Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Language of Time

As an undergraduate, I presented research at an EIU student research symposium about Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild”—the title story to her collection of shorts entitled Bloodchild and Other Stories. Although I primarily focused on how gender and power operates between the Terrans and Tlics, I decided to revisit the text in comparison to Kindred, which was something I had never read before.

In “Bloodchild,” Butler writes of a strange world where Terrans, which are similar to humans, co-exist on a planet with the Tlics, which are a species of insect-alien hybrid host horrors unable to reproduce with their own kind. Instead, the Tlics rely on the Terrans to pass on their offspring by feeding the hosts with Tlic eggs (which function as a sedative) before slipping an ovipositor under the skin and planting eggs in the Terran host’s stomach. When the eggs hatch, they begin to consume the host’s flesh, so it is the Tlic’s job to help the Terran “birth” the eggs and welcome the new creepy-crawlies onto the planet.

“Bloodchild” functions in a way that is similar to Kindredcomplications and complexities influenced by the generations of the past, present, and future. Because of the species’ co-dependence on each other, the Tlics and the Terrans must create a forced multi-generational connection between them. Terrans mark their coming-of-age with the host process, thus ending their childhood through (supposedly) abandoning the past and marking a continuation of the future.

But things just aren’t that simple. Throughout the text, the language creates an echo, where Terrans long for a time where their bodies are not used for the gain of another species or another group of people. The concerns of the past correspond with the agency of the present, yet the reproductive cycle between the two species must continue to secure the future.

Although written several years prior to “Bloodchild,” this concern with past, present, and future within Kindred is just as valid. Dana and Rufus’s relationship functions in ways that mirror the co-dependency of the Terrans and the Tlics. Despite being enslaved and abused by Rufus, Dana has to preserve his life as a way to protect her own. What is starkly different about the two texts, however, is the presentation of time.

In Grosz’s The Nick of Time, she contends that for Darwin, “life is essentially linked to the movement of time.”  Grosz argues, “In [Darwin’s] writings, being is transformed into becoming, essence into existence, and the past and the present are rendered provisional in the light of the force of the future. . . that time, along with life itself, always moves forward, generates more rather than less complexity, produces divergences rather than convergences, variations rather than resemblances” (7).

Darwin’s work sheds some understanding on how time functions in a biological sense. As a species, we are always moving forward—biology prevents the earth from devolving, which in turn, places the past in binary opposition with the future. What Butler seems to be saying in Kindred, however, disregards this notion of the linearity of time. The past and present are not “rendered provisional” in regard to the future, but rather carefully considered, as Dana must navigate the space between the past and present in relation to the future. Dana realizes that the danger she is in extends beyond her family and the language she uses in this reflective moment even models rhetoric of time. Butler writes, “The danger to my family was past, yes. But the danger to me personally… the danger to me personally still walked and talked and sometimes sat with Alice in her cabin in the evening as she nursed Hagar… I was not free” (234). Even though she is able to return to the present (future), her past (present), and the danger to her own physical past, influences how she reacts during the moments in which she fades back in time. When she discusses how she and Kevin are removed from the past and are simply “observers watching a show” (98), she realizes how important it is for her to act, because the past and present have the power to entirely sculpt the future—even beyond her and Kevin.

The conversation between Dana and the moments of time also extends to her relationship with Rufus. Butler writes: “I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationships” (230). Despite how awful Rufus is to Dana, she has to merge the time gaps and consider herself not as a woman put into the past, but as an extension of that very past she is navigating.

Butler writes: “I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched—growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe” (68). Dana seems to realize that despite her position in time (or for the reader, in the narrative), her actions are limited by the way time operates. Because Rufus’s fatherhood “would happen some day in at least one way,” Dana seems to understand that her interference, no matter how powerful, might not be able to carve out the future.

This is similar to when she claims, “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands” (191). Once again, Dana’s language implies something more complex about time. It isn’t specifically Rufus’s time or demands that will kill her, but rather “it” and “its”. Dana is more concerned about the restrictions of time itself rather than her own position within it. She recognizes that other than the moments where she is able to bring herself back into the present, she cannot manipulate the events taking place within her historic past.

With “Bloodchild,” Butler seems more intent on describing the aftermath—an alternate reality that expands Kindred into a place of co-dependency where time operates as a way to measure the seasons of reproduction and death. Considering Darwin’s writing, one can assume that time does indeed always move forward, but when (past) time is moving forward at the same rates that present and future time are also moving forward, how is anyone able to manipulate the past?

Losing Time

            Losing time can be a frightening experience. When you realize what you’ve lost you may break into a cold sweat, or like me, you may have an intense panic attack. When you lose time, you often lose so much more than seconds, minutes, hours, days, even years. You lose your sense of security, you lose your footing, and you may even feel like you’ve lost your mind. Realizing that you’ve lost time can certainly be scary and it can happen at any moment. Coming out of a period of lost time can be confusing and surreal and requires a necessary period of adjustment. In Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, the notion of losing time is expertly detailed and described every time Dana moves from 1976 to 1819 and the decades that follow. Butler writes with great skill the panic and adjustment involved in losing time.
            Three years ago I suffered a major depressive episode, or a nervous breakdown as it’s commonly called. I remained in this episode for two years and to be honest, I’m still fighting to stand on my own two feet again. This episode has proven to be important and pivotal in my life in many ways but since I’ve been acclimating myself to think about literature and the world in terms of time, I’ve learned that this nervous breakdown has been pivotal in my understanding of time, especially losing time. Three days in the hospital felt like a month, a night without sleep felt like years had passed, and the sound of laughter or a smile lasted only seconds. My complicated mental health status caused a loss of time, but more importantly, the medications I was prescribed to help usher me out of the breakdown were also responsible for my lost time. Sometimes, the pills made me drowsy and “stoned” and hours would pass without notice, day would turn into night and I was none the wiser. Other times, the pills would make me sleep for days on end and when finally I awoke, I had lost all notion of time, not knowing what time or day it was, nor how long I had been asleep. Another of the “helpful” medications I was on caused me to blackout on a regular basis. The next day, I would sit, terrified, being told all of what I had said and done the previous day… Like make important phone calls, cook elaborate meals and drive my car. Losing that time, losing that sense of security, often made me cry. I felt so confused and so scared. I would erupt into fitful panic attacks and my whole being was filled with bewilderment. So, when Butler writes of the time Dana loses when she travels across time and space, I am listening closely and I understand the fear and anxiety alive in Dana when she suddenly leaves 1976 for 1819 or the other way around.
            On page 135 of Kindred, Dana tries to explain the strange time phenomena she endures each time she is called to him, how time stretches on while she’s with him but only minutes or hours have passed in her own timeline:

“When I came to you at the river, it was June ninth, nineteen seventy-six for me. When I got home it was still the same day. Kevin told me I had only been gone a few seconds.”
“Wait. Let me tell it all to you at once. Then you can have all the time you need to digest it and ask questions. Later, on that same day, I came to you again. You were three or four years older and busy trying to set the house afire. When I went home, Kevin told me only a few minutes had passed. The next morning, June tenth, I came to you because you’d fallen out of a tree… Kevin and I came to you. I was here nearly two months. But when I went home, I found that I had only lost a few minutes or hours of June tenth.”
“You mean after two months, you…”
“I arrived home on the same day I had left,”.

After this bizarre explanation, Rufus, trying to make sense of it all in his limited understanding, replies, “But Dana, you’re saying while I’ve been growing up, somehow, time has been almost standing still for you” (136). Later, on page 196, Dana has just returned home, hungry to find out what day it is so she turns the radio on to a news station: “A moment later, the announcer mentioned the day, confirming what I had thought. I had been away for only a few hours. Kevin had been away for eight days. Nineteen seventy-six had not gone on without us.”
            Throughout the novel, Dana, and to some extent, Kevin, experience the mind warping loss of time. When transported to Rufus’s timeline, they must acclimate quickly as that acclimation is the only thing keeping them alive. When they cross back over into their own timeline, they no longer have to act as though they’re fit for another time and it takes them longer to settle back into their home life. After each time-travel experience, the adjustment to slave life becomes easier for Dana, as she has spent more time there, and the adjustment to home becomes more surreal and difficult to manage.
Throughout and defining her time spent in her own timeline, Dana can never relax, can never expect to stay, can never fully heal or become comfortable. She prepares herself and waits for Rufus to call her again to his own time, where time passes in months and years, not hours or days.

We often take for granted the passage of time. It moves regardless of what we do or how we use it. However, when time is lost to us, it’s like a limb has been severed from our bodies. We know that something deeply, profoundly personal has been taken from us. As we would search for answers as to why an arm has been amputated, we search for answers as to why time was stolen from us, and who or what stole that time. Like marbles spilled across the floor, our minds scatter as we try to puzzle our missing time back into our memories. Butler describes this scattering better than anyone I’ve read before, making sure to disclose to her readers the disorientation and anxiety Dana feels each time she crosses timelines. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “Sequence raveled out of sound-“, a line befitting this subject matter quite appropriately, when time does not follow a simple, linear path.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Breaking the Cycle of History

            A few years ago, I was introduced to Tom Stoppard’s brilliant 1993 play Arcadia. It follows two separate yet intertwined stories: one taking place during 1809/1812 and the other in present day (1993). The scenes go back and forth, occurring in the same place but different times. As the play progresses, time hops back and forth between scenes, ultimately converging the two storylines so that they are performed concurrently. During several moments of this final scene, the characters in the separate time periods seem to mimic each other in their actions – poring over a diagram and dancing among them.
            I fell deeply in love with the play. The way Stoppard blends history and the present together is skillful and insightful. Toni Morrison does the same in her novel Jazz. By blending together different moments in time, Morrison exposes for the reader how important the past is to the “now” and how tied current events are to history. Even as she argues that claim, however, she also demonstrates how the past can break free from the ties of the past and how the cycle of history can be broken. Through these different moments in history, Morrison weaves a complex tale about a couple who ultimately choose to break from that repeating record.
            In the first half of the novel (separated into unmarked sections in order to soften the divide between stories and time), Violet makes an unlikely friend in Alice Manfred, the aunt of the girl Violet’s husband had slept with and then murdered. Naturally, Alice Manfred at first despises and holds a deep grudge against Violet. During a conversation between the two at Alice’s home, Violet unintentionally reminds Alice of the fact that Alice’s own husband had cheated on Alice with another woman. When Alice thinks about this experience, she reminds herself that she “was starving for blood. Not his. Oh, no. For him she planned sugar in his motor, scissors to his tie, burned suits, slashed shoes, ripped socks. Vicious, childish acts of violence to inconvenience him, remind him. But no blood. Her craving settled on the red liquid coursing through the other woman’s veins” (Morrison 86). Alice, in the same situation Violet is in, feels the same desire during her own ordeal, for seven months during the affair. Before she could do anything about it, however, her husband dies, and to Alice, it becomes too late to do anything to the other woman. She still does not forget, however, the intense rage she felt at the other woman.
            The experiences of these two women are similar. Their husbands commit adultery, and the women feel incredible anger toward the other woman. Both stories also end in a death, although the death differs in the victim and the way the victim dies. Morrison ties Alice’s past to Violet’s present in an attempt to connect not only the two women but also history to current times. History has repeated itself for Violet just as it has done for countless other women. The cycle is vicious almost always creates these negative outcomes. For both these women, the outcome is extreme: death.
            Just as Violet experiences the repeating of history, so too does Joe. As he begins to hunt for Dorcas on that fateful, icy day in January, he also reflects back on another hunt earlier in his life. Joe was abandoned as a baby and was raised with his friend Victory. As many people are wont to do, Joe wants to learn more about his mother, whom he assumes to the woman named Wild, and why she abandoned him. He searches for her three times. The first time, he merely sees her but leaves, deciding against approaching her (Morrison 177). The second time Joe searches for his mother, he does not see her but believes he hears her in the dark. He asks her for a sign as to whether or not she is his mother, but is unsure as to the response.
            His third hunt is woven in with his description of his search for Dorcas. In his third hunt, Joe returns to the place he found Wild before. He finds a crevice that is home to some kind of domestic life, but he does not find Wild. When he hunts for Dorcas, he assures the reader that he “isn’t thinking of harming her, or, as Hunter had cautioned, killing something tender. She is female. And she is not prey. So he never thinks of that. He is hunting for her though, and while hunting a gun is as natural a companion as Victory” (Morrison 181). Joe believes Dorcas rejects him only because she is young and still not in control of her emotions. He truly does not set out to hurt her in the beginning, but unfortunately when he arrives at the scene, the reader knows that changes because he sees Dorcas with Acton, her new lover. This hunt ends differently than Joe’s hunt for his mother. He achieves his mission by finding his goal.
            By intertwining these two different hunts during different times in Joe’s life, in an almost Oedipal kind of structure, mixing lover for mother, Morrison again brings to light the idea of history repeating itself. Joe has done this before. Three times before, in fact. He is skilled at this type of work, and yet both times, the outcome is not quite what he expects. He expects to find his mother, but she does not show. He expects to confront Dorcas and reaffirm their relationship, but he loses himself and commits murder, shooting Dorcas in front of her new lover and friends. Something larger than Joe is at play during these moments. He becomes trapped in a cycle that has doomed him to failure.
            Even though Violet and Joe seem to be trapped in these cycles, Joe in a personal cycle and Violet in a societal historical cycle, the narrator is astonished that they break free from what would be expected of their lives moving forward. The narrator starts off the novel very assuredly, stating, “Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too” (Morrison 3). From this attitude, we see that the narrator believes he or she knows the characters intimately. The narrator knows them in public but also catches glimpses of their private lives. In the last section, the narrator declares, “I thought I knew them and wasn’t worried that they didn’t really know about me” (Morrison 220).  Now the narrator knows that he or she only knows a facsimile of the characters. They are aware of the narrator all the time. They present themselves and perform for the narrator who does not know the true intimate details of the characters’ lives. The narrator explains,  “I was sure one would kill the other…I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle” (220). Because this scene has played out millions of times throughout history, the narrator was sure it would happen again. Joe and Violet have been stuck in their own repeating cycles their entire lives, and so they should continue now. But they don’t. Instead, they choose to break out of the confines and reaffirm their love for one another.

Although the past heavily influences the present, Morrison demonstrates the possibility that people can break free from what history dictates they should do. Joe has been brutally beat by policemen earlier in his life, and so violence begets violence historically, and he kills someone else. History repeats itself all the time. Joe and Violet, however, finally manage to break free, showing that it is possible. Morrison’s presentation of the passage  time in the novel, seamlessly melting between one story and another, almost never in chronological order, highlights the deep connection between history and the present and how the past still has an enormous amount of influence on the events of today.

Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers

While reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz, I was reminded of John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire: the similarity of elusive (and intrusive) narrators, the musical language, time shifts, ambiguous narratives, and the authors’ vivid analysis of city life amidst social turbulence—the inspiration, the alienation, the necessity of sanctuary.  The heart wrenching effects of familial loss/yearning and disassociation are thoroughly explored in both works.

In Jazz Golden Gray laments his need to know his father’s identity, to discover himself through his true lineage: “Only now…now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everyone was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery…It’s a phantom I have to behold and be held by, in whatever crevices it lies, under whatever branch” (158).

Gray’s feeling of loss mimics Wideman’s authorial intrusion in Philadelphia Fire, as the latter copes with the loss of his son, who remains in prison to this day for mysteriously murdering his friend (both teenagers) in 1984: “The photos of generations set my head spinning because in the face of time they are a record of its incomprehensibility but also its finitude, its peculiar, visceral, sensuous availability. We all swim in the sea of time…We can believe for an instant in this ocular proof, the photo we possess…The photo, though mysterious, offers proof and promise. The lost child, the parent who grieves for the lost child owns an emptiness as tangible as a photo. Think of a leg that’s been amputated. Then think of the emptiness where it once was…No word for a space where the absence of a leg is real, the pain is real” (119-20).

Because we lack adequate words to define the crippling pain of familial loss, Wideman and Morrison have provided shifting narratives held together by none other than the reader, who, like the narrators of Philadelphia Fire and Jazz, are subjectively voyeuristic, experiencing the troubles of the characters vicariously.  To tell the characters’ story chronologically would be, in a way, deceiving the reader, who should experience firsthand the drifting/shifting consciousness of the various characters in order to better identify with the psychological turmoil (and elation) that occur when the past and present merge and memory becomes the ultimate sanctuary
Memory holds the secret to suffering and salvation in Jazz.  Like the photo of Wideman’s son offering “proof and promise,” the photo of Dorcas that Violet showcases keeps the young girl’s spirit very much alive: “For Violet, who never knew the girl, only her picture and the personality she invented for her based on careful investigations, the girl’s presence is a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere” (28). Yet the presence of the photo, or more specifically, the living memory of Dorcas, eventually unite Joe and Violet, who face their past mistakes head on (as well as their warring disparate selves, that Violet with this Violet), and with the help of Felice, are able to act reconcile and live in the present, whatever that means!

Jazz teaches us that the horrors of the past can be so palpable for some that they seem impossible to rectify.  Morrison breaks the fourth wall to tell the reader, “So I missed it altogether I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle” (220).  Even Morrison seems not to know her own characters, who are eerily aware of her meddling presence: I thought I knew them and wasn’t really worried that they didn’t really know about me. Now it’s clear why they contradicted me at every turn: they knew me all along…they were whispering about me to each other” (220).  Joe and Violet’s renewed love escaped even their creator.  Morrison seems to be pointing out that we all tend to be quick to label people (including literary characters).  Joe and Violet have done horrible things but they aren’t villains, “badguys,” or the like—they are all-too-human.

In a way, Morrison’s characters have helped shape her (i.e., if we believe that she is the narrator).  She envies [Joe and Violet’s] public love” and their amusing makeshift memories.  She reminds us “where [our] hands are. Now” (229)—on the book we are reading, free to make and remake the stories in our own interpretive manner, forever breathing new life into the text.  In Philadelphia Fire, Wideman prompts the reader to “pretend we can imagine events in and out of existence. Pretend we have the power to live our lives as we choose. Imagine our fictions imagining us” (97-98).  With memories, we can either dwell or embrace the redemption that lies sometimes just beyond reach of our disparate selves.