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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

II. To REwrite and to RElaugh

Black Bacchus? Signifying on Classical Myth in Percival Everett’s Frenzy

Michel Feith

Résumé

A variation on ancient Greek mythology, Frenzy defies traditional notions of African-American literature and the “blackness of the text”, predicated on the “black experience”. The myth of Dionysos and the Orphic cycle are rewritten and woven together in a fragmentary patchwork, mediated through an original narrator, Vlepo, Bakkhos’s companion. The self-conscious intertextuality of the novel will allow us to probe first the “theoretical” dimension of myth, the articulation between the human and the spiritual worlds. As a work of “mythic metafiction”, Frenzy sheds a light on the processes of reading and writing, and on the ideological frames of interpretation. The myth can then become a basis for historical allegory and parody, marking the return of the “signifying black difference” (H. L. Gates, Jr.) as a rewarding interpretive option.

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée noir”, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue f (...)
  • 2 I write “contemporary” where the reader might expect “postmodern”, because Everett denies affiliati (...)

1“Black Orpheuses” abound:1 they often constitute defenses and illustrations of black creativity in terms that can be derivative, agonistic, or in dialogue with Western culture, as exemplified by the reference to classical myth. But there is nothing obviously “black” in Percival Everett’s rewriting of the myth of Dionysos in Frenzy (1997) which draws more on the contemporary methods of critical intertextuality2 than it connects with African or African American culture and literature. This poses the wider theoretical issue of “the blackness of the text”. Is a piece of literature by an African American author necessarily to be interpreted according to “racial” categories, categories which may be limiting as well as enlightening? On the other hand, as with Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s The remains of the Day (1989), may not an awareness of the author’s ethnic background reveal hidden “significations” (in both senses of the word), that are essential to the complete understanding of an otherwise mainstream-looking work?

2We may use as our guide in this matter a similar problematic in another of Everett’s books, Watershed, in which the protagonist Robert Hawks’s disillusionment with the politics of ethnicity (“I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t believe in race, and I especially didn’t believe in America. I simply didn’t care, wouldn’t care, refused to care” [153]) gives way to an involvement with the radical American Indian Revolution, pointing to an anti-establishment solidarity between different minorities. Frenzy, a variation on ancient Greek mythology, ostensibly takes us away from “race” and “America”, yet may actually be a winding way home. We will also follow such a circuitous route. An intertextual probing of sources will be followed by the examination of several dimensions of myth: first as “theoretical experience”, a reflection on the human “being in the world” and the paradoxical nature of a condition situated between time and eternity, matter and spirit [Sorel 34]; then, myth as narrative, whose retelling allows a metafictional probing of the nature of writing; finally, as ideology, whose interpretation depends on context, and whose productivity can be used in supporting or subverting social values and practices. The latter level will allow us to ask our initial question again: why this interest in the figure of Dionysos on the part of an African-American writer of the late 20th century? A black Bakkhos, then?

The Twice-Told Tale of the Thrice-Born God: An Exercise in Intertextuality

3Dionysos is by essence a tutelary figure of passages and transgression. As the god of vine and wine, he intoxicatingly blurs all limits, social or cognitive, as well as the border between the worlds of the gods, human beings and animals. The ecstatic frenzy that marks his cult is highly ambivalent, as it ranges between visionary and destructive madness. An unruly power, characterized by paradoxes, his many names testify to his elusive, many-faceted nature: Bromios, the Shivering, Bakkhos, the leaping, Dithyrambos, Zagreus... are all used in Everett’s retelling of his mythic cycle. This onomastic variety does not only refer to the god’s many attributes and memorable actions, it stems from the plurality of traditions that mediate the story, which the novel juxtaposes in a kaleidoscopic narrative. Many versions of the myth are woven together like tapestry threads (a recurring image found on pages 10, 40, 50, 73, etc.) — the act of reading being the shuttle between the diverse discursive fragments.

  • 3 Euripides, Les Bacchantes, French Translation H. Grégoire and J. Meunier (Paris, Les Belles Lettres (...)

4The first of these intertextual borrowings, which makes up most of the narrative and anchors the novel to a prevailing frame of reference, is the plot of Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae3 composed around 400 B.C. In this work of art, which already places us at one remove from the religious context of myth and ritual, Dionysos, disguised as an initiate to his own mysteries, comes to Thebes, the city of his mother Semele’s birth, and drives the women out of doors and into frenzied possession. All this as a revenge for the nonrecognition by the Thebans of Semele’s divine amours with Zeus, and as a prelude to the establishment of his own cult in the city. Bakkhos meets the opposition of King Pentheus, grandson to Kadmos, the city’s founder, who has abdicated in his favor. The young king’s punishment is to be driven mad by Bromios, and killed by the Bacchae, led by his own mother, Agave, in a god-induced frenzy during which they mistake him for a wild beast. His head is then exposed in front of the city gates. This politico-religious muddle is also a family business, as Semele is Kadmos’s daughter while old king Agave, and Pentheus are respectively Dionysos’s grandfather, aunt, and cousin.

5Two other myths are featured in the text: that of Orpheus and Euridice, including Orpheus’s catabasis (his descent into Hades), and his death at the hands of the Meanads; and the story of Ariadne, Theseus’s lover and helper in his fight against the Minotaur, later to be abandoned on the island of Naxos, where she dies in childbirth. According to other versions, she became Bakkhos’s betrothed and lived with him in Naxos. All these narratives seem to be loosely connected, and Dionysos features in the text as a mere witness to many episodes, yet he is present as an actor at crucial moments in all of them.

6Not only are different myths integrated into the novel’s Dionysian cycle: a major interpretive problem is posed by the coexistence of seemingly incompatible versions of the same story. And this from the point of origin, the pretext on page zero, featuring a few relevant branches of the Olympians’ family tree. Bakkhos finds himself at the intersection of two narrative and genealogical lines: “Semele screws Zeus”, and “Zeus screws Persephone”. The opposition between lawful and adulterous procreation being expressed by the contrast between the codified “m” for “married” and the linguistically reprobate “screws”, one common point between the two stories is the illegitimate nature of the god’s start in life, compounded by the jealousy of Zeus’s wife, Hera. In the first blood/story line, according to the Bacchic tradition, this nefarious influence is expressed in Hera’s fooling Semele into asking to see her lover in his full divine splendor, which, too intense for mortal eyes, causes her death in a thunder blast. Zeus keeps the unborn child inside his thigh until the term of birth. Hence Dionysos’s nickname of the “twice-born”.

7In the Orphic tradition, reported on pages 11-13 and 123 of the novel, Hera’s anger is a post-partum fact. She induces the Titans to kill baby Bakkhos (whose name at that point is Zagreus) sacrifice him and eat him, except for his heart, which, saved by Athena, will allow the child’s rememberment. The Titans are blasted by Zeus, their ashes, mixed with the edible parts of the infant god, being the raw material for the creation of human beings. The coexistence of these two contradictory versions of the myth, belonging to two different traditions, sets in relief the stratification of the myth and figure of Dionysos. But these different aspects were not deemed contradictory at the time: in a synthetic, or syncretic, definition, the god was called “thrice-born” and “two-mothered” (“trigonon”, “dimêtêr”).

There is no incompatibility, only different theophanies of this god of transgression: Semele’s son, roaring and grunting, possesses his followers to lead them to the collective trance of orgiastic liberation; Persephone’s son demands of the members of his sect an ascetic way of life fit to free them from the cycle of metempsychoses [Sorel 95].

8The novel’s fragmentary structure emphasizes rather than plays down the disjunction, as confirmed by this comment by the narrator, one Vlepo, Dionysos’s companion: “He told me how that was the story, anyway, though he had heard stories that contradicted this one” [Frenzy 9]. In so doing, the narrative remains within the discursive logic of the myth, which challenges rationality and transcends the codes of “realistic” literature. It presents itself as only one link in a chain of rewritings, among which are to be found Euripides’s tragedy and the Orphic texts. The origin, and therefore the authoritative version, if ever there was one, seems to recede into the anonymous past. Yet, Everett remains faithful to a few established master plots, and seems to accept the constraining power of the classical tradition.

9Hence the hermeneutic importance of two major departures from Euripides, that radically alter the received tradition. First, the actantial inversion of the roles of Kadmos and Pentheus. In The Bacchae, an important dialogue opposes, on the one hand, Kadmos and Tiresias, the androgynous seer, who revere Dionysos and pay homage to him by wearing his followers’ fawn skin and tyrsus; and on the other hand, Pentheus, who derides Bromios’s pretensions to godhead and wants to restore order and the fugitive women to his city [ll. 215-369]. Pentheus’s hubris is responsible for the god’s retribution. Frenzy transforms Pentheus into a puppet king in search of meaning, whose fascination for Bromios leads to his displacement and imprisonment by Kadmos, who takes back his former power for the sake of the State. The man killed by the Meanads is Penteus’s cousin Actaeon [Frenzy 150-53]. The significance of this change will be dealt with later, after an examination of the second crucial modification: the insertion of the character of Vlepo, the narrator of the novel and Dionysos’s privileged witness.

I was there to watch his dance, just as I was there to watch all else. I was there in the midst of the frenzied Bakkhanal, watching and noting... My usual place was at the side of the god Bromius as his aide, his chronicler, his mortal bookmark. I am Vlepo [3].

  • 4 I wish to thank Mrs. Chessy Everett for giving me this piece of information, after much brain-racki (...)

10This protagonist’s very name is linked to his scopic dimension: βλɛπω in Greek means “to see”.4 It is actually the presence of this privileged narrator-observer that transforms the myth into a novel. Vlepo replaces the external, third-person narrator of myth, exemplified by the Muse-inspired Hesiod in the Theogony. He takes over from the chorus of tragedy, a surrogate spectator who provides the moral norm and emotional resonance of the drama, but delivers a collective, first-person plural comment. Vlepo represents an incarnation of voice into a first-person singular narrative, a descent from ritual, hieratic utterance to the empathy and disorientation of subjectivity —even if the status of this subject is highly ambiguous. He provides an intratextual motivation for the multiple point-of-view technique used in the book: the god places his companion into many different human beings, animals, objects, in order to give him the best possible angle of vision on the action, or an access to the characters’streams of consciousness. Perhaps the more synthetic, telling image of this fragmentary, perspectivist process, beside the already-mentioned tapestry, is that of Vlepo’s insertion into a tree: “From my boughs and twigs and leaves I could see them, a spectacle from all angles” [138].

  • 5 Aristophanes’s Frogs (Kenneth Dover, ed., London, Clarendon Press, 1997) features a cowardly, comic (...)

11This addition of both pathos and perspective, of involvement and distance, to the hieros logos of myth creates a tone that oscillates between tragedy and comedy, between Euripides and Aristophanes, who present Dionysos under almost irreconcilable guises.5 Still, in spite of the liberty taken with the originals, Frenzy remains within the spirit of myth, if we understand it as the probing of the incommensurability and yet the conjunction of god and man in an “unsure... ontological status” [39].

Cross Purposes: The Meeting of God and Man

12Vlepo is Bakkhos’s dialectical twin, his “mortal mirror”. While his precise status as a character is constantly questioned in the novel, the god calls him his “companion” [126]. Yet his textual origins might make him a variation on Dionysos’s slave Xanthias, in Aristophanes’s comedy The Frogs. Their relations are emblematic of those between Bromios and the mortals: it is marked by “cross-purposes”, or an ontological chiasmus, between men who want to reach godhead, and a god who wants to experience the mortal condition. Both yearnings are transgressions of the mainstream “politico-religious system” of ancient Greek culture, which was based on the institution of the sacrifice, initiated by the Titan Prometheus, and establishing an unbridgeable chasm between the human and godly worlds [Détienne 139]. Of the sacrificed animal, the gods get the aromatic smoke, whereas men’s share is the meat, cooked or roasted: the imperishable part for the eternal beings, the mortal part for mortals, whose lot is to be consumed as they consume. The gods are on the side of life; humans on the side of death, and the twain shall never meet.

13Against this metaphysical and meta-civic order several oppositional movements appeared, questioning the institution of the sacrifice. Among those subversive groups, two mystical trends coexisted: the Dionysian mysteries and the Orphic mysteries. The former revolved around the Bacchic frenzy as a means to commune with the god, especially through the eating of raw flesh (omophagy); according to the latter, only a pure way of life, based on the refusal of all murder, including bloody sacrifices and the consumption of meat, could save the individual from an endless cycle of reincarnations. These two religious currents taught opposite ways of reaching a superhuman state, through excess or through abstemiousness. They are the two conceptions of the relations between gods and men that inform the novel.

14Obviously, the Bacchic path is given pride of place, from the title onwards. The book is filled with a pervading frenzy, the first instance of which is provided by the Bacchae’s orgies. Complete sexual freedom, both hetero and homosexual, constant drunkenness, and a quest for possession to the haunting music of drums, all revolve around a central ritual: the hunting and killing, with bare hands or sacrificial knife, of an animal, whose raw meat is then tasted in common. Agave, Pentheus’s mother and high priestess of the cult, thus states the aim of this rite: “Come closer so that we may watch the death and so the freedom, that we may witness the way of nature the way of the god Bakkhos and taste of him” [37]; “Taste the God. Taste life” [38]. Abolished are the borders between the orders of being: men partake of animal nature, and the animal is the god. The ritual subverts the civic sacrifice from below, by means of savagery, possession and direct contact with the supernatural [Détienne 151]. “The rites were windows to the suprasensory, to the ideas that made pleasure, to the love and not the loved, to the touch and not the touched, to the taste and not the tasted” [Frenzy 36]. Such an attempt to reach first principles, paradoxically overcoming the body through the bodily, finally discards the binary logic that frames sensory life, and first of all the distinction between subject and object. The clarity of distinctions is left behind —“the sun an object of neglect” [36]— for a more fused and effusive experience, a Platonism of the dark.

15But a twin scene to this one [150-53] points to the dangers of the frenzy and its blurring of all limits. The same ritual is described, often the same phrases are used, yet this time the killing is not that of an animal, but of Actaeon, Agave’s very nephew. This act of unwitting cannibalism smacks of real man-eating rites dedicated to Dionysos in some parts of archaic Greece. In The Bacchae it corresponds to the god’s revenge for being spurned. While the novel does not emphasize the immortal’s agency, it draws attention to the ambivalence of the frenzy, to the difficulty in dissociating divine mania from pathological mania, a reflection that was already present in Euripides’s tragedy [Pigeaud xxxiv]. The same uneasy coexistence of opposites characterizes Bakkhos’s gift to mankind, wine: Ikarios, who had first shared the inebriating liquid with his neighbors, was accused of trying to poison them and killed [126-30]. The frenzy, like alcohol, holds the potentiality for both the liberating and destructive dimensions of misrule. Taken to extremes, unruliness becomes counter-productive, consumes and annihilates itself.

16Yet its dialectical opposite, the way of rationality, emblematized in the novel by Kadmos, is also a form of delirium, comparable to the mania in its negative effects. Here again, the text pursues the reflection initiated in The Bacchae on the different types of folly and madness. Kadmos is opposed to Pentheus the doubter and seeker, who thinks “the crime of logic is that it argues to a conclusion in an open-ended universe that has turned in on itself” [Frenzy 27-28]. This paradox of an expansive circularity, which seems to condemn thought to inconclusiveness and an endlessly spiraling activity, might be equivalent to chaos and absurdity, or it might open windows to a wisdom that relativizes all possible knowledge. The old king is not willing to accept this dissociation between reason and wisdom:

  • 6 Italics are used in the text to indicate the characters’ streams of consciousness.

Reason is required for the derivation of actions from laws. Out there in that weald, away from my city, where our women frolic and make sick love, reason has no residence, the rabble move irrationally, forgetting rules, axioms, and precepts, squirming like disease through itself, infecting and reinfecting, and they are our women — they, in their absence, are our affliction [125]6.

17Kadmos’s limited, or self-limiting,’universe rests on such basic oppositions as city vs. wilderness, reason vs. folly, order vs. disorder, and, implicitly, male vs. female, thereby rejoining the initial distinctions in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. For him, the fluid, ever-changing process of life, as described by Pentheus, takes on the evil aspects of a disease, when it is not mastered, in both meanings of the word, by manly brains. The contrast between the possessive pronouns and their opposite, absence, shows that reason is connected to power, in a quasi-Nietzschian manner. “Ruling is a matter of neutralizing perception... power is the thing in itself” [75]. Here again, the double-entendre of “ruling” —domination, or the creation of rules— points to a willful blindness and insensitivity, a self-imposed exile, bred by fear, from the totality of being.

18Such a position is not exempt from a heroic dimension; in fact it may well be the stuff heroes are made of. The elation of killing a monster, felt by Kadmos when striking the fatal blow to the dragon that occupied the place he coveted for the founding of his ordered city [77], or by Theseus at the moment of slaying the Minotaur [105], is the joy of reordering a cosmos that had gone out of joint. By severing animality from humanity, in a duplication of the Promethean sacrifice, the hero establishes limits, impassable borders and rational distinctions. He might draw the added benefit of feeling like a god thanks to his power of giving death. One is reminded here of Nietzsche’s seminal contrasting, in The Birth of Tragedy, of Apollonian myths of distinction and form, with the Dionysian consciousness of the fused unity of all life. The hero’s actions are Apollonian in nature, and represent a reverse movement from the confusion/annihilation of identity in the Bacchic ritual, or of Vlepo’s identification with the Labyrinth [104].

19Yet Kadmos parodies his former heroism when he takes back his kingship, has Pentheus tied to his bed, and finally saws off his head to replace Actaeon’s on the pole that the Meanads have placed in front of the city wall. The aim of this murder is to discredit Agave as an infanticide, and reestablish the civic, familial and economic order disrupted by the women’s taking to the woods. Political rationality may be said to parallel the frenzy in its lethal effects, since Kadmos’s infanticide is of a piece with Agave’s. In the prophet Tiresias’s words, “You would say... that darkness for women is deceitful and corrupt, but watch the light of men, listen to the rhythm of logic” [48]. In a nutshell, reason is a cold, deliberate frenzy that is unaware of itself.

20A second way to reach godhead is passion, as illustrated by the story of Orpheus and Euridyce. The Dionysian and Orphic narratives seem to stand in as much contrast as their protagonists’ emblematic musical instruments: the drum and the lyre. The latter is an Apollonian instrument, and Orpheus himself is sometimes said to be Apollo’s son, as recalled in the novel’s genealogical opening page. Furthermore, the divine singer’s death and dismemberment are brought about by a troop of Meanads, infuriated by his refusal to join the frenzy and honor their god. Yet there are several parallels between the two myths, among which the catabasis that leads both Orpheus and Bakkhos to Hades with the hope of reclaiming a lover and a mother, respectively. The text here insists on the scandalously different fates of these two attempts: whereas the immortal is allowed to take Semele out of Hell, the trial the lovers are submitted to results in failure, and entails Orpheus’s despair and death [145]. The real conjunction the novel establishes between the two narratives is existential, and revolves around the essential lack at the heart of human desire, which is especially visible at the moment of love-making.

He put both hands on Euridyce, and they moved like leaves. Then her breathing became rapid, her passion found voice, and Orpheus again put a hand to his lyre as if he yearned to play, to give her his music at that moment, but he could not, and when she fell spent onto his chest, he cried [57].

21This description resembles that of page 70, when Vlepo makes love to a Meanad named Sibyl, and feels the same emptiness and sadness when she leaves. He had already experienced these emotions when introjected into a Bacchant physically possessed by the god [17-18]. The imperfection of the trance-like sexual union stems from a disappointed desire for fusion, which keeps the lover “wanting more” [19]. This “more” could be supplied by art, the sublimation of desire according to the rules of harmony and rhythm, yet the fact that Orpheus is unable to play his lyre while making love to his wife may imply that the ec-static dimension of love escapes the Apollonian and is unavoidably in touch with the Dionysian.

The wetness of her love envelops me, imprisons and delivers and releases me... Oh, love, kill me now. I do not want to know life outside your body, beyond your touch. Please push you hands into my chest, into my heart, and stain your fingers with my blood. Do it, and I will do the same for you [95].

22The wording, uniting Eros and Thanatos, reminds of the bloody sacrifice to Bakkhos, and points to the fact that death represents the final way to transcend the human condition. It is seen as both a scandal and a liberation. Orpheus is able, through his horrible slaughter at the hands of the Bacchae, to be reunited with Euridyce in the underworld. To Semele, who is aware of the fatal consequences of her demands on Zeus, her demise is an attempt to overcome her dissatisfaction with the limitations of human desire and the sense of lack that is connected with it.

I hate myself because I can find no power to love more than I do. The limits of my mortality are excruciating, my wanting to give and give, and my power being finite.... I want my love to show himself, to let me fail, if I must, to measure up to his beauty and magnificence [14-15].

23One might find in the absolute nature of the mother’s desire a prefiguration of the mysticism that will characterize the son’s cult. Death as the supreme expression of passion.

24In a connected development, for Orpheus, Pentheus, and Ariadne, martyrdom spells as mercy and freedom. Pentheus, stretched out on his bed as if for a crucifixion, about to lose his mind, declares: “At least here I am not deluded. Let me feel my constraints. Let these burning ropes inform me that, at the very least —which is the most I ask for— I am unfettered by illusion” [114-15]. The paradox is that power and physical freedom prevent man from realizing the vanity of reason and life, whereas captivity allows the kind of distance necessary for such an awareness. On the island of Naxos, Bakkhos, god of transitional states, eases Ariadne’s passing, a death in childbirth induced, like Orpheus’s, by her refusal of life after Theseus abandoned her.

Dionysos held Ariadne’s head, stroked her cheek gently, whispered sounds to her, not words, but godly sounds that I supposed made her death comfortable. My master regarded her condition jealously, attempting to close his own eyes, attempting a yawn [121].

25If religious trance, passion, and death, by breaking the frame of perception, can provide man with glimpses of a god-like state — if power gives a delusion of such grandeur — in a symmetrical crossing of these initiatory passages, which constitute the core of his mysteries, the god Dionysos actually tries to achieve the state of mortality. He relentlessly questions Vlepo as to the feelings of the mortals he observes, including the women he makes love with. His moments of jealousy concern Ariadne’s despair and death, as well as Orpheus’s passion and world-sorrow [56], an intensity of feeling only mortality can breed. Whereas absence and ontological negativity give men’s short life a price, the fullness of being that characterizes the gods produces only indifference. As Vlepo tells Sibyl: “He is a god, and you can do nothing for him, can give him no satisfaction, only diversion. He himself is saddened that you do not matter” [141]. Dionysos’s comment: “This sadness that you see ... is for no one but me. Creatures of such power can have no concern but for the self. Godding is tough work, my Vlepo” [19]. Yet Bakkhos deplores this indifference, probably because of his own mixed nature, of his birth through the death of his mortal mother. His efforts throughout the novel will be to transgress the borders of death.

26The first transgression is geographical and, as stated above, similar to Orpheus’s. His incursion to Hades to find Semele and make her immortal goes against the repartition of Greek ontology. The gods, being on the side of life, never go to the realm of the dead, except for Dionysos and Hermes, gods of passages. Yet Bakkhos’s most consistent attempt to escape from godhead into humanity is a relentless quest to experience the twin states of sleep and death. After all, Hypnos and Thanatos are brothers, both the offspring of Nyx, the eternal night anterior to the gods [Sorel 52]. Recurrent episodes feature Bromios trying to acquire the faculty of sleep, in a move comparable to spiritual exercises, or an ascetic initiation into mysteries.

(Vlepo:) “He liked the idea of sleep, believed that assuming the position as ritual made him closer to the Bakkhai, though, as a god, he was not only without need of sleep but also could not truly achieve it” [54].
(Dionysos:) “These humans find rest from time ... They sleep” [132].
(Dionysos to Vlepo:) After I have achieved sleep, real sleep, I want you to cut my heart from this body and leave it unceremoniously on the ground” [154].

27The god’s Passion, a willful sacrifice that is part of the Dionysian liturgy, prompted many parallels with the figure of Christ, if only because they were both born of the mating of a divine and a mortal being, and both suffered death and resurrection. Yet this episode features Vlepo, who is nowhere to be found in the original myth; the significance of it may therefore veer off traditional hermeneutic routes. These are inserted in the text in the voice of the prophet Tiresias, a sort of androgynous, battered, distrusted, parodic John the Baptist: “This god is the marked one, the one who will die, the one who promises life in spite of his death” [47]. Still doubt can be entertained about the redemptive dimension of this staging of the sacrifice: contrary to the slaying of baby Zagreus by the Titans, it is consciously chosen, but the heart, the vital part that allowed the reconstruction of the god, the seat of his immortality so to speak, is to be discarded. The word “unceremoniously” might hint at a subversion of the very rites that are reenacted. Does this demand herald a final death, a return to mortality in its fullest dimension, on the part of a world-weary god, or does it prophesy the beginning of a new cycle, within the framework of a philosophy of Eternal Return?

28As a matter of fact, Dionysos being, according to Greek lore, the only god who had been initiated to his own mysteries, this episode might be the periodic repetition of the god’s undergoing the death of the initiate. It can be construed as a desire to experience life to the full, by transgressing even those borders that are impassable to the Olympians, the gates of mortality. After all, what he envied in Orpheus, Pentheus, and Ariadne, was not only their passion, but their Passion. The final passing can therefore be interpreted as a ritual staging of his own myth. The other alternative, which I tend to favor, is that for him this death represents a reprieve from immortality and eternity, from the disgust that, according to Nietzsche, comes after Bacchic ecstasy [59-60]. The same surfeit may be the lot of the immortals who live in this dispassionate, omniscient state at all times. A death to end all deaths, or a temporary suspension of being, the end of the novel promises what sleep and wine —the latter being Dionysos’s gift to mankind— offer mere mortals.

It is he, from Zeus and Semele, who brings us the gift of wine, that medicine which empowers us to forget the length of these tedious days, to find the deep and peaceful sleep, to dismiss our pains. There is no other cure for our condition [7].

29These words from Tiresias, a close recall of the prophet’s tirade in The Bacchae [ll. 277-283], take on an added, almost tragic meaning when connected to Bakkhos’s insatisfaction with his godhead, which in turn represents what men desire above all. The chiasmic cross-roads that divide and unite men and gods within the text and within the figure of Dionysos echoes, in a different key, the interdependence between the sublunar and Olympian worlds that was the cornerstone of mainstream Greek thought at the time. Human beings needed the gods as creatures need their creators, and the forces that guarantee the continuing order of the cosmos; conversely, the gods needed the worship of men, especially their sacrifices. This fact was remarkably demonstrated when Demeter, angry with the Olympians for the kidnapping of her daughter Persephone by Hades, withheld the fruit of the earth, making humans too weak and famished to offer due tributes to the immortals, who were finally forced to a compromise: Persephone was to share her time between the Underworld, her new husband’s residence, and her mother’s company in the light of day. The main difference is that, in the Bacchic experience, be it that of the worshipers or of the god, this interdependence is expressed in a change of status, according to which both parties share, even though temporarily, in the essence of the other. The Dionysian subject, as a vector of desire, is split between a mortal and an immortal part, in a way that would be unthinkable in the mainstream “politico-religious system”.

30As in the Christian religion, the contradiction between divinity and humanity, revolving around death, echoes the crux of time and eternity. The mortal observer Vlepo, migrating from being to being and from past to present in an accelerated parody of the Orphic principle of reincarnation, is confused, lost in time, and unsure about his own identity, whereas Bakkhos lives on a paradoxical plane, which the narrator calls a “temporal soup” [10], and which Dionysos defines as follows:

We gods must face past, present, and future, at once and perpetually. This ceaseless exhibition, this terrible pageant requires much attention and none. And my death will offer no relief, for I must witness it over and over, just as I do all else. So, I reside eternally on a line of infinite points and finite bounds.... To compound it all, my recollection and time inhabit the same fissure of space, so all time before and after me exists for me, at all times [9-10].

31The pain of this experience, even for an immortal, is excruciating: “Is not torture the price for redemptive vision?” [10]. Eternity and temporality seem forever at loggerheads, since the former does not abolish the latter: the paradox of eternity as fate, and suffering, is due to the “simultaneous” coexistence of all strands of time. So much so that the god is condemned to live over and over again his mother’s death, and his own slaying [10]. Furthermore, the allusion to a “before” and “after” of his time may mean either the cyclic recurrence of his death and rebirth, or the final passing of the pagan gods with the advent of Christianity. Even this historical death offers no relief, when envisaged from the point of view of eternity.

32This paradoxical notion of the interweaving of time and eternity takes us beyond linear time, even beyond the cyclic time of Eternal Return, to the essential time of myth, which Mircea Eliade called Great Time: “Religious man therefore lives in two species of time, the most important of which, sacred Time, has the paradoxical appearance of a circular, reversible and retrievable Time, a sort of eternal, mythical present to which one can periodically return through the agency of rites” [Eliade 64, my translation]. Perhaps the best literary approximation of Great Time is given, not by the linear narration of traditional mythology, but by the fragmentation and coexistence in the same physical space —the book— of different narrative strains, linked by the shuttle of the reader’s memory and intuition. African American writer John Edgar Wideman’s definition of it explicitly draws the connection between the metaphysical and textual realms: “Great Time, the always present tense of narrative where every alternative is possible, where the quick and the dead meet, where all stories are true” [Wideman 62]. This mythic time, more than some objective reality outside the text, is an effect of narrative. The reactivation of past events, especially those of remote Origins, by oral storytelling or the reading of a book, is perhaps the closest we can get to this eternal present of the gods. Rather than mythic narrative validating our experience, as is often thought, it may well be our experience of the narrative nature of our humanity that validates mythic discourse. Frenzy, a novel about myth, is also, and indissociably, a metafictional exercise.

A Paper Godhead: Myth and Metafiction

  • 7 “[Its] theoretical awareness of history and fiction as human constructs ... is made the grounds for (...)
  • 8 From the Tours symposium, Dec. 13-14, 2002.

33Frenzy, more than a piece of “historiographe metafiction”, a category proposed by Linda Hutcheon,7 could be said to belong to the rather unheardof genre of “mythic metafiction”. Percival Everett confesses to being fascinated by the notion of the text as “artifice”8, and in this novel, the mise-en-abîme of fiction often serves distanciating ends, thanks to an infusion of comedy, irony, and parody.

34A recurring image of the fiction within the fiction is the already-mentioned one of the tapestry, whose evolution in the course of the narrative unveils the changing facets of a rather postmodern Ars Poetica. The reference is obviously to the text as a textile weaving of different threads that create a coherent picture. Thus, on page 30, Vlepo is incorporated into a “rug on the wall” between two windows in Kadmos’s palace. The irony is that the “blind” window, the scene that does not open onto the outside, has eyes and reports on the secret happenings and plots in the king’s chambers. On page 10, Vlepo uses the word in its figurative meaning: “The god permitted me, or perhaps subjected me, to a viewing of one of the constant threads of his extant tapestry”. The complementarity between the alliterative words “constant”, with its temporal connotation, and the spatial “extant” duplicates that between the whole picture —the co-presence of all times in the god’s eternal perception of Great Time— and the linear, narrative development of the mythic fragments. Vlepo the witness constitutes the shuttle that joins the different threads; as narrator he weaves the tapestry that is the book.

35A complexification of this problematic is to be found in the episode of the daughters of Minyas [39-43], a well-know event of the Dionysian saga. The three young women are making tapestries for their father’s palace, in obedience to his order not to heed the call of the Bakkhai’s music. The god casts a spell on them in retribution for this failure at paying homage to him: they weave frantically, but to no avail.

Their tapestries did not grow. They looked helplessly at each other, wailing and sinking deeper into the emptiness of their activity. The sisters weaved their way to madness, their screams becoming unintelligible syllables uttered in the rhythms of common speech [42].

36This simultaneous undoing of woofs and words can also be a threat to the literary work. Language, like wine, is ambivalent, leading either to deeper awareness or to madness. Read metatextually, this passage may be another warning against closure of meaning, similar to Pentheus’s mention of the “crime of logic”. By privileging Apollonian definiteness of form in their artistic activity, in obedience to the father’s law, the daughters cut themselves from the intuition of the Dionysian unity and contradiction in nature that defies form, and that alone can lead to the “collective release of all the symbolic powers” [Nietzsche 40-41]. Their refusal to let go of a partial notion of order entails a sort of return of the repressed, with a vengeance. To resort to Nietzsche once again, we might say that without the fertilization of the Apollonian by the Dionysian, the former becomes sterile and meaningless, because all artistic dynamism stems from the savage energies of the latter.

37An application of this principle to the text at hand is to be found later, in Vlepo’s complaining voice:

My Bakkhos would have made a terrible weaver. What I had thought was a tapestry of his time and space was a pile of threads, a mound of twisted temporality subject to no rule or logic. If there were some strategy, I could not comprehend it. I was left not to fill in the gaps and holes but to make them, to create spaces where I could see and attempt to understand or to pursue some distinct narrative thread [73].

38This passage has the appearance of a definition of the contemporary (modernist and postmodernist) text, in its resistance to any monological order, of rationality and closure, in favor of a fragmented, pluralistic work, marked by the distortion of chronology and causality. Due to the disorientation of his or her expectations, the reader is given, or imposed, an active role in the creation of meaning, a reconstruction without totalization. This is the final, reflexive connotation of the title: the book is a textual frenzy, born of the refusal of mastery that links Bacchic mania with the contemporary questioning of narrative authority and control. The myth finds here the form of its contents, a true Dionysian form bred of the union of premodern thought and postmodern textuality. In a word, the text is the god’s body, offered to the faithful through ritual dismemberment, in a virtual, formal communion. It is the disjecta membra poetae of the sacrificed Zagreus, or the slaughtered Orpheus, the raw spiritual flesh shared with the quiescent reader in his or her 21th century home.

39The image of the broken mirror provides the most accurate reflection of the body of the work in this respect. Vlepo is projected into the mirror the Titans used, together with other toys, to lure baby Zagreus to his death. The mirror breaks as the god is dismembered.

His body curled into a ball and received the attack, knives and swords whacking at him, slicing him, splaying him open and apart, spraying me with his life, and then I was falling, striking the floor and shattering, pieces of me seeing pieces of the world. A shard of vision made me witness to Zeus’s taking up the heart of Dionysos, taking it in effulgent hands and stealing it from death [124].

  • 9 In Tours, P. Everett, who is also an abstract painter, told the audience that painting and writing (...)

40This mythic drama also represents the drama of literature these days. Narrative has abandoned its former pretension to a full understanding and rendition of the human world, only “shards of vision” are to be garnered now. But this fragmentary knowledge, echoed in a fragmentary form, can be pieced together, however inconclusively, by the reader, just as the hidden spectator, the Deus ex machina, Zeus, can reconstruct his son from the heart. A similar development has Orpheus killed and dismembered by the Bakkhai, before being recomposed around his still-singing head by the Muses, in order to go intact to Hades and there find his Euridyce [72]. Bakkhos and Orpheus were two of the most important tutelary figures of literature in ancient Greece, as well as the emblems of a mysticism that promised life after death. Together they embodied a dialectics of form and formlessness, the composition of Dionysian heart and Apollonian head that can be endlessly revisited in contemporary works of art. Frenzy seems to address this question of the fragmentation of meaning, asking just how much form is necessary for meaning to subsist, and how much can be done away with9. In a way, this preoccupation is to be found again in the final sacrificial scene, when Vlepo kills his master according to the latter’s orders.

I took the knife and held it over my master’s chest, brought it down until the tip touched his flesh. His skin resisted and then began to break. I pushed harder, feeling the tissue give beneath the well-honed blade, feeling the flesh cleave away with a muted, wet sound... [165]

41On a thematic level, this episode may, as discussed earlier, signify the ritual reenactment of the god’s cyclic death and rebirth, or prefigure the passing of classical religion with the coming of Christianity. It may also represent a mise-en-abîme, in the form of a mimetic threshold, the character’s crossing into nothingness duplicating the end of the novel, and the final “muted sound” being the last melodic note of a voiced reading. Yet the suspension marks remain inconclusive, as could be expected in the light of a narrative showing the limitations of logic: the end may be the premonition of a new beginning, a place assumed in the long chain of past and future rewritings of the myth, or the anticipation of the next rereading of the novel...

42Not only do allegories of the text abound in Frenzy, but the more dynamic relations between author, characters, and readers give rise to several allegories of reading. The first of these concerns Vlepo’s nature as a “paper being”, whose unsure ontological status and dependence on the god leads him to ask many questions about his identity. This is his self-definition, given before Dionysos’s final sacrifice:

The god imagined me and so I came to be, entering existence with the knowledge that I had already killed my creator, that even then, at that moment of first being, when none of my meager history wheezed a single breath, I was at once learning to see and craving blindness, that I was and was not, that my god Bakkhos was somewhere quietly and sweetly dead and yet present, exhaling life into me.... I considered that my god had placed me where I was —alone— in the same manner that he had located me in all these other times and places —in bees, rugs, trees, walls. But there I was put into myself, and finally, I assume, so that I might report the feelings witnessed [158-59].

  • 10 “The ego of antiquity and its consciousness of itself was different from our own, less exclusive, l (...)

43One can read in this extract a Dionysian vision of the status of mankind, corresponding to German writer Thomas Mann’s idea of “primitive” man as mask-like, open at the back.10 There is no closure of identity, according to this definition, but an intimate connection with the powers of nature and/or transcendent beings, as mediated by myth. Remarkably enough, it is the withdrawing of the god that produces Vlepo’s awareness of self, an identity predicated on absence. At a more textual level, this configuration may well illustrate the relation between author and character in a work of fiction such as the one we have in our hands. Vlepo is pictured as an emanation, not born [114] but imagined into existence, a virtual being, midway between being and nothingness. Yet the fictional character is also an externalization, or an alienation, of his creator, and as such both announces and performs the drama of his death. He survives alone after being detached from his point of origin, just as the novel will acquire a life of its own independently, and even after the disappearance, of the writer. The text goes even further in its blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality, in the episode of Orpheus’s slow walk up from Hades with the half-reclaimed soul of Eurydice.

If you do not live, then I do not live, never have lived, am but a fiction of whom poets speak, a sadness given name and story but no reality. I must turn, I must see you, my sparrow, not to be certain you are behind me, but to be certain that this love is real, that I myself am real. I cannot be without this love of ours. I do not want to turn around, but I am turning, turning, because I cannot act without being and I cannot be without knowledge of you. Oh, my love, I am turning. I am sorry. I am turning [67-68].

  • 11 An English equivalent to Sartre’s «tourniquet d’être et d’apparence» [Saint Genêt 675].

44Paradoxically, Orpheus, in a myth, braves the ban on turning to see his lover, in order to prove that he is not just a character in a story; in so doing and in so dying, they both become shades, traces in memory. In this “spinning wheel of being and appearance”11, metafiction displaces the mere reflection on literature to question the very nature of reality, and its artistic simulacra. Orpheus’s gyration breaks the frame of the narrative, and points to its external raison d’être, on both the production and reception sides: to provide the most accurate portrayal of human passion. Conversely, myth, as “archetypal” story, has the power to channel human behavior along its lines, and to be of influence on several aspects of extratextual reality, which thereby acquires a fictional dimension.

  • 12 “Negative capability, then, is the artists’s sympathetic imagination... the capacity to forget his (...)

45This almost baroque mirroring of fiction and reality, of self and Other, can of course have ideological implications, which we will discuss in the last part of this essay. It also informs a particular conception of the relationships between literary author and character, that of Keatsian “negative capability”12. In a way, Everett’s reappropriation of classical myth for the (post) modern novel constitutes an exercise in negative capability, as performed by the auctorial image and stage manager within the text, Dionysos. The god uses Vlepo as his intermediary to probe the consciousness of human beings, as in this passage where Kadmos is the object of scrutiny.

And so there I was, as small as a louse, but no louse, instead a very small me standing in the sparse forest of the old man’s hair. On his head, at my feet, a roughly circular window gave me entry to his thought. I knelt to it, shading my eyes to fend off my own reflection [24].

46This playful passage, which introduces Kadmos’s stream of consciousness, signifies on the common literary artifice that allows both narrator and reader to have access to a character’s intimate thoughts, thus violating the very illusion of a self-contained persona which is usually aimed at. Literalizing the observer-narrator into a written homunculus with a diminutive voice, gazing at the window of the king’s soul (another figurative expression that is taken literally here), Everett draws attention to the fabricated nature of fiction and its conventions. He also comically exposes the metaphysical implications of the act of writing, along the lines described by postmodern critics, and perhaps best summarized by British novelist John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969):

The novelist is still a god, since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modem novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority [Fowles 86].

47In Frenzy also, the trilogy composed of the god, the intermediary witness, and the scrutinized human being corresponds to the narratological instances of (implied) author, narrator, and character. Yet the “monotheism” of the 19th - century realistic novel is replaced by a dialogical polytheism, in which panoptical knowledge and control give way to curiosity about the other. Dionysos’s deplored finitude is that he cannot fully share and understand the mortal experience, and therefore needs to bridge this gap through imagination. “I want to know how I make a woman feel ... I will put you into a woman and you will tell me what is felt” [Frenzy 17]. The success of this enterprise is possible only by “fending off [one’s] own reflection”, as in the above excerpt. What it takes is the imagination of Otherness, on the part of the implied author, but also of the intended reader.

The god would have me in this goat, but not as a goat, it being a limit in his power; he could not propagate out of nothing the matter of the beast, but he could insert me. And in the beast I was, smelling my vessel and tasting in my own mouth what it chose to eat [5].

48As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, or in the Baroque theater, fiction takes the form of a projection, in which empathy with the character does not preclude the distance of Wordsworth’s “recollection in tranquility”. The comedy of the extract comes, one again, from the literalization of the trope, a physical projection taking the place of an imaginary one. In a more engrossing participatory act — for the human reader, at least — Vlepo’s introjection into the body of a woman making love to the god, this same dialectic of distance and involvement is disturbed, putting at risk the very identity and lucidity of the narrator. The two moments of the dialectic have to be dissociated.

I found myself cursing my host’s fever, and I tried to record the feelings for my master. He touched our face and sent a charge all through us, nearly fusing all pieces of us, making us at once rigid and loose, hot and chilled.
This time I stood outside of the woman, a witness, a voyeur, but it was my job to watch [17-19].

49This male fantasy, described from two angles or points of view, stages a struggle between the Dionysian and the Apollonian visions, one a strong, effusive identification that threatens identity, the other a formal distance that strengthens it. These visions are also two complementary modes of reading, which concur to make this act a transforming encounter with the virtual Other of the text, a paradoxical state of projective ecstasy and return to the self: an open, evolutive self. As privileged witness and chronicler, Vlepo is the god’s chosen Disciple and Evangelist and, ironically, a possible source for the Bacchic tradition. By creating this narrator unknown to the mythology, Everett shapes a fiction of textual origin, and collapses the acts of reading and writing, as if both were only facets of the same interpretive act, which endows the narrative with its undying vitality.

50The meeting with Otherness is at the core of Bacchic myth and rituals, and corresponds to Dionysos’s nickname of “the strange stranger” [Pailler 48], ξενοσ in Greek meaning at the same time stranger and guest. Even the god’s geographical origins deny narrow conceptions of identity: native to Greece, he was often supposed to have come from Asia and the periphery of Greek civilization. This generalized otherness, which redoubles metaphysical alterity with the narrative alterity born of the play of différance between the myth and its modern revisiting, echoes the political question of otherness, which might provide the seminal context for the revival that is Frenzy.

Signifying on Classical Myth, or the Bacchic Kickback

51After a descriptive, a theoretical and metaphysical, and a textual approach, we need to fathom one more dimension of myth, which often surfaces in the novel, under many guises. It is the two-way relationship between myth and ideology, which Raynal Sorel calls “fictive reason” [Sorel 18-22]: from this angle, myths are seen as products of social structures, products which in turn can justify or influence certain social practices. This dimension is not only external to the narrative: it is very often embedded in it. For example, each new telling of a myth in the oral tradition is adapted to its context and audience, and comments on the historical situation at hand. Similarly, each written version reflects a certain state of society, as well as the expectations of the intended public. We will therefore try to ascertain Frenzy’s contemporary, American, and African American dimension, the (ironic) topicality lurking behind a mask of timelessness.

  • 13 This in spite of the fact that Gates’s analyses of the “Signifying black difference” are far from e (...)

52Given the absence of any visible reference to blackness, beside the author’s photograph on the back cover, the novel seems to contradict the more of less explicit axiom that the province of African American writers is, or has to be, connected with the “black experience” (preferably in the urban United States and using the vernacular) or with classical African culture and mythology, or both. This critical vulgate has held sway at least since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, through the Black Arts movement in the 60s, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s 1988 Signifying Monkey.13 This relentless quest for “the blackness of the text”, thematic or rhetorical, can be seen as a limiting norm: after such figures as Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, Percival Everett chafes at the “racial” categorizations that constrain both the production and perception of work by ethnic writers. For example, at the Tours conference, he voiced his irritation that Frenzy should have been placed, in a major American bookstore, in the Black Studies section, instead of either the Literature or Mythology sections, thus frustrating those readers who wanted to find a black studies book, and preventing the novel from reaching those who might have been interested in it as either fiction or a take on classical myth. Actually, rather than an appropriation or reappropriation of classical Western culture, Frenzy should be considered as an acknowledgement of the nurturing influences on any writer educated in an American university, be he black or not. If, as it is often stated, an African American author is heir to a dual tradition, that of mainstream and black, vernacular and literary, cultures, why should he not be free to pursue either of these paths? Among his widely diversified production, Everett has moved on both sides of the divide, maybe to question the very notion of a divide.

53Yet what is under scrutiny in Frenzy is the otherness at the very heart of Western culture, in spite of its own denegations. Tiresias analyses the situation thus:

We Greeks speak so pompously of reason... yet the things to which we direct said thinking are all matters of guessing. We are not thinkers, we are gamblers. And more sadly... we can never know the results of our wagers [43].

54In this passage there can be felt the shadow of Socrates, and the beginnings of philosophy and science, the uses of reason that are often hailed as the “Greek miracle”, the specificity of Western culture, and the structural cause of the latter’s world-wide domination. We are reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates and his tragedian friend Euripides, as introducing a perversion of the Apollonian principle, severed from its Dionysian counterpart and support.

Here philosophic thought overgrows art and compels it to cling close to the trunk of dialectic. The Apollonian tendency has withdrawn into the cocoon of logical schematism; just as in the case of Euripides we noticed something analogous, as well as the transformation of the Dionysian into naturalistic affects [Nietzsche 91].

55Contemporary thinkers like Michel Foucault, or Jacques Derrida, have followed the anti-philosopher Nietzsche’s gesture. Their return to, and valorization of, the Greek prephilosophical episteme also aims at debunking the pretenses and coherence of the rational (male) subject. Frenzy seems to concur, along similar lines, in this postmodern privileging of Dionysism over the Apollonian. Yet, is Everett’s Bakkhos a ploy to settle a few accounts with Western culture, through an archeology of (mythic) knowledge? Or can it be interpreted as the acknowledgement that this culture has never been as monological as it is often deemed to be, and that it does contain a place to welcome the other, a space of tolerance that only, badly needs to be emphasized?

56What is certain is the political correlative of this analysis, enounced by the continuation of Tiresias’s speech: “Democracy is such a sightless word, a condition rather than a practice, easily spoken of by its participants and drooled over by its estranged. Take the way you women have been treated” [43]. The association of the notions of reason, democracy, oppression, and patriarchy, definitely filigrees, beyond the historical context of ancient Greece, contemporary American society. So does Agave’s paean: “My own son, monster-raging-calm-faced through the city of my father’s construction —or so goes the story— keeps the old irons convenient and handy. But Bromius sees us in our oppression” [37]. The Founding Father’s city is a man’s world, in which male violence (Pentheus as the Minotaur) is given free reign, while similar chains confine slaves and women. The text echoes both the contradictions of ancient city-states and the criticism addressed by postmodern, ethnic, or feminist critics to the United States, a republic born of the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, whose civic buildings are shaped like Greek temples. Is not the seamy side of American democracy the disenfranchisement of the poor and minorities? Hence the recurrent themes of “feminism” and “freedom” in the novel. An unobtrusive black note might be provided by Vlepo’s ambiguous status: slavery is envisaged, yet Dionysos prefers the term “companion” [126].

  • 14 Marcel Détienne, for his part, compared the Cynics with the hippies, due to their Thoreauvian acts (...)

57The systematic nature of this stereoscopic reading is emphasized by Kadmos’s complaints against the women reveling outside the city walls: “You see no commerce, man. Do you understand? These women are out there scaring everyone away and holding us hostage” [125]. The first, historical level of elucidation reminds us that Dionysian movements attracted predominantly women, slaves, and other marginalized individuals. They were always more or less tolerated, especially in Athens, but their opposition to the politico-religious system of the civic sacrifice, the hierarchies of the state, and the familial order remained a potential danger, so much so that Rome engineered a massive, if brief, persecution of the Bacchanalia in 186 B. C. [Pailler 171-73]. The parallels with America’s recent history are easy to find: the sort of general strike and sexual freedom that characterized the Bacchic possession can ring the bell of the hippie movement’s opposition to American capitalism and another type of civic sacrifice: the Vietnam War.14 The fate of the Civil Rights movement would also be a likely candidate, due to its peaceful, idealistic beginnings, and its violent end.

58More than in these somewhat arbitrary comparisons, the transforming pressures of the context of writing upon the narrative are visible through the departures of the novel from the original myth. For example, in The Bacchae, the women are driven out of Thebes because they are possessed by the god, as a revenge for the inhabitants’ slanders against his mother Semele. Pentheus’s killing at the hands of his own mother is a punishment for his continuing scorn of the divine stranger. Frenzy, on the contrary, insists much more on the women’s strike and resistance, their hatred of all men as oppressors. Actaeon, the first victim, is deluded by Kadmos, not by Dionysos, into spying the Maenads and dies of it. The killing of Pentheus, therefore, is the old king’s stratagem to discredit the revolutionary potential of the returning Bakkhai. His act amounts to a falsification of both history and legend —a successful attempt, if we are to believe all the known versions of the story. The function of Everett’s reformulations of the tradition goes beyond parodic anachronisms: they set in relief the fact that variation is an essential part of myth, and that each retelling or rewriting of it adapts it to the needs of the present. This adulteration is also a rejuvenation.

59In this respect, the most significant of these variants is the actantial inversion between Kadmos and Pentheus. In The Bacchae, Tiresias and Kadmos temporarily join the group of the Meanads. The god’s followers are thus composed of women, marginals (the androgynous seer), and old people, all those who have no grip on life, and face oppression or death. They are the opposite of the able-bodied men who control the city, and their powerlessness seems to find its compensation in a larger share of wisdom, presumably acquired the hard way. One of the most pathetically moving moments of the tragedy is the confrontation between the grandfather and grandson, the former neglecting the advice that could save his life. In Frenzy, the generation gap goes the other way round. By making the grandfather a puppet master, and the grandson a seer, Everett denounces patriarchy as the power of older males on all, including younger men. This actualized vision might correspond to the present power structure of corporate America, and be endowed with more satiric force than the original, yet one may feel entitled to deplore, for once, the loss, in the actantial inversion, of a beautiful passage, for a rather politically correct, textbook vision of “patriarchy”.

60At the end, Dionysos accepts the blame for the “parade of defeat” that the Bakkhai’s procession becomes, and seems to let the women down.

“Well, you have lost your following now. You have no one. No army. No Meanads.”
Dionysos looked to see the last of the women entering the city. “So it appears.” [164].

61The defeat also seems to be the god’s, for he declares himself “sleepy” and ready to die. An allegorical interpretation of this finale could be the failure of the Civil Rights campaign and the other counter-cultural movements and alternative lifestyles. Money and order prevailed over the self-consuming anarchy or idealism of these movements. Contemporary history would then repeat ancient history. After all, Bacchic rites gradually became integrated into Greek civic cults, especially in Athens. In spite of appearances, they may not have been as revolutionary and subversive as they seemed. An existential vision also opens itself to our speculation: the Nietzschean remark that, after the Dionysian ecstasy and communion with the universe, the common life one returns to is quite drab and depressing: “This chasm of oblivion separates the worlds of everyday reality and of Dionysian reality. But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such, with nausea: an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states” [Nietzsche 59-60]. One could hardly think of a fitter conclusion for a Bacchic book, than such anticlimactic fall from ecstasy, the prelude to a possibly suicidal sacrifice. The reader’s withdrawal from the novel is echoed by a sense of withdrawal from both historical hopes and virtual emotional fulfillment.

62Lest one think that the political message of the novel points to the uselessness of any attempt at emancipation or alternative ways of life, let us be reminded that the purpose of the straight-forward allegory we have been dealing with seems to be satirical rather than prescriptive. By introducing anachronistic elements in the myth, and by finding in the latter antetypes of the problems we tend to think of as new, the text creates a space of mutual distancing and irony between past and present, myth and political discourse. This subversive strategy, which includes the political but is not limited to it, is quite close to the black trope of Signifying, as defined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It is “repetition, with a signal difference” [Gates xxiv], a form of doublevoicedness and intertextuality based primarily on parody and pastiche [xxvii]. Politically speaking, it represents the black reappropriation of the dominant culture, the creation of a rhetorical space of freedom based on the debunking of this culture through an opaque, private use of language. It is assertion through subversion, a means to posit a black presence in a discursive order that is predicated on the notion of blackness as absence [40].

63Here we find again our introductory question, that of the blackness of Dionysos. We might be able to state, paradoxically, that it is the very invisibility of blackness in the novel —it seems nowhere to be seen— that should draw our attention to the Signifying strategies at work in it. Since, according to Gates, the “blackness of the text” is a play of differences, we might be entitled to read African and African-American traits into the Bacchic frenzy. After all, blacks are the Other of American culture, just a Dionysos was the Other of the Greek order of things.

64The text might first be signifying on those American stereotypes that have identified African-derived religions and cultural practices as Dionysian, whereas the Western worldview was identified with the rational Apollonian. These primitivistic clichés did not necessarily bear negative connotations, since the abandonment to syncopated music or religious trances could be seen as a liberation from the strictures of Western morality and decorum. This is, for example, how jazz was described at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance: “It is the revolt of the emotions against repression.... It is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were. It is hilarity expressing itself through pandemonium; musical fireworks” [Rogers 217]. In Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand, a much more ambivalent view of the Dionysian aspects of black culture was presented, through the character of the mulata Helga Crane, whose “double consciousness” seem to follow the rift between the Apollonian and Dionysian. The following extracts describe, first a dance at a black cabaret, then Helga’s conversion to born-again Christianity in a black church.

They danced, ambling lazily to a crooning melody, or violently twisting their bodies, like whirling leaves, to a sudden streaming rhythm, or shaking themselves ecstatically to a thumping of unseen tomtoms... She was drugged, lifted, sustained, by the extraordinary music, blown out, ripped out, beaten out, by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra. The essence of life seemed bodily motion [Larsen 59].


And as Helga watched and listened, gradually a curious influence penetrated her; she felt an echo of the weird orgy resound in her own heart; she felt herself possessed by the same madness; she too felt a brutal desire to shout and to sling herself about.... From those about her came a thunder-clap of joy. Arms were stretched toward her with savage frenzy. The women dragged themselves upon their knees or crawled over the floor like reptiles, sobbing and pulling their hair and tearing off their clothing [Larsen 113-14].

  • 15 The Harlem Renaissance is especially interesting for our purpose, because it is contemporary with t (...)

65The vocabulary of possession and trance, especially when associated with the words “orgy”, “madness” and “frenzy”, qualified by “savage” and “weird”, might not be very accurate to describe African American, or African, leisure and spirituality, but they definitely bear the imprint of the Other within the Western classical tradition: Dionysian rites as a threat to the dominant culture.15

66Another observer, Jean-Paul Sartre, after associating the black culture of négritude with the myth of Orpheus, discussed its Dionysian dimension, thereby confirming the almost stereotypical nature of the connection.

Like the Dionysian poet, the Negro strives to delve under the brilliant fantasies of the day, and meets, one thousand feet under the Apollonian surface, the inexpiable suffering that is the universal essence of man. If one wanted to systematize, one could say that the Negro is fused with the whole of Nature through his sexual sympathy for life and claims his humanity through his Passion of rebellious suffering ... [T]his fertility, in its exuberance, goes beyond suffering, drowns it in its creative profusion, which is poetry, love, and dance. [“Orphée noir xxxv, my translation].

67What is more, the cult of Bakkhos, being based on possession, provoked by dancing to the rhythm of the drum (as opposed to the Orphic, Apollonian lyre), and on sacrifice, accompanied by the eating of raw meat and blood aspersions, is outwardly close enough to African and African-derived religious practices like those of Haitian Voodoo.

All the while, the drumming sounded far off, but its beating was so immediate, a pulsing through the legs and into the heart. We danced, a handful of meat to mouth, eyes open to open eyes. And there was Dionysos, the enchanter, standing naked before us, calling, commanding [17].

68The god’s lovemaking is described as “all syncopation and pure cadence” [18], words connoting the black musical tradition. Yet these parallels do not correspond to a similarity of spirits between the two religions, an issue anthropologist Alfred Métraux specifically addresses in the case of Voodoo:

The audience is far from being prey to a collective delirium, or even an exaltation favorable to ecstasy. The traditional dances of Voodoo —yanvalou, doba. dahomey, petro— executed with gravity, a delicate sense of rhythm and remarkable bodily suppleness, are in no way Dionysian. Only in certain ritual ring dances does animation reach enthusiasm [Métraux 120, my translation].

69A novel by an African American on these Dionysian rituals nevertheless alludes to a form of blackness, even if only a fantasized one. In a way, Bakkhos represents a “blackening” of ancient Greek culture, a sort of inverted mirror of minstrelsy. This virtual African presence in the classics echoes the very real presence, in the United States, of a large black minority. It is one of the many ways in which the context of writing influences both the new versions of myths, and their reception. The parallel between the Bacchic cult and a spirituality that is much vilified in American popular culture — Voodoo — can also hint at one of the functions of such religions for the oppressed: the articulation of a compensatory space of freedom. Dionysism as Greek marronnage.

70The need for such spiritual refuge is made palpable in the very complex episode of the death of Ikarios [126-130]. The original myth recounts the gift of wine to men: Ikarios was a man who had welcomed Dionysos into his home and in gratitude had received wine, with the command to share it. His neighbors, after tasting the god-given beverage, had been afraid of their own inebriation and, fearing poisoning, had killed their host. His daughter then committed suicide. The story is supposed to be a warning against the destructive effects of alcohol, and to justify the common, civilized practice of watering wine, to tame its wild powers [Pailler 29]. While Everett’s version is very faithful to the original, his insistence on the rope of the well — Vlepo is incorporated into the rope, which serves first to draw the water changed into wine, then to trounce poor Ikarios, and finally to hang his daughter Erigone [128-129]— adds one more palimpsestic level to the reading, that of an American lynching. The metaphorical connecting chain, from water to wine to blood, also lends itself to several interpretations. A parody of the biblical episodes of the wedding at Cana, and of the Eucharist, it insists on the cruelty and indifference of divine powers rather than on salvation through them. Yet one may think of Ikarios as a martyr, who shared the god’s sacrifice and perhaps his resurrection. In a more specifically African American context, one is reminded of the orgy of violence against black people in this most Christian of nations, which can also be described in terms of frenzied drunkenness. The figure of the black Christ almost springs to mind.

71Finally, this Signifying black presence that invests the myth with additional, “parasitical” meanings, is materialized by the protean Dionysos himself, as trickster god. His power endows the Bacchanalia with a carnivalesque dimension, debunking and reversing all hierarchies, between masters and slaves, men and women, higher and lower bodily functions. All this through a suspension of the activities and duties of everyday life, and the questioning of the binary logic on which these activities are premised. Pentheus mentions Bakkhos as this privileged riddler”, who “seek[s] to render semantic virtualities empty of substance [27]. Kadmos, at the end, calls him “a trickster, but no god” [163]. This is justified, in both Euripides’s and Everett’s narratives, by his ambiguous use of language, a double-encoding that is to be interpreted differently by the common man and the initiate. The God, disguised as one of his followers, is brought to the king, who interrogates him.

PENTHEUS: Tell me, what is the nature of these mysteries?
DIONYSOS: Only initiates can know them ...
P.: Since you saw the god, what was his appearance?
D.: That which he wished. I had nothing to say!
P.: Another subtle evasion, to avoid saying anything!
D.: The ignorant will find wise words foolish. [
The Bacchae, 471-722, 477-480]

72This distinction between exoteric and esoteric meanings corresponds to the language game of Signifying, the masking function of language:

The mastery of Signifyin(g) creates homo rhetoricus Africanus, allowing — through the manipulation of these classic black figures of Signification— the black person to move freely between two discursive universes. This is an excellent example of what I call linguistic masking, the verbal sign of the mask of blackness that demarcates the boundary between the white linguistic sign and the black, two domains that exist side by side in a homonymic relation signified by the very concept of Signification [Gates 75-76].

73As Gates admits, Signifying “is a principle of language use and not in any way the exclusive province of black people” [90]. No wonder then that it can be found both in ancient Greece and in black America. Yet Everett, in rewriting this scene, adds another twist to an already twisted language. Pentheus’s irritation grows, and he feels the need to assert his power through violence, which fails to impress Dionysos; he then states his claims to obedience as a legitimate figure of authority:

“I am king!” Pentheus shouted. “Son of Echion and Agave!”.
“It is good to know your lines” [24].

74Dionysos’s pun, collapsing genealogy and presence of mind, takes on an added metafictional dimension. More than a Shakespearean reminiscence that “the whole world is a stage”, it alludes to the origins of Frenzy in Euripides’s play: Pentheus’s lines belong to an “already said”, which is merely reactualized, imitated. Yet the very fact of pointing to this imitation is a reappropriation. The text Signifies on the Signifying god’s signature. Given Everett’s love of parody and pastiche, this parallel between Euripides’s Bakkhos and the Afro-American Signifying Monkey or the African counterpart to the Greek trickster Hermes, Eshu, may explain the writer’s attraction to the trickster god as the mythic figuration of his critical rewriting. And also, of course, as a figure of himself, a mask within the text.

75Black Bakkhos, then? Our answer will have to be inconclusive. Frenzy, even though written by a black writer, can be interpreted independently of this knowledge, since it is first and foremost an exploration of a Greek myth, a plunge in its deep core before any variation is ventured. Then, the rewriting is on a par with contemporary experiments with intertextuality, and can be said to belong to the virtual genre of “mythic metafiction”. In this respect, the novel’s drift contradicts the notion that black literature should deal with the so-called “black experience”, and pleads for complete thematic and stylistic freedom on the part of the artist.

76Yet (and now we are eating our cake) there are numerous allusions to contemporary America and the situations of minorities, especially women. African Americans are referred to in a much more indirect way, yet the understanding of the novel would be impoverished if this lead was not followed fully, down to the figure of a Signifying god.

77In a way, the novel proposes its own virtual portrait of the African American writer: like Dionysos, both a native son and a strange stranger, he sees Western culture in a stereoscopic way, simultaneously from the inside and the outside. Everett’s very faithfulness to the original myth then becomes a way of subverting the tradition, by inseminating it, through intertextuality, with an in-built critique. Creating a collusion between pre-and post-modern alternatives to the dominant culture, he exposes and questions the ideological powers of narrative. The black author is a subversive but elusive presence in American letters, never appearing where he is expected, not even on the “racial” front. His self-imposed task may well be the opening of texts and minds in the new Thebes that is American society. In this respect, Frenzy is a fine piece of an unheard-of genre of ethnic literature: Theban-American writing.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Aristophanes. 1997. Frogs. Kenneth Dover, ed. London: Clarendon Press.

Campbell, Joseph. 1962. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. London: Penguin.

Détienne, Marcel. 1997. Dionysos mis à mort. Paris: Gallimard.

Eliade, Mircéa. 1965. Le Sacré et le profane. Paris: Gallimard.

Euripides. 1998. Les Bacchantes. French Translation H. Grégoire and J. Meunier. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Everett, Percival. 1996. Watershed. Saint Paul, MN: Gray wolf Press.

—. 1997. Frenzy. Saint Paul, MN: Gray wolf Press.

Fowles, John. 1977 [1969]. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. London: Triad/Granada.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1988. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. 1989. The Remains of the Day. London: Faber and Faber.

Larsen, Nella. 1986 [1928, 1929]. Quicksand and Passing. Deborah E. McDowell, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

Métraux, Alfred. 1958. Le Vaudou haïtien. Paris: Gallimard.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1992. The Birth of Tragedy. W. Kaufman, ed. & trans. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library, 1-144.

Pailler, Jean-Marie. 1995. Bacchus: Figures et pouvoirs. Paris, Les Belles Lettres.

Pigeaud, Jacky. 1998. “Introduction”. Euripides. Les Bacchantes. French trans. H. Grégoire & J. Meunier. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Rogers, J.A. 1992 [1925]. “Jazz at Home”. Alain Locke, ed. The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Atheneum (216-224).

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1985 [1948]. “Orphée noir”. Léopold Sédar Senghor, ed. Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. Paris: P.U.F., ix-xliv.

—. 1952. Saint Genêt, comédien et martyr. Paris: Gallimard.

Sorel, Raynal. 2000. Critique de la raison mythologique: Fragments de discursivité narrative. Paris: PUF.

Wideman, John Edgar. 1994. Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society. New York: Pantheon.

Notes

1 See Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée noir”, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, Léopold Sédar Senghor, ed. (Paris, PUF, [1948] 1985) ix-xliv; Marcel Camus, Orfeu Negro [Brazil, 1958] Connoisseur Video, 1994. Sartre com-pares the poetry of négritude with Orpheus’s progress on two accounts. First, it is a reclaiming of racial sensibility from the prison-house of the master’s tongue and culture. An introspective exploration of the poet’s self, this “new descent into the dazzling Hell of the black soul” reaches the collective dimension of cultural empowerment. “I will call this poetry ‘Orphic’, because this tireless descent of the Negro into himself reminds me of Orpheus going to reclaim Eurydice from Pluto” [xvii]. The parallel is further systematized when Sartre asserts that négritude as separate identity is only a stage on the way to a raceless society. “So négritude is made for self-destruc-tion, it is a passage and not a goal, a means and not an absolute end. As the black Orpheuses hold this Euridyce the most closely in their arms, they feel her vanishing from their embrace” [xli. My translation]. It might be interesting to supplement our reading of the text, especially of the Orphic episodes, with this allegory. In this case, Everett’s choice of Dionysos as the tutelary figure of his novel may signify a move away from this sort of identity politics.

2 I write “contemporary” where the reader might expect “postmodern”, because Everett denies affiliation with this movement, on the ground that he is “preoccupied with meaning, not the deferral of meaning” (Tours Conference, Dec. 13-14, 2002). Even though this paper will deal with many concepts and practices that Everett’s experimental writing shares with what is currently called postmodernism, we will bear in mind that the three terms “contemporary”, “experimental” and “postmodern” are not always to be considered as synonymous.

3 Euripides, Les Bacchantes, French Translation H. Grégoire and J. Meunier (Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1998). One easily available English translation is that by Philip Vellacott, The Bacchae (London, Penguin Classics, 1954).

4 I wish to thank Mrs. Chessy Everett for giving me this piece of information, after much brain-racking on my part.

5 Aristophanes’s Frogs (Kenneth Dover, ed., London, Clarendon Press, 1997) features a cowardly, comic Dionysos, whose courage amounts to shitting all over himself with fear and taking refuge behind his slave Xanthias. Yet the second part of the play shows him as an enlightened arbiter of taste in a contest, in Hades, between the tragedians Euripides and Aeschylus. The god’s catabasis in search of a deserving tragic poet could be seen as a parody of Orpheus’s quest for the missing Euridyce.

6 Italics are used in the text to indicate the characters’ streams of consciousness.

7 “[Its] theoretical awareness of history and fiction as human constructs ... is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past” [Hutcheon 5].

8 From the Tours symposium, Dec. 13-14, 2002.

9 In Tours, P. Everett, who is also an abstract painter, told the audience that painting and writing are really two different activities because the former does not need, like literature, to compose with the constraints of meaning. He said that, while he was interested in escaping representation, he was even more interested in escaping form, even though it may ultimately prove impossible.

10 “The ego of antiquity and its consciousness of itself was different from our own, less exclusive, less sharply defined. It was, as it were, open behind; it received much from the past and by repeating it gave it presentness again... Life, or at any rate significant life, was the reconstitution of the myth in flesh and blood; it referred to and appealed to the myth; only through it, through reference to the past, could it approve itself as genuine and significant” (Thomas Mann, “Freud and the Future”, Life and Letters Today, vol XV, n° 5, 1936, 90-91, quoted in Campbell 54). The paradox in Frenzy is that when Bakkhos is fully present at his back, Vlepo is almost non-existent, and comes to individuality only through the withdrawal of the god, which leaves just that, a sense of withdrawal.

11 An English equivalent to Sartre’s «tourniquet d’être et d’apparence» [Saint Genêt 675].

12 “Negative capability, then, is the artists’s sympathetic imagination... the capacity to forget his or her own personality and enter imaginatively into the existence of others and other kinds of existence” [Martin Gray. A dictionary of Literary Terms. New York, Longman, 1984. 192]. Keats’s own definition is worth quoting too, since it echoes so clearly many of Frenzy’s disclaimers of rationality: “... Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” [Letter to G. and T. Keats, 21-7 December 1817, quoted in Gray 192].

13 This in spite of the fact that Gates’s analyses of the “Signifying black difference” are far from essentialist, and that he acknowledges the mulatto nature of this rhetoric (See my article “H.L. Gates, Jr.’s Signifying Monkey. A Critical Myth”, Klaus Benesch and Geneviève Fabre, eds., African Diasporas in the New and the Old Worlds: Consciousness and Imagination, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003).

14 Marcel Détienne, for his part, compared the Cynics with the hippies, due to their Thoreauvian acts of cynic disobedience [Détienne 159, n. 41].

15 The Harlem Renaissance is especially interesting for our purpose, because it is contemporary with the “noble experiment” of Prohibition, a nativist attempt at repressive social control directed against non-WASP ethnic groups, and targeting alcohol as a factor of social and genetic declension. The rift in American society between these Protestant conservatives and the hedonistic culture of jazz and alcohol, which Harlem came to symbolize, closely resembles the opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian principles.

Auteur

Associate Professor in American Literature at the University of Nantes, France. He has spent several years abroad; his experience of living in Australia, Japan, and the United States has sensitized him to issues of multiculturalism. His doctorial thesis was entitled “Myth and History in Chinese American and Chicano Literature” (1995), and his publications include articles on Maxine Hong Kingston, John Edgar Wideman and the Harlem Renaissance. On the latter subject he edited, with Professor Geneviève Fabre, Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and “Temples for Tomorrow”: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, 2001).

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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