Down With OPB: One Direction.Posted: June 18, 2012
A few years ago, I was living in Toronto to pursue a career in advertising – which promptly crashed and burned. (How badly? On a scale from one to ten: Hindenburg.) Because my mode of transportation, much like my heroine Wonder Woman’s, was invisible, I often took public transportation. Which isn’t much of a big deal in Toronto, because, for the most part, it is readily available and fairly frequent. Plus, my driving skills are barely passable in the suburbs, so my chances of surviving in big city traffic…well, there’d be no chance. Anyway, my point is that because I took so much public transportation, I’d often find myself at the TTC’s Union subway station. WIthin this subway station is an underground mall populated with tenants such as Coles Bookstore, Starbucks, and the LCBO. (You can see why I frequented there between stops).
It seemed that every time I entered the mall, everyone else was exiting; that everyone but I was going in the same direction. All those who walked in the opposite direction as I did seemed purposeful, seemed as though they knew where they were going and how to get there. And I – who kept losing job after job and going on futile interview after futile interview, did not. Like a tidal wave, this rush of people kept pushing me back to where I was going, and I kept fighting against them, kept pushing back. Every single time this happened, every single time, it would remind me of a certain scene in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.
You can breathe a sigh of relief: this is not going to be a post about my life. And for the pre-teen girls who Googled a certain flash-in-the-pan boy band and came across this: ha-ha!
Note: This post went on a lot longer than I anticipated, and the scene related to my experience in the underground mall doesn’t come until the end. So that’s incentive to either keep reading, or to go back to mindlessly surfing the social networking site of your choice.
So begins my third post about this novel, set in Michigan during the 1950s and 1960s, involving protagonist Macon “Milkman” Dead, III. Except his last name really isn’t “Macon Dead”. His real name is actually unknown, thanks his grandfather’s inability to read, and an incompetent drunk Yankee, as his father, Macon Jr., tells him.
“Got his name messed up because he couldn’t read…When freedom came. [Blogger’s Note: As in freed slaves] All the coloured people in the state had to register with the Freedman’s Bureau…in 1869….Papa was in his teens and went to sign up, but the man behind the desk was drunk. He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who his father was. Papa said, ‘He’s dead.’…Well. the Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces…in the space for his name, the fool wrote ‘Dead’ comma ‘Macon.’ But Papa couldn’t read so he never found out how he was registered until Mama told him. They met on a wagon going North. Started talking about one thing and another, told her about being a freedman and showed off his papers to her. When she looked at his paper, she read him out what it said…Mama liked it. Liked the name. Said it was new and would wipe out the past, wipe it out all out.”
This introduces the main theme of the novel: how the elimination of the past can cause one to stagnate in the present. Just as with any other Bildungsroman, Milkman’s story is one of an individual’s journey from youth to adulthood, a journey which he spends trying to understand his place in the world, the purpose of his existence, his raison d’être. To get a better definition of a bildungsroman – and, in turn, the purpose of this piece – check out the quote below, courtesy of The Victorian Web:
A Bildungsroman is, most generally, the story of a single individual’s growth and development within the context of a defined social order. The growth process, at its roots a quest story, has been described as both “an apprenticeship to life” and a “search for meaningful existence within society.”
Obviously, this meaningful existence is what Milkman is lacking. Yet he can’t even find it in the macrocosm of society as represented by his own family, never mind society in general. Because he looks up to his father – a property owner – so keenly, he is happy to start working for him at the age of thirteen, collecting rent from tenants. Milkman is proud to be the son of such a powerful man, despite certain public distaste for him. Then, at age fourteen, he discovers that he has a slight disability.
…he had noticed that one of his legs was shorter than the other. When he stood barefoot ad straight as a pole, his left foot was about half and inch off the floor. So he never stood straight; he slouched and leaned or stood with a hip thrown out…It bothered him and he acquired movements and habits to disguise what to him was a burning defect…the deformity was mostly in his mind…He favoured it, believed it was polio, and felt secretly connected to the late President Roosevelt for that reason…Milkman secretly preferred FDR and felt very very close to him. Closer, in fact, to him than his own father, for Macon had no imperfection and age to seemed to strengthen him.
With this disability, Milkman knows he’ll never measure up to the father whom he “…fear[s]..” and “…respect[s]” so he gives up on trying to be like him, and instead, tries behaving as the exact opposite.
Macon was clean-shaven; Milkman was desperate for a mustache. Macon wore bow ties; Milkman wore four-in-hands. Macon didn’t part his hair; Milkman had a part shaved into his. Macon hated tobacco; Milkman tried to put a cigarette in his mouth every fifteen minutes. Macon hoarded his money; Milkman gave his away.
Despite these blatant differences, Milkman “still did try, as his father’s employee, to do the work the way Macon wanted it done.”
Macon isn’t the only one under Milkman’s analytical gaze. At twenty-two, having had sexual relations for six years now makes him view his mother, Ruth, differently from “the person who worried him about galoshes and colds and food…”
who stood in the way of most of the little pleasures he could take at home because they all involved some form of dirt, noise or disarray. Now he saw her as a frail woman content to do tiny things; to grow and cultivate small life that would not hurt her if it died…
Seeing his mother as a woman – and a “frail” one at that – is important, because it causes him to feel it necessary to defend her when his father physically assaults her during dinner one evening. It all starts when Milkman’s mother, whose now-deceased father was a prestigious doctor, starts talking about a wedding she’d gone to recently. It was for the granddaughter of one of her father’s former patients, Anna Djvorak. Basically, Ruth was invited because Mrs. Djvorak “was convinced that the doctor had miraculously saved her son’s life by not sending him to the tuberculosis sanatorium back in 1903…It was natural that she would want the miracle doctor’s daughter at the wedding of this son’s youngest daughter.” But when the congregation in the Catholic-based church was to receive the host, Ruth, a Methodist, fails to follow correct protocol and has to be directed accordingly by the priest. This same priest confronts her later at the reception, and after asking her about her religious denomination, he informs her that only Catholics can receive the host. During this conversation, Mrs. Djvorak interjects, introducing Ruth as “…one of my dearest friends…Dr. Foster’s daughter. Her father saved Ricky’s life.” After that, the priest is friendlier to her, “…he was very pleased and honoured to make my acquaintance. So it turned out all right.” But Milkman’s father has problems with this anecdote. First, he can’t believe she doesn’t know that only Catholics take communion in a Catholic church. Second, he doubts that she’s as tight with Mrs. Djvorak as she claims.
“Anna Djvorak don’t even know your name. She called you Dr. Foster’s daughter! I bet you a hundred dollars she still don’t know your name! You by yourself ain’t nobody. You your daddy’s daughter!”
Then Ruth utters the response that sets him off: “‘I certainly am my daddy’s daughter’.” This is when he punches her in the face. Milkman reacts by “yank[ing] him by the back of his coat collar, up out of his chair, and knock[ing] him into the radiator.” He threatens to kill his own father if the older man ever touches his mother again. In that moment, Milkman has a conflict of emotion: on one hand, he feels “the pain and shame of seeing his father crumple before any man – even himself.” On the other hand, “he also felt glee. A snorting, horse-galloping glee as old as desire.” Yet within that glee, Milkman demonstrates how unsure of himself he is, because he doesn’t know what to do with his new sense of power.
He had won something and lost something in the same instant. Infinite possibilities and enormous responsibilities stretched out before him, but he was not prepared to take advantage of the former, or accept the burden of the latter.
Because Milkman is unaware of his past, he doesn’t know himself. And because he doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know how to relate to anyone in his family; and that’s because he doesn’t really know anyone in his family for whom they truly are, such as his much older sisters, whose reactions to his heroics surprise him.
Milkman looked at his sisters. He had never been able to really distinguish them (or their roles) from his mother. They were in their early teens when he was born; they were thirty-five and thirty-six now. But since Ruth was only sixteen years older than Lena, all three had always looked the same age to him. Now when he met his sisters’ eyes over the table, they returned him a hatred so fresh, so new, it startled him. Their pale eyes no longer appeared to blur into their even paler skin. It seemed to him as though charcoal lines had been drawn around their eyes; that two drag lines had been smudged down their cheeks, and their rosy lips were swollen in hatred so full it was about to burst through. Milkman had to blink twice before their faces returned to the vaguely alarmed blandness he was accustomed to.
The fact that Milkman isn’t even aware of his sisters’ personality to the point that he finds them indiscernible from his mother, much less the fact that they hate him, demonstrates the irony of him having such a lack of self-awareness, yet being so self-absorbed that he doesn’t even see them as more than human bookends for their mother. And once he realizes that he’s not going to get any congratulatory pats on the back for his actions against his father, he retreats to his room, realizing that he is truly powerless and ineffectual.
His action was alone. It would change nothing between his parents. It would change nothing inside them. He had knocked his father down and perhaps there were some new positions on the chessboard, but the game would go on.
Just as Milkman has no defined role in society, he has no defined role in his family. Therefore, whatever actions he takes within that family are moot, because he’s barely even a part of it. He’s not yet his own person. When he’d tried being like his father, his physical imperfection, in his mind, ruled out that possibility. And after becoming sexually active leads to an awareness of his mother’s frailty, he tries to be the person he thinks she needs him to be, and that backfires as well. Then, in his sisters’ eyes, he sees the person that they perceive him to be: powerless and distasteful, a nobody.
Once in his room, Milkman takes gazes upon “…a pair of silver-backed brushed his mother had given him when he was sixteen, engraved with his initials, the abbreviated degree designation of a doctor.” It’s obvious that his mother wanted him to be a doctor like her father was, but at the time he rejected that idea because of his last name: “If you were sick, would you can’t to go see a man called Dr. Dead?” and considered using his middle name “Foster”, his mother’s maiden name, as his last name. But the brushes are also “a constant reminder of what her wishes for him were – that he not stop his education of high school, but go on to college and medical school.” However, his father feels differently: “To Milkman’s father, college was spent in idleness, far away from the business life which was learning to own things.” The fact that he’s given two very different options, yet still doesn’t know which one suits him, is more evidence that he knows very little about the person he is and the person he wants to be. Even when he looks in the mirror he sees himself as an unfinished puzzle.
Milkman stood before his mirror and glanced, in low light of the wall lamp, at his reflection. He was, as usual, unimpressed with what he saw. He had a fine enough face. Eyes women complimented him on, a firm jaw line, splendid feet. Taken apart, it looked all right. Even better than all right. But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self.
Then he is confronted by his father, a scene that reiterates one of the main points of the novel: how lack of knowledge of one’s past can be a determent to their present and future. This statement is reflected in what Milkman’s father says to preface his “defence” as to why he hit Ruth: “…if you want to be a whole man, you have to deal with the whole truth.” Macon, Jr. tells his son that he’d married Ruth when she was sixteen and moved into the house where she lived alone with her father. Dr. Foster didn’t like Macon, and the feeling was mutual, particularly when Dr. Foster insisted on delivering both of their daughters. Macon tried getting a midwife to do the job, but living in the home of a wealthy, powerful doctor left him without a leg to stand on. From then on he had an inkling that the relationship between his wife and his father-in-law was inappropriate, and it was confirmed from him when, upon hearing of Dr. Foster’s death, he came home to witness this sight:
“In the bed. That’s where she was when I opened the door. Laying next to him. Naked as a yard dog, kissing him. Him dead and white and puffy and skinny, and she had his fingers in his mouth.”
After that discovery, Macon questioned the paternity of his daughters, but dismissed the thought when he realized “…it was clear that bastard couldn’t fuck nothing.” Despite that he still questioned something else: how far Ruth and her father had gone: “…the fact is that she was in that bed sucking his fingers, and if she do that when he was dead, what’d she do when he was alive?” This is an anger that Macon has seemed to have built up throughout his marriage to Ruth, one that reached its breaking point “…when she said, ‘Yes, I am my daddy’s daughter,’ and gave that little smirk…” Obviously, Macon had seen it as her version of a power play, the first punch thrown. The impact of his father’s revelation, of everything that had happened at dinner reduces Milkman to the point of immobility, makes him see Macon as “a stranger that he’d sat down next to on a park bench…turned to him and became to relate some intimacy.” Part of what upsets him, it seems, is that he knows his father way less than he thought. Earlier he had experienced disappointment seeing that his father had been so easily taken down by him, but that was a minuscule event compared to the one he’s just experienced.
He was entirely sympathetic to the stranger’s problems – understood perfectly, his view of what had happened to him – but part of his sympathy came from the fact that he himself was not involved or in any way threatened by the stranger’s story. It was quite the opposite from the feeling he’d had an hour or less ago. The alien walked out of his room was also the man he felt passionately enough to strike with all the fervor he could summon up. Even now he could feel the tingle in his shoulder that had singled the uncontrollable urge to smash his father’s face.
Obviously, Milkman has lost the great respect he’d had for his father in a single night. He can no longer relate to him, no longer has anyone to whom he can look up, to give him guidance towards where he’s supposed to go. Now he sees Macon as a stranger, much as he does with the rest of his family. His view of his mother doesn’t fare much better, ether. His detachment from her is obvious in when his motive for defending her is revealed.
On his way upstairs to his room he had felt isolated, but righteous. He was a man who saw another man hit a helpless person. And he had interfered. Wasn’t this the history of the world? Isn’t that what men did? Protected the frail and confronted the King of the Mountain? And the fact that the frail was his mother and the King of the Mountain his father made it more poignant, but it did not change the essential facts. No. He would not pretend that it was love for his mother. She was too insubstantial, too shadowy for love. But it was her vaporishness that made her more needful of defence…Ruth was a plea but complicated woman given to deviousness and ultra-fine manners. She seemed to know a lot and understand very little…Never had he thought of his mother as a person, a separate individual, with a life apart from allowing or interfering with his own.
Not only does Milkman see Ruth as insignificant in general, but insignificant to him. She has absolutely no impact upon his life. Even as he defended her, he did so to make himself feel like a man, since he doesn’t know how to otherwise. He sees himself as he had seen his face in the mirror: parts of a whole, incomplete, and though he doesn’t recognize it yet – just as insignificant as he sees his mother and older sisters. Or maybe he does recognize it and that’s part of what has upset him so much: that he’s more like them than he thought. Like them, he has no distinct identity, and now, having seen his parents in a new light, he has no clue where to find it. This feeling of detachment from the members of his family – particularly, his parents – continues as he takes a walk in the night to clear his head.
…Milkman tried to figure out what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him. What was he supposed to do with this new information his father had dumped on him? …How was he supposed to feel about the two of them now?
Milkman wonders if the story that his father had told him about Ruth and her father was true, and, if so, “‘What the fuck did he tell me all that shit for?'” Most significant is his next thought: “He didn’t want to know any of it. There was nothing he could do about it. The doctor was dead. You can’t do the past over.” Here, Milkman shows more evidence that he’s as detached from the past as he is from his family, that he also deems it to insignificant to care about, – again, like his family – and that it has no impact on his present. And that once things are dead – much like the family name – there’s no need to bring them back to life.
Milkman’s confusion was rapidly turning to anger. “Strange motherfuckers,” he whispered. “Strange.” If he wanted me to lay off, he thought, why didn’t he just say that? Just come to me like a man and say, Cool it. You cool it and I’ll cool it. We’ll both cool it. And I’d say, Okay, you go it. But no. He comes to me with some way-out tale about how come and why.
Again, this demonstrates how unimportant the past is to Milkman, which is ironic, because his lack of interest in it is what’s holding him back, even though his father tried advising him that in order to be a “whole man”, he needed to deal with “the whole truth.” But Milkman inwardly scoffs at the idea when remembering his father’s words of wisdom: “Couldn’t I be a whole man without knowing all that?” As he’s still trying to come to terms with the story his father had told him about his mother, he suddenly has a memory that “stopped [him] dead in his tracks…People jostled him trying to get past the solitary man standing in their way.” This memory is of the incident that earned him his nickname after one of Macon’s tenants, Freddie, caught Ruth breast-feeding her then six-year-old son. Upon this sight, Freddie declares Macon Dead, III, “A milkman…A natural milkman if I ever seen one.” Bits of pieces of that day come back to Milkman in the present, particularly, when his mother got caught. At first, he also deems this memory insignificant.
There was this green room, a very small green room, and his mother was sitting in the green room and her breasts were uncovered and somebody was sucking them and the somebody was himself. So? So what? My mother nursed me Mothers nurse babies. Why the sweat?
Milkman walks on, “hardly noticing the people pushing past him, the annoyed, tight faces.” Even though he’s not yet moved in any particular way by the memory, he keeps trying to see it; then he remembers laughter, loud laughter, and his mother looking ashamed. He delves deeper into the memory, trying to figure out what was so off about it until he realized that he had been old enough to stand on his own.
“My mother nursed me when I was old enough to talk, to stand up, and wear knickers, and somebody saw it and laughed and – and that is why they call me Milkman and that is why my father never does and that is why my mother never does but everybody else does. And how did I forget that? And why? And if she did that to me when there was n reason for it, when I also drank milk and Ovaltine and everything else from a glass, then maybe she did other things with her father?”
Finally, Milkman gets his first glimpse into the importance of one’s past, how it can reveal the truth, and how it can make him see things clearly. Actually this is his second taste; the first occurred, of course, when his father told him about his mother’s history. Argh. Wait. It’s his third – because the first time was when Macon told Milkman about his grandfather and the drunk Yankee. Well, the current revelation is probably the most significant, at any rate, because it’s had the biggest effect on him. Anyway, it’s probably safe to say that this opens a Pandora’s box for Milkman, because his knowledge of his mother’s relationship with his grandfather delivers to him the memory of how he came to be nicknamed “Milkman”, and in turn, opens his eyes to what may be the truth. He asks, “And how did I forget that?” Well, the answer is easy: he doesn’t think much of what he believes to be unimportant.
AND FINALLY we’ve come to the scene that relates the little personal story I gave you at the beginning of this piece. (Though, why bother pointing this out? I highly doubt anyone in their right mind has read this far. This is long, yo. Much longer than I intended it to be.) Milkman experiences his mental clarity symbolically when he realizes that the street he’s walking on is “crowded with people, all going in the direction he was coming from. All walking hurriedly and bumping against him.”
After a while he realized that nobody was walking on the other side of the street. There were no cars and the street lights were on, now that darkness had come, but the sidewalk on the other side of the street was completely empty. He turned around to see where everybody was going, but there was nothing to see except their backs and hats pressing forward into the night…
Milkman walked on, still headed towards Southside, never once wondering why he himself did not cross over to the other side of the street, where no one was walking at all.
Generally, this scene demonstrates that Milkman is going in the wrong direction in regards to his life. But it also demonstrates that, thanks to having been acquainted with bits of his past, he’s already losing his self-absorption (though this scene occurs early in the novel, so he still has a long way to go), and is starting to develop an awareness of the world around him, realizing how much he takes what is right in front of him for granted. While everyone else is going on with their lives, he is getting left behind because he’s stuck in the same place. Or, these people could also represent his past trying to move him forward while he keeps pushing back, doomed to be stuck in the present for good. Alternately, that empty street could also represent the fact that he needs to take his own path – not necessarily one that everyone else is taking – yet it can’t be done by standing in the way of or walking all over people. Another theory: because he’s not yet a man but still a child, he needs learn to walk again on his own before he’s man enough to join the rest of the world, as represented by the people pushing past him. One more theory, which is a small variation on the last one: the sidewalk is his past, one he needs to revisit before joining the rest of the real world.
Many theories can be made of the significance of this scene, but the one that’s for certain is that Milkman is heading the wrong way because he doesn’t know where he is going – the way I felt every time I walked in that underground mall. Of course, figuring out where he is supposed to go is what’s explored for the rest of the novel, on which I will be writing a summary, so this will be my last post about Song of Solomon otherwise.
When I will have that summary up? God only knows. I can only tell you that it’ll come between now until the time that I die.