Friday, September 08, 2006

Black Sunlight,

We had only that single year at Oxford together, full of study and hugs and shit and that somnolent afternoon…
On the mantelpiece fragrant sticks were burning. Their thin curls of air-sweetening smoke somnolently plucked upwards seeming to pause contemplatively before the framed print of Bronzino’s An Allegory. Blanche sat before the electric fire wearing nothing but her scholar’s gown. Through the wide open curtains, thick handfuls of snow digressed slantwise against the windowpanes. The transparent lattices of that somnolent afternoon. I lay naked face down on the bed, my mind utterly blank, my body languorous, my feelings a sheer perplexity. The silence was even nastier than the experiments we had done on each other’s bodies. The best had emerged from the sunken depths and we had clawed, scratched, bit, drawn blood till our eyes had enflamed and frightened the dragon back into its lair in our bodies. And the distant bells of St Mary’s had to clang the hour, letting loose upon the slate roofs and spires a peal of golden sparks. (BS. P.5)

This is an early reminiscence of Christian, Marechera’s “protagonist”, in Black Sunlight. Its subject is the anthropologist Blanche Goodfather.

What exactly is being said?

At this moment in time, Christian is hanging upside down, tied to a rope, as a punishment. He is well aware of the different levels of meaning. He refers to his swinging thoughts. And yet, the reader is not given an oscillating stream-of-conscious narrative, but this weighted prose. The weighting of the language is calculated, it would seem, to match the gravity of the moment—for Christian. The very formal descriptive prose also measures Christian’s state of mind. A reminiscence is something ordered tightly by memory. And here, the reminiscence is pictorial. Like a painting.

Christian recalls an afternoon in Oxford University. (Marechera is drawing upon his own experience in the city of dreaming spires). His experience is pointedly related. The reader expects “study”, “hugs” not so much, “shit” even less. Quickly, the academic world is reduced until all that remains is a “somnolent afternoon” that explains the mixture.

“Sticks” burn on the “mantelpiece”. Not candles. The two words pin-point the older-world homeliness of Oxford and a modern decadent(ism). Marechera is writing a language with an irony that touches on the mock-heroic (of Fielding). Like hair (sexually) the “smoke” is “plucked” upwards. Cleverly, the hair image rises through a verb that means to pull hair (from the Latin root pilus, hair). There is the poet’s eye. The fragranced air becomes religious as it pauses to contemplate a painting on the walls of Blanche Goodfather’s room.

Marechera is creating a joking religious tone in Christian’s mind, a joke that becomes apparent at the moment when “Bronzino” is included. Instead of some religious icon, the wall holds sexy paganism. And Marechera is specific about which: it is one that he would have known from the National Gallery, London: An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540-1550). Bronzino’s painting is a Mannerist allegory and the style now takes on the quality of the painting: it has a veiled eroticism in which the figures are distorted and figures assume a symbolic stature.

In Bronzino’s allegory, Eros incestuously fondles Venus, behind which a tortured face hints as the dangerous side of Venus, venereal disease and infection, whilst two figures bring rose petals and a honeycomb—these probably refer to the honey that led Eros to be stung and the fallen rose petals of Venus's desire. The exact meaning of Bronzino’s painting cannot be known, but that doesn’t really matter, for Bronzino is being re-interpreted by Marechera. Themes emerge from the painting, eros, incest and infection, an individual’s distance from original desire (the image is only a print) but the immediate comparison is between the divine beings and Christian and Blanche.
Sitting naked in her Oxford gown, Blanche/White is a representation of Venus, her name connecting her to the skin of white civilisation and to the glowing white goddess painted by Bronzino. In her black gown, by the fire (of desire) she repeats the academic eroticism of An Allegory. White snow is seen through the lead-glazed windows of academia and in front of them Christian lies naked. He is prone, not supine, not an accidental detail for it shows his passivity. Suggestively, Christian relates his mind, at this moment, as “blank”, whitened, empty, as if his blackness has been lost. (At Oxford, Marechera felt that he had been reduced to a student of whiteness, an “Uncle Tom").

This sexual experiment is one of the many in Black Sunlight—“experiment” is a key noun. And in keeping with the rest of the passage, Marechera's writing advances through a pun that functions like a false perspective famous in Mannerism. Within this world of allegory, the reader is prepared for a sexual beast, instead s/he is given “be(a)st”. Christian relates a view in which the best is inseparable from darker, less likeable layers, but in these levels life exists without any form of check—carte blanche? Unbounded desire?

In the final image, Christian (Marechera) recalls the Church of St. Mary’s, an image central to Oxford’s history. The ringing of “golden sparks” from the Church of the Virgin is a beautiful piece of Decadent pastiche, but also a description that parallels religious ecstasy and ringing the orgasmic bell. This pictorial covering over of “clawed, scratched, bit” intimates the veil that Western civilisation has cast over sexuality.

But not all of Black Sunlight is like this!
Is this the "best"?
No, it shifts with the mind, as it critiques the Western novel.
There is still the beast.


Shango said...
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Unsane said...

I agree with you in the article below that novel writing is not autobiography in the western sense that it portrays the ego of the individual who wrote it. Also "what's in it for me?" is anathema. How can one relate to anything if all one wants to find in writing is one's own sense of self justified, one's emotionality confirmed? That aspect of relationality is always going to be a part of the reader-author connection. But, why make it everything -- as western readers often seem most inclined to do? Can the gap of knowledge be bridged despite the alien quality of a piece of writing? Or do we have to read the same things over and over, with slight alterations of theme? This approach is infantising.

One can read Marechera's body of works as autobiography so long as one does not read it as self-representation of "ego". It is more than that. The writings reveal the situated permeability of ego, and the tortures which destruct. Geographically, plates shift and collide. But what are these plates but emotionally inculcated social influences? The infection of education and what that implies within a peasant revolutionary consciousness, for example.

eshuneutics said...
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eshuneutics said...

eshuneutics said...
Exactly, a close friend did this, treating a poet's work as autobiographical material and showing how themes expanded on the psychological aspect of the poet. She was interested in cultural shifts during the Civil War, not in the poet's private life. It was not written to merely tell the few known facts about the poet's life. The world of academia was perplexed and approached it as biography--arguing that it lacked everyday facts (which could never be known). This is one problem with Marechera, though I am only telling you what you already know. If people keep trotting out the same biographical facts, so the same reductive view of Marechera will appear--an anecdotal one. Yet reading from the text, into psychological aspects of the text, back into the realms of composition/autobiography, does reveal the life of the author. Blanche is an anthropologist whom Christian/Marechera satirizes wonderfully. I feel Marechera invites the reader to be an anthropologist, but not in the manner of the White Western world digging for bones in past to reveal a connection to some bogus savagery that they have imposed and seek to find. The worst kind of criticism comes from the critic-critic ego-ego clash. It simply says "I don't like you and I don't think you like me."

Unsane said...

So the woman attempted some complexity in situating her writer and the academic world was, in turn, perplexed? Then I am sure that I will perplex the academic world also. Seriously, I have read many excellent critiques -- but so many of them have no basis in the facts as I understand them. They read Marechera as if he was some kind of English boy will all of the advantages of being born within a western cultural environment. Then they pummel his image with the bourgeois emotionalities which they, themselves, bring to the fray. For instance, asserting that he can be explained via his Freudian complexes (but he is not even bourgeois!) or that if he simply had sat down and been more concerted in his efforts, got over his navel-gazing, then he might have written reasonable fiction. What these critics are saying is that "if he had been able to communicate to us in our own terms, expressing our own emotionalities, rather than his, he might have written the great African novel. As it is, he gave in to his inner weakness!"

How far from the truth! He never gave in to anything -- he actually sought trouble by constantly pushing himself forward. Yet this dynamic and unthwartable aspect can be interpreted back into a Freudian paradigm, too. "He wanted to be hit in the mouth, because he was a masochist." So daring social efforts are interpreted as individual neurosis. Very damning -- and very frustrating for me, as a reader, to see this happening!

eshuneutics said...

Unsane, is this the confusion? Generally, critics like to use the author to interpret the novel. This is fine, as long as the novel does not rebut what the critic claims and commit intentional fallacies. But there is a reverse, much more complicated method whereby--through a range of data permitted by texts--the critic can use the writing to interpret the writer. If the first is a kind of biography, the second is a form of autobiography in that is seeks to merge (?) with the recover the self (?). And there is the problem, as you suggest, because what form of self does the critic/reader look to find. Or as Buber would put it, the "I" of the reader seeks to address the "Thou" of the author. Buber boldly believed that the art relationship funcions in the same way as the human relationship. I am in waters way over my head here--this is to take on structuralism head on. If the author is not alive in the old sense of reading: s/he privileges interpretation. If the author is not dead in the sense of structuralism. Where is the author? In some state between life and death--like an ancestor-spirit? Are there African metaphors/realities that would support a different state of authorship?

Unsane said...

Are there African metaphors/realities that would support a different state of authorship?

Ancestors as authorities, perhaps. Rather than the open and vulnerable whose wealth may be snatched.

However, I don't think a metaphor as such is needed. I think the forms of criticism which adopt freudianism simply need to be shown as being wrong in the ways in which they were implied. Psychoanalysis was developed to be applied to upper-middle class Austrians. A person of Marechera's class status did not have time (or an excess of nervous energy) to develop similar fixations. He was not permitted to withdraw from the world within a state of upper-middle class idealism, to begin with. he was IN it, and his reactions were TO it (not to some figment of psychic consciousness). That is not to say that Marechera was not interested in Freud (as well as Jung). He saw psychic forces as social forces informing and shaping "society" at large. But his need to confront the authorities and try to get some attention paid to him was a material strategy by which he hoped to get prominence as a writer. I one sees him within the correct context, in the correct terrain, one cannot so easily draw conclusions which belong to a Viennese context.

Unsane said...
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Unsane said...

By the way, Black Hamlet (Hardcover)
by Wulf Sachs

examines quite this issue, I believe.

Alan Fisk said...

If you're interested, Bronzino's Allegory is the subject of my latest historical novel, Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


eshuneutics said...

I don't know this Hamlet book, but sounds very interesting.

Thanks for the note about your book which sound interesting and has the sort of theme that would intrigue.

Unsane said...

I got black hamlet out of the library this week. It looks quite enjoyable. Very slow, novelistic, anecdotal -- though old (a 30s product).