On Being a Meteor


“The Portent” by Herman Melville

“Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on the green,
The cut is on the crown
( Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.”

I have recently finished Russell Banks’ novel Cloudsplitter which tells the story of the pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown. Told through the eyes of Owen Brown the book questions the sanity and ethics of the man.

The blurb on the back of the text refers to Brown as a terrorist, though the book was published before 2001, before that word took on its current meaning, but still that word seems to be one that tends to put an end to thinking. Thankfully the book does not do this, it refuses to place Brown in any firm and easy category. Cloudsplitter wavers from an apologetic apologia to praise of Brown’s fervor – the importance of action, the Christian duty to combat slavery and so on. Recalling my high school education concerning the man, I remember him as a notable, but laugable, footnote to the lead up to the civil war, and was discussed in such a way that begged him to be dimissed as a lunatic. If we can shake loose the rhetorical baggage of the word terrorist, the inescapable evil of that word, we can say that Brown was a terrorist in that yes, very directly, he wished to terrorize the pro-slavery forces attempting to claim Kansas as a slave state. While terrorism has (seemingly) come to mean indiscriminate violence towards innocents, that current definition, I would argue, does not fit Brown.

What does one make of the Pottawatomie massacre then when Brown directed his children to drag five pro-slavery settlers from their beds in the middle of the night and hacked them to bits with broad swords? It is important to note that Brown did not start out as a violent militant, though that’s where the stories of him so often start. For years Brown organized and maintained a vein of the underground railroad while he lived in North Elba, NY.
Throughout his life and after Brown had the earnest support of Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Henry David Thoreau and other countless abolitionists both black and white.

The importance of Brown, and his eventual legacy, was summarized best in Victor Hugo’s open letter written in 1859 from exile:

Victor Hugo

“Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown’s agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself. […]

Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

If we can dismiss the political attacks on Brown what still lingers is the charge of madness.

The role of madness is of course widely used in fictional and non-fictional accounts of near-solitary revolutionaries. The solitary hero has been on the screen quite frequently as of late. The figure of the revolutionary figure has appeared on the silver screen again and again, in the last few years, largely due to the comic renaissance. One of the most extreme examples of this, aside from V for Vendetta, is Sin City. The figure of Marv (played by Micky Rourke in the film) is particularly interesting because the cause of his actions, seems to be so tenuous yet it takes a hold of him so strongly.

Marv, militant or madman?

Unlike the eternal hero of Don Quixote though, Marx is quite aware of his madness and instead of being tempered by his colleagues he is egged on. Surely Goldie’s death is an injustice, but is it only through Marv’s madness that his devotion to bring her killer down possible? Marv’s only justification for what he is doing is that “She [Goldie] was nice to me” (p. 157 of The Hard Goodbye).

Mark Fisher in his essay “Gothic Oedipus: subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins” argues that in Sin City Miller creates a world that brings about “demythologization” and casts the world in shades of gray. I would argue that this is not the case, especially as Marv is concerned.

This is shown best by Miller himself in the collection Booze, Broads, & Bullets. The short Silent Night starts with Marv looking at the reader stating “Be Good.” The next five pages show Marv walking through the snow without caption or dialog. He approaches a seedy looking club and intimidates his way into its dungeonous interior. He offers money to a woman and is then led by her and two armed guards to a room where a small girl is being kept locked up. Marv looks in on her then kills the guards and the woman. He then tells the little girl that he’s taking her home to her mother. It ends with Marv looking again at the reader asking “You being good yet?”

I do not see any shades of gray here. Marv’s challenge is that the ‘good’ he is doing makes us uneasy in that he is killing three people. Here is an example of how diabolical evil and the highest good are symmetrical in Kantian terms as Zupancic argues in Ethics of the Real (p. 91). Marv kills people who have kidnapped a child and are willing, we assume, to sell her body. The form of his action, murder, does not discount the good arising from the content of his action. I think Miller’s point is not at all about shades of gray but about how we view the good. Good in the current sense, more often is non-violent or about temporarily bandaging a given situation, whereas for Miller it is far more direct and unpleasant. In the end I think madness is a moot point…

This is not meant to be an ‘ends justify the means’ argument but at the same time I am very of those who dismiss violence or other forms of direct action. Returning to John Brown it is important to note the difference between him and some of his abolitionist colleagues, particularly those in New England. Frederick Douglass who would not help Brown in Harper’s Ferry wrote following the Civil War:

The Sage of Anacostia

“Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”

It is telling as well that on the day of his execution, sixteen months before the Civil War, Brown wrote:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

For many abolitionists, equality needed to be fought for, for Brown equality always existed, in the eyes of God, and that’s why slavery needed to be destroyed. For these reasons I find it ridiculous that anyone could dismiss Brown’s actions as simply terroristic Though in the eyes of many, and in the structure of the government, it would be quite a long time before something that even looked like racial equality would exist. Does the violent radicalism of Brown need a sober compliment or vice versa? Some of the most powerful moments in Cloudsplitter are between Frederick Douglass and John Brown, when they sit at a table arguing over plans and afterwards a silence falls in the room. Something passes between them that is a strange kind of understanding.

The only other thing like this, this unspoken understanding in regards to the issue of race that comes to mind is when Abel Meeropol, a Communist, Jew and Union man, in the 1930s wrote a poem and then later turned it into song lyrics. The lyrics were eventually presented to Billie Holiday and became the song Strange Fruit. It was not a meteor but something else, when at the end of her set the club would dim the lights, drink and food service would stop, and one spotlight would rest on Holiday as she sang:

Billie Holiday

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop


One Response to “On Being a Meteor”

  1. 1 Sobre ser un meteoro: justicia y terror « PENSAMIENTO DEL VACÍO

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