The Books of My Numberless Dreams

More thoughts on “Black Lightning”: Samson and Saul

Posted on: March 19, 2007

First thoughts

I left you at the moment where Jake lost his sight. Let’s go back a bit to when Jake showed his sculpture to Amos, reasoning out the concept behind his work and prompting Amos for his opinion. When we “see” the figure, the once strong and vigorous man, blind, weakened, burdened, leaning on a little boy the similarities to Jake and Amos’ relationship are not faint; in it we see their future and, to an extent, in Samson another Jake. Like Samson he had taken in a wife not of his “tribe”. During a visit from Massa Butty and Tata Joe, old friends of Jake’s deceased father, Massa Butty took advantage of Jake’s temporary absence to remark to Joe that it was good that Estella had left: “…them yaller-skinned lowland gals never brought no good with them. They’re bad luck, that’s what.” Mais described Jake as a strong man; as both a black smith and a sculptor, his arms and hands were the tangible conduits of his physical and artistic talents as Samson’s must have been for his miraculous physical prowess. Both are betrayed by a woman: Jake believed that Delilah could only have done what she did for love, and in his situation Estella did the same. After he lost his sight he became ever more dependent on Amos for companionship, and though he would loathe to admit, Amos took on the role as a guardian and protector. Jake’s descent into anger and depression also led him down a similar self-destructive path.

The figure of Samson leaning on the slave boy recalls an earlier scene. Before he learnt of Estella’s departure Jake expressed one of the reasons he liked Amos

“…I like you. You know somep’n? You got guts, that’s what. I like a man with guts. You don’t lean on anyone, you don’t need anyone help you. You’re on your own.”

“What you mean? Everybody’s on their own.”

Jake shook his head.

“Not the way I see it, pardner. Everybody’s holding on, leaning on the next.”

Jake appeared to have changed his mind a few chapters later: he concluded that their friendship was built on Amos’ weaknesses and his strengths which he used to protect him. The confusion on the nature of their relationship and his feelings towards Amos is an extension of his conflicting ideas about himself. Theoretically each person needs his or her own circle of friends, a supportive community in which to thrive. But he mistrusted even the normal, necessary give and take of friendships, of intimate relationships. “He resented, with all a strong, whole man’s resentment, any thought of being dependent upon anyone for anything.” He betrayed his doubt in the maxim, almost in the same breath.

“That’s the way it was meant to be, I guess.” [Amos]

“You think so?”

“Yeh, that’s how people come together in the world, and do things between them, like. You follow?

“Yes, I follow you. I’m wondering that’s all.”

Near the end Estella revealed that his resentment was instrumental in driving them apart: in his fear of “leaning on the next”, erroneously viewing it as a slippery slope to servile debasement, he lashed out at the people who supported him in different ways. Amos, Bess (the woman who looks after his house and meals) and Estella were victims of this. All is evident in his sculpture of a Samson who is forced to lean on one after being broken. This was not a positive portrayal of his maxim.

So it made sense when Amos’ final response to Jake’s sculpture was, “I see it, Jake. What–what you wanted me to see. It ain’t Samson any more, is what you mean; ain’t it?” Amos can’t tell him what it is and we are left to come to our own conclusions. If we are not dealing with the Biblical Samson any more what is it: is it a symbol of Jake as he sees himself or of an every man brought low by life congruent with his description of the sculpture?

Another biblical pair the two are compared to, given a much briefer mention but in some ways even more apt as far as Jake was concerned, was Saul and David. When Jake tried to figure out why he befriended Amos his first guess acknowledged some reliance on his part. Amos was playing his accordion at the time and he pictured David playing for Saul, soothing his troubled spirit. Of course this was pushed aside for something that placed him in a better position of power and he never thought of it again. Saul was a man who was brought low by his love of crowd approval, one who valued the praise and support of his subjects more than God’s wisdom. Jake did not realise that in valuing Amos for the protection he can offer him he fell prey to the same weakness; what were Amos’ eager passivity and sufferer to Jake’s whims but the actions very like a subject to his king? Another thing that must have bothered him about the comparison, and which comes to pass anyway, was the reversal of Saul and David’s fortunes. Anyone familiar with the story knows that Saul’s life ends in disgrace and misery with a bad death of him and his three sons in battle while David became one of the most famous Kings of Israel, retaining a prominent place in Biblical history.

The prominence of biblical allusions in Black Lightning highlighted the absence of Christianity in Jake’s personal philosophy. In my previous post on the novel I quoted Jake’s ruminations on the suffering embodied in his sculpture.

“But to what end, Amos? Where does the finger point? Down what blind road…through what blank wall…to what? Where will he take that burden to its last resting-place, and set it down? And be restored to himself again, whole? That’s what it is, Amos. That’s what it calls for, you understand? And it will not come. Something else, but not that.”

He continued:

“But where, Amos, where? Do you want me to tell you? It is here!” Striking forehead with the heel of his hand. “Here inside my head…inside my brain…inside my breast, maybe…but here somewhere.” He stopped, but his lips were still working, and then the words started to come again: “But since I cannot find it, it is nowhere, and that’s crazy. Everything is crazy. You are crazy Amos, and so am I.”

On a literal level he was searching for the final bit of creative fire and inspiration that would allow him to complete the sculpture, which he views as unfinished. Yet it was also, I think, on a more philosophical level asking what could a person do when the image of himself was broken, when all that made up his identity left him, when he was inexplicably suffering, where did he find the answers, where did he go to seek that final knowledge? Tellingly he looked to no higher power. He looked within himself for the creative and mental sustenance. Jake was not devout and only attended church and paid dues regularly enough to keep up appearances. Bess’ beliefs are a mixture of Christianity and superstition, shown in instances when she gives equal credence to God’s control over natural disasters and to a spider’s death over her fortune.

The only self-professed Christian was a crazy prophetess, Old Mother Coby, who walked around the town preaching repentance (and a lot of gibberish). She once shouted at Jake that he was committing a grave sin in making “graven images”, in reference to the second commandment. When he was struck blind by lightning, she spoke triumphantly of God’s retribution and the people nodded in agreement, suddenly remembering Jake’s varied faults; he was “too proud”, he had not attended church for three months, and the last time God expressed his “divine displeasure” the victim had been a drunken “infidel” who swore a lot. Mais went out of his way to discredit her to the reader; she is described as having a pimento stick “as crooked as herself” with spittle at her lips as she walked around making her “curious” talk.

This was the face that Christianity prominently bore in all of his novels: its followers were overly judgemental and eager to indulge in schadenfreude. His compassionate and helpful characters are not atheists but are neutral or openly question certain theological ideas about God. The Anglican priest from The Hills Were Joyful Together was a sympathetic character, no longer content to ignore the plight of the poor, but he is portrayed as a lone religious figure of insight and empathy whose trust in God’s protection and care was shaken as he carried out his duties as a prison chaplain. Obeah and such superstition are given even more negative connotations. The only positive spiritual character of any substance I could think of from any of Mais’ novels was Brother man, from the novel of the same title, who was a Rastafarian.

I find this fairly radical, particularly for the time (1950’s), because Jamaica was (and still is) a predominantly conservative Christian country (in theory if not in fact) where religion and politics are firmly entangled; and rastafarianism was scorned. Even though its status in society has since risen that was because its image became more readily associated with the arts rather than any acceptance of it as a valid religion.

________

There is one thing that I find confusing about the Samson story. Umm…didn’t Delilah’s constant questions about his Achilles heel make him the wee bit suspicious? And the oh so coincidental attempts at capturing him, making use of the ruses he gave her? Really now. Did he have to sacrifice his brain for brawns or am I missing something? (Tell me I’m missing something.)

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2 Responses to "More thoughts on “Black Lightning”: Samson and Saul"

How I wish I could write as well as you! You are a smart cookie and I love reading your reviews!

*blush* It’s nice to have my efforts appreciated. Thanks, Amanda.

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