"Nothing was Lost in the Masquerade": The Protean Performance of Genre and Identity in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.
In his novel Oxherding Tale (1982), Charles Johnson reopens slavery's closure through his reclamation of the nineteenth-century slave narrative. In so doing, he undermines static formulations of literature, history, and identity: Viewing each account as a potentially mutable rendering of experience and being, he limns their transformative possibilities through a performative poetics. Just as Spillers posits slavery's closure as a point of departure for the recovery of that institution's complex historicity, Johnson deploys seemingly fixed categories of identity and genre in order to overturn deterministic models of being. Specifically, his enslaved, biracial protagonist Andrew Hawkins can only achieve emancipation by comprehending his own subjectivity as multiple, as heterogeneously constructed out of the interstices between "house and field," and "white" and "black." In keeping with this new understanding, Andrew in his role as narrator must also transcend first-person perspective and the confines of traditional autobiography in order to enact a "first-person universal." By extension, Johnson forces his readers to confront the limitations of a conventional, realist reading method (as he calls it, "a heavily conditioned seeing"), proposing as an alterna- tive a more liberated mode of readership (Being 5). Thus, Johnson seizes the discursive aspect of slavery's displaced "person(s)/persona(s)": Refusing to fix the subject, he instead conceives of personhood as the effect of a reiterative and citational practice, as a palimpsest of performances.
In both Johnson's philosophical fictions and his philosophy of fiction, he interrogates questions of subjectivity in relation to language and literary form. As he states in his phenomenological treatise on African-American fiction Being and Race (1988), he reserves his greatest respect for "the protean writer, the performer . . . who slides from genre to genre, style to style, leaving his or her distinctive signature on each form lovingly transfigured and pushed toward new possibilities" (53). Here, Johnson challenges the orthodoxy that impels black writers to adhere to realism as a primary literary mode. Rejecting what he deems "calcified vision," Johnson cautions the writer against adopting "preestablished models . . . for our experience, or for any experience" (7). Instead, he calls for the African-American writer to "grapple with the perceptual flux of experience that characterizes the black world - and all worlds - to originate new meaning" (15). In Johnson's view, then, good fiction should not only transgress generic boundaries, but it should also strategically stage these traversals in the service of liberty for the benefit of the reader and the writer.
Using his principles to guide my own critique, I read Oxherding Tale as a text which "performs" myriad versions of genre and identity in order to attain ontological and narrative freedom. As a post-modern subversion of the classical American slave narrative with resonances of an Eastern parable, the novel exemplifies Johnson's own protean dictate[middle dot] By reiterating and mimicking these disparate literary traditions, Johnson invents his characters through a complex citational process which allows him to critique notions of authenticity and essentialism and to negotiate new constructions of personhood (Parker and Sedgwick 2). In keeping with this cross-generic strategy, his readers must resist assigning the novel to a definitive category of literature - for example, a straightforward rewriting of the slave narrative, a "black" text, or an anti-racist tract - for this gesture would delimit the book's manifold possibilities. Even if we read with these "preestablished models" in mind, the text confounds our expectations of a coherent interpretation of experience arrived at through one narrative frame[middle dot] In fact, the novel seems to insist that only by defeating a desire for the pleasure of constructing a seamless, rational "reality" can we truly inhabit the story. As the novel foregrounds the ways that the reader acts upon the text and the text acts upon the reader, it engages with the possible liberatory effects of this dynamic relationship.(1)
Thus, Johnson refigures subjectivity and history from a radically layered perspective by deconstructing hierarchies of race and gender as well as traditional literary forms and their typical modes of reception.(2) While Johnson himself might object to my link between his fiction and a deconstructive theoretical position, his novel certainly enacts this paradigm of rereading, most explicitly in its humorous and anachronistic depictions of philosophers and their philosophies in the education of the main character[middle dot] In Oxherding Tale, Johnson repeatedly draws attention to the contradictions inherent in various historical and philosophical accounts of race and gender and their intersection with "ways of being." The protagonist's education involves both an exploration and interrogation of the ways that "the terrain of language is a terrain of power relations" (Carby 17).(3) By extension, I argue that Johnson's use of genre, history, and identity underscores the fact that these modes of narration are governed by the same forces[middle dot] His novel unearths the ambiguities of these accounts - their repressions, elisions, and slippages - to offer up a modern text replete with its own highly self-conscious ambiguities, which demand our critical reconsideration.
As Barbara Johnson apprises us, "The text's self-commentary only gives the reader more to do" (18). Charles Johnson deploys a mode of overt self-narration in many instances, but perhaps the most obvious example occurs when the regular first-person narration pauses for a brief interlude entitled "On the Nature of Slave Narratives." In this section, our patient narrator finds "it is necessary to speak briefly, apologetically, about the form of the Narrative, which . . . often 'worries' . . . the formal conventions - as we define them - of the Negro Slave Narrative." He "sorts and shifts awhile in the archival tomb of literary history" in order to provide an explanation of the traditional form, allowing us "to glimpse fully the wheels as they whir beneath the stage" (118). Referring to the mechanics of his own fiction's the-atrical performance, promising us a behind-the-scenes view of his novel's special effects department, Johnson literally deploys "interpretation itself as a fiction-making activity" (Barbara Johnson 18). The novel blurs these two activities and, in so doing, invokes the narrator, the author, and the reader as active, synchronous agents in the construction of its meaning and reality. In this passage, and in others I will allude to later, Johnson appeals to the performative as an emancipatory ethic for both writers and readers. He elaborates upon this ethic by repeatedly deploying literal analogues of the performative, in particular, in the interrelationship of the novel's theorizations and metaphors, the identifications and disavowals of its primary characters and its citations of various literary genres and philosophical schools.
In her edict on performative discourse, Della Pollock asserts that, "whereas a mimetic/realist perspective tends to reify absent referents in language, thus sustaining an illusion of full presence, a performative perspective tends to favor the generative and ludic capacities of language encounters - the interplay of reader and writer in the joint production of meaning" (80). Johnson's aspersion of literature's supposed "mimetic" function parallels Pollock's logic. He states, "As a writer, I don't believe that art imitates. There is a mimetic element, but I really think that what a writer does is create an experience on the pages of the book for the reader. You're creating experience. You're not transcribing experience" (qtd. in Little 169). Lest this sound as if Johnson privileges the writer's agency as creator, thereby discounting the reader's central role in perception, he writes elsewhere that "the mind is no way passive; it is a participant in each act of knowing" (Johnson, "Black" 602). In other words, "reality" is a psychic, not an empirical, product. In part, this explains the ways that preconceived notions about the other circulate in the form of stereotypes that obfuscate our perceptual abilities. It describes, too, the ways that writers and readers can hew the process of perception from conception to allow for new anti-racist epistemologies of possibility and connection.
Yet Oxherding Tale's highly self-conscious moments at once anticipate, incorporate, and thereby confuse our desire to interpret the text, both in terms of genre and identity.(4) At best, these textual moments are slippery, and, at worst, they seem to exclude us from interpretation because the narrative anticipates our very attempt to intervene in its possible meanings. Our anticipated intervention becomes an integral part of the narrative process. Thus, the text potentially renders us mute as critics and interpreters. Or we are left in an untenable discursive posture whereby all we can do is adopt a dumb posture of citation, as we are forced to repeat the words, the text's own interpretation and telling of itself. Our challenge, then, as readers who have been given "more" to do, is to repeat the telling but with a difference, to become actors in the recasting of slavery's haunting past (Hartman 14). Peggy Phelan contends that "talking after the event, post-talking, the often tedious recitations of events and sequences, rehearses the tongue for trickier, less sequential psychic acts. For talking after often means 'talking over,' and in that performance one might be able to discern what consciousness overlooked during the event's unfolding" (7). Phelan points to the paradoxical ways that recitation and rehearsal become the occasions for new, complex performances and meanings, potential unearthings and reshapings of that which was repressed the first time around. A "talking over" of the "talking after," Johnson's strategy of metafictional commentary is borrowed from the rhetorical posture of self-consciousness in the nineteenth-century slave narratives, the moments in the narratives at which the autobiographical "telling becomes another fiction, an allegory of the reading process" (Barbara Johnson 18). Johnson's textual manipulations insert his readers directly in the midst of conflicting narrations of slavery, in part by thwarting our traditional interpretations of his novel and forcing us to participate in a more intricate reading of the subject of slavery and its attendant debates. In particular, the novel explores the vexed link between subjection and subjectivity within a Western philosophical construct. Oxherding Tale avoids the trap of either a post-modernist "radical indeterminacy" or an essentialist rhetoric of fixedness. Instead, it effectively employs various strategies of fiction to enact previously overlooked truths.
"All a modern writer need do is dig, dig, dig - call it spadework"
In the novel's first overt narrative interruption, a two-page interlude entitled "On the Nature of Slave Narratives," which immediately precedes the protagonist's escape, the narrator outlines the three kinds of slave narratives "that come down to us." The narrator concludes his survey with the "authentic narratives written by bondsmen who decided one afternoon to haul hips for the Mason-Dixon line." He explains that "these last narratives have, as I will demonstrate, a long pedigree that makes philosophical play with the form less outrageous than you might think" (118). As the narrator slyly locates himself outside of the novel's temporal frame, we experience a radical disjuncture in our reading experience, becoming uncomfortably aware of our own press for familiar narrative codes and chronological coherence. This "essayist interlude" reveals the novel's stakes in a performative historiography, the rehearsal of a drama (here we might substitute the word trauma) that is seemingly behind us but still radiates meaning, a past that we repeatedly encounter in the future of its unfolding (Phelan 11). Following a similar logic, the passage implicitly sets into motion an at once serial and retroactive interpretation whereby the slave narrative is constituted as an authentic source by virtue of its copy, Oxherding Tale, an inauthentic imitation.
Yet, if we simply accept this opposition, we miss the complexities of the ex-slaves' actual literary acts that make Johnson's appropriation of the genre in the 1980s all the more enigmatic. From their first publication, slave narratives have been evaluated in terms of their authenticity. As an ironic result, the genre evidences a good deal of acumen about performative practice. In order to be persuasive in their argument against slavery, the narratives presented a carefully constructed public self to a predominantly white, female audience. This representation reflected the values abolitionist Americans would find most compelling and, accordingly, was shaped out of the most popular literary genres of the day, the picaresque and the sentimental novel.(5) The narratives argued for abolition in at least two ways: They detailed the atrocities of slavery in order to appeal to the (white) readership's compassion, and they also proved the slave's humanity in spite of his or her race, by virtue of the writer's "rational" ability to assemble a coherent story.(6) Most crucially, the narratives were not supposed to display any literary self-consciousness (though, of course, the most successful accounts did) because it was imperative that the reader not suspect that he or she was reading fiction (Andrews 90).
Thus, every autobiographical account of bondage bore the heavy burden of veracity, for a narrative "accomplished its task of laying bare Slavery by producing a morality of verisimilitude, by forging a congruence between realism and sympathy" (Gordon 143). It is precisely the encumbrance of realist representation and its repressive ontological implications that Johnson means to shake off.(7) He refuses the prerogatives of social realism as a dubious inheritance bequeathed black writers from slavery, and, in so doing, he challenges the reader's need to interpret African-American literature as unquestioned sociology (146). In Oxherding Tale, we witness a mutual perversion of reference and performativity that ruptures realist discourse (Parker and Sedgwick 2-3). The novel is structured around a logic of unpredictability in its comical language, its plot frame, and its narrative techniques: It insists upon a fresh relation between the signifier and the world.(8)
"No man in his right mind would laugh"
Johnson's humor plays a central role in the torque of reference and performativity which defines the relationship between Oxherding Tale and its nineteenth-century predecessors. Oxherding Tale is nothing if not funny. While slave narratives are rarely humorous, certain comic modes serve as effective if limited means of empowerment in the face of oppression. Following the paradigm of the carnivalesque, if the slave can outwit or ridicule the slave driver, the hierarchy is momentarily reversed. Thus, escapist devices - fabrication, masquerade, irony, paradox, and word play - become part of the slave's bid for linguistic and literal freedom. Comedy constitutes a discursive realm in which one can perform and rehearse emancipation, at least for a moment. As Johnson's narrator, Andrew, states in one of his meditations on the "Black World" of slavery,
. . . this world was, had always been, and might ever be a slaughterhouse - a style of being characterized by stasis, denial, humiliation, thinghood, and, as the philosophers said, "relative being." If you didn't believe this - couldn't see it - you had only to listen to Leviathan's slaves who, late at night, each swapped tales no man in his right mind would laugh at, but yes we did - Negro humor was nothing if not a defense against hysteria. (70)
Comedy serves as a last stand against the unbearable realities of slavery by underscoring the anachronisms, contradictions, and absurdities all too present in that violent system. Johnson borrows this dark humor and uses it as a filter for rereading the narratives and inventing his own.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the first chapter, "Part One: House and Field." The narrator's (and narrative's) origins are ludicrous. Andrew is the product of a bed-switch ruse concocted by his master and his father, a house slave, one ill-fated, whiskey-laden evening. This scenario signals a literal reversal (the husbands swap nuptial beds for the night) as well as a reversal of history and generic convention. Put simply, Andrew's origins are linked to a black paternal presence rather than the black maternal presence found in most narratives.(9) From the beginning, this story is set off as peculiar and particular. Yet, while this reversed account of parental and racial origin deviates from the standard narrative, its tone actually amplifies the tradition's rhetorical flourishes. The opening chapter is infused with the sentimental genre's characteristic flowery asides and melodramatic imagery.(10) Exploiting this older stylistic mode, Johnson employs an inflated syntax to create a breezy tone, as evidenced in the narrator's description of Cripplegate:
That distant place, the world of my childhood, is ruin now, mere parable, but what history I have begins there in an unrecorded accident before the Civil War, late one evening when my father, George Hawkins, still worked in the Big House, watched over his owner's interests, and often drank with his Master - this was Jonathan Polkinghorne - on the front porch after a heavy meal. (3)
This hyperbolic depiction of his childhood reduces the subject to "mere parable." But this is not innate to the subject itself; rather, his high-flown, mock-heroic treatment of the subject relegates it to this status. He records what has been previously "unrecorded" as "parable" in a succession of four descriptive clauses; each additional description produces a more florid style.
The date of the "unrecorded accident," his conception, is established in relation to the Civil War, thus further undermining its importance (it is already deemed a mistake undeserving of any notation). When we discover that Andrew is referring to his own birth, these syntactical choices become even more ridiculous[middle dot] The dramatic elements of the first phrases in comparison to the modest appraisal of the beginnings of "what history" he has underscore this effect. The narrator aptly subverts the melodramatic tone of the sentimental mode to both understate and overstate important aspects of his own biography. In so doing, he demonstrates at once the difficulty and the profound stakes in retelling history from the perspective of the marginalized, those whose experiences most often go unrecorded. While our narrator alerts us to the tale's moral imperative, his theatrical storytelling takes on allegorical proportions, providing the reader with an instructive example: As we attempt to make sense out of the "ruins," we must resist forcing the fragments of past experience to fit into an all-too-familiar and simple form. In other words, while the narrative we are about to be told promises to be rich with extra-textual significance, we must avoid imposing predetermined schemas of understanding upon its meanings.
While humor provides Andrew with one method of contesting his bondage, he still must learn the difference between subjection and subjectivity. The chapters "Homeleaving" and "Living In the Service of the Senses" detail Andrew's induction into the sexual world as well as his preliminary move toward freedom. When Andrew informs Master Polkinghorne of his desire for a deed of manumission for himself and Minty, the young slave woman he wishes to marry, Polkinghorne agrees to sign the papers on the condition that Andrew first work for a year at Flo Hatfield's plantation, aptly named Leviathan. His initiation neatly divides into two sections: his first sexual experience with Minty and his sexual apprenticeship with Flo. Together, they comprise an ontological continuum, representing two related but crucially different ways of being, one according to an ethic of desire and one according to an ethic of hedonism. By learning the difference between the two, Andrew is able to locate a subjectivity apart from subjection.
Andrew's union with Minty is the impetus for his discovery that he desires liberty. It leads him to ask his first existential questions:
Was beauty truly in things? Was touch in me or in the things I touched? These things so ensorceled me and baffled my wits that I prayed mightily, Give me Minty. And, God's own truth, I promised in that evanescent instant that she and I, George and Mattie - all the bondsmen in Cripplegate's quarters and abroad - would grow old in the skins of free man. . . . My heart knocked violently for manumission.
As Andrew experiences the exhilaration of merging with the other, he loses himself and gains his first taste of freedom. His subjectivity is constituted through the act of desiring Minty; feeling profoundly "unsettled," he experiences his own lack and sees its potential fulfillment in her. His very perception shifts: "Physical shortcomings . . . seemed (to me) that afternoon to be purified features of a Whole, where no particular facet was striking because all fused together to offer a flawed, haunting beauty the likes of which you have never seen" (15). This more complex view is enabled by a series of productive contradictions: Not only are Minty's deficits her assets, but the conventional grounds for such an assessment are inverted; boundaries between the internal and external are confused; one term simultaneously constitutes the other. Is beauty an essence or a construct? Is sense perception "in us" or "out there"? By calling into question foundational assumptions, Andrew's query reveals the self to be a figure of relation and possibility, continuously emerging from encounters with difference (Pollock 87). This process of (self-) production is ongoing. Underscoring the mutual constructedness of subjectivity and social context, these contiguous transformations comprise the "Whole" to which Andrew alludes. Minty becomes an abstract representative of this realm - "imperfect," "illusory," and utterly antithetical to bondage. Thus, Andrew's desire to "own" Minty forcefully brings him to the realization that all enslavement is intolerable, that no one should be owned by anyone.
This very realization ironically propels Andrew to Flo Hatfield's plantation, the place of his further subjugation and, ultimately, the site of his escape. In a general sense, this plot progression mimics the pattern of the traveling rogue in the picaresque novel, but with a twist. Andrew's experience at Leviathan forces him into a prolonged stage of adolescence. Unlike the "unrestrained agent" of the picaresque - away from society, on the road and on the run, actively seeking pleasure - and, unlike the traditional escaped male slave who undermines this picaresque convention by instantly becoming "a responsible [adult] on the road" (Hedin 27), Andrew is forced into a position which includes elements from both of these tropes. He is at the mercy of a hedonist, and so he must become one, too, in accordance with her desires. With the motivation of survival, Andrew lives under a law of confining sybaritism. All the while, he masquerades masculine tropes found in both the picaresque and the classic slave narrative. As Flo's personal male servant - i.e., concubine - Andrew must be the polymorphous "lover of [her] fantasy . . . husband, ravager, teacher, Galahad, eunuch, swashbuckler, student, priest, and, above all else, always there" (61). He is enslaved to his own sexual coming of age and an attendant array of culturally sanctioned male roles. While the terms of his tenure at Leviathan might appear to embrace a liberating ethos of endless role-playing, following the post-modem mantra of pastiche and multiplicity, in fact, these terms complicate the novel's deployment of the performative. For Andrew's performance is directed, circumscribed, and, in fact, produced by his position as a slave. Furthermore, the roles he enacts are overdetermined projections of masculinity, reducible to stereotype. The utopian ideal of a multiplication of identities for multiplicity's sake is undercut by the fact that Andrew's very life depends upon a convincing performance of "several selves."
When Andrew begins to see beyond the hazy pleasures of sex and opiates and gear up for his escape, he realizes that the "dead-end, wheel-spinning life of desire" he shares with Flo is nothing but "a male fantasy" to which they are both enslaved (71). In his estimation, neither of them "truly wants" it. Reb, alternately known as the Coffinmaker for the Leviathan plantation, explains Flo Hatfield's carnal appetites to Andrew in the following way:
"She ain't free.... Some women learn, like slaves, to study men. They learn to think like men. They knows what men want, how they look at women when they think nobody's watchin', they know what men are afraid of, what they dream about.... They have to keep one step ahead. If you got no power ... you have to think like people who do so you kin make y'self over into what they want. She's a slave like you'n me, Freshmeat.... And you best be 'fraid of someone who's 'fraid of you." (62)
Andrew replies," 'Stop. All this talk about sex and slavery . . . [i]s scaring me.' "And it should. Not only is he in a position of sexual slavery (Flo's "fresh meat"), but the person who oppresses him is, in one sense, subjugated herself. The problem is complicated once again because the master is a white woman and the slave is a black man. By using this particular interracial configuration, the narrative implicitly responds to the mandate against miscegenation, particularly between white women and black men, a union ironically both threatening to and girded by the white masculine power structure in America (as Johnson suggests through Andrew's interracial origins, "mastered" by Master Polkinghorne).
Johnson foregrounds the potentially oppressive power at play in heterosexual relationships through his description of sexual relations in slavery. As Andrew cryptically states, "Though men were masters - even black men, in the sexual wars - we could not win" (56). Moreover, Reb tells Andrew," 'Without you, she don't know who she is. Without her . . . you ain't nothin' without somethin' - or somebody - to serve, Freshmeat'" (62). Flo defines herself through and against him, desiring to empower herself through "serving" a man and becoming his slave. And, since Andrew is defined by the services he renders her, he is nothing without her. (Reb uses the term nothing quite literally, referring to the unnatural death of Flo's former "house servant," Moon, and the others before him who were all mysteriously found dead after a brief tenure as her primary courtesan.) While Johnson depicts Flo's hedonistic bondage as pathetic and her treatment of Andrew as deplorable, he makes us understand that both Flo and Andrew are manipulated by a larger system of white patriarchy.
But, in this particular context, Andrew's blackness makes him an ideal candidate for Flo's victimized projections twice over: Because he is a man, she directs them toward him, and because he is her black slave, he has no power to stop her from doing so. Johnson interposes a new take on the trick/trickster motif common to all slave narratives: With the reworking of this motif, he points to a broader definition of slavery that includes complex, oppressive power relations in their overt and subtle expressions. In this example, the necessity of staying one step ahead is a shared condition of oppression in its various forms. Though Johnson tempts his readers to assess Flo and Andrew's relationship using reductive hierarchies of victimhood based on simple binarisms (she is white, he is black; she is female, he is male), the narrative complicates any facile conclusions. Instead, their relationship is inflected by intersecting realities of positionality, of power and context. Moreover, as evidenced in this scene, while hedonism may appear to be a liberating ideal, it is often sustained and articulated by the conservative ideological underpinnings it means to subvert. By analogy, these chapters continue the metafictional work of the first chapter, providing the reader with a cautionary tale about our own reading process: Pleasure-seeking as an ultimate end, whether it be sexual or narrative-bound, prohibits emancipation.
In Charles Nichols's description, the picaro-slave "is alert to every possible avenue of escape. His effective means of expression are comic modes - irony, paradox, sarcasm, exaggeration, innuendo. He survives by stratagems; a trickster, he adopts protean roles - stage presence" (284). If Andrew survives his tenure with Flo Hatfield through a protean performance of masculine roles, this mode also serves him in his escape. Moreover, Johnson effectively extends this trick/trickster motif to include the very writing of the text, through his cunning play with narration itself. In other words, the motif becomes a metaphor for the act of writing as well as a metaphor for the slave's strategy of physical escape. This section comprises one of the most overtly performative segments of the book: In order to escape, Andrew adopts a "white" persona, claiming that Reb is his slave, just as Johnson begins to liberate the narrator's perspective from the limits of first-person and his readers from a realist practice of reception and interpretation.
In the last chapter of Part One, "The Yellow Dog Mine ... Karl Marx At Cripplegate ... Althea," Andrew asks Flo for monetary compensation for his services. As she is forced to acknowledge that their arrangement is not even as consensual as prostitution, this fact effectively disrupts her fantasy that Andrew is an equally willing participant in their relationship. For this act of "impertinence," she sends him to the mines, along with Reb. As they ride to the mines, Andrew remembers the time Marx visited Cripplegate; the story ends, quite unexpectedly, with a brief notation of the problems of writing autobiography, supposedly from Andrew's pen. After this self-conscious pause, Andrew and Reb make their escape. In this comment, Johnson imitates the highly self-conscious escape scene found in many nineteenth-century narratives, a moment characterized by an omission of any revealing details so as not to reveal routes and methods potentially still in use by other fugitive slaves. From a modern vantage, Johnson signifies on this artful elision as a historical literary trope by having his narrator evacuate the first-person subject position. He adapts the mode of the reader aside from the classic narratives - its tone of confessional familiarity - to comment instead upon autobiographical narration itself.
Just as Andrew arrives at the mines, he concludes his story about his former boyhood tutor Ezekiel, detailing Ezekiel's feelings when he died bereft and alone: "He sobbed . . . a bony ruin . . . his heart overheating - searing pain in his chest, and then even the work of this bloody, tired motor went whispering to rest, his spirit changed houses." At this point in the story, we are drawn in by Andrew's sad remembrance, unaware of the text's subtle shift into omniscience. The transition that follows, then, is utterly unanticipated:
You will object, and rightly, that I cannot know what Ezekiel Sykes-Withers felt when he died, for this work is first-person, the most limited form. But even this philosophical problem of view-point - the autobiographical I - will be answered, I assure you, and I confess, for now, that this account is a tale woven partly from fact, partly from fancy. (94)
This reader aside jolts us out of a passive acceptance of the text, making us aware of our own reading as well as of Johnson's writing of the text. We recognize that we have been led astray strategically by the narrator's tale. Or not, for we are also reminded shortly thereafter that Andrew is coming down from his addiction to opium; he is "reeling" from it (97). Johnson walks us into an interpretive quandary: He provides us with a narrator in the throes of withdrawal and then warns us that "the philosophical problem of point of view" will soon be answered within his fictional first-person narrative. Moreover, he dares us to commit a common misreading, to conflate the narrator with the author. Who is the implied "I" in this passage? Is it Andrew or Johnson?
This unstable textual moment foreshadows the book's second narrative "intermission" by cunningly pushing the limits of first-person perspective and challenging the borders of our own perspective as readers. In a telling way, our confusion as readers mirrors the dynamic unsettling of Andrew's perceptions after he first sleeps with Minty: As we encounter the text's increasingly flexible perceptual bounds, our own readerly position is revealed to be one of relation and possibility, continually redefined by our encounters with the text's difference. While Andrew's sudden omniscient ability is implausible, the true trick here is that this implausibility does not surface until our narrator directly suggests that we might object to his duplicity. In other words, the narration is one step ahead of us. As we consider our narrative bearings, the boundaries between "fact" and "fancy" become further blurred, or in Johnson's terms "woven" together. In response to this composite of fiction and nonfiction, we must ask ourselves if "the philosophical problem of the autobiographical I" will be resolved. Moreover, is the text's answer trustworthy? Implicitly, it is not. (Therefore, is it?) Thus, Johnson points to larger problems in reading autobiography(11) as well as directing our attention to the added complexities of adopting the autobiographical slave narrative form for a novel written in the late twentieth century.
Once Andrew achieves an expanded authorial control, he is able to contemplate taking control of his own lite: "I still had no plan for escape, only a feeling that . . . I could wing a way to liberation" (94). As our guide, he first gains mastery over the way he tells the story and then over the events within his account: Significantly, the narrator's bid for omniscience precedes his actual escape plan and successful departure with Reb. To borrow Judith Butler's formulation, Andrew's subject formation as authorial "I" comes into being through his overt and repeated interpellation as narrator (225). Johnson's deployment of first-person viewpoint depends, in part, upon the historical presence of a host of first-person narrators of slave autobiographies that precede Andrew: In this instance, in a quite literal way, the discursive constitution of the narrator takes place prior to Andrew's assertion of "I." This fact underscores the transitive nature of the 'T' and, by extension, the first-person narrator. This is at least a post-slavery use of the genre, if not post-modern. Presumably, in classical slave narratives, the author first escaped and then gained authorial control over the experience by remembering and recording it. In this realist paradigm, experience precedes written text. While in a metatextual sense, this is also true for Johnson, because his novel has specific historical roots, in a more limited sense, this process is reversed for him. As Andrew Hawkins reminds us, "Memory, as the metaphysicians say, is imagination" (109). Oxherding Tale complicates an account of subjectivity which assumes that the subject is formed only through an accumulation of experiences or willful acts. Instead, the novel proposes a subject that is constructed through an ongoing process of reiteration, the process by which both "subjects" and "acts" come to appear at all (Butler 9). The novel's subject matter marks the height of performativity, requiring a (re)creation of these experiences and subjects solely through language.
While all fiction could be described in this way, Johnson renders this processual, discursive aspect fully apparent in his novel to distinguish it from realist fiction, which promises a mimetic transcription of the "real" world. This point is made all the more explicit in the novel's second essayist interlude, "The Manumission of First-Person Viewpoint," in which the narrator observes that, "by definition, the Slave Narrative requires a first-person report on the Peculiar Institution from one of its victims, and what we value most highly in this viewpoint are precisely the limitations imposed upon the narrator-perceiver, who cannot, for example, know what transpires in another mind, like that of Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, or in a scene that excludes him; what we lack in authority, we gain in immediacy: a premise (or prejudice) of Positivist science" (152). The omniscient narrator (neither Andrew nor Johnson) explores the productive limitations of realist autobiography and, in so doing, emphasizes the ways the novel's narration has already exceeded these limits and garnered a broader authority, by way of the Ezekiel Sykes-Withers example.
This new authority is attributed to "the transcendental nature of the narrator": Accordingly, "he is, in fact, nobody; is anonymous. . . . he cannot be said to be nothing, for as all Kantians claim, the I - whatever we call the self - is a product of experience and cannot precede it" (152). This explanation slyly begs the question: Namely, whose experience produces or constitutes this oxymoronic, anonymous "I"? In this way, the passage reveals the performative stakes in a subjectivity wrought through narration: The narrator's transcendental nature is derived from the transitory invocation of the "I." In other words, the narrator obtains this abstract status as a "nobody," paradoxically, by using a first-person mode of narration. Here, Johnson capitalizes on the dynamic, deictic function of "I" in speech, as a place marker which has a certain priority, authority, and anonymity with respect to the life it animates (Butler 226). The history of this place marker, a history that not only precedes but conditions its contemporary usages, effectively decenters a presentist (or Positivist) view of the subject as the exclusive origin or owner of what is said or perceived (227). Within the terms of the novel, this lack of ownership is potentially liberating, for it undermines a prevailing faith in the individual self, and establishes the basis of Johnson's metaphysics, a mutual connection built out of the contiguous relationship between self and other.(12) As the narrator describes, "The Subject of the Slave Narrative, like all Subjects, is forever outside itself in others, objects: he is parasitic, if you like, drawing his life from everything he is not, and at precisely the instant he makes possible their appearance" (152). One term is not possible without the other: This constitutive relation provides the potential for a "first-person universal."
Johnson strategically begins the process of freeing his novel from the limitations of the "autobiographical I," as his narrator begins his escape for freedom. He slowly casts away the slave narrative's first-person point of view which, for polemical reasons, often foregrounded the system of slavery at the expense of individual character development, in favor of a personal exploration of self (a tradition previously available primarily to those privileged enough not to have to write, first and foremost, for the case of abolition). Not surprisingly then, Andrew's escape plan requires him to pass for white, an act which allows him to explore his mulatto identity, both black and white. Significantly, he has the latitude for this type of individualistic self-exploration when he occupies the position of a white man. In other words, Johnson suggests that the act of writing from multiple points of view (omniscient and autobiographical, for example) is akin to the act of passing. Furthermore, both acts approximate an attitude of appropriation basic to white privilege.(13)
Johnson further deploys the slave narrative's trickster figure simultaneously to deconstruct and justify his own use of philosophy throughout the novel. His handling of Andrew's education and subsequent scholarly knowledge is anomalous, especially when compared to the treatment of academic endeavors in the traditional narratives. Master Polkinghorne educates Andrew because Andrew is the only offspring his wife Anna will bring him after the infamous wife-swapping incident. When Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, Andrew's tutor, first comes to Cripplegate, he asks Polkinghorne:
"This boy, you say, is a mulatto? . . . In his horoscope Mars confronts Mercury at three angles, and this is promising. . . . It signifies the birth of a philosopher. Is he yours?"
Witheringly, Jonathan glanced toward the door, wagged his head, and said, "No." The reply and gesture nihilated each other. "What I mean to say is that Andrew is my property and that his value will increase with proper training." (12)
After Polkinghorne is asked if Andrew is bound to him by blood or law or both, he purposely omits much of the truth in an apparent justification for educating Andrew[middle dot] Johnson can fairly expect that his contemporary audience will know that most slaves were legally forbidden to learn how to read and write, and therefore his readers understand this radical departure from the classical narrative. While the story of Andrew's approved education forgoes the customary references to an illicit acquisition of literacy,(14) it still underscores the nineteenth-century notion of "education" as the equivalent to mastery of the written word and as a commodity with which one purchases citizenship in the "white world." Overturning convention, once again, Andrew is initiated into language through the mandate of his white master. Johnson further plunges Andrew into a vortex of racially inflected expectations. Andrew is destined to be either a philosopher or an improved piece of property - or some ambiguous combination of the two.
We are to understand that Andrew has received the "perfect moral education," and thus sees his life philosophically. Throughout the novel, Andrew makes continual reference to a wide range of philosophers from the Western tradition: Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Spinoza, Descartes, Rabelais, Voltaire, Hume, Hegel, Kant, Paine, Emerson, and Thoreau. Many of them - Hume, Hegel, and Kant, for example - are implicated in an aesthetic doctrine which assumes that the act of writing is the visual sign of reason, a premise often used to gird white supremacist ideology.(15) When Andrew is able to use these canonical philosophers with apparent ease to interpret his own tale, he masters them and their master race theories.
This mastery occurs not only in his occasional allusions, but also through the appearance of Karl Marx as a character in the novel. When Andrew recollects Marx's visit to Cripplegate, he describes him as knowing
no more about the East than the errors in Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History; Engels, for his part, was studying Persian, and Marx had found a bit on India in Mill's Principles. Also, he had recently taught himself Japanese so he could read Kwanzan; spent months at it, too, then decided Kwanzan - or maybe all Oriental thought - wasn't worth a footnote, but couldn't figure what to do with all the Japanese. . . . his knowledge . . . was shamefully thin on primitive communal societies, and weak on Africa. (8384)
This portrayal is irreverent at best. Andrew, who has been instructed in "monadology, classical philology, and Oriental thought" as well as "the 165 Considerations, Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, the 3,000 Good Manners, and 80,000 Graceful Conducts" (13), knows enough philosophy and Eastern thought to assess Marx's inadequate knowledge in these areas. Furthermore, he recognizes the fields of study in which Marx's knowledge is "piecemeal," "shamefully thin," and "weak." Hegel, Engels, and Marx are all blinded by their own Eurocentricism and imperialist impulses. Andrew's inferences not only reveal his own scholarly achievements, but they also have a notable metatextual effect on the reader. Unless the reader is fairly well versed in philosophy, these references carry limited associations; in other words, through Andrew, Johnson handily signifies on us as well. How much do we know off-hand about the errors in Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History?
Marx's very tangible presence in the novel seems outrageous, almost blasphemous; that Andrew can cunningly describe him as "Marx, the materialist," is oddly compelling. He deflates an iconographic Marx and, in doing so, makes him a somewhat more accessible character, a thinker "about and for people," as Ezekiel feebly acquiesces. Marx's final advice to Ezekiel "sounded no better than greeting cards set to music, but the most abstruse philosophy - real philosophy - doorwayed, after the process of infinite complexity, into exactly that stark, simple experience of which philosophers never (or seldom) spoke: love" (88). After Andrew's easy allusions to the great fathers of philosophy, Marx's alleged counsel is welcome. It effectively locates philosophy's most sublime intentions and justifies Johnson's own use of philosophy throughout the text. In a sense, Marx speaks here for Johnson.
Liberating Subjectivity, or Milking the Self's Polymorphy
Johnson further dismantles the classic slave narrative's reliance upon reified categories of "authentic," fixed identity in the final section of the novel, "The White World," when Andrew must undergo his last trial of escape before he reaches freedom. Once again, Johnson enacts this critique by invoking the figure of the trickster in his heterodox depiction of the slave catcher of all slave catchers, Horace Bannon, better known as the Soulcatcher. This appellation underscores the very essence of what the slave catcher captures, the slave's soul. It further emphasizes the fact that no one is born a slave; rather, one is born with a soul vulnerable to abduction. The word slavery, then, denotes the physical bondage of one's body and the metaphysical bondage of one's soul, thereby refuting the naturalized rhetoric of slavery.
The Soulcatcher is matchless because he appropriates the slave's method of survival for his own predatory ends. As the runaway attempts to escape, the Soulcatcher psychically apprehends his victim by reading his or her desires. He explains in rural, Southern black vernacular:
"When you really after a man with a price on his head, you forgit for the hunt that you the hunter. . . . It ain't so much in overpowerin' him physically, when you huntin' a Negro, as it is mentally. . . . The Negro-hunt depends on how you use destiny. You let destiny outrace and nail down the Negro you after. From the get-go, hours afore Ah spot him, there's this thing Ah do, like throwin' mah voice. Ah calls his name. The name his master used. . . . Mah feelin's, and my voice, fly out to fasten onto that Negro. . . . You become a Negro by lettin' yoself see what he sees, feel what he feels, want what he wants. . . . You look for the man who's policin' hisself. . . . That's yo Negro. When you really onto him, the only person who knows he's a runaway - almost somebody he kin trust - you tap him gently on his shoulder, and he knows; its the Call he's waited for his whole life." (114-15)
Like Flo Hatfield, who attempts to stay one step ahead of her men, and Andrew, who stays one step ahead of her, the Soulcatcher mentally switches the power relation in order to anticipate his victim's next move. This reversal is predicated upon his ability to imitate the hunted slave and gain a kind of insider knowledge. Thus, the Soulcatcher's strategy replicates and reworks Amy Robinson's formulation of passing as a spectatorial transaction, a triangular theater of identity which includes the passer, the dupe, and the "in-group clairvoyant" ("It" 716). As the runaway slave passes for white, the Soulcatcher evades this maneuver with a counter-tactic, attempting to pass as a member of the passer's "in-group." In Andrew's assessment, "It was a bizarre story... but it explained (for me) Bannon's Negroid speech, his black idiosyncrasies, tics absorbed from the countless bondsmen he'd assassinated" (115). In this way, the Soulcatcher refuses his role as dupe, instead learning and adopting the familiar codes of the passing subject's primary African-American community to facilitate his stealthy execution of white supremacy's fatal law. Robinson maintains, "What the in-group sees is not a stable prepassing identity but rather the apparatus of passing that manufactures presumption (... of whiteness) as the means to a successful performance" (722). Once the slave can no longer manufacture this presumption, once he or she quavers on the run, the Soulcatcher fulfills this prophecy: He acts as "destiny."
While the Soulcatcher speaks about bounty hunting in primarily ontological terms, he also reveals its theatrical tenets: He "becomes" the runaway slave by throwing his voice, by ventril-oquizing his victim. Elsewhere, he asserts" 'Ah, too, performs a service to Gawd and Ah performs it well'" (111). At this juncture, Andrew notes that Bannon "paused like a stage actor waiting for his audience to relax and settle so he could deliver his next line in silence." The Soulcatcher's studied delivery attests to his ability to read his audience. In this scene, he tortures Andrew by intimating that he knows that Andrew is indeed the passing fugitive he has been hired to hunt. At the same time, he lets him go, stating, "'Ah never finish the kill 'til the prey desires hit'" (115). Ironically, even as the Soulcatcher acts as the brutal purveyor of "justice" based upon chattel slavery, he unseats the essentialist, racist demarcations which gird that very system. As they each perform for each other, the course of Andrew's life lies in the balance, dependent on the quality of his acting and the lens through which the spectator (namely, the Soulcatcher and the reader) perceives him. As Robinson contends, "Not only is the passer's 'real' identity a function of the lens through which it is viewed, but it is the spectator who manufactures the symptoms of a successful pass by engaging in the act of reading that constitutes the performance of the passing subject" ("It" 728). In a metatextual sense, the reader is positioned as an in-group member insofar as we know that Andrew passes. (This is a departure from the second essayist interlude, in which the reader is implicitly positioned as a dupe in relation to the shift in narrative perspective.) More importantly, this exchange makes us aware of the ways that our own reading practice manufactures, categorizes, and narrates social identity, for this is precisely what is at stake in Andrew's performance.
In spite of this tense exchange, Andrew eludes the Soulcatcher and stays "one step ahead," at least initially. He explains to Reb," 'Maybe rabbits enjoy the hunt, too.' ... I found the Soulcatcher's modus operandi reassuring; because I knew his techniques, the strategies that poisoned my father, I could stare them down, second-guess Bannon and escape destruction" (117). By not allowing himself to invest in a fixed notion of authentic blackness or whiteness, by feeling himself, almost from birth, to be located somewhere between "the house and the field," between "the white world" and "the black world" (97-99), he is able to successfully pass for white. Moreover, each identity he enacts, each role he plays, is finally a performance. In a sense, he defines himself through all of these roles and none in particular. By way of Andrew's liminal body, Johnson enacts the nonreference of the performative to undermine notions of racial authenticity. The "success" of the pass is entirely dependent upon the spectator's ability to (mis)read the passer's performance. Thus, Johnson empties out essentialist notions of race by pointing to the ways that race is first and foremost a narrative construct - yet one that has profoundly real, material effects.
Andrew's most vulnerable trait is his remorse for passing; he feels he has betrayed the most significant figures in his life (all of whom have been black), particularly his father. Johnson dares us to judge Andrew's actions from our insider position by providing us with the example of his father's probable censure. To survive in the face of the Soulcatcher, Andrew must ultimately reject his father's view of race. This rejection helps him "re-envision" race and identity in a more optimistic way. Moments after Andrew marries Peggy, a white woman, he thinks of his father's likely disgust at the union:
He would reject me, claiming I had rejected him, and this was partly true: I rejected (in George) the need to be an Untouchable. . . . My father kept the pain alive. He needed to rekindle racial horrors, revive old pains, review disappointments like a sick man fingering his sores. . . . he chose misery. (142)
Andrew refuses to emulate his father's internalized racism and self-hate. George's insistence on a notion of "authentic" black identity requires a strict opposition to whiteness. In other words, it is predicated upon an identification with whiteness that has been subsequently disavowed, and this disavowal sustains his "authentic" blackness. In contrast, Andrew resists the power of this opposition and "lives [whiteness's] constitutive instability" (Butler 115). In marrying a white woman out of love and an uncompromising aspiration for freedom, Andrew refuses to accept a divisive race theory put forth by his father and other like-minded African Americans that incorporates white supremacist justifications for domination into a theory of being (authentically black) themselves. On the other hand, this union potentially colludes with the hegemonic valuation of whiteness and devaluation of blackness, implying that Andrew can only attain freedom if he, in essence, leaves behind the black community for a white wife and a "white" persona. Furthermore, this passage has paradoxical implications for the novel itself: In some sense, employing the genre of the slave narrative is a "rekindling of racial horrors... a review of disappointments," so what are Johnson's stakes in this revival?
The answer becomes clear later in the passage in which Andrew refutes his father George's melancholic view of the world: "Grief was... the emotional grid - through which [he] sifted and sorted events, simplified a world so overrich in sense it outstripped him" (142). Instead of seeing the world through a "spell of hatred," Andrew sees the world through all of its "rich senses," through a spell of hatred and love, both. Johnson recalls racial horrors to argue for a fluid and shifting ontology as well as a mutable approach to genre and history. Moreover, the novel recuperates love, so often hidden in the interstices of the traditional slave narrative, as a means of achieving a radically liberating subjectivity.(16) Yet, when Andrew falls in love with Peggy, this development recalls the disappearance of Minty, his first love.
The Essential Woman, Doubly Denied
While the novel attempts to dismantle essentialist and individualist constructions of identity, Minty's portrayal unfortunately stands outside of this project - she functions as the explicit female sacrifice in the novel. When Andrew unexpectedly sees her on the auction block, where he has gone to look for Reb, he describes her as "unlovely, drudgelike, sexless, the farm tool squeezed... for every ounce of surplus value . . . . doubly denied - in both caste and gender - and driven to Christ (she wore a cross) as the only decent man who would have her" (155). Andrew already feels guilty for passing, and this sighting exacerbates his sense of betrayal: "I was... the vilest of turncoats to my father's values. To see persecution to others and to be powerless to end it - to be by accident above it - was, I saw, the same as consent" (151). Recognizing his complicity as an onlooker, he recalls the Soulcatcher's paradigm: He wishes for his destiny. "... through a stale pall of azure smoke... a girl of two and twenty from the adjacent room, a distant Call I could not but answer, the final knot of the heart that is broken... 'This one's Christian name,' said the auctioneer, looking down, locating my gaze, locking into it in a crowd of fifty, 'is Minty'" (151). Andrew is interpellated as a white buyer. The hideous spectacle of the auction block, its reduction of humanity to property, is dependent upon his presence as "a (passing) witness." This shocking position makes him all the more aware of his own performance as "a counterfeit white man ... [a] spy in the Big House," within this ultimate exhibition of white supremacy.
Once his catalyst for running away and winning freedom, Minty has since been ravaged by bondage and condemned to the "auction circuit" (156). The desire for her that inspired his desire for their freedom has been destroyed as well. In Andrew's sexual awakening with Minty he describes her "eyes green as icy mountain meltwater, with a hint of blue shadow and a drowse of sensuality that made her seem voluptuously sleepy, distant, as though she had been lifted long ago from a melancholy African landscape overrich with the colors and warm smells of autumn... "(15-16). When she dies, despite the care of Andrew and Peggy, Minty literally falls apart: "She smelled sour. Sweat. A seaweed odor, as if her cells were breaking down into more basic elements ... reduced to rotting flesh. . . . She was disintegrating. Sugar in water. Form into formlessness" (165-66). In this account, she was begotten out of the African earth, and she melts back into this landscape when she dies. Just before Minty's death, Peggy tells Andrew that she is pregnant. Minty's dying state and Peggy's fertile condition emphasize the gendered, cyclical nature of life and death. Yet it is problematic that Minty, the significant black woman in the text, virtually disintegrates by the end of the novel. Her death appears to engender the white woman's progeny, and she becomes a kind of all-giving mother Africa. (To be specific, she attempts to work as a domestic in Andrew and Peggy's house, thereby facilitating their domestic bliss, in order to pay back her debt to them for buying her out of slavery.) Furthermore, Minty's black female body provides Andrew with an embodied site for his highly abstract and metaphysical speculations on being. In an all too familiar move, the black woman's body becomes the metaphorical grounds upon which Andrew, a biracial man, and Peggy, a white woman, stake out their material being in the form of childbirth.(17)
In the novel's commentary on gender, women's polymorphous ability to generate new human beings out of "one," themselves, places them in a position closer to Johnson's formulation of a collective "Whole." According to this romanticized and questionable assessment, their generative ability also suggests their unique potential for rotting over-abundance, as manifested so clearly in Minty's death,(18) Women are shown to be of the earth, and therefore closer to "essential" nature than ostensibly "inessential" culture. Given the novel's claims to a polymorphy of being and identity, this retreat into essentialism is inconsistent at best. In one of Andrew's more pessimistic moods, he considers the possibility that
... men were unessential, and in the deepest violation of everything we valued in Woman. What was said of Woman was no less true of World. She did not need us for satisfaction, or even reproduction - there were, after all, parthenogenones, all of which cast men as the comical exception in Nature, the luxury, the freak who tell back on thought in the absence of feeling, created history because he could not live Being's timeless cycles. (55)
Peggy and Minty both live "Being's timeless cycles," Peggy in her pregnancy and Minty in her death. She dies of pellagra, a disease accompanied by the onset of mental disorders and severe nerve dysfunction. She recounts, "'I couldn't stand how he touched me, what he made me do, I stopped caring. I hated being alive that much. . . . the way you feel turns into something solid and grows and kills you'" (158). Symbolically, she contracts this disease from the system of slavery, but her actual death is part of a larger pattern of oppressive power relations. Her death graphically illustrates the cruel disconnectedness of slave life - she is the novel's primary casualty of slavery. As such, she represents the abject results of that system and also the abject, "constitutive 'outside' "against which Andrew and Fruity's union gains its legitimacy. (As she says to Andrew when she is on her deathbed, "'When you told me you was married, I thought, what? Can't nobody spoil this silly nigguh as good as me. . . . Now, she ain't no rose garden... but, well, I approve'" .) Given the material realities of her life, death appears redemptive. Johnson underscores this by having her die a free woman (the Undercliffs buy and free her). Within the terms of the novel, only in death is she free.
The Final Manumission
In Andrew's self-evaluation, "If nothing else, I had learned that the heart could survive anything by becoming everything" (159). Here "surviving anything by becoming everything" not only describes Andrew's performative approach to identity but also Johnson's protean approach to genre. In the final scene, after discovering that Reb has defeated the Soulcatcher and thereby won freedom for himself as well, Andrew asks about his dead father (whom the Soulcatcher had previously captured):" 'Did he speak of me? What I must know is if he died feeling I despised him, or if he died hating me' "(175). In a last gesture of recuperation and redemption, the Soulcatcher undoes his shirt, commanding Andrew to look closer. The Soulcatcher's tattooed chest becomes a theater of moving figures, all of Bannon's earlier kills:
I lost his figure in this field of energy where the profound mystery of the One and the Many gave me back my father again and again, in every being from grubworms to giant sumacs, for these too were my father and, in the final face I saw in the Soulcatcher, which shook tears from me - my own face, for he had duplicated portions of me during the early days of the hunt - I was my father's father, and he my child. (176)
Once he ceases to kill, the Soulcatcher becomes a mirror of death and thus of life. Slavery is written quite literally on the bodies of its chattel, in particular, on Minty's disintegrating body. In the end, it is permanently inscribed on the body of the abuser, the Soulcatcher. The life cycle doubles on itself, forming a nonlinear, simultaneously historical and ahistorical pattern of life; fathers become sons, and sons become fathers. Hence Andrew and Peggy's daughter Anna becomes a revision of her grandmother, Anna Polkinghorne.
This breathtaking textual moment enacts "the manumission of first-person viewpoint," the crucial figurative escape foreshadowed in the second narrative interjection of the novel. As the interjection argues for "the transcendental nature of the narrator," the first-person viewpoint is redefined through a redefinition of the self: "... the Self, this perceiving Subject who puffs on and on, is for all purposes, a palimpsest, interwoven with everything - literally everything which can be thought or felt." As Andrew finally comes to terms with his father's death and his own escape, significantly, the experiences that he has narrated to us are represented and re-enacted visually by Andrew's nemesis, the Soulcatcher; as Andrew reconnects with these past experiences, this "cosmic costume ball," the narration extends beyond his telling. The metaphysical performance on the Soulcatcher's chest exemplifies the narration's final shift to "first-person universal." As Andrew says, "... my father... opened his mouth as wide as that of the dying steer Bannon slew in his teens, was that steer, then several others, and I lost his figure in this field of energy..."(175-76).
Oxherding Tale recounts the lives represented on the Soulcatcher's chest, which is itself one fluid oxherding tale. As the two narrative interjections "On the Nature of Slave Narratives" and "The Manumission of First-Person Viewpoint" suggest, the novel is a tale about the successful escape of the protagonist from slavery and the freeing of a novelist from the limitations of genre. Moreover, the text attempts to loose its reader from the confinements of a realist reading practice that disingenuously conceals our own active role in the production of its meaning. In the first interjection, the narrator suggests that "no form... loses its ancestry; rather, these meanings accumulate in layers of tissue as the form evolves. . . . all a modern writer need do is dig, dig, dig ... until the form renders its own diverse secrets" (119). Thus, Johnson plays with the form and its evolved meanings to create a variegated palimpsest out of its own "diverse secrets." Like the Soulcatcher, Johnson's fiction becomes the old genre it traces and finally catches. Johnson liberates both the first-person and Andrew Hawkins and ambitiously attempts to emancipate the reader as well from the traps of realist ontologies. In the words of the novel, "All is conserved; all" (176).
1. As I will demonstrate later in my discussion, within a performance model, the writer functions as the performer and the reader as the spectator. Johnson puts these roles into play, in part by revealing himself to be a consummate reader, as evidenced in the novel's dazzling array of literary and philosophical references. Thus, he points to the ways that a practice of writing and a practice of reading are always bound up in one another. Moreover, he suggests that we must radically reconceive of this conjoined practice if we are ever to disrupt the production of essentialist narratives inherited from slavery.
2. When I assert that Johnson's novel is actively deconstructive, I recall Barbara Christian's formulation in her piece "The Race for Theory": "People of color have always theorized... and I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking. How else have we managed to survive with such spiritedness the assault on our bodies, social institutions, countries, our very humanity" (226). From Christian's perspective, it is redundant to state that Johnson's novel is deconstructive or performative.
3. In Reconstructing Womanhood, Hazel Carby effectively argues for an historically specific, black feminist critique of the nineteenth century by asserting that "this struggle within and over language reveals the nature of struggle of social relations and the hierarchy of power, not the nature of one particular group. The sign, then, is an arena of struggle and a construct between socially organized persons in the process of their interaction; the forms that signs take over are conditioned by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interactions" (17). Similarly Barbara Johnson, in A World of Difference, claims that "language is always also an articulation of power relations inscribed by, within, or upon the speaker. As such, it can only be studied as rhetoric" (5). I would argue that Charles Johnson's skillful and humorous deployment of anachronism insists upon the historical specificity of the philosophy and philosophers with which his protagonist Andrew debates. His anachronisms restage historically specific debates over ontology in order to reveal the paradoxical ways in which these philosophies purported to be universal, ahistorical, and therefore "true," and to demonstrate how these debates often supported a pro-slavery agenda.
4. Here it seems that genre is just one manifestation of identity; that is, the narrative's "identity."
5. See Nichols 283-98 and Smith, "Form" 9-43, for readings of these genres in terms of gender. In particular, see Smith's discussion of Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).
6. This points to a bifurcation in the historiography of slavery: One tradition focuses on the atrocities of slavery; the other emphasizes the way that African-American culture developed out of resistance strategies.
7. Realism's potentially repressive assumptions include the following: that we all share, recognize, and confirm a unitary "reality"; that there is one authentic method of representing the world and ourselves; and that we each represent one essential identity.
8. One could argue that a similar "torsion" occurs in the slave narrative genre itself. The narratives tethered together two seemingly opposite literary impulses: formulaic literary structure and metafictional commentary. (The degree of predictability found in the slave narrative is understandable, for the narrator's message is precisely that his or her story is and is not unique, that it is at once individual and representative of a collective black slave experience.) The narrative's conclusion was always foretold, because the text's very existence implied that the ex-slave made a successful escape. In this sense, the text's own conception is one of its subjects: The physical and psychic journey of the narrative is all about achieving a comfortable space in which the act of writing licitly and freely is finally possible. Writing within a tradition of individualism in Anglo-American letters and against a legal system which forbade literacy for slaves, the slave author "writes him or herself into being" and in doing so becomes his or her own master. Just what constitutes that being becomes the central question for Oxherding Tale.
9. As we discover in a following passage, Andrew was the product of Master Polkinghorne's ill-advised proposal to exchange wives; thus, Polkinghorne "fathered" the plan which begets Andrew.
10. By comparison to many of the male-authored slave narratives, the narratives written by African-American women emphasize their horrendous domestic situation in slavery and the endless atrocities they endured while trying to maintain their ancestral bonds and procure their children's freedom, as well as their own. These accounts covertly aver to the fact that African-American women were frequently subjected to rape and incest, with no legal recourse. For the most part, these ugly realities could only be expressed through the constrained rhetoric of the sentimental, and yet the genre's most characteristic elements - its "florid asides, strident polemics, and the melodramatic imagination" as well as its appeal to the reader's emotions - enabled African-American women to persuasively (and problematically) represent their violent past experiences as slaves in the most "palatable" way for their mostly white and female readership (Davis and Gates xv). For more about the sentimental elements of many slave narratives, see Smith, "'Loopholes of Retreat,' "and Niemtzow.
11. As James Olney argues in his important essay "Autobiography and the Cultural Moment," "Autobiography, like the life it mirrors, refuses to stay still long enough for the genre critic to fit it out with the necessary rules, laws, contracts, and pacts; it refuses, simply, to be a literary genre like any other. . . . by its very nature, the self is (like the autobiography that records and creates it) open-ended and incomplete: it is always in process or, more precisely, is itself a process. . . . autobiography is a self-reflexive, a self-critical act, and consequently the criticism of autobiography exists within the literature instead of alongside it" (24-25).
12. This optimistic position differs from Butler's central contention about discursivity. As she discusses constructivism, she traces "the constitutive force of exclusion, erasure, violent foreclosure, abjection and its disruptive return within the very terms of discursive legitimacy" (8).
13. This claim resonates with Amy Robinson's reading of Plessy v. Ferguson: "Homer Plessy's act of strategic passing, ironically dedicated to the demise of racial discrimination, was read by the Supreme Court as an act of appropriation, as an unqualified theft of identity imagined as property - as that which is properly and privately owned by a 'legitimate' white subject" ("Forms" 238).
14. As Davis and Gates point out, many narratives included both "the polemical admonishments against statutes forbidding literacy training of black slaves" and "the prefaced ironic apologia, in which the black author transforms the convention of the author's confession of the faults of his tale, by interweaving into this statement strident denunciation of that system that limited the development of his capacities" (xxvii).
15. Davis and Gates briefly catalogue the racist assessments made by the most canonical Western philosophers, including Hegel's accusation that blacks had no collective history; Hume's assertion of the fundamental relationship among complexion, character, and intellectual capacity; and Kant's correlation of "blackness" with "stupidity." Davis and Gates conclude that "blacks published individual histories which, taken together, were intended to narrate, in segments, the larger yet fragmented history of blacks in Africa, then dispersed throughout the cold New World. The narrated, descriptive 'eye' was put into service as a literary form to posit both the individual 'I' of the black author, as well as the collective 'I' of the race" (xxiii-xxvi).
16. As Marx advises Ezekiel, the dour tutor: "'You argue that to exist is to exist through an Other ... but, as you say, someone must therefore be central to your existence. . . . When two subjects come together, they realize in their reciprocal intersubjective life a common vorld. Yes? Compared to this, all other vays of being are fragmentary. Partial. . . . The universal name for this final, ontological achievement, this liberation - Occidental or Oriental - in vhich each subject finds another essential is love'" (86).
17. As Valerie Smith argues, "It is striking that at precisely the moment when Anglo-American feminists and male Afro-Americanists begin to reconsider the material ground of their enterprise, they demonstrate their return to earth, as it were, by invoking the specific experiences of black women and the writings of black women. This association of black women with reembodiment resembles rather closely the association, in classic Western philosophy and in nineteenth-century cultural constructions of womanhood, of women of color with the body and therefore with animal passions and slave labor. Although in these theoretical contexts the impulse to rehistoricize produces insightful readings and illuminating theories, and is politically progressive and long overdue, nevertheless the link between black women's experiences and 'the material' seems conceptually problematic" ("Black" 45).
18. Anna Polkinghorne, Andrew's white mother, is also described in similar terms as "a fragile mass of living jelly and no more wife to Jonathan now than a stump of firewood" (14).
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-----. Oxherding Tale. New York: Grove P, 1982.
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-----. "It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest." Critical Inquiry 20 (Summer 1994): 715-36.
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Smith, Valerie. "Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the 'Other.'" Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.38-57.
-----. "Form and Ideology in Three Slave Narratives." Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.9-43.
-----. "'Loopholes of Retreat': Architecture and Ideology in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Reading Black, Reading Feminist. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990.214-22.
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Sonnet Retman is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the UC-Irvine Humanities Research Institute. She wishes to express her gratitude to Mary Pat Brady, Heather Lukes, and especially Valerie Smith for their valuable insights and support in the writing of this article.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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