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Ishmael Reed and the Psychic Epidemic

“In times of social turblulence men like you abandon reason and fall back on Mumbo Jumbo.”

“I was there,” PaPa LaBas declares, “a private eye practicing in my Neo-HooDoo therapy center named by my critics Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral….I was a jacklegged detective of the metaphysical who was on the case, and in 1920 there was a crucial case.”

Published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo triangulates between New Orleans, New York City, and Haiti, with a long excursion into the mythology and history of ancient Egypt.  Reed (born in 1938) takes aim at white cultural superiority and white cultural entitlement.  As the novel opens, a “psychic epidemic” called Jes Grew is sweeping through the American South, headed toward New York.  Originally a reference to the ragtime music of Scott Joplin and others (music that “jes’ grew”), Reed’s Jes Grew is an umbrella for all types of African-based art, including jazz, blues, and popular dances like the Cakewalk, along with the work of black painters and black writers.

Jes Grew, the Something or Other that led Charlie Parker to scale the Everests of the Chord.  Riff fly skid dip soar and gave his Alto Godspeed.  Jes Grew that touched John Coltrane’s Tenor; that tinged the voice of Otis Redding…

At the risk of gravely oversimplifying matters, Mumbo Jumbo is cast as an eternal struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces, between the empirical and the occult.  It  posits a lifeless, fearful white culture, based upon “the Classics, the achievements of mankind which began in Greece,” ruthlessly dominating a vibrant and sensual black culture originating in the northern Africa of ancient Egypt.  In one of the book’s more amusing digressions, a small group of devotees make plans to liberate all non-Western art from American and European museums and repatriate the objects to their original countries.  (The Metropolitan Museum of Art is referred to as the Center for Art Detention because of all the non-white art held in captivity there.)  But just as Jes Grew threatens to overtake New York and the entire nation in with its contagious rhythm, a mysterious group called the Wallflower Order, descended from the Knights Templar, arises to defend white civilization against “the black tide of mud,” as Freud called such occultism.

Unfortunately, Jes Grew is lacking the one element required for its continued survival: a crucial text written in ancient Egypt, handed down through the ages, and now missing.  PaPa LaBas’ job is to find this Text before Jes Grew is once again suppressed by the white man.  His Grail-like search ultimately points to the Text being hidden beneath the dance floor of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, but by the end of the novel we learn that the Text has been maliciously burned by its last owner.

Is this the end of Jes Grew?
Jes Grew has no end and no beginning.  It even precedes that little ball that exploded 1000000000s of years ago and led to what we are now.  Jes Grew may even have caused the ball to explode.  We will miss it for a while but it will come back, and when it returns we will see that it never left.  You see, life will never end; there really is no end to life, if anything goes it will be death.  Jes Grew is life.

George Herriman, frame from Krazy Kat

In formal terms, Mumbo Jumbo makes some use of the tools of both Beat literature and Postmodern writing.  Its pages are replete with Capitalized Words, contrarian spelling (Kongress, Kathedral, Kapitol), the ubiquitous use of cardinal numbers (“1000000s” instead of millions), parenthetical authorial comments (each signed “I.R.”), and the frequent use of  context-specific typography.  But Mumbo Jumbo is closer kin to the world of noir writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, the detective and gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s,  the comic book (especially George Herriman’s Krazy Kat), and outsider art. 

Earline rose from her seat and walks, swinging her hips, down the aisle of the trolley car.  She gives him a look the nature of which would force a man to divorce his wife, sell his home, hang around the blood bank, offer his skin for grafting, donate his eyes to an alligator, hit the banker on the head to give her what she wanted.

The text of Mumbo Jumbo is embedded with charts, handwritten texts, and a variety of repurposed images, including photographs.  Reed’s use of photography will be the subject of a future post.

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