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.

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”

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””

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”

Magical Disenchantment in “Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi. Review.

If vanity could kill, this book would be murder. Oyeyemi’s tale is winding; the plot twists and turns in every direction. The characters are full of evil and charm. There is a specific darkness to the retelling of this Snow White tale that allows certain themes to shine so brightly. In a subtle and disorienting manner, a way I could only describe as magical disenchantment, Oyeyemi addresses themes of vanity, gender, parenting, race, and education.

Boy is abused by her terrible father, the rat catcher, who would “accidentally” let pans fall on her or worse, seduce her with food only to later tie her to a chair and let the blind rats chew at her face. Having had enough, Boy runs away, runs to the station, and buys any ticket that is far away enough. She lives in a boarding house but is shunned slightly for not having any skills or talents.

She has a gentleman caller, Charlie, her true love, write to her. But it is Arturo Whitman who ultimately gains her hand in marriage. Whitman has a little girl Snow, whose beauty enchants everyone, even Boy. Boy loves Snow and if only she had let herself, would be the mother she always wanted and never had. Snow loves Boy and welcomes the new baby; in fact, she chooses the name: “Bird for a boy and Bird for a girl.”

Bird is born and immediately Boy gets accused of cheating on her husband. Continue reading “Magical Disenchantment in “Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi. Review.”

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””

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