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Look away!The U.S South in New World Studies
By Jon Smith
Duke University Press
Chapter OnePor el camino de la mar Hay que aprender a recordar lo que las nubes no pueden olvidar.... Como vais a olvidar lo que las nubes aun pueden recordar? Duro recuerdo recordar lo que las nubes no pueden olvidar por el camino de la mar!
By the way of the sea You've got to learn to remember what the clouds cannot forget.... How are you going to forget what the clouds still remember? Relentless memory to remember what the clouds cannot forget by the way of the sea! -NICOLAS GUILLEN, "Elegia"
GEORGE B. HANDLEY
A New World Poetics of Oblivion
The historical patterns that characterize the U.S. South also connect it to a larger region of the Americas. These patterns, most notably European colonization, Amerindian genocide and displacement, and African slavery, have served to create a region of perplexing but compelling commonality among Caribbean nations, the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America and Brazil, and the U.S. South (which in this broader context, of course, would then be a "north"), an area known as Plantation America. These historical parallels, however, should not become justification for assuming that one can find facile homogeneity in the Americas; social, racial, and cultural similarities in the New World cannot be ignored any more than they can be definitively identified. Without carefulcomparative consideration of both what emerges and what may have been lost in the at times brutal and violent interaction of cultures in the New World, the leap from the local to the hemispheric will effectively result in an elision of important regional differences. To do so would be to imagine that the commonalities that bring New World cultures together were never subject to original violence or historical trauma; it is to ignore and perpetuate the untraceable facts of New World oblivion.
Defining the contours of our American parallels is challenging not only because the contemporary cultures of the Americas are so divergent but also because the historical events that they presumably share, although central to the formation of New World communities, often defy our capacity to recuperate them as representable, sayable stories. A complete understanding of events such as the murder and displacement of millions of Amerindians or the Middle Passage of African slavery and its subsequent legacies of untold suffering for millions of Africans and their descendents is often beyond representation because the lived realities were either initially understated or erased in historical documentation in an attempt to conceal accountability. And, of course, dead victims cannot speak; those who did survive had little or no access to written expression, and their testimonies often held feeble legal force. This is to say nothing of the daunting task of simply finding adequate forms of representation with which to sum up such atrocities.
Sympathetic discourses that have tried to recover a more accurate sense of the nature of this violence and its lasting effects have done so most often as rhetorical witnesses of a past no longer accessible. Such discourses, however, often omit careful consideration of the dizzying authorial challenge of giving representative force to such cataclysms. Very little of New World literature and its critical reception has succeeded in awakening from a fundamental numbness toward these primal hemispheric scenes. New World writers who do overcome this numbness paradoxically do so by beginning with a recognition not of the realities of the events per se but of the existence of a saturated, collective amnesia about them. In these cases, readers are typically taken through two levels in the suspension of disbelief, first on the level of historical experience ("Could this really have happened?") and then again in working through the trauma of what they have been asked to imagine as real ("What difference does it make that it did happen?"). This double suspension of disbelief does not create further numbness precisely because it points with greater honesty and humility to the enormity of the challenge of representation that New World history presents. It also acknowledges that the evidence that remains of historical parallels in the New World is, due to the violent and traumatic nature of its history, fragmented, partial, and while undeniable, ultimately unknowable.
Because New World history has blocked historiographic access to much of its evidence, historical reconstruction would benefit from a poetics that acknowledges that whatever the contours of a total history might look like, the past can only be known in its remnant parts. It is perhaps ironic that despite the important lead of comparative historical studies on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, literature and imagination are perhaps even more necessary. While historiography has emerged with valuable (if always tentative) New World death statistics, a poetics that recognizes oblivion-that is, not what is remembered but what is forgotten and therefore unsayable-overs a potentially more ethical way to give representative shape to these elusive historical patterns that link the U.S. South to other regions of slavery. While history yearns for the knowable story of the hemisphere, a contextualization of the American South within the literary imagination of greater Plantation America allows one to assess a broader range of representational choices about similar places and histories and thereby to at least begin to appreciate what is forgotten in the forging of imagined communities. As Jean-Francois Lyotard has written, literature that effectively responds to historical loss "does not say the unsayable, but says that it cannot say it" (47). For that reason, literature, if it is worthy of the task of addressing the problem of oblivion, refuses monumentalization or the seduction of a permanent recuperation of the past, because it mourns what it cannot say every time it tries to say it. Literature serves as further oblivion, then, but only in the sense that it overs pardon or amnesty, as the word oblivion also implies, to the past's refusal to enter completely into representation. The question of forgiveness of the perpetrators is laid aside since that implies using the logic of historical causation that would still privilege and monumentalize the crimes; only the past's elusiveness is forgiven. I do not pretend that this poetics of oblivion is unique to our hemisphere and not highly relevant to, say, Old World problems of historical memory. However, precisely because of the particular hemispheric reach of the events that shook modern American cultures at their foundations, it seems imperative that one recognize that oblivion has played an integral role in the formation of the national cultures of the Americas. On the basis of examining partial and local fragments, one can only begin to outline the extent of what has been erased from New World memory. This, in turn, presents an ethical obligation to learn to read cross-culturally throughout those regions affected by the historical patterns of Plantation America and to commemorate that which was lost in their mutually shared histories. Only by transgressing the borders of nationalism and regionalism (and thereby situating the literature of the U.S. South in a field of New World literature, for example) can a poetics of oblivion realize its capacity to participate in a perpetually necessary compensation for history's absence.
POETIC LANGUAGE AND OBLIVION
To speak of oblivion, of course, is risky business. Assessing the devastation suffered by indigenous populations risks failing to recognize the ways in which native cultures have survived, adapted, and transformed themselves in the wake of Columbus's arrival. A poetics of oblivion potentially becomes a kind of negative sublime that expresses a neocolonial wish to erase a still-thriving and vital indigenous presence in the Americas. To invoke oblivion in relation to the Middle Passage risks a further dismissal of the lifeways and rhythms of African culture that have found new roots in American soil. It can be argued, in fact, that the Middle Passage has signified a new transformation and flourishing of African memory in the Americas, as evidenced by an increased interest in the history of slave experience in much recent fiction from the United States and the Caribbean. In either case, to speak of oblivion might overstate the power of European colonization of the New World to control or obliterate contestatory cultural and political memories.
Failing to recognize the fact of oblivion (that something has been lost and is no longer accessible) runs parallel risks, however, chief among which is the risk of perceiving existing memories of conquest, enslavement, and colonization as naturally born from history itself, not as selected recollections that have emerged in the context of a struggle among competing powers of representation. Even though one's sympathies are clearly with the victims of such historical events, one risks identifying traces and transformations of ancestral cultures as significations of their original form. To do so is to render the historical agency behind colonialism and slavery invisible and to imagine anachronistically that current expressions of devotion to Africa or to Native America, or imaginative acts of historical recovery signify a pre-Columbian primordiality. This is an oedipal risk since one elides one's own imaginative desire by mythologizing origins and presenting them to oneself not as manifestations of one's own desire but as objectively given historical realities.
Literature can only suggest, point to, or imagine a larger context of which there are only fragmentary tales or cultural echoes. For this reason, two Nobel laureates, well acquainted with the ironies of New World history, explain that language of necessity fails but that this is not a cause for lamentation but rather an opportunity to pay homage to those histories that can never be summed up. Toni Morrison, in her Nobel acceptance speech of 1993, insisted that "language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never 'pin down' slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity, is in its reach toward the ineffable" ("Nobel" 321). In his 1992 Nobel speech, St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott stated, "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole" (What the Twilight Says 69). Poetic language is an expression of this love; it is an expression of a self-conscious desire for wholeness, not a pretension to mimeticism.
Both writers imply that the limits of representation are both a symptom of historical events that have rendered language weak and a limitation inherent in language itself. It seems that if one doesn't at least admit both possibilities, either the specific historical quality of New World experience becomes insignificant and easily transferable to any other context or history becomes almost enshrined in its ubiquitous power to limit language and is granted a permanent primordial position always in demand of linguistic obeisance. That is to say, a poetics of oblivion might certainly become necessary in other historical contexts both because the historical events themselves create similar crises of language and because all languages presumably suffer similar limitations. However, one must be careful not to assume that all problems of oblivion are equal; to do so means that either all languages transcend history altogether or that one doesn't really need to pay attention to the particulars of any one region's history. The poetics articulated by Walcott and Morrison sees language as symptomatic representation of a primary historical oblivion but also as autonomous performative mourning for what has been forgotten. While it is likely true, as William Handley argues, that "the history of slavery ... suggests that the structure of allegory and mourning is neither universal nor inevitable as a human and linguistic predicament" (685), Walcott and Morrison insist that the historical preconditioning of language nevertheless should not burden the language user with the anxieties of historical primordiality nor imbue the traumatic historical event with a kind of sacred mysticism.
A New World poetics is a kind of pendular swing between language's correspondence to its own rootedness in historical events and to its own self-referentiality. It is transferable to other historical situations but not without due modifications since the value of language's limitations can only be determined by the specific ways language is used in relation to specific events. The user of language, when speaking of oblivion, must both recognize the contours of that history that language inadequately summons and the potential for self-referential limitations inherent in linguistic representation, limitations that, to some degree, are not entirely dependent on that history and are therefore potentially transhistorical. These limitations are, in this sense, both historically grounded but also always potentially ontological. This pendular swing is important for ethical reasons since each pole presents a dilemma. If language is the source of the limitation, its user must ask if the chosen form of linguistic representation does not therefore become complicit in perpetuating the original oblivion that lies at the root of the New World story. On the other hand, if oblivion is always attributable to the event itself and to historical agents in the past, then representation is always innocent and never takes any historical risks since it would appear that it stands outside of history altogether. A New World poetic language moves between these risks, now self-questioning, now interrogating history.
One sees this pendular swing in both Morrison and Walcott when they in turn insist that the limitations of poetic language, although presumably an ontological problem, signify something grounded and specific that lies beyond words. Their poetic language reconstructs a conscious fiction of historical rootedness, and in its self-consciousness it betrays its own failure. This is because, ultimately, what is more important than language is what it cannot say. As Walcott stated in 1974, "We may not even need literature, not that we are beyond it, but in the archipelago particularly, nature, the elements if you want, are so new, so overpowering in their presence that awe is deeper than articulation of awe" ("The Caribbean" 12). A poetics of oblivion declares that what is said, what is remembered, is always less than that which it reaches for; language always defers to what it tries to express, but not because the past, or the present, is a sublime muse but because ultimately what matters more than language is what it tries to represent. Or as Walcott phrases it in his recent collection of poems, The Bounty, "memory is less than the place which it cherishes" (27).
What Morrison and Walcott describe is an ethics of reading New World history. J. Hillis Miller insists that an ethics of reading begins with a recognition that every text responds to some "thing" that "demands it be respected by being put in words" (105). That thing can never be finally summed up in language because to try to do so is to simply repeat the problem by displacing that thing once more. Every text, then, "only gives itself. It hides its matter or thing as much as it reveals it.... It is unfaithful to the thing, by being what it is, just these words on the page" (121). This explains the compelling need itself to write, to try and put it into words again and again. If that thing in Miller's paradigm were some historical event or truth that demanded to be spoken or represented, as soon as something textual appears, history is merely displaced once again. History, then, does not obtain the power of the sublime simply because history and language are always codependent.
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