Wormholes through History
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.)