Sunday, September 13, 2009

Concepts vs. Contact

I found Toni Morrison’s essay This Amazing, Troubling Book far more compelling than Jane Smiley’s Say It Ain’t So, Huck. Smiley’s critique that, according to Huck Finn, “all you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity” (362) is flawed, because Huck does act in the interest of Jim’s humanity. Though he is sidetracked by Tom’s outlandish scheming, his intentions remain pure. Huck attempts to rescue Jim the only way he knows how: by following the advice of a friend whom he believes to be far more knowledgeable – as Huck states, “If I had Tom Sawyer’s head, I wouldn’t trade it off to be a duke, nor mate of a steamboat, nor clown in a circus, nor nothing I can think of” (241). Because Huck regards Tom so highly, he places his trust and, consequently, Jim’s life in Tom’s hands. As Tom’s plans become more and more grandiose, however, and particularly when they begin to endanger Jim, Huck is forced to reconsider “Tom Sawyer’s head.” Indeed, Morrison points out that Huck is not entirely complicit in Tom’s scheming, which he interrupts “with mumbling disquiet as the degradation becomes more outré” (392). Huck does not openly rebel against Tom, because he recognizes that to do so would simply set them back and delay Jim’s release further. Thus, though Huck might appear complicit in Jim’s humiliation, he is nonetheless “acting in the interests of [Jim’s] humanity” to the best of his ability.

I also disagree with Smiley’s suggestion that Huck’s departure at the end of the novel “[enables] us to avoid [our responsibilities] once again by lighting out for the territory” (362). I think Morrison’s interpretation that Huck’s departure marks a rejection of the dominant ideology is far more accurate. Huck demonstrates distinct growth with respect to the way he views Jim by the novel’s conclusion. Sure, he is distracted by Tom for a time, and sure, he cannot entirely shake society’s perception that freeing Jim is inherently wrong, but considering what he’s had to work with, Huck’s progress is remarkable. If acknowledging Jim’s humanity, doing his best to protect it, and ultimately rejecting a society that tells him to do so is wrong is not a step in the right direction, then I don’t know what is.

In his Commitment to Justice in Jesuit Higher Education, Kolvenbach writes that “Solidarity is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts’” and that “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change” (34). This is exactly what happens to Huck in the Adventures. Though Miss Watson attempts to lecture Huck on Christian concepts (i.e. “she told me … I must help other people and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time” [23]) Huck does not grasp them until he experiences injustice himself. Experience is that which ultimately “challenges Huck to change.” Unconsciously, Huck finds himself applying Miss Watson’s advice to his dilemma with Jim. Though he never explicitly states that he views Jim as a “person,” his decision to free Jim, to “do everything [he] could” for Jim attests to this.

Today, this idea that “Solidarity is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts’” remains. Though concepts are important (especially in college) contact has a far more lasting impact. For example, my sophomore year, I wrote a paper on a friend who was the service coordinator for the meal program Care-A-Van. She tried to explain to me the concepts of “recognizing the person before the plight” and “putting faces to the term ‘homeless.’” I had trouble processing what she meant by this because I had little experience interacting with the materially poor. Luckily, the paper I wrote inspired me to get involved, and I soon found myself participating in Care-A-Van weekly. I was shocked at how many stereotypes I previously held were shattered and I was constantly surprised at how like me these people, so unlike me in so many ways, could be. I know I’m not going to remember seventy-five percent of the papers I wrote while at Loyola. I do know, however, that the lessons I learned and the people I met while participating in Care-A-Van will stay with me.

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