Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In a time of conflict, returning to the beauty of Jean Toomer's Cane

While I don't wish to write out certain details of family life in a blog, I do want to talk about what happens when conflict persuades us to return to literature.

In my current case, conflict between other members of my immediate family has left me in an awkward position where I am asked to be a communicative link between non-speaking parties, a receiver of stories and emotional baggage, and a validation of an individual's self-perceptions. This has left me feeling boxed into a position I didn't ask to be in and I find myself resenting the requests to listen to someone else's stories of pain and disappointment, especially when I have to perform a forgetting of a painful past in order to offer the self-validation this individual is looking for.

So yesterday I picked up my copy of Jean Toomer's Cane and re-read the short story/play "Kabnis" that closes the work. While there are numerous ways to interpret the story -- for example, there is a good argument that it can be read as an autobiographical account of Toomer's own internal struggle to write --I wanted to return to the story because of how directly it investigates the dimensions of giving and receiving stories.

Two of the main characters, Kabnis and Lewis, are northern black men who have come south and are learning from the southern black people with whom they live and work about their lives and experiences in the red soil of Georgia. At one point in the story, Kabnis runs away when he cannot handle the stories of violence anymore, and at another, Lewis "plunges through the workshop and into the night" when he can no longer hold the pain he sees in Kabnis and his friends, even though he thought he could.

Are they cowards for running away? Is Lewis foolish to have thought he could hold so much pain from so many people? What happens when we can't hold stories anymore?

Of course, as I read and though about these questions, I realized Kabnis and especially Lewis were in positions where they seemed to be executing a lot of their own agency in selecting to receive these stories. So I then recalled a novel in which a character has stories thrust on him when he doesn't want to hold them. In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, the protagonist Milkman on multiple occasions has thrust on him stories about his family's past. In one case, he punches his father for hitting his mother and his father replies by confronting him with a story and the declaration that "you better have knowledge behind that fist" before you throw it next. The story which Milkman receives here is too much for him, and completely reconfigures his perception of his mother. Later in the novel, he hears an account of the same story from his mother, and the details are completely different. Milkman is overwhelmed by these stories, among others, but instead of running away he runs towards his past, to learn more.

Is Milkman more noble than Kabnis and Lewis? How does he transform a lack of agency into a presence? When one hears a story which is itself part of something larger, does one have a duty to pursue the larger story?

As I think about these questions, I find myself questioning my own resentment of the requests of this individual for me to hear her stories and validate her perspective in a conflict in which I believe she was very much at fault. Perhaps I should have knowledge behind the emotional fist of my resentment. Perhaps I have a duty to listen even if I don't want to, and perhaps I have a duty to seek the bigger story.

But what happens when I am a part of the story? And what happens when the validation being sought requires me to forget my own subjective perception of the details of the story?

It's easy for me to take refuge in my own righteousness, to remember the ugly which contradicts the validation being sought, and to resent the request to listen. It's easy to refuse to see the complexity and the beauty -- yes, the beauty -- of struggles between perspectives. There is one passage in "Kabnis" that I find particularly moving every time I read it:

"Kabnis is about to shake his fists heavenward. He looks up, and the night's beauty strikes him dumb. He falls to his knees. Sharp stones cut through his thin pajamas. The shock sends a shiver over him. He quivers. Tears mist his eyes. He writhes."

The mixture of beauty and pain in this passage so poignantly captures the complexity of the human experience that every time I read it I'm forced to reassess my own resentments and enshrinements of other human beings.

So I didn't really get any answers in returning to Cane and thinking again about Song of Solomon. But I did do the necessary re-thinking of my position and am now asking myself important questions about what it means to be part of a story that I hear being mis-remembered, when that mis-remembering is necessary for the emotional well-being of another individual. This is not to say I have lost sight of right and wrong, good and bad. There are certainly still things in these stories that were wrong or right, and there are better or worse things I can do in response to hearing them. But the point is that these moral "opposites" may not be so separable, kind of like the pain and beauty of being confronted with the star-lit night sky as your knees are scarred by sharp stone.


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