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Ré-inventer le réel

Thomas Dutoit
Trevor Harris

A shameful intercourse: Meaning and signifying in Caryl Phillips's Novels of the Slave Trade

Kathie Birat

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  • 1 Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.(...)

1To evoke the real in the context of African-American literature is to accept to confront the risks involved in a discussion in which the stakes are not purely aesthetic. It is not surprising that the dominant metaphors of African-American literature are linguistic, or that the publication of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature is an event of symbolic significance.1 The idea of the "real" makes sense only in its relation to some other term to which it is opposed. Whatever name we give to this other element — the fictional, the unreal — it involves systems of representation which rely on reading, or decoding. To be deprived of the capacity to read is, by the same stroke, to be deprived of the real. Or to be imprisoned within it. This is, in a nutshell, the history of the African-American, who as a slave was, theoretically, and in many cases practically, forbidden to learn to read and write. However much we may need to modify this assessment of the African-American's situation in order to take into account a more complex historical reality, it serves as a powerful model for his particular relation to reality and the real.

2The study of African-American literature in the perspective of this dilemma is both fruitful and somewhat hazardous. While it requires a certain respect for the conditions in which this literature evolved and for the historical context surrounding the black American, it also offers an interesting perspective on the status of the real in contemporary fiction. The study of the particular author under consideration, Caryl Phillips, will in this respect be more exemplary than specific. He will not be presented as someone who has revolutionized our perception of Black reality, but rather as an author who, when correctly placed in the spectrum of fictional strategies used or developed by African-American authors, can be seen as having partially redefined the status of historical reality in African-American fiction. This rather modest claim for a highly talented writer is not the sign of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the critic, but rather an admission of the complexity of the factors involved in any consideration of the status of the real in literature. The scope of the question itself far outweighs any individual effort to deal with it creatively or critically. Phillips' particular qualities become apparent only in relation to the density of the factors to be dealt with.

3From a theoretical point of view, the first context to be reckoned with is the present-day critical one, in which the status of the real has become problematic through its association with realism as a mode of writing. Lyotard's definition of realism in The Postmodern Condition (1986) is particularly pertinent, because it insists on the agonistic relation between reality and realism. According to Lyotard, the problem with realism is "that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art". For Lyotard, realism "always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch" (75). Beyond this purely mocking definition, Lyotard offers a vision of the postmodern as the search for: "new presentations, not in order to enjoy them, but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable" (81). His appeal to the idea of the unpresentable restores the dynamic tension of a differential or bipolar relation. This bipolar tension underlies Linda Hutcheon's vision of the postmodern in A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988). For Hutcheon, postmodernism is:

a fundamentally contradictory enterprise: its art forms (and its theory) at once use and abuse, install and then destabilize convention in parodie ways, self-consciously pointing both to their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality, and, of course, to their critical or ironic rereading of the art of the past .... [P]ostmodernist art offers a new model for mapping the borderland between art and the world, a model that works from a position within both and yet not totally within either. (23)

4Hutcheon's vision of postmodernism as rooted in paradox is a fundamental one for dealing with the real, which can only take on meaning in differential terms. The real is, in a sense, the mirror image of what Lyotard calls the "unpresentable". It can never be grasped by representation, but exists as the condition of that representation, as its ground.

  • 2 "Historiographic metafiction acknowledges not the paradox of the reality of the past but its textua (...)
  • 3 There is a striking resemblance between the narrative of Cambridge and the well-known narrative The (...)

5Hutcheon devotes considerable attention to the use of historical reality in postmodern fiction. It is with this dimension of reality that we will be concerned in talking about Caryl Phillips. His major novels, Higher Ground (1989), Cambridge (1991), Crossing the River (1993) and the most recent, The Nature of Blood (1997), are examples of what is called "historiographie metafiction". While his novels do not mobilize all of the techniques used by postmodern writers to question the nature of historical reality, they share the fundamental characteristics of a form of literature which submits history and fiction to the pressures of the postmodern paradox. Caryl Phillips, like the many other novelists involved in this radical revision of history, attempts to draw our attention to the discursive nature of historical reality, as a way of "confront[ing] the problematic nature of the past as an object of knowledge for us in the present" (Hutcheon, 1988, 92). What is involved, to pursue Hutcheon's definition, is "not a transcending of history, but a problematized inscribing of subjectivity into history" (117-118). The crucial term for an understanding of Phillips'strategy is the idea of "textualized accessibility", which Hutcheon sees as the paradoxical complement of a recognition of the reality of the past.2 The past is revealed in the novels of Phillips only as a patchwork of discontinuous texts. Cambridge is composed of three texts: the first is the diary of a white English woman sent in the early part of the nineteenth century to oversee her father's plantation on a Caribbean island. Resentful of her father's failure to understand her and of his desire to marry her to a "fifty-year-old widower"(3), she records her impressions of life on the plantation in a diary that reveals her ambiguous attitude toward slavery but also her own subordinate status in a male-dominated world. The second text is a first-person narrative written by a black slave on her father's plantation, resembling in both content and form the slave narratives of the nineteenth century.3 The last text is a short anonymous document which gives another version of the events presented in the story. Higher Ground, although not presenting a pseudo-historical text, includes a first-person narration by a man who is a black native interpreter working on the slave coast of Africa in the eighteenth century, the prison correspondence of a black American radical of the sixties, and a third-person narration concerning a Jewish refugee in England. Crossing the River includes a fictionalised imitation of the eighteenth-century journal of a famous captain of a slave ship working out of Liverpool. The other sections of the novel concern an American slaveholder and the slave he has freed and sent back to Africa, a black woman who joined a group of black pioneers going to California in post-Civil War America and an English woman who had a baby with a black G.I. during World War II. Hers is a first-person narration, shifting back and forth between the war years and the narrative present of the sixties. The section involving the freed slave includes letters he sent back to his master from Africa.

  • 4 John Newton (1725-1807) was one of the most famous of the eighteenth-century slave captains. After (...)

6While I do not intend to examine all of these texts in detail, it is important to be aware of the range of narrative approaches used by Phillips in order to understand the way in which he deals with historical reality. The imitation of old texts is an effective way of problematizing the role of subjective consciousness in the writing of history. This technique replaces the omniscient but ideologically biased consciousness of the historian with a specific voice, thus foregrounding the role of voice and subjectivity in any historical vision of reality. The confrontation of this type of text with other texts, as in Cambridge, where Emily's diary and Cambridge's narrative give different versions of the story, highlights the partial and fragmented nature of historical reality, which cannot be fixed in an authorized version. Author, authority and authorization are, on the contrary, ironically confronted. Perhaps most important of all, Phillips's strategy, which relies on texts taken from different periods in history, emphasizes discontinuity, thus subverting monolithic versions of African-American history. This discontinuity is reproduced at different levels, beginning with the gaps, or blanks, that separate the different sections of the novels. These gaps are not purely diachronic. They function metaphorically, drawing our attention to other blanks, or unfilled spaces of meaning within the discursive situations being represented within each narrative section. Edward, the man who has freed his slave Nash, does not receive the letters Nash sends from Africa. The reader learns through the extradiegetic narrator that Edward's wife, jealous of her husband's relation with his former slave, has destroyed them. Similarly, the reader learns, through letters addressed to his wife by John Hamilton, the fictional stand-in for the historical John Newton,4 that he does not understand the attitude of his father, who was also a slave captain, toward the blacks he was transporting to slavery.

  • 5 Hutcheon refers to the work of French historians of the Middle Ages like Braudel and Jacques Le Gof (...)
  • 6 A recent study of a strike by black women laundresses in post-Civil War Atlanta has shown how these (...)

7One result of Phillips' postmodern problematizing of historical reality is a modification of the reader's vision of the events on which history is based. Fictional representations of black history, be they written by blacks or by whites, have tended to focus on the major periods and events: the Middle Passage, the pre-Civil War South, the escape from slavery, etc. Phillips does not limit his attention to these events, but examines lesser known areas of African-American history such as the work of the American Colonization Society, which tried to resettle American blacks in Liberia in the period before the Civil War, and the presence of black pioneers in the West. Phillips's treatment of historical reality parallels, of course, changes that have taken place in historiography, where what Hutcheon refers to as a "refocusing" has caused historians to shift emphasis away from major events in an effort to find new ways of accounting for the complexity of historical phenomena.5 In the area of African-American studies, the examination of the historical past has made it possible to counteract the distorting effect of the powerful dichotomies underlying the black/white dividing line. The picture of the powerless and obedient black and the all-powerful white, while not discredited, has been modified by the presence of a broad range of grays corresponding to the possibilities for positive action on the part of blacks.6

8The section of Crossing the River entitled "West" participates in this refocusing through a low-key narrative that is nonetheless fraught with irony. The story of Martha's journey to California in search of the daughter from whom she was separated in pre-Civil War Virginia, has the stark simplicity of both slave narratives and 1950s style western movies. But the man Martha lives with in Kansas, the man who had spent his life "just steering and roping", and who "slumps from the saddle" as the "shots ring out," is black (84-85). For Phillips the parodic inversion of black and white, which only reinvests the original narrative of the American West, is not the point. A more important inversion takes place between historical background and fictional narrative. Many African-American novelists, particularly those writing in the early years of the twentieth century, had great difficulty in distinguishing between the demands of history and the possibilities of fiction. For such writers, fictional narrative could only be meaningful for blacks if it was forged in the shape of their history, making the personal narrative a reflection of public destiny. But in Phillips's story, the pioneer quest and the cowboy shoot-out, as narrative elements, have been borrowed without modification from the classic American intertext. They occupy the foreground, relegating the defining moments of African-American history to the background. In the first-person narrative, Martha clearly deflates the Civil War as a significant historical reality: "War came and war went and, almost unnoticed, the Union toppled" (84). Against this pattern of inversion, the more complex aspects of the historical reality, which were largely economic, stand out with astonishing clarity. Chester, the man Martha marries and who is eventually shot out of his saddle, is a storekeeper.

He claimed that, to begin with, some folks didn't take to the idea of a colored owning decent property, but by and by people let him be. He sat amongst the lumber stores, merchants, watchmakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics, medical men, and lawyers, trading nothing. (84)

9Martha's friend Lucy marries a man who:

had built himself a storey and a half house from the profits of selling that boom-town, sure-fire money-maker at a dollar a pound: nails. (86)

10One might object, in response to this description of the way in which Phillips realigns history in relation to fiction, particularly in his blurring of the traditionally impermeable frontier between the history of white and black Americans, that he is not so much reinventing historical reality as simply rewriting it. His refashioning of the historical context of his fiction does not immediately seem to imply a rethinking of the nature of historical reality. However, in order to grasp more clearly what is at stake in Caryl Phillips's use of historical reality, it is necessary to view him in the broader context of African-American fiction, and particularly of recent fiction.

11Modernism and postmodernism have both implied a calling into question of the frontier between the fictional and the real, or stated differently, they have questioned the status of the "real" as the object of aesthetic representation. To affirm, as Hutcheon does, that "the referent is discursive" or, as Derrida has, that there exists nothing beyond or outside of the text, is not to efface the notion of frontier between text and world, but to redefine the dynamic tensions involved in textual representation in such a way as to call attention to the functioning of textuality. Implicit in this process is the idea that the real it self can only be renewed by being placed in a new relation to the text. If anything, the thrust of postmodernism can be seen as a desperate attempt to salvage the real as an object of discourse by redefining it as one pole in a spectrum of discursive positions. This strategy, seen in the long term, is, of course, fraught with dangers, for it is apt to give discourse the monolithic position previously claimed by reality. It is within the context of a repositioning of African-American fiction with respect to the discursive nature of history that Phillips occupies an interesting position.

  • 7 Ellison s pun is a reference to Benjamin Franklin, famous as both statesman and inventor and often (...)

12The import and benefits for blacks of a repositioning of history as discourse cannot be overestimated. Not only has this allowed blacks to draw attention to their exclusion from canonical versions of history. It has also permitted them to benefit from a redefinition of the different forms of discourse which compose American culture. Black music and folklore are no longer seen in opposition to textual expression, but as elements in a textual continuum, making it possible through redefinition of culture, to subvert the traditionally held view that blacks were excluded from the text of American culture. But more important yet, it has allowed certain of the strategies of African-American expression to become significant, if not dominant metaphors in the discourse-oriented critical context in which we now function. By revealing the role of language play and punning, African-American scholars have revealed to what extent blacks have always been aware of the discursive implications of their position in the real world. By doubling the dominant discourse with an alternative one, which not only mimicked the signifiers of that discourse but decoded them according to another set of rules, the blacks could hide out in the open, developing their own discursive universe while not incurring the wrath of those who defined the limits of their official existence. This is the phenomenon which has been defined as signifying, a term which draws attention to the discursive and intertextual nature of African-American forms of expression. The emphasis on signifying has, in particular, resituated the role of "meaning" in African-American literature. As long as African-American literature was obsessed with meaning, it could not exploit its own internal resources or contribute to the definition of discursive strategies, but suffered from contamination by all of the religious, literary and sociological connotations of the word "black". The practice of signifying has brought the sources and formation of those very connotations into the glaring light of day. It has also placed African-American writers in the position of innovators by highlighting the discursive weave which the figural nature of realism had kept in the background. This is, of course, precisely the thrust of Ralph Ellison's, or rather his nameless narrator's, claim that he can make "music of invisibility" (15). Invisible Man still constitutes a veritable "hub" in the complex fabric of African-American literature, not simply for its heavy reliance on signifying, but for the number of strategies Ellison found for displacing the frontier between his narrator's highly visible, or rather "audible" words and the world they seek to represent. Rarely had an African-American writer turned up the volume as high as Ellison did. The narrator calls himself a "tinker thinker" (10), thus signifying on one of the founding myths of American history.7 If world and word are only a letter apart, a pun is rarely more than a sentence away, and a boomerang is the most effective means both of self-defense and self-definition. All punning aside, Ellison's text was highly significant for its role in revealing the many ways in which American history could be made to rap on the history of the black man without ever ceasing to talk about itself in an almost obsessively narcissistic way. This was precisely the beauty of the metaphor of invisibility. The more one knows about both American history and the functioning of African-American forms of discourse, the richer becomes the complex music of the text. Ellison had found his own way of resolving what Alison Lee has seen as the paradoxical relation of historicity and metafiction, one of which "involves looking outside the fictional text, whereas the other focuses on the processes within it" (Lee, 1994, 217).

13If I have given such emphasis to Ellison, it is precisely because Invisible Man constitutes far more than just an exercise in Black signifying. Ellison helped to redefine historical reality not by subjecting the reading of that history to African-American criteria, but by making that reality and the patterns used to play on it interdependent. The pattern that emerges from Invisible Man is not a confrontation of historical fact and free-floating artistic form. Historical reality is experienced as artistic form, and the many layers of the narrative cover a broad spectrum of relations between historical fact and artistic response.

14The novels of Caryl Phillips need to be seen in a similar perspective. They have appeared in a period when African-American literature has largely reaped the benefits of a wide-scale questioning of the traditional distinction between historical and fictional discourse. In the shifting of emphasis which has problematized historical reality by revealing its discursive nature, the rhetorical resources of people accustomed to signifying rather than meaning have been mobilized in numerous ways. Even the fact/fiction polarity itself has been displaced in favor of what could be called an opposition between the real and the unreal. The revalorization of folklore as both a model for the fictional impulse and as a historical reality in the shaping of the African-American mentality has given folklore and all of the forms associated with it, such as myth and fairy tale, an innovative power capable, to some extent, of challenging the hard-nosed self-reflexivity associated with postmodern fiction. That Phillips makes so little use of a strategy which has given minority voices a competitive edge in American fiction is, however, a sign that folklore is no longer capable in and by itself of engaging reality in a meaningful tension. His narrators seem to have retreated from the authoritative position of story-tellers, seen as both shapers of and witnesses to reality, to the curious position of well-hidden chameleons in the farthest folds of a carefully-researched history. The narrator of the first section of Higher Ground is a "linguist", one of the native interpreters used in the African slave-trade. His position is both an apt metaphor for the role of an African narrator in a contemporary novel and a faithful reflection of a little-known historical reality. The freed slave, Nash Williams, who has returned to Liberia in the first section of Crossing the River, becomes visible to the reader partially through the letters he sends back to his former master, Edward. Phillips has carefully chosen a situation in which the "textualized" nature of his character's existence would be most visible. Not only is communication possible in this context only by letter. Nash's return to Africa is not really a return at all, as he has never known Africa. He is therefore obliged to learn an unknown language, what he calls the "crude dialect" of the natives. Nash's letters reveal the many layers of textualization which constitute his fragile identity. He addresses his former master as "Dear Father". The father he refers to is himself buried in numerous layers of textualization, as one can see in a sentence like the following:

Truth and honesty is great capital, and you instilled such values in my person at an early age, for which I am eternally grateful to you and my Creator. (21)

15Perhaps most important of all is the fact that Edward expects Nash's letters, and his very literacy to serve, more than anything else, as a confirmation of his own identity. Nash's eventual failure, after the death of Edward's wife, to answer the latter's letters and his disappearance represent a challenge to more than just Edward's financial investment in the enterprise:

He knew that he had little choice but to travel to Liberia, not simply to discover the truth surrounding the fate of his Nash, but in order to confirm that his life's work, and more importantly his own life, had been of some worth. (14)

16The use of an extradiegetic narrator further blurs the distinction between the different texts embedded in the one with which the reader is confronted.

17Caryl Phillips is not aware simply of the extent to which language has become the dominant metaphor for our present estrangement from historical reality. He is also conscious of the dangers involved in the use of such metaphors. Much of historical metafiction involves breaking down the structures which have transformed pure event into mediated meaning in order to deliver it up to be "experienced" by the reader. Catherine Bernard (1994), uses significantly strong terms in talking about D. H. Thomas's The Flute-Player:

Loin d'être évacué, le référent historique est, on le voit, omniprésent, il envahit le récit, s'y inscrit, s'y métaphorise, y fait d'autant plus obstinément retour qu'il semble désinvesti de tout sens. (95)

18The role of the reader is to reconstruct what Bernard calls another fiction "au revers des événements épars" (ibid.).

19In Caryl Phillips' novels, the intersection of the text and the textualized world to which it gives access is seamless to the point of appearing to give no foothold to a reader seeking to exercise his gifts for textual gymnastics. The question seems not to be one of reassembling disparate events, but of looking for some way to distinguish text and event. The effect produced is curious indeed, for the texts seem to draw attention neither to themselves, nor to an extratextual reality that they are meant to represent. The seeming "authenticity" of the historicized texts does not invite the reader to tamper with them. A comparison of Hamilton's fictional journal in Crossing the River with Newton's Journal of a Slave Trader, reveals its essential though simplified fidelity to the original. On the other hand, the neutrality of the language used by the narrator of "Heartland", the first section of Higher Ground, does not invite a search for a specific historical reality to flesh out a seemingly Kafkaesque narrative; the "real" seems to be invested neither in textuality nor in reference. If all of the familiar, ideologically biased routes of access to the real are blocked, more recent strategies for reinstating the real as a problematized entity also seem to have been neutralized. However, I would argue that if Phillips has thus masked the frontier between text and historical referent, it is precisely because he perceives in certain postmodern strategies, particularly those which overemphasize the practice of signifying, the danger that they will become counterproductive by solidifying into an ideologically and racially marked "meaning". In order to re-establish the asymmetrical relation between text and historical reality, he foregrounds the ease with which they become compatible. The reader finds himself reconstructing an elusive reality to keep the fictional world from folding in upon itself.

20To grasp what is at stake in Caryl Phillips's exploration of African-American history as discursive reality, it is useful to keep in mind Lyotard's notion of the "unpresentable". For it represents an attempt to conceptualize the dangers inherent in the postmodern project itself. If postmodernism is seen as an attempt to lay bare the ways in which language is used and abused in the service of totalizing schemes, then, as Lyotard has pointed out, its own deconstructive strategies must be kept intact through resistance to the temptation of totalization. According to Patricia Waugh (1992), Lyotard's desire to define the aesthetic as "a mode which is resistant to any form of conceptualization" constitutes "a particular reading of the Kantian sublime" (30). For Lyotard, she says:

the art of the sublime must remain in a sphere resistant to conceptual understanding. It must remain radically separate not only in order to resist commodification, but also to prevent that attempt to graft the ideal onto the real, in a coercive attempt to produce cultural unity, which for Lyotard has produced the most barbaric moments in history. (31)

21Caryl Phillips uses discourse as a metaphor for the processes through which the black man has been made the victim of some of those "barbaric moments" to which Lyotard refers. The most striking aspect of his use of John Newton's journal is the way in which it. shows that language itself, as a form of barter, an exchange of the real for the symbolic, made possible the trade in human souls. Phillips obliges the reader to reconstruct the human reality of the black slave cargoes on the basis of the metaphors through which the fictional Captain John Hamilton expresses his relation to the world around him. Hamilton personifies the sea, revealing a close and intimate relation with what was his major adversary. He refers to a "short, ugly sea" (108), to "dirty weather" and to a "stern sea breeze" (116-117). The ship likewise is personified and treated with loving care. The slaves, on the contrary, are commodified and referred to only in terms of their size or their price. The entry for 6th February includes the following laconic notation:

This afternoon, bartered with a Frenchman for 2 anchors of brandy, 20 cwt of rice, and a man slave of quite unnatural proportions. Hot hazy weather. (111)

22The reader must deduce the conditions in which the slaves made the voyage from the way their presence affects the ship. References like "[c]leared the women's room and scraped it" (112), or "[t]he Carpenter's work is complete, having constructed another platform in the men's room" (112), are sufficient to evoke the treatment of the slaves. The "economy" of Hamilton's journal becomes in itself a powerful metaphor for the economic discourse through which the black slave lost his claim to reality as a speaking subject. Phillips has managed to turn the authenticity of historical texts into a tool for demonstrating the relation between authenticity and authority. Yet it must be recognized that the logic which drives Phillips's fictional project contains the threat of the very "nostalgia of the whole" which Lyotard fears. Phillips's power relies on his capacity to mimic through his narrators the legitimating language that authorizes their existence. His narrators are textualized creatures, products of the very discourse over which they assume they exercise absolute control. In order to make this visible to the reader, Phillips has explored historical reality in search of crucial points of contact between world and word, moments in which whole civilizations have slipped into the crevices of language. He sees the creation of the African slave trade as one of those moments. "Heartland", narrated by a black African who has learned the language of the slave trader, seems, by its curious emphasis on language and on what Hutcheon would call "the situation of utterance", to be divorced from any specific historical reality. Yet this very loss of specificity reflects the way in which the logic of trade displaced the indigenous social structures of African societies. In learning the language of the white traders, the narrator discovers that he has lost his grasp on the world of black Africa. Like John Hamilton, he no longer perceives the difference between the language he has mastered and the reality he has lost in the process. When a new Governor arrives, who seems surprised by the conditions in which the slaves are kept in the fort, the narrator is more concerned by his own relation to the Governor than with the conditions which he is obliged to explain to him:

"How many?" he asks. "How many in this cell?" I appropriate nonchalance. "One hundred. Maybe one hundred and fifty." His eyes do not stray from my face. "We have four such dungeons." I do not wish to alarm him but I can see that he is concerned. "It is not so bad," I say. "They do not stay here long. It is just a place of storage." (15-16)

23Gaining access to the language of the master seems to have spared him the fate of his fellow slaves. Yet the reader comes to see that only language is left to him, a language which gradually separates him from all access to reality. Language leads only to more language, to codes nested in greater codes. He spends his spare time "naming the birds who live on the seaward side of the Fort". When he tries to read a book, he discovers that "it simply related the various prices of grain and other trading materials in their unprocessed state" (36). Yet through the narrator's language, the reader also discovers the changes that are taking place in Africa, which the narrator experiences only in their impact on his understanding of language, just as Hamilton expressed the fate of the slaves only in terms of the state of his ship. To Price, the military commander of the Fort, he is forced to confess that he does not always understand the language of the captives:

I admit to Price that some of their languages baffle me. It is a problem I have encountered with increasing frequency since the soldiers' adventuring began to draw them out and into more distant parts. (57)

  • 8 William Snelgrave, an eighteenth-century slave-trader, tells of his encounter with another captain (...)

24While the narration of a native interpreter becomes, like Hamilton's journal, a trope for the discursive nature of historical reality, it also reveals the paradox underlying its very appropriateness as metaphor. Caryl Phillips has searched for those points where historical reality has assumed linguistic forms. The necessity, for instance, of separating captured slaves who spoke the same language in order to avoid the danger of rebellion, which is one of the narrator's preoccupations, reflects a frequently documented historical reality.8 Yet his skill in bringing together historical reality and the discursive structures underlying it can potentially be seen as effacing the specificity of that reality in the very process of making it accessible to the reader. If the reality Phillips wishes to represent can only be grasped in its relation to textuality, the possibility for any text to keep alive an awareness of its own limits seems seriously undermined. The real seems to vanish below the horizon at the very point where it comes into view. This is what Lyotard sees as the danger of postmodernism, which runs the risk of transforming its own deconstructive processes into a self-validating system.

25Yet in Phillips's novels "the real" is precisely that, point where presentation and Lyotard's "unpresentable" come together, each holding the other in abeyance. In Phillips' vision of history, every incident is a watershed, reproducing the agony of the moment when a man becomes a slave. This is not realism revisited. The "real" is not what is in the text, but what, just beyond its range, conditions its existence. The texts themselves invite the reader to reconstruct the world that is folded into their metaphors. In his letters to his wife, John Hamilton talks of "warring passions" and the difficulty his father had in "yok[ing] together" (119) the contradictory demands of religion and slave-trading. But in his journal, it is the slaves who wear "neck yokes" (114) and the threat of slave rebellion that suggests a state of war. The interpreter of "Heartland" escapes slavery only to be blinded by its ruthless economic logic: when he shows the prisons to the Governor, he says, "In the corner trading equipment is temporarily stored: whips, flails, yokes, brandingirons, metal masks" (15). If the real lurks in the very language used to stave it off, it also haunts the broader narrative structures, preventing the formation of a consoling meta-narrative. Although the interpreter of "Heartland" seems to be aware of the limits implied by his linguistic agility, although he says, "I hear my foolish voice" (55), his words are ultimately powerless to protect him from being enslaved. He is finally tempted by the metaphorical language of his masters and dreams of running away with the native girl he has helped the military commander to capture. He says, "Once the cargo has sailed, and the sentinels have sunk back into the arms of lethargy, we two will hoist our masts and strike inland" (58). But shortly afterward, he himself is sent off to the silent destiny of slaves: "I stand on the platform and look down. I am an old man. The yoking together is over. My present has finally fractured; the past has fled over the horizon and out of sight" (60). In "The Pagan Coast", the letters sent by Edward to his former slave are never answered, just as those sent by Nash to his master are intercepted by Edward's jealous wife. Like the final words of the interpreter, the letters of Edward and Nash disappear into a surrounding silence which prevents them from coming together in larger patterns of meaning. The gaps between the different texts which make up the novels reproduce this silence at a metafictional level. Crossing the River begins and ends with an anonymous voice evoking the children he says he sold:

For two hundred and fifty years I have listened to the many-tongued chorus. And occasionally, among the sundry restless voices, I have discovered those of my own children. My Nash. My Martha. My Travis. (1)

26These are the names of the protagonists in the different stories that make up the novel. Nash is the slave sent back to Africa in the early nineteenth century, Martha the black woman who goes West after the Civil War, Travis the black G.I. who marries a white English girl during World War II. Interspersed in this opening text are lines from Hamilton's journal. These people can be brought together only in a figurative sense by the voice of the anonymous father. It is the narratives themselves which will provide the tropes of trade, of paternity, of language, enabling the reader to work them all into a common text, spanning the gaps created by historical reality. But the gesture which makes reality accessible, which gives it a shape, is always of a discursive nature.

27In order to understand the status of the real in the fiction of Caryl Phillips, it is useful to keep in mind the paradoxical tension between historical reality and historical text which Linda Hutcheon sees as the essence of postmodernism. While Hutcheon recognizes that the connection between postmodern fiction and the real world can only be established "on the level of discourse", she considers that "to claim that is to claim quite a lot". Most important of all, in saying that "we can only 'know' (as opposed to 'experience') the world through our narratives" (128), she is suggesting that the difference between the real and the fictional lies precisely in the distinction between experiencing and knowing. For the black writer, the "real" is that brute form of chaos in which experience is beyond the grasp of knowing. The importance of reading and literacy as tropes in African-American discourse, from the time of the slave narratives to the present, testifies to the role played by literacy in the African-American's quest for legitimacy and recognition.

28Caryl Phillips has textualized the historical reality of African-American history in order to explore the complexity of the black man's relation to both history and text, to both "experience" and "knowing". On the one hand, he wishes to oblige the reader to recognize the very complexity of historical reality itself. An examination of historical documents relating to the African slave trade reveals the care with which Phillips himself has studied the history of the slave trade. But while seeking to give a faithful representation of historical reality, he forces the reader to recognize the danger of the very enterprise which he himself has undertaken. Any attempt to draw the real into the net of discourse compromises its existence as reality. As Marc Chénetier has pointed out, "the net of language can only capture more language" (1989, 38, my translation). Like his predecessors, Caryl Phillips realizes that for the black man, the mastery of language is a double-edged sword. One of the first black Americans to play on the rhetorical structures of American discourse, Frederick Douglass, used the resources of punning, chiasmus and metaphor to play on the very texts which had authorized the enslavement of black Americans. But even Douglass reali zed that the techniques of substitution and inversion underlying language and rhetoric could be turned against him. He knew that slavery itself was the extension of an unacceptable trope equating men and commodities. In The Narrative of Frederick Douglass he refused to reveal the details of his escape to the North, thus confronting the reader with the continuing reality of slavery, which his text could not by itself abolish. Caryl Phillips is equally aware that the real, as brute experience, threatens to reemerge from within the very texts which seek to keep it at bay. The text is itself that "shameful intercourse," through which the African father lost his children in the diaspora. The real, therefore, in his texts must be seen both as the historical reality which takes shape within the texts and as that vanishing horizon of brute experience to which he opposes another more hopeful horizon, what he calls the "many-tongued chorus of common memory" (1993, 235).


Works cited

Bernard, Catherine, 1994. "D. H. Thomas: La danse de l'histoire." In Historicity and. Metafiction in the Contemporary British and Irish Novel. Ed. Max Duperray. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence.

Chénetier, Marc, 1989. Au-delà du soupçon: la nouvelle fiction américaine de 1960 à nos jours. Paris: Seuil.

Ellison, Ralph [1952], 1965. Invisible Man. London: Penguin.

Hutcheon, Linda, 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge.

Lee, Alison, 1994. "Bending the Arrow of Time: the Continuing Postmodern Present." In Historicity and Metafiction in the Contemporary British and Irish Novel. Ed. Max Duperray. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de l'Université de Provence.

Lyotard, Jean-François, 1986. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Phillips, Caryl, 1991. Cambridge. London: Bloomsbury.

— [1993], 1994. Crossing the River. 1993. London: Picador.

— [1989], 1995. Higher Ground. 1989. New York: Vintage.

Snelgrave, William, 1734. A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave Trade. London: James Knapton.

Waugh, Patricia, 1992. Practising Postmodernism: Reading Modernism. London: Edward Arnold.


1 Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: Norton, 1997.

2 "Historiographic metafiction acknowledges not the paradox of the reality of the past but its textualized accessibility to us today" (114).

3 There is a striking resemblance between the narrative of Cambridge and the well-known narrative The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself (1814.)

4 John Newton (1725-1807) was one of the most famous of the eighteenth-century slave captains. After a tumultuous and undisciplined youth, he became captain of a slave ship working out of Liverpool. On one of his voyages he claimed not to have lost a single slave. In 1764 he left the slave trade and entered the clergy, eventually becoming rector of Saint Mary Woolnoth in London. Newton repented of his slaving activities and became an antislavery advocate. He joined the fight to abolish the slave trade and became the spiritual advisor of William Wilberforce, who, along with Thomas Clarkson, led the fight for abolition of the English slave trade. Newton's The Journal of a Slave Trader, based on his voyages between 1750 and 1754, was used by Phillips as the basis of the journal of the fictional John Hamilton.

5 Hutcheon refers to the work of French historians of the Middle Ages like Braudel and Jacques Le Goff. A pertinent example in the American context could be found in a recent book concerning the Declaration of Independence. In American Scripture (New York: Knopf, 1997) Pauline Maier, professor of American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, places this almost mythical document in a different perspective by situating it in the context of some 90 other "declarations" issued by various different groups and communities in pre-Revolutionary America. Reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, July 6, 1997, pp. 9-10.

6 A recent study of a strike by black women laundresses in post-Civil War Atlanta has shown how these women, because of the type of work they were doing, which did not confine them to individual homes, were able to initiate community action. (Tera W. Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). Reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1997, p. 20.

7 Ellison s pun is a reference to Benjamin Franklin, famous as both statesman and inventor and often referred to as a classic example of American ingenuity and inventiveness.

8 William Snelgrave, an eighteenth-century slave-trader, tells of his encounter with another captain who made the mistake of buying many slaves from the same town. Snelgrave says in his account of the incident, "I took the liberty to observe to him, that as he had ... so many Negroes of one Town and Language, it required the utmost care and Management to keep them from mutinying" (187). Ten days off the Guinea Coast, the captain was killed by his slaves.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1999

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