Monday, August 1, 2011
THE CENTRAL CONFLICT IN DREAMER BY CHARLES JOHNSON
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What impression of King did you want your reader to have after reading the " Prologue" in DREAMER?"
The essence of Dreamer, the meaning that organizes all the other events and details in that story, is contained in these words offered in the Prologue:
"He was a tightrope walker straddling two worlds. One of matter. One of spirit. Every social evil he could think of, and every 'ontological fear,' as he was fond of saying lately, arose from that mysterious dichotomy inscribed at the heart of things: self and other, I and Thou, inner and outer, perceiver and perceived. It was a schism that, if not healed, would consume the entire world."
That is what one might call the central conflict of the novel, the conflict or problem from which all other political and social and personal conflicts arise: dualism. Gandhi often referred to leading the spiritual life as being like "walking on a razor's edge" (which, by the way, is the title of a 1944 Eastern-influenced novel by Somerset Maugham). The Mahatma took that thought from the Katha Upanishad, where it says, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." So it is with Martin Luther King Jr. in this novel. The very difficult goal he has set for himself is realizing the kingdom of God on Earth, achieving spiritual ideals in a realm that is political and secular and drenched in a divisive dualism that pits black against whites, black against black, men against women, Left against Right, communist (or Socialist) against capitalist, Jew against Gentile, Christian against Muslim, Muslim against Jew, gay against straight, West against East, on and on these forms of dualism are endless and arise from a primordial dilemma that Captain Ebenezer Falcon describes this way in Middle Passage:
"Conflict is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other---these ancient twins are built into mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun: They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound."
In Dreamer, my portrait of King presents him as an exquisitely educated, Western, black man, a theologian and philosopher by training, a spiritual seeker whose vision is that of a social world in which men and women transcend this ontic wound, this transcendental Fault by realizing a "beloved community" in which "I" is seen as "Thou," Self is understood to be Other, and subject and object are ontologically experienced as one.
Put another way, my fictitious King in Dreamer is not simply laboring to end racial segregation and integrate lunch counters or even take care of the poor, but is trying mightily to address the metaphysical root causes in humankind that give rise to difference and dualism, oppression and evil. For that reason his quest at time seems quixotic and he---like Gandhi---doomed to failure and death. And as we read in that same passage from which I quoted earlier, "Martydom held no appeal for him, but for every sorcerer named Jesus there was a Judas; for every bodhisattva called Gandhi, a Poona Brahmin named Nathuram Godse. The way to the crown was, now and forever, the cross. And it made no sense to carry the cross unless one was prepared to be crucified" in the social world.
The novel's Prologue, therefore, sets the spiritual and philosophical tone for the rest of the story.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 11:04 PM