters in Paradise move in the direction of appreciating such divine love. Both Ruby and the Convent originally are attempts to find and found a sanctuary, a refuge, and thus a true home, and nearly all the characters can be said to be in search of home. Like European migrants to America and like African Americans ever since their uprooting from Africa, the residents of Ruby and the Convent have been spatially and temporally dispossessed. Through their new prophets--Richard Misner and Consolata--they begin to imagine a spiritual home that transcends their efforts to establish material hom es.
Richard describes such a home to Patricia:
But can't you even imagine what it must feel like to have a true home? I don't mean heaven. I mean a real earthly home. Not some fortress you bought and built up and have to keep everybody locked in or out. A real home. Not some place you went to and invaded and slaughtered people to get. Not some place you claimed, snatched because you got the guns. Not some place you stole from the people living there, but your own home, where if you go back past your great-great-grandparents, past theirs, and theirs, past the whole of Western history, past the beginning of organized knowledge, past pyramids and poison bows, on back to when rain was new, before plants forgot they could sing and birds thought they were fish, back when God said Good! Good!-there, right there where you know your own people were born and lived and died. Imagine that, Pat. That place. Who was God talking to if not to my people living in my home? (213).
This Edenic vision unravels the historical dimensions of the making of the American Dream and of the establishment of Ruby within, or at least alongside, the ideological parameters of that dream. Instead of a materialistic, acquisitive pursuit of a worldly home, it offers the transcendent vision of a spiritual home, a home virtually in God's presence, within God's unadulterated love.
Richard's vision is echoed by Consolata's idealized memories of her childhood life with her mother. Her home is an earthly paradise of harmony among animals and human beings (where "fish the color of plums swam alongside children" ), of the immanence of the divine ("Of scented cathedrals made of gold where gods and goddesses sat in the pews with the congregation" [263-64]), of gems (263-64, 284,318) and sparkling colors (263-64, 284-85, 318), and above all of songs that soothe and transport the spirit (285, 318). This earthly paradise, like God's love, transcends ordinary experience and ordinary consciousness and transports the soul into a true home: "There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade's song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home-the ease of coming back to love begun" (318).
By evoking such images of paradise on-or just beyond the horizon of-earth, Morrison moves well beyond Beloved and Jazz. In Beloved, the characters have to remember the past, albeit carefully lest the memories overwhelm them, in order to be free of it. The novel is "not a story to pass on" (274) in the double sense that it cannot be avoided (passed on) but also then, once acknowledged, need not be obsessed over (passed on). In Jazz, the characters must remember the past so that they are not bound in debilitating repetitions of it. Like that novel's narrator, characters and readers must move beyond accusations, longing, and self-pity to the loving embrace of acceptance. And in Paradise, the characters must replace their dogmatic reverence for a monologic interpretation of the past with a more balanced and flexible combination of respect for the past and the wisdom to grow beyond that past.
Similarly, Morrison asks readers to move beyond what she has asked of them before. In Beloved, readers watch as Sethe, Paul D, Beloved, and Denver grapple with their traumas and as Beloved comes from and disappears into the liminal zone. The watching is difficult, often painful, and for most readers intensely moving. In Jazz, readers similarly watch Joe and Violet as they slowly work through their processes of escaping the traps of their pasts, but at the same time readers are confronted by the strange presence and ambivalent rhetoric of the narrator. This often intrusive yet sometimes invisible presence is both overly authoritative and unpredictably unreliable, forcing readers to confront more actively their responses, assumptions, and values. Unlike the final words of Beloved, which constitute an assertion about the story from a presumably authorial perspective, Jazz ends with a more unsettling imperative, "make me, remake me" (229) which calls into question readers' conventional and comfortable position ou tside the text, as watcher and possible interpreter, and demands that they replace that relatively easy distance with direct co-creation of the text.
In Paradise, Morrison demands even more of her readers. Expanding on that closing injunction in Jazz, she requires them to grapple not merely with a curious narrator who asks them to join in making the text but with an entire book that is curious and to some extent inscrutable, and therefore requiring readers' full creative contributions. Readers are thrown into the midst of a work in continual process, a work with many versions and endless interpretative possibilities. Presumably, readers therefore will avoid the mistakes of the men of Ruby, the mistakes of accepting one authoritarian viewpoint, of rigidly holding onto one view of history, one dogmatic interpretation. As author, Morrison wants to avoid being authoritarian. So she issues her call, but it is a call that initiates, that opens rather than closes, dialogue, that requires re-reading and interactive discussion, that generates multiple responses. Readers cannot help but respond, and they will respond in their wonderful diversity; they will witness t he mysteries of the text, and, like true witnesses, they will then testify; and they will join Morrison and each other in "shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in Paradise" (318).
This endless work is the ongoing re-creations of human beings individually and collectively. For Americans there is the danger that this process will become calcified, frozen in the dogma of America's founding dream. Like the trekkers in Morrison's novel, Americans, Morrison implies, must avoid the complacencies and the rigidities of self-righteousness and instead must remain open to ongoing renewal, flexibility, and openness to their inherent multiplicity. Like the residents of Ruby, Americans need to balance a sense of community with a healthy respect for diversity. At the end of the twentieth century, Morrison's novel reflects such concerns, opens them up for creative interpretations, and requires all participants to join in the collective enterprise of re-making the novel, ourselves, and our community.
Philip Page is Professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino. His recent books include Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels and Reclaiming Community in Contemporary African-American Fiction.
(1.) In an open discussion of the novel at the May 1998 meeting of the American Literature Association, the 40-50 participants shared their frustrations in understanding this novel.
(2.) Indeed, in conversations I have had with readers of this novel, many have mentioned having the impulse to construct genealogical charts of the Ruby families.
(3.) Morrison has said that Paradise completes her trilogy of novels on love and its excesses: Beloved and mother's love for her children, Jazz and romantic love, and this novel and the love of God (Rose).
(4.) In Spanish, piedad means 'piety' or 'pity.'
Eder, Richard. "Paradise Lost." Rev, of Paradise. Los Angeles Times Book Review 1 Jan. 1998:2.
James, William. The Works of William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
Menand, Louis. "The War Between Men and Women." Rev, of Paradise. New Yorker 12 Jan. 1998: 78-79.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Odyssey. 1957.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: New American Library, 1987.
--. Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.
--. Paradise. New York: Knopf, 1998.
OnlineHost. Interview with Toni Morrison. America Online 22 Feb. 1998.
Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. New York: Oxford UP, 1945.
Ricoeur, Paul. "Explanation and Understanding." The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work. Ed. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart. Boston: Beacon, 1976. 149-66.
--. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Theory of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1976.
Rose, Charlie. Interview with Toni Morrison. 20 Jan. 1998.
Shields, Carol. "Heaven on Earth." Rev. of Paradise. Washington Post Guardian Weekly 25 Jan. 1998:16.
Storace, Patricia. "The Scripture of Utopia." Rev. of Paradise. New York Review of Books 11 June 1998: 64-69.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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