“Their parts were all cut off, they were dishonored, their very names were nothing more than dust blown disdainfully across the field of time–to fall where, to blossom where, bringing forth what fruit hereafter, where? Behind them was the darkness, nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but fire–a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness”
Go Tell it On the Mountain
Recently, I have had the pleasure to read a deeply original and thought-provoking short story titled To Ralph Lauren with Love by James Jones. In a bold departure from conventional drama, Jones’ tells the story of Jacob, a 14 year old black male who is viciously raped at the hands of his uncle, and the psychological effects that such an encounter can create. But beneath this shocking narrative of the rape of an adolescent male, is a far more illuminating and principled critique of the socio-psychological condition of the modern man in industrialized societies. This element of criticism emerges with haunting lucidity in the first lines of the narrative when we find Jacob “silently, staring at his reflection in the mirror”. This scene signifies what rests at the core of modernity and all modernist philosophy and that is the autonomy of the self. From the opening lines of the story we have a process of individuation taking place, the establishment of an esthetic distance between the protagonist and his environment. This distance engenders an overwhelming feeling of alienation, insecurity, aloneness. This distancing from cultural, racial, and biological bonds gives rise to a traumatic realization, a realization of one’s smallness in relation to the universe. Jacob comes to the frightening realization that at bottom he is not a minister’s son, a black male, or a particularly religious man. At the bottom he comes to the realization that he is only human and his inability to contrive meaning from this philosophical affirmation boils over from a cauldron of anxiety, a feeling which can only be called the pure feeling of fatherlessness. It is the emergence of that feeling which Orwell equates with a the feeling of “a lonely ghost uttering a truth no one would ever hear.” This event, this estrangement between Jacob and his environment is that which tills the soil for what is to come to the surface in the following passages.
This establishment of Jacob as the alienated individual is further confirmed by the physiological symptoms he displays while awaiting a text message from Tamron, an individual with whom Jacob makes the claim that they never we’re “exactly what you would call friends” despite the fact that they had “known each other for years”. The significance of this scene is twofold for in addition to reinforcing the theme of Jacob’s estrangement with his environment it also is the first explicit manifestation of Jacob’s desire to get an answer as to why he feels the way he does. Contrary, to the superficial character of Jacob’s nervousness in awaiting a response from Tamron, its symbolic character conveys Jacob’s desire to have a strong male presence in his life, a desire which is acquiesced when he finally receives the text message.
Underlying these themes of alienation and existential angst, is a more implicit antagonism between Jacob and his father, Minister Downing. An illumination the nature of this antagonism calls for a recourse to the theories of James Joyce and the themes prevalent in his seminal work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In this novel a deeply symbolic conflict ensues between the protagonist Stephen Dedalus and his father Simon Dedalus. The nature of this conflict is constructed upon Stephen’s desire to cast off the chains of boyhood and become a father in his own right and Simon’s insistence that Stephen remains a child forever. This is a dichotomy that was classically embodied in the myth of Saturn. The god who devoured his children upon word that they would grow up to dethrone him. The childhood of Stephen rests upon the fact that he was commanded to remain a “virgin forever” and the loss of this virgin status would constitute a threat to his father, a threat that would reach its fruition when Stephen was to attain his goal and become a father.
If one reads Jones’ Ralph Lauren in this context the tragic nature of the tale springs from the pages with frightening clarity. Minister Downing’s unconscious desire for his son to remain a virgin forever is perceptible in his admonition against his son’s outing at the skating rink where he encourages Jacob not to go on account that “none of [the] kids were saved”. And Jacob’s recognition of himself as a virgin is expressed in his statement that the people he were hanging with were “just kids” and “so was he”. It’s crucial that one notes that these words, unlike the rest of the dialogue, were whispered. This whispering of words serves as a sort of internal monologue, a monologue which must be concealed from the awareness of his father for any intelligence of his role as an individual would act as a threat to the father’s superiority. In all, this hierarchy of control between the father and the son takes the character of a sadomasochistic relationship in which Minister Downing takes pleasure in the sadism of stamping out any vestige of independence in Jacob while Jacob derives pleasure from the masochistic urge to submit himself to his father’s will. Although Jacob’s submission to the demands of his father curtails his goal to one day to become a father he retreats to this role of the oppressed for it offers a fair amount of stability, a value which stands in stark contrast to the violent instability of individuality. At this moment the feelings of fatherlessness have become so intense, so unbearable that Jacob is willing to compromise his ideals if only it provided a moment of refuge from the horrors of being an individual. This is a truly tragic scene in that it lets the reader know that Jacob, instead of approaching freedom, is escaping freedom. In the word of Jean Sartre, he is “condemned to be free”.
Now that I have covered the two major themes, the alienation of Jacob, and his conflict with his Minister Downing for supremacy, I must now expound on the final scenes of the story. These scene above all others elevate the tale to heights of unfathomable grief, a sort of grief which I can’t classify better than being Jacobean. Upon the departure of Minister Downing, we see the symbolic absence of the father figure materialize and the void is symbolically filled with Trent, the living, breathing personification of the philosophical Other. Trent is that primordial fear that lies at the base of all modern thought. He is the autonomous Other, the burgeoning threat on the horizon, penetrating the vesicle layers of the mind and entering one’s cortical layer. He is the cause of what psychoanalysts call the traumatic experience and Jacob’s experience with Trent is traumatic par excellence. Ironically, Jacob’s encounter with Trent represent the only moment when he is absolutely free (because his father is absent both figuratively and literally). Nevertheless, this freedom isn’t spent reaping the fruits of enlightenment rather it is spent in the company of a former prisoner lending credence to the old adage “freedom is a dangerous thing”. Moreover, the reference to Trent’s stint in prison provides a subtle sociological statement about the prison industrial complex and how this system has made seemingly normal men into hardened individuals.
But this sociological critique pales in comparison with the tragic sentiment that the “rape scene” evokes in the reader. Shortly after Jacob gets a drink for his uncle, Trent makes the shocking advance that he looks “kinda sexy” in his Polo Shirt. More than a crude statement about the red polo shirt that Jacob is wearing, Trent’s statement about Jacob’s Polo shirt is an ominous harbinger for Jacob’s future. In addition to foreshadowing the sexual assault that was soon to follow this statement cemented Jacob’s status as someone who would lose his virginity but at the same time he would not reap the reward of fatherhood that was suppose to come with the losing of one’s virginity. To the contrary he would have to endure a life as a son despite the fact that he was going to lose his virginity. Jacob was inheriting the horror of a false existence, everything that he thought his life was supposed to be was collapsing before his eyes, he was to become the most tragic thing of all. He was to become the unclean son. Unclean in the sense that he was going to lose his virginity and a son in the sense that the loss of this virginity would not result in his ascension to the role of a father as he once believed. The red polo shirt, the symbol of his inferiority would adorn his frame forever yet the injustice of the world still subjected him to the awful disadvantages of appearing “sexy”. The result of this disillusionment is that Jacob loses all faith in his life and a sense of purpose. Upon his father’s apathetic return he screams that he didn’t “wanna hear about no damn God”. This exclamation signifies the psychological death and resignation of Jacob in the midst of this catastrophic incident. An his father leaves the room saying the words “We all have our crosses to bare…and our polo shirts to wear.” A statement which encapsulates the cross of a meaningless existence that Jacob had to bear and the escape that he found in the symbolic worth of his Polo Shirt. And this enigmatic episode concludes with Jacob shrouded in darkness. This scene mirrors the darkness of those poor people who endure the brunt of poverty. Those black people who confront the face of bigotry. Those weak people who absorb the sting of infamy. This scene mirrors the darkness of those “bastard people”, who stood near bright fires, “crying and singing” in unfathomable misery.