Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Poet E. Ethelbert Miller asks this spate of provocative questions:
Q. Often the characters in a novel ask questions the author should answer too. In Oxherding Tale, Flo Hatfield asks, "Is wanting tenderness too much?"
     How would the novelist and Buddhist Charles Johnson answer this question?

    You establish an equation between sex and slavery in Oxherding Tale. Could you elaborate? Is this a relationship that only applies to a specific historical period or is it how men and women view sex and slavery in general?
To place all these questions in their proper context, let me first say that Oxherding Tale is a post-modern slave narrative that explores bondage not just in terms of physical and legal chattel slavery in the 19th century but also in respect to the timeless experience of different forms of mental enslavement---psychological, cultural, spiritual, and bondage to the ego. 

When a phenomenologist does artistic variations on a phenomenon in order to imaginatively call forth new meaning from it, he often turns to the techniques of (1) Figure-ground reversals; (2) Juxtapositions of context; (3) Isolation of dominant and recessive traits; and (4) Transforming perspectives. This last method is used at least twice in Oxherding Tale

First, its protagonist Andrew Hawkins is not the product of “miscegenation” between a white master and his female slave, as in the case of, say, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, but is rather the offspring of George Hawkins, a slave butler, and his master’s wife. Similarly, when Andrew as a young man is sent to work for another slave owner to earn his freedom, that character is not the stereotypical, overworked Simon Legree sort that readers might expect after reading some slave narratives, but rather an attractive, middle-aged yet profoundly tragic white woman named Flo Hatfield, who sates her erotic and ego needs on the helpless black bondsmen who come under her control. The two chapters in which she is prominently featured, entitled “In The Service of the Senses,” are a send-up of the passages in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha where his enlightenment-seeking protagonist becomes the lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala (In Sanskrit, the word for selfish desire and sensory craving is kāma).

But Andrew soon learns that even though Flo Hatfield is a rich and powerful slave-master, she is not free. The external things she pursues cannot provide lasting happiness, and in all of her actions she is re-active. In Flo’s case, she has been married no less than eleven times---and still finds herself alone. Soon enough, Andrew discovers that she is self-absorbed, vain, an Opium Eater, vindictive, and one who exploits her relative position of power in the Peculiar Institution. None of this has brought her peace or satisfaction. Yet and still, it must be pointed out that in the patriarchal world of the antebellum South, Flo is historically as much the victim of white men as is Andrew, living a gender-limited life of “relative-being” in respect to the white, male Others in her past who never recognized her as a subject, and severely restricted the realization of her potential. Furthermore, as an astute (and somewhat embittered) student of men, she is fully aware that when love and unselfishness are missing in the experience of sex, which is sadly the only kind of relationship Flo has ever known, all that remains is an unpleasant, exploitative exercise in power and dominance between two people. (Andrew does later have such an unselfish and rewarding relationship with Peggy Undercliff, the daughter of a country doctor.) In one passage, Flo asks, “Is wanting tenderness too much? Or intelligence in a man?” Then after a beat she adds, “Of course, I also want sexual satisfaction compliments gifts fidelity a great body cleverness sophistication yet boyish exuberance a full head of hair good teeth and the ability to know my moods. Is that too much?”

Put another way, she sees Andrew as her new Boy Toy. And playing that role in order to earn his legal freedom almost kills him. For the last 29 years, I’ve been content to let readers decide if Flo Hatfield’s miscellaneous list of wants and desires is “too much.” If that is the way to approach Others---with a checklist we have for what we think they should be. And to decide as well if anyone, male or female, should so objectify another. Of course, she deserves “tenderness” but, even more importantly than tenderness, as a Buddhist I would say Flo Hatfield deserves compassion, and our Bodhissatva prayer that she will one day know happiness, awakening, and freedom from suffering.

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