The Displaced Logos in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

eyesContra Diction?

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God[1] is, like many other texts of literary modernity, opposed to the abuse of others by language, either by individuals or institutions of power. Hurston’s text is deliberately polyvocal, simultaneously demonstrating the constraints and liberties of the individual author.[2] Polyvocality serves to disseminate power among the various characters in Their Eyes, thereby removing any true “center” of authority. Janie Crawford’s repeated marriages only further reinforce the notion that language’s power cannot, and should not, be located in only one speaker’s domineering narrative. Yet for all their differences, Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake (i.e. Vergible Woods) share the same fate: They all lose the language with which they began their relationship with Janie. Hurston’s trinity of proud black men, it should also be noted, die, whereas Janie does not.

The relation of Janie to these three figures of power exerted through language could be interpreted as a kind of allegory depicting the relationship of Black matriarchs to a perceived male deity (i.e. the Trinity of the Christian religion). Does this mean that Hurston stands against speech/authorship? The obvious answer is, of course, that she does not object to authorship. What, then, is the purpose of her representation of these black men as a kind of impotent, omni-absent, and omni-ignorant trinity? In a word, Hurston’s trinity is an immanentization of the God of the Bible. Her deification of the negative values associated with post-Emancipation black men seeking an identity in a fragmented minority culture, seems to have the effect of placing men and women on equal ground, as equal participants in the game of American life. However, this paper will articulate the ways in which the three male figures, as a parodic allegorical representation of the Christian Trinity, fail to immanentize the transcendent God of the Bible, shifts the burden of bearing divine attributes upon Hurston herself, and ends in a rather devastating contradiction.

Husbandman-Governor-Lover

Three prominent biblical analogies describing God’s relationship to the nation of Israel are: (i.)the husbandman/landowner,[3] (ii.)the sovereign ruler/governor of all things,[4] and (iii.)the lover/husband. It is striking, therefore, to note that Janie’s three husbands share these characteristics with the God of Israel. Logan Killicks,[5] for instance, is a farmer, or husbandman, whose marriage to Janie is represented as being not much more than an exchange of goods.  Nanny summarizes this succinctly when she tells Janie: “If you don’t want him, you sho oughta. Heah you is wid de onliest organ in town, amongst us color folks, in yo’ parlor. Got a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road andLawd have mussy!”[6]

Consequently, despite the fact that during the initial years of their marriage Logan talked “in rhymes to [Janie],”[7] the poetry later came to an abrupt stop. This stop marks the beginning of the end of his and Janie’s relationship, bringing Jody’s distinct character into relief once Janie has left Logan.[8] The relationship which was meant to procure land, posterity, and blessing,[9] which began redemptively-poetically devolves into a purely vassal-servant relationship where Janie’s newly found freedom is swallowed up in agricultural duties.[10] Janie, thus, echoes the complaining of post-Exodus Israel when she tells Logan: “You ain’t done me no favor by marryin’ me. And if dat’s what you call yo’self doin’, Ah don’t thank yuh for it.”[11]

When Joe Starks appears, apparently as a type of the Jewish patriarch Isaac,[12] his own mode of discourse is not mainly poetic but political, governmental. Starks “talked friendly,” we are told, “while he drank.”[13] From this (manipulative?)[14] exchange, he goes on to promise Janie liberty from Logan. “Every day after [their initial meeting],” we are told, “they managed to meet… and talk about when he would be a big ruler of things with her reaping the benefits.”[15] After the death of Logan’s poetry, the promises of freedom and power take its place. Thus, “Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her…Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there.[16] 

Whereas the nature of Logan as Logos-Landowner is somewhat implicit in the novel, Starks’ recognition of himself as divine, as God Incarnate, is hard to ignore. “He had always wanted to be a big voice,”[17] we are told. “It had always been his wish and desire to be a big voice and he had to live nearly thirty years to find a chance.”[18] Starks is a voice, the Voice, and he begins to rule over the people of Eatonville when he is thirty years old. These parallels to Jesus Christ (the Word/Voice of God who began his public ministry at thirty years old) are only further strengthened upon consideration of Starks’ role as the king who brings light to those living in darkness.[19] Thus, it is written:

…Joe mounted the box that had been placed for the purpose and opened the brazen door of the lamp. As the word Amen was said, he touched the lighted match to the wick, and Mrs. Bogle’s alto burst out in:

We’ll walk in de light, de beautiful light

Come where the dew drops of mercy shine bright,

Shine all around us by day and by night

Jesus, the light of the world.[20]

In this regard, it is equally significant that Starks sets up a post office and establishes himself as the mediator of communications from outside of Eatonville.[21]

Nevertheless, although Starks is, as Hicks ironically calls him, “de King of Jerusalem,”[22] he too loses his power over others by means of language. Old age renders him unfit for verbal battle with Janie, who wounds and kills him by her words.[23] Janie’s conquering of this second person of Hurston’s parodic trinity is made a fool of in much the same way that Janie made a fool of Logan, whose last words toward her are an impotent threat: ““Don’t you change too many words wid me dis mawnin’, Janie, do Ah’ll take and change ends wid yuh!”[24]

As with Janie’s other husbands, Tea Cake at first “has all the advantage.”[25] His advantage, however, is balanced by his voluntary self-disclosure, as well as his willingness to play with Janie. Tea Cake’s instruction is, therefore, doubly significant, reinforcing the binary speaker/hearer while undermining it by inviting Janie to enter the game despite her age and gender. Thus, “she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play.”[26] Logan and Jody exclude Janie from their particular language games. Logan is a poet, not Janie. Jody is a speaker and ruler, not Janie. And in contradistinction to these two men, Tea Cake is the teacher of the game’s rules, inviting Janie to meet him on level ground.

Nevertheless, insofar as Tea Cake is the one who either withholds or disseminates the knowledge of the game to Janie; he wields power, advantage. This creates an uneasy tension between the constraints and liberties set upon Janie’s language use, for she is free only to the extent to which she has been given freedom by Tea Cake. In this way, therefore, Tea Cake remains a god figure, a person of the Hurstonian trinity. He creates and molds Janie by his words, by his teaching, doctrine. A pessimistic reading of Tea Cake’s role in the novel, consequently, would identify his later mental breakdown as simply the fruition of seeds of male verbal dominance found in this opening checkers game. The initial invitation to enter into dialogue becomes the imperative to engage with the original speaker: “Answer me when Ah speak.”[27]

Hurston’s Dogmatic Univocalism: Some Concluding Remarks

As demonstrated above, the three husbands of Janie Crawford serve as an allegorical parodic trinity who rules and governs and creates by his words. This is a criticism not only of patriarchal models of gender relations, but a critique of the Christian religion’s claim to having a monopoly on Truth/Language. Despite this, however, the attentive reader will ask: If “real gods require blood” (death),[28] then does this not put displace the Logos of the Bible only to replace him with Hurston who creates a semiosphere with her word, sustains it by the same means, and kills those who stand opposed to her elect child, Janie?

Hurston’s parodic trinity, in this light, is paralleled by herself, her narrator, and Janie. Thus, the surface polyvocality of the text is shown to be a virtual effect of an underlying dogmatic univocalism. Hurston, her narrator, and Janie Mae Crawford act in unison in bringing about the creation and redemption of this semiosphere. From the initial stage of unreflective and shallow poetry, Janie moves on to reflective and domineering political discourse, ending finally with a grasp of how to engage with others with a measured, balanced intimacy of language. These stages of her development, in some ways parallel to Stephen Dedalus’ aesthetic-linguistic development, are undermined by the fact that Hurston’s text does not go farther than merely kicking against the ideological goads. For, ironically, though Janie develops in a similar manner, the possibility of her development comes only through the death of the incarnate deities Hurston seeks to undermine.

It is only through the death of the speaking god-man, in other words, that Hurston can save Janie from an uncertain and shadowy post-Emancipation existence. Fundamentally, this is a contradiction that renders Hurston’s message unclear and confused at best, and utterly incoherent at worst. Post-Emancipation Black Americans are to be saved from the blood requiring God of the Bible, the one who is consistently identified as “he” and “him,” and the sacrificial death of his Son, the Logos of God – yet this is only to be accomplished through Hurston’s sacrificial killing of Logans, Jody, and Tea Cake.

Hurston does not succeed in making the transcendent immanent, for she remains in the distant authorial/ethereal realm, like the scrupulous deity of the Greek gnostics. Likewise, Hurston does not finally succeed in dissociating power from the authority of the author. For in disseminating power among the inhabitants of her world, she controls the ebb and flow of all discourse in her novel. Rather than removing a locus of power, she becomes the locus of power. Modernism displaces the Divine Logos, or attempts to do so, but only by replacing him with the author, or the self. Ironically, in dismantling the institutions of power which oppress by means of language, one is positioning himself to receive the honors due to a savior – a Logan, a Jody, or a Tea Cake – and suggesting that the problem is not language or institutionality, but the persons who abuse language and institutionality.

-h.


[1] Their Eyes, subsequently.

[2] I will use author in the broadest sense which the term allows, signifying speaker and writer in any communicative exchange.

[3] See Matt 21:33-46, where Jesus likens God the Father to a landowner, and Israel to disobedient tenants.

[4] The instances of ascribing kingship and absolute rulership to God in the Bible are too numerous to note here.

[5] Note the similarity here between Logan and Logos.

[6] Their Eyes, 46-47. (emphasis added)

[7] Their Eyes, 49.

[8] Their Eyes, 55.

[9] cf. Gen 12:1-3.

[10] See Their Eyes, 49; cf. Exo 16:1-3 & 17:1-3; Num 11:1-6; Jer 31:31-32.

[11] Their Eyes, 53. (emphasis added)

[12] See Their Eyes, 61.

[13] Their Eyes, 50. (emphasis added)

[14] See Their Eyes, 51.

[15] ibid.

[16] Their Eyes, 55.

[17] Their Eyes, 50.

[18] ibid. (emphasis added)

[19] See Their Eyes, 63-65.

[20] Their Eyes, 64-65.

[21] Their Eyes, 58-59.

[22] ibid.

[23] See Their Eyes, 93-95 & 97-101.

[24] Their Eyes, 53. (emphasis added)

[25] Their Eyes, 108.

[26] Their Eyes, 109.

[27] Their Eyes, 184.

[28] Their Eyes, 151.

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3 thoughts on “The Displaced Logos in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

  1. Heather says:

    This was really interesting. I’m trying to make symbolic sense of you assessment of the narrative…not your fault, I’m just not that well educated:)
    So, would it be reasonable to say that the undergirding theme of this work would be the liberation of the creature from the constraint related to accountability to a higher Authority?

    Like

    • hiram says:

      I’m glad I got you thinking :)

      I think you’re right. The theme of man liberating himself from the God of the Bible via “Reason” and “Science” eventually came to the forefront in academics and art after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods.

      Disgustingly, Lucifer/Satan was endowed with heroic virtue, as he was interpreted by many literati as a symbol of resisting institutional (and/or Divine) authority. Friedrich Nietzsche called himself “The AntiChrist,” since he sought to embody all of what he thought Christianity opposes.

      William Blake, likewise, sought to write a “bible from hell” which valued sensory experience/experimentation and freedom from the commands of any god, let alone the God of Scripture.

      The Illuminati and Freemasons also saw Satan/Lucifer as their hero, a being who realized his own divinity and rejected the external authority of God’s commands.

      The mathematics and science of the day was not unaffected by this either. Darwin’s theory of evolution was influenced by the writing of Holderlin, a pantheistic German poet who saw the material world as being “alive” and “conscious.” (think natural “selection”) The mystical Jewish beliefs of Kabbalah were influential in mathematical thinking at this time as well.

      So much for “disinterested” and “objective” science, huh?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Heather says:

        So much for “disinterested” and “objective” science, huh?

        It is interesting to note how such claims tend to align with a distinctly anti-Christ agenda…
        but, I suppose it’s to be expected when we are dealing with spiritual deception?
        I know I’m not smart enough to discern truth from error on my own :/

        Thank you for the expanded thoughts!

        Liked by 1 person

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