I wrote the following review of The Poisonwood Bible for a Humanities course in college. I post it now in honor of Anna’s reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, vegetable, miracle. I may come back later on and add in the specific citations to the essay, but that will take more time than I’m willing to put in at the moment.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is extremely effective in its use and illustration of some of the defects present in liberal capitalist society. The book illustrates the critiques advanced by several modern critics of the liberal experiment, including communitarians, feminists and theologians. These critiques are exemplified very well in the dynamic that exists in the development of various characters within the work. Focusing mainly upon the characters of Rachel, Leah and Nathan this paper will demonstrate that they each of them seeks to negotiate a different aspect of modern culture even as they are supposedly outside of its grasp.
In order to understand the problems facing our culture it is necessary to understand the two theses inherent in enlightenment dialogue that have shaped the formation of subsequent forms of government; as Alisdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue: “It is clear that the Enlightenment’s mechanistic account of human action included both a thesis about the predictability of human behavior and a thesis about the appropriate ways to manipulate human behavior.” The history of the ideologies arising out of the enlightenment has been the story of attempts to focus and implement this manipulation. Communism and socialism, totalitarianism and liberalism differ in their assumptions about how to satisfy the desires of human nature yet agree that control is a necessity.
At its heart, the justification for any government is how effectively it protects it citizens. No longer is the responsibility of government protection limited to protection from foreign militaries and invasion however, instead, that protection has been continuously extended.
Evidence of our changing view of government is clearly seen in the new responsibilities we place upon it. Today it is not uncommon to place the blame for an economic slowdown on the government and ask what the “government” is going to do about it-as though the government were some “other” unit of society and wasn’t occupied and controlled by citizens. We speak also of a universal “right” to healthcare, of the “right” to bodily integrity and so forth. The common thread behind all these rights, from the ridiculous to the sublime, is the empowerment of the individual, often morally, usually economically. This is an extension of what it means to be free in the Anglo-American school of thought, which John Dewey articulates in Freedom and Culture:
In the American and English liberal tradition, the idea of freedom has been connected with the idea of individuality, of the individual. The connection has been so close and so often reiterated that it has come to seem inherent [. . .] in the continental European tradition the affiliation of the idea of freedom is with the idea of rationality.
The problem has not simply been how to control human behavior, but to determine what human nature is. Dewey’s belief was that majority of attempts to explain human nature have fallen prey to the tendency of becoming little more than abstractions of the problems observed. During the Enlightenment, freedom was seen to be the goal inherent in human nature while in his own time this goal was thought to be the love of power.
The common assumption iterated by both Anglo-American and Continental schools is that people desire safety or security. There are a few routes chosen to help accomplish the goal of making people feel safe and secure. The first is to make them feel empowered, the second to make them forget about death with the two routes intersecting naturally at various intervals.
Consider the stark contrasts exhibited in the Poisonwood Bible between the American interlopers and the native Congolese. The closeness of death in the minds of the native people juxtaposed with the sterile lives lived by the Americans helps further the story’s goal of humanizing the Congolese while simultaneously addressing many of the injustices inherent to and the detachment bred by modern capitalist culture. The items that the family takes to the Congo with them help to illustrate this detachment and sterility as well. Rather than being concerned about the basic necessities of life in such a place, the family chose to take cake mix and deviled ham. The interesting thing is that-the mother at least-viewed these things a necessary and basic. Their concern was with Betty Crocker, not clean water.
For the Congolese death was common, a part of life. The presentation of death in American/North Atlantic culture is very different. We seek to proscribe death, to place the ill and elderly in sanitary ghettos where the young and the beautiful no longer have to deal with them, and so, with their own mortality and frailty, their lack of control. The progression is thus: I have choices, more choices equate to more power, more power equates to more control, more control means that I have more authority over my life and circumstance. So in some way-perhaps multiple ways-my new jaguar is an evocation of the power I exercise over my life and fate, or rather, that I pretend to exercise. And of course, this belief is not totally unfounded; after all, those with more money often do exercise greater control over their health care etc . . . then the poor without equal resources. The problem arises when people begin to feel such a sense of security is intrinsic to the natural state of humanity, when in reality the natural state of humanity, and the state in which the majority of humans still live, is one of complete helplessness before events (at least as our society defines helplessness).
The character of Nathan portrays very well what an obsession with safety based upon control and power can lead to. Through the course of the novel Nathan’s background is revealed to us in small sections and, as there is no interiority in his character, we have to fight the urge-purposefully inculcated-to hate him with passion. What is revealed through the course of the story is that Nathan has a great many “issues” to deal with. Although it is only near the end of the novel that we find out what happened to Nathan in the war, the revelation helps to explain his actions. Clearly Nathan is a prideful man; we knew this from the beginning. What is interesting is to see how this pride interacts with his fear, particularly his fear of cowardice and of death.
Because Nathan is extremely religious, his experience as the sole survivor of a unit killed on Bataan, a survivor who by chance or providence was spared, led him to believe that God’s eye was on him as well as to question his courage. Nathan’s beliefs precluded any conclusion save that this gaze was accusatory. When he returns home Nathan conceals the truth of his past; perhaps this is the root of his fascination with the Apocrypha. For a Baptist–especially a southern Baptist–to be interested in the Apocrypha is rare, for one to consider it authoritative and seek to gain the church’s recognition for it is unheard of.
Because of the unlikely nature of this detail, it must have a greater meaning in the context of the novel. It is interesting to note that Nathan’s most peculiar characteristic is related to something secret; Apocrypha means “hidden writings.” Additionally, Nathan is driven by an event in his past that he refuses to reveal. It could be that he supports the acceptance of the Apocrypha as a substitutiary revelation, so that he does not have to reveal his own secrets. In any event, Nathan seeks to compensate for his fear and self-loathing by maintaining firm control over his family and by undertaking a mission in Africa to prove his courage. Nathan sacrificed humane and rational judgment on the altar of control so that he could assuage his fear of cowardice and death.
While Nathan is a good example of someone who seeks the assurance of safety in control and authority, there is another route taken in our society that involves the use of choice, especially economic choice, to instill a feeling of power or authority and therefore a feeling of safety. This practice is inherently tied up with advertising and identity construction. As Ernest Sternberg states in The Economy of Icons:
Whereas for most of the capitalist era business firms produced goods and services presumed to have identifiable uses, the new postmodern firms devote themselves to generating images that appeal to consumers’ desires and longings. These advanced capitalist firms have become producers of presentations-of performances, images, narratives, and phantasms that turn commodities into valuable icons.
The most vivid example of this within The Poisonwood Bible is Rachel. It is unsurprising that Rachel takes the route of identifying herself with her things since her character was from the very beginning-perhaps because of her age-the most taken with capitalist identity creation, the economy of icons Sternberg speaks of. Rachel’s concern with her image and fitting in are common and shared by most teenagers, yet this can be emblematic of very harmful interactions within our society. As the recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams states in his argument against materialism as a surrogate for power in Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement:
Anything but innocuous is the conscription of children into the fetishistic hysteria of style wars: it is still mercifully rare to murder for a pair of trainers, or to commit suicide because of an inability to keep up with peer group fashion; but what can we say about a marketing culture that so openly feeds and colludes with obsession? What picture of the acting or choosing self is being promoted?
It is clear that Rachel is obsessed, yet her obsession is only highlighted because of her circumstance. Living in a family with a religiously zealous father is one thing, to live in a family with a religiously zealous father in Africa is quite another.
Rachel demonstrates that part of the Anglo-American system which, with its focus on autonomy, seeks to empower the individual, to make the person feel as though they have control over their choices and by extension over their life. Rachel is the little girl who, for want of a proper sweet sixteen party, connives her way into the position of owner of a resort hotel. That she did this with the only capital available to her is a testament to her ingenuity; that she never sought more or recognized the transitory nature-in reality as well as metaphorically, colonialism was coming to an end after all-is a testament to her shallowness, intellectual as well as emotional.
What is illustrated by the “fetishistic hysteria of style wars” as well as Rachel’s life is that people seem convinced that they must purchase their identity, that they would be a lesser person or a non-person if they are unable to achieve the appropriate identity. In what are perhaps the saddest lines of the book Rachel states:
At least I can say that I’m a person who can look around and see what she’s accomplished in the world. Not to boast, but I have created my own domain. I call the shots. [. . .] I’m making a killing [. . .] there’s no time to get lonely.
The sadness of this statement comes from the fact that Rachel is attempting to convince herself that there is “no time to get lonely.” In reality Rachel knows that she is alone, that her wealth and success will mean nothing as the currency she used to achieve it fades and there is no one there who is there without ulterior motives. It is certainly possible that Rachel could buy companionship, yet this is an empty victory: it’s hard to hold the hand in comfort that would pull the plug in greed. In all, Rachel is the most pitiful character in the novel, her growth the most stunted by her experiences. Rachel was given no true opportunities, requiring her to grasp what was presented. In the end however, her experiences only serve to make her an island unto herself, without any community support. In Africa she was always the American who wanted so much to return home; in the end her “home” is Africa, but she still does not belong.
This leads us to a criticism of liberal capitalist culture that is advanced both by communitarians and theologians, namely, that our society has forgotten how to form true community. Some go even further and insist that our society not only fails to produce community but that our entire social impulse is geared toward shredding social bonds. The alternative to this jettisoning of community and tradition is illustrated in The Poisonwood Bible at many points, but none more vividly than the reaction of the people of Kilanga to the death of Ruth-May:
Nelson was weaving together palm fronds to make a funeral arch of leaves and flowers to set over the table. It looked something like an altar. I thought perhaps I ought to help him but couldn’t think how. Several women from the village had already come. Mama Mwanza arrived first, with her daughters. A few at a time the others followed. They fell down at the edge of our yard when they came, and walked on their hands and knees to the table. [. . .] Suddenly one woman shrieked, and I felt my skull would split open. All the others immediately joined in with the quivering, high bilala. [. . .] We’d heard this strange mourning song many times before, back during the heavy rains when so many children got sick.
The true strength of community bonds is often shown in the mourning process. This is the case with the people of Kilanga whose world view is most evident in their dealings with life and death. Their life is filled with prayer as they go about the most menial tasks and they accepted death. Though the harshness of their environment brooked no excess, the people made up for this by working together, mourning together and sharing with one another. This selection illustrates that they have accepted the aliens in their midst to an extent that the sisters and mother didn’t think possible. Because they felt like others in the Congo, they didn’t comprehend what the Congolese knew: the death of any in our midst touches us all and grieving is not a private act, but the act of a community. The simple fact being that, in a place of so much death, a person could not suffer alone any more than they could survive alone.
As the market attacks the foundations of what it once meant to be community in the best sense-evidence of which we can see in the way death and age is treated in our culture-we become more and more detached, more alienated from one another. As the communitarian movement claims, the underpinnings of our rights dialect assume that we “roam at large in a land of strangers, where we presumptively have no obligations toward others except to avoid the active infliction of harm.” This assumption begs the question of what amounts to the active infliction of harm as well as how one is to survive in an environment like Kilanga without the aid of the community.
Communitarians such as Amitai Etzioni in The Spirit of Community criticize society’s loss of the rights vs. privilege distinction and our disregard for responsibility. In a parallel vein, Mary Ann Glendon, in her essay “The Land of Rights,” advances an analysis of American parlance, noting that Tocqueville had discussed its inherently legal character. According to Glendon, his observations are “even more pertinent to contemporary American culture [. . .],” where Americans “live in what is undoubtedly one of the most law ridden societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth.” Because of the prevalence of legal language, as well as the particular way law has grown in and influenced American society theologian Stanley Hauerwas has stated that the law provides the “constituting morality in liberal societies”:
[W]hen you live in a liberal society like ours, the fundamental problem is how you can achieve cooperative agreements between individuals who share nothing in common other than their fear of death. In liberal society the law has the function of securing such agreements. That is the reason why lawyers are to America what priests were to the medieval world. The law is our way of negotiating safe agreements between autonomous individuals who have nothing else in common other than their natural fear of death and their mutual desire for protection.
Both communitarians and Hauerwas believe that responsibilities toward community and society within the outlook of modern liberalism are viewed in the same way as loyalty to tradition and community, namely, as obstacles to higher (personal) goals. In a situation like this, where there is little corporate sense, it should not be surprising that one finds no concept of communal responsibility or guilt in our culture. One very illustrative moment in The Poisonwood Bible that highlights the waste intrinsic in modern capitalist society involves the conversation Adah has with Leah’s Pascal at the grocery store in Atlanta:
“What is that, aunt Adah? And that?” their Pascal asks in his wide-eyed way, pointing through the aisles: a pink jar of cream for removing hair, a can of fragrance to spray on the carpet, stacks of lidded containers the same size as the jars we throw away each day.
“They’re things a person doesn’t really need.”
“But, Aunt Adah, how can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need?”
I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach lining? There is nothing about the United States that I can really explain to this child of another world.
Barbara Kingsolver vividly illustrates through the innocent probing of a child the inequities of our modern world, inequities that stand as indictments of a culture too enamored with its own diversity of choice to recognize many of those choices as, not simply foolish, but harmful affectations. This criticism strikes even further into the heart of our culture today than it has in the past. As Stanley Hauerwas states in Against the Nations:
In the most general terms I understand liberalism to be that impulse deriving from the Enlightenment project to free all people from the chains of their historical particularity in the name of freedom. As an epistemological position liberalism is an attempt to defend a foundationalism in order to free reason from being determined by any particularistic tradition. Politically liberalism makes the individual the supreme unit of society, thus making the political task the securing of cooperation between arbitrary units of desire. While there is no strict logical entailment between these forms of liberalism I think it can be said they often are interrelated.
The truth is that “post-modernism” is not what it claims to be; rather it is only the faulty assumptions of modernism taken to their logical ends. As Nicholas Boyle states, “Post-Modernism is the pessimism of an obsolescent class [. . .]” as well as proof of the naivetÃ© of unfettered individualism, the assumption that “I” can really do anything that is not connected with the actions and identities others, alive and dead; that a rejection of tradition is anything more than a reaction against it or the affirmation of an already extant minority voice. Modernity (and it could safely be said, “Post”-modernity) “is all about rebellion: against God, against restraint, against the limits of the human condition, and against reality itself [.]”
[Post]-modernity is also a rejection of History; the [post]-modern has no history and therefore no story to form themselves. It is the perfect philosophy for a capitalist society. Because identity isn’t inherent you have to work to “create yourself” (as though you would be any less you regardless of the choices you make), in other words everything, including identity is bought and paid for.
The Poisonwood Bible gives us a good example of someone who is unhappy with their identity, and attempts to negotiate changes in that identity in the person of Leah. Leah is perhaps best seen as the inverse to Nathan and where Nathan was too sure of his rightness and authority, Leah ultimately becomes unsure of herself, even to the extent of being “ashamed of her skin.” While Leah may be seen in a positive character in many ways, she is not the best role model precisely because she is never at ease with herself. Certainly more sympathetic than Rachel or her father, Leah also carries the burden of the society she comes from around with her and it marks her more clearly through her discomfort than the whiteness of her skin ever could.
The great irony of The Poisonwood Bible is that the characters–with the exception of Brother Fowles–are never able to cease acting out their identity construction as it would be done within the economy of icons. Even Leah, the family member who “goes native” seeks to become something she is not, she wishes to take off her skin and replace it with another. None of the family members is ever truly comfortable with themselves, despite being in a place where being uncomfortable with yourself should be the last discomfort on your list. The character of Brother Fowles offers some hope however, because he is someone who was able leave behind the assumptions of our culture which act as shackles while still maintaining a strong sense of self as always being rather than being purchased or somehow attained.
Finally, Rowan Williams offers these words to those who are unhappy with their self, including their imperfections and who would equate things with safety or safety at all costs with their highest goal:
If we cannot love our mortal vulnerability, our own frail flesh, we shall love nothing and nobody. The more we seek-individually, socially, and nationally-to protect ourselves at all costs from intrusion, injury, and loss, the more we tolerate public rhetoric incapable of affirming our mortal uncertainties, errors, and insecurities, the more we stand under Ezekiel’s judgment for “abominable deeds”-the offering of fleshly persons on the altar of stone.
The economy of icons and the capitalist construction of identity are harmful precisely because they do not allow us to affirm our weakness and frailty. People who are at ease with ultimate concerns are harder to coerce into frivolous purchases; they are less likely to be distracted, to become the childlike sheep that Huxley warns us about in Brave New World and Postman believes are being created by mass media, particularly television. In the end only an affirmation of frailty and an abdication of the desire for what amounts to a false presumption of control or power can break the hold of corporations and government on the construction of identity. It is only after depriving these groups of the source of their power-fear of the uncontrollable-that true freedom can be obtained and an individual can truly be who they are.