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Published in Ann Petry's Short Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Hazel Arnett Ervin and Hilary Holloday (Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2004): 111-117.
Apartheid Among the Dead, or;
On Christian Laughter
Metuunt cupiuntque, dolent gaudentque,
et quia rectus est amor eorum,
istas omnes affectiones rectas habent.
(They fear and desire, grieve and rejoice,
and because their love is right
they have all those other passions rightly.)
De Civitate Dei 14.9
If we suppose, with Kant, that "laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing," and that our expectations and what reduces them are, to some extent, culturally constructed, we must come to the conclusion that the evocation of laughter by a joke or absurdity or some other 'reduction to nothing' has a range of communities in which it will work better or worse, or may fail to work. In Ann Petry's comic masterpiece, "The Bones of Louella Brown," a reader begins to hear the joyful and loving laughter of the community of saints. Old Peabody hears it, and Governor Bedford fears to hear it; and every reader joins in it--to a greater or lesser extent--and precisely that ability to join in it--or not--is a confession of the extent to which our own spirits are being constructed in accord with that happy community--or not. If we do not hear this laughter, or can't participate in it, we are on the wrong side of a deeper and more lasting division than any racial, cultural, or economic one. It is, in fact, the only real division, the one which performs the erasure of all the other forms of apartheid a culture or a history might practice or put its faith in. In "The Bones of Louella Brown" such erasures have a lightness of touch which exhibit Petry as a masterful writer rather than a heavy-handed apologist or embittered racialist. I will point out some of those horse-tail fine erasures in retelling the bones of the story.
The bones of Louella Brown had passed through the underground workroom of Whiffle and Peabody, Incorporated, in 1902 on their way to Yew Tree Cemetery--"the final home of Boston's wealthiest and most aristocratic families" (166). Without speaking at all symbolically, as one might by pointing out that the yew is traditionally a symbol of eternal life, we know at the time this statement is made that it is already 'under erasure', since all of the Bedfords, as well as Louella, have been recently removed: the cemetery is not their final home. The supposed dead are on the move, there is a kind of life in them yet. A moment later Old Peabody is "a little disconcerted, for he suddenly [sees] Louella Brown with an amazing sharpness. It was just as though she had entered the room" (166) --and the ghost has been raised. Her final home seems not to be among the dead.
Half a century previous to the time of the story Old Peabody's father had bent to the will of his wife, who was very fond of the old black laundress, and had made what, at the time, had been a small crack in "the careful discriminatory practices of generations" to place Louella in the cemetery, albeit at the very edge, "in a very undesirable place" (166). Through "enlargement"--a wonderful word--she now lay in one of the choicest spots--in the exact center. So the old washer woman, who perhaps had been born a slave, and in any case inhabited a very undesirable place in her cultural hierarchy, had, through death, come to occupy the very center. We see that the former slave, the cultural captive, is enlarged through dying. We see, too, that those very small acts of love on the part of Old Peabody Sr. for his wife and the wife's for the washerwoman had been enlarged, as well, through death. Dying into the Yew Tree--who could think it would be so powerful? The smallest act of love is an erasure of discrimination; but it takes so much dying for us to recognize that fact, for it to become visible that the discrimination is already erased though it continues to be practiced, indeed even more rigorously enforced.
Old Peabody intends just that--to rectify his father's "truly terrible error in judgment"--and move Louella to "one of the less well known burying places on the outskirts of the city. That's where she should have been put in the first place" (165). But the course of the story shows us that the enlargement brought about by this dying into eternal life is not reversible, however much embarrassment it might cause to those who have not yet been so enlarged themselves. It is against this background of enlargement that smallness becomes quite humorous:
"Colored?" said Young Whiffle [who is 75] sharply. "Did you say 'colored'? You mean a black woman? And buried in Yew Tree Cemetery?" His voice rose in pitch (166).
"We're ruined--ruined--ruined--" he muttered. "A black washerwoman!" he said, wringing his hands. "If only she had been white--"
"She might have been Irish," said Old Peabody coldly.... "And a Catholic. That would have been equally as bad. No, it would have been worse. Because the Catholics would have insisted on a Mass, in Bedford Abbey, of all places! Or she might have been a foreigner--a--a--Russian. Or, God forbid, a Jew!"
"Nonsense," said Young Whiffle pettishly. "A black washerwoman is infinitely worse than anything you've mentioned (171-172).
Young Whiffle stood up and pounded on the dusty windowsill. "Because black people, bodies, I mean the black dead—"
He took a deep breath. Old Peabody said, "Now relax, Mr. Whiffle, relax. Remember your blood pressure."
"There's such a thing as a color line," shrieked Young Whiffle (173).
So many expectations; so much nothing. Young Whiffle, an undertaker all his life, can't quite figure out how the line should be drawn: "black people"--well, they were people, or..., but now--"bodies"--but that can't be the source of pollution for an undertaker--"the black dead"--and perhaps at this point Whiffle remembers that all the dead turn black in decay. The incapacity of Whiffle to finish any line he begins to draw is merely presented to us; we must see and feel his whiffing. We see and feel it, if we see and feel it, against a background much larger than any of the lines he attempts to stabilize. Further, by siding, in her narrative voice, with the living, division-making characters, Petry shapes us to a laughter which does not encourage a malicious sense of superiority, but rather encourages our own playfulness with all these deeply unimportant, death dealing divisions:
Old Peabody shouted: "Will you stop that caterwauling?.... Louella Brown was a neatly built little woman, a fine woman, full of laughter. I remember her well. She was a gentlewoman. Her bones will do no injury to the Governor's damned funeral chapel."
It was a week before Young Whiffle actually heard what Old Peabody was saying, though Peabody made the same outrageous statement, over and over again
When Young Whiffle finally heard it, there was a quarrel....
By the end of the day, the partnership was dissolved, and the ancient and exclusive firm of Whiffle and Peabody, Incorporated, went out of business (178).
Old Peabody's statement is outrageous because it dissolves all the distinctions the exclusive firms have to depend on; it dissolves them in the gentleness and laughter of Louella Brown. We might say that it is as a result of her resurrection that the firm embodying the exclusive and discriminating is dis-incorporated. For, in fact, Old Peabody himself, having suffered under the gentle laughter of Louella, is clearly cured of his original (and problem-causing) judgment that Louella had been misplaced by his father. He clearly no longer considers such discrimination to carry any weight--it has been reduced to nothing for him. May all of our sorry distinctions be granted such dissolution. Just as Louella's laughter dissolved Old Peabody's demanding apartheid, the laughter charmed forth from us by this story begins the process of dissolving ours.
But notice what beliefs underlie this comic catharsis, what movements of the spirit we must be imitating in this purification through laughter. This catharsis requires we share in and submit to the dissolution of the distinctions we incorporate in the so called real world, the world of apartheid history and exclusive culture (economic, racial, sectarian). But we do not accomplish this dissolution into a realm of abstract personhood--legal or fictional. The laughter we share in, the laughter which reduces these distinctions to nothing does not require the dissolution of difference into sameness or vacuity, the loss of distinction and personality. In Petry's mimetic art we do not become disembodied ghosts in our enlargement; Louella Brown appears as she was in life--a neat, small-boned laughing black woman, unbent by servitude to anything less than perfectly erect posture. If anything, she is more clearly herself; more perfectly, soulfully distinct while enlarged beyond all exclusion (whether walls or color lines). Not only does this appear in the fact that hers is the brightest and presiding spirit of the story, but also in the fact that mere bodies are discovered, in the story, to be incapable of exact enough distinction. Stuart Reynolds, sometime assistant and researcher for the firm, discovers this when he opens the caskets of Louella and of Elizabeth Bedford, Countess of Castro: the same bone structure, each their own teeth--no repairs, each about seventy, both with even the same type of hair (168).
Reynolds considers this a revelation:
"Why, it's sensational!" he said aloud. And as he talked to himself he grew more and more excited. "It's a front page story.... It's more than front page news, why, it's the biggest story of the year--" (168).
And the sentence is left unfinished--as if it might be even bigger news than that. Reynolds has discovered the Gospel, that in Christ there is no slave or free, but he clearly thinks his science has discovered (and proves) this thought which no one could think--and the first thing he thinks to do is to go and tell the news. This is, of course, the right response to a true discovery, but that the discovery is his is the comedy. He is like a child on whom the light has dawned that one and one are two. The child would be right that the discovery is momentous, and of a piece with an unimaginable and infinite journey, and the child is right that it is true, but that it is his discovery, not something older than the hills is high humor.
The world in which we are laughing (if we are laughing) is a world in which the dead are not dead, in which they can visit "every night and frequently during the day" (179) at their own sweet will. It is a world in which the quick-moving, merry little woman is easily identifiable, but not by the distinctions of our science; she can be bodily present without bodily limitation; and Petry presents all of these miracles as the plainest every-day thing. Let those who have eyes to see with see.
Reynolds' discovery leads to the last erasure of distinction. Like the other distinctions we have been examining, in all probability there were people who, when this story was first published, found it (or would have found it, had they read it) disgusting. Perhaps most would have disliked it because it is structured on the lines of race, class and sect in which they believe, and everywhere the clean line crumbles into dust like a mummy's winding cloth at the slightest touch. But some might have been disturbed, as well, by the disturbance of another kind of apartheid--that marking the division between the living and the dead. When, after the exhumation of all the dead Bedfords and Louella, Stuart Reynolds calls in the night city editor of the Boston Record to take note of the similarity in bone structure of the laundress and the countess, the editor orchestrates a "merry-go-round" (169) of encorpsed undertaker's tables. The countess and the laundress go wheeling, within the large roomful of the dead, on the arms of the night shift journalist's assistants, until Reynolds loses track of who is who. The editor and his crew
invaded the sacred premises:... He had no sooner asked Reynolds to pose in one position than he had him moved, in front of the tables, behind them, at the foot, at the head. Then he wanted the tables moved. The photographers cursed audibly as they dragged the tables back and forth, turned them around, sideways, lengthways. And still the night city editor wasn't satisfied (169).
Again, it is written as if the narrative voice agrees with the sacred line drawers: there is invasion and cursing in the holy premises. It is all (one might say) disgustingly disrespectful; but if one can see spirits among these wheeling dead (as Old Peabody has already begun to find himself doing), one might see them enjoying the merry-go-round--the twinned countess and laundress laughing at their ride together among the more staid and proper Bedfords. The Harvard medical student getting his picture taken again and again between the laundress and the countess, gazing at both of them with "surprise, amazement, pleasure" (169). And if you can hear that laughter, has not that final line, between the living and the dead, collapsed to dust: this community of saints is the end of all apartheid, it is realized in our laughter.
Even Governor Bedford, if he does not join this laughter in the story, fears it, and so he humbles himself before that judgment by agreeing with Old Peabody on the appropriate epitaph. If the laughter of Louella Brown is the laughter of the saints in the life of Christ (in whom there is no slave or free--nor any death), the Governor's final act is a confession. As he agrees to the epitaph out of fear we must say that just as he is on the outside of crypt and looking in (to a place Peabody recognizes he does fear, 179), he is on the outside of the community of saints and looking in. But as he agrees on the epitaph we must also see that he recognizes the truth of that community's judgment, and though he cannot laugh at the divisions in which his present life is invested, he knows that he should, for the epitaph he agrees to confesses to the inconcinnity of those divisions and the singular power that overcomes them:
ELIZABETH, COUNTESS OF CASTRO
LOUELLA BROWN, GENTLEWOMAN
REBURIED IN BEDFORD ABBEY JUNE 21, 1947
"They both wore the breastplate of faith and love;
And for a helmet, the hope of salvation" (180).
This last sentence is the only one which openly quotes the New Testament, but as it is the epitaph both to the good women in the story and for the story itself, we must take it as the author's own gospel confession. While there has been much fussing about who is to get into the Bedford Abbey crypt, it is clear that something entirely different is needed to get through the door of the other kingdom--the one whose coat of arms is the yew tree--which one might enter as quickly through the pauper's cemetery as through the abbey. In fact, someone might get into the abbey door, but not get into the kingdom. The final epitaph is an admission that there is a better place than Bedford Abbey, that both women knew it, that the careful discrimination which set the hurly-burly of the story in motion mattered not to them. What mattered, and what is now carved in marble, is what the countess shared with the laundress, what the rich can share with the poor, what inseparably must unite the white and the black, wherever their bodies are: that they wear the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. It is that armor in which Louella stood "very erect" (166) during all those years of good service and devotion (174) and which called forth from Old Peabody's mother the debt of gratitude and the unremitting fondness which the story exhibits as enlarged through death. Insofar as they stand erect in that armor, all their other passions and affections--as Augustine says, including laughter, are also correct. And the same will be true of the audience--or not.
Department of Philosophy
University of Nebraska, Kearney
Kearney, NE 68849
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, translated by James Creed Meredith (Oxford: University Press, 1952): 332. Pagination according to the Akademie Ausgabe of Kant's works.
This story may be found in Ann Petry, Miss Muriel and Other Stories (Boston: Mariner Books, 1999), which edition I have used. Further references to the story will be in the text.
Such political or ethical (perhaps even Kantian!) equalitarianism, while it may be democratic, is not Christian. C. S. Lewis points this out in his essay, "Membership," in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001). The "egalitarian fiction [of politics] ... is our only defence against one another's cruelty.... It is medicine, not food.... Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it (169-170).
The epitaph is taken from Ephesians 6: 14-17. This chapter also urges "Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters in the flesh, ... not with eye service, as men pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with good will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them...knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him (5-9).
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