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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

 | 
Lawrence Aje
, 
Thomas Lacroix
, 
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Writing and Imagining the 3 Guyanas

Buried in the Landscape: Edgar Mittelholzer’s Creative Gene(sis)/Geni(us), and Revolting Subtexts

Juanita Cox

Texte intégral

  • 1 This includes critics like Joyce Sparer, Frances Williams, Mark McWatt, Nana Wilson Tagoe, Frank B (...)
  • 2 The charges made by Geoffrey Wagner, an English-born American critic based in New York, were hugel (...)

1While Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-1965) has been recognized as a pioneer of Caribbean literature, his work has typically been viewed as marred by the presence of sexual sensationalism, racist and fascist ideologies.1. These views initially and respectively highlighted by scholars2 like Geoffrey Wagner (1961) and Joyce Sparer (1968), were said to reflect the views of the author; have been repeated ad infinitum based largely on received wisdom, a surface analysis of the text and Mittelholzer’s interest in German philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. McDougall’s statement based on the assessments of past scholars is typical: ‘Mittelholzer is known [. . .] to have suffered a sense of “genetic injury,” as Gilkes phrases the problem, because of his “Negro blood” [. . .], which in Mittelholzer’s own (unfortunately fascist and racist) view, contaminated his European inheritance.’ (1992: 79). These assessments have led over the long term to Mittelholzer’s marginalization within academic circles and are partial explanation for the relatively small amount of critical attention his novels receive today. One of the aims of this paper is not to deny the problematic presence of the aforementioned ideologies or allegations of ‘genetic injury’, but rather to indirectly reassess some of these charges by taking an altogether different approach to the interpretation of Mittelholzer’s fiction.

2One of the most recent reassessments of the Mittelholzer canon that needs to be mentioned in the context of this paper is Occidental Drift by Dillon Brown (2006). While referring to controversial aspects of Mittelholzer’s work, his ‘eugenicist theory of behavioral heredity’ (49), Dillon Brown importantly highlights a paradoxical tendency to argue ‘vehemently against religion, national, class and racial prejudice’ (50). He crucially situates Mittelholzer alongside his 1950s counterparts (e.g., Selvon and Lamming) within a modernist tradition that is characterized by a concern with self-conscious experimentation, an internationalist outlook on culture, critical engagement with tradition and intense questions of identity. None of this, he goes on to argue, precluded ‘formulating an alternative distinct “national-regional” identity in opposition to dominant notions of Englishness’ (41). Dillon Brown, like many others, also interestingly remarks in passing on Mittelholzer’s ‘immense fascination with place and landscape, psychic phenomenon [and] spirituality’ (77), but makes no attempt to link it to modernist traditions or to establish its significance. This is not surprising since literary scholarship has viewed occultism as a ‘disreputable subject’ (Surette 1993; 6) and has marginalized its significance to modernist works despite its complex but clear presence as ‘source of inspiration and thematic enrichment’ (18).

  • 3 Mittelholzer, Edgar. The Jilkington Drama. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1965; 56.

3This paper is not about landscape per se: a detailed and seminal analysis that draws attention to the esoteric quality of Mittelholzer’s landscapes is provided by Wilfred Cartey in ‘Rhythm of Man and Landscape: The Mixings’ (1991): e.g., ‘[S]o often in the Kaywana trilogy, consummation of love, of desire, is set against and indeed often arises from, [. . .] a lush landscape which conjures up mystery or magic’ (5). The basic starting point here is that Mittelholzer’s interest in the occult had an impact not only on landscape as bearer of hidden secrets and pressing questions—note the ‘Hoo-yous’ of the Canje goatsuckers—but also on his aesthetic practice; in other words, that his treatment of landscape signifies an analogous treatment of text. It takes direction for its methodology from Surette who asserts that: ‘The occult hermeneutic is based upon a relatively simple binary set of an exoteric or manifest meaning apparent to the uninitiated, and an esoteric or latent meaning encrypted “beneath” the “surface” meaning’ (27). The need to explore subtexts for meaning is notably hinted at in Mittelholzer’s posthumous novel, The Jilkington Drama (1965). When Lilli Friedlander remarks on the many strange comments, Garvin Jilkington, (the key protagonist and Mittelholzer proxy) makes, Garvin responds: ‘To you—yes. Strange. But to me there is no strangeness in anything I say. I see my own pictures in detail, Lilli. I know what every detail means’.3 These details cannot be shared with Lilli or the reader because: ‘The terms of reference aren’t there’ (Mittelholzer 1966: 56). Garvin does however point out that:

I can convey fragments of this picture to you. [. . .] I’ve already been doing that, now I come to think of it. These strange things you say I’ve been telling you. These are the fragments. The details. If you were clever enough to be able to fit them together in the right jigsaw fashion you’d be able to see the picture as a whole. But you couldn’t. No one could. Even the most perceptive genius. (56)

4These comments subtly challenge the critic to explore the possibility—‘If you were clever enough’—of discovering hidden layers of meaning, an interpretative code that could shed light on the overall body of Mittelholzer’s work, while simultaneously highlighting the difficulty of any attempt to discern authorial intention.

5It has already been established by Westmaas (2013) that Mittelholzer plants intertextual references in his novels, often in order to engage and then subvert, challenge or counter Western ideologies. A seemingly innocuous discussion in Mittelholzer’s first published novel Corentyne Thunder (1941) provides exemplification of this. When Geoffry discovers by letter that his girlfriend Clara is pregnant, his friend, Stymphy, initiates the following conversation:

  • 4 Mittelholzer, Edgar. Corentyne Thunder. London: Heinemann, 1970 [1941]; 76.

Well look here, you’d better stay up here and read this fateful letter of dread. I’ll go downstairs to the others and give you a chance to ponder in solitude on the vicissitudes of life.
Oh, don’t make an ass of yourself.
That essay of Bacon’s on the vicissitudes of things ought to be of some help. ‘Certain it is, that matter is in a perpetual flux, and never at a stay. The great winding-sheets that bury all things –’
Oh, shut up! I don’t want to hear any silly Bacon.4

  • 5 Bacon, Francis. ‘Of Vicissitude of Things’. Essays, Civil and Moral & the New Atlantis; Aeropagiti (...)

6Bacon’s short essay, Of Vicissitude of Things, explores the changing fates of mankind across the ages and the differences between human groups across geographical regions of the world. He argues that regions such as the West Indies are prone to earthquakes, lightning, deluges and conflagrations that ‘bury all things in oblivion’. Survivors of these natural disasters are ‘commonly ignorant’ and can give ‘no account of time past; so that the oblivion is all one as if none had been left’.5 Mittelholzer’s use of intertextual references enables him to add considerable depth of meaning to his novels without disturbing the overall narrative thread, and enables him to make subversive observations that might otherwise have hindered the publication of his novels.

7But while it is important to pay heed to Mittelholzer’s intertextual references (note that the author also indicates which occult texts influence his thinking), an understanding of his esoteric subtexts cannot be established without knowledge of his background, his religious up-bringing, and later adherence to the teachings of Yogi Ramacharaka. As Surette observes this type of approach would be denigrated by literary modernism and New Criticism since: ‘both [. . .] adopted (under the rubric of textual autonomy) the positivist principle that only decontextualized knowledge counts as knowledge’ (23). But he also argues that an extra-textual approach is absolutely necessary if we are to have ‘a better understanding of the phenomenon of literary modernism’ (23). ‘Buried in the Landscape’ aims to demonstrate that Mittelholzer’s modernist concern with issues of identity, are intimately tied to his religious beliefs and given full expression in the esoteric tale of the Jen in Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office; and that the latter provides a code that can be extended as an interpretative tool to the rest of Mittelholzer’s novels. It inevitably addresses the source of Mittelholzer’s creativity and genius; and highlights that our understanding of Mittelholzer’s attitudes to race and ‘genetic injury’ are rather more complex than ordinarily supposed.

8Readers of A Swarthy Boy will know Mittelholzer was subjected as a young child to his near-white father’s virulent Negrophobia and that he never felt ‘really safe and significant’ until he was confirmed into the Anglican Church, becoming an altar-server around the age of 13. Within the confines of the church he was introduced to concepts of spiritual transcendence: notions of being ‘washed of all sin’ by the Holy Spirit, through the Lord’s intermediary, the bishop; his ‘laying on of hands’ and the resultant transmission of the ‘divine spark’. Given the importance of the New Testament’s Gospel of John within the Christian tradition, we can also speculate he may have found solace in the notion of being able to transcend his physical self, and thus issues of race: 12 ‘Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’ (John 1: 12-13, NIV). While orthodox Christianity served a purpose at a pivotal point in Mittelholzer’s life, he later rejected it on the grounds of implausibility at the age of 19 and turned instead to Oriental Occultism. Some years later he notably wrote:

  • 6 Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘The Cure for Corruption’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados, 4 April 1954; 8.

Isn’t it inevitable that as the child develops and discovers for itself what life is really like, bitterness and disillusion must result? How soon doesn’t the poor creature realise that ‘Gentle Jesus’ doesn’t protect him from starvation or the stalking sex-maniac in the park!6

9Mittelholzer’s adoption of Oriental Occultism was not a simple case of swopping one religion for another. It highlighted too Mittelholzer’s need to scrutinize knowledge for truth (albeit from his perspective) and his ability to find fault, contrary to the views of several critics, with the West. In a newspaper review of The Incredible Father Divine (by Sarah Harris), Mittelholzer remarked:

  • 7 Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘God on Earth’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados: 8 August 1954; 8.

It is a book that helped to heighten my deep respect for the Orientals and their beliefs. How chaotic and childish western people appear when contrasted with the calm and detachment of the truly noble men of the East. How much more credible and satisfying—and peaceful—is the Nirvana of Buddhism than the vulgar ‘heavens’ of the Occident—and I make it plural, for, so far as I can see, no two Christians have coincided in their definitions of heaven.7

10So what for Mittelholzer was Oriental Occultism? Writing in the Sunday Advocate he stated:

  • 8 Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘Churchill Through a Kaleidoscope’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados: 10 January 195 (...)

We are each of us here [. . .] to live out our karma (or predestined fate) and, provided that we die still obsessed with the loves and hates and the schemes and machinations of this earth, must inevitably be reborn again and again in order to be schooled in that knowledge of life which is necessary if we are to be purged of gross material interests. It is these earthly interests that, according to the Bhagavad Gita, shackle us to our physical bodies and keep the spirit [akin to the Arabic jinnee] in bondage. Eradicate all mundane ambitions and urges, and we shall on dying, find ourselves in a condition where we could avert the compulsions that bring us back to this earthly scene to re-enact the painful travail of physical existence.8

11We know from other sources, including A Swarthy Boy (1963) and With A Carib Eye (1958), that Mittelholzer, like many of his Guianese counterparts, believed in the supernatural and entities, such as jumbie (ghosts) and jinnee.

  • 9 These texts are listed in Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Tinkling in the Twilight. London: Secker & Warbur (...)
  • 10 Ramacharaka, Yogi. Hatha Yoga or the Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-Being. London: L. N. Fowler, (...)

12Beyond that Mittelholzer’s key points of reference were books written, or edited by Yogi Ramacharaka: Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, Hatha Yoga, The Bhagavad Gita, Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, and the Science of Breath. 9 And it is in Hatha Yoga that the inseparable link between nature/landscape and religion/occultism can be found: ‘Hatha Yoga is first, nature; second, nature, and last NATURE. When confronted with a choice of methods, plans, theories, etc., apply to them the touchstone: “Which is the natural way?” and always choose that which seems to conform the nearest to nature’.10 Ramacharaka further advised adherents to establish the verity of his teachings for themselves:

  • 11 Ramacharaka, Yogi. Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism. Ludgate Circus: L. N (...)

Do not be a bigoted follower of teachers - listen to what they say - but apply the test of our own soul to all of it. [. . .] Be an individual. Your soul is as good a judge as any other soul - better, for you, in fact. [. . .] Heed the voice of the Something Within. [. . .] Look within - for there is the spark from the Divine Flame.11

13This ‘Divine Flame’, variously described by Ramacharaka as ‘The Absolute’, ‘Nature’ and ‘God’ is presented as an all-pervading spirit and source of our eternal, indestructible ‘Real’ selves. Hatha Yoga thus seems to provide some explanation for Mittelholzer’s keen observations of the landscape: for instance, his interest in the indifference of nature to death: ‘Ramgolall was dead, but the whole Corentyne remained just the same’ (Mittelholzer 1970: 229).

  • 12 See Dance, D. New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers. Yorkshire: Pee (...)
  • 13 Mittelholzer, E. ‘New Amsterdam’ in A. J. & E. Seymour (eds.) My Lovely Native Land. London: Longm (...)

14Yet it is also clear as Denis Williams contended that the ordinary everyday Guianese person (quite unlike their Caribbean counterparts) bore an awareness of a dense jungle looming behind them,12 and that this was no less applicable to Mittelholzer: ‘You [could] feel the mystery of unknown tracts of land simply by staring east towards the Canje Creek. There it is all bush where once plantations flourished’.13 The impact of this landscape on the young Mittelholzer’s imagination is oft repeated (albeit in varying form) throughout much of his literary canon:

  • 14 Mittelholzer, E. Kaywana Blood. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958; 110.

The shadows of the sapodilla trees around the edge of the compound held a pleasant mystery [. . .]. [F]rom somewhere near the old arbours and their flowering vines, came the unfailing music of the goatsucker . . . ‘Hoo-yoo! Hoo you!’ Music of the Canje that little boys of four in their beds listened to before falling asleep.14

15It is also forms the basis of Mittelholzer’s esoteric tale, The Jen.

  • 15 Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Morning at the Office. 1950. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2010; 125.

16The tale, contained within Mittelholzer’s Morning at the Office (1950), is written by one of the novel’s characters, Arthur Lamby, and is about a five-year old girl, Mooney, who lives near the dark, mysterious Canje Creek. One rainy afternoon, while stuck in-doors, Mooney’s nurse, Beatrice tells her a story about the Jen, a ‘Thing’ that lives in the dense bushes and water. It is dreadfully bad (or at least pretends to be), cries ‘Whooo-ooo, Whooo-oom’, frightens everyone and cannot be killed off once it reaches maturity. One day the Jen enters Mooney’s room while she is still in bed. With her mother and nurse downstairs in the kitchen, and her father at work, Mooney is on her own. Though terrified she asks if he is really so dreadful. He tells her he is worse than a dragon, does not have a head but does have a chain that is always in action, and likes reasons because he is the reason for many things. The Jen goes on to reveal he had a friend who was once just as dreadful as him. His friend is prevented from harming anyone because scared people ‘bought millions of masks to hid their faces’ from his dreadfulness. The Jen (after Mooney begs him not to kill her) cries out that he is lonely: ‘Too great and lonely and dreadfully dreadful for anyone to let [him] hurt them’.15 By the time Mooney removes the pillow from her eyes, he has gone, and the sun is shining; the moral being he was not as dreadful as initially perceived.

  • 16 Williams, Frances. Edgar Mittelholzer : Romancier Guyanais (1909-1965) - Voyage au cœur du monde, (...)

17Several critiques have remarked on this tale but only four have attempted to offer an in-depth interpretation: Frances Williams, Michael Gilkes, Jens Davids and W. J. Howard. Of those, the former two are pertinent to this paper. Williams wonders if the Jen relates to the chains of slavery and questions if we are to suppose the chains still exist. As the tale’s author, Arthur Lamby, situates the birth of the Jen in British Guiana, but it has like him, crossed the sea to Trinidad, William suggests the Jen is most likely about the insidious, hypocritical nature of racism in the West Indies. Another possible interpretation according to Williams is that the Jen may in fact represent Mittelholzer and the chains of heredity that he drags around with him. In taking into account Mittelholzer’s love of onomastics, Williams speculates that the Jen may equate to ‘Gen’—i.e., the ‘genuine’, real Mittelholzer.16 Having argued that a meaningful interpretation of ‘The Jen’ is obscured by the author’s introduction of the Jen’s even more dreadful friend, Williams concludes that the tale holds deep obscure secrets that are perhaps unknown even to the author.

  • 17 Gilkes, Michael. ‘The Spirit in the Bottle: A Reading of Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office’. (...)

18Gilkes connects the tale to its wider context of A Morning at the Office by noting that all of the novel’s characters are united on a deep level by a ‘shared psychological impediment’ or inner frustration resulting in the sensation of being trapped in their skin. The Jen, he argues, is a ‘projected aspect of the human psyche’, a part of the creative self that is repressed but which can cause ‘immense upheaval if allowed to act’.17 This for Gilkes explains the Jen’s policy of evasion and why it is seen as the reason for things. The black Canje Creek and bush are seen as metaphor for the ‘mysterious forbidden interior’ of the unconscious mind, the Id. Private introspections of the various characters support this argument. The coloured salesman, Mr Reynolds, is for instance a lonely homosexual, with a ‘feeling of differentness’: ‘He was afraid of himself. He dreaded introspecting, for when he introspected he pitied himself and saw his loneliness as a thing of magnified terror and ugliness—something that would pursue him to the end of his days’ (Mittelholzer 2010: 169). Gilkes ends his paper by asserting that the Jen is influenced by the ‘well known Grimm fairy-tale of the “spirit (or “Jinn”) in the bottle” a tale which itself conjures up the dual nature of the Unconscious as a potential force capable of causing irreparable damage as well as possessing magical, creative power’ (Gilkes 1975: 9).

  • 18 See for example Mittelholzer, Edgar. My Bones and My Flute. London: New English Library, 1974 [195 (...)
  • 19 Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Swarthy Boy: A Childhood in British Guiana. London: Putnam, 1963; 30 & 62.

19Gilkes’ latter point bears credence since Mittelholzer made several intertextual references to the Arabian Nights,18which contains the tale of ‘The Fisherman and the Jinnee’. The Jen and the Jinnee on examination in both tales belie their dreadful appearance. Gilkes’ interpretation of the Jen as a product of the psyche is not one that Mittelholzer would have agreed with. While he was well versed in Freud, psychology and its popular theoretical application in literature, he viewed this area of science with contempt and makes this clear not only in his autobiography, A Swarthy Boy19 but also in other non-fictional works. When Mrs Nevinson, in the ghostly My Bones and My Flute (1955) insists her nightmares felt real, Milton Woodsley remarks that Freud only explained dreams ‘as being symbolic of the functionings of the subconscious mind; he never tried to suggest that [it] might be connected with a supernatural event’ (Mittelholzer 1974; 92). Mr Nevison crucially goes on to question why they ‘should not be justified in entertaining the belief that [her nightmare] might actually be connected in some way with events of actuality’ simply because it was scientifically inexplicable. It thus seems more likely that Jen needs to be seen in oriental occultist terms as a projection of the psychic inner spirit rather than the psyche.

20Williams’ suggestion that the ‘Jen’ may relate to the word ‘genuine’ is plausible given Mittelholzer’s interest in the history and origin of proper names, and indeed wordplay/word association but needs to be understood more esoterically as the oriental occultist, ‘Real Self’. The latter, otherwise referred to as the ‘Divine Flame’ interestingly conjures up (as with the dragon-like Jen) notions of fire and relates in this way to Quranic Jinn/Jinnee, ‘children of fire’ which are said to have been created from smokeless flames or scorching fire. They are according to folklore, good, evil, genius, demonic or neutral spirits, that inhabit the earth, have the power to influence mankind, assume various forms, live independently or part of a particular object. Since the characters in A Morning at the Office are variously plagued by a sense of dread and fear of introspection, the Jen functions also as metaphor for the parts of our real self that we view as, or call, inner demons. And this provokes another linked line of thought.

  • 20 See Mittelholzer, Edgar. At Forty-Three–A Personal View of the World (an unpublished manuscript (c (...)
  • 21 Nietzsche, as Gilkes & Seymour observed, was a German philosopher Mittelholzer openly admired.

21Mittelholzer aimed at a personal level, to conquer ‘the Flesh so that the Spirit might finally be released from mortal rebirth, from mortal pain and suffering’;20 to achieve nirvana (literally translated as ‘blow out’, as in an oil lamp). Perhaps, therefore, the spiritual Jen also refers homophonically to its physical, ’gen’etic counterpart and the issues of race that plagued Mittelholzer as a young man? If yes, then the inference is that like Moonie, he summoned courage to face his dreaded demon, and discovered in the process that his fears were baseless. But what is the biographical evidence to support this? In an unpublished article At Forty-Three-A Personal View of the World (circa 1953), Mittelholzer offers some fascinating insights, stating that when filling out forms he would write ‘Mixed’ under ‘Race’ (14) and that: ‘I prefer to think of myself as a member of the world’s human community rather than a native or national of any particular country’ (13). Key to this analysis he also points out that after years of self-examination he had concluded he was ‘by accident of birth, a human mongrel’. This ‘mongrel’ identity he confidently went on to say, did not confer a sense of ‘disgrace’: he had ‘faced it’, ‘forgotten it’ and it had long ‘ceased to bother [him]’ (9). He had, in other words, transcended issues of race; and, echoing the title of Nietzsche’s Jenseit von Gut und Böse, gone beyond the dross material concerns of good and evil [my underscore].21

22This interpretation of the Jen, as a dreaded monster that is at the same time a projection of self, is supported by Mittelholzer’s representation of Jan Pieter Voorman, the dead Dutchman in My Bones and My Flute. As the diary entry of the dead Dutchman explains:

It is I myself who plague myself in several forms projected and created by my errant will. These presences bear the essence of me Jan Pieter Voorman. When they call it is I would severally call. The evil I have created calls at the good in me. There are no demons but the demons our own wills evoke. (Mittelholzer 1974: 173–174)

23As aforementioned, questions of identity are central features of the Mittelholzer canon. Thus when the Jen emerges from the landscape, screaming the ghost-like: ‘Whooo-ooo! Whooo-oom!’ it is evidently asking Moonie (and others) to reflect on the pressing question–‘who am I/who are we’? These questions of identity (transcendental and material) are according to ‘The Jen’ often sidelined: e.g., Beatrice rebuffs Moonie’s questions with ‘don’t let’s talk about it’, everyone is ‘afraid it might come and trouble [them]’ (A Morning at the Office 2010; 122). In this respect the Jen represents Mittelholzer, the ‘dreadful’ author of controversial books on race/identity. In the case of A Morning at the Office, dynamics of race, colour, class and sexual orientation in Trinidad are closely analysed, hypocrisies exposed, and a demand for equality asserted when the black office boy, Horace Xavier, eventually tells his work colleagues to go to hell: ‘Because I black? You-all not better dan me!’ (207).

  • 22 Mittelholzer, E. The Life and Death of Sylvia. New York: John Day, 1954 [1953]; 116.

24As the above discussion exemplifies Mittelholzer’s writing operates on numerous levels, with the ‘signified’ constantly becoming a ‘signifier’ for something else. Perhaps this is the Jen’s fabled chain [my italics] of interconnectedness that is always in action? Further speculation on the onomastic possibility of the Jen for instance leads to a number of interesting discoveries. Firstly, the name Jen, or Jenny (originally pronounced Jinny) was a common hypocorism for names like Johanna, Jane, Jean, Joan and Janet: all of which are the female forms of the male name, John and its pet form, Jack. Several Mittelholzer characters are significantly given these names, e.g., the aforementioned Jan and his wife, Jannetje (Dutch male/female forms of John) of My Bones and My Flute, Hurricane Janet of The Weather Family, Jeanette Elmfold in A Piling of the Clouds, Jacques van Groenwegel of Children of Kaywana and Jannee of Corentyne Thunder, who sought murderous revenge for Boorharry’s taunt (note the racist undertones): ‘Jannee-pannee-chimpanzee! Monkey-face Jannee! (Mittelholzer 1970: 133). And as the connections mount the significance of this grows. All are Jens (i.e., ‘fire spirits’), and extend the meaning of the surface text as well as the significance of the character to the author. The ‘minor’ character, Jack Sampson, in The Life and Death of Sylvia (1954 [1953]) usefully illustrates this point. While the novel is essentially about the coloured middle class the author’s ultimate respect is for Jack, a ‘spirited’ black radical. Sylvia likes him but avoids his company as she grows into adulthood: ‘It would be impossible for her to be a success with the coloured middle-class if she kept the company of black people’.22 Mittelholzer’s rejection of her attitude is ultimately reflected in Sylvia’s death and Jack’s converse rise in status. He is anti-British, anti-monarchy, anti-capitalist, communist and shouts: ‘Rule Britannia me backside!’ while pointing out difficult truths:

Look, Sylvie, you know why we in dis colony can’t develop all de jungle-country we got? You know why over eight thousand square miles of dis land lying fallow and untouched? It’s because we mesmerized. It’s because we walking about in a dream. And dat’s why we’ll always be kicked around and exploited by dose imperious sons of bitches in de Colonial Office in London. (174–175)

25It seems likely from this, and other Mittelholzer texts, that the Jen’s dreadful friend (who people similarly hide from) is material reality. Miss Hinckson in A Morning at the Office observes, for instance, that Christianity as currently practiced is a lot of ‘impractical mumbo-jumbo’ that serves only to delude people and help them ‘escape from reality’ (Mittelholzer 2010 [1950]: 152). Comments Mittelholzer made in At Forty-Three - A Personal View of the World add credence to this view:

Human beings have invented innumerable ways of escaping from reality, and by reality I want to make it clear that I mean not the ultimate spiritual reality the Orientals speak of but reality as represented by the unpleasant things that afflict us, such as war and the fear of war, money and domestic worries, ill health, social ostracism and social maladjustment to name but a few. (circa 1953; 1)

  • 23 Dawood, N. J., trans. ‘The Fisherman and The Jinnee’ in Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. Lo (...)

26Another point of interest, relates to back to the Arabian Nights. In the story of the Fisherman and the Jinnee, the fisherman asks of the jinnee: ‘But what is your history, pray, and how came you to be imprisoned in this bottle?’23 This question arguably becomes for Mittelholzer a metaphor for the historical context or body into which he and his fellow West Indians had been born, and leads to the writing/ eventual publication of The Kaywana Trilogy. It also seemingly reflects the general interest of occultists not only in mythology, but also history and a line of transmission of secret knowledge from antiquity to present day (Surette: 19).

  • 24 See Mittelholzer’s proposal labeled HP284 ‘Plans for Work’ (circa 1951) in Hogarth Press Archives(...)

27The trilogy commencing in 1611 traces the history of the Groenwegel family, ‘generation after generation’ and ‘acts as a sign-post to the trend of development of the social structure of the colony’.24 Within this context, the Jen/Jinn provides yet another layer of signification. The Children of Kaywana (1960 [1952]) can for instance be read paradigmatically as the history of ‘Children of Fire’ for whilst Kaywana is said to mean ‘Old Water’, and alludes to the coloured middle class obsession with ‘Old Blood’ and to Guiana (Land of Many Waters), other characters frequently allude to her ‘fire blood’. Indeed the first chapter of the novel, ‘A Jet of Fire’ [my italics] points to the symbolic connection between Kaywana and Mittelholzer’s idea of the Jen/Jinnee and is reinforced by the words of August Vyfuis who passionately loves her: ‘Yes, you have spirit. From the first day I saw you I knew you were an unusual person. A jet of fire’ (14). And as the trilogy progresses ‘fire-spirits’ or Jens reappear in various forms and point to the characters, characteristics or viewpoints that Mittelholzer favours. Note for example the mulatto, Jan Broer, who bravely travels to Peerboom during the Berbice Slave Insurrection to inform the whites about the cowardice of the Burgher Militia: they having ran away from the black rebels in Mon Repos. Here Mittelholzer is having a dig at the plantocracy and also signaling the fact it is ‘spirit’, rather than race, that determines inner strength or bravery.

  • 25 When Mittelholzer learned of the death in 1963 of Thích Quảng Đức, a monk who burned himself to de (...)

28All of the above points to the sense that Mittelholzer found in his occultist search for truth, a thread of esoteric gnosis that could be found in religious teachings as well as mythology. His Anglican upbringing introduced him to the concept of Holy Spirit, and the transmission of a divine spark, and children born, not of natural descent, but born of God. His knowledge of Islam and the Tales of the Arabian Nights made him aware of Jinn/Jinnee, the children of fire. His imagination would have been captured by portrayals in the Mahabharata of Arjuna, ‘a swarthy young man, a burning cinder hidden by ash’ and Draupadi, the beautiful dark-skinned young woman who together with her brother had emerged from a smokeless sacrificial fire. It is likely too, given his interest in Roman and Greek classics, that he would also have been fascinated by tales of the Phoenix, the sacred bird that rose from the ashes and Prometheus, who gave mankind fire he had stolen from Zeus. And of course, Mittelholzer reveals in Children of Kaywana and Shadows Move Among Them a fascination too with the Berbice Slave Insurrection of 1763 and through his own act of self-immolation25 demonstrates an affinity with the courageous black rebels who, on being recaptured, were burnt at the stake, as well as with the Dutchman, Jan Pieter Voorman (of My Bones and My Flute) who committed suicide on 4th March 1763, a few days after the start of the slave rebellion. All of this indicates that occultism enabled Mittelholzer to be a fiercely independent thinker, who found sustaining value in myth and the search for universal truths. It offered too an imaginative philosophy that embraced the ethnic and religious diversity of Guyana, as well as his own mixed (African and European) ancestry.

29And while the chain of signification appears endless, it usefully highlights the complexity of Mittelholzer’s novels and the folly of interpreting representations of ‘genetic taint’ as evidence of the adult Mittelholzer’s own psychosis. Having reportedly transcended his own issues with race, Mittelholzer suggests in the tale of the Jen that that our fears or inner demons are self-projections that when faced, turn out to be unfounded. In challenging orthodox Christianity and believing that the Id of psychology could be more properly understood as the suppressed ‘Real’ or ‘Inner Self’, Mittelholzer demonstrates that he was not mesmerized by the West or the linked notion that they were the bearers of superior knowledge. Further research is needed to establish if Mittelholzer’s adoption of Oriental Occultism was influenced in any way by his friendship with the Luckhoo family, his many trips to the Corentyne and Indo-Guyanese culture in general. The possibility is certainly there for as Seecharan affirms in Mother Indian’s Shadow over Eldorado (2011), Indians, whatever their status or social circumstance, were ‘profoundly shaped [between the 1890s and 1930s] by many Indias of the imagination [. . .]—part fact, part fantasy—which generated an increasingly triumphalist vision of self’ (32). Add to this the fact that writers as diverse as the occultist, Helena Blavatsky and the philosopher, Nietzsche, were advocates of Indian mysticism (Surette 1993: 29) and well known to Mittelholzer. Whatever the case, this paper ultimately adds support to Dillon Brown’s placing of Mittelholzer within a modernist tradition; one that was shaped by an engagement with, and subversion of, dominant Western thought. It hopes too, to stimulate a full reassessment of Mittelholzer’s work, particularly into areas, like ‘religion’ that have thus far been neglected.

Bibliographie

A. J. Seymour Collection—unpublished letters between Seymour and Mittelholzer held at the University of Guyana.

Bacon, Francis. ‘Of Vicissitude of Things’. Essays, Civil and Moral & the New Atlantis; Aeropagitica & Tractate of Education & Religio Medici. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2009.

Birbalsingh. F. ‘Edgar Mittelholzer: Moralist or Pornographer?’ in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Heinemann Educational Books: Vol. 7, July 1969.

Dance, D. New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers. Yorkshire: Peepal Tree Press, 1992.

Davids, Jens. ‘The Daydream of What is Essential: From Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office to Ravinder Randhawa’s A Wicked Old Woman’. in Collier, G (ed) US/Them: Translation, Transcription and Identity in Post-Colonial Literary Cultures. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodophi, 1992.

Dawood, N. J., trans. ‘The Fisherman and The Jinnee’ in Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

Dillon Brown, Jeffrey. Occidental Drift: London, Modernism, and the Politics of Form in Early West Indian Fiction. PhD: University of Pennsylvannia, 2006.

Gilkes, Michael. The Caribbean Syzygy: A Study of the novels of Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris. PhD: University of Kent, 1973–1974.

Gilkes, Michael. ‘The Spirit in the Bottle: A Reading of Mittelholzer’s A Morning At The Office’. Caribbean Quarterly. Vol. 21: No. 4, 1975.

Howard, W. J. ‘Edgar Mittelholzer’s Tragic Vision’. Caribbean Quarterly. Vol. 16, No. 4; Dec. 1970.

International Bible Society. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘God on Earth’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados: 8 August 1954; 8.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘Of Casuarinas and Cliffs: An Essay’. BIM, Vol. 2 No. 5, 1945.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. At Forty-Three—A Personal View of the World (an unpublished manuscript (c. 1953), ref: 108, held in Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University).

Mittelholzer, Edgar. The Adding Machine. Kingston: Pioneer Press, 1954.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘The Cure for Corruption’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados, 4 April 1954; 8.

Mittelholzer, E. The Life and Death of Sylvia. 1953. New York: John Day, 1954.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. Kaywana Blood. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. The Weather Family. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. With a Carib Eye. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. Children of Kaywana. 1952. London: Secker & Warburg, 1960.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Swarthy Boy: A Childhood in British Guiana. London: Putnam, 1963.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham. London Library 33, 1965.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. The Jilkington Drama. 1965. London: Corgi Books, 1966.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. Corentyne Thunder. 1941. London: Heinemann, 1970.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. My Bones and My Flute. 1955. London: New English Library, 1974.

Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Morning at the Office. 1950. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2010.

Seecharan, Clem. Mother India’s Shadow Over El Dorado: Indo-Guyanese Politics and Identity 1890s – 1930s. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2011.

Seymour, Arthur J. ‘West Indian Pen Portrait: Edgar Mittelholzer’. Kyk-Over-Al, Vol. 5 No. 15, 1952.

Smith, John. D. (trans.) The Mahabharata. London: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Surette, Leon. The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and the Occult. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Ramacharaka, Yogi. Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism. Chicago: The Yoga Publication Society, 1903.

Ramacharaka, Yogi. The Bhagavad Gita or The Message of the Master. Chicago: The Yogi Publication Society, 1911.

Ramacharaka, Yogi. Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism. Ludgate Circus: L N Fowler, 1917.

Ramacharaka, Yogi. Hatha Yoga or the Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-Being. London: L N Fowler, no date [this publication c. 1960, 1st published 1904].

Ramacharaka, Y. The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13402/13402.txt. Accessed on October 10, 2017.

Westmaas, Juanita. Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-1965) and the Shaping of his Novels. PhD: University of Birmingham, 2013.

Williams, Frances. Edgar Mittelholzer: Romancier Guyanais (1909-1965)—Voyage Au Cœur Du Monde, Voyage Au Cœur De L’Homme. PhD: Université de Haute-Bretagne, 1995/1996.

Notes

1 This includes critics like Joyce Sparer, Frances Williams, Mark McWatt, Nana Wilson Tagoe, Frank Birbalsingh, Geoffrey Wagner and Russell McDougall. Notable exceptions to this are E. M. Joseph who viewed his representations of sex as essentially ‘truth, undisguised and unvarnished’, and P. Guckian, who acknowledged that Mittelholzer’s novels depicted racism but strenuously argues those views are not shared by the author. Other critics like A. J. Seymour acknowledged the presence of racial ambivalence but focused more on the importance of his contribution to Caribbean literature as a pioneer.

2 The charges made by Geoffrey Wagner, an English-born American critic based in New York, were hugely damaging and included charges of sexual perversion. The latter being somewhat ironic since research reveals he wrote under the pseudonym of P N Dedeaux and is one of the most celebrated names in the history of erotic flagellation. The views of Joyce Sparer, an American critic and founding faculty-member of University of Guyana, were also hugely influential, particularly on the PhD thesis of Frances Williams (see bibliography).

3 Mittelholzer, Edgar. The Jilkington Drama. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1965; 56.

4 Mittelholzer, Edgar. Corentyne Thunder. London: Heinemann, 1970 [1941]; 76.

5 Bacon, Francis. ‘Of Vicissitude of Things’. Essays, Civil and Moral & the New Atlantis; Aeropagitica & Tractate of Education & Religio Medici. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2009; 143.

6 Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘The Cure for Corruption’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados, 4 April 1954; 8.

7 Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘God on Earth’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados: 8 August 1954; 8.

8 Mittelholzer, Edgar. ‘Churchill Through a Kaleidoscope’. Sunday Advocate. Barbados: 10 January 1954; 6.

9 These texts are listed in Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Tinkling in the Twilight. London: Secker & Warburg, 1959; 118–119 but are also pointed to in other Mittelholzer novels such as The Weather Family and The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham.

10 Ramacharaka, Yogi. Hatha Yoga or the Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-Being. London: L. N. Fowler, c.1960 [1904]; 10.

11 Ramacharaka, Yogi. Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism. Ludgate Circus: L. N. Fowler, 1917; 59.

12 See Dance, D. New World Adams: Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers. Yorkshire: Peepal Tree Press, 1992; 47.

13 Mittelholzer, E. ‘New Amsterdam’ in A. J. & E. Seymour (eds.) My Lovely Native Land. London: Longman Caribbean: 1971; 39.


14 Mittelholzer, E. Kaywana Blood. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958; 110.

15 Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Morning at the Office. 1950. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2010; 125.

16 Williams, Frances. Edgar Mittelholzer : Romancier Guyanais (1909-1965) - Voyage au cœur du monde, voyage au cœur de l’homme. PhD: Université de Haute-Bretagne, 1995/1996; 528.

17 Gilkes, Michael. ‘The Spirit in the Bottle: A Reading of Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office’. Caribbean Quarterly. Vol. 21: No. 4, 1975; 1–12.

18 See for example Mittelholzer, Edgar. My Bones and My Flute. London: New English Library, 1974 [1955]; 55.

19 Mittelholzer, Edgar. A Swarthy Boy: A Childhood in British Guiana. London: Putnam, 1963; 30 & 62.

20 See Mittelholzer, Edgar. At Forty-Three–A Personal View of the World (an unpublished manuscript (circa 1953), ref: 108, held in Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University); 2.

21 Nietzsche, as Gilkes & Seymour observed, was a German philosopher Mittelholzer openly admired.

22 Mittelholzer, E. The Life and Death of Sylvia. New York: John Day, 1954 [1953]; 116.

23 Dawood, N. J., trans. ‘The Fisherman and The Jinnee’ in Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. London: Penguin Books, 1973; 80.

24 See Mittelholzer’s proposal labeled HP284 ‘Plans for Work’ (circa 1951) in Hogarth Press Archives–Ref: MS2750/284, 1949–1954–held at Reading University.

25 When Mittelholzer learned of the death in 1963 of Thích Quảng Đức, a monk who burned himself to death in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, the myth of ‘fire spirit’ moved into the realm of reality, and evidently influenced his method of suicide.

Auteur

Juanita Cox Westmaas completed her thesis Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-1965) and the Shaping of his Novels at the University of Birmingham in 2013. She is editor of Creole Chips and Other Writings (2018), a compendium of Mittelholzer’s short stories, poems, plays, and non-fiction articles. Other publications include: ‘Music and Symbolism in Edgar Mittelholzer’s The Life and Death of Sylvia’ (Guyana Arts Journal, 2009) and introductions to the republished Peepal Tree editions of Mittelholzer’s Corentyne Thunder (2009) and The Life and Death of Sylvia (2010). Dr Cox Westmaas presented a keynote paper, Corentyne Thunder: A Quiet Revolution, at the XXVIII Annual West Indian Literature Conference in 2009, and for the Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lecture in 2014, Edgar Austin Mittelholzer’s Creative Genes(is) and the Geni(us) Behind It. Forthcoming publications include In the Eye of the Storm: Edgar Mittelholzer—Critical Perspectives. She is currently working on a critical biography of Mittelholzer’s life.

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