Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Jungle

At the end of the first chapter in part 2 (my edition doesn't have chapter markings?!?) Stamp Paid has a pretty pseudo-philosophical segment on the dehumanization of slavery to blacks and whites alike. This reminded me of similar statements expressed by... I think it was Fredrick Douglas? We talked about it in history class. The basic idea is that by subjugating blacks ("the jungle whitefolks planted in them"), the whites became afraid. Stamp Paid says that "scared were they of the jungle they had made". In this context, was schoolteachers calculated and scientific method of treating his slaves an expression of his fear? Perhaps he thought that if he could completely understood everything about his slaves then he could protect himself from "the jungle". And what is the jungle? Ingrained resentment on an extreme magnitude? Barbarism? The description that Stamp Paid gives of the jungle: "swift unnavigable rivers, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood" has a very "Heart of Darkness" feel to it.

1 comment:

  1. No edition of this novel, as far as I know, has chapter numbers. It's the reason we needed to keep specifying the stopping points each day in class, as the only way I can identify these on the syllabus is through page numbers.

    These comments on Stamp's ideas about "the jungle" resonate with a range of analyses of America's neurotic obsession with race. I'd say schoolteacher's "scientific" approach makes sense in terms of fear: the way that "studying" these "subjects" makes them circumscribable by language and data and seems to "tame" the human emotion, freedom, "wildness" they contain. And Sethe's response to being thus "studied" drives this point home clearly: she experiences it as an unambiguous case of subjugation and dehumanization. It becomes the very thing she wants to protect her children from: they will never feel what it's like to be "measured" in this way. This rhetoric of "wildness" gets ironically reversed in the woodshed scene, where schoolteacher views Sethe's actions as a manifestation of this "jungle"--she was "overbeaten," and this loosed a "wildness" in her, reversing schoolteacher's efforts. But we can see Sethe's seemingly barbaric actions as in fact a highly civilized form of love for her children, a deep desire to protect them from the barbarism of slavery. She is the one who's afraid of the "jungle" in schoolteacher and his ilk, which makes them behave so barbarically.