Thursday, February 18, 2016

Twelve Years a Slave (book review)

You know when you read a book that's so good you actually can't put it down—I mean, literally, viscerally, simply can't put it down? You might have other things to do and need to get to them; there are emails you have to send; chores you have to do; perhaps you're hungry and have to get or prepare something to eat; you need to get to sleep to wake up early in the morning—but your mind demands you keep on reading, absorbing every last word, and therefore your hands must stay where they are along with the rest of you until your eyes are weary. Such was my experience in reading Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, written and published in 1853, the year he was set free from bondage and became a free man once again. I loved the movie so much, and was so impressed by it, that I had to get the book. And I'm so glad I did. I'm proud to have it in my library. The prose is superb, and I learned so much from this absolutely incredible, extremely well-documented, astoundingly vivid story. My favourite passage is this one for its imagery and the way it makes the reader feel like (s)he's actually there. Northup had escaped the clutches of a lunatic he was working for. The psychopath had tried to kill him for no good reason for the second time, and, unlike most of the slaves in the region, Northup could actually swim, and swim well. So he ran and ran, towards the river, through the godforsaken Louisiana swamp and backwoods, filled with alligators and moccasin snakes all around him, always worrying he'd accidentally step on something reptilian and deadly, and he got far away from the bloodhounds trailing after him, their barks fading and fading away into eventual nothingness, his scent being lost along the water, and then was able to give us a glimpse of something spectacular that must have shaken him to his very core:

After midnight, however, I came to a halt. Imagination cannot picture the dreariness of the scene. The swamp was resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks! Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp. It was not silent now—silent to a degree that rendered it oppressive—as it was when the sun was shining in the heavens. My midnight intrusion had awakened the feathered tribes, which seemed to throng the morass in hundreds of thousands, and their garrulous throats poured forth such multitudinous sounds—there was such a fluttering of wings—such sullen plunges in the water all around me—that I was affrighted and appalled. All the fowls of the air, and all the creeping things of the earth appeared to have assembled together in that particular place, for the purpose of filling it with clamor and confusion. Not by human dwellings—not in crowded cities alone, are the sights and sounds of life. The wildest places of the earth are full of them. Even in the heart of that dismal swamp, God had provided a refuge and a dwelling place for millions of living things.—from Chapter 10

Incidentally, there's a story Northup relates of a young light-skinned slave woman who escapes and hides in the wilderness, and, for some reason, the hounds refuse to track her. Northup says that, for whatever reason he never could explain, there are people whose scent the dogs would not under any circumstance follow. I'd never heard of anything like that before, and I found it absolutely fascinating. Make no mistake about it, however: This book is a horror story. And what makes it so frightening is that it's actually true. Fiction never did scare me that easily, even as a child. I always found nonfiction to be infinitely more terrifying. What astounded me more than anything, even beyond the sheer brutality, callousness and perpetual torment of innocent, undeserving people within the story, was Northup's ability to rise above it all, with a clear and rational mind, with patience and self-discipline:

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.—from Chapter 14

Now that right there is cold-as-ice objectivity. The way he sympathetically puts himself in the position and milieu-saturated mind of his oppressors is absolutely remarkable to me. It's an objectivity that I haven't yet come across in any other book of any genre, and I've read many. The reason I say so, is that this sentiment rises and ascends so high above the baser instinct of refusing to see the grey area, an instinct which commonly has a person prefer rather to comport themselves to the human-all-too-human sentiment of what Nietzsche called ressentiment. Northup never even expresses, at least not in the book, personal wishes that those slave-masters be thrown into eternal hellfire, even though he was a Christian and believed in such a place as hell and a final judgement for all. His resentment and hostility are so shockingly minimal after twelve years of the most horrific, torturous of hardships at their hands. He was a greater man than I; that's for goddamn sure. I'm not so naive, however, as to believe for one second that he didn't wish the fires of hell on a regular basis for his most heartless and tyrannical master of ten years, Edwin Epps, because, for the most part, as is to be expected:

They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come—it will come, if his prayer is heard—a terrible day of vengeance when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.—final words of Chapter 17

And, for the record, as amazing as Michael Fassbender was at playing Epps in the film version, the movie itself only scratches the surface of the man's ruthlessness, vindictiveness, madness and cruelty. You need to read the book to get the full picture. As for Northup, he always stuck out from the rest of the slaves with his many diverse abilities, his profound intelligence, and his skills. With his musical talent, he made extra money on the side and, from time to time, got out of the backbreaking work of the cotton fields and endless sugar-making industry, because people all around demanded he come play his fiddle for them on certain occasions. That instrument of his kept him much company through those gut-wrenchingly trying twelve years. In a way, it kept him alive. And, in the end, it could be known for all time that Solomon Northup was a man who used his stealth, wisdom and shrewd-mindedness to gain his beloved liberty, family and home once again.

It's funny: The last book I read before this, The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan, nearing the end of it, touches quite a bit on slavery (something I didn't realize before purchasing and reading it, yet was already planning on reading Twelve Years a Slave right after), so it was like it blended, as a precursor, right into it. To be sure, this autobiographical masterpiece of Northup's made me wonder what kind of slave I would have been myself, how long I could have possibly handled living in such inexorable, utterly despondent, wretched conditions of ceaseless torture, exhaustion, stress, fear and malnourishment day after day, and how long I would have even lasted—if I perhaps would have taken, or tried to take, my own life. But, more than that, it made me wonder what kind of master I would have been, if brought up that way in an upper-class southern family: the benevolent kind, like William Ford and others whom Northup spoke of with great reverence, or a monster like Edwin Epps. I'm glad I don't have to know the answer to either of those questions.

To me, Solomon Northup is the ascending type that Nietzsche wrote about extensively. He was a slave with the strength of will and profundity of a true Dionysian spirit—a 19th-century Spartacus, you might say (though without the revolt)—affirming his hellish twelve years with the writing of his prolific, profound and enlightening contribution to the world, Twelve Years a Slave, and by dedicating the remaining ten years of his life to using all he had experienced and learned to make all the difference he could within the realm of abolition. This man was a survivor, and he has allowed me to understand, better than I ever have or could on my own, how lucky I am to have freedom, and that no matter what life throws my way, I have no excuse to recoil in weakness and acquiescence, but rather to use all I have at my disposal along with the power of my inner strength to overcome and persevere. And for that, I'll always be thankful—to Solomon Northup.

My rating: five stars!  

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