Saturday, November 04, 2006

Dancing in the Dark: Depression and Melancholia.

Caryl Phillips’s recent novel received a mixed critical response, often the way, but the responses seemed to miss, often the way, what the book was about: was it to be read as documentary or fiction? Was it docu-fiction? This argument, really, seems to be an entertainment for those who don’t want to be entertained by quality writing: though short (200 pages) in these days dominated by the male authored mega-novel as a sort of rite of passage—much like the marathon—for egotists, the novel is thematically structured and these themes are clearly what matter to the author, not which critical box these can be placed in.

Dancing in theDark has been nominated for the The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award 2006 (judging, last night). If there was a novel meant for that award, it ought to be this one. Why? Well, Phillips’s novel is styled in the manner of Hurston and Wright and the novel is concerned with the consciousness that made the writing of these authors possible in the 1930s: pre-1920s Harlem and the eventual Harlem Renaissance.

Writing in 1940, whilst reflecting back on the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes noted a black irony: it was a time when the most popular novels about black identity were written by white authors and black authors, in vogue, wrote for a white audience. A perverse crossing of the tracks! Dancing in the Dark is fully aware of this irony and dramatises it in the novel’s central character, Bert Williams. The novel is not simply a reflection on a light-skinned black man from the Bahamas who assumed the image of a dark-skinned African by adopting black-face and “playing the coon”, whose theatrical works tried to draw closer to Africa but ended in parody and distanced from Africa. (How can you seek a fixed identity through something without identity?) It is a novel about the connection between outside and inside, the tones of blackness, and what it is like to feel that you do not belong…and how, as a displaced author, you still seek placement with a dual audience.

Bert Williams and George Walked formed one of the most successful performance partnerships ever. On stage, they were a unity, but off stage they were opposites. In Phillips’s novel, Williams knows his place. Artistry depends on the black man knowing how far he can go within the white spot-light. He is the introspective intellect, living outside sexuality, troubled by never being sufficiently black, whereas Walker is the extrovert. Handsome and confident, he is drawn by sexuality and emotion to cross the colour line…Garvey and Du Bois are the backdrop to his attitude. The real triumph of Dancing in the Dark is that is demonstrates what Wright wrote about the new black novel: it should have a “complex simplicity”. Within a simple life—and the events are mundane—a dazzling complexity should be created, for the “negro” was not simple and did not require a reading “primer”.

Short it might be, but Dancing in the Dark is no “primer”. Phillips takes one theme: the relationship between blackness and melancholia/depression. Then working with the theme of skin, light, and how black skin reflects light—dazzle—he uses the physical to become a metaphor for the psychological. Through the depression that Williams’ experiences, Phillips charts the depression that exists, not in the “heart of darkness” and the racist imagination of Conrad’s turn of the century society, but in the heart of the black identity when it is exiled from life.

Dancing in the Dark is a novel that resonates today. Set between 1873 and 1922, before the negro and negritude were supposedly liberated, it looks to be a novel about what might have been. In fact, it is a novel about what has come to pass. Black, skin, sex, race, the gulf between the ivory-tower Williams and the boy-on-the-street Walker; artistic life and monetary success becoming a withdrawal from reality, a sensitivity to life turning into depression and a terminal sensing of death. A blackness at the heart of things spreading through a despair concerned with what cannot be healed? “Performative bondage”—says Phillips, in the Prologue to his novel…that is the source of melancholy, and in the end: “I wander in this darkness that makes human beings of us all…Here in the darkness….I shall perform no more.”


Unsane said...

Sometimes success is a bad enemy.

Id it is said...

Isn't it true though that depression and melancholia often come to be when an individual is exiled from what he thinks is 'life', regardless of the individuals identity.

Not that I am an ardent fan of Conrad, but the admitting to and accepting of the 'heart of darkness' or the 'dark streak' within each being would rid a sizable population of its melancholia and depression; to quote Philip, "this darkness ... makes human beings of us all…" and there is no longer the need for a facade as we need to "perform no more.”

As always a great review; a pointed and precise commentary.

eshuneutics said...

There is a split, possibly, within the novel...Walker's melancholy comes from life not being what he thinks it should be...Willam's depression comes out of his self.The outer and the inner. I need to read the novel again, when I have a quiet time.