UNDERSTANDING THE SYSTEM OF BINARY OPPOSITIONS
The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. (Kate Chopin 106)
The new philosophies of knowledge and power emerging from the gender, environment, and sustainable development discussions and the analyses on which they draw represent the return of the Enlightenment others—the return of women, nature, and “backward cultures” from positions of more than instrumental value (at best) in modernity’s thinking. (Sandra Harding 147)
In the following chapter I will introduce phase one of the disruption of the system of binary oppositions in order to enable an understanding of how this system works, and the results of the duality that the system functions within. As I have earlier demonstrated in the Introduction, this phase is a beginning towards understanding and disrupting the system of Western thought that allows the subjugation of women and minorities as it allows the subjugation of all that is considered Other, with all the variations that this term suggests: women, nature, third world, non-white, and so on. Defining this as a phase will remind my readers and myself that it is a process that is necessary to revisit frequently as we try to understand and change the system that subjugates us, and not a process that is to be explained, applied to the world around us, then neglected as we move towards the proceeding phases. Any successful disruption of a system will only be possible if we are constantly aware of the reasons behind our need to disrupt it. This phase will therefore serve as a threshold for reminding us of the justifications behind the ongoing process of disrupting the system of patriarchy that insists on a bifocal division of the world.
The perception of the world in terms of binary oppositions leads to an instant hierarchical evaluation of these binaries, rendering one side of the binary a more worthy equivalent to the other side. The “more worthy” side of this binary will need to be constantly asserted as such, and in order to insure its position on the top of the bifocal ladder, this side will seek to devalue the “less worthy” side of the binary. This chapter will demonstrate how one side of the binary in its insistence on asserting itself tries to eliminate the other side as it sees in it a perpetual enemy and a threat to its own legitimacy as the “better” binary.
In this process by which one side of the binary asserts itself by eliminating the other side, however, it is the first side that will also become a loser that deprives itself of all the advantages that it might gain from the other side. Western thought devalues all that is Other (women, nature, and allegedly backward cultures), and in this de-valuation it is not able to gain the knowledges that this “Other” possesses. However, as the opening quote from Sandra Harding states, current debates on gender and environmental issues, coupled with the literary attention to these debates, has enabled a better understanding of what these “Others” might provide. We are becoming more aware of the dangers and the losses suffered from this erasure of one side of the binary.
Western thought rests on a dualistic belief that sees that there are two sides to everything, a good side and a bad side. The good side will therefore insist on erasing all that it considers bad. Needless to say, one of the problems with such a mentality is that it neglects to comprehend that the judgment as to what is good or bad falls in the hands of a select group of people who are limited in their perception to their own backgrounds and mindsets. This group of people is the one that is more powerful at a certain time and that insists on remaining powerful; its power deriving from a range of sources spanning from economic reasons to educational ones, and from political reasons to religious ones. Jean-Françoise Lyotard explains this in The Postmodern Turn:
When we examine the current status of scientific knowledge—at a time when science seems more completely subordinated to the prevailing powers than ever before and, along with the new technologies, is in danger of becoming a major stake in their conflicts—the question of double legitimation, far from receding into the background, necessarily comes to the fore. For it appears in its most complete form, that of reversion, revealing that knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, this question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government. (8-9)
Power remains in the hands of those with power: economic, political, religious, or educational, while the other groups who are not as privileged are denied the right of expressing their opinions and their forms of knowledge. The view as to what is good and what is evil therefore remains limited to a certain group with no chance for other groups to refute or to question this view as those with power will resist any viewpoints that are not in concord with their own and will seek to assert their own thoughts and beliefs by presenting them as the only legitimate ones. A circle is thus drawn around certain types of people with certain systems of thought, refusing the entry of anything that is “Other” and striving to draw even sterner boundaries as to what could be included in this circle.
This view or system of thought has its own disadvantages that do not only fall on the less privileged. As I have earlier suggested, by refusing to allow these other views to assert themselves, the powerful group deprives itself of any knowledge that it might gain from other voices. For example, Sandra Harding explains how colonial expansion, in its devaluation of other cultures’ values, has deprived itself of their knowledge:
Eurocentric colonial frameworks . . . had represented other cultures’ knowledge traditions as the products of “savage minds,” superstitions, magic, or mere speculation, inextricably mired in religious and other cultural beliefs, or as mere technological knowhow. Other cultures had local knowledge systems, but only modern science produced claims that were universally valid, according to the Eurocentric view. (155)
What happens, therefore, is that in the assertion of certain beliefs and values, Western thought deprives itself of the benefits of other values and beliefs because it deems them savage or superstitious.
In the name of science, then, nations and peoples are erased from the face of the earth, their systems of thought dismissed as inferior, and their peoples forcefully integrated into the more dominant systems, only to discover soon after that they possessed knowledge and power that these dominant systems are striving to gain:
Expansionist state power makes it possible to forage in other cultures’ knowledge traditions, to test hypotheses in non-European environments around the globe, and to destroy, intentionally or unintentionally, those other traditions that could have created competitions for modern scientific claims and practices. (Harding 154)
This destruction of other cultures is becoming strongly manifested also on a material level nowadays as science begins to discover in those same rainforests that were destroyed in the name of science and advancement remedies and solutions for problems that science fails to solve.1
Asserting certain beliefs necessitates that we define what beliefs are to be asserted, or rather whose beliefs these will be. Through the same dynamic of knowledge and power that Harding and Lyotard talk about, the side of the binary that is elevated will need a justifying force that keeps it elevated. This force will come from certain people who gain from such elevation, and, to keep the legitimating force stable, these certain people will need to create for them an identity that distinguishes them from those who do not share their goals. Identities are thus constructed and boundaries set in order to decide what defines this identity, what belongs in this identity and what is excluded from it. Those excluded from this identity will not have the right to question or discredit the side of the binary that is elevated by this powerful group.
In the assertion of this identity certain criteria are drawn in order to exclude those who do not belong. Race, sex, class, and religious orientation, are only some of these criteria that are set to distinguish one’s identity from the next. Thus my identity, for example, will be based on my being a Kuwaiti Moslem woman from the middle classes. Any person who does not fall within these certain criteria does not share my goals; therefore my struggle and life do not include them. They do not concern me because they are not like me. And of course I can make my identity even more specific, excluding even more people from it who are not married, who have no children, who do not have a higher education, and so on. It becomes necessary for that identity to be limited and defined, and in this definition any category that is not included in this certain identity becomes excluded. In a larger context this need to limit identities is manifested in the need for racial groups, for example, to exclude people from other racial groups whose beliefs and views differ from theirs.
Literature provides us with examples of how this exclusion works as the binary system of thought becomes a tool for erasing other people’s knowledge and cultures. Literature can demonstrate how identities are constructed around an exclusive parameter that rejects those who do not belong. Among the strongest sets of work I have come across which deal with these issues of inclusion and exclusion are the novels of Toni Morrison. In many of her novels, she seeks to question this necessity to categorize and draw lines or construct boundaries (Gray n. p.). And one of the best cases she represents is found in her recent novel Paradise.
In this novel, one of the most vivid barriers the people of Ruby set around themselves is their dark skin color. One of the inhabitants of Ruby sets at designing a genealogy of Ruby’s establishing families and finds that their distinguishing mark is a visible one:
All of them, however, each and every one of the intact nine families, had the little mark she had chosen to put after their names: 8-R. An abbreviation for eight-rock, a deep deep level in the coal mines. Blue-black people, tall and graceful, whose clear, wide eyes gave no sign of what they really felt about those who weren’t 8-rock like them. (193)
Therefore, any newcomers to the town, especially those who are not 8-rock, are quickly made to feel as outsiders if not even inferior outsiders. For example, Patricia Best, the town’s school teacher, explains how her mother was treated when her father first brought her to live in Ruby, and how her death was caused mainly by the fact that the people of Ruby were more willing to mock an outsider than to help her (206).
In this novel, a group of black families attempt to build a community for themselves because they were refused entry into other black communities. They would like to perfect this community so as not to be in need of those other communities who rejected them. In their effort to build their own paradise, however, these families have appropriated those same concepts that have led to their exclusion from other communities. The people of Ruby established a town with boundaries around it that excluded any members who are not in agreement with their definitions of true blackness. A reverend who is new to the town contemplates what makes this community different:
What was it about this town, these people, that enraged him? They were different from other communities in only a couple of ways: beauty and isolation. All of them were handsome, some exceptionally so. Except for three or four, they were coal black, athletic, with non-committal eyes. All of them maintained an icy suspicion of outsiders. Otherwise they were like all small black communities: protective, God-loving, thrifty but not miserly. (160)
They are all 8-rock and the only type of people they are willing to put up with are 8-rock like themselves. A group of people who were denied entry into other black communities because of their pitch-black color are reversing this same mentality and refusing other people entry into their own constructed paradise.
In this novel Morrison toggles with the very important question of “why paradise necessitates exclusion” (Mulrine n. p.). Why, this novel asks, is there always a need to close doors and construct barriers? The idea of binary thinking that is most vivid in Western thought rests on the need to draw lines and erect boundaries, to include and exclude.
Paradise is a novel about a place called Ruby, founded by seven to nine families—the number varies according to who calculates their number and when this is being calculated, a reminder again that knowledge of any type changes according to its source and its time—who, in retaliation against the struggles they faced in finding a place to live, and the rejection they felt from other black communities, have decided to construct their own community in such a way as to exclude from it any outsiders, therefore setting their own boundaries and refusing to take from their nomadic hardship anything better that the laws of those who caused them this hardship. One critic describes Ruby as “Aloof and proud, it is as hostile to strangers as the community that turned away the poor black trekkers and marked them by its rejection,” (Mantel n. p.) Ruby therefore becomes a closely-knit community, where an outsider becomes instantly an enemy, as Patricia Best tells Reverent Misner (212).
Iris Young argues that this ideal of community, although constructed to help its citizens in finding their place in life, remains a dangerous endeavor since it indicates certain inclusions and exclusions, “because those motivated by it will tend to suppress differences among themselves or implicitly to exclude from their political groups persons with whom they do not identify” (300). Community therefore becomes another tool that serves to deny differences and set boundaries and limits. And this is what is demonstrated to us through Morrison’s work.
As a community that sees itself in isolation from all others, and insists on maintaining this isolation and proving its worthiness, Ruby refuses to identify its own role in its destruction. When trouble begins to surface in the town the town elders have no one to blame it on but outsiders; and in this novel those outsiders happen to be a group of women living in a former convent eight miles from their town:
Outrages that had been accumulating all along took shape as evidence. A mother was knocked down the stairs by her cold-eyed daughter. Four damaged infants were born in one family. Daughters refused to get out of bed. Brides disappeared on their honeymoons. Two brothers shot each other on New Year’s Day. Trips to Demby for VD shots common. And what went on at the Oven these days was not to be believed. So when nine men decided to meet there, they had to run everybody off the place with shotguns before they could sit in the beams of their flashlights to take matters into their own hands. The proof they had been collecting since the terrible discovery in the spring could not be denied: the one thing that connected all these catastrophes was in the Convent. And in the Convent were those women. (11)
These nine men decide that the only way to get the town back on its feet, and to rid it of all its trouble, is to “take matters into their own hands” and eliminate the women in the Convent, and hence to clear the town from those who are deemed harmful outsiders.
In this process, the Convent becomes a sort of scapegoat or a peg on which the town hangs its mishaps. It becomes a symbol of all from which the town wishes to purify itself. And when conflict stirs between the town members, the arrival of the convent women reminds them that the evil that causes this conflict exists outside their town and is personalized in these women. The following analysis explains:
As the townspeople begin to lose their own convictions and succumb to the uncertainties of the times, they come to identify these unknown women with evil, and to use the Convent as a scapegoat for the anger and conflict that have overtaken their town. Tensions between the two communities rise, culminating inevitably in an act of violence. (“Paradise by Toni Morrison” n. p.)
During a wedding ceremony that is vexed by the conflicts between the families of the bride and groom, three of the convent women appear, causing all the attention to rivet on them, and causing the town members to forget their own fights and to blame them all on the Convent women (160-62). Thus the anger caused by the fall of Ruby becomes manifested in the women in the Convent.
In this context Paradise resembles another of Morrison’s novels, Sula. There, the town criticizes one of its returning citizens, and through this criticism, and attack on another person, the town people begin to modify their own acts:
Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. (117-8)
Thus mothers become more caring of their children because Sula is believed to be cruel to children, daughters becomes more attentive of their old mothers because Sula is believed to be cruel to her grandmother, wives begin to make an extra effort to please their men because Sula is seen to devalue these men. In Sula, as in Paradise, non-conformists and outsiders are harmful and need to be eliminated.
What makes these certain outsiders harmful in Paradise is not so clear-cut, even though their not being 8-rock might be a main factor. Although Morrison leaves open to our own reading to decide the color of these women, it is evidently clear that one of them is indeed white for the novel begins with “They shot the white woman first.” But there are other factors that contribute to their being termed harmful outsiders: these are not typical women like the ones in Ruby. One of the men who went to the Convent to kill the women wonders what makes these women different from those women in his own town:
What, he wonders, could do this to women? How can their plain brains think up such things: revolting sex, deceit and the sly torture of children? Out here in wide-open space tucked away in a mansion—no one to bother or insult them—they managed to call into question the value of almost every woman he knew . . . Yet here, not twenty miles away from a quiet, orderly community, there were women like none he knew or ever heard tell of. (8)
The Convent women are simply different from the women of Ruby because they exist outside Ruby’s community and its ethics. This difference brands them harmful and worthy of men’s malice as they are seen as the danger that lurks around Ruby. Their murder then becomes inevitable from a people who are set at building their own safe haven especially when those harmful outsiders seem to begin their penetration into Ruby’s life.
But different or not, these women possess a threat because they are women. Their value system and thinking system might simply differ from that of men, but it is a difference that is not tolerated by those men. It is also a difference that is hard to integrate in the male world of the rational and scientific. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule, in a study on women’s ways of knowing, explain how women’s ways of thinking are excluded by patriarchal modes of thinking:
Because of the high value Western technological societies have placed on objectivity, rationalism, and science, women and modes of thought cultivated by women have had relatively little impact on the values and directions of modern-day society. (72)
The women in Ruby are shown to have such different ways of thinking also, but theirs has been subdued by living under the protection of their men, unlike the women of the Convent who were “out here in wide-open space tucked away in a mansion—no one to bother or insult them” (8).
Again this idea of women’s modes of thinking and its subjugation by patriarchy is manifested in Sula as we are presented with the two main characters Nel and Sula, and reminded that while Sula was raised by a mother who “never scolded or gave directions” (29), Nel’s personality, on the other hand, was constructed by her mother’s meticulous upbringing as “any enthusiasms that Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground” (18). Like Sula, therefore, the women in the Convent, living away from the rules of patriarchy, were more able to express their imagination, but by such they became enemies to the people of Ruby in the same way that Sula became the enemy to the People of the Bottom.
In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard discusses two types of knowledge by which societies function: narrative knowledge and scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is that which is governed by reason and the rational, and narrative knowledge is that which is governed by people’s consent (23-25). Paradise can be taken to demonstrate these two types of knowledge, with the Convent women representing narrative knowledge and the people of Ruby representing scientific knowledge. In the Convent, logic as we know it does not exist. What exists is a condition of living that is legitimated by the people themselves, as is the condition of people in a culture of narrative knowledge according to Lyotard:
In a sense, the people are only that which actualizes the narratives: once again, they do this not only by recounting them, but also by listening to them and recounting themselves through them; in other words, by putting them into “play” in their institutions—thus by assigning themselves the posts of narratee and diegesis as well as the post of narrator. (23)
And as the three women play the roles that Connie assigns them in her attempt to purify them, they legitimate her “narrative” by becoming themselves narratee and narrator (262-65). In Ruby, however, the rules of scientific knowledge are played as we see in the image of senders and receivers of knowledge that is manifested in the discussion that happens between the adults and the youths around the oven (83-87). The adults are relentlessly the senders of knowledge since they claim to have been there when the oven inscription was made, and the youth are receivers of this knowledge. Truth statements are therefore necessary for scientific knowledge:
Scientific knowledge requires that one language game, denotation, be retained and all others excluded. A statement’s truth-value is the criterion determining its acceptability. . . . In this context, then, one is “learned” if one can produce a true statement about a referent, and one is a scientist if one can produce verifiable or falsifiable statements about referents accessible to the experts. (Lyotard 25)
The consensus needed to legitimate these kinds of arguments is moreover only that of a certain class of people as is the condition of scientific knowledge demonstrated by Lyotard (30). This class of people consists of the town elders in Paradise.
And as scientific knowledge dictates the lives of Ruby’s men, the people of Ruby are naturally inclined to question the knowledge system of the women in the Convent while the Convent women are more tolerant of the people of Ruby since theirs is narrative knowledge which does not need to be the only legitimated knowledge:
Narrative knowledge does not give priority to the question of its own legitimation and . . . it certifies itself in the pragmatics of its own transmission without having recourse to argumentation and proof. This is why its incomprehension of the problems of scientific discourse is accompanied by a certain tolerance. . . . The opposite is not true. The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation of proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children. (Lyotard 27)
And so in Paradise the Convent and its “narratives” become questioned and compromised by the men of Ruby, and its knowledge eliminated.
As Morrison tackles this question of what it is to be tolerated and how paradise comes to be defined by exclusion, the Convent women versus the men of Ruby are not the only motif she uses to employ this exclusion. Throughout the novel there is an appraisal for difference, variety, and flexibility, while sameness, which requires strict definitions, is criticized. In a reference to one of the stores in Ruby, we read that this particular store has flourished under the hands of Anna Flood because of the variety she has employed in maintaining it:
In Anna’s hands, Ace’s Grocery blossomed through variety, comfort and flexibility. Because she let Menus cut hair in the back on Saturdays, incidental purchases rose. Because she had a nice toilet downstairs, casual users felt obliged to become customers before they left. Farming women came in for peppermint after church; the men for sacks and raisins. Invariably they picked up a little something more from the shelves. (120)
Moreover, the exclusions necessitated by the need to define borders and limitations also gets to be introduced in Paradise when one of the women in Ruby, Dovey, responds to the arguments about the writings on the oven by thinking:
“Beware the Furrow of His Brow”? “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Her own opinion was that “Furrow of His Brow” alone was enough for any age or generation. Specifying it, particularizing it, nailing its meaning down, was futile. (93)
Dovey prefers to leave the interpretation of what is written on the oven open so that it can incorporate both the youth of Ruby and its older founders. For her, this insistence on defining the writing is unnecessary since it limits its meaning.
This view is reflected in Morrison’s own opinions in regard to any definition. In one of her interviews, Morrison refused to acknowledge herself as a feminist because she refuses to identify with any –isms, seeing them as limitations only. When the interviewer Zia Jaffrey asked Morrison why she distances herself from feminism, Morrison responded:
In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can't take positions that are closed. Everything I've ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book -- leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think it's off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I'm involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don't subscribe to patriarchy, and I don't think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it's a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things. (n. p.)
Her novels, therefore, become an analogy of the limitations forced by closed positions and closed doors that refuse the entry of other ideas, or what Lyotard might term, other systems of knowledge.2
The world of women is one such place where other systems of knowledge exist. But it is a world that is completely rejected by men as they set the boundaries for their own world, one that is set around the idea of closed doors. Thus we find constant reminders in Paradise of women’s open-mindedness and men’s refusal to listen to their women. “For they were just women, and what they said was easily ignored by good brave men on their way to paradise,” the narrator reminds us (201). Patricia Best narrates the story of her mother’s arrival into Ruby, and the rejection she experienced from the citizens of Ruby, a rejection that cost her her life when they refused to bring her outside help while delivering a baby. This refusal to help, however, Patricia tells us, came only from the men of Ruby:
The women really tried, Mama. They really did. . . . But none of them could drive then. You must have believed that deep down they hated you, but not all of them, maybe none of them, because they begged the men to go to the Convent to get help. . . . All of the excuses were valid, reasonable. Even with their wives begging they came up with excuses because they looked down on you, Mama. (197)
This was a world of women, open-minded to all, questioning of none, and tolerant of all. But the world constructed by the men of Ruby is a limited one that is built around exclusions, however well excused these exclusions may seem.
Belenky and her co-authors refer to a study by Gilligan and Lyons that demonstrates how this behavior of women—here exemplified in Ruby’s women—is oriented towards responsibility, while in contrast the behavior of the men is one oriented towards a logic of rights:
They [Gilligan and Lyons] have shown how the responsibility orientation is more central to those whose conceptions of self are rooted in a sense of connection and relatedness to others, whereas the rights orientations is more common to those who define themselves in terms of separation and autonomy. Although these differences in self-definition do not necessarily divide along gender lines, it is clear that many more women than men define themselves in terms of their relationships and connections to others. (8)
Therefore, we find the women willing to help when the need arises while the men only make themselves available when it is a matter of right and wrong; the Convent women’s behavior having been argued as wrong, the men find no solution but to eliminate them.
Morrison introduces us throughout Paradise to a world of women that was able to exist outside the laws of patriarchy. And although the men of Ruby may have succeeded in driving those women out of the Convent, they have not been as successful in eliminating the knowledge and the mode of thinking that the women were able to construct during their life in the Convent. Jacqueline Rose, in introducing Lacanian views on feminine sexuality, explains how women possess a different kind of knowledge because femininity is constructed outside the laws of the symbolic world, and how this knowledge can be retrieved when women are able to live apart from this phallic symbolic world:
The objective is to retrieve the woman from the dominance of the phallic term and from language at one and the same time. What this means is that femininity is assigned to a point of origin prior to the mark of symbolic difference and the law. The privileged relationship of women to that origin gives them access to an archaic form of expressivity outside the circuit of linguistic exchange. (54)
And as the women in the Convent were able to live outside the rules of Ruby, and hence the rules of patriarchy, they were able to have access to this “archaic form of expressivity” as we read of the rituals Connie asks the women to perform (263).
In Sula, Morrison also introduces the main character who defies this patriarchal system by refusing to conform to what is expected of her as a female. Sula tells about two women who represent two different forms of femininity. While Nel becomes the typical wife and mother who fulfills her society’s expectations, Sula is a rebel to all societal values in her refusal to become a typical woman.
Although readers of Sula might be tempted into rating these two characters into the good/bad dichotomy, Morrison forces us away from applying this dichotomy through techniques that make us aware of the limitation of such dualistic thinking. She presents a place called the Bottom and the history behind the blacks living in the Bottom in such a way that it alerts us to the shifting meaning of the words top/bottom. A place located on the top of the hill is called the Bottom by the white slave-owner deceiving his freed slave into believing it to be “rich and fertile” (5). Later in the events there is another reversal as this land does indeed become rich and fertile in a sense when “only rich white folks were building homes in the hills” (166). The Bottom then is actually top hill called the Bottom in order to deceive its future owner into believing it to be of high value. Later, however, it acquires this high value indeed when it begins to be appreciated by rich people.
Drucilla K. Barker explains how difference, which is perceived necessarily as hierarchical in patriarchal society, needs to be thought of outside this hierarchal framework:
Dissolving or rethinking the gender dualisms intrinsic to the Enlightenment project requires disentangling difference from a hierarchy of values and reassembling a vision of female subjectivity that will recognize multiple axes of identity, as well as the variously situated, variously embodied nature of the female subject. (85-6)
In order to avoid falling into that same trap of seeing hierarchy in difference, we need to accept the differences that exist between Sula and Nel as such, without any attempt to categorize them into a hierarchy. To accept people’s differences means that these differences are not to be evaluated into the good/bad dichotomy. One critic of Sula sees that it is the ability of the Bottom to accept these differences in its inhabitants that allowed it to flourish in its earlier years, only to sink into demise when it started to question the values held by its “different” inhabitants such as Shadrack and Sula:
The values that had held the Bottom together, its ability to accept eccentricity and evil, to find a place for everyone—the mad, the mean-spirited, the decrepit included—begin to break down. And the neighborhood disperses, disappears into the drift of the dominant culture, continues to exist only in reified form, as part of a generalized African American “community.” (Novak 187)
Maybe this is what will happen to Ruby after the Convent women have disappeared from its outskirts. No longer tolerant to the differences that those women add to the lives of men and women in Ruby, the town, like the Bottom, will exist only “as part of a generalized African American ‘community’.”
A psychoanalytic reading of the novel perceives Sula and Nel as sometimes the same character, or two faces of the same character:
Sula and Nel represent two parts of a psychological self: individually or apart, Nel is the superego or the conscience, and Sula is the id or the pleasure and unconscious desire of the psyche; together they form the ego, the balance between the superego and the id, and what is usually considered to be a single identity. (Coleman 150)
Yet another critic reminds us that “Sula and Nell are not the same person; they are distinct people with different personalities who nevertheless manage to become like a single entity by accepting their differences” (Wilson 29). Whether two sides of the same character, or two distinct characters, the important thing is that they have learned to live together and tolerate each other. The differences that exist between Sula and Nel do not prevent them from learning to coexist.
They begin to fall apart, however, when Nel marries and begins her process of conforming to society’s expectations of her.3 And as she takes the role of dutiful wife, she begins to incorporate the value system of the society around her, a system that refuses to tolerate outsiders like Sula and insists on categorizing her into the good/bad dichotomy. So again, as in Paradise, the two girls were able to construct their own system of thought and to tolerate differences until the time when society’s influence begins to affect them. Sula escapes this influence initially by leaving the Bottom, much like the women in the Convent who choose to live away from the men of Ruby. Nel, however, remains within the society’s parameters, like the women in Ruby, and is thus incorporated into their system. Sula, also, soon begins her own “descent,” as one critic describes it, into society’s expectations as her stay in the Bottom is extended:
Morrison purposely represents Sula’s “descent” into domestication in a trance-like, unconscious state, which double underlines a woman’s danger of losing her self, especially when she is under the illusion of having a perfect relationship. Even for an unconventional woman like Sula the seductive power of the romance plot still prevails. (Feng 103)
But it is through Sula’s death in the end that she is finally able to escape society’s rule and the need to conform to these expectations (Feng 97).
Death as an escape from patriarchy’s rule is a theme that has long been recurrent in works by women writers. Failing to conform to society’s expectations on what a woman should be like, many female writers have introduced us to female characters who choose, instead of giving up their own way of thinking and knowing, to plunge into water and allow death to free them from these rules. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is one of these works that portrays the main character’s plunge into water when she finds that she has to perform a role of femininity that does not accommodate her. Instead of conforming to society’s expectations of her as a devoted wife and mother, Edna Pontellier commits suicide.
As we read the story of Edna Pontelllier’s awakening we are made aware of her earlier submission to the rules that dictate what a woman should be like. Like the women who live within Ruby’s parameters, and like Nel, Edna was willing, initially, to perform her role as dutiful wife and to repress any feelings she had that might stir her away from her marital duties. Yet like the daze that Sula felt when she began her “descent” into conformity, Edna’s earlier submissions to her husband were done “unthinkingly”:
She would, through habit, have yielded to his desire; not with any sense of submission or obedience to his compelling wishes, but unthinkingly, as we walk, move, sit, stand, go through the daily treadmill of the life which has been portioned out to us. (51)
Because she grew up believing it to be her expected role, Edna did not question her expected submission to a life that does not appeal to her and the responsibility that it seemed to carry with it, “a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her” (37). She moreover begins to consider those new feelings she is having as “devilishly wicked” ones “by all the codes which [she is] acquainted with” (105). Edna was forced to discredit her own feelings because they oppose patriarchy’s definition of true femininity.4
Eventually, however, Edna begins her “awakening” and starts realizing that the kind of life she has been leading “was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui,” a life that seemed to her to be of a “colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind contentment” (78). And as she begins to question this life, she becomes aware of her unwillingness to conform to such a life and at the same time of her need to conform occasionally so as not to “appear unamiable and uninterested.” So when Mrs Ratignolle instructs her to cut the pattern for her children’s winter clothes, Edna gives in, but with the realization that such concerns do not worry her (27).
Such realization of the double role she has to play brings her to an early realization that she has possessed as a child as to the dual role she has to play in life:
Even as a child she had lived her own small life all within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions. . . . [but] That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen a little the mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her. (32)
Her awakening in that summer made her revisit feelings she had as a child, when such reserves had not yet taken a strong hold of her. Here is Edna remembering earlier feelings she had as a child:
The hot wind beating in my face made me think—without any connection that I can trace—of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist. She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water . . . I was a little unthinking child in those days, just following a misleading impulse without question . . . sometimes I feel this summer as if I were walking through the green meadow again; idly, aimlessly, unthinking and unguided. (35)
Kate Chopin seems to link women’s submissions to the roles expected of them to their growing older, much in the same way that we see in Sula Morrison’s attention to the effect of growing up on the lives and beliefs of Sula and Nel.
Juliet Mitchell explains Lacan’s theories of sexuality and femininity in the following passage:
To be human is to be subjected to a law which decentres and divides: sexuality is created in a division, the subject is split; but an ideological world conceals this from the conscious subject who is supposed to feel whole and certain of a sexual identity. (26)
This explanation brings us back to Edna Pontellier and the “split” that she saw between the life she desires and conceals and the one she loathes but lives. The “ideological world” of Edna concealed from her the division of her person until she was awakened into “becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world” (Chopin 79).
When she becomes fully aware of her concealed self, Edna chooses suicide, thus proving Mademoiselle Reisz’s words: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (106). Edna flutters back to earth because she attempts to “swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (47). She soon discovers, however, and again like Reisz had told her, that she does not possess the “courageous soul . . . that dares and defies” (85).
The problems that the binary system projects as it portrays the world in two opposing forces are the result of the insistence on ranking these two opposing views into a hierarchy. This hierarchy forces readers, of the world and its knowledge systems, to regard certain views as a more acceptable way of living while rejecting others as less acceptable. This dictates that certain people have to conform to certain ways of living so as not to oppose the definition of them that this system assigns. We need to be aware of the differences found in the beliefs of people around the globe and in the different systems of life these beliefs project. Weedon argues that “Knowledge of more than one discourse and the recognition that meaning is plural allows for a measure of choice on the part of the individual, and even where choice is not available, resistance is still possible” (102). Perceiving other people’s views as different does not mean that they are less valid or that they are not to be valued. On the contrary, allowing the emergence of these other systems within our system will enrich our own lives.
While Morrison introduces the Convent women, and maybe most women in her novel as possessors of other systems of knowledge, we find in the work of another minority writer similar attention to other systems of knowledge. Linda Hogan also presents us with a world of different knowings as she introduces us to Native American cultures and beliefs. To both Hogan and Morrison, there is a determination to allow these different knowings to merge into the more dominant systems, and to offer them a more open view of the world. Barker writes of other systems of knowing found in non-modern cultures:
A genuine and sympathetic reading of nonmodern ways of being can help us construct radical epistemologies that result in nondominating ways of producing knowledge. Such new epistemologies and methodologies are necessary if women and men from different class, ethnic, and cultural positions are to engage in collective emancipatory projects without reproducing patterns of hierarchy and domination. (92)
The views that Morrison and Hogan present are ones that cry out for inclusion of these different knowings, and for a recognition of the multiplicity of the world views that exist and that define our subjectivities.
In Dwellings, Hogan looks into the Western world’s persistence on building its culture on the value of separation. Human becomes contrasted with all that is non-human, and Hogan demonstrates in stories and events how this system that divides the world in the binary human/non-human has contributed to human intolerance of the animal world and human inability to live a reciprocal way of life with the rest of the universe. In contrast with this Western world, Hogan presents the world of Native Americans and their reverence for nature thus portraying in Dwellings “a conflict between Cartesian duality and Native interrelationship” (St. Clair 91).
In this Western insistence on separation we see how it is the human more than the non-human that loses as it deprives itself from the privilege of learning from the non-human. Hogan introduces indigenous cultures as those who have been more able to interact with their world away from this dual system. She introduces cultures, unlike the Western ones, who do not depend on a dual vision of the world. Her book depends in its formation on a Native American background that reveres nature and finds in the human interaction with the non-human a way of life that is to be respected and emulated. Because of their reverence of nature, Native Americans and other indigenous cultures are able to provide us with knowledge that our own “modern” way of living hides from us. Yet, as Hogan demonstrates, we continue to loot these native cultures and to destroy their forms of knowledge because we are unable to understand them. She gives the example of the Spanish inquisition burning those books of the Mayan people and depriving us forever of their knowledge (86). These Spanish were like the looters who destroyed what they couldn’t use to prevent others from using it:
It seems, looking back, that these invasions amounted to a hatred of life itself, of fertility and generation. The conquerors and looters refused to participate in a reciprocal and balanced exchange with life. They were unable to receive the best gifts of land, not gold or pearls or ownership, but a welcome acceptance of what is offered. They did not understand that the earth is generous and that encounters with the land might have been sustaining, or that their meetings with other humans could have led to an enriched confluence of ways. (Hogan 44)
This failure to acknowledge the gifts that are found in other people’s culture led those looters as it led the Spanish before them to destroy what might have been their own gain.
Sandra Harding writes of the lack of appreciation for other cultures to which our scientific way of living has led us. By refusing to acknowledge other cultures’ knowledge, we fail to reach a better understanding of our world since “Modern philosophies’ attempted isolation and immunization of natural sciences from social explanation, and their devaluation of local knowledge, have worked against such comprehensive understanding” (153). In Dwellings, Hogan introduces us to a world of local knowledge as she tells about Native American cultures. These are cultures that do not place their total faith on the world of science but also trust the world of intuition and passion. In contrasting the two cultures with each other—Western and Native American—Hogan points to the losses we suffer as a result of our way of being:
Emptiness and estrangement are deep wounds, strongly felt in the present time. We have been split from what we could nurture, what could fill us. And we have been wounded by a dominating culture that has feared and hated the natural world, has not listened to the voice of the land, has not believed in the inner worlds of human dreaming and intuition, all things that have guided indigenous people since time stood up in the east and walked this world into existence, split from the connection between self and land. (82)
And by the split that we have created between ourselves and the land, we have deprived ourselves of the benefits of this interaction.
Science has continuously tried to draw a line separating us from the non-human, and when the justification for this separation is proven wrong, science tries to find other factors that separate human from non-human. Hogan demonstrates how science has tackled the line that divides human from non-human, basing it on intellect, then language, then the use of tools, as each category is seen to be demonstrated in animals as in humans:
Still wanting a place of our own, a place set aside from the rest of the creation, now it is being ventured that maybe our ability to make fire separates us, or perhaps the desire to seek revenge. But no matter what direction the quest for separation might take, there has been a narrowing down of the difference between species, and we are forced to ask ourselves once again: what is our rightful place in the world, our responsibility to the other lives on the planet? (114)
This quest for separation, as Hogan calls it, that insists on drawing a line separating human from non-human, is the reason why we have been deprived from those other forms of knowledge that those indigenous people possess. And in this conflict between human and non-human, although the immediate loss is placed on the non-human, it is actually the human who loses as its science loses (59).
We so continuously insist on rationalizing and reasoning that we refuse to accept the knowledge that other cultures might provide us on the claims of their being irrational and unreasonable. The works of such writers as Hogan and Morrison draw our attention to these other kinds of knowledge and emphasize the need for us to incorporate them into our cultures rather than trying to eliminate them by calling them backward and unreasonable. Harding suggests that gender and environmental studies has made explicit what modern sciences refuse to acknowledge, and that is the value of these other cultures:
The Enlightenment philosophies defined the growth of scientific knowledge and the social progress this was supposed to bring in ways that devalued women, nature, and “backward culture.” The new philosophies of knowledge and power emerging from the gender, environment, and sustainable development discussions and the analyses on which they draw represent the return of the Enlightenment others—the return of women, nature, and “backward cultures” from positions of more than instrumental value (at best) in modernity’s thinking. Knowledge is power, as the familiar saying goes; and it is from the extremities of knowledge-power networks that we can best perceive the limitations of how knowledge and power create and nourish each other at the centers. (147)
Morrison’s Paradise and Hogan’s Dwellings present two different literary works that point to these cultures and the knowledge they possess. They also warn against our rebuttal of such knowledge as they demonstrate the men of Ruby killing the women who possess such other knowledge and the looters ruining the possible sources of their knowledge. Similarly Chopin’s The Awakening and Morrison’s Sula present the losses humans suffer when this dual system of thought forces people into conforming to certain values while rejecting others even when they are aware of the falsity of such categories.
Writers like Morrison and Hogan find in myth and mythical stories a way of explaining a different type of knowing. Myth serves as a tool these writers use to expand on the limited form of knowing that our patriarchal world possesses. To demonstrate that there are other types of knowing enables these writers to venture into other areas, other feelings, other beliefs, thus making what we think a taken-for-granted truth, susceptible to doubt. So, for example, Linda Hogan talks about the world of different knowings, meaning of course our world, patriarchal, Western thought. And Toni Morrison explores the Convent women’s leap into the world of the spiritual; spiritual here becomes a way of describing a different reality.
1. Newspapers and magazines introduce us almost daily to cures and treatments being found in rainforests for grave fatal diseases such as cancer and AIDS. And needless to say, we are being constantly warned that this destruction of the rainforests for the sake of advanced technology and science is what causes most of these diseases as the ecological system of earth becomes disrupted.
2. Toni Morrison argues that the specificity of language forces limitations on the representations of real life as she says in her Nobel lecture:
language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never "pin down" slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. (n. p.)
3. Coleman writes that “Sula and Nel’s concern about whether or not Shadrack saw Sula throw Chicken Little into the river signifies their emerging consciousness of a father” (153). Shadrack, then, could be seen to play the role of the “looking glass” that Gilbert and Gubar talk about, a role that sets women against each other, making female bonding “extraordinary difficult in patriarchy” (38). Whether it is Shadrack’s witness to their “crime” or Nel’s marriage and integration into “normal” society, it is this integration or becoming aware of society’s views of them that draws the two women apart and halts their ability to tolerate each other.
4. Some critics find that the novel also portrays the problems of female language and how patriarchy deprives women of their expressivity, thus depriving itself of such expressivity as well. Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes that
the true subject of The Awakening may be less the particular dilemma of Mrs. Pontellier than the larger problems of female narrative that it reflects; and if Edna’s poignant fate is in part a reflection of her own habits, it is also, in equal part, a measure of society’s failure to allow its women a language of their own. (13)