Thursday, December 27, 2018

More on Wright's "Bright and Morning Star"


Richard Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star” was the subject of last month’s discussion.  First published in 1939, Wright’s story concerns a young African-American Communist Party organizer, Johnny Boy, in the Deep South.  Johnny’s brother Sug is in jail because of his own party activities.  Their mother Sue, is roughed up by a sheriff’s contingent sent to her home to try to make her “name names” of party members.

Sue is duped into giving names of party activists to a white sympathizer, Booker.  Johnny’s girlfriend Reva makes her realize this mistake.  Wright writes, “Her having told the names of Johnny-Boy's comrades was but an incident in a deeper horror.” Sue sets to intercepting Booker before he can tell the authorities the time and location of a meeting. She takes a gun concealed under a sheet.  She crosses a creek and climbs a hill to find Johnny Boy being tortured in order to make him talk.  Booker comes on the scene, and she shoots him dead. Pete, a member of the sheriff’s posse, in turn kills her.  

Wright presents us with a stark moral dilemma for Sue.  If she did nothing, the party meeting would have been raided, and the participants put at the mercy of the corrupt local authorities.  As it turns out, her action resulted in multiple deaths, including her own.  Wright’s story raises troubling questions about the use of violence for political ends.  What does Wright mean when he talks of a “deeper horror”?  He writes it is “call and counter-call, loyalty and counter-loyalty" struggling in her soul. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Bright and Morning Star," by Richard Wright

Richard Wright

It turns out that last month's author, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote in his piece "Why Write?" about this month's author, Richard Wright.

Sartre, writing in 1947, speaks of the alienation of Richard Wright.  What is the nature of Wright's work?  Is Wright a "pampleteer, a blues writer, or the Jeremiah of the Southern Negros"? His audience is not the "white racialists of Virginia or South Carolina, whose minds are made up," nor the "black peasants of the bayous."  Rather, he addresses himself to "the cultivated Negroes of the North and the white Americans of goodwill (intellectuals, democrats of the Left, radicals, CIO workers)."


After the Second World War Richard Wright moved to Paris, and remained an expatriate until his death in 1960 at the age of 52.  Sartre writes, "if he seems to be happy about the reception his books have had in Europe, still it is obvious that at the beginning he had not the slightest idea of writing for the European public.  Europe is far away.  Its indignation is ineffectual and hypocritical."


Sartre asserts that Wright's work is an example of what Baudelaire called the "double simultaneous postulation."  If he had written for whites exclusively, "he might have turned out to be more prolix, more didactic, and more abusive," whereas if he had only written for blacks, his prose would be "more elliptical, more of a confederate, and more elegiac."


If we in the United States have indeed entered a "post-racial" phase, as many believed after the election of Barack Obama as president, we would no longer need to apply the "double simultaneous postulation" to Wright's story.  How do you read Richard Wright?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sartre on Writing

Doug Hill, a group member, sent me a beautiful note via postal mail last week.  Doug has been involved with Great Books on the Island for many years, and has led many a discussion himself.

Doug writes,


Dear Tom,
Regarding your closing question regarding the quote: "...there is a deeper and more immediate choice which is common to all of us"; what is the choice?
On further reflection, I think that the answer is there in plain sight. The title: "Why Write?" The first paragraph: "There is a ... choice"
To write or not to write. --Doug
Thank you, Doug. You remind us that oftentimes answers are indeed, "in plain sight." 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Sartre on Literature

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the towering figures of 20th century philosophy and literature.  This month's selection, "Why Write," was first published in 1947 in the journal Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), founded by Sartre and his long-term companion, the author Simone de Beauvoir.


Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
A group of Sartre's essays from Les Temps Modernes concerning an existentialistic approach to literary creation was published in book form as "Qu'est-ce que la littérature" ("What Is Literature?")

"Why Write?" can be read as a manifesto of the Sartrian theory of committed literature: an imaginative literature that is engaged with the critical issues of its time.
The 1965 U.S. Edition of "Qu'est-ce que la littérature?"

Monday, October 15, 2018

Being Ordinate: Reinhold Niebuhr

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

On September 24th, we took up an excerpt from Niebuhr’s “The Children of the Light and the Children of the Darkness,” first published in 1944.  He analyzes the crisis of democracy in the West.  What he terms “bourgeois democracy,” which resulted when the rising middle class wrested political power from the aristocracy, appeared to be under serious threat after years of depression and wars.

According to Niebuhr, democracy needs a rationale that goes deeper than economic self-interest. He finds it in the contest between good and evil in the world, as embodied in the Christian doctrine of original sin: “Original Sin makes an important contribution to any adequate social and political theory, the lack of which has robbed bourgeois theory of real wisdom, for it emphasizes a fact which every page of human history attests.”

Niebuhr equates original sin with self-love.  When we indulge in egoism, we inevitably enter into “inordinate” types of aggressive behavior that aren’t accounted for in traditional democratic theories (what he terms the “liberal creed”).

He writes, “the temptation to inordinate expressions of the possessive impulse, created by the new wealth of a technical civilization, stood in curious and ironic contradiction to the picture of essentially moderate and ordinate desires which underlay the social philosophy of the physiocrats and of Adam Smith.” (Physiocracy was a French school of economic thought that stressed the importance of landed wealth.)

 In order to steer a middle ground between the overly optimistic views of the democratic thinkers of the 18th and 19th  centuries, and the “moral cynicism” of modern totalitarian regimes, a “Christian view of human nature” is required.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Who Killed Yoshihide's Daughter?

Japanese writer Akutagawa (1892-1927)
In Akutagawa's story "Hell Screen," Lord Horikawa commissions the artist Yoshihide to paint scenes of hell on a screen. Yoshihide says, "in the center of the screen, falling from the sky, I want to paint an aristocrat's carriage, its cabin woven of the finest split palm leaf... In the carriage, a voluptuous noblewoman writhes in agony, her long black hair tossing in the ferocious flames."

Yoshihide says he cannot visualize the burning cabin, and asks the Lord to have his men set a carriage on fire.  Horikawa assents to this request.  "I'll burn a carriage for you, and I'll have a voluptuous woman inside it, dressed in a noblewoman's robes. She will die writhing with agony in flames and black smoke -- I have to salute you, Yoshihide. Who could have thought of such a thing but the greatest painter in the land?"

On the designated evening, Yoshihide sees his own daughter in the carriage.  Yoshihide attempts to extricate her, but a samurai of the Lord stops him.  The cabin is set ablaze, the daughter dies a horrible death.

One of our participants on the evening of August 27th pointed out the monkey apparently tries to rescue the woman ("some black thing shot from the palace roof into the blazing carriage"), but is burned himself.  An amazing flourish by the author, and one that confirms the monkey is the most sympathetic character in the story.

Although Yoshihide may have overly striven to achieve realism in his art, the one truly responsible for the daughter's death is Lord Horikawa.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Ruth Benedict and Cultural Relativism

We came upon a paragraph in  Ruth Benedict's "Anthropology and the Abnormal" at our meeting last month so astonishing as an example of the idea of cultural relativism.  It describes anthropologist Reo Fortune's field work in Melanesia in a society "built upon traits which we regard as beyond the border of paranoia," in which nastiness among people, especially ones from different family groups, prevails.  Benedict writes,

Now in this society where no one may work with another and no one may share with another, Fortune describes the individual who was regarded by all his fellows as crazy. He was not one of those who periodically ran amok and, beside himself and frothing at the mouth, fell with a knife upon anyone he could reach.  Such behavior they did not regard as putting anyone outside the pale.  They did not even put the individuals who were known to be liable to these attacks under any kind of control.  They merely fled when the saw the attack coming on and kept out of the way. "He would be alright tomorrow." But there was one many of sunny, kindly disposition who liked work and liked to be helpful.  The compulsion was too strong for him to repress it in favor of the opposite tendencies of his culture.  Men and women never spoke of him without laughing; he was silly and simple and definitely crazy.  Nevertheless, to the ethnologist used to a culture that has, in Christianity, made his type the model of all virtue, he seemed a pleasant fellow.