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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

II. To REwrite and to RElaugh

Ordinary Voices: the Mocking of Myth in For Her Dark Skin

Kathie Birat

Résumé

This article explores Percival Everett’s use of the Medea myth and the way in which Everett’s ironic treatment of the myth reveals essential aspects of the use of myth in a postmodern context. While the characters in Everett’s rewriting of the Medea myth seem incapable of understanding the nature of myth as Mircea Eliade describes it, as the «various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred (or the “supernatural’) into the world», they find themselves trapped by language, which in the postmodern view of narrative has become the equivalent of fate. While Everett’s approach reinforces our awareness of the fictionality of all that was formerly seen as reality (and myth was initially seen as real), it also lays bare the survival of myth at an unconscious level in modern society. Most importantly Everett shows the way in which questions of gender and race lie rooted in the mysterious past of humanity, in the dark region where myths were born.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ricoeur defines “narrative intelligence” as a familiarity with the semantics of action and with the (...)

1The use of myth in contemporary fiction corresponds both to an awareness of myth as a form of storytelling relying on the “narrative intelligence” to which Paul Ricoeur refers in Temps et Récit1 and a desire to re-examine the functioning of myths itself in relation to the cultural contexts in which they are produced as well as those in which they are re-interpreted. In defining myth, Mircea Eliade emphasizes the relation between myths and the question of origins. It is a fundamental characteristic of a myth that it is

always related to a ‘creation’; it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths constitute paradigms for all significant human acts. (Myths and Reality, 18).

2Eliade’s definition reveals the close link between the origin of men and institutions and the creation of the stories which describe these origins. The creation of the world and the creation of the story are entwined. The use of myths as a background for storytelling in a contemporary context raises questions concerning not only the relation of a culture to specific myths, but the relation of that culture to storytelling as a form of knowledge and expression. While the re-activation of specific myths usually emphasizes the distance between the modern world and the mythical one, or the one that served as the original framework of the myth, the examination of myth as the basic paradigm for all storytelling reveals a desire to examine the relation between the act of narration and the cultural myths which stories often unconsciously purvey.

3The use that Percival Everett makes of myth in his rewriting of the story of Medea in For Her Dark Skin corresponds to both of these motivations. The ironical intentions underlying the novel become obvious from the moment the characters begin to speak. In his first speech, Jason tells the reader, “When I entered her middle, I met my beginning and my end” (6). The Jason of the novel resembles not so much a mythical hero as an athlete going to college on a football scholarship. His status as hero of the story revolving around his disastrous marriage to Medea is quite obviously being subjected to the pressures of parody. This dimension of the story is made explicit through the words of Jason’s friend Polydeuces, who says when the couple are married:

Side by side, they were a parody of something. Jason wore white robes. Medea, black. The contrast was startling, comical, tragic, prophetic. The priest offered stale words to Aphrodite and a few others. The damage done, the party began (58).

4Everett’s satirical treatment of the Medea myth is related to questions both of race and gender. This also is made clear early in the story. Medea, in her first appearance, says of Jason:

That he was not overly bright was apparent, though he was a talker I would not have let him touch me, but the gods... not even my gods, but some chalk-skinned, bitch voyeur caused me to fall in love with this Jason (10).

5However, the specific implications of seeing the story in a racial or gender perspective are less important than the ways in which the novel explores the role of language and storytelling in the creation of the cultural narratives in which racial and gender distinctions are rooted. Although it is true that the characters are seen as the hapless or witless participants in a drama they have not invented, it is equally true that the story itself seems to be the inevitable product not of fate, but of a world that can be described only by a language, which in its very functioning, becomes a form of fate. This is, of course, the essentially postmodern and metafictional dimension of the novel. Like many of his contemporaries, Percival Everett attempts to grasp the ironies of modern life in the gap between the unlimited aspirations of his characters and the linguistic and narrative frames in which these aspirations take shape as recognizable and recycled stories. When Eros speaks, he expresses this dimension of the novel in a nutshell:

Personally, I liked Medea. I had not enjoyed casting such magic on her, but when you are a runt, you do as told. I felt compelled to watch however. My spells had never been known to fail or fade, but this time it would, or some more powerful magic would enter into play. Watching this unfolding, I began to feel less a runt. It was dawning on me that I had not realized the full potential of my gift (78).

6Eros hopes for a more interesting outcome, but this arrow directed against the dictates of fate will turn against itself, for if hope, as every postmodernist knows, springs eternal, it nonetheless springs in two directions and is ultimately defeated by the very language in which it finds expression.

  • 2 That the racial dimension of freedom constitutes a subtext of the story can be seen in Polydeuces’ (...)

7The correlation between the basic structure of stories and the syntactic structures underlying language has been examined in the study of folktales and gradually extended to become a model for all forms of narrative. It is this type of approach which underlies, either consciously or unconsciously, the ways in which many contemporary authors use intertextuality to simultaneously parody and renew the stories of the past. The inevitability of the outcome of stories is seen not so much as an aspect of the specific circumstances evoked in the story, but as the dark side of narrative itself. Paul Auster used this type of strategy in Moon Palace to reveal the American West not as an open space of unlimited possibility, but rather as a cemetery in which lie buried the broken dreams of all who pursued the promises of Manifest Destiny. For Everett, the illusion of freedom takes the form of a woman, whose dark skin becomes the sign of difference and adventure.2 Jason describes Medea in the following way:

Her skin was black and shiny like some coral a boy once handed me before I beheaded his family. Her large, soft, brown eyes forced one to question her reality and at once left no doubt. And in those eyes something burned, a red glow meaning anything you wanted it to mean and everything else. You would give her your life and never trust her (6).

8Just as Auster sees the lure of the West as the very essence of the story that repeats itself in American history, Everett sees racial difference as simply a variation on the lure of the exotic which is the mainspring of stories, especially those involving men. Both gender and racial roles become precisely that, roles that are not intrinsic to the people to whom they devolve, but are functions imposed by the nature of stories themselves. This is of course a way of debunking people’s belief in their power to write the stories of their own lives. The characters of Everett’s novel seem like actors in a Β movie wearing ill-fitting costumes. They are constantly caught off-guard by the script which they fail to understand, missing their cues and pointing up their own ineptitude. When Medea describes the battle between Jason and her brother Apsyrtus, she mentions giving the order “Kill him”, and then points out “Both men gave pause. They did not know to whom I was speaking. Nor did I for that matter...” (47) This type of irony serves to undercut not only the characters, but also the motivations on which their actions rely. Before delivering her order to kill, Medea describes her brother, who accuses Jason of having “lightened my sister’s soul, taken away its color and depth” (47) as someone who “saw the world in a certain way and each new set of circumstances was not only shaped to fit it, but substantiated it. For him, it was a racial thing” (47). Everett thus exposes the relation of both character and context to the inevitability embedded in the nature of stories. Myths are of course particularly appropriate stories to use in this way, for as Northrup Frye has pointed out, myth implies a considerable distance between human action and the ideal patterns which characterize the actions of gods and mythical heroes. The undercutting of myth therefore implies a demystifying, or demythologizing on several different levels.

9A particularly striking aspect of Everett’s satirical rewriting of Medea is his use of narrative voice as a device for drawing attention to the disparity between the voices of the characters and the roles they play in the mythical narrative. Everett’s use of voice reveals not only the inadequacy of the language marshaled by the characters in their quest for credibility, but the role played by language itself in the weaving of the narrative web by which the characters are trapped. His use of voice ultimately links him to a long line of American writers for whom a human voice emerging from a cultural wilderness reveals both the vacuity of the context from which it emerges and the power of the voice itself to explore that context. While I do not wish to suggest any direct link with Faulkner, in spite of the fact that Faulkner created a famous Jason who ended up being fleeced, I do think that Faulkner’s extraordinary use of voice has had an important impact on the way in which voice is used in American fiction. Faulkner’s Jason Compson is a compulsive talker and inveterate liar who spins an incredible yarn about himself, his family and the way he has been misused and misunderstood by his family, his community and society in general. His monologue in The Sound and the Fury is a striking demonstration of the way in which a voice can produce its own mythology and the mocking echo of that mythology. Jason’s speech turns against itself in the very act of utterance, demonstrating the essentially circular and self-centered nature of its internal logic. In For Her Dark Skin, Everett uses a narrative technique which is reminiscent of another novel by Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, in which each section is an internal monologue spoken by a different character. However, Everett’s use of this technique differs from Faulkner’s to the extent that the distinction between the voices appears somewhat artificial. The characters express their individual points of view, but the language they use does not really serve to differentiate them. On the contrary, Everett explicitly draws the reader’s attention to the artificiality of this distinction by allowing Polydeuces at one point to pick up Jason’s monologue where Jason leaves off, revealing the voices to be the emanation of a single voice, a voice with a curiously leveling effect. When Jason comments on the fleece, saying: “There it was. Brighter and more glittering than any of my imaginings. I ran to it and took it and felt it and reveled in it” (23). Polydeuces continues in the next section by saying “In other words, he milked it for all it was worth” (24).

10This use of a voice that seems to undermine the distinctive voices of the characters serves not only to undercut the individual voices; it also points up an important dimension of the use of voice in storytelling. Myths are stories, but the voices which originally created them lie hidden in an unrecoverable past. Thus myths are actually impersonal narratives waiting to be retold by voices that will appropriate the stories for their own purposes. They are thus particularly appropriate vehicles for examining the intimate connection between voice and narrative. This is a dimension of the question that Everett has obviously perceived and used. Much of the irony of the novel is expressed through the way in which Everett’s telling points up the discrepancy between the demands of the story and the voices by which it is being told; the voices prove ultimately inadequate for the story.

11Everett exposes this discrepancy in a number of different ways. He first of all draws attention to the problematic link between the story and the language in which it is told by showing that the characters do not always understand the language being used. Medea’s father sends a messenger to Jason telling him that he will be given a task to complete, which involves seeds “from which will spring up a crop of earthborn men in panoplies of bronze. You must kill them all be sundown” (13). In the following section, Polydeuces mentions that “Meleager wondered aloud what a bronze panoply might be...” (14). The characters are all essentially trapped in the same language, which in its flatness and banality contrasts, as do their respective roles, with the grandiose expectations created by myth. Not the least of Everett’s gifts is an awareness of the emptiness of the language in which people, Americans in particular, voice their rather narcissistic claims to greatness. Like Faulkner, he has an ear for the ordinariness of language and its capacity to reveal the mediocrity of minds. When Medea’s brother Apsyrtus calls his personal advisor, he says to him, “Advisor... I need you to do what you do,” to which the advisor replies, “It will be done” (44). The circularity of his language is of course a reflection of the circularity of his reasoning. Polydeuces reveals the same circular logic in answering Medea’s question about Jason’s doubtful leadership:

“Again, how can you follow such a man?”
Again, he shrugged. “Because he is our leader.” (29)

12Underneath the banality of the language used by the characters lies a more fundamental link between language and story. If the characters express themselves in clichés worthy of daytime television, their poverty is not purely linguistic. If stories can be seen as extending syntactic structures beyond the limits of the sentence, then the story itself bogs down in the clichés through which the characters express themselves. Their story, rather than being determined by fate, seems to be entangled in the web of a language replete with clichés. When Medea’s father tries to persuade Jason to change his plans and settle down with Medea in her own country, a puzzled Jason objects: “But a man must take a wife. I must take her to Hellas and show her off” (11-12). Contrary to Jason, Medea, but also Jason’s companion Polydeuces, are aware that the shallowness of language reflects the emptiness of the world. In his despair at Jason’s stupidity, Polydeuces laments:

Men in trouble always find omens and it seems the clearer the so-called sign, then the more open to interpretation it is. And so it was. When one sifted through all the blather, that’s what one had, blather. The ship was pushed about like a toy while grown men sought meaning in a cloud shaped like a dog (56).

13Not surprisingly, Jason is incapable of understanding metaphor. His is a universe of unrelieved literalness. But Medea knows that metaphor and metamorphosis are closely related. If Jason is incapable of becoming a mythical hero, it is because he is unable to see beyond the literal level of words and events. He is unable to see that just as metaphor is the imaginative doubling of language, fiction is the imaginative doubling of events. And thus, on her wedding night, Medea laments, as she watches her husband sleep:

Zeus presented himself to Leda as a swan and he carried Europe off while in the form of a bull. But you—you come to me as yourself (65).

14It is of course this power to see beyond the plot in which she is involved that allows Everett’s Medea to both fulfill and mock her destiny. When Medea’s nurse, seeing that she wants to try to prevent the birth of her own children, produces another cliché—“Two wrongs do not make a right,” Medea ominously replies, “You have been lied to” (123).

15Medea’s words point to the crux of the relation between language, storytelling and myth. The use of a language filled with clichés and proverbs of the type evoked by the nurse fulfills a function more complex than just emphasizing the banality of the contemporary context in which the myth is being replayed. It reveals the double aspect of myth as we use that word in our everyday language. If we tend to use the word myth in talking precisely about things that do not belong to the world of reality, it is not because myths have lost their roots in belief, but precisely because they represent both the loss and the persistence of belief. In this respect they function somewhat like irregular verbs, which are irregular precisely because they are the ones most often used. Myths, even when they are not specifically used as the underpinnings for contemporary stories, haunt our language, our dreams, and more our ideologies. The popularity of Star Wars is sufficient proof of this. In the American context, as was pointed out by Richard Chase in The American Novel and its Tradition, myth has tended to fill the gaps left precisely by the lack of a tradition in the context of the New World; this helps explain the American penchant for confusing the real and the imaginary, particularly with regard to the past. Everett’s rewriting of the myth of Medea in the contemporary context of gender and racial concerns reveals to what extent these questions have their roots in the ambiguous region where myth and history become confused. The story of Medea lends itself well to parody, for the story of her magical powers and surprising capacity for revenge raises disturbing questions about women and their relationship to desire, power and above all maternity. In the same way, the racial dimension of the story has its roots in the age-old conundrum of difference, seen as both cause and effect. It is myth that preserves the power of these dilemmas intact, for it allows them to continue to exist, unresolved, while at the same time making them appear innocuous. Postmodern rewritings of myths revive them not simply as narrative background or poetic metaphor. On the contrary, by exploring the nature of the relation between myths and the contemporary context in which they survive at an unconscious level, these rewritings lay bare the desires and fears on which the survival of myths relies.

16Everett, in using the myth of Medea, is able thus to show to what extent the questions of gender and race around which his story revolves are rooted in the fundamental paradoxes which gave rise to myth and which are never far from the surface of contemporary life. Much of the fascination of the myth itself comes from the violent and decisive outcome which it gives to very common questions surrounding the place of women in society. The treatment of Medea in the myth, who is forced to leave her country and family, and even to kill her brother, resembles that of many female figures in myth, both human and divine, who suffer rape, exile and personal loss in diverse forms while their male counterparts slip from form to form in order to seduce and betray them. In the world of myth, women are often given magical powers, as is the case with Medea. But these powers do not confer on them a real status in the world of men or gods; on the contrary, they appear as a kind of consolation prize, increasing their isolation while permitting them to haunt the edges of the world in the exercise of their dark skills. Their magic is usually black magic, a perverse form of power. Everett shows that Medea is aware of this aspect of the magical powers attributed to her. When she goes to see her brother Aspyrtus before killing him, or allowing him to be killed by Jason, she says to him:

Dear Aspyrtus, just know that, though blood is heavier than water, magic outweighs them both. Magic has no heart and the gods no conscience. I love you. (43)

17The story of Medea is striking for the way in which it confronts this mythical dimension of women with their human role in society. When Medea uses her magic to send to her rival Creusa a golden gown that will consume her in flame, she is acting within the framework of her magical powers, behaving in expected ways. But when she murders her own children, she expresses her outrage within the framework of human action, transgressing the conventions that would normally separate the realms of the mythical and the real. This is what Everett makes clear by allowing Medea to have the last word. At the end of Everett’s novel, Jason accuses Medea of being wicked, relegating her to the world of obscurity in which women like her perform their dark deeds. But she corrects him by saying, “No, Jason, motivated” (152). By giving her the last word, Everett brings Medea into the world of human action and motivation, thus giving her the power to distinguish between fiction and its mythical underpinnings. But more than that, he relates her action specifically to the egotism and stupidity of Jason; throughout the story, Everett establishes a clear distinction between Jason and the mythical role he has been sent into the story to fulfill. It is in this perspective that Medea’s remark to Jason, “But you—you came to me as yourself” (65) takes on its full meaning. The racial dimension of Medea’s fate is given the same treatment by Everett. Like the question of gender, that of race becomes confused with the mythical origins of the story itself. From the very start, Jason attributes the fascination that Medea exercises on him to the difference represented by her dark skin. When Medea begins to resent his behavior, Jason once again attributes her reactions both to her sex and her color:

I had mixed feelings about being married. Medea was certainly exotic and erotic and extraordinarily beautiful, but she was wild; perhaps a function of her complexion. It was not clear she knew her station as a wife. She had ideas (69).

18From the very beginning, Jason refuses to attribute the events with which he is confronted to history, to the complex workings of human action in a human world. When Argus suggests that the Argonauts would do better to consult history than prophecy in order to find their way in the storm, the other men rapidly lose patience with his explanations. As Argus digresses and talks of “a stone ... taken from quarries far up the River Phasis, a dark stone which when wet...”, Castor cuts him off and says,

Here are we, lost and being pursued by dark men led by a witch’s brother and you speak of a stone’s hue? (27)

19Castor’s rejection of historical explanation points up the distinction, important to the Greeks, between the word mythos, meaning voice, but also story, and the word logos, meaning history. Both gender and race are notions related to difference, and it is not surprising that, like the question of how the leopard got his spots, the origin of sexual and racial difference is the subject of myth in all cultures. The story of Adam’s rib, like that of the sons of Ham, shows how fundamental these types of distinctions are and therefore how capable they are of generating myths that persist far beyond the contexts that produced them. Fiction cannot resolve these dilemmas, but it can reveal to what extent the very act of storytelling takes root in them. To the extent that any modern fiction does not do this, it runs the risk of perpetuating the very myths that it may have overtly set out to combat.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Eliade, Mircea. 1963. Myth and Reality. Trans Willard R. Trask. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Everett, Percival. 1990. For Her Dark Skin. Seattle, Wa.: Owl Creek Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1983. Temps et récit. Tome 1. L’Intrigue et le récit historique. Paris, Seuil.

Notes

1 Ricoeur defines “narrative intelligence” as a familiarity with the semantics of action and with the rules of composition which govern the diachronic order of a story. It implies a grasp of the fundamentally diachronic nature of all stories. See Temps et récit, tome 1, L’Intrigue et le récit historique (Paris: Seuil, 1983) 112.

2 That the racial dimension of freedom constitutes a subtext of the story can be seen in Polydeuces’ remark when the galley slaves are replaced by Jason and his men: “We set free the slaves. They were as confused as we were miffed.” (24)

Auteur

Teaches African American and Caribbean literature at the University Paul Verlaine-Metz. She has published articles on American writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. Her work in the area of Caribbean literature as been devoted in particular to Caryl Phillips, Fred D’Aguiar, Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540