Ramie Johnson At Home with her Poetry and Great Books
My Brother's Skin
He lived inside a world that saw out of his skin and into his soul
It told him who he should be and what he was not
It shaped his as a potter shapes clay
It dashed him to pieces when he would be used
as the potter wanted
He lived outside a would that looked only at his skin
They didn't much care who he was
They brushed and fed the animals
They dusted and cleaned the furniture
They did not see him, he was not worth dusting.
In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart we are given a bird's eye view of how home life can effect us as we grow up. We see vividly that how we perceive our home life to be is what we either perpetuate or form an aversion to.
The main character, Okonkwo, hates his father, Unoka, because "Unoka, the grown-up was a failure (pg. 5)." Unoka owes many in the village and has no farm or yams, the mainstay of tribal life, to leave his son. Even worse, he has gained no titles in the tribe.
In an attempt to get far away from the image and lifestyle of his father, Okonkwo lives a totally different life. He cannot tolerate laziness, "Okonkwo was ruled by one passion--to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness (pg. 13)."
Okonkwo is overbearing and domineering "Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand (pg. 13)." Yet we see what drives him to this behavior later in the paragraph where we read,
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man but his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw (pg. 13).
This fear is what motivated him. It permeated his spirit and shaped him into the man he became. Fear of failure and weakness not only drove his life but also his ideas of others in the tribe. He had a low tolerance for any he felt where unsuccessful or unmanly, especially when it came to his own family. "Okonkwo's first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness...and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating (pg. 13)."
[The old man] was struck as most people were, by Okonkwo's brusqueness in dealing with less successful men. Only a week ago a man had contradicted him at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said: 'This meeting is for men.' The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That is why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man's spirit (pg. 26).
On occasion, however, we are given glimpses of the man Okonkwo might have been, a kinder, gentler side of him that breaks free. Unfortunately it is a luxury only Okonkwo has the privilege of experiencing. One such occurrence is the feeling Okonkwo has for Ikemefuna. He liked him but felt it "was a sign of weakness (pg. 28)" to show affection for him openly.
On another occasion, Okonkwo's concern is clearly visible. It occurs when his daughter, Ezinma, is taken by the priestess Chielo. Ezinma's mother, Ekwefi, has had several children but all have died early in their lives. It is not hard to see why Ekwefi is driven nearly crazy when Chielo comes in the night and demands Ezinma. Ekwefi follows the priestess all night long over miles and through villages. They finally come to the underground caves of the god, Agbala. As Ekwefi waits for them to reemerge she dozes off. She is startled by a noise and sees a man with a machete in his hand. She jumps up and screams only to find it is Okonkwo. "Tears of gratitude filled her eyes. She knew her daughter was safe (pg. 108)."
Even on this occasion Okonkwo was controlled by the fear of being thought of as weak. "He had felt very anxious but didn't show it...he had allowed what he regarded as a reasonable and manly interval to pass and then gone with his machete to the shrine, where he thought they must be (pg. 112)."
While these are examples of the man he might have been, the man he was would rather kill then be thought of as weak. One incident where this behavior is shown is with the murder of Ikemefuna.
As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna say, 'My father, they have killed me!' as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak (pg. 61).
Banished to his mother's homeland because of accidentally murdering a kinsman during a funeral Okonkwo is taught a valuable lesson about strength by his uncle, Uchendu. Uchendu tells him,
The Great Gatsby could be renamed A Great Tragedy. It engulfs you into the hurt and pain of the central characters, Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and Tom. We experience these feeling when we examine how love lost and rekindled effects their lives.
Our first glimpse into this tragedy of lost love is when Nick comes to visit his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom. We learn that Tom is having an affair and Daisy is well aware of it. We find out later that this may not be Tom's first affair and that is why the Buchanan's have moved so often.
While Daisy takes these events in stride, she is beginning to wear down. "Well, I've had a very bad time, Nick, and I'm pretty cynical about everything (pg. 21)." This is brought out more succinctly further in Daisy's conversation with Nick when she is telling him about her daughter's birth.
"I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'Alright, ' I said, 'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool' (pg. 21)."
An acorn fell from a tree and rolled upon the ground
It lay there may nay a day before it began to take root
During those days the little acorn waged mini battles
against the life all around it
When the acorn saw someone who could do it harm
it shrank itself until it blended with the ground
Brown and rich with life.
One day the acorn lost its shell
Being cold it burrowed deeper into the warmth
of the ground
Many glorious and wonderful things happened
to the little acorn then
It began to spring tendrils that grabbed for Mother
Earth, searching out its knowledge, helping it to grow
Not only was the little acorn growing underground
Jason heard the knock at the door. Tap...tap, tap. Tap, tap...tap. He knew who it was without even looking through the peephole. It was his buddies Peter and Vincent. They were twins but not the kind that looked alike. Jason couldn't remember a time when those two weren't raring to go or when they weren't together. "What are you up to today Jason," they would always ask and Jason would always reply, "Whatever you guys want to do is fine by me."
Jason was older than Pete and Vince by about three years but you never would have known it. They were bigger and louder than he was. Once when Jason first tried to assert himself, they ganged up on him and just screamed and ranted at him. That was worse then hitting him. He would have preferred the hitting. When he thought back to those days, he could still hear the ringing in his ears and feel the confusion he experienced. Those few occasions taught Jason early on it was easier to go along with them then to go against them.
When you're young and have time on your hands, everything is a game. Today they wanted to go down to McCatter Street and stir up trouble. Jason hated when they walked down the streets making trouble. The object of this game was to choose who would start the trouble, usually making noise and throwing things; you know run of the mill disturbing the peace. The other two would pretend they didn't know what was going on and try to calm the "crazed" one. The reason why Jason hated this game was because Pete and Vince always chose him to start the trouble. They were forever the peacekeepers.
Today was different though. Jason had a plan. He made a new friend and he was going to unite with her and maybe together, they would be able to play a new game. Or at least someone else could be the bad guy.
Gretchen was a quiet girl. Unassuming and shy. Actually, that is what attracted Jason to her. After hanging out with Pete and Vince and their loud antics, quiet was novel. Jason couldn't believe someone existed who didn't talk much and who let him not only talk but who listened. Yes, she would be a valuable asset to the group even if she had to be sacrificed to get them off of his back.
"Listen, I have someone I'd like you guys to meet before we head down to McCatter Street," Jason said. "Who do you know besides us?" was the harmonious response. That was one of the more fascinating things about the twins. They didn't look the same or sound the same but they had an eerie knack for thinking the same--always bad!
"Well if you'll go with me, we can pick her up on the way and you'll find out then." The boys looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. As long as they got their way, they didn't care how many people Jason invited along. They would however, have to ask again where he met this "friend." After all, they didn't want anyone messing with their good thing. They had Jason where they wanted him and some goody-two-shoes might mess up everything.
One day while out grocery shopping for his mother, Jason ran into Gretchen. She too was shopping and he helped her home with her bags. He was so happy that he could help someone. Do good for someone. Especially Gretchen. He began to notice the change in himself when he was with her. He never got in trouble like he did with Pete and Vince. Better than that, he had unfamiliar feelings that at once scared him and excited him. Yes, he needed to bring Gretchen with them if for no other reason then to act as a balance him and the twins.
As they followed Jason, Pete and Vince were their usual noisy selves. They argued over who was going to get Jason to do this thing or that thing. It just sickened him how they bickered amongst each other. What was worse is they fought over him like he wasn't there. Like he was their personal possession to do with what they pleased. After hearing the ceaseless droning, Jason couldn't step another inch further. He heard someone shouting at them. He couldn't make out what was being said at first but he knew it was directed at them and he noticed something familiar about the voice. He glanced around but he didn't see anyone. Then he looked up at the buildings. There in a window was Gretchen. She was leaning out with her hands over her ears yelling at Pete and Vince to leave Jason alone. She was his new friend now and they would have to find somebody else to play with.
Peter and Vincent were momentarily shocked by this barrage but they were resourceful young men. They sprang into action using they only weapon they knew. They began screaming and ranting at Jason.
He ran along the street
Looking for the mouse
He ran around the corner
All about the house.
He ran up to his neighbor
And knocked upon the door
He waited very patiently
Until he could wait no more.
He pushed the door open
And wandered into the house
He entered rather stealthly
Trying to corner the mouse.
He never heard the door close
He didn't hear a sound
He only felt a tap on his shoulder
He swiftly turned around.
I've come to help us get rid of a pest
There were strained silences before and after each lesson. I tried to make small talk, get him to discuss his years as a chiropractor, his life before German. He would look off into the middle distance, not angry or bored or evasive--just detached, free of the connectedness of events, it seemed (pg. 54).
This quote from Don DeLillo's White Noise is what the entire book is about. DeLillo tells us his story about Jack and his family but never lets us get to attached. We can't get to close. He doesn't want us to connect to the events. How does he do this? He gets the story going and moving in a rhythm and then out of the blue comes a sentence that makes no sense to the story line at present.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines white noise as, "a heterogeneous mixture of sound waves extending over a wide frequency range." DeLillo uses his disruption of his story, this "heterogeneous mixture" of words, as a kind of white noise. When this first occurs, you have to reread what just happened to see if you missed something. When it happens the second, third and more times, and you begin to see the pattern.
Most of DeLillo's references are to television commercials. We can see the appropriateness of this because commercials are the white noise of a TV show. Have you ever been so into a story that you get upset when they break for a commercial. DeLillo wants us to feel that way. He wants us to feel the break, to become momentarily disconnected.
He doesn't just give us that disconnected feeling by his use of sentences but we get the feeling that he is also disconnected from the work. The narrative tone of the book is like a storyteller who isn't too interested in the emotions of those whose story he is telling.
An example of this is when Babette is telling Jack that she slept with Mr. Gray in order to get pills as part of an experiment to rid her of her paranoid fear of death. While you see the humor in what DeLillo says, you don't feel an emotional connectedness with Babette or Jack because DeLillo delivers this news in an emotional vacuum.
It involved an indiscretion. This was the only way I could get Mr. Gray to let me use the drug. It was my last resort, my last hope. First I'd offered him my mind. Now I offered my body.
I felt a sensation of warmth creeping up my back and radiating outward across my shoulders. Babette looked straight up. I was propped on an elbow, facing her, studying her features. When I spoke finally it was a reasonable and inquiring voice--the voice of a man who seeks genuinely to understand some timeless human riddle.
How do you offer your body to a composite of three or more people? This is a compound person. He is like a police sketch of one person's eyebrows, another person's nose. Let's concentrate on the genitals. How many sets are we talking about (pg. 194)?
We should really feel Jack's pain here. Yes, he is angry and maybe his defense mechanism to control his anger is levity but you feel the sterile way that DeLillo delivers Jack's pain. You have to decipher for yourself if Jack is truly hurting here.
Another example is when the chemical spill forces the family to flee their home. Before they are given the word to evacuate, you get the feeling that they might as well be watching what is happening to them as if it where a TV show happening to someone else. They ask questions of each other and keep abreast of what's going on but act more like soon there will be a break in the show and everything will be alright again.
This is where DeLillo shines. He uses this emotional vacuum that he created through his story just like a TV show. We sit and watch and wait for the white noise. When it occurs, we go about other business in the house. We take time to talk to one another, go to the bathroom or get something to eat. Only when the program comes back on do we focus again.
The same with the book. When we encounter those sentences that don't belong, we stop, pause and ponder on what we just read to make sure we got the sense of it before we continue on lest we miss something in the story and have to start the chapter over again. Even that action is like watching a TV show only it's a TV show we taped. We hit the rewind button and let the scene play out until we know what's going on and continue from there.
I've come to help you out
I've come to get rid of a pest, neighbor
I've not come to spay about.
To late comes the cry of our friend
There is nothing he can do
To late comes the cry of the mouse chaser
As he is added to the goo.
Good riddance exhales his neighbor
Oh what a story if told
Good riddance cries the old neighbor
As he hugs the mouse, his soul.
"No, guys, please. She didn't mean it. You know I'll never leave you for anyone! Please don't. You know how much I hate that." Jason's feeble attempts to stop them fell on deaf ears. His only recourse was to lash out at them. He swung his arms about him wildly not caring which one he struck or how hard. He had to get the madding noises to cease. He didn't know how they were doing it but the octaves grew louder and louder. He ran around the street stumbling and swinging
in the air like a drunk boxer. He was doing whatever he could to stop Pete and Vince. Not this time, not today.
Somewhere in the haze he heard his name. Someone was yelling for him to hold still. He could feel hands all over him. Why couldn't he be a little bigger and stronger. Why did he have to make friends with a pair of crazy boys who could beat him into submission? Why did he always submit?
He didn't notice the slight pinch in his arm but he did take note of a calmer feeling begin to engulf him. Peter and Vincent must have gotten tired of screaming and ranting at him. Their voices lower in degrees until he couldn't hear them anymore. He was tired. He was tired from fighting and tired of Pete and Vince's abuse. He felt like he was being carried on clouds that were drifting nowhere. He still heard voices but somehow he knew these where good voices. He wondered who they were talking about.
"This is the second time this week he has gotten out. I overhead Dr. Kimpur arguing with Dr. Belard on the dosage. Dr. Belard refuses to him a heavier dose. It really doesn't look good for him or the hospital when he gets out and attacks people like this."
"Tell me about it. I pick this guy up on a regular. Every time he starts mumbling about some guys name Peter and Vincent who are with him and why don't I take them too. Of course, there is no one else there but him. Maybe if someone on the outside gets hurt bad enough, then Dr. Belard will act. The only thing is then it might be too late."
It was also rising above ground where it had once been afraid
At first it was afraid to come to the surface, people and
animals would come too close and the little acorn would
have to bend and move to avoid being trampled
Soon it began to grow strong, tall and luxuriant
Spreading out its mighty leaves
Those same people who nearly killed it now took
comfort in its shade
Those same animals that might have eaten it
find a safe haven to hide and rest.
Woman you are born as a little acorn
With the proper love and nurturing
You too can become a majestic oak.
Tom involves Nick in his sordid affair, without any regard for Nick's relationship with Daisy, when he takes him not only to meet Myrtle but also to their apartment in New York. We begin to see in a conversation that Nick has with Myrtle's sister, Catherine, where Tom's true feelings may lie. "Its really his wife that's keeping them apart. She's a Catholic and they don't believe in divorce (pg. 38)." Later that evening Tom displays his feelings for his wife when he breaks Myrtle's nose with his bare hand just for saying her name. More than anything, his reaction is probably one of guilt. He is ashamed of what he is doing but is still drawn to do it. Could it be that somewhere in his heart he loves his wife?
We finally come to meet our tragic hero Gatsby. He is like the bird in the gilded cage. He surrounds himself with beauty and the beautiful. He is rich and rumors abound on how he amassed his fortune. He throws huge parties yet he is aloof and distant, even in his own home. We find out that he seldom even attends his own parties.
These parties Gatsby throws are more than just a way to pass time and spend money. No, he is a hunt. He is on a mission to find the woman he lost so many years ago. He has finally tracked her to Long Island and here is where he goes about rekindling a fire that was ignited so long ago--with Daisy Buchanan.
After maneuvering Nick to invite Daisy over to his cottage for a visit, Gatsby finally reacquaints himself with her. Gatsby could not have timed his return to Daisy's life any better. As stated she knows Tom is unfaithful to her and she may have looked at this opportunity as a time to get even. Not only that but she was surely in need of reassurance that she was still desirable to men.
However, all of Daisy's motives were not selfish. There was a time when she cared very much for Gatsby as evidenced by her nervous reaction when she first sees him again. It was that previous relationship that made it so easy for her to reexplore herself. Here was a man who unequivocally loved her and every waking moment of his life after he lost her was spent in the pursuit of finding and obtaining her. She is probably still in love with Gatsby but too many things have changed in both their lives.
While Tom and Daisy have their tete-a-tete, one thing remains constant in their lives. They each come back to each other. It isn't until Tom gets wind that something is going on between Daisy and Gatsby that trouble begins to brew. It is amazing how jealous and hypocritical Tom has become. He vows to find out the truth about Gatsby and his riches. You almost get the sense that if he can taint Gatsby and his money, Daisy will see reason and stay.
Unfortunately for Gatsby, Tom is right. Face to face with the knowledge that Daisy might leave him for Gatsby, Tom tells of Gatsby's shady past and how he really acquired his wealth. Daisy caves in not only because of this but as she says of Gatsby, "'Oh, you want too much!'...'I love you now--isn't that enough? I can't help what's past.'...'I did love him once--but I loved you too.' (pgs. 139-140)"
Gatsby tries to repair the damage Tom has done by driving Daisy alone with him back to Egg Harbor from New York. This fateful journey will be his final undoing. Daisy, not knowing Tom is having an affair with Myrtle, accidently kills her driving Gatsby's car. When Tom finds out whose car it was killed Myrtle, he assumed Gatsby did it. His hatred for Gatsby builds. Here is the man who stole his wife and murdered his mistress. Gatsby had to die. Tom uses Myrtle's grieving husband to do his dirty work.
Once Gatsby and Myrtle have been killed, it seems that Daisy and Tom come to terms with their relationship and plan a new beginning.
The Third Edition of The American Heritage College Dictionary has as one definition of snows, "to overwhelm with insincere talk, especially flattery." In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway could very well have been talking about Harry's career using this definition.
Harry is a once successful writer who has made a career out of marrying rich women. On a getaway to Africa, Harry is seriously wounded and gangrene has begone to eat away at his leg. Every so often he bobs and weaves in and out of his past as he slips in and out of consciousness. It is here that we catch glimpses of the "snows." Harry reveals to us stories of his life, his loves and some of his unbelievable encounters. There are volumes in these stories but Harry does not write a sentence.
For example Harry tells about the time when the half-wit kills the man he used to work for. It seems the man used to beat the boy when in his employ and when the young man does not comply with his wishes, he falls into his old habit. The boy gets a rifle and kills the man. By the time the murder is discovered, a week has gon by and the body has been partially eaten by dogs. What is left is packed onto a sled and the poor boy is arrested even though he thought he was justified in killing the man for "tr[ying] to steal some feed that didn't belong to him (pg. 23)."
Then there is the tale of Williamson and how he was hit with a stick bomb. Williamson begged everyone to kill him as his guts spilled out of him. Harry remembered an argument he had with Williamson about God never putting you into a situation you could not bear. If such a time arose and the pain was too great, you would pass out. Even after giving Williamson all the morphine tablets he had, it took a while for them to work.
These are just a two of the stories Harry had locked away in his memory. Locked away forever because he snowed himself. He conned himself into believing he would someday write these stories. That he did what he did on the periphery of life so that he would have something wonderful to write.
Harry knew that he was washed up. He knew that he let his talent go to waste. "But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all (pg. 10)." "He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook (pg. 11)."
It was this overwhelming sense of insincere flattery, this snow job that Harry used on himself that was in the end able to help him ease his mind and his conscience about all the stories that he should have written. About the great author he could have become.
It's true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland (pg. 134).
If only Okonkwo listened and heard Uchendu, he would have seen that there are necessary times for emotional "weakness." Instead of weakness, he should have seen strength.
A new fear seizes hold of Okonkwo during his exile. Christianity begins to spread its wings in Africa and what this new religion is doing to his family and his clan is very unnerving to Okonkwo. Nwoye embraces the new religion and "The clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely recognizable. The new religion and government and the trading stores were very much in the people's eyes and minds (pg. 182)." "Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umoufia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women (pg. 183)."
Things finally fall apart for Okonkwo when his clansmen retaliate against a church member, Enoch, who accidentally "kills" one of the tribal gods during a ceremony. After burning down his house and the church, the clan is satisfied.
Three days after the burnings Okonkwo and 5 clansmen go before the Commissioner who jails them until 200 cowries are paid as a fine for burning down the church. Okonkwo's hatred for the Christians is choking him and he has made up in his mind if the clan does not take action, he will "...plan [his] own revenge (pg. 200)."
While the tribesmen have gathered in the marketplace to hear solutions from the elders of the tribe, court messengers slip in amongst the crowd. When Okonkwo catches sight of them, he takes off the head of one of them. Instead of being hailed a hero, the crowd is confused and begins to murmur, "Why did he do it (pg. 205)?" As in the case with the murder of Ikemefuna, we see yet again how Okonkwo's fear of weakness leads him to commit a violent act.
Fear, weakness, anger, strength. These words were sewn into Okonkwo's skin. He could not escape the hold they had on him. When he returned to his fatherland it was not the great Umoufia he left. "Umoufia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run (pg. 196)."
It was this Umoufia and those words that drove Okonkwo to his ultimate escape. "Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo's body was dangling, and they stopped dead (pg. 207)" Yes, at least he got out from the shadow of his fear. The irony is that if anyone else had chosen suicide, Okonkwo would have been the first to condemn him for his weakness.
Why was he here to be tormented all his life?
Living in two worlds and belonging to neither?
Didn't they see his pain?
Didn't they feel his anguish?
He knew how to make them see
He breathed like they did and he bled like they did
That was the perfect solution to his problem
Let them see what they drove him to
Let them feel the hurt and shame
For how could a man feed a dog
And neglect his brother because of his brother's skin?