'Oxherding Tale' and 'Siddhartha:' philosophy, fiction, and the emergence of a hidden tradition.
Oxherding Tale is perhaps the most widely taught and admired of Johnson's novels, and the author regards it as his "platform" book (xvii). He adds that platform is a "playful reference" to The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, a canonical work in Zen Buddhism. Oxherding Tale is Johnson's "platform" book in the sense, as he writes in the introduction, "that everything else I attempted to do would in one way or another be based upon and refer to it" (xvii). As the pivotal work of fiction that constituted the greatest challenge in intellectual and artistic terms, Oxherding Tale had far-reaching influence on Johnson's subsequent fiction. For example, in Oxherding Tale Johnson begins his exploration of the physical and metaphysical nature of slavery within the framework of Buddhism, Taoism, and. Hinduism. Beyond the painful and patent fact of chattel slavery, in what other ways, ruminates Johnson in Oxherding Tale, can we be enslaved? This is the central question in this metaphysical slave narrative whose title-page, Johnson notes, bears the imprint of the "Taoist symbol for a man travelling on the Way" (xvii). Further, and related to this systematic exploration of the various species of slavery within the framework of Eastern philosophy, the Allmuseri, a fictional African clan, is a defining presence through the character of Reb, the Coffinmaker, in Oxherding Tale, but a dominant presence through the character of Ngonyama in Middle Passage. Plainly, in these and other ways Oxherding Tale has had a profound impact upon the content and intellectual concerns of Johnson's subsequent fiction. It is for this reason that he has taken such pains to reconstruct the context and process of Oxherding Tale's composition and publication.
Certainly, Johnson's foray into literary criticism is, in some sense, a response to certain personal and historical exigencies; that is, a desire to make his own past as an artist visible, coherent, and accessible. Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), Johnson's only book of literary criticism, is, in part, an earlier and extended elaboration of this desire. Johnson's more recent and much welcomed public reflection springs, however, from yet another source. There is in his introduction a desire to assess and weigh the aesthetic value of Oxherding Tale in relationship to his other novels. And, in my view, Oxherding Tale remains the work of fiction in which Johnson's artistic and intellectual vision is most fully realized. While Faith and the Good Thing and Middle Passage are unified, coherent, and complex works of art, there is, I believe, a degree of depth, strangeness, and power in Oxherding Tale that is unequaled in the other novels. Johnson himself holds a similar view of the value of his "platform" book. In comparing Oxherding Tale with Middle Passage, the novel for which he was awarded the National Book Award in 1990, Johnson writes that his prizewinning third novel "contains only a fraction of its predecessor's complexity" (xvii). Johnson's candor and lack of sentimentality regarding the artistic achievement of his novels is unusual and admirable. As an artist, it is evident that the value he assigns to a particular work is linked neither to encomia nor to prestigious literary prizes, but rather to his own independent evaluative standard. It seems that Johnson, like Jean Toomer in the writing of Cane, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the writing of One Hundred Years of Solitude, wrote his most important and influential work of fiction to date early in his artistic career.(1)
In 1975, Johnson undertook the difficult but meaningful work of writing his most highly esteemed novel with, in his words, "absolutely no encouragement" (xiii) - neither polite interest from colleagues nor advances from publishers. This spite work, for in one sense it is plain that Johnson embarked upon this ambitious literary experiment in defiance of his detractors, would take five years to complete. Of the many writers whose works sustained and influenced him during the long and lonely period of Oxherding Tale's composition, Johnson acknowledges an. intellectual debt to Herman Melville, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and most importantly Herman Hesse. Of the several writers mentioned in the introduction to the Plume edition of Oxherding Tale, Hesse's influence is the most profound.
While Johnson read and studied all of the novels by the German writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, Hesse's Siddhartha (1951) exercised a decisive influence on Oxherding Tale. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to assert that Siddhartha, in the conceptualization of Oxherding Tale, occupies a position of co-equality with The Ten Oxherding Pictures by Kaku-an Shi-en, a foundational work of Zen Buddhism, and the conversion and slave narratives of American and African American literature.
In what specific ways can we discern the imprint of Siddhartha upon Oxherding Tale? As an artist who is self-consciously creating a distinctive body of work that reflects the influence of a range of literary ancestors, what did Johnson imbibe from his immersion in the fictional universe of Hesse that has endowed Oxherding Tale and the other fictions which so forcefully emanate from it with their particular intellectual cast and trajectory? These are the central questions I wish to explore within this essay.
Of the several points of convergence between Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, structure and intellectual concerns are preeminent. Like Siddhartha, Oxherding Tale is a novel in two parts in which compression is the operative word. Both are densely layered works, Oxherding Tale even more so than Siddhartha, in which arcane knowledge constitutes the core concern. As artists, Hesse and Johnson are engaged in an experiment whose objective is to join philosophy and literature. While I will have more to say about this shared intellectual endeavor later in this essay, for the moment I would like to emphasize the centrality of Buddhism for both novels, although Johnson extends his zone of inquiry to include Hinduism and Taoism.
In addition to sharing structure and intellectual preoccupations, Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale are both historical novels. Hesse's emphasis is upon an historical figure, while Johnson's emphasis is upon an historical era. Siddhartha, Hesse's questing and questioning protagonist, is in many ways the fictional counterpart to the Buddha himself, who, according to scholars, was Sakyamani Gautama, born in India in the sixth century B.C.E. Like Gautama, Siddhartha is a member of the Indian elite, a Brahmin born to luxury and power. Hesse writes that the "handsome Brahmin's son" was expected to become a "great learned man, a priest, a prince among Brahmins." "Love stirred in the hearts of the young Brahmins' daughters when Siddhartha," writes Hesse, "walked through the streets of the town, with his lofty brow, his king-like eyes and his slim figure" (3-4). Inevitably, Siddhartha, like Gautama, becomes disillusioned with his privileged existence. Both men discover that an existence framed by temporal realities is meaningless. After encountering a group of Samanas, peripatetic renunciates, "lean jackals in the world of men" around whom "hovered an atmosphere of still passion, of devastating service of unpitying self-denial" (9), Siddhartha makes the fateful decision to leave his father's palace and to join them. While his commitment to the Samana's life of self-denial is genuine and deep, Siddhartha remains dissatisfied. He does not discover in ascetism the much sought after release from samsara, or the cyclical nature of existence. In these particulars, Hesse remains faithful to the fragmented history in which Gautama, the Buddha, is enshrouded.
Hesse introduces, however, a significant variation in a novel based in large measure upon the life of Gautama. While Siddhartha's life corresponds in many ways to the life of this historic figure, Hesse's protagonist is not, it seems, the Buddha. Doubtless anticipating the injunctions and denunciations from scholars and practioners of Buddhism, Hesse creates the character of Gotama, who is called "the Illustrious, the Buddha" (120). While Siddhartha recognizes that Gotama is a holy man, for never had he "esteemed a man so much, never had he loved a man so much," he does not, like his friend and companion Govinda, become a disciple of Gotama, whose name and divine attributes recall Gautama. While respectfully acknowledging the patently enlightened state of the "Illustrious One," Siddhartha apprehends the flaw in the otherwise flawless teachings of Gotama. The teachings do not contain, so the Brahmin's son asserts in conversation with Gotama, "'the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced'" at the moment of enlightenment (34). While the teachings or doctrine are important, individual effort is more important in attaining moksha, or release from samsara. In his artful reconstruction of aspects of the life of the Buddha, Hesse illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. And in the process, he avoids the censure of the purists who would doubtless find the freedom of the artist in the domain of history problematic, and he invests his novel with the dramatic tension and conflict so essential to its sense of unity and coherence.
While Hesse is engaged in a selective retelling of the life and experiences of the Buddha, Johnson is engaged in a selective reconstruction of an epoch through the creation of a fictionalized antebellum slave narrative. The narrator of this metaphysical slave narrative is Andrew Hawkins, who assumes the identity of William Harris by the novel's conclusion. In contrast to Siddhartha, Johnson's questing and questioning narrator is a mulatto fugitive slave in whose life we apprehend patterns that recall the lives of such fugitive slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Hawkins's dense narrative is the vehicle for a journey whose destination is not Hesse's fabled East, but the world of the antebellum South of Spartenburg, South Carolina. Like Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder, Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, Octavia Butler's Kindred, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, and most recently John Edgar Wideman's The Cattle Killing, Johnson has created a fictional universe set in motion by the paradoxes and actualities of slavery in a purportedly democratic republic.
"Although nearly anything you said about slavery could be denied in the same breath," muses Andrew Hawkins in a state of freedom, "this much struck me as true: the wretchedness of being colonized was not that slavery created feelings of guilt and indebtedness, though I did feel guilt and debt; nor that it created a long, lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness, which it did indeed create, but the fact that men had epidermalized Being" (52). This important passage, which is an example of the fine writing everywhere in evidence in Oxherding Tale, is a kind of expansive synecdoche in which we apprehend the various ways in which slavery has shaped the life and sensibility of Andrew Hawkins.
Certainly, Hawkins feels "guilt and debt" because he fails to realize the important goals to which he had committed himself when setting out from Cripplegate to Leviathan: to earn enough money to purchase his own freedom as well as that of his father George Hawkins, his stepmother Mattie Hawkins, and his betrothed Minty, all of whom make certain sacrifices in order to make his slave existence endurable. Certainly, Hawkins is immersed in a "lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness," for with the exception of the friendship he establishes with Reb, Leviathan's Coffinmaker, he remains, for significant periods, either a sexual slave or a fugitive slave seeking meaning and safety in a culture and economy that would deny him, at every turn, such fundamental needs of human existence. And in Hawkins's use of the rich and resonant phrase epidermalized Being is expressed the ultimate paradox of slavery in a democratic republic which values, theoretically, the humanity of each individual. The sole objective of slavery in the United States, and more specifically the slavery so deeply entrenched at Cripplegate and Leviathan, was the grotesque reduction of human beings into matter, into chattel for personal profit. In the writing of this historical novel, Johnson remains faithful to his artistic goal of fully illustrating the dispiriting actualities which supported and advanced this capitalistic enterprise.
While masterfully reconstructing aspects of an enterprise and an epoch, Johnson, in contrast to Hesse, destablizes our expectations of historical fiction by writing against the conventions of this genre. The many instances of modern colloquialisms, the decision to place Karl Marx in dialogue with a transplanted New England abolitionist during a visit to a slave plantation, and the veiled and droll exchanges on political correctness and Affirmative Action are all instances in which Johnson exhibits a certain irreverence for conventions that presumably govern the writing of historical fiction. These calculated interpolations in a discourse centering upon the uses of history in fiction are occasions when Johnson advances an alternative view of history and the historical process; that is, neither is remote or static, and both are powerful forces shaping contemporary existence.
While the imprint of Siddhartha upon Oxherding Tale is discernable in such important domains as structure and genre, the influence of this German novel upon this American novel is also discernable in the patterning of experience and the ineluctable variations which this artistic process inspires. During the period in Siddhartha's life when he returns to his Brahmin existence, he develops a relationship with Kamala, the beautiful and wealthy courtesan skilled in the art of love. Hesse writes that Siddhartha "learned many things from her wise red lips" (66). A patient teacher with wide experience and high standards, Kamala, whose name recalls Kama, the deity who reigns in the sensuous realm of the Buddhist cosomolgy, lovingly initiates Hesse's disillusioned Brahmin into carnal mysteries. Impressed by the skill and sensitivity of her young and able student, Kamala remarks to Siddhartha after a session of sex: "'You are the best lover that I have had. . . . You are stronger than others, more supple, more willing'" (73). Shifting now to Oxherding Tale we observe a fascinating variation. Again, after a session of sex of the most histrionic kind, Flo Hatfield, the sovereign of Leviathan and Kamala's fictional variation, remarks to Hawkins, her sexual slave: "'La, Andrew, you are the best servant I have ever had. . . . You are the most willing to learn, the most promising'" (64-65; first emphasis mine).
While there are striking similarities in the language and situation between these corresponding episodes in Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, Johnson's variations underscore the ways in which his artistic and intellectual concerns differ from those of Hesse. While Flo Hatfield shares Kamala's devotion to carnal mysteries, the sovereign of Leviathan is not motivated by love, which becomes the dominant force in Kamala's relationship with Siddhartha, but predictably by power. It is significant that Kamala describes Siddhartha as the "'best lover'" she has had, while Flo Hatfield describes Hawkins as the "'best servant'" she has ever had. Of course, servant is a genteel synonym for slave, and Johnson, through the fevered and narcoticized coupling of Hatfield and Hawkins, is able to explore a range of novel, complementary, and paradoxical themes: the domination of the slave by the master and, conversely, the peculiar domination of the master by the slave; the sexual exploitation of the slave by the master and the sexual exploitation of slave men by their masters; the slavery of the body and the slavery of the spirit. Unlike Hesse's Kamala, who renounces her life as a courtesan, Flo Hatfield remains a slave to sexual desire. As the Coffinmaker remarks to an incredulous Hawkins, Flo Hatfield is "'a slave like you'n me'" (62). In this masterful inversion, slavery for the sovereign of Leviathan ironically assumes the form of an erect black phallus.
Along with the provocative metamorphosis of Kamala into Flo Hatfield, Johnson accomplishes other variations while also honoring Hesse's example and influence. In contrast to Flo Hatfield and Andrew Hawkins, the affectionate coupling between Kamala and Siddhartha produces a son. The discovery that he is a father inspires in Siddhartha a series of reflections and preoccupations regarding his proper relationship to his son. Sadly, Siddhartha's son rejects him as well as his contemplative existence. Ironically, he chooses instead the Brahmin existence that Siddhartha himself has rejected. The relationship between fathers and sons is also a central theme in Oxherding Tale. There is the ambivalence between George Hawkins and Andrew Hawkins which is registered in Andrew's rejection of his father's reductive racial theories. Further, there is the violence which so mangles the filial ties of the fathers of Ezekial Sykes-Withers and Horace Bannon. Finally, there is the great gulf of silence between Reb, Leviathan's Coffinmaker, and his doomed son Patrick.
While the dynamics between fathers and their sons is an important theme in Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, so also is the theme of male friendship. In Siddhartha this theme is concretized in the deep friendship between Govinda and Siddhartha, and later between Siddhartha and Vasudeva, the ferryman. Correspondingly, in Oxherding Tale, there is a powerful friendship between Reb and Andrew Hawkins, which possesses both an avuncular and paternal cast. While Johnson shares Hesse's interest in male friendships, a defining characteristic of such novels as Narcissis and Goldmund and Damien, Johnson is also interested in exploring the basis for the failure of such important relationships, as evidenced in George Hawkins's betrayal by the philanderer Nate McKay. In fine, the world of men and the concerns that define this world are patterns central to both Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale. In Hesse's novel this pattern is reflected in the male world of the Samanas and their collective goal of asceticism and transcendence; in Johnson's novel this pattern is reflected in the fraternity of the slave men of Leviathan and their shared nihilism or "absence of life-assurance," which is counterpoised against the spiritual powers of Reb and the resilience of Andrew Hawkins. Above all, Hesse and Johnson are artists deeply interested in exploring the tensions between selfhood and manhood, between enlightenment and certain stultifying forms of masculinity. While these male friendships are metaphors for the human capacity for self-development, these friendships also suggest the very positive potentialities that exist among androcentric communities and relationships. Crucially, Johnson's meditations in this vein are, in contrast to Hesse's, explicit and deliberate, and they anticipate by many years the current and marked interrogation of masculinities. In the study of the construction of masculinities, Oxherding Tale is a canonical text occupying the place of Toni Morrison's Beloved in the study of the construction of femininities.
In these fictional worlds determined to a large degree by male interests, men are both competitors and allies, assassins and the vehicle for moksha or release, liberation, and enlightenment. It is to this last shared pattern in Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, male friendships as the vehicle for moksha, that I now turn. In Hesse's classic, moksha is achieved within the framework of two powerful male friendships. In the first instance of this expansion of consciousness, Vasudeva is the catalyst for Siddhartha's achievement of enlightenment. In providing comfort to Siddhartha, who is pained by the failed relationship with his son, Vasudeva gently encourages his friend to merge his thoughts with the great river upon which they have been ferry-men. Completely trusting Vasudeva, Siddhartha's "wound" or grief over his son's repudiation of him becomes the path to a revelation as he listens to the "many-veiled song of the river," and studies the images flashing across the river's undulant surface:
Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala's picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river's voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. . . . They all belonged to each other; the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om - perfection. . . . From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things. (134-36)
Having performed the ultimate service as ferryman and friend in aiding Siddhartha to cross one realm of consciousness into another, Vasudeva departs, a luminous figure, in order to complete his own journey "into the unity of all things."(2)
Siddhartha closes with Siddhartha, now the ferryman, performing the same revelatory function for Govinda, who is on his way to the funeral of Gotama, the Buddha Siddhartha once acknowledged as a holy man but who, unlike Govinda, he refused to follow as a disciple. After renewing their friendship, Siddhartha launches into a critique of the dangers of yielding to dogma and the so-called "wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate" (142). It is worth noting that Johnson mounts a similar critique of teachers and dogma in the character of Ezekial Sykes-Withers, who is a slave to reason. Siddhartha's strong views on this subject set off a wave of anxiety, doubt, and suffering in Govinda, who throughout his life has been the follower, not the leader, the disciple not the teacher. Attuned to the upheaval within his friend which is registered so clearly in his countenance, Siddhartha, in a gesture of tenderness and regard that corresponds to the gesture made by Vesudeva during a corresponding crisis, invites Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. Surprised by this request, Govinda "was compelled by a great love and presentiment to obey him; he leaned close to him and touched his forehead with his lips. As he did this," writes Hesse, "something wonderful happened to him":
He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces - hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry. He saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man; at the same moment he saw this criminal kneeling down, bound, and his head cut off by an executioner. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in the postures and transports of passionate love. He saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty. He saw the heads of animals - boars, crocodiles, elephants, oxen, birds. He saw Krishna and Agni. . . . And all these forms and faces rested, flowed, reproduced, swam past and merged into each other, and over them all there was continually something thin, unreal and yet existing, stretched across like thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, shell, form or mask of water - and this mask was Siddhartha's smiling face which Govinda touched with his lips at that moment. And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths - this smile of Siddhartha - was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha. (150-51)
Hesse's novel closes with Govinda's achievement of moksha. Honoring the powerful symmetry that endows his novel with unity and force, Siddhartha is the vehicle for Govinda's release from samsara.
In the final chapter of Oxherding Tale, a chapter significantly entitled "Moksha," Andrew Hawkins, like Siddhartha and Govinda, achieves release from the double yoke of slave life and samsara, or the slavery of human existence. The vehicle for Hawkins's release - that is, his ferryman - is Reb, Leviathan's Coffinmaker, and Horace Bannon, the Soulcatcher. In his ascetism and the practice of non-engagement, Reb embodies the values so central to Buddhism and Taoism. Through the practice of non-engagement and the extinguishing of desire, fear, and ego, Reb successfully eludes Horace Bannon, the Soulcatcher. Reb's seamless flight into freedom has profound consequences for both Hawkins and Bannon. Honoring a promise he made to Hawkins and Reb - "'If Ah ever meet a Negro Ah can't catch, Ah'll quit!'" (116) - Bannon renounces his vocation of assassin and slave catcher. In so doing, Hawkins, unlike his father George Hawkins, is spared a painful death at the hands of Bannon. Reb's example of asceticism and self-sacrifice has far-reaching and concrete consequences in the world of slavery: Reb is a free man; Bannon is a reformed man; and Andrew is a free man. Interestingly, the tripartite configuration of male friendships in Siddhartha - Govinda, Siddhartha, Vesudeva - is invoked and in part preserved through the shifting and complex relationship among Reb, Hawkins, and Bannon. Through his practice of non-engagement, Reb secures Hawkins's liberty; in his final metamorphosis into the Hindu God Krishna, Bannon is the vehicle for Hawkins's achievement of moksha:
I waited for the Soulcatcher's explanation, my gaze dropping from his face to his chest and forearms, where the intricately woven brown tattoos presented, in the brilliance of a silver-gray sky at dawn, an impossible flesh tapestry of a thousand individualities no longer static, mere drawings, but if you looked at them long enough, bodies moving like Lilliputians over the surface of his skin. Not tattoos at all, I saw, but forms sardined in his contour, creatures Bannon had killed since childhood: spineless insects, flies he'd dewinged; yet even the tiniest of these thrashing within the body mosaic was, clearly, a society as complex as the higher forms, a concrescence of molecules cells atoms in concert, for nothing in the necropolis he'd filled stood alone, wished to stand alone, had to stand alone, and the commonwealth of the dead shape-shifted on his chest, his full belly, his fat shoulders, traded hand for claw, feet for hooves, legs for wings, their metamorphosis having no purpose beyond the delight the universe took in diversity for its own sake, the proliferation of beauty, and yet all were conserved in this process of doubling, nothing was lost in the masquerade, the cosmic costume ball, where behind every different mask at the party - behind snout beak nose and blossom - the selfsame face was uncovered at midnight. . . . (175)
Andrew Hawkins's achievement of moksha constitutes the climax of Oxherding Tale; this is the moment, the linchpin around which all thought and action in the novel revolve. Similarly, in Siddhartha Govinda's achievement of moksha also constitutes the climatic scene. While there are striking correspondences in language and imagery, the central difference is that Govinda and Siddhartha's dual achievement of moksha is beautifully translated into Hawkins's double release from the dual yoke of slavery and samsara. In this elegant instance of compression, Johnson, once again, exhibits an admirable degree of independence as an artist while concurrently honoring his own artistic intentions; that is, the very careful charting of his protagonist's achievement of both liberty and enlightenment. The result is that Andrew Hawkins, who at the novel's conclusion assumes the identity of William Harris, is the first protagonist in American literature to achieve mok-sha.
The very deep imprint of Siddhartha upon Oxherding Tale should, by now, be quite evident, as well as the manner in which Johnson has maintained, through his masterful inversions and variations, the independence of his own artistic vision. While it is clear that Siddhartha occupies, as I asserted earlier, a position of co-equality with The Ten Oxherding Pictures and the conversion and slave narratives in the conceptualization of Oxherding Tale, in what other ways does Hesse, through, his achievement in Siddhartha, influence Johnson's artistic choices? I now return to the second question driving this inquiry into Johnson's expanding fictional universe.
I would like to suggest here that Hesse's Siddhartha provided Johnson, during a period in his artistic development when he was most receptive to experimentation, with a model in art that he could adapt to meet his own developing intellectual and artistic ambitions. As an artist who is also a trained philosopher, Johnson found Hesse's integration of philosophy with fiction intriguing in the extreme. Clearly, Johnson regards Siddhartha as a beautiful book, a compelling book, and his admiration of it is reflected in the pages of Oxherding Tale. Hesse's example in Siddhartha not only provided Johnson with an artistic framework within which to address particular questions regarding a particular artistic project, but the German author and his masterpiece also provided Johnson with the path, and the means, to imagine an artistic tradition within which Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and the forthcoming Dreamer could be situated and explained.
This rich tradition in letters is called philosophical black fiction, the elements of which Johnson has set forth in his essay "Philosophy and Black Fiction." In general terms, Johnson defines philosophical black fiction as art which interrogates experience. More specifically, it is a fiction that is first and foremost a mode of thought and a process of hermeneutics. It is also a fiction which works to suspend, shelve, and bracket all presuppositions regarding African American life. With this bracketing accomplished, African American experience becomes, Johnson theorizes, a pure field of appearances within two poles: consciousness, and the persons and phenomena to which consciousness is related intentionally. Drawing upon a range of philosophical systems, the writer of philosophical black fiction describes how these phenomena appear and observes that black subjectivity stains them with a particular sense. The principal themes of this fiction are, among many, identity, liberation, and enlightenment. Intent upon the liberation of perception, for the reader and the writer, philosophical black fiction produces what Johnson terms "whole sight"; that is, the calculated projection of a plurality of meanings across a shifting and expansive symbolic geography of forms, texts, and traditions.
This twentieth-century tradition in African American literature begins with W. E. B. Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece and includes Jean Toomer's Cane, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground and The Outsider, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Cyrus Colter's The Hippodrome, Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe, and Samuel R. Delany's The Mad Man. To date, these are the writers who, in my view, comprise this hidden tradition in twentieth-century African American literature which Johnson has aptly termed philosophical black fiction. Inaugurated and dominated by male authors, this tradition of adapting complex philosophical systems - Platonism, Eastern Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Christianity, and psychoanalytic theory - to construct a coherent fictional universe seems to be, with the exception of selected novels by John Gardner and Rebecca Goldstein, the sole province of African American writers.
Of the many writers in this dynamic tradition, Johnson is the only writer trained in philosophy. Moreover, he is the most self-conscious in terms of his stated goals of employing diverse philosophical systems to examine questions which have a moral cast, and which also endow his explorations of African American life with originality and force. The conceptualization of this emerging tradition reflects Johnson's commitment to combine his artistic goals and impulses with his broad intellectual interests while endowing the American novel with greater depth and force. Clearly, such a tradition was nurtured by Johnson's reading of Toomer, Wright, and most especially Ellison. The foundational writer, however, the writer whose skillful combining of philosophy and literature provided Johnson with both the impetus and the model, is Herman Hesse. One of the foundational texts in this evolving and hybrid tradition which Johnson has named and significantly increased through the force of his own imagination is, as I have argued, Siddhartha.
1. Currently, Johnson is engaged in completing a fourth novel, Dreamer, based upon the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dreamer promises to occupy an important place in the philosopher/novelist's expanding canon, thus potentially altering his present estimation of Oxherding Tale.
2. For commentary on the "doctrine of inner realization" or enlightenment, see Suzuki. There are fascinating correspondences between the ways in which the Buddha, Hesse, and Johnson describe this expansive state of consciousness.
Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. 1951. New York: Bantam, 1971.
Johnson, Charles. Oxherding Tale. 1982. New York: Plume, 1995.
-----. "Philosophy and Black Fiction." Obsidian 6 (1980): 55-61.
Suzuki, D. T. "Zen as Chinese Interpretation of the Doctrine of Enlightenment." Essays in Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1961. 39-117.
Rudolph P. Byrd is Associate Professor of American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and Director of the Program of African American Studies at Emory University.
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|Title Annotation:||novel by Charles Johnson; novel by German author Herman Hesse|
|Author:||Byrd, Rudolph P.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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