My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Middle Passage begins with an audacious sentence, “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women,” which announces its audacious conceit: published just four years after Beloved‘s solemn Freudian-Faulknerian modernism arrogated slavery to the poetics of trauma and the incommunicable, Johnson’s novel recasts the slave narrative in the style of the fictional forms that Europeans were writing at the time of slavery. Middle Passage is a picaresque, a maritime romance, an allegory, a mock-epic, and a conte philosophique; high-spirited and satirical, it calls not upon Freud and Faulkner but upon Voltaire and Swift (and Melville and Twain). This should not be as surprising as those of us reared on Morrison and her somber exegetes might find it: don’t Equiano and Douglass represent themselves in their narratives less as mutely traumatized analysands than as heroes of reason and democracy, boldly seeking freedom?
Johnson, like his forebears in Enlightenment skepticism and Romantic irony, is what we, with our limited grasp of literary history, would call a postmodern metafictionist: he both tells a historical tale and consistently alerts the reader to the tale’s fictionality and historicity. He seduces the reader with all manner of adventure, from shipwreck to marriage plot, even as he comments on his literary precursors.
Here is the tale: the year is 1830 and Rutherford Calhoun is a young manumitted slave from Illinois whose conscience-stricken master educated him mightily, teaching him about “Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme,” so as to make him “a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint.” But Calhoun—shaped by a rivalry with his pious brother—wants no part of sainthood and flees upon being freed to the humid pleasures of New Orleans (“a great whore of a city in her glory”) to support himself as a petty thief. He eventually becomes caught up in a relationship with a respectable woman who threatens to “sivilize” him (I quote Huckleberry Finn—the boyish opposition to female society is the same in both novels, though not ultimately valorized in Johnson’s) and goes to extraordinary lengths to get him the altar—to wit, she has him threatened by the Creole gangster Papa Zeringue. So Calhoun takes to to the sea, stowing away on the semi-ironically named Republic, an illegal slaver under the command of Captain Falcon—a man who represents the best and worst of America, its endless willful individualist determination that respects no traditions and its consequent neglect of or violence toward other persons who would get in the way of the expansive self. (Falcon is both Ahab and Emerson—Calhoun observes that he has titled a set of written exercises “Self-Reliance.”) Falcon’s mission is to enslave for his investors the fictional Allmuseri people, “a whole tribe…of devil-worshipping, spell-casting wizards,” in one character’s description—they are an pre-modern/post-modern anti-civilization of exemplary non-essentialists, half-Buddhist, half-pre-Socratic, an “Ur-people” who have traveled the world bringing their wisdom to Mexico and India, but now subject to the merely material power of the dualistic white man and his brute mechanical anti-magic. But Falcon is not only after the people; he is also after their god, a frightening all-deity unlike monotheism’s benign father, a divinity that encompasses or perhaps is the whole universe. Eventually, the Allmuseri are captured and then they rebel in turn, commandeering the Republic and inverting its moral universe as they attempt to return to Africa. The second half of the novel narrates how Calhoun survives these calamities at sea and what he learns from the moral quandaries they raise.
As noted above, Middle Passage wears any number of influences on its sleeve, but its presiding author-deities are Melville and Ellison. Like them, Johnson gives his narrator a distinctively American style that delights in the mix of registers, “blending the languages of house and field, street and seminary.” Moby-Dick is present in Johnson’s speech-making mad captain with his metaphysical quarry (the whale for Ahab, the Allmuseri god for Falcon). But, if I were given to writing in glib blurb-speak, I might say that Middle Passage crosses Benito Cereno with Invisible Man. Johnson takes Ellison’s polytropic narrator and puts him on a nineteenth-century slaver, there to reflect on his Americanism, his relation to Africa, his inheritance of European thought, and his responsibilities (if any) to his fellow men and women, whether white or black. The animating dilemma, as in Melville’s novella, comes from a slave revolt at sea—Johnson introduces rebellious slaves named Atufal and Babo and has another character allude to “how some writers such as Amasa Delano have slandered black rebels in their tales” to make sure we are thinking of Benito Cereno. Whereas Melville critically scrutinized the white man’s ideology of race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, Johnson turns a similarly critical eye on what he sees as limitations in black American thought at the end of the twentieth century. Like Ellison, he concludes, against various radical traditions, that the African-American’s home is America:
If this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. […] Do I sound like a patriot? Brother, I put it to you: What Negro, in his heart (if he’s not a hypocrite), is not?
Through his characters, Johnson gently mocks Afrocentrism and related reductive forms of identitarian rebellion, while being quite clear about the horrifying circumstances that made and make them seem reasonable or necessary. The Allmuseri, Calhoun observes, have been changed by their experiences—thus, there is no possibility of their recovering a pure, unspoiled essence—and they have moreover made themselves over in the image of their oppressors in the course of their revolution, seeking power and purity and so denying the world’s Heraclitean flux. They thus betray the best of their own worldview, which is incarnated in their language: “Nouns or static substances hardly existed in their vocabulary at all.” Their revolt has turned them into nouns.
In the novel’s complicated ethical and political argument, the individual must be affirmed precisely because he is created and constituted by others. Because the ego is an illusion (Johnson, by the bye, is a Buddhist) and the self a composite, it is all the more valuable in its variety, through which the elemental unity streams (Johnson, by the bye, wrote an introduction to a collection of Emerson, wherein he praises the Transcendentalist almost unstintingly). Any ideology that would try to freeze that variety, whether in the name of domination or resistance, is a sin against the world-spirit.
Johnson does allows that western philosophy’s dualism has made certain achievements and discoveries possible that rigorously monistic societies could probably not have attained: as Captain Falcon says,
“The Allmuseri god is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience. You might say empirical knowledge is on man’s side, not God’s.”
But Falcon elsewhere in the novel explains to Calhoun the logical terminus of the separation between knower and known (Johnson, by the bye, has a Ph.D. in philosophy):
“Conflict,” says he, “is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into the mind like the steam-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun: They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.”*
Calhoun’s narrative challenges Falcon’s view: the novel itself (not only this one, but the very form) is therapy for philosophy, having more in common with the Allmuseri’s all-embracing worldview. The novel undoes the distinctions dualistic philosophy makes—between high and low style, between Africa and America, between past and present**—and allows Rutherford Calhoun to stop merely reacting and instead become a free man in free relations with others, wide as “countless seas of suffering.”
Middle Passage is, overall, a fantastic fictional invention, a blessedly bizarre book that, I concede, does not always work—the mixed style is sometimes a little too precious, and the dialogue often verges on pirate-speak; Johnson lets Calhoun’s narrative voice essay and assert about matters that really ought to be dramatized; the Allmuseri never come alive but exist mostly as a concept; and the preponderantly happy ending feels ever-so-slightly inadequate to its antecedent events. Middle Passage‘s ideas are more vivid than its emotions, its concepts than its characters; it is the best novel written by a philosopher that I can imagine, but it is a novel written by a philosopher. Nevertheless, its dense brevity, its rich style, its unpredictable plot, its wild shifts of tone, its complex intellectual excursions, and its dissident politics all make it well worth reading—not least because of its potential to unsettle some of the aesthetic and political orthodoxies of today.
*Shades of Judge Holden—I suspect that Johnson read Blood Meridian sometime during the composition of Middle Passage, though the debt of both novels to Melville is perhaps large enough to explain the similarities.
**Hence Calhoun’s thoroughly and amusingly anachronistic vocabulary, which has annoyed so many Goodreads and Amazon reviewers; from his use of words like “cute” and “cultural” in their contemporary—not nineteenth-century—senses to his rather post-Heideggerean philosophical commentaries, Calhoun tells a tale of 1830 in prose that could only have been written in 1990. And why the hell not?—it was written in 1990, which I take to be Johnson’s point: text cannot be separated from context, and the past only comes to us through our conceptual filters, language above all.