Friday, 9 March 2018

Philip Roth and Toni Morrison

            On Wednesday night at 20th Century US Literature class, Scott arrived about ten minutes late and took attendance. He offered a quote from Betty White’s character, Rose, in The Golden Girls, who explained that she’d skipped school on the day they taught everything. Then, I guess as a dig against those that weren’t there, he said, “Tonight I’m going to teach everything!”
            He was about to start lecturing but he was suddenly distracted when he noticed several small bugs crawling on the floor. “That’s disturbing!” He exclaimed and then commented that he’d once had a mouse run out from under his desk while he was giving a talk.
            He gave us some advice on how to write our essays comparing two texts. He told us to avoid saying that they are the same but different. He said to also avoid ping-pong essays where one alternates paragraphs about each work. He said, “Write about what you make of the differences and similarities.” We need to unify the texts and avoid repetition. Find different ways of getting at the argument. Be specific from the start. He recounted that he’d once had a student who had tried to answer every single suggested question in the essay outline. He declared that the introduction is the most important part of the paper and we shouldn’t start with, “Since the beginning of time …” He warned us that it’s not necessary to follow the format that is taught to high school students, and he drew on the blackboard the three figure diagram that represents that form, with the thesis as an upside down pyramid, a rectangle for the body of the text and an upright pyramid for the conclusion.
            You don’t have to give away everything. You could begin with a quotation. Your conclusion doesn’t have to restate your introduction in different words. Restate your argument and make it clearer.
            We started with “Recitatif”, which is the only short story that Toni Morrison ever wrote.
            Recitatif is the name for the annoying talk-singing that happens between real songs in operas.
            In the story, two girls, Twyla and Roberta are put together in an orphanage because their mothers can’t take care of them. Roberta’s mother is sick and Twyla’s mother is too busy dancing all night. “Dances all night” might be a euphemism for prostitute. They have different mothers but in the orphanage they are in the same boat because they are the only residents of the orphanage whose parents are alive. The dead parents of orphans are all perfect but Twyla and Roberta are united in shame of their parents. The one person each knew was the other.
            Scott says that we can’t tell which girl is Black and which is White and the race of the girls is meant to be ambiguous. This had not occurred to me at all and I thought it was obvious that Twyla was Black. I still think so. Later when they meet, Roberta is on her way out west to see a Jimi Hendrix concert. Black people weren’t Jimi Hendrix fans.
            Scott said that many African Americans were against bussing. That’s true but it was mostly because of how it was done. They were pro-integration.
            Roberta Flack is Black and Twyla Tharp is White.
            Morrison said we try to figure out the story by figuring out races. Race is a determiner here but class is a bigger one.
            It would be hard to convey this in a novel. I think this is true especially because she couldn’t obscure the races of the two girls over an extended time.
            The text is about what is missing.
            The two girls could not agree on whether Maggie was Black or White or whether one of them had kicked her. If the kick occurred did it cause her a grave injury? Maggie is a cipher, perhaps with developmental problems and perhaps biracial.
            They distinguish themselves from the Puerto Rican girls.
            Misremembering is scary.
            Toni Morrison hardly ever writes White characters.
            Scott decided not to take a break before looking at Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith”.  Roth got labelled a self-hating Jew for Goodbye Columbus and his comical and critical representation of Jews. He was 26 years old.
            Freud wrote a book on jokes was called “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious”. The jokes were all anti-Semitic.
            To write a character and make fun of them is to degrade them.
            The sergeant was named Marx because of Karl Marx. Jews were accused of having started Communism. Marx, although a Jew was very critical of Jews. Some considers Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” to be anti-Semitic because of quotes like this: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money”. The Jews did not fair better under Communism. But anti-Semitism in Russia has roots that go back to the Russian empire and so it infiltrated Soviet Communism. Marx’s dispute with Judaism was simply that he believed there should be no separation of cultures in a Communist state because for it to work everybody has to be one big happy family under one culture.
            Who was the “defender of the faith”? The title was given to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X, but then revoked by Pope Paul III after Henry split from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England.
            In Roth’s story, the character, Grossbart insists on religious privileges for Jews even though he doesn’t care. He just wants to get out of work or gain privileges.
            Marx has been in the war. He was one of the liberators of the concentration camps.
            Marx is trying to pass without making his Jewishness stick out but Grossbart manipulates his Jewishness. The young Jewish soldiers are weak, unlike Marx.
            Grossbart gets strings pulled to arrange things so he doesn’t have to go to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Marx countermands that and works things so Grossbart will end up going to a place where he could die.
            The United States did not want to enter World War II and would have let England fall to Germany if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbour.
            When one is a US soldier and a Jew, which identity comes first?
            Black soldiers weren’t even given guns. They were issued shovels for digging graves and latrines.
            Roth writes characters with flawed masculinity and none of them are likeable. His stories are sexist and homophobic. He questions but offers no assurance.
            Both “Recitatif” and “Defender of the Faith” are stories about doubt, United Statesian identity and Freedom.
            The Civil War is still going on.
            According to Scott, Dave Chapelle left his show because he didn’t like what White people found funny about him.
            Gloria Steinem said, “Of course there is power in calling yourself a victim. That’s why men do it.”
            Scott ended the class an hour early. Just before getting ready to leave, I asked him about a word that he’d mentioned last week in relation to Frank O’Hara’s poem “A Step Away From Them” where he said, “I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of Federico Fellini …” He remembered and told me that the play between “Juliet’s” and “Giulietta” is an example of “metonomy” and that it’s a type of lateral thinking. But that word doesn’t exist and what comes up is “metonymy”, which doesn’t fit because that means “the use of a single name or characteristic of an object to identify the entire object”, as in “I have twenty head” for “I have twenty cows”.
            When I got home I had dinner and watched “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”. The story was similar to an earlier one from the same season in that a murderer feels guilty after covering up his crime but then by the time he confesses nobody believes him. In this case, George, the middle-aged pharmacist of a small town is having a Sunday picnic with his wife out in the country by the woods. He decides to take a walk while she is taking a nap and comes across an attractive young woman that he knows, who is sitting by the lake, listening to the radio and drinking beer by herself. She invites him to have a beer with her. He sits down and tries to kiss her but she says she’ll tell his wife. He covers her mouth and tells her to promise she won’t say anything. She nods, but when he takes his hand away she begins to call his wife’s name. So he strangles her to stop her shouting but ends up killing her. He goes back to his still snoring wife and pretends to go to sleep beside her. The sheriff arrives to do some fishing with his boys and they find the body of the young woman. The suspect was her wild boyfriend, J.J. who had been with her that day but had opted for lying on his back and floating around in a rowboat. J.J. already has a criminal record and he’s a bit of an ass, so everybody in town is convinced that he is the murderer. He doesn’t help his case by getting another girlfriend as soon as he’s out on bail. When the trial comes up, George is selected for the jury, but he refuses to find J.J. guilty and so he eventually sways the jury and J.J. is freed. But the town won’t accept it and they not only continually harass and attack J.J., but they boycott George’s drugstore because they blame him for J.J. getting off. George tries to confess but people think he’s going crazy. He goes to confess to J.J. just after J.J. has been beaten up by some local boys. George tells him he was the murderer but J.J. doesn’t believe him. Then J.J. tries to shoot himself because he can’t handle living like this anymore but George tries to take the gun away from him and accidentally kills him. When the sheriff arrives George tries to confess to killing J.J. but that isn’t believed either. George is laughing in the end.

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