Jean Toomer and the Triadic Identity
Benjamin Odhoji, Writer of the Year JALC 2013
CANE comprises poems, sketches, episodic stories and dramatic passages. Is it a novel? Does it reflect the tradition of cohesive thematic and structural unity? What kind of historic conditions inspired its construction? A clearer perception of these issues calls for, first, an appreciation of Toomers life and career.1
Jean Toomer studied the literature of Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, etc. He also embraced Buddhist philosophy, Eastern teachings, Christian scriptures and Occultism. He wrote a number of essays, article and poems most of which he never submitted for publication. When in late summer 1921 he was invited to serve temporarily as head of an industrial and agricultural school in Sparta, Georgia, (later to have parallels with Kabnis) Toomer began to immerse himself in African-American consciousness more deeply that ever before. In a letter to The Liberator he was to write:
I am naturally and inevitably an American. I have strived for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial intermingling. Without denying a single element in me, with no desire to subdue one to the other, I have sought to let them function as complements. I have tried to let them live in harmonymy growing need for a artistic expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro groupIt has stimulated and fertilized whatever creative talent I may contain within me Now I cannot conceive of myself as aloof and separated. (128-129)
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While on a train to Washington Toomer began writing sketches on his Georgia experiences and sent the articles to number of magazines and journals. These were later to form the bigger part of Cane. After a consultation with Waldo Frank Toomer proposed a book for his work:
Now I wanted a book published because it would be a substantial statement of my achievement and also because I felt that it would lead me into the world of writers and literature (Turner 129). Along a similar vein, Toomer intimated, But I had not enough for a book. It seemed that I had said all I had to say about it (Georgia). So, what then? Id fill out. The middle section of Cane was thus manufactured. (129)
This therefore raises certain problems of literary scholarship for Jean Toomer. Is Cane a novel? Is there unity? If the writer had thus filled out the middle section for publication requirements, what is the significance and status of that section in realizing the total effect of the text?3
Before delving further into the above issues, it is imperative to point out that Toomer visited France after publishing Cane, was involved in and deeply influenced by Gurdjieff Institute, and married a member of his Chicago group, Margery Latimer, in 1931 while conducting courses on communal living and spiritual growth in Portage, Wisconsin. Margery died in 1932 during childbirth and Toomer married Marjorie Content -his life long wife until his death on March 30th 1967.
Toomer also published collections of literary articles such as Blue Meridian and Winter on Earth before abandoning fiction and drama in 1940 to restrict himself to poetry, reviews and autobiographies. He continued to write philosophical essays throughout his life and continued to search for harmony and self-realization in East Indian religions, in the Friends Society and in psychoanalysis (Turner 138). Hence while Toomer, the writer, spent most of his life in quest of a harmonious ontology, his text Cane, from a symbolic and avant-gardist point of view, reflects the quest of an ontological harmony in an artistic sense.
There is a definite triadic ontology in the construction of Cane. This expresses itself in a number of ways ranging from the setting, thematic concerns, character development to structural and stylistic construction. Conflicts and tensions develop between oppositions in quest of a kind of synthesis and harmony. Thematically, this expresses itself in such oppositions as sensuality and robotism, primitivism and modernism, sensation and perception etc. Synthesis is developed as a kind of quest for spiritual awakening. Structurally this is enhanced by a quest for a cyclical unity, a merging of two arcs, a quest for viable lyrical expressions within artificially constructed linguistic conventions and artistic forms. These provide the movement of the text as Toomer offers no clear-cut solutions but suggests a degree of awakening consciousness for the new individual emerging from the merging of Africa and America.
The world of Cane moves from southern Georgia setting to the north in Washington D.C. and Chicago and back again to the south. This, itself, is suggestive of the quest for triadic ontology, which brought his scattered parts together (Mckay 331)
The text is divided into three main sections. The first section comprises six vignettes about rural life in the south interspersed with short lyric poems. This section constitutes what Dorris calls the female cycle (30). Focus is principally on women heroines. There is a definite missing link (incompleteness) in every sketch which is suggestive of the tensions apparent in two opposing worlds in quest for ontological harmony.
Karintha, described as carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down, is the object of attraction for both young and old men. Her soul is a growing thing ripened too soon. Here is a story of a premature sexual awakening and debasement of innocence -victim of the threatening world of her male admirers with their capitalistic abundance. The conflict here is between innocent spiritually set against the materialistic avarice of a capitalistic system which threatens to turn that innocence into a commodity. The other level of conflict is realized in the worlds of the young and that of the old men in quest for possession of Karinthas love. Humanism is set against a faceless materialistic instinct. It is pertinent to note that this latter world manages to a certain degree to contaminate and corrupt the former without overwhelming it completely.
Conflicting paradigms revolving around a central trope is also apparent in Carma, Fern and Blood-Burning Moon. The quest for triadic ontology in Carma operates at the level of conflict between the individual freedom set against societal marital values and laws. Like Karinthia, Carma, is the object of desire. She indulges in adultery thereby going against the norms of her society symbolized here by her husband. The husband kills a man in a fit of anger and humiliation ending up in prison. He pays the price of being the upholder of abstract repressive values of the society.
The quest, in this instance, is realized in the conflict between social conventions set against the individual freedom of choice. Carma, like Karintha, operates symbolically as the third vital arc within the triadic quest. Esther is as sensuous as Carma and, like her, also required to repress her personal individual desires and freedom. Society has conspired against her deeply felt longings for Barlo. Incompleteness remains her fate. One would point out the levels of conflict here as represented by Esther set against whatever people might say (Cane 25).