Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jazzing the Novel: The Derridean Ethics of Michael Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jazzing the Novel: The Derridean Ethics of Michael Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter

Article excerpt

This essay focuses on the depiction of jazz in Michael Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter I argue that the elusiveness of Buddy Bolden's music and Ondaatje's own experimentalism enact the ethics that is central to the work of Jacques Derrida. By extension, they articulate a diasporic condition that is both universal as well as culturally specific.

The aim of the essay is to read Michael Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter in conjunction with Derridean aesthetic theory with particular focus on the depiction of jazz and its emulation on the textual level. On the basis of Derrida's deconstruction of Western literary conventions in "The Double Session" (1) and "The Law of Genre," I explore the self-reflexive visceral experimentalism in Ondaatje's work in terms of a non-verbal articulation of the historical conditions in turn-of-the-century New Orleans and, simultaneously, an enactment of Derridean ethics. The linguistic difficulty and generic elusiveness of Ondaatje's earlier works, such as the man with seven toes, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Coming through Slaughter, have been interpreted, especially in the literary criticism of the 1980s, as politically disinterested expressions of a socially isolated individual's psychotic states of mind. (2) By contrast, the present argument is aligned with more recent interpretations, such as the ones by Lee Spinks, Michael Jarrett, Milena Marinkova, and Jeffrey Orr, which-- often marked by a turn toward continental philosophy--have addressed such authorial idiosyncrasies as multi-media intertextuality as affective instances in their own rights rather than metaphors of something else. As far as Derrida studies are concerned, this essay seeks inspiration from the work of such literary scholars as Derek Attridge and J. Hillis Miller, who, like Derrida himself, perceive literature as ethical and thus closely associate it with the messianic hopefulness of deconstruction. In addition, I am interested in the ways in which Derrida's reading of the literary avant-garde goes beyond a deconstruction of literature as an emblem of the frail constitution of Western power structures. If the relationship between deconstruction and postcolonial theory has remained problematic, I agree with theorists and scholars such as Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Robert Young, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and, more recently, Jane Hiddleston and Colin Davis, for whom Derrida's linguistic focus is an expression of political realities and cultural particularities, a notion which is transferable to his views on literature. Especially when read in light of his brief engagement with jazz in 1997, Derrida's so-called literary countersignatures are evocative of his own linguistic and geographical estrangement, which he described, with regards to the French language and metropolitan centre, in Monolingualism of the Other: or, The Prosthesis of Origin. After a brief summary of Coming through Slaughter, I will proceed to a cursory presentation of some aspects introduced first in "The Double Session" and "The Law of Genre" in order to investigate ways in which the violation of established literary conventions applies not only to the depiction of the protagonist, Buddy Bolden, but also to the formalistic innovations of Ondaatje's own text. In my opinion, Derrida's conceptualizations of the avant-garde are not a hermetic, exclusively European aestheticism, but a symptom of a transcultural diasporic condition, a condition I also detect behind the various ontological and semiotic layers of Ondaatje's text.

Coming through Slaughter explores the demise of real-life New Orleans jazz (3) pioneer Buddy Bolden, who suffered a major mental breakdown during a parade in 1907, after which he was confined to a psychiatric hospital, where he died twenty-four years later. By the time a culture of jazz journalism emerged in the early 1930s, attempts to give the slightest impression of his unique style proved futile (Marquis 43-44); (4) he was never recorded (99). …

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