On the Pleasure of Rereading, Part 1 – The Women

In high school, our English and Philosophy teacher was a slightly cleaned up, South Asian, beatnik, who had sat at his window smoking his bong and watching the city burn during the Watts Riots, by the name of Mr. Sawaya. If you were in a certain track, you had Sawaya for three classes in two years, and during those two years he did his very best to drive you into a suicidal depression (then over lunch with small groups of students at the falafel place down the street he’d suggest seeing a Psychologist). From A Separate Peace, to The Invisible Man, to Macbeth, to Crime and Punishment, to The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov to Heart of Darkness, he took us on a journey of profound existential alienation. When he didn’t feel up to leading the class, Mr. Sawaya would either toss us a stack of old New York Review of Books or put on early Woody Allen movies, such as Bananas or Play It Again Sam, so that we could develop a sense of humor about our despair. Once, he let me play a Seinfeld VHS but didn’t find Larry David’s brand of pop-nihilism profound or humorous. If it didn’t quote Kafka, it wasn’t funny. To this day, I look back with glee at the time in our senior year when my classmate, Azure, threw Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to the floor and screamed “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Stop trying to kill us!” I didn’t mind all the George Santayana or Tom Woolfe he assigned during Philosophy class, but kept my lips zipped when he assigned us Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Sawaya wasn’t as blatant about repeating his lesson plans as our History teacher, Mr. Coerper, who taught the same three topics for Freshman (World History) and Senior (20th Century History) history classes (The Russian Revolution, The Communist Revolution in China, and the Vietnam War… See a pattern?), mainly because Sawaya was far too laid-back for a lesson plan. Which doesn’t mean he opposed repetition. He taught Camus’ The Stranger two years in a row — each time he’d bring up The Cure‘s song, “Killing an Arab” — as well The Fall. The only time that stoner became at all passionate was when fending off our ire: “You should read The Fall every year of your life! There are some books you reread every year. This [shouting] is one of them!” he’d proclaim, whipped into a frenzy with spittle dotting his little beard.

Personally, I’d shoot myself before ever spending one more minute of my time on Camus, but Sawaya’s lesson did strike a nerve with me. Ever since I turned 18, I’ve tried to keep a list of books that I reread, if not every year, whenever I’d get a chance to check in on them. Obviously, over time the list has evolved. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain only earned a couple of rereads. To Sawaya’s credit, I became addicted to Crime and Punishment and probably modeled a lot of my personality on that boob, Father Karamazov.

Over the past few years, my attention keeps circling back to another set of books. Every time a new Kazuo Ishiguro book comes out, I reread all his previous ones. I do the same with Achmat Dangor’s novels and short stories. Then there are three books I pick up again semi-annually without prompting of any kind. These are Cintra Wilson’s venomous anti-celebrity jeremiad, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, Chris Kraus’s obsessives’ manifesto, I Love Dick, and Hilton Als’ dissection of the theory of Negressitude, The Women.

Als’s book opens up with a meditation about his mother’s “way of being,” which she never discussed, but which caused great confusion for white and black Americans alike. Born in Barbados, his mother used an island vernacular and would often refer to herself as a Negress. Though Als does not theorize “Negressitude” in contrast to the Senghor and Césaire’s Negritude movement of the 1930s, the internal critique of pan-Africanism is pretty blatant. Theorist of Negritude, Franz Fanon was himself unable to address the lacuna of the Negress. In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon writes her off as the kind of woman whose only life possibility is to “turn white” by consorting with white men. Just more ridiculousness from the guy who thought “hey, I don’t know Arabic, but I’ll psychoanalyze all these Arabs through a translator.” Als uses the Negress to pry apart not only the American psyche, but also the use of the Negress as a lazy writing device in African American literature and Negritude propaganda.

What the Negress has always been: a symbol of America’s by now forgotten strain of puritanical selflessness. The Negress is a perennial source of “news” and interesting “copy” in the newspapers and magazines she does not read because she is a formidable character in the internal drama most Americans have with the issue of self-abnegation. The Negress serves as a reminder to our sentimental nation that what its countrymen are shaped by is a nonverbal confusion about and, ultimately, abhorrence for the good neighbor policy. Most Americans absorb the principles of the good neighbor policy through the language-based tenets of Judaism and Christianity. These laws lead to a deep emotional confusion about the “good” since most Americans are suspicious of language and spend a great deal of time and energy on Entertainment and Relaxation in an attempt to avoid its net result: Reflection.

It’s the same phenomenon discussed in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, a documentary wherein she traces the stock character of a “Watermelon Woman,” — a Negress — who appeared in several 1930s films. There’s a great moment in the movie when complete and total public moron, Camille Paglia, appears to discuss the optimism the Watermelon Woman inspired in her and a moment with a nice little black boy holding a watermelon. She claims that the boy’s smile is moving and that the colors of the watermelon are heartening, as they remind her of the Italian flag. In fact, according to Als’s thesis, the Negress is supposed to provoke disquiet and unease in those who encounter her. The only explanation I have for this is that Camille Paglia suffers from Oppositional Defiant Disorder. When a text directs her to reflect, she responds by saying something idiotic for the sake of it.

My future ex-wife, Sareeta, who also sent me scurrying back to Fanon, says that my run-down of Als sounds a lot like John Locke. This is true. Add and blend in a sense of humor. Locke felt that blacks provoked a critique of rationality. Running across a black maid, Locke fell into a moment of sublimity where received categories of thought receded. Obviously, the self-reflexivity Negresses elicit doesn’t amount to any seriously greater reflective thought in Locke than it does in Paglia — he believes that children who run into black people can overcome their fear of the dark more quickly than other kids (unless they have superstitious nannies poisoning their minds).

Locke, Fanon and Paglia all miss the point about Negressitude (well, they all miss the point about a lot of things, to be honest). The Negress’s way of being is troubling at the level of tone. It’s in her “laugh at the presumptive view of her.” Gilles Deleuze felt that “minority literature” (by which he meant Kafka, but it applies here) makes outreaches through sound, through tone of voice. The Negress is characterized by a shocking lack of cynicism and euphemism.

If the Negress is represented as anything in the media, it is generally as a good neighbor, staunch in her defense of the idea that being a good neighbor makes a difference in this common world. She is also this: a good neighbor uncritical of faith, even as her intellect dissects the byzantine language of the Bible, searching for a truth other than her own. Which is one reason the Negress is both abhorred and adored: for her ability to meld language with belief without becoming sarcastic.

One of the few black writers for The New Yorker, Als assumed Philip Wylie’s mantle of African-American wit who refuses to resort to the grand old tradition of Resident Jigaboo. Wylie apparently preferred to raise controversy by ranting against the evils of overbearing motherhood (translation: raising homos), whereas Als probes the topic of Negressitude, — the Negress in himself — its implication in his own homosexuality, the Negress’s repudiation of flaming “Auntie Men,” and the way this rejection of its own spawn feeds into the elevation of black masculinity in America, as well as its great, eternally suffering, enabler, Sisterhood.

I’ve never met an African Americanist who had good things to say about Als. One of the pleasures of rereading him is the opportunity to drop his name and watch brown faces pucker shut with anger. In grad school, we had a graduate Student of Color group for the department. When discussing readings, I once tried to suggest Als. Our two tranquilized Mexican-American specialists just stared blankly. More passionately, our South Asian Hysteric shouted that we shouldn’t neglect India! The Passive Aggressive pre-professionalized Korean condescended that we needed to revisit Lacan. The expert on the Caribbean Literature sat there looking beautiful and high as a kite, as usual. The African-American scholars knew who I was talking about and ALL became angry, with the exception of the one, true, Negress in the group who was always quite affable with me, constantly inviting me to Bible Studies. “I’ve never read his books, but I know his opinion of Toni Morrison,” is one response I got from a scholar of Race Films. Our ‘Roid Rage, Ellison specialist sneered. Another, a scholar of lynching, railed against the “lost opportunity” in Als’ piece in Without Sanctuary, a book of lynching photographs. Als spends the intro complaining that he’s from the Caribbean, is not African-American, but since the editors couldn’t tell the difference they invited him to write it. In casual conversation, one of the (white, gay) editors from Duke University Press once bitched me out for suggesting a Conference on Negressitude, “You have to think about what that word contributes! I would imagine that it contributes a sum-total of nothing!” I snapped back at him, “well, it’s a real shame that contemporary scholarship really does depend on what you can’t imagine.”

Part of the impassioned response Als inspires is not only does he eschew the academic game with his prose style — one which emphasizes a kind of Paris Review/New Masses existential responsibility and will to power over victimhood, and seeks a much broader range of expression than academic texts — but that he openly baits a prevalent Sentimentality in African American literary culture by opening chapters with passages like this:

Put the niggers over there, he said, indicating one of his white floor-to-ceiling bookcases that was literally littered with niggers, or what he referred to as the “niggerati,” a term invented by the folklorist and writer Zora Neal Hurston. And “niggerati” was how the poet, novelist, playwright, and instructor Owen Dodson used to describe the Negro fag intellectuals whose reflexive, sentimental race consciousness comprised much of the aesthetics and the ideology that informed the Harlem Renaissance.

Dodson, who mentored and seduced a young Als from heterosexuality into a bitchy literary homosexual culture — is one of the four case studies that divide The Women. “Once I put my tongue in his mouth after he vomited into his soup plate during a dinner he prepared with the help of his older sister,” Als deadpans, easily segueing into a discussion of Dodson’s self-hatred — a self-hate stemming not from homosexuality. Rather, it came from having forfeited his vision for the sake of employable Negro Respectability: “His work was an interesting example of a tired genre; it was the product of a deliberately ‘black’ writer whose primary talent was spent seeking out an audience to view the chip on his shoulder.”

While the chapter on Dodson and effeminacy is a treat, his attack on Malcom X’s Autobiography and the masculinist African-American memoir, black writing as performance in general, is where readers of The Women reap the rewards. He discusses the Autobiography‘s angry repression at X’s Negress mother as the enabling factor in the work. The chapter on Dorothy Dean, fag-hag, anti-Negress, Harvard graduate and Warhol intimate contains the most gems. Dean ruled her coterie through an enforcement of vicious propriety, and cutting put-downs. Rock and Roll was nicknamed “screaming nigger fuck music.” She ridiculed Bob Dylan’s alternative music by referring to him as “Fifi Zimmerman.” James Baldwin was dubbed “Martin Luthor Queen.” Dean, who I knew from the end of Andy Warhol’s Hustler, wherein she sternly lectures a blond male prostitute by telling him he knows nothing of the world, “your looks won’t last forever” and announcing that “I am going to educate you,” is carefully dissected by Als. She is not written off as an anonymous fag hag, but treated as a specific kind of fag hag — a refugee from Negressitude who thought she could consciously flee the phenomenon by shaming non-rational thought in herself and others into submission. Als points out that Dean’s set “replaced career ambition with attitude.” Harvard educated, working as a fact-checker at the New Yorker, Dean used her knowledge to pedantically humiliated members of the New York intelligentsia. Her prim reign in the 1960s world of Underground Art is treated as an embarrassing paradox as Dean would strut around increasingly expressive amphetamine charged art-shows with her purse and her lack of intimidation. Even though she succeeded at becoming a bitch, Dean couldn’t escape Negressitude.

For years, I’ve waited for Als’ new book, The Group, to be released. Purportedly it will discuss the relationship between black and Jewish intellectuals in New York, and will spend quite a bit of time taking apart and building up James Baldwin. I already expect Als to have an intricate and complex take on the man — one that will probably fire up adorers of Giovanni’s Room, etc., but will also make Baldwin’s writing out to be as interesting as he really was, rather than a mere place-holder for black queerness. Unfortunately, every time I look online the release date is put off by another year. Until it’s finally in stores, I’ll have to rely on occasional pieces in The New Yorker where he mostly does short theater reviews these days, and reread The Women. Ah, well. It’s better than revisiting Camus’ bullshit existential hell.

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2 Responses to “On the Pleasure of Rereading, Part 1 – The Women”

  1. sareeta Says:

    dear future ex-husband,the relationship b/w the sublime and blackness runs throughout the entire empiricism/realism debate, and case of a boy who had been blind since birth, regained his sight and then recoiled at the color black and again on seeing a Negress, was used by Burke to ‘prove’ that there is something about the color black and the way it reacts to the optic nerve that stimulates melancholy. maybe camille has a physiological problem with her optic nerve?

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    Newton touches on this in Optiks when he drops a blood sample into a hole and subjects it to a prism. He is trying to figure out how the optic nerve perceives blackness, and feels the need to “imprison” the blood sample in order to make it work.

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