Academic journal article African American Review

Reading Rigor Mortis: Offstage Violence and Excluded Middles 'In' Johnson's 'Middle Passage' and Morrison's 'Beloved.' (Authors Charles Johnson and Toni Morrison)

Academic journal article African American Review

Reading Rigor Mortis: Offstage Violence and Excluded Middles 'In' Johnson's 'Middle Passage' and Morrison's 'Beloved.' (Authors Charles Johnson and Toni Morrison)

Article excerpt

In recent interviews and in Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970, Charles Johnson often stresses one of the goals of his fiction: the "decalcification of perception," especially perception that leads to binary thinking, fixed identities, and racial essentialism. To avoid the objectification and oppression of both Self and "Other" that usually results from dualist perception, Johnson seeks new "ways of seeing" (Being 4), or "deeper clarification of what we think we already know" (Being ix), for his readers. Although Toni Morrison's aesthetics and politics differ substantially from Johnson's, she has expressed the similar goal of "stretching" readers' perceptions through her fiction: "Somebody takes a cataract away from your eye, or somehow your ears get unplugged. You feel larger, connected" (Conversations 273). This shared goal of "decalcifying" readers' perceptions informs both Johnson's Middle Passage and Morrison's Beloved, two novels using very different means to convey the horrors of the Middle Passage of African slaves and, in the process, to achieve the benefits of a perceptual middle passage for conventional readers.(1)

Part of Johnson's method of liberating readers from their "heavily conditioned seeing" (Being 5) is to chart a character's "progression from ignorance to knowledge, or from a lack of understanding to some greater understanding. . . . There's usually a moment of awareness . . . where the character is smashed into a larger vision under the pressure of events" ("Interview" 160-61). Middle Passage, the "Journal of a Voyage intended/ by God's permission/ in the Republic, African/ from New Orleans to the Windward/ Coast of Africa" (xi), is Rutherford Calhoun's written narrative of perceptual transformation from Captain Falcon's imperial psychology of presupposition, product, and dualism to the African Allmuseri tribe's holistic ideals of humility, process, and reciprocity.

Since the publication of Middle Passage in 1990, several critics have trumpeted Johnson's success in "decalcifying" not only Rutherford's but also readers' perceptions, including the sedimented reading habits that conventional literary realism has ingrained. These habits feature expectations of rounded characters, seemingly exhaustive details, narrative closure, and a chronological, well-ordered plot told with rational certainty in the past tense - all of which make for a passive reading experience, allowing witnessing of, but not participation in, the story. After explaining how Rutherford's log often "foregrounds discrepancies between narrative time and story time" and therefore becomes a "performative" text (as when characters - and readers - overhear Rutherford thinking aloud) (650), Daniel Scott states that "Middle Passage represents Calhoun's and the reader's odyssey into the middle - a middle of ambivalence, in-between-ness, contradiction, and indeterminacy" (654). "As a text," he continues, "Middle Passage crosses borders of containment and identity, eluding the false gods of fixity and resolution" (655). In similar terms, Molly Abel Travis describes how the various anachronisms and intertextual allusions in Rutherford's narrative "are performative" for readers who must supply the necessary context to make the references meaningful (187). For example, Captain Falcon's nightmare becomes comic for readers, as he explains to Rutherford: "'Crazy as it seems, I saw a ship with a whole crew of women. Yellow men were buying up half of America'" (Middle 145). As a result, Travis explains that "Johnson's textual reader is involved in a close, collaborative relationship with the narrator" (190). Ashraf H. A. Rushdy also interprets the relationship between Johnson's protagonist and the reader as close, collaborative, and holistic by the novel's end: "He is able to escape the trap of telling his story as if it were a possession and rather to tell his story as an Allmuseri griot might have done. . . . In the end, Rutherford writes an autobiography which is essentially dialogical" ("Properties" 104). …

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