Friday, February 8, 2013

Comprehending Human Suffering through Literature

How can we comprehend human suffering if we do not suffer? How may we understand the effects of racism or sexism if we do not walk in the shoes of others? Two very different works of art provide us with the shoes. The first is an exquisite story, “Sonny’s Blues” (, by the brilliant craftsman James Baldwin; the second is the 2012 film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, the film that has been a topic of recent posts.

First, let is be known that I have never known racism. I step into the world with light, fair skin, the color that has often been the color of privilege. I have never had any reason to dread stepping from the safe haven I call home into a world full of prejudice, bias, hatred and suspicion. I am only slightly acquainted with the harsh judgment of strangers because I am overweight, a state that brings out the worst arrogance and certainties about my character. I may have to confront the occasional “Boy, you’re fat,” but I do not have to live with the N-word whispered or shouted at me and I do not have to wonder if words like “lazy” and “47%” are directed at me. My racial heritage has allowed me to believe that doors and windows are open to me so I need a story like “Sonny’s Blues” to glimpse the sorrow and suffering that racism inflicts.

Sonny is the younger brother of the narrator, a teacher married to Isabel and father to a beautiful child, Grace, whom polio claimed while Sonny was in prison for using heroin. In spite of the narrator’s promise to his dying mother that he will care for his more sensitive younger brother, the two became estranged, each choosing very different lifestyles. The narrator is a successful family man with a career, Sonny a soldier and musician. He lived with the night, with jazz, in clubs, and overseas. He turned to drugs that, the narrator believes, help boys such as Sonny and his own students live lives confined by the color of their skin. After reading about his own brother’s arrest in the daily news, the narrator remembers Sonny while looking at his students:

I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

Those words, those lines seem, to me, to be powerful and poignant descriptors of the effects of racism, of living with the knowledge that having a great mathematical mind, a passion for language, and a will to teach might not be enough. After all, in this story published during the 1950s, the narrator still lives in Harlem; he’s still confined by the color of his skin in spite of a respectable job with a steady income. Even his ceiling is low; the world is not his for the taking even though he is a good credit risk, an award-winning teacher, and fine family man.

Sonny expresses himself in jazz, an art that the narrator deems as thin and unrealistic as a hologram. Without music and musicians who understand the story unfolding in Sonny’s music, Sonny has no recourse but to flee into drugs, but once released from prison and living under his brother’s roof, Sonny would like never to use heroin again. He knows however that he’s vulnerable, especially because he is so alone in his suffering. His brother does not dwell in the sorrow; he moves with it, through it and beyond it most of the time. Sonny cannot, and I think I understand.

Once, during a two-week stay in Mexico, as my husband drove the narrow, mountainous roads, I glimpsed a man pursue a hungry dog with a large club. “Stop!” I cried, but there was no safe place to pull over, no shoulder running beside the road, only dense, damp jungle encroaching. Later, one evening after dinner, as we left Bucerias, I saw a starving dog in the town square where locals grilled meat and laughed together. The dog didn’t beg; it seemed to know there was no mercy for it, none from these people who, I’m told, have so little themselves that they cannot pity the poor beasts among them. I told my husband that I could never live there, the place he wanted to retire. I told him that my soul ached, my heart heavy with the animals so helpless, so hungry. We left for a country where no-kill shelters are a rather recent innovation.

Sonny looked upon the suffering of his race. He saw that in many places there was no mercy, no remedy. He could not bear the pain, especially if his own brother judged him for needing an escape. But it is Grace, that sweet daughter, dead, that provides the brothers with a shared experience. They can understand the depths of sorrow, but they descend by different paths. Sonny bears the sorrow of his race, the narrator the sorrow of his lost child. Then, when the narrator hears Sonny’s blues, improvised on a piano and nourished by the bass, a horn, and drums, the narrator nearly drowns in the grief that the music strips naked; then the brothers swim to shore together, on the notes of struggle and loss and pain.

Maya, the female maverick at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty, has no brother, only a few, rare and patient co-workers. One stumbles upon a revelation in a decades-old file and realizes that this vindicates Maya’s theory that bin Laden’s courier is the key to finding the Al Qaeda puppeteer. Another advises Maya to lighten up, to try to get along so that her superiors will support her obsessive quest to bring down bin Laden.

These moments of camaraderie and friendship are rare and even foreign to Maya, a CIA operative working in a paternalistic agency, a paternalistic world. She’s driven. She’s fiery. She’s blunt, and she learns that a woman never speaks truth to power without consequence. She alone doggedly pursues a single theory. Her single-mindedness puzzles and even maddens others. Worst of all, she’s right. Her courier theory leads to bin Laden, but of all the people involved in the pursuit of bin Laden and his assassination, the real-world Maya, according to the woman who portrayed her, is the only one not promoted in the CIA.

At movie’s end, one pilot acknowledges that she must be important because an entire plane has been requisitioned to take her anywhere she wants to go, but where exactly is that? Where does a woman alone, one who’s pissed off so many, go? If she were the characters portrayed by Eddie Murphy, Steve McQueen, or Bruce Willis, the subjects of last week’s post about mavericks and heroes, Maya would have been slapped on the back, applauded, and welcomed back into the fold. She would not have been alone, on a huge empty plane, without a direction home. And that image of the diminutive woman alone is an excellent portrait of sexism. Women who nag and insist upon a direction must become acquainted with being alone. They must be willing to wear the labels of bitch, harpy, and shrew while men, equally vocal, determined, and abrasive, could be featured on the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Sonny’s Blues.” Savor its rich, rhythmic use of language so like the riffs and threads of jazz. Revel in Baldwin’s use of figurative language. Then turn to the stark, shadowy world of covert operatives, torture, and “old fashioned sleuthing” (Bigelow). Watch a well-defined spy procedural, but be aware of the little woman in a world of men.

Writing Challenge:

1.    Select at least one passage from “Sonny’s Blues.” Using your own subject, recreate the grammatical patterns that Baldwin uses to such good effect, aware that imitation is flattery as well as an excellent way to broaden your own stylistic repertoire.
2.    Write a letter to an imaginary CIA director, demanding that the fictional Maya receive a promotion for her excellent work in bringing down bin Laden.