Voodoo Hermeneutics/the Crossroads Sublime: Soul Musics, Mindful Body, and Creole Consciousness

By Cartwright, Keith | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Voodoo Hermeneutics/the Crossroads Sublime: Soul Musics, Mindful Body, and Creole Consciousness


Cartwright, Keith, The Mississippi Quarterly


The presence and vitality of this marvelous real was not the unique privilege of Haiti but the heritage of all of America, where we have not yet begun to establish an inventory of our cosmogonies.

--Alejo Carpentier (1)

In these countries, the god Eleggua carries death in the nape of his neck and life in his face. Every promise is a threat, every loss a discovery. Courage is born of fear, certainty, of doubt. Dreams announce the possibility of another reality, and out of delirium emerges another kind of reason.

What it all comes down to is that we are the sum of our efforts to change who we are. Identity is no museum piece sitting stock still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.

--Eduardo Galeano (2)

Does the regeneration of oneself and one's civilization, one's uncertain age, lie through new translated rhythms of well-nigh unbearable counterpoint to complacent symmetry?

--Wilson Harris (3)

As NEW WORLD KNOWLEDGES BORN OF double consciousness, creolization, and border thinking bring us all to globalizing crossroads of transition, repertoires emergent from "the plantation complex" offer some of the most deeply tested and flexible means for navigating a world of multiple origins and dislocations. (4) In contrapuntal resistance to white supremacist modes of power, Afro-creole cultures have forged repertoires of polyrhythmic consciousness based in a creolizing aesthetics of assemblage that incorporates "diversalities" most fundamentally encountered in multiple pathways of the creole saints (orishas or loa) and their soul musics that shake folk free from monocultural zombifications. (5) Open-eyed (hippikat) readings of these counter-canonical New World forces may show that North America's clearest historical routes to the composite Kingdom of This World emerge from the plantation South--from points where the Dixie Pike intersects "the other America" in a deeply immanent spiritual vision embodied at crossroads of creole muses and musics.

While Afro-New World music has met with highly visible success, creole religious systems have grown quietly under constant opposition. Though we cannot speak of Atlantic creole religion as a single totalized thing, we may begin to speak of a core santeria-vodou aesthetic, which--in the manner of jazz or contemporary hip hop--works from a polymetric base to reassemble the most disparate inheritances, and in its sampling and remix envisions (and "versions") much that colonizing universalism cannot admit. (6) My proposal of a voodoo hermeneutics calls us to take the religions seriously, but even the word "hermeneutics," which, as Walter Mignolo notes, "has been recast in secular, rather than in biblical terms" (p. 9), underscores a gap in Western scholarship that has distinguished rationality from more dubious forms of knowledge, and signals grounding in Book religions and their canonical base, a base that tends to exclude "undisciplined forms of knowledge that were reduced to subaltern knowledge by colonial disciplined knowing practices" (p. 10). Thus, any effort to articulate the subalternized knowledges of a voodoo hermeneutics faces a doubled (fractally dangerous) crossroads of dubiousness if we indeed are to fall on our knees there--like bluesman Robert Johnson--seeking "new loci of enunciation" (Mignolo, p. 13).

Despite the doubled dubiousness of proposing a "voodoo hermeneutics" emerging from "undisciplined forms of knowledge," there is simply too much visionary New World contemporaneity, too much of what Northrup Frye called "a third order informing power" in creole ritual knowledge to avoid engagement with the saints' "informing powers." (7) By stepping into the perimeters of a voodoo hermeneutic circle--a zone of orientations shared between practitioners "who serve the spirits" (of vodou, santeria, rootwork) and shared to some extent in the practice of those who serve the Spirit via Afro-Christian worship patterns--we may seek a countercultural creolizing vision of the world, one that, with its polyrhythmic consciousness, self-possessing rites of spiritual embodiment, extended ritual families, and agglutinating reassemblies of new source material, has navigated zombifying horrors of white supremacy and bequeathed soul musics that guard something of a "crossover" hermeneutics even in the most secular commodifying realms.

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