Newman describes this psychodrama of narrative engagement as that of exile and return, an experience in which narrative becomes a type of homeland, beckoning and elusive, endlessly defining and disrupting the borders of a reader's identity. Within this paradigm, he considers a fascinating variety of narrative texts: from the Jim Jones episode in Guyana to Freud's repression of personal history in his story of Moses; from a surrealistic collage novel by Max Ernst to the horror films of Alfred Hitchcock; from the works of James Joyce, Ariel Dorfman, Milan Kundera, and D. M. Thomas to the tales of abjection in pornography.
Transgressions of Reading is itself an engaging work, as interesting for its provocative readings of particular works as for its theoretical insights. It will appeal to readers from all fields in which narrative plays a crucial role, in the study of film and art, modern and contemporary literature, popular culture, and feminist, psychoanalytic, and reader response theory.
About the Author
Robert D. Newman, Professor of English at Texas A&M University, is the coeditor of Joyce's Ulysses: The Larger Perspective and author of Understanding Thomas Pynchon.
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Transgressions of Reading
Narrative Engagement as Exile and Return
By Robert D. Newman
Duke University PressCopyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Exiling History: Hysterical Transgression in Historical Narrative
I became my own obituary.—Sartre, LES MOTS
The news reports of the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and of mass suicide at Jonestown on November 18, 1978 were both chilling and fascinating. Each day boldfaced headlines declared the new body count, and each day the number increased. Our attention fixed on that number as if its magnitude could somehow offer us a means of measuring, of quantifying this macabre event, of putting it on some scale by which we could assess the weight of tragedies. An exiled cult seeking a Promised Land in Guyana, proclaiming its principles with the fervor of a tent meeting, and finally protecting its purity against unknown and unseen persecutors by a self-induced Armageddon; here was our Biblical consciousness hyperbolically dramatized. Here was Moses and Masada, the Garden of Eden and the Fall, the mesmerizing preacher and Satan subsumed into one story. And, most traumatizing, here were our cultural myths, our universal narratives, confronting us as gruesome revelations.
The protagonist of this story, Jim Jones, was savior, God, and angel of death to his followers. Addicted to quaaludes, cognac, antidepressants, valium, and nembutal, having eliminated his body's natural defenses through massive doses of antibiotics, Jones would have died from natural causes within ten days after the apocalypse at Jonestown according to his doctor. His monstrous power and twisted passion are most fully revealed in the 900 hours of tapes he made at Jonestown—his attempt to preserve the holy word, his words. Jones's contradictions underscore our paradoxical reactions to the Jonestown calamity. Like Hazel Motes preaching the Church of Christ without Christ, Jones used his ministerial zeal to convert his followers to atheism. A crusading socialist who practiced capitalism, his sermons in the swamps of Guyana mixed the rhetoric of faith healing, political revolution, and paranoia.
To strengthen his followers' bonds to him, Jones worked to eradicate their blood ties with relatives in the States. Sometimes White Nights (a name chosen by Jones to counteract the racism he felt inherent in the term "black night"), all-night mass meetings during which Jones whipped his followers into hysterical frenzies, became testimonials in which Jonestown residents would take turns spinning stories about how they would like to maim and torture their fallen relatives. Jones exhorted them, applauding the most inventive with his high-pitched squeals of laughter. The tapes give us one little girl explaining to a delighted Jones how she would cut up her father's body and then invite her other relatives over to eat it.
Jones promised death, murder, and suicide to his followers. He heaped doses of profanity on his religious phrases while vocalizing imagined apocalyptic scenes. Inventing snipers and warning against an imminent invasion by Fascist troops who would torture the Jonestown babies and elderly first, Jones rehearsed his self-proclaimed "Greatest Decision in History." And indeed it was the children, followed by the elderly, who lined up first to receive the toxic sacrament. Their savior, unable to steel himself sufficiently with a fistful of barbiturates to take the poison, asked a nurse to shoot him in the temple.
Yet Jones's voice cannot be summarily dismissed as lunatic. His professed cause was just, the elimination of racism and the elevation of the oppressed. His followers numbered in the thousands. He was appointed by Mayor Moscone to the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission in 1976 and was frequently feted and lauded by local politicians. Walter Mondale courted him to deliver the votes of his followers to the Carter campaign. Even during the last months of Jonestown, when the rantings of the White Nights would pierce the jungle, representatives of the Soviet government negotiated with Jones to bring his settlement to the Soviet Union. Jones calculated his appeal and his deviousness well beyond the capacities of the irrational madman. And because of this, our need as interpreters to distance him as merely crazy is frustrated. On some level we recognize that, in different circumstances, we might have been among Jim Jones's followers and therefore our involvement in the tragedy of Jonestown is enhanced.
Attempts to interpret the story of Jim Jones are attempts to exorcise complicity in his story—attempts to play patient and analyst, priest and confessor, simultaneously. Yet we unconsciously recognize this complicity in our initial attraction to the story. With Jim Jones we reenact and transgress cultural myths, achieve vicarious pleasure in his power to command and manipulate them, and can punish ourselves for this delight by participating in his demise.
Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides by Judith Weightman and Jesus and Jim Jones by Steve Rose present sociological and religious perspectives, respectively, on the People's Temple. Rebecca Moore, whose sisters, Carolyn and Annie, and nephew, Kimo, died at Jonestown, proposes to offer a history of "the believers, rather than of the non-believers, or the ex-believers" in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown, but her history understandably tends to focus on the betrayal and manipulation by Jones of these believers. I find James Reston's account, Our Father Who Art in Hell, the most intelligent and compelling in its effort to attach allegorical significance to the events at Jonestown. Also, Reston is both a novelist and a historian and is therefore sensitive to the links between these two genres.
Reston views the deaths at Jonestown as a consequence of the "spiritual floundering of post-Vietnam America":
Before I left for Guyana the first time, I saw Jones and his demise as a novel in real life, one of those rare public events which possess the essential elements of compelling fiction: mystery and horror, a primeval setting, a theme close to the raw, primordial instincts of man, a plot stretching belief and imagination, and a villain of satanic power who had used arguments I cared about on race and Vietnam and social progress to produce this ghoulish spectacle. The story tapped my morbid fascination, but it also questioned my political rootedness. Was the Jonestown calamity simply the reductio ad absurdum of 1960s thinking and practice? (150).
This "novel in real life" was a contemporary Heart of Darkness, and Reston plays Marlow to Jones's Kurtz. Jones was the brilliant leader whose mission warped in the primal jungle, a cultural hero who unleashed his culture's dark, repressed urges when he freed it of its constraints. He would "exterminate the brutes," and his uncanny legacy, "the horror, the horror," would echo in his chronicler's mind as he recognized a cultural, and by extension a personal, doppelgänger.
Reston tells us the Jonestown community was founded upon the three qualities for which Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor said humankind thirsted: miracle, mystery, and authority (58). Jones's followers called him "Father" or "Dad," titles whose implications convey these three qualities. He demanded their idolatry, fostering allegiance through public humiliation, and he stoked this idolatry by staging dramatic proof of his healing powers, even faking an assassination attempt from which he miraculously healed himself. He promulgated a doctrine of Christian atheism that placed himself as the realization of God in man:
In me, the twain have been married. In this dispensation, I have taken on the body, the same body that walked in the plains of Palmyra, of whom Solomon said his hair is black as a raven, and, who, as Isaiah said, 7:20, would shave with a razor. I do shave with a razor. My hair is black as a raven's. I came as the God to eliminate all your false Gods. Men have dastardly distorted the spirit that I have, but it was necessary for me to come upon the scene and I have. From time to time, I shall show you proofs, so that you will have no further need of religion. I have repeatedly resurrected the dead before your eyes. You have never seen anyone shot down before your eyes and heal themselves, yet I, the socialist leader, have done it. I am the only God you've ever seen, with blood gushing out of his chest, who, after the nurses put their fingers in the bullet holes, just wiped his hand across his chest, and closed them. Your God is one of the people. He is the instrument of all you've ever desired, all that freedom embraces, all that justice embodies, all that sensitivity involves. That is what your God is.
I must say that it is a great effort to be God. I would lean upon another, but no other in the consciousness we are evolving in has the faculties that I possess. When they do, I will be glad to hold his coat. In the meantime, I shall be God, and beside me, there shall be no other. If you don't need a God, then fine, I'm no problem to you. But if you need a God, I'm going to nose out that other God, because it's a false God, so you can get the right concept in your mind. If you're holding onto that Sky God, I'll nose him out ten lengths every time.
And when all this has been done, I shall go into the obscurity of the conscious collective principle of socialism, and I shall have no further intrusion into the affairs of man.
"With that," Reston reports, "he would take the Bible and fling it before him, spit on it, and stamp on it with his feet. He would raise his bare arm to the roof of his Temple and shout, 'If there is a God in the sky, I say, FUCK YOU,' and when he was not struck dead on the spot, this was his proof of the silliness of the Sky God and proof of their superstition" (56-57). As Father, Jones became the God that his followers lacked and created meaning for their disenchanted lives. He offered a panacea for disillusionment and, in a culture full of disillusioned people, his appeal was magnetic, not least of all to the narrator of his story.
Reston's account begins much like Marlow's, waiting for his ship to depart for a journey down a jungle river. He also quickly establishes the motif of the double that dominates Heart of Darkness and infiltrates his narrative. Since Caucasian travelers are scarce, one of the deckhands jokingly calls Reston "Jim Jones":
It was a joke that time, but two days later, as I boarded the Pomeroon again for the return, the same thing happened, but with an edge to it. "You Jim Jones?" a muscular, unsmiling Oriental shouted over to me, and before I could answer he said, "If you Jim Jones, you a skunk. Jump overboard, I say," and he turned away angrily. The report had just been published in the Guyana Chronicle, the government newspaper, that seventeen of the children at Jonestown had been adopted Guyanese. Many still believed that Jim Jones had a double in Jonestown, that he was still alive (4).
Just as Marlow discovers the repressed disease of his culture and of himself in Kurtz, we witness Reston's discovery of the same in his narration of Jones's story:
Jim Jones was the singular product of the last thirty years of American history, and his following was the blend of disaffected blacks and whites for whom modern America provided no answer in religion, political action, or education. His overwhelming success in California, where he built the single largest Protestant membership of any church in that state in little more than four years, dramatizes the void he filled. His success was deeply rooted in the general failure of the 1970's. Without Richard Nixon, without the Vietnam War, without the demise of the civil rights movement or the departure of the traditional church from social action, without the current trend toward self-concern and hedonism, there would have been no Jim Jones (228).
Reston's personal and political investment had been subverted by 1970s America's abandonment of the social mission of the sixties and by its immersion in narcissism and cynical forgetfulness. "It could have been different," he laments, "the 1970s could have been the Second Reconstruction in American history, an active, inspiring attempt to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for those who had borne the pain and the defeat of Vietnam and for those who had resisted it as immoral, to ensure that those for whom the civil rights struggle had been waged were not left in a void after the gains of the sixties" (229). Reston's resultant alienation explains his and the cultists' attraction to Jones, whom Reston characterizes as "the true Alienated Man in an age when alienation had ceased to be fashionable" (230). It also explains the disconnected images—quotes from the Bible tacked to rafters, Santayana's famous epigram "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" emblazoned above Jones's chair, a SMILE sign—he recalls from his trip to Jonestown on November 27, 1978, deeply tinged with irony in the aftermath of a holocaust. Reston's narrative reveals the dynamic interplay of attraction and repulsion at work in his memory. It is an attraction to a restoration of purpose, a historical telos, an Imaginary ideal which he found so profoundly absent in contemporary cultural life. And it is a repulsion from the perversion of that ideal, the recognition of the Other intruding into that most precious domain—the illusory unity of Self—in this instance projected onto an integrated social mission. In other words, Reston recognizes the cultist in himself, and through this recognition he achieves the status of both analyst and analysand. Rather than becoming dominated by the mystique of Jones so that the repetitions of his narrative memory become the compulsive repetitions of the cultist, continually acting out his enthrallment in the power of that mystique, he can respond critically to that power. In this sense his narrative becomes a dialogue, a reciprocal relationship between the analyst and analysand whose collaboration determines its shape.
The story of Jim Jones and the People's Temple, Reston's "novel in real life," bears comparison to stories as diverse as those of Manson, Hitler, Kurtz, or Sutpen. All of these, whether "historical" or "fictional," contain a generic plot structure—that of the exile or outcast who forges a Promised Land out of an obsession with loss, thereby dooming the dream to destruction. The exile as wanderer can only realize the object of his search through self-annihilation, so that the wish to return to an origin becomes the desire for an ending. And this plot of identity suicide usually includes a Manichean quest to eradicate the Other as unconscious projection of the Self. The return to the ideal Imaginary is premised on the death of the Real, the object of history becomes the end of history.
Jameson's theory of expressive causality presents one model for approaching the exile as protagonist and meta-code. Jameson draws on Althusser's concept of history as an absent cause in which the causes of present social effects can be approached only through perceptions of functions that we experience as "Necessity." Expressive causality places a sequence of historical events into an underlying interpretiveallegory. This exercise of narratological will views the present as a satisfaction of genealogical desire, a realization of the past rather than simply an effect. In The Content of the Form, Hayden White interprets Jameson's narratological causality in the following manner:
The seizure by consciousness of a past in such a way as to define the present as a fulfillment rather than as an effect is precisely what is represented in a narrativization of a sequence of historical events so as to reveal every thing early in it as a prefiguration of a project to be realized in some future. Considered as a basis for a specific kind of human agency, narrativization sublimates necessity into a symbol of possible freedom.
The narrativization of history, for example, transforms every present into a "past future," on the one side, and a "future past," on the other. Considered as a transition between a past and a future, every present is at once a realization of projects performed by past human agents and a determination of a field of possible projects to be realized by living human agents in their future.
In this sense, interpreters of history function like characters in a novel in that their mission is to realize the inherent potentialities of the plot in which they are engaged. In doing so, they tie events together so that they lead to conclusions which, retrospectively, subsume beginnings as part of their process.
Expressive causality helps to define the shape of narrative memory, but its view of genealogical desire fails to consider sufficiently the degree to which simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from loss informs narrative memory's dynamics. Readers as exiles from an ideal Imaginary state seek to recover that state by wandering the text, only to continually wander into recognitions of their exiled condition. Although genealogical desire empowers them to assign direction and purpose to their wandering, the return to homeland is still not accomplished. While the search for an ending motivates their journey, the fear of ending that journey, of finding the Imaginary unrestored, impels them to resist conclusion. Once again, the transgressive, particularly in hysterical extremes where the discourse of repetition becomes compulsive, offers us insight into the flirtation with the death drive. The master text to apply to this understanding is Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Excerpted from Transgressions of Reading by Robert D. Newman. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Exiling History: Hysterical Transgression in Historical Narrative,
2 Disrupting the Look: Ernst and the Kindness of Transgression,
3 Cannibals and Clock-Teasers: Narrating the Postmodern Horror Film,
4 Narrative Masking: Hermetic Messengers in Ulysses,
5 Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Narrative Betrayal and the Ideology of Powerlessness,
6 D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel: Mirrors, Triangles, and Sublime Repression,
7 Exiling the Feminine: Engaging Abjection,