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From the particular to the universal re-reading pessimism in dream on monkey mountain


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  • 1. Adaner UsmaniEnglish 195: Marxism and Postcolonial LiteratureProfessor Jeyifo01/11/08From the Particular to the Universal: Re-Reading Pessimismin Dream on Monkey Mountain1
  • 2. IntroductionIt is fair to say that a ubiquitous source of tension in anti-racist political endeavors concerns theplace of the particular in efforts towards total emancipation. The recognition that race is socially andhistorically constructed has encouraged many to reconsider the progressive potential of claiming aparticular identity. Should the intention, instead, not be to transcend the pernicious grammar of identitypolitics itself? At first glance, Derek Walcotts Dream on Monkey Mountain seems to agree: inchronicling this reclamation of identity as a neurosis peculiar to a mad context, one might readily arguethat it delivers a decidedly pessimistic rendering of the return to the particular in the form of theAfrican revival. In this essay, however, I argue that an attentiveness to the interstices of the failure ofthis revival can complicate that pessimism in ways that prefigure the promise of the universal. I suggestthat Walcotts play helps us rethink, with Laclau, the initial and traditional temptation to diametricallyoppose the universal to the particular. In this way, Dream on Monkey Mountain, while condemning itscharacters to the tumult of colonial racism, also makes possible the hope of escape.Before beginning, a word: because it is important to the task of this paper that it engage thetheoretical ramifications of Walcotts text, I here attempt to integrate textual analysis and close-readingsinto commentary on various theoretical frameworks. Naturally, while I have made every attempt tonever let the latter dominate the former, it may be argued that, in places, the integrity of Walcotts playis compromised. Whether or not this proves the case, the reader should remember that it is never ourobjective to suggest that Walcott himself might (or might not) intend the possibilities his play presents;rather, we premise our analysis on an approach that problematizes the work more holistically.Fanon on Mimicry and NegritudeWith these leanings in mind, it makes sense to outline first the theoretical vocabulary at stake inthis paper. Initially, this task takes us to Frantz Fanon, and his famous 1956 speech later released as the2
  • 3. essay “Racism and Culture”. There, Fanon incisively chronicled the advancing sophistication of theforms of racism that accompanied progressively more elaborate structures of colonial domination. Heargued that, as colonialism comes to rely on more and more subtle systems of rule, the “racism thataspires to be rational, individual, genotypically and phenotypically determined, becomes transformedinto cultural racism. The object of racism is no longer the individual man but a certain form ofexisting” (32, Fanon 1988).Concomitant to this advance, Fanon suggests, we notice also the emergence of new forms ofresistance—“defense mechanisms” (38, Fanon 1988). The initial stage of “vulgar, primitive, over-simple racism” (32, Fanon1988 ), where efforts to establish a scientific basis for the superiority of theoppressors prevailed, bound the subjugated to mimicry and imitation.1Yet, as the increasing complexityof social relations leads the colonized to discover the futility of this phase, a new pattern of resistance isinaugurated, where “the inferiorized individual” rediscovers his origins; his old “culture, abandoned,sloughed off, rejected, despised, becomes for the inferiorized an object of passionate attachment” (41,Fanon 1988). Critically for this essay, Fanon—in an expectation that recalls the apotheosis awaiting theoppressed at the end of most Leftist renderings of the “march of history”—commits here to a teleologythat leads the colonized to their inexorable liberation, as this “plunge into the chasm of the past” provesitself “the condition and the source of freedom” (43, Fanon 1988).2To adopt the terms this essay willemploy, the particular, through struggle, becomes a vehicle for universal emancipation.31 “In an initial phase we have seen the occupying power legitimizing its domination by scientific arguments, the inferiorrace being denied on the basis of race. Because no other solution is left it, the racialized social group tries to imitate theoppressor and thereby to deracialize itself” (38, Fanon 1988).2 Fanons Marxist commitments, which he makes explicit in the essay, add to this sense of the inevitability ofemancipation, even though he does then engage thoughtfully the questions this raises about the relative importance ofthe subjective element in historical transition.3 “The occupants spasmed and rigid culture, now liberated, opens at last to the culture of people who have really becomebrothers. The two cultures can affront each other, enrich each other. In conclusion, universality resides in this decision torecognize and accept the reciprocal relativism of different cultures once the colonial status is irreversibly excluded” (44,Fanon 1988).3
  • 4. Walcott and the “Defence Mechanisms”Though Dream on Monkey Mountain explores the two types of resistance prominent in Fanonsessay (mimicry and the African revival), the specific trajectory of his argument is upset. No longer doesthe attempt to imitate exist antecedently to an eventual liberation via a return to “blackness”, butinstead both resistances seem to coexist impotently in an exploration of the madness of the colonizedsplight. As outlined earlier, this essay recommends that we complicate that pessimism by looking at thenuances internal to this plays discussion of the alleged failure of this second type (the reclamation of“blackness”). Even still, it makes sense to address briefly the first half of the claim (the futility ofimitation) before concentrating on Walcotts treatment of the “African Revival”, which is this essaysfocus.MimicryThis, the exposing of “imitation” as a futile survival strategy, we see most clearly in the folliesof the Corporal. The play inaugurates him as the torch-bearer of this ideal in the prologue, where hevery deliberately seeks to distance himself from the “blackness” of Tigre, Souris and Makak:CORPORAL: Animals, beasts, savages, cannibals, niggers, stop turning this place to a stinkingzoo! [and later:] ... some of the apes had straighten their backbone, and start walking upright, butthere was one tribe unfortunately that lingered behind, and that was the nigger. Now if you apeswill behave like gentlemen, who knows what could happen? The bottle could go round, but firstit behoves me, Corporal Lestrade, to perform my duty according to the rules of Her MajestysGovernment, so dont interrupt. (216-217, Walcott).The rub, of course, is that the Corporals hypersensitivity to his own image derives from his racialambiguity as a mulatto: his short-lived “descent” into “blackness” toward the end of the playnotwithstanding, he finds himself trapped by the never-ceasing need to prove himself in the colonizersmetrics. Hence we see him overdoing “whiteness” throughout the play.4Partly, the very fact of the4 “CORPORAL: My noble judges. When this crime has been categorically examined by due process of law, and when themotive of the hereby accused by whereas and ad hoc shall be established without dychotomy, and long after we haveperambulated through the labyrinthine bewilderment of the defendants ignorance, let us hope, that justice, whom we all4
  • 5. comedy of these moments,5coupled with various other slippages,6renders him unconvincing as amodel that others can adopt.Yet, at the same time, these shortcomings also exist independent of the ambiguous condition ofthe Corporal, specifically: Dream on Monkey Mountain makes clear that immanent in the very ideal ofimitation is the irony that “whiteness”, even while it presents itself as open and accessible to the not-white, depends for its security on the existence of “blackness”. In this sense, imitation can neverprefigure collective emancipation: the test of the individuals “whiteness” is precisely his distance fromthe many who are black. Because the sections that follow specify the places that this notion ofinterdependence appears in the text, here it suffices to state the thesis more generally. Of course, theclaim anyway is quite standard in postcolonial analysis: the subjugated always loom large in the mindsof the colonizers when the latter take to the task of cataloging and enumerating the details of theirsuperiority.The Turn to “Blackness”Naturally, this fact of the interdependence of “blackness” and “whiteness” reappears in thesecond defense mechanism, as well. This is made particularly clear in the play at the level of its plot:namely, the fact that the instigator of Makaks initial reclamation of his “kingliness” is his “essential”opposite (a white woman).7Makaks speech, where his account of this moment is first presented, makesthis clearer still: it is in the journey that most symbolically represents his “blackness” (through the“charcoal pit”) that he discovers his white muse (227, Walcott). The audiences confusion about theserve, will not only be done, but will appear, my lords, to have itself, been done... [The JUDGES applaud] Ignorance isno excuse. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ignorance of ones own ignorance is no excuse. This is the prisoner. I willask the prisoner to lift up his face. Levez la tête-ous!” (222, Walcott).5 When, for example, the Corporal says “all and sunday”, intending instead “all and sundry” (220, Walcott).6 Such as, in the passage above, his taking a swig from the rum bottle before handing it to the others.7 This interdependence of essential opposites exposes the farce of fixed essentials, instead demanding that they always beunderstood contingently, as constructions. This is later reflected in the notion of the “nervous condition”, which Walcottquotes from Sartres preface to Fanons The Wretched of the Earth: the anxiety that defines that state reflects also thenecessary messiness involved in assertions of “pure essence”.5
  • 6. apparitions metaphysical reality throughout the play only further emphasizes this same point: whenMoustique finds a “white mask” under Makaks bench, the suspicion that she is no more than a figmentof Makaks imagination again speaks to the interdependence of “whiteness” and “blackness”.Critically, the fact of this interdependence would—as in the example of the first resistance—seem to suggest the folly of the African revival. Because the tactic traditionally strives for an“essential” purity, the revelation that “blackness” depends upon “whiteness” would seem tocompromise the very premise of these efforts. Indeed, this was part of Sartres critique of negritude inBlack Orpheus. As related by Fanon in Black Skins White Masks, Sartre there located negritude as asoon-to-be-transcended term in the dialectic leading eventually to universal emancipation. Heconceived the aforementioned interdependence teleologically; not unlike Fanon, negritude, for Sartre,represented the negative antithesis to the thesis of white supremacy.8In that sense, it reproduceddynamics that paralleled what it opposed (an “anti-racist racism”, as Sartre put it).Dream on Monkey Mountain certainly appears to confirm Sartres claims: in the play, the apexof the African revival is marred by irrationality and excess. At the presentation of the prisoners thatMakaks new tribe has taken, for example, Walcott stresses the regressive consequences of itspuritanical exclusivity: Basil reads from a list of individuals implicated in the crime of “whiteness”,which becomes nonsensical as it comes to include historys great white antiracists (312, Walcott). Later,he announces the arrival of “a floral tribute of lillies from the Ku Klux Klan” (313, Walcott), whichonly further heightens the audiences conviction that the return to the “tribe” really has provedreactionary madness.9And perhaps the most striking moment comes earlier, where Walcott emphasizes8 “In fact, negritude appears as the minor term of a dialectical progression: The theoretical and practical assertion of thesupremacy of the white man is its thesis; the position of negritude as an antithetical value is the moment of negativity.But this negative moment is insufficient by itself, and the Negroes who employ it know this very well; they know that itis intended to prepare the synthesis or realization of the human in a society without races. Thus negritude is the root ofits own destruction, it is a transition and not a conclusion, a means and not an end” (133, Sartre in Fanon 1967).9 This, of course, refers to the Klans delight in the early 1920s when Marcus Garvey launched the “back to Africa”campaign.6
  • 7. the fact of interdependence by incorporating the quote that begins the play10into Makaks lines: “...ifthe moon is earths friend, eh, Tigre, how can we leave the earth. And the earth, self. Look down andthere is nothing at our feet. We are wrapped in black air, we are black, ourselves shadows in thefirelight of the white mans mind” (304, Walcott, emphasis mine). Makaks acknowledgment of theAfrican revivals contingency upon white supremacy - particularly his admission that the sense of“rootedness” it conveys is constructed and consequently false - nips Souris nascent hopes (whichprompted this speech) in the bud.11What follows is the tribes descent into its own destruction.Towards OptimismHowever—and this is the crux of this essays argument—I suggest that the pessimism whichthese moments induce in an audience contemplating the merits of the African Revival threatens toobscure the nuance within the play available to an attentive eye. It is possible, I argue, to employ thedynamics of Dream on Monkey Mountain to explore a more subtle, alternative interpretation of therelation between the universal and this particular.For this end, it is first necessary to distinguish between two phases of the turn to “blackness”that the play presents: Makaks own reclamation of “Africa”, from the earlier scenes, and the morefrenzied return to the tribe of the second-last scene. In the first, I suggest, the audience apprehends theauthenticity and honesty of Makaks cries: while Moustiques cynical second-guessing reminds us ofthe follies of the particular (and this Walcott emphasizes by opening this part of the play with Sartrescomment that this “ the end of the story” (211, Walcott)), the scene stresses that the whiteapparition does address Makaks very real suffering. When Makak first relates the story to Moustique,10 “If the moon is earths friend, how can we leave the earth? -- Noh Play” (207, Walcott).11 The play also seeks to affirm the credibility of Makaks perceptions here, since this brief speech is also the one placewhere he displays an awareness of the dreamed nature of the immediate narrative: “Soon, soon it will be morning, praiseGod, and the dream will rise like vapour, the shadows will be real, you will be corporal again, you will be thieves, and Ian old man, drunk and disorderly, beaten down by a Bible, and tired of looking up to heaven. You believe I am lost now?Shoot, go ahead and shoot me. Death is the last shadow I have made. The carpenter is waiting” (304, Walcott).7
  • 8. for example, he conveys this connection enthusiastically and explicitly:MAKAK: Well, well... the things she tell me, you would not believe. She did know my name,my age, where I born, and that it was charcoal I burn and selling for a living. She know how Ilive alone, with no wife and no friend.... [and later:] That Makak is not my name. And I tell hermy life, and she say that if I want her, she will come and live with me, and I take her in myarms, and I bring her here (236, Walcott).Because she addresses his ugliness, his loneliness, his blackness, Makaks white muse speaks to himgenuinely and directly. In other words, even if the eventual efficacy of this emancipation can be calledinto question, the authenticity of its response to his oppressed, miserable state cannot be disputed. Wesee this kind of association made in his speech to Moustique, immediately before these lines, where hisdescription of himself as “this old man, ugly as sin” promptly transforms into a self-perception of being“God self, walking through cloud” (235, Walcott): again, this form of emancipation emergesimmanently from his real suffering. All this also recalls the context of his first confession (226,Walcott), which takes place immediately after his utter humiliation at the hands of the Corporal(222-223, Walcott).This, I argue, distances us from Sartre – his notion that this response is a self-destructingneurosis threatens to obscure its importance as an authentic reaction. Indeed, this was Fanonsimpassioned objection to the Sartre presented in Black Skins White Masks: according to Fanon, whenSartre demanded that negritudes ideologues recognize the movements contingency, he threatened toundermine the integrity of their efforts:12“For once, that born Hegelian had forgotten thatconsciousness has to lose itself in the night of the absolute” (133, Fanon 1967)).As suggested, the authenticity of these moments contrasts starkly with the plays secondengagement with the African revival (Part Two, Scenes Two and Three). Here, as has been argued,12 “When I tried, on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me [bySartre]. Proof was presented that my effort was only a term in the dialectic...” (132, Fanon 1967, addition mine). Andlater: “In opposition to rationalism, [Sartre] summoned up the negative side, but he forgot that this negativity draws itsworth from an almost substantive absoluteness. A consciousness committed to experience is ignorant, has to be ignorant,of the essences and the determinations of its being... Sartres mistake was not only to seek the sources but in a certainsense to block that source” (134, Fanon 1967).8
  • 9. Walcott makes Makaks madness incontrovertible (whereas in the first phase, some seeds of doubt aresown throughout—when he cures the ailing peasant, for example): from the moment of thismovements instigation13to the climax at the end14, the audience is left in no doubt about the regressivedestiny of these efforts. Makaks own lamentations, while enthroned, add to this sense of the overalldistinction.15And even the spatial dynamic of this second phase is different: where, before, Makaksreturn to Africa was also a flight from the place that symbolized his alterity (the forest on MonkeyMountain)16, it is there that the tribal revival of the second part plays itself out.Conceivably, this distinction we make here, between the first and the second phases, can beworked into two different frameworks with distinct consequences. As the first, one might suggest ateleological reading: with Sartre, it could be argued that this distinction indicates only that themoments of hope of the first phase extinguish themselves inevitably in the madness of the second,which in turn incriminates, in its entirety, the original notion of the African Revival itself. This is thepessimistic reading we have referred to throughout. My interpretation, however, is different. I arguethat this first reading does not properly account for a dynamic in the play that proves very important toexplaining this transition from the first to the second phase: namely, that of co-option. Makaksauthentic reaction does not develop into the madness of the ending scenes entirely due to anirrationality that is indigenous to it; rather, much of this “descent” follows from the fact that his effortsare co-opted from without, in the first phase, by Moustique and then, in the second, by the Corporal and13 “MAKAK: [Holding TIGRE and SOURIS and near-weeping with rage] Drink it! Drink it! Drink! Is not that they saywe are? Animals! Apes without law? O God, O gods! What am I, I who though I was a man? What have I done? WhichGod? God dead, and his law there bleeding. Christian, cannibal, I will drink blood. You will drink it with me. For thelion, and the tiger, and the rat, yes, the gentle rat, have come out of their cages to breathe the air, the air heavy withforest, and if that moon go out... I will still find my way; the blackness will swallow me. I will wear it like a fish wearswater... Come. You have tasted blood. Now, come!” (286, Walcott).14 Here, though the last scene ends with Makak beheading the apparition and dramatically pronouncing himself free,Walcott tellingly opens the epilogue that follows with instructions directing the cell bars to descend.15 “CORPORAL: Inventor of history! [Kisses MAKAKS foot] MAKAK: I am only a shadow. CORPORAL: Shh. Quiet,my prince. MAKAK: A hollow God. A phantom” (311, Walcott).16 “MAKAK: She say I should not live so any more, here in the forest, frighten of people because I think I ugly. She saythat I come from the family of lions and kings” (236, Walcott)9
  • 10. by Tigre. Attention to the nature of their interventions, I argue, can resuscitate an optimisticinterpretation of the African revivals relation to universal emancipation, provided we do acknowledgethe critique of this turn to the particular explicit in the acts of co-option.Co-OptionAs such, Moustiques co-option of Makaks efforts, most notable in the scene at the Market,serves two purposes for our argument. First, it reaffirms our contention that Makaks reclamation of“blackness” is initially authentic, but then corrupted from without. After all, Moustique exploitsMakaks reputation for profit, despite Makaks honest protestations: “MAKAK: Move that from me.You dont understand, Moustique. This power I have, is not for profit” (254, Walcott). This honestyreenacts the sense that Makaks reclamation of his “blackness” has an integrity that the efforts of thelatter parts of the play lack. Yet, second, Moustiques actions here, I argue, also attest to theshortcomings of Makaks sentiments: Moustique, in his dissent, diagnoses a deficiency that lies in thevery form of the African revival—namely, its incapacity to address the material misery of the colonialworld.MOUSTIQUE: What you kneeling again for? Who you praying for now? [MAKAK saysnothing] If is for me, partner, dont bother. Pray for the world to change. Not your friend. Prayfor the day when people will not need money, when faith alone will move mountains. Pray forthe day when poverty done, and for when niggers everywhere could walk upright like men. Youthink I doubt you, you think I dont respect you and love you and grateful to you? But I look atthat moon, and it like a plate that a dog lick clean, bright as a florin, but dogs does chase me outof people yard when I go round begging, “Food for my master, food.” And I does have to stoopdown, and pick up the odd shilling they throw you. Look, turn your head, old man, look there,and that thing shining there, that is the ocean. Behind that, is Africa! How we going there? Youthink this... [Holds up mask] this damned stupidness go take us there? Either you let me savemoney for us, or here, at this crossroads, the partnership divide. (254-255, Walcott)This objection to the impotency of the return to Africa reappears in the second phase, where a co-optedMakak fervently tries to defend this earlier idealism: “SOURIS: How will we go [to Africa], oldman? ... MAKAK: Once, when Moustique asked me that, I didnt know. But I now know. What power10
  • 11. can crawl on the bottom of the sea, or swim in the ocean of air above us? The mind, themind...” (290-291, Walcott). Yet the general sentiment conveyed throughout this second phase—of themovements madness—only affirms Moustiques contention that Makaks intentions are trulymisplaced. Almost immediately after Makak acclaims the powers of the mind, Tigre re-voicesMoustiques critique: “TIGRE: We will need money to go there, uncle. To buy a boat. A big, big boatthat will take everybody back, or otherwise, is back to jail. Back where we were!” (291, Walcott).Walcott again captures the crux of this disagreement later, in a cleverly-worked exchange betweenMakak and Tigre: “TIGRE: What I will find in Africa? MAKAK: Peace. TIGRE: Peace? Piece ofwhat?” (292, Walcott). The play on “peace/piece” again identifies the same shortcomings in Makaksmovement.To the UniversalOne might want to argue that these deficiencies lead us back to the pessimistic Sartrean positionon the place of the African revival in the task of universal emancipation. Yet I suggest instead that weincorporate this critique into our earlier affirmation of the authenticity of Makaks sentiments. WhatDream on Monkey Mountain provides, then, is the opportunity to declare the relevance of the turn tothe particular while also concentrating on the very real necessity to engage the universal (by addressingwhat claims made from the position of particularity cannot tackle in a compelling way—such as thesereal-material grievances).Partly, as we have suggested, this was Fanons point: no exhortation to transcend the negativityof particularity and hurtle towards universal emancipation can succeed, unless it remembers always theauthenticity of that turn to the particular. Yet Dream on Monkey Mountain also helps us re-frameFanons objection in a way that upsets his teleology: the absence of any direct attempt at universalemancipation in the play, I argue, concentrates our attention on the possibilities the particular presents11
  • 12. itself.17In this sense, the task of emancipation cannot take these moments of authenticity of the earlierparts as naivete-to-be-transcended, but must instead regard them as endlessly important to the task ofconstituting the universal. In other words, even while we recognize the limitations of the particular, itmakes minimal sense to dismiss it in pursuit of a final apotheosis: the particular must instead always beallowed to haunt the universal.Laclau and DemocracyAccording to Ernesto Laclau, this sort of reconception of the boundaries dividing the universaland the particular leads to the paradox that is “the very precondition of democracy”: in his article“Universalism, Particularism, and the Question of Identity”, his suggestions complete the argumentabove. With Makak, Laclau affirms the integrity of identity politics, but also—with Moustique andTigre—argues that certain demands simply cannot be made from within a politics of particularism.(88-89, Laclau) What we arrive at, then, is a demand that “the particular [exist] only in thecontradictory movement of asserting a differential identity and simultaneously canceling it through itssubsumption into a nondifferential medium” (89, Laclau). In other words, while pure particularism hasits regressive tendencies, we must remember that no one can ever quite arrive at the universal, either:rather, all claims to occupying the universal are inevitably marked by their own contingency—theirown inevitable particularity. Instead, the dynamism that engenders democratic politics, according toLaclau, emerges when we agree to reside in the interstices of this divide: never claiming the universalcompletely, yet never satisfied with the particular. Dream on Monkey Mountain, I have argued, can beinterpreted in a way that inaugurates the journey taking us to this point.17 This, I suppose, presumes some optimism: committed pessimists will likely regard this fact as confirmation of theirapproach to Dream on Monkey Mountain.12
  • 13. ConclusionThis essay suggested that Walcotts Dream on Monkey Mountain can be used to guard againstthe tendentious temptation to discount the African revival as reactionary. We offered this argumentcognizant of the fact that the play seems to suggest precisely this dismissal: since within it, the turn tothe particular seems symptomatic of the “madness” that colonial racism engenders, pessimism withrespect to the prospects of a politics of emancipation emerging from it seems most sensible—at thevery least, an agenda for true liberation would need to distinguish itself decisively from the follies ofMakaks movement. Yet, with Laclau and Fanon, we have suggested that recognizing the authenticityof Makaks reaction requires us to think differently about how we dismiss the turn to the particular: this,as we have suggested, leads toward a re-conception of the relationship between the particular and theuniversal that is itself productive of democracy.Even still, it might rightly be noted that many pressing questions remain insufficientlytheorized: even if this new particular/universal model be desirable (as we believe it is), what willmotivate todays many varying “turn to the particulars” to make demands as a more consolidateduniversal? In other words, how does this reconfiguring of the boundaries between particular anduniversal still convey the urgency of the need to avoid fragmentation? And indeed, can this exhortationexist and be heard without a structure that calls back old universals (i.e., the party vanguard)?Regardless, commitment to the two imperatives of our argument here – striving for the universal,affirming the particular – do seem a necessary starting-point for any and all progressive attempts toaddress these questions.13
  • 14. Works CitedFanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove P, 1967.Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution. New York: Grove P, 1988.Laclau, Ernesto. "Universalism, Particularism, and the Question of Identity." October 61 (1992):83-90.Walcott, Derek. Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,1971.14