On Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

by vinnyhaddad


Note: Reminder, these are more or less notes for a Qualifying Exam, therefore meant primarily to synthesize different texts/approaches rather than provide in-depth analysis. Provided time, I will most likely add a section on to this in the near future on Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Postmodernism seemingly has as many strains within literature as it does outside of literature. One of the issues that literary critics have had in defining postmodernism as a distinct literary period is its distinguishing particular characters of highly experimental novels from the literary field as a whole: “Authors like Barth, Burroughs, and Gaddis were clearly producing recognizably postmodern texts in the 1950s, and postmodernism’s prominence in the1970s and 1980s was visible not only in syllabuses and academic journals but also, for instance, in the postmodern turn taken by a decidedly nonacademic author like Philip Roth. Even at its high point, however, postmodernism-—and in particular the form of postmodernism defined around self-conscious literary experimentalism—was not the only or even always the dominant player on the literary field” (Hoberek, 235-236).  Furthermore, as Andrew Hoberek points out, “While American fiction after 1945 had clearly departed from the modernist path (unlike painting, where abstract expressionism constituted an Americanized extension of the modernist revolution), neither did it offer a clear alternative to modernism” (234). This lack of ontological clarity is exemplified by the initial inclination of Irving Howe (the first to use the phrase postmodern in relation to literature) to see authors like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and J.D. Sallinger providing the evidence of a break between pre-1945 and post, writers that have not since been held up as postmodern barons. A problem with literary periodization, particularly unmanageably large ones like modernism/postmodernism, is the ways that, in their employment, literature comes to be too easily made synonymous with the social and historical contexts in which they are produced. The likelihood that modernist texts be reduced to sexological or psychoanalytic diagnoses is comparable to the likelihood that Cold War-era novels be reduced to expressions of paranoia or commentaries on historicity, as opposed to, for example, issues of economic inequality (postwar boom is taken on faith to have absolved literature from registering historical inadequacies in this area). Andrew Hoberek argues that it is a mistake, when talking about postmodernism and periodization, to “confuse aesthetic questions about literary form with sociological ones about the constituencies of such form” (233). This observation seems to align itself with the Formalist position on the evolution of literary style that experimental writing, or writing particularly ripe with “literariness,” generically moves to the center of the literary field, becoming less literary and requiring a new literature to come and defamiliarize its formal techniques. Literary fiction, then, pilfers its eclectic elements from “lesser” forms, like Dosteovsky had done with whodunit stories, and attains its value by de-familiarizing what readers have naturalized about those styles formally and their everyday manifestations culturally. It is also necessarily subject to lose this quality of literariness over time, it is not, as is popularly perceived, an element inherent to the text at all. Of course, this seemingly banal phrase “over time” has been noted as one of the wedges between Marxist and Formalist literary methods, the former adopting a methodology of symptomatic reading that takes into account the ideological and economic forces that come to bear on these shifts in aesthetic practices (see Terry Eagleton). However, understanding literature in this way depends on recognizing the autonomous nature of the literary field, as well as also seeing the ways in which sociological and historical forces come to be registered and narrated by the aesthetic practices of novels themselves. This is precisely what, sometimes unfortunately, encourages critics to focus on experimental poststructuralist novels as the primary evidence of what they see as symptomatic of “postmodernism” writ large, just as the stream-of-conciousness novels of Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf become analogs for Modernism. What seems worth noting is that, in a similar way to Formalism’s mutually buoyant relationship with Mayakovsky’s Futurism in the late 1910s, postmodern literature has been oft-viewed as a “critical fiction,” one sanctioned and initially taken up by critics like Leslie Fiedler and Ihab Hassan, then institutionalized by journals like Boundary 2 and major works by Linda Hutcheon, Frederic Jameson and Brian McHale (Hoberek, 235). As the highly experimental postmodern literature called into question the grand narratives of History and the ways in which we have naturalized stories themselves, African-American literature, it seemed, stood to both gain and lose tremendously in, what Linda Hutcheon termed, the complicitous critique of postmodernism. Its critique[1] is relatively clear: postmodern art noticeably de-naturalizes the “dominant features of our way of life” as in fact always merely cultural. In this context, postmodernism might be read as a skipped record of Formalism, taken up formally by art and institutionalized by poststructuralist theorists. This is not a dismissal of deconstruction, but an observation of a similar co-mingling and inter-penetration between a particular literary form and a theoretical garde in academia. Hutcheon goes on to argue that, for this reason, postmodern critique is also complicit: “Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine” (4). This co-mingling and interpenetration between postmodern art and poststructuralists can also be read as a rival in the literary field to a synchronic rising market for African-American literature, as well as other fiction bound-up in identity politics. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), viewed comparatively, illuminate the stakes of African-American literature’s risky tryst with postmodernism through the fine line between the denaturalization of history and story and the necessary reminder that not only is history real, but that history hurts.

Mumbo Jumbo, I think, clearly aligns with conventional expectations of the “postmodern” literary genre. It lacks substantial characters (particularly in relation to “character” being that most sought-after lost-thing that Franzen and others seek to restore following postmodernism), its nonlinear plot self-consciously calls attention to the ways in which stories can or ought to be narrated, it mixes media (including images that are often non-sequitur with the literary content). Having now read Mumbo Jumbo several weeks ago, and those that have undergone the QE experience can attest, it has blurred together in an amazingly speedy fashion. But, as Teju Cole so eloquently tweeted, “What you read quickly you forget. What you read slowly you remember. What eludes your reading becomes a part of you by other means.” I think Mumbo Jumbo, by design, falls into that latter category, becoming a part of you “by other means.” The (narratable) narrative centers on a revolutionary group of multicultural bandits who aim to retrieve all of the art of their ancestors pilfered and displayed in Western museums and return them to their rightful place. Concurrently, a mad dance epidemic (a psychic edpidemic) called Jes Grew is spreading across the United States and has the potential to reproduce and proliferate across borders, putting all of Western civilization in jeopardy. Ultimately, though, in what stands out as fairly representative of the “postmodern” novel, the book spirals into a conspiratorial recasting of history as a feud between the Mu’tafikah and the Templar Knights. In the jumbled unraveling of the conspiracy by Papa Labas at the very end of the novel, the concept of “mumbo jumbo” returns. A Guianese art critic dismissing Papa Labas’s entire account of History states, “In times of social turbulence men like you always abandon reason and fall back upon Mumbo Jumbo” (195). Mumbo Jumbo, as the novel makes clear at in the opening pages, is a “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away.” In other words, in times of upheaval, those that History has made outcasts and exploited, seek out a form of magic to disavow History altogether. And yet, as the repeated Freudian analysis that occurs throughout the novel suggests, this disavowal of History is not magical at all, but depends upon an unearthing, a return and recognition of those social conditions and institutionalized powers that have put their misery in preparation. What is remarkable about Mumbo Jumbo is its masterful intertwining of critiques of history, politics and art. The autonomy of art, as represented by the museums that set aside the beautiful relics of Eastern, African and Native-American cultures alongside bourgeois 19th century European paints, fails to recognize the ways in which art is also bound up with all of our daily activities (as most of those ancient pieces are both aesthetic and functional). Postmodern art, as conceived by Mumbo Jumbo, is not merely reflexive of its playfully ironic and metafictional techniques, but is actively seeking a method in which history can be brought to the fore, speculated and analyzed, touched.

I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved more slowly, more delicately, and wish I could write more about it than I am about to. What I think is beneficial about looking at these texts comparatively is the formal disparity between the texts, and yet their similar interests in retaining a memory of history from the more playfully destructive postmodern novels. Beloved samples techniques of the 19th century sentimental novels and slave narratives in order to construct both a harrowing account of slavery (as a trace in memories) and de-naturalize the ways in which we have read these stories as accessible, knowable, narratable. Its hard not to point out the forceful paratexts of the book; the first page has a 18th-19th century-style frontispiece, except, instead of the traditionally “authorizing” portrait, Beloved’s frontispiece is a caricature of a black face with wings (transcendent?). Also, unlike the usual white male voice that authorizes many slave narratives (as true, as worthy, as significant) Morrison follows the frontispiece with (among other significant elements) a powerful foreword in which she authorizes her own work and discusses her formal experiment of de-limiting the story of a historical figure in order to make it her own.

The ways in which the narrative, then, demands that a reader “read-into” the text because of its constructed undecidability surrounding Beloved’s ghost constantly draws our attention back towards Morrison herself and her (playful!? of course this no longer the applicable term) deconstruction and subsequent reclamation of history. The magical realism of Beloved, as it is commonly called, is both, in this case, an act of empowerment and an act of mourning. In this way, Beloved resembles what Georg Lukacs argues as vital to revolutionary literature and inherent in a “good” historical novel: the aim to “reflect historical contradictions and not to conjure them away through an excess of revolutionary optimism” (Bennett, 30). Lukacs, of course, famously disregarded formal differences in his analysis of the novel in a somewhat monomaniacal quest for such literature. What is stylistic, in this case, remains significant, however. The utter destruction of (happy) alternatives for Sethe, the ways in which happiness is blocked entirely as a real, rather than magical or imaginary, is re-presented not through a mimetic experience of this blocked happiness, but an absorptive, emotionally charged unearthing of the thing-ness of Beloved’s ghost. The ways in which this is then narrated to us, made visible to us by these markers of the text as both historical and postmodern, is both uncomfortable and enjoyable, sad and engaging. Morrison does not subvert narrative through the same metafictional techniques that Reed employs in Mumbo Jumbo, but similarly problematizes the status of narrative as a clear, mimetic window into history and the Other. Beloved is both revolutionary and self-conscious of its status as such. It is both a critique of the ways in which history is mediated to us through traces, memories, and ghosts, and complicit in retaining the power of narrative to produce the shudder necessary for collectivity.

[1] That postmodern literature is a “critique” is not itself a given. As Linda Hutcheon points out, her discussion of politics and representation “[goes] against a dominant trend in contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmodern is disqualified from political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility” (3). While, in my experience, Hutcheon’s version of the politics of postmodernism has become a dominant itself (particularly her concept of historiographic metafiction and her discussion of Midnight’s Children as highly political), a particular stigmatization of “postmodern” novels as dismissive in the recent “affective turn” has been taken up by Rachel Greenwald Smith as also needing repair.