Saturday, October 28, 2017

Modernist Visions of the City: Joyce's 'The Dead' and Langston Hughes's poetry of Harlem.

At some early stage in its metonymising arc, the understanding of the Latin word for 'city,' urbs, merged with its juxtapositional notion of civitas, deriving from civis, meaning a resident of a city (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2017). This etymology endorses the general, if ill-defined, view that a city is the recognisable but quasi-mystical nexus of its inhabitants with the buildings and topographies which are their identifying physical idiom and expression. So we may feel entitled to examine this question of a city “presented up close and at a distance” in the rather dreamlike sense of a superpositioning of psychologies, histories, cultures, human bodies, and architectural structures. To examine a complex and entangled entity called 'Dublin,' for instance, in the flickering magic lantern of James Joyce's 'The Dead,' or another called 'New York' through the fervent, angry, celebratory affirmations that are the Harlem-words of Langston Hughes, is to experience these cities as liminal, as subjective, simulacraic characterisations of two specific cities, and as some deconstruction of the ultimate idea of city itself. These cities, with their shadow cities beyondGalway City, or the greater New York surrounding Harlembecome narratives and discourses, intertextual mosaics that are in some way real, and yet appear dreamlike. They are embattled from without; they bestride thresholds between old worlds (whose Baudelairean ghosts still clutch at the sleeve), and new, burgeoning worlds attempting to become, and we read of them as states hovering indeterminately between historicity and mythopoeia. They are liminal too in the anthropological sense of ritualistically incomplete, for these evocations are in some sense ritual texts suggesting or hoping for transformative social epiphanies and actualisations as their conclusions; and the voices, characters, structures, terrains and events they present are captured at indefinite waypoints between their previous identities and the indeterminate outcomes they foreshadow. 

Liminal is also the word used to translate another signifier for in-betweenness: the Tibetan bardo, representing an intermediate state between life and death. And the Harlem we find in Langston Hughes is such a state, a physical place whose earlier incarnations have died (though architectural and other cultural shells remain), but whose human renaissance, whose next manifestation, which Hughes is wishing into being, is as yet incomplete—for instance, the 'Harlem Renaissance,' for all its lyrical homages to black women, has at this point provided genuine emancipation or equality for very few of them. In 'The Dead' too we find everywhere this intermediate state: to read through the dream-streets and iconography of Joyce's Dublin is to feel the mythic Dead rise through the layers of the other Dublins that lie sleeping below. And hovering above Joyce's city are the two Biblical taxiarchs, the totemic and militarised archangels: the uncertain, conditional-tense Gabriel, and the affirmative and cohortative Michael, existing in a state of cold war unrealised even by Gabriel; both dead and undead in their different ways, contending to see which of them, which of the dreams they represent—and whose version of the city—will be most alive when the snow settles. And we feel this tension also in the representation of the new Dublin middle class represented by Gabriel, the “Western Briton” (Joyce in Norris, 2006, p. 165), and by both Miss Ivors and his own wife, Gretta, representing the Irish resurgence. These incomplete rituals of becoming in these cities are, of course, enacted through words; through images, musics and song; and through layers of excavated or constructed myth. (Norris, 2006; Gates and Appiah, 1993)

'The Dead' is undoubtedly the text from 'Dubliners' that takes us most deeply into the essential mythologies of Joyce's Dublin and its 'geologic' layering. Selecting any of the available texts from Hughes to do the same level of representation initially appears more difficult: these are saccades of up-close Harlem life rather than the grand sweep of multi-layered perspective which is 'The Dead.' Their Modernism is of another type entirely, from a different continent, with locally differing, if allied, socio-political imperatives; but they too give us insight into the experience of a city, and of a people striving to orient and reinvent itself in a cultural and politicised context which would have been impossible for most Black people in the US only a few years earlier, and which would still, even during the 1920s, have been unimaginable in the still-resentful, erstwhile slave-states of the American South with its lynching culture and Ku Klux Klan, and with the 'Jim Crow Laws' operating as minimally-modified reworkings of the 'Black Codes.' As with the deep history in every corner of 'The Dead,' Hughes's poems, despite their celebration of Harlem, still evoke the poverty and suffering of the 1920s, and the deep histories of slavery, and of Africa beyond. These realities too stare at us from every shadow, and we stare down at Harlem, as with Dublin, in this far wider historical context. As Hughes pithily states it in 'Not A Movie,' “there ain't no Ku Klux on a 133rd”, showing us both the joy of this huge fact, and of Harlem as a decisive refuge and haven, but also the roots that clutch, and the act of remembering the disenfranchising south with its extremes of racist violence: “Well they rocked him with road apples […] and whipped his head with clubs”. So while Joyce's and Hughes's texts give us to differing degrees images of cities in paralysis—perfectly illustrated by Gabriel's absurdist 'equestrian' perambulations around a symbol of his own unrecognised oppression—they show us also peoples historically oppressed and brutalised, but for whom there are signs that change has begun, even if for both peoples that change will, as we now know, yet be long and bloody. (Johnson, 2000)

The rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm, Honey,” states the incongruously asexual Hughes in 'Lenox Avenue: Midnight', and this is approximately the first moment in history when anyone could have written these revolutionary words, by which he means that the frequencies and cadences of Jazz are somehow mathematically observable and integral in nature, in the rain, on the hissing and rumbling streets, even in the structures and idioms of the city and its inhabitants. It is the rhythm of life and therefore of sex and the creating of life, and he writes these words in the context of Harlem at night, thereby celebrating and proclaiming the sexed-up, dangerous, jazzed-up nightlife of Harlem. But unmistakably too we sense the alienation and weariness in the poem; this is an area where street cars rumble all night; haven though it may be, this is not some quiet, salubrious zone of the city, and we have the defiant binaries of Hughes peering at his own reflection in Harlem, painting something “dark yet shining, harsh yet gentle, bitter yet jubilant—a Freedom song sung in our midst” (Blesh in Gates and Appiah, 1993. p. 41). But more important, perhaps, than Hughes's words themselves—as Harold Bloom and Arnold Rampersad have suggested—is the fact of him writing them here in this moment. In some ways Hughes is his own opus, his “life a larger poem than any he could write” (Bloom, 2007, p. 3), the detail of his words less significant than the facts of his peripatetic and demonstrative life (at a time when, in reality, few black people had such general freedoms), and his proclaiming that this Harlem, this emancipatory mind-thing, is now possible here, so shortly after the dreadful history of slavery and subsequent oppression, and of the South's de facto ethnic cleansing. So Hughes's poetry of Harlem is a flag waving in a new breeze; it is a decisive snub; and at least in its authorial intent, it asserts a district displacing the beating heart of New York from 'The Great White Way,' or from Broadway, to Lenox Avenue, which he unequivocally constructs as mythic. (Rampersad, in Bloom, 2007)

The derivation of 'Jazz' remains uncertain (though elaborate associations between 'Jezebel' and 'orgasm' and 'jism' and 'jasm' have been proposed), but undoubtedly there is a sexualising of the Harlem scene in 'Lenox Avenue: Midnight,' as there is in other Hughes poems such as the rather infantilising 'Harlem Sweeties,' or 'Juke Box Love Song.' And 'Jazz' is undoubtedly a new, sexy, magic word of the city—recently declared 'the word of the 20th century' by the American Dialect Society (Wikipedia, 2017)—trumpeting both the freedom and equality of black Americans, as the unmistakable virtuosity of Jazz musicians left white visitors to Harlem with little credible rationale for notions of racial supremacy. The word is powerful, and as with many other black idioms and neologisms it will go on to imprint itself upon the world. It is a new structure raised first in New Orleans, but now here in Harlem, and when the white folks awake they will see it towering there on the skyline—they will wonder and resent and scoff, and finally they will embrace it. So here we have Hughes spreading the word of this Jazzed-up new freedom in a new black language, which is informal and conversational, and rather more authentic than, for instance, the non-Jamaican-vernacular poems of Claude McKay, which remain less stylistically free, less urban and modern, and largely “imprisoned in the pentameter” (Brathwaite in Jenkins, 2003, p. 285). Hughes, albeit in a more readerly sense than Joyce, is announcing some sort of revolution, and the modern freedom of his language tells us something about the city and its voices. But alongside the celebration we feel always the menace of the city outside: that other city where few black people yet live, the surrounding vastness of New York with its overarching and watchful narratives filled with “images of impenetrable whiteness” (Morrison, 1992, p. 33). “There ain't no Ku Klux on a 133rd” is not merely a triumphal cry of escape from southern oppression: with its rejection of other potential stopping points en route to Harlem (Washington, Baltimore, Newark), it is a decisive identification of territory and a warning. So Hughes's poetry, language and consciousness constitute, perhaps, a unique Modernism, which will become profoundly influential, will lead, ultimately, amongst other things, to the white Beat culture, to Kerouac and Ginsberg et al emulating its Jazz styling. “The gods are laughing at us,” declares Hughes, becoming in some way one of those laughing gods overarching the city which he himself is instrumental in creating—and an enquiry of modern black Americans for the purposes of this essay reveals that he is still regarded as iconic in this process. Whatever the alleged limitations of his poetry, Hughes, “well before his compeers [...] demonstrated how to use black vernacular language and music […] as a poetic diction, a formal language of poetry” (Gates, 1993, pp. x-xi), and we feel keenly both the rising of this language from the shadows, and with it the rising of a new city. (Wikipedia, 2017)


So while 'The Dead' is perhaps more writerly, giving us components rather than overt declarations, here too we are presented with—or enabled to construct—a city whose spirit and language are rising from the dead, and of actual or latent conflict. The paintings of 'the balcony scene' and the 'little princes' are effectively 'intertextual,' intersecting images of death, factional violence, and blood feud, which we know are already spreading and worsening across Dublin at this time, as though the 'Furies' (and would Joyce have failed to notice the Erin in Erinyes, the Greek name for the 'Furies?') are indeed rising, called back, like Furey's name itself evoking some Homeric or 'Aeschylusian' atavism of retribution and reclamation, in poetical and linguistic opposition even to Gabriel's surname, 'Conroy,' which we can reasonably deconstruct into a Joycean wordplay meaning with the king. And in the references to the surrounding city, we have the church on Haddington Road, next to Wolfe Tone Square; we have the jarring binary juxtaposition of tyranny and rebellion in the Wellington Monument near the site of the 'Phoenix Park Murders;' and in all the references to imagery, to statuary, even to music and to the food served, we have these same binary tensions that are presented between Michael and Gabriel; between Galway and Dublin; between the west and east coasts; even between Gabriel and Gretta in the vast closing epiphany between them which says so much about Dublin and Ireland and the rising (if partly invented) spirit of its history and tradition. All of this is wonderfully captured in the instant visual canonizing of Gretta captured against the stained glass in John Huston's film of 'The Dead' like the the 'Spirit of √Čireann' (contemporaneous poster-icon adversary of the 'West Briton') suddenly incarnate in Dublin, in that atavistic burst of colour and song which has Gabriel suddenly transfixed, though still failing to grasp the resurrection here, still in denial until the final moments where he realises he has been competing with the chthonic Michael, whose undead Gallic spirit and the discourse it represents—which he had hoped was long exorcised from Gretta and from Dublin—has been here throughout. And if he had only looked more closely at the city and his wife, perhaps he might have seen it all along.

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