Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Young Goodman Brown and Stamp Paid Hear Voices

At the opening of Book 2 of Beloved, the house at 124 Bluestone Road is no longer "spiteful," as its haunting by the ghost of Sethe's slain infant daughter made it, but "loud" with what is described as "a conflagration of hasty voices." Stamp Paid, who comes repeatedly to the door of 124, red ribbon in hand and pocket, to apologize to Sethe for revealing to Paul D the circumstances of her infant's death, hears these voices as "loud, urgent, all speaking at once so he could not make out what they were talking about or to whom. The speech wasn't nonsensical, exactly, nor was it tongues. But something was wrong with the order of the words and he couldn't describe or cipher it to save his life. All he could make out was the word mine. The rest of it stayed outside his mind's reach." Earlier here I've begun reading his ribbon and ciphering the voices of 124 and I plan to continue doing so today. Like the monumentalized A at the end of The Scarlet Letter, which "the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport," these textual details are significant--and, like many moments in Hawthorne's novel--they point directly to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." So, unlike the "men of rank and dignity" at the final scaffold scene when Dimmesdale invites Hester and Pearl to join him--who "were so taken by surprised, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw--unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other--that they remained silent and inactive spectators"--I won't hesitate to draw the most obvious conclusions from this intertextual dialogue between Morrison and Hawthorne.

"Young Goodman Brown" has some well-known voices in it. What's the relation between those voices and the voices of 124? What do Morrison's voices imply about Hawthorne's? It's unlikely I'll have the time today to fully answer these questions, so without further ado let's go to the quotations! The voices Goodman Brown hears--which may be real, figments of his waking or sleeping imagination, or part of the devil's multimedia array of specter evidence designed to deceive our protagonist--emerge from "a black mass of cloud" which was "sweeping swiftly northward" although the sky was blue and "no wind was stirring":

Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices. Once, the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accents of town's-people of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion-table, and had seen others rioting at the tavern. The next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind. Then came a stronger swell of those familiar voices, heard daily in the sunshine, at Salem Village, but never, until now, from a cloud of night. There was one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, would grieve her to obtain. And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward.


Note how Goodman Brown's doubt at the reality of the voices disappears when he hears what he takes to be Faith's voice, which prepares him to take up his earlier doubt "whether there really was a Heaven above him" that he had previously been able to keep at bay with the cry, "With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" As I discussed before, it's the discovery of what appears to be Faith's ribbon that sets Goodman Brown on the path toward joining the voices of the black cloud. Let's listen to the soundtrack of his flight "along the forest-path" into "the heart of the dark wilderness":

The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.

'Ha! ha! ha!' roared Goodman Brown, when the wind laughed at him. 'Let us hear which will laugh loudest! Think not to frighten me with your deviltry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powow, come devil himself! and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fears you!'

In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter, as set all echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course, until, quivering among the trees, he saw a red light before him, as when the felled trunks and branches of a clearing have been set on fire, and throw up their lurid blaze against the sky, at the hour of midnight. He paused, in a lull of the tempest that had driven him onward, and heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance, with the weight of many voices. He knew the tune; it was a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house. The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out; and his cry was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert.


Let's review, shall we? Goodman Brown--who summoned the devil himself when, walking alone in woods so thick that he "may yet be passing through an unseen multitude," remarks to himself, 'There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree. What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!'--is now the most frightful figure in the forest. Goodman Brown--who at the beginning of his "errand" tells himself he'll return to Faith and immediately "felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose," yet first begins to doubt himself when the devil claims that "I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war"--now finds his voice in "unison with the cry of the desert." What seems to be at stake in "Young Goodman Brown" is not only the status of specter evidence in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 or the problem of visible sanctity in the Half-Way Covenant of 1662, it is the entire 17th C American Puritan "errand into the wilderness." Have the Puritans been doing the devil's work--particularly in their demonizing of Native Americans--when they thought they were doing God's? Is the entire American Puritan errand damning evidence of their failure to reach the promised land, of their exodus remaining stranded in the desert?

It is questions like these, I believe, that haunt Goodman Brown after he has repudiated the devil in the climax of the story, not simply his radical doubt that anyone else, including Faith, did the same. 'Look up to Heaven and resist the Wicked One!' he implores her, but "Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not." His dying hour--and indeed the rest of his life--"was gloom," because of the doubt and despair that led him to become "A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man." His desperation stems as much from his fear that everything about the American Puritan errand that he used to believe may be wrong--that the saints may be sinners, that the godly may be ungodly, that the errand itself not only failed to change the "unconverted wilderness" but may also have brought its wildness (and in his mind its "deviltry") into the Puritans' own hearts. After all, if he is unsure of the choices his fellow-Puritans made, how can he be sure that God would honor his climactic repudiation of the Black Man? Like Dimmesdale at the close of The Scarlet Letter, he believes he goes to his God for judgement, knowing fully well that it is only grace that has the power to save his soul. It is in this sense that David Levin and Michael Colacurcio, among others, have suggested that Goodman Brown may well be representative of Puritans' internal struggles with theological and epistemological problems with specter evidence and visible sanctity--my own small contribution so far has been to highlight how the "Young Goodman Brown" has another layer of representativity, where the very attempt to civilize the wilderness and Christianize the savages is difficult to discern from the devil's work.

So, briefly now, because I only have ten minutes to go, Morrison works and plays with these voices and their larger implications in many ways. I won't discuss here the ways in which Baby Suggs and her preaching in the clearing is a counter to Goodman Brown, Dimmesdale, and the Black Man's actions and words in Hawthorne's wilderness, but her story is linked to Stamp Paid's in ways I will get to later. It's what Stamp Paid comes to believe about the voices of 124 and the ways in which he is like and unlike Goodman Brown that I want to end on here.

So, in spite of his exhausted marrow, he kept on through the voices of 124. This time, although he couldn't cipher but one word, he believed he knew who spoke them. The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons.

What a roaring.


Stamp Paid's own crisis is his doubt over the capacity of whites to repudiate the violence, exploitation, oppression, lynchings, rapes, and murders of the slavery and Reconstruction eras: "What are these people?" he asks. "You tell me, Jesus. What are they?" But Stamp Paid (aided by the narrator's use of free indirect discourse) adds a further dimension to this crisis by linking it to the history of racialization in the Americas:

The day Stamp Paid saw the two backs through the window and then hurried down the steps, he believed the undecipherable language clamoring around the house was the mumbling of the black and angry dead. Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the whole weight of the race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn't the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made them. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

Meanwhile, the secret spread of this new kind of whitefolks' jungle was hidden, silent, except once in a while when you could hear its mumbling in places like 124.


Yeesh, it's been 25 minutes. Not good. More on Saturday!

1 comment:

Yeswanth said...

what an exciting experience!/hilarious! Delightful! True!
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