Monday, January 08, 2007

Marshall, Devi, and Militant Mourning

Here's a long passage from Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, part of which I'll be discussing during my Marshall/Devi talk in Hawaii on Friday, featuring American radical anthropologist Saul Amron's response to Bournehills organic intellectual Merle Kinbona's room as he watches over her while she is in a kind of coma, rendered in free indirect discourse by the semi-omniscient, semi-objective narrator of the novel:

But the room expressed something more, it suddenly seemed to his own overtaxed and exhausted mind, something apart from Merle. It roused in him feelings about Bournehills itself. He thought he suddenly saw the district for what it was at its deepest level, the vague thoughts and impressions of months coming slowly to focus. Like the room it, too, was a kind of museum, a place in which had been stored the relics and remains of the era recorded in the faded prints on the walls [of slave ships and plantation labors and punishments], where one not only felt that other time existing intact, still alive, a palpable presence beneath the everyday reality, but saw it as well at every turn, often without quite realizing it. Bournehills, its shabby woebegone hills and spent land, its odd people who at times seemed other than themselves, might have been selected as the repository of a history which reached beyond it to include the hemisphere north and south.

And it would remain as such. The surface might be jarred as it had been by the events today [the closing of the Cane Vale factory in which the Bournehills natives who own land have traditionally brought the sugar cane they have grown and harvested on their own time to be processed]. People like himself would come seeking to shake it from its centuries-old sleep and it might yield a little. But deep down, at a depth to which only a few would be permitted to penetrate, it would remain fixed and rooted in that other time, serving in this way as a lasting testimony to all that had gone on then: those scenes hanging on the walls, and as a reminder--painful but necessary--that it was not yet over, only the forms had changed, and the real work was still to be done; and finally, as a memorial--crude in the extreme when you considered those ravaged hills and the blight visible everywhere, but no other existed, they had not been thought worthy of one--to the figures bound to the millwheel in the print and to each other in the packed, airless hold of the ship in the drawing.

Only an act on the scale of Cuffee's [leader of a slave revolt that freed Bournehills for a time] could redeem them. And only then would Bournehills itself, its mission fulfilled, perhaps forgo that wounding past and take on the present, the future. But it would hold out until then, resisting, defying all efforts, all the halfway measures, including his, to reclaim it; refusing to settle for anything less than what Cuffee had demanded in his time.

I know this is Close Reading Tuesday and all, but I have to follow this up with a passage from Mahasweta Devi's "Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha," for the juxtaposition of these two passages gets to the heart of my talk's argument about the meaning, significance and stakes of the similarities and differences between Marshall's and her take on militant mourning; in it, Pirtha can be compared to Bournehills, Puran Sahay to Saul Amron, Shankar to Merle Kinbona, and Bikhia to someone like Stinger or the residents of Bourne Island's Harlem Heights, a shanty town on the outskirts of Bourne Island's capital city (italics are reproduced as in the translation, to indicate words in English in the original novella):

Bikhia, the only discoverer of the embodied ancestral soul, gives everyone oil from a small bowl at the point of a twig in a ceremonial way.

Why does this boy observe the same rule in the matter of the form of the ancestral soul as is appropriate to the funeral rites of the formerly living? No one asks this question.

Did he see its death?

No questions asked.

Did he cremate or bury it?

No questions asked.

But the flow of excitement travels like a current of electricity.

Did the soul of the ancestors come in this way? Or didn't it?

Pirtha knows, it knows.

Did they fall into mourning at a dreadful news? Pirtha knows, it knows.

There are many rites after the oil bath, Pirtha will perform them as needed.

Puran realizes that the crisis of the menaced existence of the tribals, of the extinction of their ethnic being, pushed and pushed them toward the dark.

Looking at Bikhia's tawny matted hair, freshly shaven face,he understood they were being defeated as they were searching for a reason for the ruthless unconcern of government and administration. It was then that the shadow of that bird with its wings spread came back as at once myth and analysis.

This is a new myth. For the soul of those long dead will return hundreds of years later in the form of an unknown tired bird. Such a thing is probably not even there in their oral tradition.

But from now on they will wait in their suffering and in evil times for that shadow, otherwise this deception cannot be humanly explained.

Having drawn that stone tablet Bikhia is the guardian of the new myth. He will protect it.

And this mourning, this "oil bath" has given them an assurance. Now something has happened that is their very own, a thing beyond the reach of the understanding and grasp and invasion and plunder of the outsider....

Shankar says softly, "...But we will not leave Pirtha."

He looks around and says, "Why should we leave? Isn't this our place? Now no tribal will leave. The ancestors' soul let us know that all the places it visited are ours. Can anyone leave anymore, or will they leave?"

--Is that what it let you know? Who told you this?


Shankar says triumphantly.

Puran shakes and shakes his head. They will not leave, they will not go anywhere leaving those stones, hills, caves, and river. To the fertile fields, to the plains, where there is plenty of water, and many supports for survival.

--If they want to give us aid, let them give it to us here.

Spreading his arms, he says, "All this land was ours, the kings took it from us. They were supposed to return it to us, to whom did they give it back? No, we won't go anywhere. Let them give us our dues here."

Both Devi and Marshall draw intimate connections between mourning and militancy, in these and other passages where it either happens or fails to happen for native or outsider individuals. Where Marshall might be read as celebrating a kind of postcolonial melancholia, or at least a work of mourning so protracted and massive that it takes on aspects of melancholia, Devi might be read as celebrating the completion of the work of mourning, a move from individual and collective despair and depression toward hope and resolve. But both seek to subvert and reimagine classic colonialist and racist stereotypes--of backward, primitive peoples trapped in the past by their irrational attachment to ancestral lands and traditions; of the superiority of civilization, progress, modernity, modernization, development--by showing that trauma has a history and a presence, by showing that mourning has a politics and a promise. In a sense, the apparition and passing of the pterodactyl in Devi's novella plays a similar role that Cuffee Ned's rebellion and leadership during Bournehills' brief period of independence plays in Marshall's novel: both provide material for a new story, a new myth, a new sense of identity to be created out of a past and present that seem to offer little but oppression and exploitation--all of which offer resources for survival and endurance of the repeated repetition of the traumatic history of enslavement and conquest which forms the past of Marshall's novel and, in Puran's vision, at least, the likely future of the people of Pirtha in Devi's novella, long enough to perhaps change or end it.

The distance between the realistic reports the outsider protagonists end up submitting and what Marshall and Devi try to achieve in their fiction--and their relation--is worth developing further. But I'm going back to Hawthorne the next two days, then taking a break from blogging until we return from Hawaii on the 17th. I'll report on how the talk and conference went soon afterwards and then in February devote several posts to breaking the talk down into blog-post-sized chunks. Tomorrow I plan to return to the sea and Hawthorne's relationship to Mukherjee/Conde and Thursday before we leave for Hawaii to the brook in The Scarlet Letter and its relation to Beloved.

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