Monday, September 14, 2009

Who is to blame for a morally comfortable reading?

Based on the divergent views expressed in the essays on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a conversation between Jane Smiley and Toni Morrison would likely spiral into a lively debate.  Smiley descries Twain for mirroring the actions of his protagonist in the narrative and ‘using’ Jim, saying that “they really don’t care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans” (358). Smiley interprets Twain’s lack of direct address of the inherent evils of Jim’s situation as a cowardly, deliberate avoidance of the heart of the matter: glaring social injustice.

Interestingly enough, Morrison, who, unlike Smiley, is African-American, has a decidedly more positive interpretation of Twain’s emotionally removed approach.  Morrison sees the lack of preachy, subjective narration and emotional bias as inviting rather than socially stilted and conspiratorial.  She writes, “Much of the novel’s genius lies in its quiescence, the silences that pervade it” (386).  By being evasive, Morrison argues that Twain shocks the reader—or rather, gives the opportunity for a socially conscious reader to feel shock.  After reading the tragically beautiful and troubling Beloved, it makes sense to me that the ultimately private sphere of the central social mission in Huck Finn infuriates Morrison.  But to Morrison, this fury is indicative of great writing rather than actual social obliviousness or worse, self-willed ignorance.

Reading these close, impassioned interpretations of the novel’s distinctive narrative style caused me to pause and reflect on my own reading of ‘this amazing, troubling book.’ My findings delivered a slight blow to my integrity: I realized that in my own reading, I got caught up in the adventure, character development and humor, essentially glossing over the more substantial social considerations that understatedly pervade the narrative.  Smiley’s view allows me to blame to the author and narrator for facilitating such a light reading.  Morrison would politely encourage me to assume full responsibly myself.  The invitation for an enlightened reading was there, so why didn’t I, a relatively socially conscious individual, take it and run with it?  I read this novel in high school—could that have influenced a subconsciously ostentatious reading of a “lower-level” novel by a college student?  Can I assign blame to my own social circumstances, being immersed in a culture that so often meets the discomfort of residual hostilities between blacks and whites with either perversely patronizing advantage (i.e. the affirmative action policy being descried as reverse discrimination by black students whom it materially advantages but emotionally demeans) or by taking false comfort in the false statement that because this is America, social equality has already been achieved?

Kolvenbach’s essay promotes “the Jesuit educational standard to ‘educate the whole person of solidarity for the real world’” (34).  I think that my relatively beach-read approach to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn indicates that a more conscious effort must be made to foster “compassion that deserves the name of solidarity” (35).  Morrison’s response to the novel was so profound because she saw silence as a personal challenge.  Her reading and the Kolvenbach essay offer a more direct challenge: moral responsibility is ultimately in our own hands.  The integrity of our own readings and social behavior rests on whether we confront uncomfortable social inequalities directly or shy away from them, quietly scapegoating the author or our circumstances for our own misstep.

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