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”

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”

Escapism in “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

Paul is described to be fragile in physique and in character. “Paul was tall and very thin with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest” with abnormally large pupils and a tendency to wear flowers in his shirt pocket. In class, his teachers called him defiant, disorderly, and impertinent. The issue was that he didn’t hide his contempt; they complained that he made every physical sign—twisting away from their touch, shading his eyes, smiling at the wrong time, twitching, and gazing out the window–of withdrawal. For this, they wanted to suspend him. They wanted to suspend him. They wanted to suspend Paul simply because it made them feel insulted or uncomfortable; Paul was being punished for being slightly out of touch. “I didn’t mean to be polite or impolite, either. I guess it’s a sort of way I have of saying things regardless.” Is having no regard such an offense? The teachers finally realized that the boy was no defiant but had nervous tics and consequently they felt “humiliated to have felt so vindictive toward a mere boy”. The tables turn.

Paul is an usher at the local concert hall, where he gains access to and frequently enjoys the company of Gounod, Raffaelli, Rick, Augustus, and Alexandros of Antioch. “He was a model usher; gracious and smiling…nothng was too much trouble…as if it were his greatest pleasure in life…and all the people in his section thought him charming, feeling that he remembered and admired them.” Paul felt as if he were the host and was delighted, if not proud of himself and his status.

The juxtaposition of the settings reaffirmed what a place can make a person. In one, he is a mockery where pretentious and false persons openly expose their fangs and claws to rip the young boy to pieces; in the other, the “high” society of art, history, and culture, he is loved and adored. His smile is no longer a menace but of earnestness. Ironically, Paul subsequently looks down patronizingly at his teacher (who had been invited as charity), thinking “what business had she here among all these fine people and gay colors?” He decided that she was not “appropriately dressed and must be a fool to sit downstairs in such togs.” Paul had become as caustic and false as his teachers. He, like his teachers in theirs, had become too comfortable in his realm. Continue reading “Escapism in “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather”

Morality in Camus’ “The Guest”

Camus, in “Revolution and  Repression in Algeria (1958), writes on the burden of his writing: his words could unknowingly serve as justification to radical commentary or to radical action, especially in the “drama of Algeria” (Camus wrote specifically on the struggle Algeria endured seeking independence from French colonialism). Camus denounces the elitism of ideology and separates himself from those who think “one’s brother must die rather than one’s principles.”

In “The Guest”, a man only referred to as “The Arab”, is arrested and brought to Daru, a local educator, by the Corsican policeman, Balducci. Balducci has been ordered and orders Daru to deliver The Arab to the police. Daru refuses, it is beyond his scope of duty (as a teacher) he says but, Balducci insists that in times of war, one’s duty is one’s country takes on new forms. This painfully reminds me of our current country’s dilemma with equipping teachers with firearms to protect children from school shootings. Is it truly the duty of a teacher to do this, even in the most dire of times? Daru still refuses, though he agrees to sign Balducci’s papers, which passes the responsibility of the prisoner onto Daru. Continue reading “Morality in Camus’ “The Guest””

The Burden and Lightness of Choice in “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Garden of Forking Paths is a ‘garden’ created by P’engs’ great grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, who renounced a life of science and politics to write a novel and construct a labyrinth. Stephen Albert, the keeper of the Garden, enlightened P’eng (and us): that they were the same task. “Everyone imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same.” It is a story of infinity.

The Garden of Forking Paths is the life of choice. It is a story that describes the endless possibilities of a single choice; it tells us all the conceivable outcomes. In one regard, it leads to dread and anxiety and in another, it leads to acceptance: this is just the way things are.

Simultaneously, you should feel the burden of choice an the lightness of surrender. The burden is knowing that you will never be able to have another chance to enact an exact sequence. It is the case that:

a) A -> B -> D  and
b) A -> C -> E  and
c) A -> C -> B -> F

Continue reading “The Burden and Lightness of Choice in “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges”

Music and Witness in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

It is undeniable that Sonny’s Blues is purposefully ambiguous in its title: it is about music and his sorrows. Sonny’s blues are little brother’s blues. In a way, in our own lives, we always have some “older brother”: someone looming over us telling us what to do or shitting on our dreams as a form of love out of “what’s best for us” (exactly what are you going to do with that “Art” degree?).

Sonny mopes around the house wanting to drop out of school to become a musician. his father isn’t having it, probably for witnessing his own brother’s death. His own brother (sonny’s uncle) was flattened, reduced to wood, “blood, and pulp.” The wood was his guitar. Walking in the moonlight, Sonny’s uncle (a teenager at the time) was run overr by drunk drivers, drunk enough to want to scare him, too drunk to swerve out of the way, white enough to keep driving. Sonny’s father wouldn’t let this happen again, not on his watch.

Oddly enough, the story is told in first person narrative through Sonny’s unnamed older brother (who I shall now refer to as OB). OB is as clueless as he is stable (clueless therefore stable?). He’s so far out of the loop but it’s safe there because in the loop of Harlem, is darkness, Baldwin writes. In the loop there is the cycle, and the cycle affects everyone; the wisest way it was put was through Sonny’s mama: “It aint a question of [Sonny] being a good boy or his having good sense. It ain’t only the badness, not yet the dumb ones that get sucked under.” Why is it that we want maximum punishment for those who have wronged us and that we want minimum punishment (and maximum empathy) for those who we have wronged? Continue reading “Music and Witness in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues””

The Mythology of Sexes: Secrets, Lies, and Doubt in Atwood’s “Happy Endings”

The first three sentences of “Happy Endings”:

“John and Mary meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A”

Readers, I did not read A. This essay is on the secrets, lies, and mythologies between the sexes and on what makes up the “good stuff” of writing.

Happy endings don’t make good stories. If life was a story, I’d want a good story, not a plain one, and a story in which all goes well isn’t any good, and quite short, to be frank. When I finally read “Ending A”, Atwood gathered all sources of happiness together into a basket–love, marriage, sex, great friends, great jobs, vacation, kids with help, retirement, and stimulating hobbies—and it wasn’t enough. It isn’t a story you’d read or a movie you’d watch, so how can that be considered a life worth living?  Continue reading “The Mythology of Sexes: Secrets, Lies, and Doubt in Atwood’s “Happy Endings””

Color as Words, Anderson’s Brand in “Hands”

This essay first sheds light on how Anderson’s background in advertising influenced the climax of “Hands” and secondly, analyzes art’s influence in the shape of the writing. I’ll share how Stein (poetry) and Russman (painting) influenced Anderson, as written in “Words Not Plot Give Form to the Short Story”

Let us acknowledge that Anderson  spent fourteen years of his life as an advertising copywriter. Before we get the chance to start the first sentence, the title commands us to leap into the rabbit hole of associations. What comes to mind when we think of hands? Labor. Craftsmanship. Perhaps something precious, like touching a baby’s head, or carefully performing surgery, or pressing the keys of a piano to create a nocturne.

What of their gestures? To what extent do we realize or attend to the good or evil of our hands? (Lady Macbeth comes to mind). In “Hands”, Wing Biddlebaum is the “angel” and Adolph Myers (Biddlebaum’s previous name) is the “devil”. For Wing, his hands flutter. For Adolph, they touch little boys. For Wing-Adolph, they are horror.

Anderson repeated the word “hands” ad nauseum: the word appears in all paragraphs except three. Anderson uses the word eight times in a single page: HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! (which left me thinking to myself: WHAT ABOUT THEM, ANDERSON? TELL ME!) If this isn’t advertising strategy, I don’t know what is.  Continue reading “Color as Words, Anderson’s Brand in “Hands””

Dialectics and Radical Acceptance in Achebe’s “Dead Man’s Path” and “Modern Africa as the Crossroads of Culture”

Achebe writes “Dead Man’s Path” to illustrate the folly of foreign intrusion: whether that is the white against black, the new against the old, or rather a clash in cultures. The protagonist, Michael Obi is a young, unimpressive man who has large ideas to beautify and renew the local, traditional school. He held rule over the teachers and buildings; his wife, Nancy, was concerned with her version of authority: she held dominion over the wives of the teachers and the beauty of the place (flowers, fauna, etc.,).

The conflict arises when an elderly Ani village-woman crosses the modernized campus. After denigrating the woman and casting her away, Obi obstructs the path with thick wooden beams and barbed wire to prevent further crossings. The villagers’ priest warns him and tells him to clear the path of the shrine to the burial grounds. Obi laughs and rejects the old man three times, though the priest only spoke twice, and held himself in silence for the third time: “I have no more words to say.” Obi could not let the white Supervisor see such silly rituals upon inspection, and so disregarded the omen.

The next day, Continue reading “Dialectics and Radical Acceptance in Achebe’s “Dead Man’s Path” and “Modern Africa as the Crossroads of Culture””

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