"The black tide of mud" Reference and transference in Ishmael Reed's "Mumbo Jumbo"
Kerr, Lydia R.
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This dissertation investigates the experience of reading provoked by Ishmael Reed's 1971 novel Mumbo Jumbo according to the ways in which this text both figures and disrupts the threshold between fiction and history. Prior scholarship has characterized this disruption as a celebration of self-referentiality and linguistic indeterminacy, and in this way has emphatically situated Mumbo Jumbo as an early paragon of postmodern literature. I contend, to the contrary, that this perspective overlooks Reed's own stated objectives concerning his novel, which he considered an act of artistic guerrilla warfare, and which manifests a signifying strategy that is concerned less with figurative language and interpretive openness than with an occult power of words and the invocation of psychic "fixes," or spells, that implicate actual historical figures as well as the larger historical and civilizational context that these figures emblematize. In theorizing this position, I borrow the HooDoo notion of "the Work" from Reed's novel in order to introduce the concept of "the Work of fiction," which positions the reader at the site of the convergence between history (the real world) and fiction (the imaginary world); this position thus should be understood as the locus from which Mumbo Jumbo subverts, productively redetermines, and reconstructs the calcified signifiers of what the text calls Civilization As We Know It. Chapter one, "The Work of Fiction," unfolds this concept via a reading of the "all persons fictitious" disclaimer that traditionally precedes a novel but that Mumbo Jumbo dis-locates between the first two chapters. I argue that by installing this presumably extra-textual artifact within the fiction, the novel inverts the disclaimer's function as a border dividing the fictional from the real, and transforms it into a proclamation of the text's intention to undermine the empiricist epistemology for which it stands. This places my analysis at odds with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s influential reading in The Signifying Monkey , which I show to be complicit with this epistemology because of its insistence on the novel's closed self-referentiality and thus its independence from the history out of which Reed's occult significations are fashioned. Rather than establish a definite, supposedly objective connection between these significations and their historical precedents, however, I emphasize that such connections emerge out of an experience of reading that is both a calculated effect of Reed's Neo-HooDoo aesthetic and incalculably singular to each reader's encounter with his novel. Chapter two, "Freud Fainted," examines the intersections between the historical record of Sigmund Freud's 1909 visit to Clark University and this record's subversive reproduction in Mumbo Jumbo . Further, I show that while explicitly contending with the (mal-)practice of psychoanalysis in the United States, Mumbo Jumbo also treats the work of the unconscious comprising Freud's clinical practice as a foil for the Work practiced by the novel's protagonist, PaPa LaBas, in his Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, and, by implication, by Reed's own signifying strategy. In this way, Mumbo Jumbo conjures potential coincidences between psychoanalysis and VooDoo, HooDoo, and Neo-HooDoo and suggests that a reliance on the occult power of language might lie dormant in psychoanalysis, or perhaps form its very foundation. Chapter three, "Occult Transmissions: Between Freud and Reed," takes up this provocation by exploring the psychoanalytic technique of construction , which involves an approach to signification that might not only account for, but indeed welcome the "supernatural" effects Reed aims to induce, rather than dictating a theoretical and terminological bulwark against them. My central contention is that Reed's narrative of the Egyptian family romance from which Civilization As We Know It originated is a re-writing of Freud's Moses and Monotheism that targets the originary, unconsciously inherited trauma that structures the American present. As with Freudian construction, Reed's novel does not attempt to reconstruct an actual, chronologically locatable historical occurrence, but instead produces an origin that is logically prior to the present that it motors. This coincidence between Freud and Reed further outlines the resonances joining psychoanalytic practice with the Work of fiction that animates Mumbo Jumbo and that activates the experience of reading through which the novel achieves its singular effects.