Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Discussion Highlights from "The Middle Passage"

A week ago "The Literary Gathering" was held at my home on the book titled, "The Middle Passage," by Charles Johnson, and the following are some of the highlights of that discussion:

- Generally speaking, this was a "middle of the road" kind of book for most of us. Some of us enjoyed it more than others, but the general concensus was that it wasn't the kind of book in which we'd call our friends and beckon them to read it. Some of the overly descriptive language, especially in regards to the health conditions of those passengers on board, was too descriptive for some of us.
-We talked at length about the main character, Rutherford Calhoun. We discussed his past (his relationship with his brother and his previous "owner"), his present (his petty theft and womanizing lifestyle), and his future (as always, there are a couple "hopeless romantics" in this group which like to believe that there will be a "happily ever after" for Rutherford, Isadora and dare I say, maybe children? :)
-We were all surprised that none of the guiding questions prompted discussion about the "beast" which was housed in the belly of the ship. What was it, after all? Was it merely an animal of such proportions that it scared the daylights out of everyone? Or did it symbolize a different beast for each passenger, depending on their past and their own "demons?"
-Along those lines, we also had a very interesting discussion about the possible religious symbolism in this novel. Did the "beast" in the belly of the ship possibly symbolize the devil, while First Mate Peter Cringle symbolized Christ, as he offered his body to the other ship passengers in his death? It would be interesting to re-read this novel with that "religious symbolism" frame of mind, and see if anything else becomes apparent.
-In the end, it was an interesting, albeit a bit gruesome, read; thanks for the lively discussion fellow readers!

Added by Tessa (Nov 3):

Here is an interesting review that seems to capture our concern about the mysterious "god" in the hold, and our feeling that nothing really ever came of that:

Misadventrues In The Slave Trade

There are problems with Charles Johnson's third novel that might seem to call forth from a reviewer the old cheap-shot treatment. But the genre switches of ''Middle Passage,'' from period bodice-ripper to metaphysical drama, are - like every other aspect of this fairly short book - heroic in proportion. There's an endearing and determined recklessness at work here, for Mr. Johnson, who is a professor of English at the University of Washington and the former director of its creative writing program, manages to break with heretic abandon many of the cherished axioms of the writing academies.
Mr. Johnson violates not only the genre-switch rule but Chekhov's ''rifle'' dictum (that if there's a rifle on the wall, it has to go off before the curtain descends). The assumption that anachronisms are permitted in Elizabethan literature but should be researched out of modern fiction also goes by the board: Mr. Johnson, for example, describes one of his characters, a 19th-century sea captain, as living ''by the principle of Never Explain and Never Apologize.''
All this roughshod riding is achieved with such panache, however, that I wound up wanting to cheer him, even though the scribe in me might disapprove. In fact, I found Mr. Johnson forcing me back to the ultimate question, the one high-toned reviewers are supposed to avoid at any cost: how does the book read? And the answer is: you'll certainly want to go on reading ''Middle Passage.''
In the summer of 1830, Rutherford Calhoun, freed slave from Illinois and flamboyantly learned scoundrel, escapes marriage to a cat-loving schoolmarm in New Orleans and hides aboard a slaver called the Republic. Calhoun's former master has given him a humanist education, and his narration of an extraordinary voyage is spiked with 19th-century maritime argot as well as such terms as ''velleities,'' ''haecceitas'' and ''quidditas.''
The Republic is bound for the Gulf of Guinea to take on African slaves. Rutherford's peculiar position, as a former slave and an American patriot aboard a ship devoted to the enslavement of a fresh set of Africans, provides the lens through which bondage is considered. But Mr. Johnson further enriches this perspective. In the coastal trading post at Bangalang, the tormented dwarf Captain Falcon takes aboard not only a cargo of Allmuseri tribesmen, thought by slavers everywhere to be premium-grade slaves, but also their god. Barely glimpsed and packaged in a crate, the divinity is lowered into the hold. From that point, the Republic seems to the reader to be both massively laden and held together by threads. Mr. Johnson has us by the throat.
Rutherford Calhoun, the manumitted slave, knows how the god unbalances the ship. The Allmuseri are dangerous enough on their own, since they practice an elegant, dancelike form of unarmed combat. And although they can be chained and guarded, their many-faced god, packed into an insecure crate, churns in the darkest recesses of the hold like a nuclear reactor on the edge of meltdown.
''Middle Passage'' is a novel in the honorable tradition of ''Billy Budd'' and ''Moby-Dick.'' We are often told by the berserk scholar-captain, Falcon, that a ship is ''a society, if you get my drift. A commonwealth, Mr. Calhoun.'' The Republic is therefore also a republic - one with a literal underclass, the Allmuseri, who suck their innate cleverness deeply into themselves in their prison in the bilges. Young Rutherford is torn between loyalty to his white American comrades on deck and his empathy for the pulses of sorrow that emanate from the hold. And this loose federation is likely at any second to be eaten whole, to be reduced to atoms. For the divine force that the mad president of this ''commonwealth'' has chosen to take aboard is not only vaster than the ship but than the whole damned ocean.
With such a setup, Mr. Johnson's book just about transcends its faults, one of which is a frequent straining for meaning, an unnecessary portentousness. Surely some of the conversations Captain Falcon has with his unwilling confidant, Rutherford, in a cabin booby-trapped in case of mutiny are the fanciest possible ways of expressing the sentiment, ''I know slaving's wrong, but it gives me a kick.'' ''Dualism,'' says Falcon, ''is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other - these ancient twins are built into mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. . . . Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.''
But then maybe Mr. Johnson is reminding us that a little metaphysics is the beginning of evil. What are we to make, too, of Rutherford's gift for hyperbole and bathos? ''There were cases of distemper,'' he tells us, ''a sort of maddening fever degenerating into a frenzy so violent that the victim ripped away his clothes, shredded his skin, or that of the man next to him, to hanging ribbons, then leaped into the sea. And these, I must add, were the milder cases aboard ship.''
And then - once more - there are the rifles that don't go off. We're told, for example, that the Allmuseri language has little room for nouns or ''static substances.'' Rutherford reports that ''a 'bed' was called a 'resting,' a 'robe' a 'warming.' Furthermore, each verb was different depending on the nature of the object acted upon.'' We can't wait, therefore, to hear the Allmuseri start to talk. But when they do, even the noblest of them, Ngonyama, merely utters such plain sentiments as, ''That decision isn't mine, Rutherford.''
The most important device of all, the cosmic rifle that only partly fires, is the Allmuseri deity. When Rutherford Calhoun encounters it, it takes on a form from his past. We are not told that this confrontation with Rutherford slakes the god of his thirst for souls. In fact, it is Rutherford himself who is pretty much extinguished by the meeting. We understand from the aura of threat that Mr. Johnson has managed to build up that the god transcends the elements and is eternal. By contrast, we know from the time we see the slaves being loaded onto the Republic that the ship will ultimately vanish from the tale. And yet, once the Republic does go, the Allmuseri deity is also no longer in the book.
In the end, there is a rescue involving a handsome clipper ship, where the tables are glibly turned upon a Creole gangster and slavemonger named Zeringue, whom we first met in the book's opening chapter. But with Zeringue, after being so long in Melville territory, we are back in a neatly whimsical arm of the sea. The cosmic has been supplanted by a variety of nautical sitcom. The question of whether the Allmuseri's enormously powerful god might not come ravening over the gunwales one night is not addressed. The question of how Rutherford can live with himself, having sailed on a slaver and even devoured human meat, seems resolved in the end by an artificial jollity.
Nevertheless, ''Middle Passage'' is still an engrossing book and - to say it again - one that leaves a reader unsure whether its almost willful failures are not sometimes its very point. This is fiction that hooks into the mind. Above all, it speaks of the legacies and griefs the peculiar institution has brought to the life of the American Republic.

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