Corina Crisu | Rewriting | Polytropic Identities in the Postmodern African American Novel | Chapter III | “A Cultural Mongrel” Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage

Publicat deMadalina Marcu

Apart from constituting the physical displacement of Africans from their homelands… [the Middle Passage] effectively transformed the cultures of Europeans and Africans alike, binding them in an uneven, yet symbiotic relationship. In other words, something new was created not only in the New World, but in Europe and Asia as well (Pedersen 1993, 225).

The experience of the Black body becomes, not merely a Self-Other conflict, nor simply Hegel’s torturous master-slave dialectic, but a variation on both these conditions (Johnson 1993 a, 605).


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

Pretexts: “Decalcifying Perception”

The essential role of (re)writing in assessing identity is revealed by Charles Johnson’s fiction—Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), The Sorcerer Apprentice (1986), Middle Passage (1990), Dreamer (1998), Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001).1 These texts point to his basic assumption of reconsidering the binary oppositions through which African Americans have often been defined: self versus other, mind versus body, African versus American, and black versus white. Johnson repeatedly states his goal of decalcifying writers’ and readers’ perception and pleads for a “deeper clarification of what we think we already know” (1988, ix). From this perspective, he criticizes the African American fiction that concentrates too much on a “deadly sameness of sensibility” (1988, 121), and in exchange he proposes a “four dimensional view” on black experience (1984, 2). In order to accomplish his kaleidoscopic literary perspective, he makes use of intertextual techniques, which draw upon both the Western and the African literary tradition, with special reference to Homer, Defoe, Swift, Equiano, Douglass, Melville, and Conrad. At the same time, philosophical mastertexts by Plato, Descartes, Hegel, and Husserl are rethought bearing in mind more recent philosophers Fanon, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, and Levinas.

Strange as it may seem, the more the literary tradition is evoked, the more it is revoked, undermined, and deconstructed. In accordance with Husserl’s phenomenological concept of epoche, Johnson stresses the need to suspend or bracket all known assumptions in order to achieve new imaginative perspectives.2 For him, the main point is not to get mentally “locked within the Natural Attitude” and “fix[ed] upon certain ‘meanings’” (Johnson 1993 a, 603). In an act of creative subversion and reversion, his text does not reflect an “uncritical mimesis,” but new ways of disrupting the intrinsic racism of the previous views upon identity (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 29, in Moraru 2001, 104).

In the present chapter, my analysis of Johnson’s Middle Passage foregrounds the role of intertextuality in reconfiguring the black character in the context of the Transatlantic slave history. Thus, the first three sections demonstrate how the novel’s multiple significance connects the fictional work of black and white authors, which become pretexts for expanding the reader’s perspective on identity. Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative (1789), Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1856), and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) represent key intertexts used in order to create new versions of black identity—“the greatest of all fictions” (Johnson 1990, 171).3 More than pure reflections, Middle Passage implies various textual refractions,4 i. e. various methods of deviating from the former literary meanings and playing them against new ways of understanding. Johnson uses parody, irony, contrast, and paradox, in a deconstructive game in which Equiano’s, Conrad’s, and Melville’s texts are reinterpreted. Since cultural refraction implies a multi-faceted process, Middle Passage sheds a new light upon both the African and the Western tradition, which are approached from untrodden paths.5

The last two sections stress the innovative ways in which Johnson departs from former views on identity. One of my main points concerns the way Johnson brings into focus the traumatic events of the Middle Passage, told from the double perspective of the African and American characters, by placing an African American narrator into a mediating position. In a never-ending cross-cultural exchange, the writer’s versions of identity have the same fluid, unfixed quality as his text. In Johnson’s Heraclitean perspective, the human self does not appear as a noun, but as a verb, “a process but not a product” (Interview 1993 b, 162). Always mobile, never a given, black identity is characterized by continuous transformation.

The main character in Middle Passage—Rutherford Calhoun—is the perfect illustration for a polytropic identity, of a porous, versatile, flexible nature. Indeed, Johnson himself initially thought of titling his novel Rutherford’s Travels. His book presents a postmodern Odysseus, an African American trickster, who becomes engaged in a voyage in order to escape the engulfing love of his Isadora/Penelope, the financial conspiracy of his creditors, and the urban state “of living death” (4). A manumitted slave from Louisiana, Rutherford comes to New Orleans only to embark on a slave ship moving between America and Africa. In the nine entries of his log, he narrates his voyage on board of the Republic, and spins terrifying stories about the slave commerce with Africans, Captain Falcon’s imperialistic ideas, the slave mutiny and the white crew’s revolt, acts of cannibalism, the destructive effects of a storm, and finally the blacks’ enslavement by their own people. In his travels, Rutherford learns how to question his own assumptions, discover his roots, and mostly how to live with alterity and see himself and his culture as another.

Hence, he achieves a “doubleness in writing,” which in his existential, textual, and “metaphoric” movement leads to the dislocation of the homogeneous spatial and temporal dimension of a single culture (Bhabha 1994, 141). Placed in a colonial scenario (the year is 1830), Rutherford’s double-sighted log incorporates both the perspectives of the colonizer and of the colonized, and draws our attention to the interchangeable master/slave roles. Through Rutherford’s mediating position, the Transatlantic “virtualization of national cultures” reveals not only the specificity of the African culture, but also America’s “particular customs and practices within a new, unfamiliar frame” (Giles 2002, 181).


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

“A Gentleman of Color:” Equiano’s Reversed Travelogue

The Middle Passage is a major recurrent trope in the poetry and prose writings of many contemporary Africans and African Americans: Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” (1945), Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s poem The Arrivants (1973), George Lamming’s novel Natives of My Person (1986), Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage (1990), and Clarence Major’s poem “The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage” (1994). The text that serves as a matrix for the works above is undeniably Olaudah Equiano’s eighteenth century narrative—a biography that is emblematic for the fate of countless slaves.

Captured from his native African land, Equiano was landed in the West Indies in the 1750s, and was later taken to the Colony of Virginia. He spent more than ten years of enslavement, before being able to regain his lost freedom. His narrative makes reference to the historical background of Middle Passage, at a time when the annual importation of slaves to the Americas “increased so rapidly that by the 1780s it stood at more than eighty thousand” (Horton and Horton 2001, 25). Equiano speaks on behalf of millions of slaves kidnapped from Africa and brought to the Americas, mainly for economic reasons. Even if he is familiar with the institutional slavery of the African countries, he “saw the Anglo-Christian version of slavery as an abomination” (Sabino and Hall 1999, 8). His narrative—a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic—points to the painful process of Transatlantic acculturation. The book can be seen as a cultural hybrid, in which the author’s unstable colonial identity is (re)formed in a process of exchange, of “strategic reciprocity” between the African, American, and European spheres (Kelleter 2004, 68).

In this context, Johnson’s Middle Passage is written in a parodic key, which both converses (with) and reverses Equiano’s travelogue and the premises of a slave narrative centered on the quest for freedom.6 For Johnson’s hero—who is already a liberated slave—his emotional and spiritual freedom is at stake. His running away from Isadora’s affective bondage connotes his escape from a conventional world, from being trapped in a barren existential project. Rutherford cannot accept the respectable status implied by Isadora’s marriage proposal, which is in fact a recurrent pattern in her family, (where her mother “tamed” her father’s adventurous character).

Ironically, Rutherford’s refusal to become “a gentleman of color” (9) makes reference to Equiano’s ardent desire to refashion himself into “a European” (2), to turn into a literate person who could contribute to the liberation of his black people through the dissemination of his writing. In Johnson’s text, Equiano becomes embodied in Rutherford’s brother, Jackson, a perfect model of Christian charity, who militates for his fellow beings’ liberation. Distancing himself from his fraternal counterpart, Rutherford stands at the beginning of the novel as an antihero, a Prodigal Son, the black sheep of the family. Only after his initiation, does he seem to attain a profound understanding of the others, which makes him identify with them and assist them in their suffering.

Written in the first person, Equiano’s and Johnson’s texts share another slave narrative convention: the insistence upon the protagonist’s acquisition of literacy. Equiano appears at the beginning of his narrative as an illiterate person, whose African monocultural view attributes to the slavers a magic existence. It is through the reading of the “Talking Book” that Equiano becomes “almost an Englishman” (132). Literacy thus gives him access to the Western knowledge, which has formerly been incomprehensible.7 He achieves in this way a multicultural perspective, in which his conversion to Christianity plays a major role—as indicated by the epigraph of his narrative:

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for

the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is [sic] become my salvation.

And in that day shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon his name,

declare his doings among the people (Isaiah xii. 2, 4).

These religious reverberations are to be found in Johnson’s synthetic epigraph, too:

Laud Deo

Journal of a Voyage intended

by God’s permission

in the Republic, African

from New Orleans to the Windward

Coast of Africa.

Johnson’s praisesong deconstructs Equiano’s invocation of the Christian white god. Throughout the novel, Rutherford learns how to accept the other African god not only as an image of an ancestral divinity, but also as an emblematic self-projection. In fact, he mocks at his brother’s religious pretensions and the way in which he “treated everyone the same” and leveled the others’ differences (108). As one who would not share Jackson’s religious credo and communitarian ideas, Rutherford feels excluded from the conversation between Jackson and his former master, Reverend Peleg Chandler.8

A surrogate paternal figure, Chandler has antislavery views and teaches the two brothers “out of Christian guilt” (8). Even if Rutherford has to meticulously learn the Neoplatonic doctrines, “the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jacob Böhme,” he fails to rise himself to the mission of a Negro preacher (3). In many ways, Chandler’s educational method provides Rutherford’s travels with a Eurocentric cultural framework. Both highlighted and parodied, these numerous cultural references become relative as they are placed in a broader Transatlantic perspective through the African models invoked. From a Bakhtinian perspective, Rutherford’s “negative mockery” and laughter undermine the “official seriousness” of the mainstream culture and reverse its “hierarchic levels” (Bakhtin 1984, 67, 81).

Within this framework, Johnson’s main focus on black identity artfully reconfigures Equiano’s outlook. In the tradition begun by Aphra Behn (1640-1724),9 Equiano’s narrative focuses on an African that is forcefully taken to the Western hemisphere. Obliged to give up his former identity, Equiano undertakes a profound transformation reflected in the change of his name (done by one of his masters) from Olaudah Equiano into Gustavus Vassa.10 The special significance of the title of his autobiography points to the intentional placement of his African name before his Western name, and also to his insistence upon his self-definition as an African: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.11 After buying his freedom, after fashioning himself into a gentleman and making himself famous as an advocate of abolitionism, Equiano seems to resume his former African identity—an act of “renewed awareness of himself as an African” (Overton 1992, 307).12

Departing from Equiano, Johnson creates a character that is not an African, but an American of African origin.13 Rutherford’s hybridized, hyphenated African American identity allows him to be placed in a mediating position in the conflict between the slaves and the slavers on the slave ship. Defined via negativa, he is neither an American (he is seen by the other crewmembers as none of them), nor an African (the slaves think of him as “a Yankee” (163) or “a Cooked Barbarian” (167)). A little bit American, a little bit African, his Ersatz self is made of a mosaic of features more “borrowed” than inborn. His occupation as a petty thief corresponds to his ability to steal inside various characters, to put on diverse masks.14

If we look at Rutherford through Brian McHale’s lens (1987), he is a postmodern character whose identity is no longer defined (as in modernism) by an epistemic paradigm focused on what he knows, but by an ontological one in which who he is becomes the main issue:

Believe me, I was a parasite to the core. I poached watches from Chandler’s bureau and biscuits from his kitchen… I listened to everyone and took notes: I was open, like a hingeless door to everything. And to comfort the weary on the Republic I peered deep into memory and called forth all that had ever given me solace, scraps and rags of language too, for in himself I found nothing I could rightly call Rutherford Calhoun, only pieces and fragments of all the people who had touched me, all the places I had seen, all the homes I had broken into (162).

As his writing incorporates other texts, so Rutherford’s composite self is parasitical,15 and feeds on others’ possessions. His collage-self with no essence stands for the epitome of the fragmented, indeterminate postmodern identity. This “dismembered” black Orpheus bears testimony of his own rootless condition, pertaining to everywhere and nowhere (Hassan 1971). Easily crossing borders, he is able to adapt by adopting the individuality of other people. “A mosaic of many countries” (162), his cosmopolitan identity thus becomes engaged in a process of self-mockery and mimicry of the others.

The idea of a Transatlantic identity can be therefore traced both in Equiano’s and Johnson’s texts. Their multiple perspectives (African, American, and European) offer access to a plural vision, which is accomplished through a complex process of cultural translation. For the African Equiano “consent” to the Christian religion offers compensation for his suffering and a deeper understanding of the Western world. In a reversed process, for Rutherford his attainment of a transnational consciousness helps him look beyond his racial identification as a former American slave into his African ethnic “descent” (Sollors 1987).


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

“A Gentleman of Color:” Equiano’s Reversed Travelogue

The Middle Passage is a major recurrent trope in the poetry and prose writings of many contemporary Africans and African Americans: Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” (1945), Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s poem The Arrivants (1973), George Lamming’s novel Natives of My Person (1986), Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage (1990), and Clarence Major’s poem “The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage” (1994). The text that serves as a matrix for the works above is undeniably Olaudah Equiano’s eighteenth century narrative—a biography that is emblematic for the fate of countless slaves.

Captured from his native African land, Equiano was landed in the West Indies in the 1750s, and was later taken to the Colony of Virginia. He spent more than ten years of enslavement, before being able to regain his lost freedom. His narrative makes reference to the historical background of Middle Passage, at a time when the annual importation of slaves to the Americas “increased so rapidly that by the 1780s it stood at more than eighty thousand” (Horton and Horton 2001, 25). Equiano speaks on behalf of millions of slaves kidnapped from Africa and brought to the Americas, mainly for economic reasons. Even if he is familiar with the institutional slavery of the African countries, he “saw the Anglo-Christian version of slavery as an abomination” (Sabino and Hall 1999, 8). His narrative—a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic—points to the painful process of Transatlantic acculturation. The book can be seen as a cultural hybrid, in which the author’s unstable colonial identity is (re)formed in a process of exchange, of “strategic reciprocity” between the African, American, and European spheres (Kelleter 2004, 68).

In this context, Johnson’s Middle Passage is written in a parodic key, which both converses (with) and reverses Equiano’s travelogue and the premises of a slave narrative centered on the quest for freedom.6 For Johnson’s hero—who is already a liberated slave—his emotional and spiritual freedom is at stake. His running away from Isadora’s affective bondage connotes his escape from a conventional world, from being trapped in a barren existential project. Rutherford cannot accept the respectable status implied by Isadora’s marriage proposal, which is in fact a recurrent pattern in her family, (where her mother “tamed” her father’s adventurous character).

Ironically, Rutherford’s refusal to become “a gentleman of color” (9) makes reference to Equiano’s ardent desire to refashion himself into “a European” (2), to turn into a literate person who could contribute to the liberation of his black people through the dissemination of his writing. In Johnson’s text, Equiano becomes embodied in Rutherford’s brother, Jackson, a perfect model of Christian charity, who militates for his fellow beings’ liberation. Distancing himself from his fraternal counterpart, Rutherford stands at the beginning of the novel as an antihero, a Prodigal Son, the black sheep of the family. Only after his initiation, does he seem to attain a profound understanding of the others, which makes him identify with them and assist them in their suffering.

Written in the first person, Equiano’s and Johnson’s texts share another slave narrative convention: the insistence upon the protagonist’s acquisition of literacy. Equiano appears at the beginning of his narrative as an illiterate person, whose African monocultural view attributes to the slavers a magic existence. It is through the reading of the “Talking Book” that Equiano becomes “almost an Englishman” (132). Literacy thus gives him access to the Western knowledge, which has formerly been incomprehensible.7 He achieves in this way a multicultural perspective, in which his conversion to Christianity plays a major role—as indicated by the epigraph of his narrative:

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for

the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is [sic] become my salvation.

And in that day shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon his name,

declare his doings among the people (Isaiah xii. 2, 4).

These religious reverberations are to be found in Johnson’s synthetic epigraph, too:

Laud Deo

Journal of a Voyage intended

by God’s permission

in the Republic, African

from New Orleans to the Windward

Coast of Africa.

Johnson’s praisesong deconstructs Equiano’s invocation of the Christian white god. Throughout the novel, Rutherford learns how to accept the other African god not only as an image of an ancestral divinity, but also as an emblematic self-projection. In fact, he mocks at his brother’s religious pretensions and the way in which he “treated everyone the same” and leveled the others’ differences (108). As one who would not share Jackson’s religious credo and communitarian ideas, Rutherford feels excluded from the conversation between Jackson and his former master, Reverend Peleg Chandler.8

A surrogate paternal figure, Chandler has antislavery views and teaches the two brothers “out of Christian guilt” (8). Even if Rutherford has to meticulously learn the Neoplatonic doctrines, “the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jacob Böhme,” he fails to rise himself to the mission of a Negro preacher (3). In many ways, Chandler’s educational method provides Rutherford’s travels with a Eurocentric cultural framework. Both highlighted and parodied, these numerous cultural references become relative as they are placed in a broader Transatlantic perspective through the African models invoked. From a Bakhtinian perspective, Rutherford’s “negative mockery” and laughter undermine the “official seriousness” of the mainstream culture and reverse its “hierarchic levels” (Bakhtin 1984, 67, 81).

Within this framework, Johnson’s main focus on black identity artfully reconfigures Equiano’s outlook. In the tradition begun by Aphra Behn (1640-1724),9 Equiano’s narrative focuses on an African that is forcefully taken to the Western hemisphere. Obliged to give up his former identity, Equiano undertakes a profound transformation reflected in the change of his name (done by one of his masters) from Olaudah Equiano into Gustavus Vassa.10 The special significance of the title of his autobiography points to the intentional placement of his African name before his Western name, and also to his insistence upon his self-definition as an African: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.11 After buying his freedom, after fashioning himself into a gentleman and making himself famous as an advocate of abolitionism, Equiano seems to resume his former African identity—an act of “renewed awareness of himself as an African” (Overton 1992, 307).12

Departing from Equiano, Johnson creates a character that is not an African, but an American of African origin.13 Rutherford’s hybridized, hyphenated African American identity allows him to be placed in a mediating position in the conflict between the slaves and the slavers on the slave ship. Defined via negativa, he is neither an American (he is seen by the other crewmembers as none of them), nor an African (the slaves think of him as “a Yankee” (163) or “a Cooked Barbarian” (167)). A little bit American, a little bit African, his Ersatz self is made of a mosaic of features more “borrowed” than inborn. His occupation as a petty thief corresponds to his ability to steal inside various characters, to put on diverse masks.14

If we look at Rutherford through Brian McHale’s lens (1987), he is a postmodern character whose identity is no longer defined (as in modernism) by an epistemic paradigm focused on what he knows, but by an ontological one in which who he is becomes the main issue:

Believe me, I was a parasite to the core. I poached watches from Chandler’s bureau and biscuits from his kitchen… I listened to everyone and took notes: I was open, like a hingeless door to everything. And to comfort the weary on the Republic I peered deep into memory and called forth all that had ever given me solace, scraps and rags of language too, for in himself I found nothing I could rightly call Rutherford Calhoun, only pieces and fragments of all the people who had touched me, all the places I had seen, all the homes I had broken into (162).

As his writing incorporates other texts, so Rutherford’s composite self is parasitical,15 and feeds on others’ possessions. His collage-self with no essence stands for the epitome of the fragmented, indeterminate postmodern identity. This “dismembered” black Orpheus bears testimony of his own rootless condition, pertaining to everywhere and nowhere (Hassan 1971). Easily crossing borders, he is able to adapt by adopting the individuality of other people. “A mosaic of many countries” (162), his cosmopolitan identity thus becomes engaged in a process of self-mockery and mimicry of the others.

The idea of a Transatlantic identity can be therefore traced both in Equiano’s and Johnson’s texts. Their multiple perspectives (African, American, and European) offer access to a plural vision, which is accomplished through a complex process of cultural translation. For the African Equiano “consent” to the Christian religion offers compensation for his suffering and a deeper understanding of the Western world. In a reversed process, for Rutherford his attainment of a transnational consciousness helps him look beyond his racial identification as a former American slave into his African ethnic “descent” (Sollors 1987).


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

Toward “Heart of Darkness:” The Double-Sighted Narration

Constructed though a complex process of textual refraction, Johnson’s novel rewrites not just Equiano’s narrative, but also Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.16 As in a distorted mirror where racial colors are reversed, Conrad’s white narrator is refracted by Johnson’s black narrator. Both Marlow and Calhoun are flaneurs, polytropic heroes with versatile identities, who travel to Africa from the Western hemisphere (one from England, the other one from America) acquiring a relativistic perspective. The kind of narrator proposed by Conrad and Johnson is a paradigmatic homo duplex, who learns to re-negotiate his identity across the African territory—an apparently blank page whose native message has to be deciphered.

The ontological redefinition that takes place through the encounter with the Other, is prompted in both Marlow’s and Calhoun’s case by an epistemological lack, a desire to enlarge their horizon of knowledge. Marlow’s “hankering after” the “blank spaces of the earth” (Conrad 11) and Rutherford’s intense staring at the sea express their desire to evade a circumscribed existence. Reiterating Frederick Douglass’ famous autobiographical scene of gazing at the ocean, Johnson initially places his hero on a limbo-like pier, his gate toward freedom:

I would sneak off to the waterfront, and there, sitting on the rain-leached pier in heavy, liquescent air, in simmering light so soft and opalescent that sunlight could not fully pierce the fine erotic mist, limpid and luminous at dusk, I would stare out at sea, envying the sailors riding out on merchantmen on the gift of good weather, wondering if there was some far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth’s rim where a freeman could escape the vanities cityfolk called self-interest, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom (4).

Besides its escapist message, the above fragment works as a critique of the American fake ideals and self-centered values. As in Conrad’s text, the narrator undertakes a “retreat ‘inward,’ away from the real” (Artese 2003, 176), in which the possibility of a journey presupposes the actualization of a utopian project by reversing known conventions.

As the African uncharted terra nulla is a figment of their imagination, both Marlow’s and Calhoun’s accounts expose the faults of any historiography, its subjective relativism. Deeply fictionalized, Africa corresponds for Marlow to a mysterious “place of darkness” (12) inhabited by savages, a taboo zone from where nobody returns. In his turn, Calhoun initially perceives Africa through Cringle’s racist comments, which demonize its people as “sorcerers,” “devil-worshiping, spell-casting wizards” (43). Discussing the European colonial travel writing, Mary Louise Pratt demonstrates how the narrator is generally embodied by a white male who depicts the foreign territory by drawing binary oppositions (us/them), and vivisects the landscape from a Western “scientific” perspective in order to serve imperialist means. Pratt also mentions how in the Western narrative the indigenous population is bracketed, represented apart from the exotic landscape into separate chapters on ethnographic themes (1986).

Thematizing this opposition, Conrad’s description of the voyage inside Africa signifies a plunge into the unreal, an intrusion into an unknown, blank, unreadable territory, where the natives are just mysterious actors caught in an ambivalent love-hatred relation with the colonial invaders. Few are the instances in which Marlow can see or communicate with the natives, and even Mr. Kurtz’s relationship with the black people is ambivalent, (since he is perceived more as a superhuman presence to which they offer their ivory tribute). As Al-Dabbagh remarks, “Conrad’s ‘existentialist’ solution as well as the recourse of postcolonial discourse to ‘multiculturalism’ are ultimately pseudo-solutions that merely mirror, rather than remedy, the existing conditions of oppression” (2001, 81).

Compared to Conrad, who maintains most of the time the barrier between the Western characters and the African natives, Johnson succeeds in his politically correct goal of letting the subaltern speak, of allowing “Caliban” to expose the fantasy of his worldview. Like Houston A. Baker, Jr., Johnson believes in the necessity of escaping the simplistic “self-and-other” duality. As Baker states, “there is a need to explode the duality, for it often leads merely to an endless rehearsing of evidence (such as the ‘scientific’ proof that Caliban’s tribe is not really ‘racially’ deformed, but merely populationally different)” (1986, 389). In Middle Passage, Johnson solves the initial “self-and-other” opposition by means of a triangular relation. His main technique consists in placing an African American “Prospero” in the middle of a racial conflict—the angle of refraction through which the reader can rethink the stereotypical representations of the colonized African Other.

Johnson’s mediating vision is explored through Rutherford’s double-sighted text, which encodes two versions of the narrated events and enables him to redefine his identity through the complex interchange of the colonizer/colonized views.17 From one perspective, he presents the way in which the Africans project the Americans into the role of “raw barbarians” who are “shipping them to America to be eaten” (65, 75). From another perspective, Falcon’s log is revelatory, as he places the slaves next to the other “goods” in his cargo and treats them as savages whose undisciplined behavior has to be tamed: “if any Negro even looked as if he was thinking of rebellion, that man was to be birched and taught the sting of noose and yardarm” (66).18

Besides, Johnson avoids the stereotyping of the Africans and the bracketing of the colonized space in two ways. His first technique is to place between parentheses not Africa, but America, in the sense that it turns into a “weird, upside-down caricature,” a melting pot of “refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives” (179). Alienated from itself, lacking any cohesion, America is a Babylonian land of contrasts—a topography that the hypocrite flaneur can no longer call home.19

His second technique is to project the narrated events upon a Transatlantic scenario, an “unshaped” area that serves as a fluid borderline between Africa and America. Both a mirroring surface and an unfathomable depth, it epitomizes the double process through which the characters pass—one of self-reflection and self-discovery.20 The Atlantic is also an antinomian space, where conventions are dissolved: “All bonds, landside or on ships, between master and mates, women and men… were a lie forged briefly in the name of convenience and just as quickly broken when they no longer served one’s interest” (92). Envisaged in Paul Gilroy’s terms, the Black Atlantic transcends “both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity” (1993, 19). In this oceanic atopos, the categories “us” and “them” become elusive and slip into one another.

The most relevant proof of this categorial slippage is Rutherford’s journal that literally gets contaminated by the others’ difference. A heterogeneous fiction, the log attains the double-sighted quality of its owner, reflecting various existential paradigms in which the Euro-American and African worldviews intermingle. The log stages neither a promotion of Afrocentrism, nor a “painful demise of Eurocentrism” (Asante 1999). In this light, Johnson seems to reject both these viewpoints as essentialist.21 Through his character’s “middle” position, he endorses a cultural cross-fertilization that operates transformations upon both the European and African worldview.

Rutherford’s act of writing in Captain Falcon’s journal does not represent in the least a continuation of Falcon’s imperialist task. On the contrary, Rutherford’s gesture symbolically reenacts the postcolonial rewriting of colonial texts.22 Falcon’s log obviously frames the quintessence of a colonizer—“a patriot whose burning passion was the manifest destiny of the United States to Americanize the entire planet” (30). His dwarfish stature23 sharply contrasts with his far-reaching ambition to take possession of most of the world: his unquenched passion to travel to new territories aims not at exploring, but at conquering, while his exceptional ability to learn new languages aims not at communicating, but at subduing. Both famous and infamous, this Faustian man is “a creature of preposterous, volatile contradictions” (49). His biography is inter-twinned with that of the young American nation, since “he, like the fledgling republic itself, felt expansive, eager to push frontiers, even to slide betimes into bulling others and taking, if need be, what was not offered” (50). His Franklinesque educational formula combines Puritan traits (his quest for perfection as well as his loneliness and estrangement from the others), with Transcendentalist ideas (his insurmountable trust in his own strength and self-reliance).

At an intertextual level, Ebenezer Falcon’s fictional portrait makes obvious reference to Conrad’s hero, Mr. Kurtz, the legendary figure of a white conqueror lost in the dark heart of Africa, “an angel or a fiend,” who “sen[t] in as much ivory as all the others put together” (Conrad 27). While both Falcon’s and Kurtz’s grandiloquent myths are concocted in the pages of Western newspapers, both of them exercise a mixture of awe and fear over the native people whom they rob either of their freedom or of their goods. Crushed in their Icarian flight of taking into possession the essence of otherness, both Falcon and Kurtz strive to transfer their accumulated knowledge to their literary successors—Marlow and Calhoun—the narrators who have the role of transmitting the story further on. Still, while Conrad’s text ends with the distribution of Kurtz’s documents to the others,24 Johnson empowers Rutherford to continue Falcon’s story (as it appears in the scene of Falcon’s death):

‘…Do your best. Include everything you can remember, and what I told you, from the time you came on board. Not just Mr. Cringle’s side, I’m saying, or the story the mutineers will spin, but things I told you when we met alone in secret.’

To this I reluctantly agreed. I took his logbook from the ruins. But I promised myself that even though I’d tell the story (I knew he wanted to be remembered), it would be, first and foremost, as I saw it since my escape from New Orleans (146).

The lines above make direct reference to the unavoidable subjectivity of any historiography, which is nothing more than a mixture of various points of view. Even if Falcon used to write naked, as a way of showing his objective, “unclothed” approach to the narrated events, even if he advises Calhoun to include a multiplicity of perspectives, Rutherford realizes the impossibility of escaping a personal bias. Since writing means remembrance, and the journal spins back retrospectively (narrating the events that had happened about two months before), Rutherford is aware that “there is no historiography that is not ultimately dependent on individual testimonies” (Lyotard 1988, 45).25

Rutherford’s taking into possession Falcon’s log turns into metaphor the significant act of investing the colonized with the power to recuperate and (re)write a history of dispossession. In fact, Rutherford’s narration is symptomatic for a postmodern text, as a reflection of/on modernity. Writing after Falcon (whose project is par excellence a modernist one), Rutherford’s postmodern, double-sighted story offers both the colonizer and the colonized perspective upon the transcription of events. Rutherford quotes accordingly passages from Falcon’s text only in order to question them. His position is noticeably not the same as Falcon’s, since there is an epistemic gap between the former slave and the actual slaver. The narrator thus offers a sharp contrast between his sympathetic view of the slaves’ suffering and Falcon’s Hobbesian, bellicose ideas that justify slavery.

In the same direction, Rutherford’s rummaging through Falcon’s cabin proves to be a symbolic gesture of claiming ownership over what was taken away from the colonized. For a dispossessed person like Rutherford, theft operates as a means of trespassing racial boundaries: “Theft, if the truth be told, was the closest thing I knew to transcendence” (46). Since the colonizer literally and metaphorically “stole” the identity of the colonized, theft involves the recuperation of what once belonged to the colonized. With its mesmerizing collage of plundered countries, the cabin is a museum that tropes his imperialist drives:

His biggest crates of plunder from every culture conceivable, which he covered with tarp at the rear of the room, were wrenched open, spilling onto the sloping floor bird-shaped Etruscan vases, Persian silk prayer carpets, and portfolios of Japanese paintings on rice paper… Slowly, it came to me… that he had a standing order from his financiers, powerful families in New Orleans who underwrote the Republic, to stock Yankee museums and their homes with whatever of value was not nailed down in the nations he visited. To bring back slaves, yes, but to salvage the best of their war-shocked cultures, too (48-9).

Suspended over the Atlantic space, the cabin is synecdochic of the American culture created through the assimilation of other cultures. In this melting pot, the assimilation is undertaken not through the annihilation of other cultures, but through their dislocation and relocation in the context of the newly formed American nation.26

Hence, the ship that is symbolically named the Republic alludes to the American nation: a floating, unformed land that is still pushing its frontiers, a multicultural territory where the elusive “heart” of otherness is transplanted. Its “decentered interior” makes one “culturally dizzy” through its fusion of African, Asian, and European influences (Johnson 1990, 142). In this dynamic space, both the identities of the colonizers and that of the colonized are changed in a process of cultural appropriation. As pointed out in the next sections, a major consequence of the Middle Passage refers to the way in which both the African and the American identity can be re-negotiated by means of a mediating vision.


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

“Don Benito’s Harlequin Ensign:” The Slave Mutiny

In a Hegelian view, one achieves “personhood” only through a relationship with another person. In order to become self-conscious, one person has to reflect upon oneself. This reflection upon oneself is accomplished only if it is reflected back by “another self on a par with one’s self” (Inwood 1992, 246). Advocating the interchangeability of roles, Hegel affirms that in the dialectical relation between master and slave not only is the slave dependent on the master, but the master is also dependent on the slave. Like the slave, the master achieves a “dependent consciousness,” in which the recognition of his dominating role is conditioned by the existence of the subjected slave (Hegel 1967).

In Johnson’s Middle Passage,the episode of the slave mutiny offers a powerful instance of the author’s mediating vision on the interdependent roles of master and slave. Drawing on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Johnson’s text advocates that the master/slave conflict is perpetuated even if their positions are reversed so that they cannot escape their vicious circle of enslavement.27 Fictionalizing the slave rebellions aboard the ship Amistad (1839) and aboard the ship Creole (1841), both Melville and Johnson make us reflect on “slavery as a chain reaction” (Giles 2002, 32). In their texts the episode of the slave mutiny functions as a memento on the interchangeability of the master/slave positions.28 In both cases, the Africans take charge, murder most of the white crew, and transform the survivors into slaves kept alive only for their knowledge of navigation. Their ship turns out to be a teatrum mundi, a floating opera, a world turned upside down, where “mutineers, Africans, and able seamen could not be distinguished” (Middle Passage 106).

In Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” the English Captain Amasa Delano boards the Spanish ship San Dominick, where a successful slave mutiny has taken place. While the Spanish Captain, Don Benito Cereno, is forced by the Africans to pretend that he is still in charge, Delano is misled by their subterfuge and fails in “reading” the real significance of the events. Master of ambiguity and quid pro quo, Melville skillfully underlines the discrepancy between what Delano sees and what he knows. Even if Delano is able to detect something “incongruous” and “contradictory” in the present situation (51, 72), his preconceived ideas on the master/slave hierarchy prevent him from deciphering the subtext of this “tale of suffering” (42). He is consequently offered a version of the story fabricated by the apparently “unsophisticated Africans” and reluctantly told by the “gentlemanly” Spanish Captain (43). This reversal of roles points to the polarity in which the master/slave places are interchangeable. By simultaneously taking charge of the ship and fulfilling the task of Don Benito’s “faithful” servant, the African Babo stands for white man’s shadow, his double, his parodic reflection.

In a game of mimicry and mockery, Melville’s technique of reversing roles makes both Delano and the reader question their racial assumptions. The Africans appear in fact far more complex than they are initially thought to be. Via disguise, lying, and cajoling, they know how to manipulate the two white captains. Only in rare moments, Delano’s intuition helps him see beyond the deceptiveness of Don Benito’s “harlequin ensign” (81):29

To Captain Delano’s imagination, now again not wholly at rest, there was something so hollow in the Spaniard’s manner, with apparently some reciprocal hollowness in the servant’s dusky comment of silence, that the idea flashed across him, that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the very tremor of Don Benito’s limbs, some juggling play before him (81).

With the use of pastiche and parody, Johnson adopts events and characters from the Melvillean text and incorporates them in his reflexive, postmodern novel.30 Unlike Melville, Johnson places his Janus-faced, polytropic narrator on a more flexible position. If Delano fails in deciphering Cereno’s cryptic tale, Rutherford is a Hermes figure, a great linguist who can easily gain knowledge of the others’ plans, and whose “middle” position makes him an accomplice of both parties. In fact, in Johnson’s text, two mutinies take place: the one of the white crew who intend to destabilize the captain’s tyrannical supremacy, and the one of the slaves who strive to regain their lost liberty. In this twofold conflict, Rutherford has the role of a double agent, if not, of a triple agent—the man whom the white crew, the white captain, and the Africans want to employ equally.31

As Johnson’s watchful narrator is placed in the privileged position of knowing the others’ intentions, he understands his own part in a greater masquerade in which the actors may easily change roles. The scene in which Rutherford secretly witnesses Meadows beating the dogs exposes that mimicry can become an effective weapon for gaining control. Posture, speech, and clothing are used in order to create the “devastating caricature” of the adversaries: Calhoun, Cringle, and other mates or Africans (104). Meadows’ manipulating technique expresses again the vulnerability of subjective boundaries, the possibility to easily exchange roles.

At an intertextual level, both Johnson and Melville offer ambivalent chronicles of the mutiny. Melville’s twice-told story has an official and an unofficial version. Cereno’s first account of the events to Delano offers the version imposed by the Africans, while his later report to the court reveals his own version—the complementary narrative that fills in the gaps of the previous tale. Even if these unreliable versions are told by a white man, they are actually prompted by a black character who is the instigator of events and the author of the story. One can hear Babo’s words in Benito’s mouth resonating in a disquieting, distorted way. Hence, the incredible, fabricated nature of this “fictitious story dictated to the deponent by Babo, and through the deponent imposed on Captain Delano” (105). Master of puppets, Babo has authorial control over his story, as well as over the life of Cereno, who is turned into a marionette, “one of those paper captains” (53). In spite of Cereno’s refusal to look at Babo during the trial, we are told that their destinies continue to be intermingled after their death: fixed on a pole in a plaza in Lima, Babo’s head, “that hive of subtlety,” gazes at St. Bartholomew church where Cereno is buried (113).

While alluding to Melville’s text, Johnson ironically reverses it. Toward the end of Middle Passage, Cringle undertakes a powerful conversion in which he no longer perceives the Africans as mysterious savages, but as “friends,” “shipmates,” “brave lads” and “lasses” (173). Just before offering himself to be killed and eaten by the others in a supreme act of altruism, he makes reference to Melville’s English captain: “‘tis scandalous how some writers such as Amasa Delano have slandered black rebels in their texts” (173). Invoking Melville’s character, Cringle’s exclamation questions the assumptions of his nineteenth century text, in which the Africans are inescapably forced into the role of the Other.

Through Rutherford’s middle position, the Allmuseri are no longer depersonalized slaves, but their culture, history, and language are sympathetically revealed. Unlike Cereno whose reluctance to look at Babo expresses the colonizer’s refusal to learn about the Other, Rutherford finds his African counterpart in Ngonyama, the one who calls him his “brother” and initiates him into the Allmuserian worldview. In the same way in which American history is not linear, Allmuserian history gains momentum from a series of departures, adventures, and returns that have led to cultural syncretism. Africa, India, America, and the Caribbean islands have left their imprint on their arts and language. Their unitary Weltanschauung is reflected by their written language, which is not designed for “doing analytic work, or deconstructing things into discrete parts” (77-78). Part of an exemplary tribe, the Allmuseri teleologically connect their destiny with their legends, and with their Christian-like manners. In this context, Rutherford’s manifest desire to appropriate their worldview and his identification with them prefigures his later ability to redefine himself in terms of the Other:

Compared to other African tribes, the Allmuseri were the most popular servants. They bought twice the price of Bantu or Kru. According to legend, Allmuseri elders took twig brooms with them everywhere, sweeping the ground so as not to inadvertently step on creatures too small to see. Eating no meat, they were easy to feed. Disliking property, they were simple to clothe. Able to heal themselves, they required no medication. They seldom fought. They could not steal. They fell sick, it was said, if they wronged anyone. As I live, they so shamed me I wanted their ageless culture to be my own (78).


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

Mediating Visions: “Oneself as Another”

Carl Pedersen comments upon three ways in which the Middle Passage can be understood. Firstly, the traditional view advocates a complete erasure of the African history. Secondly, the Afrocentric perspective claims the intact preservation of the African inheritance. Thirdly, a more moderate, “middle” position pleads for a “cultural syncretism” (226), in which various elements from both the colonized and the colonizing cultures are intertwined. Furthermore, Pedersen regards the Middle Passage as “the defining moment of the African-American experience” (1993, 225).

Johnson’s Middle Passage explores the “uneven, yet symbiotic relationship” between the American colonizer and the African colonized (Pedersen 1993, 225). For Johnson, race is defined through mediation, contamination, and symbolic exchange. He consequently demonstrates that racial identity is not a Parmenidean notion with a fixed character,32 but an always-shifting entity, essentially transformed by the interaction between the black and white protagonists.33 During his voyage, Calhoun’s multi-faceted character and mediating position allow him to witnesses the way in which both the blacks and the whites leave their imprint on each other.

On the one hand, the Allmuseri are initially presented as an unmarked people, one whose cultural text cannot be “uncoded” by the ignorant Calhoun (124). Later on during the passage, Rutherford will come to comprehend that their nature has irreversibly been altered, that their colonization consists in their assimilation into a new worldview. Thus, “the slaves’ life among the lowest strata of Yankee society—and the horrors they have experienced—were subtly reshaping their souls as thoroughly as Falcon’s tight-packing had contorted their flesh during these past few weeks… No longer Africans, yet no longer Americans either” (124-25).34 The multiple layers of the Africans’ identity reveal accordingly what Homi Bhabha called “the palimpsest of the colonial identity,” “not Self as Other, but the ‘Otherness’ of the Self” (1967, xiv-xv).

On the other hand, the white crew’s relation to the Africans alters them irreversibly. One particular instance is offered by Falcon, whose person is so badly damaged after the slave mutiny that he can no longer control his facial expression. Once his self-reliance is gone, he is able to confess to whom the ship belongs—to the black man Philippe Zeringue alias Papa—the real possessor of the “goods.” The narrator’s rhetorical question condenses the reversal of terms he has to witness: “Was Ebenezer Falcon telling me that he, at bottom, was no freer than the Africans?” (147). Is he, a white man, telling us that he is controlled by a black man? Falcon’s confession exemplifies that being overdetermined from without does not function only in the case of the colonized, but also in the case of the colonizer. Both master and slave are half-entities, crippled subjectivities, caught in a wider web of selfish interests.

Witnessing the blacks’ and whites’ changes, we come to understand the deep interaction between the colonizer and the colonized, the reciprocal nature of social and racial relations. Johnson’s novel thus reminds us of Paul Ricoeur’s view in Oneself as Another advocating that “the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as we might say in Hegelian terms” (1992, 3). In Middle Passage, a Transatlantic exchange takes place, as the Africans’ and the Americans’ identities become closely interconnected. Using a rhetoric of duplicity, Johnson’s text underlines the interaction of identities that occurs in this process of appropriating the other. It offers accordingly an Americanized version of African-ness, as well as an Africanized version of American-ness.

More than anybody else, Rutherford has a flexible identity that allows him to identify both the perspectives of the colonizer and of the colonized; he bends his ear both to Falcon’s colonial view and Ngonyama’s colonized frame of mind. His postmodern relativism allows him an insight into their antagonistic perspectives and the ways in which they influence each other. To exemplify, in a significant scene, Rutherford is forced to heave overboard the corpse of an African boy. By touching the slave’s“rigor mortis” (O’Keefe 1996), he experiences a simultaneous state of self-estrangement and identification with the abject body. In the same way in which the boy’s body gets disconnected, so Rutherford feels alienated from his own hand that held the cadaver and, as if reiterating Lady Macbeth’s desire to wipe the murderous stain off her hands, he wants to slice off his wrist. As in an inverse mirror, the corpse becomes Rutherford’s double:35

His open eyes were unalive, mere kernels of muscle, though I still found myself poised vertiginously on their edge, falling through these dead holes deeper into the empty hulk he had become, as if his spirit had flown and mine was being sucked there in his place (123).

The passage encodes Johnson’s technique of textual slippage, through which he gets acquainted with the fascinating double-sided nature of abjection. Not only does Rutherford identify with the abject other, but also the reader experiences a sense of complicity with a text situated at the verge of the sublime and the perverse. As Julia Kristeva observes, writing about abjection “implies an ability to imagine the abject, that is, to see oneself in its place and to thrust it aside only by means of the displacement of verbal play” (1982, 16). The cadaver36 therefore encodes the epitome of self-denial, the border that is necessary for self-definition, but beyond which one no longer exists.37

Rutherford’s vertigo while looking at the dead body adumbrates his later transformation into a living cadaver—a young man in his twenties who has grown old, a puer senex empathizing with others, yet estranged from them. He turns into Coleridge’s ancient mariner destined to wander in a floating “coffin,” upon an “impenetrable” ocean (Middle Passage 83, 105); one who bears witness of the life-in-death state of his crew. As “Death climbed in through every portal” (155), all people on board get infected by countless types of physical or mental disease. Their severed limbs speak of their amputated souls that have committed what the Allmuseri call the “moral plague” of slipping into relativity (163).

Another crucial instance of Rutherford’s identification with the Allmuseri is manifested in his encounter with their god, which makes him better understand his relation to his African ancestry. Rutherford’s descent into the ship’s darkest chamber symbolizes his contemplation of his own psychological abyss—a liminal experience that offers him the possibility to comprehend his family history and come to terms with his tormented past. Being an elusive shape-shifter, the African god reincarnates into Rutherford’s father, “the fugitive Riley Calhoun” (167). His father’s figurative portrait offers an emblematic image for countless slaves whose failure to escape has proved to be meaningful. Besides his Don Juanesque manners and naughty joy de vivre, Riley Calhoun believes in the slaves’ power to continue fighting for their freedom. Rather than directing his anger toward his white owners, his subversive words have the mission of awakening the black people by reminding them of their African lineage. His death is endowed accordingly with a deeper significance, as his voice belongs to an anonymous chorus—“a mosaic of voices within voices, each one immanent in the other, none his but all strangely his” (171). Toni Morrison’s countless slaves crammed in the tight-packer described in Beloved are converted here into a chorus of harmonious voices:

I had to listen harder to isolate him from the We that swelled each particle and pore of him, as if the (black) self was the greatest of all fictions; and then I could not find him at all. He seemed everywhere, his presence, and that of countless others, in me as well as the chamber, which had subtly changed. Suddenly I knew the god’s name: Rutherford (171).

In the ubiquitous sound of paternal voices, Rutherford has the epiphanic experience of his own identification with the ancestral image, so that his identity should become fictionalized, part of a collective story of death and rebirth. Rutherford’s state of being unconscious for three days (evoking Lazarus’ death and resurrection) suggests his inner mortification and renewal that result in his acquisition of a visionary double-sight: “my sight was distorted, I saw everything in doubles” (171). Neither a colonizer nor a colonized, his “middle” position allows him to become “a cultural mongrel,” to inhabit a state of in-between-ness that tends to reconcile extremes (187).

In Johnson’s view, Rutherford’s ability to see himself as another implies the transcendence of relativism: “If we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism; in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, ‘to retire into oneself is to leave oneself’” (Johnson 1988, 44). This idea is also supported by Emmanuel Levinas for whom transcendence implies “the desire for something else.” As the alterity is not conceived in advance, “it opens from the outside in the face of another, in the other who faces” (Levinas 1978, 11). For Levinas, the main concern of our existence is given by “the being with which one finds itself affected” (10). In the same line, for Johnson, the encounter with the Other does not absorb or annihilate the self, but transforms it in a continuous relational process.


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

Mediating Visions: “Oneself as Another”

Carl Pedersen comments upon three ways in which the Middle Passage can be understood. Firstly, the traditional view advocates a complete erasure of the African history. Secondly, the Afrocentric perspective claims the intact preservation of the African inheritance. Thirdly, a more moderate, “middle” position pleads for a “cultural syncretism” (226), in which various elements from both the colonized and the colonizing cultures are intertwined. Furthermore, Pedersen regards the Middle Passage as “the defining moment of the African-American experience” (1993, 225).

Johnson’s Middle Passage explores the “uneven, yet symbiotic relationship” between the American colonizer and the African colonized (Pedersen 1993, 225). For Johnson, race is defined through mediation, contamination, and symbolic exchange. He consequently demonstrates that racial identity is not a Parmenidean notion with a fixed character,32 but an always-shifting entity, essentially transformed by the interaction between the black and white protagonists.33 During his voyage, Calhoun’s multi-faceted character and mediating position allow him to witnesses the way in which both the blacks and the whites leave their imprint on each other.

On the one hand, the Allmuseri are initially presented as an unmarked people, one whose cultural text cannot be “uncoded” by the ignorant Calhoun (124). Later on during the passage, Rutherford will come to comprehend that their nature has irreversibly been altered, that their colonization consists in their assimilation into a new worldview. Thus, “the slaves’ life among the lowest strata of Yankee society—and the horrors they have experienced—were subtly reshaping their souls as thoroughly as Falcon’s tight-packing had contorted their flesh during these past few weeks… No longer Africans, yet no longer Americans either” (124-25).34 The multiple layers of the Africans’ identity reveal accordingly what Homi Bhabha called “the palimpsest of the colonial identity,” “not Self as Other, but the ‘Otherness’ of the Self” (1967, xiv-xv).

On the other hand, the white crew’s relation to the Africans alters them irreversibly. One particular instance is offered by Falcon, whose person is so badly damaged after the slave mutiny that he can no longer control his facial expression. Once his self-reliance is gone, he is able to confess to whom the ship belongs—to the black man Philippe Zeringue alias Papa—the real possessor of the “goods.” The narrator’s rhetorical question condenses the reversal of terms he has to witness: “Was Ebenezer Falcon telling me that he, at bottom, was no freer than the Africans?” (147). Is he, a white man, telling us that he is controlled by a black man? Falcon’s confession exemplifies that being overdetermined from without does not function only in the case of the colonized, but also in the case of the colonizer. Both master and slave are half-entities, crippled subjectivities, caught in a wider web of selfish interests.

Witnessing the blacks’ and whites’ changes, we come to understand the deep interaction between the colonizer and the colonized, the reciprocal nature of social and racial relations. Johnson’s novel thus reminds us of Paul Ricoeur’s view in Oneself as Another advocating that “the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as we might say in Hegelian terms” (1992, 3). In Middle Passage, a Transatlantic exchange takes place, as the Africans’ and the Americans’ identities become closely interconnected. Using a rhetoric of duplicity, Johnson’s text underlines the interaction of identities that occurs in this process of appropriating the other. It offers accordingly an Americanized version of African-ness, as well as an Africanized version of American-ness.

More than anybody else, Rutherford has a flexible identity that allows him to identify both the perspectives of the colonizer and of the colonized; he bends his ear both to Falcon’s colonial view and Ngonyama’s colonized frame of mind. His postmodern relativism allows him an insight into their antagonistic perspectives and the ways in which they influence each other. To exemplify, in a significant scene, Rutherford is forced to heave overboard the corpse of an African boy. By touching the slave’s“rigor mortis” (O’Keefe 1996), he experiences a simultaneous state of self-estrangement and identification with the abject body. In the same way in which the boy’s body gets disconnected, so Rutherford feels alienated from his own hand that held the cadaver and, as if reiterating Lady Macbeth’s desire to wipe the murderous stain off her hands, he wants to slice off his wrist. As in an inverse mirror, the corpse becomes Rutherford’s double:35

His open eyes were unalive, mere kernels of muscle, though I still found myself poised vertiginously on their edge, falling through these dead holes deeper into the empty hulk he had become, as if his spirit had flown and mine was being sucked there in his place (123).

The passage encodes Johnson’s technique of textual slippage, through which he gets acquainted with the fascinating double-sided nature of abjection. Not only does Rutherford identify with the abject other, but also the reader experiences a sense of complicity with a text situated at the verge of the sublime and the perverse. As Julia Kristeva observes, writing about abjection “implies an ability to imagine the abject, that is, to see oneself in its place and to thrust it aside only by means of the displacement of verbal play” (1982, 16). The cadaver36 therefore encodes the epitome of self-denial, the border that is necessary for self-definition, but beyond which one no longer exists.37

Rutherford’s vertigo while looking at the dead body adumbrates his later transformation into a living cadaver—a young man in his twenties who has grown old, a puer senex empathizing with others, yet estranged from them. He turns into Coleridge’s ancient mariner destined to wander in a floating “coffin,” upon an “impenetrable” ocean (Middle Passage 83, 105); one who bears witness of the life-in-death state of his crew. As “Death climbed in through every portal” (155), all people on board get infected by countless types of physical or mental disease. Their severed limbs speak of their amputated souls that have committed what the Allmuseri call the “moral plague” of slipping into relativity (163).

Another crucial instance of Rutherford’s identification with the Allmuseri is manifested in his encounter with their god, which makes him better understand his relation to his African ancestry. Rutherford’s descent into the ship’s darkest chamber symbolizes his contemplation of his own psychological abyss—a liminal experience that offers him the possibility to comprehend his family history and come to terms with his tormented past. Being an elusive shape-shifter, the African god reincarnates into Rutherford’s father, “the fugitive Riley Calhoun” (167). His father’s figurative portrait offers an emblematic image for countless slaves whose failure to escape has proved to be meaningful. Besides his Don Juanesque manners and naughty joy de vivre, Riley Calhoun believes in the slaves’ power to continue fighting for their freedom. Rather than directing his anger toward his white owners, his subversive words have the mission of awakening the black people by reminding them of their African lineage. His death is endowed accordingly with a deeper significance, as his voice belongs to an anonymous chorus—“a mosaic of voices within voices, each one immanent in the other, none his but all strangely his” (171). Toni Morrison’s countless slaves crammed in the tight-packer described in Beloved are converted here into a chorus of harmonious voices:

I had to listen harder to isolate him from the We that swelled each particle and pore of him, as if the (black) self was the greatest of all fictions; and then I could not find him at all. He seemed everywhere, his presence, and that of countless others, in me as well as the chamber, which had subtly changed. Suddenly I knew the god’s name: Rutherford (171).

In the ubiquitous sound of paternal voices, Rutherford has the epiphanic experience of his own identification with the ancestral image, so that his identity should become fictionalized, part of a collective story of death and rebirth. Rutherford’s state of being unconscious for three days (evoking Lazarus’ death and resurrection) suggests his inner mortification and renewal that result in his acquisition of a visionary double-sight: “my sight was distorted, I saw everything in doubles” (171). Neither a colonizer nor a colonized, his “middle” position allows him to become “a cultural mongrel,” to inhabit a state of in-between-ness that tends to reconcile extremes (187).

In Johnson’s view, Rutherford’s ability to see himself as another implies the transcendence of relativism: “If we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism; in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, ‘to retire into oneself is to leave oneself’” (Johnson 1988, 44). This idea is also supported by Emmanuel Levinas for whom transcendence implies “the desire for something else.” As the alterity is not conceived in advance, “it opens from the outside in the face of another, in the other who faces” (Levinas 1978, 11). For Levinas, the main concern of our existence is given by “the being with which one finds itself affected” (10). In the same line, for Johnson, the encounter with the Other does not absorb or annihilate the self, but transforms it in a continuous relational process.


Chapter III

“A Cultural Mongrel”

Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson’s

Middle Passage

Fictional Self-Reconstruction: “Our Futures Blended”

Since for Rutherford writing means placing himself into the role of the Other, his log entails transmitting to a racially mixed audience the chronicle of suffering he has witnessed. Dispossessed of everything, he takes into possession the story of the Middle Passage and, through a process of catharsis, he offers us a fictional self-reconstruction. Physically and psychologically wounded, in a Job-like condition, Rutherford’s rescue on board of Juno marks his spiritual renewal. His sole possession salvaged after the shipwreck—the log—serves “as a means to free [himself] from the voices in [his] head,” of liberating himself from the unspeakable events (189).

At a metafictional level, Rutherford is conscious of his authorial role of giving shape to his textual universe, making us aware once more of his simultaneous authorial act of creation and criticism:

…Nothing in my sight could sustain itself without me, how I was responsible for all of it, the beauty and ugliness; and I thought of how the mate was righter than he knew, and of Blake, a poet Master Chandler had me read, his beguiling, Berkeleyesque words, ‘I see the windmill before me; I blink my eye, it goes away,’ and so did the cabin, and so did the world (181).

Read in the empiricist tradition, Blake’s poem presently invoked points to the visual quality of Rutherford’s narration, to the relationship between senses, reality, and writing. Once his vision is gone, the fictional existence of his characters simply dissolves. Johnson consequently draws attention to his postmodern novel, where “the uncertainly about the validity of its representations” coexists with “an extreme self-consciousness about language, form, and the act of writing” (Waugh 1993, 40).

While the voyage changes his seeing and he turns into a postmodern, “cultural mongrel,” Rutherford learns to appropriate the Other’s worldview, to bargain for the Other’s survival. Rutherford’s polytropic character consequently evolves in the novel: from a New Orleans petty thief who embarks by accident on a tight-packer, he gradually metamorphoses into a passionate scrivener who strives to present impartially the history of his voyage, and finally into a benevolent hero who provides for the orphan African children.38 Johnson thus rescues his character from his initial fragmented state, from his dangling parasitical nature, and endows his actions with an altruistic message. As Christian Moraru notes, “Rutherford’s heterogeneous self pulls itself together and recuperates its own agency and ethos as it discovers the bonds between the enslaved blacks and itself” (2001, 110).

Finally, Rutherford’s fictional self-reconstruction would not have been possible without the reappearance of his female counterpart. The deus ex machina reunion ofthe two protagonists highlights through a fine lens their inner and outer transformations. While Isadora is presented at the beginning in caricaturesque lines, as a fat teacher anxious to “save” Rutherford by enticing him with her dreams of marital happiness, she evolves into a seductive heroine, Papa’s fiancée, “courted by a [black] man who owns half of the city” (196).39 The end of story presents a beautified version of Isadora, a parodic Penelope who stalls her marriage to Papa by knitting sweaters for her cats, and who is finally saved by her Rutherford/Odysseus.

In the novel’s cyclical movement and prismatic game of mirrors, Isadora’s unwritten log is “embedded in Calhoun’s” (Muther 1996, 654). As she emerges in flashes into his narrative, she reminds us of Rutherford’s inner change by juxtaposing his former image upon his present one. The final scene is relevant: whereas the old Rutherford would have answered her lures, the present one avoids both sexual contact and a romanticized happy ending: “I wanted our futures blended, not our limbs, our histories perfectly twined for all time, not our flesh” (208). The traumatic memory of the Middle Passage acts as a “rip of insufficiency and incompleteness” that separates the heroes in spite of their reunited destinies. Their brotherly embrace simultaneously affirms and denies the possibility of their sexual union, and leaves the novel open-ended.

This problematic ending of Middle Passage is meant to remind us of the possibility of transgressing borders. By placing a narrator-mediator in the middle of a racial conflict, the author allows both the black and the white characters to present their views through an endless process of textual refraction. In his Transatlantic scenario, races are taken out of their psycho-geographical frame and interact so that the borders between them become porous. Through the eyes of his hero—a cultural mongrel—Johnson searches for an alternative to the rigid identities of the color line.

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