Happy Valentine’s Day. With better forethought this blog could have been about love.
A copy of the blog below is also attached.
Obama11: Virtue Ethics and Revenge Against White America
Toni Morrison Song of Solomon
What a terrific novel. One of the best! What a privilege to write about it. What a pleasure to read a second time.
The pleasure is doubled if it proves useful to understanding Barack Obama’s world view, his governing meta-narrative, his sense of public and virtue ethics. Why not simply use his own writings, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream? In a way I am. For as I will indicate at the end of my series of blogs on Obama, the themes brought up in those volumes and directed at the American public are really being unpacked in far greater depth when the discussion goes beneath the self-conscious reflections and deliberate intentions of the coolest president to penetrate the passions, tensions and fears beneath the hopes and vision of a united America.
If The Invisible Man starts with, "I am an invisible man," Moby-Dick starts with "Call me Ishmael," the Foreword of the Song of Solomon starts with "I have long despised artists’ chatter about muses – ‘voices’ that speak to them and enable a vision, the source of which they could not name." This blog is one in several about Obama’s muses, the voices he hears and reads that touch him deeply. It is a blog about naming, humiliation and naming humiliation for what it is. Blacks had nicknames not names and got "their names the way they get everything else –the best way they can. The best way they can." The inability to properly name themselves is one of the foundations of their humiliation.
Each opening is about an identity at the core of the novel. The hero of the novel who is hibernating in a manhole in The Invisible Man is not someone who is invisible because he is conjoined with and belongs to the world of the Holy Spirit, the world of Christ’s love in contrast to the Judaic realm of appearance and the rule of law. He is invisible because he belongs to the subterranean world that is beneath both appearance and revealed truth, beneath the visibility of the earthly world and especially the invisibility of the heavenly world. From the sanctity of the invisible underworld he must become self-conscious of who he is.
Ishmael belongs to the seeing world, the world of the observer who can never understand the subterranean forces at work. Ishmael is a scientist like Adam in the Garden of Eden before woman. He can describe and discriminate in the finest detail. He is the one saved because he truly belongs on earth. In Toni Morrison’s opening, what she long despised – muses and voices – that are not visible but the source of visions – she discovers after her father dies. She discovers the invisible world that gives rise to visions and images and voices. Why? Because with her father’s death, she mourned the death of the girl in her father’s head projected on to her – interesting, capable, witty, smart, high-spirited. It was that loss she sought to recover by listening to the voices from that invisible world whether called muse, insight, inspiration, ‘the dark finger that guides,’ the bright angel. So like the invisible man, like Ishmael, she too goes on a journey to recover the muse of her father.
The novel proper begins with Robert Smith’s suicide, a man who worked as a life insurance agent and who was, therefore, always associated with death, but we have to wait until halfway through the novel to discover how close the association was for this quiet unassuming bachelor finally driven mad because he had wedded thanatos. Smith, the insurance agent who kills himself in that opening, whose suicide is revealed in the end as a Christ-like sacrifice, an act of tenderness and mercy itself towards his own people, worked for North Carolina Mutual Life, the black-owned company that married life to a condition of mutuality. Grace, called mercy by Morrison, cannot be granted by the white world, for the white world had relegated Blacks to the unseen underworld on whose inhabitants one cannot bestow mercy. But Blacks can redeem themselves but in Morrison’s world in the novel in the 1930s and 1940s and even in the 1970s when the novel appeared, they cannot yet redeem whites.
White People are unnatural. There are not natural. Bill Clinton may play at being cool, but only Blacks can be ultimately cool and touch death without anger, without fear, without any intention of achieving money or power. Mercy in the end touches and redeems the most murderous figures in the novel. Hagar bestows it on Guitar who bestows it on another for, as Guitar says, "My whole life is love," love for my people. Never again! Blacks will not be exterminated like the Pequot. So he lived life on the cutting edge wedded the terror, the very trait that attracted Milkman to be his lifelong friend. This is a book of wonders rather than a trip through a subterranean Hades that is the River Styx leading to hell.
If Morrison’s novel is a story about flight – of the insurance agent who tries to fly, of Milkman who only frees himself when he stops fleeing from Hagar, of all Black men who in desperation seek to escape the responsibilities of family, not because they do not care for those families but, ironically, out of love for them. Though like The Sense of an Ending which is explicitly about memory,about rival memories among the characters of Barnes’ novel (The Sense of an Ending starts with, "I remember"), Song of Soloman is a novel about rival memories between whites and blacks. The central thoroughfare in Southside was the officially named Mains Avenue, but it was colloquially and locally known as Doctors Street because that is where Milkman’s grandfather, the only Black doctor in town, lived. When the white city rulers insisted on restoring the official name from its local nickname, the local Black Southside residents renamed it once again as No Mercy Hospital because the street at its northern end led to the Mercy Hospital, the very hospital that denied Dr. Foster, Ruth’s father and Milkman’s grandfather, privileges and from the roof of which Smith tried to fly. The flight was witnessed by Ruth, the traumatized daughter of the only Negro doctor and her two daughters, one of whom at least had been very embarrassed by her mother’s pregnancy. Ruth then went into labour pains and became the first Black admitted into the gynaecological ward of Mercy Hospital as another Black woman wrapped in and old quilt and a knitted navy cap pulled far down on her forehead, who we later learn was her sister-in-law Pilate, sang,
O Sugarman done fly away
Sugarman done gone
Sugarman cut cross the sky
Sugarman gone home.
We are first introduced to the impertinent Guitar as a young adult who will later recall his life in Florida as a natural-born hunter and at first we will not recognize how ironic this is. For we meet him initially as a cat-eyed five year old, then as a teenager who pukes at the sight or taste of sweet desserts because he associates sweets with death and white people for it makes him remember the taste of the very sweet candy, divinity, which his father’s boss offered him when his father was sliced in two at the sawmill where he worked. Guitar was born always wondering why he could not fly and had to stay close to the ground.
His friend, nicknamed Milkman, was the youngest child of Macon and Ruth Dead, grandson of the Doctor, brother of the rose petal-making sisters, Lena (Magdalena) and (First) Corinthians, the latter much better educated for she had graduated from Bryn Mawr and travelled to France and received a liberal education that made her unfit for 80% of the useful work in the world. Instead of educating her young brother, she treated him with disdain and casual malice. When she finally took a job with the poetess Michael-Mary Graham it was as a maid where she bore the humiliation of wearing a uniform that was at least blue in exchange for a degree of independence and the assumption of some responsibility. Perhaps if she had learned to type she could have become Miss Graham’s amanuensis if she had not been sidetracked into a relationship with a distinctly lower class Porter for whom she felt only shame as she fed her hunger for male companionship and love.
Milkman was cousin to Macon’s sister’s daughter and second cousin to her granddaughter Hagar who became the love of his life and then sought to kill him. Milkman was a "peculiar" child as disinterested in the outside world as well as himself as Ishmael was in himself, but not a scientific disinterestedness, but a diachronic one rooted in time rather than a fixation on objects and things in space. Milkman was so fixated on what was behind him as if there "were no future to be had", which is how he came to pee on Lena’s dress when she came up from behind while he was peeing and surprised him.
Milkman’s disinterestedness did not save him from acute embarrassment when he first came face to face with his poor aunt, Pilate, whom he initially hated because of her reputation as ugly, dirty, and drunk, but more significantly was flooded with shame under her friendly but withering stare and her mockery of his school, his teachers and himself. By the time he was a teen he had developed a very affected strut to cover up the fact that one leg was a half inch shorter than the other. One day when he was older and both threatened and stood down his father when his father was about to beat his mother once again, it was his father who felt humiliated, but also expressed a mixture of rage at and pride in his son for asserting himself and finally standing up to him. Milkman felt shame in turn for humiliating his father and seeing his father humiliated.
Thus, Milkman never became a coherent and self-contained adult but lived and unresolved tentative existence unable to determine his own destiny and forge his own future, unable to decide whether to go forward or turn back and, if he decided, he knew the decision would be as careless, haphazard and tentative as the way his grandfather had chosen Pilate’s name. As he grew older and supposedly matured, instead of even going backward, he became infected with boredom and, "No activity seemed worth the doing, no conversation worth having." Even Hagar had become the third beer, "the one you drink because its there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?" As Guitar mocks him, "Looks like everybody’s going in the wrong direction but you, don’t it?" This is a novel not only about grace and mercy but about shame and humiliation, a novel not only of love but of serial embarrassments.
Almost all the scenes of embarrassment and humiliation are a result of unplanned and unintended accidents. Accident is not caprice. Caprice is that which you cannot predict. An accident is a product of carelessness, lack of attention, lack of focus and, in the end, a disinterestedness that was a mockery of a scientific point of view for it signalled a lack of commitment rather than a commitment to objectivity.
Though Macon Dead, Milkman’s father only lived on the thin side of evil, he enters the story as a man so filled with hatred that Ahab looks like a saint; on the other hand, Ahab in Moby-Dick was a determined and narrow focussed hater as contrasted with Milkman and Guitar who only chased their albino peacock as a bit of side play for Milkman lived only for escape "looking for whatever was light-hearted and without consequences". Macon was a slum landlord. As one family about to be evicted depicted him, "A nigger in business is a terrible thing to see." For show, Macon Dead drove a large Packard dubbed by his neighbours as Macon Dead’s hearse.
Macon hated his wife, Ruth, the doctor’s hapless, insubstantial, shadowy and vaporous daughter who was blessed with "guileless inefficiency" and whose only mooring was a water stain on the dining room table made by a piece of seaweed put on it to decorate the table. When the decoration was dismissed by Macon and embarrassed Ruth, Ruth neglected it until it disintegrated and left that unerasable stain. However narrow Ruth’s passions, those passions ran very deep, reinforced and deeply repressed because she had long been deprived of sex and had to resort to self-manipulation for some release.
Macon Dead was disappointed with his daughters whose grace and self-esteem withered away under his peering disapproving eyes. Ruth, however, was fierce in the presence of death and deliberately followed death when it beckoned. For death provided direction, clarity and audacity. But she too suffered repeated humiliations. She was a master at innocently using stories of her humiliation to bring Macon into a rage of violence aimed at her. In psychological jargon, she was a passive aggressor.
And towards his restrained, courteous but ultimately indifferent son who remained sucking at his mother’s teat for years out of habit and the same indifference, so that the janitor, Freddie, dubbed him Milkman, a name, Macon Dead always associated with something dirty, intimate and hot as well as the disgust he always felt for his wife, particularly after he saw that she had touched the body of Smith, a sight he always regarded as odious but in fact went further back before Milkman was even born.
His hated sister Pilate, though, not always hated, in fact was once beloved before the incident at the cave. She was named in a fit of accidental finger movements as Pilate Dead, a name that unintentionally associated her for the rest of her life with the killer of Christ. For Macon Dead after the cave event, the name was associated with betrayal. And more disgust at her employment as a bootlegger, at her unkempt and murky presence, but only in part, for the expression of intense constant surprise and eagerness on her face discomfited him. But most of all Macon Dead hated himself, for his metaphysical loneliness, for feeling like a propertyless alien and outsider in spite of his ownership of a number of properties. The past was never over for him but haunted him. His son wanted the past to be over, wanted to "beat a path away from his parents’ path"; the father repeated the past over and over again. It is no wonder that when his long departed sister, Pilate, returned, she found Macon truculently inhospitable and perpetually embarrassed by her presence.
But Milkman suffered from a constant sense of humiliation, for himself, for his father and mostly for his mother. "Somebody he couldn’t see, in the room laughing…at him and at his mother is ashamed. She lowers her eyes and won’t look at him." With that memory, Milkman finally dredges up the memory of that which made him most embarrassed, the fact that he sucked his mother’s breast when he was old enough to stand and wear knickers. But embarrassment was intricately woven into his everyday life. Milkman and Guitar got their kicks by mocking the world. If somebody out-insulted them or ignored them, "they wise-cracked and name-called until the sweat of embarrassment evaporated from the palms of their hands."
Milkman did love, or at least was obsessed with one person for a long period at least, his niece, Hagar. But he avoided commitment and his love was shallow and fleeting. He shied away from strong feelings as much as ne avoided decisions. Lacking curiousity except insofar as it fed his escapist fantasies, lacking any self-reflective ability, he only sought to get through each day with a light display of amiability. So faced with the need to make one big decision, he procrastinated, he stalled, he insisted on developing plans as his fantasies grew weaker and undermined his will.
Of all the wonderfully rendered characters, Hagar’s is perhaps the most intriguing. The daughter of Rena and spoiled granddaughter of Pilate, impelled by a graveyard love she was the epitome of the wildness and an absence of any control but otherwise a combination of calculated intelligence and the determination and will of a witch riding a broomstick, especially as her inner predator emerged when through Milkman’s indifference, her love was carelessly cast aside. If her grandmother was a natural healer, Hagar was an unnatural but totally ineffective destroyer – even targeting Milkman who was her only real home in the world challenged only by Ruth who was Milkman’s home. Of course, the reason for the ineffectiveness of her rage and jealousy to result in Milkman’s death was obvious – she wanted his attention much more than she wanted his death.
I have focussed on the characters rather than the bizarre plot or the absolutely brilliant writing style because of my interest in virtue ethics. And this is a novel of vices, petty but deadly vices. Social justice was interpreted as proportionality and balance but in a perverse form, balancing the number of whites killed with the number of blacks by whites who were never punished.
Behind it all is the theme of humiliation that permeates the novel. After Milkman and Guitar were arrested for having a bag of bones in their car which they thought was gold, Milkman once again felt a deep sense of shame.
Something like shame stuck to his skin. Shame at being spread-eagled, fingered, and handcuffed. Shame at having stolen a skelton, like a kid on a Halloween trick-or-treat prank rather than a grown man making a hit. Shame at needing both his father and his aunt to get him off. Then more shame at seeing his father – with an accommodating ‘we all understand how it is’ smile-buckle before the policemen. But nothing was like the shame he felt as he watched and listened to Pilate. Not just her Aunt Jemima act, but the fact that she was both adept at it and willing to do it – for him. For the one who had just left her house carrying what he believed was her inheritance…It was this woman [and the thoughts of all she had done for him] whom he would have knocked senseless, who shuffled into the police station and did a little number for the cops—opening herself up wide for their amusement, their pity, their scorn,. Their mockery, their disbelief, their meanness, their whimsy, their annoyance, their power, their anger, their boredom – whatever would be useful to her and to himself. (61%)
And Magdalene on her father Macon Dead: "All our lives were like that: he would parade us like virgins through Babylon, then humiliate us like whores in Babylon."
But it went deeper. As Guitar explained to Milkman when he wanted out, wanted to escape his sister Corinthians’ hurt and anger at him, his sister Lena’s scorn, his father’s intention to raise him as a replica of himself and his mother’s efforts to keep him as her sweet boy sucking on her breast, "It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet – which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness,’ Tame except in bed….And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding." The problem is a master-slave mentality that permeates us all. That is why it was necessary for the Israelites to spend forty years in the desert. They had to purge themselves of a life built around humiliation.
In the last half century, the Islamists have developed a meta-narrative of humiliation and betrayal in their history of relations with the West. (Khaled Fattah and K.M. Fierke (2009) "A Clash of Emotions: The Politics of Humiliation and Political Violence in the Middle East," European Journal of International Studies, March) Barack Obama has tried to address that narrative without compromising American security, a topic I will return to when I address Obama’s foreign affairs. But his main concern has been the meta-narrative of humiliation and betrayal on the domestic front.
Shame and embarrassment are what you feel and experience when you are publicly humiliated. For humiliation is a public act that always produces shame. Humiliation sears a sense of shame into our memories and leaves scars for life. Some thinkers may notice such occasions but fail to raise the issue into self-consciousness and analyze the effects. (Tony Judt) Others, such as Mohandes Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, understood fully the effects of efforts at humiliation and developed a strategy, style and tactics designed to prevent succumbing to its cruel fate. For the suffering at the time was never as important as the long term corrosive effects. As we have read in the events of the last 10 days in the case of Chris Dorner, humiliation and revenge is often cited in cases of mass murder often followed by suicide. (Cf. for example, the film Dark Matter by Chen Shi-Zheng of his PhD adviser and four other academic colleagues before killing himself for a remarkable exploration of humiliation and its consequences, not only as an domestic issue but on the international stage where suggestions of foreign superiority and condescension have to be replaced by an understanding of insecurity and historical victimization without losing one’s one sense of self in the process.)
In Morrison’s prescient tale, the original humiliation is usually not just circumstantial. The humiliation may be subtle and just insensitive or it can be deliberate by persons in authority who resort to the use of coercive methods to deliberately humiliate another as in the use of torture. The effects can be devastating, especially when the practices are built into the social structure of a society or a family. Moreover, family patterns that perpetuate humiliating social practices and relations usually reflect larger societal norms and patterns.
When Corinthians, who was educated at Bryn Mawr and given a sense of herself as significantly better intellectually and socially, is reduced to making rose petal cutouts daily and this situation comes to public attention even if only accidentally, then she is recognized and forced to recognize that her life has been reduced to a menial repetitive level. The result is a combination of a powerless rage and a feeling of lacking any real worth that reinforces a sense of helplessness. Hagar who began her relationship with Milkman as his social and sexual mentor but developed an intense dependency on the relationship such that when Milkman decided to end it callously as a product of his deep indifference, Hagar felt deeply betrayed and hurt but in a manner that even undercut her ability to execute the powerful rage and desire for resentment she felt. Feeling duped and used, she became obsessed and full of self-loathing.
A common element is all of the cases above – and everyone of the characters at certain points suffer from being humiliated, and in the case of the main character, Milkman, it is the dominant experience of his life even though he takes little responsibility or initiative in determining his future — is a disjunction between the status a person sees for him or herself or is told he or she has and the actual continuing or incidental experiences. Blacks feel humiliation not simply because they were treated in a degraded way but because they were also taught that they were citizens of a country that had recognized them as equal with God-given rights. Their treatment and prevalent practices contradicted that promise. Michele Obama invited Desline Victor, the 102 year old Haitian native and American living in North Miami to attend the State of the Union address to give witness to her determination not to vote and not be intimidated by the long wait she was forced to endure as part of a deliberate effort to discourage lower class Blacks and Hispanics from voting. Though not likely to deter new efforts to rearrange state electoral votes from a cross state to a constituency basis to erode the massive democratic vote in urban areas, nevertheless the occasion illustrated how certain mechanisms are not just used for short term gains but to instil the long terms scars of humiliation. Part of the process of treatment entails pulling the practice into the full light of day and throwing light on the efforts at manipulation so that the shame is reflected back on the perpetrators. Leave it to
Fox News radio on its program Kilmeade and Friends to dismiss both the actual 3 hour wait of Desline Victor and the recognition Obama gave it (13 February 2013). Fox News dismissed the gesture as trivial and irrelevant for, after all, in the end she was happy; she voted. They just don’t get it!
The core issue is whether each citizen is to be counted equal within the political process; rights cannot be denigrated. The long delays for the urban economic underclass in certain areas sent the message that they did not have status as equal citizens. The difference in this case is that the potential for humiliation was turned on its head by Desline Victor’s determination and success. In contrast, Morrison’s novel is a litany of failure on the micro-public level rather than on the stage of grand politics. When failure to challenge a claim for status, when subjected in addition to hazing, ridicule and derision even if only in the habitual jocular back and forth teasing within the male buddy system, the humiliation is reinforced.
The reality is that mass murder and homicide will unlikely be significantly decreased by measures to register gun holders and monitor and regulate the purchase and sale of guns, but the symbolic message is important. The real challenge will be to reduce significantly the variety of social occasions in which humiliation and shaming are built into current practices. Note that although we are sometimes embarrassed [em-bare-assed] by what we do, not all or even most embarrassing situations are ones of humiliation. Humiliation requires some degree of public participation. When those processes are written deep into social practices, then a class of invisible men and women is created. The issue is not simply the message that a person’s claim to a certain status is built on sand but that the person is not even worthy of making such a claim. Humiliation entails degradation, not just de-grading, but instilling in the other a belief that he or she is not even worthy enough to attempt to achieve that grade let alone a higher one. The consequence is sewing the seeds of impotence and a sense of powerlessness to change one’s condition, a sense of powerlessness that can be acted out in revenge, murder and mayhem rooted in a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. What the humiliated individual experiences is the desire to flee and fly away with blue plastic wings, a resort to fantasies and an increasing inability to grasp reality.
Morrison’s great strength is her remarkable ability to portray that phenomenon on the micro level in a variety of social situations, characters and situations. For example, Morrison repeatedly describes milkman’s relative high status with girls and in his social milieu but also reveals that retaining and even reifying a status claim status will not prevent humiliation if an agent’s low self worth is in play. Though Milkman is relatively affluent and has inherited the mantle of a property owner, he knows he is just his father’s messenger boy and deeply desires to make it on his own even if it means resorting to stealing to seek the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But this is the illusion. Just as the experience of travel on an airplane in his quest which exhilarated him and encouraged his illusion of invulnerability. For in the book there is not one single example of a solid family within which the various individuals are respected and admired for the roles they play. Milkman’s own family is a dysfunctional farce. His aunt’s family is an example of female single parent upbringing. His friend, particularly Guitar, is an example of male commitment to non-attachment and serial short term affairs to the neglect of responsibilities towards one’s immediate family and future progeny. The distressing thing about western culture is that family values are increasingly being abandoned for the sake of self-interest, the primary value stressed by economic conservatives.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was still a sociologist at Harvard and then later as a senior analyst in the Department of Labor began documenting the roots of the fragmented family in Jim Crow America and slavery and the conclusions of his research that informed his 1965 Moynihan Report when he was Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration (Negro Family: The Case for National Action) Recall that he wrote the report undercutting the inherited liberal view that poverty was the cause of the decline of the American family. Untrue! The cause as he documented so well was the disintegration of the black family, the increasing percentage of out-of-wedlock births and the increasing abandonment of responsibility for their families by male heads of households. And that was at a time when the problem had only infected 25% of black families before it increased exponentially and spread to the rest of society so that the whole society is now primarily Black with all the faults and virtues of that coloration.
Milkman’s quest for the pot of gold in the cave allows him to discover a real pot of gold, not the illusory prize economic conservatives promised by Lotteries and Las Vegas for those without the entrepreneurial skills to get there on their own, but the root myth of black flight from slavery of Milkman’s great-grandfather Solomon and the meaning of the song his Aunt Pilate, the smiling and entertaining and seer but Christ killer, sings. One did not have to go into the depths of Plato’s cave to find the root illusion in its black depths for it was there all along on the surface, in the repeated refrain of flight, escape and irresponsibility packed into Pilate’s songline. The truth was to be found in a blues song of memory of Solomon’s flight and abandonment of his wife and 21 children.
Obama’s greatest contribution as president will not be any of his initiatives domestically or overseas no matter how great. His greatest contribution will be as an exemplar of the importance of family values. At the time of Obama’s State of the Union Address, my wife, Nancy, queried me asking why Barack Obama did not allow his two girls to attend and see their father at such a memorable occasion as his second State of the Union address. I offered such lame explanations as he was a strict father, it was a weekday, they had school and homework, and anyway they would be bored by an hour long litany of policy initiatives. But I think the more basic reason was the message he sent out. The issue was not his status as president. His status as father and his commitment to the future well-being of his family was far more important than any lesson they could learn from his status as America’s president and leader of the free world or what responsibilities that entailed. In that message, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had the same message but Barack Obama was in a far better position to convey it to those who needed to hear it most. The question is whether and to what degree community conservatives recognize the message he is conveying.
Monday: Obama: Julius Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending: Redemption
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