Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.

Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”

But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.

The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.

The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.

To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.

Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.

A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.

And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.

The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.

Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.

Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.

Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:

I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.


I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.

“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”

Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!

Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.

“Kevin, I’m sorry!”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)

Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.

But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:

“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”

Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:

I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.

If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.

Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.

Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.

Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.

We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.

The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.

Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:

I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)

If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.

I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.

While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.

Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.

In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.


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Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues

The Hero And the BluesThe Hero And the Blues by Albert Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Albert Murray is, as the fashion journalists say, having a moment. His collected non-fiction and fiction/poetry have now been canonized by the Library of America (in volumes published in 2016 and 2018, respectively) and his insights on race, American identity, music, and literature are now being rediscovered by a wider readership.

Murray, who lived from 1916 to 2013, was an African-American critic and novelist most active in the mid-twentieth century and known for his writing on what he called “the blues idiom” and its intersection with literary modernism. While I had heard Murray’s name before, I was first urged to read him by friend and correspondent Matthew St. Ville Hunte, whose brilliant review-essay on another Murray reissue—Murray Talks Music—is a good place to start learning about the writer:

Major critics do not achieve that status by possessing impeccable taste; it is not the highest calling to have the cleanest scoresheet. Indeed, there is something foppish and epicurean about striving to merely have all the right opinions at the right times. Instead, the major critics are the ones with the strong opinions, the ones who aren’t receptive to every new experience, the ones whose defiant inflexibility may bend the culture towards the future. Major critics have major themes, which ballast their writing and allow them to rise above merely being tastemaking. Just as Edmund Wilson had modernism and Trilling had the liberal imagination, Albert Murray had the blues idiom.

This is both a perfect and a somewhat odd moment for an Albert Murray revival. Odd because his ideas and emphases are almost anathema in this time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head? Three or four times in just the last week, I have run across laments about the almost Soviet gap between what liberal writers, educators, and media professionals feel they can say in public and what they are saying in private. (What they are saying in private, let me tell you, is nothing other than what I just said—we can say it; but we will have to overcome our own pusillanimity, which is admittedly a tall order!)

On the other hand, the popular adversaries of the above trends are not much less deadening in their reductions than the left-liberal literati; the “Intellectual Dark Web” leaves a lot to be desired, especially intellectually. Everything today decays into the worst kind of simplistic political argument, cable TV crossfire obsolesced because now generalized—it feels as if we are all talking heads in hell. What a perfect time, then, to read and re-read an intelligent, complex writer who argues for the importance of myth, archetype, and ritual, for the universality of art, without succumbing to the cruder polemics of a Jordan Peterson, a writer who insists upon the cultural autonomy and political independence of African-Americans in a register more alive to nuance and tragedy than Kanye West’s Twitter.

With the Library of American reprints, Murray’s entire oeuvre—some 2000 or 3000 pages—has come flooding back all at once; but as I am a slow, lazy reader, and as we all have to start somewhere, I have decided to focus on The Hero and the Blues, a short collection of three lectures published in 1973.[1] In this small but carefully composed book, Murray outlines his thesis that art’s function derives from ancient rituals meant to ensure community survival by embodying a hero’s story. Art shows us how our fictional surrogate, a Representative Man, is or is not adequate to the challenges posed by life. In this way, art demonstrates how we ourselves should live:

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the story teller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man—perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so, he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

As a result, says Murray, fiction has sold its birthright to the sociologists and psychologists (dismissively metonymized by Murray as “Marx-Freud,” a hybrid monstrosity of shallow thinking). Novelists have given up tragedy, comedy, and farce for the lower art of melodrama: a story where narrowly material and social success is the goal rather than any broader confrontation with the nature of things. The higher modes of tragedy, comedy, and farce, by contrast, deal not just with the social context and material well-being emphasized by the protest writers; they put the hero into conflict with the essentials, Emerson’s “lords of life”—the tragic hero transcends them even as he is defeated by them, the comic hero overcomes them through the social regeneration of marriage, and the farcical hero evades them through nimble caprice amid absurdity[2].

Murray sees the hero of tragedy, comedy, and farce as defined by what he calls “cooperative antagonism”—that is, heroism is necessitated by adversity. This in turn implies that adversity is not to be avoided even if one could, that “safety”—to put it in contemporary pop-psychobureaucratic terms—is not to be sought as a political telos, especially because it is incompatible with freedom:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only an indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

Here Murray comes into conflict with prevailing political thought about race in America on the left. (Though it should be said that this is not at all the main topic of the book, which is primarily an aesthetic treatise.) By capitulating to Marx-Freud and salvation through superior political management, black writers offer themselves up as objects of pity and study to white intellectuals, and in the meantime they give up their people’s own contribution to world culture: the blues tradition, whose improvisatory craft demonstrates how oppression may be transcended through artful ritual. As Hunte comments in his review:

The blues, as explained by Murray, are not the wails of lamentations, melancholic outpourings for the woebegone and disconsolate. Au contraire, the blues are intended to dispel such feelings, not wallow in them. The blues constitute a battle against chaos and entropy and in their broadest interpretation, lie at the heart of any artistic endeavor. But this is not merely art as entertainment, though it must certainly be that as well. This is art as ritualized survival technique.

Committed to the autonomy of art, Murray refuses to explain black expression as simply the result, the epiphenomenon, of slavery and oppression; he sees it, rather, as the intellectual and sensuous mastery by brilliant craftsmen of their adverse context. For this reason, he makes an extended comparison between the blues ensemble and the Elizabethan theater, and between Duke Ellington and Shakespeare: African-American art, like European art, is not a primitive eructation of the volk but the work of master crafters committed to improving the polis. Blues is thus the epitome of all true art, the heir of those rituals that assembled themselves into the epic from which all later music and narrative derives. Murray goes so far as to recommend that black experience become the paradigm of American experience in general, that all American artists become black blues artists—not as cultural appropriators, mind you, but as fellow crafters who rightly recognize the genius after which they ought to pattern themselves if they want to overcome their own troubles. The writing of Marx-Freud, by contrast (he singles out Wright and the later Baldwin; in our own day, he might mention Coates and Rankine),

concerns itself not with the ironies and ambiguities of self-improvement and self-extension, not with the evaluation of the individual as protagonist, but rather with representing a world of collective victims whose survival and betterment depend not upon self-determination but upon a change of heart in their antagonists who thereupon will cease being villains and become patrons of social welfare!

The title notwithstanding, there is surprisingly little about the blues per se in this book. Much of it is rather a reading of two of Murray’s favorite modern writers, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, both of whom he sees as modeling heroic fiction. His enthusiastic discussion of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers as the depiction of a nimbly exilic hero rather than a Moses bound for the Promised Land will make any reader realize that they should go beyond Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain with Mann, while his praise of Hemingway makes that writer’s seeming outdatedness itself look like little more than a quirk of our own cynical era.

I would like to conclude with Murray’s defense of experimentation in the arts. Whenever anyone starts talking about myth and archetypes as underlying literature the way Murray does, people understandably get suspicious: doesn’t that lead to artistic complacency and stereotypes, to political conservatism of the least thoughtful variety? But Murray was a partisan of modernism, not a marketer of Joseph Campbell monoplots to Hollywood nor a vendor of supposedly antediluvian sexual wisdom like some we could name today. Modernism’s motto was “make it new”—myths and archetypes are the “it,” but “new” is the point. Formal inventiveness, new ways of telling the old stories, are the aesthetic correlate of the social renewal presaged by true art’s rituals of survival and transcendence, the bearing of vital traditions through every challenge:

Implicitly, experiment is also an action taken to insure that nothing endures which is not workable; as such, far from being anti-traditional, as is often assumed, it actually serves the best interests of tradition, which, after all, is that which continues in the first place.

Revivals of unjustly neglected or forgotten authors may also renew tradition: so, if you want surprisingly prescient and relevant wisdom from almost half a century ago, it is a good day to read Albert Murray.

[1] 1973 was the same year of publication, incidentally, as Toni Morrison’s Sula, and only one year later than Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. It would be a great reading experience to take these three books in sequence, each correcting the excesses and omissions of the other: Reed cares, like Murray, for black expression as ritual action, but he puts this in an Afrocentric and anti-colonial context that Murray would find too culturally exclusivist and anti-American; as for Morrison, her vision of heroism incorporates more of the negative and the nihilistic than Murray seems willing to acknowledge—Murray may believe in “cooperative antagonism,” but Morrison believes in the devil—and she also, crucially, portrays female heroism, whereas Murray’s vision of the hero is (like all his favorite novelists) male.

[2] Murray would recognize the aforementioned social-media flayings as ritual actions, and he values farce above all genres—somewhat as Northrop Frye values satire (derived from the satyr play, the goatish—we would now call it “inappropriate”—caper that capped tragic trilogies in ancient Athens)—because of its power to counter the solemnity of ritual and mock ideologies before they become so aggrandized that they menace the community:

Farce breaks the spell of ritual. It counterbalances the magic which ritual works upon the imagination. It protects human existence from the excesses of the imagination and operates as a safeguard against the overextension of ideas, formulations, and formalities. After all, extended far enough, even the idea of freedom becomes a involving security measures and thus a justification for restrictions which exceed those that generated the thrust toward liberation in the first place. The world is, or should be, all too familiar with totalitarian systems which began as freedom movements.

“Should be”—you can say that again.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

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.[1]

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, I therefore take it, counsels against castigating every white person who takes a selfie while wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also takes aim at corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.[2]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.


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Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars

Life on MarsLife on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This celebrated 2011 volume from the current U.S. poet laureate is her elegy for her father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble telescope.

Your context changes how you read any given book, and I was reading this in the context of course on contemporary American literature, wherein it struck me as the first and only text we read—whether in poetry, prose, or comics, whether by writers male, female, gay, straight, black, white, Native American or Asian American—to present a non-apocalyptic view of science and technology. That Smith’s father was a working scientist probably led her away from the panic of an Allen Ginsberg staring down “Moloch” or the nostalgia of a Toni Morrison missing the emotional intensities of prewar neighborhood life, but I also imagine Smith’s literary influences must have had something to do with it too; in this book, she alludes often to cinematic science fiction, and in interviews she has named Emily Dickinson as an early inspiration. It was Dickinson who wrote:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see,—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

So with the microscope, as with the telescope; what is disclosed by technology is just another look at ourselves. Smith writes at the conclusion of her much-heralded poem, “My God It’s Full of Stars”:

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

Note how Smith plays with scale, moving effortlessly from microcosm to macrocosm and back again. The first half of the volume is a somewhat rarefied affair, an investigation of death and loss in the context of what we know or can fathom about the cosmos, and grounded by Smith’s grief. It is good, if sometimes slightly ponderous, philosophical or metaphysical verse—though sometimes a pleasant wit intrudes, as when Smith mocks the “cowboys-in-space” approach to the universe of science fiction cinema and even imagines herself in conversation with Charlton Heston:

Hero, survivor, God’s right hand man, I know he sees the blank
Surface of the moon where I see a language built from brick and bone.
He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,

Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth. And:
May I smoke? The voices outside soften. Planes jet past heading off or back.
Someone cries that she does not want to go to bed. Footsteps overhead.

A fountain in the neighbor’s yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors. It was another time, he says, picking up again.
We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth

Toward God-knows-where? I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.

I admire the delicacy here; she mocks the white man’s senescent conservatism, even while knowing time will leave everyone behind—that in a sense everyone might well become the dead white male. The solution to which problem is, in the final line’s wavering between description and injunction, to get used to the fact of our ignorance and evanescence.

The volume’s second poem, “Sci-Fi,” suggests a governing ethic to Smith’s speculations when it envisions a techno-utopia on an intergenerational starship:

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned

To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.

Developing such hints, the second half of the book finds Smith in a more political mood. As David Bowie described the topic of his song, “Life on Mars,” from which Smith derives her title, as “a sensitive young girl reacts to the news,” so we find our sensitive poet—though she obviously does not portray herself as a “young girl”—writing her way through the worst media reports of the early 21st century, from the fallout of 9/11 to the sensationalist reporting on Somali pirates to the horrifying Josef Friztl case. The latter is described in the grand title poem, which posits the supposed “dark matter” of the physicists—the invisible stuff responsible for the universe’s excessive mass—to be what an older tradition called “evil.” Sometimes, though, Smith risks sentimentality, as in “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected,” wherein she imagines real-life victims of racist violence writing their assailants from the afterlife and urging the transcendence of hate:

Dear Andrew,

I’m still here. I don’t think of you often, but when I do, I think you must look at people slowly, spinning through the versions of their lives before you speak. I think you must wonder what’s under their coats, in their fists, what words sit warming in their throats. I think you feel humble, human. I hardly think of you, but when I do, it’s usually that.

Harlem, USA

The interior rhyme even in prose is nice, as is the wordplay: “must” signals both what Omar imagines has become Andrew’s habit and what Omar believes Andrew is obligated to do, appropriate in either case since the white man Andrew mistook the black man Omar as a threat and murdered him, due to a killing lack of “looking at people slowly.” Still, Smith’s appropriation of actual murder victims is tasteless. How does she know their spirits have gone beyond hate and are now full of wise counsel? Maybe they’re full of vengeful rage!

My favorite poem in the volume’s political vein is the villanelle “Solstice,” a rhyming, rhythmic collage of bad news that is also slightly arch, as villanelles tend to be; as you know, I am a bad person, so I sometimes want Smith to be saved from the pomp of the public poet lamenting the faults of the nation, and this poem, with its slight Dickinsonian jaunt (I am oddly reminded, too, of Seidel) in the contemplation of brutality, does the job nicely:

They’re gassing geese outside of JFK.
Tehran will likely fill up soon with blood
The Times is getting smaller day by day.

We’ve learned to back away from all we say
And, more or less, agree with what we should.
Whole flocks are being gassed near JFK.

So much of what we’re asked is to obey—
A reflex we’d abandon if we could.
The Times reported 19 dead today.

They’re going to make the opposition pay.
(If you’re sympathetic, knock on wood.)
The geese were terrorizing JFK.

Remember how they taught you once to pray?
Eyes closed, on your knees, to any god?
Sometimes, small minds seem to take the day.

Election fraud. A migratory plague.
Less and less surprises us as odd.
We dislike what they did at JFK.
Our time is brief. We dwindle by the day.

As that old fascist Yeats said, cautioning against free verse, “all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” But why go further afield than Smith’s own earliest influence? “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true—”

If in the first half of the book, Smith portrays herself as loyal daughter, in the second half we find her as lover and mother, both things conjoined in the volume’s daring penultimate poem, “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” which pictures the soul of Smith’s unborn child watching its parents make love. This primal scene incites the soon-to-be infant’s gnostic fall into the pleasures and raptures of the flesh:

You must have watched
For what felt like forever, wanting to be
What we passed back and forth between us like fire.
Wanting weight, desiring desire, dying
To descend into flesh, fault, the brief ecstasy of being.
From what dream of world did you wriggle free?
What soared—and what grieved—when you aimed your will
At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?

I vastly prefer this visionary perversity to the sentimentality earlier in the volume. The telescopic/microscopic eye on all that is “brutal and alive” should be, I think, a dry eye, and Smith’s sensibility seems foreign to the responsibilities it sometimes take on in this volume’s political verse. The intermediate level of the life of the polis, “life on earth,” is blurred in this book, but when Smith writes above and below it, about the inner life and outer space, the infinitesimal and the infinite, she more than earns her laurels.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a poor period indeed which must assess its men of letters in terms of their opposition to their society. Opposition to life’s essential conditions perhaps, or to death’s implacable tyranny, is something else again, and universal; but novels, no matter how clever, which attempt to change statutes or moral attitudes are, though useful at the moment, not literature at all.
—Gore Vidal, “Novelists and Critics of the 1940s”

Being so behind the big publishers’ schedules that I am finally getting to the book of 2015 at the end of 2017 should leave me feeling terribly belated and off-trend, but, alas, the back-and-forth over Ta-Nehisi Coates is still a hot and increasingly toxic topic. Not to inject my own poison into the cultural bloodstream, but I have a question: is it #toosoon or are we far enough away from it now to be able to judge Coates a victim of the cynically voguish state/corporate “progressive” racket that attempted to capitalize upon the cultural changes perhaps prematurely portended by the Obama era? Imagine a Coates born ten years earlier—or perhaps even ten years later. He might be on his fourth or fifth novel by now, universally esteemed as a writer and loved and loathed by none as an oracle. Cornel West’s notorious verdict that Coates exhibits a “narrowly aesthetic…personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action” could be construed as the compliment that any non-puritanical society with a decent literary culture would take it as.

Everything good in the celebrated memoir-tract Between the World and Me is novelistic. Coates can do that semi-indefinable thing (I am sure some French structuralist has defined it, sure as I am that I don’t care) all the best novelists can do, which is to somehow convey in prose, in countable words and diagrammable sentences, the stop-and-start, the expansion and contraction, of subjective time, since, as the physicists tell us, time is internal to the world:

Here is how it started: I woke up one morning with a minor headache. With each hour the headache grew. I was walking to my job when I saw this girl on her way to class. I looked awful, ands he gave me some Advil and kept going. By mid-afternoon I could barely stand. I called my supervisor. When he arrived I lay down in the stockroom, because I had no idea what else to do. I was afraid. I did not understand what was happening. I did not know whom to call. I was lying there simmering, half-awake, hoping to recover. My supervisor knocked on the door. Someone had come to see me. It was her.The girl with the long dreads helped me out and onto the street. She flagged down a cab. Halfway through the ride, I opened the door, with the cab in motion, and vomited in the street. But I remember her holding me there to make sure I didn’t fall out and then holding me close when I was done. She took me to that house of humans, which was filled with all manner of love, put me in the bed, put Exodus on the CD player, and turned the volume down to a whisper. She left a bucket by the bed. She left a jug of water. She had to go to class. I slept. When she returned I was back in form. We ate. The girl with the long dreads who slept with whomever she chose, that being her own declaration of control over her body, was there.

Everything bad in Between the World and Me is the result of a willfully oversimplified political analysis. Coates tells us in the opening pages that he will take seriously America’s claim to exceptionalism, though why anyone would want to do that I cannot imagine. With an overweening moralism that is supposed to target suburban whites but that eventually lands on any- and everyone in the world who would rather live in comfort than squalor—including the black bourgeoisie he indirectly (even circumlocutiously) indicts for the police killing of his friend, Prince Jones, who is the book’s chief exemplar of the “destruction of the black body”—Coates denounces all organized civilization as an evil “Dream” based on oppression.

But squint at even these awkward sections of the book with the aesthete’s wicked eye and they become good fiction, the dramatization of a complex personality at odds with itself, an artistic rather than a political opting for paranoid solemnity perhaps akin to that of a Sebald or Teju Cole. While the “black body” phrase is overused in the book, Coates’s stringent atheism and straightforward nihilism is a welcome tonic to a sentimental literary landscape and is the one element of the book that did cut against the grain of liberalism’s premature right-side-of-history smugness of 2008-2016.

As with Rankine’s Citizen, though, I don’t see how the materialist reductionism supports the progressive politics otherwise advertised, as these politics seem to depend—and usually have depended—upon a transcendental subject of history, i.e., an intelligent agent, whether individual or collective, that is more like a soul than a body. Coates, who ends this book anticipating the apocalypse (“Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind”), does seem to understand this ultimately, even if his readership does not. Understand, that is, the dead end of politics per se, at least for a sensibility like his. I hope he writes a novel.


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Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Citizen: An American LyricCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Citizen is a prose-poetry compendium of racial microaggressions aimed at a poetic speaker who nevertheless speaks in the second person, and who fills the middle of her book with museum pieces on the macroaggressions of police brutality (and behind them lynching and slavery) that are there to demonstrate what is at the other end of the continuum whose “lower” limit is the thoughtless remark and the offensive joke. Rooting taste, perception, and opinion in the automatic movements of the body in response to the identity the social structure forces upon it in the most intimate of addresses, Citizen reveals intimate address to have been ideology all along and bodily response to be truer than argument. Citizen is a book of its time, your time: materialist reductionism and sociological determinism are its twin claims, not unreasonably. To invoke reason raises questions, though. Because critique must come from somewhere, you have always found deterministic and reductionist ways of criticizing the world to instance a performative contradiction. Call the writers of the past naive, label them idealists, accuse them of mystification, but they were being scrupulous when they launched their salvoes against the world’s brutality from the imagination or from faith or from reason: the body can’t criticize, material does not know. Rankine, reduced to a body, reduces you to a body in turn. (Implicitly in the name, it should be said, of justice—the same reason another didactic poet populated hell with his enemies.) Your critique of her book is foreclosed by its critique of you.

Write about something else. A decade ago, you were teaching a composition class; the students were barely younger than you were. The most memorable paper, because of its social acuity and vital prose and (let’s face it) startling thesis, was written by an African-American female first-year student. It opened like an anecdote in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: in her retail workplace, a white woman had referred to her as “Shaniqua over there” (her name was not Shaniqua). For two pages, the paper reads as you, with all sympathy, expect it to read: as a protest against the reductionism of stereotype, of white ignorance and casual brutality. Then on the third page, the student quotes liberally, or illiberally, from Bill Cosby’s “pound cake” speech. The remainder of the essay was a polemic against the black underclass and its cultural foibles for confusing whites as to the just hierarchies of class and status in the black community. The reason I should not be confused with Shaniqua, you are given to understand, is because I am better than Shaniqua. It is easier to deplore this position than to simply admit that you understand it, were educated into a version of it, watched your own family split itself along these faults to become “American” and “middle class” and ultimately even “white,” and in fact read something similar between the lines in one of the very readings you assigned for the class (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass). (In fact, around the same time you were teaching the class a future Oscar-winner was writing a similar philippic in much stronger language.) It was a very well-written paper, the best of the bunch, and you’ve remembered it for ten years, which is more than you can say for certain prize-winning novels or movies of the period; there could be no question of giving it less than an A. But did you write a caution in your terminal note, a gentle, genial warning that such views will have to be put with muffling circumspection in academe if they are to be welcomed (overtly) at all, despite their being the whole of the hidden curriculum? It was a long time ago; you don’t remember.

You remember the paper now because of the second anecdote in Citizen, which strikes you as, to be honest, less honest than the student essay:

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged the slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be your fatal flaw—your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?

Rankine leaves off the third question that even the unworldliest reader will be asking: “Or are you so wounded because your friend, who shares your class, has just compared you to the help, who does not share your class?” Maybe it’s because you prefer novels to poems, maybe it’s because you have been reading Morrison and Roth and especially Larsen, who are absolutely ruthless in seeking out intractable and self-implicating questions about race and class and gender rather than playing pronoun games that have facile victories. Citizen is an art-world book, a theory-world book, a “theoretical fiction” and a “conceptual artwork” in genre more even than it is, as it is labelled, a lyric. It quotes Blanchot and Butler, past masters of vatic sanctimony. Rankine also quotes Zora Neale Hurston via an art installation by Glenn Ligon:

Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.

Neither Rankine nor Ligon give the rest of the passage, nor do they seem alive to its possibilities (which are, you grant, not yours to enumerate), nor are they evidently troubled by the fact that it occurs in an essay-manifesto as different in tone and meaning from Citizen as one can imagine:

I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.

For instance at Barnard. “Beside the waters of the Hudson” I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea. I am surged upon and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.

Is this appropriation ethical? Is it not, in its way, “cultural”? Why put oneself in the business of reducing and traducing Zora Neale Hurston, not that she would care or think one could? You will win no friends by asking, but does this book need to be as black and white as what it resists, to be so single-minded in its drive to “transform the words into abstractions”?

Citizen‘s staggering success could be described cynically: to wit, as the hip white’s second favorite literary apotropaion (behind Coates) against accusations of the structural racism you perpetuate merely by walking your street in your body, your awareness of the “justice” of—yet the simultaneous (you think) impossibility of—your own liquidation as a race/class the badge of your enlightenment, because after all a structural conflict by its nature ends, as the poet said, “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (This is what Anis Shivani implies in his brief Marxist critique of Rankine, with which you could agree if you did not worry so much about Marxism’s seemingly endemic propensity to murder the poets: “to accept the body as it is is much less difficult than to address and alter the body politic—which really means political economy, social and class arrangements, the interpretation and dissemination of a history where everyone is a victim.”) Anyway, you could describe the success of Citizen humanely as well. The conflict it stages is explicable, the emotions legible. You/me/me/you. Black/white/white/black. Even the implications of the pronoun technique are in line with sentimental reformism rather than any theory of revolution: the labor of empathy necessary to see “me” in “you” and “you” in “me.” At one point, Citizen quotes James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” Yet it ends with Rankine’s recounting a final slight in the tennis court parking lot:

Did you win? he asks.

It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.

Lessons are never truly open-ended, but for reasons of pedagogical form the teacher may pretend that they are to enhance the students’ sense of having undertaken a journey. Even so, the teacher always had the destination in mind. Yes, yes, Rankine might agree with you, that is what I’m saying about the woman in the tennis court parking lot, about the lesson she taught. You nod but hesitate. It’s not your place to say this, you know, so you sweat, you blush—perhaps, if you were not a bit swarthy. But you ask anyway: Did you really want to become her? You want us, maybe, at least for the first draft, to go back to being first-year students, writing what we actually think, however monstrous, instead of what we are supposed to think, when we are, say, in museums and classrooms, because then and only then is there a possibility of rectification. Attempting to school you, Rankine, with the politesse of any good teacher or curator, seems to say less than she means or wants or, most especially, can.


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Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:

Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead ­Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.

This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.

Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.

But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.

“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.

The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism.

In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class. Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.

Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.

Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.

“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.

All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.

Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:

Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.

Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).

Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.

Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”


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Nella Larsen, Quicksand

QuicksandQuicksand by Nella Larsen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This rigorously ironic 1928 novel of the Harlem Renaissance (its author’s first) has itself, in its afterlife, succumbed to an irony: contemporary readers tend to encounter it in the context of political discourses on American race relations, yet its heroine, Helga Crane, early on in the book decides that she is bored and even disgusted by all such discourses. Helga, working as secretary and personal assistant to a prominent black activist, quickly loses interest in the topic:

On the train that carried them to New York, Helga had made short work of correcting and condensing the speeches, which Mrs. Hayes-Rore as a prominent “race” woman and an authority on the problem was to deliver before several meetings of the annual convention of the Negro Women’s League of Clubs, conveying the next week in New York. These speeches proved to be merely patchworks of others’ speeches and opinions. Helga had heard other lecturers say the same things in Devon and again in Naxos. Ideas, phases, and even whole sentences and paragraphs, were lifted bodily from previous orations and published works of Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and other doctors of the race’s ills. For variety Mrs. Hayes-Rore has seasoned hers with a peppery dash of Du Bois and a few vinegary statements of her own. Aside from these it was, Helga reflected, the same old thing.

Two chapters later, Helga wearies of another activist friend, Anne Grey, who, she complains,

was obsessed by the race problem and fed her obsession. She frequented all the meetings of protest, subscribed to all the complaining magazines, and read all the lurid newspapers spewed out by the Negro yellow press. She talked, wept, and ground her teeth dramatically about the wrongs and shames of her race. At times she lashed her fury to surprising heights for one by nature so placid and gentle. And, though she would not, even to herself, have admitted it, she reveled in this orgy of protest.

To measure the bitter impiety of Helga’s weariness, simply update the references: imagine a contemporary black heroine of fiction diagnosing Black Lives Matter as a case of misdirected libidinal energy and then yawning with elaborate Wildean languor at the prospect of ten thousand more earnest words from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Given this, we might wonder: who is Helga Crane, how did she come to such startling opinions, and will she be punished for them—on the grounds that you may not believe in race, but race believes in you—in the course of the novel she inhabits?

Helga Crane, like her author, has a divided ancestry: born to a white Danish immigrant mother and a black father of uncertain origin. Ostensibly, then, Quicksand is the story of a young woman who feels herself to be neither white nor black and neither European nor American. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Thadious M. Davis quotes the opinion of Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke to the effect that Quicksand revises the “tragic mulatto” narrative from its usual biologically-essentialist lament over the doom conferred on a person by mixed blood into a story about the irreconcilable conflicts of culture. Helga’s problem is not that black and white blood war within her body, but that African-American and European aesthetic, ideological, and religious commitments war within her soul. Add to this the expectation, still almost universally shared in the early twentieth century by blacks and whites alike, that a young woman must marry and bear children, and Helga’s difficulty not only in achieving freedom but even in understanding what freedom might mean for her becomes clear. Her impatience with what today we might call “identity politics” inheres in her uncertainty about her own identity.

Larsen does much to validate the above reading. A picaresque novel, Quicksand charts Helga’s peregrinations in her twenties. She moves from a Tuskegee-like black school in the South devoted to “uplift” and the embourgeoisment of African-Americans (whence she flees out of disgust with its middle-class conformism), to Harlem in the midst of its jazz-age cultural efflorescence (whence she flees out of a suffocating alarm at its ghettoization), to the Old-World charm of Copenhagen (whence she flees because seemingly friendly Europeans reduce her to an exotic specimen and an erotic object), and eventually back to the rural south as a preacher’s wife (where she seems destined to die in childbed, lost in total disillusionment and misery).

As its title indicates, Quicksand is an anti-picaresque picaresque novel, one about a slowly killing stasis that gets only more fatal as you struggle to escape it. There is no lack of clarity on Helga’s (or Larsen’s) part about “the race’s ills.” Organized by a progression through different social settings, Quicksand captures—and Helga becomes aware of—each white setting’s particular type of racism (the southern whites’ open contempt, the northern whites’ paternalism and aversion, the European whites’ exotifying appetites) as well as of each black setting’s partial and problematic response thereto (the southern black bourgeoisie’s conservative drive for middle-class respectability, the northern black bourgeoisie’s elitist cultural vanguardism, and poor southern blacks’ crushing religiosity).

As Davis points out in her introduction, Larsen is loyal to her dual Scandinavian and African-American literary inheritance. She fuses in Quicksand Henrik Ibsen’s almost nihilistic ruthlessness of anti-bourgeois critique with Jean Toomer’s psychosexual canvassing of black America and expression of its unique voice and situation. And Helga, despite episodes of internalized racism, as when she feels herself “a jungle creature” in a jazz club, does come in redemptive moments to associate pleasure and freedom with life among black people, especially in Harlem, where they attained not only some measure of political or social freedom but also the artistic freedom and cultural consciousness promised by the aforementioned Alain Locke in his manifesto of “The New Negro.” In Europe, she thinks:

“I’m homesick, not for America, but for Negroes.”


She understood, now, [her father’s] rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all Negro environments. She understood and could sympathize with his facile surrender to the irresistible ties of race, now that they dragged at her own heart.

Note, though, the persistent distance and ambivalence even in the language of this passage: “his own kind” (not hers), “facile surrender” (as opposed to an intelligent one). Here we see that, even more than a realist and at times satirical picaresque, Quicksand is a psychological novel, a modernist novel of consciousness, written in close third-person perspective, focalized through Helga but at the slight ironizing distance afforded by free indirect discourse.

Accordingly, the novel, which does so much to examine the social determinations that race exerts on an individual life, is also about the collision of a very particular sensibility with not just one but a whole succession of social orders hostile to the individual, especially insofar as the individual may not be interested in predictably productive or pious forms of order.

Affected by race and gender though she is, Helga is described over and over again in the novel as uniquely incapable of getting along; almost everywhere she goes, she encounters well-adjusted people, mostly other women, who judge her for not simply settling down into the kind of life that has satisfied them. Quicksand, therefore, is not the story of every black woman, any more than that other misfit Dane’s tragedy (I mean Hamlet) is every white man’s tale. Helga is special: she’s an aesthete, an incipient artist. Here is our first sight of her:

Helga Crane sat along in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom. Only a single reading lamp, dimmed by a great black and red shade, made a pool of light on the blue Chinese carpet, on the bright covers of the books which she had taken down from their long shelves, on the white pages of the open one selected, on the shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums beside her on the low table, and on the oriental silk which covered the stool at her feet.

Cataloguing her beautiful things and slightly echoing The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s first paragraphs, Larsen introduces us to a heroine of art for its own sake who will, not unlike Dorian and his deviser, come to a bad end, partially on account of the aesthete’s incorrigible social and political aloofness. Note, too, the Orientalism in Helga’s aesthetic preferences; like any Decadent Frenchman, Helga has an exotifying and objectifying and sexualizing gaze to turn on life, and we as readers benefit from her extraordinary perceptiveness and sensitivity. But her ironic tragedy is this: wishing to subject others to her aesthetic eye, Helga nevertheless lives in a white and bourgeois and male world where it is she who will be reduced to an object in the appetitive eyes of others.

The unsparing quality of Larsen’s irony is remarkable: Helga’s desires are not only socially unattainable for one in her race/gender/class position, but they are also ethically untenable in themselves, as the aesthetic requires some hierarchy of subject/object and norm/exception—all this, even as the aesthetic is the chief pleasure offered by this novel, since it demolishes in turn every social or political or religious expedient for Helga’s problems. Few American novels (outside of Corregidora—also about a black woman artist—and Nightwood—also about Americans abroad in interwar Europe) are so willing to countenance despair and to court nothingness as Quicksand is. Even the stoic endurance counseled by Faulkner falls away in this novel’s final pages, which long for the relief of death. In this sense, Larsen does join Helga in turning aside in boredom and disgust from politics as from life itself.

Contemporary readers will perhaps also be startled by the novel’s concluding pages, with their scathing portrait of religion as a savage rite of irrational patriarchalism functioning as opium for the oppressed:

Religion had, after all, its uses. It blunted the perceptions. Robbed life of its crudest truths. Especially it had its uses for the poor—and the blacks.

The previously irreligious Helga’s Christian conversion comes when she enters a Harlem storefront religious meeting and, unlucky in love and dissatisfied with her materialism, raises her aesthetic yearning from what the novel had described her as having wanted earlier—”Things. Things. Things.”—to matters of the spirit. But after she finds herself carried off to rural Alabama and brutally reduced to serving as a brood-mare for a preacher presiding over a harem-congregation of illiterate women, she finds herself dreaming of escape even as she languishes in unending pregnancy.

Her desire to reach the spirit through things—what any aesthete is trying to do—ends in tragic irony with her own probably fatal condemnation to thing-status by the self-appointed master of the spiritual life. A version of this fate had befallen her in Copenhagen, when she was painted in stereotypical racist terms by her would-be husband, the flamboyant artiste Axel Olsen. To him she had declared, in her finest hour in the entire novel:

“But you see, Herr Olsen, I am not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t care at all to be owned. Even by you.”

But from her eventual preacher-husband there will be no escape. The novel’s sociopolitical analysis seems to terminate in the frank conviction that the cultural conditions of poverty really are much worse than middle-class hypocrisy, whether in Harlem or Copenhagen, which at least offers moments of pleasure and reprieve from coerced sociality for a woman artist who needs to be by herself as much as she needs to belong. In fact, that is the novel’s real departure from some “tragic mulatto” narrative out of the nineteenth century: it is not that Helga lacks a people she can call her own, but that she lacks a place where she can be securely alone, rather than merely alienated, outcast, or impoverished.

The chief advantage of aestheticism for the novel is its hatred of the didactic. The aesthete is not concerned with beauty in itself, but with, in Pater’s words, “sensations and ideas.” Helga never quite understands this, and insofar as she is punished by Larsen’s narrative design, it is for this lapse as much as or more than for her inattentiveness to racial politics:

Always she had wanted, not money but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings.

But Larsen knows, if Helga does not, that anything is susceptible of aesthetic representation without moral or political resolution. Hence the rigor of Quicksand: brief quotation cannot do justice to the logic with which Larsen moves through Helga’s inchoate emotions as they flame on her flesh and give rise to action. Avoiding judgment, Larsen allows her powers of perception to guide her through an extraordinarily complex labyrinth of race, gender, and psychology at nearly novella-length, crafting the kind of compact and polished literary object that defined modernism’s war on Victorian imperial expansiveness and acquisitive bourgeois bloat.

The aesthete will never be of great use to the cause, will always let down the side, because of her entirely correct judgment that every new instance of political rhetoric is just “the same old thing.” But it is only the aesthete who can preserve in the amber of her artistry what it felt like, what it feels like, to be alive just now, just here—to be a balked artist, a half-Danish black woman in Jim Crow America and interwar Europe. Even the wretchedness and dissatisfaction of experience, often banished from polemical or ideological or idealist art, but never from this fearless novel, glows with the achievement of perception achieved and time arrested.


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James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni's RoomGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

James Baldwin is today so universally beloved, so piously received, that it almost comes as a relief to find this, his generally acclaimed second novel, so uncongenial to contemporary sensibilities as to be positively disturbing. On the back cover, Michael Ondaatje proclaims Baldwin a “saint”—this would be fatally irritating, except that it is Baldwin’s sainthood that gives Giovanni’s Room an edge in the contemporary context, as the faint undercurrent of unease detectable in even the more positive reviews on Goodreads suggests.

Giovanni’s Room is about a white American named David, who narrates his own story. Sojourning in Paris and separated from his American girlfriend Hella, who has gone to Spain to find herself, he spends his time in the queer demimonde with the dissolute Jacques. In a gay bar owned by the aristocrat Guillaume, David undergoes the proverbial coup de foudre when he meets the Italian Giovanni. The two men begin an affair that largely takes place in the titular room, a squalid chamber Giovanni rents from a maid that stands for both pleasurable embowerment, often likened by David to living undersea, and for the crushing, contorting demands of the closet. When Hella returns, David decides to marry her and submit himself to midcentury American norms and expectations; this leads the already penniless Giovanni to succumb wholly to poverty and desperation, until he murders the bar-owner Guillaume and is in turn sentenced to death. The novel is narrated by David on the eve of Giovanni’s execution from a villa in which he had hoped to flee Paris with Hella, though by this time their relationship has broken up with her realization of his homosexuality (or bisexuality—the nature of his desire is never made quite clear, and neither term is used in the book).

The novel’s flaws are so obvious they hardly bear remarking. Every character is a flagrant stereotype—as they themselves seem perfectly aware—from the frigid WASP David to the histrionic Italian Giovanni to the bitter old queen Jacques. David and Giovanni’s conversations about national character amount to little more than tired cliches about the American fear of death and sensuality, already proverbial fifty or a hundred years before. In Baldwin’s ostensible model for the transatlantic narrative, Henry James, the American character when contrasted to the European is far more complex, the Protestant willfulness manifesting itself not only as indomitable optimism but tragic individualism and submission to one’s own chosen destiny—why, after all, does Isabel Archer return to Gilbert Osmond if not for the same reason that Ahab hunts the white whale? Baldwin substitutes melodrama for tragedy, depriving his protagonist of any ability to confront his fate freely—there is a polemical purpose to this choice, as Baldwin implicitly decries David’s (and white America’s) capitulation to inhumane standards, but it weakens the novel by depriving of it of real conflict.

Speaking of Henry James, the novel’s prose is, like its characters, in an artificially high register, as if translated, and sometimes it is ludicrously akin to that of the Master (e.g., “He was sobbing, it would have been said, as if his heart would break”). But the artifice of the style is in the end one of the book’s virtues. Its sense of creaking restraint, of strained lyricism, while it would become the house style of American realism, nevertheless gives the book its melancholy mood and redolent setting. When the melodramatic plot is forgotten, the high, sad tone will linger like the red wine that “had been spilled on [Giovanni’s] floor; it had been allowed to dry and it made the air in the room sweet and heavy.”

Now to what I find fascinating and disturbing about Giovanni’s Room: as a number of reviewers point out, Baldwin’s portrayal of gay Paris is unrelentingly grim. The bohemian paradise of gorgeous decadence celebrated by Djuna Barnes becomes in David’s narration a panoply of scheming seducers and strutting gigolos, a dirty stew of loveless corruption, sex reduced to its basest elements in sensuous greed. The novel’s most dystopian vision comes early, a drag queen not seen by David as alive:

It looked like a mummy or a zombie—this was the first, overwhelming impression—of something walking after it had been put to death. And it walked, really, like someone who might be sleepwalking or like those figures in slow motion one sometimes sees on the screen. It carried a glass, it walked on its toes, the flat hips moved with a dead, horrifying lasciviousness. It seemed to make no sound; this was due to the roar of the bar, which was like the roaring of the sea, heard at night, from far away. It glittered in the dim light; the thin, black hair was violent with oil, combed forward, hanging in bangs; the eyelids gleamed with mascara, the mouth raged with lipstick. The face was white and thoroughly bloodless with some kind of foundation cream; it stank of powder and a gardenia-like perfume.

This goes on for another several sentences. Surely, it is the repressed WASP narrator and not Baldwin talking in such a viciously dehumanizing way? I am not so sure. The thesis of the novel is that sex without love is immoral; we learn this most vividly when David, trying to persuade himself he is not attracted exclusively to men, cruelly sleeps with a female acquaintance he knows wants more from him than sex: “But I was thinking that what I did with Giovanni could not possibly be more immoral that what I was about to do with Sue.” In other words, society is wrong to proscribe homosexual acts because they are often acts of love; and by proscribing them, one drives them underground where they fester in the loveless and garish subculture that David and Baldwin seem to look on with such disdain and even horror. Again, notice the novel’s undersea motif in the passage above: the dominant culture is a horror, but society is so arranged that you will drown and then inhabit a frightful death-in-life if you leave it. (Baldwin’s is not a paradisal queer ocean, an expanse of erotic potential, like Melville’s or Whitman’s.)

Moreover, not only gay men but everyone is subject to the same choiceless choice as the novel sees it: while Hella is scarcely characterized, she too protests at the compulsory life middle-class American women were forced to lead—not because of her sexual orientation but only because it deprives her of freedom. This reflects, too, on David’s other encounters with women, such as his mother and his landlady, whom he both loves and fears for the demands of love and need they would make of him, demands blunted by more patriarchal marital customs. When recounting a dream about his dead mother, which reveals his fear of love, he recalls “that body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive,” a passage echoed in the living death of the drag queen. Any and all femininity stand, to David, for devouring softness or liquidity, what he paradoxically gives up by not admitting his love for a man. But as aware of this as Baldwin must be, the parodied femininity of the gay quarter still seems to him both evasive and demonic, a jeering mockery of the love men cannot have in homophobic society—as it would not at all, I think, seem to us, to say the least.

Freedom to love is the novel’s ethic, and it is what Baldwin condemns both repressive mainstream society and the countercultures it forces into existence for refusing to individuals. This worldview, the obvious legacy of Baldwin’s youthful Christian faith, is not a welcome moral for today: we view almost any normative judgments about culture or demands about sex as oppressive and totalizing. For this reason, Baldwin both can and cannot be our saint. He cannot, because we do not share his sense of the holy; and he can, because a saint is necessarily not of our world.


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Charles Johnson, Middle Passage

Middle PassageMiddle Passage by Charles Johnson

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.

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