Sex and spirituality in ‘Brother Man’

Sex and spirituality in ‘Brother Man’

Written by Editor

Topics: Literature

Roger Mais’ 1954 novel “Brother Man” explores several important themes and issues, many of which came to the fore during the recent Cocktails & Pages book club discussion on the seminal literary work. However, the area of interest that stirred the most passionate debate centred on the relationship between the righteous titular character and Minette, the young woman who seeks his attention and affection after he rescues her from the streets and takes her into his home.

In a grimy and dreary lane in one of Kingston ’s depressed slums, the gentle glow of John Powers (Brother Man to his neighbours) is a source of hope and inspiration to those around him. A Rastafarian cobbler wondrously bestowed with the gift of healing, Brother Man is presented as a veritable and unswerving paragon of virtue whose curative skills and rectitude combine to run counterpoint to the moral and physical decay that surrounds him.

His co-habitation with Minette brings with it awkward moments of sexual tension that test his resolve as he seeks to walk the path of purity and spirituality. Never one to be drawn into any sort of impropriety, Brother Man is perhaps weary that his “no strings attached” act of kindness could easily be construed as part of a plot to take advantage of a hapless young girl with a misguided sense of gratitude.

While his frequent references to her as “daughter” and “child” possibly suggest nothing more than paternal affection, they may also just be indicative of  her youthfulness in relation to Brother Man, her seemingly much older benefactor. Also, it is not unusual for a comely young woman to be referred to as “daughter” in the Rastafarian idiom. However, in the case of Brother Man, his choice of words and manner of addressing her are devoid of any kind of sexual undertones.

Almost in the fashion of an ascetic, Brother Man constantly resists the overtures of Minette. His characterisation  as a “ghetto saint”, as pointed out by Kwame Dawes in the foreward of the 50th anniversary re-issue of the book for the 2004 Calabash International Literary Festival, and the imposition the “superstructure of the Christ narrative” make Brother Man almost seem beyond human failings and desires. Minette’s confession to Brother Man that she loves “plenty-plenty people” but none like him is blunted by the response “Peace an’ love”, which for him is a greeting and affirmation of faith. It also may well have been an oblique denial of sexuality, both hers and his.

For the first two-thirds of the story Brother Man’s spiritual resolve did not waver, even as Minette becomes bolder and less inhibited. The situation eventually comes to a head when Minette confronts him in her night dress and presses his hands against her breasts. What ensues is captured below:

His hands jerked away suddenly. He got to his feet so quickly that the stool went over behind him. He stumbled rather than walked away, leaving her kneeling on the floor.

He turned, looked at her, saw that she was sobbing, her hands pressed to her face, her shoulders were shaking with her sobs.

Something like an animal cry went from him. He blundered back across the distance that separated them, went down on his knees beside her on the floor.

He took her by the wrists, pulled her hands down from her face.

No words passed between them, but something did, something that went without words.

Slowly his arms went around her, pulling her towards him. She opened her eyes, as in a dream, and felt his hot, panting breath upon her face.

This section ends with some degree of ambiguity and is open to much speculation. One school of thought suggests that the scene ends with Brother Man consoling Minette after an intense and emotional episode – nothing more. From this perspective, the notion of Brother Man finally giving in to Minette is something akin to sacrilege, especially given his depiction as a sort of “Christ in the slums of Kingston”.

This brings us, of course, to the other school of thought, which proposes that the animal cry that erupts from Brother Man represents the opening of the floodgates of repressed sexual desire, and what subsequently passes between him and Minette – that “something” without words – is physical intimacy. This reading of the work courts controversy much in the manner of the 1988 Martin Scorsese film “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which features an “alternate reality” dream sequence that depicts Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and consummating the union.

This issue will no doubt continue to elicit contending views, but it is important to bear in mind that Brother Man is ultimately a work of fiction. While it is built on the “superstructure of the Christ narrative”, it is by no means constrained by it. Mais was perhaps deliberate in crafting this open-ended scene, leaving us to wonder if Brother Man’s embrace was simply to smother the flames of passion or spark greater intimate contact.

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