What follows is the first entry in a mini-series of sorts featuring two essays from a panel presented at this year’s S-USIH Conference. We (yours truly, Richard H. King, Anthony Hutchison, and Sue Trout) considered intersections between the ideas of Hannah Arendt and American “novels of ideas” so-called. We meant to challenge or at least complicate arguments to the effect that novelists and readers in the twentieth century United States have proven especially resistant to the novel of ideas. Our sense was that this kind of thinking has tended to privilege formal philosophical questions at the expense of political ideas. Postwar American novelists wrote about the latter quite a lot. The ethical and political questions raised in the novels we read inevitably led to deeper considerations, especially when considered alongside Hannah Arendt’s ideas and her various interpretations of American novels and novelists. The second entry, from Richard H. King, is a literary/philosophical exploration of the concept of “goodness.” It comes next week Wednesday, so stay tuned for that one. My essay, on Alice Walker’s imagining of the Civil Rights Movement in her novel Meridian, comes today.
If freedom was overwhelmingly the central motif in the modern American Civil Rights Movement in its classic phase, then love enjoyed a place very near it. In both theoretical and historical terms, the proper relationship between politics and love could be vexed. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and spoke about agape love and a “beloved community” for example, and James Baldwin, if considered a spokesperson for the movement, insisted that “relatively conscious” white and black people needed to love one another, as risky as that was. One of the lasting thematic legacies of the civil rights movement, love-talk has become critical to its incarnation in national memory, now a relatively benign expression of what Nietzsche called monumental historical consciousness. The movement offers lessons for everyone, expressing eternal or trans-historical truths, including the hopelessly abstract notion that it was once possible, even in the tumble of politics, for people to love one another. Today the word love suffers from overuse, often a way to avoid difficult political considerations. Love sounds good when we hear it, but we rarely consider what it means. What would a politics of love look like and what shape might it take?
Perhaps better than any other contemporaries of Baldwin or King, Hannah Arendt understood the radical implications of their ideas of love, insisting that political space should never admit it, because love’s demands were potentially unlimited. Yet, for good or ill, politics and love met in the movement in any number of ways. Fictional accounts, because they reconstruct intimate relationships between people in dramatic circumstances, are among the best ways to explore the problem.
I mean to expand a bit the idea of a “novel of ideas” to include a work of fiction about the civil rights movement and its immediate aftermath, namely Alice Walker’s Meridian. I’ll do a bit of an end around, discussing Hannah Arendt’s use of Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd in her On Revolution, setting a conceptual framework for a wider discussion of Alice Walker’s book. Arendt missed the erotically charged nature of Billy Budd in her reading, the allure of his body. So while Arendt is a good guide to understanding the movement’s idea of freedom in its opening of political space, she is less helpful when it comes to love, because inevitably love meant confronting the reality of black and white bodies in politically charged public spaces. Arendt worried over the wisdom of love for one’s people, which is precisely what motivated Walker’s protagonist Meridian. Arendt’s caution when it came to the entry of love into politics tells us a great deal about Walker’s novel, and with it the memory of the civil rights movement, especially accounting for the strange asceticism and discipline of its main character. Meridian Hill is in some ways a version of Billy Budd, or more accurately a photographic negative of a kind, an expression of both the wisdom and limitations of Arendt’s emphatic exclusion of love from politics.
Arendt considered Billy Budd amidst a larger argument about the importance of “the social question” to the American and French Revolutions in On Revolution. Compassion for those suffering hunger and want unleashed biological necessity, overwhelming the political spaces opened in the early stages of the French Revolution. The American Revolution on the other hand, was notable for its lack of concern with compassion because the vast inequalities of France weren’t in evidence. The political space stayed open much longer. Arendt noted that the existence of slavery meant the Founders could ignore or consign to obscurity or darkness that massive immiserated portion of the population. It was convenient for the American Framers that enslaved people were never seriously considered part of the political realm. In France, compassion for those suffering led to the Terror. It eliminated the political space. Rousseau deserved blame for his idea of the general will, which collapsed the idea of pity for human suffering into the monstrous abstraction of “the masses,” negating the individual, rejecting individual particularity. Rousseau’s concern with pity ironically meant treating other human beings not as a “who” (the complexity of many unique selves) but as a “what” (a suffering mass of humanity).
With Billy Budd, Melville staged a battle between absolute goodness in the form of the sailor Billy Budd and absolute evil in the form of his persecutor, the master-at-arms John Claggart, effectively talking back to the men of the French Revolution. Both these absolutes (Billy and Claggart) existed outside of the political realm, both lacked origin stories. Billy is a foundling in the novel, and Claggart seems to have come from nowhere. The context of Billy Budd is very important then, occurring as it does under the shadow of the French Revolution. Arendt put it this way:
Melville [as an American]…knew how to talk back directly to the men of the French Revolution and to their proposition that man is good in a state of nature and becomes wicked in society. This he did in Billy Budd, where it as though he said: Let us assume you are right and your ‘natural man’ born outside the ranks of society, a ‘foundling’ endowed with nothing but a ‘barbarian’ innocence and goodness, were to walk the earth again—for surely it would be a return, a second coming; you certainly remember that this happened before; you can’t have forgotten the story which became the foundation legend of a Christian civilization. But in case you have forgotten, let me retell you the story in the context of your own circumstances and even in your own terminology.”
It was a shot across the bow, as if the followers of Rousseau and the philosophes somehow failed to notice their natural man looked an awful lot like Jesus of Nazareth. So Melville staged a story of a conflict between natural goodness beyond virtue and natural evil beyond vice. Billy has a stutter, and when confronted with reason or evil cannot speak because nature, in its natural goodness, can’t be understood (it is pre-linguistic a la Rousseau’s solitary wanderer). It’s perfectly natural that Billy kills Claggart because, being naturally good and innocent, he comes before natural depravity or evil, which is corrupted nature. The tragedy comes when Captain Vere, the stand in for virtue, must intervene.
Virtue—which perhaps is less than goodness but still alone is capable of ‘embodiment in lasting institutions’—must prevail at the expense of the good man as well; absolute, natural innocence, because it can only act violently, is ‘at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind’, so that virtue finally interferes not to prevent the crime of evil but to punish the violence of absolute innocence…the tragedy is that the law is made for men, not for angels nor for devils. Laws and all ‘lasting institutions’ break down not only under the onslaught of elemental evil but under the impact of absolute innocence as well. The law, moving between crime and virtue, cannot recognize what is beyond it, and while it has no punishment to mete out to elemental evil, it cannot but punish element goodness, even if the virtuous man, Captain Vere, recognizes that only the violence of this goodness is adequate to the depraved power of evil. The absolute—and to Melville an absolute was incorporated into the Rights of Man—spells doom for everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.
In much the same way that an absolute like Billy’s innocence would spell doom for the political realm, Arendt thought love very dangerous for a politics. After reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1962) responding in a letter to his insistence that, to paraphrase, the relatively conscious among us must come together, like lovers, or that only love could strip away the masks and delusions keeping white and black people apart, she wrote:
What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.
As long as there were humans, there would always be unique persons who would act along with one another, always in webs of interdependence, however intermittently. Like King and like Baldwin, Arendt knew well enough that we needed one other. It was central to her idea of the political. Whether that need had its sources in the divine or the eternal as King had supposed mattered not at all, but it couldn’t come from the intense kind of love James Baldwin described. Love had no place in politics because it was unconditional. Respect, not love, was the source of forgiveness in the political sphere.
But Arendt never considered Billy’s body, nor did she think that much about bodies and their interactions in public spaces. Billy is also the “handsome sailor” beloved by his fellow sailors, charismatic and immensely attractive physically. Claggart’s hatred in this way can’t be disentangled entirely from an attraction to Billy. He has an irrational envy of Billy precisely because he understands better than anyone else just how beautiful Billy truly is. Looking at him, Claggart could appear “like a man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.”
Alice Walker’s protagonist Meridian Hill, on the other hand “is not thought of as pretty.” She first appears in an utterly absurd set of circumstances. Some years after Mississippi Summer in 1964 (the high tide of student activism in the South) an activist friend and former lover, Truman Held, tracks Meridian down to a small Georgia town. She leads a group of black children to integrate a freak show. Town authorities attempt to block the effort, lining rifle-wielding officers in front of the freak show door, rolling into the square in an army tank bought a generation before (an effort to ward off the advances of outside agitators.) In the aftermath of the movement, there are no activists other than Meridian. The burning issue is the exclusion of black people from a traveling trailer show featuring a mummified woman with a questionable provenance. (It’s a scene surely inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1951) where Enoch Emery steals a mummified corpse from a museum for use in Hazel Motes’ anti-religion.) In an extraordinary act of courage, Meridian confronts the tank directly, rapping on its hull before leading the kids past the line of rifle-bearing authorities, breaking down the door of the freak show car. Truman, talking with a street sweeper as the action goes on, exclaims, “God!…How can you not love somebody like that!” To which the sweeper responds, “Because she thinks she’s God…or else she just ain’t all there. I think she ain’t all there, myself” (M, 7).
Meridian appears here as a holy fool rather than an innocent like Billy Budd. A saint or a quixotic figure, she believes so deeply in the methods and aims of a bygone movement that she leads children into the teeth of potential violence, all to integrate a two-bit carnival act based in fraud. It seems utterly pointless and futile, putting one’s body on the line so children can pay to see a faked corpse. An absurdist take on the logic of “bigger than a hamburger” early on in the movement, Walker satirizes a classic movement trope, in this case the homely or seemingly trivial taking on vital, even world-historical importance. A species of monumental historical consciousness, this trope, by valorizing small acts and humble practices, bound the movement together, giving everyone and everything in it cosmic significance, an arc “bending toward justice” and the like. In Meridian’s case, no one is really watching, or at least they look on bemused or amused. Crazy Meridian leads alone without any movement networks of support. We learn later that she moves from town to town, working odd jobs or depending upon charity, carrying the movement with her, a movement of one. People care for her because, as Meridian puts it, “They appreciate when someone volunteers to suffer” (11). She has reached a level of saint-like purity, distilling the virtues of the early movement for a generation of children “too young to ‘member when black folks marched a lot” (6). So Meridian has refined the movement to the point of absurdity, and in the process her body diminishes and threatens to fail. She’s an ascetic (124-5). Her room, Truman thinks, later when he meets with her, “had the feeling of a cell” (9).
The innocent Billy Budd, on the other hand, cannot be politically involved. Rather, he’s happy-go-lucky, which the evil John Claggart takes advantage of, setting in motion a plan to frame Billy for mutiny on the ship Bellipotent. Once Captain Vere, the symbol for the law in the story, confronts Billy with Claggart’s accusation, Billy is essentially struck dumb. He has one physical flaw, a stutter. Unable to speak, he instead resorts to violence, striking his accuser Claggart dead with one blow. Violence here, in an Arendtian reading, is the absence of speech, which is also the absence of the political. Natural goodness or innocence, when confronted with natural depravity or evil, can only destroy it. Innocence beyond virtue must destroy evil beyond vice. Politics requires reason and speech. Neither of those two sides can be reasoned with. This is why, in the end, in the name of law, Vere must condemn Billy to death. It is also why, in the end, Billy accepts his fate and shows compassion for Vere. “God bless Captain Vere!” are his last words.
Meridian, like Billy Budd, has a disability, but it appears only the aftermath of the critical moment rather than during it. She acts decisively in spaces of protest, and only after, collapses into paralysis. Reading Arendt, we can conclude that Billy’s resort to violence meant the rejection of political space and speech by absolute goodness or innocence. The cost for that act of violence was a summary judgment of death quickly executed by Captain Vere. Meridian refuses violence in the political space of protest. Yet she acts with her body rather than her speech. This should raise questions about how Arendt understood the political sphere. If the political space is the space of speech where people are free, respecting one another’s uniqueness as persons, brought together to create something new, reimagining or reenacting the founding moment, then what are civil rights protests?
Those events happened traditionally after negotiation had failed. Movement leaders would write up a set of demands in the hopes local authorities might negotiate with them (certainly political there). Failing that, activists would then hit the streets to dramatize, in public space, the refusal of authorities to share political space. So, when authorities attacked protesters, presumably the political space closed. The civil rights protest in this reading was a symbolic act underscoring the failure of politics. Yet in the case of nonviolent direct action, the willingness of the activist to endure suffering and violence at the hands of authorities represented both the failure of politics and the hope that politics might continue in its aftermath, that through this act of love, political space might be redeemed. Innocence or goodness was staged for the broader public, and violence incited. Civil rights activists reenacted Christ’s martyrdom, his acceptance of bodily suffering for a greater good. In Walker’s novel, Meridian Hill accepts suffering in public space by intervening with her body rather than her words, but in the aftermath, presumably when the political space might open again, she can no longer move. Her love doesn’t work in political spaces, and her body declines as she reenacts, to the point of others thinking her insane, the protests of the movement, now as the ritual practice of an ascetic saint. Billy kills Claggart. Meridian is killing herself.
Billy Budd has often been understood as a Christ figure, a martyr for the necessity of a political space remaining open. Vere’s judgment is summary. Budd’s punishment is carried out swiftly, making his martyrdom dramatic. Meridian, on the other hand, diminishes slowly, her health and circumstances worsen: “Each time Truman visited Meridian he found her with less and less furniture, fewer and fewer pieces of clothing, less of social position in the community—wherever it was—where she lived” (19). Meridian refuses the dramatic death of the martyr and instead wastes away, a martyrdom in pieces, in episodes. In one aside, the narrator in Billy Budd argues that a disregard for one’s own life, while it may seem foolhardy to those historians who would judge later, immortalizes the hero in poetry, which is far more lasting because, we can assume, it means entry into legend rather than history. We learn only at the very end of the novel that Billy Budd is a tale meant to correct a “superannuated and forgotten” historical record, which, in newspaper notices, had passed over the drama of what truly happened on the battleship. (The narrator claims extant sources simply cast Billy as a mutineer, Claggart as a victim, and Vere as a dutiful captain. So Billy Budd is a historical fiction with a narrator who means to correct a fictional historical record within the fictional world of the novel years after the events of the story take place.) It ends, fittingly, with a poem, immortalizing Billy in sailor’s verse.
Hannah Arendt didn’t discuss this in On Revolution, but when she wrote that Melville “talked back” to the men of the French Revolution by giving them a Jesus returned to earth modeled upon their fundamental principles (compassion for the innocent who suffer), she suggested Melville’s correction of a forgotten historical record within a larger fictional world of his own making. Melville purposively cast the tale as legend, a true story beyond the historical record, to emphasize the religious quality of the French Revolutionaries unworldly atheism, to publicize it. (Of course, it’s telling that Melville never published the book in his own lifetime. Others had to recover it. There’s an added layer of poetic beauty in that.)
Meridian refuses a dramatic martyrdom and yet she shows disregard for herself like Melville’s hero immortalized in poetry. Like Billy Budd, Meridian is a Christ-like figure, as the street sweeper says, “She thinks she’s God.” She is a Jesus returned to earth to realize the fundamental principles of the Civil Rights Movement in their purest form, a monumentalism so pure that, in its love for the humble practices of a people, the hero must choose obscurity and surround herself with death. This being-surrounded-with-death appears several times in the novel, (for example, 21, 33, 52-53, 92-93). Alice Walker, with Meridian, is in effect “talking back” to the revolutionaries of the Civil Rights Movement. At first, Meridian refuses to kill for the revolution when pressed by her fellow activists in the middle of the 1960s:
But what none of the seemed to understand was that she felt herself to be, not holding on to something from the past, but held by something in the past: by the memory of old black men in the South who, caught by the eye of a camera, never shifted their position but looked directly back; by the sight of young girls singing a country choir, their hair shining with brushings and grease, their voices the voices of angels. When she was transformed in church it was always by the purity of the singers’ souls, which she could actually hear, the purity that lifted their songs like a flight of doves above her music-drunken head. If they committed murder—and to her even revolutionary murder was murder—what would the music be like? (14)
Only some years later does Meridian come full circle, ultimately realizing the possibility of violence at the end of goodness and love for her people. We get the answer of what the music would be like. She begins going to church again after many years away. She notices that “The black people looked exactly as they had ever since she had known black churchgoing people, which was all her life, but they had changed the music! She was shocked” (213). Settling in at a Baptist Church service, she realizes the service is a choreographed reenactment or “play” of Martin Luther King, Jr.-led services earlier in the movement, “It struck Meridian that he was deliberately imitating King and that he and all his congregation knew he was consciously keeping that voice alive. It was a play” (214). It also includes a “red-eyed” man’s ritual commemoration of a speech given for his slain civil rights activist son. Meridian “wondered, how could she show her love for someone who was already dead?” (219). In other words, how could she reenact, in love, the fundamental sacrifice of those in the movement? She has something of a conversion moment. She decides she will kill before “she allowed anyone to murder his son again.” Note the fundamental absurdity there, the collapse of an individual into a people. That particular man’s son could not be killed again, but considered en masse, he is a placeholder for other future sons who might be killed. Arendt would identify this as the danger in mixing love with politics. Meridian thinks on her conversion:
Her heart was beating as if it would burst, sweat poured down her skin. Meridian did not dare to make promises as a rule for fear some unforeseen event would cause her to break them. Even a promise to herself caused her to tremble with good faith. It was not a vain promise; and yet, if anyone had asked her to explain what it meant exactly she could not have told them. And certainly to boast about this new capacity to kill—which she did not, after all, admire—would be to destroy the understanding she had acquired with it. Namely this: that even the contemplation of murder required incredible delicacy as it required incredible spiritual work, and the historical background and present setting must be right. Only in a church surrounded by the righteous guardians of the people’s memories could she even approach the concept of retaliatory murder. Only among the pious could this idea both comfort and uplift (220).
Promises, or rather the ability to keep them, in Arendt’s idea of the political, are what make politics possible, what sustains it. If agreements between people cannot be trusted, then politics cannot long persist. Meridian does not like to make promises. She mistrusts the political and trusts instead love for one’s people. Only after incredible spiritual work, then, the ritual reenactment of the civil rights protest over time, the rejection of one’s body for the love of one’s people and their memory, surrounded by death, whittled down into saintly asceticism, could one commit to violence. Ironically, through the experience of politics, not from outside it, Meridian Hill comes to resemble Arendt’s Billy Budd.
 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Classics, 2006), 73.
 On Revolution, 74.
 Letter from Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin, 21 November, 1962. http://www.hannaharendt.net/index.php/han/article/view/95/156
 Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Stories (Penguin, 1986), 338. A now classic reading along these lines is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Billy Budd: After the Homosexual,” in The Epistemology of the Closet (University of California, 1990), 91-130.
 Alice Walker, Meridian, (Harcourt, 2003), 28. Succeeding references to this book in parentheses.
 See Ella Baker, “Bigger Than a Hamburger.” Southern Patriot 18 (1960), excerpted in Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, eds. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform and Renewal (Rowan & Littlefield, 1999).
 Billy Budd, 383.
 See Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1998), 243-7.