Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

19 Aug 2011

(Short Story) Lost Forests by: Johannes V. Jensen

(Reaction) Brown Man's Burden by: Antonio Conejos

I don't usually fancy examining fiction through rigid academic frameworks. However Johannes Jensen's Lost Forests practically begs for a post colonial reading. This is a story told essentially from the point of view of a slave owner but it really is, ironically, a story about the slave. It is ironic since the slave has no voice in the story yet the story is about him. Even fiction then, the very story itself, seems to subjugate the slave.

The slave is never named, he never has any dialogue. All the slave has in the story is action. Thus his social status is reflected even in the way the short story treats him. The slave's only value is his labor. Nothing else is important, not his name, not his thoughts, not the tale of his striving to return home.

Korra, the master is always portrayed as a benevolent man, one who it is easy to imagine believed in the white man's burden to bring civilization to the benighted savages of the world. Thus he is a good master, who frees his slave as agreed upon after 5 years. It is not his fault that the slave did not reckon he would need money to travel, and thus was inevitably forced to work 2 more years for Korra. Moreover Korra is a decent man, whipping his slaves for their benefit, Then one day Korra whipped him. It did him good, and he wept... Korra fed him well that he might live long, kept him clean that he might be in good health, and at reasonable intervals whipped him so that he should be meek and respectful.

Lost Forests even views the suffering of the slave as not only physically beneficial (as discussed above) but spiritually nourishing as well. For in the years of subjugation the slave learns how to count the seasons till he is free. This knowledge born of sorrow grants him, inner wealth, his spiritual treasure, which none could take from him or dispute with him.

That which the slave has lost in reflected in the very title of Jensen's short story, Lost Forests. For once the slaves they used to live among the trees as free men, now they are slaves who swung their axes and felled trees. The forests are not only physically lost (the slave can no longer locate them) but a free way of life disappears as well.

In the end the slave, who has been fruitful and multiplied, still yearns for his forests - his freedom. He teaches this yearning to his children, it is only this yearning which keeps him going, Every rest day he took his sons with him up on the knoll where they could watch the setting sun, and he taught them longing.

Review:

As a reader one is not supposed to pass judgment on the values and morals of past times and attitudes, as glimpsed through the works we read. This amoral reading, as it were, consoles that our time is very different from the time in which the work was written. The span of decades or centuries should be too wide a gap to be bridged by our narrow views on ethics and morality.

In part I agree with this attitude. I think it's silly, for instance, when readers demand that the word nigger be exorcised from Mark Twain. In sanitizing literature for the benefit of modern audiences we deprive readers of engaging with a work on its own terms. Moreover, in attempting to do so we often times miss the point of the text, so busy are we cleaning up perceived cobwebs in the story. Lastly, we run the danger of neutering the text if we make it conform to whatever fanciful ideology is prevalent at the time we read it.

After all that I hope it's clear that I'm not saying we should ban or censor this story, perish the thought. I am exercising though my freedom to voice my opinion on the themes and implied message of the story. I think it's pretty horrific how the slave's life is edified for the benefit of the slave owner. The message of this story seems, to me, to be self serving and cruel.

Just as some trees grow for centuries there are some values which should take root in all times. It is these eternal verities which form forests.

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