June 28, 2011
I recently reread (and wrote about) Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. I probably first read it in the 1970s and I don’t recall being unduly surprised by finding a horde of strange images included within the text. In the anything-goes era of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Guy Davenport, and others, it felt as if the novel form was being redefined continuously. Adding real images to works of fiction was just another way to shake up the establishment.
In his book Postmodernist Fiction (I still use the first edition of 1987), Brian McHale refers to much of the imagery that was beginning to appear in novels like Mumbo Jumbo as “anti-illustration.” In his words, images ” contribute to and serve to heighten the polyphonic structure of these texts; through their surrealist non-sequiturs, they bring worlds of discourse, visual and verbal, into collision.” In fact, five years ago, when I started thinking about writing a blog on W.G. Sebald’s books and on the growing use of photographs in fiction, I almost used the term “anti-illustration.” But not every use of a photograph or image in a novel operates as an anti-illustration, so I use the more neutral term “embedded photograph.”
But back to Reed. Mumbo Jumbo is a novel in which black anger and its sharp rebuke to white culture is a time bomb carefully tucked within a very entertaining noir comedy. When Reed wrote Mumbo Jumbo, however, there was no immediate precedent for the wide range of imagery embedded in his text, nor for the diverse, quirky roles his images play. As others have noted, Mumbo Jumbo has many of the trappings of a pseudo-documentary. At times it reads like a work of non-fiction or a text book, most notably the section on Egyptian mythology and history. Like a good “scholar,” Reed even carefully initialed the personal notes he occasionally felt compelled to insert directly into the text, an author slyly commenting on his own text. Reed borrowed imagery from all kinds of sources – and gave credit for them on the copyright page. The book includes line drawings, halftone and woodcut illustrations derived from newspapers and magazines, a program from the Cotton Club, news photographs, snapshots, and photographs that have a more artistic sensibility. It even concludes with a “partial bibliography.”
Reed, in other words, took the scholarly and historical systems that have tried to rationalize racism, slavery, and murder for centuries and turned them inside out. Just as white culture had converted the tools of logic, history, science, and social science into mumbo jumbo in an attempt to keep blacks and others of color on an inferior plane, Reed responds with the mumbo jumbo of liberation. This mumbo jumbo is passed down, as if genetically, through oral, musical, and artistic traditions and is rooted on a positive life force rather than in instruments of suppression. It’s not insignificant that PaPa LaBas never locates the ancient sacred text of Jes Grew, which, in fact, gets destroyed at the end of Mumbo Jumbo. Black culture, Reed suggests, doesn’t need a ratifying text. It will live on regardless.
Reed uses photographs and other types of images in several tactical ways that support his insurgency against the forces of white logic and white history. But let’s look at one of the more unusual ways in which he employs images. The setting for Mumbo Jumbo, which is written in the present tense, is 1920 or 1921.* But several of the photographs that Reed imports are clearly contemporaneous with the time that Reed was writing, i.e. in 1970-71 at the height of the Black Power Movement. This collision, to use McHale’s term, of a 1920s story of the Harlem Renaissance and photographs of the Black Power era fifty years later creates a meta-narrative that disposes of history as a strictly linear continuum. In Mumbo Jumbo, these anachronistic images act like the wormholes of modern physics by creating shortcuts through spacetime. Perhaps the best example of this is the way in which Reed drops a chart documenting “U.S. Bombing Tonnage in Three Wars” (WWII, Korea, and Indochina) smack into the middle of his abbreviated synopsis of the life of the Egyptian god Osiris.
* (I’m ignoring the final pages of the Epilogue, in which Reed suddenly fast forwards many decades into the future to let us glimpse PaPa LaBas, now 100 years old, talking to students on a 1970s college campus.)
June 19, 2011
“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.
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.
Reed, by the way, writes a blog for the San Francisco Chronicle.