My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Thomas Pynchon’s freewheeling narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tells us, “Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” Similarly, the underground cult classic compendium of conspiracy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (an important influence on both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) opens with this epigraph from Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo: “Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.” Anyone seeking the crossroads where modern or postmodern literature, the occult, and fringe politics converge should acquaint themselves with Reed’s strange and brilliant book.
Mumbo Jumbo is set during the 1920s, “[t]hat 1 decade which doesn’t seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.” America is experiencing an outbreak of the phenomenon (“an anti-plague”) called Jes Grew, essentially Reed’s name for the culture of the black diaspora, especially as expressed through music, whether ragtime, jazz, or blues (the name derives from an epigraph attributed to James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew,’” both an ironic appropriation of a racist artifact [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] and a refusal of individualist proprietary attitudes toward culture). As in the 1890s with its ragtime vogue, the Jazz Age threatens to overwhelm “Western Civilization” with a pleasure-loving and peaceable way of life opposed to the sterile and exploitative lifeworld of, locally, “neuter-living Protestants,” or those whom Reed more broadly calls Atonists, or monotheists (worshippers of the sun):
The Atonists got rid of their spirit 1000s of years ago with Him. The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over. Why is it Death you like? Because then no 1 will keep you up all night with that racket dancing and singing. The next morning you can get up and build, drill, progress putting up skyscrapers and…and….and…working and stuff. You know? Keeping busy. [Reed’s ellipses.]
The novel, though relatively short, tells the labyrinthine story of the agencies trying to advance or stop the spread of Jes Grew.
On the pro side, there is the novel’s hero, the Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas, proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. He teams with a cadre of magicians from Haiti—itself under U.S. occupation—stationed on a Marcus Garvey ship in New York harbor as they strive to recover the fragmentary text or scripture of Africa’s diaspora magic, dance-dictated in the night of time by Osiris to Thoth. In the absence of this book, Jes Grew is only an aural, oral, and bodily tradition and is therefore at a disadvantage under monotheism’s textual onslaught, its Bibles, Korans, Constitutions, Interpretations of Dreams, Communist Manifestoes, academic treatises, high literary traditions, and yellow journalism. Similarly, the novel also bears a significant subplot about a group of art “thieves” who strive to liberate the works of the global East and South from Europe’s and America’s museums; in his portrait of this multicultural group, Reed charts some of the fissures and fractures among people of color, noting that, for instance, a common enemy in European empire does not necessarily make for frictionless comity between black and Asian peoples.
Against Jes Grew’s supporters is the Wallflower Order, who are in their time of Jazz Age extremity forced to call in white intellectual and ageless Knight Templar Hinckle von Hampton (Reed’s satire on white Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten), who plans to defeat black insurgency by coopting it. He starts a little magazine called The Benign Monster, the title itself suggesting the intelligentsia’s gentrification of radical energies, and seeks a “Talking Robot”—i.e., a black intellectual who will mislead black audiences back to the monotheistic path of Atonism. Hinckle’s pathetic struggle is actually portrayed with some sympathy amid the satire—I got the sense that, racial polemics aside, Reed knows he has more in common with a modernist literary intellectual than with a Voodoo magician. Nevertheless, Reed unsparingly excoriates European literature from Milton to Freud to Styron:
John Milton, Atonist apologist extraordinary himself, saw the coming of the minor geek and sorcerer Jesus Christ as a way of ending the cult of Osiris and Isis forever. […] It is interesting that he worked for Cromwell, a man who banned theater from England and was also a hero of Sigmund Freud. Well the mud-slingers kept up the attack on Osiris, a writer Bilious Styronicus even rewriting Osirian history in a book called the Confessions of the Black Bull God Osiris in which he justified Set’s murder of Osiris on the grounds that Osiris made “illicit” love to Isis who, he wrote, was Set’s wife. He was awarded the Atonists’ contemporary equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for this whopper.
In fact, an overhasty reading of Mumbo Jumbo might lead one to expect that its ideological conflict is a matter of black vs. white—because in modern Europe and America, it is. But Reed’s most ambitious joke is delivered in a climactic thirty-page summing-up that parodies detective-novel exposition resolutions, conspiracy theories, and religious revelations all at once. PaPa LaBas, attempting to arrest Hinckle von Hampton, explains to a Harlem society gathering that, “if you must know, it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt.”
The conflict between Jes Grew and the Atonists dates back to the fraternal quarrel between Set and Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris learns the arts of peace and plenty at college from Ethiopian and Nubian students, and he disseminates this gnosis throughout the world, particularly to Native Americans. Set, by contrast, is “the stick crook and flail man,” advocates for discipline and thus eventually ends up worshipping Aton, the transcendent sun god, and beginning the monotheist cult that in various iterations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and capitalist—would war throughout history on Jes Grew and the liberation it stands, or dances, for. Moses himself is revealed to have effectively swindled the secrets of Osiris for himself, which resulted in his getting only the negative side of the magic; this negative side became monotheism as we know it, everything that “the people of the book” have wrought.
In other words, all human culture, like the human race itself, comes out of Africa: European cultures are without autochthony or autonomy and are only offshoots, even where they are most racist or conservative, of one or another side in an intra-African quarrel, the latest round of which is presumably Kanye West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Which brings us around to the perhaps less salubrious politics of the novel. Mumbo Jumbo is not really “woke” or “PC” or whatever we’re calling it now. For one thing, it expresses sufficient quantities of anti-Islam sentiment to get Reed brought up on hate speech charges in Europe, as he seems to think that Islam is, no less than any other form of religious or secular monotheism, an attempt to repress the authentic black mysteries. It is the black Muslim intellectual Abdul who comes into possession of the scripture that is the novel’s quest object, and he burns it: “Censorship until the very last.” And despite the attractions of Reed’s emancipatory occultism, what does his displacement of Hebrew religion with Egyptian magic, his execration of Moses, Marx, and Freud imply? A reader can surely be forgiven for detecting a classically anti-Semitic subtext here. And, as befitting the work of a male author who has been known to worry that feminism is a tool of the white power structure used to disarticulate black and brown traditions and scapegoat men of color, the novel’s female characters tend to be either helpmeets or harridans (or both), even the goddesses Isis and Erzulie.
On the other hand, the lessons of Mumbo Jumbo might well be applied to today’s cultural appropriation debate. Reed’s position is quite subtle: he mocks and derides cultural exploitation and co-optation at the level of production, which is the point of his satire on modernist literary culture’s attempts to capture and neutralize the energies of black rebellion; on the consumption side, however, Reed seems to see the diffusion of Jes Grew as humanity’s only salvation—to see black culture as a force that, at the level of the dancing body, takes over whites rather than being taken over by them. The novel therefore counsels against castigating every white person who appears in a selfie wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also criticizes corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.
Finally, I have not yet mentioned the novel’s form. I have made it sound too linear, too much like a thriller with philosophical weight. But it is rather a collage and a montage, written in telegraphic prose, splicing in quotations and images, doing without quotation marks, transitions, or the pretense of God-like objectivity. One of its dedicatees is “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat,” and the novel’s style of radical juxtaposition and teasing polyglot wordplay is a fitting homage to Herriman’s brilliant Jazz Age achievement in comics. Reed’s ludic style protects his conspiracy theory from seeming like the work of a mere crank, though I’m sure he believes the spirit, if not the letter, of it. The novel promotes play and humor as against the droning solemn seriousness of monotheistic religion and literary culture:
LaBas could understand the certain North American Indian tribe reputed to have punished a man for lacking a sense of humor. For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard. Never does 1 see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint-eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas.
So, if you are looking for a serious laugh, I highly recommend Mumbo Jumbo.
 Note that, by the terms laid out in Mumbo Jumbo, Coates, despite a superficially Reedian invocation after Zora Neale Hurston of “the bone and drum,” is arguably the authoritarian Atonist, promoting the traditional cypto-monotheist political left as the black man’s salvation in a white man’s magazine, while West disseminates magickal-musical thinking far and wide in a popular idiom on a populist platform, even quoting Carl Jung’s contemporary avatar Jordan Peterson just as Reed approvingly quotes Jung. My point is not to side with West over Coates or Reed over the western world, but to get the tally correct; I will say that “left” and “right” are becoming ever less reliable guides to cultural politics, though the comrades tell me that that is itself a right-wing position. “[A]s gloomy as a prison guard” indeed.
 Speaking of appropriation, Ted Gioia notes all the elements E. L. Doctorow seems to have lifted from Mumbo Jumbo for his own Ragtime, published just three years later. It’s not for me to judge who has the right to what; I will only suggest that Reed’s novel is about a hundred times more interesting than Doctorow’s.