Friday, October 26, 2007

Black Sunlight: Speculation.

In the world of criticism, there is a type of critic that bears a love-hate relationship to their chosen area of specialism. Pound criticism is fraught with such critics, people who are tantalised by what they read, but frustrated that the act of reading will not yield what they seek to find, even when they do their best to find perverse meanings amidst obscurity. In his poem “Christmas 1983”, Marechera jokes about the security officers sitting beside him at the bar:

…the man on my right
And the man on my left
Are both listening to what I have not said
Which their itching handcuffs would have me say…

Such a comment could just as well be a comment against the shackles of literary criticism in the hands of critics who want to find evidence of what they want to hear and manage to detect intentions in the slightest authorial cough. David Pattison has such a relationship with Marechera.

In his essay “The search for the Primordial I”, Pattison suggests that Black Sunlight is a product of schizophrenia, of many voices originating from a personality disorder. It is his view that Marechera has a hermetical view of identity. Marechera, in his view, does not seek an identity that rests upon self-awareness (as with Carl Rogers). Nor does he seek an identity based on individuation (as with Carl Jung). He quests for a self that is unattached and prior to any meeting with the Other, a sort of paradisal Adam-like self before Eve, or satanic Colonialism. In this state, identity has not been encoded, and like a child in the first stages of reading, the self is rapt in decoding its self-centred world.

I am not sure that what Pattison suggests really exists…though he attributes this lack of existence to a failing on Marachera’s part—a lack of literary control and order. Negative existentialism such as Jasper's postulates something like Pattison’s idea of self. It is a self that is the quintessential outsider, a self which at its best can alienate its alienation and can exist neither here nor there. But it is hardly an ideal, a return to the primordial integration. Beckett would term this the Belacqua fantasy, an exile that is an exile from the social self, a withdrawal that brings a loss of energy and total disconnection. The primordial self does appear in positive existentialism, in the hands of Buber, who sees a different world. In his view, the self is enriched by the original I-Thou and whole communion. But the I-Thou (unlike the I-It) exists only in relation to the Other.
If Pattison’s idea has any source, it would be in quasi-science, in alchemy, not a source he would want to readily acknowledge. In alchemy, there is a stage of return, a growing back into the womb, usually figured as an old Saturnian man receding backwards towards Mercurial youth. This return is a return to the androgyne, to revolution (rather than evolution), to a point of infancy that transcends gender. Essentially, it is a concordia discors, a unity that contains all the seeds of discord. Throughout Black Sunlight, there are curious echoes, almost parodies of hermetical states. So, the brother-sister incest in the novel translates the transgressive relationship of Soror and Frater in alchemy. And Blanche Goodfellow’s deflowering, in which the seed of a whole tribe is poured into her (or not, since she persuades the community to use condoms!) stands as a sublime joke about the seeds of discord within unity, the many in the one, the white rose of alchemy. Rather than show schizophrenia—Marechera’s many disturbed voices are no less disturbing than Beckett’s (and he has had no such medical claims levelled at his writing)—Black Sunlight reveals a transgressive narrative that is about how a text disseminates meaning and identity is a revolutionary state beyond social order and within the individual. The writer who is an insider must be an outsider and vice versa.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Identity Poetics.

Christopher Hennessy, on his blog, offers a signpost to Reginald Shepherd's latest piece on "Identity Poetics". It is an interesting set of speculations, yet a set which puzzles me somewhat. Shepherd essentially argues that poetry written from a view of identity restricts vision. He states that writing from a “gay black poet” label would be reductive. For Shepherd, “gay” is a negative, and “black” too, for they only measure otherness; whereas “poetry” is a positive otherness that allows freedom. Shepherd is a persuasive and insightful writer, yet I still find myself questioning this line of thought. Why is poetry—as an otherness—automatically deemed as positive? Isn’t it possible that poetry is as problematical as “gay” and “black”? To write simply as a “gay” poet, where every poem must be an act of affiliation, would be restrictive. To write simply as a “black” poet, where every poem must be an affirmation of negritude, is also constricting. Yet, poetry is also a straight-jacket , for the poetic tradition is dominated by heterosexual norms and forms. If “gay” and “black” places the self outside the lines…beyond the white heterosexual citadel…so does “poet”: such a term, in the Western world, is full of alien allusions. The poetics of Gunn or Duncan were formulated because the tradition of poetry placed them in exile. The poetical establishment today holds onto its notion of “poet” and it still places writers such as Hemphill outside Parnassus. How many “black” or “gay” individuals are still schooled via a curriculum that avoids “blackness” and “gayness” so as poetry remains its purity, as cultural tyranny wishes?

I think I would also want to add two other words to Shepherd’s set of reflections: “male” and “nationality”. These are also terms that create otherness. If “gay” and “black” labels are to be resisted, so should labels which link the writer to either patriarchal attitudes or to nationalistic concerns. Personally, I don’t think there is anything more restrictive that a poetry that trumpets its bravado or its Englishness or its Americanism. (The same could be applied to criticism and the masculine, biased proselytising of say Ron Silliman’s blog).

I tend to agree with Shepherd that a poetry directed by “identity poetics” prevents growth: it is static and programmatic. Such exists to preserve the status quo of those in exile. I also like his statement that being alienated from alienation is a positive state-of-affairs. But I am not so sure that writing outside identity necessarily makes effective poetry. When writers cancel out the nature of their exile, a bland, unnatural kind of creativity tends to be the result.

In The Observer, today, Stuart Hall was asked about how identity had changed over his lifetime. He gave no elaborate answer, just a simple phrase: it seemed to have “hardened” for people. It is this, I think, that is the enemy of the writer. It isn’t “gay” or “black” or “male” or “English” or “American” or “Christian” or “Islamic” that is the enemy. It is the hardening of the arteries in the self, the running away from the flux of self: the hardening of the heart that makes individuals chip off fragments of what they are until they create poetry, in exile, that fits in with the mainstream.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Difficulty in Poetry.

One discussion that remained with me, having read Outside the Lines, was the nature of “difficulty” in poetry. That issue occurred again whilst reading a recent piece by a teacher of creative writing. Here, “difficulty” was simply described as an action by the critic: when critics don’t get something they call it “difficult”. This teacher of writing does not believe that poets go out of their way to be “difficult”. In England, this sort of lazy wisdom might be true. But Reginald Shepherd, during his interview in Outside the Lines, makes the point that his poetry is “difficult” and he means it to be “difficult” and he expects the reader to rise to that challenge. The poet William Empson addressed exactly this issue in relation to his own poetry in the 1980s. He pointed out that there was a growing gap between the poet and the reader. Either the poet had to reduce difficulty or the reader had to increase the level of response. Needles, to say, Empson did not reduce the difficulty of his work! It wasn’t really a negotiable point. Personally, I believe that Shepherd is correct. Poetry should be difficult, not because the poet wishes to adopt some perverse stance towards the mainstream and we should allow the poet to do so as a sign of toleration (the creative writer yet again) but because experience and communication are “difficult”.

What really annoys me, however, in this “difficult” debate, this side of The Pond, is that it is treated as a modern phenomenon. Suddenly, we have all these “difficult” poets and it’s not part of out tradition. This silliness really comes from double-ignorance. Difficulty has been around for most of the past century. But not in the good old English academic system where there is no Robert Duncan, no Charles Olson, no Wallace Stevens, no John Ashberry, no Ezra Pound, no H.D. It is the gap in global developments that makes “difficulty” appear new. Even worse, though, is the neglect of English poetry in terms of depth. The teaching of English poetry always stops with the surface. So, Blake is easy. Well, yes, if we are talking about a handful of well known poems set for A Level exams, a simple sample from Songs of Innocence and Experience. But the whole of Blake? The philosophy of the Zoas and all the prophecies? And Milton? Well, yes, if we teach him thematically, in schools, as a second-rate version of The Bible. (How this brings back memories of sitting round in tutorials where very nice students prattled on about the Evil One in Paradise Lost, reducing Milton to a story for Sunday School). I have just been re-reading Paradise Lost with “difficulty” in mind. Here is part of a well known love poem from Paradise Lost. Just a love poem. Just a poem by Eve, who wasn’t particularly bright anyway. Not “difficult” at all.

My author and disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; So God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful evening mild, then silent night
With her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising son
On this delightful land, not herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering starlight without thee is sweet
But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?

As a narrative, this is incredibly modern, but only if you see it through Mercurian eyes and read with Milton as a Puritan, Hermetic Neo-Platonist. Firstly, the overall positioning of this speech is key. It is in Book 4 of Paradise Lost. Following Spenser, who expounded much of the hermetical tradition in the Faerie Queene, 4 is the number of marriage and concord. This particular passage is the focus of the whole book, the point at which the harmony between Adam and Eve is established. Throughout Paradise Lost, speech lengths serve to set contexts. This speech by Eve is 24 lines long: the poem is about how a 24 hour day should be. 24 means more than that, however, for it represents12+12, the marriage of the Heavenly City and the Kingdom of Earth. (This speech is re-visited by Adam, in Book 8, on the 24th day of Paradise Lost when Raphael discusses the ways of Heaven and Earth, how the microcosm (Adam and Eve) should be married to the macrocsom (God and the Universe)…not accidental). Milton, as implied author, is shaping the architecture of his poem. Within this, Milton’s narrator, Eve, shapes her understanding of Eden.

Eve’s section is a serenade to Creation, written in the sweet style of the amor cortois, Dante’s “il dolce still nuovo” (Purgatorio: XXIV, 57) hence its sweet…sweet…sweet structure. The love song is shaped by a woman who understands love intellectually: “Donne ch’avette intelletto d’amore”, says Dante. And the serenade has a complex intellectual structure. 16 lines overall, from “Sweet is” to “is sweet”. The word order is reversed to suggest more than a flourish of rhetoric for the whole structure of the poem reverses. 16, hermetically, is the number of concord squared, and Eve splits the 16 lines into 9 and 7. The first 9 lines of the poem represent the permanence that Heaven brings to Earth. Then, in the second part, the number 7 of mutability takes over. Such is doubly stressed by the seven lines from “But neither” to “thee is sweet” and by the seven negations which occur (neither breath, nor rising, nor herb, nor fragrance, nor grateful, nor silent, nor walk). Through the whole 16 line poem, Eve expresses her understanding of how love binds the eternal to the transient. Though Eve says, “God is thy law, thou mine” and places herself in relation to Adam (as Adam relates to God), she shows herself to be intellectually creative, more creative in thought than Adam—hence the final question, which is not a throw-away line, as some Miltonists claim, showing her shallowness, but a final bursting out of what goes on in Eve’s mind: speculation about the universe through the power of Amor; an intellectual power that will eventually take her too far...

It is about time complexity returned to the world of poetry and the teaching of poetry and teachers and students got over facile discussions about “difficulty”. In education, at all levels, there needs to be an understanding that "difficulty" is good and readers need to teach themselves constantly how to read in new ways.

Outside the Lines: some modern gay poets

Not exactly eclectic this book. It is a selection of conversations with 12 gay poets. Another piece of cul-de-sac criticism: the gay poet.

But nothing could be more wrong minded than this approach. There are many admirable aspects to this book and the first is: it shows how eclectic gay poetry is! Varied to the point that this book achieves too important things: firstly, it takes gay as a starting point for selection, then widens that concept as the twelve poets talk, until the focus becomes poetry; secondly, it constantly questions the extent to which poetry originates (for these poets) in their gay identity without ever being crass. Probably, the finest gay poet in the United Kingdom is Gregory Woods, a poet of considerable technical ability and intellectual depth. Before, reading Outside the Lines, I found myself reading his attack on Mark Doty as an “aesthetic” poet (think Wilde) who shrinks away from eroticism and the body; for Woods, therefore, a poet who substitutes a gay sensibility for being gay. In contrast to this narrowness, Christopher Hennessy accepts a spectrum of possibilities, is neither judgemental nor prescriptive, and leaves the reader with a sense of openness.

The book is a fine piece of generous criticism which seeks to identify with its subjects. This is its second admirable quality. In 1981, Denis Donoghue wrote a provocative (and sadly neglected) book on criticism, Ferocious Alphabets. Essentially a series of radio broadcasts, it attacked the loss of voice in criticism, the retreat into ideologies—“lunatics of the one idea”—to the point that criticism became “A Dialogue of One”. By its very nature, a series of conversations, Outside the Lines includes the reader within the lines of conversation. What could have been an exclusive project—don’t bother with this unless you’re gay—becomes inclusive—listen, this actually is interesting. After reading all the interviews, I was left with four significant conversations (for me): Thom Gunn, Mark Doty, Reginald Shepherd, Timothy Lieu. And I was left wondering, “Why?” “Was it because I knew them best and was I just identifying with them because they said what I agreed with?” At first, I thought: probably. But then, no. Shepherd is entirely new, as is Lieu. So, what was it that marked these chapters out? Eventually, I realised another common factor. These were all phone conversations, a medium requiring total attention to the voice, such that I was being drawn to not just the poets but also the voice of the critic.

This point leads to the third notable strength of this book: the author is an enquiring interviewer. He knows what questions to ask. He equally knows what questions the poets would expect him to ask and that leads to divergent questioning, a bit of the expected, a bit of a surprise. So, when questioning Gunn, the usual question about poetic form was posed, to which Gunn gave his familiar answer: the poem selects the style, it knows what it needs to be. The Poundian response out of the Renaissance: "the stone knows the form". But what revelations come with the discussions about movements (and really, for Gunn, The Movement). Simply, this is a refreshing book about poetry, something that you do not get in England. And though Christopher Hennessy never says it, one that does not pretend that all gay poets are white or of a certain class or believe this credo because they are black or recite this mantra because they are gay. Gunn was a master at blending the sacred and profane. Outside the Lines manages to fuse the saintly word of academia with the common-sense talk of real human beings. It is intelligently structured with an overview of the poets followed by a synopsis of each poet before the relevant conversation. The book has almost a Platonic symposium feel to it, intelligent and eloquent conversation, with dialogues to which the reader is a priviliged listener, but it is also absolutely contemporary and on the cutting-edge of what modern poetry is and might be.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rare and Racy.

You would not recognise it now
(though did you ever?) this place
amidst the bordering hills that once
stooped under a grey sky without thunder.

For it has gone the way of northern cities
and cast its industry into the grave—
ashes to ashes and dust to dust—
for a cleaner, more hygienic profile.

Even in the bad old days, I fear,
it would have been too bright for your bias,
the winding incline from private thoughts
to public house

less than the angle of the dream
in the scholar’s bent shoulders;
not as heavy as the shovel
in the mind’s stoned cemetery.

This new brick Sheffield
of metal and glass
has towers that invert
the free-fall of metaphor

and little remains in arcades and bistros,
cafes, diners and fast food houses
to attract the thoughts
of shop-soiled humanity.

Once, this was the red-light
where life was at go—
and wolves at The West End
downed beers by the pack-load.

Now, it is restrained,
gentile and reserved
and the noonday drunk
is a prick in a pin-stripe.

Dambudzo, there is nothing,
nothing here to recall
those months years ago
in this city of slate;

unless it is this,
this skeleton of a shop:
a last articulation
of a time deceased.

For here in the shades
and the must of books,
where the past’s aroma
is a dark imperative

and brain distills
its unbranded Kachusu,
there is still the residue
of stories and atoms.

So, it was here, in this palpable black,
where dust lies thick in the trench of pages,
you sold another’s volumes of Nietzsche and Whitman
(poets of the earth’s soil, leaves and gardeners)

and read, I wonder…What?...
on these shelves without sunlight
(not thinking of guilt, but mindful of existence)
until the black abyss returned a black gaze.

Friday, August 24, 2007

In the lost footsteps of Marechera.

In 1979, Marechera found himself living in Sheffield, England. He was (intentionally) to become an artist-in-residence at the University of Sheffield. This came about through the usual old boy network: Marechera’s publisher at Heinemann, Currey, contacted Christopher Heywood, then a lecturer in English. Heywood, who was born in South Africa and a visiting professor in Nigeria in the late 1960s, had a connection with Africa that Currey obviously felt would be helpful in guiding Marechera. Not so.Heywood was approaching 50 years old when Marechera hit Sheffield and not exactly in line with the off-beat living style of a literary protege.

One of the famous stories surrounding Marechera concerns Heywood’s discovery that Marechera had helped himself to an array of books from his collection and sold them. The recipients were Rare and Racy. In the late 1970s, Rare and Racy was one of the cult places in Sheffield. Situated on the outskirts of the city centre, it was well known as a centre of the literary and music scene. As a secondhand bookshop, it had an ambience all of its own. A visitor, then, as today, would browse whilst strange sounds echoed through the grey shadows; everything from experimental jazz to Messien. Heywood lists some of the books that Marechera re-cycled: Nietzsche, Poe, Whitman, Achebe etc. That doesn’t sound like the most likely of selling-lists for Rare and Racy, with the exception of Nietzsche, for its reputation was built upon its collection of philosophical and occult texts.

The Bookshop itself!

4, Collegiate Crescent.

During his excursion to Sheffield, Marechera lived briefly with Heywood, then at the YMCA on Broomhall Road, and following his eviction from there in April at 4, Collegiate Crescent. His habitat in 1979 was the region around the University itself, which at that time, would have been of considerable interest to his personality. Not far from Rare and Racy was Hartley Seeds, the University’s bookshop, which was well stocked with contemporary poetry, noticeably Ezra Pound. And another local bookshop specialised in occult texts and radical political literature, anarchist and Marxist.

Heywood jokingly refers to Marechera as “a dark cloud on the horizon”. It is a pity that we know so little about his stay in Sheffield prior to the composition of Black Sunlight and his life in the dark and dusty underworld of Sheffield, whose name means "the borderland".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Eshuneutics and film: the hermetical attendant.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien (3).*The film opens with a view of Biard’s Slaves on the West Coast (1833). In a mid-ground between natural light and darkness, the evils of slavery unfold—it is a scene in which Black slave traders participate in White colonial trade and a laid-back White civilisation controls with active violence.

From here, the film moves to a shot of an art gallery. Not the Wilberforce Museum, but the Tate Gallery, London, whose white classical pillars represent an empire built on slavery and Greek, Platonic thought, the ideal love of White male for White male: Jamaican sugar paid for its creation. The fear that haunted slavery is then transposed into a single image, the Attendant’s black glove, and the connection between Black skin and Black leather, how high art turns Blackness into a fetish.

Inside the hermetic space of an art gallery, visitors come to spectate the pictures. For these observers, they are stable images, but in the mind of The Attendant they take personal resonances, coming into full-colour after the closing of the museum, when The Attendant is left alone with his fantasies.

A visual narrative begins as The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Two angel figures circulate the heads of each figure. White Eros circles the Visitor and Black Eros circles The Attendant. The figures resemble the so-called Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London—correctly, a version of the Angel of Charity/Love. The charity that The Attendant and The Visitor offer each other is bound up (literally) with sadomasochistic desire.

It was a condition of filming for Time CodeThe Attendant was created for a series called Double Lives—that there should be no spoken dialogue in the film. This requirement fits well with the hermetical silence of an art gallery where the world is pursued in muted tones. The silence of the art gallery appears as a conspiratorial silence as the The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Only once is sound heard in the film. Not a conversation, but a series of groans heard through the wall by The Attendant’s wife, The Conservator. The sealed kiss between husband and wife operates, as Julien puts it, as an “alibi”. The Attendant’s world exists because the The Conservator conserves it just as they both exist because the high art world employs them. They exist in a bound relationship (enslaved) to the history of high art and White culture and heterosexism.

The Attendant and The Visitor relate, not through cost (as in Looking for Langston) but through costume. In the film shot where they stand side-by-side, almost as 3D cut-outs from the drawings of Tom of Finland, they stand as the opposite of each other. The White Visitor wears the Black leather uniform of sexual desire. The Black Attendant wears the White Wool Uniform desired by society. If leather suggests the fetishism of Black skin, so wool intimates the heritage of slavery. Both are held, through costume, to a history of bondage.

In “Confessions of a Snow Queen”, Julien problematically attaches a positive reading of this seemingly negative image. He asks if the Black male playing a slave role in an s/m fantasy might not be seen as parody, as a creative act against cultural domination. (This is part of what Mercer asked about Mapplethorpe. Are the Black figures in his photographs creative as well as being created? Do they not create a space for their desires? Interestingly, Doy attempted to answer that question by finding the viewpoints of Mapplethorpe’s models: the result, like the art gallery, was silence. A neat thought, but there is not much evidence that being photographed by Mapplethorpe was a liberating experience). At this point in the film, where the shot is head-on and challenging, Julien is posing questions about inter-racial desire and if it fits in with mainstream culture.

The closing of The Attendant, finally, recedes into black and white and then returns to colour. Two visual narratives are juxtaposed. They seem to be separate, but really flow into one another. To begin this sequence, The Attendant is seen as an opera singer performing Purcell. The image of The Attendant finding a voice concentrates many allusions (high art echoes). The tradition of young men singing female parts in seventeenth century opera is opened out: a deception becomes obvious…in Julien’s film the singer is openly male…and openly Black. There is a kind of transparency. By aligning The Attendant with Dido, however, Julien also brings in two historical echoes: Dido was a traditional name for a female Black slave; Dido’s death—because of Aeneas’ rejection— led to the founding of Rome and empire. Black and white histories collide around the question of imperialism, oppression and silence. Yes, The Attendant finds voice, but only as an attendant who waits upon language and expression. (Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991) pleased few, partly because it relied upon a received narrative film style and the inter-racial element delighted neither Black nor White gay men: the White mainstream did not want a film about a Black gay man and the Black current did not want to see a literally mixed storyline that denied Black containment, what Julien termed the “Black is, Black ain’t” box.

Furthermore, The Attendant sings “Thy hand Belinda”, a prelude to death. This brings to mind the hand of The Attendant which opened the film. And doesn’t an Attendant give a helping-hand? The hand image is also repeated openly in the hand-clapping of The Conservator, whose slow hand beat mimes the deliberate stroke of The Visitor’s whip, who, like a queen herself, is the audience to The Attendant’s performance (just as she was the voyeur to his sexual performance in the art gallery). The Attendant’s “Remember me” is an operatic climax that in the context of the film sounds like a Black lover’s request to his White partner. One doubts, however, that this transaction has much to do with remembering names. In Dido and Aeneas, the queen’s death is followed by the entrance of Cupids. They come to attend and watch over her. In The Attendant, the chorus of Cupids is replaced by a gay Black Queen (Roy Brown) who is surrounded by White angels. The closing of the film is deliberately voyeuristic towards the central Black image, caressing the body’s golden cloth and pectoral jewel as it contrasts the power of the Black male with the obedient white angels. Black Dido turns into Black Eros—whose beauty is attended by white cupids.

The finale of The Attendant does not deny Black beauty (as shown by Beauty in Looking for Langston). It intimates rather that the power of Black Eros is more than closeted dreams. Silencing the dialogue of Black essentialism and White essentialism in the film, allows another thought to emerge. White culture has sought its own narcissistic image and watched it fade away. Black desire has become a loud echo in the mountainous halls of high art. Julien is facing the shadow of the Harlem Renaissance in The Attendant: how White patrons created by manipulating the Black image. In this sense, his short film of 1993 carries on from his position in 1989. But there is a change of approach. The secrecy of Black desire produced an unhealthy state for creativity. By opening Black desire, Julien wants to free creativity from notions of disease, so much so that inter-racial relationships are seen creatively as signs of life. A Black male desiring a White male need not be a surrender to White imperialism, just as a White male desiring a Black male does not have to be an expression of White domination, if the diseased discourse of slave-master is abandoned for something healthier.
The problem here is that Art does not always mirror Life and the idealism of Julien belongs more to the world of high art than life. The Attendant is a thought provoking piece of film making, yet it probably only has a currency in a salacious world that will mis-read it (as with Mapplethorpe) as shock art.

Marechera and the Crime Novel.

Black Sunlight opens with a violent conceptual metaphor, FICTION IS A WINDOW. Marechera develops this further by connecting tense and tension. Sentences fragment. Through another familiar metaphor he asserts that FICTION IS A BIRTH. And the first story that emerges concerns an African runner who has seen a white woman for the first time. The narrator, who has just escaped the pitlatrine, but is eventually inverted in the chickenshit, explains (to the reader) that this woman is no other than Blanche Goodfather, whom he met whilst at Oxford University. They spent one afternoon together. The tone of this meeting is set by the “framed print” in Blanche Goodfather’s room (nothing as common as a poster tacked to the wall) which shows Bronzino’s Allegory. The pornographic fondling of Venus by Eros serves as an echo of what the narrator and character have indulged in. Snow “digresses” against the windowpanes, once more establishing the relationship between window and narrative. In a single sentence, the reader is pulled back to the narrator in the chicken shit, then another digression follows. It seems a careless departure, another story pasted in, but it is a carefully placed digression.

Now, the narrator remembers a day with friends. Flies scan every mouthful of sadza. The sun, at noon, directly above the narrator’s head is “burning angrily”. Heat and food are activating the flies. From where he reads, the spectator can see two female figures (Katherine and Marie?) eating and hear a third, Susan, engaged with a client. Implicitly, eating and sexuality connect. Sexual eating provided food for the table. Most interesting, though, is the book that is being read: No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

The book is by Hadley Chase. As a person who learnt to read early, Hadley Chase was a staple diet for the young Marechera. And that metaphor was literally true. In a 1983 interview, Marechera relates how he read Hadley Chase, at primary school age, because reading directed his mind away from hunger. Later on, his reading choices shifted to Orwell, and that might well be significant. Marechera recalls reading Orwell at 15-16, somewhere around 1968, the year in which Orwell published his Collected Essays. The Collected Essays contains a blistering review of Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a novel, which Orwell describes as “a header into the cesspool.” Cesspool, pitlatrine, chickenshit. Orwell disliked the novel intensely, for even though it was well written and a convincing fiction, the novel included violence, rapes, and wrongly praised the “power instinct”.

Subconsciously, what seems a narrative departure, in the mind of the narrator is not so. It is part of the theme that introduces the novel: sexuality and power. No Orchids for Miss Blandish isn’t a throwaway detail, rather an image that connects physical hunger and intellectual repletion. The allusion links sex, violence, sexual power and society to the narrator. These are core concerns in Black Sunlight. The flies whose eyes “glistened with the paranoia of black sunlight” are images of inverted vision: their windows see a world that requires suicidal actions. In some ways, Black Sunlight is a satire on popular crime writing, on a genre which made heterosexual pornography acceptable, yet Marechera's philosophical vision of terrorism and society is of a different order.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Eshuneutics and film: perversion.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien. (2) *

What was in Julien’s mind at the time of filming The Attendant? Well, I would suggest three things need to be considered.

1) Julien knew his Mapplethorpe. He was well aware of Mapplethorpe’s favourite in-joke: cultural doubleness. At one point, Mapplethorpe had two art shows at the same time, one male nude exhibition in a famous high art gallery and a sadomasochistic one in an infamous low gallery. It was a huge joke— to be able to live in two worlds at once. This fact touched on another implicit joke in much of Mapplethorpe’s photography. By placing photographs of Black men in galleries, Mapplethorpe elevated the low to high. His classical photographs of Thomas (a porn star) were a consummate double-take. By placing sadomasochism in an art gallery—and an art gallery devoted to anti-slavery (in Hull)—Julien reverses the Mapplethorpe joke. He gives the sadomasochistic imagery a new context, an antidote to the poison. It is an extension of his concern in Langston where a White figure longingly figures photographs from the Black Book as the poetry of Essex Hemphill undercuts the figure’s covetous, inter-racial desire.

2) Julien wrote a number of highly perceptive essays with Kobena Mercer. (much of which was placed visually into Looking for Langston) In 1993, when The Attendant was being formulated, Mercer was in the process of changing his mind about Mapplethorpe. He was shifting from an anti-stance to more of curious arm on the hip way of thinking. Mercer was opening up a grey area of crossings and cross-overs (much as James Small has done in studying the Harlem Renaissance). The White market, for Mercer, provided a space for Black vision. It was something more complex than a trade off. (Doy would say an act of consumerism). Julien, quite probably, was aware of this cultural shift in thought and the re-orientating of Mapplethorpe and this suited a personal preoccupation.

3) Julien is a Black man attracted to White men.. Or to put the personal in a cultural framework, as Julien does in “Confessions of a Snow Queen” (1993), a lot of important art was emerging from inter-racial partnerships.This was true of Isaac Julien and Mark Nash; Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst; Lyle Harris, Asotto Saint, Marlon Riggs. For Julien, the Black-Black relationship and the essentialist paradigm in Looking for Langston had become more complex. Looking for Langston consciously stayed away from Van Vechten’s white-made Harlem, except in a negative way to illustrate how white patronage placed the “negro in vogue” until a point where this became unfashionable.

So, what does a viewing of The Attendant suggest? It suggests a more complex and intense look at the history of spectating.

Eshuneutics and film: perversity.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien. (1) *

This short film has just been released on DVD in the USA as an accompaniment to Looking for Langston. The packaging of which is somewhat strange: about 70% of the cover is dominated by an inter-racial couple; 30% is given to one of the most memorable Black-Black relationship scenes from the film. If you knew zero about the film, you would assume (wrongly) that this is some sort of black and white porn film for the White gay market. The Black market is reduced to the black-market. Is this some sort of post-modern joke? I don’t think so. It’s either a piece of crass marketing or a misinterpretation of the film?

Looking for Langston (1989) is a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and the desire and friendship that existed between Black men. It places, in one section, a visual critique and condemnation of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book and his objectification (as a White photographer) of the Black male body. Attaching The Attendant to Looking for Langston is a puzzling move because it represents a shift in Julien’s ideology and feelings. But how? The Attendant—seemingly—upholds the s/m world from which Mapplethorpe’s own desire for the Black male arose. But does it?

One of the most perceptive books on Black art in the UK is Doy’s Black Visual Culture. Significantly, it discusses two films of Julien’s: Fanon (1996) and The Attendant (1993). How strange that a book on Black art should ignore a film focusing exactly on that issue. Why? In many ways, Looking for Langston lies outside the feminist, Marxist aesthetic that Doy is guided by. The Attendant, on the other hand, is open to a dispassionate analysis. It is more polemical, less lyrical than Langston, it does not demand absorption. Langston you embrace. The Attendant you spectate. And that is a better discussion ground for criticism. Doy’s interest in The Attendant easily meets Julien’s focus: the high art world and how it is allied to deep criticism. Doy delights in undermining high art from a Marxist point of view and placing the film in a shady area somewhere between modernism and post-modernism. But what exactly is going on in the film? The cryptogrammic nature of The Attendant is a critic’s dream.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The MIndscape of "Black Sunlight".

Black Sunlight was published towards the end of 1980. Its writing is wholly linked to a point after Oxford and before Marechera’s return to Zimbabwe. The manuscript of Black Sunlight was sent to Heinemann (to be 237 in their African Writers Series) in August 1979. This is known because Ann Godfrey and John Wyllie submitted their readers reports in August and September, Pantheon and Simon Gikandi in October and November of that year. In a 1986 interview with the Dutch journalist, Alle Lansu, Marechera discusses the composition of Black Sunlight and its date:

AL: Black Sunlight was for me a rather confusing book. Can you tell me some more about what was in your mind at the time?

DM; Well, it was late ‘79…and I was living in Tolmers Square [London]…There was this slogan which I think is in Black Sunlight …[.]

Marechera re-states part of this to Veit-Wild in another 1986 interview:

DM: When I wrote Black Sunlight, I was staying at what was called the “Tolmers Square Community”. This was a squatter community of about 700 people.

(A Source Book, pp.29, 218).

This is an accurate memory, but from what date?

This memory would not seem to be entirely true. It does, after all, come some 7 years after the period when Black Sunlight was being written. Black Sunlight quite simply could not have been written “late ‘1979”. Working backwards in time, the manuscript to Black Sunlight was with Heinemann in August 1979, in July and June, Marechera was in Berlin, before this, he was in Sheffield, in December 1978, Marechera was re-drafting The Black Insider, which was the genesis of Black Sunlight. In the dark light of all of this, then, it would seem that the composition of Black Sunlight stretched from December 1978 to May 1979. It was begun when Marachera was living in Tolmers Square and finished in the same place, but part of the gestation period included Marechera’s stay in the north of England.

From February to June (?), according to traditional sources, Marechera was an artist in residence (though not much in residence) at the University of Sheffield. The City of Sheffield, of course, offers easy access by bus to the Peak District, one of the most scenic parts of the United Kingdom. So, not far from where Marechera lived in the early part of 1979 is the Peak Cavern, otherwise known as The Devil’s End or more simply, in Derbyshire, The Devil’s Arse. The Peak Cavern was once the home to a community, known locally as an entrance to the Underworld, and is famous today for its limestone structures. Of course, Marechera’s eye doesn’t become a tourist guide to the Peak District/”Devil’s Peak”. Transformations abound. The Blackhall area of the Peak landscape metamorphoses into Black Hall, whilst the Jade Chamber is a wicked piece of wordplay that links a possible rock feature with a Taoist, tantric phrase for womb/THE GREAT CUNT. The description of Devil’s End as “floodlit with pink lights” (BS, p.57) is a fantasy based on the actual floodlights within the Peak Cavern and exactly how they reflect off the subterranean limestone walls. The “MOONSTONE” light that Christopher switches on recalls one of the key rocks from the Peak District (the other being Blue John). And the familiar feature of bayonet structures hanging from the Peak Cavern comes alive in the sentence: “I had been filming eerie teeth of stalagmites and stalactites (BS, p.59). These echoes do seem to suggest that Black Sunlight was definitely spiralling within Marechera’s brain during his time in Sheffield…when “Chris’s YMCA” (BS, p.60) and its tortured underworld began to echo Marechera’s own home at the Broomhall YMCA.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Books are Sexy.

Well, if only they were! Because, according to the latest reports in the UK, young males (11-14) are still not reading, or rather: still not able to read. There is something ironical, therefore, in the latest well-meaning, yet as ever misguided attempt by the government to promote reading. GIVE THE SCHOOLS A BOOKLIST TO INSPIRE READING. Of course, bearing in mind that the audience probably can’t read the booklist, let alone the books, I wouldn’t expect a raising of standards anytime soon.

The press has cast a derogatory eye upon this latest venture, noticing that some old favourites appear: is this list anything more than a call for a return to classic novels and the moral, educative qualities of literature? Good boys should read good books. The government has tried to sex up reading in the past. It gave primary schools some very nice posters of famous footballers reading. (Not that anyone believed these footballers did any such thing!) And it got wealthy, inarticulate footballers to talk to youngsters about the importance of reading. (Not that many teachers were convinced that yob culture and greed would bring about a revolution in literary criticism…and it didn’t). So, what of this booklist and the chance to choose 20 free books for reading, approximately one book for every 15 boys?

Well, here is a real opportunity for engaging with the intimacy of literature! 15 boys, all sitting around sharing one book…preferably, Billy Elliott…which is one inclusion. And here are some more scintillating choices:

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything…what?

Jeremy Clarkson, I Know You Got Soul…a book about machines, with fascinating trivia! Top Gear reading by an embarrassing chauvanist.
Robinson Crusoe…?

King Solomon’s Mines…?

Treasure Island…?


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

The Hobbit…?

Roadl Dahl…Boy, Going Solo?

Ricky Gervais, Flanimals of the Deep? A lot of non-literary flannel!

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony…let’s start with a derivative fourth novel rather than the height of the series: Artemis Fowl!

Dave Pikey, Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People…. please make up your own indelicate comment on this!

Garth Nix, Lady Friday…wouldn’t it help if the reader started with Mr Monday, the first in the series?

The booklist reflects much what is wrong with teaching in primary and secondary schools at the moment. About 86% of the books recommended for boys in the list are by male authors. Selection rests upon a lie that boys prefer to read male authors. Too many of the books pander to stupid humour and boys-own-fantasy, avoiding emotion. Here is another lie: boys do not want books which foster an inner-life. The list includes Nix’s One Beastly Beast, but omits Sabriel, an emotional, supernatural, feminist tale that has had 11 years old males (in primary school) fascinated! Only 1% of the books are by black authors, even though black males are a significant part of the reading reform issue—and powerful authors, such as Malorie Blackman, are totally excluded. Benjamin Zephaniah gets a piece of whimsical poetry included, but not his provocative Refugee Boy! Quite simply, the booklist avoids any attempt at multiculturalism or race issues: it derives in its entirety from the fictional world of librarians and politicians. There is a world beyond the UK too--one to which many boys are affiliated--not that you would really know that from this latest booklist for the Governmental Bookclub (which meets every first Wednesday of the month at an Academy near you, or at Eton).

Quite simply, is there any wonder that real males do not want to engage with the pleasure of the text?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Owen Dodson and Poetry.

Owen Dodson. Books still have a magic of their own. There is a thrill in opening a book for the first time, touching the crisp pages, watching how they fall back as if they have not been touched, so refusing the enquiring gaze. With second hand books it is somewhat different. They have a used story to tell… And that story is often implied, cryptic, too much for a hermeticist to reject! I was intrigued, therefore, to come across a copy of Owen Dodson's poetry in a small second-handbook shop in Wales. Books travel. But how did that copy find a home amidst the rolling green hills of Wales rather than some place in Washington D.C.? I suppose the answer rests with the bold, black free inscription flowing like waves across the title page:

“Your name is Johnny,
My names is Owen,
Hello across the sea.
October 5, 1976.”

Owen, is of course, Owen Dodson. But Johnny? Not a passing acquaintance, since Dodson sent a copy of his photographic book on Harlem to the same Johnny in 1978; and this one came from Dodson’s family home, from his sister, in New York. The inscription to the poetry book suggests an introduction, a friend of a friend and someone not met. Yet, you don’t send signed new first editions unsolicited. So, who was the Johnny, in England, who merited the attention of a 62 year old ex-Howard University professor of drama and major Black dramatist?

The book now exudes mustiness. It belongs to a period when poetry books were published on quality paper and came unevenly cut. In the pockled paper there is a soft grain: a grain that fits the soft, elegiac tone that runs through Powerful Long Ladder. Published in 1946, this volume has a private and public face: it mourns the war dead, but also a world only half-acknowledged, as was typical of the Harlem Renaissance poets. “Counterpoint" is for the magician of that period, Carl Van Vechten, and comes with an ominous refrain: “Terror does not belong to open day”, as if suggesting a secret life beyond the glamour and glitz.
Countee Cullen” is an elegy written shortly after the poet’s death, in 1946, and this touches, like the Van Vechten poem, upon a world of secret desires: Cullen’s love for other Black men. There is a finely crafted short lyric for the Black gay actor and singer, Gordon Heath, who had just appeared, on Broadway, as Brett Charles, in Deep are the Roots:

Nothing happens only once,
Nothing happens only here,
Every love that lies asleep
Wakes today another year.

Why we sailed and how we prosper
Will be sung and lived again;
All the lands repeat themselves,
Shore for shore and men for men.

The echoes accumulate until they ring behind the ambivalent “you”. Like Auden before him, Dodson had learnt how to use the “you” to imply a personal, private and secretive “he”:


There is no evidence that you loved me,
Or witnesses: there was fire for the letters,
And those I told are promised, sealed.

Once there was a prism even the sun
Could not glory, light came from
Somewhere more abstract than the sky.

But light is the name, there is no other;
This light was human living, not aerial,
Mixed, fragrant, showing even at blazing noon,

Never in a dark so solid nothing
Struck through: sun or star or moon
Or artificial lamp, electric-full.

It is no secret: the somewhere light was you,
Nor the flesh part only, not the bone part merely
But the dream undyed with passion:

You when there was no henceforth
To walk, no now to penetrate,
No therewas to shadow. You in clarity.

The prism still lies near the clock,
But time nestling up to dawn, to spring in afternoon,
Loves hours, only hours, never light.

Powerful Long Ladder is a significant volume which contains a lost imagination that once stretched like human arms to embrace love and death. Dodson gets no metion in the Academy of American Poets. His poetry, like the above examples, ranges from short lyrics to dramatic dialogues, and are often written with an apocalyptic and metaphyscial fire. Dodson's imagination in Powerful Long Ladder is strongest when it is most personal. Its roots are deep, especially at the close when they mix prophecy and politics and reverberate like Baldwin:

Brothers, let us discover our hearts again...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Marechera and the Harrowing of Hell

The First Epistle of Peter speaks of Christ’s entry into Hell. This was an early commonplace of Christianity. Within the literary tradition, the concept became significant within Anglo Saxon literature and then Medieval literature. From the Old English hergian though the Middle English herwen, this descent by Christ became known as the “Harrowing” of Hell.

The Harrowing of Hell lasted three days…from Christ’s death on Friday to his resurrection on Sunday. In true ironical vein, Marechera picks up this detail in Black Sunlight and re-works it as his protagonist’s entry into Devil’s End. Marechera’s Christian education and his English studies at Oxford University would undoubtedly have acquainted him with the “despoiling”and its sources:

I followed him into the tunnel. We passed through huge rooms in which vague human figures were
poised in very excruciating postures. (One hung upside down and dangled by his testicles). Some were on a red hot treadmill. Some were transfixed upside down by huge nails driven into the rock passing through their ankles or their knees. Others—
“Don’t dawdle man…How long are you here for?”

"Three days."

(BS, p.53).

Seemingly, the protagonist of Black Sunlight, whose anti-self is called Christian (during the Devil’s End episode), and whose guide into Devil’s End is named Chris(t), has entered the catacombs for a period of terrorist training. Again, this is a sublime joke by Marechera, one that shows the verbal depth that underlies Black Sunlight. As Christ entered Hell to harry/attack and liberate the good souls, so the initiate in Black Sunlight enters Hell to acquaint himself with modern terrorism and methods for liberating the human spirit. This connection between terrorism and freedom of thought is represented by the mysterious “Franz’s brother”…a double who incarnates the political stance of Franz Fanon. Rather more than this exists, however, for there is a theme that once more extends the mock-Christian framework of Black Sunlight. Marechera was aware of the Surrealist writers who came to believe in writing as an “automatic” process, as something more than a learnt, conscious craft. Christian at his type-writer is literally a type for the artist and his/her struggle for words…words that take many forms and don’t always (as in the case of Black Sunlight) take the form an audience might like. What Marechera enacts within the Devil’s End episode of Black Sunlight is nothing less than a liberation of language. But Marechera pushes beyond Surrealism…more into the realm of Bataille and Bonnefoy, who believed that Surrealism had become a form of conservatism. It isn’t automatic writing, a total surrender to the unconscious , nor an example of paranoia, what Beckett described as feverish writers “covering sheets of paper with complaints against their treatment or verbatim reports of their inner voices”… it is an act of uncrucifying language, an act of terrorism upon parole and the Novel. In essence, Chapter 7 of Black Sunlight is the redemptive chapter amidst a Decalogue of Chapters— it focuses on writing, how the writer leads himself “to the slaughter, to the typewriter (BS. P.77)—to THE GREAT CUNT, the whore of Babylon, Mater-Matrix— yet seeks to harrow, violently fight the encyclopaedia that is reality, and so resurrect a different reality.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Black Image: The Harlem Renaissance.

In Ten 8 (1992) Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien sketched out a discourse on black male sexuality. Their argument was based on a landscape of stereotypical desire that was ploughed according to the demands of white males. A fuller working of this thesis took place in Welcome to the Jungle with the co-authors following Foucault and Fanon to implicate the black male gaze within the area of prejudice, that is to say: racist imagery operates around a belief that black men are “hypersexual” and this is one of a number of myths (entrenched by historical slavery) that black males would rather not lose…have demystified. As bell hooks has asserted, this racist iconography is a source of power and men who are made powerless by society cling to power (however dubious it might be) because it affords an area in which they might exist. Mercer and Julien insist upon demystifying, however, and do so to provide a classic critique of Mapplethorpe and his art of sexual objectification. For Julien, this was artistically articulated in Looking for Langston (1989). Mercer, however, adopted a revised position in 1986 and 1989. His second essay, "How Do I Iook?" plays with a semantic ambiguity. The question could belong to the person viewed: how do I look to you? Or it could belong to the person viewing: how do I look at you? This double strand allowed Mercer to see Mapplethorpe in a gentler (less racist light)…would have to disagree here…for every photograph now speaks in two ways. It becomes the creation of the white man’s gaze and also an expression of black male desire (when viewed by a black male). Historically, Mercer’s re-looking at racial fetishism was justified: you only have to compare poets such as Branner and Harris to see a divergence in response:

thank you
mister Mapplethorpe
for lassoing all a’ my
crazy gazelle selves
and tying them
to 8 x 10 glossies

(“Poem for Robert”, DB Branner)

(“Come see”, K Harris).

And what lies behind this divergence is an unexpected question: What is “whiteness”? White men look into blackness to try and see what their own “whiteness” is. The black male—as mirror image—raises a question about the reality of the white male: as the white male makes the black male the reality of his desire so the white male becomes virtual…

This “How do I look?” approach is applied by James Smalls throughout his study of Carl Van Vechten’s private photographs. Van Vechten, the white architect of the Harlem Renaissance, was an enigmatic figure. Humoroulsy depicted by Covarrubias, in 1926, as a white man turning negro, itself a symbol of what the white man sought when “the Negro was in vogue”, Van Vechten’s private, homoerotic photographs depict a double world of desire. At their most mysterious, they use a black male and a white male (usually Juante Allan Meadows and Hugh Laing) to represent a double desire: Van Vechten’s attraction to the white and the black male ideal. The result is what Smalls terms Van Vechten’s “camp” and “primitivism”. For Van Vechten, primitivism enshrined a sexual response, permitted it to exist within the realm of art, and within this space, the black male could come to life. (This is the ambivalent position that Mercer and Julien opened up: the space that frees the black man also imprisons him within assumptions—be naked, yet clothed by my prejudices). By contrasting this primitivism with civilisation, the white male became Van Vechten’s symbolic point of entry. Juante Allan Meadows’ primitive wildness is counter-pointed by Hugh Laing’s control. The two dancers enact more than a pas de deux. They are part of a ménage a trois in which they dance with the choreographer, Van Vechten. The humorous “camp” element acts as a kind of justifying and protective veil, as if Van Vechten is only playing, when in fact he is seriously involved with his world of double desire. If Laing represents the sexual transgression, Meadows represents the racial and sexual transgression. Laing’s acceptance of Meadows substitutes for Van Vechten’s desire for the black male and Meadows inclusion in Laing’s world represents an incarnation of the spiritual blackness that Van Vechten worships as Harlem. In the photographs in which white male buttocks and black male penis are present and staged, Van Vechten suggests a fetishistic desire of entry and enterer, a quasi-mysticism in which civilisation and primitivism meet.

The photographs of Van Vechten are fascinating insights into the duplex world of the Harlem Renaissance…images that try to unravel “whiteness” by weaving a worship of blackness— a camp, occult black magic!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Marechera and homosexuality.

The Oedipus myth provided Freud with a key psychological theory, a theory that gained mythological status within the twentieth century. The two most disliked strands were, of course, Freud’s belief that the Oedipal Complex created a woman’s sense of incompleteness—she had no penis—and the homosexual’s sense of incoherence—he was a male who lacked full mental complexity. Inferiority and rejection are components of the Oedipal Complex.

Writing on Marechera, David Patison sees The House of Hunger in terms of the Oedipal conflict: the “relative coherency” ( Perspectives, p.195) of the novel comes about because Marechera—at this point—is accepting elements of his academic upbringing. In other words, because Marechera still clings to the Oedipal struggle against his Father-world (Oxford University) he is able to shape a work of fiction of some maturity, one that is recognisable as a novel, one that deserves academic recognition because it is recognisable! (Unlike Black Sunlight and The Black Insider—both of which disintegrate, like Marechera’s mind, because they have avoided maturity and struggle). There are at least two main flaws in this claim. Firstly, Patison assumes a definition of the Oedipal Complex that pre-dates Freud’s later revisionism. Secondly, it credits The House of Hunger with a sort of completeness that not even this establishment novel actually possesses.

Towards the centre of The House of Hunger, a fascinating and finely crafted passage occurs. The narrator returns to his Oedipal years: for one week, at the age of four, he slept in the bed of his mother (while his father was absent). This is followed by a homoerotic passage in which the narrator witnesses his brother’s coming of age (a pun intended by Marechera!) With deliberate irony, the reader (through the eyes of the narrator) is shown a moment of homosexual desire, an infantile moment before child is subjected to adult, the normal way of things. A childish innocence characterises the passage, yet the section is written with total coherence. The child, for Marechera, is given authenticity—the homosexual is credited with wholeness. Already, in The House of Hunger, there is a sense that life (for Marechera) isn’t about Oedipal rejection, but about rejecting the Oedipal myth:

My street education was no less explicit. The advent of pubic hairs and unmanly breasts (you were supposed to squeeze them, or pick up an angry ant and let it bite the nipple) was brought to my gang quite graphically by Peter. He was the first to have pubic hairs worth exposing. He was the first to induce Nestar to take down her knickers and bend over. And one thick summer night the boys came from all over the township and gathered round to watch a demonstration that Peter had promised. He was going to prove to us infants that he had actually become capable of making girls—any girls—pregnant. It was a solemn occasion. We were going to see the thing that divided the men from the boys. Peter stripped. He had bathed and oiled himself all over. He was lean and strong and handsome. The size of his organ astonished us. It was stiff and huge and its mouth was tense. He quite casually cradled it in his right-hand fingers and began to masturbate. We watched him with mounting eagerness. Above us white termites flashed and spurted about the naked light bulb of the solitary street-light. I began to sweat. He groaned, and—moved. He was losing control. We could see a great happening taking over is soul. It was in his spine, arching him backward, and yet lifting him gradually. It was if he stood between two magnets, and the iron filings of his nerves were being tortured into a pattern. The taut cloth of his being, unable to bear the strain, tore. And moaning, like something out of this world, he came and came and came like new wine that cannot be contained within old cloth. The gang drew closer and closer and sighed. I swallowed thickly, but my mouth was dry. And my mouth, it seems, has been dry ever since.

(House of Hunger, pp. 53-54).

In one sense this is a gay “sex story”. Erotic rather than pornographic, however, for it assumes (as Barthes wrote of the erotic photographic image) a desire for more than a unified focus: a single (penis-like) eye on the pre-determined sexual act. And the passage has some deep points of focus. There is “advent” for a start, a word that suggests the quasi-religious content of what follows: a holy birth and “solemn occasion”. There is also the attribution of “thick” to night, making the natural surroundings take on the quality of flesh…the wonder of Peter’s “organ”. Marechera plays with pornographic phraseology. Essentially, this act is political, a “demonstration”, also a performance, and Peter’s oiled skin links him to sex-performer, boxer, and prepared warrior. The narrative is concerned with fertility: sex=pregnancy, the reproductive white winged termites foreshadow the spurt of Peter’s semen. But it also carries a different tone. The “naked” light bulb (phallic) is “solitary”. Fertility’s connection to outward, structural order (as in the termite world) is gradually replaced by self-absorption and the inwardness of the masturbatory act. Peter is pulled down and lifted up by sex. It brings a “pattern”, an imposition into which his body is “tortured”. At the close of the passage, the sentences carry a simple, paratactic structure…and…and…and…and…as if the structure of the experience is barely hanging together. And finally, the narrator (and reader) is left to experience a dry sexual act. “I swallowed thickly” reflects a sexual act not made, but felt. The narrator has drunk from Jacob’s well of life, but it has not refreshed him, and the spiritual emptiness is what remains. Quoting irreligiously from the Gospels, new wine in old cloth, Marechera links Peter’s act to the need for a new political order with new ideas. The homosocial world of the gang has revealed a homosexual core and this has opened up a structure of sensation that challenges accepted social structuring.

Around the black male image, Marechera connects rival expectations, and these focus on a question about nakedness/coherence, one in which an anti-social model (gang, homosocial, homosexual) is located as a source of power. Peter's cradling of his grown-up penis intimates a psychological moment where child and adult are in touch (Dionysus holds Zagreus). Like the later Freud, the Oedipal strain, for Marechera, is not seen as a rejection; rather, a rejection of it brings a more complex maturity that allows adult and child and variant sexualities to co-exist as a new wine.