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. . .we are hunted, we are pursued by repetitive catastrophes, repetitive Nemesis, and our insight into Beauty -- which we may gain at the heart of terror deepens the trial of creation to bridge chasms in itself . . . or else we will continue to perpetuate hierarchies of brutality sponsored unwittingly perhaps by Privilege, hierarchies in which each theatre of inhumanity is placed on a scale to measure which is less horrendous or more hard-hearted than the last.--Wilson Harris, Jonestown
. . .what is history? Is it an account of events set out and approved by a dominant culture? Or does history possess another door, other doors, to be opened by strangeness.--Wilson Harris, The Dark Jester
- Drawing on the epigraphs above, I wish in this paper to do two things: firstly to examine the writing of Wilson Harris (Jonestown) and Caryl Phillips (The Nature of Blood) as a restaging of history to explore a capacity for revision (for compassion), and secondly to trace the writing of the recurrence of bloody terror in both novels, in the context of David Sibley's idea of social contagion in his text Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (1995). These appear at the outset two different concerns, but I will demonstrate as I proceed in this paper, the interrelatedness of these issues in the two fictions chosen. In short, I wish to demonstrate that the terror in Phillips's novel, constructed as a consequence of theories of social contagion, is theorized within Harris' restaging of history in his metafictional novel Jonestown. Holocausts and genocides and other mass slaughters are usually based on theories of difference which construct a polluted and polluting other against a dominating pure self -- an other who is feared as a result of a difference seen as a threat and contaminant to the homogeneousness and purity of the controlling group. Sibley states:There is a history of imaginary geographies which cast minorities, 'imperfect' people, and a list of others who are seen to pose a threat to the dominant group in society as polluting bodies or folk devils who are then located 'elsewhere'. This 'elsewhere' might be nowhere, as when genocide or the moral transformation of a minority like prostitutes are advocated, or it might be some spatial periphery, like the edge of the world or the edge of the city. . . .Portrayals of minorities as defiling and threatening have for long been used to order society internally and to demarcate the boundaries of society, beyond which lie those who do not belong. (49)Employing Harris's Jonestown as a backcloth, (I am tempted to say blackboard, as the protagonist Francisco Bone's history teacher, Mr. Mageye, often slips into a crack, an interstice, in his blackboard, into other dimensions within time and space -- history), I wish to read scenes and themes of 'repetitive catastrophe' found within The Nature of Blood and in the interstices of both texts, show how the writers create this space for revision in their rewritings of stories, histories and legends of terror. Using the image (notion) of the palimpsest, I wish to make the point that these novels are, in the words of Ashraf Rushdy, 'Palimpsest Narratives' which emphasize the 'enduring afterlives' of historical events. But which also, I suggest, stress that these events have their pasts, their histories, so that events such as World War II and Jonestown have both pasts and futures. In this context the novels are palimpsestual as they construct historical events which are interrelated to 'all other events, prior or contemporaneous.' My use of the palimpsest therefore does not include the act of total erasure or effacing, since the 'original' text is never completely rubbed out. In such cases it is difficult to decipher the overlayered text from the other. Harris and Phillips thus explore the intricate and deep 'spiritual connections between the past and the present' (Rushdy: 2001).
- I am mindful of some cautions raised in a recent paper by Professor Mark McWatt against attempting to fit Harris's writing into neat categories -- especially in light of contemporary theory. McWatt observes that in his recent fiction, Harris "seems to be indulgently aware of the current shibboleths of contemporary theory not in the somewhat eager manner of a David Dabydeen or a Caryl Phillips, but rather a wry and subtly subversive awareness" (McWatt: 1998). Thus, it is perhaps difficult to read The Nature of Blood within contextual spaces of Jonestown -- Phillips is deliberately post-colonial, he adopts the 'political correctness' of post-colonial writing, while Harris is playfully, even parodically post-colonial. McWatt has pointed out that "[a] spirit of anarchic humour . . . overwhelms the political correctness of the post-colonial reading and exposes its limitations in a novel such as Jonestown" (McWatt 5). Jonestown is too massive in its imaginative scope to be treated to a single or simple reading. McWatt, however, concludes with this observation:Ultimately one realizes that the novel has a post-colonial dimension, but a post-colonial reading not only cannot exhaust the novel's meaning, but in fact seems itself to be specifically challenged or interrogated by the forms and processes of the novel itself -- by Harris's language of the imagination. (5-6)
- Nevertheless, Harris's writing in Jonestown opens spaces for a reading of The Nature of Blood in its exploration of writing as "dramatic enactment or re-enactment of scenes and events from a collective memory or unconscious" -- Harris's notion of "memory theatre" (McWatt, 8). There is the enactment/re- enactment of history and story in The Nature of Blood in Phillips's writing of repeated racisms, xenophobia and bloodshed over six centuries. Harris writes the Jonestown event as re-enactment of prior atrocities within the Americas. As McWatt observes, "the holocaust at Jonestown might echo similar mass extinctions among the Maya and other Amerindian peoples" (8). Harris's Jonestown, one might add, is superimposed on the hieroglyphic texts of the Maya and other Amerindian civilizations. Yet, in his construction of the various images in his text, Harris also imposes a hieroglyph on his contemporary narrative -- as in an inverse palimpsestual journey. Hence the connections between layers in Harris's Jonestown are not set chronologically in time, but juxtapositionally in space. There is thus a pattern of recurrence in both novels. While Harris's is in the collective unconscious, Phillips's recurrence is in history, story and historiography. In reading Harris and Phillips together in this essay therefore, I am feeling for a counterpoint ---not a point of mutuality, merely one of meeting to "set off the main element" (Concise Oxford Dictionary) . . . the "main element" in this case being the theme of the recurrence of atrocity appearing in both novels.
- In Jonestown Harris brings together many of the figures of terror from history and legend as archetypes of annihilation, such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Cortez, Herod, Napoleon, Faust, Scylla and Charybdis -- with Jones as the 'latest' of such archetypes. These figures, to cite Derek Walcott, all sought to "claim time," to "dominate history" (Walcott 22). The result? Terror. Although Hegel came later, many of these 'personalities' embraced a view of history, associated with Hegelian thought, as moving toward divine consummation. Hegel's notion of history, in the view of Keith Booker, "[led] him to the ethnocentric conclusion that his contemporary European culture [was] the culmination of that plan and to the nationalistic belief that his own Germany [was] supreme among the nations of the Earth" (1996, 213), and as Booker continues, "[this] model of history tends to provide a justification for European imperial conquest . . . because it envisions Europe as closer to the fulfillment of God's plan for all of humanity"(213). Harris, in his construction of Jonah Jones, a reconfiguration of the Rev. Jim Jones, casts him in this conquistadorial mould as a character who manifests a certain fascination for these figures of terror who sought to control history. Harris then links the year 1978 (Jonestown holocaust) to 1939 (the Second World War -- Hitler's holocaust), thus constructing an interconnectedness between Jones and Hitler as agents of terror. (When Francisco Bone returns to the past in his ghost-ship it is 1939, and the first figure he encounters is a man in a skeleton's costume wearing a newspaper mask with the headline 'WAR COMING IN EUROPE' (Jonestown 28) ).
- Harris, however, eschews a simple cause and effect version of history, opting instead to show the complexities and ambiguities at the core of histories and historiographies. He shows a splintering into histories, rather than one continuous History -- the interconnectedness at various levels of histories. Harris thus reads Jonestown as a repeated slaughter superimposed on other narratives of histories and legends and engages it in a playful intertextuality with these narratives by showing the scaffolding behind the construction of his novel. Jonestown's (meta)fictionality, the playfulness in the writing (the narrative voice) challenge simple readings not only of the novel, but of the historico-mythical narratives around which the novel revolves. Harris's parodic writing in Jonestown is not a denial of the seriousness of the event of the 1978 massacre in the jungles of Guyana but rather a reverential, even priestly recasting of the event through the shamanistic capacity of writing in order to tap the redemptive power of narrative. In a re-application of Samuel Durrant's commentary on Harris's Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, "the restaging of history that takes place throughout the novel, is not so much to deny that which has taken place as to bring about an alteration of perspective" (Durrant 2000). The act of narration thus becomes important, even paramount, in a novel such as Jonestown. (For example, Francisco Bone's letter to W.H., which accompanies the manuscript of his "Dream-book" (Jonestown), the novel we are reading, forms a sort of prologue to the novel. The novel thus calls attention to its own constructedness, its own narrative strategies). For Harris, the author is a mediator, in the religious sense of the word; however, not in the 'narrow' Christian sense, but in a wider, more eclectic manner that embraces the many religio-cultural influences in the Americas. Durrant fittingly observes that Harris's writing "is best understood . . . as a repeated rite of memorialisation" through which he invites us to "acknowledge our implication in the violence and oppression that constitute the history of modernity." He continues: "His work strives to bring into being . . . a sense of community in which individuals are bound together not by a common cultural inheritance but by a collective experience of loss and by a shared sense of responsibility for this loss" (Durrant 2000). The mythico-religious dimension of Harris's writing can be said to differ from the somewhat secular aesthetic of Phillips's The Nature of Blood.
- Harris's metafictionality in Jonestown, in linking histories and legends of repeated slaughter in a sort of infinite rehearsal, inspires a reading of Phillips's novel in the latter's juxtaposition of narratives of terror and loss within his text. However, I must be quick to point out, drawing on Durrant's formulation of Nietzsche's idea of the use of history, that neither writer is advancing an uncritical and deterministic view of history. Accordingly, the writing, by highlighting "a cycle of repetition," would appear to be "offer[ing] a way out of helplessness, passivity and determinism not by asserting the possibility of free will and autonomy but simply by recognizing the pattern of events in which one is caught . . . [this] practice of infinite rehearsal thus constitute[s] ways of working through history, ways of overcoming the fatalistic, life-denying relation to time that is associated with melancholia and despair" (Durrant 2000). In Harris's Jonestown for example, this is done through the use of carnival - a restaging of history through the carnival in a playful rehearsal/re- enactment of the tragedy of Jonestown as a crazy parody of ghetto space.
- The narrative of the Jonestown society of the Rev. Jim Jones in the jungle of Guyana in 1978 was written within a carceral space -- a space of domination based on a notion of social contagion. (Here I take narrative to refer not only to the representation of the event, but to the event itself). Jones sought the purity and salvation of his people by imprisoning them within a controlled area. This was an inversion of ghetto space. The ghetto is usually constructed and used by the dominant and larger group to purify and control their space by consigning the 'outcast' to ghetto space. Jones however, used this space to keep his pure from the larger society. It must be noted that Jones considered his society the dominant one -- the society of God's chosen, called out from 'the world'. Ironically also, it was within the discourse of freedom that Jones resorted to violence to keep his followers 'in'. The tragic result was the creation of a death camp -- a suicidal/genocidal 'moment' in the history of Guyana.
- This death camp phenomenon has a strong resonance in Phillips's novel, in his interface with European myth/history. Phillips, to cite Harris in The Carnival Trilogy (1993), "addresses a European myth [history] from a multi-faceted and partly non-European standpoint" (171). In his re/configuration of the Othello story, Phillips writes his version on an old European manu/script, possibly Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, from which Shakespeare took his version (NB 166). Phillips, in turn, unfixes Othello's Shakespearean moorings, opening him up to other perspectives and interpretations. In addition, the author in his narrative of Eva Stern, her sister Margot, their parents and uncle Stephan, seems to be superimposing this story on that of Anne Frank and her family, providing a different vision through which Anne's story is viewed. (Note that Phillips even names Eva's sister Margot, the name of Anne's sister). Up against Eva's narrative, are those of Servadio and the Portobuffole incident, Othello's and Malka's. Through this structuring of the novel, Phillips, like Harris, emphasizes the interconnectedness of histories and stories, showing the complexities and ambiguities contained within the events of histories and legends (Booker, 137). Phillips thus creates a space for revisioning histories. In the acknowledgements page at the front of the novel, the author shows his reliance on and indebtedness to history when he mentions two of the texts on which parts of his narrative are based -- Trent 1475 by R. Po-Chia Hsia and Portobuffole by Salomone G. Radzik (NB, xi). In a sense, in his Venetian narratives Phillips might well be writing over these two prior texts. In addition, in his definitions of the terms ghetto, Othello and suicide as part of the novel's narrative structure, Phillips like Harris, reveals some of the scaffolding behind his writing - the metafictional nature of his novel.
- The Nature of Blood begins with the trope of memory. There is an invocation of memory or the work of memory as essential to history within the novel. The novel begins at the end of World War II with the Jews on the island of Cyprus awaiting passage to Israel, their new home. Stephan, Eva's uncle, reflects on his life before the war - 'Memory. That untidy room with unpredictable visiting hours. I am forever being thrust through the door and into that untidy room' (NB 11). This opening scene sets the tone, the structure of the novel. Phillips demonstrates an awareness of the work of memory in the construction of narratives of history -- an understanding of the power of what Aristotle called anamnesis, the conscious act of recollection. In the language of Raphael Samuel (1994), recollection is "an intellectual labour . . . a matter of quotation, imitation, borrowing and assimilation" (x). Accordingly,[M]emory is historically conditioned, changes colour and shape according to the emergencies of the moment . . . it is progressively altered from generation to generation. It bears the impress of experience, in however mediated a way. It is stamped with the ruling passions of time. Like history, memory is inherently revisionist and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same. (x)Memory can thus be interpreted as palimpsestual as it writes over and reworks, splinters and composites prior memories, sometimes effacing these memories, at times co-existing with them. What we have in Eva's narrative, is a process of recollection of the past written over observations of the present. The trope of memory, employing a first person voice, in a holocaust narrative of trauma and terror can be a powerful therapeutic device in the face of atrocity and loss. Here again the concept of the palimpsest is useful where the writing of memory can be read as a text written over the attempts of painful forgetting. In other words, anamnesis over amnesia.
- In The Nature of Blood, using the trope of memory, splintering and compositing history and story, Phillips investigates the use of terror in the process of modernization, from the brutality of late fifteenth-century Venice to Hitlerite Europe to modern Palestine. He traces "the brutal practice of modernization" (Gilroy 1993) from its 'budding' in the fifteenth century to the 'late' modernization of the twentieth century in the building of the 'modern' nation state and national identities. He also explores, through Othello's story, the ways in which non-Europeans were co-opted in the service of this project of 'progress' and 'development' within European cultures. Phillips writes the fascination of civilizations with continued bloodshed and terror throughout their histories -- the "repetitive catastrophes" which are "rooted in an addiction to holocaustic sacrifices and rivalry that [runs] deep in antagonistic cultures around the globe" (Jonestown 50), or as Harris states in the introduction to The Carnival Trilogy, "rituals of sameness, of repetitive slaughter ingrained in violence within the symbols of world politics" (xviii). In The Nature of Blood, Phillips constructs a "vision of Western history as perverse rehearsal of atrocity" (DeCoste 770). History in Phillips's novel, then, is read as "a chronology of recurrence" of the nightmare of the West's repetitive slaughter -- where "the inevitable rehearsal of arguments and bloody conflicts" over six centuries are written (DeCoste 774, 772). But I must add, they are 'inevitable' not because they were predetermined by some ancient rivalry, but because of a repetition of choices in world politics, resulting in 'bloody conflicts.'
- The Nature of Blood is also a narrative of the attempts by dominant groups to purify their space while viewing others as defiled and polluting. Such obsession with space was characteristic of colonialist and imperialist societies. Here I treat the Venetian society of Phillips's text as a colonial society caught up in the process of early modernity -- this was a society at its zenith as a colonial power. Similarly, Hitler's Nazi society of the 1930s demonstrated many of the features of imperialist ambition in its tendency towards spatial control. According to Raymond Betts (1998), "imperialism . . . was a way of seeing things, of arranging space" (94); and this space was arranged racially. This arrangement of space functioned on the We/They principle: We -- superior, They -- inferior. This spatial architecture is also at work in Phillips's construction of the contemporary Jewish society in its relations with the Ethiopian Jews. These Jews are consigned to "ugly housing at the edges of the city" (NB 207). In addition the construction of this spatial architecture reveals a deep fear of difference, a fear of the contamination of one's blood by strangers.
- Within the socio-cultural architecture mentioned above, colonialist/imperialist societies put systems in place to ensure effective control of space, of individuals and groups within space. For example, the socio- spatial structure of the Venetian city in The Nature of Blood included the "[erection of] boundaries to protect civil society from the defiled" (Sibley, 52). Thus the Jews were placed "beyond the spatial limits of [Venetian] civilization" (Sibley, 49). The rulers of the Venetian city-state understood "the role of space in social control" and thus established clearly marked-out social spaces since, as Sibley has stated, in authoritarian regimes there is "an intolerance of ambiguity" (Sibley, xiii). These "spatial arrangements [were] the means by which the colonial authorities were able to maintain and indeed expand their authority" (Betts: 1998, 94). Accordingly, "space was used to establish a hierarchy which distinguished the civilized European from uncivilized native peoples" (Sibley, 52). But we are also looking here at geographies of the mind -- the arrangement of imaginary space -- geographies shaped by the (geo) politics of hegemonic discourses: anthropology, philosophy, and of course, history. These hegemonic discourses write interpellating narratives, which make common sense out of systems of domination and difference such as racism and sexism. The result of this process of interpellation can be such extremes as genocide or gendercide. What we have therefore is the creation of rational violence, sponsored in most instances by the power of the state, or to use a Harrisian word from the epigraph, 'Privilege.'
- In the Venetian society of The Nature of Blood the power of the state's interpellating narratives is used to protect the civil society from 'the defiled.' In the Portobuffole society the ghetto is set up as a functional space to contain the residual Jewish population. The ghetto (camp) runs throughout Europe's history in her relations with 'others'. Historically, the ghetto has functioned as a society of outcasts -- usually as punishment for those seen as a threat to the homogeneousness and purity of the dominant group. The ghetto is therefore one of those 'residual spaces' strategically used in the purification of space and the treatment of difference in authoritarian societies (Sibley 1995). We are speaking here of a space of cleansing -- of ethnic cleansing in many instances - for example the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw during World War II. There were of course other acts of ghettoization employed against the others, Jews and Gypsies in particular, by the Nazi hegemonic power during the 1930s and 1940s. The most extreme and nightmarish extension of such ghettoization is the death camp.
- An interesting comparison can be made here between the early sixteenth-century ghetto and the death camps of World War II, narrated in Phillips's novel:[W]hat a strange place was this walled ghetto . . . the streets were recklessly narrow and ill-arranged, and on either side of them immensely tall and well-appointed houses sat next to equally tall hovels . . . the further I entered the ghetto, the filthier the alleyways became, and the more oppressive these tall hovels appeared, with damp staining the walls, and in certain places causing the plaster to erupt in a manner similar to boils. (NB 129 - 130)Images of filth and imprisonment dominate this passage. The ghetto described here is a "disciplinary Space," a carceral society (Foucault: 1979). The filth and squalor are means of social control, of dominating both body and mind. No matter how wealthy some of these Jews are, they are the 'colonized' within the Venetian society.On the floor, mice have frozen to death next to scraps they were too weak to bite apart ... in the barracks there are no latrines . . . in this place, only buckets that have to be used at night. Buckets that are soon filled. And, come morning, spilt and emptied, for it is easier to carry a bucket that is only three-fourths full. . . . Public humiliation. No privacy. A tiny building ankle deep in human waste, a smell that chokes like a cloud, squatting like birds on a wire . . . no paper, nothing to clean with . . . diarrhoea sticking to clothes, dropping down legs, nothing to wash with . . . you can wash . . . with urine . . . (NB 170)In the camp, as in the ghetto, the idea is obviously to inscribe the 'language' and ideology of force on the victims in a space that can be described as non-place. Here we have criminal societies. In such spaces any number of crimes are committed by the authorities in order to punish difference. These are desanctified spaces -- as opposed to the sanctified spaces of the dominant society.
- It is believed that the Jewish ghetto of sixteenth-century Venice was the first of such 'established' ghettos in Europe. In his narrative, Phillips gives this definition of ghetto:GHETTO: It is generally thought that the word ghetto was first used to describe the section of Venice where, in the sixteenth century, Jews were ordered to live apart Christians in a 'marshy and unwholesome site' to the north of St. Mark's. The Italian word ghetto means 'iron foundry', the Venetian Jews being forced to live next to the site of a former foundry. Ghettos are generally subject to serious overpopulation, and they exercise a debilitating effect on the self-confidence of their inhabitants (NB 160).This early ghetto pre-figures such horrifying extensions of the death camp as the holds of the slave-ships of the middle passage, the slave plantations, Hitler's concentration camps and recently, the townships of apartheid South Africa. These ghetto/camps maintained a capacity to criminalize and subhumanize their victims, displaying what Harris terms "a conquistadorial formula that kills alternatives" (Jonestown 9). This formula was adopted in the building of the 'modern' nation-state in Nazi Germany with horrifying results -- Hitler's Third Reich literally slaughtered the alter/natives.
- In adopting this "conquistadorial formula" in the Venetian society of The Nature of Blood the authorities of the 'dominant' group 'conquered' and co-opted foreigners through an inclusion/exclusion policy. Othello's narrative bears ample testimony to such a policy and, on the whole, reveals an insecure, neurotic society. Ironically, Othello, in his struggle for acceptance within this society, manifests its fears and insecurities:My standing in society rested solely upon my reputation in the field. My reputation. It was to be hoped that this one small word might lay to rest any hostility that my natural appearance might provoke. My reputation. (NB 119)Othello's insecurity is manifested in his language. Conscious of his origins, his race, and the attitude of Venetian society to 'foreigners'; he internalizes the neurosis of the society. Othello describes his move from his African society to Venice as one "from the edge of the world to the center. From the dark margins to a place where even the weakest ray of the evening sun were caught and thrown back in a haze of glory" (NB 107). This is the power of interpellation . . . to call the object into being and have him accept his name. Throughout his narrative, Othello makes the comparison between Africa and Venice (Europe) as one between darkness and light in such terms as "my dark bosom" (NB 109) and "fair Venice" (NB 107).
- However, Phillips's construction of the narratives of Othello and the Jews of Portobuffole can be read as a re-reading/re-visioning of Shakespeare's Venetian plays Othello and The Merchant of Venice. In the case of Othello Phillips pre-dates and provides his version of its history, pre/faces the characterization of Othello and provides a different perspective through which to read this play. In addition, Phillips's socio-cultural origins (black, male West Indian), influences his 'reading' of Shakespeare's Othello and the literary history involved in criticisms of the play. As Louis Montrose has observed in his essay "Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture":Experiences of historical and cultural exclusion or otherness may, of course, provoke a compensatory embrace of the dominant culture, a desire for acceptance and assimilation; but they may also provoke ambivalent or even contestatory attitudes, and provide vantage points for the appropriation and critique not only of Renaissance texts but also of the interpretive norms of Renaissance studies. (Montrose: 1989, 25)Phillips himself has pointed out in an interview with Frank Birbalsingh (1991) that he has read (and continues to read) Othello in a different light from readings which he had inherited:At Oxford University I read Shakespeare's Othello with a different feel than most of my contemporaries. I remember my tutor telling me that he didn't have anything to say about my essay on Othello because it was so personal. He hadn't thought about Othello as a man who was being used by society. My tutor approached the text through the easier prism of Desdemona or Iago; but I approached it through the magical window of a man who, whether he liked to or not, continually made references to his origins through the imagery in his speeches. (Birbalsingh: 1996, 191)Phillips's participation in European literary texts, history and literary history, is 'complicated' by his socio-cultural origins, by his experiences as a West Indian living and working in Britain.
- It must also be noted that Phillips, through the self-conscious and ambivalent narrative of Othello, opens up the 'closed' and bounded Venetian social order to a counter-discursive critique by showing an insecure and fractured society. Consider this observation by Othello:My own position in Venice could be explained by the fact that the republic preferred to employ the services of great foreign commanders in order that they might prevent the development of Venetian-born military dictatorships. In fact, it was common practice to humiliate and break outstanding Venetian soldiers so they did not rise above their station (NB 117).Through readings like these, Othello undermines complacent readings of Venetian society as harmonious and peaceful by interrogating tropes of mastery within the Venetian national narrative. Othello's narrative, in the words of Montrose quoted above, "provide[s] vantage points for the appropriation and critique" of the Venetian national narrative. Using his marginal vision, Othello explores the Venetian society, showing the cracks within the sixteenth-century city-state. However tremulous his narrative, Othello, the subordinated other, inverts the European journey, explores and comments on, and provides means for revisioning the Venetian narrative.
- Phillips, however, problematizes this revisionist reading by exposing his Othello to a further (re)reading; this time, a caustic twentieth-century commentary in the final vignette:And so you shadow her every move, attend to her every whim, like the black Uncle Tom that you are. Fighting the white man's war for him/Wide-receiver in the Venetian army/The republic's grinning Satchmo hoisting his sword like a trumpet/You tuck your black skin away beneath their epauletted uniform, appropriate their words . . .their manners, worry your nappy woollen head with anxiety about learning their ways, yet you conveniently forget your own family, and thrust your wife and son to the back of your noble mind . . . Brother, you are weak. A figment of a Venetian imagination. . . . Brother, jump from her bed and fly away home. (180 & 182)It is evident from this passage that Othello's narrative is written over erased memory, an effaced history. There is no mention of an African wife and family in the earlier first person narrative. The third person voice writes the 'final' chapter in this story, filling in the past left out by Othello's amnesia. The shift from Othello's first-person narrative to this third-person commentary underlines the importance of shifting perspectives on the construction of narratives. Othello might be the victim of Venetian prejudice and intolerance but he is not a character robbed of possibility. Phillips wishes to show that while he might be a man used by the Venetian society, Othello's position in this neurotic society was not overdetermined, but was rather one of choice.
- The neurosis of sixteenth-century Venetian society can be read as a precursor to events in twentieth- century Europe. There are certain strands which link the events of the two periods within the novel. The ghetto in Venice has a historical and symbolic association with the camps of holocaust Europe. The burnings of Servadio and the other Jews anticipate the larger gassings and burnings of the death camps. The brutality inflicted on the Jews on trial in Portobuffole has a larger manifestation in that experienced by Eva and her family and others in Hitler's Europe. Phillips goes to great lengths in detailing these horrors in both narratives. Two passages, the first about the execution of Servadio and his friends, the second about the gassing of the victims in Hitler's death camps, demonstrate this:The condemned were attached by means of a long chain to iron stakes on the scaffolding, and then the torch holders lit their torches and immediately ignited the woodpiles. The loud crackling of flames began to obscure the voice of Servadio. . . . In the docks in front of the two columns, the gondolas held scores of wealthy people who visited to enjoy the scene from the water. . . . As the blaze consumed flesh and blood, the spectators . . . were deeply moved by the power of the Christian faith and its official Venetian guardians. Later, when the flames had abated, an executioner approached with a long-handled shovel. He put it between the smoking coals and when he pulled it out it was full of white ash. He threw the ash into the air and it dispersed immediately. (155 - 156)These passages, quoted at length, demonstrate the commitment of the author in showing how 'authority' degenerates into terror in authoritarian and repressive spaces. (A similar degeneration was manifested in the Jonestown society). In the passages above, Phillips demonstrates the link between violence and the ideological power of the state. A will to power is employed against a contaminated other, by the guardians of sacred space, to exterminate, purify, and maintain control of this dominant space. But also of importance to this paper, the two passages above have a palimpsestual relationship. It is as if the latter writing were superimposed on the former, and in some places the same words appear.
The process of gassing takes place in the following manner. The helpless victims are brought into a reception hall where they are instructed to undress. . . . In order to maintain the illusion that they are going to shower, a group of men dressed in white coats issue each person with a small bar of soap and a towel. The victims are then ushered into the gas chamber. . . . Once everybody is inside, the heavy doors are slammed shut, and sealed and bolted from the outside. There is no escape. After a short interval . . . men wearing gas masks and bearing canisters of the required preparation clamber up on to the roof of the building. They open trap doors, then shake the contents of the cans (which are marked zyklon B -- for use against vermin) . . . into the traps and then quickly retire.... After only three minutes, every single inhabitant in the chamber is dead. . . . The chamber is then opened and aired . . . after five minutes . . . new men appear -- prisoners -- who cart the bodies . . . to the furnace rooms . . . they burn rapidly. . . . The ash is white and is easily scattered (177 - 178).
- Through this kind of narrative structuring, Phillips writes the 'repetitive Nemesis' that has pursued civilizations, as willing and unwilling prey, across the centuries. Each century has built on the brutality of the last, and producing, in Harrisian terms, "hierarchies in which each theatre of inhumanity is placed on a scale, to measure which is less horrendous or more hard-hearted than the last" (Jonestown 21).
- This of course, culminates at the end of the novel, in the building of another (potential) "theatre of inhumanity" within post-war Palestine. The story of Malka and the Falashas is the final narrative linking the various themes in The Nature of Blood. Here Malka, the Ethiopian Jew, the symbolic descendent of Othello, meets Stephan, Eva's uncle and symbolic heir of Servadio, Moses and Giacobbe. They are both historical victims of racism and the geography of exclusion. But in the contemporary society in which they meet the Jews now have their own country and have themselves become the scriptors of their own xenophobic and interpellating narrative. European Jewish hegemony in contemporary Palestine, in its need to construct a 'pure' Jewish space, repeats the neurosis adopted by societies embracing the tenets of dangerous nationalisms. I wish to make the point, however, that although this act of racism by the Jews, can be read as a reworking of an old racist script, it can also be viewed as the result of a vision of modernization built around narrow and unhealthy concepts of the nation, and national identity. This vision excludes the Falashas from modernity and the process of modernization. They are good for ethnic decoration, to sing and dance for the tourists coming to Israel, but never to be considered for serious citizenship. Malka and the other Falashas are not pure enough to be considered as real Jews; they are constituted as unsanctified -- strangers in the 'Promised Land'. Within a culture dominated by what Sibley calls "place-related phobias" (59), where the pure are given the sanctified spaces, Malka and the Ethiopian Jews are consigned to a 'residual space' on the edge of the city:she lived with her parents and younger sister at the edge of the city in one of the developments into which her people had been placed (NB 204).The use of the verb place in this passage denotes a deliberate act of placing on the part of the dominant group in the use of a social cartography "defined by notions of purity and defilement" (Sibley, 69). These 'developments' therefore constitute another ghetto -- the Falashas are also a contami/nation, the unclean in the Holy Land.
- It is ironic, but hardly surprising, that these European Jews, victims of the geography of exclusion, having established their geographical and national space, should now repeat this racism and culture rivalry. They have become the agents and the victims of the neurosis that drove the sixteenth century Venetian state and later, Hitler's Third Reich, constructed in The Nature of Blood. In Phillips's multi-temporal and multi- layered novel, history has spiraled to a dangerous 'ending.' -- an ending which however is the beginning of another chapter in terror's manuscript.
* * *
- Both Phillips and Harris eschew simple nationalist and regionalist stances in their writing. They use their fictions to attempt 'to find a way to tap into and release the myriad traces of other humanities -- across cultures and histories -- which might make the world we inhabit a more truly humane place' (de Caires Narain: 2001). The writing of Phillips and Harris in these novels demonstrate that unless and until societies revise some of the dangerous premises on which they were built, through what Harris calls "profound self- judgement" ("On Marginality" 61), we will continue to write narratives of terror.
- Betts, Raymond F. Decolonization. London: Routledge, 1998.
- Birbalsingh, Frank. Frontiers of Caribbean Literature in English. London: MacMillan, 1996.
- Booker, M. Keith. A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism. New York: Longman, 1996.
- De Caires Narain, Denise. "Wilson Harris: Dreaming to change the world; writing to change our dreams" URL http://www.stabroeknews.com/harris.htm.
- DeCoste, Damian Marcel. "'Do You Remember Tomorrow?': Modernism and its Second War in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano." Modern Fiction Studies 44, 3 (1998): 767-791.
- Durrant, Samuel. "Hosting History: Wilson Harris's Sacramental Narratives." Jouvert: a journal of postcolonial studies 5.1 (2000). URL http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v5i1/samdur.htm.
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.
- Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.
- Harris, Wilson. The Carnival Trilogy London: Faber & Faber, 1993.
- ---. The Dark Jester. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.
- ---. Jonestown. London: Faber & Faber, 1996.
- ---. "On Marginality." CARICOM Perspecitve Souvenir Issue 1995, 61.
- McWatt, Mark A. (1998) "Reading the Language of the Imagination: Critical Approaches to Wilson Harris" unpublished paper. Barbados: UWI Cave Hill Campus.
- Montrose, Louis A. "Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture." In The New Historicism. Ed. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989. 15-36.
- Phillips, Caryl. The Nature of Blood London: Faber & Faber, 1997.
- Rushdy, Ashraf H. Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
- Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory. Vol.1. London: Verso, 1994.
- Sibley, David. Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West. New York: Routledge, 1995.
- Walcott, Derek. "Derek Walcott: The sea is history." In Frontiers of Caribbean Literature in English. Ed. Frank Birbalsingh. London: MacMillan, 1996. 22-28.
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