Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"This Delta": Landscape, Race, and American Narrative

Antonio Ruíz, El sueño de Malinche ("The Dream of Malinche").

What follows is basically a place-holding post because I don't have time just now to explore all its various directions (one of which, you may have guessed, is indicated by the Ruíz painting at the beginning of this post). The road to Austin, and a Christmas-weekend visit with my mother, calls. But I'll be working out these ideas in various ways next week.

In the meantime, best wishes to all for a peace-filled and joyous Christmas season.

The holidays for me have come to mean, in addition to those things they are supposed to mean, both sacred and secular, the chance to do further reading/writing/thinking on my book project. So it's been in that spirit that I've been doing some reading I've long been needing to do--in particular, Edouard Glissant's seminal study, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. It's been in reading Glissant's dense but provocative writing that I've been reminded of some critical preoccupations of my own, which has made the past few days rewarding for me.

Some of you may remember Glissant's name from my discussions of his book Faulkner, Mississippi here and here. And indeed, Faulkner--in particular his novel Absalom, Absalom!--gets passing mention, along with other writers from this hemisphere. Despite its title, in Caribbean Discourse Glissant is in fact laying out an alternative literary and cultural history of the Americas, one that does not serve merely as an extension or branch of European history but is distinct from it: "[A] national literature emerges when a community whose collective existence is called into question tries to put together the reasons for its existence" ("Cross-Cultural Poetics," 104). The United States and most other nations in this hemisphere, by this definition, have national literatures, but Glissant's primary audience is his native Martinique and those other Caribbean nations that are cultural and economic wards of the European nations that had once possessed them as colonies.

Here's a passage I've spent some time musing on:

An immediate consequence of [New World writers' rejection of realism in favor of magical realism, as exemplified by Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude] can be found in the function of landscape [author's italics]. The relationship with the land, one that is even more threatened because the community is alienated from the land, becomes so fundamental in this discourse that landscape in the work stops being merely decorative or supportive and emerges as a full character. Describing the landscape is not enough. The individual, the community, the land are inextricable in the process of creating history. Landscape is a character in this process. Its deepest meanings need to be understood. ("Cross-Cultural Poetics," 105-106)

Some comments below the fold.

This intersects in intriguing, complicated ways with Ralph Ellison's central contention in "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," which you can find in his essay collection Shadow and Act, and which I've posted on before:

Thus on the moral level I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and scene upon which and within which the action unfolds. If we examine the beginning of the Colonies, the application of this view is not, in its economic connotations at least, too far-fetched or too difficult to see. For then the Negro's body was exploited as amorally as the soil and climate. It was later, when white men drew up a plan for a democratic way of life, that the Negro began slowly to exert an influence upon America's moral consciousness. (28)

There's not an exact equivalence here between Glissant and Ellison, but they are certainly headed in the same direction. One reason why they don't quite arrive in the same place, as it were, is in Ellison's own "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," another well-known essay in Shadow and Act. In it, one of his arguments is that American culture is in essence one big minstrel show, and makes this provocative statement in its midst: "When American life is most American it is apt to be most theatrical" (54). Given that Ellison wrote all these essays at the mid-point of the 20th century, one needs to remember that context and qualify accordingly. But the fact that Ellison does not talk about miscegenation in these essays, at least, except in their cultural manifestations, suggests to me that racial commingling can be talked about as a figurative equivalent to landscape: that is, it as fact/consequence creates a resistance to dominant (read: European) narratives in the same way that landscape did (and does?)--indeed, a quick re-read of Hortense Spillers' important essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book" (pdf file; it's long and dense reading, just so you know) both updates Ellison's "Twentieth-Century Fiction" and, in places, uses language strikingly similar to Glissant's.

Faulkner, for all these writers, is central in these matters, and "this Delta," a phrase Ike McCaslin uses near the close of "Delta Autumn," seems to embody for me that centrality: it's the delta's literal fecundity that makes slavery flourish . . . but it is also the fecundity of human bodies, black and white, who work the land that leads to what Faulkner (through Ike) understood as the dooming of the South.

As I said above, I don't have time to develop what I see as the implications of all this, so I'll do no more than list them here. The most significant thing for me is that, at long last, I have in this image of landscape-as-character a frame for the book-project which in various ways will allow me to unify some otherwise disparate materials and genres: Columbus mis-reading the Caribbean because his map is (a literal reading of) the Bible; casta paintings (and even the Virgin of Guadalupe herself) as depictions of a cultural landscape that the Church and Crown wanted to read in one way but Mexicans grew to read in another; a way to finally make sense of the very odd things regarding the treatment of race in Show Boat (some of which I addressed here long ago).

This listing feels very inadequate to me, but I hope it may pique some curiosity among my reader(s) for later posts.

And to those of you who read this far: Thank you and, again, a blessed holiday season to you and yours.


R. Sherman said...

First, Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Second, there's a lot going on in this post. As far as the "landscape as character" question, what's interesting is that because the New World's nativity was based on exploitation of the land, with the accompanying exploitation of Africans and Native Americans in so doing, in order to extract the agricultural and mineral wealth from the land. In this decades or even centuries long process the Europeans became more "native," at least in terms of the viewpoint, i.e. "west" into the unknown landscape, versus east to Europe.

In that sense, what we take for granted now was really foreordained the moment Europeans set foot on this hemisphere.

I'm probably full of crap, of course. Thus, I need to think about this some more, and I look forward to your next post

John B. said...

A belated thanks and Christmas greeting to you and yours, Randall.

And, Yes to your comments: Whether we're reading the early writings of the Puritans or the French or the Spaniards or Portuguese, they were not blind to these new lands' newness, for lack of a better way of putting it, but they did seem blind to the possibility that these lands (and, of course, their interactions with indigenous populations and, later, the Africans they brought here) would change them so utterly that, within a century (or three, in the case of Latin America), they'd become something other than European. They thought they'd remain European in essence, but purified of the Old World's corruption.

You're right, of course: we here are so accustomed to thinking that we in this place are different from the rest of the West that it's difficult to imagine that it was once otherwise with our forebears. But in places like the South and Mexico, where cultural integration has been a self-evident fact for centuries, it's precisely the fact that total integration is still a work in progress that we can see traces of that much-more-contentious, violent, hemisphere-wide past: just like the Plaza de las tres culturas in Mexico City . . . or, for that matter, all those beautifully-preserved antebellum houses in the South whose docents try to keep curiosity about their servants to a discreet minimum.