A forum for us to revisit our conversations and take them further.
Sept 3, Equinao, Interesting Narrative
We began with a discussion of slavery first through a regional lens, and then a combination of oceanic and hemispheric networks. Slavery first appears in The Interesting Narrative as a customary practice in Equiano’s Igbo village, a foil perhaps to the large-scale, circum-Atlantic phenomenon that supersedes it, but perhaps there are some continuities as well? The oceanic/hemispheric paradigm involves many trips back and forth across the Atlantic; it also involves many trips back and forth between the Americas, with the Caribbean emerging as a crucial point of transit. Traffic in slaves was driven by regional differentiations – slavery in Georgia or South Carolina was quite different from slavery in Montserrat or St. Kitts; the exchange of slaves for commodities flourished on just that basis.
We discussed Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic in this context — the ship is indeed central, as he claims. For Equiano, the ship – even the slave ship — was not just a site of unimaginable suffering; it was a vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge. His path from freedom to slavery and finally back to freedom is a very much an Enlightenment narrative in this sense: brutalization and education work in tandem. Even the “iron machine” in the mouth of a slave is an object of wonder to some extent.
There other narratives as well, parallel to and qualifying the Enlightenment narrative. We discussed Equiano as the composite effect of these converging, and often conflicting, genres. Spiritual redemption, capital accumulation, Englishness, competence at sea, the language of rights, of law and order — all these generate narrative arcs of their own. Each of them, however, seems to fall short in some critical instance. Disappointments and promises not kept are recurring themes as well. Together, they open up a default space, a space where insurrection isn’t ruled out and can’t be ruled out, if only because of the inadequacy of existing narratives. Equiano’s quotation from Paradise Lost — featuring Satan’s words urging insurrection — highlights just this volatility of his seascape.
September 10, Melville, Moby-Dick
We began our discussion thinking about Queequeg. We talked briefly about Geoffrey Sanborn’s “Melville’s Furious Life.” We discussed Queequeg’s greatness and the potential optimism it suggests, and we considered an alternative reading of Moby Dick that revolves around Queequeg and not the usual suspects. This led us to question the “centrality” of his character: is he marginal? We then suggested that there was something lacking in Sanborn’s reading and concluded that it could have been more complete if it had compared Queequeg to the other marginal characters in the novel (Tashtego, Dagoo and, especially, Fedallah—whose portrait we then examined). We wondered what made these other characters less eminent than Queequeg, and suggested that perhaps Melville was not in favour of 19th century Chinese mercantilism, basing this claim on Melville’s bleak portrayal of Fedallah.
Afterwards we considered the “distributive possibilities” of the whale, and decided that each character has a different view of its stakes. Ishmael has a more visceral, tactile, democratic (and perhaps humane view) of what the whale has to offer—a conclusion we arrived to after carefully discussing the “squeeze, squeeze” passage. We suggested that the whale’s whiteness was Ahab’s stake, but also intimated the possibility that for Ahab the whale could not be broken-up—a direct consequence of his all-or-nothing way of seeing the world. This led us to a more profound discussion of Ahab’s monomania, which we concluded was an inefficient yet all-encompassing engine that absorbs everything and relents nothing.
Intermittently we discussed the coupling of characters in the novel. This led us to an extensive comparison between Pip and Ahab. We argued that if Ahab has a totalizing view of the world, Pip’s view is totally unaccounted for in the world. The latter lacks the subjectivity that the former has in excess (“who’s seen Pip the coward?”). We also briefly discussed the pre-historical ambitions of the novel, as well as the symbolic importance of the circle and the line.
Fascinating suggestion that an over-zealous commitment to the idea of “integrity” — territorial integrity, biological integrity, the integrity of a literary text — could be as destructive as Ahab’s “all-or-nothing” conception of Moby-Dick…
September 17, Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Wai Chee began class with a set of broad themes to be investigated: what constitutes the regional in the context of For Whom the Bell Tolls; the confluence and also disjunction between local knowledge and global technology in the novel, and the largely parallel confluences and disjunctions of traditional and modern warfare; and the presence of the American Civil War as what Appadurai might term an “intercontext” for the Spanish Civil War, together with the racial dynamics it raises.
We began our discussion, accordingly, by focusing on Robert Jordan’s watch and Pablo’s horses, as well as the planes that may have spotted the horses. We asked how the novel tries, manages, and/or fails to map the killing of humans onto the killing of animals, and looked at the many times when horses appear to be at fault for characters’ suffering. Pablo seems to route his sense of self through the possession of horses, while Anselmo disassembles and cares for parts of animals he has hunted—in a similar way, perhaps, to how Robert Jordan hangs onto physical remnants of his grandfather’s Civil War and Indian War days. Jason described a phenomenology of non-human things in the novel, where characters have to be looking for an animal or object in order for it to appear to them. We then shifted from horses to planes, and considered how Anselmo and Robert Jordan interpret Franco’s fighters as loyalist Moscas. Here a kind of brute facticity—they simply aren’t Moscas, and Robert Jordan can’t help knowing it—imposes itself on the potential subjective freedom to interpret the world.
Following on last week’s discussion of the circle and the line in Moby Dick, we then thought about the lines the peasants form when driving the fascists off the cliffs in their village (probably modeled on Ronda). The lines provide an orderly form for the expression of violence, which then deteriorates into the formlessness of the mob. Hemingway here shoehorns in his racial comparisons of Spain and the U.S., introducing the lynching in Ohio as a quasi-parallel to the drunken disorder of the mob. At the same time, Hemingway reconfigures standard regional stereotypes of the U.S. by locating a ‘Southern’ form of violence in the Midwest. Maria’s comparison of North Africans fighting for Franco with African-Americans in Ohio—“Unless the Moors are Negroes”—at once makes oddly light of the lynching Robert Jordan has narrated and calls up the racial and ideological complexity of each side in the Spanish Civil War. This complexity is echoed in the novel’s conclusion, when Robert Jordan, who has resisted Marxist dialectics but fights under a Soviet general for the Spanish Republic, prepares to confront, mano-a-mano (or maquina-a-maquina), Lt. Berrendo, who fights for the Fascists but is himself a Carlist and is motivated more by personal attachment to his friend Julian.
We closed by considering how and why Hemingway works to map the American Civil War onto the Spanish Civil War. We thought about American Civil War historiography, with its emphasis on individual generals, in connection with Robert Jordan’s individualistic last stand in the novel. We considered the rise of technologically modern warfare, with the introduction of primitive machine guns in the 1860’s and the first large-scale use of air power in the 1930’s. And we considered the intense mediation between Robert Jordan and Golz, in contrast to the personal fight Robert Jordan seems to want. (In this connection, Golz may appear as the true tragic hero of the novel, resigned to let things be.) The bombardment signals to Robert Jordan at a great distance, combining the local and the world-historical scales of the narrative through cutting-edge military technology—this resonates, Wai Chee said, with Jameson’s claim that modernity resists cognitive mapping (it might resonate as well, I think, with Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Space and Time, which emphasizes the overriding of local time with national time in modernity, as here Robert Jordan’s time is set remotely by the bombardment).
Finally, we thought about the circle: the circular, or perhaps spiral, form of the novel, with Robert Jordan laying down at the beginning and the end, and the steadily expanding circle of Pip’s horizon in Moby Dick as an aqueous parallel to the terrestrial expansion of the self into others implied by Donne’s epigraph to For Whom the Bell Tolls, “No man is an Iland… It tolls for thee.”
I’m struck by your discussion of the dynamics of self-definition routed through nonhuman objects: horses for Pablo, Civil War and Indian Wars relics for Robert Jordan, animal parts for Anselmo. These nonhuman signifying ecologies are probably the richest semantic fields in this novel. The obverse of these signifying ecologies is the “brute facticity” — helplessly experienced by Robert in the form of the Fascist planes, and making Golz arguably the “true tragic hero” — as you counterintuitively and stunningly suggest.
September 24, Hughes
I started the class with my presentation on the Hughes readings. I explained how the geo-cultural category of the Midwest, when defined as a regionalism, fails to produce a coherent canon, but when interpreted as a locality or localism, offers a new and interesting story about global literary histories. In that context, I introduced Hughes as a Midwestern writer, born in Joplin, Missouri, raised in Lawrence, Kansas, and educated in Illinois and Ohio. I asked, “what does it mean to read Hughes as a Midwestern writer and as a coordinate in a Midwestern localism?” To offer a tentative answer, I outlined two tropes in Hughes’s work that open up a Midwestern—and a postcolonial—reading: diaspora and the colonial library. I hypothesized that three different topologies followed from these tropes: the inland sea, riparian time, and bohemia. As an invitation to think about the links between Hughes and postcoloniality, I read the beginning passage from Hughes’s autobiography The Big Sea, in which he throws his schoolbooks into the ocean.
After a conversation about Hughes and the Midwest, including detours into questions about country / city and rural / urban networks, the problem of importing a postcolonial hermeneutic into a study of Hughes, the relationship between Hughes and Russia, and the possibility of a ‘queer Hughes,’ we turned to Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” We discussed Ira Dworkin’s article, which situates the poem in contemporary debates about the Congo, and touched on the poem’s Mississippian dimensions. Then, we transitioned to Hughes’s autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter. We focused on the dance hall chapter, specifically, the importance of jazz and blues as a mode of expression and site of experience. The status of color as an indicator of race led us from the novel to Hughes’s Simple Stories. We traced Hughes’s aestheticization of race as well as the critical potential of humor. Moving from Hughes’s genealogy in The Big Sea to the representation of the ‘one drop rule’ in his stories, we tested the empirical reality of race in Hughes’s work. The Mexican episodes in The Big Sea were a productive source for this conversation, as we considered the relative significance and historical durability of race in different geographies. To conclude this section of the class, we read the moment in The Big Sea where Hughes tries to make a purchase at a kiosk in St. Louis after spending some time in Mexico. The clerk asks him whether he is a ‘Mexican or a Negro,’ and Hughes chooses the latter. We used this passage to search for connective tissue between race, geography, and a nationalism or national identity.
At the end of class, we turned to Hughes’s writings on Spain, in particular, Hughes’s journalism, his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, and his poem “Letter from Spain Addressed to Alabama.” We compared Hughes’s sketches of the Spanish Civil War to Hemingway’s, returning to the question of the Moor. Hughes frequently comments on the racial status of Moors, setting them as an example of a possible internationalism, pan-Africanism, or race solidarity across and against national or political lines.
The range of our conversation across Hughes’s work indicates its generic diversity and complexity. Few writers have achieved such an international presence and have yet been typecast, as the dust jacket of the Langston Hughes Reader suggests, as ‘an unchallenged spokesman of African Americans.’ In my presentation, I hoped to present an alternative narrative of Hughes in the world—a Hughes constituted by but defined against a provincial interior. Our discussion of Hughes’s identity—queer, black, African, American, international—pointed to the impossibility of fixing Hughes as a static character in a story about American literature. Instead, class this week formulated a flexible and dynamic Hughes capable of creating and enunciating different identities that traverse regional, national, and racial categories.
An international figure defined against a provincial interior is the most interesting argument about Hughes I’ve seen for a long time. And perhaps more than one provincialism – Mexico, Haiti, and Spain are all “provincial” in their own ways, so perhaps the broader paradigm is one of “linked provincialisms.” Some contemporary authors (such as J. M. Coetzee) also occupy both sides of the spectrum in this way — I can see an entirely new lineup of American authors, and “world” authors, based on this paradox.
October 1, African-American Ezra Pound
We met at the Beinecke, and spent half the class looking at the material from the Hughes and Pound collections, put together by curators Melissa Barton and Nancy Kuhl — including manuscript pages of the Pisan Cantos with Chinese characters; postcards sent by Hughes from Haiti; and the correspondence between Hughes and Nicolas Guillen.
In our discussion, we speculated on the linguistic and literary implications of a language such as Chinese, as theorized by Ernest Fenollosa and Pound. What sort of poetics might come from a meditation on parts of speech, especially the relation between verbs and nouns? Could the poetic line be a function, an effect, of these grammatical relations, and why do Fenollosa and Pound insist that “Chinese has no grammar”? What is the relation between linguistics and poetics?
From this focus on the written language, we moved on to discuss the vigorous presence of the vernacular in the Pisan Cantos. Following the lead of Richard Sieburth (who wrote the Introduction to the 2003 New Directions edition), we looked at the speech of Mr. Edwards, one of the guards at the Disciplinary Training Center (where many of the guards and 75% of the detained were African-Americans): “niggers scaling the obstacle fence/ in the middle distance/ and Mr. Edwards superb green and brown/ in ward No 4 a jacent benignity,/ of the Baluba mask: “doan you tell no one I made you that table.” In this instance, vernacular speech seems to have been mapped onto a three-dimensional, Cubist space — linking the black dialect to the kindness of Mr. Edwards, to the West African mask, and to black soldiers exercising in the middle distance. Is this “middle distance” somehow an echo of Confucius’s “middle way,” and of China as the “middle kingdom”? Here is another black Atlantic, but unfolding against Taishan @ Pisa, an Eurasian fusion.
October 8th: North/South in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
We began class with the article “Hegel and Haiti,” in which Susan Buck-Morss argues that Hegel developed his master-slave dialectic in response to the actual slaves who had recently established a free Haitian state. Brandon summarized Buck Morss’ point that academic conventions have helped obscure the contradictions between the philosophy of freedom and the practice of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Along these lines, Wai Chee added that many philosophers ignore the roles of language and translation in the interpretation of philosophical ideas. While most of us were convinced by Buck-Morss’ argument, Jason pointed out that it might seem beside the point to many philosophers, who might be more interested in Hegel’s claims than in the social context in which they developed. After Camila described a recent book that built on Buck-Morss’ ideas (unfortunately, I have forgotten the title and author!), we turned to Absalom, Absalom!
Although Absalom, Absalom! often seems bound to a land-based logic, Wai Chee suggested that we focus on its waterways, in particular the Mississippi river. By her analysis, the novel establishes an alternate construction of the south in which Mississippi and Louisiana are separated from Virginia and the Carolinas. To test this hypothesis, we turned to the moment when Sutpen appears in Yoknapatawpha County with the slaves and the French architect. We analyzed the depictions Sutpen and his slaves as “wild,” “savage” and animalistic, which destabilize the typical relationships between white and black, human and animal. We also discussed how the mysterious band violates the conventions of the “school-prize watercolor,” giving rise to alternate modes of representation. In both cases, we decided that the narration set Sutpen and Yoknapatawpha County apart from places like Virginia and the Carolinas. Jason expanded on this spatial and cultural configuration by exposing the novel’s “Mississippian logic,” which connects Mississippi with Alberta. Brandon supported this analysis by pointing out that Alberta and Mississippi are both adjacent to the francophone parts of their respective countries (Quebec and Louisiana).
Following the “Mississipian logic” to chapter 8, we analyzed the passages in which Quentin and Shreve dissolve into the characters who they are discussing (inventing?). Citing passages on pages 267, 268, 275 and 276, Wai Chee claimed that the narration fixates on the 2’s, the 4’s and the other recombining configurations of past and present identities. Andrew pointed out that Shreve and Quentin’s voices are often conflated, and Emily suggested that these recombinations maintain Sutpen’s legacy in homosocial relationships between college-age men. These discussions led us to the novel’s concluding pages, when Shreve claims that Jim Bond and his progeny will come to dominate the world. In order to understand this strange prediction, we returned to the chapters narrated by Rosa Coldfield.
We began with the moment on pages 109 and 110 when Rosa barges into Sutpen’s Hundred and describes Clytie’s “Sutpen coffee-colored face….antedating time and house and doom and all.” With its suggestion that Sutpen’s “sphinx face” has engulfed different bodies, spaces and times, this passage seemed to fit nicely alongside the moments in which Shreve and Quentin become one the Sutpen story. Combining these tendencies with our analysis of the Mississippi river, we began to think of Absalom, Absalom! as a novel of uncontrollable proliferation and interpenetration. Through this framework, Sutpen’s attempts to constitute a pure lineage are always already impure: just as Sutpen himself appeared one with his slaves when he fought them in the barn, his features reach their fullest manifestation in Clytie’s “coffee-colored face.” If Sutpen could have only acknowledged his internal heterogeneity—his inner blackness—his attempts would have proven far less futile. This discussion led Wai Chee to Faulkner’s taxonomy “man woman nigger or mule” (12). Connecting this moment with Shane McCrae’s Mule, Brandon characterized mules as potent symbols for hybridity, sterility and hardship. Despite his efforts, Sutpen only ends up breeding mules—Henry and Ellen both end their lives in sterile solitude, and Clytie ends up burning his hard-won house to the ground.
By way of conclusion, we returned to Quentin’s insistence that he does not hate the South and Shreve’s prediction that Jim Bond would dominate the world. While Jason struggled to connect these elements, Emily claimed that Quentin’s story and Shreve’s prediction were both accurate allegories for the South depicted by Absalom, Absalom! Andrew ended our class with the interesting idea that our discourse is another step in Sutpen’s legacy.
The “Mississippian logic” is a significant extension of the recent surge of interest in Haiti (Susan Buck-Morss has turned her essay into a book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History; Joan Dayan has a book called Haiti, History, and the Gods). In the 21st century, this is further complicated by other narrative arcs, e.g. Edwidge Danticat’s, from Haiti to New York, picking up so many pieces from Faulkner.
The book is called Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, written by Sibylle Fischer
We began our class on Death Comes for the Archbishop by focusing on the novel’s historically suspect account of the American Southwest as the site of idyllic, even Edenic, encounters between global authority and local populations. We turned to the generic uncertainty of the novel—Cather refers to it as a “narrative”—to make sense of the text’s ostensible repression of colonial violence in Southwestern history. We read the text’s generic ambiguity not as a claim to documentary or historical authenticity, but as the generation of a regional mythology particular to the Southwest.
While the interactions between the French priests and the Southwestern locals appear remarkably egalitarian, the novel marks these relations as regional contingencies, produced by the infrastructural instability and arrested rate of modernization on the Southwestern frontier. Without steady lines of global communication or even reliable forms of local transportation, global power structures like the Catholic church appear unable to reproduce themselves fully on the regional level. Within Southwestern localities, the typical vectors of colonial power invert, and we see the French bishops appealing to their own parishioners for physical protection and the legitimation of their authority.
The novel’s form, which seems organized by encounters with regional art—the Santos tradition and other religious art in particular—allowed us to talk about material culture and the transmission of regional history. We looked at the moment where Latour and Vaillant appraise a church bell and dispute the indebtedness of Spanish silverworking to Moorish craftsmanship. Latour celebrates the Moorish origins of the craft, seemingly eliding or repressing the violent history that allowed that craft to develop in Europe. Jason suggested that repressions of this kind may be endemic to the material archives on which Southwestern regional histories rely, and from which the bell issues. Material, as opposed to textual, archival objects are by nature unable to give a full account of their origins, enfolding a necessary repression of the violence that might characterize their genealogy.
We turned to how visual art both mediates Latour’s relationship to the Southwestern landscape and how it structures the novel’s representation of New Mexican locality. Latour’s aesthetic sense is both the reason for his dispatch to the Southwest—his ability to appreciate art is one of the primary reasons he’s made bishop—as well as an essential and perhaps inextricable part of his devotional practice. The revelation of the cruciform tree in the opening chapter consolidates his missionary purpose, while the construction of a cathedral, formally meshing both his aesthetic values and religious devotion, functions as the capstone achievement of his life. We discussed how art, almost without exception, takes on a devotional function in the novel—from the santos artwork to the cloth painting ostensibly made by the Lady of Guadalupe, the kind of visual art documented by the novel produces locality as it elaborates religious belief and practice.
From there, we looked at the novel’s attention to the Southwestern landscape to understand how cross-cultural exchange functions within the context of ecological practice: specifically, how the local populations abandon an abusive priest’s draconian gardening projects after his death, and how Latour reacts to local practices which ritualize nature and natural formations. For Latour, the relationship of Southwestern populations to the landscape evokes or is implicated in a history that is not only premodern, but pre-Christian—a history that proves both threatening and inaccessible to Latour, a foreigner and a clergyman. For the Mexican and Native American populations, ecological practice allows for both the production of locality and a primary form of local control. After Friar Baltazar is executed, his church is left intact, but his garden is left to wither—suggesting, perhaps, that his abuses of power were felt most strongly in their ecological, as opposed to religious or social, effects.
The presence of the premodern, pre-Christian, and prehistoric — and the way art seems to be a conduit for all three — points to an asymmetry between the modern languages that inhabit the novel (English, French, Spanish) and the world of the nonhuman and nonlinguistic. It would be fascinating to see if this asymmetry is also the case in other works meditating on the multi-faith and multi-chronology world of the Southwest (e.g. Scott Momaday’s The House Made of Dawn).
Class Highlights: Elizabeth Bishop and Brazil
We began the class with my presentation. In it, I wanted to explore three aspects of Elizabeth Bishop’s oeuvre that haunted my reading of the Complete Poems this time around—three aspects about which the critical literature on Bishop has at times been unforthcoming. First, through a number of comparative readings, I asked the group to consider the nature of what Lloyd Schwartz refers to as the poet’s “customary silences” as well as the reticence—the hesitation to divulge that is de rigueur in Confessional poetics—that is one of her supposed hallmarks. Following on from Schwartz’s New Yorker article, I turned our attentions to the ways in which Bishop inhabits the gaze of the colonizer in one of the “arrival” poems from Questions of Travel, “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” and how that colors the speaker’s relationship to the natural world, which is mediated by antecedent cultures as well as Bishop’s own aestheticizing eye:
Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a satin underleaf turned over;
in silver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather in the leaves—
purple, yellow, two yellows pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.
And, just as pressingly, I asked us to consider the more unsettling possibility that Bishop identifies with the conquistadores in their desire of native women at the poem’s conclusion:
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.
From there, I touched briefly on similar moments in poems throughout the Bishop canon before asking us to question why the poet might portray the labor of care and the economy of affection in the racialized and gendered way that she does. To that end, I concluded with a reading of the often-overlooked early poem “Cootchie” and directed the group to James Merrill’s late poem “Santo” as an interesting point of contrast.
Prompted by Jason’s question, we speculated about how Bishop, in mapping affect upon physical and political geographies engages in a kind of anthropomorphic transformation. Fittingly, we took up the opening section of “Brazil, January 1, 1502” as well as its preceding poem “Arrival at Santos,” which introduced the identity category of the tourist and how that is opposed dialectically to the category of the native or indigene. Camila was interested in how Bishop (de)constructs the primal scene of nature, and Professor Dimock emphasized how the landscape is necessarily already mediated (e.g., that for Bishop the lens of eye is likened to the frame of a painting).
We continued our discussion by analyzing the different models of epistemology offered in poems such as “At the Fishhouses” and “Crusoe in England.” Of particular interest was how the knife—as a symbol of mastery—is wielded differently in the poems, with the tool serving variously as a point of heuristic access, a weapon, and the means of securing the self’s survival; Emily synthesized some of this discussion in her claim that instrumentalization implies a level of epistemological attainment, which Andrew and Carlos related to the different kinds of use modeled in “At the Fishhouses,” how “the principal beauty” of “unnumbered fish” has been scraped away by the fisherman, whose corpus is adorned with scale-sequins.
After discussing the varying timescales being described within these poems, Carlos suggested a more prolonged engagement with the early poem “Florida” in order to complicate or elucidate our conversation regarding the poetic speaker and the landscape she limns. In particular, we discussed the (somewhat unsatisfactory) mythopoetics of the poem as well as its alter-ecologies, with Andrew pointing out that the swamp and even the state is held together by the vegetal world. We finished with a reading of “One Art,” which crystallized in many ways the themes of loss and survival that motivated our discussion.
Thinking further about the aestheticizing eye in Bishop, it occurs to me that perhaps it isn’t quite the endpoint, but at the further service of a staging imperative. “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “Arriving at Santos,” and “At the fishhouses” are all carefully narrativiized and orchestrated: the sequence could only be in this one way, and no other way. So the aestheticizing isn’t a one-shot deal, but more of a purposeful continnum — though what that purpose might be is still an open question for me.
Further thoughts on Eggers:
Instead of thinking of Egger’s What is the What as an “unethical” and “colonial” appropriation of a voice, we can think of it as a humane and generative attempt to translate a foreign experience.
We could claim that Egger’s novel is a failed attempt to translate the untranslatable: by making Deng’s story accessible, he undermines and compromises it. He distorts Deng’s terrifying experience, forcing to fit into a model imposed from above (the realist/autobiographical novel). We could also say that the novelization of Deng’s story further perpetuates his inability to speak for himself (an inability caused and sustained by the predominance of centralized modes of expression at the expense of other ones).
However we could also say, and I think this is more useful, that Egger’s novel formulates the universal, but silent, language that stands between his story and Valentino’s. In the “Task of the Translator,” Benjamin argues that translation allows us to express an otherwise inexpressible pure and empathetic language. And that a good translation does not have to be faithful, but has to convey meaning: “Fragments of a vessel that are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning.” It should not matter that Eggers cannot faithfully reproduce Dengs’s story, it should matter whether he can capture at least a speck of its essence.
For Benjamin translations generate more than they censor. When one language attempts to express what is contained in another, it has to broaden and recreate itself so that it can incorporate alternative ways of creating meaning. Rudolf Pannwitz, cited in Benjamin’s essay, claims that “Particularly when translating from a language very remote form his own, he [the translator] must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.” If we think of Egger’s novel as a successful translation, it follows that he is not thwarting another’s ability to express himself, but is creatively expanding his, and his readers’s, ability to speak about themselves and others. He is, in the words of Benjamin, liberating “the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”
Yes, it’s really helpful to think of What is the What as a “translation” in the Benjaminian sense, not a replica of the original, but something meaningfully proximate but also meaningfully different. I’m not sure, though, if we need to argue that this is a “successful” translation. Perhaps a “failed” translation — in the sense of falling short of what it aspires to do — could be just as valuable, if only as a silent tribute to the unavoidable gap between Valentino Achak Deng’s version and Eggers’?
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
I started our conversation about Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by describing how Díaz uses “genre fiction”—superhero comic books and swords’n’sorcery fantasy novels—to depict historical repetitions of violence. In particular, given the rise of blockbuster comic book movies since 2002, which frequently allegorize terrorism, counterterrorism, and government surveillance, I was interested in framing Oscar Wao as a post-9/11 novel and asking how Díaz’s use of genre fiction differs from Hollywood versions. Díaz depicts the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, I argued, as two strands of history and geography that braid around one another—determining and echoing each other—even as they spiral back around to repeat their own acts of violence—Lola’s attack in New Jersey and Oscar’s death in the DR echoing Beli’s beating and potential rape years before. Genre fiction, I argued, serves as the invisible ‘elsewhere’ through which Díaz’s novel detours in order to bring together these disparate times and locales, as Oscar’s obsession with the Cold War-conscious Watchmen is deployed in the novel to assert that “nothing ever ends,” and that the plural universes of comic books and the reversibility of superhero/supervillain allows Díaz to highlight U.S. violence in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
In connection with these themes, we spent the next portion of class discussing the ethics of analogical thinking and the representational work of comics. Where Díaz articulates a number of loose historical connections between various moments of violence, usually in Yunior’s sarcastic voice (“Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq”), Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers at least ventures a more strongly analogical mode of thinking, describing the smoke above Auschwitz as “exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close draws on analysis of Dresden and Hiroshima in relation to 9/11 as well, and we talked about the potential violence done to a particular historical moment and experience of trauma when it is used heuristically to comprehend other, different traumas. Wai Chee described the importance of visuality as a trace of the epic in comics and Oscar Wao, and Jason wondered whether mainstream 20th-century comics are more ideologically appropriable as mere icons than their 18th-century forbears.
Camila’s presentation focused on four pairs of contrasting terms in Oscar Wao. First the pairing of violence and platonic love—why so much rape, assault, and murder, and why such excessive humor, so many violent sex jokes, in a book that criticizes violence, and sexual violence in particular? What is the effect of love in this milieu? Second, the pairing of silence and the oversaturation of history—the silence into which the narrator lapses in the middle of describing Beli’s beating, the silence of Lola’s repressed sexual assault, and the overdetermination of a history framed in relation to so many different intertexts, a history the narrator so often assiduously digs up and vocally reconstructs. Third, the pairing of science fiction and reality, the way that Díaz’s narrator draws on sci-fi and fantasy genres to get at embodied history and felt violence. Fourth, the pairing of the island and diaspora, with Beli as the “Queen of the Diaspora”—what are the specific impacts of diasporic life on the family, and on particular members of the family?
Coming out of these issues, we discussed the body, the reappearance of the Golden Mongoose on the island and in New Brunswick, and the narrator’s role in the novel. Oscar Wao describes dictatorial violence as being written on the body, and the novel obsesses over Oscar’s fluctuating weight and the emergence and impact of Beli and Lola’s secondary sex characteristics—the fukú in many ways relates to the de León family’s bodies. Do the frequent flights into pop culture allusions dis-embody the novel’s narrative, or work to emphasize the physical pain its characters endure? The Golden Mongoose, in particular, though given a robust bodily description, remains ethereal, even magical. We discussed the effects of the Mongoose appearing in both the Dominican cane fields, with the traumas of slavery they evoke (Beli is beaten “like she was a slave”), and on a bridge over Route 18 in New Brunswick. Can this be the same Mongoose? Can it have the same effect for Beli and Oscar, or does Oscar’s partial ignoring of the Mongoose speak in some way to the diaspora in New Jersey? We also spent time considering the narrator, specifically in relation to Yunior’s narration and the portions of the novel written in Lola’s voice. Yunior pieces together much of the text, but Lola speaks strongly for and to herself—addressing herself as “you”—and offers moments of insight that can’t come from Yunior. How multi-vocal, then, is the text, in contrast to the monologic historiography of the Trujillo regime? And how much does that polyvocality meaningfully do to resist silences, erasures, and acts of violence?
The plural universes of comics and SF novels — and the reversibility of superhero/supervillain — might be the narrative form best equipped to channel the chaos of large-scale collective trauma, one that could be redescribed as a kind of involuntary counterfactualism. JSF’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also invoke the counterfactual on numerous occasions in meditating on 9/11, Dresden, and Hiroshima, dreaming of a “sixth borough” for NYC, a dwelling place for the things that could have gone otherwise, things have could have happened but didn’t.
Thinking about the “sixth borough” also makes me think of the dimensionality of novels, comics, and “genre fiction.” It seems to me that the visual field for comics is probably two-dimensional (though I could be wrong), whereas the novels that JD and JSF aspire to write are probably four-dimensional. Not sure what to do with this: just throwing it out as a hypothesis…
The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong
In lieu of a summary, Wai Chee asked me to post a few paragraphs from my paper, which examines the culinary, cultural and formal tensions between The Book of Salt and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. The paper is broken up into three sections, and I am going to post a couple paragraphs from each. In the first section, I analyze three formal strategies in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As I combine this formalist analysis with scholarship from history, sociology and anthropology, I argue that cookbooks construct national identities. In the second section, I examine the relationship between conventional cookbooks and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. While I commend the Cook Book’s culinary and cultural transgressions, I argue that it preserves the fundamental features of the recipe form and reinforces stable, essential and exclusionary models of national identity. In the last section, I show how The Book of Salt rewrites the recipe, contests the Cook Book, unsettles the nation, and opens a space for culinary experimentation. By examining the links between formal innovations and cultural interventions, I argue that the novel’s critique of nationality rests on its revision of the recipe form. While other critics have read the novel as a counter-history, I insist that it is also a counter-cookbook.
In order to provide some idea of how the paper works, I have selected the paragraphs from each section that focus on culinary prescription. The formal features that I don’t address here are reproducibility and modularity. I am sorry that I made such a long post, but I wanted to touch on each text, so, here are two paragraphs from the first section:
Although the meanings of the word “recipe” have diverged over the years, culinary recipes are as prescriptive as medical instructions. In her famous recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, Julia Child uses two types of prescription: she describes what goes into the dish, and explains how to make it. On the left side of the page, Child lists ingredients and equipment with the precision of a chemist. While some ingredients are merely “sliced” or “mashed,” others are defined more precisely: for instance, Child calls for “3 cups of a full-bodied, young red wine” or “3 lbs. lean stewing beef cut into 2-inch cubes” (316, emphases added). As if these instructions weren’t specific enough, Child supplements her recipes with chapters on “Ingredients,” “Equipment,” “Measures,” “Temperatures,” “Cutting” and “Definitions” of other important techniques. While Child describes what goes into the dish, she also explains how to make it. In her headnote, Child opens a world of possibilities: she admits that “there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boeuf bourguignon,” and she says that “buttered noodles or steamed rice may be substituted” for the customary “boiled potatoes” (315). But once the recipe begins, Child replaces possibility with prescription; sentences contract, subjects disappear, and the conditional gives way to the imperative. While Child is famous for her warm personality, she seems aloof as she issues her orders: “Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon” (316). Kyla Tompkins has argued that this type of imperative command establishes “a hierarchical relationship in which the past—invoked as an eternal present tense—may command the future” (439). However, Child’s prescriptions also create another “hierarchical relationship”: one between different national cuisines.
In the last two centuries, chefs have used culinary prescriptions to cultivate national identities. Child dedicates her cookbook to “La Belle France, whose peasants, fishermen, housewives and princes—not to mention her chefs—through generations of inventive and loving concentration have created one of the world’s great arts” (v). However, she refrains from describing “gleaming napery,” “charming little restaurants” and chefs “bustling among [their] sauces”; by her account, these “romantic interludes… [would] put French cooking into a never-never land instead of Here” (vii). According to Child, “La Belle France” is defined less by “napery,” “restaurants” and “chefs” and more by “inventive” cooking techniques. Since she claims that “romantic interludes” cannot provide the basis for national identity, her recipes take on this role; every time Child defines a technique or describes a series of gestures, she therefore indicates, ‘This is how the French do it. This is how you make food into “art.”’ Just as Child defines “La Belle France” around a set of culinary and cultural principles, other chefs have imagined nations by prescribing particular ingredients, equipment and techniques. Carol Gold argues that cookbooks helped construct Danish national identity: “As prescriptive literature, cookbooks [were] not only as mirrors of their society, marking and reflecting social change, but also…catalysts of these changes” (25). During Denmark’s brief flirtation with imperialism, cookbooks praised local ingredients, condemned ‘foreign’ flavors and encouraged Danes to eat “Danish food” (94). Once Denmark lost its colonial possessions, it countered food insecurity by importing and cultivating potatoes; Gold shows how culinary prescriptions turned this ‘foreign’ crop into a symbol of national identity. Along these lines, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson describes how French chefs, gastronomes and politicians created a national cuisine in the years after the Revolution. Ferguson understands “cuisines” as textual phenomena, and she argues that recipes “define what is appropriate and what is not…what is French or Italian or Provençal or Tuscan, and what is not” (“Culinary Nationalism,” 102). Although she doesn’t use the term “prescriptive,” she sounds like Julia Child when she claims, “Codes define French cuisine, not place, not products, and not people” (“Culinary Nationalism,” 107). Once cookbooks establish these rules, Ferguson argues that they define their national cuisine through a dialectical engagement with other cookbooks. Thus, she concludes, “cuisine supplied one building block—a crucial one—for a national identity in the making, for it encouraged the French to see themselves through this distinctive lens as both different and superior” (Accounting for Taste, 5).
After describing other features of the recipe form, I show how Toklas takes up prescription:
In The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, recipes emerge abruptly from the autobiographical narrative, often in mid-sentence. But while the Cook Book blends autobiography and recipe in unusual ways, it is still a prescriptive text. Here is a recipe that Toklas learned “at the home of a French friend” (17):
The table would be set with extra care, white linen instead of everyday coloured, the wedding silver would be brought forth, the glasses were of crystal, and a simple dessert was added to the usual fare. Her guests recognized that she was honouring them in these details. One of her very nice desserts was what is called in French, although it has no resemblance to our sweet,
Separate 6 eggs. Beat the whites until stiff but not dry, adding a pinch of tragacanth, a powder that can be found at any good chemist’s and which helps in the cooking the whites of eggs and keeps them stiff. Add gradually, while beating, 5 tablespoons sugar. Place this in a mould, prepared by melting in it over very low heat 5 tablespoons sugar. Tip the mould in all directions so that the bottom and sides are completely covered. Place the beaten whites of eggs in this, gently tapping so that there are no air pockets. Put the mold uncovered in a recipient of hot water. (17-18)
By using the title “FLOATING ISLAND” as a typographical and syntactical link, Toklas unsettles the relationship between autobiography and recipe. Whereas Child makes an unequivocal break between her headnotes and her instructions, Toklas begs a troubling question: Is she really prescribing a set of ingredients and a series of techniques, or is she simply describing the “details” that her “friend” employed to “honor” her “guests”? Toklas loses much of her prescriptive credibility in a series of grammatical gymnastics; after replacing “the whites of eggs” with “this” in one sentence, she use the same pronoun for “the mould” in a subsequent sentence, effectively telling the reader to “place this” in “this.” Most cooks would feel more comfortable preparing Child’s Île Flottante than Toklas’ “FLOATING ISLAND.” But while Toklas uses her recipe to support an autobiographical narrative, she still completes sets of culinary prescriptions. On the one hand, Toklas describes what goes into the dish: she identifies ingredients, specifies measurements and explains how to acquire the all-important tragacanth powder. Some twenty-first century cooks might object that Toklas doesn’t segregate her ingredients and equipment in a separate column, but many twentieth-century cookbooks (including The Joy of Cooking) list ingredients in narrative form, as they appear in the recipe. On the other hand, Toklas explains how to prepare the dish: using detailed language like “beat the whites until stiff but not dry,” she breaks the recipe down into a series of controlled gestures. And though her sentences wander more widely than Childs’, she still maintains an insistent imperative mood.
Just as Child uses her culinary prescriptions to define “La Belle France,” Toklas associates her recipes with a stable and essential French identity. Toklas often echoes Child’s comment about “gleaming napery,” “charming little restaurants” and other staples of the French imaginary; at one point, she explains that her meals in “French homes…so much resembled each other that in a very short time they became indistinguishable” (25). Here, Toklas suggests that France is homogenous: its citizens are so similar to one another that they are “indistinguishable.” Elsewhere, Toklas articulates a more sophisticated theory of French identity. Like the chefs described by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, Toklas defines French cuisine around a rigid set of rules. According to Toklas, the French are “conservative”; “they learn nothing, they forget nothing” (3, 4). Ignoring her own involvement with this “conservative” cuisine, Toklas critiques “a tradition which will not admit the slightest deviation in a seasoning or the suppression of a single ingredient” (3). When Alice McLean reads this passage, she claims that Toklas “refused the rigid adherence to culinary tradition and, by extension, to national boundaries” (104). Although I admit that Toklas seems to dislike the “conservative” aspects of French culture, I believe that her complaints belie a deeper essentialism. By making sweeping generalizations about an entire culture and cuisine, Toklas suggests that national identities are fixed, essential and uniform. In Bhabha’s terms, Toklas’ claims about a “homogenous national culture” ignore the heterogeneity of French cooks and obscure the “hybridity of imagined communities” (7). Whereas McLean argues that Toklas “refuse[s]…national boundaries,” I therefore maintain that her culinary prescriptions and cultural criticisms solidify national identities.
Finally, I show how The Book of Salt contests the cookbook and unsettles the nation:
The Book of Salt mounts a sustained critique of culinary prescriptions and national identities. Here is Binh’s account of his first day in the Stein-Toklas household:
Once she became my Madame, the first thing Miss Toklas asked me was whether I had a recipe for gazpacho.
“Did you learn it in Spain?”
“Then it is best to forget it.”
“Here at 27 rue de Fleurus,” Miss Toklas began, “there are four kinds of gazpacho. We will begin with the gazpacho of Malaga. You will need four cups of veal broth, prepared the night before. Be sure to add two cloves of garlic and a large Spanish onion to the bones as they steep. A large ripe tomato, peeled and seeded, cut into cubes no larger than—let me see your hands—no larger than your thumbnail. One small cucumber no thicker than half the width of your wrist and…”
Our first lesson continued in this manner until my Madame declared, “Mix thoroughly and serve the soup ice-cold. Exquisite.” (211)
As Toklas gives Binh her recipe for gazpacho, her culinary prescriptions become increasingly unstable. Like most recipe-writers, Toklas usually uses the imperative; “mix thoroughly and serve the soup ice-cold” is taken almost directly from the Cook Book’s “Gazpacho of Malaga.” But in this passage, she is less assertive: she tells Binh that he “will need four cups of veal broth,” and she gently reminds him, “be sure to add…garlic…and a large onion to the bones.” While Toklas slips out of the imperative to tell Binh how to make the gazpacho, she also struggles to explain what goes into the dish. In conventional cookbooks like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “teaspoons,” “tablespoons” and other measurements follow rigid cultural and culinary standards. But in The Book of Salt, Toklas compares ingredients to Binh’s “hands,” “wrist” and “thumbnail.” Since Toklas replaces national standards with an individual body, she cannot proclaim, ‘This is how they make gazpacho in Spain.’ Toklas attempts to preserve the links between taste and space: by her account, Binh needs to “forget” his recipe for gazpacho because he didn’t “learn it in Spain.” However, her gazpacho is not part of an “imagined community”: it is simply a product of her imagination. The “four kinds of gazpacho” exist only in the narrow confines of “27 rue de Fleurus,” where Toklas forces her cooks “to adopt her tongue, make room for it, which can only mean the removal of [their] own” (211). Wenying Xu reads Toklas’ tongue as a “demand of colonial assimilation [that] corrodes [Binh’s] agency” (140). But just as Toklas fails to prescribe a Spanish identity, she cannot actualize her fantasy of culinary control.
While previous cooks failed to reconcile Toklas’ “tongue” with their “own,” Binh finds ways to resist her prescriptions. Rather than confronting her openly, Binh draws on the phenomenon that Homi K. Bhabha calls “hybridity.” In “Signs Taken For Wonders,” Bhabha shows how hybridity emerges when colonized subjects respond to colonial authority. Bhabha’s most famous example is a letter from 1817, in which an “Indian catechist” describes a group of his countrymen discussing the Christian Bible (146). The Indians are enthusiastic about the Bible, and they copy the text into handwritten manuscripts. However, they refuse to eat the Sacrament, and they object when the catechist calls Christianity “the religion of the European sahibs” (146). Although the Indians adopt some practices from the Bible, Bhabha argues that they do not simply copy it; their belief is neither “‘original’—by virtue of the act of repetition that constructs it—nor ‘identical’—by virtue of the difference that defines it” (153). On the one hand, the Indians are “less than one”—they are “define[d]” by their “difference” from the colonizer, and they reject certain aspects of Christianity (166). On the other hand, they are “double”—as they reproduce the colonial text with their “difference,” they create “new forms of knowledge, new modes of differentiation, new sites of power” (171). In this sense, Bhabha concludes, “the effect of colonial power is seen to be the production of hybridization rather than the noisy command of colonialist authority or the silent repression of native traditions” (160). Sometimes, hybridity just happens—the colonizer establishes a norm, and the colonized subject reproduces it with a slight difference. However, Binh uses hybridity as a subversive strategy.
In The Book of Salt, the culinary text is similar to Bhabha’s colonial text. Like the Indians outside Delhi in 1817, Binh modifies the recipes that he reproduces; in Bhabha’s terms, “the trace of what [he] disavow[s] is not repressed but repeated as something different—a mutation, a hybrid” (159). When Toklas tells Binh to “forget” his old recipe, he responds with a single syllable: “Oh.” This seems like simple subservience. But once his monosyllable is read alongside the Cook Book, it becomes clear that Binh’s subservience is subversive. Throughout The Book of Salt, Binh’s employers enjoy his cooking: his boeuf Adrienne brings Stein and Toklas to “their knees,” and his Singapore Ice Cream leaves them with “a lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue” (210, 186). But even as he endures Toklas’ pervasive prescriptions, Binh modifies the recipes that appear in her Cook Book: his version of Singapore Ice Cream adds “ten coarsely crushed peppercorns,” and his boeuf Adrienne replaces Toklas’ “currant jelly” with fresh red currants (155). In these recipes, the “the trace of what [Binh] disavow[s]” is the “difference” between an ordinary dish and an extraordinary one. While Stein and Toklas appreciate his efforts, they don’t notice his clandestine innovations; similarly, most readers don’t detect the discrepancies between The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook and The Book of Salt. Nevertheless, these discrepancies are important, for they allow Binh to contest the cookbook and write his own hybrid recipes. And since they are “less” than the conventional recipes that Toklas prescribes, they “double” the varieties of culinary pleasure. At one point, Binh writes:
Three times a day, I orchestrate, and they sit with slackened jaws, silenced. Mouths preoccupied with the taste of foods so familiar and yet with every bite even the most parochial of palates detects redolent notes of something that they have no words to describe. They are, by the end, overwhelmed by an emotion that they have never felt, a nostalgia for places they have never been. (19)
When Binh recreates a “familiar” recipe, he always introduces “something” new. And when his masters taste his hybrid dishes, they are thrown from their national cuisine towards “places they have never been.” While Binh learned how to cook in a colonial kitchen, he is therefore able to rewrite the culinary text: by the end of the meals, his masters are so “overwhelmed” that they have “no words.”
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