Joseph Conrad places fiction in the schema of *art
— What is *ART?
As Maria Popova writes in The Atlantic on the subject of (the increasingly, nowadays, ‘controversial’) Joseph Conrad, “Much of his writing bears a profound philosophical quality, exploring the depths of psychology and other pillars of existence.” In this post I give you some of Conrad’s case for how strings of (“tired old”) words can be construed as a form of fine art. I would personally place literature (not music, as he does) at the pinnacle but, this is me and, I am not he:
A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence. The artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts—whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living. They speak authoritatively to our common-sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom to our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism—but always to our credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: with the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims. It is otherwise with the artist.
Fiction—if it at all aspires to be art—appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses; and, in fact, it cannot be made in any other way, because temperament, whether individual or collective, is not amenable to persuasion. All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the color of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
The sincere endeavor to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Sometimes, stretched at ease in the shade of a roadside tree, we watch the motions of a labourer in a distant field, and after a time, begin to wonder languidly as to what the fellow may be at. We watch the movements of his body, the waving of his arms, we see him bend down, stand up, hesitate, begin again. It may add to the charm of an idle hour to be told the purpose of his exertions. If we know he is trying to lift a stone, to dig a ditch, to uproot a stump, we look with a more real interest at his efforts; we are disposed to condone the jar of his agitation upon the restfulness of the landscape; and even, if in a brotherly frame of mind, we may bring ourselves to forgive his failure. We understood his object, and, after all, the fellow has tried, and perhaps he had not the strength—and perhaps he had not the knowledge. We forgive, go on our way—and forget. And so it is with the workman of art. Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little about the aim—the aim of art, which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult—obscured by mists. It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature. It is not less great, but only more difficult.
To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and color, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile—such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. And when it is accomplished—behold!—all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile—and the return to an eternal rest.
Lest we forget or indeed, in case we aren’t yet fully au fait, you may like to listen to or download even, the “1619 Project” podcasts.
literary analysis: a character from Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”
The novel ‘Paradise’ (or ‘paradise’ as Morrison later wished the title to be; to capitalise or not, a capital idea!) is not known for being an easy to read novel. In fact, as with many of Morrison’s books, it has a reputation for being the opposite—it should be noted that Morrison began writing to “forestall melancholy,” not to write easy to digest stories for cash. Be that as it may, it has nonetheless been said that the “complexity” of this novel distracts from “the profound and, deeply polemical message it conveys” regarding, “gender and American history” (Widdowson 2001 313). It has similarly been described as, “structurally complex … barely heeding the laws of time and place [and Morrison’s] most overtly feminist novel” (Smith 1998) and to be, “the most difficult and complicated of Morrison’s books” (Byerman 2010). In this short essay, the character Mavis Albright will be considered.
To address the question of why this charter is complex we need to consider some facts at the outset (facts relating to this work of fiction). One she was instrumental in the deaths of her two young children. Two her mother betrayed her location to her enraged husband (she had stolen his cherished verdant green Cadillac) and has previously had sex with him. And, three, she was at the one of the women residing at the Convent when the men of Ruby descended upon it to violently attack it. In acting independently our Mavis felt a rare happiness only once experienced before on a funfair ride—“When ‘the Rocket zoomed on the downward swing, the rush made her giddy with pleasure; when it slowed just before turning her upside down through the high arc of its circle, the thrill was intense” (33). She got this from the thrill and safety of absconding in Frank’s Cadillac, “the stable excitement of facing danger while safely strapped in strong metal” (ibid.). Later, in the “Mavis” chapter, we read what Connie said to Mavis in the kitchen of the convent, “scary things not always outside. Most scary things is inside” (39). This chapter also tells us something strange about the convent, “how still it was, as though no one lived there” (45). Is this magic realism? What exactly is real and fictional in this complicated work of fiction?
One reason for why Mavis is a complex character is to do with trust, guilt and confusion. She lost two of her kids (twin with rhyming names: Merle and Pearl) because of a mistake/error she made (so we think) this must be a huge mental burden to anyone. She did not trust the sympathies of the local journalist or the neighbours around her. She has paranoia too (maybe it is more like justified worries) because she wants to escape her abusive husband (understandable) and her surviving children who she feels want to kill her (less understandable, but her eldest daughter does seem to dislike her). Then there’s the mother-daughter trust issues. After escaping from Frank her husband), she ends up with her mum. But soon after her arrival she hears her mum telling him that his wife is with her and that he can come and get her. She heads West again with cash and tablets borrowed from her mother. As with many a great American novel she plans and dreams of California—in a colourful twist, she spray-paints the Cadillac repainted magenta. . . .
. . . Another reason for the character Mavis’s complexity could be because Morrison is linking her to an African spirit god. The character Mavis has been linked not to a biblical character as is often the case with Morrison’s fictional protagonists but with a West African deity (Bur 2006 165–166). It is argued that Morrison links Mavis to Osun. In African mythology, this is linked to a god of joy and children who is also feisty—“is easily offended”—remember that Mavis fights Gigi in a street brawl (who herself is probably sleeping with Seneca). In ‘Paradise’ (168) it does say that Mavis was a “joyful hitter” who enjoyed the fight, “pounding [and] pounding, even biting Gigi was exhilarating” (171). Linked to this is the question of how real the fiction is meant to be, is it a ghost story, is it all an allegory of the unfairness of Adam and Eve?
To the men of Ruby, the women’s self-sufficiency is deeply threatening and see it as, “a coven not a convent” (276). According to Morrison, ‘paradise’ coalesced around the idea of, “where paradise is, who belongs in it … all paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening” (Smith). Mavis is plagued by a terrible situation, abused by her husband (and eldest daughter?) she apparently leaves her infant twins in a Cadillac on a hot day with the windows up, and the babies die” (23). The description if these events are, “wrought in the full glare of Ms. Morrison’s uncompromising gaze” (Smith 1998). Such vivid and ‘haunting’ moments have appeared in many of Morrison’s previous works—mothers killing their kids (‘Beloved’); fathers raping their daughters (‘The Bluest Eye’).
To sum up, Mavis is a complex character in a complicate and difficult to follow book. She certainly is not the only complicated character in this book, but her journey West is like a symbol of the American dream especially because of the icon car the Cadillac. The book shows to us (most) men’s hatred (and lustful desire) for women. This book is more about Adam and Eve than black and white. As critics point out, who was the white girl we read about in the opening lines? Morrison provokes the reader, challenging them to identify a character in terms of race without identify the race of most of the convent’s inhabitants (Byerman). Is our Mavis white? Is it Gigi or her lover Seneca? Maybe it does not matter too much as this book is more about gender than race.
— § —
 This has been to the benefit of us all, in her acceptance talk for the Nobel prize in literature, she said the written word has the ability to, “limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers” and to keep fear at bay but it can also have the opposite impact, “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence” (Smith 1998).
 In trying to understand literary analysis better I learnt a lot from the following point made by Keith Byerman: “Shakespeare never had an original idea for a story. He stole everything.” Writers steal. Writers lie. That is their business. Morrison takes whatever she needs from wherever she gets it. You could pull apart Paradise and find all those different frames of reference. There is some John Milton here. There is some Dante, William Faulkner, and Melville. Pick your source. Do not assume that because you identified the source, you have therefore solved the puzzle. … No! Morrison used a particular kind of source in a particular kind of way. She is always doing it for her own purposes.
 Magenta is a colour that is often defined as purplish-red. It is hard not to link this defiant repaint as encouraging the reader to think of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, ‘The Color Purple.’ They key protagonist in ‘The Colour Purple’—Celie—has a difficult past which is borne from racial discrimination and violence against women. This work is as one with many of Morrison’s magic-realism fictional works because it also follows a journey that is constantly dealing with the vexed subject matter of identity.
Seneca, an interesting non-biblical name. Seneca was venerated as a moral Stoic thinker and for periods of time was one of Emperor Nero’s closest advisers (Kolbert 2015). Seneca He is said to have said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” This makes the reader think of the ending of life in African and the starting of slavery, the ending of slavery (explicit) and the beginnings of hidden slavery, the end of Haven and the Move west to Ruby. We then come to think of Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Solder’ the lyrics of it are as here:
There was a Buffalo Soldier
in the heart of America
Stolen from Africa
brought to America
Fighting on arrival
fighting for survival
I mean it, when I analyze the stench
To me it makes a lot of sense
How the Dreadlock Rasta
was the Buffalo Soldier
And he was taken from Africa
brought to America
Fighting on arrival
fighting for survival
— § —
Burr, Benjamin. “Mythopoetic Syncretism in Paradise,” in Shirley A. Stave (Ed.). Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities (pp. 159–174). 2006.
Literary analysis: identifying the ancestor role in Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”
The role of ancestor is a constant motive of much of Morrison’s magic-realist writing and it is something that she sees as being distinctively linked to Afro-American literature (Morrison 1988) and something that is important to the Afro-American community in the real world too. She makes it clear it is not so much the role of man but that of ancestor that can hold (and guide) the individual and the family unit, “if we don’t keep in touch with the ancestor that we are, in fact, lost.” (Morrison 2008 63). To understand the definition of the significance of the ancestor role in Morrison’s works of fiction, “one must become familiar with the function of ancestor in West African cosmology” (Beaulieu 2003 4). However, while in some of her novels, the ancestor character is pretty clear, it is not obvious in ‘Paradise’ (1994). In ‘Love’ we can attribute it to L, in ‘Song of Solomon’ we can attribute it to Pilate. Critics contend that the ancestor character is most explicitly spelt out and dealt with in the following works: ‘Tar Baby,’ ‘Beloved’ and ‘Jazz’ (ibid.). This short essay concerns itself with the possibility of Zechariah being the ancestor character in ‘Paradise,’ it also suggests that because gender not race is the key theme of this work, the ancestor element is possibly less important and thus, less prevalent.
Morrison asserts that the ancestor is one of the distinctive elements of Afro-American writing (2008 61) and terms them “timeless people” (62). The timeless status implies the ancestors’ abstractness and their ability to transcend both time and space, diachronically as well as synchronically. In Morrison’s understanding, the particular ancestors coalesce into an abstract mass whose influence on the present is marked, regardless of the times or eras the individual ancestors originate in. Such characters in Morrison’s magic-realist style function as advisor and guide. by always (or is it almost always?) including ancestor figures into her work she enables these “culture bearers” to serve as, “a bridging point between the past and present cultures, mixing the two and influencing the communities through their understanding” (Kota 2016 2).
‘Paradise’ is primarily concerned with two communities: the residents of the small town of Ruby and an old stately home called the Convent in the nearby countryside (Widdowson 2001 314). ‘Paradise’ begins with a group of men from Ruby prepare to kill five women who live in a nearby convent (Krumholz 2002). From the men’s perspectives, the women, like Eve, embody a loss of innocence and an ejection from the Garden of Eden, the earthly Paradise, a loss the men fear and wish to prevent. But as hunted does anointed with “holy oil,” the women are also Christ-like sacrificial victims and the men their executioners (Krumholz). After the massacre of the five women of the Convent by the men of Ruby, their bodies disappear, and the residents of Ruby are then obligated to make sense of the attack and the subsequent strange disappearances—“all the characters in the novel are haunted by past events” (Anderson 2008 146).
The Convent can be viewed as a kind informal women’s refuge. a kind of informal refuge for damaged women. This complicated work of magic-realist fiction is broken down into chapters named after the work’s key protagonists—e.g., “Mavis,” “Grace,” “Seneca.” All key characters are women and include, Gigi, a seductive young woman whose boyfriend is in jail; Seneca, a hitchhiker who has survived abandonment and sexual exploitation; Pallas, a wealthy lawyer’s daughter whose lover left her for her mother” (Kakutani 1998). For the characters of Morrison’s novel to “learn to live,” one literary critic argues they must, “negotiate borders not only between life and death and past and present but between all binaries” (Anderson 148). In ‘Paradise’ Morrison, “privileges liminality, as the Convent women, erased and negatively “ghosted” by the larger society, find empowerment through their communal spiritual experiences in the Convent” (ibid). . . .
. . . Before considering the ancestor role in this work, we must focus more on gender. Why? Well because the focus on gender, reduced the need for and focus on the ancestor role. Whereas earlier Morrison novels like ‘Beloved’ and ‘Song of Solomon’ married the historical and the mythic, the mundane and the fantastic into a seamless piece of music, ‘Paradise’ is said to be, “devoid of both urgency and narrative sleight of hand. It is neither grounded in closely observed vignettes of real life, nor lofted by the dreamlike images the author has used so dexterously in previous works of fiction” (Kakutani 1998). However, it might be because this book is less about the Afro(-American) ancestor and more about gender inequality. Regarding the theme or the subtext, it has been argued that Morrison is saying that, “the price of Ruby’s insistence on maintaining a morally superior master narrative may well be the sacrifice of that very narrative. Rather than a perfect paradise, Ruby ends up as a conservative, patriarchal, thoroughly racialized, and violent community” (Dalsgård 2001).
There is another view on the subtext, it is that Paradise is a. “provocative allegory of nationhood… it begins in July of 1976-the bicentennial of the United States… it is no coincidence that these men are black, and that the first woman they kill is white. When one reads the novel allegorically, as a reconfiguration of the founding of the United States, Morrison’s vision of totalising patriarchal historiography takes on double weight. Storace 1998; Davidson 2001 371). The novel ends (frustratingly and one must say intentionally) before we the readership can know the consequences of the massacre. But we do know what Misner thinks of it all, he inwardly chastises the town for thinking, “they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him… [this is a great thinking point placed here by Morrison:] How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it” (306). It is argued that Ruby, for Misner was an unnecessary failure (Davidson 370).
We first come across the character: Zechariah Morgan on page 96 of ‘Paradise’ (or as subsequently Morrison wished it had been titled “paradise” or alternatively “War”):
“My Father,” he said. “Zechariah here.” Then, after a few seconds of total silence, he began to hum the sweetest, saddest sounds Rector ever heard. Rector joined Big Papa on his knees and stayed that way all night.
What is in a hum? Nothing and everything. We can think of Pilate in ‘Song of Solomon’ to get some guidance here—it is this bellybuttonless ladies’ hum that opened and closed that book. Turning back to our Zechariah Morgan, he is the one who tells us about leading a group of people away from Louisiana toward Oklahoma. Being “too black” to be accepted into various communities along the way, this “disallowing gives them the impetus to migrate westward to establish their own town, Haven (Oki 2013 41)—recall that the character Mavis is headed West too to escape the chains of her husband to the promised lands of California. These basically forced migrations often noted in Morrison’s fiction have been linked by literary critics to the bible’s myth of “Exodus.”
It is Zechariah who talks about a mysterious “walking man” and says this is a moment of epiphany, a kind of revelation (Oki). Zechariah says of this incident, “you can’t start it and you can’t stop it” because, “this is god’s time… [god ain’t gunna] do your work for you, so step lively.” (Morrison 1994, 97–98). At the core of the history and its retelling are the figure of Zechariah Morgan as the link with the ancestor and the oven as a symbol of the ancestral ideas and stories (The Ancestor as Figure in the novels of Toni Morrison 128). It can be argued that the oven that Zechariah constructs in Haven and is then transported to Ruby is symbolic of the community and the fire that they gather around to pass on oral stories. As is mentioned, “Zechariah, the ancestral guardian of the 8-rock community, guides the original wayfarers in their search for the promised land” (ibid.).
To sum up, we can say that Morrison, in most, if not all of her books, seeks to champion the idea that being aware of one’s roots (one’s history in both cultural and ethnic senses) will have more importance to one’s success in life (be this inner contentment or being a good citizen) than would say ignoring the past and/or relying for the most part on self-help books et cetera. As has been said, the relationship between character and ancestor, in Morrison’s prose, “antagonistic or amicable, directly correlates with that character’s success in navigating life” (Beaulieu 5) Milkman’s shifting relationship with his (ancestor character) Aunt Pilate provides a great case study. Regarding ‘Paradise’ I think that Zechariah fits the bill, so to speak, of the ancestor character. It is not as clear cut as in other novels, but ‘Paradise’ maybe had a more contemporary subtext message which may have been less about rootedness and more about feminism.
— § —
 In West African mythology the ancestors live on in a spiritual continuum between worlds and generations. It is articulated as follows: “While anyone has the power to tap into the energies of the ancestors [it is typically the elders of the community that do this in order to] ensure that subsequent generations understand the importance of the ancestors … Morrison modifies this use of the ancestor and transforms it into a literary device that explores the manifold ways in which characters relate to their ancestors and, by extension, their communities” (Beaulieu 2003 4–7).
 Zechariah is a historic character linked to the bible’s Old Testament and is thought to have helped pen the ‘Book of Zechariah’. What might be interesting and explain why Morrison chose this name for the (or one of the) ancestor figure(s) in ‘Paradise’ was because of Zechariah’s circumstances. He was said to have been in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) during the reign of Darius the Great in the era when the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem (think: Africans forcibly transferred from Africa to the heart of America as a consequence of the slave ships) and were being encouraged to build (temporary) homes in lands they’d not originated from (think: Haven then Ruby).
 As is argued, the convent is depicted as a liminal space in which, “the monolithic categories of religion, race, class, and gender converge and make cultural hybridity possible,” this is in stark contrast to Ruby and its men who, “perceive hybridity as a disruptive evil which threatens their sense of selfhood and nationhood” (Fraile-Marcos 2003 4). To be clear here, in an anthropological (and maybe to cognitive and psychological sense) liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that takes place in the middle stage of a rite of passage. French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that if learning to live is to be achieved, “it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone” (Anderson 146). In a liminal state of mind, the concerned individual—or protagonist in a work of fiction—will no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete; a stage between text and subtext, between conscious and unconscious:
 To expand on this point more fully: “By making Ruby’s success dependent on an ancestral heroic commemoration of the success of the community’s founding fathers in establishing a covenanted community in an inhospitable western landscape, by dramatising the angry accusations made by the community’s contemporary patriarchs against the younger generations when the discrepancy between its morally superior master narrative and its actual cultural practices becomes too vast to ignore, and by ultimately having Ruby scapegoat a group of unconventional women for its internal problems, Morrison invites us critically to acknowledge the presence of one of the most canonical European American narratives—that of American exceptionalism, in African American discourse”(Dalsgård 2001 244).
— § —
Anderson, Melanie R. “‘What Would Be on the Other Side?”: Spectrality and Spirit Work in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 307–321. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40301213. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann (Ed.). The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, (2003).
Dalsgård, Katrine. “The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 233–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2903255. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Davidson, Rob. “Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 47, no. 3, 2001, pp. 355–373. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3176022. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Fraile-Marcos, Ana Maria. “Hybridizing the “City upon a Hill” in Toni Morrison’s “Paradise”.” Melus, vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 3–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/3595298
Widdowson, Peter. “The American Dream Refashioned: History, Politics and Gender in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 313–335. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27556969. Accessed 19 July 2020.
The essay considers the prospect of large-scale, ethically motivated (individualistic) short-term sacrifice taking place for the assumed longer-term (collective) common good. Put differently, it considers the likelihood of the deferral of immediate gratification occurring; the not eating of one’s cake today so that one (or indeed, one’s offspring) can have it tomorrow. Put specifically, this essay will ask why it seems possible for world governments and international institutions to act quickly and decisively when met with a crisis like Coronavirus (Covid-19) yet seemingly be incapable of acting in such a way when it comes to tackling the longstanding issues of desertification, overfishing and rainforest destruction (i.e., the catchall: ‘environmental crisis’). In sum, I will argue that the reason is simple: today’s humankind have been conditioned to act and think in the short-term, to take pleasures today and bury their heads in the sand when it comes to dealing with the consequences. This is exemplified in activities such as binging on Netflix (resulting in overtiredness and the propensity to eat junk food the following day); spending on credit cards (whereby the hard graft of actually earning is deferred to a future date); overconsumption (that is causing unsustainable natural resource depletion) and, indulging in meat eating (which directly leads to yet more natural resource depletion and, greater likelihood of more zoonotic diseases, resultant from the homogenisation of animals and factory farming). I will argue that because Covid-19 is an immediate problem, government and citizenry seem able to forfeit a lot in an attempt to tackle it ‘now’; however, because the global environmental crisis is seen as a longer-term, abstract and theoretical problem, the political will to make big sacrifices—policies that enforce radical lifestyle changes—is lacking and are, it seems. easy to defer to a non-binding ‘future’ point in time.
It has been argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an impressive level of large-scale inter-governmental coordinated action. However, the extent to which the action is coordinated or unilateral is not yet an established fact. Nonetheless, there clearly has been a great deal of collaboration (be it helping to repatriate citizens, the sharing of research for an inoculation etc.). So, if such collaboration on global issues has now been proven possible, would it not be possible to believe that something similar could happen with respect to the environmental crisis? To answer this question, we would first need to consider if the Covid-19 pandemic is in any way analogous with the environmental crisis? Incidentally, a strong case for directly linking this pandemic to the environmental crisis can be made (consider, e.g., factory farming, overpopulation, and rapid unregulated urbanisation). There are indeed many interconnected questions. What possible lessons might be got from the globe’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic for addressing the environmental crisis? What role may international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) play in bringing about such transformative measures? As Weizsäcker and Wijkman (2017) point out, while leading governments now, “claim to recognise the need to change our way of life, “if we are to survive as a species,” it is far from clear if they actually appreciate, “just how radical that change needs to be.” Lastly, what can concerned individuals do in relation to self-sacrifice for the greater good—not eating the honey to ensure generations to come can have some on their tongues? Does the adage, “think globally, act locally,” still suffice?
This essay will consider the role of ethical sacrifice in effective action on the current pandemic and how that might be extended to effective action on the environment. It will proceed as follows. Firstly, it will consider the issue at hand, the quarantine we in the Arabian Gulf and those in many other parts of the globe are placed under because of Covid-19 (“The issue at stake”). It then considers possible ways of addressing the environmental crisis in light of responses to the current pandemic from the theoretical standpoints of utilitarianism and deontology (“Hypothetical speaking”). The essay then moves on to look at how we tend to opt for immediate gratification even if we half think we would get greater gratification by delaying it, this is made into a honey today allegory throughout this text (“Short-termism”). The next section considers the mechanisms by which such acts of short-term self-sacrifice may actually take place in an ethically sound and non-coercive way (“Implications of large-scale coordinated action”). In the essay’s final part (“Concluding remarks”) research is referred to that implies there are ways to overcome humankind’s propensity to opt for a teaspoon of honey today as opposed to a very likely—but not guaranteed—tablespoon tomorrow.
The issue at stake
As I write all university students in the Arabian Gulf are in self-quarantine (as are many other categories of people; international travel has essentially stopped and most forms of social gatherings have been halted). This period of self-quarantine is in most countries mandatory, varying degrees of punishment are given for those not obeying these orders. The question this essay considers is more focused on the justification for the quarantine than the right of authorities to impose it upon us. Specifically, how can policymakers and think-tanks concerned with the environmental crisis learn from the measures and restrictions rapidly imposed by governments the world over and the general acceptance of citizens to accept these.
Environmentalists have a hard task (not least because overconsumption and going to shopping malls to buy things whether we need them or not seem to now be the pastime of all those in the world who can afford to or have credit cards). As O’Donoghue and Rabin (2000, p. 233) put it, “people have self-control problems.” Environmentalists have to somehow tackle the extent to which the idea of Social Darwinism has become the norm in schools, welfare systems and society at large. As Von Weizsäcker & Wijkman (2017, pp. 6–7) explain the way that Social Darwinism has become blindly accept as the way of things, “right and proper” and even “an iron law of nature” in which “only the most competitive should survive” poses a huge challenge. The notion of survival of the fittest, in my view, does not apply to all species and especially not social ones like us. However, it is easy to see why those wanting to maximise their profits and retain all of their wealth for themselves would propagate Social Darwinism as an immutable truism. Secondly, and in a not unconnected way, environmentalists need to tackle the de facto way in which businesses now operate today, a culture in which the free market doctrine of Milton Friedman is seen as gospel in public management systems worldwide (see, e.g., Klein, 2007).
If we take the point of view that this current quarantine is for the greater good, what arguments could we make to convince sceptics of the merit of self-sacrifice in relation to addressing the root causes of global warming? (i.e., what are the key points to make in order to encourage the public to accept and lawmakers enact self-quarantine legislation). We will also need to ask what a proper ethical framework for understanding the role of sacrifice and large-scale coordinated action with respect to such events ought to be. Such understandings will help give insights in how to better deal with the environmental crisis. Any such insight would need to articulate clear roles for international organisations—e.g., WHO, the World Trade Organisation and other UN bodies—governments and citizens to play. Such roles will need to be conveyed in a consensual way in order to be affective. The truth is most people would prefer a future of uncontrolled chaos than a future where everything is clean and green if the price to pay for the latter is to be bossed around and always told what to do.
Philosophically speaking we could adopt a utilitarian or a deontological perspective in order to justify self-quarantine as the ethically and morally appropriate thing to do. We may then extend the same logic to further acts of individualistic self sacrifice in order to tackle the environmental crisis. To be clear, in the theoretical sense, “utilitarianism” places the focus on the pros and cons of the consequences of any given set of government policies or personal lifestyle choices; it looks beyond self-interest in the here and now and focuses on the common or collective interests of others at a later point in time. The “deontological” differs in that it focuses on the ethical implications (rights and wrongs) of the actions now and not the consequences of those actions at a future point in time.
As we know, democracy is compromise and as we know too, being too dogmatic in one’s views is neither progressive or likely to result in new inventions and forms of creative art. Therefore, it seems to me that in the real world, thinkers and philosophers should not advocate exclusively utilitarian or deontological arguments for dealing with the environmental crisis (and/or the current Covid-19 pandemic). It might help to think of the “carrot or the stick” analogy. As opposed to it being a binary choice, a one or the other, it should be a combination of the two: a bit of carrot and a bit of stick. The question then becomes how much carrot and how much stick?
As Fisher (2019) points out, the discounting of the needs of future generations is analogous to “burying a shard of broken glass in a forest.” The logic is as follows: if a child steps on the glass and cuts themselves today (‘now’) then a discount rate suggests this injury is much worse than a child hurting themselves on that same piece of glass in a millennia or so from now (in the ‘future’) but basically and ‘ethically’, “there is no difference between the two.” Giving in to temptation (e.g., scrolling through an infinite number of Instagram posts as opposed to finishing the research essay) leads to immediate gratification (e.g., happiness from effortlessly looking at satisfying things), but also to delayed negative outcomes (e.g., anxiety and a lower score for a essay submitted after the deadline date). On the other hand, resisting temptation (e.g., drafting and redrafting the research essay) does not make one feel good in the here and now but should result in delayed positive outcomes (e.g., a well received essay with a high grade awarded to it)—see the research of Magen and Gross (2007) on ‘temptation’; a key human tendency.
If we watch TED talks or listen to Big Think or Intelligence Squared debates it seems to be so that the longevity of humankind depends on us reducing our honey consumption rather radically to enable (in theory) our grand and great grandchildren to partake in this heavenly delight too. They key questions seem to be (1) is it, or can it become, part of human nature to be altruistic enough to care about people we will not even be alive to walk and talk with? And if so, (2) what will it take to break free from the short-termist ways so many of today’s humans seem to have adopted?
Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding argued in the mid 1970s; “if one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” Just imagine, Fisher (2019) ponders, how would Boulding react to today’s “relentless, Twitter-fuelled politics” and the non-stop fashion advice etc. that we are bombarded with on a daily basis as a consequence of the internet of things and our love/hate affair with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. As Fisher (2019) states, it is little wonder that “problems like climate change feel so hard to tackle right now.” He asks, “how often do we contemplate the impact of our decisions as they ripple into the decades and centuries ahead?” (see Appendix B). As Magen and Gross (2007 p. 415) put it, today temptations surround us—“sugar-coated donuts [and] distracting TV shows—critically these things all have one thing in common, the “promise [of] immediate pleasure and delayed suffering.” They go on to articulate how less obvious forms of temptations are also potential sources of harm to us and others—e.g., “driving too fast, speaking angrily, and procrastinating”—and caution that the struggle against temptations is “constant, and success is far from assured.”
In a seminal study that sought to investigate the antecedents and correlates of choice behaviour with respect to the delaying of gratification, Mischel and Gilligan (1964, p. 411) observed that
Yielding to temptation—in a situation in which attainment of achievement rewards is contingent upon deviant (cheating) behaviour—was conceptualised to be a function of (a) the strength of the motivation to attain the prohibited gratification, and (b) the inability to delay immediate gratification.
Some psychologists have used the metaphor of a “horse and rider” to describe this tension between our rationality and urges, “the rider knows it is smart to think longer-term, but the horse has its own ideas” (Fisher, 2019). This begs the question, if we are susceptible to ignoring the wellbeing of our own health the day after tomorrow, it is even harder to imagine how most people will have real empathy for their yet to be born descendants. This focus on self-interest and short-termism is most obviously seen in politics (doing what is necessary to be popular today and not what is best for the given country’s longer-term interest) and economics (consumption over and above necessity).
As Semuels (2016) has argued, once upon a time, what was good for many business tended to be good for the country as a whole, “companies invested in their workers and new technologies, and as a result, they prospered and their employees did too.” Today things are different. They are different because people want to have their honey today, not to delay for a possibly larger and possibly tastier quantity of honey tomorrow. There is now widespread concern that businesses are too focused on short-term profits and are thus not, “investing in their workers, in research, or in technology—short-term costs that would reduce profits temporarily” (Semuels, 2016).
Implications of large-scale coordinated action
Beckstead (2013 p. ii) has put forward the following thesis, from a global perspective, “what matters most (in expectation) is that we do what is best (in expectation) for the general trajectory along which our descendants develop over the coming millions, billions, and trillions of years.” This sounds and seems to be utilitarian in nature for it suggests that future generations are of more import that our current one. We most of us have tasted some honey, those yet to be born certainly have not. What right do we have to deny them this delicious opportunity? The issue soon becomes technical and difficult because who knows what are the best actions for us to take ‘now’ to ensure that we can best ensure there is honey available to be tasted in the ‘future’?
One way of trying to measure this is use Social Discount Rates (SDRs). SDRs might be used to put a present value on costs and benefits that will occur at a later date” (LSE, 2018). In the context of tackling the environmental crisis, SDRs might be used to calculate and forecast how much today’s society should invest in trying to limit the impacts of climate change for tomorrow’s generations. In other words, they calculate how much self-sacrifice will probably be needed in the here and now in order to ensure the generations of the future will still have a natural environment to enjoy and utilise in a sustainable way. SDRs are designed to weigh future people’s benefits against the costs borne by us today (we self-sacrifice by self-quarantining; we could then self-sacrifice by reducing the number of times we travel by air for holidays and pleasure).
This all gets complicated because nobody really knows how much we should sacrifice. Imagine for instance international travel, should we tell rich people to only take one holiday per year, would they accept this? Which government could win elections with such promises? According to Hodgkinson (2014), the main issue in terms of addressing the environmental crisis is that, if the world’s key governments and institutions were to agree to reduce carbon emissions now, “people living in the future will benefit, not those living today … but it is we [who will] bear the costs of reducing such emissions.”
Remembering the extent to which Social Darwinism is seen as a law of nature (it is not) and the extent to which most business leaders and world governments have adopted the economic philosophy of Milton, it is hard to see how anyone (be it a liberal democratic institution or a concerned individual) advocating frugality, reusing as opposed to throwing away and repurchasing is likely to do well. The thing is this, free market economic policies are causing the overexploitation of the natural environment and businesses are all encouraging people to spend big today and forget about tomorrow. The few businesses or governments that might want to self-sacrifice will likely be put out of business or become unelectable as short-termists will price them out of the market. As many have suggested, the dominant view prevailing view at the international level about action on climate change seems to be, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” And it is those views about what future generations are worth that will determine whether or not we are actually able to deal with the world’s most pressing issue, the global environmental crisis (e.g., Hodgkinson, 2014; Martin, 2015)
While I argued that short-termism is the current zeitgeist, politically, economically and in terms of humankind’s consumption and lifestyle choices, and that it is short-termism—“The Century of the Self” as Adam Curtis (2002) calls it —that is the main reason for there being no clear roadmap to address the environmental crisis, I am actually a rational optimist. I will dwell a bit and now ask you to dig deep, in a thinking sense, to what Andersen wrote in 2012. She argues, and I paraphrase, that humankind must consciously put aside their own pleasures and preferences for the greater good, because it exercises a kind of ‘moral muscle’ in us. She continues, such selfless acts can actually strengthen us by showing us that we are not simply selfish, hedonistic creatures. Acting in such a way, she contends will probably lead to, “stronger bonds of trust and mutual respect” amongst human beings, reminding us that “living on this planet is a group endeavour; that none of us can survive alone.” We must begin to accept (with the ‘carrot’ of improving our ‘moral muscles’) that making ethical choices that may not be comfortable or lucrative are sometimes, simply put, the right thing to do. I would say that too much of a draconian ‘stick’—like the authoritarian tracking of citizens to, monitor their temperature as some states are doing now—will ultimately backfire.
As Magen and Gross (2007, p. 415) point out and then ponder, “many of us succumb to temptations, despite knowing that we will later regret doing so … how can such behaviour be avoided?” I can reply with experience, “such behaviour cannot easily be avoided.” However, referring once more to the seminal work of Mischel and Gilligan (1964, p. 417), two important findings are drawn, both of which do offer us hapless sinners some ray of light (a possibility of there being some honey and happiness both in the ‘now’ and for the ‘future’). First, they did observe that responses to temptation are not “simply a function of internal controls” and that conceptualisation concerning behaviour in a temptation situation should take into consideration the reward value of the prohibited gratification. Secondly, they concluded that “individual and situational differences in preferences for such immediate gratification.” O’Donoghue and Rabin (2000, p. 247) talk about ‘naïfs’ and ‘sophisticates’ and they demonstrate that with education and increasing the awareness of the implications of behaviour today and its impact on them tomorrow may result in changes to short term behavioural patterns. They back this up by saying the sophisticates were in some ways more able to delay immediate gratification as they were more aware of its possible future adverse consequences.
Therefore, it seems to me that if leaders and role models can really sell us the idea of delayed pleasure (e.g., the foregoing of (some) honey for the common good of tomorrow’s generations) can bring us happiness in the sense of the feel-good factor of being a nicer person, then we can hope to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic response. We can then realistically dream of averting the impending climate change catastrophe. It is very important that we do not be totally utilitarian or totally deontological in approach. I will say that a mixture of the two is both ethically and morally sound and critically, more likely to bring to us the end we want without making the means too unpalatable and difficult to endure.
— § —
 In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic; the extent to which it has impacted on GDP growth and international travel by air is unprecedented and is projected to result in the biggest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s (Gopinath, 2020). The ‘environmental crisis’ includes the following features, all of which human population growth and consumption choices cause: biodiversity loss (a load of fauna and flora are threatened with extinction because of the destruction of their natural habitats and direct exploitation—think of Wuhan’s animal market and overfishing of the seven seas), climate change (global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion), deforestation, desertification (soil erosion and degradation) and the scarcity of clean fresh water.
 Refer to Sheahan et al. (2008); “Zoonotic SARS-CoV likely evolved to infect humans by a series of transmission events between humans and animals for sale in China” (p. 2274).
 As I write this essay, China and the USA are playing a blame game. Basically, both governments are attempting to shift attention from their own mistakes by seeking to turn the public attention to the mistakes they allege of each other (see Appendix A). More recently still the U.K.’s government has accused Russian spies of seeking to steal British research insights into Covid-19 and, the very next day (‘…you took it all away’) the U.S.A.’s government accused Chinese spies of seeking to pinch American research insights into Covid-19. (see: Walker (2020) and Gramer (2020), respectively)
 In this wide-ranging video documentary, we hear a lot about consumerism and commodification and links this to contemporary view on fashion. It makes the argument that superficiality benefits big business. what is interesting is that this was made before social media. So, the points made almost 20 years ago are even stronger today. The last US election was not about politics and policies, it was about media manipulation, showmanship and ad hominem gone wild.
 China is using big data to control and monitor everything its citizens do, where they go, what they do and who they meet. Many others are following China’s lead in increasingly monitoring every move of their citizens be it Hungary, Thailand, or the Philippines (Gebrekidan, 2020). Closer to home, we see this happening too in Egypt. As Magdy (2020) writes, Egypt’s President has granted himself more powers using Covid-19 as a cover. While some of the new powers can be linked to Covid-19 human rights groups say, others such as the power to now ban public and private meetings, protests and even celebrations, can not.
Mischel, W., & Gilligan, C. (1964). Delay of gratification, motivation for the prohibited gratification, and responses to temptation. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69(4), 411–417. doi:10.1037/h0048918
O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (2000), The economics of immediate gratification. Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, 13(2), 233–250.
Sheahan, T., Rockx, B., Donaldson, E., Sims, A., Pickles, R., Corti, D., & Baric, R. (2008). Mechanisms of zoonotic severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus host range expansion in human airway epithelium. Journal of virology, 82(5), 2274–2285. doi:10.1128/JVI.02041-07
Despite there being many instances of global cooperation etc., not everything is ethically minded and being done altruistically. According to one viewpoint, historians of the future might record that, “the Covid-19 pandemic marked the start of a new cold war between China and the US” (Rachman, 2020). As Prasso (2020) makes clear, mistakes in relation to the virus were made on both sides—cover-ups and arrests on China’s part, downplaying the virus’s contagiousness and suggesting the injecting oneself with household bleach may be a remedy on America’s part.
As Fisher (2019) stresses, today’s population of 7.7 billion is small if balanced against all humans who are to be born. If Homo sapiens endure for thousands of years to come, billions of yet to be born individuals do rely on us to do the right thing regarding the environmental crisis. Intangibly it will benefit ‘our’ peace of mind; the benefit to ‘them’ will be very tangible.
Simply put an illusion is something that is not real. But we most of us want to believe in things that science and reason tell us, by verifiably replicable experiments and observations, are not real; are “illusionary.” They say we see with our eyes, but let us be clear here, our eyes simply act as conduits to our brains, it is our brains that decipher and decide. For those fortunate enough not to be blind, we do like to be titillated by objects of beauty, panoramic views, the flickering of a fire, the waves rolling in and, optical illusions. The latter are a subject of much interest, writing in 1976, Coren et al. (1976, p. 129) pointed out that in the 120 years since Johann Joseph Oppel published the first systematic work on visual geometric illusions, “nearly a thousand papers have appeared that deal with distortions evoked by simple two-dimensional patterns of lines.” In the past 20 years with the aid of computers (to analyse) and social media (to share) the interest in optical illusions has grown further still (Alter, 2013; Hogenboom, 2015; Schultz, 2013). In this short essay I will discuss a number of such illusions, the way/s in which they trick the brain (alongside the human visual system) and the psychology behind them. But first I will discuss the workings of the eye and how it, like the human brain, is very susceptible to chicanery and trickery—to being deceived.
In the beholder’s eye
We know that the human eye works like a camera. When we look at something, light reflected from that thing enters the eyes through the pupil. Bizarrely it comes in upside down and this light and colour info is focused through the optical bits and bobs within the eye (see Appendix A). As Whitaker et al. (1996, p. 2957) point out in relation to the typical functioning of the human eye:
Judgment of the relative position of objects is an important feature of the human visual system. We seem able to perform this task effortlessly across spatial scales. Thus, whilst we can view two objects and estimate their separation, we are also aware of the relative position of internal features of the objects themselves.
However, the human eye, as with the human mind can easily be tricked. Optical illusions occur because our brains automatically try to interpret and make sense of what we see, usually they get things right, that Apple iPad ‘is’ an Apple iPad but, magicians and sellers of snake oil (and psychologists and visual artists) have long known eyes can be tricked because the human brain is partial to seeing myth as fact and fact as fake. Optical illusions fool our brains into seeing things which are there when they are not actually there or are not seemingly there when, in fact, they actually are.
Perception—what we think, what we think we see—is the interpretation of the things that enter our minds including via our eyes. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is subjective. Therefore, the same object will not be seen as the same thing by any two people. As pointed out by Hogenboom (2015) Aristotle wrote that, “our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled.” This was in the context of him looking (not into Nietzsche’s abyss, but) into a waterfall for too long. He observed that, if we watch something moving quickly for too long, and then look at an inanimate object next to it — like the rocks beside a waterfall — they will appear to move in the opposite direction; a phenomena now classified as the “motion aftereffect” or, “the waterfall illusion.” Neuroscientists have argued that this can be explained by the fact that it takes a lot of energy and effort for the eye to compute fast moving and continually ‘forward’ moving objects so that when it suddenly switches to seeing a stationary object if over emphasises the lack of movement and moves the object slowly ‘backward’ (Hogenboom, 2015).
There is a theory attached to all of this and it is called the Centroid Hypothesis. It states that judgments of distance between visual objects are influenced by the brain’s computation of the “centroids of the luminance profiles of the objects” (Whitaker et al., 1996). Concerning the Devil’s Trident (see Appendix B), the Müller-Lyer arrows (see Appendix C), the Penrose triangle (see Appendix D) and similar illusions, the pattern of neural excitation evoked by contextual flank overlaps with that caused by the stimulus terminator, thereby leading (due to the shift of the centroid of summed excitation) to its perceptual displacement. The relative displacement of all stimulus terminators leads to misjudgement of distances between them; that is, the illusion occurs as a side effect due to necessarily low spatial resolution of the neural mechanism of assessment of the relative location of the visual objects.
The Devil’s Trident 🔱
The Devil’s Trident (a.k.a., “The Impossible Trident”) was first noted in the academic press by an American psychologist—Donald Schster—who is said to have been inspired by an advert he saw in a magazine (Schuster, 1964). Accounts of the “Devil’s Trident”—see Appendix B—stress that the middle prong, “appears to be in two places at the same time” and that it involves, “incompatible surface depth cues linked as though they were compatible” (Masterton & Kennedy, 1975, p.107).
Knowledge of optical illusions is not a recent thing. Like all good things, we can go back to Ancient Greece to find initial thinking on the subject: Aristotle and the waterfall (as mentioned above). Indeed, as Bach and Poloschek (2006 p. 21) say, Plato also alerted us to the discrepancy between perception and reality in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Philosophers remain intrigued to this day. As Donaldson (2017) argues that impossible figures prove problematic for sense-data accounts of perception that contend that, corresponding to every visual human experience, there are mental objects (sense-data) that we are aware of—and that sense-data have the properties that the objects that our experiences tell us they do. The problem is that sense-data would have to be impossible objects … surely, impossible objects can’t exist!” There are other explanations. For example, illustrations like the Müller-Lyer arrows (see Appendix C) confuses the brain (in some cultures, according to Alter (2013), not all) and it overcompensates, “making the line appear bigger — as it would have to be in real life to produce those kinds of proportions” (Hogenboom, 2015).
To sum up, we can assume that we will never be able to suddenly see true reality with crystal clear clarity and 20/20 vision, be it the waterfall’s rock, the shadow play in the cave or the Devil’s Trident. But this is the magic of reality. This is something we should embrace and revere, not fear. Just because we do not know what lies within black holes or what exists beyond the edge of the universe does not mean we need to create myths to fill in the gaps and then dogmatically and religiously follow them (see Dawkins, 2011). Personally, I like that art can trick us it actually says to me we are human. Also, I feel that visual illusions are actually logical and explainable by reason and science: our brains have evolved to need to constantly predict what is about to happen so, illusions demonstrate our brain being logical and telling us what we should ‘typically’ see not what we rarely physically see.
Whitaker, D., McGraw, P. V., Pacey, I., & Barrett, B. T. (1996). Centroid analysis predicts visual localization of first-and second-order stimuli. Vision Research, 36(18), 2957–2970. doi.org/10.1016/0042-6989(96)00031-4
Please allow me to introduce to you, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, by James Frazer (1st ed. 1890; 2nd ed. 1913). (📙 The Golden Bough.)
William Blake’s The Ancient of Days
Christ Pantocrator mosaic @ Hagia Sophia
Mephisto in front of God and the three archangels, drawn by August von Kreling in Goethe’s Faust.
Michelangelo’s God @ the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican
You know, when we English Lit. students dream of being writers, we somehow think we’ve something to add to the canon, in some ways, we all have, but the more I dig, the more I scan Project Gutenberg (e t c .),* the more I realise that countless thousands who’ve lived (read, thought, written) and died before I was pushed out into this world, have probably (no ‘definitely’) thought what I think (far more deeply), have set out to articulate what I abstractedly and dreamily plan to one day articulate (& they’ve actually done so in concrete codex form). I feel I’m in the dead calm at the very centre of a tropical vortex –((( it’s wondered off course, North, for I reside in The Pearl; a multi-story complex built beside an artificial lagoon on a peninsula that juts out into the tepid seawater of the Arabian Gulf. Languid in largesse the panoramic view is beset by an unrelenting, near blinding, shimmer — the sun bleaches and becalms vigour. Maritime scenes are confused by midday mirages, mercury in colour — oil money stymies gainful endevour. )))– for I’ve scedules and to-do-lists, ambitions and passions, but I’m laying here listless. And while all is swirling tumultuously around me I’m strapped down by paralysis, I want to write, I want to let it bleed, I so dearly want “writing to be my therapy” as we’d say to each other it would be. We’d say such things in abstract ways mulling over a potential future parting of ways that neither you or I, back then, could seriously contemplate as a possible eventuality. // The whirlpool’s walls tower up indeterminately, they seem to be leaning in, this could be an optical illusion, but more likely it is nature’s way via the force of gravity; you sea, once I had it all; now I’ve nothing at all. \\ They’d say things like “he’s a man of letters” — I’ve read it said — and I’ll update that to be s/he, but yes, in the days before swiping right and switching swiftly between screens, writers on their typewriters (or with paper and gravity aloof pencils), would certainly have been better readers and thus better writers. I was born less than half a dozen years before the millennium, iPads were out before I was into my teenage years. I can’t compare the past to now from knowledge of both, but I’m confident that reading (in say the Victorian/Edwardian way/day) is increasingly a rarity today. On my bloody fucking university campus most key text books are only supplied to us as eBooks (I ain’t even lying . . . I will walk and I will talk).
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
Here’s an extract — the Preface to a follow-on work The Aftermath (1936) the language, I think, is sublime:
When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Rough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking ; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood. But insensibly I was led on, step by step, into surveying, as from some specular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race ; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into inditing what I cannot but regard as a dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavour, wasted time, and blighted hopes. At the best the chronicle may serve as a warning, as a sort of Ariadne’s thread, to help the forlorn wayfarer to shun some of the snares and pitfalls into which his fellows have fallen before him in the labyrinth of life. Such as it is, with all its shortcomings, I now submit The Golden Bough in its completed form to the judgment of my contemporaries, and perhaps of posterity.
Here is another one:
The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes. We need not murmur at the endless pursuit:
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.**
Great things will come of that pursuit, though we may not enjoy them. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this fair prospect. For however vast the increase of knowledge and of power which the future may have in store for man, he can scarcely hope to stay the sweep of those great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe in which our earth swims as a speck or mote. In the ages to come man may be able to predict, perhaps even to control, the wayward courses of the winds and clouds, but hardly will his puny hands have strength to speed afresh our slackening planet in its orbit or rekindle the dying fire of the sun. Yet the philosopher who trembles at the idea of such distant catastrophes may console himself by reflecting that these gloomy apprehensions, like the earth and the sun themselves, are only parts of that unsubstantial world which thought has conjured up out of the void, and that the phantoms which the subtle enchantress has evoked to-day she may ban to-morrow. They too, like so much that to common eyes seems solid, may melt into air, into thin air.
* Project Gutenberg is the world’s oldest digital library. It places books into the public domain — most are older works that are thus out of copyright. This altruistic endevour began with the efforts of American writer Michael S. Hart in 1971. See for example: 📙 The Golden Bough. A similar project is called The Internet Archive. It provides free access to researchers and the general public. It’s mission is none other than to provide universal access to all knowledge thus far accumulated by human kind. See for example: 📙 Aftermath, a Supplement to the Golden Bough
❝ Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours. ❞
— John Locke
❝ Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. ❞
— Sir Francis Bacon
❝ If you do not like to read, you have not [yet] found the right book. ❞
— J. K. Rowling
The title’s linkage to the Bible’s chapter of the same name may serve to underscore the fact that Morrison’s novel addresses age-old themes — underscoring this contention is the fact that there is a lot of allusion to Homer’s Odyssey in Song of Solomon as well. The biblical book “Song of Solomon” by the way, depicts a conversation between two lovers, Solomon and a beautiful, dark-skinned Shulamite lady.
Furthermore, not only is Morrison’s Song of Solomon full of characters with biblical names but also, “Song of Solomon,” a.k.a. “song of songs,” happens to be the most erotic section of the Bible; indeed it champion’s the majesty of lovemaking (elsewhere in the bible sex is treated as a sinful act unless it is for the express purpose of reproduction). In Morrison’s Song of Solomon sexual gratification, lack of sexual satisfaction, and sexual rejection are key subtexts: one female protagonist for example is bereft of conventional sexual pleasure leading to a hinted at, somewhat unconventional, form of self-pleasure (think titillation from breastfeeding — according to the Ministry of Happiness: “A lactating mother may become sexually aroused during breastfeeding […] and this is not abnormal”).
Some say Song of Solomon is designed to spell S.O.S. (Save Our Soul) this too could equally be true — they are not mutually exclusive. (In terms of word play, just see how Morrison so expertly disects “cannon fodder” in her 1988 essay, Unspeakable Things Unspoken.)
In this summary and analysis of Song of Solomon, I’ll point to the following:
But first I shall dwell a bit on “Song of Solomon,” the otherwise austere, erotica-wise, Bible’s momentary lapse into Arabian Nights, Carnal Prayer Mat, Karma Sutra, Perfumed Garden -style poetry & prose. I say austere erotica-wise but let’s be frank! remember what Lot and his daughters got up to 😉 Never mind that though because we can more categorically say this: within this Hebrew and Greek tome, the pleasures of sex are rarely celebrated; all too often sex is equated with depravity, not ecstasy.
“Song of Solomon” is the anomaly. According to Ben Christian (2016), it contains, “unbridled horniness.” Examples include, “Going down to the nut orchard” (Song of Solomon, 6:11) and, spooning etc. (Song of Solomon, 2:6-7, 3:4-5 & 8:3-4). In one part of the Song, one can clearly visualise the progression as a lover progresses up the body of their beloved:
❝ [feet & legs] How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels / the work of a master hand. [between the legs & belly] Your navel is a rounded bowl / that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat / encircled with lilies. [breasts] Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. [neck & face] Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, / by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, / overlooking Damascus. [head & hair] Your head crowns you like Carmel,
and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses. ❞
— Song of Solomon, 7:1-3
In it, lovers spend a night among flowers that are blooming and blossoms that are opening. Part of the song is about pomegranates, which are swollen and red when ripe, and about mandrakes, which were considered the strongest aphrodisiac in the ancient world (O’Neal, 2018). Think the implication of the image of doors opening to every delicacy:
❝  Your neck is like a tower of ivory,
your eyes like pools in Heshbon
by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon
looking toward Damascus.  Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel,
the hair of your head like purple cloth—
a king could be held captive in your tresses.  How beautiful you are and how pleasant,
my love, with such delights!  Your stature is like a palm tree;
your breasts are clusters of fruit.  I said, “I will climb the palm tree
and take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes,
and the fragrance of your breath like apricots. ❞
— Song of Solomon, 7:4-8
She responds following the “W” in verse 9, completing his sentence and echoing her mutual desire:
❝  Your mouth is like fine wine—
W flowing smoothly for my love,
gliding past my lips and teeth!  I belong to my love,
and his desire is for me. ❞
— Song of Solomon, 7:9-10
In verse 11, according to Coogan (n.d.), the act of lovemaking has begun:
❝  Come, my love,
let’s go to the field;
let’s spend the night among the henna blossoms.  Let’s go early to the vineyards;
let’s see if the vine has budded,
if the blossom has opened,
if the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.  The mandrakes give off a fragrance,
and at our doors is every delicacy—
new as well as old.
I have treasured them up for you, my love. ❞
— Song of Solomon, 7:11-13
The imagery contained in those verses penned two and a half millennia ago are eloquent and enchanting; a world away from puritanical absenteeism.
“Song of Solomon” Digested
01. — Key facts & Characters
Fiction; a mix of social commentary, magical realism and bildungsroman (a novel dealing with one person’s formative years and/or spiritual education).
Omniscient narration (a literary technique of writing a narrative in third person, in which the narrator knows the feelings and thoughts of all the story’s characters).
Most of the story unfolds between 1931 and 1963 in an unnamed city in the State of Michigan and in (Part II) the States of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“Milkman” (Macon Dead III) & “Pilate” (Milkman’s paternal aunt — his dad’s sister).
Milkman’s mum witnesses the death of a delusional man — Mr Smith — who thinks he can fly… he jumps from a hospital roof but instead of flying with his homemade blue silk wings, he falls to his death.
Milkman wants to be independent and leave the family home [he wants to ‘fly’] but this is difficult because he’s used to his luxury lifestyle at home.
Wanting to escape his restrictive family home, Milkman plots to rob the gold he thinks his Aunt Pilate has… she doesn’t have gold.
After traveling from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Milkman finds a cave in which there was meant to be gold… there isn’t.
After finding no gold, Milkman focuses on a journey of personal self-discovery. He travels to Shalimar, Virginia, and unearths his family history.
Milkman himself (we are led to think) jumps from a cliff and tries himself to fly… does he live or die? That’s left up to us to decide…
The main protagonist (a.k.a. Macon Dead III), born into a sheltered, privileged life, “Milkman” lacks compassion, is full of self-pity, and alienates himself from the African-American community. However, his discovery of his family history gives his life some purpose.
Milkman’s paternal aunt and the novel’s secondary protagonist. Born without a bellybutton, “Pilate” is physically and psychologically unlike the novel’s other characters. She is fearless and always cares for and looks after others (she as responsible for Milkman’s safe birth — his dad wanted him aborted).
Milkman’s father (a.k.a. Macon Dead II) is obsessed with money and emotionally dead; he dislikes his sister Pilate and is never sexually intimate with his wife.
Milkman’s best mate (in Part I of the novel) grew up in poverty and hates white people — whom he sees as responsible for all evil in the world. In Part II “Guitar” becomes Milkman’s enemy and seeks to murder him.
Pilate’s granddaughter and Milkman’s lover (for a while). “Hagar” devotes herself to Milkman, even though he loses interest and frequently rejects her. Like her biblical namesake — a servant who, after bearing Abraham’s son is thrown out of the house by his barren wife, Sarah — Hagar is used and then abandoned by Milkman (she ends up dying of a broken heart). Her plight demonstrates a central theme in Song of Solomon: the inevitable abandonment of women who love their man too much.
“Macon Dead I”
Milkman’s grandfather (a.k.a, Jake) was abandoned as a small boy when his father, Solomon, flew back to Africa and his mother, Ryna, as a result went insane. Macon Dead I’s story ends up motivating Milkman’s quest for self-discovery.
“Ruth Foster Dead”
Milkman’s mum. “Ruth” feels unloved by everyone except her deceased father, Dr. Foster (she’s accused of being sexually intimate with him) and was also rather fond of breastfeeding Milkman way past the age of three — hence his nickname.
The first black doctor in the novel’s unnamed city (the father of “Ruth”). He was a self-hating racist who called other African-Americans “cannibals” and checks to see how light-skinned his granddaughters are when they were born.
Pilate’s daughter (a.k.a. Rebecca) she has a strong sexual drive but is attracted to abusive men.
“First Corinthians Dead”
Milkman’s sister (a.k.a. Lena).
A maid who worked for the wealthy Butler family and acted as the Midwife to delivered Macon Jr. and Pilate. In her later encounter with Milkman, Circe plays the same role as her namesake in Homer’s Odyssey — the Ancient Greek account of a lost mariner’s ten-year voyage home. Just as Homer’s Circe helps Odysseus find his way back to Ithaca, Morrison’s Circe provides crucial information that reconnects Milkman with his family history.
Milkman’s ‘grandmother’ who helps him connect the missing links of their family history through Solomon’s song.
Milkman’s great-grandfather, who supposedly flew back to Africa but dropped his son Jake (“Macon Dead I”) shortly after taking off. Solomon’s flight is a physical demonstration of the liberation that is felt when a person escapes confining circumstances. However, Solomon’s crying wife, Ryna, and traumatised children (including Milkman’s grandfather) show that such escapism tends to have negative consequences also.
A prostitute with whom Milkman linked up with off and on; demonstrate that the most gratifying relationships are those in which both partners treat each other as equals.
02. — Synopsis
Song of Solomon (SOS) is about searching for one’s origins.
Based on the African-American folktale about enslaved Africans who escape slavery by flying back to Africa (in an era before airplanes ✈️ were invented), SOS tells the story of “Milkman,” a young man alienated from himself and estranged from his family, his community, and his historical and cultural roots. He later goes on an odyssey to find these roots; ‘his’ roots.
The moral of this novel seems to be this:
One should know one’s roots, but should not get too fixated on the past at the expense of the here and now.
According to Toni Morrison, SOS is about the ways in which we discover who and what we are. She also suggests that fathers are integral to the survival of black families and the black community, “Fathers need to be physically and emotionally present in their children’s lives.” She points out however, that in contemporary American society, black fathers are often absent, leaving the demanding job of raising children to the mothers. Interestingly, to a certain degree, she depicts these men not as traitors or deserters but as strong, adventurous spirits responding to a powerful urge to move on and be free even if their children must ultimately pay the price for their fathers’ wandering ways [fly away, be free… mothers need not apply].
As Morrison said in a New York Times interview that touched upon SOS:
❝ The fathers may soar, they may leave, but the children know who they are; they remember, half in glory and half in accusation. ❞
Indeed, this is one of the points or main themes of SOS:
All the men have left someone, and it is the children who remember it, sing about it, mythologise it and, make it a part of their identity.
The novel’s narration comprises two distinct sections:
Part I — Chapters 01-09
Set in an unnamed town in the State of Michigan, It traces Milkman’s life from birth to the age of 32 and focuses on his aimless life as a young man. Mailman is caught between his father’s materialistic lifestyle and his Aunt Pilate’s traditional values. These chapters have a number of flashbacks for various of the book’s characters. We read that Milkman’s father, Macon, and Macon’s sister, Pilate, ran away from home after their father was murdered for protecting his land. However, after a disagreement between them, they each went their own way. Although both Macon and Pilate eventually end up in the same unnamed Michigan town, Macon refuses to speak to his sister, whom he feels is an embarrassment to his social position in the town. Part 1 ends with Milkman’s decision to leave Michigan in search of Pilate’s illusory gold — Milkman’s “inheritance” — which Macon is sure his sister hid in one of the many places she lived prior to coming to Michigan [including a cave].
Part II — Chapters 10-15
The second part of the book starts with Milkman’s arrival in Pennsylvania, where his paternal grandfather had built Lincoln’s Heaven, a prosperous farm for which he was killed. Unable to find Pilate’s gold there and prompted by the mysterious stories surrounding his ancestors, Milkman traces his ancestry to Virginia, where he meets his father’s “people” and discovers the true spiritual meaning of his inheritance. The novel’s ambiguous ending centers on Milkman’s “flight” across Solomon’s Leap — does he die like the delusional guy who thought he could fly in SOS’s opening lines… ?
In a nutshell:
Song of Solomon opens with the death of Robert Smith, who jumps of off the hospital roof (that Milkman was born in the following day) believing he could fly… Smith’s attempt at flight and his subsequent death function as the symbolic heralding of the birth of “Milkman.” A crowd of people had gathered to watch the attempted flight, including Milkman’s mother, his two sisters, his aunt Pilate, and his friend, later in life, Guitar.
Milkman is now four years old. He is disinterested in family life and that of the community around him too. Also, at four years of age, Macon is given his nickname, “Milkman.” This is a result of his mother still breastfeeding him at this age — she seemingly gets a form of pleasure and/or escape – when she gets caught in the act, the nickname results.
Discovering at age four that humans cannot fly, Milkman loses all interest in himself and others. He grows up nourished by the love of his mother and his aunt, Pilate. He is taken care of by his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene, and adored by his lover and cousin, Hagar. Milkman does not reciprocate their kindness and grows up bored and privileged. In his lack of compassion, Milkman resembles his father, Macon Dead II, a ruthless landlord who pursues only the accumulation of wealth.
Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead, received his odd name when a drunk Union soldier erroneously filled out his documents (his grandfather’s given name remains unknown to Milkman). Eventually, his grandfather was killed while defending his land. His two children — Milkman’s father and his Aunt Pilate — were irreversibly scarred by witnessing the murder of their father and became estranged from each other. Pilate has become a poor but strong and independent woman; Milkman’s father on contrast spends his time acquiring more and more money.
By the time Milkman reaches the age of 32, he feels stifled living with his parents and wants to escape to somewhere else. Macon Jr. informs Milkman that Pilate may have millions of dollars in gold wrapped in a green tarp suspended from the ceiling of her rundown shack. With the help of his best friend, Guitar Bains, whom he promises a share of the loot, Milkman robs Pilate. Inside the green tarp, Milkman and Guitar find only some rocks and a human skeleton. We later learn that the skeleton is that of Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead I. Guitar is especially disappointed not to find the gold because he needs the funds to carry out his mission for the Seven Days, a secret society that avenges injustices committed against African-Americans by murdering innocent whites.
Thinking that the gold might be in a cave near Macon’s old Pennsylvania farm, Milkman leaves his hometown in Michigan and heads south, promising Guitar a share of whatever gold he finds. Before he leaves, Milkman severs his romantic relationship with Hagar, who is driven mad by his rejection and tries to kill Milkman on multiple occasions. After arriving in Montour County, Pennsylvania, Milkman discovers that there is no gold to be found. He looks for his long-lost family history rather than for gold. Milkman meets Circe, an old midwife who helped deliver Macon Jr. and Pilate. Circe tells Milkman that Macon’s original name was Jake and that he was married to an Indian girl, Sing.
Encouraged by his findings, Milkman heads south to Shalimar, his grandfather’s ancestral home in Virginia. Milkman does not know that he is being followed by Guitar, who wants to murder Milkman because he believes that Milkman has cheated him out of his share of the gold. Milkman finds that Jake’s father, his great-grandfather, was the legendary flying African, Solomon, who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. Although Solomon’s flight was miraculous, it left a scar on his family that has lasted for generations. After an unsuccessful attempt to take Jake, his youngest son, with him on the flight, Solomon abandoned his wife, Ryna, and their 21 children. Unable to cope without a husband, Ryna went insane, leaving Jake to be raised by Heddy, an Indian woman whose daughter, Sing, he married.
Milkman’s findings give him profound joy and a sense of purpose. Milkman becomes a compassionate, responsible adult. After surviving an assassination attempt at Guitar’s hands, Milkman returns home to Michigan to tell Macon Jr. and Pilate about his discoveries. At home, he finds that Hagar has died of a broken heart and that the emotional problems plaguing his family have not gone away. Nevertheless, Milkman accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where they bury Jake’s bones on Solomon’s Leap, the mountain from which Solomon’s flight to Africa began. Immediately after Jake’s burial, Pilate is struck dead by a bullet that Guitar had intended for Milkman.
At the end of the book, Milkman re-enacts his great grandfather Solomon’s escape by choosing to fly [jump off a cliff] — whether his flight is successful depends on whether one judge’s his great grandfather’s escape as successful or mere whimsical myth.
03. — Analysis
Themes are the key ideas explored in a given literary work.
Theme #1: Flight as a Means of Escape
While flight can be an escape from difficult circumstances, it may also harm and traumatise those who are left behind. –
➥ Solomon’s flight allowed him to leave slavery in the Virginia cotton fields to go back to Africa was to fly Eastward across the Atlantic Ocean, but it also meant abandoning his wife and children. –
➥ Milkman’s flight frees him from his depressive home environment, but it is selfish because it causes Hagar to die of heartbreak. –
➥ Smith’s flight (or suicidal jump); the metaphorical flight of Pilate, who transcends the arbitrary boundaries of society. –
➥ Other allusions include references to birds (hens, chickens, ravens, peacocks) and to characters whose names allude to birds (Singing Bird, Susan Byrd, Crowell Byrd). – ***Song of Solomon’s Epigraph — Morrison’s non-fictional philosophical introduction — seeks to break the connection between flight and abandonment: Pilate is able to fly without ever lifting her feet off the ground, she has mastered flight, managing to be free of subjugation without leaving anyone behind [she does end up being shot dead but, never mind that].
Theme #2: Abandoned Women
The repeated abandonment of women by men in SOS highlights how the book’s female protagonists suffer a double burden: oppressed by racism and paying the price for men’s freedom [their flights of fancy]. e.g., after suffering slavery, Solomon flew home to Africa without warning anyone of his departure… his wife, Ryna, who was also a slave, was forced to remain and raise the children. – *** In Song of Solomon, Milkman is told that black ‘men’ are the unappreciated workhorses of humanity, but the novel’s events demonstrate that black women more correctly fit this description.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Symbol #1: Artificial Roses
First Corinthians and Lena — Milkman’s two sisters — make artificial roses that represent the stifling life of the upper class and the oppression of women. The roses do not bring in much money; the true purpose of the activity is to provide a mindless distraction from their boredom. –
➥ Typically in literature, living roses symbolise love, thus the artificial roses symbolise the absence of love in Macon Jr.’s household.
Symbol #2: Gold
Gold represents Macon Jr.’s obsessive pursuit of wealth — he spends a lifetime pursuing gold without any greater goal than getting more of it. –
➥ Typically in literature gold is depicted as being irresistible to man. Gold makes them forget right from wrong: Milkman robs his aunt, Pilate, because of Gold; Guitar’s desire for gold motivates him to try and murder Milkman.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Motif #1: Biblical Allusions
Toni Morrison gives her characters biblical names. Various characters in SOS carry with them not only their own personal history as described in the novel, but also the history of a biblical namesake. A good example is the biblical Hagar. She was is Sarah’s handmaiden, who bears Sarah’s husband Abraham a son and is then banished from his sight. In a similar way, Hagar in SOS is used by Milkman.
Motif #2: Names
In SOS, names show the effects of both oppression and liberation. Before Milkman uncovers his grandfather’s true name, he is known as Macon “Dead,” the same name that white oppressors gave his grandfather. When Milkman finds out his grandfather’s true name he begins to feel proud of himself and his family. –
➥ “Milkman” shows (1) the connection of the son to the mother — breastfeeding — and (2) that the family live off of the rent of others, they, as landlords, milk others… –
➥ “Circe,” for instance, shares her name with an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey who provides Odysseus with crucial help for his voyage homeward. Likewise, Morrison’s Circe directs Milkman toward his ancestral home and allows him to bridge a gap in his family history. –
➥ Guitar’s last name, “Bains,” which is a homonym for “banes,” or sources of distress. His name suggests both the oppression he has suffered and his profession as an assassin. –
➥ “Pilate” is a homonym for “pilot.” She guides Milkman along his journey to spiritual redemption.
Motif #3: Songs
In SOS, singing and songs are shown to be an important way to link the present with the past in terms of one’s roots and family history. –
➥ For Milkman, Solomon’s song contains the secrets to his inheritance, the path back to his “people.” –
➥ The songs Milkman hears about Solomon and Ryna inform him of the mysterious fate of his ancestors and keep him on the path to self-discovery. –
*** Understanding the significance of Solomon’s song is a key to understanding the novel. This is because it is the language of the song that eventually reveals the secrets of Milkman’s past. Once Milkman understands this he is able to view his life not simply as a series of random, disconnected events but as part of a vital link between the past and future.
Throughout Song of Solomon, characters’ abilities to manipulate language reveal their abilities to cope with reality. Note, for example, Pilate’s language, which incorporates puns, proverbs, parables, and folk sayings, and which flows freely from standard English, to black vernacular, to the poetic/sermonic language of the Bible, as opposed to Macon’s language, which is marked by literal statements, nonstandard English, and racial epithets.
Homeric epithets are compound adjectives, such as “wine-dark sea,” “bright-eyed Athena,” and “rosy-fingered dawn.”
Morrison’s use of Homeric epithets, underscore the message that this story of one young man’s quest for identity is part of the universal quest for identity common to all humanity. Examples used in SOS include: “the cat-eyed boy” and “the baked-too-fast sunshine cake.”
Toni Morrison expects us readers to note not only what is being said but what is left unsaid in Song of Solomon. As she points out in here 1988 essay, Unspeakable Things Unspoken:
❝ Invisible things are not necessarily ‘not there,’ [and] a void may be empty, but it is not a vacuum… Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves. ❞
➥ Think of Pilate’s missing belly button, which is conspicuous by its absence.
The first chapter of Song of Solomon sets the stage for the rest of the novel and points out its central elements: the theme of flight; the complex interplay of class, race, and gender; the significance of (Biblical) names and main characters.
— Also, the narrative’s unique structure: a mixing of the present, the past, and the future and presents numerous stories from various characters’ perspectives is introduced to us readers. Because the narrator functions only as a detached observer who simply reports things as they happen, the characters tell their own stories, and the community comments on or responds to these characters’ actions. This call-and-response pattern between the characters’ individual voices and the community’s collective voice originates in the African oral tradition.
— Moreover, we readers learn that Morrison demands ‘participatory reading.’ Readers of SOS are expected to fill-in the spaces of the narrative, connecting various seemingly unrelated details as they are revealed. [as a consequence, readers get apparently disjointed fragments of stories that are understandable only in retrospect — by additional information in later chapters.
❝ Set me like a seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as Death,
passion as harsh as Sheol:
its sparks are sparks of fire,
flames of the divine. ❞
— Song of Solomon, 8:6
Christian, B. (2016). Biblical Foreplay. Card Play.
Coogan, M. (n.d.). Sex in the Song of Songs. Bible Odyssey.
O’Neal, S. (2018). The Sexiest Chapter in the Bible. Learning Religions.
SparkNotes Editors. (2002). SparkNote on Song of Solomon. SparkNotes.
Washington, D. A. (n.d.). Song of Solomon. CliffsNotes.
This is a review of sorts of Robert Lane Fox’s 1991 The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible.
Fox, R. L. (1991). The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. London: Viking.
Robin Lane Fox, in The Unauthorized Version, sets out to discover how far biblical descriptions of people, places and events are confirmed or contradicted by historical fact: external written and archaeological evidence. As Penguin the publishers do say, “the bible is inspirational and endlessly fascinating but, is it true? From a rather different viewpoint Richard Dawkins — author of The God Delusion (2006) — says that “the God of the [bible’s] Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Dawkins also says:
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. ❞
With regard to The Unauthorized Version, Barton (1993) writes, anyone who hopes that this book will totally ridicule the bible and mock the religious establishment for continuing to propagate its stories as ‘gospel truths’ will be in for disappointment. I would say that Fox does his best to be objective and not offend those who still believe in religion. Another reviewer wrote that Fox’s work, “brings many examples that will help neophytes to probe the historical veracity of the bible” and that, “it is clear that there are lots of contradictions within and in between the bible’s stories.” I note that various reviews of this book consider that it is poorly organised — I myself would have liked a clearer chronology and for chapters of the book to follow the chapters of ‘The Book.’ Joel Swagman (2013) in his review of The Unauthorized Version provides the following sound advice to all wannabe book reviewers (a.k.a., me, Anna, Anna Bidoonism) and it is this:
❝ The cardinal rule of book reviewing is to review the book you’ve read, not the book you want/wish to have read. ❞
Now, I won’t even pretend that I’ve read all of this book and I am defiantly new to all of this (I’m a neophyte). I have tried a few times and I have dipped in and out. But what I see from this book is that a lot of the Bible is actually from stories that occurred well before Christianity itself was born. In fact, I am fascinated by the subject of this book because so much art and literature is based upon biblical stories. As an English Literature student, I see no alternative but to gain a good working knowledge of the bible, as it has become — for the Western canon — the most influential work of scripture… I mean, I mean, ‘literature.’ As they say, don’t shoot the messenger…
❝ Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours. ❞
— John Locke
Knowledge is key (and need not be value-laden)…
❝ The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ❞
— Anaïs Nin
In light of this, here are some interesting audios (along with partial transcripts, hats off to Yale) — I am talking well over 50 hour’s worth. I’ll say this, these audios are organised in a fully chronological way, not that Fox’s work was ever designed or meant to be. However, for me to one day be able to actually appreciate The Unauthorized Version and critique it in any meaningful way, I must first listen to, and read along with, these:
THE OLD TESTAMENT
39 parts: c. 1200–165 B.C.
• • • • • •
Divided into three groups: (A) ‘The Law’ or ‘Pentateuch’ which covers ‘Genesis’ to ‘Deuteronomy’ (B), ‘The Prophets’ and (C), ‘The Writings’ which includes ‘the Psalms’ (songs and prayers), ‘the Proverbs’ (sayings of wisdom) and ‘Job’ (the nature of suffering).
THE NEW TESTAMENT
27 parts: c. 50–100 A.D.
• • • • • •
Divided into two groups: (A) ‘The Letters’ or ‘The Epistles’ and (B), ‘The Gospels’ which includes the story of Jesus, ‘Revelation, ‘the Battle of Armageddon’, the tale of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the tale of the ‘Hideous Beast no. 666’ and, ‘the End of Days…’
The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome
Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their myths in the epic age of Homer
Other books & ephemera:
Martin, D. B. (2004). Inventing Superstition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Martin, D. B. (2010). Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press.
Hayes C. (2015). What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Barton, J. (1993). The Good Book and True. The New York Review of Books.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam Books.
Dawkins, R. (2011). The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. London: Bantam Press.
Fox, R. L. (1973). Alexander the Great. London: Allen Lane.
Fox, R. L. (1991). The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. London: Viking.
Fox, R. L. (2005). The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. London: Allen Lane.
Fox, R. L. (2008). Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer. London: Allen Lane.
Hayes C. (2015). What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Martin, D. B. (2004). Inventing Superstition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Martin, D. B. (2010). Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press.
Swagman, J. (2013). The Unauthorized Version. Random Book Reviews.
Having or showing a desire to kill and maim. — “He really was nothing more than a bloodthirsty dictator.”
To have sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behaviour. — “A capricious and often brutal administration.”
The killing of one’s son or daughter.
Relating to or involving the deliberate killing of a large group of people of a particular nation or ethnic group. — “He really was nothing more than a genocidal dictator.”
Having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people. — “Most religious texts contain homophobic tracts.”
A person who kills an infant, especially their own child.
To have or show a desire to do evil to others. — “There was a flash of dark malevolence in his eyes.”
A person who has an obsessive desire for power. [and/or] A person who suffers delusions of their own power or importance.
A person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against women. — “Donald Trump is a renowned and unrepentant misogynist.”
A person who is new to a subject or activity.
Relating to or tending to cause infectious diseases. — INFORMAL: annoying — “What a pestilential man!”
Characterised by or deriving sexual pleasure from both sadism (the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others) and masochism (the tendency to derive sexual gratification from one’s own pain or humiliation).
Having or showing a strong desire for revenge. — “The way he criticised her was far too vindictive in my view.”