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Moses in 1939

Updated on January 28, 2012

Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain

In 1939, Freud published Moses and Monotheism and Zora Neale Hurston published Moses, Man of the Mountain . Hitler invaded Poland, and the Second World War, long in coming, began. Freud's book reveals his troubled relationship with himself writ large as cultural analysis. Hitler's militarism and racial state slaughtered millions in less than six years and then collapsed under attacks from East and West. Zora Neale Hurston was forgotten for many years before and after her death, but her novel, as well as the strange odyssey of her life and literary afterlife in American culture, remain worthy of attention.

I read a lot. Not all I read requires attention. Not all I read rewards it. This is as it should be, for the mind, too, needs recreation and levity. Some of what I read requires my attention, but I do not write of it or discuss it at any length with my friends. It is reading that fills in gaps in my knowledge, provides me with details, but does not summon me to think anew, to make connections, or to revise significantly the thoughts I brought into the text with me. A very little of what I read excites me, involves me as a reader in the art of the text. Hurston's Moses excites me.

It excites me because there is so much to it, despite its frugality. I am a student of the Holocaust and the world that made that event possible, and even, in the eyes of many of its perpetrators, justifiable. I am not Jewish. I do not have to be to recognize that the Holocaust was, and remains, a moment in history during which humanity was stripped bare and found wanting, when humanity failed utterly and without question. Norman Mailer once said that he imagined God and the Devil forever at war, and the Holocaust was explained as the devil's victory in battle. His is as insufficient an explanation as any other.

I have nothing to say of the plot of Ms. Hurston's book. Everyone knows the outline of it from Bible school or Charlton Heston. The art of Ms. Hurston lies in how she retells this story everyone knows and shapes it into a funhouse mirror in which the world of the 1930s is invited to gaze upon itself and simultaneously allowed an escape from the necessity of self-recognition by the distortion of place and time. She does this by employing her knowledge as an anthropologist and her familiarity with southern black culture to create ambiguities of identity, power, and desire where the Biblical narrative allows only curt statements that are to be taken as facts.

Ms. Hurston was a student of Franz Boas, a German emigrant who changed anthropology in America by reconceptualizing civilization as culture. Before Boas, civilization was the exclusive property of European males, made possible by their being both European and male, and all deviations from this anomalous formation were either degenerate forms of European civilization or proofs of the exclusive ability of Europeans to engender the ideal. Civilization, in other words, was a racial, biological property, exclusive and incapable of transmission. Boas's culture was a very different phenomenon. Culture was not a biological inheritance, except insofar as culture creation was a human activity. Culture was a set of learned behaviors, norms, and structures, distinct but not hierarchical. Environments affected cultures, for resources affect societies, providing situations of dearth or of plenty, and certainly the survival set associated with life in the tundra would fail in the tropical rain forest. However, humans were taught culture, culture could, and did, change, and new ways of life, new elements of culture, could be learned. Humans, not just Europeans, were civilized.

Today this does not seem radical, but it was radical when Boas began teaching it. It was radical when he spoke to the black graduates of Atlanta University of African civilizations of which they were ignorant. It was radical in Jim Crow America where racial theorists and anthropologists busily created artificial hierarchies of humanity, designing policies to limit the reproductive potential and social impact of those they placed on the lower rungs of these hierarchies. It was radical when the KKK marched in thousands for white America and real Americans against blacks, foreigners, Jews, and Communists, when they sat on schoolboards and on judicial benches, when they preached hate to supportive fellow travelers. Even when the KKK due to the immoral, criminal behavior of its leaders diminished in importance and no longer attracted thousands to their parades, those who had supported them only abandoned their robes, not their belief in white superiority and the necessity of oppression.

Hurston's Moses is a novel about culture, about power and experience. It is a novel of uneasiness, of seemingly insoluble conflicts and timeless injustices. The book opens among the Hebrew slaves as they converse in African American dialect, merging two oppressed peoples, European Jews and American blacks, speaking of the pharaoh's decrees to a readership informed by the aftermath of the Nuremberg laws and Kristallnacht. There is no single response to oppression in Hurston's novel. Slavery does not create a population of heroes. Some are rebellious, while others are paralyzed by their hopes or their fears. Some unite, while others turn on their fellow sufferers. The Hebrews are Egyptians who have had their country and their gods taken from them, as German Jews were Germans who had their nation taken from them, an experience passionately described by Jean Amery. The Hebrews are products of Egyptian culture, defined and deformed within it. Apart from it, they have no identity, no means of communication or comprehension.

Ms. Hurston does not take an easy way out of this predicament. God does not appear boldly and clearly, but remains a possibility masked by human actions and motives. For example, when Moses is placed in the river, his sister Miriam is assigned to watch over him. She is tired and falls asleep. When she awakes the basket is gone, but she does see the Egyptian princess, widow of a foreign king, at the riverbank. The princess carries a basket home, but it may be only her washing, it is not necessarily Moses. Miriam tells her mother a tale of salvation and royal favor, of a Hebrew child and a beautiful princess, and she repeats this story, improving it in the telling, until she believes it, and other Hebrews accept it for the comfort it gives them. Miriam creates a legend that becomes a faith, unprovable but also safe from negation. It is believed, or it is not, but neither the believers nor the unbelievers can prove their case.

As the princess walks away from the river with her entourage, she passes Miriam and says, to prevent her guards from arresting or attacking the child, "Governments are not overthrown by little girls". The princess is wrong, for the legend of Moses the Hebrew, created by Miriam to escape punishment and entertain her own mind, is taken up by Moses' rivals in the Egyptian court. It is used to diminish him and to explain his breaches of normative relations between Egyptian masters and Hebrew slaves. Miriam's romance contributes to Moses' separation from the Egyptian court, placing him beyond its pale and on his own.

What of the court and the Egyptians? Who are they? Their identity is false, based on a myth of the purity of real Egyptians that does not bear scrutiny. They bear Hebrew blood. Some are 'passing' Hebrews. What truly separates them from their slaves is not their being, but their power. This power must be continuously exercised to prove the reality of the proclaimed division, given permanency in law and made present in action. Relationships between unequal powers are always oppressive and deforming.

This last point is well illustrated by the place of women in the novel. In every available hierarchy, women are below men, are given a lesser value and more confined role. Their actions and talents do not determine their place; their lack of power does. The princess is the most powerful of Egyptian women, but in the palace she is merely "a passageway for boy children". Moses' treaty wife, an Ethiopian, can only reject him as a Hebrew, not as a man. His Midian wife is attracted to the vanities of power, which she cannot gain for herself but can only obtain through her husband, and she is denied them when he rejects them. According to Moses' teacher and friend, the stablehand Mentu, woman was given the soothing balm of lies to prevent men from seeing themselves too clearly. Love for his wife temporarily turns Moses away from his mission, trapping him in her body, and it is only when that body ages and his desire dies that he can be wholly himself again.

Hurston's Moses is a rewarding read. It is not a tremendous tome, attempting to prove its significance through a page count, but a well-crafted exploration of society, justice, power, and race. The questions it raises regarding identity, purity, violence, and oppression are with us today and will be with us tomorrow. It is a book that should last, but Zora's reputation in its fall and resurrection illustrates the fickle nature of acclaim.


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