Printer Friendly

Ishmael Reed's inductive narratology of detection.

A Narratology of Free Voices

Words walking without masters. (qtd. in Gates, Signifying 215) Pallbearers did not read like Henry James. (Chapple 18)

A salient feature of Reed's chaotic-seeming narratology is the fact that he presents voices in an unmediated way, which forces upon the reader the task of performing an act of narratological induction, of recognizing "Who speaks?" This procedure, which is quite the opposite of the traditional sorting out and establishing of a hierarchical system of narratological levels, can be traced back to animistic practices of the kind Reed presents in his Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic. In Voodoo, rather than starting out from given notions of origin and authority, one is first confronted with particular cases of possession by a voice and must then infer the cause; the animistic strategy is one of recognizing the loas, the Voodoo gods. This attitude is generalized and modernized in Reed's appropriation of the genre of the detective story and in the "metaphysical detection" of his principal protagonist PaPa LaBas. As a strategy, it may actually help one to better cope with a postmodern world of simulacra. Moreover, the particular qualities of ancestor worship can explain the figurative circularity of such a non-essentialist inductive strategy of identifying forces.

One of the most striking aspects of Reed's style is the complex focalization patterns of his narrative. The way in which he deals with focalizers and avoids the hierarchical straight-jacket of authorial control confronts the reader with a confusing array of "voices" that somehow speak for themselves. Reed's fictional practice goes beyond the system of definitions provided by traditional literary theories of narratology and focalization: The notion of "free indirect discourse,"(1) for example, cannot in a satisfactory way explain the way Reed combines narration and focalization. Somehow his focalizers turn from mere media or filters into independent sources of information or narrators in their own right. Actually, in many instances, focalization in the sense of mediation is abolished. This can be shown in a scene in Mumbo Jumbo in which Reed's protagonist/hero PaPa LaBas is in court, defending himself against harassment by the "Manhattan Atonists"(2):

PaPa LaBas is a descendant of a long line of people who made their pact with nature long ago. He would never say, "If you've seen 1 redwood tree, you've seen them all"; rather, he would reply with the African Chieftain, "I am the elephant," said long before Liverpool went on record for this. The reply was made when a Huxley had the nerve to warn him about the impending extinction of the elephant - an extinction which Huxley's countrymen were precipitating in the 1st place.

(Freud would read this as "a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole," which poor Freud "never experienced," being an Atonist, the part of Jealous Art which shut out of itself all traces of animism. When Freud came to New York in 1909 LaBas sought him out to teach him The Work; but he couldn't gain entrance to the hotel suite, which was blocked by ass-kissers, sycophants, similar to those who were to surround Hitler and Stalin later, telling the "Master" what they wanted him to hear and screening all alien material meant for their master's attention. They had told LaBas to take the back elevator even though some of them prided themselves on their liberalism. 42 Professors from New York University or people from Columbia University.) (The 1909 versions of Albert Goldman, the "pop" expert for Life magazine and The New York Times who in a review of a record made by some character who calls himself Doctor John [when the original Doctor John was described by New Orleans contemporaries as a "huge Black man . . . , a Sen[e]galese Prince . . .] made some of the most scurrilous attacks on the VooDoo religion to date - I. R.)(*) Humiliated, PaPa LaBas had left the hotel, the laughter of these men behind him. He didn't get to see Freud, much to Freud's and Western Civilization's loss.

He could have taught Freud The Work. . . .

LaBas sits in court awaiting the clerk to call his case.

* No one called him an anti-Negro vulgarian, however. (45-46)

In this scene PaPa LaBas is first described from the outside by the narrator, who then speculates about what "he would never say" and what he "would reply," an analogy, as it turns out, which "was made" by "him," and thus an actual quotation of LaBas, not the narrator. This is followed by a bracketed paragraph in italics about Freud, whose focalization is also assumed with a "would," initiating a direct quotation, probably from one of Freud's lectures, which is followed by a voice calling Freud an "Atonist" and commenting about him very sarcastically. This other narrator is once removed from the original narrator. Though very close to LaBas, he presents an episode about him: "LaBas sought him out to teach him The Work." This second narrative voice is then followed by somebody else's plain text statement in another pair of parentheses, interrupted by a bracketed statement, initialed "I. R.," and footnoted, by some narrator, who probably again takes over the discourse in italics, this time unbracketed, however constantly moving into free indirect discourse focalizing through LaBas. Would this then be a third or a fourth narrator? Or only an additional "attitude"? The italics are followed by a regular-type narration of events by what we may take for the "original" narrator. Obviously at this point the very notion of "the narrator" has turned polyvocal.(3)

How are we to interpret this confusing chaos of narrators and focalizers? It is obvious that Reed is not keeping order. His stream of consciousness is a mess; we must constantly shift our focalizer attribution among the multileveled narrators: LaBas, Freud, the author-in-the-book "I. R.," and the footnoter. As opposed to New Critical Modernist practice, however, Reed's ambiguity here is not semantic but focal and modal. Most statements in Mumbo Jumbo may be hyperbolic or far-fetched, yet their intrinsic content as statements is clear. What is not clear, or at least not always provided by the narrator, is most often the origin of the statements, or subject of utterance. Narratological closure is not possible. Reed, I would suggest, shreds the notion of hierarchical, well-ordered narratology. Unlike most other postmodern writers, however, he does this in a way which reflects and acknowledges traditional pagan origins.

Let me propose that, just as poets once turned to "free verse," Reed presents a kind of "free narratology." What Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls the "second, anti-, narration[, consisting] of all the motley sub-texts in Mumbo Jumbo which are not included in its first narration" (" 'Blackness' "168), goes beyond binary complementation (the simplest kind of hierarchy) and is rather a "multi-narration." Only from the perspective of a centered Atonist narration naturalized as "primary" will its multiplicity "figure" as a unified "ground" or negativity. However, Reed does not offer a carefully crafted hierarchical pyramid of narrative control; the whole superstructure of controlled mediation is almost totally abolished. In a somewhat less chaotic way, one can also find such tendencies in modernist writers such as Faulkner (e.g., Absalom, Absalom!), who does, however, not claim to undermine narrative hierarchy. We may refer to Henry James as a contrastive example in this context, as an exemplary master of control, whose artistry, especially in his famous short stories, can usually be traced back to what Linda Hutcheon calls a "Jamesian center of consciousness" (167), a central focalizer presenting the events in a biased way (e.g., "The Liar," "The Real Thing," etc.). Whereas James tends to work with implicit narrative hierarchies, which can be seen in retrospect or which are at least always assumed, Reed in many ways circumvents narratological order as such. Just as in Zora Neale Hurston's "speakerly" discourse, which enables "a multiplicity of narrative voices to assume control of the text" (Gates, Signifying 196), in Reed focalizers are not organized in a narrative grammar.

One of the most striking consequences of Reed's narrative technique is the unmediated use of "voices," which are presented in an unmarked way - i.e., without quotation marks. The reader cannot differentiate among different meta-levels of diegesis because Reed puts almost all of his text on the same narrative level. Simply presented with a variety of voices, the reader has to figure out for him- or herself who "speaks," who it is that one is reading (or "listening to"). The gist of Reed's narrative technique is his ability to make the reader recognize what is going on although speakers are not identified. Hence, any such information is intrinsic to the voices, who speak for themselves; it is not provided by an extrinsic authority. Much of this is like a radio play without all the nonverbal information. Rather than experiencing a performance, we are reading a script - yet from the words we can extrapolate tone and thus mood, intention, and character, and ultimately identify the speaker in a particular context.

To be sure, this is not particularly new or original. The French writer Guillaume Apollinaire dropped quotation marks long before Reed.(4) Moreover, modernists such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce make use of "free" voices in their work as well. What is special in Reed's case, however, is, first, the highly insistent way in which he foregrounds these features: He plays with them consciously. Secondly, as a literary technique, his practice can be integrated into a pagan framework of the Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic, as I will show below. Though the symptoms may be the same, the respective rationales behind them are different: Reed's is a case of syncretic tradition rather than modernist fragmentation - i.e., his vision somehow "coheres," for the negativity of one approach is the positivity of the other.

All of Reed's voices coexist in the same realm of direct dialogue, including the voice of the narrator, which is merely another one among them. As a result, his prose turns the reading experience into a crossroads zone of Bakhtinian polyvocal interaction.(5) These are the unmarked voices of Black Herman, PaPa LaBas, the Black Muslim Abdul Hamid, and the narrator:

What do you think this Jes Grew is up to?

It's up to its Text . . . . It must find its Speaking or strangle upon its own ineloquence.

Interesting theory.

I don't quite agree with it, in fact I think it's a lot of Bull.

Black Herman and PaPa LaBas direct their attention to the man standing against the wall. (33-34)

The disagreement is expressed by a different voice in the conversation, which is only afterwards identified as belonging to Abdul. Only the dramaturgy of the argument and the content of the statements make it possible to figure out what is going on. Reed even plays with quotation marks in the inverted sense, when in another scene he claims that ". . . the Guianese art critic . . . was 'human too.' We won't yield these gentlemen until you explain rationally and soberly what they are guilty of. This is no kangaroo courtroom, this is a free country" (160). In this instance the lack of quotation marks separating direct speech is especially noticeable because it is preceded by ironic quotation marks. There is no a priori hierarchy or order of perspectives presented; all differentiation is intrinsic.

In my opinion, Reed's most beautiful example involving the "voice" strategy occurs when the Reverend Jefferson comes to New York to take his truant son back to Re-mote, Mississippi, and catches the three Atonists by surprise:

It don't look too bad; a little more and I'll be a light brown and then . . .


The 3, Hubert, Hinckle, and W.W., turn to see a huge man dressed in a black Stetson, Wild Bill Hickock flowing tie and black clergyman outfit and cowboy boots.


The 3 deacons accompanying Rev. Jefferson kneel as Rev. Jefferson stretches his hands toward the heavens.

Lawd we axes you to pray over this boy . . . mmmmmmmmmmm An' deliver this child away from these naked womens . . . mmmm And sweet black mens. And save his soul from torment . . . mm

What is the meaning of this? Busting into my estate unannounced like this? Who are these men, W.W.? Hinckle asks, turning to his columnist.

W.W. is sobbing softly. It's my paw and his deacons, Publisher Hinckle Von Vampton.

Well it's a pleasure to meet you, Hinckle says . . . . (142)

The capitals automatically raise the volume of the voice. "LAWD" identifies the stereotype of a black Christian, as do the humming and his way of reasoning. Reed puts qualities into print that are usually the privilege of oral media. Within the dialogue, recognition takes place as well. "PA!!!" must, for want of another suitable candidate, come from Woodrow Wilson Jefferson. Only then is the loud voice identified as "Rev. Jefferson," the preacher whose countrified prayer-voice belongs to him like his typified outfit. Similarly Hinckle Von Vampton and Woodrow Wilson can be recognized by their voices and attitudes. The few "asks" and "says" phrases, which appear late in the scene, are redundant and merely make for easier reading. It is mainly in Reed's language that we find typifiedstrategies, which not only reflect certain value systems but also function as dynamic forces defining speakers and thus propelling the course of the narrative.

We can only appreciate Reed's narrative logic (or lack thereof) if we see in it a strategy which is the only possible access we have to information in a mythological realm of knowledge in which the origin of inspiration is mostly unknown or of doubtful attribution. This is, of course, a typical feature of orality and its lack of traceable textual origins. Thus the focalizers - i.e., the centers of consciousness from which the information originates - must be found in retrospect and be inferred from the symptoms. There is no superior archimedic authorial position in relation to which all statements can be placed; there is no Kronos-like perspective of the father which "swallows" all other opinions, no narrative center through which we are supposed to assess the source of a given statement. Narrative levels in the sense of subordination, taken for granted in narratology (e.g., Rimmon-Kenan 87 ff.), dissolve. Such an attitude is diametrically opposed to the Bible, which starts out from a preceding and given nominal logos, a center of consciousness from which all meaning emanates. NeoHooDoo discourse does not emphasize an elitist attitude of Quod licet Iovi non licet bovi; it concentrates on the statement first.

Moreover, Reed's use of "voices," as already hinted at in the examples, is not limited to the oral dimension but involves a certain amount of dramaturgy as well. Walter J. Ong writes, "Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words" (101). In addition to creating focalizers and ideology, Reed's prose also uncovers a dramatic scene, the action of which is contained in its implied gaps. Therefore the text must be seen as necessarily invoking a physical context, something Keir Elam would call a "dramatic world" (98 ff.).(6) This means that the issue of identifying speakers from the signs provided by their voices is only a specific instance of the more general issue of extrapolating a situated context from the limited information that signs can provide. Therefore the rules of Reed's particular "narratology" apply not only to the voices of direct speech but to any textual signs that have to do with a total situation - i.e., also to elements of description. (Hence the same rules can be applied to the detective story, as I will show further below.)

Recognizing the Loas

How did you know it was me? (Mumbo Jumbo 127)

In Reed's work, such a dramaturgic and oral interpretive context is consistent with animistic practice. It implies a specific mode of exegesis which starts out from the perceptible manifestations and infers from them the virtual causes, a procedure which Reed closely associates with the traditional "Work" of the houngan (or Voodoo healer), who recognizes the loas that are possessing people. Recognition is one of the most important gestures in Voodoo practice: "Houngans in Haiti as well as priests of Africa and South America are able to identify any spirit or God that possesses a person, an art the Greeks knew" (213).(7) The context of recognition, moreover, is one of identifying an act of possession, as the narrator of Mumbo Jumbo observes:

Once in a while 1 is possessed by a loa. The loa is not a daimon in the Freudian sense, a hysteric; no, the loa is known by its signs and is fed, celebrated, drummed to until it deserts the horse and govi of its host and goes on about its business. The attendants are experienced and know the names, knowledge the West lost when the Atonists wiped out the Greek mysteries. (50)

Reed gives a good example of what is involved in such a process of recognition when he presents the case of Earline's possession. PaPa LaBas's assistant has forgotten to "feed the loas." Her possession by Erzulie is anticipated by her unusual behavior.(8) She notices that "something has come over her. She finds it necessary to go through the most elaborate toilet ritual these days . . ." (28). LaBas notices her strange walk: "She is serpentine and her hips move tantalizingly under the thin, white short dress" (51). Later Earline takes another "luxurious bath" after "she has bought this marvelous scarf which bears a design of a stylized heart pierced by a dagger" (53). Reed's scarf here describes Erzulie's veve, a ritual drawing copied from Rigaud (110). Earline's seduction of an innocent trolley car operator (119 ff.) demonstrates the impact of possession. She is no longer herself but involves him in an affair written by a script beyond his or her own control.(9) Erzulie also manifests herself when Earline states that "all Black men are my husbands" (121), almost a literal quotation from Hurston's description of the habits of the Voodoo love goddess (143). When later Earline collapses after the encounter, it takes the competence of PaPa LaBas and Black Herman to recognize the loa "with the red dress on" (125-26) and save Earline (126 ff.). "How did you know it was me?" asks Erzulie after having been diagnosed as the cause (127). The particular connaissance of the two houngans consists in knowing the supra-individual characteristics of a loa, since loas manifest possession in different forms and personifications. Hence the art of the pagan interpreter is his ability to find sameness in manifest variety, such as recognizing the qualities, objects, and image associations among female goddesses:

. . . their sister Isis. Fine as she could be. Firm breasts, eloquence, all of those qualities that are later to show up in her spiritual descendant Erzulie (love of mirrors, plumes, combs, an elaborate toilet) whom we in the United States call the girl with the red dress on. (Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker are 2 aspects of Erzulie.) (162)

Thus a houngan has to know the characteristic traits of a loa in order to recognize the "name," the principle at work. Actually Reed invites the reader to apply this knowledge when Set instructs Moses about what presents to bring Isis: The very items reveal the Egyptian goddess's relatedness to Erzulie and Voodoo practice - "brightly colored scarves and liquors, jewelry and delicate chickens for her to eat" (181).

Metaphysical Detection

Neo-HooDoos are detectives of the metaphysical about to make a pinch. We have issued warrants for a god arrest. (Conjure 24)

What both Reed's narratology and the Voodoo habitus of recognition have in common is their embracing of what James Snead calls a "retrospective" strategy. Snead associates European "pedigree" semiotics with Reed's Atonist notion of the collection of multiple means of expression in the Center of Art Detention, "whereby things of different values are lumped together under a single image or signifier" (Snead 244). Conversely, Reed's own lack of logical organization of focalizers is expressed in a different metaphor, namely as "benevolent" contagion, the "antiplague" Jes Grew This defines a totally different, nonhierarchical mode of discursive interaction. Like viruses taking control over a body, Reed's focalizers freely enter a reader's mind. This paradigmatic new communication metaphor is very powerful and involves, as Snead observes, a reassessment of control, causality, and time: "If collection exists as guarantor of prospective value, then contagion is a retrospective attempt to assess a propinquity that seems to have always been present in latent form and has already erupted without cause or warning" (245). In other words, a writing strategy of deduction (in which the "end" is the "beginning") is replaced by one of induction. Our reading experience is not one of already knowing the origin of a statement and evaluating it accordingly (prospective strategy), but our experience turns into one of identifying the origin of a statement by analyzing it comparatively and qualitatively (retrospective strategy).

At this point it should no longer come as a surprise that Reed turns to one of the most popular genres using a retrospective strategy, the detective story, as a vessel for his Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic. The detective story defines a discursive realm in which the very inductive rules of tracing causes from symptoms are constantly thematized.(10) A good example to illustrate Reed's notion of metaphysical detection in Mambo Jumbo is the case of the white wigs left outside the Plantation House club after the murder of the gangster boss Schlitz. The two wigs are physical traces which refer to causality in a way that will ultimately provide a simple crime with a mythical dimension: "Outside the club the 2 men are nowhere to be seen. Only white powdered wigs lying on the sidewalk" (44). The wigs identify the murderers as waiters; the black employees of the club also wear "white powdered wigs" (42). This indicates a subversion of the "Plantation" routine, a revolt by the black servants. Yet the powdered tokens point to a wider context: "The short little wig" (19) characterizes Prince Hall, whose picture appears in the windows of Schlitz's Harlem speakeasies after his black rival Buddy Jackson has taken them over. Thus the wig also evokes the whole cluster of black secret societies. Prince Hall is the "founder of African Lodge # 1 of the Black Masons" (19), and Buddy Jackson is actually "Willie B. Johnson . . . the Grand Master of the Boyer Grand Lodge # 1 inaugurated March 18, 1845, by the Prince Hall Lodge or African Lodge # 1 chartered in 1776 by the Duke of Cumberland, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England" (192) and represents more than fourteen other secret societies. The tiny sign leads to the grand causality of mythical injustice motivating the very plot of Mambo Jumbo and the gang wars of the 1920s; actually the wigs and Schlitz's murder counterpoint LaBas's detection, leading from Abdul Hamid's murder to that of Osiris. The realm of the unknown cause and the realm of myth converge.

As a metaphysical detective, PaPa LaBas, Reed's man at the borderline between the humans and the loas, combines mystical communication, the phenomenon of the crossroads, on the one hand, and the "whodunnit," the search for the solution of crimes, on the other. Steven R. Carter quotes Reed as stating that Mambo Jumbo "was the best mystery novel of the year," but comments that there is a problem as to "whether or not this humorous experimental work can be classified as a mystery" (265). Carter sees Mambo Jumbo as a

further extension of the mystery genre into the realm of "serious literature." . . . Reed regards the mystery novel as a vehicle for getting at other mysteries, such as "the mystery of American civilization." . . . Obviously Reed is after bigger game than individual evil doers. (266)

According to Carter, Reed creates a new category of mystery novel which combines mystery and myth: "Reed's motivation in using his own version of the mystery form is to point up how to detect and control a spiritual disease." This new category

usually examines the mysteries of the spirit and/or the skeletons in the closets of societies (it generally aims at exposing the spiritual weaknesses of entire societies rather than ferreting out the hidden villainy of a single individual; it is closer to metaphysics and sociology than to intellectual gamesmanship and psychology). (273)

Reed himself somewhat extends the notion of "mystery" when he refers to Mumbo Jumbo as "a detective novel and a mystery . . . . there are a lot of esoteric things - mysteries - in it, but at the same time it is a detective novel because there are people consciously looking for clues" (qtd. in Burns 140). According to this view, there is a "metaphysical" dimension in detective fiction which is down-to-earth - i.e., the mystery is ultimately concerned with matters of this world.(11) Unlike many white authors such as, for example, Graham Greene, Reed does not aim at reaching a transcendental dimension.

Rudolph Fisher may be considered an early African American role model in precisely this respect.(12) Fisher combined HooDoo and homicide in his second novel A Conjure Man Dies (1932), in which he also offers an explanation of how the two are related. Reed probably alludes to this book when he has his character Woodrow Wilson Jefferson rent a room "above Frimbo's Funeral Home" (75). Fisher's conjure man is also called Frimbo, and he does a "Lazarus trick" when he rises from the dead (298). Frimbo talks with John Archer, M.D., at length on the subject of "mental energy" (214). His most interesting statement, however, is that for him the police, who are solving a murder case and interrogating subjects, and he, the conjure man, are doing the same thing: They both "believe in something they cannot prove" (256). We learn in the end that Frimbo has not been the victim of the killing the police have been investigating, that he has not really risen from the dead. Eventually, Frimbo is murdered by a jealous husband (HooDoo men are men of this world). Only then do we learn that he was an African chief, and with his death the "Buwango secret" is lost (311). In this way Fisher gives the solution to the mystery (the murder) and at the same time leaves the problem of the myth (the secret) unsolved. Like Reed, who has the "Book of Thot" destroyed in Mumbo Jumbo, Fisher rids himself of the responsibility to provide an ultimate transcendental truth. African American detection of this kind does not supply ultimate truths, neither "sacred texts" nor "Buwango secrets."

A more immediate literary ancestor of Reed's mode of detection is Chester Himes. Much of Reed's close descriptions and predilections for vivid detail can be traced to Himes's hyper-realistic style, which Reed greatly admires.(13) In "Hyped or Hip?" Reed associates Himes's work with concrete perception and description, quoting Marcel Duhamel, "then director of Gallimard's detective story series," who gave the following advice to Himes:

"Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don't give a damn who's thinking what - only what they're doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don't worry about making sense." (Writin' 124)

Though Himes may not offer us a lot of free narratology, the abundant use of concrete details in his writing makes an analogy to Reed possible. Descriptions are also signs that refer to causes.

Moreover, since in both cases they appear textualized as words, the physical traces which Himes's detective aces need in order to arrest the Harlem hoodlums and the signs which Reed's detectives use to solve metaphysical crimes are phenomenally alike. Description may point in either direction. Both narrative strategies have in common a gesture of detection, which celebrates the inductive approach: It is by the signs that you can recognize the forces, by the manifest details - detectives cannot work without traces, no matter whether they be detectives of the physical or of the metaphysical.

If in my explanation of Reed's narratology I may seem to have given too much emphasis to inductive notions reminiscent of the physical sciences, consider again that Reed's narrative gesture also correlates with that of the mythologer, and that it is precisely the original status of knowledge which is different in myth and in history. There is a great discrepancy between the amount of knowledge we have and our lack of knowledge about the origins of that very knowledge. Reed not only applies this insight to the traditional kind of open "oral cosmology," but he also applies the mythologer's gesture to a present-day world so old, so complex, and with over 5 billion humans acting and speaking that it is not seriously possible to trace causalities from the subjects' end. What stays in our memory are the statements alone. Most of our knowledge is thus of dubious origin, and the skill most needed in the commercial audio-visual discourse of the contemporary postmodern world is the ability to analyze the contents of statements and then trace them back to their motivation and function.

Finally, a word about circularity: The above discussion should make it clear that the identified speakers, the recognized loas, or generally all detected causes of symptoms in this framework are somehow assumed to preexist. This makes the system vulnerable to charges of essentialism, because it would imply that causality is still assumed to emanate from a conceptual principle and that the procedure I have just described is simply one of registering these things in hindsight. However, such an evocation of a stable transcendental order ignores the fact that in Reed's animistic framework the model for circularity is ancestor worship. Although the mythological ancestors are older than the actual context in which they happen to appear and exert influence, in their merely virtual existence they totally depend on the present for their material manifestation. They must always appear in some updated form, and thus their control over reality is only partial. They are like an old script that has to deal with the actors and stage props available today. A good example of this is the way Reed has modernized the Voodoo notion of possession as "riding horses" into the image of "driving cars."(14) Hence in a narratology of detection there is no danger that an essentialized original concept will assert itself unchallenged and unchanged. Each incident of recognition is an act of negotiation and redefinition of the ancestors' roles in a new context. In this sense, in an animistic aesthetic such as Ishmael Reed's, conceptual causality behaves figuratively.


1. Cf. Rimmon-Kenan 110 if.

2. Atonism is Reed's term for the philosophy of the cultural establishment; Atonists are critics who believe in centered thought systems that are structured by manichean polarizations.

3. Compare Helen Lock's reading of narrative orientation in the opening pages of Mumbo Jumbo: ". . . it is not clear if he is still an omniscient narrator, or a character involved in the action, or an intrusive authorial voice" (62).

4. When Michael Helm asked Reed why he does not use any quotation marks, Reed gave an even older reference: "In Mumbo Jumbo I don't use them because that's the way the bible is" (8).

5. Also see my article on Reed and Bakhtin.

6. On such dramatic logic in fiction, see my article on James.

7. Even Hippocrates, the Greek patron of doctors, healed by recognizing possession, exactly like a houngan: "If they imitate a goat, or grind their teeth, or if their right side be convulsed, they say that the mother of the gods is the cause, but if they speak in sharper and more intense tone they resemble this state of a horse and say Neptune [Poseidon] is the cause" (qtd. in Mumbo Jumbo 168; original brackets).

8. Reed's literary example may have been inspired by Deren's report of her own possession by Erzulie in her chapter "The White Darkness" (247-62).

9. Reed makes it clear that the trolley car operator has no intention to cheat on his wife: He "removed a wallet and smiled upon the photos of his family" (119).

10. I find in Reed's approach to detection a typically oral feature which is modeled on Voodoo principles. Thus I disagree with Waiter J. Ong, whose definition of detective fiction as a typical print genre is too narrowly based on Edgar Allan Poe and "pyramidally structured" plots (149).

11. This may well be a typical feature of the Osirian (rather than the Western Oedipal) mode of detection as defined in Helen Lock's "Afrocentric detective story" (27-47).

12. Gates even believes that Reed parodies Fisher (" 'Blackness'" 153).

13. So far Reed has devoted two essays to Himes in which he praises especially his style; the statement "a fighter fights, a writer writes" is quoted from Himes's autobiography The Quality of Hurt in Reed's 1972 Black World essay (Shrovetide 77-99), and it reappears as the motto of Reed's collection of essays Writin' Is Fightin'. (A second source for this statement is Muhammad Ali who, signing the contract for his autobiography at Random House, is supposed to have said: "Writing is Fighting" [Shrovetide 124]).

14. Cf. my "Dialogic Possession."

Works Cited

Burns, Alan and Charles Sugnet. "Ishmael Reed." The Imagination on Trial London: Allison and Busby, 1981. 133-48.

Carter, Steven R. "Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Detection." Dimensions of Detective Fiction. Ed. Larry Landrum, et al. Bowling Green: Popular P, 1976. 265-74.

Chapple, Steve. "Writing & Fighting: Ishmael Reed." Image 14 June 1987: 17+.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York: McPherson, 1953.

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 1980.

Fisher, Rudolph. A Conjure Man Dies. 1932. New York: Arno P, 1960.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "'The Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey." Black American Prose Theory. Studies in Black American Literature 1. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood: Penkevill, 1984. 129-81.

-----. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Helm, Michael. "Ishmael Reed: An Interview by Michael Helm." City Miner n.d.: 7+.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse. 1938. Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1981.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Lock, Helen. A Case of Mis-Taken Identity: Detective Undercurrents in Recent African-American Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Ludwig, Sami. CONCRETE LANGUAGE: Intercultural Communication in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996.

-----. "Dialogic Possession in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo: Bakhtin, Voodoo, and the Materiality of Multicultural Discourse." The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture. Ed. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994. 325-63.

-----. "Metaphors, Cognition and Behavior: The Reality of Sexual Puns in The Turn of the Screw." Mosaic 27.1 (1994): 33-53.

Northouse, Cameron. "Ishmael Reed." Conversations with Writers II. Detroit: Gale, 1978. 213-54.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

Reed, Ishmael. Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1972.

-----. Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.

-----. Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. Garden City: Doubleday, 1978.

-----. Writin' is Fightin'. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Rigaud, Milo. Secrets of Voodoo. 1953. Trans. Robert B. Cross. San Francisco: City Lights, 1985.

Rimmon-Kenan, Slomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983.

Snead, James. "European Pedigrees/African Contagions: Nationality, Narrative, and Communality in Tutuola, Achebe, and Reed." Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 231-49.

Sami Ludwig has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Berne in Switzerland, where he studied with Fritz Gysin. CONCRETE LANGUAGE, his book on intercultural communication in the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and Ishmael Reed, was published by Peter Lang in 1996. He is currently employed by the Swiss National Science Foundation and is working at the University of California, Riverside, doing research on models of representation in American literary realism.
COPYRIGHT 1998 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:African American author
Author:Ludwig, Sami
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
Previous Article:An interview with Brent Wade.
Next Article:"Kin' o'rough jestice fer a parson": Pauline Hopkins's 'Winona' and the politics of reconstructing history.

Related Articles
Images of subversion: Ishmael Reed and the hoodoo trickster.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism.
Brothers on a Soapbox.
"Painted Voices".
Call him Ishmael: the controversial (some say reckless) cultural critic Ishmael Reed returns a new collection of essays appropriately titled Another...
Crossing Western space, or the HooDoo detective on the boundary in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.
35 years as a literary maverick: Clarence Major is revered and respected for his literary achievements. He's just not as widely known as he should be.
The conspiracy of masculinity in Ishmael Reed.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters