Reading rigor mortis: offstage violence and excluded middles 'in' Johnson's 'Middle Passage' and Morrison's 'Beloved.' (authors Charles Johnson and Toni Morrison)
Part of Johnson's method of liberating readers from their "heavily conditioned seeing" (Being 5) is to chart a character's "progression from ignorance to knowledge, or from a lack of understanding to some greater understanding. . . . There's usually a moment of awareness . . . where the character is smashed into a larger vision under the pressure of events" ("Interview" 160-61). Middle Passage, the "Journal of a Voyage intended/ by God's permission/ in the Republic, African/ from New Orleans to the Windward/ Coast of Africa" (xi), is Rutherford Calhoun's written narrative of perceptual transformation from Captain Falcon's imperial psychology of presupposition, product, and dualism to the African Allmuseri tribe's holistic ideals of humility, process, and reciprocity.
Since the publication of Middle Passage in 1990, several critics have trumpeted Johnson's success in "decalcifying" not only Rutherford's but also readers' perceptions, including the sedimented reading habits that conventional literary realism has ingrained. These habits feature expectations of rounded characters, seemingly exhaustive details, narrative closure, and a chronological, well-ordered plot told with rational certainty in the past tense - all of which make for a passive reading experience, allowing witnessing of, but not participation in, the story. After explaining how Rutherford's log often "foregrounds discrepancies between narrative time and story time" and therefore becomes a "performative" text (as when characters - and readers - overhear Rutherford thinking aloud) (650), Daniel Scott states that "Middle Passage represents Calhoun's and the reader's odyssey into the middle - a middle of ambivalence, in-between-ness, contradiction, and indeterminacy" (654). "As a text," he continues, "Middle Passage crosses borders of containment and identity, eluding the false gods of fixity and resolution" (655). In similar terms, Molly Abel Travis describes how the various anachronisms and intertextual allusions in Rutherford's narrative "are performative" for readers who must supply the necessary context to make the references meaningful (187). For example, Captain Falcon's nightmare becomes comic for readers, as he explains to Rutherford: "'Crazy as it seems, I saw a ship with a whole crew of women. Yellow men were buying up half of America'" (Middle 145). As a result, Travis explains that "Johnson's textual reader is involved in a close, collaborative relationship with the narrator" (190). Ashraf H. A. Rushdy also interprets the relationship between Johnson's protagonist and the reader as close, collaborative, and holistic by the novel's end: "He is able to escape the trap of telling his story as if it were a possession and rather to tell his story as an Allmuseri griot might have done. . . . In the end, Rutherford writes an autobiography which is essentially dialogical" ("Properties" 104).
Although Scott, Travis, and Rushdy shed light on the nuances of Johnson's narrative techniques, further scrutiny reveals that Middle Passage ultimately reinstates (or reinscribes) in readers the very dualist, objectifying, and calcified "ways of seeing" it is designed to liberate. When discussing the human self, Johnson stresses that, "if there's any way to talk about it, it's as a verb and not a noun. . . It's a process but not a product" ("Interview" 162). Johnson attempts to embody this phenomenological philosophy in Rutherford Calhoun, but because of an elaborate pattern of metaphors and narrative techniques embedded in Middle Passage (as well as in some of Johnson's nonfiction), the author only manages to change the model of human perception based on finished products to one based on a series of distinct products, not to evoke his ideal of a process or "verb." A comparison of Johnson's narrative techniques with Morrison's reveals that Beloved is more successful in achieving the perceptual middle passage of readers.
Before exploring the embedded metaphors and techniques that belie Johnson's intentions, it is necessary to clarify both his and Morrison's notions of calcified perception. The most pronounced examples of Rutherford's perceptual progress involve his growing awareness of the contrast between healthy, unified, reciprocal perception of experience and dualist, objectifying perception embodied in the text by images of rigor mortis. Early in the novel, Rutherford is a naive ex-slave who only boards the Republic to avoid being financially forced into marriage. Inevitably "born to be a thief" by his own description as "a Negro in the New World" (47), he resigns himself to an either/or, have/have-not mentality. Thus he sinks "like a fish, or stone," down to sleep on the ship (21). But the Republic is, "from stem to stem, a process" (36), and thus will serve as the site of Rutherford's decalcification of perception or, in Husserlian terms (that Johnson often uses), the site of "phenomenological epoche, or 'bracketing' of all presuppositions in order to seize a fresh, original vision" (Being 5). Rutherford's first major revelation occurs when he learns of the crew's plan to mutiny against Captain Falcon. Significantly, he notices his "trouser legs, where the heat made the cloth stiff" (87), when realizing how binary systems of exploitation can be mutually oppressive:
All this time I stood motionless, unsure what to say. Silence, never doubt it, was equally a sin in their eyes - eyes I had seen before, I realized, under the sun-blackened brows of slaves: men and women who had no more at stake in the fields they worked than these men in the profits of a ship owned by financiers as far away from the dangers at sea as masters from the rows of cotton their bondmen picked. No less than the blacks in the hold these sea-toughened killbucks were chattel. (87)
Later, in a conversation in which Captain Falcon reveals his previous "appraisal" by one of the three wealthy speculators who own the Republic, Rutherford's epiphanies multiply: "Suddenly the ship felt insubstantial: a pawn in a larger game of property so vast it trivialized our struggles on board" (150).
Morrison's narrator similarly indicts the capitalist system's objectification of humans when Stamp Paid realizes that its concomitant racist ideology infects the oppressor as harmfully as the oppressed: "Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. . . . But it wasn't the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle white-folks planted in them. And . . . it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it" and "made them bloody, silly, worse" (198-99).(2) The system necessitates the oppressors' perceptual depravity as much as the physical exploitation of the oppressed: Garner's slaves are "minus women" and therefore "fuck cows" (11), while schoolteacher's nephews "handle" Sethe like she "was the cow" (200). The characters' rhetoric displays the system's objectification, as Stamp Paid asks of whites, "What are these people?" (180), and Ella insists that Paul D must know "'what'" Sethe is (188).
Rutherford's second major revelation in Middle Passage coincides with his perception of a dead slave's stiff body: ". . . the last stages of rigor mortis froze the body hunched forward in a grotesque hunker" (121). But as Rutherford is forced to "handle the dead" for the first time in his life and help heave the body overboard, he notices that much of the body is actually soft, "porous," and "moist" (123). In a moment of identification with the dead slave, Rutherford learns a new "way of seeing" the Allmuseri culture:
Stupidly, I had seen their lives and culture as timeless product, as a finished thing, pure essence or Parmenidean meaning I envied and wanted to embrace, when the truth was that they were process and Heraclitean change, like any men, not fixed but evolving and as vulnerable to metamorphosis as the body of the boy we'd thrown overboard. (124)
At this point, not only has Rutherford progressed to an understanding of how the capitalist system isolates and exploits (or divides and conquers) all involved, but he has applied this insight to his own perception of the world and finally seems to recognize the reciprocal, intersubjective nature of experience. After realizing that the crew and slaves mutually influence each other in myriad, often indecipherable ways, Rutherford purges himself of his former mind-set of thievery and exploitation: ". . . I cried for all the sewage I carried in my spirit, my failures and crimes, foolish hopes and vanities, the very faults and structural flaws in the blueprint of my brain (as Falcon put it) . . . "(127).
While Johnson merely displays how Rutherford Calhoun learns to "read" rigor mortis as analogous to his previously objectifying perception, Morrison uses shifting points of view to enable readers to experience and then reject perceptual rigor mortis. Narrated primarily from the perspectives of ex-slaves, Beloved centers on (and circles around) Sethe Suggs's maternal act of infanticide, an act that angers her community when white authorities come to reclaim her and her four children as slaves.(3) But even more terrifying and sensational for readers than this act of maternal excess is the narrative betrayal they suffer during the first ordered and seemingly exhaustive description of Sethe's action. Through a brief but jarring shift from African-American points of view to those of white slave masters, Morrison's elusive narrator shocks readers with pure racist ideology stated with rational certainty in a conventionally realist technique, creating an instructive and memorable contrast in narrative epistemologies.
The first fifteen unmarked sections of Part One of Beloved embody Morrison's goal of creating a "truly aural novel" that provides "many places and spaces for the readers to work and participate," to "fulfill" characterizations in a "humanizing" way (Conversations 108-09). In these sections, the traumatic memories of Sethe, Paul D, and Denver are fragmentary, circular, and revisionary bits that readers struggle to piece together. The ambiguity compels readers to cross perceptual boundaries and attempt to reinhabit the characters' psychological processes, as opposed to registering passively their thoughts and memories as finished products. But the sixteenth unmarked section confronts readers with perceptual rigor mortis and appropriately begins with symbolism of doom: "When the four horsemen came - schoolteacher, one nephew, one slave catcher and a sheriff - the house on Bluestone Road was so quiet they thought they were too late." The narrator immediately rigidities the racist point of view (and thereby the readers' perspective) by speaking in the voice of the slave catcher as he surveys the scene and looks for "fugitives": ". . . Sometimes, you could never tell, you'd find them folded up tight somewhere: beneath floorboards, in a pantry - once in a chimney" (148). The direct address to the readers as "you" suddenly assumes the unsuspecting readers' complicity in racist ideology. Also, the slave catcher's "us versus them" rhetoric enacts the "madness of multiplicity" that Johnson's Allmuseri fear so much: "The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell" (65). Morrison's narrator continues to describe the scene from the slave catcher's brutal, dehumanizing point of view, in which Stamp Paid is reduced to "a crazy old nigger" (149). Most troubling (but eventually enlightening) for readers is that this scene is not described in first person in quotation marks by the racist characters but in third person without quotation marks by Morrison's narrator, thus leaving no "space" for readers to question, converse with, or exit the racism permeating their experience of this section.
Following a cold, journalistic account of a "nigger woman" holding a bloody infant to her chest - indeed, the next version of this memory will be based on Stamp Paid's "official" newspaper clipping of the story - the narrator's point of view shifts to the schoolteacher's, and the perceptual rigor mortis intensifies, as schoolteacher, the disappointed property owner, sees "right off" that "there was nothing there to claim" (149). He views the bloody slaves as ruined livestock and blames his nephews' brutal treatment of the woman (they held her down and "stole" her milk from her breasts) for her drastic actions. Schoolteacher explains the "lesson" with rational certainty to one of his nephews: ". . . see what happened when you overbeat creatures God had given you the responsibility of - the trouble it was, and the loss" (150).
The narrative technique of master psychology in the scene continues as the narrator speaks from the nephew's point of view, but with a significant difference. Because he is young and his racism not yet fully ingrained, the nephew is affected by the scene of carnage. He "didn't know he was shaking" and cannot understand the black woman's reaction to his beating: "What she go and do that for? On account of a beating? Hell, he'd been beat a million times and he was white. . . . But no beating ever made him . . . I mean no way he could have . . . What she go and do that for?" (150). Ironically, the narrator's conflation of narrator, nephew, and readers in the "I" here seems to provide a "space" especially for the readers - from which to undermine or at least interrogate and converse with the racist ideology of the slave catcher and schoolteacher. But before the nephew (and readers) can "fulfill" this opportunity, the three "leave the sheriff" to take Sethe away. The sheriff's racist point of view closes the brief scene, as the narrator explains: "The nigger with the flower in her hat entered" (151).
It is significant that, immediately following a short break in the text, the fully humanizing, sympathetic narrative points of view and tone resume as if never suppressed: "Baby Suggs noticed who breathed and who did not and went straight to the boys lying in the dirt" (151). But this leaves readers reeling, having suffered through a horrific experience of master psychology that reappears only once more in the novel (226-27). The starkness of these brief sections of "onstage" narrative violence, or perceptual rigor mortis, enable readers to perceive the contrast between these sections and the "offstage," repressed, and fragmented memories they encounter throughout the rest of Beloved. Like Rutherford, Morrison's readers experience and learn from the differences between humanizing perception and calcified, objectifying perception that is again highlighted at the end of section sixteen: "The hot sun dried Sethe's dress, stiff, like rigor mortis" (153). In addition, Morrison's narrative techniques alert readers to their own perceptual rigor mortis in the form of reading habits involving passivity, separation from text, spectatorship, and the exclusion of middles.
Contrasts between perceptual rigor mortis and healthy intersubjectivity are also conveyed in both Middle Passage and Beloved through descriptions of sexuality. In Middle Passage, the first contrast is between Captain Falcon's rape of Tommy O'Toole, the cabin boy, and Tommy's subsequent euphoric fusion with the Allmuseri god kept in a crate by Falcon. When Rutherford and Cringle approach Falcon's cabin, they hear moaning and then see Tommy exit, "standing bowlegged as if his bum was cemented shut by dried semen, as it probably was" (26-27). This image of rigor mortis, however, contrasts sharply with Tommy's sublime encounter with the Allmuseri god: ". . . they were as a single thing: singer, listener, and song, light spilling into light, the boundaries of inside and outside, here and there, today and tomorrow, obliterated as in the penetralia of the densest stars, or at the farthest hem of Heaven" (69). The perceptual difference entailed by these two descriptions informs Rutherford's thinking by the end of his narrative. When he reunites with Isadora, he realizes that she is wearing a negligee "not for the man I was now but for the rogue in need of reforming I had been months ago" (205). After his perceptual transformation on the Republic, he no longer thinks in dualist terms of thievery and violation:
. . . my memories of the Middle Passage kept coming back, reducing the velocity of my desire, its violence . . . . I wanted our futures blended, not our limbs, our histories perfectly twined for all time, not our flesh. Desire was too much of a wound, a rip of insufficiency and incompleteness that kept us, despite our proximity, constantly apart, like metals with an identical charge. (208)
Rape and rigor mortis have given way to collaboration and flux, with the accompanying benefits of liberating perception from ingrained distinctions (and stereotypes of race, class, and gender, presumably). Rutherford's Middle Passage functions to "include middles" in his previously unquestioned perceptions, thereby adding healthy ambiguity to his judgments and fueling moral growth. Paul D and Sethe undergo a similar transformation in Beloved from the rape of "cows" to an emotionally fulfilling relationship that softens physical and psychological scars and enables the painful but therapeutic process of remembering the past. Like Rutherford by the end of his Middle Passage, Paul D by the end of Beloved "wants to put his story next to" Sethe's (273). A key difference, however, is that, whereas Johnson's Middle Passage restricts itself primarily to Rutherford's story, to the extent that Isadora's story does not exist, the structure of Morrison's Beloved always already places Paul D's story next to Sethe's, as well as many other characters' stories. Thus, the readers of Beloved are able to experience more closely the unified perception and middle passages that Rutherford can only tell them about via a calcified container, the ship's log.
Metaphors and techniques of containment, orientation, and seriality - all of which reinforce most readers' conventional expectations of clarity, consistency, and excluded middles - are so embedded(4) in Johnson's novel (and nonfiction) that Middle Passage ultimately reinscribes perceptual rigor mortis in its readers. The most prominent excluded middle of Johnson's narrative techniques is that between subject and object, or reader and text. Although any novel is inherently written already and therefore limited to a reader's imaginary participation, the distance between Rutherford's narrative and readers is highlighted by the novel's appearance as a written document, or ship's log. The ironic opening - "Entry, the first/ June 14, 1830" (1) - further emphasizes the dualist tension: Like Rutherford, the reader becomes a kind of thief who "breaks and enters" Rutherford's log, anticipating the distorted, exploitative form of intersubjectivity Rutherford espouses and Falcon practices with Tommy the cabin boy early in the novel. However, whereas Rutherford's Middle Passage will gradually teach him healthier perception of others, Johnson's Middle Passage forces readers to use nine consecutive "entries" into the ship's log throughout their reading experience, thus continually reinforcing a reading (and perceptual) model of separation, violation, and ownership (or lack thereof). Rutherford's log contrasts sharply with the "aural"(5) qualities of Beloved, which foregrounds its status as a "told" story by, among other aspects, the lack of formal divisions (or excluded middles) between sections and points of view.
Not surprisingly, the ship's log is a genre of writing belonging to those in control of the ship, and Rutherford's log is in fact a continuation, or revision, of Captain Falcon's log. Rutherford's perceptual progress in the novel closely parallels the evolution of his symbolic marriage to and divorce from Captain Falcon. Falcon the imperialist embodies the calcified perception Johnson opposes: He believes that "'dualism is a bloody structure of the mind'" (98); he "thrive[s] upon . . . the desire to be [a] fascinating object in the eyes of others" (33); he trusts no one; and he uses maps, charts, spyglasses, containers, and other forms of vigilance to control his surroundings (27). Thus, shortly after their voyage begins, Rutherford contemplates his similarities to Falcon: ". . . I saw something - or thought I did - of myself in him and hated that" (33). During their ensuing "marriage," Falcon entrusts Rutherford with the log, which to that moment had been filled with itemized lists of the ship's treasures, including the Allmuseri slaves.(6) Upon accepting responsibility for the log, Rutherford decides to revise it as a form of rebellion: "I took his logbook from the ruins. But I promised myself that even though I'd tell the story (I knew he wanted to be remembered), it would be, first and foremost, as I saw it since my escape from New Orleans" (146). Indeed, Rushdy reads Rutherford's journal as a "revolutionary" palimpsest that transforms a ship's log, or instrument of capitalist oppression, into a slave narrative, or instrument of self-liberation ("Properties" 99). However, the fact remains that readers continue to "enter" and re-enter the journal as outsiders throughout Rutherford's journey. Significantly, Johnson's novel, or "Calhoun's re-marked log" (Goudie 116), in its early stages, was called Rutherford's Travels, implying ownership and the lack of passage between the text and its readers, or nonparticipatory spectators.
In addition to the ship's log functioning as a (mostly nonporous) container for Rutherford s narrative, several of Rutherford's storytelling techniques provide epistemological comfort for readers that further emphasizes the excluded middle between readers and Middle Passage. For example, readers are immediately and regularly alerted to the story's status as retrospection, and therefore already determined and contained. The mainly past-tense account is full of transitional phrases like "as I shall tell you," "as you will learn," and "so it seemed at the time." Borrowing (and in part parodying) a convention of slave narratives, the narrator also assures readers that he is a trustworthy storyteller who will not lead them beyond "appropriate" boundaries: "How I fell into this life of living off others, of being a social parasite, is a long, sordid story best shortened for those who, like the Greeks, prefer to keep their violence offstage" (2). Rutherford also circumvents readers' anxiety by consistently orienting them through brief expositions of characters' histories (1, 5, 20, 23, 110) and spatial directions (27, 71, 86). Rutherford's containment of confusion appears most frequently in his telling the readers about his moments of disorientation, as opposed to showing the readers syntactically or typographically. Examples of these ordered descriptions of perceptual disorder include: "And there she left me, standing by the docks in a lather of confusion" (17); "The deck beneath me dipped and rose dizzily, and with that motion my center of gravity was instantly gone" (24); Falcon's "words spilled out in a rush of brilliant confusion" (34); ". . . I'd felt such dizzying entrapment - of being deprived of such basic directions as left and right, up and down . . ." (45); "Abruptly, all was confusion" (60); "My head went turngiddy" (105); and ". . . me whose head was half full of Allmuseri words . . . I felt culturally dizzy . . ." (142). Because the conventionality of these expressions "keeps the violence" of Rutherford's perceptual growth "offstage," they convey for readers only a fraction of the vertigo that Rutherford's Middle Passage entails. Rutherford's narrative techniques do not allow readers the opportunity to experience the perceptual disorder (or middle passage) necessary to decalcify perception.
These techniques differ sharply from most of the narrative strategies of Beloved. Far from a retrospective, controlled account of the characters' past and the Middle Passage, Beloved presents a thoroughly confusing, disjointed, and ambiguous story whose narrator is an elusive, roving, multivocal speaker(s) of relative omniscience who often inhabits characters in the first person and shifts tenses and levels of discourse unexpectedly like an unknown source of gossip. The first unmarked section immediately defies readers' expectations: "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom" (3). Morrison explains that "there is something about numerals that makes them spoken, heard, in this context, because one expects words to read in a book, not numbers to say, or hear." Also, numbers "have no adjectives, no posture of coziness or grandeur." Morrison considers the first sentence of Beloved "the first stroke of the shared experience that might be possible between the readers and the novel's population" ("Unspeakable" 31). Unlike Rutherford's "Entry, the first," Morrison's narrator provides for readers "no lobby, no door, no entrance - a gangplank, perhaps (but a very short one)" (32).
As the first section continues, transitional phrases are scarce, as on the first page when readers learn that "the grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead . . ." just before learning that "Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head" when her grandsons left 124 Bluestone Road (3). The readers of Beloved also confront "onstage" physical violence immediately, unlike Rutherford's conventional assurance that it will be kept "offstage" (2). Within the first eleven pages Morrison's narrator mentions "the baby's fury at having its throat cut" (5), "boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores" (6), and slaves "fucking cows, dreaming of rape" (11). Beloved does indeed present "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" (199). The narrator sometimes provides orientation for readers via brief expositions of characters' histories, but they are frequently delayed and incomplete.
Perhaps the most pointed contrast between Johnson's and Morrison's narrators is their representation of perceptual disorder. Whereas Rutherford contains confusion for readers by telling them about it retrospectively in well-ordered memories, Morrison's narrator recreates perceptual confusion through memories made present by techniques such as jumbled syntax and lack of punctuation (210-13), pronoun slippage (214-17), and shifting verb tenses (261, 275). Significantly, these narrative techniques are fully amplified in the section of the novel that most directly evokes the traumatic Middle Passage seemingly experienced by Beloved. As a result, readers experience a perceptual middle passage, a liminality that in many (inevitably limited) ways conveys the horror, disorientation, and lack of control suffered by slaves during the actual Middle Passage. The narrator adds to readers' lack of control or ownership of the narrative by refusing to resolve several mysteries - e.g. Halle's fate, Beloved's identity, and what happens to Beloved at the novel's end.(8) James Phelan "believes" that "Beloved herself is a paradigm case of the stubborn," or "recalcitrance that will not yield to our explanatory efforts" (714). Appropriately, Phelan resigns himself to language of flexible faith instead of rigid knowledge as he displays how Beloved has successfully decalcified his own potential for perceptual rigor mortis as a reader and critic: "The stubborn helps reveal the limitations of interpretation's desire for mastery. . . . In the spirit of that recognition, I offer the conclusions of this essay not as fixed, frozen, and beyond question but as working hypotheses about complex matters" (724).
The perceptual humility that Phelan expresses echoes Rutherford's new "way of seeing" by the end of Middle Passage:
Looking back at the asceticism of the Middle Passage, I saw how the frame of mind I had adopted left me unattached . . . . The voyage had irreversibly changed my seeing, made of me a cultural mongrel, and transformed the world into a fleeting shadow play I felt no need to possess or dominate, only appreciate in the ever extended present. (187)
But, unlike Phelan while reading Beloved, readers of Middle Passage remain in an "unattached," controlling mentality throughout their reading experience due to Rutherford's approach to storytelling.(9) Of course, it could be argued that Rutherford's controlling techniques early in Middle Passage reflect his unenlightened marriage to Falcon's dualist "frame" of mind. But like the journal "entries" that remind readers of their separation from the text, most of Rutherford's techniques continue through the final pages of the narrative. In the eighth of nine "entries," Rutherford continues to describe his disorienting perceptual middle passage in very ordered form: ". . . it's safe to say I was hardly in my right mind" (168); ". . . I cannot say I heard [Squibb] rightly through the natter and babble of voices in my head" (177); ". . . I was stunned, thrown back against a bulkhead, Squibb falling beneath me" (182). In the journal's final "entry," Rutherford also continues to provide interpretive guidance for readers - "as I shall soon explain" (185) and "(Soon I would know why.)" (192), a parenthetical move that further foregrounds his narrative control.
Rutherford's progression to perceptual liberation from Falcon's dualism climaxes in his meeting with the Allmuseri god. Trying to describe his experience of the inexplicable merger of his father and the god, Rutherford begins to articulate Allmuserian holism: ". . . for the life of me I could no more separate the two, deserting father and divine monster, than I could sort wave from sea" (168-69). This recalls his preceding description of Allmuserian behavior that "virtually rendered the single performer invisible - or, put another way, blended them into an action so common the one and many were as indistinguishable as ocean and wave" (166). As the humbling image of Rutherford's father, who Rutherford had mistakenly assumed to be a deserter, "folded . . . back into the broader, shifting field - as waves vanish into water - his breathing blurred in a dissolution of sounds and I could only feel that identity was imagined . . . . Suddenly I knew the god's name: Rutherford" (171).
At this point, Rutherford finally seems to embody the mutuality, unity, and simultaneity of Allmuserian perception. But a motif of seriality adds to the dualist containment techniques already mentioned that work against Rutherford's (and especially the readers') Allmuserian perception. Along with the serial journal entries, Rutherford establishes this motif when he describes the god's "gradual unfoldment before" him as a "seriality of images I could not stare at straight on but only take in furtive glimpses" (169). This notion of seriality conveys not a process of flux, reciprocity, and middle passage but a sequence of products, which again foregrounds separation between viewer and viewed, reader and text. Rutherford reinforces the exclusion of middles between entities in his description of Squibb's growing resemblance to the Allmuseri: "I felt perfectly balanced crosscurrents of culture in him, each a pool of possibilities from which he was unconsciously drawing, moment by moment, to solve whatever problem was at hand" (176). Significantly, each "pool of possibilities" is clear and distinct (in the Cartesian, dualist sense) from one another. Seriality also emerges toward the end of Rutherford's narrative in linear images that highlight connectedness, but not simultaneity(10): ". . . you cannot touch a single rope without altering the intricate tracery of the whole design" (152); for the Allmuserian griot, Rutherford's father constitutes a "single thread" of the "complete content of the antecedent universe" (169); and "Drowning, I saw my past spool by me . . ." (184). Even Rutherford's final articulation of his perceptual enlightenment via his Middle Passage displays residual calcification: ". . . I wanted . . . our histories perfectly twined for all time, not our flesh" (208). While Rutherford (and Johnson) may simply be unable to articulate Allmuserian perception through language of discrete letters, words, and sentences, the word twine reinforces the linear perception that readers of Middle Passage continue to "possess" upon finishing the novel.
But to claim that seriality counteracts Johnson's intentions of decalcifying readers' perceptions is not to argue that he uses the motif unwittingly. On the contrary, seriality is the focal point of Johnson's admittedly "quirky variations on phenomenology" (Being ix), in particular that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Johnson's phenomenology of perception hinges on serial profiles: "Things are given to us in profiles. Sides, angles, but not the entire thing . . . it is all of those perceptions, but only one of them can exist at a time before consciousness" ("Interview" 163). In a recent postscript to his republished article "A Phenomenology of the Black Body," Johnson states that "adequate" description of the black body can only be achieved "by examining an individual as he (or she) exhibits over time a series of profiles or disclosures of being. For a life is process, not product (or pre-given meaning). It more resembles the verb, not the noun" (612). But the problem with this model, especially when applied to readers' perceptions of Rutherford's written development, is that it presupposes a removed environment from which a detached subject (reader) can safely observe, "chart," and evaluate each serial profile of the object (text) without ambiguity or reciprocal influence. Thus, it reinscribes the dualist outlook of Captain Falcon and Rutherford the thief before his Middle Passage, leaving readers' perceptual habits, or "frozen intentionality" ("Phenomenology" 607), relatively intact by the novel's end. Whereas Rutherford experiences a middle passage of intersubjectivity, the narrative techniques of Middle Passage prevent readers from sharing that experience, contrary to Johnson's intentions.
While Johnson's "variations on phenomenology" drawn from many "Eastern and Western philosophers" (Being ix) tend to highlight seriality as the best method of including middles and "bridging false dualism" ("Phenomenology" 610), many phenomenologists, especially Merleau-Ponty, stress simultaneity as an effective route to ambiguity that decalcifies perception. While Morrison does not borrow from Merleau-Ponty in any way (she repeatedly cites African American oral tradition, ancestor influences, and communal ownership of narratives as sources of her narrative techniques), several of his statements seem to align phenomenology closer to Beloved than Middle Passage. For example, in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty explains that perception of a thing inevitably involves multiple contexts and angles, and therefore "we must seek an. understanding from all these angles simultaneously" (xix). Simultaneity includes middles: "The perceptual 'something' is always in the middle of something else, it always forms part of a 'field'" (4). This is Merleau-Ponty's "paradox of imminence and transcendence," two terms "not mutually exclusive" because what is perceived always consists of more than what is actually given (Yeo 40).
Although Beloved itself, as a written text, is limited to serial presentation, its narrative techniques of disorientation, incommensurability, and nonclosure help achieve the readers' sense of simultaneity embodied by the narrator's mixing of stories, Paul D's realization that "there are too many things to feel about this woman" (272), and Beloved's memories of the Middle Passage ("All of it is now . . . . it is always now" ). Thus, Beloved approaches the" 'good ambiguity' in the phenomenon of expression" that Merleau-Ponty (and Johnson's Allmuseri tribe) advocate: "a spontaneity which accomplishes what appeared to be impossible when we observed only the separate elements, a spontaneity which gathers together the plurality of monads, the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole" (Primacy 11). Merleau-Ponty's warning against "attending to" the object perceived instead of the "experience of perception" (Phenomenology 4) seems applicable to Johnson's narrative techniques in Middle Passage. Beloved, on the other hand, more closely fits Don Ihde's claim that "only a radical, phenomenological theory of variations can open up" the "sedimented habits" of human perception (73).
Another way to illustrate the perceptual differences between Middle Passage and Beloved is to apply Morrison's distinction between an interview and a conversation. She finds interviews one-sided, closed, and forgettable for both parties because of their planned, prescriptive format. But a "conversation" is "two people talking the kind of talk in which something of consequence is willing to be revealed; some step forward is taken; some moment or phrase flares like a lightning bug and both of us see it at the same time and will remember it the same way" (Conversations 216). In The Prose of the World, Merleau-Ponty expresses a similar sentiment: "When a conversation involves me and for a time gives me the feeling of really talking to someone, I forget none of it" (10). Although a written text cannot actually proceed as a conversation, the "aural" narrative strategies of Beloved come closer than Middle Passage to the simultaneity of memorable conversation. In fact, Rutherford's written narrative is filled with phrases addressing readers as reactive listeners: "Shameless, you say? Perhaps so" (4); "If you must know . . ." (17); "Please don't think poorly of me if I confess . . ." (95); "And how did your narrator fare? Little better than the ship's bravos, I confess" (161); "Do I exaggerate? Not at all" (168); "Now, what I am about to say must go no farther than the pages of this logbook" (175); "Don't care about that? Okay, we shall push on" (176). While these narrative tags often parody literary conventions, and in that sense "converse" with readers aware of the humor, they still have the cumulative effect of positioning readers as passive interviewers of Rutherford rather than active interlocutors.
But apart from these considerations, the differences between Johnson's and Morrison's narrative techniques of "middle passage" may ultimately spring from their disparate attitudes toward the novel and the slave narrative as genres. In Being & Race, Johnson recommends "honoring" both forms as cultural inheritances but updating them with "possibilities made real by this historical moment" (48). Morrison shares the desire to "extend, fill in and complement slave autobiographical narratives" ("Site" 120), but is less interested in honoring the form of the novel, in part because of its Western lineage and historical constraints. Consistent with the uncontained narrative strategies of Beloved, Morrison states that her novel "is outside most of the formal constricts of the novel" (qtd. in Gilroy 181). Considered in these terms, both Johnson's and Morrison's novels achieve their goals, as well as Johnson's definition of "memorable, enduring fiction": "imaginative storytelling reinforced by massive technique" (Being 67). But in terms of the readers' perceptual middle passage sought by both writers, Morrison's techniques of "onstage" perceptual violence are more successful in enabling readers, not just characters, to decalcify perception, include middles, and read their own rigor mortis.
1. Molly Abel Travis aptly describes the difficulties inherent in differentiating readers according to ethnicity, class, and gender: "What essentially does it mean, can it mean, to read as an African American? as a Latina? Such questions entangle us in the thorny issue of identity politics. Thus, the relationship between a theory of racial essentialism and reader-response theory can be characterized as a dialectic without resolution . . ." (179). As a result, I use the phrase conventional readers as a less-than-ideal label for the wide audiences reached by both of these novels.
2. Morrison echoes Stamp Paid's statements in an interview with Paul Gilroy: "Slavery broke the world in half, it broke it in every way. It broke Europe. It made them into something else, it made them slave masters, it made them crazy. . . . They had to dehumanize, not just the slaves but themselves. They have had to reconstruct everything in order to make that system appear true" (qtd. in Gilroy 178).
3. What angers Sethe's community even more than her infanticide is her pride, or arrogance, after committing the "crime." She remains utterly self-reliant, refusing to ask for help from the community. As punishment, they isolate 124 Bluestone Road.
4. Of course, the notion of an "embedded" metaphor is itself a metaphor suggesting solidity, fossilization, and containment. There seems to be no "escape" from metaphors of containment, as the discourse "in" this article and the conventions of academic criticism display.
5. While I would agree with Johnson that actually aural, "call-and-response" literature may be impossible due to the medium of writing ("Interview" 168), certainly there are ways of simulating the effects of call and response for readers. For examples, see Sale and Callahan. Rushdy notes that two of Johnson's short stories about slavery - "The Education of Mingo" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" - focus on "the concept of listening," as opposed to the emphasis on writing in Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage ("Phenomenology" 378).
6. In phenomenological terms applicable to the itemized lists in Falcon's log, Don Ihde states that a "tradition of notation can enhance discreteness, strict repetition, reproduction" (44). Morrison conveys the potential oppression of notation through several documents, but most effectively through schoolteacher's dualist notebook, in which the nephews are taught to list Sethe's" 'human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up'" (193). Sethe later realizes she" 'made the ink'" used in her own systematic oppression (271).
7. When discussing the effects that the metaphor of text-as-container has on composition students, Darsie Bowden explains that "containment already entails resistance to change. The text and its components become calcified" (375).
8. April Lidinsky refers to these unresolved mysteries as "the many gaps. . . that the text leaves strikingly open, underlining the impossibility of a totalized narrative" (193). Her use of strikingly evokes the perceptual violence Morrison's readers must endure in order to decalcify, gradually, their perception.
9. Although I disagree with Travis's claim that Beloved is "more accommodating" than Middle Passage to the "institutionalized reading desires and needs" of academic critics "to consolidate themselves through the other" (193), she does come close to articulating how Morrison's novel more successfully includes perceptual middles for readers: "Johnson's narrator is a time traveler, the one doing the cross-dressing. Morrison, on the other hand, requires the reader to cross over" (193).
10. A similar tension between seriality and simultaneity arises in Johnson's Oxherding Tale, as Andrew Hawkins's humbling perceptual development enables him to see things anew: ". . . so many profiles of Minty spun before me, like flashcards . . ." (166). But this seriality of images contrasts with Reb's Allmuserian, simultaneous perception, as the Soulcatcher explains: "'Befo', afterwards, and in between didn't mean nothin' to him' "(174).
Bowden, Darsie. "The Limits of Containment: Text-as-Container in Composition Studies." College Composition and Communication 44 (1993): 364-79.
Callahan, John F. In the African-American Gain:Call-and-Response in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. 1988. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1990.
Gilroy, Paul. Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Culture. London: Serpent's Tail, 1993.
Goudie, S. X. "'Leavin' a Mark on the Wor(l)d': Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage." African American Review 29 (1995): 109-22.
Ihde, Don. Consequences of Phenomenology. Albany: State U of New York P, 1986.
Johnson, Charles. Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.
-----. "An Interview with Charles Johnson." By Jonathan Little. Contemporary Literature 34.2 (1993): 159-81.
-----. Middle Passage. New York: Atheneum, 1990.
-----. Oxherding Tale. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.
-----. "A Phenomenology of the Black Body." Michigan Quarterly Review 32 (1993): 598-614.
Lidinsky, April. "Prophesying Bodies: Calling for a Politics of Collectivity in Toni Morrison's Beloved." The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison. Ed. Carl Plasa and Betty J. Ring. New York: Routledge, 1994. 191-216.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962.
-----. The Primacy of Perception. Ed. James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1964.
-----. The Prose of the World. Ed. Claude Lefort. Trans. John O'Neill. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
-----. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Ed. Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.
-----. "The Site of Memory." Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton, 1987. 101-24.
-----. "Unspeakable Thoughts Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.
Phelan, James. "Toward a Rhetorical Reader-Response Criticism: The Difficult, the Stubborn, and the Ending of Beloved." Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 709-28.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. "The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery." African American Review 26 (1992): 373-94.
-----. "The Properties of Desire: Forms of Slave Identity in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage." Arizona Quarterly 50.2 (1994): 73-108.
Sale, Maggie. "Call and Response as Critical Method: African American Oral Traditions and Beloved." African American Review 26 (1992): 41-50.
Scott, Daniel M., III. "Interrogating Identity: Appropriation and Transformation in Middle Passage." African American Review 29 (1995): 645-55.
Travis, Molly Abel. "Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critic's Essentialism." Narrative 2.3 (1994): 179-200.
Yeo. Michael. "Perceiving/Reading the Other: Ethical Dimensions." Merleau-Ponty, Hermeneutics, and Postmodernism. Ed. Thomas W. Busch and Shaun Gallagher. Albany: State U of New York P, 1992. 37-52.
Vincent A. O'Keefe is a Dissertation Fellow in the Department of English at Loyola University in Chicago. His dissertation explores the narrative consequences of contemporary novels that memorialize historical trauma.
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|Author:||O'Keefe, Vincent A.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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