Their Eyes Were Watching God
Posted on: Dec 17, 2022
My reading is half intentional and completely providential. I read Hurston’s because we somehow have a pack of playing cards with women authors on them. So we made up a variation of “Go Fish” called “Go to the Library” and ask for the authors instead of the cards. Some of the authors I’ve read, others only heard of, and some not at all. But “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was one that came up enough times that I felt prompted to read it.
It’s a good book that captures the struggles of Florida in the early 1900s without seeming to either glamorize or demonize. Life is hard, racism still has it’s hold on culture, and poverty is expensive to all. In Janie’s, the main character, final marriage she has to deal with Mrs. Turner, a local black woman who idolizes whiteness. She says some pretty horrible things about her neighbors and Zora explains her view of suffering and the divine while reflecting on this character.
“Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason, otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear, and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning in wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”
Gil has often said (or I listened to the same lecture many times) that there are two ways to resolve violence, self sacrifice or blood sacrifice. The way of Christ or the way of Satan. While Janie (and so Hurston) wasn’t particularly kind to any form of Christianity, there’s something revealing about how she understands worship of the “strong brown gods” of TS Eliot. She can see the results of setting up an idol and the inevitable worship. The character Zora is speaking about is ready to sacrifice all of her neighbors to her found deity. What I find profound about this passage is the relevance to today’s charged culture. In cultural crises, natural or provoked, a strong tendency is to scapegoat, to idolize some solution and justify the scapegoat on that altar. We may want to think of Hurston’s comments as romantic exaggeration, but she comes remarkably close to pulling back the curtain on some very fundamental default human behavior.