The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 64-78
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The Music of God, Man, and Beast:
Spirituality and Modernity in Jonah's Gourd Vine
"Well there's two,
Two trains running.
Only one of them, mmm-hmm,
Goes my way.
One leaves at midnight,
The other just before day."
—Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), "Still a Fool (Two Trains)"
In his 1994 essay "The Modern Idea of Culture," Louis Dupré claims that "the emptying of nature and the vanishing of man are directly connected with the death of God" (11). If we accept this assertion, at least in its figurative dimension, the title metaphor of Zora Neale Hurston's semi-autobiographical 1934 novel Jonah's Gourd Vine embodies modernity's most troubling aspects: Jonah's sanctuary withers away even as the solid foundations of community, self, and agency crumble in the modern age. In Jonah's Gourd Vine, John Pearson's sanctuary comes from his spiritual community, embodied in its purest form in the rhythms and music of African religion as it survives in the American South in the early part of the twentieth century, and later associated with the inextricably linked forces of his wife Lucy and the church. Modernity's general assault on religion, spirituality, and transcendence has been exhaustively documented. However, the southern African American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [End Page 64] found his central ways of understanding God and religion additionally challenged by the encroachment of orthodox Christian views on traditional African spirituality, creating a central dynamic which Hurston describes in The Sanctified Church as "the older forms of Negro religious expression asserting themselves against the new" (103).
Through the course of the novel, John's spirituality encounters two major disruptive forces, each emblematic of modernity's challenges to traditional African American spirituality: first, the mingling of African religion with Lucy's orthodox Christianity, which imposes strictures on John's sexuality and subjectivity even as it empowers him and "makes him a man"; and second, the encroachment of the outside world, the enabling of travel, and the destruction of community embodied in the symbol of the train. Each new force calls for a new kind of understanding: John finds himself compelled to learn language to express his new spirituality as his newly Christian God moves from the physical and natural world around him into the rarefied and hitherto inaccessible realm of words. Further, as he encounters the fascinating, terrifying train for the first time, John must decipher the language he insists lies beneath the impersonal clamor the other men hear: "'Naw, it say some words too. Ahm comin' heah plenty mo' times and den Ah tell yuh whut it say" (16). Each new force is its own distinct intellectual challenge—each demands a new form of understanding and the mastery of a new language.
Marshall Berman's 1982 study of modernism and modernity entitled All That is Solid Melts into Air describes an ongoing dialectic between what he calls the "world-historical processes" of modernization and the "amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as objects of modernization, to give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own" (16). Berman presents a persistent struggle for self-dominion and agency as the central narrative of humankind's engagement with modernization and its dehumanizing forces, and clearly posits the realm of intellectual understanding as the battleground. John Pearson, in this sense, becomes a kind of transitional African American Everyman. Although John's troubled attempts to comprehend the modern world "over the creek" might seem far removed from the philosophical and theoretical movements one would typically associate with high modernism, his essential goal enacts precisely Berman's dialectical struggle to attain understanding and thereby to achieve subjectivity.
For Hurston, though, ever a proponent of an almost primitivistic "pure art" of the folk against the politicized "propaganda" of Locke, DuBois, [End Page 65...