Theorizing Spirit: The Critical Challenge of Elizabeth Nunez's When Rocks Dance and beyond the Limbo Silence
Rahming, Melvin B., Studies in the Literary Imagination
One of the seminal achievements of modernity has been that the subject of spirit--and by extension, spirituality--is no longer generally regarded as the exclusive province of organized religion. Both inside and outside of religious organizations, issues of spirit and spirituality sometimes transcend discrete claims and agenda and foster acknowledgment of the full spectrum of human experience. While it may be argued that the church has not completely lost its authoritarian hold on the collective consciousness, advances in technology and science, along with a preponderance of research with regard to the nature of consciousness, have generated a transcultural and transnational discourse within which spiritual issues resonate at all levels. Philosophical works like Ken Wilber's The Eye of Spirit (1997) and Integral Psychology (2000) and David Hawkins's The Eye of the I from Which Nothing Is Hidden (2001) offer compelling arguments that the age-old spirit/matter, religion/science dichotomies are false; that is, rather than being discrete categories, they are, in fact, interrelated and inseparable. Stephen Lewis and Evan Slawson's Sanctuary: The Path to Consciousness, which dramatizes the inseparability of science and spirit, presages a global evolution beyond the limits of decentered, postmodernist paradigms. Indeed, there seems to be emerging a tacit global consensus not only that such a thing as spirit exists but also that literature, like religion, has the capability of enriching the human spirit.
Ironically, the air of respect that has cushioned the use of the word spirit in religious and increasingly in philosophical and scientific settings has not yet wafted its way throughout the halls of academe. Except for university departments and programs directly related to religious and theological studies, the word spirit is not exactly steeped in academic respect. Adding to this irony, contemporary writers of fiction have displayed a burgeoning interest in spiritual issues, as demonstrated by a transnational proliferation of what I call spirit-centered fiction during the last half-century: Erna Brodber's Myal, Paule Marshall's Praise song for the Widow, Garfield Linton's Voodomation, Nurridin Farah's Secrets, Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World, Ayi Kwei Armah's Osiris Rising, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ben Okri's The Famished Road, Earl Lovelace's The Wine of Astonishment, and Kwadwo Agymah Kamau's Flickering Shadows, to name a handful. To varying degrees and with differing methodologies, this transnational list of novels is concerned with spiritual cosmology and its organic relationship to individual and cultural circumstance. With imaginative splendor, these novels hold up a mirror to human and cosmic spirit and to the spectrum of possibilities that emerges from human and cosmic interaction; they testify to the authors' fecund awareness of cosmic interrelatedness, the unbounded locus of spiritual activity. Consequently, they confound the attempts of critics to fit them into Western critical constructs, none of which places spiritual considerations at the discursive center. The result, as far as works like these are concerned, is a critical practice that, generally speaking, seems blind to its own inadequacy--its inability to negotiate the spiritual terrain of creative texts.
Greatly influenced by non-Western concepts of reality, this spirit-centered movement in fiction--especially in Caribbean, African, and African American novels--is rendered even more noteworthy when viewed against the backdrop of the internationalism of products, services, and technologies that vivify the phenomenon of globalization. Undoubtedly, spirit-centered literature, issuing as it does from an apprehension of reality in which all things share the same essence, can itself be perceived as a globalizing force, for it ultimately assists in the dissolution of geographical, national, cultural, and aesthetic boundaries and harbingers humanity's realization of its essential oneness and the oneness of the cosmos. Unlike the scientific and technological forces of globalization, however, spirit-centered literature seeks to reflect or represent a pre-existent cosmic oneness. Additionally, the technologically driven forces of globalization emanate from a politically agendized matrix--the confluence of social, economic, and political energies--not from a conscious attempt to respond to cosmic impulse. Still, it can hardly be denied that these forces of globalization, however hegemonically controlled and spiritually unconcerned, promote at least the perception of human oneness.
The spirit-centered movement in literature, however, is ultimately concerned with both the perception and the manifestation of cosmic oneness, humanity's evolutionary consciousness of, and response to, cosmic intent. Its impulse is not merely to globalize but to "cosmicize." Therefore, it is best understood not merely as a force of globalization, not even as a force of universalism (ironically, universalism usually connotes only human similarities) but as a force of "cosmicism." Another important function of spirit-centered literature is that by its very nature it potentiates a conceptual model for assessing the qualitative achievements of scientifically driven, politically directed globalization in imaginative anticipation of a transnational and transcultural space where scientific and spiritual technologies are demonstrably interfused. Considered in this context, then, the need for a spirit-centered methodology assumes a sense of urgency.
For reasons that probably have to do with the Western foundations of contemporary literary theory, this proliferation of spirit-centered literature has not catalyzed a corresponding interest in spirit-related issues on the part of literary critics, who except for a trail-blazing few (among them Wilson Harris, Edouard Glissant, Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Alexis Stephens, and Stephen Slemmons) seem, at best, complacent to the implications such fiction holds for literary criticism as a whole or, at worst, uninterested in the relationship between spirit/spirituality and literary theory. They have not foregrounded issues of spirit/spirituality and consequently have not played a leading role in articulating a critical model for the determination of the text's potential for spiritual enrichment. While descriptive labels for spirit-centered novels (surrealism, neo-realism, magic[al] realism, and marvelous realism) certify the critics' recognition of the mystical dimensions of literature, its re-engineering of narrative and aesthetic spaces, and the imaginative certitude with which it explodes conventional Western assumptions about the nature of reality, critics generally have not risen to the theoretic challenges inherent in these descriptive categories.
Moreover, the collective impact of such descriptive labels is that they exoticize the "spirit" of these spirit-centered novels more than they explicate the novels' presentation of ignored, submerged, or marginalized reality. I contend that the description spirit-centered speaks to the integrity of these writers' attempt to probe consciousness for its cosmic, primordial oscillations. Furthermore, apart from designating a fictive category, the term spirit-centered is also meant to describe the critical methodology that these novels necessitate. While it is not my intention here to undertake a fully achieved spirit-centered methodology, with attention to the first two novels of Trinidadian writer Elizabeth Nunez, (1)--When Rocks Dance (1986) and Beyond the Limbo Silence (1998)--I attempt to uncover some of the challenges inherent in the critical attempt to traverse the textual terrain of spirit--that is, to problematize some matters related to a …
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Publication information: Article title: Theorizing Spirit: The Critical Challenge of Elizabeth Nunez's When Rocks Dance and beyond the Limbo Silence. Contributors: Rahming, Melvin B. - Author. Journal title: Studies in the Literary Imagination. Volume: 37. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2004. Page number: 1+. © 2007 Georgia State University, Department of English. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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