What Color was the 1990's

What Color was the 1990's

The first thing I was going to say about this talk is that it's a work in progress. Lucky I caught myself. Because, well, when is writing ever finished? I don't mean to be twee.  What I mean is that it's the authority immanent in notions of completeness or finality which I sought to challenge in my strange colour talk. God knows it if worked.

Let me explain. My main goal in asking What was the colour of the 1990s? was to open up ways of thinking that might prompt a derailing of the authoritativeness of historical narrative as commonly exercised (or, rather, imposed). For sure it's a silly question, but a little bit of mischief seemed the way forward when authority itself was the enemy.

It's a question I both asked and made tentative attempts to answer with the help of two main spirit guides. The first was the French surrealist Michel Leiris, who knew a thing or two about mischief. Speaking at a meeting of the Paris-based College of Sociology in 1938, Leiris insisted that self-knowledge was a matter of intuiting for oneself the colour of the sacred.  With that, he left the room.  Michael Taussig took this challenge up in his 2009 book What Color is the Sacred? 

Spirit Guide Two was Geoff Dyer, who just seems to get it.  His novel in which not all that much happens, The Colour of Memory (1989), spoke to my concerns in several ways.  That lack of much happening is a big part of it: Dyer offers up vignette after vignette after vignette, such that you want to smash your head against a wall, or, at the very least, skip forward a few pages to see if maybe a new character has been introduced (don't hold your breath). But then, as Dyer notes, plots are what get people killed.  Likewise history as a straight line, the passing of time as progress.

So story is done away with and instead we are left with fragments, memories of Brixton in the 1980s frequently shot through with vivid descriptions in and of colour: a dog’s frightened eyes shining red; fireworks exploding green, red and yellow; piss-coloured wallpaper; the petrol-station blue sky; pale yellow and pale blue shirts; the narrator’s newly-magnolia walls,magnolia being ‘not even not a colour’; or clouds flecked with lemon or pink, becoming bruise purple.  

And we're left, too, with the writing, the beautiful writing – words freed from their usual duties in the service of narrative and going kinda wild.

Listen to the podcast of this paper which was delivered at Colours of Memory: an International Conference on the Writing of Geoff Dyer held on July 11, 2014 at Birkbeck, University of London.

Morgan Daniels teaches history at Arcadia University's London Center and Queen Mary, University of London. His current research is concerned with radio broadcasting and the sea. Forthcoming is 'Some moments of flag desecration in professional wrestling' in Broderick Chow, Eero Laine, & Claire Warden (eds.), Performance and Professional Wrestling (Routledge, 2016).

Writing as Exploration and Discovery

Writing as Exploration and Discovery

I usually tell my beginning writing students that the hardest part about composing an essay is coming up with the opening line; what I don’t say is that the hardest part is actually coming up with a topic to write about, and doing all the necessary brainstorming and possible background reading necessary as preparation before sitting down to begin work. I don’t explain my thoughts on this because I am about to tell them that all their essays will be on topics of their own choosing. I guess I don’t want to discourage them at the very outset by making them feel that the task will be too daunting.

     A great deal of research and publication has been focused on the problem of ascertaining the most effective approaches to teaching writing, or “composition and rhetoric,” as it is referred to in more formal circles. A major academic industry has emerged since World War II devoted to the subject, and countless books and articles continue to pour forth, with endless arguments and counter arguments, laundry lists of teaching strategies, and various and sundry speculations and theories. In a sense, all of this can be quite helpful, for writing hasn’t really been formally studied prior to the last sixty years or so, even though the Greeks recognized rhetoric as the most fundamental and important of all intellectual and academic skills. But as a teacher of writing perusing the vast array of printed materials devoted to the topic, I often feel overwhelmed and discouraged; it seems ironic that one could begin to feel lost in a labyrinth of words focused on how to use words effectively and meaningfully. One begins to fear that we are all just bricklayers working on the Tower of Babel.  

     As with other complex and crucial subjects, my own sense is that it is imperative to break the issue down into a few fundamental notions, and simply begin from there. This is how I have approach the task: I assume that the best way to learn how to write well is to do a lot of it, and to get some expert guidance along the way. I also assume that students are going to feel more enthusiastic about writing when they are choosing what they want to write about, instead of just responding to topics (or “prompts,” as they are commonly called) provided or assigned by me. I believe this to be true even if it requires more thought and effort on their part, more independent work, to come up with their own subjects for essays; Ithink young people welcome this challenge; they do not automatically follow the line of least resistance, nor always seek the easiest way to accomplish a task. I believe we are all innately curious about the world, that we possess bodies and minds and spirits that have a built-in need to grow. The problem comes when we are frustrated in that desire because someone else is standing over us with a whip telling us how we must grow, and in what direction. 

     Of course, I’m not inferring that writing prompts are whips, or that students don’t require some guidance and direction in their writing process. Assigned topics are helpful, appropriate, and even necessary in some cases; a specified topic can help elicit a student’s best effort, and the most satisfying result, for student and teacher alike. But I think it is just as true to say that the best way to get students interested in writing is to allow them to write for themselves, that is, to choose subjects that they have a personal investment in, that they can write about with feeling, conviction, and perhaps even passion. This is especially true, I suspect, for beginning writing courses, ones designed as a general introduction to the subject in freshman year in college, for example. We cannot assume that all freshman students are really interested in writing, any more than we can that they are all already accomplished writers. And we cannot assume that they will all learn how to write effectively under our direction simply because we tell them what good writing is and how to do it. 

     So my approach is to allow students to identify their own interests, and to explore the inner workings of their own hearts and minds; I want them to feel that writing is something that concerns them personally on the deepest levels, that it is not just a task they have to perform to meet the demands of an instructor in order to obtain a satisfactory grade.  I want them to understand that there are many different types of writing, each suited for the particular task or requirement at hand, and that formal academic writing is only one kind of writing, one dimension of a vast and varied field. I want them to know that writing is just another means of communication, like talking or shouting or singing, and that it has unique possibilities as such, for it involves a kind of premeditation, and provides the possibility of revision and refinement, something that can never happen in the domain of ordinary spoken language. Spoken words disappear as soon as their sound dies out, and linger only in memory that clouds and fades with each passing second. Written words remain, visible on the open page, and can be re-read and pondered -- savored like fine wine. Hearing a song once in a concert is never quite as satisfying as being able to play the CD over and over again to allow it to absorb slowly into one’s mind and soul.

     Students understand that they are going to be required to write papers for academic subjects, but I want them to realize also that the kind of writing they do in composing a letter or email to a family member or friend is just as important. I want them to know that there is a kind of writing called the personal essay that is informal and open-ended, that it allows for the expression of one’s own perceptions and thoughts and feelings about the world, independent of what a teacher might think or expect, and that it allows for a kind of communication that is creative and free, like the sounds of words they hear ringing through their favorite rock’n’roll or rap song on the radio. I want them to know that writing is a form of learning, and that we often don’t really know what we think or how we feel about a given subject until we sit down and try to put it into words. I want them to experience for themselves how sharing their essays and poems and letters with others is one of the best ways of learning about themselves and about the people around them, one of the surest ways of creating a sense of community among those with whom one works and lives. I want them to find out that sitting down to write can be one of the best methods of dealing with painful experiences and feelings, that it is possible to find a kind of release, what Aristotle called “catharsis,” through the process of transcribing one’s inner pain onto the written page.

     So far, in the past four years, among the more than 250 students who have taken my writing course at Lehigh, I’ve received essays on a wide variety of topics, from how unsuspected anemia almost destroyed a promising high school track career, to a critical evaluation of Ebonics, the debate about Affirmative Action, the misuse of religious dogma as a justification for war, personal memoirs related to the tragic events of 9/11, narratives about growing up in the inner city, the tribulations of athletic boot camps in the midst of sweltering heat in late August, family tragedies, the drinking age for teenagers, the blurring of lines between church and state, car breakdowns in the mountains, identity crises over being caught between races, and the painful transition from home to college, with its attendant separation from family and lifelong friends. In a few cases, students have requested help in coming up with topics for their next essay, but they usually were asking for guidance in choosing among subjects they were already considering; even when a student seemed clearly at a loss, I always took care to provide several alternatives, so that personal preference was still involved. No student has felt compelled to write strictly according to requirements stipulated by me.

     I know that responding to specified prompts is a skill my students are going to need to develop, but my focus for now is to encourage them to become involved in the process of writing for its own sake, and help them realize that writing is first and foremost a matter of personal expression, not just an activity one engages in to satisfy teachers and pass classes in school. I run my classes as a workshop; we sit in a circle while students read their work aloud, and we discuss issues that emerge in seminar style. I never ask students to write during class, and I never break them into small groups. We all work together as a unit, emphasizing the need for collective awareness, for building relationships among members of our group, for supporting and encouraging each other, for providing constructive criticism and feedback in response to each other’s efforts. Generally, most of each class is taken up with students reading their essays out loud; I feel it’s very important for us all to understand that good writing involves considerations of cadence and rhythm and tone and style, that language is rhythmical, and that meaning is conveyed through harmony of expression and clarity of form. Hearing sentences sounded out through the reading aloud helps students understand what’s at stake. Reading aloud helps students get to know each other; it also develops self-confidence and improves public speaking skills. 

     Students quickly begin to develop a better understanding of what they want to say and how they want to say it as they read their work and receive positive feedback. My students are expected to compose a minimum of 750 words each week. Every fourth week that minimum length is doubled. We follow a two step process: when the rough draft is ready, students email it to me. I edit it carefully, and return it the next class, often suggesting that we set up a time to meet and go over the corrections and suggestions I’ve indicated. Then students transcribe the first draft into a final draft, which they add to their writing portfolio. At the end of the semester, each student will bring the portfolio for a final conference, where we discuss the work that has been accomplished for the semester, and determine the final grade they will receive for the course.

     I’m not claiming that my approach to teaching writing is sophisticated or profound; in fact, I feel a need to keep things simple, and stick to the basics. I believe that one learns how to write by doing a lot of writing, and that one writes best about topics that hold an intrinsic interest for the individual. I think lively brainstorming through stimulating class discussions is essential for generating topics, and for teaching crucial critical thinking skills. I also think it is helpful to post sample essays from members of the group on some kind of class bulletin board -- via an email distribution list, for example -- for all to see, consider, and evaluate. I think it is useful for the instructor to provide examples of his own writing to serve as a model of what effective writing can be, and to demonstrate the fact that nobody’s writing is ever perfect. I think careful editing, individual conferencing, and preparation of final drafts from edited copies are all essential aspects of the writing process. I believe that learning how to write effective personal essays on topics they choose themselves will enable my students to perform well on assignments that require them to do formal academic writing, as well, because they will have mastered strong critical thinking skills, and become competent and fluent in written expression.

     As a writing teacher, I’m constantly feeling my way around in the dark, trying to read and understand as much as I can, trying to benefit from the experience and insights of my colleagues, and from feedback offered by my students. In the end, I won’t be able to really tell if any of my strategies have been successful, except insofar as my students feel able to tackle writing assignments with more confidence and competence in the future. Maybe that is something I’ll never really know about for sure, unless perhaps I run into a few of them down the road and they say to me, “Walsh, I sure am glad I took your course, because it helped me become a better writer.” If that should ever happen, I hope they also convey that they learned how to appreciate and enjoy writing in my class, andthat they now incorporate it more fully into all aspects of their lives. I believe that we’re all here on earth to learn how to cooperate and work together in community with each other in pursuit of commonly desired goals, creating happy, fulfilling, satisfying lives for ourselves and our children. I’m the kind of dreamer John Lennon was talking about, I suppose. I see my role as a teacher as a privileged one, where I am able to work with and for the young, contributing to a cooperative process, one where we are all engaged together in helping to build abetter world, a world we can share and celebrate.

     I feel sometimes like I want to apologize to my students for not being as fully effective a teacher as I’d like to be, and at such moments I think of lines from a favorite songwriter, Neil Young, an old friend of mine I’ve never met, but one who has, through the transformative power of his words, played an important role in enabling me to understand the world we all live in and share. Perhaps these words I borrow from him here will help my students comprehend more fully what it is I am hoping we can accomplish as we continue in this reciprocal process of learning how to write together:

 

“Sometimes I ramble on and on

Repeat myself till all my friends are gone

Get lost in snow and drown in rain

And never feel the same again;

But I remember the ocean from where I came

Just one of millions – all the same.

I’ve got the will to love,

Never going to lose the will to love;

It’s like something from up above

I’ll never lose the will to love.”

When all is said and done, effective teaching is just one more manifestation of human love, among many.

Vincent Walsh was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946. He graduated from Fordham University in 1969, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship from 1969-1970. He earned his Masters in Education in 1987, in the midst of a career as a secondary school English teacher, a career that has included many years of teaching in the inner-city. Vincent taught graduate courses in the Education Department at DeSales University from 2005 – 2012; he entered the doctoral program in English at Lehigh University in 2006, and graduated from Lehigh with a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature in 2014. He is currently teaching English at New Britain High School in New Britain, CT, where he is conducting action research on incorporating the principles and practices of Restorative Discipline for the inner-city studentshe is currently teaching, while simultaneously aligning this disciplinary approach with the scholarly work of Eric Jensen.

Mia Funk, l’esprit et la vision

Mia Funk, l’esprit et la vision

En apparence duale, c’est-à-dire parfois directe, parfois sensible et évanescente, la peinture de Mia Funk est en réalité modelée par le visible et la littérature. Elle est aussi interactive, en ce sens qu’elle nous tend ses images intérieures pour mieux nous faire participer.

L’acidité de l’autre

Mia Funk s’est rendue célèbre par des compositions savantes, presque cinématographiques, qui mettent en scène des personnalités dans des environnements clos. Sa série des Publics (Audiences) déroule des galeries imaginaires de célébrités transformées en spectateurs pris sur le vif, quelque peu troublés. 

l'audience by mia funk oil on canvas, 68 x 105cm Prix de peinture, salon d'automne de paris

l'audience by mia funk
oil on canvas, 68 x 105cm
Prix de peinture, salon d'automne de paris

Réconciliés depuis les années soixante grâce à des mouvements comme la Figuration narrative en France, peinture et cinéma s’interpellent ici mutuellement. Il n’en a pas toujours été ainsi, lorsque les peintres, formés au travail d’après nature, accusaient le cinéma d’acculturation et de lui voler la figuration du réel. Mais pour les jeunes générations, motivées par la main et sevrées à l’audiovisuel, il n’est plus d’incompatibilités, juste un dialogue et des moyens différents dont il faut tirer parti. « J’ai toujours été fascinée par le film, explique Mia Funk, par le moment à la fin ou au début d'une scène, quand vous voyez les traces de la scène d’avant.  Transitions. Vous voyez ça même dans les premiers films muets, lorsque la scène précédente laisse une brûlure sur la suivante. Cela remonte à un intérêt pour la mémoire et le processus de création lui-même. Au moment où vous essayez de vous rappeler quelque chose, d’épingler la chose, elle commence à disparaître. »

Servie par une technique impeccable, fruit d’un métier savant acquis pour partie à l’Ecole des Beaux-arts de Paris, elle use d’un réalisme narratif, où n’est rien n’est plus difficile, outre l’habileté, que d’affirmer sa différence, sa « facture » propre. Et c’est avec un coup de pinceau pointu qu’elle n’a pas hésité à déshabiller la reine d’Angleterre, la représentant nue prenant le thé en bonne compagnie, un tableau grinçant qui lui a valu de nombreux articles dans la presse et que la galerie Olympe de Gouge a présenté récemment à Paris.

 

L'heure bleue BY MIA FUNK OIL ON CANVAS, 315 X 200 CM

L'heure bleue BY MIA FUNK
OIL ON CANVAS, 315 X 200 CM

La mémoire de l’eau

Puis l’élément aquatique a progressivement envahi cette fiction noire ou acide. Dans la série des Aquariums, d’une façon encore confinée et inquiétante, puis plus largement dans celle de la Mer, (appelée aussi Mémoire de l’eau) avec une vague de sérénité inattendue, et enfin de manière poétique et symboliste dans la série des Mangeurs de lotus. Mia Funk a ainsi entrepris de révéler sa proximité avec l’élément liquide. En Irlande ou sur la Côte d’Azur, où elle réside souvent, la présence de l’eau s’est affirmée comme une muse essentielle. Le médium lui-même en est pétri puisque toutes ses compostions sont désormais élaborées au préalable à la gouache ou à l’aquarelle afin de saisir dans l’instant, sans repentir (« one try »), les images fugaces des souvenirs qui l’obsèdent.

Les personnages devenus des silhouettes le plus souvent anonymes, volontiers féminines, voire répétitives, s’abolissent elles-mêmes, fantomatiques, confondant le monde environnant avec leur propre personne. Mia Funk apprécie Magritte, dont une rétrospective donnée à New York l’avait bouleversée adolescente. Elle avait découvert non seulement la possibilité de faire disparaître les frontières entre les choses, comme lorsque le ciel se mêle aux personnages, mais également de rester dans la figuration tout en évoquant l’imaginaire et le mystère.

Dans ce « monde flottant », tel qu’elle le définit elle-même, en hommage à la peinture chinoise dont elle se sent proche par ses origines, et que dont on perçoit pleinement l’inspiration dans les Mangeurs de Lotus, la violence des rapports à autrui a cédé la place à l’apaisement relationnel. « Tout juste peut-on percevoir un personnage recouvrant l’autre », explique-t-elle, pour rappeler la difficulté de communication entre les êtres, qu’ils soient proches ou non, une problématique qui constitue l’un des fils directeurs de sa démarche picturale.

 

The island by mia funk oil on canvas (diptych), 2 x 162 x 130cm

The island by mia funk
oil on canvas (diptych), 2 x 162 x 130cm

La vision comme un flotteur

Les peintres, depuis l’impressionnisme, ont interrogé la vision. 

Mia Funk se souvient, qu’enfant, elle a connu une cécité temporaire. « Dans ma jeunesse, explique-t-elle, j'ai eu des problèmes avec ma vision comme de grandes taches solaires qui effaçaient ma vue. En anglais, on les appelle des « flotteurs ». C’était effrayant, mais il y avait aussi une intensité de couleur. Et tout ce que je regardais disparaissait derrière ces champs de la lumière. J’essaye de reproduire cet effet dans la peinture. A ce jour, j’ai une myopie sévère qui me permet de voir les détails, mais laisse d'énormes taches aveuglantes. J’éprouve de la difficulté à me concentrer sur des objets en mouvement et à reconnaître même les gens que je connais bien, à moins que je me rapproche très près de leurs visages. Une fois, j’ai vécu une cécité temporaire où tout est devenu blanc, et lorsque je peins je tente de reproduire cette expérience d’effacement ou de retour à la vision. »

Le regard dès lors est devenu un acteur déterminant de son art. C’est celui avec lequel elle observe et celui qui modifie la perception. Cézanne refusait de peindre la nature suivant des procédés appris mais en la voyant avec ses propres yeux, au point de déformer les choses si ces derniers le lui disaient. Mia Funk laisse aussi parler la vision avec ces tâches de lumière rémanentes qui constellent parfois les corps, ces massifs végétaux floutés comme s’ils étaient vus à toute vitesse d’un train, ces coups de pinceau synthétisant des détails qu’on ne prend pas la peine d’observer attentivement.

 

Le processus créatif : entre image et écriture

La série d’entretiens avec les écrivains constitue la partie inédite de cette exposition. Des compositions et des portraits peints s’articulent avec les questions que Mia Funk a choisi de poser à ses chers auteurs, et avec leurs réponses. Les dires interagissent avec les scènes et l’atmosphère des romans qui l’ont marquée. Elle-même écrit et publie des textes, ce qui l’implique dans un corps à corps avec cet « espace littéraire » cher à Georges Blanchot. On comprend alors pourquoi Mia Funk a choisi d’appeler ce nouveau thème « le processus créatif ».

La symbiose s’opère entre la lecture et la rencontre, non comme un propos journalistique, celui d’une interview qui serait juste illustréed’images, mais avec l’objectif d’un peintre, celui de donner à voir l’écrit et l’écrivain ensemble. 

C’est la profonde originalité de cette démarche, que l’Université Panthéon-Sorbonne a le plaisir d’initier. Encore ne s’agit-il que d’un avant-goût, destiné à nous faire découvrir l’art de Mia Funk et à nous faire patienter. Car une fois la collection des entretiens et portraits d’écrivains achevé, une seconde exposition les rassemblera, avant de circuler dans plusieurs grandes universités étrangères, en Europe et aux Etats-Unis. Notre institution du Quartier latin a fait là un choix judicieux, celui de présenter une artiste plusieurs fois primée dans des salons de peinture prestigieux, à qui plusieurs ouvrages ont été déjà consacrés, bien représentée par des galeries de la capitale et résidant régulièrement en France, dont le collections des musées et les paysages inspirent nombre de ses peintures.

Stéphane LAURENT
Associate professor, Faculté d’Histoire de l’art & d’archéologie,
Université Panthéon-Sorbonne

Zombies in the Classroom:Education as Consumption in Joyce Carol Oates

Zombies in the Classroom:Education as Consumption in Joyce Carol Oates

"Zombies in the Classroom: Education as Consumption in Two Novellas by Joyce Carol Oates" first published in Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education, Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker, and Christopher Moore (Eds.). Intellect Ltd., 2013.

George Romero’s 1979 film Dawn of the Dead features what Kyle William Bishop describes as a ‘Gothic mall’ in which survivors of a zombie apocalypse seek shelter, indulge in ‘a fantasy of gluttony,’ and merge ‘life with shopping.’ The living dead, for their part, gravitate to the mall by force of habit or residual memory and in search of living food. The parallel is clear: humans and zombies alike go to the mall to consume. Following Romero’s lead, Edgar Wright’s satirical 2004 film Shaun of the Dead suggests that if a zombie contagion were to wreak havoc on a modern urban population, the walking dead might be indistinguishable from most commuters, office workers, or cell phone users. Since 9/11, there has been a renaissance in zombie cinema, and enterprising filmmakers wishing to capitalize on the trend might be looking for new spaces in which to explore the theme that humans are already zombies. If so, they would do well to consider a Gothic schoolhouse setting.

Nightmarish schools and menacing teachers already make frequent appearances in literature and film that is Gothic in mood, plot, or theme. To review the history of the Gothic as what Davenport-Hines calls a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ is to see the suitability, if not the inevitability, of the Gothic treatment of education and educators. Schools and schoolteachers are keepers and transmitters of enlightenment, entrusted to transform childish naïveté into confident rationality, replace infantile illusions with hard facts, and initiate students into a life-long quest for knowledge. At the same time, schools and teachers are figures of power. They decide when children work, when they play, when they take trips to the lavatory, and whether they are prodigies or problems. As a result, they can appear to wield an inexhaustible and inscrutable authority. The conflicted mix of promise and terror associated with schools and teachers makes them appropriate subjects for the Gothic, a genre or mode that registers an ambivalence toward post-Enlightenment rationalizations of cultural authority and power similar to what we see in contemporary cultural representations of schools and teachers. 

Previously, I have gathered such representations under the designation ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ and included under this rubric not only fictional works by writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, David Mamet, Stephen King, and Joyce Carol Oates, but also academic and pedagogical discourse by figures such as Michel Foucault and Henry Giroux. Fiction of the Schoolhouse Gothic takes place in a wide variety of settings (primary schools, high schools, universities, and even non-academic settings that are controlled by teachers or academics), but it is united in portraying Western education, its guardians, and its subjects using explicitly Gothic tropes such as the curse, the trap, and the monster. The non-fiction variety of Schoolhouse Gothic characterizes the academy using themes suggested by such tropes: the tyranny of history, the terrors of physical or mental confinement, reification, and miscreation. In the Schoolhouse Gothic, the academy is haunted or cursed by persistent power inequities (of race, gender, class, and age) and, ironically, by the Enlightenment itself, which was to save us from the darkness of the past but which had a dark side of its own. Traps take the form of school buildings, college campuses, classrooms, and faculty offices, which are Enlightenment spaces analogous to the claustrophobic family mansions, monasteries, and convents of old. According to Chris Baldick, when curse meets trap, the result is paranoia and ‘an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.’ To these products can be added violence and new, monstrous creation. In the Schoolhouse Gothic, a haunted, incarcerating academy transforms students into zombies, psychopaths, and machines. The pervasiveness of the Schoolhouse Gothic implies that our educational institutions are sites of significant cultural anxiety, and the zombie subset of the Schoolhouse Gothic suggests more specifically that schools are places in which teachers and students alike consume and are consumed.

Although Joyce Carol Oates has produced a large and diverse body of work, she is best known for provocative, violent works that examine American culture through the prism of the family, as Wesley argues; appropriate and revise a masculine literary tradition; as Daly contends; and dramatize the divisions of the self, particularly the female self, as both Creighton and Daly maintain. Creighton describes Oates as ‘deeply, if somewhat ironically, subscribed to the traditions of American romanticism’ and, as the editor of Plume’s American Gothic Tales (1996), Oates is no stranger to Romanticism’s dark sister. Further, Oates has returned throughout her career to the school as a source or scene of alienation, abuse, and violence; ‘In the Region of Ice’ (1967), for example, is loosely based on her experiences teaching a troubled young Jewish student who eventually planned and executed a public murder/suicide at a synagogue (she revisited this subject in ‘Last Days’, 1985). Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993) features a group of high school students who, among other things, conspire to publicly humiliate a high school math teacher who degrades one gang member in class and gropes her breasts in detention. In Zombie (1995) and Beasts (2002), Oates develops and enhances the Schoolhouse Gothic by comparing schooling to zombification and using consumption as a metaphor for the effects of formal education. Both novels feature hallmarks of the Gothic such as haunted, paranoid protagonists, claustrophobic spaces, and monstrous behavior. These works portray the academy as a cursed, suffocating place in which various forms of mystified authority make monsters both of those who wield its power and those who are subjected to that power. Considered together, they use the trope of the zombie to suggest that schooling does not enlighten young minds and develop their capacity for higher thought but rather enslaves and consumes them, transforming them into mindless servants, amoral shells, or savage cannibals. Education becomes a form of consumption in which the line between consumer and consumed disappears.

Both Zombie and Beasts liken students to the zombies of Caribbean folklore and of 1930s and 1940s cinema, zombies created and controlled by voodoo priests or, in this case, professors. According to Kyle Bishop, the zombie is ‘a fundamentally American creation’ (author’s emphasis), the ‘only canonical movie monster to originate in the New World,’ and a ‘creature born of slavery and hegemony.’ The American movie zombie originates not in European folklore or literature, as do most monsters of the Gothic, but rather in the complex colonial history of the Americas, especially the Caribbean, as translated into film. The zombie has a ‘complicated genealogy’: it is a figure from Haitian folklore co-opted into narrative by western observers. The word zombie, according to ethnographers Ackermann and Gaulthier, is related to African terms for ‘corpse’ or ‘body without a soul’ and the zombie is a creature ‘deprived of will, memory, and consciousness,’ as well as speech, by a voodoo priest or sorcerer. The zombie is a slave, a silent worker whose humanity has been consumed and whose existence is a living death. Bishop argues that before George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead transformed the zombie into the mutilated, decaying, lumbering cannibal so familiar to moviegoers, the source of fear was not the zombie itself, but rather the one who could create a zombie. 

The portrayal of teacher as zombie-maker and puppeteer animates Schoolhouse Gothic, especially in Oates’s Zombie and Beasts. The former novel is told from the point of view of the zombie-maker, and the latter from the perspective of the zombie/student who eventually destroys her master/professor. Zombie takes place in the mid-1990s and is inspired by the life of Jeffrey Dahmer in general and by Lionel Dahmer’s A Father’s Story (1994) in particular, the latter being a memoir that Oates reviewed favorably. The narrative alternates between first- and third-person perspectives in a style that is busy, loud, and juvenile, full of sentence fragments, parenthetical asides, capital letters, dashes, and italics, as well as sketches and illustrations. It is divided into two sections: ‘Suspended Sentence’ describes protagonist Quentin P’s family, his past crimes, and his life on probation, and ‘How Things Play Out’ describes, with an exuberance that is jarringly dissonant, the stalking, abduction, and murder of a would-be zombie that Quentin names ‘Squirrel.’ The similarities between Quentin and Dahmer are myriad – the development of alcoholism at a young age, an ability to seem invisible or to project harmlessness, and so on – but among the most significant is the way that Quentin has failed to distinguish himself academically and lives in the shadow of a well-educated, successful father. Jeffrey Dahmer’s father held a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and worked as a chemist with PPG Industries, while Quentin’s father holds dual Ph.D.s, and dual teaching appointments in Physics and Philosophy at his university. When Oates re-imagines Dahmer and his crimes in fiction, she makes academia central to the story, more central than it appears to have been in Dahmer’s life. Her character Quentin associates school with humiliation, surveillance, judgment, and control. It continues to exert a powerful fascination for him well beyond high school graduation, and ultimately becomes the source of his darkest fantasies.

School is omnipresent, and mostly threatening, in Quentin’s life. He is a careless, indifferent student at the technical college that his father, who holds a professorial position at a nearby university, regards patronizingly but nevertheless wants him to attend. Quentin serves as caretaker of an apartment that houses university students, and he easily poses as a graduate student himself when he wants formaldehyde. His sister is a junior high school principal whose interest in him surges after his molestation arrest; as Quentin sees it, ‘having a sex offender for a kid brother is a challenge to her, and she is not one to back off from challenges. Like I am one of her problem students.’ He gives letter grades to his experiments: ‘my first three ZOMBIES—all F’s.’ While stalking a young victim who attends his former high school, Quentin remembers how much he ‘hated’ the school and how he ‘wished’ it had ‘burnt to the ground. With everybody in it.’ His therapist is his father’s university colleague, and his questions remind Quentin of being ‘blank and silent blushing like in school when I could not answer a teacher’s question nor even (everyone staring at me) comprehend it.’ Most of his remarks about school are about being watched, bringing to mind Foucault’s description of schools as sites of modern disciplinary control enacted through surveillance strategies and enforced by the figure of the ‘teacher-judge.’ Quentin’s father is his model for all teachers, but he is an ‘impatient’ man, ‘always finding fault,’ as though ‘his only son was a student failing a course of his.’ As an adult, Quentin’s compulsive avoidance of his father’s judgmental gaze becomes an axiom for life: he continually reminds himself to avoid ‘EYE CONTACT’ with anyone for fear that someone will ‘slide down into [his] soul.’ To be looked at is, for Quentin, to be evaluated and found wanting: it is a profound threat to his personhood.

Quentin fears the professorial gaze, but, sensing its power, goes to a large lecture hall at his father’s university and attends a class that marks the start of his quest to create a zombie that will be his slave and toy. Quentin does not seem sure of his motives for attending the lecture, but he takes steps to ensure that his lecturer-father does not see (i.e., judge) him. He listens to his father speak about cosmic rays, black holes, ‘quantifiable and unquantifiable material,’ and mysterious, undetectable parts of the universe disobedient to known physical laws. The lesson that he takes from the lecture is the insignificance of human life: ‘seeing the Universe like that … you see how fucking futile it is to believe that any galaxy matters let alone … any individual.’ In the moment, however, Quentin watches students furiously taking notes and decides that ‘almost any one of them would be a suitable specimen for a zombie.’ Unlike Quentin, who is thinking about the implications of an unknowable galaxy in which even the laws of physics cannot be taken for granted and finding in his father’s words justification for embracing the monster within, the students are mindlessly consuming instruction and information, apparently with no motive beyond pleasing their professor when exam time comes and earning a letter grade that may or may not reflect understanding or engagement. In this, the most important episode in young Quentin’s life, teaching is dehumanizing in both form and content. The student is represented as a zombie bowing before its master and devouring facts like meals, and the lesson is that moral laws are meaningless and that humanity is inconsequential. The predatory nature of the academic is further underscored when it comes to light that Quentin’s father’s mentor, a famous physicist, had experimented on mentally handicapped children by feeding them radioactive milk. The lecture delivered by the father parallels the experiment performed by his own academic father figure: the latter feeds toxic milk to children, while the former feeds psychologically toxic lessons to students. Both children and students are consumed in their acts of consumption.

Beasts portrays education in much the same way as Zombie but switches the point of view from victimizer to victim, saying more about the process of academic zombification by which a student is rendered incapable of reason, judgment, or discrimination. It also dramatizes the return of the repressed as the slave rebels and the consumed becomes the avenging consumer. The novella opens and closes in 2001, but the bulk recounts four tumultuous months in the mid-1970s, when Gillian, the protagonist, was a student at a women’s college in New England. Early on, Gillian learns that her parents are divorcing and reveals her infatuation with a Creative Writing professor named Andre Harrow, a ‘verbose, bullying’ countercultural figure whose name suggests plunder and pillage. Harrow rhapsodizes about the writings of D.H. Lawrence and the Beats, is rumoured to have been arrested in a Vietnam War protest, and behaves in class like ‘the father who withholds his love, with devastating results.’ Gillian is also fascinated by Harrow’s exotic artist-wife Dorcas, who has recently displayed on campus disturbing, controversial sculptures inspired by ‘primitive’ fertility carvings. As the months proceed, Harrow makes a sexual advance towards Gillian, who pushes him away in confusion. He then claims to have been ‘joking,’ thus supplying ‘the narration, the interpretation, for what had happened, as, in his lectures and workshops, he controlled such information.’ In retaliation, however, Harrow begins to bully and belittle her in class while encouraging her classmates to do the same. Ultimately, Harrow seduces Gillian and draws her into a sexual relationship with himself and his wife. During this time an arsonist begins to victimize the campus, and the suspects include Gillian’s poetry workshop classmates and dorm mates, who are also, it is suggested, fellow victims of the professor and his wife. 

Oates presents Harrow’s teaching as demeaning, exploitative, and manipulative, calculated to make students desperate for his approval and keep them emotionally, intellectually, and ethically off-balance. After Gillian fails to respond to his ‘biting kiss,’ Harrow stops complimenting her poetry in class and starts patronizing it, prompting other students to join in on the attack. In addition to demeaning Gillian individually, he bullies and insults the class as a whole with voyeuristic assignments and misogynist remarks. He scorns and rejects what he calls ‘nice-girl bullshit,’ instructs the students to write journals in which they scrutinize their ‘emotional, physical, sexual lives’ as if they were ‘anatomical specimens,’ and teaches them not to violate the ‘one cardinal rule’ of his class, which is that he not be ‘bored shitless.’ He demands revealing, confessional journals with ‘a focus upon childhood, traumatic and demeaning memories’ and advises against ‘self-censorship,’ which he refers to as ‘self-castration.’ When Dominique jokingly asks if women can be castrated, he responds, ‘Dear girl, women are castrated. You must struggle to reverse your pitiable condition,’ and Gillian recalls that while the students laughed, Harrow ‘wasn’t smiling.’ Harrow teaches them to scorn conventional morality and speaks approvingly of the ancients, whose ‘gods were passions. Obsessions. Appetites’ that ‘terrified’ them. The theme that Gillian derives from her study of Ovid is that ‘human happiness [is] possible only through metamorphosing into the subhuman,’ and Harrow appears to concur with what he calls ‘Ovid’s judgment on the “human.”’ He also praises D.H. Lawrence, who, according to Harrow, prized ‘sensual, sexual, physical love’ but detested ‘“dutiful” love—for parents, family, country, God’ because in it he ‘saw the “rotted edifice” of bourgeois/capitalist morality.’ Such statements frighten and excite his students, and Gillian later reflects that ‘we, Mr. Harrow’s students, had no way of refuting such logic’ and reports that ‘we believed, or wished to believe, it was true’ because ‘it was believed that Andre Harrow knew “everything.”’ Andre Harrow plainly abuses his power in order to strip his students of their defences and render them vulnerable to his advances. At one point, a student says in class, ‘if I’m a puppet, I intend to choose who will be my master. From now on.’ As her classmate speaks, Gillian senses her yearning to look at Harrow. The dazzled, needy young women feed Harrow’s ego, cater to his sexual desires, and even clean his house.

Harrow’s abusive teaching is explicitly compared to ‘soul murder.’ Towards the end of the novel, Gillian and her dorm mate Penelope have a conversation about evil. Gillian takes a morally relativistic position because Harrow would have been ‘furious’ with her if she did not deride conventional, bourgeois values. Penelope suggests that Gillian’s relativism is overly facile, and Gillian assumes that her friend is being contrary out of jealousy. Penelope claims, ‘there’s such a thing as soul murder, … except you can’t see it, the way you see the other.’ She goes on: ‘there are evil people. Cruel people. People who should be punished. If there was anyone to punish them.’ Within the context of the tale, her remarks only make sense in reference to Harrow and his wife. 

‘Soul murder’ is a psychiatric term defined by Leonard L. Shengold in 1979, and refers to a type of abuse whose effects closely resemble zombification. Shengold picked up the term from Daniel Paul Schreber’s nineteenth century Memoirs (1903), themselves the subject of one of Freud’s case histories (1911). Shengold uses the term to describe a specific set of ‘traumatic experiences’; namely, ‘instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation alternating with emotional deprivation … deliberately brought about by another individual,’ normally a parent or substitute parent. He argues that alternating periods of abuse and neglect distort ‘the primal fantasies that motivate human behavior’ and have a devastating impact on the emotional and intellectual development of the victim, ultimately robbing that victim of an authentic sense of identity. According to Shengold, this kind of abuse ravages the victim’s ‘individuality, his dignity, his capacity to feel deeply (to feel joy, love, or even hate)’ and smothers ‘his capacity to think rationally and to test reality.’ He describes a male patient whose parents, in an effort to toughen him up, had deprived him of warmth and ensured that others did the same. These same parents would ‘cultivate the rivalry’ between the patient and his siblings; they would fight viciously; their fights would often ‘end in turbulent and exhibitionist sex’ near their ‘terrified children’; and they would ‘sometimes disappear for weeks.’ Many such victims become, as Shengold puts it, ‘destructive and self-destructive’ robots. Their humanity is, in short, consumed.

Andre Harrow and his wife can be aptly described as soul murderers, and the negative effects of soul murder are apparent in Gillian and her classmates. The Harrows may not be performing makeshift lobotomies like Quentin P., but they are making zombies out of students nonetheless. The professor and his wife represent substitute parents for Gillian, replacements for biological parents who are cold and negligent. When Gillian visits the Harrows’ home, she is plied with drugs and overly rich food, overwhelmed with noise (from the stereo and/or the pet parrot), and sexually exploited. During the visit that leads to the Harrows’ deaths, Gillian is sickened by the food Dorcas cooks, and she vomits. Disgusted, Dorcas slaps Gillian’s face and pushes her out of the room. The couple proceeds to have sex upstairs, and while she listens to their noises, she thinks, ‘they want me to hear, I’m their witness’ (129). Sometimes the Harrows withhold their attention or their presence altogether, leaving Gillian to feel neglected and abandoned, as is the case with a ‘misunderstanding’ about whether or not Gillian would accompany them on a holiday trip to Paris. Such neglect seems intentionally calculated to increase the pliability and vulnerability of the Harrows’ victims. When Gillian is able to ‘bask’ in the glow of attention and approval, she feels ‘like a dog that has been kicked but is now being petted, and is grateful.’ At school, Harrow compounds the emotional torment of his victims by actively cultivating the rivalry for his attentions and approval among Gillian and her classmates, effectively isolating them from one another. This mistreatment takes its toll on Gillian by disrupting her emotional and intellectual development, leaving her ‘head filled with static,’ rendering all classes but Harrow’s an undifferentiated ‘blur,’ and causing her to look, act, and feel like a ‘sleepwalker,’ a ‘doll,’ a ‘puppet,’ and, of course, a ‘zombie.’ 

Abuse and zombification consume Gillian and her classmates, rendering them anonymous and indistinguishable, even to themselves, as is evidenced by Gillian’s slippage between first-person singular and first-person plural in her narrative: ‘I had no choice,’ ‘we were dazed,’ ‘we felt the sting of his lash.’ Her facelessness is not, however, simply a matter of her own distorted perception. When Gillian follows Dorcas to the post office at the beginning of the story, Dorcas notices her and demands, ‘which of them are you?’, and her words echo in Gillian’s head thereafter, as if to haunt her with fears of her own insignificance. After Gillian and Penelope’s conversation about soul murder, Penelope’s parents arrive to pick her up for the holiday, and they mistake Gillian for another student and call her ‘Sybil.’ When Gillian investigates a file cabinet of pornographic pictures at the home of her professor, she cannot confidently identify a single classmate, but many of the photos remind her of her peers and of herself. She thinks to herself, ‘They’d been drugged, like me. They’d been in love, like me. They would keep these secrets forever. Like me. We are beasts and this is our consolation.’ Clearly, she has learned the lesson that Andre and Dorcas worked so diligently to teach her. When she was first invited to the Harrows’ home, she felt that she was ‘blessed’ and unique because the couple loved her. After she comes upon the pictures, she knows better. She, like the totem to which Dorcas eventually affixes Gillian’s severed braid, is only ‘minimally human,’ stripped of anything that distinguishes her as an individual. 

Teaching in Beasts is enslavement and it is also, of course, consumption. Harrow calls D.H. Lawrence ‘the great prophet of the twentieth century,’ whose ‘god was the god of immediate physical sensation, a god to devastate all other gods,’ and so it is no surprise that Harrow, who relishes the teaching of ancient mythology in which appetites are gods, does not hesitate to satisfy his own cravings. Right before Harrow kisses Gillian the first time, he smiles at her, ‘baring his teeth’ and leaving her ‘shivering as if he’d drawn those teeth over” her. There is more than a little of the cannibal in this professor, and he and his wife eventually consume his students by helping to create the conditions that result in their anorexia. Throughout the novel, Gillian and her classmates lose alarming amounts of weight and appear increasingly skeletal, as though the process of being emotionally and intellectually consumed is manifesting itself physically.

Much of the literature on anorexia, including the work of Calam and Slade, suggests that it represents an attempt by young women who feel powerless to exert some kind of control over their lives and their bodies. The need to feel powerful is particularly acute for those who have experienced sexual abuse, especially at the hands of an authority figure or at times ‘of other major problems and upheavals in their lives,’ such as Gillian’s parents’ divorce. At least one of Gillian’s many doubles also fits the profile of the anorexic; her classmate Marisa is ‘painfully thin,’ perhaps even ‘starving herself to death; and she confesses in workshop to having been sexually abused first by a cousin, then by a family friend, and finally by a ‘much-beloved grade school teacher.’ Eventually, Marisa attempts suicide, confesses to setting the fires on campus, recants her confession, and is hospitalized. When Gillian confesses that she cannot ‘live without’ Harrow, he responds, ‘we don’t want you to live without us either.’ Harrow does more than simply use and abuse his students: he devours them – mind, soul, and body. 

Anorexia has been further linked to ‘soul murder,’ or the reduction of the human to a zombie-like state. Louise Kaplan’s Female Perversions describes anorexia as ‘the outcome of one of those little soul murders of childhood in which, to survive, a child gives up aspects of the self she might have become and instead becomes a mirroring extension of the “all-powerful” parent.’ Female Perversions challenges the psychoanalytic tradition represented by Freud, Karl Abraham, and others that regards perversions as ‘pathologies of sexuality’ that primarily afflict men; in contrast, Kaplan defines perversions as ‘pathologies of gender role identity’ that can be found in both men and women. She argues that identity formation in both men and women is hindered by ‘infantile ideals of sexual prowess demanded of men and sexual innocence demanded of women,’ and that perversions develop when such ‘infantile ideals’ are reinforced rather than challenged by ‘soul-crippling social gender stereotypes’ that ‘assign certain narrowly defined characteristics to one sex, and equally narrow but opposite characteristics to the other sex.’ According to Kaplan, male perversions such as fetishism and masochism both reveal and disguise a man’s hatred for his own shameful feminine traits or longings. A similar strategy is at work in female perversions, which, according to Kaplan, have been neglected by psychoanalysts both because of the male-normative history of the field but also because the perverse strategies of women are not always explicitly sexual. For Kaplan, various forms of self-mutilation, including anorexia, represent not only a young woman’s bid for control but also her attempt at ‘forestalling final gender identity and denying that the illusions and hopes and dreams that made life endurable are lost forever.’ As such, they lend ‘expression to forbidden or shameful’ masculine desires. Anorexia allows the young woman to present ‘herself to the world as a sexless child in a caricature of saint-like femininity’ that hides ‘a most defiant, ambitious, driven, dominating, controlling, virile caricature of masculinity.’ Anorexia is, in short, an unconscious, compulsive refusal of female identity and sexuality as culturally prescribed.

Kaplan’s view of anorexia, the consumption of the physical and sexual self, is clearly evident in Beasts. Harrow observes that Gillian ‘must weigh eighty-nine pounds,’ and he refers to her as a ‘little girl’ immediately before making his first sexual advance. In other words, she is far from womanly, and his desire for her has a paedophilic component. Gillian remembers her mother’s disappointment at her refusal in high school to try ‘to be pretty like the other girls,’ and she wonders if she ‘might have smiled more’ and used more lipstick; clearly, she has neither embraced feminine stereotypes nor pursued adult sexuality. Nevertheless, remembering Dorcas’ adolescent totem with her braid on it causes her to muse on the ‘delusion of young-female power,’ the belief that ‘in your beautiful new body, you will be treated with love.’ Power is linked in her mind not to self-efficacy but rather to attractiveness to and love from others. In some ways, however, despite her frailty and passivity, she imagines herself throughout the novel as quite powerful and aggressive, like a ‘hunting dog picking up a scent’ while following Dorcas, for example. Given her experiences, it is not surprising that Gillian’s ambivalence towards her gender, her sexuality, and her sense of self is profound. Her anorexia is a sign of that ambivalence. 

Gillian’s sexual ambivalence is part of her distorted and monstrous self-image, but her monstrosity is an important part of the narrative in its own right. Thus far, the horror of the zombie-makers Quentin and Harrow has been considered, but not the horror of the zombie itself. In Zombie, the would-be zombies are pure victims, in part because Quentin is unsuccessful at lobotomizing the young men and ends up murdering them instead. Quentin is the only monster. In Beasts, however, the zombies, while victims, are also sources of terror. Harrow robs Gillian and her classmates of the ability to think rationally, which makes them behave throughout the novel either mechanically, ‘by instinct’ or ‘as a child might.’ Though her mental faculties have been destroyed, she has not, however, lost the ‘indomitable will of all life to survive’ that she attributes to (or projects onto) the snow-covered evergreens that surround the Harrows’ isolated house. Those survival instincts find expression in her murderous act of setting fire to the Harrows’ home while the owners enjoy their drunken, post-coital slumber, and it would appear that by the end of the novel, Gillian, like Ovid’s Philomela, to whom Harrow has cruelly compared her, refuses to be a ‘passive victim’ and instead ‘takes bloody revenge on her rapist.’ Of course, Gillian’s motives for setting the fire do not seem particularly clear, even to Gillian: if she is out for revenge, then it might be revenge for the abuse and exploitation she suffered at the hands of the Harrows, but then again, it might be revenge for their exclusion of her from the primal scene or for Andre’s refusal to leave his wife for her. From the beginning of Beasts, there are many suggestions that Gillian is not simply a victim of monstrous abusers but may be something of a monster herself. Throughout the novel she regards herself, perhaps defensively, as having a degree of control that seems ludicrous, considering the power dynamics involved. In any case, she appears to have internalized the amorality that her professor tried to inculcate in her and her classmates, and she feels no remorse about their deaths. Harrow appears to have consumed Gillian’s ethical sensibilities along with her intellectual capacities, her sexual identity, and her physical body. She says that her story is ‘not a confession’ because she has ‘nothing to confess.’ She may believe that she had no choice, no other avenue of escape, but then again, she may have come to regard guilt the way that Quentin and Harrow do: as ‘superstitious and retro,’ in Quentin’s words. Either way, it is safe to say that if zombies represent enslavement, then the possibility of a slave uprising is always around the corner. The consumers are always in danger of being violently consumed.

Zombie and Beasts clearly portray formal education as the consumption or zombification of the student. Less fully developed but worth briefly noting are their further suggestions that students are consumed in another sense, which is to say, commodified. Quentin consoles himself for his failure to create a proper student-zombie by taking ‘mementos’ or ‘good-luck charms’ from his victims, often items of clothing and sometimes body parts that can be transformed into accessories. He describes these items in detail (including, in some cases, their brand names) and wears them to blend in with other students at his college. In addition, he compulsively fondles them to trigger the sexual excitement he felt in subjugating their former owners. Quentin’s dehumanization of his victims, in short, literalizes Karl Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetishism.’ In Beasts, the students have been reduced to pornographic images for sale and resale. When Gillian rifles through the Harrows’ mysterious file cabinets and locates a cache of pornographic pictures, she inspects the files in a horrified daze, wondering ‘would [her] photo turn up in a porn magazine; had that been their intention all along…?’ She examines the magazines and guesses that the Harrows have been exploiting young women for at least a decade, and when she looks at the pictures, she feels ‘as if someone had struck [her] a numbing blow between the shoulder blades.’ She recognizes that a part of her has been sold, and she is overcome with a desire to destroy the proof of her ‘degradation.’ Like the young women around and before her, Gillian may also have been reduced to a pornographic image endlessly produced, reproduced, and circulated. Harrow has exploited both the use and the exchange value of his students. He has consumed them on every level, and he has profited from ensuring that they will continue to be consumed. For her part, Gillian has been schooled in a great many ways, and while the economic dynamics of the education she has received at Harrow’s hands have not been the focus of her story, neither have they been completely erased from it.

Critics of the Gothic tend to speak of it in therapeutic terms: both David Punter and Maggie Kilgour, for instance, call the Gothic a form of ‘cultural self-analysis,’ and Punter sees the curative powers of the Gothic in its provision of an ‘image-language in which to examine … social fears.’ Some of the most familiar components of this ‘image language’ are tropes under consideration here: curses, traps, and monsters. A curse is a reminder that we are never as free from history as we might think or wish. A trap suggests limitations on our movement, physical and psychic. Monsters manifest evils of all kinds, internal and external. These and other Gothic tropes literalize our fears, forcing us to regard them in their most extreme, grotesque forms. They are psychological caricatures, which is to say, exaggerated portraits from whose broad lines something of the ‘real’ might nevertheless be inferred. The zombie embodies our fear of enslavement to others, to our own animalistic instincts, or to our daily routines. It represents our fear of being consumed or of consuming others. When the zombie appears in the Schoolhouse Gothic, it manifests a range of cultural anxieties about such things as the role of public education in a modern, pluralistic, secular America and the degree to which the academy both preserves culture and serves a progressive agenda. It raises questions about the nature and meaning of learning and the role of power in the classroom. Most educators will say that far from consuming students, university appears not to interest them in the least, that students should be more consumed, more absorbed, more engaged in study. One explanation for the zombie-like appearance and behaviour of so many students is overstimulation from technology, but there are many others, including the impact of the consumer model of higher education, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have recently argued in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). The zombie subset of the Schoolhouse Gothic challenges us to think about education as consumption, an examination that can happen on a local and personal as well as a global level. Many educators want to see their students consumed by study, absorbed by the subject at hand, able to internalize and recreate a body of knowledge. Joyce Carol Oates challenges us to see the fear that lurks behind that ideal and serves as its dark Other: the fear that what educators really want is to feed their egos with their students. Teachers confronting zombified students should consider how they have contributed to their state, or worse, whether they secretly want to keep them that way.

Sherry R. Truffin was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and holds English degrees from Baldwin-Wallace University (BA, 1993), Cleveland State University (MA, 1995), and Loyola University Chicago (Ph.D., 2002). She has held teaching posts at colleges and universities in Georgia, Illinois, and Ohio, and she is currently an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University in North Carolina, where she teaches courses in American Literature and English Composition. Her research interests include Gothic fiction, popular culture, and literary stylistics. In addition to her first monograph, Schoolhouse Gothic, she has published essays on works by Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Chuck Palahniuk, Donna Tartt, Stephen King, Bret Easton Ellis, and Joyce Carol Oates. She has also written about postmodern storytelling in The X-Files and the Gothic literature of New Orleans, Louisiana.

 

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Shengold, L. (1979), ‘Child abuse and deprivation: soul murder,’ Journal of the American Psychological Association, 27: 3, pp. 533-559.

Truffin, S. (2008), Schoolhouse Gothic: Haunted Hallways and Predatory Pedagogues in Late Twentieth-Century American Literature and Scholarship, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Wesley, M. (1993), Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

 

Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

There is a weird zeitgeist about my reading these days. I will pick up a book that I am unfamiliar with, because of a friend's recommendation or a short review in the Sunday papers, and then all of a sudden I am seeing see it everywhere. I began reading Etgar Keret's collection of short stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, after seeing it reviewed in the Sunday NYTimes two weeks earlier. While I was half way through it, I was tidying up the house when a magazine from back in February fell open to a review of the book announcing its upcoming publication. I had read the review back then, but had forgotten completely about it. And then again on Wednesday in the Metro–the free paper given to commuters each day and hardly a go-to read for literary suggestions–the book was advertised on the front page and reviewed inside. On Friday, a co-worker told me the library had just called to tell him the book he had requested had arrived: Suddenly a Knock on the Door.

What is with all the buzz? Keret's publicists must be very good.

And to a large degree it is worth it. Keret's thirty-seven stories (translated into English by three different people) are short, zippy, and fun. They straddle the world between stark realism (suicide bombers and bratty children) and magic (talking fish, pissed-off angels). The subject matter often seems to be fiction itself--the fictions of the literary mind and the fictions of liars.

The collection is bookended by two stories in which they author is forced to write a story in front of us. In the final story, he is being filmed by German Television and they want to film him writing, want to record the actual creative process. In the first, he is being forced by three men--a terrorist, a poll taker, and pizza delivery man--who have invaded his home and demand a story. Violence is threatened if he doesn't come through with a story they approve of. When the narrator begins telling a story about what is actually happening at the time--the most current form of realism--the pizza delivery man demands something more magical: "Things are tough," he says. "Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians. People are hungry for something else."

And something else is what Keret gives us.

In one story, "Lieland," a man is pulled into a world where all his past lies have come alive. The fabrications he has made up throughout his life in order to deceive his mother, his employers, his girlfriends all confront him in a world that is harrowing and freeing. In "Unzipping," a woman, tired of her current lover, finds a zipper in the man's mouth, and unzips it to reveal a new person inside, who is indeed a different sort of lover. In still another, a woman has only slept with men named Ari--twenty-eight of them previously and now her current boyfriend and the landlord.

Yet all is not silliness.

The number of suicides and suicide bombings in the stories are many. One beautiful story, "Not Completely Alone" begins "Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. ...One of them even succeeded." The last paragraph begins "Four of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. Two of them succeeded." It's only after going back to read the first sentence that we realize the narrator is the fourth guy--and the second success. In another, a man's life is completely changed after emerging from a extended coma that was caused by ajumper landing on his head after falling eleven stories to his death. In another story "Joseph," a smarmy producer in a cafe boasts about his talent for reading people but is not clever enough to spot the sweating man with the bomb strapped to him. After a discussion of final words by those who die a violent death, we learn of one bombing victim whose last words are the bathetic "Without cheese" as he orders a kosher "cheeseburger" in the story "Cheesus Christ."

In "Pick a Color," a black man is beaten badly when he moves into a white neighborhood. In the hospital, he falls in love with the white nurse who tends to him, and, whom, confined to a wheelchair, he marries in a ceremony presided by a Yellow priest whose family also had been beaten because of their color. When the white nurse is murdered by brown men, the man turns to the Yellow priest for explanation of the statement "the God who loves you and wishes you all the best." When that God shows up, in a wheel chair like the black man, the explanation that God gives is not what any of us probably expected.

In relating these stories here, they seem much darker than they are upon first reading. The stories do zip by, some of them only a page and a half long. There is much "smoke-and-mirror" playing with reality, turns with truth and illusion. There is banality, as there is always in life, and there is beauty. A young son gives animal names to the prostitutes who visit the old man on the floor above...a dying man gets his dying wish for peace on earth...a mourning widow comes to some closure through cooking in her diner.

Nathan Englander, in the title story of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, has a character say that the difference between Israel and Miami is "the space" –that there is none in Israel.  In Etgar Keret's collection (in which Englander translated seven of the stories), space is also the focus. Ketger looks closely at the spaces between lies and truth, between life and illusion, between hope and reality. The stories are clever, witty, and fun. There are enough "wow" moments, enough times when you breathe out in relief or exasperation, and plenty of times when you simply smile knowingly to yourself.

In the blurbs on the paperback edition, there are statements by Salmon Rushdie, Amos Oz, Yann Martel. But my favorite is by Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. Talking about Keret's novel The Nimrod Flipout, Shteyngart calls it "the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years... ." That's quite a claim. Maybe I'll see if it's in our library. And maybe not that far from the truth.

 

A longer version of this article was first posted on: jpbohannon.com

J. P. Bohannon is a writer and teacher living in Philadelphia, PA. His fiction and poetry have appeared in journals and magazines in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland. His collection of poetry The Barmaids of Tir na Nog is available through Harrowood Books. www.jpbohannon.com

Review of Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer

Review of Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer

There was not particular reason to include these 3 books in the same review, except that published some time ago (respectively in 1998, 1991 and 1997) are re-published as eBooks by Picador, and are by the same author which gives them a certain consistency. And I could not noticed it have I not read these 3 books in a row. First, there is a common theme that unites this book – the unresolved tension between life and work (in particular artistic creation). Second, Geoff Dyer, a successful and clever writer, is a portraitist. He does not so much seem interested in the stories than in the people who live in them and cares about what happens to them because of them, not the other way around. And I would venture that he cares for his characters depending on their choice about life or work. This implies that, as a reader, you are also interested in what happens to the characters that populate Dyer's books because (if) you care about them. Otherwise … But this is an hypothesis. To demonstrate it would require to go thoroughly though all his writings. In the meantime, let us illustrate it with a non-representative sample of his work.

Paris Trance is a novel but not a 'story'. Alex, the narrator, is clear about that at the very beginning of the book: the events and situations he recounts are not sufficiently woven into a narrative to make a 'story'. Even the 'plot' – Luke comes to Paris to write a book –, one may add, is not a plot. And the dramatic end that seems promised should have been more dramatic. It would have contributed to make the point of the novel – life or work – clearer: Luke fails to write his book because he, along with Alex, Luke's friend and the narrator, their girlfriends, Nicole and Sahra, and a few others, chooses to live: sex, drugs and alcohol and some food and bicycling and soccer and more sex and more drugs and more alcohol. This is what Paris Trance is about. It could have been fun, young and sexy. It is boringly repetitive and artificial and uninteresting. Dyer so perfectly succeeds to convey this sense of emptiness, of inutility that you paradoxically do not care to what happens to the characters. Unless you care for the characters themselves. If you do, you will enjoy it. But, young, hot, sexy, Luke, Alex, Sahra and Nicole are also full of themselves, not funny, childish, but not vain because they are childish, behaving as teenagers at more than 25 years old, exasperating. Dyer is so successful in making them unlikable that you end up by not liking them and you do not even want to care for them – especially for Luke. Paris Trance is a novel without a central figure for whom to care. As a result, I must confess, I lost interest in the conversations, dinners, meal preparations, parties, soccer games, fucking parties – even the fucking parties, that are really hot – around which the book is built. Another paradoxical failure, now due to the success of Dyer as a portraitist.

This is exactly the reverse with But Beautiful, in which, again, 'whatever makes the events into a story is entirely missing' (Dyer, in Paris Trance). This is about people. But, in that case, this is not a problem. The book – not a novel but a set of poetic short-stories – features Charlie Mingus, Theolonius Monk, Bud Powell, Art Pepper. It proposes beautiful portraits of these great jazzmen – that eventually forms a humanistic history of jazz. And, obviously, Dyer feels a lot of sympathy for them. He cares for them, loves them – their music? He writes with passion and gentleness. Everything is beautifully tense, flabbergasting, full of life and also full of melancholy, of violence – the violence these great artists had to suffer in their lives – and of emotion. Is it because they chose to live through their art, to live as artist and, to some extent, to sacrifice their lives to their art? It is hard to tell. But the contrast is so stark with Paris Trance that it is also hard not to think about this explanation. While Paris Trance is a hymn to emptiness, a book about life-without-purpose, But Beautiful is an ode to life-as-art. The alcohol Monk, Powell, Mingus or Pepper drink does not taste as bad as the one Luke and his friends drink. Dyer is successful in making his characters beautiful that you accept their flaws and understand their maladjustment – a price to pay for higher achievements. You accept that because you care for them. And you care for them because Dyer draws so beautiful portraits. And you end up reading these 'stories', following these jazzmen in what they live, because you care about them. The only thing that one wants to do after having read the book is to listen to their music, with tears in the eyes thinking to what you have read in this book. A book that could turn everyone into a jazz fan.

Out of Sheer Rage – a title that is borrowed from a quotation by D. H. Lawrence – stands in between Paris Trance and But Beautiful, sharing features with both of these two other books. The narrator – Dyer himself? – lives in Paris, is trying to write a book, like Luke in Paris Trance, and roughly is as irritating as Luke in Paris Trance. The book starts with confessions about his incapacity to decide anything – whether or not to write an essay or a novel, to stay in the apartment he is sub-subletting or not, to move to Rome or not, to love Laura or not … It is life and trivial. But, trivial or not, all this is told in such a flourished style and self-deprecating tone that, as in Paris Trance, one looses interest in what happens to him. It is probably meant to be funny and to make these (in)decisions bearable. The insistence to laugh about himself proves exactly the reverse of what it is supposed to prove and what actually is an incredible lack of humility; if one had missed it, the narrator puts himself on the same footing as Lawrence, Rilke, Nietzsche or Barthes. So, once again, a character whose adventures are not much exciting. And once again we don't really care. But this time we are hooked because the narrator is trying to write an essay on D. H. Lawrence. Will he write it? You have to read the book to know. But the narrator shares with us some of the pages he writes about Lawrence. And then, everything changes. Like in But Beautiful, the narrator no longer speaks of himself and the book becomes luminous, bright, right, full of emotion. The style is simpler. The tone less look-how-I-am-funny like. You follow the narrator – and you read the book – because you want to read more about Lawrence. And you keep on reading the book, a fascinating book.

Il faut travailler, que travailler”, wrote Rilke as quoted by Dyer in Our of Sheer Rage. The tension between work (as creation) and life is at the core of these three books. Interestingly, Dyer does not seem to take sides. But his style clearly indicates what is his choice. The consequence is that what he writes about creators, artists is much more interesting than the rest. And this is simply beautiful.

Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer
published by Picador (eBooks)

Alain Marciano lives in southern France, teaches economics at University of Montpellier, but also writes poems and short-stories and draws. He has published short stories and poems in Pif Magazine, Bohemian Pupil, Ink, sweat and tears, The Rampallian, Collective exile, Shelf life magazine, Unlikely stories IV, Animal Farm, Death of a ScenesterDown in the Dirt magazine, Forge magazine, Eclectic Eel, and Circa. A literary Magazine.
https://alainmarciano.wordpress.com/

Etgar Keret and Israel

Etgar Keret and Israel

When Etgar Keret compares Israel to the Titanic, where passengers, instead of dealing with the sinking ship, are trying to get themselves assigned a better cabin, it leaves a clear impression. In fact, if Keret, who lives the Israeli reality day after day, believes that democratic values are in peril and hopes that the country may redefine itself on the basis of more liberal values, there seems to be something to worry about. And Keret is certainly not the usual self-hating Jew. And he does not live in Berlin or in Rome.

But nothing comes from nothing. Today more than ever, the Jew is pushed into the corner by a generalized anti‐Semitism that mistakes every Jew for Israeli people, and Israeli people for the State of Israel, and the State of Israel for its government. Perhaps the same way every Palestinian is mistaken for Hamas, and Hamas for ISIS. But they are always the victims, and Israel always the executioner. By a strange search for compensation and retaliation, this is the way the world likes to see things. Simplification of categories, in fact, is always the easiest way for ignorant people and poor in spirit who build their own beliefs from the newspaper headlines and the screams of second‐hand politicians.

Shoved into a corner like a leper, the Jew is again forced to flee (now from France, and the Netherlands) and is forced to defend himself, and defends himself by taking extreme positions because, mindful of the past, there’s no one he can trust. Understandably so. Faced with a policy that looks at Israel through deformed lenses, the frightened prey defending his den pulls out its claws and scratches, no longer recognizing right from wrong, only guided by a spirit of self‐preservation. And the Israeli Jew, from victim, becomes the aggressor. We have been repeatedly saying that we should not be like “them”, where “they” are the visceral anti-Semites and the murderers. But some of us seem to have chosen that road. We did not realize that someone was taking certain positions that could only lead to those outcomes.

Evidently, no lesson has been learnt from the Rabin assassination; on the contrary, some people are even celebrating. Of course, there were those who tried to dissuade us from acceding to these simplistic and exploitable ideas, but they were soon accused of anti-Semitism, of self‐hatred, because to say that your brother is wrong is considered a crime and a betrayal, and must be condemned on the walls of the city. We have to protect each other. Mafiosamente. On the other hand, don’t the Palestinians protect themselves and justify one another? Did they ever condemn a terrorist attack at a Jerusalem bus stop or in a bar in Tel Aviv? But in war, as we know, there is not only the common enemy, the enemy without, there is also the enemy within, the one who, in his irrational, inhuman race towards self-destruction, drags along all those who are in his way.

At the time, then, where one should take collective political responsibility, it is ridiculous to read such subtle distinctions as “It wasn’t me who did it!”, “That was a madman!”, “He was a fanatic!” Because there are the religious traditionalists, the Orthodox, the moderate ultra-Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox fanatics, and who knows how many other categories and distinctions. And there are the good settlers and then perhaps the bad settlers, and even the nasty ones, along with the very good ones. And besides, there is the ordinary Palestinian, and there is Hamas, and there is Fatah, and there are probably also dissidents. And there are pacifists who do not shoot, but justify terrorism calling it “partisan struggle”, and so on and so forth. Language is used as a convenient screen for our subtle distinctions and we thus divert our gaze and attention from what moves all this inhuman thing that we call “madness”. No one wants to see that behind it there is a razionalissima, thoughtful policy. Well meditated upon and clearly pursued for some time.

The voices of Grossman and Yehoshua and Oz are not enough to launch a cry of alarm. Not even the lucid awareness of President Rivlin, apparently an anti-Semite himself, driven to self-destruction by self-hatred and hate of his own country, will produce a change of direction. Someone said that he should end up like Rabin. Only a few murderous beasts should stay alive. What must be killed, above all, is thought and conscience. We have always been made to believe that the danger is outside. Now we realize that there is no longer just Hamas or Tehran to frighten. There is a greater, all-consuming danger, which is eroding our consciousness. And we risk feeling guilty, once more, for the extremism to which we were pushed. They will tell us the culprits are us. Remember? We were forced to be usurers and then, for centuries, the practice of usury has been thrown in our face.

Someone is convinced that our values can be a precious contribution to the society in which we live. Today this belief seems decidedly false, an act of arrogance unheard of. And, if it is not, it should soon be proven by facts.

Dario Calimani
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

Translated from the Italian by Mia Funk and Heather Hartley.

Dario Calimani is Professor of English at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. He has written books on Harold Pinter, T.S. Eliot, modern English theatre, Shakespeare's Sonnets. Has edited Yeats's theatre and poems (Marsilio 2011 and 2015) and has recently published a new important edition of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (Marsilio 2016). He writes extensively on Jewish themes and culture, also through weekly contributions to Moked, the online organ of the Italian Jewish Communities.

He is a former President of the Jewish Community of Venice and former member of the Council of Italian Jewish Communities.

 

Etgar Keret e Israele

Quando Etgar Keret paragona Israele al “Titanic, dove i passeggeri invece di occuparsi della nave che sta affondando, cercano di farsi assegnare una cabina migliore" fa una certa impressione, perché se Keret, che vive la realtà israeliana giorno dopo giorno, dichiara a rischio i valori della democrazia, e auspica che il paese si ridefinisca in base a valori liberali c’è forse di che preoccuparsi. E Keret non mi sembra il solito ebreo che odia se stesso. E non vive a Berlino.

Ma nulla nasce dal nulla. Oggi più che mai l’ebreo è spinto nell’angolo da un antisemitismo generalizzato che confonde ogni ebreo con Israele, e confonde il popolo israeliano con lo stato d’Israele, e lo stato d’Israele con il suo governo; e forse allo stesso modo confonde ogni palestinese con Hamas, e Hamas con Isis. Ma loro sono sempre le vittime, e Israele sempre il carnefice. Al mondo, per una strana ricerca di compensazione e di contrappasso, piace così. Nella confusione, la via più facile è sempre la semplificazione delle categorie in cui più facilmente si ritrovano ignoranti e poveri di spirito, coloro che costruiscono le proprie convinzioni dai titoli dei giornali e dalle urla dei politici d’accatto. 

Spinto nell’angolo come un appestato, l’ebreo è di nuovo costretto a fuggire (per ora dalla Francia, e dall’Olanda) ed è costretto a difendersi, e si difende prendendo posizioni estreme, perché, memore del passato, non si fida più di nessuno. Comprensibilmente.

Di fronte a una politica che guarda a Israele con lenti deformate, la preda che difende impaurita la sua tana tira fuori gli artigli e graffia, e non riconosce più il giusto dall’ingiusto. Conosce solo lo spirito di conservazione.

E l’ebreo israeliano da aggredito diventa aggressore. Ci si è detti più volte che non dobbiamo diventare come ‘loro’, dove ‘loro’ sono gli antisemiti viscerali e assassini. Ma qualcuno sembra aver scelto quella strada. E non ci siamo accorti che qualcuno la stava imboccando, che certe posizioni non potevano che portare a quegli esiti. Evidentemente, l’omicidio Rabin non ha insegnato abbastanza; c’è chi sta ancora brindando. Certo, qualcuno aveva cercato di mettere in guardia dall’adesione a idee troppo semplicistiche e strumentalizzabili, ma era stato tacciato di antisemitismo, di odio di sé, perché dire che un tuo fratello sta sbagliando è considerato crimine e tradimento, e va denunciato sui muri della città. Bisogna proteggersi l’un l’altro. Mafiosamente. D’altro canto, che cosa fanno i palestinesi se non proteggersi e giustificarsi l’un l’altro? Hanno mai condannato un attentato terroristico alla fermata dell’autobus a Gerusalemme o al bar di Tel Aviv? Ma si sa che nella guerra non c’è solo il nemico comune, quello esterno, c’è anche il nemico interno, quello che nella sua corsa irrazionale e disumana all’autodistruzione vuol trascinare con sé tutti coloro che si trovano sulla sua strada. Nel momento, poi, in cui ci si dovrebbe assumere la responsabilità politica collettiva, è ridicolo leggere tanti sottili distinguo: ‘quello non sono io!’, ‘quello era un pazzo!’, ‘quello era un fanatico!’ Perché esistono i religiosi tradizionalisti, gli ortodossi semplici, gli ultraortodossi moderati, gli ultraortodossi fanatici e chissà quante altre categorie fra cui distinguere; ed esistono i coloni buoni e poi i coloni cattivi, e forse anche quelli cattivissimi, assieme a quelli buonissimi. E del resto, esiste il palestinese qualunque, ed esiste Hamas, ed esiste Fatah, ed esistono i dissidenti, ed esistono i pacifisti che non sparano, ma giustificano il terrorismo chiamandolo ‘lotta partigiana’, e via di seguito. Ci si fa paravento del linguaggio per i nostri sottili distinguo e si distoglie così lo sguardo e l’attenzione da ciò che muove tutta questa ‘follia’. Non si vuol vedere che dietro c’è una politica razionalissima e meditata. Meditata da tempo. Non bastano più le voci dei Grossman e degli Yehoshua e degli Oz a lanciare il grido d’allarme. E a cambiare direzione non basteranno, ormai, neppure la consapevolezza del Presidente Rivlin, evidentemente antisemita anche lui, spinto all’autodistruzione da odio di sé e del proprio paese. Qualcuno ha già detto che bisogna far fuori anche lui, come Rabin. Deve restare in vita solo qualche rara bestia assassina. Bisogna soprattutto uccidere il pensiero, e la coscienza. Ci è sempre stato fatto credere che il pericolo sia fuori. Ora ci accorgiamo che non sono più solo Hamas o Teheran a far paura. C’è un pericolo maggiore che ci sta consumando dentro, che sta erodendo la nostra coscienza. E rischieremo di sentirci colpevoli, ancora una volta, per un estremismo verso il quale siamo stati spinti. E ci diranno che i colpevoli siamo noi. Lo ricordate? Ci hanno costretto a fare gli usurai e poi, per secoli, ci hanno rimproverato di praticare l’usura.

Qualcuno è convinto, e l’ha affermato, che i nostri valori possono essere un prezioso contributo alla società in cui viviamo. Oggi questa convinzione mi sembra decisamente falsa, e di un’arroganza inaudita. E, se non lo è, è bene che lo si dimostri coi fatti.

E, tuttavia, dall’altra parte della barricata chi risponde?

Dario Calimani è professore ordinario di Letteratura inglese all'Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia. Ha scritto fra l'altro su Harold Pinter, T.S Eliot, sul teatro inglese moderno, sui Sonetti di Shakespeare. Hedito teatro e poesie di Yeats (Marsilio 2011 e 2015) e ha appena pubblicato un'importante edizione del Mercante di Venezia di Shakespeare (Marsilio 2016). Si occupa di temi e di cultura ebraica anche in una rubrica settimanale per Moked, l'organo online delle Comunità ebraiche italiane. 

È stato presidente della Comunità ebraica di Venezia e membro dell'UCEI, Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane.

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost - Review

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost - Review

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost is not a book lost in a title's paradox. It is the opening salvo in a war of letters - a book that needed to be penned, asking the questions about what makes a writer write, can art be taught and what is the standard by which we call a written work good?

Yes, it may look like an oxymoron, this "All forgotten, nothing lost" - but that's looking at it from the perspective of human memory and not from the writing itself. Once committed to paper that memory becomes a fossil for archaeologists - the reader - to unearth and to judge relative worth, one person at a time. Chang guides us through this theme via the characters of Roman Morris and Bernard Sauvet, two poets that travel very different paths in their lifelong endeavors to create worthwhile art. The author points to all of the signposts along the way to make the reader ask: Does commercial success equate to art? What about the enduring relationship between the potter and the clay - and why are humans so interested in the person responsible for the work of art?

Must anyone read a poem, a manuscript for it to be considered beautiful, considered art? There's this lovely scene in the middle of the book where Roman looks to comfort from his wife Lucy and she tells him, "You will forget what you forget, whether you impress it upon your memory or not." Because this is all going away at some point whether we want it to or not. We won't be able to hold it for all time, but that doesn't mean that it didn't happen, it wasn't beautiful or that it is lost.

 

Brian Dice is a lover of stories, short and long. His first collection of stories, Blue Ice, was published in 2011. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, daughter and siamese cat, and if you happen to meet him while you are there, pull up a chair and regale him with your tale.

Oscar Wao - Writing into Silence

Oscar Wao - Writing into Silence

For all the skepticism that critics express with regard to the true status of the fuku, and their persistent concerns about constructed histories, along with gaps and uncertainties -- paginas en blanco -- in ambiguous, self-undermining texts, close scrutiny of the numerous interviews Junot Diaz has given over the years suggests rather compelling conclusions about the meaning and purpose of his literary work. It turns out, for example, that Diaz’s idea of the fuku does not originate with the novel, but instead constitutes a central component of Caribbean legend. As Diaz confides to his colleague and close friend Edwidge Danticat during their conversation shortly after Oscar Wao’s 2007 publication, “the fuku has been one of those Dominican concepts that have fascinated me for years. Our Island (and a lot of countries around it) has a long tradition of believing in curses. The fuku . . . was the one curse that explicitly implicated the historical trauma of our creation, as an area, a people” (90).

     The fuku in Oscar Wao, it seems, rather than just an ordinary popular superstition or some vague, ambiguous curse, represents a key piece of silenced Caribbean history. The fuku whispers tales that disclose the savage underbelly of so-called civilization, revealing a shameful record of calculated injustice that powerful elites are anxious to erase from public memory. Diaz’s novel speaks into the deliberate gaps left in official narratives in order to challenge and debunk hegemony’s self-serving interpretations: “All societies are organized by the silences they need to maintain. I think the role of art is to try to delineate, break, and introduce language into some of these silences. I think more than anything I was just trying to get people to acknowledge how much of what we call ‘Caribbean history and culture’ is, in reality, one vast silence.”  The story of Oscar Wao’s confrontation with the fuku provokes readers to question conventional accounts of Columbus’s “discovery,” and recognize the blank spaces in a tragic human story that only marginalized voices of suppressed subalterns can fill. Diaz attempts to open people’s eyes to harsh realities they have been systematically programmed not to recognize: “the real issue of the book is not whether or not one can vanquish the fuku -- but whether or not one can even see it. Acknowledge its existence at a collective level. To be a true witness to who we are as a people and to what has happened to us” (Danticat 90). 

     Diaz’s novel also makes it clear that the fuku is not simply a matter of collective trauma in the past, but rather that this insidious curse still persists as an ongoing blight on human affairs, continuing to warp and distort daily life in contemporary global societies, causing indescribable suffering. Transnational corporate elites persist in imposing their self-serving agenda of predatory exploitation in the neoliberal era, simply picking up from where the former imperial powers left off. Rafael Trujillo was a willing instrument of U.S. business interests, an all too typical, local hit man for the ruling mafia don in D.C., a well trained, ruthless puppet. His were hardly supernatural powers; the violence and terror he exercised derived from his role as the Dominican Republic’s enforcer for the hemisphere’s monolithic economic hegemon: “Trujillo was one of the U.S.’s favorite sons, one of its children. He was created and sustained by the U.S.’s political-military machine. I wanted to write about the demon child of the U.S., the one who was inflicted upon the Dominican Republic,” just as Columbus and the conquistadors had been inflicted upon Hispaniola and the Caribbean by the Spanish crown half a millennium earlier, introducing “a demon . . . through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles” (Oscar Wao 1). El Jefe was just another poisonous manifestation of a chronic global malady: “Trujillo exemplifies the negative forces that have for so long beleaguered the peoples of the New World.”

     The significance of the recurring motif of paginas en blanco that runs throughout the text of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao derives not only from the notion that Oscar overcomes the fuku by writing the story of his own life, as each of us faces the challenge to do, but also from the fact that Junot Diaz is writing a version of the story of the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean that has heretofore been suppressed; he is filling in pages of history books that have been deliberately left blank. Children in the United States are typically educated to view Christopher Columbus as an intrepid explorer, an epic, legendary hero who carried forth the torch of Christian civilization on a noble crusade to uplift and enlighten a benighted pagan underworld. Students never learn about the systematic rape and mutilation practiced by the Spanish, the forced, deadly labor imposed on Native Americans in New Spain’s gold and silver mines, the unparalleled genocide systematically conducted by the conquistadors -- a scale of wanton slaughter that makes even Hitler seem like a mere neophyte in comparison. The horrors of slavery are glossed over in classroom textbooks; atrocities committed by Latin American dictators are blamed on uniquely evil individuals, rather than on the neo-imperial political-economic system that creates and sustains them, and that grooms efficient substitutes ready to step in when traditional favorites prove unsuitable or inconvenient and suddenly need to be replaced -- just as Balaguer followed automatically in the footsteps of Trujillo. The vast majorities of human beings who are condemned to wretched, desperate poverty remain invisible to polite Western society; subalterns are blamed for their miserable plight, and consigned to brutal repression if they dare to resist. 

     The carefully constructed silences that disguise and rationalize these pervasive social injustices keep the privileged classes within developed countries lulled into complacent ignorance: “what fascinates me is how people ‘un-see.’ How societies are trained not to see . . . The world has organized itself to be completely blind about what happened in the New World, specifically what happened in the Caribbean” (29-30). In his 2008 interview with Armando Celayo and David Shook, Junot Diaz describes the Caribbean as “the site of the original sin,” and comments further, “I think it’s no accident that the site of the crime has been sort of anesthetized and amnesiatized into the place of sun and fun and rum. I think that says it all about how severe and terrifying that original crater is in our imagination” (9). Judgment and punishment are necessary for obviating criminal transgression; original sin requires recognition, if there is to be any chance for redemption.

     By writing into the blank pages of history the stories of the under classes, the innocent victims who suffer from the arbitrary cruelty and brutality of self-serving elites, Junot Diaz hopes to expose the hypocrisy and duplicity of prevailing ideology. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao speaks into secret places in the Caribbean’s past to reveal unpleasant truths that have for centuries been kept carefully hidden: “this book is an arrow to what’s missing. And the ‘paginas en blanco’ is just a metaphor for that. . . . My whole dream was to get the community I was born in to recognize that it had a hole the size of its country in the middle of itself.” There is an empty space at the heart of the Dominican Republic that its citizens “cannot even talk about. There is not even the language.” This hole is analogous to the vast gap in the consciousness of citizens in the United States, who bear implicit responsibility for the crimes that their elected leaders have committed -- and brazenly continue to commit -- in their name, and in the name of “democracy” and “freedom,” in the name of a political ideology that promotes economic exploitation of the many, the vast majority of humanity, for the exclusive benefit of a radically restricted few, a tiny plutocracy that presumes the right to dominate the entire world.

     Rather than introduce ambiguity and uncertainty, Junot Diaz’s literary strategy of borrowing from the discourses of science fiction, fantasy, and horror purposely aims at breaking down the walls of silence that prevent readers from recognizing what would otherwise be obvious in plain sight: “Why this continued commitment to genres? So much of our experience as Caribbean Diasporic peoples, so much of it, exists in silence. How can we talk about our experiences in any way if both our own local culture and the larger global culture doesn’t want to talk about them and actively resists our attempt to create language around them? Well, my strategy was to seek models at the narrative margins. . . . If you’re looking for language that will help you approach our nigh-unbearable historical experiences you can reach for narratives of the impossible: sci-fi, horror, fantasy, which might not really want to talk about people of color at all but that takes what we’ve experienced (without knowing it) very seriously indeed. . . . the metaphors that the genres have established (mostly off the back of our experiences as people of color: the eternal other) can be reclaimed and subverted and expanded in useful ways that help clarify and immediate-ize our own histories.”

     Tragically, as Diaz implies, the fictional representations found in horror and sci-fi have countless precedents in ordinary human reality. Read with empathy, C.L.R. James’s description of living conditions beneath the decks of Middle Passage human cargo ships challenges the most vivid and dreadful of genre accounts: “slaves were packed in the hold on galleries one above the other. Each was given only four or five feet in length and two or three feet in height, so that they could neither lie at full length nor sit upright. . . . the revolts at port of embarkation and on board were incessant, so that the slaves had to be chained, right hand to right leg, left hand to left leg, and attached in rows to long iron bars. In this position they lived for the voyage [which typically lasted seven weeks or longer], coming up once a day for exercise and to allow sailors to ‘clean the pails.’ But when the cargo was rebellious or the weather bad, then they stayed below for weeks at a time. The close proximity of so many naked human beings, their bruised and festering flesh, the foetid air, the prevailing dysentery, the accumulation of filth, turned these holds into a hell” (8).

     Patrick Chamoiseau’s account of life for slaves on Caribbean plantations is equally disturbing: “that most searing day-after-day distress . . . Imagine not misery or anguish, but well-trained reflexes for which there was no reason at all to Exist [sic]. We would set out for the fields without even raising our heads. The Long-beasts [poisonous snakes] knew how to bring us down when, bent over the soil, we combed out the long, burning hair of suffering. Imagine not grief (that was too absolute to be constant), but the slow vertigo of absence. . . . the body sank into pain: hands were raw, singing with scratches from saw grasses. . . . the field swallowed us up until the anus of nightfall. Think of that, repeated times without number . . . the death suffered each hour in the almost fatal acceptance of this slow drowning. . . . What you thought was essential breaks apart, dangling uselessly. . . . Now you are no more than gaping nothingness” (110-111). The description of a slave’s hand being pulled between the crushing stones of a sugar cane mill, a frequent occurrence on the plantation, rivals the most lurid fantasies conjured by Stephen King: “Oh a finger’s caught! The beast awakens in an inexorable slushing of ground-up bones and flesh. The hand is tugged in before your helpless eyes. Then the arm. The shoulder. You can barely cry out. The cane juice turns rusty with blood and marrow. The water of your soul is squeezed out and gushes down into the tubs. What greater horror than a sugar press jammed with the stubborn, grimacing head of a nigger?” (112).

     Any slave guilty of the temerity of insisting on equal rights as a human being, and seeking to escape such brutalizing bondage in order to attain his or her freedom, could expect only the harshest punishment if caught. Michelle Cliff’s description of the usual practice of Clare’s ancestor (a matter of “family pride”) in such cases recalls the shocked dismay of Coetzee’s magistrate, and his outrage that one would not treat even an animal this way: “The recaptured slave was strung up in front of the quarters, where the queen’s justice applied the cat-o’-tails to his or her back. The number of lashes depended upon the exertion the justice was capable of on a given afternoon, or morning. Usually about a hundred or so strokes. After the whipping, the slave had salt rubbed into the wounds on his or her back. Then the slave was hanged by the neck until dead . . . Finally the rebel was cut down and the justice dissected the naked body of the African man or woman into four parts. Each quadrant was suspended by rope from a tree at a corner of the property, where it stayed until the vultures . . . or the bluebottle flies finished it off” (30).

     This kind of gothic barbarism is by no means confined to the distant past; Abelard’s treatment in Trujillo’s twentieth century prison conjures visions from a manmade hell: “Only been inside a week but already he looked frightful. His eyes were blackened; his hands and neck covered in bruises and his torn lip had swollen monstrously, was the color of the meat inside your eye. The night before, he had been interrogated by the guards, and they had beaten him mercilessly with leather truncheons; one of his testicles would be permanently shriveled from the blows” (Oscar Wao 241). Contemporary reports of prisoner abuse in U.S. military detention centers around the world evoke images that are equally disturbing, challenging the capacities of ordinary language for articulation. Nor are such horrors limited to the institutional practice of torturing subalterns who fail to cooperate or choose to resist. Degrading living conditions imposed by extreme poverty create indescribable misery for countless disenfranchised human beings. In Diaz’s short story “No Face,” Ysrael’s nightmares serve as an especially terrifying testimony to this fact, easily comparable to Chamoiseau’s portrait of a slave being ground to pulp in the sugar mill: “On some nights he opens his eyes and the pig has come back. Always huge and pale. Its hooves peg his chest down and he can smell the curdled bananas on its breath. Blunt teeth rip a strip from under his eye and the muscle revealed is delicious, like lechosa. He turns his head to save one side of his face; in some dreams he saves the right side and in some his left but in the worst ones he cannot turn his head; its mouth is like a pothole and nothing can escape it. When he awakens he’s screaming as the blood braids down his neck; he’s bitten his tongue and it swells and he cannot sleep again until he tells himself to be a man” (157-158).

     David Stannard points out that the mass slaughter carried out by the conquistadors in the Caribbean in the course of their frenzied accumulation of private wealth is by no means just a matter of the distant past; capitalist exploitation continues its inexorable compulsion for creating wanton social havoc: “the genocide in the Americas, and in other places where the world’s indigenous peoples survive, has never really ceased. As recently as 1986, the Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States observed that 40,000 people had simply ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala during the preceding fifteen years. Another 100,000 had been openly murdered. That is the equivalent, in the United States, of more than 4,000,000 people slaughtered or removed under official government decree.” These indigenous people, then as now, had to be exterminated because their physical presence interfered with the expansion of business enterprise; the methods may be modern, but the motives -- as well as the victims -- remain very much the same: “Almost all those dead and disappeared were Indians, direct descendents . . . of the Mayas, creators of one of the most splendid civilizations that this earth has ever seen. Today, as five centuries ago, people are being tortured and slaughtered, their homes and villages bombed and razed . . . The murder and destruction continue, with the aid and assistance of the United States . . . many of the detailed accounts from contemporary observers read much like those recorded by the conquistadors’ chroniclers nearly 500 years earlier.” U.S. corporate interests insisted on and enabled local government policies by which “more than 1,000,000 of Guatemala’s approximately 4,000,000 natives were being displaced by the deliberate burning and wasting of their ancestral lands,” in order to make room for further so-called economic progress. The twin process of economic exploitation and political oppression, although more carefully disguised, is essentially identical within the borders of the United States as well, in “reservations and urban slums of North America, where more sophisticated indirect government violence has precisely the same effect” (xiii-xiv). 

     Michelle Cliff observes that slavery was just a particularly brazen and flagrant manifestation of the brutality that is typical of the world-wide program of human exploitation that is intrinsic to capitalist ideology and practice: “Slavery was not an aberration -- it was an extreme. Consider the tea plantations of Ceylon and China. The coffee plantations of Sumatra and Colombia. The tobacco plantations of Pakistan and the Philippines. The mills of Lowell. Manchester. Leeds. Marseilles. The mines of Wales. Alsasace-Lorraine. The railroads of the Union-Pacific. Cape-to-Cairo. All worked by captive labor. . . . The enslavement of Black people     -- African peoples -- with its procession of naked and chained human beings, whipping of human beings, rape of human beings -- made other forms of employment in the upkeep of western civilization seem pale. So slavery in-fact -- which was distasteful to some coffee-drinkers and tea-drinkers, who might have read about these things or saw them illustrated in newspapers . . . slavery in-fact was abolished, and the freedom which followed on abolition turned into veiled slavery, the model of the rest of the western world.” 

     Thus it is that Yunior’s father is forced to labor on despite a severely injured back in “Negocios,” and Ramon in “Otravida, Otravez” lives in a state of constant dread, haunted by thoughts of ending up like the man he recommended for the job and who fell to his death on the factory floor. Beli works herself beyond human endurance despite being seriously ill with cancer: “trying to keep a second job, for the first time since her operation. It wasn’t working out. She was coming home exhausted” (62). Nevertheless, she is condemned to remain in bondage to an economic system that recognizes no rights except those that promote private profits. Lola observes ruefully: “On the last minute of the last day my mother would be at work. She would be at work when the missiles were in the air” (67). Such hardship is hardly the consequence of some vague, mysterious, supernatural fuku; if a curse is involved, it is manmade, and therefore ought to be amenable to a human counter spell.

     Lola’s allusion to nuclear Armageddon emphasizes the ultimately destructive force of the capitalist agenda, which accepts no limits to its all-consuming appetites, recognizes no moral constraints, and sustains itself solely by means of terror and extreme violence. David Stannard compares the violent invasion of European imperialism into the New World to the consequences of nuclear devastation, referring to the level of destruction as defying comprehension: “Just twenty-one years after Columbus’s first landing in the Caribbean . . . Hispaniola was effectively desolate; nearly 8,000,000 people . . . had been killed by violence, disease, and despair. . . . what happened on Hispaniola was the equivalent of more than fifty Hiroshimas. And Hispaniola was only the beginning. . . . the very effort to describe the disaster’s overwhelming magnitude has tended to obliterate both the writer’s and the reader’s sense of the truly horrific human element.”

      As Stannard poignantly observes, the enormity of the human catastrophe precipitated by the heartless avarice of the conquistadors challenges even our capacity for imagination. This blood spattered record is a crucial part of the terrible void in Western history that governing elites contrive to keep carefully concealed, but that a creative artist like Junot Diaz strives courageously to reveal, for only an honest appraisal of the awful injustices that have occurred, as well as those that continue to transpire, can enable humanity to come to terms with these terrible realities, and create the opportunity at last for us to begin to heal. As a fiction writer, Diaz finds himself forced to rely on horror and science fiction to convey a story that could not possibly be communicated in any other way. 

     Eduardo Galeano, writing in 1971, employed the same comparison to nuclear war that Stannard uses to describe the widespread devastation caused by extreme poverty throughout Central and South America during the early stages of the second half of the twentieth century, when neoliberal doctrine was just beginning to bite even deeper into the region’s socio-political processes, in order to facilitate extraction of ever larger shares of Latin America’s enormous natural resources -- which transnational corporate elites adamantly insist must be made available for their exclusive benefit, rather than for enhancing quality of life for local populations. According to Galeano, “The human murder by poverty in Latin America is secret; every year, without making a sound, three Hiroshima bombs explode over communities that have become accustomed to suffering with clenched teeth. The systematic violence is not apparent but is real and constantly increasing: its holocausts are not made known in the sensational press but in Food and Agricultural statistics.” The ongoing slaughter of innocents must be kept disguised, because such crimes are clearly impossible to justify. 

     Nuclear weapons provide the ultimate means of exercising economic control through global terror. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is replete with references to actual as well as potential nuclear contamination, devastation, and ultimate holocaust. The social catastrophe precipitated by predatory capitalism is likewise associated with natural disasters, as well as the Man with No Face -- the emblem of pitiless, impersonal death. On Beli’s ride back to Bali after she is left stranded by the Gangster, “they passed through one of those godforsaken blisters of a community that frequently afflict the arteries between major cities, sad assemblages of shacks that seem to have been deposited in situ by a hurricane or other such calamity. . . . a man sitting in a rocking chair in front of one of the hovels had no face and he waved to her as she passed” (135). The bleakness of intensifying poverty and the spreading poison of pollution are described in terms of a cancer linked to atomic attack: “In those days the cities hadn’t yet metastasized into kaiju, menacing one another with smoky, teeming tendrils of shanties” (145-146). When Beli finally stirs from her nearly fatal beating in the cane field, she awakens to a dirge, “a grade of grief unlike any she’d encountered before . . . a cacophony of wails that seemed to have torn free from the cracked soul of humanity itself. Like a funeral song for the entire planet” (54).

     It is by now a well-established scientific certainty that energy corporations’ runaway obsession with ever increasing profits, regardless of the inevitable environmental consequences, assures ongoing weather related and other ecological calamities that will seriously degrade quality of life on Earth, and may even threaten the long term survival of the human species. Similar blind compulsions for endless profit on the part of arms and weapons manufacturers, primarily those in the United States, guarantee a permanent state of global warfare, and steer the world on a collision course toward nuclear Armageddon. Eighty percent of the human population is now considered irrelevant to the corporate agenda for wealth accumulation, and has therefore been effectively consigned to slow, agonizing extinction. 

     It is hardly surprising that Junot Diaz refers to contemporary neoliberal economic practices as “the cannibal stage” of capitalism, “the zombie stage of capitalism where entire nations are being rendered through alchemy into not-quite-alive.” Diaz is attempting to open the global community’s eyes, through his interviews, essays, and fiction, to the fact that humanity is fast approaching what may well be a terminal stage in its history: “where is this all leading? . . . We need the revelations that come from our apocalypses -- and never so much as we do now. Without this knowledge how can we ever hope to take responsibility for the social practices that bring on our disasters? And how can we ever hope to take responsibility for the collective response that will be needed to alleviate the misery? . . . We must stare into the ruins -- bravely, resolutely -- and we must see. And then we must act. Our very lives depend on it” (50).

     When Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to the Shire at the end of the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, they find that Saruman’s cronies have been hard at work while they were away. Sam immediately identifies the system of corporate-style exploitation these thugs have set up as “worse than Mordor,” to which Frodo promptly replies, “Yes, this is Mordor. Just one of its works” (994). Although Saruman warns, “I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives,” and threatens a fuku of his own -- “Whoever strikes me shall be accursed” (995) -- Sam and company quickly organize the community, relying on the efficacy of grassroots democracy, and begin the laborious process of establishing social justice and restoring a healthier balance with Mother Nature -- assisted in this arduous task by “thousands of willing hands of all ages” (999). The fortuitous outcome that these Hobbits engender serves as an obvious model for the kind of collective awakening and restorative response that Diaz seems to envision for planet Earth in our time, although happy endings are far easier to find in fantasy than to realize in actual life. 

     Daniel Bautista argues that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a far more pessimistic narrative than Tolkien’s trilogy: “Largely eschewing its more heroic elements, Diaz borrows almost exclusively from the dark and monstrous aspects of Tolkien’s world . . . [there is an] absence of allusions to more hopeful, idealistic, or Utopian aspects of Tolkien’s texts . . . Diaz does not draw on the sense of wonder or redemption that Tolkien sometimes offers . . . Yunior’s sf and fantasy allusions mostly serve to reveal a fallen world where the marvelous either no longer exists or where what remains of it has been forced into the service of evil” (46). Yunior is quite blunt in pointing out the crucial discrepancy between his narrative and Tolkien’s tale of adventurous Hobbits: “you know what kind of world we live in. It ain’t no fucking Middle-earth” (194); Yunior maintains, moreover, that Sauron is not quite as formidable an opponent as Trujillo: “At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by ‘a great wind’ and neatly ‘blown away,’ with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after his death his evil lingered” (256), primarily because he was just an agent for the corporate Mordor that keeps steadily increasing in power to this day.

     Yet Yunior’s allusion to Sauron’s final decline is misleading, for at the very outset of the trilogy, Gandalf grimly reminds his listeners: “Always after a defeat and a respite, the shadow takes another shape and grows again.” Sauron, apparently, can be temporarily overcome, but he cannot be permanently destroyed. The struggle against ruthless greed and deadly violence goes on and on, for Tolkien as it does for Diaz. This is why Oscar highlights only one section in the final chapter of “A Stronger Loving World,” -- “circled one panel three times in the same emphatic pen he used to write his last letters home” -- the one which conveys soberly: “Nothing ever ends” (331). In his essay on the Haitian earthquake, Junot Diaz admits to a sense of weary discouragement, edged with guarded resignation: “Will we, despite all our limitations and cruelties, really heed our ruin and pull ourselves out of our descent into apocalypse? Truth be told, I’m not very optimistic. I mean, just look at us. No, I’m not optimistic -- but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope” (50). Oscar realizes that he has no chance of surviving long enough to form an enduring relationship with Ybon, but he defies death anyway and ends up encountering “The beauty! The beauty!” nonetheless. There is indeed much that is hopeful, idealistic, and even Utopian, not to mention genuinely heroic in what Oscar accomplishes in the end, particularly in the example he leaves for others, for if there is to be any promise of change for the better in human affairs, it surely must begin within each individual. The challenge of inner transformation is especially crucial in Yunior’s case; Yunior’s problem is that in certain ways he resembles Trujillo, and therefore he too embodies the fuku, and inadvertently transmits its evil effects: “what [is] really dangerous about the novel, why Yunior’s such a scary narrator, is because he’s so incredibly charming. . . . He’s a fucking winner, people like this guy. And he’s a horror. . . . the person telling them the story is Trujillo with a different mask. All the stuff that Trujillo believed in, Yunior practices in one form or another. . . . his sexual politics are fucking nightmarish.”

     Yunior is a narcissist who considers himself superior to others; he boasts about his physical prowess, and bullies homosexuals to advertize his exceptional virility -- although he is not above hypocritically condescending to befriend Oscar when he receives an unfavorable number in the campus housing lottery: “I actually did it. Move in with him. In fucking Demarest. Home of all the weirdos and losers and freaks and fem-bots. Me, a guy who could bench 340 pounds, who used to call Demarest Homo Hall like it was nothing. Who never met a little white artist freak he didn’t want to slap around” (170). Another reason Yunior suddenly decides to be nice to Oscar is that he hopes it might help him score sexually with Lola; yet he is too self-involved to concentrate on Oscar for very long: “Despite my promises to Lola to watch out, those first couple weeks I didn’t have much to do with him. I mean, what can I say? I was busy. What state school player isn’t? I had my job and the gym and my boys and my novia and of course I had my slutties” (172). 

     When Suriyan decides to give him another chance after she catches him cheating, Yunior arrogantly concludes that he must be irresistible: “Dios mio! Some niggers couldn’t have gotten ass on Judgment Day: me, I couldn’t not get ass, even when I tried” (196). So he just continues his reckless, philandering ways, anxious for an opportunity to add Lola to his steadily lengthening check list of sexual conquests: “it was December. My Indian girl, Lily, was waiting for me back on College Ave., and so was Suriyan. But I wasn’t thinking about either of them. I was thinking about the one time I’d seen Lola that year.” Lola, however, proves to be more of a challenge than the self-styled lady killer can handle, because she demands a level of commitment that Yunior is not prepared to make, despite the unique attraction he feels for her: “Of all the chicks I’d run up on ever, Lola was the one I’d never gotten a handle on. So why did I feel like she was the one who knew me best? . . . I thought about my own fears of actually being good, because Lola wasn’t Suriyan; with her I’d have to be someone I’d never tried to be.” Failing Lola’s test of personal integrity, however, turns out to be a defeat that Yunior will forever regret: “Why is this the face I can’t seem to forget, even now, after all these years?” (198-199).

     Junot Diaz explains to Katherine Miranda that “Yunior is haunted by Lola because he knew that if he had revealed himself to her, she would have loved him and accepted him, and he couldn’t do it” (37-38). Yunior rationalizes his inability to remain faithful to only one relationship, claiming that his chronic philandering derives from both his basic biology and his ethnic background -- “you don’t know Dominican men” (175) -- simultaneously making the lame excuse that he is just following prescribed social practice: “At college, you’re not supposed to care about anything -- you’re just supposed to fuck around” (168). He fails to recognize the depth and sincerity of Lola’s affection, even after she aborts the child they could have had together when she discovers that he is still chasing other women. 

     T.S. Miller contends that Yunior dictates the two sections of the novel that seem to be narrated by Lola: “I understand Yunior as the sole controlling intelligence of the text, and thus I read ‘Wildwood,’ the chapter ostensibly told in Lola’s voice, as mediated through him as well     . . . it is as if, in an attempt to understand them, Yunior allows his female characters to speak in their own voices, yet cannot fully surrender control of the narrative” (102). Yet Miller provides no convincing textual evidence that Yunior actually influences Lola’s account. Since Junot Diaz is obviously the author who creates Yunior as the narrator, it is just as possible that he also creates Lola as the sole narrator of the two chapters that he writes from her perspective -- the second of which has no title, appears at the beginning of Part II of the novel, and is only six pages long (205-210). It can be argued that both of these sections actually represent Lola’s personal text, Lola’s lost book, a possibility that is somehow absent from the critical discussion, and yet could and perhaps should be included alongside consideration of Abelard and Oscar’s missing manuscripts, Maria Montez’s third volume, and the blank page of Balaguer’s memoir, as well.

     In both of Lola’s sections, she is clearly directly addressing someone, and that someone is obviously Yunior. Right after relating her mother’s hurried admission, “Just know that I would die for you,” Lola interrupts her narrative abruptly by interjecting: “But that’s not what I wanted to tell you. It’s about that crazy bruja feeling that started this whole mess” (72), as if she is recounting the story of her past life to a cherished lover and soul mate. The idea that Lola addresses her account to Yunior is even more strongly suggested in the second, shorter section, which opens with an expression of disappointment and betrayal: “Of course I tried once more. It was even stupider than the first time . . . Abuela announced it was time for me to return to Patterson . . . I couldn’t believe what she was saying. It felt like the deepest of treacheries to me. I wouldn’t feel like that again until I broke up with you” (205). Lola undoubtedly felt that after a lifetime’s search she had finally found love she could count on with Yunior, for she adds at the end of this section, “It was only when I got on the plane that I started crying. I know this sounds ridiculous but I don’t think I really stopped until I met you” (210).

     Lola’s narrative is quite literary throughout; she switches tenses from past to present and then back again. At the beginning of “Wildwood,” the text changes to italics after just one sentence, and for the next three pages reads as if Lola is talking to herself. It appears that Lola is writing after her final breakup with Yunior, after her marriage to another man and the birth of her daughter: “Now that I have become a mother myself” (208). Lola also reflects on her reasons for writing, which also apply to Yunior and to Oscar -- and to Junot Diaz, and to us as readers, as well: “if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in. And that’s what I guess these stories are all about” (209). Lucia Suarez observes that in recent literature of the Dominican diaspora, including the work of Nelly Rosario and Viriato Sencion, along with Junot Diaz, “the process of writing, for the authors, and reading, for us, actualizes the possibility of mourning.” Confronting past trauma, speaking into the silence produced by persistent denial of individual and collective pain, makes it possible for “authors [to] expose the ways violence, past and present, bleeds into people’s lives . . . stories of survival and narrative restructuring of horrors may be the only route to reconciliation and reconstruction of personal and national memory and integrity.” 

     Lola’s writing -- whether in the form of a long letter that she actually sends to Yunior, or a “missing” text is not certain -- seems to represent an attempt to create a space for healing of the kind that Lucia Suarez describes, a means of understanding and accepting what has transpired in Lola’s on-again, off-again love affair with Yunior, a way for her to recover from her profound sense of loss and betrayal. Like her brother Oscar, Lola also imagines her writing as a means of rescuing a beleaguered world that is hovering on the edge of nuclear apocalypse: “I would sit in the sand dressed all in black and try to write in my journal, which I was sure would form the foundation for a utopian society after we blew ourselves into radioactive kibble” (65). Oscar considers his writing -- which Yunior describes as “The thing that carried him” (186) -- to be a vehicle for personal recovery and rehabilitation, a zafa for the family curse, as well as a counter spell for the prevailing misery of humankind. Oscar writes on every one of his final days, producing “almost three hundred pages if his letters are to be believed” (320), telling Lola, “This contains everything . . . I think you will need. You’ll understand when you read my conclusions;” his missing manuscript purportedly contains “the cure to what ails us . . . The Cosmo DNA” (333). The fact that Oscar’s manuscript gets lost in transit implies that other people will have to write an account of their own conclusions -- including Yunior, and eventually maybe Isis as well. The “cure to what ails us” will have to be rearticulated over and over again, as long as there are human beings left alive to tell the story of their personal encounter with, and struggle against the fuku.

     Junot Diaz describes his novel “as a really interesting choose-your-own-adventure book at the level of signification,” and insists that it is crucial for us to ponder the intention behind Yunior’s narration: “one of the questions that a reader has to ask themselves is: Why is Yunior telling this particular story? . . . his unspoken motivations . . . are at the heart of the novel and can easily be missed.” It would seem that a large part of Yunior’s drive to tell this story is his need to mourn the loss of Lola; years after their final separation, and Lola’s marriage to another man -- as well as his to another woman -- and the birth of Isis, Yunior remains still focused on Lola and on his lingering regrets: “I wish I could say it worked out, that Oscar’s death brought us together. I was just too much the mess.” He appears to have begun to take responsibility for his inconsiderate behavior and hurtful conduct, and to be developing a sense of heightened self-awareness, recalling the events that led to their final breakup: “One day she called, asked me where I’d been the night before, and when I didn’t have a good excuse, she said, Good-bye, Yunior, please take good care of yourself, and for about a year I scromfed strange girls and alternated between Fuck You Lola and these incredibly narcissistic hopes of reconciliation that I did nothing to achieve” (324).

     Lola, after all, is far more than what Miller describes as just another of Yunior’s “female characters,” since Lola is the one woman he genuinely loves, the one he cannot forget, the one whose loss he never ceases to regret; Lola, along with her brother and mother, remains at the center of Yunior’s concerns throughout the novel. Richard Patteson maintains that Yunior feels compelled to tell the story of his relationship with members of the de Leon family because that is the only way he can find meaning as he confronts the fact of his own mortality: “For Yunior, the text represents . . . life; the book he writes is an effort to fill the blank left by Oscar’s death” (16). Yunior is haunted by recurrent dreams of Oscar where “Dude is holding up a book, waving for me to take a closer look.” Like Lola, Yunior wants to escape, yet soon realizes “the only way out is in”: “I want to run from him, and for a long time that’s what I do [just as Oscar ran from the sound of Lola’s and Beli’s screams in his recurrent dreams about the cane field beating]. It takes me a while before I notice that Oscar’s hands are seamless and the book’s pages are blank. And that behind his mask his eyes are smiling. Zafa. Sometimes, though, I look up at him and he has no face and I wake up screaming” (325). 

     Oscar’s hands are seamless because the story of his life is complete; it is now Yunior’s turn to write his story, create a zafa of his own, just as Oscar did while sacrificing his life to achieve union with Ybon. Patteson pointedly observes, “the man without a face . . . is closely associated with the frightening implications of blankness and erasure” (16), along with pitiless, impersonal death. Yunior’s narrative serves as a means for ensuring his own personal -- one might even argue, his spiritual -- survival, as well as for keeping the inspiring story of Oscar’s redemptive sacrifice alive, along with the tale of Abelard’s courage, Beli’s perseverance, and the love that endures between him and Lola through his connection to Isis: “Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell” (7).

     Whether or not Yunior changes in the end from the self-centered, self-serving hedonist he had previously been, Diaz tells Katherine Miranda, is “a very good question the reader has to decide . . . I can’t” (37), yet the text presents a strong case that just such a positive transformation does, in fact, occur, due in part to Yunior’s genuine remorse over losing Lola, but also because of the illumination he experiences from contemplating Oscar’s selfless example. Diaz contends that “in Oscar, Yunior sees something that Yunior’s never had. Oscar is a million things that are fucked up, but he’s one thing that is really quite beautiful, really quite luminous, and it’s that Oscar’s always Oscar. He has an authentic self, no matter how . . . fragmented . . . He’s always who he is. Yunior has only masks. . . . Oscar’s always vulnerable, he’s always revealing himself.”

     Diaz elaborates on this point further in his conversation with Joe Fassler: “Yunior has a fascination with Oscar because Oscar permits himself, despite the fact that he has no hope in succeeding, to be utterly vulnerable to the possibility of love. Oscar consistently thrusts himself, places himself, openly, in the hands of other people. In the hands of the women that he thinks he loves and who always reject him. Yunior is fascinated by this because he himself is never able to take off any of the armor, or any of the masks, that a person has to completely take off to expose themselves to the vulnerability of love.” By the conclusion of his narrative, Yunior appears to have learned the lesson that Oscar was trying to convey all along, as when Oscar asks Yunior why he persists in cheating on Lola, and counsels him: “Maybe you should try to find out” (313). Yunior seems to have begun to settle down, by the closing pages, to have finally dropped the multiple masks he always had to wear as a compulsive philanderer, and to open his heart at last to the possibility of an enduring, monogamous relationship with just one woman: “I have a wife I adore and who adores me” (327). In his new life, Yunior is also contributing to the community through teaching and coaching at a nearby community college. He has created a special place in his affections for Lola’s daughter Isis, as well, who he treats as if she were his own, and whom he evokes with the New Testament allusion, “Behold the girl,” the precious child who “Could have been my daughter if I’d been smart” (329).

     Daynali Flores-Rodriguez refers to the often cited footnote on page ninety-seven, where Diaz (or is it Yunior?) describes the relationship between dictators and writers: “Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators in my opinion just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.” Flores-Rodriquez at first seems to presume that this characterization is Yunior’s, concluding, “Yunior criticizes the self-ascribed importance that authors who write about dictatorships assign themselves, and instead poses both dictators and scribblers as competitors, based on the likeness of their objectives. They both want to shape the psyches of those around them.” She then points to the complexity of the novel’s characters as showing that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao rises above this manipulative tendency. Simultaneously, Flores-Rodriguez re-ascribes authorial agency to Junot Diaz, as if the writer and his narrator are, in fact, interchangeable, while arguing that Diaz’s novel likewise transcends the usual moral dichotomies associated with issues of social justice: “By embracing the contradictory nature of his characters, Junot Diaz effectively opens up a third space in the theorization of power in Caribbean literature; he goes beyond the traditional roles of oppressors and oppressed;” in so doing, Diaz “demands from . . . readers an effort to go beyond superficial interpretations of the Caribbean” (97).

     From Flores-Rodriguez’s perspective, binaries such as oppressor and oppressed must be regarded as superficial because the real life issues they raise are actually far too complicated: “Experiences of oppression are not meant to be justified or given ontological meaning (as certain dictator novels often attempt) but should be addressed and acknowledged to revoke their hold of Caribbean discourse. Reality will always be more complex than fiction” (104). Flores-Rodriguez presumes that just because, in response to frequently asked questions about the possible correlation between his writing and personal background, Junot Diaz casually refers to authors as people “who basically make their living off of lies,” therefore he must be “rejecting claims to any particular or unique understanding of the Dominican Republic or the Caribbean;” Flores-Rodriguez further contends that the issue of credibility in the novel “is not important because he [Diaz] is lying altogether” (100). This claim is rather astonishing, given Junot Diaz’s explicit comments elsewhere about his strong sense of personal commitment and ultimate purpose as a writer: “I haven’t abandoned the hope that books, as another piece of art, can transform a society or that they can help bring about or participate in a change within a society for better, for more social justice. . . . my work certainly falls within the tradition of writing that is concerned with issues of repression, of social justice, of tyranny,” which is to say, with issues of oppressors and the oppressed. “I always thought writing as truthfully as possible about a period of tyranny, a period of dictatorship, about people who have survived great repression . . . would help people be more human, and by extension of course, would help the cause of peace.”

     Lucia Suarez observes that “Dominican literature has traditionally ignored the violence and strife the country continues to experience. Instead it has focused on romantic, myth-making stories. This is substantiated by the position taken by authors like Julia Alvarez. . . . at a book tour presentation at Duke University in 1998, Alvarez flatly stated that she was not interested in reviewing violence through her work . . . Junot Diaz confronts violence . . . head-on. . . . it is at this pivotal moment of exposure that a new literary tradition is born” (7-8). Suarez argues that the literary works of this new tradition speak loudly and clearly to issues of social justice, of oppressors and the oppressed, and thus “highlight human hope and resilience . . . they fight for human rights and envision citizenship for all the people of the world” (9). Junot Diaz confirms his clear, resolute commitment to social justice in his conversation with Katherine Miranda, implicitly invoking the innate moral grammar that John Mikhail describes, and that supports the universal ethic that Kwame Anthony Appiah insists is essential for postcolonial studies; as Diaz puts it, in his characteristically emphatic, street-wise phrasing, “we’re worthy of all the things human beings should be worthy of: justice, and fuckin’ fairness and peace and well-being.”

     Daynali Flores-Rodriguez’s deconstruction of the binary opposition between oppressor and oppressed ignores the crucial empirical fact that an increasingly tiny and enormously wealthy minority of the world’s population now controls and exploits the vast majority of the planet’s resources, and that it is enabled in doing so solely by means of brutalizing national police forces, along with internationally domineering military machines. Nuclear weapons threatening instantaneous erasure of vast swaths of humanity remain poised to strike as the ultimate instrument of oligarchic terror. The obvious symbolic correlation between Mordor’s deadly winged ringwraiths and real life B-1 Stealth bombers, along with remotely controlled, silent drones, and thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles positioned on hair trigger alert, creates a pall of imminent doom that envelopes the entire globe. The ultra-wealthy classes appear ready to destroy Life itself in their insanely obsessive, compulsive greed for limitless riches. Humankind’s long cherished dream of achieving social justice and functional democracy seems to have crashed and burned, with masses of the world’s people now entrapped and repressed by a tyrannical plutocracy.

     Academic speculation about a “third space for theorization” with respect to historic as well as ongoing savage injustices disregards the desperate screams of the tortured, the hopeless wails of the underpaid wage-enslaved, the despairing cries of countless human beings needlessly dying of starvation and easily treatable illness. As Arif Dirlik has warned, the insidious danger underlying overemphasis on “Theory” lies in the fact that it appears to be “designed to avoid making sense of the current crisis” (353). Dirlik regards postcolonial theory that focuses exclusively on complexity and hybridity as seductively “appealing because it disguises the power relations that shape a seemingly shapeless world and contributes to a conceptualization of that world that both consolidates and subverts possibilities of resistance.   . . . simultaneous repudiation of structure and affirmation of the local in problems of oppression and liberation . . . have mystified the ways in which totalizing structures persist in the midst of apparent disintegration and fluidity. They have rendered into problems of subjectivity and epistemology concrete and material problems of the everyday world” (355-356). 

     Failing to account for lived human suffering is precisely David Hirsch’s objection with regard to the emergence of deconstruction in Europe following World War II; when categories of good and evil are reduced to matters of semantics, moral relativism is the inevitable result. If the distinction between oppressor and oppressed is obscured, it becomes impossible even to discuss, much less strive for social justice. When the European Holocaust cannot be held up for unambiguous scrutiny and moral judgment, then further and perhaps even worse holocausts are unavoidable. One of the profoundest tragedies unfolding in the contemporary world -- and one of the gravest current threats to world peace -- is the shameful treatment of Palestinians by the former victims of Nazi terror, as the latter persist in appealing to their own past trauma while continuing to inflict needless suffering on subaltern Others.

     Simon Gikandi relates how F.R. Leavis “created a grammar” that articulated “a generalized moral condition” for all peoples of the world, based on principles expressed in the great works of English literature. According to Gikandi, Leavis conceived of English language and English culture as being “integral to a certain moral vision,” one founded on values that are “uniform, inherent” in all human beings, and that remain “unaffected by local circumstances or histories” (627-628). It is reasonable to assume that these values would include widely recognized human virtues such as courage, compassion, kindness, generosity, and selfless sacrifice, which seem to be universal values that are shared equally across all cultures and historical periods. Leavis’s idea is compelling, except that he makes the crucial error of associating this universal moral code exclusively with one particular language and one individual culture, surely for purely chauvinistic reasons. Yet Leavis’s underlying, implicit idea of a universal moral grammar makes a great deal of sense, and corresponds well with the precepts articulated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s call for a universal ethic, and what John Mikhail and other researchers are currently discovering about the uniform, inborn moral intuitions that inform all human beings.

     Junot Diaz follows in the tradition of literary artists who articulate such universal values, and who dedicate their literary efforts, in various cultures and languages, to the cause of urging respect for basic human rights. As Diaz has maintained repeatedly in numerous interviews, literature can help people become more fully human, enhance awareness of our common humanity, and inspire a sense of enduring fellowship and solidarity. Literature can promote the highly desirable goals of global democracy, social justice, and world peace; one could well argue that these goals are not only desirable, their realization is essential for ensuring human survival. The shared human values and ethical principles implicit in these goals contains the essence of what Oscar means when he tells Lola she does not realize “all that is at stake,” as he willingly sacrifices his life for the sake of love, consciously following in the footsteps of the “the first intellectual who made the word become flesh” (39).

     Literary critics enjoy a unique privilege as intellectuals, working with language while analyzing and interpreting literature, which contains a timeless treasure trove of intuitive understanding and ineffable wisdom. Yet literary critics need to guard against self-exaltation, choosing abstract theorization at the expense of recognizing the responsibility that comes with their privilege -- the duty of furthering the human values that literature embodies and represents. Like Arif Dirlik, David Hirsch, Sandra Cox, and many others, Ngugi warns against a tendency in the contemporary academy to “shy away from engagement with words like freedom, liberation, social justice, peace, and nuclear disarmament and to retreat into modern scholasticism where splitting hairs about form takes precedence over content” (39). The preponderance of critical commentary on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to date, unfortunately, seems to reflect just such a tendency, insofar as many critics prefer to emphasize how the text supposedly “deconstructs” and “undermines” itself, leaving what Diaz describes as the “lessons of the novel” somehow ambiguous and uncertain. To the extent that there may be validity to such arguments on a strictly theoretical level, these issues might be interesting to consider, but such abstract speculation should not distract from close attention to the stirring claims about human rights and social justice, as well as the grave warnings about serious threats to continuing life on this planet, that Junot Diaz’s fiction urgently and obviously strives to convey.

Vincent Walsh was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946. He graduated from Fordham University in 1969, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship from 1969-1970. He earned his Masters in Education in 1987, in the midst of a career as a secondary school English teacher, a career that has included many years of teaching in the inner-city. Vincent taught graduate courses in the Education Department at DeSales University from 2005 – 2012; he entered the doctoral program in English at Lehigh University in 2006, and graduated from Lehigh with a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature in 2014. He is currently teaching English at New Britain High School in New Britain, CT, where he is conducting action research on incorporating the principles and practices of Restorative Discipline for the inner-city studentshe is currently teaching, while simultaneously aligning this disciplinary approach with the scholarly work of Eric Jensen.

The Creative Process of Junot Díaz

The Creative Process of Junot Díaz

Excerpts from Vincent Walsh's doctoral thesis on Junot Díaz. They have been edited for concision and clarity.

ABSTRACT

     Junot Diaz employs a variety of postmodernist literary strategies in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, such as conflating (and confusing) the role (and identity) of author and narrator, creating a parallel fictional (and semi-fictional) subtext in the form of numerous, often detailed footnotes, and incorporating a hybrid mixture of discourses throughout a self-referential, apparently self-undermining narrative. Yet by means of his persistent satirical tone, pervasive irony, occasional explicit commentary, and thematic inferences, Diaz simultaneously challenges the core tenets of postmodernist-poststructuralist theory. Diaz’s creative concerns interrogate the notion of constructed histories, reestablish distinctions within binaries, and defy the poststructuralist prohibition against grand narratives, while contesting the postmodernist tendency toward moral and cultural relativism. Diaz appears to be consciously inviting a poststructuralist reading, even as he simultaneously undermines any possibility for such a theoretical analysis ever succeeding in fully coming to terms with his work. In effect, Diaz redirects the lens of the postmodernist-poststructuralist perspective back on itself, questioning its basic assumptions. Diaz creates a unique, innovative literary language in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, borrowing tropes from Dominican folklore and popular superstition, mixing in idioms and memes from sci-fi, horror, fantasy, Japanese animes and North American movies, television serials, comic books, hip-hop, and urban diction, in order to tell a story that reawakens repressed memories of historical trauma, and enhances awareness of egregious contemporary injustice. Diaz focuses on the devastating trajectory of the imperialist enterprise in the Western hemisphere since 1492, highlighting the rapacious ideology that ruthlessly engenders this ongoing project of exploitation, domination, and oppression. In setting private aggrandizement above collective wellbeing, the imperial mentality causes incalculable, completely unnecessary suffering, beginning with genocide against the native population, and extending into the extreme social disparities of the neoliberal present; the predatory practices of this avaricious agenda have become so destructive that they now threaten the very survival of the human species. Ruthless greed is the curse that afflicts us; the only possible counter spell that can save us will be a courageous return to instinctive solidarity, with timely recourse to the healing power of human love.

 

INTRODUCTION

     Human beings have arrived at an unprecedented crossroads in our history where we face the prospect of imminent self-destruction, as unthinkable as such a grim outcome might be. . . . Given the unprecedented disruption, chaos, and potential catastrophe presently confronting us, it is no wonder that Junot Diaz resorts to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy for describing the current human predicament in his fiction. Given the unprecedented disruption, chaos, and potential catastrophe presently confronting us, it is no wonder that Junot Diaz resorts to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy for describing the current human predicament in his fiction.

     A severely skewed neoliberal economic system, euphemistically described as “globalization,” steadily enriches an increasingly tiny number of individuals, leaving less and less of the planet’s wealth to divide among the rest; hundreds of millions of human beings languish from starvation and severe malnutrition, with hundreds of millions more expiring from easily preventable diseases and the long term effects of degrading, debilitating poverty.  This lopsided economic system is an extension of predatory capitalist enterprises that gathered momentum with the onset of European imperialism and the steady expansion of colonialism. Rather than serving human needs and guaranteeing general prosperity, the neoliberal form of economic organization, like Moloch in ancient Babylon, devours the lower classes to feed the greed-frenzy of privileged ruling elites. The absolutist powers granted through judicial activism to the abstract legal entities that constitute transnational corporations transcend all governmental regulation as well as individual human agency; this self-consuming system finds apt metaphorical expression in the epilogue to Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus?” for the corporation, by definition, functions solely to enhance profits; human life is irrelevant to its impersonal concerns.

     As literary critics and intellectuals, it is crucial for us to recognize that our contemporary human dilemma involves first and foremost a crisis of ethics. While we applaud our progress as a species in casting off the binding shackles of prohibitive moral codes imposed by repressive religious doctrines and parochial social conventions, especially in the domain of our inherent sexual freedoms, we need to guard against sweeping moral relativism that considers all questions of ethics as matters only for subjective judgment and individual concern. It does not behoove us to replace restrictive moral codes with reductive cultural relativism, for such a move just leaves us dangling irresolutely between polarities of “our standards are superior to theirs,” and “anything goes.”

     We need to face honestly and resolutely the pressing question of whether there might actually be something fundamentally wrong with the fact that billions of human beings suffer from the hopeless misery of degrading poverty, while a select few amass unimaginable fortunes, treasures so vast they could never possibly spend their accumulated riches. We need to ask ourselves how we can justify the claim that our own lives have intrinsic value, while simultaneously implying that those of others do not, and that if other people fail to thrive, or even survive, it is somehow their own fault, or just a matter of inscrutable destiny. We need to ask ourselves how it is that today in Western intellectual culture we commemorate the slaughter of six million human beings during the European holocaust, yet continue to ignore the ongoing murder of six million people, and still counting, in the Congo. Do the black skins of these African victims make their existence somehow less valuable? How far have we progressed morally and culturally beyond the homicidal policies of Belgium’s King Leopold II?

     These are some of the core moral issues that Junot Diaz challenges people to confront when reading his fiction; he is writing into the silences created by urgent ethical questions that we prefer not to ask, yet that urgently call for adequate answers. For Diaz, it is neither honest nor responsible for us to blame the travesties of the Trujillo dictatorship on the evil nature of just one man; we need to examine the geopolitical system that still supports such despots in order to ensure endless wealth accumulation for self-elected, privileged elites. We should not just complacently accept conventional accounts of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World, without also evaluating the genocide that accompanied it, as well as the nightmare lives of hundreds of millions who still suffer from the legacy of that original slaughter today.

Diaz offers a particular, quite coherent and purposeful historical background for his novel -- regardless of prohibitions against “grand narratives” -- as well as a definite geopolitical context for his short stories that is firmly grounded in ethical principles that support social justice and human rights. . . . he portrays the arrival of Columbus in the New World as an unmitigated disaster for the native population. Contrary to the current critical consensus, Diaz expresses no ambivalence in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (although there surely is complexity and nuance) regarding the curse that was inflicted on comparatively innocent Native American communities by homicidal conquistadors driven insane with rapacious greed. Furthermore, Diaz makes it quite obvious that the fuku released by the Admiral, like an evil genie from a holy water bottle, traces an obvious trajectory down through the centuries to Trujillo and then on to Demon Balaguer. . . . The fuku can be considered a metaphor for predatory capitalism, with all its attendant evils, a pervasive malice that affects the daily lives of us all.

     Junot Diaz brings the suffering of the disenfranchised painfully alive in his poignant depictions of impoverished rural peasants and hard pressed factory workers in the Dominican Republic, along with struggling immigrants fighting to survive oppressive conditions in the United States. The exploitation of countless women driven by dire need into strip clubs and prostitution is yet another manifestation of the extreme social dysfunction and widespread tragedy that results from an economic system designed solely for the benefit of elites. Men’s chronic violence against women -- and also against each other -- along with the pervasive neglect and abuse of children, are just further consequences of the desperation and despair that follows from overwhelming stress due to incessant, frenzied competition. The entire human society, both in the Dominican Republic and the United States, is hierarchically structured, like the pecking order on a poultry farm, so that self-esteem and personal dignity end up the scarcest of commodities. The so-called law of the jungle that prevails everywhere takes on extreme forms of savagery that not even wild beasts would abide.

     Images of nuclear destruction in Diaz’s fiction portray apocalyptic living conditions, where hunger and violence join hands with a pandemic of drug addiction; the brutality of thugs in Caribbean cane fields mirrors bone breaking beat downs by New Jersey State Police. Half a millennium may separate Spanish conquistadors from contemporary Santo Domingo barrios and New Brunswick ghetto streets, but the general misery in each of these historical periods reveals comparable degrees of desolation, even if victims today remain mostly invisible, while facile sophism silences their screams. Junot Diaz combines the ineffable influence of literary language with the compelling eloquence of carefully crafted prose in a writing style that rocks like hip-hop and reads like poetry; his fiction arouses the sleeping conscience of humanity, awakens our better instincts and evokes our higher nature. Junot Diaz reminds us that we belong to one human family, and that, following the example of Oscar Wao, we can conjure a counter spell for the curse of greed and violence -- the healing magic of human love.

     

CHAPTER ONE

     Prevailing as the dominant economic and political discourse, neoliberal ideology privileges private profit and individual aggrandizement over collective wellbeing to an extreme that is historically unprecedented. While the global population multiplies, the world’s wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of an increasingly tiny plutocracy, to the extent that eighty percent of the human beings currently living on the planet are now considered simply extraneous to corporate concern. As a result, they are, in effect, cast to the wayside and left there to languish and gradually die. If these throwaway people serve no useful purpose for the only human activity that holds any value in life -- making money for elites -- they obviously have only themselves to blame.

     Literary expression that is informed by firm principles of moral understanding and passionate concern for social justice provides a uniquely compelling voice for articulating the necessary protest, since literature puts a recognizable human face on human agony; literature evokes empathy for the pain of flesh and blood bodies in place of the mind-numbing abstractions of impersonal statistics. Junot Diaz connects the notion of personal failure with the experience of socio-economic dysfunction and degradation in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao when Yunior refers to “unheated . . . tenements” teeming with “children whose self-hatred short-circuited their minds” (160), victimized by self-debasement that is rooted in a form of institutional racism that correlates “white supremacy and people-of-color self-hate” (264) in the contemporary capitalist caste system. Inner-city New Jersey street corners in Drown feature crowds of angry adolescents whose young lives are crippled by addiction to gambling, alcohol, and drugs, the tragic outcome of chronic deprivation, random violence, and pervasive despair. Constantly on the alert for police cruisers, and simultaneously wary of vengeful losers at dice, teenagers entertain each other with mutual derision and scapegoating abuse in vain attempts at transcending their hopelessly bleak existence: “We’re all under the big streetlamps, everyone’s the color of day-old piss. When I’m fifty this is how I’ll remember my friends: tired and yellow and drunk” (“Aurora” 57). 

     The narrator deals drugs to “older folks who haven’t had a job or a haircut since the last census. I have friends in Perth Amboy and New Brunswick who tell me they deal to whole families, from the grandparents down to the fourth-graders” (51). In the meantime, he watches helplessly as the girl he loves succumbs to crack-addled self-destruction: “I know about the nonsense that goes on in these houses, the ass that gets sold, the beasting” (62). Only a fortunate few ever succeed in breaking out of the deadly prison of the ghetto, desperately aggressive inmates like Beto in the title story, who “hated everything about the neighborhood, the break-apart buildings, the little strips of grass, the piles of garbage around the cans, and the dump, especially the dump” (91). Hapless human beings trapped in this environment freeze during frigid winters; in the torrid summertime, the heat in the buildings where they live is “like something heavy that had come inside to die” (92). The narrator in “Boyfriend” recalls nights he spent lying in bed beside his former girlfriend, Loretta, before she left him for an Italian who works on Wall Street: “We’d lay there and listen to the world outside, to the loud boys, the cars, the pigeons. Back then I didn’t have a clue what she was thinking, but now I know what to pencil into all them thought bubbles. Escape. Escape” (113). In “Miss Lora,” Yunior’s girlfriend Paloma “lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four younger siblings and a disabled mom and she was taking care of all of them. . . . Paloma was convinced that if she made any mistakes at all, she would be stuck in that family of hers forever” (151). These and similar passages pervading Diaz’s texts resonate with desperate anger at the blatant injustice of oppressive socio-economic circumstances, which offer scant opportunity for achieving any decent quality of life.

     Junot Diaz articulates a profound ethical understanding throughout his writing. Referring to Oscar’s vacation during the annual seasonal return, Diaz-Yunior evokes compassion for the outcasts, for the dregs of society when “Santo Domingo slaps the Diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can,” advising us that “it’s one big party; one big party for everybody but the poor, the dark, the jobless, the sick, the Haitian, their children, the bateys, the kids that certain Canadian, American, German, and Italian tourists love to rape- - yes, sir, nothing like a Santo Domingo summer” (272-273). The sardonic tone reinforces the dark humor that makes the bleakness of wretched lives somehow more bearable to contemplate. This same tone of bitter scorn reduces the otherwise terrifying figure of Trujillo to farce by means of the mocking characterizations “Fuckface” and “Failed Cattle Thief” (footnote #1, p. 2), and disparages the tyrant’s dreadedassociates as fantasy-figure “witchkings” (121). Mild sarcasm colors the poignant description of Olga’s pathetic reaction to Oscar’s “cold-as-balls” rejection in the playground, preventing the sad scene from descending to bathos; this shabby little girl already suffers from daily humiliation at school due to her extreme poverty and poor hygiene: “and how Olga had cried! Shaking like a rag in her hand-me-downs and in the shoes that were four sizes too big! Snots pouring out her nose and everything!” (15). Despite the derisive tone, the reader cannot help feeling pity contemplating this small child’s public mortification and painful shame.

     An implied belief in common humanity also resonates through Yunior’s second-person appeal to the reader’s empathy for the savage injustice inflicted on Abelard: “A thousand tales I could tell you about Abelard’s imprisonment -- a thousand tales to wring the salt from your motherfucking eyes -- but I’m going to spare you the anguish, the torture, the loneliness, and the sickness of those fourteen wasted years and leave you with only the consequences (and you should wonder, rightly, if I’ve spared you anything).” These and numerous similar passages evoke intuitive sympathy for the suffering of a fellow human being, a sense of solidarity that arises spontaneously among Abelard’s equally miserable companions: “The other prisoners, out of respect, continued to call him El Doctor” (250-251).

     Manifestations of intense affection and longing for intimate connection appear throughout the short stories. While the narrator watches bitterly as Aurora heads back into the bedlam of the crack house, he reflects on how their relationship might be quite different in less discouraging life circumstances:  “I’m thinking how easy it would be for her to turn around and say, Hey, let’s go home. I’d put my arm around her and wouldn’t let her go for like fifty years, maybe not ever” (61). Even though her addiction and despair apparently win out in the end, Aurora seems to share a similar dream during clear minded hours while she’s locked up in prison: “I made up this whole new life in there. You should have seen it. The two of us had kids, a big blue house, hobbies, the whole fucking thing” (65). 

    Human beings display a natural inclination toward kindness and mutual cooperation and support. In “Negocios,” the cab driver who conveys Papi to a hotel after he arrives in Miami gives him friendly advice and a guided tour through the city almost free of charge: “Whatever you save on me will help you later. I hope you do well” (168). Papi is treated with kindness by Jo-Jo, as well, who “saw in Papi another brother, a man from a luckless past needing a little direction” (190), and who offers to help him get started with his own modest business. After her ex-boyfriend Max dies in Santo Domingo, Lola gives Max Sanchez’s mother the two thousand dollars she had obtained by selling her body; even though he is still only a casual acquaintance, Lola nurses Yunior after he is badly beaten on a street corner in New Brunswick: “Lola, who actually cried when she saw the state I was in . . . took care of my sorry ass. Cooked, cleaned, picked up my classwork, got me medicine, even made sure that I showered” (168). As a teacher in Don Bosco, Oscar, who had experienced the daily humiliation dished out in the “moronic inferno” (19) of the hallways there as a student, tries “to reach out to the school’s whipping boys, offer them some words of comfort, You are not alone, you know, in this universe” (264-265).

     The entire Palacio Peking staff -- Juan and Jose Then, Constantina, Marco Antonio, and Indian Benny (a thoroughly international, creole crew) -- rush to Beli’s rescue when they see her being manhandled by La Fea’s thugs, despite obvious risk to themselves. When one of the henchmen warns Jose, “Listen, chino, you don’t know what you’re doing” (142), Jose, “his wife and children dead by warlord in the thirties” (106), stonily replies, “This chino knows exactly what he’s doing,” as he pulls back the hammer on his pistol:  “His face was a dead rictus, and in it shone everything he had lost” (142). Clives, the taxi driver, risks his life trying to intervene when the capitan’s thugs begin beating Oscar in the backseat of his cab: “Clives begged the men to spare Oscar, but they laughed. You should be worrying . . . about yourself” (320); they leave Clives tied up inside while they drag Oscar to his death, but he frees himself and bravely follows them into the cane field, where he recovers Oscar’s lifeless body.

     Socorro and Abelard’s families abjure and reject Beli after Socorro’s suicide because of her “kongoblack, shangoblack, kaliblack, zapoteblack, rekhablack” skin -- “That’s the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child’s complexion as an ill omen” (248), Diaz-Yunior wryly observes -- but the infant is rescued by “a kindly darkskinned woman named Zoila [from the Greek word for life] who gave her some of her own baby’s breastmilk and held her for hours a day” (252). Readers’ natural empathy is aroused once again when they learn that, sadly, the “tiniest little negrita on the planet” (253) is soon torn from Zoila’s arms by Socorro’s greedy relatives and sold as a child slave. In the footnote on the same page, Diaz/Yunior describes the plight of a seven year-old criada he knew in Santo Domingo who was forced to do all the cooking, cleaning, and fetching water for a family while simultaneously caring for two infants. “La probecita” became impregnated by a family member at fifteen, and her son was subsequently forced to work as a slave for the family as well. Since this footnote self-refers to “Mr. Community Activist” -- a role that Junot Diaz conspicuously fills in everyday life -- it is quite likely that it is not Yunior but Junot Diaz who is speaking here, and that Sobeila’s story is not fiction but fact. This instance may also suggest that Junot Diaz is the authorial voice in other footnotes, as well -- maybe even all of them; regardless, the reference obviously compounds the often impossibly complex task of distinguishing between the voice of author and narrator throughout the text. 

     The selling of children due to dire circumstances created by extreme poverty receives poignant mention in “The Pura Principle,” as well. Pura reveals that “for an undisclosed sum her mother had married her off at thirteen to a stingy fifty-year-old,” and that she had run away from a tia in Newark “who wanted her to take care of her retarded son and bedridden husband . . . because she hadn’t come to Nueba Yol to be a slave to anyone, not anymore” (101). Mami commiserates with her friends over “how often that happened in the campo, how Mami herself had had to fight to keep her own crazy mother from trading her for a pair of goats” (102). 

     Struggle for survival in an economic system that offers few decent employment opportunities for young women provides the background for the thriving prostitution business that serves as such a rich source of income for the Gangster, La Fea, and other members of the Trujillato. The Gangster, we learn, served as a specialist in violence for the regime, while he also “dabbled in forgery, theft, extortion, and money laundering;” yet “where our man truly excelled, where he smashed records and grabbed gold, was in the flesh trade. Then, like now, Santo Domingo was to popola what Switzerland was to chocolate. And there was something about the binding, selling, and degradation of women that brought out the best in the Gangster; he had an instinct for it, a talent. . . . under his draconian administration the so-called bang-for-the-buck ratio of Dominican sexworkers trebled” (120-121). Neoliberal policies ensure ever increasing profits for the business of selling women and children’s bodies right into the present. These same economic circumstances play a significant role in producing the criminals who facilitate such exploitation. Like his boss Trujillo, the Gangster grows up in severely deprived living conditions, which inspire his ruthless determination to survive by whatever means necessary: “folks always underestimate what the promise of a lifetime of starvation, powerlessness, and humiliation can provoke in a young person’s character” (119).

       Trujillo may have appeared as a uniquely brazen and flamboyant tyrant on the world scene, but he represents just one among numerous Latin American dictators who have facilitated and enforced the imperial-corporate fuku. One can only wonder what exactly Frederic Jameson has in mind when he opines, “The dictator novel has become a genre of Latin American literature, and such works are marked above all by a profound and uneasy ambivalence, a deeper ultimate sympathy for the Dictator, which can perhaps only be explained by some enlarged social variant of the Freudian mechanism of transference” (81-82). Novels such as Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, and Augusto Roa Bastos’ I The Supreme elicit utter revulsion at the extreme decadence and complete moral decay of the tyrant. Gabriel Marcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch evokes mocking derision for a bestial despot; Miguel Asturias’ The President arouses horror, along with dread for the dictator’s devastated victims. In none of these well-known works, much less Junot Diaz’s contemptuous caricature of Trujillo in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, does one encounter any sense of “ambivalence” or “deeper ultimate sympathy” for the monster who degrades and destroys his fellow human beings, and who rules solely through torture, terror, and violence.

     Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate instrument of terror available to the dictator, the terminal stage of the deadly force that has always been employed to facilitate ruthless exploitation and guarantee elitist privilege. In the present lethal stage of transnational corporate capitalism, the United States retains the right “to resort to force to eliminate any perceived challenge to U.S. global hegemony” (3), including “the right to first use of nuclear weapons . . . even against non-nuclear powers” (218). The deployment of nuclear and laser weapons on platforms in outer space “subjects every part of the globe to the risk of instantaneous destruction” (11). Given such facts, it is no wonder that Oscar poses the rhetorical question: “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo?” (6). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is replete with allusions to nuclear holocaust, beginning with Oscar’s reference to Santo Domingo as “Ground Zero for the New World” on the opening page. The scar from the savage burns inflicted on Beli by the father of the family that buys her as a child-slave resembles the disfigurement of a Hiroshima survivor: “A monsterglove of festering ruination extending from the back of her neck to the base of her spine. A bomb crater, a world-scar like those of a hibakusha” (257). 

     Diaz employs nuclear and science fiction imagery to depict the extreme poverty in the rural area of the Dominican Republic where Beli spent her early years, as well: “Outer Azua . . . resembled . . . irradiated terrains from . . . end-of-the-world scenarios . . . the residents could have passed for survivors of some not-so-distant holocaust. . . . these precincts were full of smoke, inbreeding, intestinal worms, twelve-year-old brides, and full-on whippings” (footnote #32, p. 256). The added observation that families in Outer Azua “were Glasgow-ghetto huge because . . . there was nothing to do after dark and because infant mortality rates were so extreme and calamities so vast you needed a serious supply of reinforcements if you expected your line to continue” (footnote #32, p. 256), conveys the inescapable impression that Third World devastation exists on a comparable level in the First World as well under the current transnational corporate regime. 

     Diaz envisions an “end-of-the-world” that is, ominously, “not-so-distant.” He is quite explicit about this prospect in his essay on the 2010 earthquake: “I cannot contemplate the apocalypse of Haiti without the question: where is this all leading? . . . The answer seems both obvious and chilling. I suspect that once we have finished ransacking our planet’s resources, once we have pushed a couple of thousand more species into extinction and exhausted the water table and poisoned everything in sight and exacerbated the atmospheric warming that will finish off the icecaps and drown out our coastlines, once our market operations have parsed the world into the extremes of ultra-rich and not-quite-dead, once the famished billions that our economic systems left behind have in their insatiable hunger finished stripping the biosphere clean, what we will be left with will be a stricken, forlorn desolation, a future out of a sci-fi fever dream where the super-rich will live in walled-up plantations of impossible privilege and the rest of us will wallow in unimaginable extremity, staggering around the waste and being picked off by the hundreds of thousands by ‘natural disasters’ -- by ‘acts of god’ ” (6). Diaz’s places the word natural in quotations because he regards humanity as actually being threatened by social disasters, man-made calamities that are the predictable consequences of out-of-control elitist greed.

     Yet even the super-rich will find themselves hard-pressed to find safe haven in the case of nuclear Armageddon, which poses a more serious and immediate threat than ever to human survival today, given intensifying international competition. Nuclear conflagration, as Arundhati Roy has pointed out so tellingly, defies the human capacity for comprehension: “If only, if only nuclear war was just another kind of war. . . . But it isn’t. If there is nuclear war, our foes will not be . . . each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness. There will be no day -- only interminable night. What shall we do then, those of us who are still alive? Burned and blind and bald and ill, carrying the cancerous carcasses of our children in our arms, where shall we go? What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we breathe?” (4).

     Diaz connects the Fall of the House of Abelard with the threat of nuclear annihilation. During their final night together before his arrest, Abelard reminds Lydia of the intrinsic value and incomparable beauty of their shared humanity when she despairs, “We’re clocks . . .  Nothing more,” by reassuring her gently, “We’re more than that. We’re marvels, mi amor” (326). Abelard’s expression here mirrors the magistrate’s appeal on behalf of the captive barbarians: “We are the great miracle of creation!” Yet Diaz/Yunior interjects immediately, “I wish I could stay in this moment . . . but it’s impossible. The next week two atomic eyes opened over civilian centers in Japan and . . . the world was remade. Not two days after the atomic bombs scarred Japan forever, Socorro dreamed of the faceless man” (236-237). The faceless man appears numerous times throughout the text; this image obviously refers to death, but it can also be understood to represent utter disregard for the dictates of conscience, willful blindness to the crucial difference between right and wrong.

     It is clear that the fuku that afflicts the New World stems from the greed and violence that was introduced into the Western hemisphere with the arrival of Columbus; the contrasting epigraphs in Oscar Wao set the tone, and establish the framework for all that is at stake in the ensuing narrative. The chilling disclaimer from Fantastic Four, “Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus?” corresponds with contemporary neoliberal dogma that designates the tragic consequences of unscrupulous avarice as mere “externalities,” for which business leaders and political elites assume no moral responsibility. Since the individual members of any given corporate entity are entirely replaceable, the corporation can be regarded as an indifferent monster, a superhuman being, like Galactus. According to prevailing economic theology, a corporation’s sole mandate is to maximize profits for shareholders by means of relentless growth and ever-widening expansion; human suffering is completely irrelevant to the pursuit of limitless riches. 

     Juxtaposed against this heartless corporate machine stands globalized humanity, the extended human family, “creolized,” in effect, through the intermixing of peoples and cultures, calling out for recognition of its innate rights through the poetic appeal of Derek Walcott’s Shabine: “Christ have mercy on all living things! / . . . out of corruption my soul takes wings . . . / I . . . saw / when these slums of empire was a paradise / I had a sound colonial education / . . . and either I’m a nobody, or I’m a nation.” The word “nation” can be interpreted here, not in terms of its usual association with a limited, particularized political-cultural community comprising an individual nation-state, but rather according to the sense of its Latin root -- that which has been born -- which would infer instead the emergence of collective consciousness, awareness of humanity’s collective existence as members of a single biological family, whose common home is planet Earth, asserting the priority of communal wellbeing over private aggrandizement and individual greed. 

     Writing back to empire necessarily entails interrogating the capitalist economic model; it seems evident, when one looks back over the past half-millennium of predatory expropriation and exploitation practiced so relentlessly by a self-privileged minority, that the principal source of injustice in human societies has been the prevailing discourse that rationalizes and justifies unconstrained avarice. In his essay on the earthquake in Haiti, Diaz describes the current global economic system as a “rapacious stage of capitalism. A cannibal stage where, in order to power the explosion of the super-rich and the ultra-rich, the middle classes are being forced to fail, working classes are being re-proletarianized, and the poorest are being pushed beyond the grim limits of subsistence, into a kind of sepulchral half-life” (6).  

     Capitalist ideology and practice has always been rapacious as well as cannibalistic, by its very nature; it has simply reached an especially destructive stage in its neoliberal form -- a stage that is likely to prove terminal. The contemporary neoliberal paradigm persists in placing corporate profits above people, remaining indifferent to looming environmental catastrophe, insisting on relentless expansionism that keeps pushing humanity to the brink of self-annihilation. Unless alternative forms of viable economic organization can be realized, paradigms that ensure social justice, support functioning democracy, and guarantee human rights, unprecedented disaster threatens. The current, all too real threat to the very survival of the human species makes the horrors of the European holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s seem like a mere rehearsal for ultimate calamity. In Diaz’s terms, such alternative economic models would create the healing zafa necessary to dispel the deadly fuku of transnational corporate capitalism that currently threatens imminent collective doom.

 

Vincent Walsh was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946. He graduated from Fordham University in 1969, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship from 1969-1970. He earned his Masters in Education in 1987, in the midst of a career as a secondary school English teacher, a career that has included many years of teaching in the inner-city. Vincent taught graduate courses in the Education Department at DeSales University from 2005 – 2012; he entered the doctoral program in English at Lehigh University in 2006, and graduated from Lehigh with a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature in 2014. He is currently teaching English at New Britain High School in New Britain, CT, where he is conducting action research on incorporating the principles and practices of Restorative Discipline for the inner-city studentshe is currently teaching, while simultaneously aligning this disciplinary approach with the scholarly work of Eric Jensen.

Junot Díaz and Poststructuralism-Postmodernism

Junot Díaz and Poststructuralism-Postmodernism

     Even as Junot Diaz freely employs postmodern literary strategies, such as writing himself into the text and thereby radically blurring the distinction between author and narrator, he implicitly challenges the core tenet and grounding premise of poststructuralist theory, epitomized in Derrida’s claim that all language statements are indeterminable because language is socially constructed and words are “infinitely iterable.” Alex Thomson explains Derrida’s concept of iterability this way: “the ideality of written and verbal signs . . . allows them to be repeated, used, and understood in new contexts, to mean things quite different from what was originally ‘intended’ by them.” Thus, there is no “single, fixed, definite meaning which stands behind and apart from all its [a particular word’s] uses; ‘deconstruction’ is one of a potentially infinite series of uses of the same word, in different contexts, to communicate different meanings.”

     In “Signature Event Contest,” Derrida argues that there can never be any clear communication of discernible meaning in spoken or written language because there is no direct, necessary correlation between the intent of the speaker or writer and the way his words are interpreted and understood by his listeners or readers. Since language, in Derrida’s view, is entirely socially constructed, linguistic expressions are inevitably subject to varying personal interpretations. Derrida also insists that individual words each contain within themselves their own opposite denotations, and that therefore words “iterate” constantly, taking on various shades of meaning and nuance that are potentially infinite in scope. Furthermore, since writing persists over time in the text, written statements exist independently of both author and reader, and thus automatically and continuously “deconstruct” their stated meanings, due to the slippery nature of language itself.

     Moreover, according to poststructuralist theory, reality itself must be regarded as subjectively and semantically constructed; Alex Thomson puts it this way: “If writing is iterable, so is ‘reality’: if there is nothing beyond textuality, it is not merely because our understanding of the word becomes heavily mediated through cultural assumptions . . . but because in its very structure, an ‘event’ is like a word, a text. Events are ‘iterable’: they can be cited, discussed, and examined in new contexts” (305). The idea that events are textual suggests that reality itself is constructed by language, a notion that approaches metaphysical subjectivism (as well as subjective idealism), as familiarly articulated in the popular expression “perception is reality.” This is tantamount to asserting that reality can only be what the individual person claims it to be, since language actually establishes, rather than merely represents the world around us.

      Because iterable word meanings (as well as iterable events) become complicated and obscured by intention and interpretation, as well as altered by social and historical context, the import of semantic significance necessarily varies from person to person, which implies that linguistic expressions can ultimately be said to mean only what any given individual says they mean. If interpretation and understanding remain ultimately undecidable due to individual variance, then articulating any general consensus regarding events, as well as arriving at agreement on moral standards for evaluating them, becomes impossible, since human perceptions are inherently relative. All we can examine or evaluate is the concrete, particular expression, text, situation, or occurrence; there is no possibility of formulating broadly encompassing narratives or postulating universal ethical principles that support basic human rights, since semantic meaning (and thus reality itself) varies from person to person, culture to culture, and context to context.

     Of course, individual literary critics express their own various perspectives and personal points of view regarding texts, events, and ethics; poststructuralism represents a general tendency in contemporary thinking and analysis, not a rigidly organized doctrinal system. Yet the overall emphasis that poststructuralist theory places on the inevitable deconstruction of intended meanings, so that any given statement or text is seen as automatically and necessarily undermining itself, leads not only to an intellectual ethos of implicit moral and cultural relativism, but also to a pervasive skepticism regarding encompassing statements about reality   -- a tendency that has become especially problematic with regard to poststructuralist claims about the constructed nature of history, and the supposed collapse of distinction between center and periphery.

     The associated problems of deconstruction and moral relativism are of particular concern when it comes to interpreting and understanding Junot Diaz’s fiction, because for all his respect for the play and plasticity of language, and reliance on postmodern literary strategies, Diaz boldly challenges readers to confront and account for the moral outrages of unprecedented genocide and brutal human bondage at the core of Western history, as well as the extreme economic inequality and worsening deprivation and misery that pervades the neoliberal present. Diaz also forces us to confront the grim prospect of possible species suicide that is being insidiously perpetrated by transnational corporate capitalism’s cannibalistic avarice. Despite these pressing concerns and disturbing themes, most of the critical discussion of Diaz’s work to date -- due to the pervasive influence of poststructuralist theory -- remains focused on how his texts supposedly deconstruct and undermine their apparent meaning.

     Poststructuralist theory has produced significant benefits for human understanding, proponents argue, in that deconstruction has provided a useful tool for challenging what Lyotard refers to as “grand narratives;” one would think this might be especially applicable to narratives promoted as justifications for European conquest, colonization, and imperial exploitation of the globe. Thus, as a result of the deconstruction of dominant First World discourse, we would no longer accept claims of white racial superiority, for example, nor automatically subscribe to devious notions such as the self-proclaimed, self-justifying “civilizing mission” of the colonial-imperial project. Imperial discourse would thus be subjected to compelling interrogation from multiple perspectives and widely varying voices. 

     Yet the poststructuralist proposition that there can be no general truth statements, or “grand narratives,” challenges the legitimacy of counter narratives as well -- such as those proposed by Diaz -- and thus, ironically, undermines or “deconstructs” itself, since this sweeping prohibition asserts a universal truth claim even as it denies the validity of any and all universal truth claims. David Hirsch describes the difficulty with the poststructuralist position as a “plethora of contradictions: for example, there is no absolute truth, except the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth; consciousness . . . is historically determined, but . . . there is no subject; the subject . . . does not exist, but the deconstructionists . . . speak and act as if they were individual subjects; [they] are opposed to all forms of authority . . . except that they claim authority for their own writings.”

     According to Chris Snipp-Walmsley, the conflation of postmodernist and poststructuralist theory results in a world view wherein “a wholesale relativism . . . has infringed upon all areas of knowledge and interest, leading to a wholesale skepticism about truth, ethics, value, and responsibility.” Poststructuralism “advocates the dissolution of the grand narratives and is, in itself, the grand narrative of the end of grand narratives. . . . it is the cultural logic of late capitalism; it is the loss of the real” (405-06). The human individual is stripped of all agency, for she is “culturally determined and created by the various discourses of power and language games that flow through and from her” (408). As a result, the “tragic becomes farcical, because the search for, and belief in, Truth has been discarded” (410).  As the “logic of late capitalism,” poststructuralist theory, intentionally or not, thus serves as a convenient form of contemporary ideological justification for the ongoing, exacerbating exploitation engineered by the imperial project that dates back half a millennium.

     Poststructuralist skepticism, according to Snipp-Walmsley, derives from Derrida’s insistence on the indeterminacy of all language statements: “Derrida argued . . . that no sign or system of signs is ever stable; meaning is always deferred, and any system or explanation is always undone by the elements it contains but needs to suppress. These aporias, or self-contradictory impasses, effectively deconstruct any authoritative claim or explanation. Reality is not only constructed through language; it is . . . always already textual. There is no way of escaping the endless chain of reference. There is no outside vantage-point or transcendental position which would allow any effective or lasting guarantee. . . . Truth is always contingent. . . . Ethics, values, and truths are always relative” (411).

            Catherine Belsey attempts to defend deconstruction from the charge of moral relativism; Belsey contends that Derrida’s key insight, supposedly based on Saussure’s structuralism, is that “language is not ours to possess, but always pre-exists us and comes from the outside . . . ideas . . . are language’s effect rather than its cause [therefore] there is no final answer to the question of what any particular example of language in action ultimately means.” Nevertheless, Belsey assures us, “That does not imply . . . that it can mean whatever we like . . . a specific instance of signifying practice can mean whatever the shared and public possibilities of those signifiers in that order will permit.” In Belsey’s view, we are not dealing with moral relativism -- although this is far from obvious -- so much as cultural relativism. 

     One cannot hope to arrive at the universal ethic that Kwame Anthony Appiah appeals for if it is impossible to talk about universals at all. Christopher Butler notes that for poststructuralists, all propositions consist of mutually contradictory binaries, which can be resolved because “they depend on one another for their definition.” According to this assumption, “binaries can be undone or reversed, often to paradoxical effect, so that truth is ‘really’ a kind of fiction, reading is always a form of misreading, and, most fundamentally, understanding is always a form of misunderstanding, because it is never direct, is always a form of partial interpretation.” The key assertion of poststructuralists, that language pre-exists and thus constructs the subject, thus necessarily leads to both epistemic and moral relativism, because “the world, its social systems, human identity even, are not givens, somehow guaranteed by a language which corresponds to reality, but are constructed by us in language, in ways that can never be justified by the claim that this is the way things ‘really’ are. We live, not inside reality, but inside our representations of it.” [Butler’s emphasis].

     This means, Catherine Belsey asserts, that there can be no discussion of universal principles with respect to social justice or human rights: “Deconstruction . . . pushes meaning toward undecidability, and in the process democratizes language. Binary oppositions do not hold, but can always be undone. The trace of otherness in the selfsame lays all oppositions open to deconstruction, leaving no pure or absolute concepts that can be taken as foundational. Meanings . . . human rights, for example, are not individual, personal, or subjective, since they emanate from language. . . . they are not given in nature or guaranteed by any existing authority.” It is interesting that Belsey seems to feel a need to front-load her claims rhetorically (“pure,” “absolute”); further, her insistence that binaries “can always be undone” expresses a sweeping, totalizing assumption. It also seems ironic that anyone would assert that deconstruction “democratizes language,” since the effect of the “undecidability” it imposes, along with its emphasis on cultural relativism, effectively disables democratic conversation about social justice and human rights. It turns out that, from a scientific perspective, it may well be that human rights actually are, in fact, “given in nature,” as suggested by John Mikhail and the current research on the Universal Moral Grammar.

     With a sense of wry humor conveyed with gravity as well as playfulness, Junot Diaz poses an explicit challenge to poststructuralist moral relativism in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior describes the police capitan who orders Oscar’s murder as “one of those very bad men that not even postmodernism can explain away. . . . Like my father, he supported the U.S. Invaders, and because he was methodical and showed absolutely no mercy to the leftists, he was launched -- no, vaulted -- into the top ranks of the military police. Was very busy under Demon Balaguer. Shooting at sindaticos from the backseat of cars. Burning down organizers’ homes. Smashing in people’s faces with crowbars.” The irony and sarcasm of the style does not relieve the moral revulsion that instinctively arises at the revelation of how this sadist “played mazel-tov on a fifteen-year-old boy’s throat with his Florscheim (another Communist troublemaker, good riddance)” (294-295), but instead reinforces the cruelty of both the agent and the political agenda that he represents. Elsewhere in the text, Diaz makes a similar sarcastic observation, though in a tone that merely makes fun of moral relativism, belittling the notion with playful disdain; as a result of the rigors of La Inca’s intensive prayer marathon, “one woman even lost the ability to determine right from wrong and a few years later became one of Balaguer’s chief deputies” (145).

     Diaz challenges poststructuralist assumptions that make it impossible to question the ruthless brutality of sadists like the capitan, or the criminality of political bosses like Balaguer, who rely on the violence of hired thugs to maintain power. Poststructuralist ambivalence regarding morality ends up undermining any possibility for the type of ethical dialogue that could foster collective action leading to progressive change. This issue emerges toward the end of the legendary Chomsky-Foucault debate in the Netherlands in 1971, when Foucault insists that challenging the dominant discourse inevitably proves to be an futile project, because one must borrow the terms of that same dominant discourse in order to critique it: “these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it might may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should -- and shall in principle -- overthrow the very fundaments of our society.” 

     Derrida would go much farther than this, for he maintains that because words always contain what Belsey describes as “traces of the selfsame in the other,” any terms or concepts one formulates in arguing for social justice inevitably deconstruct or undermine themselves, leading to a muddled state of ethical ambiguity.  Whose version of social justice? Whose notion of human rights? All of these subject/cultural positions are socially constructed by what Lacan refers to as the “big Other,” by language that exists independent and outside of the individual (or in Lacan’s terms, in the unconscious part of the split self from which every individual is inherently alienated); all universal principles regarding social justice and human rights and are therefore inevitably suspect. 

     The paradoxical result, as Christopher Butler describes it, is a form of postmodernist-poststructuralist skepticism that indirectly supports the very authoritarianism that it purports to subvert: “Postmodernists . . . seem to call for an irreducible pluralism, cut off from any unifying frameworks of belief that might lead to common political action, and are perpetually suspicious of domination by others. In this, they have turned against those Enlightenment ideals that underlie the legal structures of most Western democratic societies, and that aimed at universalizable ideals of equality and justice. Indeed, postmodernists tend to argue that Enlightenment reason, which claimed to extend its moral ideals to all in liberty, equality, and fraternity, was ‘really’ a system of repressive, Foucauldian control, and that Reason itself, particularly in its alliance with science and technology, is incipiently totalitarian.” The unfortunate result, especially with regard to concerns about social justice and human rights, is hardly fortuitous: “For many, the postmodernist position is a disabling one -- postmodernists are just epistemological relativists, with no firm general position available to them, and so, however radical they may seem as critics, they lack a settled external viewpoint, and this means that so far as real-life ongoing politics is concerned, they are passively conservative in effect.”

    David Hirsch criticizes poststructuralists for failing to account adequately even for the moral outrage of the European Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s; given Derrida’s position that ethical principles and truth statements must be relative because meaning can never be fixed or determined, but instead always remains subject to reinterpretation and reevaluation, universal agreement in evaluating and judging the morality of Nazi practices can never be achieved: “One of the unfortunate, but perhaps not unintended, consequences of deconstructionist nihilism is the imposition of the dogma that all human acts must remain morally undifferentiated, since differance exists only in the language system, only as differences in sounds and concepts, in signifiers and signifieds, so that the only difference between a collaborator and a resister is a difference in sound images” (130). 

     According to Hirsch, the exclusive poststructuralist focus on the nature of language, as well as ontology and epistemology, makes attempts at drawing meaningful ethical conclusions from literary work utterly ineffective as well as totally irrelevant: “The inability of European postmodernist literary theorists . . . to face the implications of the recent cultural past of Nazism and of the genocide committed on, and in the full view of, the European continent, has rendered contemporary criticism incapable of dealing with the human dimension of literature. In its concentration on the ontological status of fictions and on the epistemic status of literature and of literary criticism itself, contemporary literary theory manages to enact a perpetual deferral of human reality” (115-116).

     Sandra Cox raises similar concerns regarding the potentially disabling effects of poststructuralist criticism. Cox argues that both Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Edgewick Danticat’s The Farming of the Bones evoke instinctive outrage as well as moral condemnation in response to the horrendous crimes of the Trujillo dictatorship: “the texts serve a forensic function; they revise an incomplete historical narrative,” by including the perspective of the dictator’s victims. These novels correct “a selectively constructed historical record by writing into the silences of the official history. . . . By giving voice, even through fiction, to those who witnessed, suffered through and survived the Trujillato, Danticat and Diaz contribute to a counter-narrative that refutes the official history from which those voices have been expunged.” In so doing, “they apply . . . narrative pressure in an effort to suggest the making of a value judgment” on the part of readers, a judgment presumably based on an innate sense of justice that is genetically grounded in the universal moral grammar that all human beings share (110-111). 

     In an intellectual atmosphere dominated by moral relativism and ontological skepticism, however, the ethical force of the literary testimony that Cox describes becomes all too easily obscured, especially when individual authors are denied personal agency in employing language to convey intended meanings. According to Cox: “The disciplinary consensus in Anglophonic literary studies to refute authorial agency arises at the same approximate time that the U.S. is opened to authors occupying historically marginal subject positions . . . this suggests that authorship became unimportant to the field at the same time that most authors deemed worthy of study were no longer from a narrow and privileged minority” (112). Challenging authorial agency naturally leads to deconstruction of the ethical import of marginal texts, because uncertainty about who is speaking inevitably leads to confusion about what is being said. Purposefully or not, the introduction of poststructuralist skepticism thus ensures that voices once silenced will now be considered irrelevant to critical discussion. As a result, the value judgments called for by both Diaz and Danticat end up being discounted and ignored.

     If it is the socially constructed language that speaks or writes, rather than the individual person who consciously employs language to express a particular intended meaning, then the author of the text he or she writes is automatically stripped of both agency and intentionality. As Arif Dirlk astutely observes, “the identity of the postcolonial is no longer structural but discursive” (332), which implies that the focus of criticism must properly be the socially constructed language system that “speaks” the author, and that continually and automatically deconstructs itself, rather than what the author is actually saying about concrete conditions in the marginalized society about which he or she writes. Thus, “the term postcolonial, understood in terms of its discursive thematic, excludes from its scope most of those who inhabit or hail from postcolonial societies” (337) [Dirlik’s emphasis]. Moreover, according to Dirlik, postcolonial-poststructuralist theory “repudiates all master narratives,” which results in “rejection of capitalism as a foundational category” (334). The consequence of this theoretical bias is that postcolonial-poststructuralist criticism “disguises the power relations that shape a seemingly shapeless world and contributes to a conceptualization of that world that . . . subverts possibilities of resistance,” reducing “into problems of subjectivity and epistemology concrete and material problems of the everyday world” (355-356). Capitalism, especially in its present, particularly malevolent transnational corporate form, is quite clearly the major cause of grave injustice in the postcolonial world, and in Western societies as well. To deny captialism’s crucial importance (and even its existence) as a predominant existential force, as well as its relevance for discussions of human rights and social justice, obviously renders such conversations utterly meaningless.

          It comes as no surprise, given the contemporary preponderance of poststructuralist theorization, that one encounters numerous critics who concentrate solely on the literary form of Oscar Wao, consistently arguing that the novel somehow undermines and contradicts itself, rather than engaging with the radical critique of predatory capitalism and obvious appeals to social justice and human rights that the text urgently expresses. Pamela J. Rader, for example, minimizes Diaz’s personal agency as a writer in the creative process, contending that “Diaz’s novel is his narrating character’s creation” (1), although she admits vaguely to the presence of an “author-persona speaking from the footnotes” (2) who “competes with the narrator’s tale of Oscar and his family” (4), and thus introduces a disruptive sense of skepticism regarding the veracity of the narrator’s account. 

     The issue of the purpose and effect of the footnotes as subtext has received much critical attention, most of it arguing that the footnotes serve to undermine and deconstruct the fictional narrative, even though close reading of the novel reveals that this is not necessarily the case. Monica Hanna observes that “traditional histories rely on what can be considered objective fact supported by accepted forms of evidence whereas Yunior’s history explicitly relies on imagination and invention” (504). Yet at the same time, Hanna notes that “lesser-known historical facts [presumably “objective” and “supported by accepted forms of evidence”] . . . are often included in footnotes modeled after those of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco” (506).

     Both Chamoiseau’s and Diaz’s footnotes blend documented historical fact and imaginative reconstruction, along with authorial commentary, in such complex ways that it is often impossible to tell where these separate and how they overlap. In many instances, the footnotes seem to be merely an extrapolation of the fictional account; footnote number six in Oscar Wao, for just one random example, is indistinguishable in style, tone, and substance from the superimposed narrative: “being a reader/fanboy . . . helped him get through the rough days of his youth, but it made him stick out in the mean streets of Patterson even more than he already did . . . You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto” (22). The footnote in Texaco that describes Julot the Mangy, for another random example, produces a similar effect: “He was a tall fellow, ye big, no thicker than a sigh, a skeletal face with icy eyes -- his skin wore the ever-changing shades of a thousand scars” (23). Historical fact is often peppered with authorial editorializing in both of these texts: “when twentieth-century Dominicans first uttered the word freedom en masse the demon they summoned was Balaguer” (Oscar Wao 90); for those aspiring to become affranches -- slaves who eventually won their freedom -- “There a thousand and seven hundred and fifty twelve thirteen ways [sic], of which all slaves dreamed in their quarters. The governors who read the consequences in the city police reports had nightmares” (Texaco 67). Chamoiseau and Diaz both hopelessly confuse the distinction between author and narrator, and do so quite deliberately. Chamoiseau the author writes himself into the text as a character with the obvious name Oiseau de Cham into Texaco as well as Solibo Magnificent; Diaz clearly does the same, under the name Yunior, in much of Drown, all of Oscar Wao, and to an uncertain extent This Is How You Lose Her, as well. For these two postmodernist-postcolonial writers, it is often utterly impossible to determine where the narrator begins and the author leaves off.

     The correlation and conflation of author and narrator in Diaz and Chamoiseau’s fiction resonates strongly with Ramon Saldivar’s account of parabasis. The unique manner in which Diaz and Chamoiseau each blends the persona of the actual writer with that of the narrator, who appears as a semi-fictional character that is imagining and conveying the story, creates an aesthetic effect that is quite similar to the effect that Saldivar describes. In classical Greek comedy, the chorus interrupted the drama periodically, in asides, to address the audience directly and comment on relevant issues of the day. Commedia dell’arte productions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were marked by intermittent interruptions involving variations of form to reinforce the illusory nature of the dramatic performance. In both cases, according to Saldivar, “parabasis consists in a rupture of the illusion of the separation between the fictional and real worlds, as the audience is drawn into the illusion at the same time that the illusion reveals itself as an illusion” (579). Saldivar points out that Friedrich Schlegel regarded this persistent, interplay of reality and illusion as “irony.” The irresolvable ambiguity of the relationship of author and narrator manifested in the constant interplay between the narrative and footnotes in Oscar Wao, combined with the narrator’s persistent rhetorical strategy of direct address, sustains the tone of irony throughout Diaz’s text. Junot Diaz and Yunior function as two sides of a double or divided self.

     Nevertheless, T.S. Miller, like Pamela Rader, regards the entirety of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as being entirely Yunior’s creation; thus Miller, too, discounts authorial agency. There are, according to Miller, actually “two Yuniors -- the closet nerd and the card-carrying nerd -- warring it out on the same page” (103), so that “events in the story [remain] undecidable . . .  shifting the burden to [the] audience” (100). It is noteworthy that Miller consistently refers to Yunior, or to multiple Yuniors, as the author of the novel throughout her argument, as if Junot Diaz is irrelevant to the discussion; almost reluctantly, Miller concedes that Diaz does play a somewhat peripheral role, yet it is one that only reinforces the text’s essential ambiguity: “Diaz has designed the novel to permit a reading that ascribes . . . something defiantly postmodern and antirealist,” starting with the fact that “Yunior establishes the ontological status of the fuku as contested from the beginning” (100). 

     Miller does not explain exactly how Yunior establishes this uncertainty; presumably, she concurs with Monica Hanna, who claims that the initial words, “They say,” on the opening page, “signals the injection of doubt from the beginning of the first sentence” (502). Miller goes on to state unequivocally that when Yunior “proceeds to blame all of the untimely deaths in the Kennedy family and the entire Vietnam debacle on the Dominican fuku,” he does so with “a sense of self-conscious absurdity” (101), disregarding the fact that Diaz, given the context of comments elsewhere in the narrative and throughout his fiction, would probably, and quite seriously, contend instead that what occurred in Vietnam was closer to genocide than a “debacle” for the victims, and would also insist that the fuku is a manifestation of the effects of predatory capitalism extending far beyond the shores of Hispaniola. The phrase “they say” represents standard story telling technique that in no way necessarily casts doubt on the veracity of the ensuing narrative. Therefore the key phrase in the opening sentence of Oscar Wao should more aptly be regarded as “the screams of the enslaved,” an allusion to grave injustice that makes it clear that the fuku will be a matter of serious concern, rather than ambiguity, throughout the text. 

     Endless debate over the precise ontological/epistemic relationship of Diaz-as-author to Yunior-as-narrator can only prove ultimately fruitless, like attempting to stand on one’s own head. In the title story of This Is How You Lose Her, there is a strong suggestion, based on circumstantial evidence (such as teaching creative writing in Cambridge, for example), that Diaz himself closely resembles the narrator, whose sexual politics in that account seem nearly as problematical as Yunior’s in Oscar Wao. As Pamela Rader appropriately concedes, “the novel’s characters are created by Diaz who suggests that they are imagined by his first person narrator Yunior” (6); thus, it is only logical to conclude that, while keeping a close eye on Yunior as a character in the story, the reader must also pay careful attention to indications of Diaz’s implied perspective as author of the text. Diaz attests to this tension in an interview with Katherine Miranda, pointing out that the thing that is “really dangerous about the novel, why Yunior’s such a scary narrator, is because he’s so incredibly charming . . . He’s a fucking winner, people like this guy. And he’s a horror” (36), chiefly because of his constant philandering. 

     According to Diaz, focusing solely on Yunior’s perspective as narrator can cause one to misunderstand the central argument of the text, so that “many readers miss the novel’s lessons” (34). There can be no doubt that the narrative is deliberately designed to confront readers with compelling issues regarding social justice; therefore the question of the actual status of the fuku, and the possibility of a zafa for dispelling its chronic, malignant effects, must be regarded as a central focus for interpreting Oscar’s story. Ramon Saldivar argues that “justice, poetic or otherwise, is precisely what we do not get at the end of Oscar Wao” (591). Richard Patteson, on the other hand, contends that Diaz’s novel creates a space where “Hope, language, and life fall together on one end of a kind of spectrum, staring down despair, silence, and death at the opposite end” (15). It is obviously necessary for us to interpolate the conceptual dimensions of this stark critical discrepancy if we want to understand what Diaz means when he refers to “the novel’s lessons.”

          It is essential to account for the perspective of the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because, despite poststructuralist insistence on the social construction of language, Junot Diaz obviously subscribes to the compelling significance of personal agency in language use. If as a young immigrant he found himself culturally constructed, as well as discounted as a member of an invisible minority, language itself became an important means for reasserting Diaz’s identity as an individual: “You come to the United States and the United States begins immediately, systematically, to erase you in every way, to suppress those things which it considers not digestible. You spend a lot of time being colonized. Then, if you’ve got the opportunity and the breathing space and the guidance, you immediately -- when you realize it  -- begin to decolonize yourself. And in this process, you relearn names for yourself that you had forgotten” (896). For Diaz, language provides a crucial tool for finding the way back to one’s roots.

     Diaz asserts that language establishes the bond that holds people together through shared meanings and values within a community; employing language for this purpose occurs spontaneously, and involves an intuitively understood, intrinsically creative form of dynamic human interaction: “One of the things about having childhood friends is . . . you have your own goddamn idiom. You just create this entire language, and in some ways it holds you together.” This kind of conscious, creative agency operates in and through “anyone who’s attempting to use language in an artistic enterprise . . . to say something that might even be mundane . . . in an original way. . . . language is already plastic in ways that I think are exceptional” (4). Such flexibility makes room for playfulness, yet does not at all leave us stranded in endless ambiguity.

     Linguistic science confirms this concept of language plasticity.  Postcolonial-postmodern writers do not require Derridean theories of indeterminacy and “infinite iterability” to support the notion of “play” in verbal and written expression, because human language by its nature is endlessly creative. Derrida’s intuitive insight was correct; he just got the linguistic science wrong, which has led to unnecessary confusion: individual words are not infinitely iterable; “dog” can never “really” mean “cat.” But people can indeed design and combine words to form an infinite variety of sentences and verbal expressions. Noam Chomsky points out that every time we walk down the street, we are hearing novel linguistic formulations that have never been articulated previously, and that may never be expressed in quite the same way again. Unique phrases that are particularly catchy and resonant often become integrated into colloquial parlance, until some new phrase catches on and replaces them. Thus, human language continues growing and changing all the time, although language is not evolving, as some try to argue. Language capacity appears to be the result of “some small genetic modification that somehow rewired the brain slightly. . . . It had to have happened in a single person. . . . [Whereby] You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects (or concepts of some sort), already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. . . . As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions (and thoughts) available to you.”

     Chomsky explains that this infinite linguistic potential is “based on an elementary property that also seems to be biologically isolated: the property of discrete infinity, which is exhibited in its purest form by the natural numbers 1,2,3, . . . a means to construct from a few dozen sounds an infinity of expressions.” Stephen Pinker discusses discrete infinity in some detail; Pinker concludes that there must be a generative grammar that human beings use as a code to “translate between orders of words and combinations of thoughts.”   Pinker elaborates: “A grammar is an example of a ‘discrete combinatorial system.’ A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create larger structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of their elements. . . . In a discrete combinatorial system like language, there can be an unlimited number of completely distinct combinations with an infinite range of properties. . . . each of us is capable of uttering an infinite number of different sentences.”

     Derrida’s contention that there is no exact correspondence between sign and signifier -- a truism in linguistics -- does not necessarily imply that semantic communication is inevitably indeterminate. Although Diaz accepts the fact that “there’s no exchange rate of language-to-experience that ever holds steady” (In Darkness 4), he also clearly concurs with Ngugi’s claim that “without conversation . . . the human community would never come to be. We would have remained like all the other components of nature, undifferentiated from it. . . Nurture out of nature is enabled by the word as language” (38). Language makes it possible for human beings to communicate meaning efficiently and effectively enough to form collaborative communities as well as highly organized societies. This easily recognized fact, along with the compelling evidence for the innate universal grammar for language acquisition attested to by Chomsky, Pinker, and many other linguists, makes it obvious that human language is not nearly as ambiguous as Derrida seems to suggest.

     Language may indeed be an imperfect medium for human communication, as Derrida insists, and linguists have long understood; Chamoiseau, through the admonitory voice of his storyteller Solibo, cautions: “To write is to take the conch out of the sea to shout: here’s the conch! The word replies: where’s the sea? . . . It’s all very nice, but you just touch the distance” (28). Yet Solibo, because he possesses the gift of language, nevertheless assures his community’s ability to endure, and embodies the common people’s abiding sense of hope. Naming him for the creole term that means “blackman fallen to his last peg -- and no ladder to climb back up,” the old women in the market “offered him tales, oh words of survival, stories of street smarts where the charcoal of despair watched small flames triumph over it, tales of resistance, all the ones that the slaves had forged on hot evenings so the sky wouldn’t fall.” In transmitting these allegories of human endurance that have been handed down through the generations, Solibo plays a crucial role as spokesperson for the subalterns of Martinician society: “They say his words were beautiful and knew the road to all ears, the invisible double doors which open the heart” (46).

     Nowhere is the power and majesty of human language more evident or more clearly displayed in Chamoiseau’s evocative novel than during the elaborate celebration that the community organizes for the funeral of Ma Gnam: “Solibo Magnificent . . . got on stage. Oh language master of all things! The cops were speechless before him. Mouths and drums fell silent. His voice whirled, ample, then thin, broken, then warm, mellow,  then crystal or shrill, and rounding off with low cavernous tones. A voice splitting with caresses, tears, enchantment, imperial and sobbing, and shaking with murmurs, dipping or fluttering along the frontiers of silent sound.” Even after the bloody beatings with billyclubs and mass arrests that ensue, Solibo’s eloquence inspires continuing celebration and irrepressible joy: “never, not ever, did that jail that I know so well resound with so much laughter, songs, riddles and jokes, and words, words, words . . .” (107). Chamoiseau’s tribute to the healing, rejuvenating power of language correlates well with Ngugi’s reminder to his global audience, in his passionate appeal for peace, justice, and culture: “Theory must always return to the earth to get recharged with new energy. For the word that breathes life is still needed to challenge the one that carries death and devastation” (33).

     Junot Diaz not only extols language as a vehicle for evoking innate ethical principles and appealing for social justice, he shows no reluctance whatsoever in challenging the poststructuralist prohibition againstgrand narratives; thus for Diaz, the reality of the fuku is not contested at all. The curse of imperialism and predatory capitalism operates as a pervasive force not only throughout his novel, but permeates all of contemporary human affairs:  “The curse of the New World is still upon us. Everything that we did in the Caribbean and the New World has had repercussions on the whole planet, and no matter how much it changes -- how much the technology creates these new paradigms, how much hegemony alters itself and mutates to deal with a more dispersed capillary, a cow of power -- the very brutal, racialized, hierarchical, Neolithic inhumanity of the ‘conquest’ of the New World, that moment we’ve not escaped from. We’re still there, we’re still in it. That’s why the Caribbean is such a fascinating place. It’s the site of the original sin upon which all of this is based” (In Darkness 8-9).

     Instead of causing irresolvable uncertainty, language can create an alternative historical narrative that defies the conventions of hegemonic ideology; by incorporating the testimony of victims, language enables the human community to begin an honest assessment of the past as well as the present, with an eye toward building a more sane, just, and equitable world: “in the end what is so fascinating . . . about language is that language is in some ways a catalog or a pantheon of our survival, because in all languages -- inside of their lexicons, inside of their syllabaries -- in there are all these survivors from past catechisms . . . people are handing these tiny relics, these small . . . fragments of their survival, forward in time.” The writer can play a crucial role in furthering this process; he can appeal to a universal ethic and thereby awaken the innate conscience of humanity, eliciting the nobler qualities and capacities in human nature: “being part of that . . . you’re helping something that’s really the most human thing, because one day that’s gonna have a great purpose, one day people will remember, one day there will be a reckoning, and it’s those fragments in language that are the testimonies, the testament, to what has happened. All our history, all our crimes, all the good things we’ve done are embedded in that thing, that fluid thing we call language.” Far from producing ambiguity and indeterminacy regarding human affairs, language makes it possible “to give the illusion to the reader that they’re inhabiting a body that didn’t make it out of the abyss of exterminations. . . it’s probably a good way to humanize people” (In Darkness 8-9). “Humanizing people” is obviously Diaz’s purpose as the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; focusing solely on how his text supposedly undermines and deconstructs itself only distracts from our understanding of the crucial themes this novel is intended to convey.

 

     Catherine Belsey insists on the ambiguous nature of moral standards that might support the notion of any form of ethical universal.  Belsey claims that the fact that there are no exact equivalents from one language to another proves that language must be differential instead of referential; moreover, she asks, since “different languages divide the world up differently, and . . . different cultures lay claims to distinct beliefs, what, apart from habit, makes ‘ours’ more true than ‘theirs’? ”(70-71). Yet Belsey’s argument that “if the things or concepts language named already existed outside language, words would have exact equivalents from one language to another” (8-9) seems less than convincing given that such exact equivalents do, in fact, exist. According to Noam Chomsky, “There often are exact equivalents, just as there are from one person to another. Where there are no exact equivalents, variation is within a narrow range. Of course, if we move to connotations, associations, etc., then variability increases, but that is not a matter of language but of variation in a host of other factors that enter into our lives.” Belsey’s insists that “different languages divide up the world differently,” but this claim does not hold up under linguistic scrutiny either. Chomsky notes that a visitor from Mars “would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same. . . . he would [also] be struck by the uniformity of human societies in every respect.” The commonly observed fact that children learn language far more efficiently than their actual experience of language can explain indicates that “in their essential properties and even down to fine detail, languages are cast to the same mold. The Martian scientist might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language, with differences only at the margins.” Catherine Belsey’s insistence that proposed ethical principles that support basic human rights must be regarded as subjective and relative, rather than innate and universal, derives largely from her misunderstanding of language, and the role of human agency in language choice.

          Raymond Tallis argues that the notion that language speaks us, rather than the other way around, derives from the fact that Derrida makes a crucial error when he “extends the domination of difference (absence, negativity) from the signifier and signified taken singly (where they are indubitably the playthings of absence) to the sign-as-a-whole (a step specifically warned against by Saussure), and thence to the completed speech act. This is nonsense, of course -- the speech act does not belong to the system of signifieds and signifiers. It uses the systems, but is not part of them.” Nevertheless, poststructuralists continue to contend that language pre-exists, and therefore remains independent of the intention of the person who uses it. Lacan, blending psychoanalysis with deconstruction, labels language the “big Other,” equating it with the unconscious; according to Belsey, “The big Other is there before we are, exists outside us, and does not belong to us. . . . we necessarily borrow our terms from the Other, since we have no alternative if we want to communicate. . . . the little human organism . . . gets separated off from its surroundings and is obliged to formulate its demands in terms of the differences already available in language, however alienating these may be.”

     For Tallis, the notion that language speaks or writes us is the result of a serious misinterpretation of Saussure, involving confusion over his distinction between langue and parole: “Saussure himself emphasized that the act of speech (parole) is an individual act of intelligence and will in which the speaker’s freedom of choice is only loosely constrained by the possibilities available in the linguistic system (langue). The choice is still the individual’s, and the choosing is still conscious or part of an act that is conscious. Far from decentering the self, parole requires a centered self in order that the speech act shall be spoken and enacted. The post-Saussurean claim that it is language which speaks . . . cannot be sustained . . . Parole -- actual talk -- is always rooted in particular occasions, and those occasions are not intralinguistic . . . The rules of language do not specify what we say, even less how we say it, precisely because so much of what we say is prompted by events whose occurrence is not regulated by the rules of discourse.” Tallis’s argument reinforces the significance of authorial agency as well as the essentially creative and potentially transformative qualities of language that Junot Diaz espouses and emphasizes.

        Along with disregard for human agency and ethical universals, poststructuralist theory is notable for its aversion to totalizing truth statements, and to what Derrida refers to as appeals to any form of “transcendent signified.” According to Belsey, “If there are no pure, free-standing signifieds, we look in vain, Derrida explains, for the transcendental signified, the one true meaning that holds all the others in place, the foundational truth that exists without question and provides the answer to all subsidiary problems. Metaphysical systems of belief, laying claim to the truth, all appeal to some transcendental signified. For Christianity this is God, for the Enlightenment reason, and for science the laws of nature” (38).  

     Yet God, reason, and science cannot be equivalent, as Belsey seems to suggest they are. Religion does require belief in some form of a “God,” yet there is no way of knowing with any degree of certainty about the possible existence or exact nature of such a “transcendental signified.” If the term “God” can be said to mean anything at all, it must by definition refer to an entity that is beyond human comprehension. The human intellect is strictly circumscribed by the categories of space and time; an infinite, eternal being extends by definition far beyond the boundaries of either, and therefore must remain forever unfathomable and unknowable -- any conclusions human beings attempt to draw in that regard can only be speculative, at best, and impossible to submit for verification. Only dogmatists and authoritarians would pretend that “God” embodies “the one true meaning . . . the foundational truth that . . . provides the answer to all subsidiary problems.” For people who take the idea of God seriously, the matter ultimately reduces to incomprehensible mystery. No one can assert conclusively that God exists “without question,” or begin to describe the “foundational truth” that “God” might represent. On this question, Derrida and the poststructuralists are simply echoing the same skepticism expressed by the Enlightenment thinkers whom they purportedly scorn.

     Junot Diaz, in any case,  seems to believe that the indeterminacy of the concept of divinity and the inadequacy of language for conveying any clear sense of what might be involved does not at all remove the idea of God from serious consideration in the scheme of things. As with the prohibition against grand narratives, he shows himself more than ready to defy fashionable intellectual trends, with characteristic tongue-in-cheek irony. Regarding the intensive prayer marathon that La Inca initiates after Beli is recaptured by La Fea’s thugs, readers are advised: “We postmodern platanos tend to dismiss the Catholic devotion of our viejas as atavistic, an embarrassing throwback to the olden days, but it’s exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, when the end draws near, that prayer has dominion.” The somber tone of the second part of this compound sentence is quickly belied by the playful assurance of the opening line of the following paragraph: “Let me tell you, True Believers, in the annals of Dominican piety there has never been a prayer like this.” The irony of the parabasis is reinforced throughout the hyperbole of the ensuing description, especially the reference to participants collapsing due to “shetaat” -- spiritual burnout -- and the “plucky seven-year-old whose piety, until then, had been obscured by a penchant for blowing mucus out of her nostrils like a man,” lines that leave the audience hovering between amusement and skepticism. Yet the ensuing paragraph reintroduces the somber tone, suggesting that Diaz (or Yunior, and quite probably both) takes the idea of spiritual supplication quite seriously after all: “To exhaustion and beyond they prayed, to that glittering place where the flesh dies and is born again” (144-145).

     Admittedly, one would have to be a “true believer” to accept such a credulous interpretation, yet this reading receives ample support from the repetition of allusions to mysterious spiritual interventions that repeat throughout the text, events that are not easily reducible to totalizing concepts of generic “magical realism.” In the midst of her murderous assault by the thugs in the cane field, Beli has a vision of La Inca praying, which somehow renews her collapsing courage; she is subsequently visited by a lion-like mongoose figure with chabine eyes who speaks to her prophetically about her unborn children, and whose song leads her out of the hopeless maze of the cane. Oscar is later visited by what he describes as the Golden Mongoose just before he dives drunkenly and despairingly off the railroad bridge (190); this same Mongoose appears in Oscar’s dreams shortly after his near fatal beating at the hands of Grod and Grundy, and asks: “What will it be, muchacho? . . . More or less?” (301). Oscar’s choice of “more” turns out to be pivotal not only in terms of his personal destiny, but for what Diaz refers to as the “lesson” of the novel itself. 

     An “Aslan-like figure with golden eyes” speaks to Oscar while he remains unconscious for three days -- like Christ in the sepulcher -- after the cane field beating; Diaz repeats the tone of ironic humor by noting that Oscar fails to comprehend what the apparition is telling him, because he “couldn’t hear a word above the blare of the merengue coming from the neighbor’s house” (302). Clives is about to give up his search for Oscar’s broken body after the relentless beating finally ends, until he hears mysterious singing and feels the rush of a “tremendous wind . . . like the blast an angel might lay down on takeoff” (300). The rhetorical strategy of repeated direct address draws readers into participation in the narrative as if they are observing the action unfolding as it would in a film or during a stage production. The tone of pervasive irony leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Yunior is serious or not when he claims: “It’s all true, plataneros. Through the numinous power of prayer La Inca saved the girl’s life, laid an A-plus zafa on the Cabral family fuku” (155). Recourse to the spiritual realm for intervention and protection is by no means a strange -- or simply “magical” -- notion among victims of violent oppression, for as Chamoiseau/Oiseau de Cham reminds us, “in these ill-fated times, a blackman’s prayer is never useless . . .” (Solibo Magnificent 86).

     As with the concept of divinity, poststructuralists similarly reject the transcendental signified “Reason,” yet human reason is not a matter of ontology, like the idea of “God,” but rather an aspect of epistemology; reason is an intellectual tool that human beings employ, within the limits of space and time, to attempt to account for and explain the phenomena of experience. Reasoning can be logical or illogical, coherent or incoherent; Besley’s statement, “If there are no pure, free-standing signifieds, we look in vain . . . for the transcendental signified,” is itself a product of reason: if “a” is such and so, then “b” must logically follow. Reason can hardly be considered a “transcendental signified” at all; it does not have an independent existence in its own right, but rather is only an instrument, a means of analysis. 

     Of course, in situations where Reason (with a capital R) becomes touted as the only way of knowing, and is regarded as an exclusive instrument of the ruling classes, then “reason” takes on an authoritarian characteristic that needs to be challenged, as well as “deconstructed.” In Solibo Magnificent, Chamoiseau satirizes the Chief Inspector’s notion of reason, which reflects the rigid analytical methods he acquired during his professional training in France. The Chief Inspector incorrectly assumes that Solibo has been murdered; his unshakable faith in the absolute certainty of his logical conclusions leads him to calmly oversee the brutal torture of Congo, regardless of the more complex understandings he had developed as a child and adolescent growing up in the Caribbean, which his European education subsequently taught him to abjure: “the Chief Inspector had never liked the irrational side of ‘cases’ in this country. The initial facts were never reliable, a shadow of unreason, a hint of evil, clouded everything, and despite his long stay in the land of Descartes, since he had been raised in this country like the rest of us with the same knowledge of zombies and various evil soucougnans, the Inspector’s scientific efforts and cold logic often skidded. He stuck to it at the price of rather unpleasant mental exertion, but still dreamed for this country . . . of a mystery drawn with a compass (and a protractor)” (75). 

     In the process of investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding Solibo’s sudden demise, the Inspector’s cold logic reduces him, along with his underlings, to the level of a savage barbarian: “They made [Congo] undress and kneel on a square, they hammered his skull and ears with thick phone books, they kicked him . . . knocked him in the liver, the balls, the nape, they crushed his fingers and blinded him with their thumbs. He who had known so much pain and so many miseries discovered a thousand more, punctuated by the Chief Inspector’s tranquil and innocent voice asking: Who killed Solibo, Mr. Congo -- and how? . . . One word: there was nothing human around there” (143-144). This graphic passage resonates powerfully with the vicious beating Beli receives at the command of the imperturbable, implacable La Fea, who “had hundreds of thousands in the bank and not one yuan of pity in her soul,” and who sits “like a shelob in her web . . . Scrutinizing Beli with unflinching iguana eyes” (139-140). La Fea’s henchmen the Elvises beat Beli “like she was a slave. Like she was a dog.” Thankfully, Yunior offers to “pass over the actual violence and report instead on the damage inflicted” (147), which is disturbing enough.

     Christopher Butler notes that postmodern fiction “enacts a disturbingly skeptical triumph over our sense of reality, and hence also over the accepted narratives of history” (79). Yet history cannot be simply whatever the individual decides it to be; responsible historical accounts must include evaluation of verifiable facts which, however incomplete and subject to individual interpretation, nevertheless require acknowledgment, as well as collective assessment. Even though language is malleable, and must allow for multiple voices and perspectives, including marginalized counter-discourses deriving from wholly analogical, fantastical, non-traditional forms of “writing” such as animes, comic books, role play and video games, and so forth, neither the limitations nor iterability of linguistic expression prevents us from drawing reasonable conclusions about our collective past, shared present, and common prospects for the future. The limitations of language neither confine us to subjectivism, nor reduce us to moral relativism. We are fully capable of stringing together the threads provided by various discourses, and combining polyglot voices, including folklore, superstition, legends and traditional belief systems, into a syncretic, synthetic narrative which, while not “grand” in Lyotard’s sense, still enables us to arrive at a certain degree of reasonable consensus, however partial and incomplete.

      In the 2008 interview, “In Darkness We Meet,” Junot Diaz emphasizes the self-conscious strategy behind his polyglot approach to writing: “Language eludes any attempt anyone has [i.e. makes] to control it. So, it’s always weird when people feel that there’s this sense of ownership in a language and that people try to use it to victimize other people, because language just doesn’t work that way” (3). By incorporating numerous Spanish words and phrases in an otherwise English text, which itself is a mix of formal, inner-city, hip-hop, sci-fi, fantasy, horror and comic book dialectical variations, Diaz creates a compelling counter discourse by interpolating the juncture where languages intersect. He emphasizes that in order to sustain an effective alternative narrative one must include multiple perspectives and voices, and even multiple languages, as well as mixed forms of language that result when languages interpenetrate and intermingle, as they do throughout Oscar Wao. The languages interacting throughout the text include not only Spanish and English, but also American “street language,” as well as the marginalized discourses of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Diaz describes science fiction as having been “imported” from France and England; he includes the “indigenous” languages created by comic books and the blues, which Diaz insists have been “an important part of what we call the North American narrative, what we would call the formative literary experience” (4). All of these must be incorporated into the reexamination and reevaluation of the contemporary world that Diaz inhabits as both a Dominican and an American.

     Diaz is quite deliberate in his efforts to challenge not only the dominance of Western intellectual paradigms, but the very integrity of English as a distinctive language. By incorporating numerous Spanish words and phrases, he is creating what amounts to a linguistic hybrid; he regards the resulting interpenetration of tongues as a crucial part of the process of cultural liberation and decolonization: “for me, allowing the Spanish to exist in my texts without the benefit of italics or quotation marks was a very important political move. Spanish is not a minority language . . . Why ‘other’ it? Why denormalize it? By keeping the Spanish as normative in a predominately English text, I wanted to remind readers of the fluidity of languages, the mutability of languages. And to mark how steadily English is transforming Spanish and Spanish is transforming English. . . . When I learned English in the States, this was a violent enterprise. And by forcing Spanish back into English, forcing it to deal with language it tried to exterminate in me, I’ve tried to represent a mirror-image of that violence on the page. Call it my revenge on English” (904). Much of the “violence” of English acquisition that Diaz describes here stems from the fact that the immigrant quickly discovers how many forms of English he is being forced to assimilate and master all at once: “your mind kind of torments you with every mistake you’ve made, preparing yourself against this ideal that doesn’t exist anywhere . . . one discovers very quickly as an immigrant kid that there’s English acquisition and then there’s English acquisition, that there is this almost endless array of vernaculars that you have to pick up . . . you keep stacking up all these little languages, these threads” (In Darkness 4).

     Diaz elaborates on the extreme contrast in living spaces within Third World Dominican Republic and First World United States, discrepancies so vast and incomprehensible that it seems like shuttling back and forth between distant planets. The language of sci-fi becomes essential for describing immigrant experience, Diaz argues, because the intergalactic space separating these two radically different societies challenges the limits of language to the very limit; in attempting to describe the process of transition, acculturation, and assimilation, Diaz initially found himself completely perplexed: “how in the world to describe the extreme experience of being an immigrant in the United States, the extreme experience of coming from the Third World and suddenly appearing in New Jersey. . . . Every language I was deploying, every language system, fell apart. . . . every time I tried to use a narrative to take me from here to there, it disintegrated, as soon as it reached that -- I don’t know how to call it -- world barrier. But science fiction, fantasy, and comic books are meant to do this stupid kind of stuff, they’re meant to talk about these extreme, ludicrous transformations, and so I really wanted to use them. I felt a great kinship to these narratives, which served as a backbone for so much of what we call ‘America’ but are completely ostracized; it felt like the history of the immigrant, the minority, the woman. I was like, Yo, we’re friends. In darkness we meet” (4).

     Although Diaz does not refer to the language of horror in this passage, it plays a distinct role in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the reference to Twilight Zone and the similarity of Trujillo to Anthony in Peaksville on page 224 is one prominent example); he picks the topic up later in the interview while describing the emigrant’s experience: “you’re trying to talk about how immigration is used as the way to shake off history, but also to smuggle it with you without even knowing it. It’s like the horror movie where the guy leaves the island, he’s like, Whew -- you know -- and the little thing is clinging to the back of his suitcase” (7). This ghost in suitcase conveys interesting implications, for it reinforces the idea that citizens in the receiving country will also be challenged to assimilate to the immigrant, perhaps just as much as the other way around; instinctive fears of immigration may not stem just from racial bias and fear of job competition alone. Who knows what unwelcome, unexpected horrors might be included in the immigrant’s baggage? Is it possible he brings with him the germs of the fuku? And how can one ever expect to be able to screen successfully for an insidious pathogen like that? Are citizens in the United States going to be forced to pay for ongoing injustices elsewhere that they are completely unaware of, or that they choose to deny or ignore, yet in which they remain necessarily complicit, whether they want to acknowledge it or not? 

     Diaz elaborates on the role comic books play in creating a space for articulating the immigrant’s journey. He compares the contrasting worlds he experiences in the Dominican Republic and the United States to Billy Batson and Captain Marvel: “Billy Batson, the normal guy, suddenly says shazam! And turns into this superbeing. And in some ways it’s basically what happens. Santo Domingo’s typical-normal, we think the Third World’s commiseration and suffering is normal, and the United States is this superbeing. And so I kept wondering, What the fuck? Where’s my role in this? And you find yourself neither. The joke is you’re neither Billy Batson or Captain Marvel, you’re basically shazam!, you’re the word, you’re that lightning that transforms, that runs back and forth between them and holds them together . . . part of this narrative was trying to write the lightning” (In Darkness 7). 

     Far from deconstructing or undermining itself, writing the lightning interpolates the blank spaces between various languages, dialects, narratives, ideologies, nationalities, races, ethnicities, theologies, customs, and traditions. Transcending ambiguities, writing the lightning disentangles Tower of Babel babble and the confusion of conflicting voices and contradictory accounts. Writing the lightning appeals to a universal ethic and sounds a clarion call for global social justice. Writing the lightning plants seeds of deeper human understanding, leading to the promise of mutual cooperation that can develop, expand, and grow through ongoing conversation in a rapidly shrinking, beleaguered world, where technology facilitates international communication in ways never dreamed possible before. Writing the lightning creates “the testimonies, the testament to what has happened,” enabling us to account for and come to terms with our collective past, a necessary step toward establishing egalitarian harmony in the present, reassured of a brighter, collectively prosperous human future. The writer of lightning, in the terminology of Ngugi’s impassioned appeal for world peace, is “working in the tradition of the first intellectual who made the word become flesh” (39) -- whose story is recounted in the New Testament, one of the principal grounding discourses, on both sides of the colonizer-colonized divide, in all of human history. Writing the lightning enables humanity, at last, to respond to Anacoana’s plea, in the face of her own death and the imminent destruction of her people, that human beings finally cast aside destructive differences and build an abiding bridge of love.

 

Vincent Walsh was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946. He graduated from Fordham University in 1969, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship from 1969-1970. He earned his Masters in Education in 1987, in the midst of a career as a secondary school English teacher, a career that has included many years of teaching in the inner-city. Vincent taught graduate courses in the Education Department at DeSales University from 2005 – 2012; he entered the doctoral program in English at Lehigh University in 2006, and graduated from Lehigh with a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature in 2014. He is currently teaching English at New Britain High School in New Britain, CT, where he is conducting action research on incorporating the principles and practices of Restorative Discipline for the inner-city studentshe is currently teaching, while simultaneously aligning this disciplinary approach with the scholarly work of Eric Jensen.

Précisions sur les sciences: International conference on Marie Darrieussecq

Précisions sur les sciences: International conference on Marie Darrieussecq

Précisions sur les sciences: International conference followed by an on-stage interview with Marie Darrieussecq

We invite abstracts for the Précisions sur les sciences conference, which will address the theme of sciences in the work of Marie Darrieussecq, and which will be held at the University of Kent in Paris on 4 May 2017.

Marie Darrieussecq made a sensational entrance in literature with Truismes in 1996, which met with phenomenal success both in France and abroad. She has since published an important number of works and won the Prix Médicis as well as the Prix des prix littéraires in 2013 for her novel Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Her multifaceted writing explores various genres and modes, from theatre with Le Musée de la mer (2009) to free adaptation with Clèves (2011), or children’s literature with Péronnille la chevalière (2008). She stands as one of the most important personalities of today’s French literary scene. 

Amongst the key themes of Darrieussecq’s work are the haunting figure of the ghost, disappearance, the body and its transformations, maternity, belonging, the sea or travelling. Her work has attracted a great deal of critical attention, in France and abroad, and this conference hopes to reflect this international intellectual activity. 

Marie Darrieussecq’s exploration of these themes and many more often go through a scientific perspective and questioning. In a recent interview, the author expressed the importance of sciences in her creative process in these terms: "J’ai toujours, dans ma vie privée, aimé les scientifiques et ils m’ont apporté un énorme réservoir d’images. La physique quantique est très romanesque, par exemple. Ou le paradoxe de Fermi. Et j’ai lu beaucoup de science-fiction dans mon adolescence." ["I have always, in my private life, loved scientists and they have provided me with a tremendous reservoir of images. Quantum physics is very novelistic, for example. Or the Fermi paradox. And I have read a lot of science-fiction during my adolescence."] 

However, there is little critical reflection around this subject. We thus encourage the submission of abstracts around the theme of sciences in the works of Marie Darrieussecq. Possible fields of inquiry can include (but are not limited to): 

    •    Langage and poetics of science 

    •    Science-fiction

    •    Technology

    •    Ecology

    •    Eco/biosystem

    •    Matter and (im)materiality

    •    The elements

    •    Human/ Animal / Plant / Mineral

    •    Senses, sensations and synaesthesia

    •    Sexuality 

    •    Experience(s)

    •    Natural / artificial

    •    Time and temporality

    •    Location and space

Abstracts, in English or in French, should be 250 words long and sent to precisionssurlessciences@outlook.fr by 31 December 2016

Organisers: Dr Carine Fréville (University of Kent), Dominique Carlini Versini (University of Kent / Université Paris Diderot).

Location: University of Kent in Paris, Reid Hall, 4 rue de Chevreuse, 75006 Paris, France.

Précisions sur les sciences: Colloque international suivi d’un entretien public avec Marie Darrieussecq

Appel à communications/Call for papers

Nous sollicitons des propositions de communications en vue du colloque Précisions sur les sciences, qui abordera le thème des sciences dans l’œuvre de Marie Darrieussecq et qui se tiendra à l’Université du Kent à Paris le 4 mai 2017

Marie Darrieussecq fait une entrée fracassante en littérature avec Truismes en 1996, qui connaît un succès phénoménal en France comme à l’étranger. Elle a depuis publié un nombre important d’œuvres et a remporté en 2013 le Prix Médicis pour son roman Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes, ainsi que le Prix des prix littéraires. Son écriture protéiforme explore de nombreux genres et modes, du théâtre avec Le Musée de la mer (2009), à l’adaptation libre avec Clèves (2011), en passant par la littérature jeunesse avec Péronnille la chevalière (2008). Elle représente aujourd’hui l’une des personnalités les plus importantes de la scène littéraire française.

Parmi les thèmes clefs de l’œuvre de Darrieussecq, citons la figure du fantôme, la disparition, le corps et ses transformations, la maternité, l’appartenance, la mer ou encore le voyage. Son œuvre a attiré énormément d’attention critique en France, comme à l’étranger, et ce colloque espère rendre compte de ce bouillonnement intellectuel international.

L’explorationde ces thématiques et de bien d’autres encore passe souvent chez Marie Darrieussecq par un regard et un questionnement scientifiques. Dans une interview récente, l’auteure exprimait l’importance des sciences dans sa démarche créative en ces termes : « J’ai toujours, dans ma vie privée, aimé les scientifiques et ils m’ont apporté un énorme réservoir d’images. La physique quantique est très romanesque, par exemple. Ou le paradoxe de Fermi. Et j’ai lu beaucoup de science-fiction dans mon adolescence. »

Toutefois, il n’existe que peu de réflexions critiques autour de ce sujet. Nous vous invitons ainsi à soumettre des propositions de communications autour du thème des sciences dans l’œuvre de Marie Darrieussecq. Les champs d’exploration possibles peuvent inclure, mais ne sont pas limités à :

    •    Langage et poétique de la science 

    •    Science-fiction

    •    Technologie

    •    Écologie

    •    Éco/ Biosystème(s)

    •    Matière et (im)matérialité

    •    Les éléments

    •    Humain/ Animal/ Végétal/ Minéral

    •    Sens, sensations et synesthésie 

    •    Sexualité

    •    Expérience(s)

    •    Naturel/ Artificiel

    •    Temps et temporalité

    •    Lieu et espace

Les propositions, en anglais ou en français, d’environ 250 mots, sont à envoyer avant le 31 décembre 2016 à l’adresse suivante: precisionssurlessciences@outlook.fr

Organisatrices : Dr Carine Fréville (University of Kent), Dominique Carlini Versini (University of Kent/ Université Paris Diderot).

Lieu : Université du Kent à Paris, Reid Hall, 4 rue de Chevreuse, 75006 Paris, France.

Dominique Carlini-Versini is in the second year of her joint PhD in French studies at the University of Kent and the Université Paris Diderot. Her research project entitled 'Le corps dans tous ses excès' compares and contrasts corporeal representations in the works of Marie Darrieussecq, Virginie Despentes, Laurence Nobécourt and Marina de Van. In particular, it reflects upon the omnipresence of obscene bodies in the work of these artists and questions ways in which the materiality of the body can be inscribed in the text or the film. The study also seeks to investigate the reader’s or viewer’s visceral engagement in the works. Her research draws on feminist theory, gender studies and recent theory on haptic visuality and extreme aesthetics. Dominique is also a member of the editorial board of Skepsi, a peer reviewed online journal based in the School of European Culture and Languages at the University of Kent, and she is currently organizing an international conference on Marie Darrieussecq's work that will be held in Paris in May 2017.

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