Poetic Justice in “A Party Down at the Square” by Ellison

In “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”, Ellison argues elucidates the African-American experience in contrast to the solely “American” experience. “When the white American, holding up most twenth-th century fiction, says, ‘This is American reality,’ the Negro tends to answer ‘Perhaps, but you’ve left out this, and this, and this’…”

To do the American experience justice, Ellison wrote “A Party Down at the Square.” It describes the lynching of a black man, burning at the stake. What’s most incredible, is the justice of the “accidental” events that surround the burning. There is a terrible storm that wrecks havoc on the the town’s infrastructure for three days, a plane crashes in the near distance, causing electrical wires to whip about dangerously, striking a woman and killing her instantly, and finally, the airline line “is investing to find who set the fire that almost wrecked their plane.” In all this, Ellison is saying that when you lose a man (of any color), you lose much more than a man.

The most striking element of this short story is Ellison’s prolific use of the word ‘nigger’. It’s painful to read, used over and over , dozens of times, often once per sentence. Not only does it conjure the pain of the word, and the history of oppression, but sadly enough it does the opposite: it numbs us to the word and by the end of the story it doesn’t hold as much strength; it becomes somewhat normal to describe the black man as such (as horrible as that may be); this technique is effective to call attention to some of the hatred we have normalized.

The overabundance, I believe, is specifically to hedge the use of pronouns. Very seldom is the man given “he” or “his” but rather described in parts: “the nigger’s voice”, “the nigger’s hands”, and “the nigger’s feet”; he was mostly described for the color of his skin; the narrator demeaned his experience: “Every time I eat barbecue I’ll remember that nigger,” which emphasized the cruelty and barbarity of the “party.”

The only voice the African-American ever spoke was “Will somebody please cut my throat like a Christian?” He once more proved his humanity and his will; he entreated his fellow men to end his life swiftly and mercifully (the inhumane irony doesn’t escape me). One ignorant Jed replies: “Sorry, but ain’t no christians around….we’re just one hundred percent Americans.”

Ellison, influenced by T.S. Elliot idea of a corrupted and decomposing sense of morality, may be commenting on the lack of spirituality and the increasing secularism of American identity. Rather than be united against a common evil or towards a common good, they divide themselves into black/white, man/woman, rich/poor and so forth. In this brief dialogue, Ellison seems to remind Americans the lack of faith and values they once had upheld.

In the end however, despite a belief in the higher power, the higher power believes in them anyway. It seems that some greater justice is served (to the willful ignorance of the townsmen) when all the consequent chaos emerges (environmental turmoil, death of a white woman, legal battles etc). One ultimately hushed white cropper stated “it didn’t do no good to kill the niggers ‘cause things don’t get no better”. Instead of subduing African-Americans, the lynchings incite anger and revenge and leads to increased amount of escape attempts.

While Ellison didn’t present his “Negro characters [to] possess the full, complex ambiguity of the human” as he criticized other authors, but he did present a new American reality. He used poetic justice to represent the grueling experiences of “slavery, full citizen ship, stigma of color, and enforced alienation.” He demonstrates that to hurt one of our countrymen is to hurt all countrymen.

Naturalism in “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

“The Commodore sank. She lurched to windward, then swung afar back, righted and dove into the sea, and the rafts were suddenly swallowed by this frightful maw of the ocean. And then by the men on the ten-foot dinghy were words said that were still not words—something far beyond words. The lighthouse of Mosquito Inlet stuck up above the horizon like the point of a pin. We turned our dinghy toward the shore. The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here and now. John Kitchell of Daytona came running down the beach as he ran the air was filled with clothes. He dashed into the water and dragged the cook. Then he went after the captain, but the captain sent him to me, and then it was that he saw Billy Higgins lying with his forehead on the sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead.

This passage is how Crane describes the beginning, middle, and end of being stranded at sea after the sinking of the Commodore, a ship running contraband arms to Cuban revolutionaries. Nothing more, nothing less. This simple paragraph expanded to the 18 pages of one his most famous tales, Open Boat, leading us to the perennial, if not paradoxical question: is fiction more real than fact?

Crane is widely known as a naturalist: a movement marked by its description of realistic methods and subjects to convey a philosophical form: everything exists as a part of nature and can be explained by natural causes. He focuses on the shortcomings of human beings and the greatness of the ocean.

The cook, the oiler, the correspondent, the captain, and of course the sea are not just people against nature, they represent much more. The cook represents hope, and though the correspondent is our most relatable protagonist, he represents the folly of our reasoning against nature, and the oiler is best representing the idea of naturalism. What Crane could not explain in his article, he could convey in his short story the meat and bones of naturalism. After he paints the perfect picture of the perfect storm, a poor dinghy bobbing up and over and speeding downward then upward, over and over again, rocked by rocky-colored waves. Self-aware of this picturesque scene, the narrator denies that the characters would partake any pleasure from it:  “they had no time to see it… if they had leisure, there were other things  to occupy their minds”.

In the first dialogue of the story, we get a clear sense of the purpose of each character. They see land afar and the cook continues to talk hopefully about the house of refuge. The correspondent is skeptical and tells the cook all the reasons why there is no crew to rescue them on the island. The oiler then reminds them, realistically “We’re not there yet.” Here it seems that Crane is reminding us that neither worry nor hope serves as a guidance. The present is what needs to be the focus, the anchor of our mindset. Why worry about whether something is or isn’t? You’ll get there in a moment and see for yourself. There is no sense in getting emotional in anticipation of an event that hasn’t occurred.

One of the greatest example of how Crane shows us the immensity of nature against the debility of humankind is the scene with the bird which “struck them as gruesome and ominous”. It seemed as if the birds were mocking them. Stranded at sea, the four mates had to move in the most careful of ways, so as to not further rock the dinghy and capsize her. The seaweed was described as “steady islands” and  the birds as “uncaring” and “restful.” The birds flew around, perched on floating seaweed, and looked at them with cold, beady eyes, probably staring at these foreign creatures with curiosity and sympathy; the crew, to the bird, is certainly pathetic. The seaweed’s ability to remain intact and steady, coupled with the bird’s ease, tortured them. The ocean is great and immense and perfectly fine without human life. Human life is so small and so weak, and so vulnerable against the greatest elements of the earth.

We pretend to know so much, we grapple to know even more, we rationalize and reason what must and must not be, and yet the omniscient narrator clarifies the matter: little did they know that there was “no life saving station within 20 miles.” This very fact inspires fear to the center of the readers core: the crew is going to die. The entire next section of the story is the futility of their efforts. “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—-if I’m going to be drowned, why in the name of the seven made gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?….If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If  she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.” It is ridiculous on the verge of hilarious that the character confuses fate’s duty to man. Nature has no duty to man. It is like a man to think that he is entitled to some reward for his work. It is like a man to think he could “fire” nature or relieve her of her duty. What does man know of her?

As they confront death, they feel the most injustice toward the amount of hard work they had put in, only to die anyway. When people confront death, Crane argues, they first are angry, then wallow in self-pity and self-love, and finally understand their circumstance. This is naturalism. Of all the characters, only the oiler gets a name, highlight the importance of his role. His death is the only one and reinforces the idea that it is the end that meets us all.

What is Art? Part 1

People often ask me, after some time, for my definition or understanding of art. What is more important: to define or to understand? Art cannot be defined so it’s better to try and explain how it can be understood. The way I understand art is not definitive. Different kinds of artworks demand different standards and criteria, if not values. It is true for every discipline: how can you judge ballroom dancing the same way as hiphop? How can you judge a novel on the same terms as a poem? How could you compare techno to bluegrass? You can and you can’t; it is both true and unjust. Continue reading “What is Art? Part 1”

Wholesomeness in “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps I’m too biased to properly write about this short story: male dominant sea stories are my least favorite (My peers get a good laugh when I say that I love Moby Dick up until they get onto the water) . But I did it; I read it. It is a psychological adventure tale, simple enough to understand. It definitely had moments of suspense and certain pages had me hold my breath in fear for its characters. Overall, I’d not recommend it as a challenging read.

This story is about a young man Leggatt, who committed a murder upon the ship Sephora, a previous ship to which he felt he did not belong anyway; he was an outsider. Naked and cramped, he floated by the ladder, clinging for his life, and asked for the captain. The captain had already been engaged in conversation with him, and identified himself.  Thereon, the Captain (nameless, featureless, and narrating in first person) calls Leggett his other self. Continue reading “Wholesomeness in “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad”

Uncompromising: the Bilingual Mind

It’s always been difficult for me, as a teacher mostly, but as a person, to say no, absolutely not, I’m putting my foot down and won’t budge. I find it so unhealthy in the latter and necessary in the former. Definitely, this has caused some conflict at work and I’m beginning to wonder, for personal matters, if it is really the right way (at least I should lax or slacken my pace on my way to “perfection”)

I tend to associate unwillingness to poor communication skills externally and immaturity internally. I value the ability to listen to someone from ta place of empathy, receptivity, and openness; it is immature to always have your way and worse, throw a tantrum if you don’t get it. Apparently, to grow up means to convert this tantrum into violence or threat of violence. Unwillingness and stubbornness stall peace and understanding.

However, in Cisneros’ 1992 interview, in which she explains her bilingual style, she makes comments that are righteously uncompromising, in a way I admire and hold to great esteem. When the interview suggested that she translated her work internally, she corrected him: “Sometimes.” The interview agreed: “Not all of it.” She reaffirms: “No, I don’t have to.” Continue reading “Uncompromising: the Bilingual Mind”

Burnt House Items, “Barbie Q” by Sandra Cisneros

(If you’re extremely rich, please disregard this essay)

It seems like all we can ever get is the burnt house items: the items of last season or items on promotion, or items from the sales rack (shamefully hiding us in the back). So much of us pretend to afford things we can’t and when we can’t we fill our heads with the imagination of having them.

We tell the same stories over and over: new outfit, new technology, new car, new memberships, new toys. In the short story Barbie Q, when the girls first bought “Career Girl” and “Sweet Dreams” dolls, they were seen “skipping and humming” in joy, but quickly they saw “there! and there! and there! new dolls: Tutti, Todd, Skipper, and most importantly, Ken. The new dolls, in a matter of seconds, were love lost. Continue reading “Burnt House Items, “Barbie Q” by Sandra Cisneros”

The Trouble Left Unknown, Kate Chopin’s “The Storm”

Kate Chopin describes her writing method with ease: she writes in the morning, midday, and evening (but as she gets older she holds off on evening writing); she sits by a window where she can see some trees and the blue sky; she writes with a pen and ink from a grocery store; but the greater question is: why does she write?

She doesn’t give us an answer. She gives us an answer that is more satisfactory than an answer: “To seek the source, the impulse of a story is like tearing a flower to pieces for wantonness.” She continues to say that a story, if treated like a painting, won’t get you very far: “a trick, a mannerism, a physical treat or mental characteristic go a very short way towards portraying the complete individual in real life.” In “The Storm” it is impossible. Continue reading “The Trouble Left Unknown, Kate Chopin’s “The Storm””

Denial and Futile Redemption in “The Swimmer” by Cheever

Cheever, in “The Swimmer” mirrors his own life. Cheever was well-esteemed and affluent throughout his career until his life spiraled down the ugliest road of alcoholism (mixed with sedatives and other medications). His books went out of print and The New Yorker refused to publish his work. In 1975, he checked into a rehabilitation center.

Contrary to the popular belief writers gained no second chances, Cheever made a come back. He published a novel of redemption, honored on the cover of Newsweek, and won’t the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle  award, and for the first time in decades, was the first collection of short stories to dominate the bestseller list.

It seems the swimmer, Ned, is like Cheever. Despite the fatigue, and the confusion, and forgetfulness, and futility, he swam to the very end. He created his own competition in which no one was participating, he named it after a woman who no longer loved him, and though passing through, no one stopped him, no one encouraged him either. He withstood mockery and ridicule. He faced the vast emptiness of failure and even in the end it feels like your home has long since been sold, you’ve sacrificed it all: your home, your wife, your daughters, for….the swim…

Continue reading “Denial and Futile Redemption in “The Swimmer” by Cheever”

Minimalism, Art as the Process of Simplification

I’ve always yearned for a minimalistic approach to art in which I use the fewest words or lines to produce a final creation. There is a famous story of Picasso scribbling on a napkin in a cafe. A woman hurries to him and says, “Please, how much for the napkin?” “Excuse me,” he replied. “I want to buy the sketch on the napkin.” “Twenty thousand” “What!?” “Twenty thousand,” he repeated. “But it only took you two minutes,” she said. “No, ma’am, this took me 65 years.”

It will take time and sacrifice. T his story illustrates a message I fail to communicate to anyone,  though I try: somehow it just feels like I’m always learning even if I’m not trying. The more I do it, the more I understand, the more focus and attention and analysis I put in, the better I become, even if it’s a simple line. It’s as if every inch of that line held a year each. That line couldn’t have been drawn without those years and an intensity of concentration (years alone guarantee nothing but decomposition). Continue reading “Minimalism, Art as the Process of Simplification”

If “The Sun Also Rises” Were Written by a Woman

I open my eyes. 6 am. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. 8 am. I’m almost late. I leave at 8:20. I get on the wrong train. There are also delays. I arrive late at 9:10. The old man stole my chair. I got him another one. He gave me my chair back. All is right in the world.

I’m in a detention center. A place for criminals. A place where hearsay is rampant. Mundane but I keep busy. In the world of internet, how can anyone be bored?

Except for the old man. He has no phone, no computer, no internet. He sits. He stalks. He paces. But mostly talks shit. He’s a mystery. Continue reading “If “The Sun Also Rises” Were Written by a Woman”

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