Contents r. r J Introduction, xixPART O N E A Theory of the Tradition 1. A M y t h of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey, 3 2. The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin (g) Rhetorical Difference and the Orders of Meaning, 44 3. Figures of Signification, 89PART TWO Reading the Tradition 4. The Trope of the Talking Book, 127 5. Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text, 170 6. On "The Blackness of Blackness": IshmaelReed and a Critique of the Sign, 217 /7. Color Me Zora: Alice Walkers (Re) Writing of the Speakerly Text, 239 Notes, 259 Index, 281
xxviii Introductionironic form of fantasy that she inherited from Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset.Finally, Walkers decision to place The Color Purple i n a line of descentthat runs directly from Their Eyes by engaging i n a narrative strategy thattropes Hurstons concept of voice (by shifting i t into the form of the epistolary ONEnovel and a written rather than a spoken vernacular) both extends d r a m a t i -cally the modes of revision available to writers i n the tradition and revealsthat acts of formal revision canbe loving acts, of bonding rather than ritualslayings atEsus crossroads;c=* ; A Theory of the Tradition I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in Websters Spell- ing Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy-books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. M y mistress used to go to class meeting at the Wilk Street meet- inghouse every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomass copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write. Frederick Douglass . . . language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone elses. I t becomes "ones own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and i m - personal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other peoples mouths, in other peoples contexts, serving other peoples intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it ones own. Mikhail Bakhtin I R9 Q 17
1 • • A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey / Esu, do not undo me, .-,• • ".. Do not falsify the words of my mouth, •. Do not misguide the movements of my feet,. , You who translates yesterdays words Into novel utterances, • < . Do not undo me,. I bear you sacrifice. •-• Traditional Oriki Esu*. A h yes! Edju played many tricks Edju made kindred people-go to war; 1 Edju pawned the moon and carried off the sun: Edju made the.Gods strive against.themselves. But Edju is not evil. He brought us the best there is; He gave us the I f a oracle; ,.• He brought the sun.. ..... . . . . . . . . But for Edju, the fields would be barren.. Traditional Oriki Esu 2 through Harlem smoke of beer, and^whiskey, I . .. ; understand the mystery of the signifying monkey in a blue haze of inspirationj I reach to the • totality of Being. : :: Larry Neal, "Malcolm X — A h Autobiography" 3 The black Africans who survived the dreaded ".Middle Passage" from the west coast of Africa to the New. W o r l d did not sail, alone. Violently and radically abstracted from their civilizations, these AMciEaiB75eyerj|iel^s. carried within them to the Western hemisphere aspects of their culturesthat were meaningful, that could not be obliterated, and that they cho.se,,by. acts! 3..A !
A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 54 A Theory of the Traditionof will, not to forget: their music (a mnemonic device for Bantu and K w atonal languages), their myths, their expressive institutional structures, theirmetaphysical systems of order, and their forms of performance. I f "the DixiePike," as Jean Toomer put the matter in Cane, "has grown from a goat pathin Africa," then the black vernacular tradition stands as its signpost, at thatliminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africameets Afro-America. .. Common sense, i n retrospect, argues that these retained elements of c u l -ture should have survived;;;that.their complete annihilation would have beenfar more remarkable than their preservation. The African, after all, was atraveler, albeit.an abrupt, ironic traveler, through space and time; and likeevery traveler, the African "read" a new environment within a receivedframework of meaningindhelief. The notion that.the Middle Passage was sotraumatic that i t functioned to create in the African a tabula rasa.of c o n -sciousness is as odd as i t is a fiction, a fiction that has served several eco-nomic orders and their attendant ideologies. The full erasure of traces of c u l -tures as splendid, as^ ancient, and as shared by the slave traveler as the classiccultures of traditional West Africa would have been extraordinarily difficult.Slavery i n the New World, a veritable seething cauldron of cross-cultural.,contact, however, did serve to create a dynamic of exchange and revisionamong numerous previously isolated Black African cultures on a scale u n -precedented i n African history. Inadvertently, African slavery i n the New Figure 1. Esu-Elegbara. From the authors collection. Photos by Sarah Whitdker.W o r l d satisfied the preconditions for the emergence of a new African culture,a truly Pan-African culture fashioned as a colorful weave^of linguistic, i n s t i -tutional, metaphysical, and formal threads; What survived this fascinating mental terms for order that the black enslaved^ brought w i t h them from A f -process was the most useful and the most compelling of the fragments at rica, and maintained through the mnemonic devices peculiar to oral l i t e r a -hand. Afro-American culture is an African culture with a difference as s i g - ture, continued to function both as meaningful units of N e w - W o r l d belief . 1nified by the catalysts of Bnglish.jDutch, French, Portuguese, or Spanish l a n - systems and as traces of their;origins. We lack written.documents to answerguages and cultures, which informed the precise structures that each discrete the historicalquestions of how this occurred; questions about the means of"New World Pan-African culture assumed. 4 transmission, translation/andrecuperation of the ensuing difference". N e v e r - 1 theless, this topos functions as a sign of the disrupted wholeness of an A f r i - Of the music, myths, and forms of performance that the African brought can system of meaning and belief that black- slaves recreated from memory, to the Western Hemisphere, I wish to discuss one specific trickster figure that preserved by oral narration, improvised- u p o i i i n ritual—especially i n the recurs with startling frequency jr. black mythology i n Africa, the Caribbean, rituals of the repeated oral narrative—and willed to. .their own subsequent and South America. This figure appears i n black cultures with such frequency generations, as hermetically sealed and encoded charts of cultural descent. that we can think.of i t as. a repeated theme or topos. Indeed, this trickster I f the existence of;such traceable topoiseems remarkable, i t also seems r e - : tcJj)os--not only seems to have survived the bumpy passage to the New World, markable that scholars have only begun "to explicate them systematically i nbut i t appears even today i n Nigeria, Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the United this century. • States. Within New W o r l d African-informed cultures, the presence of this topos, repeated with variations as circumstances apparently dictated, attests This topos that recurs throughout black oral narrative traditions and to shared belief systems maintained for well over three centuries, remarkably, contains a primal scene of instruction for the act of interpretation isthat of by sustained vernacular traditions. We can trace this particular topos u l t i - the divine trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu-Elegbara/ This curious mately to the Fon and.Yoruba cultures of Benin and Nigeria. Its particular figure is called Esu-Elegbara i n Nigeria and Legba among the Fon in Benin. configurations i n Western black cultures, separated by vast distances of space His New W o r l d figurations include E x i i i n Brazil, Echu-Elegua in" Cuba, and time, and isolated by the linguistic barriers qf the Germanic and the Papa Legba (pronounced La-Bas) i n the pantheoii^of the loa of Vaudou of Romance languages, testify to the fragmented unity of these black cultures Haiti, and Papa L a Bas i n the loa of Hoodoo i n the United States.; Because-. i n the Western Hemisphere. There can be little doubt that certain funda- I see these individual tricksters as related parts of a larger, unified figure;- J,-rr- j
6 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 7shall refer to them collectively as Esu, or as Esu-Elegbara. These variationson Esu-Elegbara speak eloqueritlyqE an unbroken arc of metaphysical pre-supposition and a pattern of .figuration shared, through, time and space amongcertain black cultures in West Africa; .South. America, the Caribbean, and theUnited States. These trickster figures, all aspects, or topoi of Esu, are funda-mental, divine terms of mediatioh: as tricksters they, arc mediators, and theirmediations are tricks. I f thesDixic Pike leads, straight; to Guinea, then Esu-Elegbara presides over its ].imiiiai:crossr()ad^ a sensory threshold barely p e r -ceptible without access to".tipyernacuiar, a word taken, from the L a t i n ver-naculus ("native"),;taken h i Muni from verna, ("slave born i n his masters rhouse"). S^lllilWHpiW 5 : : ; WM f2- : :A^. •"•: Each versitm ofi iisu.is the solo messenger of the gods (in Yoruba, iranse), he v,dio i n t e r p r e t ^ the gods to man;: he who carries the desires olvman to;tho;;gqds!^ of the crossroads, master of style and. of .stylus, " the^phiulic god of generation and; fecundity, master of that.elusive, mystical Intfricriliat separates the divine world-from the profane. Frequently, characterized possessedby his enor- mous, penis; linguistically..Esu;,is the; ultimate copula, connecting truth with understanding, ttio :sacr^ profane,; t e x t . w i t h interpretation, the word (as a forni of the verb / « 7 ; e ) t h a t links a subject with its predicate. He r connects the grammar t)f divinatibn with its rhetorical structures. I n Yoruba Figure 2> Esu-Elegbara. From the authors collection, Photo by Sarah Whitaker. mythology, Esu is said,to limp as be walks, precisely because of his mediating function: his legs are of different lengths because he keeps one anchored i n the realm of the gods while the other rests i n this, our human world. The Fon call Legba "the divine, linguist," he who speaks all languages, Scholars have studied- these, figures of. Esu, and each has found one or he Who interprets the alphabet of M a w u to nian and to the other gods. two characteristics of this mutable.figure upon,which to dwell, true to,the Yoruba sculptures of Esu almost always include a calabash that he holds i n.nature of the trickster. A partial list of these,qualities might include indi- 8 his hands. I n this calabash he keeps ase, the very ase with which Olodumare,Ividuality, satire, parody*.-, froriyjjyfiagic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambi- the supreme deity of the Yoruba, created the universe. We can translate ase:guity, sexuality, chance, uncertainly, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal i n many ways, but the ase used to create the universe I translate as "logos,"and loyalty, closure and disciQsure,;.enc But i t is a m i s - as the word as understanding, the word as the audible, and later the visible, take to,focus, on. one of these;qualities as predominant. Esu possesses all of sign of reason. Aseismoh weighty, forceful, .and action-packed than the these.characteristics,, plus a plethora of others which, taken together, only ordinary word. I t is the word with irrevocability, Reinforced with double as- begin; to^present an idea of the} complexity of. this classic figure of mediation suredness and undaunted authenticity. This probably explains why Esus 1 and of the. unity of opposed forces. .. J ; mouth, from which the audible word proceeds, sometimes appears double; . Esus;.various characteristics..are gleaned from several sources: what the Esus discourse, metaphorically,, is double-voiced. Esusmastery of ore gives Yoruba.call iho Orlki Esu, the narrative praise poems, or. panegyrics, of. Esu- h i m an immense amount of power; aye makes Esu "lie who says so and does Elegb9raj<|fc|.S^«;Ifo> the H a divination verses;, the.lyrics of "Esu. songs"; so," as inscribed i n a canonical 0r/fa£.rw. [See Figures 9,10,11.]" . 8 . and the traditional prose narratives i n which- are encoded the myths of origin Ase is an elusive concept, and thus its translations vary. Part of orie" of of the ,uniyers;e,,,of-.the gods, and of human beings relation to the gods and 1 the canonical Odu, "The Story of Osetua," informs us that ase is power: their place;within.the cosmic order. M u c h of Esus literature concerns the origin, the^riatjireygrid the function of interpretation and language use "above" Ase spread and expanded on earth: •- • Hint,of ordinary..language. For Esu is the Yoruba figure of the meta-level of Semen became child, • formal language;; use, of the ontological and epistemological status of figura- Men on sick bed got up, ~ llve language and its interpretation. -The literature of Esu consists to a rer A l l the world became pleasant, nntrknblo degree.of direct; assertions about the.levels of linguistic ascent that I t became powerful. ^-; 0 : "".• •••-... »epnriU0 literal from figurative modes of language use. 7
8 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey is* AFigure 3. Esu-Elegbara. From the-authors collection. Photo by Sarah Whitaker,,; Figure 4. Esu-Elegbara. From the authors collection. Photo by Sarah Whitaker. a text, so too is i t appropriate for the literary critic to name the methodologi-.But power somehow lacks the force,to convey the multiple significations of cal principles of the interpretation of black texts Esu-tufunaalo, literally "one ase. The calabash that Esu carries (Ado-iran), presented to h i m by Olorun, who unravels the knots of E s u . " Esu is the. indigenous black metaphor for. 11 contains "the power which propagates-itself.- I n this calabash Esu carries the iiterary^critic,..and.Esu-tufunaalo is,the study of methodological p r i n c i - ase. It.is this ase, "controlled and represented by Esu, which mobilizes each ples., of interpretation itself, ,or what the literary, critic...does...Esu-tufunaalo : and every element i n the system, as Juana and Deoscoredes dos Santos - is the.secular analogue of i f a d i v i n a t i p n , and densely m e t a - conclude. Ase, i n other words, is the force of coherence of process itself, that phorical system.of sacred mterpretation, thatthe Yoruba i n Nigeria have c o n - which makes-a system asystem. M y translation of ase as "logos" is, I think, 1 sulted for centuries, ,and which.they.,continue, to consult. Whereas the god the closest analogue through which, cwe^can be. rendered m English, and in Ifa is the next of divine w i l l , ^ u ^ i s ^ . - t ^ x t s i n t e r p r e t e r .(dnitum6),.!ihe English, we have merely borrowed the word from the Greek. As one baba- one who translates, who explains, or who loosens knowledge. " Indeed, Esu IdWo^xA it, ase is "the light that crosses through the tray of the earth, the would seem to have a priority, over Ifa i n .the. process of interpretation. Esu firmament from one side to the other, forward and backward." I t was. this ase not only, taught his friend the system; Esu also confirms or condemns the that Olodumare used to. create the univers^ When the babalawo say that "message" of Ifa. For this reason, i t is often said i n Ifa poetry that Orunmila acts with the ase of Esu, it is the logos that is implied. 10 Esus most direct Western kinsman, is Hermes. Just as Hermes role as • O taseEsu bonu. - ; messenger and interpreter for. the gods-lent his name readily to hermeneu- (He [Ifa] borrowed Esus ase and put it in his own mouth to give a mes-•- tics, our word for the study of methodological principles of interpretation of sage to the supplicant.) 12
10 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 11 mmfM — 4s * i . t Figure 6. Opon Ifa. From the collection of Robert Fams Thompson. Photo by Sarah Whitaker. ..• Although this is not the place for a full explication of the inner principles of interpretation sharedby tttese systems of divination from West Africa to L a t i n America, precisely because of Esus role i n this African myth of o r i - gins of interpretation.!^ is instructive to explain, albeit painfully briefly, the system that Esu created and taught to his friend, the god l i a . I n African and L a t i n American mythology, Esu, as I have suggested, is said to have taught Ifa how to read the signs formed b y the sixteen sacred palmnuts.; The Opon Ifa, the carved wooden divination tray used, i n the art^qfjjmterpretation,Figure 5, Esu-Elegbara. From the authors collection. Photo by Sarah Whitaker. represents a trace of this priority of Esu i n the process of interpretation by containing at the center, of its upper perimeter a carved image of Esu h i m - self, meant to signify his relation to the.act of interpretation, which we can translate either as itumo (literally "to untie or unknot knowledge") or asEsu, asthe Yoruba say, is "the path to Jia, and his image often appears at iyipada (literally "to turn,around" or "to translate"). That which we callthe center of the upper perimeter of the Ifa divining board. [See Figure 6.] close reading, moreover, the Yoruba call Didafa (literally "reading the signs"). _ Ifa consists of the sacred texts of the Yoruba people, as does the Bible Above all else, Esu, as the originator of this uniquely African mode offor Christians, biit i t also contains the commentaries on these fixed texts, as ; reading, is the:Yoruba figure of,indeterminacy itself, ayese ayewi,.ot ailemo,does the Midrash. Its system of interpretation terns ripon a marvelous c o m - literally "that which we cannot know." I f Esu is a repeated topos, for mybination of gepmaricy and textual exegesis, i n which sixteen palm nutsare purposes he is also a trope, a word, that has come to be used i n Yoruba"dialed" Sixteen times," and their configurations or signs then read and trans- discourse i n figurative senses far removed from its literal denotations. I fi t e d into: the appropriate, fixed literary verse that the numerical signs sig- 1 1 we examine.some of the primal myths of origins i n which.Esu defines, his nify,, Thesevisual sighs are known i n the Yoruba as "signatures of an 6du," metaphoric uses for black literary criticism, we shall be able to speculate on mid each signature the babalawo, or priest* translates by reading or reciting Esus relation to his functional.equivalent in^Afro-American mythic d i s - : His fixed verse text that the signature, signifies. These verse texts* whose course: that oxymoron, the Signifying Monkey. , ; , mennings are lushly metaphorical, ambiguous, and enigmatic, function as riddles, which the propitiate must decipher and apply as is appropriate to his Before, examining myths of the origin of Ifa divination, i t w i l l be useful to or hor own quandary. consider, the figures the Yoruba employ to account for this system of oral ;:
A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 13 ciple of the system itself. The voice of Ifa; the text, writes itself as a crypto= g r a m „ E s u then assumes his role o f interpreter and implicitly governs the process of translation of these written signs i n t o the o r a l verse of the Odu. . One myth of Ifa accounts for the invention of. writing and helps.to explain the priority that metaphors of written language; seem ..to have: among the Yoruba: . - • •• i<H • : : us • • Olorun was the eldest of the deities, and the first child of the King of the A i r (Oba Orufi). Some forty years afterward the King of the A i r had. a second son, Ela, who was the father of the diviners. I n the.7«oF^(%, all the Whitemen used to come to Ela to learn how.to,.read and,write,; and r in the evening his African children, the babalawo,"gatfierect arourid.fiim to memorize the Ifa verses and learn divination. Ifa taughtihem;f61 Write, on their divining trays, which the Muslyhs..copied as their wooden writ- ing boards (wala), and the Christians copied as the slates used by.school children and as books. (emphasis added) 13 The oppositions here—morning/evening, Whitemen/Africans*./reading. and writing/memorizing and reciting, cryptographic/phonetic script—reveal .that ; the Yoruba themselves felt i t necessary to account for the differences b e - tween traditional African forms of writing and those practiced b y "Muslims" and "Whitemen." Significantly, the myth explains phonetic.scripts as copies of the oral tradition, encoded in the cryptograms formed by the sixteen sacred palm nuts of Ifa. • •-• Another myth, which Willem Bosman claims to have recorded i n the latter decades of the seventeenth century i n Asante, offers a radically differ- ent account of the absence of w r k i % among the Africans andits presence among the Europeans. While we shall return to Bosnians myth in. Chapter 4, i t is instructive to .consider how writing figures as. ah opposition within its structure. God created the races of man but.created (he African first. Because of his priority, the African had, first election between knowledge of the arts and sciences, or writing, and all the gold in the earth. The African, because of his avarice, chose the gold,: precisely because of his avarice, the African was punished by a curse: never would Africans master the fine art of r e a d -Figure:<?r Opelev From the authors collection. P/ioro by Sarah Whitaker. ing and writing. This myth, oddly enough, is remarkably compatible with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European speculations on the absence, of writing among Africans and its significance. For, without the presence ofinterpretation!*Figuresof: writingtrecur i n descriptions of Ha. Ifa is frequently writing as the visible sign ofreason, the Africans could not demonstrate theircalled "scribe" or* "clerk," or "one who writes books" (akowe, a-ko-iwe). "innate" mental equality with the European and hence were doomed to a :Ha-wrotefor.his-fellow gods,-and.taught each babalawo to write the figures perpetual sort of slavery until such mastery, .was demonstrated. F o r theof Ifa on h i S t r a y o f divination! Ifa speaks or interprets on behalf of all the i Yoruba, nevertheless, i f not the Asante of the. Gold Coast, phonetic Scriptsgods through the act of divination. Ifa, however, can only speak to human were derivative, shadow imitations of the prior form of inscription,; that isbeings^by inscribingthe language of the gods-onto the divining tray i n visual (manifested i n I f a. . ..stgnsthaMhe-fra&atow reads- aloud m the language of the lyrical poetry 1 The Yoruba myth of the origins of interpretation is relevant, to the use; called are. Curiously enough, the oral literature is described i n chirographic of Esu as the figure of the critic and is helpful inexplaining the.presence ofmetaphors: Ifas process o f oral narration is likened to writing. This quirk, of a monkey in Latin American versions of this primal myth. I t is the presence.^representation gives Ifa a richness that suggests a central hermeneutical prin- of the monkey in the Yoruba myth, repeated with a difference inf Cuban...
14 A Theoiy of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 15versions, which stands as the trace of Esu i n Afro-American myth, a trace Esu clearly has priority i n theart of interpretation. I n other; myths of. thethat enables us to speculate freely on the functional equivalence of Esu and origins of Ifa, Esu both teaches mid wills the system to his.fricncC This e x -his Afro-American descendant, the Signifying M o n k e y . 14 plains why the Yoruba say that "Esu is the path (or route) to I f a . " . A canoni- Frobeniuss account of the myth, "given to me," he tells us, "by a dweller cal narrative, "Esu Taught Orunmila H o w to Divine," also stresses Esuson the border of Kukurukuland," is one of the fullest. Frobenius translates importance:Esu as "Edshu" or "Edju." His text follows: Esu had taught Ifa how todivine, with Lvthi.vway, Ifa became very important as.thexommunication link be^wn &ett.ahd the Orisas. The r, Once upon a time the Gods.were very hungry. They did not get enough Irunmoles [earth spirits], who numbered two hundred and one, .were jeal- to eat from their wandering sons on the face of the earth. They were dis- ous of Ifa, but they could not harm him because-Esu was always; orLhand contented with each other and quarreled. Some ofthem went forth to to fight on Ifas behalf. 1!! -^M-i^^. hunt. Other GoAs-j.the Olbkun in particular, wanted to go fishing; yet, a l - though; one antelope arid one fish were caught, these did not last long. Legba retains this priority i n the F o n myths. :M:0:i:;:fi jf*$M0K:-:^fi: ••• Now their descendants had forgotten them, and they asked themselves ..- Melville Herskovits suggests" that this is. so primarily,to allow human how they, were to. get their sustenance from men again. Men no longer beings.".away out of a supernaturally willed dilemma." A n d that: way o u t - made them burnt-offerings; arid the Gods wanted meat. So Edju set but. He asked, Yemayirfor something with which to regain mans goodwill. is offered by a celestial trickster, who is the youngest; sofiibif;iheiGreator. Yemaya said: "You will have no success. Shankpanna has scourged them I n Dahomey, as hi most of West Africa, the youngest son is.held to be " : with pestilence, bul:they d6 not come and make sacrifice to him; he will : ! the most astute in the family. Though Fa, who is destiny, is,of (he great- £ kill them all, but they wiJi not bring him food.Shango struck them dead est importance, ihc trickster, Legba, comes even bcforc)?a, .....V [In] with the lightning whichhe sent upon them, but they do hot trouble them- . dealing with the ..Supernatural officialdom, a man can, by-winning the.-, selves about him or bringhim things to eat. Better turn your thought to favor of Legba,.mollify an angered; deity and set aside liis..vengeance. .; . 17 • • something else. Men do not fear death. Give them something so good While Herskovits gives a practical, or functional, explanation, for Le.gbas role that they will yearn. for> it: aftd, therefore, want to go on living." Edju ; in .interpretation, both Ifa and-.Fa systchis have inscribed, this hierarchy went further on. He said tohimself: "What I cannot get from Yemaya,. Orungan will give mo.".He. went to him. Orungan said: " I know why you within their myths of origin, arid they have done, so for hertiicneudcal r e a - sons. • . . . . ; :.^Mff?f:t?f f-Mffif^f tS;:^$£&-£M: .-. are come. The sixteen,Gods are ahungered. They must now have some- ." thing which shall bVgood.I know of. such a thing. I t is a big thing made . The roles of Ksu and of ;lhe Monkey, i n several accounts of. the myth, of sixteen palm-hutsj..If youget them and learn their meaning,. you will are crucial: F o r reasor.s extremely cii/Iicult to. reconstruct,; the monkey b e - once more gain the goodwill of mankind." Edju went to where the palm- ,, came, through a displacement i i i African myths in. the New. -World, a;central trees were. The monkeys gave him sixteen nuts. Edju looked at these, but character - in this crucial scene of instruction/-In.:the curious, manner r e - did not know what to do with them: -The monkeys said to him: "Edju, do peated;: throughout; this transmission process from Africa to the. -Western : you know what to do with, thenuts? We will counsel you; You got the Hemisphere, one structural clement that appears :to bo m i n o r - t o judge from sixteen nuts by guile. Now, go round the world.and ask for their meaning subsequent versions taken from Yoruba /;«/)«/«H>O—became a"hiiijor character everywhere* -You will hear sixteen.sayings:,ih:each of the sixteen places. i n the surviving oral variation i n a New W o r l d black culture. Lydia Cabreras Then go back, to the Gods. Tell men what you yourself have learned, and account of this myth within Afro-Cuban mythology makes the central role then, men will also learn once more, to fear you." . ; of the Monkey apparent: • Edju did as he.was told. He went to the sixteen places round the. ; .. world. He went back into the sky. . .... . I n some of the Elegua [Elegbara] tales, he.is portrayed as the first inter- . Edju. told the Gods what he had learned himself. The Gods spake: preter, responsible for teaching or uncovering the art of divination to . " I t is .we]i.^Then the Gods hnparfed. their knowledge to their descen- Oru.ba [Ifa] while accompanied by Moedun [the Monkey] and the tree—, dants, andhow men can know the will of the Gods every day, and what a palm tree growing in the garden of Orungan [the midday sun]—as well will come to pass in the future. When men saw that all evil things would as being the messenger of Odu, the divination seeds. The reference is to • happen in the days to come, and what they would be able to escape by the cowryshells, the means of interpretation of the babalochasand the offering"sacrifices, they began to slaughter animals again and burn them iyaloches, Bake Elegua is associated with this orisha: "he controls the for the Gods. This was the way in which Edju brought the Ifa (palm- largest number of cowry shells." 18 •• •• - • ! - nuts) down:to men, When he went back, he stayed with Ogun, Shango . and Obatalla,- and these four watched to s^e what men would do with the While Moedun could possibly derive from the-Yoruba O/MO. ( " c h i l d , o f " ) kernels. 5 edun ("a type of monkey"), more probably i t derives. from, the, Yoruba ;
16 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and. the Signifying-Monkey 17 tive poems) i n a well-known Fon narrative entitled "Why Monkey D i d N o t Become M a n . " The Monkey also surfaces i n relation to divination i n a : second canonical Fon narrative, "Monkeys Ingratitude: Why One Does N o t Deceivethe D i v i n e r . " B u t the direct conjunction of the Monkey and Esu 10 seems to be confined to this myth of origins of the process of interpretation itself. The Monkey, furthermore, is one of Esus bynames, as i n the f o l l o w - ing Oriki Esu: King of Ketu, The Monkey has no lamp at Akesan, • M y mothers money its eyes serve as lamps all over the farm, . . Product of todays hustle and bustle • Offshoot of tomorrows hustle and bustle The evil eye has stunted Monkeys growth They call him child of no means and position • Let him not consort with people on Alaketus street ; Let him not bring about the curse more effective than poison. 20 ( T w o of Esus physical characteristics are his extraordinarily dark color and his tiny size.) Perhaps even more telling is the Fon myth, "The First Humans." Legba, acting without knowledge of ..Mawu, the creator, trans- forms two of the earths four primal beings, into.monkeys. I t is from these two monkeys that all monkeys descended. Legba, .therefore, is the father of the M o n k e y . 21 There is a fascinating conflation of the Monkey and Esu i n Afro-Cuban mythology. This occurs i n the figure of the guije or jigue,. a black trickster topos whose identity has not yet, to. my knowledge, been satisfactorily d e - fined.. The literature of the guije or jigue,consists of two types..In the first, the guije is depicted as a small black man, as. i n the o r a l narrative, " E l guije de la Bajada," collected by Salvador Bueno^ i n his Leyendas cabanas. The two signal physical characteristics of Esu, as.I have said above,, are his e x - tremely dark color, and his tiny size. The other form that the guije assumes, generally i n poetry rather than.in narrative, is the jigue, or.monkey. Teofilo Radillos poem, "The Song, of the. Jigue," helps us to resolve the mystery of this conflated tricksters origins.22 "The jigue," Radillo informs us, "was..born i n Oriente" province, that curious Cuban site, or cauldron, at which Yoruba culture met European •mo, the first person-singular pronoun ( " I " ) , used with past arid continuous Hispanic culture to produce a novel mixture:tenses. Moedun; then,can be translated as " I who was/am the Monkey." 1I n Yoruba, furthermore, "monkey"; (owe) and proverb or riddle (owe) are The jigue was born in Oriente.virtual lK)monynis. . Wh.at is clear "is that Esus role as the first interpreter : The jigue came from the waters . . .survived the.Middle Passage accompanied by both the Monkey and the By the edge of the lagoon,tree i n which the monkeys lived and from which they selected the sixteen while the children bathe.palm nuts that became the sacred characters of^Ifa divination. Many c o n -temporary statues of E x u i n Brazil depict h i m with both a large erect penis i _ His emergence from the waters suggests his, African origins,;-Among the and a long tail; ""•• jigues physical characteristics are his dark col6r,-vhis pointed teeth, and his•"• To be sure, the Monkey appears i n other African narratives and even long hair, the color and sort of hair that are characteristic descriptions-^appears with the L i o n and the Elephant (as i n the Signifying Monkey narra- of Esu: * •>..
18 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 19 A dark jigue is watching a swinging branch of a tree (as a monkey would) to escape torrential waters, with a great length of; hair . . . • only to lose ones grip and to tumble into the water, "drowning," as the poem His teeth are pointed states, "for the sake of nganga." The poem reads: and his intentions are sharp. jigue who frightens childrenThe jigue & eyes, in addition, are large and penetrating, as are Esus eyes: 1 who hangs by the white girl . Mother, I have seeri a jigue by the edge of the river yesterday/,When I was bathing • where night is bathing in the stil waters:: ; . : ; at the tune of the moon He was black:,, and glared at me curling around the silver light / v,nth w h a t : ; , / . I could not tell, The significance of nganga suggests a multiplicity of meanings, each of which* . may" have, been eyes ofiivc coals. informs the KiKongo-Cuban survival. Most dramatically of all, Rodillo f i g -Most important,, the^ / ^ e J i m d e r w e n t a transformation of the most profound ures the nganga "forever floating over the waves of water" like a y^aiideringsort i n his passage i f o m Africa to the New W o r l d . Where once he was a signifier, suggesting perpetually its range of meanings from its Bantu roots,monkey, fie emerged .from the rite of passage—or, more truly, a rite de even—or especially—in its New W o r l d setting. We may take .this soft of p e r -marges (as we might think of the Middle Passage)—as Esu, or Echu: petual, or wandering, signification as an emblem of the process of cultural transmission and translation thatrecurred with startling frequency when A f - / Tfie.j^ rican cultures encountered New World-European cultures and yielded a and brought there from Africa, novel blend. .•• where ho had been a iiioakey: the last • monkey The poems last stanza comes to bear, directly on the relationship among the monkey who drowned Esu, the monkey, and the interpreter that I am attempting to establish: i.- for the sakepf the nganga— >• : .--,. : , Jigue-monkey, the ngangii forever floating }•.>,:::•>•:[<.: .,- monkey-jigue,- over the waves of water-: •: • , • • nganga-jigue, : •" :The jigues connection with;; aj;mpnkey is clear etymologically. Guije and jigue-nganga; • ::jigue are/derived from the Efik-Kjagbar.i word for "monkey," jiweP These are represented as terms of equivalence:, "Jigue-monkey / monkey- The etymology of nganga isY also suggestive. I n Kikor.go, nganga means jigue" echoes the Cuban neologism.moedun,. from the. Yoruba;.meaningone expert i n medicine of,magic,;;adoctoro i n other words. "I-monkey" and " I who am/.was. the monkey." "Nganga-Jigue" here sug-Nganga means action, wo rk, /or; arrangemcn f. A r i d nganga means to experi- gests the identity between the monkey and the interpreter figure,- clearly an i n -ence an attack of wrath, to cause pain/to reflect or to question. I n Kiswahili,ngangama means to clutch hold of, as of a swinging branch or tree, while terpreter of the traditional sort, a trickster figure of the order of Esu, . .ngangania means t o b e g earnestly", beseech, until one attains a desired end. , This conflated set of figures, now rendered, equivalent semantically andI n a study of "Langue Congo" i n Cuba; Germain de Granada defines nganga functionally, represents one who.has come from Africa to Cuba: .as. a magical object. Most suggestively of all, however, Tulu K i a Mpansu you havecome from very far,Buakasadefmes nganga as "interpreter." * 2 gallopping over the waters As used i n Teofilo Radillos "The Song of the Jigue," nganga could c o n - in dreams which arrived" •"•note any number of these meanings:!"-:/- : " •• muzzled to these shdres.- : the monkey who drowned The last two lines of this wonderfuLimage.form a marvelous figure of the.ini- for the sake of the nganga— tiate who emerged at the Western pole of the Middle Passage; the initiate s u r - the nganga forever floating vived, dreams intact, but the drearns .are "muzzled to these shores." , . , . over the waves of water- . But what, or who, can emerge, intact from such traumatic crossings, iri r e -I t couldrefer to; a magic object, or an interpreter (doctor) of the traditional sponse to the passionate call of the pnginary language, figured by the -drum?sort; or, more suggestively; nganga could-imply the victim of an attack of 1 Only the black trickster: •:..-.,, ••->wrath: or one insistent: on- questioning the received, or the imposed, order. I n One playful jigue emergesa more literal sense, the Kiswahili root of ngangama suggests one clutching as the drum calls; »
20 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 21 as the drum bursts it is said suit this text i n attempts to decipher their destiny, or fate. What the supplicant that many jigues dance. hears read to him, i n "the signature of Odu," is neither a literal revelation of his fate nor a set of commands that can be put into practice to appease, or r e - Esu is also a highly accomplished dancer, a mask-in-motion, who signifies i n dress, the human beings curse of the indeterminacy or uncertainty of fate. ritual by his phallic dance of generation, of creation, of translation, • Rather, the supplicant hears read by the babalawo a series of lyrical poems Who, ultimately, is the jigue?; that are so metaphorical ahd so ambiguous that. they, may be classified as e n i g - The jigue while there, in the forest, mas, or riddles, which must be read or interpreted, but which, nevertheless, was a monkey, the. last monkey. . . . have no single determinate meaning. The supplicant,. .the reader as.it were, 1 and drowned to float today must produce meaning by stopping the babalawo as he chants an_.e.ye, which in the"sleepingwaters of legends in some way strikes the supplicant as being relevant to his.dilemmav.Then* the . .:. which cradled a whole.race, babalawo interprets the poem for his client and prescribes :.the.3 appropriate Drowning, i n Africa when" theslavers stole our people, the trickster figure can sacrifices. Fairly frequently, the client cannot recognize his situation: i n the "float today / i n the sleeping waters of legends," legends i n which are i n - metaphorical language of the poem, despite the fact that Ifa has-ihscribed the scribed the New World Africans metaphysical origins, legends whose m e a n - persons fate into the appropriate Odu, signified by the patterns. fprmed by ings and perpetuation "cradled a%hPle face." Who, finally, is the jigue? the palm nuts. " v.-.;,. Ifa is the god of determinate meanings, but his meaning, must, be, rendered . . . - Monkey-jigue, by analogy. Esu, god pf indeterminacy, rules this interpretive.process; he is jigue-monkey, the god of interpretation because he embodies the ambiguity of figurative l a n - "nganga-jigue, guage, Although he allowed his friend Ifa to rule and name the texts of the jigue-nganga! tradition, i t is Esu who retains dominance over the act of interpretation p r e - The jigue is the monkey,, and the monkey is Esu, and both are doctors of cisely because he signifies the very divinity of the figurative. F o r Ifa,, ones interpretation. The three are trickster figures of the same order, the herme- nought meaning is patently obvious; i t need only be read. Esu. decodes the neutical order. . figures. -.; •-. While we lack areheologieal and historical evidence to explain the v a l o - I f Ifa, then, is our metaphor for the text itself, then Esu is p u r metaphor rized presence of the Monkey, i n Cuban mythology, i n the textual evidence, for the uncertainties of explication, for the open-endedness pf every literary on the other hand, we commonly encounter Esu with his companion, as d e - text. Whereas I f a represents clpsure, Esu rules the process.,._pf..disclosure, a picted even i n vistialtfep^^entations-o£ Esu-. As Alberto del PPZO writes, ; process that is never-ending, that is dominated by multiplicity;- Esu is d i s - "Echu Elegua frequently* h a s ^ his side," I f we examine 25 course upon a text; i t is the process of interpretation that he rules., This.is the the..general-- charactefistics oi--EsusKaSrderived • from the Oriki Esu and as i message of his primal scene of instruction with.his friend.Ka. I f Ksu. stands classed.; together u n d e r thefrubric:,oii-"rhetorical• principles," the Signifying for discourse upon a text, then his Pan-African kinsman, the Signifying M o n - Monkey emerges from his mysteripbsly-beclouded Afro-American origins as key, stands for the rhetorical strategies of which, each literary,text consists. Esus first-qqusin, i f not his American heir. Ifis as if Esus friend, the M o n - For-the Signifying Monkey exists as the great trope of Afro-American d i s - key, left his side at Havana and swam to New Orleans. The Signifying M o n - course,., and .the trope pf tropes, his language of Signifyin(g), is his verbal key remains as the trace of Esu,.,the.sple,survivor, of a disrupted partnership, sign i n the Afro-American tradition.i.Both are tropes,that: serve asViransfefehcesJn a.system aware of the nature We can summarize the importance of these tricksters to theory i n three. of .language and its interpretation.;,-, ...... : related ways. First, they and the myths i n which they are characters function , . W h a t is the importance.pf-.thesc apparently related tricksters and their as focal points for b l a c k theories about formal language use. The figure of myths to literary criticism? Perhaps this w i l l be clearer if we return briefly to writing appears to be peculiar to the myth of Esu, while the figure of speak- Ifa divinatidn and to a fuller discussion of Esus role. I t is convenient to think ing, of oral discourse densely structured rhetorically, is peculiar, to the myth of the Y6ruba godTfa as tfie texf o f divination, who gave to divination not ij ; i i : of the Signifying Monkey. Here, the vernacular tradition names the great o p - only his namobiit the 256 Odu aswell as the thousands of poems that c o m - position of its formal literary counterpart, the tension between the oral and prise t£e_se p fi body of lyrical poetry the written modes of narration that is represented as finding a vpice i n w r i t - stands as the verbal, litefaryj oftextual analogue pf 256 cryptpgrams that ing. A s figures pf the duality of the voice withih-the tradition, Esu andhis : can be formed by the babalawo as he manipulates the sixteen sacred palm friend the Monkey manifest themselves i n the search-for a voice that is d e - nuts. This, vast array of poetry, exists as the separate stanzas of one extensive picted i n so very many black texts. The tension between them surfaces-in the,, text; which we might think of profitably as the text of Ifa. Human beings con- double-voiced discourse so commonly found here. This tension between the ,
22 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 23oral and the written plays itself out i n one form as the two dominant n a r r a -tive voices that serve as counterpoint i n texts such as Jean Toomers Cane. I nanother form, i t surfaces as the free indirect discourse of what I am callingthe speakerly text, i n which third and first person, oral and written voices, o s - Akinf emia, man with many names.cillate freely~wlthin one structure, as i n Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes Oriki Esu.™Were Watching God. These tensions are figured i n the myths of Esu and the I will write Arabic and say Muslim prayersMonkey. I will write Arabic and say Muslim prayers Second, in the myths of Esu and the Monkey the tradition defines the role When the festival comes, I l l worship my deity [Esu]of the figurative. Polemical traditions seem to valorize the literal. Pragmatics I will write Arabic and say Muslim prayers. eargues that i t cannot he otherwise; the vernacular tradition, however, under- Oriki Esu.™cuts this penchant at its deepest level, that of underlying rhetorical principle.The myths of origins of the tradition privilege both the figurative and the a m - The Oriki Esu, the Odu, ese, and the numerous myths i n which Esu figuresbiguous. The determinate meanings often sought i n criticism run counter to consist of a densely lyrical poetic diction that commands the attention of thethe most fundamental values of the tradition as encased i n myth. I n this sense, practical critic. B y explicating these vernacular literary forms, I wish to u n -the literal and the figurative are locked i n a Signifyin(g) relation, the myths derscore the linguistic self-reflexiveness that inscribes, in what we might thinkand the figurative Signified upon by the real and literal, just as the vernacular of as the literature of Esu, this trickster gods preserve as the architect of i n -tradition Signifies upon the tradition of letters, and as figures of writing and terpretation, as the keeper of ase, the logos, as the "divine linguist of M a w u , "inscription are registered, paradoxically, i n an oral literature. This is another as Herskovits put i t .example of the presence of the dual voice. The notion of double-voiced d i s - Of the topoi of Esu, the Yoruba myths of Esu-Elegbara and the Foncourse, related to M i k h a i l Bakhtins theory of narrative but also indigenously myths of Legba contain the most explicit assertions about nature and f u n c -African, comprises the crux of the method I use for the close readings of tions of formal language use. To identify and analyze these assertions is toAfro-American texts i n this books final four chapters. The Afro-American begin to account for a black theory of literature and its interpretation, on l e v - concept of Signifyin(g) can be conveniently introduced here as formal r e v i - els of linguistic meta-ascent, as inscribed i n the black vernacular traditions. sion that is at all points double-voiced. Let us descend, once again, into the shadowy realm of myth, to ascertain the The third conclusion that we can draw from the myths of Esu and the black traditions fundamental idea of itself, buried or encoded i n its •primalMonkey concerns the indeterminacy of interpretation. Esu is a principle of myths—ambiguous, enigmatic, profoundly figurative, complex rhetorical struc-language, of written discourse particularly. H e is " a l l metaphor, all ambigu- tures—which seem to have been scattered through several concealed f r a g -ous oracle," as Robert Pelton has said. The most famous myth about h i m 20 ments, as i f to protect its own code from (mis) appropriation.is read as a story about indeterminacy. I t is inscribed i n the well-known c a - As I stated earlier i n this chapter, the trickster figures relation to destiny,nonical tale of "The T w o Friends," which I shall discuss below. Indetermi- and indeed his priority over destiny, is inscribed i n his role as the guidingnacy, then, is accounted for by the vernacular tradition, as an unavoidable as- force of interpretation itself. The primal god of the Fon is a Janus figure; onepect of acts of interpretation. These three general observations summarize, i n side of its body is female and is called M a w u , while the other side is malethe broadest sense, the self-reflexive functions that Esu serves i n Yoruba d i s - and is called Lisa. Mawus eyes form the moon; Lisas eyes form the sun.course. I n the second section" oFthis chapter, I wish to show i n some detail Accordingly, Lisa rules the day and M a w u rules the night. The seventh sonhow the Yoruba vernacular underscores these functions and then to suggest of Mawu-Lisa is Legba. Legba is the w i l d card of Fon metaphysics, the w a n - the relationship of this theory of criticism to some common assumptions of dering signifier. While Legbas six siblings preside over the six domains ofpos(structural literary theory. I am concerned i n this half of the chapter to r e - heaven and earth, Legba rules over all. As the earth priests creation mythveal the grammar of the tradition before proceeding to discuss the rhetorical concludes, "Hence Legba was chosen to represent M a w u everywhere i n theforms of which the tradition consists. world of men and gods." 20 This mode of subtle domination and omnipresent, simultaneous repre- sentation, curiously enough, the Fon reinforce by attributing to Legba the role of linguist. The F o n earth priests myth of origins describes Legbas l i n - i guistic function i n the following manner: To Legba was assigned the role of linguist between the kingdoms of gods and gods, and gods and men. Whereupon, in addition to the knowledge
24 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 25 of the "language" of- Mawu-Lisa, he was given the knowledge of all the stance is the Text of Fa. The F o n render this complex and sophisticated sys- "languages" spoken by the other gods in their separate dominions. There- tem of text and its determination i n the following way,- as spoken by a fore i f any of the children of Mawu-Lisa, on earth or elsewhere, wish to bokono, a priest of Fa, to Melville Herskovits:; •• address their parents or each other, they must transmit their messages through Legba, for they can no longer communicate directly. Thus Legba We bokono take three things for our Mawu.. We take Mawu, or Fa, as , is everywhere; he is found even before the houses of vodu themselves, the author of man and his destiny. We take Legba. as. the son, the brother, r arid this is because all, living creatures must address themselves to him and the power of MaWuand as Mawu herself....!- . F a is the writing of before they can be understood by the-gods. 30 Mawu* which was turned over to Legba to make man. Therefore, we say Fa is Mawu and Mawu is Fa. 38 1That which the Fori call."the.Book of Fa," or "the System of Writing of theCreator," in other words, can be read only by Legba, the sole agent of i n - Fa, we recall, is "a personification of the formulae of Mawu,-" as Herskovitsterpretation and hence mediation between man, on one hand, and the Book puts i t , or "Fa is the writing of M a w u , " as the Fon themselves put it. Legbaof Fate (i a),,:on the.other....Only Legba is able to read this text because of ? is the linguist-messenger who reads the text of Fa,-.a text that remains u n -the several stages-of mediation and translation that occur i n rapid succession read and unreadable without the agency of Legba. Because Legba can, i n -i n Fa divination. Aisupplicantsqueryds answered by a cryptogram, the m a r k - deed must, be-propitiated with the most splendid sacrifices before, he, can beings made i n powder.on the divination•,tray. The priest next translates this beseeched, i t seems clear that even ones very fate is not inscribed inundeliblecoded sign into its-appropriate Odu and recites the Odus several parts until ink. Indeed, Legbas reading of the crucial texts of fate can be profoundlythe supplicant .asks.him.tojhalt. The. supplicant then attempts to, read his informed by the quality and nature of ones sacrifice. ... .dilemma into, or out.of,,the. jungle of ambiguity that is the language of the The text, i n other words, is not fixed in any determinate sense; i n . oneOdu. R. E. Dennett,.writing i n At the Back of the Black Mans Mind, quotes sense, i t consists of the dynamic and indeterminate relationship betweenthe Yoruba scholar James, Johnson as saying that each Odu is comprised of truth on one hand and understanding on the other. Fa, as the writing; of"roads," or "pathways," or "courses" (esc and.their, derivative.narratives), M a w u , can be thought of conveniently as the truth of a text, whereas Legbaswhich lead the supplicants through the maze of, figuration that is Esus role is to effect and affect its understanding:-The relationship between truthkingdom. . 81 ,..:^-mt and understanding yields our sense of meaning. Meanings, i n the Yoruba Esu rules over, this; kingdom, this process of interpretation, from the toss and F o n systems of hermeneutics, can be both multiple and-indeterminate,of the dice, through.each successive, translation/from one semiotic system to as underscored by the densely ambiguous and figurative language of whichthe next: from cryptogram,; to. Odu, to its reading,.both i n a literal sense of the entire system consists. Legba governs the-indeterminacy of "meaning-forspeaking aloud and,in, a,metaphorical sense of analysis. As Peter M o r t o n - the Fon. If, as Geoffrey Hartman has argued, "Indeterminacy functions.asWilliams rightly concludes, "the. oracle replaces a dilemma.with an enigma; i; a bar separating, understanding^and truth," then we, can, at last, posit a sitei t was the duty of the diviners, at the kings court to resolve the enigma after over which Legba rules and in. which, he dwells. Legba,dwells,.in,.this_bar;they had produced it, the king., needing, information and not riddles." The indeed, he, like indeterminacy, is this bar.. So, whereas the Fon say that Fa Odu,, of course, are the oracles.riddles, the. translations of the visual signs is the writing, of Mawu, we can say. that.Legba is,the indeterminacy of-themade i n the sacred dust on. the, I f a t r a y of divinatiom.Bernard Maupoil, i n ! interpretation of writing, and his traditional dwelling place- at.the crossroads,his seminal work, La Geomancie a Iancienne Cdte. des Esclaves, describes for the critic, is the crossroads of understanding and-truth. A n d of what- sort this process as "an abstract-.indirect, and.deductive mode of interpreting or canclosurebe,.which.dwells atsuch.a crossroads? 84revealing the- pastor the future." Because Legbas role as. messenger, as lord Interpretation for Esu;••• even-or especially-of the same text; the same of exchange,- inscribes his. role,as interpreter, these abstract,-indirect .utter- Odu, is a continuous: project: "Reading," to cite Hartman somewhat i r o n i - anees or riddles are his domain, from, which some sort of analogous mean- cally, is "a f o r m o f life," which can itself be read. Esus life is a form-of ing must be derived. Legba, then, stands as. the discursive, or textual, p r i n c i - reading texts i n motion, constantly variable. I am, of course, reading the. ple, itself; as Robert Pelton concludes, Legba "is a-creator of discourse, for Yoruba and the Fon processes of reading, through the figure of E s u . 36 his every-movement is, iri T . S. Eliots phrase, a raid on the inarticulate, a B u t what sort of text is constantly variable, is a text i n motion?-Walter foray, into the, formless,, which simultaneously gives shape to the dark and J. Ong passionately and persuasively argues i n Orality and Literacy that the feTrsome. and-new,life to structure always in"clanger of becoming, a skeleton." English word text is, " i n absolute terms, more compatible etymologically,with Legba is discourse and, as we shall see, discourse upon a text. 32 oral utterance than is literature, which refers to -the letters etymologically/ Legba, like Esu, is the divine reader, whose interpretation of the Book of (literae) of the alphabet." Text is a satisfactory descriptive, etymologicallyFate determines precisely what this book says. The interpreter governs m e a n - at least, because of its L a t i n root texlus, past participle of iexere, "to weave."ing because: he determines our understanding of the text, which i n this i n - Ong says that this sense of text has even been used i n oral cultures to describe
26 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 27oral narration as a mode of "weaving or stitchingr-rhapsoidein, to rhapso- figure for formal language use, especially i n those canonical tales i n whichdize, basically means i n Greek to stitch together." Nevertheless, he c o n - his extraordinarily vital sexuality is inscribed. One Fa myth of origins sayscludes, when we "literates" use the term, we conceive of text by analogy, as of this penchant:a writing, and a written text is "fixed, boxed-off, isolated," unscoring "the Legba denied that he had had relations with a mother and a daughter,chirographic base of logic." 86 but his parent [Mawu-Lisa] ordered him to undress. As he stood naked, The texts of Ifa are preserved by memory and exist i n the memories of Mawu saw how his penis was erect and said, "You have lied to me, asbabalawos and bokonos. The written texts that I am analyzing here are care- you have deceived, your sister [Gbadu]. And since you have done this, Ifully recorded versions of one performance of oral narration. Quite probably, ordain that your penis shall always be erect, and that you may never behowever, these oral texts would not; and perhaps could not, be repeated appeased." To show his indifference to this punishment, Legba began,atverbatim on a subsequent consultation of Ifa despite the fact that the l i t e r a - once to play with Gbadu before their parent, and when reproached,ture on Ifa contains several striking examples of exact stanzaic repetition. merely pointed out that since his organ was always to remain erect,The texts of Ifa, then, are dynamic rather than fixed, as the text of a book Mawu had herself decreed such conduct for him. That is why Legbais fixed. They are open-ended, i n the sense that while the total possible n u m - dances, he tries to take any woman who is at hand.80ber of ese that could be uttered by the priest is a fixed number (over 150,- " M y t h after myth," Herskovits argues, represents Legba "as hugely over-0 0 0 ) , no propitiate could possibly sit through a divination session long sexed and therefore not to be trusted with women." Esu, like Legba, sharesenough to hear these chanted. N o r would the ese of the Odu necessarily be this characteristic and frequently is selected to be "intermediary between thisrendered exactly the same from one day to the next. For reasons that I have world and the next" at the end of myths that recount his sexual prowess.suggested above, the interpretive principles of these texts underscore their The pun here, of course, is on copula (te) and intercourse. Legbas sexualityopen-endedness, as does their densely figurative language, which even i n - is a sign of liminality, but also of the penetration of thresholds, the exchangecludes archaic words that have been relegated to the corpus of Ifa and which between discursive universes. As Pelton summarizes: "He is a living copula,not even the babalawo can interpret or understand. What sort of closure, and his phallus symbolizes his being the limen marking the real distinctionthen, can even be possible when we think of the nature of the texts of Ifa, between outside and inside, and the w i l d and the ordered, even as i t ensuresor when we think of the nature of their interpretation, a process that turns safe passage between them." This role as copula is apparent i n anotherupon approximation or analogy? That a propitiate might even return r e - canonical m y t h . 40peatedly to the babalawo for further clarification of the nature of his fate Herskovits records an alternative account of the "coming of Fa" to theemphasizes further that our received notion of closure is not applicable to version that I discussed earlier. I t , as do so many others, argues strongly forthe writing of Ifa and the readings of E s u . 87 Legbas crucial place i n the system of Fa: The use i n Yoruba of chirographic metaphors (writing, reading, signa- After the world had been created, two men descended from the sky. Theture) to describe the nature of the texts of Ifa, i n the myths of origins of first was called Koda, the second Chada. I t is said that in those days therewriting and speaking discussed above, suggests that the system of oral n a r - was no medicine and nothing worshipped, and that in all of Africa thereration attempted to mediate the distance between itself and written narration were very few people. Now these two men came down as numodato—by the use of chirographic figures of speech. This, most certainly, is an ironic "prophets"—and called the people together and told them that they hadform of mediation. Esus role as the perpetually copulating copula serves to been sent by Mawu with the message that it was necessary that each per-reinforce this notion of linkage, or mediation. As Pelton concludes, he is son have his Fa. The people asked, "What is this thing you call Fa?" And"the copula of each sentence, and thus the embodiment of every limen." they were told by these men that Fa is the writing with which Mawu cre-Nevertheless, textual evidence suggests that we must not think of these as ates each person, and that this writing is given to Legba, the only oneidle metaphors. For the rhetorical and indeed semantic tension between fig- who assists Mawu in this work. They also said that Mawu herself is a l -ures of speaking and writing, as inscribed within the texts of Ifa themselves, ways seated, but that Legba is forever before her, that the orders givenserves to undermine a chirographic cultures notions of closure and determi- to Legba by means of this writing are called Fa, and that, therefore, allnacy, but especially to define a complex notion of writing, a spoken and men who have been created have their Fa which is in the house of Legba.written writing. We shall return to this crucial point at the end of this They said, further, that the place where men were created is called by the name Fe. Legba, they said, possesses all the writing of each day, andchapter. 88 is sent to Mawu to bring to each individual his Fa, for it is necessary that I t is fascinating to trace the rhetorical and hermeneutic references to Esu, a man should know the writing which Mawu has used to create him, soas found i n the work of several scholars. Melville J. Herskovitss field r e - that, knowing his Fa, he knows what he may eat and what he may notsearch with the Fon of Dahomey is rich i n this sort of material. Herskovitss eat, what he may do and what he may not do.Legba is the central figure i n Fa. H e is a lovable, i f a somewhat mischievous, When they had said this, they also said that every man has a -god ? X
28 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 29 whom he must worship, but that without Fa he can never know his god, The various figures of Esu provide endless, fascinating references to the and that it is therefore necessary that all inhabitants of the earth w o r - critics role i n interpretation and to the nature of interpretation itself. Esu, ship Legba, for i f they fail to do so, Legba will refuse to reveal to a man like interpretation, is ageless. Despite the fact that I have referred to h i m i n the writing that is his destiny; tbiat i f they do not address Legba first, he the masculine, Esu is also genderless, or of dual gender, as recorded Yoruba will not give to man the good things that are destined for him. Each day, and F o n myths suggest, despite his remarkable penis feats. Ogundipe r e - 44 they continued, Mawu gives the days writing to Legba, thus telling him cords a group of Esu devotees who are exclusively women at Agbole Olun- who is to die, who is to be born, what dangers this one is to encounter, loyo at Ibadan. One of their oriki reads: what good fortune that one is to meet; And when Legba has this infor- r mation, then, if he wishes, it is possible for him to change the fate in Our. mothers, witches, homage to youl store for any man. When Koda and Chada finished speaking, the people I f the little child respects its elders understood that Fa was necessary for them. Clothes will hang comfortably on its back As time went on, though they remembered that Fa is the will of the Our mothers, witches, we respect you. gods, they forgot the importance of Legba. Thus it happened that some- Deference to you, too, Esu time later three other men came to earth at a place called Gisi, near a Our mothers, witches! 45 river in Nigeria, called Any a. The first named Adjaka, the second Oku, and the third Ogbena.They came to tell the people that they should not ;,. As Robert Thompson shows, Esu is figured as paired male, and female stat- forget that Mawu had said it is important they worship Legba. . . . ues, which his/her devotees carry while dancing, or as one bisexual figure. To spreadtheir message, the three emissaries of the gods selected a Often she holds her breasts i n the female figures. Even Esus sexuality is man named Aiaundje whom they instructed in the way of manipulating indeterminate, i f insatiable. I n fact, Ogundipe, a Yoruba woman and scholar, Fa. . . / V r •^•-•y^.i ••• _.;. writes that Esu Aiaundje spread the doctrine of Fa everywhere, and taught what he"" certainly is not restricted to human distinctions of gender or sex; he is at had learned of the cult of Fa to Djisa. Djisa established himself at Abomey - once both male and female. Although his masculinity is depicted as visu- and taught Fa andLegba to all the people of Dahomey. And Djisa i n - ally and graphically overwhelming, his equally expressive femininity, r e n - structed the people that all those who learned to know how to read this . ders his enormous sexuality ambiguous, contrary, and genderless. 40 writing of Mawu were to be called bokono, since in. the sky Legba is .. called bokono. 41 Rather than standing as one more form of sexist discourse, then, the female-Each god speaks a language of his or her own, and only Legba caninterpret other is inscribed i n Esu just as i t is in-Mawu-Lisa. Both are Janus figures,these because Legba "knows alllanguages." Such a role as interpreter, i n two-sided figures like a sign, "a k i n d of reconciliation of opposites of d i s -such myths as that cited above, most certainly is designed to serve as a p e r - course and, therefore, the apt linguist of M a w u . " Nowhere is Esus exis- 47petual reminder of Legbas role; a subtle role for the Fon. For (he Fon, Legba tence as the third principle—neither male nor female, neither this nor that,is a principle o f fluidity, of uncertainty, of the indeterminacy even of ones but both, a compound morphology—put more expressively than by J. E . andinscribed fate. Nowhere i n the literature is this role stated more clearly than D . M . dos Santos, i n Esu Bara Laroye:in Herskovitss account: - Being result and issue, he inherits the nature of all the ancestors. He ex- I n this way [thatis, by.reading the text of Fa], do men discover their hibits the characteristics of the male ancestors, the Egun Irunmale, as well destiny and conduct its.worship. What is in store for a man is foreor- as those of the female, the Iyam-mi Aje. By compounding their morphol- dained. Yet, . . . . a "way. out" is not dented to man. This power that ogies, he partakes indifferently of either group and can circulate freely permits man to escape his destiny—philosophically the personification of between them a l l . 48 Accident in. a world where Destiny is inexorable—is found in the charac- Each time I have used the masculine pronoun for the referent Esu, then, I ter of Legba. .. 42 , :%y . could just have properly used the feminine. This discursive structure of sexual Legbas priority) his place "before" Fa, " i n the sense that . . . he transmits duality the Fon even matched w i t h a dual structure of "a twofold double- the wishes o f the gods concerning what must occur to a person," is figured ness." As Paul Mercier describes this curious system: i n the fact that .he mustalways be worshiped"and propitiated by sacrifice first, A t the head is the king, and he is two in one. R. F. Burton was the first even before anyothergod; can be summoned. I f fate can be foretold, i t can to point this out: "One of the Dahomean monarchs peculiarities is that, also be changed- -by Legba, a quality of his representation which underscores he is double; 7tot merely binonymous, nor di/niT >-,.. . , but two in one." his role as interpreter, as, the determination of meaning through understand- . . . There is only one royal personage, but there ""are two courts, two ing. This is so even of Fa, "since i t was necessary that Legba be at his side bodies of exactly similar officials, two series of rituals in honour of the ? before Fa could speak," as one Fon myth says. 43 royal ancestors. . . . Every title and every administrative office is con-
30 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 31 ferred simultaneously on a woman within the palace and a man out- Worthy of worship like Fate! side i t . " M y mothers husband! Owner of a golden whip!Even Fon governmental structure, then, stood as a readily accessible institu- Consumer of sacrificeto save mantional critique of the simple opposition, a critique that occurs by a doubling As restless as atale bearer. -. 68process, of which Legba is the sign. Bolaji Idowu contends that f o r the Yoruba even destiny is mutable. I n Metaphysically and hermeneutically, at least, F o n and Yoruba discourse the unborn state of .being, each Yoruba. kneels before Olodumarc to hearis truly genderless, offering feminist literary critics a unique opportunity to the fate ( o r i ) that shall be his or hers i n life on earth. Then, the unborn isexamine a field of texts, a discursive universe, that escaped the trap of sexism born. As one is born ones fate is forgotten. Hence, one consults Ifa ^Jo learninherent in Western discourse. This" is not to attempt to argue that African ones fate. Nevertheless, this fate is not rendered i n a literal or determinatemen and women are not sexist; but to argue that the Yoruba discursive and way, so that human w i l l comes to bear i n the figure of-Esu, just as chance,hermeneutical universes are not. The Fon and the Yoruba escape the Western is inherent i n a system of revelation that turns upon a throw of the dice. * 6 1version of discursive sexism through the action of doubling the double; the As Ogundipe puts the matter nicely, .number 4 and its multiples are sacred i n Yoruba metaphysics. Esus two sides"disclose a hidden wholeness"; rather than closing off unity, through the o p - Thus Ifa, as the principle of certainty, complements Esu as orderedposition, they signify the passage from one to the other as sections of a sub- Chance, the uncertainty in the certainty o f the throw of the dice. Thussumed whole. Esu stands as the sign of this wholeness. Peltonte explanation Esu and Ifa are complementary, not opposing or,antithetical forces. 56of this doubleness is especially cogent: Esu, i n this sense, is. the dialectical principle. As J. E . and D . M . dos Santos Its meaning is not so much rooted in the coincidence of opposites or in conclude, " I t is Esu who speaks through Ifa, revealing the ways and means, the mere passage between structure or antistructure as it is in a percep- the ebo, that shall enable h i m to open or. close themto the benevolent or d e - tion of life as a rounded wholeness whose faces both mask and disclose structive elements." , 56 -v.-. each other. These faces are- simultaneously present, but this is a simul- The literature on Esu i n the New World is extensive, i n all essential r e - taneity of process, a turning by which one face not only succeeds but is spects, he is represented the same as he is in the Fon and Yoruba systems. transformed into the other, (emphasis added) 50 As Lydia Cabrera, writing about Esu i n Cubay ~ahd Juiaifia- and; Deoscorcdes dos Santos, writing about Esu Bara Lafoye i n Nigeria, Dahomey, and Brazil,Esu, thus, is the potential for resolution, a role profoundly linked to his demonstrate i n some detail, Esus presence only has proliferated i n the Newrole as the interpreter. Esu is a figure of doubled duality, of unreconciled o p - World, where every god and every human being has his or her. own personalposites, living i n harmony: Esu, the principle of individuality- Cabrera^ :marvelous; Chapter I I I of El . Laaroye,,.one who can be good or bad Monte, entitled "Oluwa Ewe: E l Dueno del Monte," contains.;several myths One who can be tall or short. of Esu as the originator and master of I f a andits interpretation. " I t is Esu One who can be short or t a l l . 51 who speaks," as the Santoses quote from an Oriki, m This New W o r l d Esu figures plurality of meaning for the critic. He is, moreover, as master of theThus, he is the epitome of paradox: ... roads and the-crossroads;the master of " a l l steps-taken," be these steps 1 taken" as one walks or the steps o f a process. He is, finally, a principle of Swift footed oner. ;?| Agile and restless one! rhetoric: "When he is i n power," as Cabrera reports, "he exagggerates the h One who scatters himself abroad speech of the pure black that he is," a description that also connects Esu to One who, once scattered, cannot be put together again. the Signifying M o n k e y . Esu is the deusexmachina, 68 but also the deus est . , . One born.on the way to the market mortali iuvarernortalem, god who isthe helping of man to man. I f a n y - . . . He walks through the peanut patch thing, Esti, upon his emergence fromthe Middle Passage, assumed more f u n c - His head hardly shows tions and even a fuller presence within black cosmogonies than he had i n But for his tallness. Africa. Roger Bastide, for example, notes that i n Brazil, i n enslavement, He has. eyes yet with his nose weeps black followers of Esu represented him as the liberator of the slaves and as Tip of the razor blade enemy of the enslavers, "killing, poisoning, and driving mad their oppres- He sleeps rested against a cucigel. XljA 53 sors," Esu, then, assumed a direct importance to^the^black enslaved, whileEHU, as Ogundipe concludes, is "the personification of flux- and mutability." retaining his.traditional,functions. This importance is affirmed by.representa- tions of the figure of Esu in.both New W o r l d and Old W o r l d black literature. ?He Is 6
32 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey but neither took Esu. into consideration..Esu took note of their actions and decided to do something about them. When the time was ripe, Esu decided to put. their friendship to his own little test. He made a cloth cap. The right side was black, the left side was white. The two friends were out in the fields, tilling their land. One was hoe- ing on the right side, the other was clearing, the bushes to the left. Esu One of the most important functions Esu bears is that of uncertainty came by on a horse, riding between the twomen. The one on the rightor indeterminacy. Yoruba mythology inscribes the,, concept of indeterminacy saw the black side of his hat. The friend on the left noticed the sheerin the Esu myth commonly known as "The Two Friends." This myth is prob- whiteness of Esus cap. . ...ablythe most well-known of the Esu canon. Indeed, i t is one of the canonical The two friends took, a break for.lunch under the cool shade of thenarratives that survived the Middle,Passage and is as .familiar,,among the trees. Said one friend,,"Did you see the man with a white cap who greetedYoruba cultures of Brazil and Cuba as i t is i n Nigeria. As.Ogundipe correctly us as we were working? He was very pleasant, wasnt he?" concludes, "The conceptualization of Esus presence as a dynamic principle "Yes, he was charming, but it was a man in a black cap that I recall,and.his.representation,as the principle of chance or uncertainty has endured not a white one."in both the O l d and,New W o r l d s . " 60 . , , - v i • .,• : "It was a white cap, The man was riding a magnificently caparisoned There are several variants of this Esu myth pf the indeterminate, recorded horse." , .. "Then it must be the same man. I tell you, his cap was dark—black."from Nigeria to Brazil and Cuba. Ogundipes vefsion is a full one, revealing 01 "You must be fatigued or blinded by the hotjrays of the sun to take athe reading given the text by the babalawos concluding verse: white cap for a black one." " Everyone knows the story of the two friends whb were thwarted in their " I teil you it was a black cap and I am not mistaken. I remember- friendship by Esu. They took vows of eternal friendship to one another, him distinctly." . • - -:4?~ 1 ;: y
34 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 35 " I am the man who paid the visit over which you now quarrel, and here is the cap that caused the dissension." Esu put his hand in his pocket and brought out the two-colored cap saying, "As you can see, one side is white and the other is black. You each saw one side and, therefore, are right about what you saw. Are you not the two friends who made vows of friendship? When you vowed to be friends always, to be faithful and true to each other, did you reckon with Esu? Do you know that he who does not put Esu.firpfin all his doings has himself to blame i f things mis- fire?" And so i t is said, , "Esu, do not undo me, Do not falsify the words of my mouth, Do not misguide the movements of my feet. You who translates yesterdays words Into novel utterances, Do not undo me, I bear you sacrifices." 62 This most common myth of Esu has been glossed in several ways, as i f its encoded indeterminacy has blinded; even the most astute commentators to a meaning even more fundamental than any literal rendering of its a l l e - gory allows. For this, myth ascribes to Esu his principal function of the i n - determinacy of interpretation. Neitherof the friends is correct i n his reading of the strangers hat; but neither is, strictly speaking, wrong either, They are simultaneously right and wrong. Esus hat is neither black nor white; i t is both black and white, The folly depicted here is to insist—to the point of rupture of the always fragile bond of a human institution—on one determi- nate meaning, itself determined by vantage point and the mode one employsFigures 9, 10, 11. Janus-figure Esu-Klcgbara. From the collection o f Ralph and to see. Even the ultimate text of, meaning, that of I f a,, remains indeterminate, Fanny Ellison. Ihotos by Chester fliggins, Jr. . . . despite the extensive rituals of disclosure that the Yoruba depend on. D i s - closure, because of ..Esu, is never-ending; closure, on the other hand, simply does not exist until ones death, when ones. on- is, at last, retrieved or r e - The two friends fell to fighting. The neighbors came running but the called, just as the living subject has been recalled to the ancestors.. fight was so intense that, the neighbors could not stop it. I n the niidst of this uproar, Esu returned, looking very calm and pretending not to know Despite Esus open-endedness and his myriad faces and names, we must what was going on. draw conclusions about his role i n Yoruba, Fon, Lucumi, andNago d i s - "What is the cause of all the hullabaloo?" he demanded sternly. course as the figure of; formal language use and its interpretation. As a "Two close friends are fighting," was the answer; "They seem intent 1 meta-linguistic principle,Esus importance tO:.the theorist of comparative on killing each other and-neither would stop or tellus the reason for the black literature should be obvious. His.:passage from Africa to the New fight. Please do something before they destroy each other." - : • " • - - World and.his continued simultaneous existence i n the Yoruba-derived c u l - Esu promptly stopped the fight. "Why do you two lifelong friends tures of Nigeria, Benin, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil,, and the United States allows us make a public spectacle of yourselves in this manner?" to draw upon this compelling black figure as the trope of critical activity, as " A man rode through the farm, greeting us as he went by," said the a whole. Whereas Ogun, god of war and the artisan, stands as the writers first friend. "He was wearing a black cap, but my friend tells me it was a muse, i t is Estx who stands as the muse of the critic. He can serve us as such white cap and that I must have been tired or blind or both." because he is both the divine linguist and the divine interpreter, the c o n t r o l - The second friend insisted that theman had been wearing a white ling principle of its representation and its i n t e r p r e t a t i o r i . cap. One of them must be mistaken, but it was not he. "Both of you are right," said Esu. Let us recall the classic Odu that summarize for us" exactly who and "How can that be?" what Esu is, and precisely why i t is to this deity that the literary critic m u s t ^
36 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 37bear sacrifices. Interpreters, above all others, must beseech divine aid for ties (the orisa, the ebora, and the irunmale) have an Esu, but so. too doestheir enterprise because of the dilemma inscribed i n the following Yoruba each Odu. Indeed, as one Odu, "The Orisi and Odu Which Accompaniedproverb: Them with Their Esu," states, "Anybody who does not have an Esu i n his I see the outside appearance, body cannot exist, even to know that he is alive." 69 I cannot see the inside of the womb. H o w does one know ones Esu?, This is,. a fairly straightforward matter If the inside were like a calabash, for the orisa, the ebora, and the irunmale, who "can see themselves together One could have opened i t [and] seen everything it contains. 68 with their Esu i n order that they can send them anywhere to. perform every-I t is the pleasure of the critic to open the text, even i f not quite as readily thing they need, according to Esus ways and duties." Human beings, h o w -as one opens a calabash; and to shift metaphors, the difficulties that await ever, cannot see their own Esu, just as they can no longer, recall the-destinythe traveler down this, road most urgently demand supplication from the (ori) whispered to them by Olodumare precisely as they are about,to betrickster figure, the orisd o f the critic- born, Human beings, therefore, must consult the Odu and sacrifice.: to..- Esu, ; Esu rules two principal domains, as encoded i n one of his several ritual so that "the Esu should do his work i n such, a way that the person be.;helpedhonorifics: "Elegbaa Esu Ona," or "Esu, L o r d o f Power and of the Ways." so as to bear a good name and to have power to develop." An,individualsUnderstanding the nature of these domains of powerand of the ways is to Esu is an immense power to be summoned, "a medicine of supernaturalunderstand Esus significance for the critic. Esus representations as the m u l - power for each person.". A s the Odu elaborate, "When a person.-will saytiplicity of meaning, as the logos, and as what I shall call the Ogboni S u p - that he is able to level mountains or to turn forests into savannahs instantly,plement encapsulate hisfple for the critic. 01 , , i t is the Esu of each person that renders such help.". Esu, i n other words, represents power i n terms of the agency of the w i l l . But his ultimate.power, One of the.many Yoruba. creation myths lists Esu as the primal form, of which even the .wilLis.a.derivative,, is._the_power of sheer plurality or raulii-the very first form to exist. Before Esu,assumed form, only air.and water plicity; the myths that account for his capacity to reproduce himself adexisted. A i r (Olorun) moved and breathed and became water (Orisanla). infinitum figure the plurality of meanings that Esu represents; in- the processA i r and water interchanged to become liquid mud. The dos Santoses d e - of I f a divination. Esu as the figure of indeterminacy extends, directly fromscribe what happened next:, ... .. his lordship over the concept of plurality. 70 ]" From this mud,, a swelling or small mound was raised, the first matter I f plurality comprises one form of Esus power, a second form is his endowed with, form, a reddish, muddy rock, Olorun admired the form, power to connect the parts. Esu is the sum of the parts, as well as that which and breathed over the mound, blowing his breath into it and giving it connects to parts. H e is invoked and sacrificed to first, before any other life. This form, the first form of existence, laterite rock, was Esu, or deity, because of this: "He alone can set an action i n motion and intercon- rather a proto-Esu, Esu the ancestor of Esu Agba, the Esu who was to nect the parts." This aspect of Esu cannot be erhphasized too much. The be the king of all his descendants or Esu Oba or also Esu Yangi, on ac- count of his,association with laterite (which is called yangi), 05 . most fundamental absolute of the Yoruba is that there exist, simultaneously, three stages of existence: the past, the present, and the unborn. Esu repre-As Robert Farris Thompson demonstrates definitively, fragments of laterite sents these stages, and makes their simultaneous existence possible;/,withoutand sculpted mud figures are Esus oldest and most significant emblems. 60 any contradiction," precisely because he is the principle of discourse both This proto-Esu, Esu Agba, multiplied itself remarkably, so that-every as messenger and as the god of communication. Discourse among three p a r -other god, every individual, and all that exists has his,.her, • or its specific allel phases of existence renders the notion of contradiction null. This helpsEsu. This individual Esu makes possible birth;; development, and further the noninitiate to understand so many of theOriki Esu that ref.er.to Esu asreproduction. One makes sacrifice.to ensure that this life cycle functions the father and the child, the first and the last to be born, and so on, :Whatsmoothly; sacrifices are compensation f o r . " a l l the food which, i n a real or appears i n a binary system to be a contradiction resolvable ..only by themetaphorical sense, [an individuals] life-principle has devoured." The Y o - unity of opposites is more subtly—and mysteriously—resolved by the Yorubaruba-represent the idea of Esu-as discrete principle of life by. associating the i n the concept central to the Ogboni secret society that "two, i t becomesplacenta with Esu, as well as the semen. 07 three."71 •; : •--.•-;>•:;,c Because of the potential extent o f the manifestations of the life principle, The Ogboni or the Osugbo secret society is comprised of the elder malestheYoruba think of Esu as infinite in,number, or Orisirisi Esu, to under- and females of a society, those who embody wisdom. Thus, the Osugbo wasscorehismultiplicity. This is why the Yoruba say, "Esu is One, infinitely the judicial segment of traditional government among the Yoruba.;,The sig-multiplied," The symbolic numbers 200 and 1,200 are related to Esu and nal emblem of this highly revered secret society is~called the .edan, :i pair•connofe.multiplicity, the concept of doubled doubles that I discussed above. 88 of bronze figures, one male the other female, linked by a chain. Peter M o r t o n - "Ji:,;:iThis.idea o f multiplicity is extraordinary: not only does each o f the dei- ? Williams writes that the Osugbo signify their most fundamental metaphysical
38 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 39concept i n the following cryptic utterance: "Two Ogboni, i t becomes three." mouthpiece for all, he who speaks for all and whose mouth represents eachMorton-Williams contends that "The third element seems to be the mystery, of the mouths of the gods. 76the shared secret itself. The union of male and female in the edan image Esus role as interpreter is central to I f a divination. The system simplysymbolizes this putting two together to make a third," The edan, presented would collapse i f i t had not placed at its center the principle of interpreta-to each initiate of the society, represents the transcendence of the binary o p - tion as mediation, and as open-ended. Esu speaks the readings of Ifa; hisposition, of contradiction. 72 collective mouth (Enugbarajo) yields interpretation. A s Wande Abimbola Esus relation to the numbers 2 and 3 helps to clarify somewhat the writes, citing one of the most crucial proverbs about the oracle, Orunmila,mystery of what Wole Soyinka calls "the House of Osugbo." Like the paired or Ifa, acts "with the ase of Esu." Esu speaks through Ifa, because i t is hisedan figures, Esu, as we have seen, is often represented as carved male and ase that reveals—or conceals—the roadways or the pathways through the textfemale figures, linked by a chain of cowrie^shells. A s I have shown earlier to its potential and possible meanings. Whereas Ifa is truth, Esu rules under-in this chapter, he is also represented with twoheads. Nevertheless, Esus : standing of truth, a relationship that yields an individuals meaning. Esussymbolic prime number is 3 (which somehow is associated with the color role i n the critical process is to make that process possible: Esu is the processblack i n Esu worship, "black being the color of the third cloth with which of interpretation. This is why an Oriki Esu says, "He spoke yesterday, i tsome of his emblems are dressed," after white and r e d ) . The 3 represents comes to pass today." 76synthesis, i n the same way as Esu himself was born as the result " o f two I have been examining the- texts of Esu for what these reveal to us aboutprimary elements, air and water, Orunmila and Yobiriru, Osun and the the nature of interpretation, as Yoruba myths would have it. I have beenase of the Agba-Odu, semen and placenta." Esu, in other words, signifies concerned to show that the rhetoric of the language i n which these state-the synthesis of the number 3, "the procreated element, the third principle, ments are rendered, the figures and relations among figures in the texts ofthe Igba-Ketu of the system." A s the dos Santoses conclude aptly, i t is Esu Esu, are curious i n that graphocentric figures are employed to account forwho resolves or "constitutes" the mystery of the Ogboni societys dictum, as the workings of a phonocentric system. Rather than declaring this to be aone of the Oriki Esu says: naive inconsistency, I think of this mode of figuration as a declaration of a complex notion of writing, a notion that accounts for a vocal writing and Father who gave birth to Ogboni a graphic w r i t i n g . 77 Is called by all Baba Jakila The speech uttered by the babalawo after long and arduous years of He lives three years in the earth And lives three years in the Ajin [depths of the other world]. 73 training is already a form of writing—the writing of M a w u for the F o n and the writing of Ifa for the Yoruba. To figure Esu as a trope for indeterminacyEsu, i n other words, is the supplement, just as his especial Odu (Odu serves to reinforce the critique of the immediacy or transcendence of pres-Osetua) is the seventeenth, "the 17th member of the 16 principal Odu Ifa, ence implicit i n the p r i o r i t y of speaking, which the oral forms of Ifa d i v i n a -without whom the whole I f a system would remain paralyzed." For i t is i n tion might suggest without Esu. With Esu as the deus ex machina, with thethis Odu that Esus role of bearer of the sacrifices and initial partaker of figuring of the Odu i n the densest of figurative language, with archaic, u n -the sacrifice is defined. For the literary critic, of course, the concept of "Two translatable words dead to the society, alive only in the Odu, and withOgboni, i t becomes three" accounts for the curious process by which author, Esus crucial role inscribed to the point of insistence, there can be littletext, and criticism interact. The third principle, we see readily, is criticism doubt that the Yoruba system of Ifa declares, through its own rhetoricalitself. 74 figures, the words the babalawo speaks to be an especial form of writing, Esus importance for criticism can perhaps most easily be grasped through and the interpretation of these words to be a form of reading. The languagethe idea of process. For Esu is the dynamic of process, the dialectical ele- of the Ifa oracle is of the textual, or discursive, order, precisely because itment of the system. I t is Esu whose role of messenger we must conceive of, is mediated, like writing: Ifa writes his wisdom to the babalawo, and he, i nnot as delivery boy, but as "he who interrelates all the different and multiple turn, recites Ifas words to the propitiate.parts which compose the system. . . . H e is the interpreter and linguist of The reading of the propitiate of Ifa can occur only within a system of Iho system," as the dos Santoses conclude, citing the following Oriki Esu: differences and traces, wherein the text of Ifa functions as a text i n relation to Esu, who is never present at a reading, and i n relation to other, larger c u l - Collective mouths is the name by which Esu is called. tural texts of which the Ifa oracle is merely one sign. Esus indeterminacyThis Oriki refers to the myth that each oi the 400 irunmale or deities gave can only be grappled with by reading the densely ambiguous language ofaugments of their mouths to Esu on the day that he became their mediator t Ifa against a system of meaning and interpretation that includes all of thebofore Olorun. Esu combined these mouth pieces and thereby became the texts that comprise the system of being Yoruba. Whats more, that the sys- t
40 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey 41tern of divination figures its innermost workings through the traditionally o p - of the Odu, as textual analogues of the other texts of Yoruba culture againstposed metaphors of speaking and writing is a sign of that systems sophisti- which the Odu are read. The speech of the babalawo, then, imitates a sys-cated awareness that even its most sacred words must never be taken to tem of writing i n several ways, precisely as the Yoruba themselves figuredbe a direct or immediate indication of fate, or divinely ordered event, espe- the matter rhetorically. A n d the irresolvability of this aporia, coupled withcially since Esu has the power to alter fate. That what is occurring as the the encoding of Esu as the god of indeterminacy, attests that the notion ofbabalawo speaks is described as a kind of writing forces even the most naive closure, even i n the interpretation of ones fate, is alien to Ifa. Esu the a b -of the Yoruba to realize that his or her interpretation of the Odu must some- sent one supersedes Ifas presence i n the ritual. Hence, all that is left is ahow be produced in relation to the other signifying components of the Y o - series of differences, the relationship among which the reader (propitiate)ruba cultural text, a function underscored, by definition, in the figurative must ponder to begin to produce some sort of meaning. Esus often statedlanguage of the Odu texts themselves. We can privilege neither speaking nor dwelling at the crossroads is, i n this sense, at the crossroads of differences;writing i n this system, since both (by definition) must be figured i n terms there is no direct access, or contact, with truth or meaning, because Esu g o v -of the other, existing only as a figure of the other in a bipolar moment of erns understanding, and even the speech of the babalawo is a form of writing,figuration within a system of differences. The text of Ifa is neither spoken according both to the systems own code and to the absence of presence, i m -nor written, because the relationship between them is an irresolvable m o - mediacy, and transparency i n the rhetoric of the Odu.ment, or an aporia. The rhetoric of Ifa only doubles this problematic of the . I wrote earlier i n this chapter that the Yoruba believe that a person aboutlocation of meaning, invoking as i t does the always absent figure of Esu, to be born, about to leave the realm of the unborn for that of the living bywhom the system renders present i n the open-ended signification process of way of the birth canal, kneels before Olodumare to hear whispered his orwhich i t consists. This doubling of irresolvability, of what others have called her fate, the truth of his or her existence. This fate, however, the unborn is"a double, aporetic logic," ensures that Esu shall never again be forgotten doomed to forget upon entering the realm of the living. Ifa divination affords as the signal god that he is, and explains precisely why i t is he who must the apparent opportunity to retract from the lost world of the forgotten thosereceive the first and the richest sacrifices, if chaos is to be averted.* spoken words that figure the contours of ones life. Yet Esus indeterminacy Whereas I have sought to locate this aporia i n the Pan-African discourse prevents the desired retrieval of ones full, predetermined meaning while onof the Ifa oracle, I have also sought to define the notion of indeterminacy i n earth, The ultimate indetermination of meaning, however, does not lead thethe black interpretive process itself-precisely because the "speech" of the Yoruba to despair; rather, i t leads them to return to the text of Ifa, to c o n -babalawo must be seen by the propitiate to be a chain of signifiers (like sult i t regularly, to wrestle with its play of differences, not to invent a mean;writing), which must be interpreted through a process of interpretation g o v - ing, but rather to process a meaning from among the differences, sacrifice toerned by Esu, a process that is always both openended and repeatable. B e - Esu and the appropriate deity, only to return to explore the process oncecause the discrete Odu are not structured by the truth or logic of M a w u or more. Truly, the Ifa oracle is a dynamic system of interpretation. As Pel-Olodumare, but by the rhetoric of the language i n which they are inscribed, ton concludes, i n his perceptive and subtle study of "Irony and Sacred D e -the Odu imitate the so-called derivative or secondary term, writing. A n d , light," Esulike writing, these Odu must be read, both literally by the babalawo and fig-uratively by the propitiate. Because the rhetoric of the Odu is anything but is the master of the sacred language of Ifa, in which all human possibili- ties are contained. He destroys normal communication to bring men out-transparent, an opacity reinforced by archaism, the readers gaze, or ear, side ordinary discourse, to speak a new word and to disclose a deepercannot help but pause over the forms of the signifiers of the Odu. grammar to them, and then to restore them to a conversation that speaks N o r do these densely figurative signifiers readily yield Ifas text of ones more accurately of Yoruba life.fate, for actually there is nothing to yield except the chain of signifiers, A t this moment the language of the Yoruba is enlarged to name and towhich represent a condition by repeated differences inscribed i n the verses humanize an otherwise unintelligible and therefore unassimilable event.* This rhetorical impasse within this black system of signification has become a topos of Here, at the moment of an enlargement that is also a transformation of Afro-American literature. The "finding of the voice" of the speaking subject in a l a n - non-sense to sense, of impasse to passage, the Yoruba see Esu, as the guage in which blackness is the cardinal sign of absence is the subject of so much of Fon see Legba, working most characteristically. 78 Afro-American discourse that it has become a central trope to be revised, as well as the sign of that revision and hence of the inner processjrf Afro-American literary history. We can conclude this meditation on Esus function as a displaced, or To find this impasse figured in black letters, one need only examine cursorily the first absent, presence i n the system of the Ifa oracle by thinking of Ifa as d i a c r i t i - writings of Africans in English in the eighteenth century. The crucial repeated trope in these texts is that of the oxymoron, the Talking Book. The Talking Book is the funda- cal, as a system of differences very much like language itself. Esu, as we have mental repeated trope of the black tradition. See Chapter 4. seen i n some detail, is the supplement of this system, the seventeenth njem-
42 A Theory of the Tradition A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey ber of the sixteen Odu, without whom the entire system would be paralyzed, Redeemer, I call on you, or quite simply would collapse, Esu, as supplement, "enters the heart of all Man at the roadside, carry pur sacrifice straight to heaven, intelligible discourse and comes to define its very nature and condition," a Master, son of Onidere, role which poststructural criticism ascribes to w r i t i n g . 70 Who came from Idere to found a town,*" The figures of writing that are so very fundamental to Ifa signify Esus Son of embezzler of sacrificial money, place i n the system. As promiscuous as divinely possible, Esu as copulating Little man who goes through the gates in hot pursuit of Egungun. copula signifies "promiscuous exchange, (or w r i t i n g ) . " Esu bears a relation Elderly orisa, " "" to the oral language of Ifa-similar to that which, rhetoric bears to ordinary Spirits of dead criminals take the Oro gate speech. Esu is the free p l a y or element of undecidability within the I f a t e x - M y master alone takes the entrance of the black warriors tual universe;-Esu endlessly displaces meaning,, deferring i t by the play of One who turns white at the town gate V signification.. Esu is. this element of displacement and deferral, as well as its Makes a fence from your tendrils. The snail of the buyer of destiny, sign. He is "a deceiving shadow," true to the trickster, "which falls between One who slaughters tortoises to eat, intent and meaning, between utterance and understanding." What Saussure Short, small man. 81 says of language-is true.of Esu: he is a "differential network of. meaning." Negue, may the negue go away! Esus answers or interpretations of Ifas: mediated riddles (riddled, riddles, Guije, may the guije go. away! a second-order riddle, the.doubled riddle) not only.faiLto resolve the " p u z - Pigmies, with enormous navels zles and perplexities" of Ifas figurative discourse, but he. delights i n inscrib- people the restless waters; ing those i n his cryptic^responses. H e is the primal-figurein a truly black their short legs are twisted; hermeneutic tradition; his. opposites- are identical, as R. P. Blackmun wrote their long ears stand up. of analogy, Esu is analogy, .but also every other figure, for he is. the trope Ah, they are eating my child, of tropes, the figure of the-figure. Esu is meta-discourse, the writing of -the the one of pure, black flesh, speech act of I f a . 80 i, . . . they are drinking his blood sucking up dry hisveins, Whereas the speech of the babalawo is figured rhetorically i n terms of extinguishing the light of his eyes, writing, Afro-American vernacular discourse figures its archetypal trickster his great eyes made of pearls! in terms of speaking. Nevertheless, the highly structured rhetoric-of the S i g - Flee, the monkey spirit will kill you, nifying Monkey also conforms to the demands of writing, especially i n the flee, before the monkey spirit arrives! Bense of a chain of signifiers, open to,(mis)interpretation. The open-ended- My little one, my great little one, ness of figurative language, rather than its single-minded closure,-is inscribed may your necklace hold you safe.. , , 8 2 ill the myths of the Signifying Monkey. Whereas a small black man/woman, Owolabi, master medicineman possessed of long hair and large eyes, emerges from the waters of Oriente Drinker of a whole keg of pine wine at the bar . . province as a conflation of Esu and his partner, the Monkey, only the Monkey He peers from, a ruined house lurvived the passage from Cuba to the United States. Perhaps thefacist desig- , With elongated occiput like a bush-fowls,.. nation of the Afro-American as a monkey informed the North American f e a - With him, few words become truth.. tures of thisfigure; perhaps the explicit .aporia between, speech and. writing Nimble somersaulter,. (hat forms such a crucial and dynamic aspect of Ifa divination was forced Lighter, of fire with mouth full of water underground into the implicit by the hostile terms of survival demanded of Afterwards, they claimed mute was devious, tha Monkey. We do not know. B u t we do know that, for Afro-Americans, the Akinfenia, man with many names! 83 r llgnlfying Monkey tales inscribe the nature and function of formal language UI8 and its interpretation, just as does Ifa. A n d whereas the rich parallels be- tWMn Esu and the Monkey cannot be demonstrated historically, these are the jflwtorlcnl figures of the critics enterprise that I am positing a relationship be-iQtntn, a functional and rhetorical equivalency and complementarity. The S i g -nifying Monkey is the figure of the text of the Afro-American speaking sub- *ttt» whose manipulations of the figurative and the literal both wreak havoc in and inscribe order for criticism in the jungle.