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Corina Anghel (Bukarest)



"A Cultural Mongrel":
Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage



"Seeing in Doubles": Transatlantic Mediations in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage
Focusing on Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990), the present paper argues that the novel's multiple significance connects the fictional works of both black and white authors, which represent pretexts for rethinking the African American character. Through a continuous process of rewriting the mastertexts – Equiano's Narrative, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Melville's "Benito Cereno" – Johnson offers new versions of the black identity. Porous, versatile, flexible, black identity becomes "the greatest of all fictions" and escapes such binaries as self versus other, mind versus body, African versus American, and black versus white. Using the Husserlian technique of bracketing all known assumptions, Johnson attains the "decalcification" of his fictional perception, in which new light is shed upon the African and the Western tradition. The paper thus demonstrates how Rutherford's Transatlantic double-sighted log incorporates both the perspectives of the colonizer and the colonized, as he learns how to question his own assumptions, discover his roots, and mostly live with alterity by seeing himself as another.



Apart from constituting the physical displacement of Africans from their homelands [the Middle Passage] effectively transformed the cultures of Europeans and Africans alike, binding them in an uneven, yet symbiotic relationship. In other words, something new was created not only in the New World, but in Europe and Asia as well (Pedersen 1993: 225).

The experience of the Black body becomes, not merely a Self-Other conflict, nor simply Hegel's torturous master-slave dialectic, but a variation on both these conditions (Johnson 1993: 605).




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1 Pretexts: Decalcifying Perception

The essential role of (re)writing in reassessing identity is revealed by Charles Johnson's fiction Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), The Sorcerer Apprentice (1986), Middle Passage (1990), Dreamer (1998), Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2000).1 These texts point to his basic assumption of reconsidering the binary oppositions through which the African Americans have often been defined: self versus other, mind versus body, African versus American, and black versus white. Johnson repeatedly states his goal of decalcifying writers' and readers' perception and pleads for a "deeper clarification of what we think we already know" (Johnson 1988: ix). From this perspective, he criticizes the African American fiction that concentrates too much on a "deadly sameness of sensibility" (Johnson 1988: 121), and in exchange he proposes a "four dimensional view" on black experience (Johnson 1984: 2). In order to accomplish his kaleidoscopic literary perspective, he makes use of intertextual techniques, which draw upon both the Western and the African literary tradition, with special reference to Homer, Defoe, Swift, Equiano, Douglass, Melville, and Conrad. At the same time, philosophical mastertexts by Plato, Descartes, Hegel, and Husserl are also rethought, bearing in mind more recent philosophers Fanon, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, and Levinas.

Strange as it may seem, the more the literary tradition is evoked, the more it is revoked, undermined and deconstructed. From Husserl's phenomenological concept of epoche, Johnson learned how to suspend or bracket all known assumptions in order to achieve new imaginative perspectives.2 For him, the main point is not to get mentally "locked within the Natural Attitude" and "fix[ed] upon certain 'meanings'" (Johnson 1993 a: 603). In an act of creative subversion and reversion, his text does not reflect an "uncritical mimesis" but new ways of disrupting the intrinsic racism of the previous views upon identity (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 29, in Moraru 2001: 104).

In the present paper, my analysis of Johnson's Middle Passage foregrounds the role of intertextuality in reconfiguring the black character in the context of the Transatlantic slave history. Thus, the first three sections demonstrate how the novel's multiple significance connects the fictional work of black and white authors, which become pretexts for expanding the context of the main issue of identity.




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Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789), Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1856), and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) represent key intertexts used in order to forge new versions of black identity – "the greatest of all fictions" (Johnson 1990: 171). More than pure reflections, Middle Passage implies various textual refractions,3 i. e. various methods of deviating from the former literary meanings and playing them against new ways of understanding. Johnson uses parody, irony, contrast and paradox, in a deconstructive game in which Equiano's, Conrad's and Melville's texts are reinterpreted. Since cultural refraction implies a double-sided process, Middle Passage sheds a new light upon both the African and the Western tradition, which are approached from untrodden paths.4

The last two sections stress the innovative ways in which Johnson departs from former views on identity. One of my main points concerns the way Johnson brings into focus the traumatic events of the Middle Passage, told from the double perspective of the African and American characters, by placing an African American narrator into a mediating position. In a never-ending cross-cultural exchange, Johnson's versions of identity have the same fluid, unfixed quality as his text. In Johnson's Heraclitean perspective, the human self does not appear as a noun but as a verb, "a process but not a product" (Interview 1993 b: 162). Always mobile, never a given, black identity is characterized by continuous transformation.

The main character in Middle Passage – Rutherford Calhoun – is the perfect illustration for a polytropic identity, of a porous, versatile, flexible nature. Indeed, Johnson himself initially thought of titling his novel Rutherford's Travels. His book presents a postmodern Odysseus, an African American trickster, who gets engaged in a voyage in order to escape the engulfing love of his Isadora/Penelope, the financial conspiracy of his creditors, and the urban state "of living death" (4). A manumitted slave from Louisiana, Rutherford comes to New Orleans only to embark on a slave ship moving between America to Africa. In the nine entries of his log, he narrates his voyage on board of the Republic and spins terrifying stories about the slave commerce with Africans, Captain Falcon's imperialistic ideas, the slave mutiny and the white crew's revolt, acts of cannibalism, the destructive effects of a storm, and finally the blacks' enslavement by their own people. In his travels, Rutherford learns how to question his own assumptions, discover his roots, and mostly how to live with alterity and see himself and his culture as another.




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Hence, he achieves a "doubleness in writing," which in his existential, textual and "metaphoric" movement leads to the dislocation of the homogeneous spatial and temporal dimension of a single culture (Bhabha 1994: 141). Placed in a colonial scenario (the year is 1830), Rutherford's double-sighted log incorporates both the perspectives of the colonizer and of the colonized, and draws our attention to the interchangeable master/slave roles. Through Rutherford's mediating position, the Transatlantic "virtualization of national cultures" reveals not only the peculiarity of the African culture, but also America's "particular customs and practices within a new, unfamiliar frame" (Giles 2002: 181).


2 "A Gentleman of Color:" Equiano's Reversed Travelogue

The Middle Passage is a major recurrent trope in the poetry and prose writings of many contemporary Africans and African Americans: Robert Hayden's poem "Middle Passage" (1945), Edward Kamau Brathwaite's poem The Arrivants (1973), George Lamming's novel Natives of My Person (1986), Toni Morrison's novel Beloved (1987), Charles Johnson's novel Middle Passage (1990), and Clarence Major's poem "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage" (1994). The text that serves as a matrix for the works above is undeniably Olaudah Equiano's eighteenth century narrative – a biography that is emblematic for the fate of countless slaves.

Captured from his native African land, Equiano landed in the West Indies in the 1750s, and was later taken to the Colony of Virginia. He spent more than ten years of enslavement, before being able to regain his lost freedom. His narrative makes reference to the historical background of Middle Passage, at a time when the annual importation of slaves to the Americas "increased so rapidly that by the 1780s it stood at more than eighty thousand" (Horton and Horton 2001: 25). Equiano speaks on behalf of millions of slaves kidnapped from Africa and brought to the Americas mainly for economic reasons. Even if he is familiar with the institutional slavery of the African countries, he "saw the Anglo-Christian version of slavery as an abomination (Sabino and Hall 1999: 8). His narrative – a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic – points to the painful process of transatlantic acculturation.




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The book can be seen as a cultural hybrid, in which the author's unstable colonial identity is (re)formed in a process of exchange, of "strategic reciprocity" between the African, American and European spheres (Kelleter 2004: 68).

In this context, Johnson's Middle Passage is written in a parodic key, which both converses with and reverses Equiano's travelogue and the premises of a slave narrative centered on the quest for freedom.5 For Johnson's hero – who is already a liberated slave – his emotional and spiritual freedom is at stake. His running away from Isadora's affective bondage connotes his escape from a conventional world, from being trapped in a barren existential project. Rutherford cannot accept the respectable status implied by Isadora's marriage proposal, which is in fact a recurrent pattern in her family, (where her mother "tamed" her father's adventurous character).

Ironically, Rutherford's refusal to become "a gentleman of color" (9) makes reference to Equiano's ardent desire to refashion himself into "an European" (2), to turn into a literate person who could contribute to the liberation of his black people through the dissemination of his writing. In Johnson's text, Equiano becomes embodied in Rutherford's brother, Jackson, a perfect model of Christian charity, who militates for his fellow beings' liberation. Distancing himself from his fraternal counterpart, Rutherford stands at the beginning of the novel as an antihero, a Prodigal Son, the black sheep of the family. Only after his initiation, does he seem to attain a profound understanding of the others, which makes him identify with them and assist them in their suffering.

Written in the first person, Equiano's and Johnson's texts share another slave narrative convention: the insistence upon the protagonist's acquisition of literacy. Equiano appears at the beginning of his narrative as an illiterate person, whose African monocultural view attributes to the slavers a magic existence. It is through the reading of the "Talking Book" that Equiano becomes "almost an Englishman" (132). Literacy thus gives him access to the Western knowledge, which has formerly been incomprehensible.6 He achieves in this way a multicultural perspective, in which his conversion to Christianity plays a major role – as indicated by the motto of his narrative:




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Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for
the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is [sic] become my salvation.
And in that day shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon his name,
declare his doings among the people (Isaiah xii. 2: 4).

These religious reverberations are to be found also in Johnson's synthetic motto:

Laud Deo
Journal of a Voyage intended
by God's permission
in the Republic, African
from New Orleans to the Windward
Coast of Africa.

Johnson's praisesong deconstructs Equiano's invocation of the Christian white god. Throughout the novel, Rutherford learns how to accept the other African godnot only as an image of an ancestral divinity but also as an emblematic self-projection. In fact, he mocks his brother's religious pretensions and the way in which he "treated everyone the same" and leveled the others' differences (108). As one who would not share Jackson's religious credo and communitarian ideas, Rutherford feels excluded from the conversation between Jackson and his former master, Reverend Peleg Chandler.7

A surrogate paternal figure with antislavery views, Chandler teaches the two brothers "out of Christian guilt" (8). Even if Rutherford has to meticulously learn the Neoplatonic doctrines, "the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jacob Bˆhme," he fails to rise himself to the mission of a Negro preacher (3). In many ways, Chandler's educational method provides Rutherford's travels with a Eurocentric cultural framework. Both highlighted and parodied, these numerous cultural references become relative as they are placed in a broader Transatlantic perspective through the African models invoked. From a Bakhtinian perspective, Rutherford's "negative mockery" and laughter undermine the "official seriousness" of the mainstream culture and reverse its "hierarchic levels" (Bakhtin 1984: 67, 81).




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Within this framework, Johnson's main focus on black identity artfully reconfigures Equiano's outlook. In the tradition begun by Aphra Behn (1640-1724),8 Equiano's narrative focuses on an African that is forcefully taken to the Western hemisphere. Obliged to give up his former identity, Equiano undertakes a profound transformation reflected in the change of his name (done by one of his masters) from Olaudah Equiano into Gustavus Vassa.9 The special significance of the title of his autobiography points to the intentional placement of his African name before his Western name, and also to his insistence upon his self-definition as an African: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.10 After buying his freedom, after making himself famous as an advocate of abolitionism, Equiano seems to resume his former African identity – an act of "renewed awareness of himself as an African" (Overton 1992: 307).11

Departing from Equiano, Johnson creates a character that is not an African, but an American of African origin.12 Rutherford's hybridized, hyphenated African American identity allows him to be placed in a mediating position in the conflict between the slaves and the slavers on the slave ship. Defined via negativa, he is neither an American (he is seen by the other crewmembers as none of them), nor an African (the slaves think of him as "a Yankee" (163) or "a Cooked Barbarian" (167)). A little bit American, a little bit African, his Ersatz self is made of a mosaic of features more "borrowed" than inborn. His occupation as a petty thief also corresponds to his ability to steal inside various characters, to put on diverse masks.13

If we look at Rutherford through McHale's lens (1987), he is a postmodern character whose identity is no longer defined (as in modernism) by an epistemic paradigm focused on what he knows but by an ontological one in which who he is becomes the main issue:

Believe me, I was a parasite to the core. I poached watches from Chandler's bureau and biscuits from his kitchen…. I listened to everyone and took notes: I was open, like a hingeless door to everything. And to comfort the weary on the Republic I peered deep into memory and called forth all that had ever given me solace, scraps and rags of language too, for in himself I found nothing I could rightly call Rutherford Calhoun, only pieces and fragments of all the people who had touched me, all the places I had seen, all the homes I had broken into (162).

As his writing incorporates other texts, so Rutherford's composite self is parasitical,14 and feeds on the others' possessions. His collage-self with no essence stands for the epitome of the fragmented, indeterminate postmodern identity.




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This "dismembered" black Orpheus bears testimony of his own rootless condition, pertaining to everywhere and nowhere (Hassan 1971). Easily crossing borders, he is able to adapt by adopting the individuality of other people. "A mosaic of many countries" (162), his cosmopolitan identity thus gets engaged in a process of self-mockery and mimicry of the others.

The idea of a Transatlantic identity can be therefore traced both in Equiano's and Johnson's texts. Their multiple perspectives (African, American, and European) offer access to a plural vision, which is accomplished through a complex process of cultural translation. For the African Equiano, "consent" to the Christian religion offers compensation for his suffering and a deeper understanding of the Western world. In a reversed process, for Rutherford his attainment of a "transnational, comparative consciousness" (Giles 2002: 30) helps him look beyond his racial identification as a former American slave into his African ethnic "descent" (Sollors 1987).


3 Towards the "Heart of Darkness:" The Double-Sighted Narration

Constructed though a complex process of textual refraction, Johnson's novel rewrites not just Equiano's narrative, but also Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.15 As in a distorted mirror, in which racial colors are reversed, Conrad's white narrator is refracted by Johnson's black narrator. Both Marlow and Calhoun are flaneurs, polytropic heroes with versatile identities. They travel to Africa from the Western hemisphere (one from England, the other one from America) so that they acquire a relativistic perspective. The kind of narrator proposed by Conrad and Johnson is a paradigmatic homo duplex, who learns to re-negotiate his identity across the African territory – a blank page whose native message has to be deciphered.

The ontological redefinition that takes place through the encounter with the Other, is prompted in both Marlow's and Calhoun's case by an epistemological lack, a desire to enlarge their horizon of knowledge. Marlow's "hankering after" the "blank spaces of the earth" (Conrad 1902: 11) and Rutherford's intense staring at the sea express their desire to evade a circumscribed existence.




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Reiterating Frederick Douglass' famous autobiographical scene of gazing at the ocean, Johnson initially places his hero on a limbo-like pier, his gate towards freedom:

I would sneak off to the waterfront, and there, sitting on the rain-leached pier in heavy, liquescent air, in simmering light so soft and opalescent that sunlight could not fully pierce the fine erotic mist, limpid and luminous at dusk, I would stare out at sea, envying the sailors riding out on merchantmen on the gift of good weather, wondering if there was some far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth's rim where a freeman could escape the vanities cityfolk called self-interest, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom (4).

Besides its escapist message, the above fragment works as a critique of the American fake ideals and self-centered values. As in Conrad's text, the narrator undertakes a "retreat 'inward,' away from the real" (Artese 2003: 176), in which the possibility of a journey presupposes the actualization of a utopian project by reversing known conventions.

As the African uncharted terra nulla is a figment of their imagination, both Marlow's and Calhoun's accounts expose the faults of any historiography, its subjective relativism. Deeply fictionalized, Africa corresponds for Marlow to a mysterious "place of darkness" (12) inhabited by savages, a taboo zone from which nobody returns. In his turn, Calhoun initially perceives Africa through Cringle's racist comments, which demonize its people as "sorcerers," "devil-worshiping, spell-casting wizards" (43). Discussing the European colonial travel writing, Mary Louise Pratt demonstrates how the narrator is generally embodied by a white male who depicts the foreign territory by drawing binary oppositions (us/them), and vivisects the landscape from a Western "scientific" perspective in order to serve imperialist means. Pratt also mentions how in the Western narrative the indigenous population is bracketed, represented apart from the exotic landscape into separate chapters on ethnographic themes (Pratt 1986: 139).

Thematizing this opposition, Conrad's description of the voyage inside Africa signifies a plunge into the unreal, an intrusion into an unknown, blank, unreadable territory, where the natives are just mysterious actors caught in an ambivalent love-hatred relation with the colonial invaders. Few are the instances in which Marlow can see or communicate with the natives, and even Mr. Kurtz's relationship with the black people is ambivalent, (since he is perceived more as a superhuman presence




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to which they offer their ivory tribute). As Al-Dabbagh remarks, "Conrad's 'existentialist' solution as well as the recourse of postcolonial discourse to 'multiculturalism' are ultimately pseudo-solutions that merely mirror, rather than remedy, the existing conditions of oppression" (2001: 81).

Compared to Conrad, who maintains most of the time the barrier between the Western characters and the African natives, Johnson succeeds in his politically correct goal of letting the subaltern speak, of allowing "Caliban" to expose the fantasy of his worldview. Like Houston A. Baker, Jr., Johnson believes in the necessity of escaping the simplistic "self-and-other" duality. As Baker states, "there is a need to explode the duality, for it often leads merely to an endless rehearsing of evidence (such as the 'scientific' proof that Caliban's tribe is not really 'racially' deformed, but merely populationally different)" (1986: 389). In Middle Passage, Johnson solves the initial "self-and-other" opposition by means of a triangular relation. His main technique consists in placing an African-American "Prospero" in the middle of a racial conflictthe angle of refraction through which the reader can rethink the stereotypical representations of the colonized African Other.

In this way, Johnson's mediating vision is explored through Rutherford's double-sighted text, which encodes two versions of the narrated events and enables him to redefine his identity through the complex interchange of the colonizer/colonized views.16 From one perspective, he presents the way in which the Africans project the Americans into the role of "raw barbarians" who are "shipping them to America to be eaten" (65, 75). From another perspective, Falcon's log is revelatory, as he places the slaves next to the other "goods" in his cargo and treats them as savages whose undisciplined behavior has to be tamed: "if any Negro even looked as if he was thinking of rebellion, that man was to be birched and taught the sting of noose and yardarm" (66).17

Besides, Johnson avoids the stereotyping of the Africans and the bracketing of the colonized space in two ways. His first technique is to place between parentheses not Africa, but America, in the sense that it turns into a "weird, upside-down caricature," a melting pot of "refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives" (179).




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Alienated from itself, lacking any cohesion, America is a Babylonian land of contrasts – a topography that the hypocrite flaneur can no longer call home.18

His second technique is to project the narrated events upon a Transatlantic scenario, an "unshaped" area that serves as a fluid borderline between Africa and America. Both a mirroring surface and an unfathomable depth, it epitomizes the double process through which the characters pass – one of self-reflection and self-discovery.19 The Atlantic is also an antinomian space, where conventions are dissolved: "All bonds, landside or on ships, between master and mates, women and men … were a lie forged briefly in the name of convenience and just as quickly broken when they no longer served one's interest" (92). Envisaged in Paul Gilroy's terms, the Black Atlantic transcends "both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity" (Gilroy 1993: 19). Projected upon this oceanic atopos, the categories "us" and "them" become elusive, and slip into one another.

The most relevant proof of this categorial slippage is Rutherford's journal that literally gets contaminated by the others' difference. A heterogeneous fiction, the log attains the double-sighted quality of its owner, reflecting various existential paradigms in which the Euro-American and African worldviews intermingle. The log stages neither a promotion of Afrocentrism, nor a "painful demise of Eurocentrism" (Asante 1999). In this light, Johnson seems to reject both these viewpoints as essentialist.20 Through his character's "middle" position, he endorses a cultural cross-fertilization that operates transformations upon both the European and African worldview.

Rutherford's act of writing in the Captain Falcon's journal does not represent in the least a continuation of Falcon's imperialist task. On the contrary, Rutherford's gesture symbolically reenacts the postcolonial rewriting of colonial texts.21 Falcon's log obviously frames the quintessence of a colonizer – "a patriot whose burning passion was the manifest destiny of the United States to Americanize the entire planet" (30). His dwarfish stature22 sharply contrasts with his far-reaching ambition to take possession of most of the world: his unquenched passion to travel to new territories aims not at exploring but at conquering, while his exceptional ability to learn new languages aims not at communicating but at subduing. Both famous and infamous, this Faustian man is "a creature of preposterous, volatile contradictions" (49).




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His biography is intertwined with that of the young American nation, since "he, like the fledgling republic itself, felt expansive, eager to push frontiers, even to slide betimes into bulling others and taking, if need be, what was not offered" (50). His Franklinesque educational formula combines Puritan traits (his quest for perfection as well as his loneliness and estrangement from others), with Transcendentalist ideas (his insurmountable trust in his own strength and self-reliance).

At an intertextual level, Ebenezer Falcon's fictional portrait makes obvious reference to Conrad's hero, Mr. Kurtz, the legendary figure of a white conqueror lost in the dark heart of Africa, "an angel or a fiend," who "sen[t] in as much ivory as all the others put together" (Conrad 1902: 27). While both Falcon's and Kurtz's grandiloquent myths are concocted in the pages of Western newspapers, both of them exercise a mixture of awe and fear over the native people whom they rob either of their freedom or of their goods. Crushed in their Icarian flight of taking into possession the essence of otherness, both Falcon and Kurtz strive to transfer their accumulated knowledge to their literary successors – Marlow and Calhoun – the narrators who have the role of transmitting the story further on. Still, while Conrad's text ends with the distribution of Kurtz's documents to the others,23 Johnson empowers Rutherford to continue Falcon's story (as it appears in the scene of Falcon's death):

'Do your best. Include everything you can remember, and what I told you, from the time you came on board. Not just Mr. Cringle's side, I'm saying, or the story the mutineers will spin, but things I told you when we met alone in secret.'
    To this I reluctantly agreed. I took his logbook from the ruins. But I promised myself that even though I'd tell the story (I knew he wanted to be remembered), it would be, first and foremost, as I saw it since my escape from New Orleans (146).

The lines above make direct reference to the unavoidable subjectivity of any historiography, which is nothing more than a mixture of various points of view. Even if Falcon used to write naked, as a way of showing his objective, "unclothed" approach to the narrated events, even if he advises Calhoun to include a multiplicity of perspectives, still Rutherford realizes the impossibility of escaping a personal bias. Since writing means remembrance, and the journal spins back retrospectively (narrating the events that had happened about two months before)




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Rutherford is aware that "there is no historiography that is not ultimately dependent on individual testimonies" (Lyotard 1988: 45).24

Rutherford's taking into possession Falcon's log turns the significant act of investing the colonized with the power to recuperate and (re)write a history of dispossession into metaphor. In fact, Rutherford's narration is symptomatic for a postmodern text, as a reflection of/on modernity. Writing after Falcon (whose project is par excellence a modernist one), Rutherford's postmodern, double-sighted story offers both the colonizer and the colonized perspective upon the transcription of events. Rutherford accordingly quotes passages from Falcon's text only in order to question them. His position is noticeably not the same as Falcon's, since there is an epistemic gap between the former slave and the actual slaver. The narrator thus offers a sharp contrast between his sympathetic view of the slaves' suffering and Falcon's Hobbesian, bellicose ideas that justify slavery.

In the same direction, Rutherford's rummaging through the Captain Falcon's cabin proves to be a symbolic gesture of claiming ownership over what was taken away from the colonized. For a dispossessed person like Rutherford, theft operates as a means of trespassing racial boundaries: "Theft, if the truth be told, was the closest thing I knew to transcendence" (46). Since the colonizer literally and metaphorically "stole" the identity of the colonized, theft involves the recuperation of what once belonged to the colonized. With its mesmerizing collage of plundered countries, the cabin is a museum that tropes his imperialist drives:

His biggest crates of plunder from every culture conceivable, which he covered with tarp at the rear of the room, were wrenched open, spilling onto the sloping floor bird-shaped Etruscan vases, Persian silk prayer carpets, and portfolios of Japanese paintings on rice paper…. Slowly, it came to me ... that he had a standing order from his financiers, powerful families in New Orleans who underwrote the Republic, to stock Yankee museums and their homes with whatever of value was not nailed down in the nations he visited. To bring back slaves, yes, but to salvage the best of their war-shocked cultures, too (48-9).

Suspended over the Atlantic space, the cabin is synecdochic of the American culture created through the assimilation of other cultures. In this melting pot, the assimilation is undertaken not through the annihilation of other cultures, but through their dislocation and relocation in the context of the newly formed American nation.25




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Hence, the ship that is symbolically named the Republic alludes to the American nation: a floating, unformed land that is still pushing its frontiers, a multicultural territory where the elusive "heart" of otherness is transplanted. Its "decentered interior" makes one "culturally dizzy" through its fusion of African, Asian, and European influences (142). In this dynamic space, both the identities of the colonizers and that of the colonized are changed in a process of cultural appropriation. As I will point out in the next sections, a major consequence of the Middle Passage refers to the way in which both the African and the American identity can be re-negotiated by means of a mediating vision.


4 "Don Benito's Harlequin Ensign": The Slave Mutiny

In a Hegelian view, one achieves "personhood" only through a relationship with another person. In order to become self-conscious, one person has to reflect upon oneself. This reflection upon oneself is accomplished only if it is reflected back by "another self on a par with one's self" (Inwood 1992: 246). Advocating the interchangeability of roles, Hegel affirms that in the dialectical relation between master and slave not only is the slave dependent on the master, but the master is also dependent on the slave. Like the slave, the master achieves a "dependent consciousness," in which the recognition of his dominating role depends on the subjected slave (Hegel 1967).

In Johnson's Middle Passage, the episode of the slave mutiny offers a powerful instance of the author's mediating vision on the interdependent roles of master and slave. Drawing on Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," Johnson's text advocates that the master/slave conflict is perpetuated, even if their positions are reversed, so that they cannot escape their vicious circle of enslavement.26 Fictionalizing the slave rebellions aboard the ship Amistad (1839) and aboard the ship Creole (1841), both Melville and Johnson make us reflect on "slavery as a chain reaction" (Giles 2002: 32). In their texts the episode of the slave mutiny functions as a memento on the interchangeability of the master/slave positions.27




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In both cases, the Africans take charge, murder most of the white crew and transform the survivors into slaves kept alive only for their knowledge of navigation. Their ship turns out to be a teatrum mundi, a floating opera, a world turned upside down, where "mutineers, Africans, and able seamen could not be distinguished" (106).

In Melville's "Benito Cereno" the English Captain Amasa Delano boards the Spanish ship San Dominick, where a successful slave mutiny has taken place. While the Spanish Captain, Don Benito Cereno, is forced by the Africans to pretend that he is still in charge, Delano is misled by their subterfuge and fails in "reading" the real significance of the events. Master of ambiguity and qui pro quo, Melville skillfully underlines the discrepancy between what Delano sees and what he knows. Even if Delano is able to detect something "incongruous" and "contradictory" in the present situation (Melville 1856: 51, 72), his preconceived ideas on the master/slave hierarchy prevent him from deciphering the subtext of this "tale of suffering" (Melville 1856: 42). He is consequently offered a version of the story fabricated by the apparently "unsophisticated Africans" and reluctantly told by the "gentlemanly" Spanish Captain (Melville 1856: 43). This reversal of roles points to the polarity in which the master/slave places are interchangeable. By simultaneously taking charge of the ship and fulfilling the task of Don Benito's "faithful" servant, the African Babo stands for white man's shadow, his double, his parodic reflection.

In a double game of mimicry and mockery, Melville's technique of reversing roles makes both Delano and the reader question their racial assumptions. The Africans appear in fact far more complex than they are initially thought to be. Via disguise, lying and cajoling, they know how to manipulate the two white captains. Only in rare moments, Delano's intuition helps him see beyond the deceptiveness of Don Benito's "harlequin ensign" (Melville 1856: 81):28

To Captain Delano's imagination, now again not wholly at rest, there was something so hollow in the Spaniard's manner, with apparently some reciprocal hollowness in the servant's dusky comment of silence, that the idea flashed across him, that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the very tremor of Don Benito's limbs, some juggling play before him (Melville 1856: 81).

With the use of pastiche and parody, Johnson adopts events and characters from the Melvillean text and incorporates them in his reflexive, postmodern novel.29 Unlike Melville, Johnson places his Janus-faced, polytropic narrator on a more flexible position.




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If Delano fails in deciphering Cereno's cryptic tale, Rutherford is a Hermes figure, a great linguist who can easily gain knowledge of the others' plans, and whose "middle" position makes him an accomplice of both parties. In fact, in Johnson's text, two mutinies take place: one of the white crew who intend to destabilize the captain's tyrannical supremacy, and one of the slaves who strive to regain their lost liberty. In this twofold conflict, Rutherford has the role of a double agent, if not, of a triple agent – the man whom the white crew, the white captain, and the Africans want to employ equally.30

As Johnson's watchful narrator is placed in the privileged position of knowing the others' intentions, he understands his own part in a greater masquerade in which the actors may easily change roles. The scene in which Rutherford secretly witnesses Meadows beating the dogs reveals that mimicry can become an effective weapon for gaining control. Posture, speech and clothing are used in order to create the "devastating caricature" of the adversaries: Calhoun, Cringle, and other mates or Africans (104). Meadows' manipulating technique expresses again the vulnerability of subjective boundaries, the possibility of easily exchanging roles.

At an intertextual level, both Johnson and Melville offer ambivalent chronicles of the mutiny. Melville's twice-told story has an official and an unofficial version. Cereno's first account of the events to Delano offers the version imposed by the Africans, while his later report to the court reveals his own version – the complementary narrative that fills in the gaps of the previous tale. Even if these unreliable versions are told by a white man, they are actually prompted by a black character who is the instigator of events and the author of the story. One can hear Babo's words in Benito's mouth resonating in a disquieting, distorted way. Hence, the incredible, fabricated nature of this "fictitious story dictated to the deponent by Babo, and through the deponent imposed on Captain Delano" (Melville 1856: 105). Master of puppets, Babo has authorial control over his story, as well as over the life of Cereno, who is turned into a marionette, "one of those paper captains" (Melville 1856: 53). In spite of Cereno's refusal to look at Babo during the trial, we are told that their destinies continue to be intermingled after their death: fixed on a pole in a plaza in Lima, Babo's head, "that hive of subtlety," gazes at St. Bartholomew church where Cereno is buried (Melville 1856: 113).




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While alluding to Melville's text, Johnson ironically reverses it. Towards the end of Middle Passage, Cringle undertakes a powerful conversion in which he no longer perceives the Africans as mysterious savages, but as "friends," "shipmates," "brave lads" and "lasses" (173). Just before offering himself to be killed and eaten by the others in a supreme act of altruism, he makes reference to Melville's English captain: "'tis scandalous how some writers such as Amasa Delano have slandered black rebels in their texts" (173). Invoking Melville's character, Cringle's exclamation questions the assumptions of his nineteenth century text, in which the Africans are inescapably forced into the role of the Other.

Essentially, through Rutherford's mediating vision, the Allmuseri are no longer depersonalized slaves, but their culture, history and language are sympathetically revealed. Unlike Cereno whose reluctance to look at Babo expresses the colonizer's refusal to learn about the Other, Rutherford finds his African counterpart in Ngonyama, the one who calls him his "brother" and initiates him into the Allmuserian worldview. In the same way in which the American history is not linear, the Allmuserian history gains momentum from a series of departures, adventures, returns that have led to cultural syncretism. Africa, India, America and the Caribbean islands have left their imprint on their arts and language. Their unitary Weltanschauung is reflected by their written language, which is not designed for "doing analytic work, or deconstructing things into discrete parts" (77-78). Part of an exemplary tribe, the Allmuseri teleologically connect their destiny with their legends and with their Christian-like manners. In this context, Rutherford's manifest desire to appropriate their worldview and his identification with them prefigures his later ability to redefine himself in terms of the Other:

Compared to other African tribes, the Allmuseri were the most popular servants. They bought twice the price of Bantu or Kru. According to legend, Allmuseri elders took twig brooms with them everywhere, sweeping the ground so as not to inadvertently step on creatures too small to see. Eating no meat, they were easy to feed. Disliking property, they were simple to clothe. Able to heal themselves, they required no medication. They seldom fought. They could not steal. They fell sick, it was said, if they wronged anyone. As I live, they so shamed me I wanted their ageless culture to be my own (78).




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5 Mediating Visions: "Oneself as Another"

Carl Pedersen comments upon three ways in which the Middle Passage can be understood. Firstly, the traditional view advocates a complete erasure of the African history. Secondly, the Afrocentric perspective claims the intact preservation of the African inheritance. Thirdly, a more moderate, "middle" position (that is not as simplistic as the previous two), pleads for a "cultural syncretism" (Pedersen 1993: 226), in which various elements from both the colonized and the colonizing cultures are intertwined. Furthermore, Pedersen regards the Middle Passage as "the defining moment of the African-American experience" (Pedersen 1993: 225).

Johnson's Middle Passage explores the "uneven, yet symbiotic relationship" between the American colonizer and the African colonized (Pedersen 1993: 225). For Johnson, race is defined through mediation, contamination, and symbolic exchange. He consequently demonstrates that racial identity is not a Parmenidean notion with a fixed character31 but an always-shifting entity, essentially transformed by the interaction between the black and white protagonists.32 During his voyage, Calhoun's multi-faceted character and mediating position allow him to witnesses the way in which both the blacks and the whites leave their imprint on each other.

On the one hand, the Allmuseri are initially presented as an unmarked people, one whose cultural text cannot be "uncoded" by the ignorant Calhoun (124). Later on during the passage, Rutherford will come to comprehend that their nature has irreversibly been altered, that their colonization consists in their assimilation into a new worldview. Thus, "the slaves' life among the lowest strata of Yankee societyand the horrors they have experienced – were subtly reshaping their souls as thoroughly as Falcon's tight-packing had contorted their flesh during these past few weeks... No longer Africans, yet no longer Americans either" (124-25).33 The multiple layers of the Africans' identity accordingly reveal what Homi Bhabha called "the palimpsest of the colonial identity," "not Self as Other, but the 'Otherness' of the Self" (Bhabha 1967: xiv-xv).





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On the other hand, the white crew's relation to the Africans alters them irreversibly. One particular instance is offered by Falcon, whose person is so badly damaged after the slave mutiny that he can no longer control his facial expression. Once his self-reliance is gone, he is able to confess to whom the ship belongs – to the black man Philippe Zeringue alias Papa – the real possessor of the "goods." The narrator's rhetorical question condenses the reversal of terms he has to witness: "Was Ebenezer Falcon telling me that he, at bottom, was no freer than the Africans?" (147). Is he, a white man, telling us that he is controlled by a black man? Falcon's confession exemplifies that being overdetermined from without does not function only in the case of the colonized but also in the case of the colonizer. Both master and slave are half-entities, crippled subjectivities, caught in a wider web of selfish interests.

Witnessing the blacks' and whites' changes, we come to understand the deep interaction between the colonizer and the colonized, the reciprocal nature of social and racial relations. Johnson's novel thus reminds us of Paul Ricoeur's view in Oneself as Another advocating that "the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as we might say in Hegelian terms" (Riceour 1992: 3). In Middle Passage, a Transatlantic exchange takes place, as the Africans' and the Americans' identities become closely interconnected. Using a rhetoric of duplicity, Johnson's text underlines the interaction of identities that occurs in this process of appropriating the other. It accordingly offers an Americanized version of African-ness, as well as an Africanized version of American-ness.

More than anybody else, Rutherford has a flexible identity that allows him to identify both the perspectives of the colonizer and of the colonized; he bends his ear both to Falcon's colonial view and Ngonyama's colonized frame of mind. His postmodern relativism allows him an insight into their antagonistic perspectives and the ways in which they influence each other. To exemplify, in a significant scene, Rutherford is forced to heave overboard the corpse of an African boy. By touching the slave's "rigor mortis" (O'Keefe 1996), he experiences a simultaneous state of self-estrangement and identification with the abject body. In the same way in which the boy's body gets disconnected, so Rutherford feels alienated from his own hand




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that held the cadaver and, as if reiterating Lady Macbeth's desire to wipe the murderous stain off her hands, he wants to slice off his wrist. As in an inverse mirror, the corpse becomes Rutherford's double:34

His open eyes were unalive, mere kernels of muscle, though I still found myself poised vertiginously on their edge, falling through these dead holes deeper into the empty hulk he had become, as if his spirit had flown and mine was being sucked there in his place (123).

The passage encodes Johnson's technique of textual slippage, through which he gets acquainted with the fascinating double-sided nature of abjection. Not only does Rutherford identify with the abject other, but also the reader experiences a sense of complicity with a text situated at the verge of the sublime and the perverse. As Julia Kristeva observes, writing about abjection "implies an ability to imagine the abject, that is, to see oneself in its place and to thrust it aside only by means of the displacement of verbal play" (Kristeva 1982: 16). The cadaver35 therefore encodes the epitome of self-denial, the border that is necessary for self-definition, but beyond which one no longer exists.36

Rutherford's vertigo while looking at the dead body adumbrates his later transformation into a living cadaver – a young man in his twenties who has grown old, a puer senex empathizing with the others, yet estranged from them. He turns into Coleridge's ancient mariner destined to wander in a floating "coffin," upon an "impenetrable" ocean (83, 105); one who bears witness of the life-in-death state of his crew. As "Death climbed in through every portal" (155), all people on board get infected by numberless types of physical or mental disease. Their severed limbs speak of their amputated souls that have committed what the Allmuseri call the "moral plague" of slipping into relativity (163).

Another crucial instance of Rutherford's identification with the Allmuseri is manifested in his encounter with their god, which makes him better understand his relation to his African ancestry. Rutherford's descent into the ship's darkest chamber symbolizes his contemplation of his own psychological abyss – a liminal experience that offers him the possibility of comprehending his family history and coming to terms with his tormented past. Being an elusive shape-shifter, the African god reincarnates into Rutherford's father, "the fugitive Riley Calhoun" (167).




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His father's figurative portrait offers an emblematic image for countless slaves whose failure to escape has proven to be meaningful. Besides his Don Juanesque manners and naughty joy de vivre, Riley Calhoun believes in the slaves' power to continue fighting for their freedom. Rather than directing his anger towards his white owners, his subversive words have the mission of awakening the black people by reminding them of their African lineage. His death is accordingly endowed with a deeper significance, as his voice belongs to an anonymous chorus"a mosaic of voices within voices, each one immanent in the other, none his but all strangely his" (171). Toni Morrison's numberless slaves crammed in the tight-packer described in Beloved are converted here into a chorus of harmonious voices:

I had to listen harder to isolate him from the We that swelled each particle and pore of him, as if the (black) self was the greatest of all fictions; and then I could not find him at all. He seemed everywhere, his presence, and that of countless others, in me as well as the chamber, which had subtly changed. Suddenly I knew the god's name: Rutherford (171).

In the ubiquitous sound of paternal voices, Rutherford has the epiphanic experience of his own identification with the ancestral image, so that his identity should become fictionalized, part of a collective story of death and rebirth. Rutherford's loss of consciousness which lasts three days, evokes Lazarus' death and resurrection, also suggests his inner mortification and renewal, which in turn result in his acquisition of a visionary double-sight: "my sight was distorted, I saw everything in doubles" (171). Neither a colonizer nor a colonized, his "middle" position allows him to become "a cultural mongrel," to inhabit a state of in-between-ness that tends to reconcile extremes (187).

In Johnson's view, Rutherford's ability to see himself as another implies the transcendence of relativism: "If we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism; in Merleau-Ponty's terms, 'to retire into oneself is to leave oneself'" (Johnson 1988, 44). This idea is also supported by Emmanuel Levinas for whom transcendence implies "the desire for something else." As the alterity is not conceived in advance, "it opens from the outside in the face of another, in the other who faces" (Levinas 1978: 11). For Levinas, the main concern of our existence is given by "the being with which one finds itself affected" (Levinas 1978: 10). In the same line, for Johnson, the encounter with the Other does not absorb or annihilate the I but transforms it in a continuous relational process.




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6 Fictional Self-Reconstruction: "The Color Line"

Since for Rutherford writing means placing himself into the role of the Other, his log entails transmitting to a racially mixed audience the chronicle of suffering he has witnessed. Dispossessed of everything, he takes into possession the story of the Middle Passage and, through a process of catharsis, he offers us a fictional reconstruction of his identity. Physically and psychologically wounded, in a Job-like condition, Rutherford's rescue on board of Juno marks his spiritual renewal. His sole possession salvaged after the shipwreck – the log – serves "as a means to free [himself] from the voices in [his] head," of liberating himself from the unspeakable events (189).
At a metafictional level, Rutherford is conscious of his authorial role of giving shape to his textual universe, making us aware once more of his simultaneous authorial act of creation and criticism:

Nothing in my sight could sustain itself without me, how I was responsible for all of it, the beauty and ugliness; and I thought of how the mate was righter than he knew, and of Blake, a poet Master Chandler had me read, his beguiling, Berkeleyesque words, 'I see the windmill before me; I blink my eye, it goes away,' and so did the cabin, and so did the world (181).

Read in the empiricist tradition, Blake's poem points to the visual quality of Rutherford's narration, to the relationship between senses, reality, and writing. Once his vision is gone, the fictional existence of his characters would dissolve. Johnson consequently draws attention to his postmodern novel, where "the uncertainly about the validity of its representations" coexists with "an extreme self-consciousness about language, form, and the act of writing" (Waugh 1993: 40).

While the voyage changes his seeing and he turns into a postmodern, "cultural mongrel," Rutherford learns to appropriate the Other's worldview, to bargain for the Other's survival. Rutherford's polytropic character consequently evolves in the novel: from a New Orleans petty thief who embarks by accident on a tight-packer, he gradually metamorphoses into a passionate scrivener who strives (to present impartially) the history of his voyage, and finally into an altruistic character who




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provides for the orphan African children.37 Johnson thus rescues his postmodern character from his initial blank fragmented nature, from his dangling parasitical nature and endows his actions with a humanist message. As Christian Moraru notes, "Rutherford's heterogeneous self pulls itself together and recuperates its own agency and ethos as it discovers the bonds between the enslaved blacks and itself" (Moraru 2001: 110).

Finally, Rutherford's fictional self-reconstruction would not have been possible without the reappearance of his female counterpart. The deus ex machina reunion of the two protagonists highlights through a fine lens their inner and outer transformations. While Isadora is presented at the beginning almost as a caricature, a fat teacher anxious to "save" Rutherford by enticing him with her dreams of marital happiness, she evolves into a seductive heroine, Papa's fiancÈ, "courted by a [black] man who owns half of the city" (196).38 The end of story leaves us with a beautified version of Isadora, a parodic Penelope who stalls her marriage to Papa by knitting sweaters for her cats, and who is finally saved by her Rutherford/Odysseus.

In the novel's cyclical movement and prismatic game of mirrors, Isadora's unwritten log is "embedded in Calhoun's" (Muther 1996: 654). As she emerges in flashes into his narrative, she reminds the reader of Rutherford's inner change by juxtaposing his former image over his present one. The final scene is relevant: whereas the old Rutherford would have responded to her lures, the present one avoids both sexual contact and a romanticized happy ending: "I wanted our futures blended, not our limbs, our histories perfectly twined for all time, not our flesh" (208). The traumatic memory of the Middle Passage acts as a "rip of insufficiency and incompleteness" that separates the heroes in spite of their reunited destinies. Their brotherly embrace simultaneously affirms and denies the possibility of their sexual union and leaves the novel open-ended.

This problematic ending of Middle Passage is meant to remind us of both the possibility and impossibility of transgressing borders. By placing a narrator-mediator in the middle of a racial conflict, the author allowed both the black and the white characters to present their views through an endless process of textual refraction.




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In his Transatlantic scenario, races are taken out of their psycho-geographical frame and interact so that the borders between them become porous. To put it in Samira Kawash's terms, Johnson's novel searches for an alternative to the rigid identities of the color line (Kawash 1997).39



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Notes

It gives me great pleasure to put in print my gratitude to Charles Johnson for his insightful suggestions. I also would like to thank Michael Kimmage for his sharp critical remarks, and Frank N. Schubert for broadening my historical perspective, as well as for his constant support.

1 Through his controversial position among his contemporaries, Johnson often swims against the literary current. Even if Middle Passage won the prestigious National Book Award in 1990, its critical reception has been ambivalent. Paul West, a jurist on the panel that chose Middle Passage, protested that the selection was based on "ethnic concerns, ideology and moral self righteousness" (Goudie 1995: 110). Moreover, in comparison to other African American authors such as Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed or Alice Walker, fewer articles have been written about Johnson's work, which is in many respects innovative. Positive echoes come from Carl Pedersen, who succinctly remarks the combination "of the excitement of a sea adventure with the horrors of the Middle Passage," so that the crossing of the Atlantic is transformed "into at once a microcosm of world history and an allegory of growing self-awareness" (Pedersen 1993: 233). In the same positive note, S. X. Goudie argues how Johnson "uses marks, marksmen, and marked men as tropes for racism, and on another level racism becomes a trope for larger marks of the human condition" (Goudie 1995: 109). While Muther is interested in how female identity appears in the novel as "a composite of misogynistic stereotypes" (Muther 1996: 649), Daniel M. Scott III comments upon the novel's ability to offer interrogations of African identity, which tests "the capacities of binary opposition, dualism, and abstraction to contain meaning and experience" (Scott 1995: 645). Enlarging the critical approach with a religious perspective, Celestin Walby (1995) discusses the ritual of the sacrificial kinship in relation to Christian and African mythology. In a comparative line, Christian Moraru analyzes Johnson's text in the context of the postmodern age of cloning, paying special attention to the way in which the novel reworks Melville's Moby-Dick. In addition, intra- and intertextual readings are offered by Virginia Whatle Smith (Middle Passage and John A. Williams' Captain Blackman), Lorraine Quimet (Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale), Helen Lock (Middle Passage and Douglass' The Heroic Slave and Melville's "Benito Cereno"), Jonathan Little (Middle Passage and Siddhartha and Invisible Man).

2 Johnson's phenomenological ideas exposed in his Being and Race place his work in a larger theoretical context, where Husserl and Merleau-Ponty play important roles.

3 Refraction, n. 1. Physics. the change of direction of a ray of light, sound, heat, or the like, in passing obliquely from one medium into another in which its speed is different. 2. Optics. a. the ability of the eye to refract light which enters it so as to form an image on the retina. b. the determining of the refractive condition of the eye. 3. Astron. a. Also called astronomical refraction, the amount, in angular measure, by which the altitude of a celestial body is increased by the refraction of its light in the earth's atmosphere, being zero at the zenith and a maximum at the horizon. b. the observed altered location, as seen from the earth, of another planet or the like due to diffraction by the atmosphere. [LL refraction- (s. of refractio) a breaking up, open] (Webster's Dictionary).



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4 This idea is also supported by James Coleman: "Johnson focuses on the black experience as it exists 'in literature' (Johnson 1988: 5), in written texts, and it is through the revision of the written textual tradition that Johnson tries to break its hegemony, to inscribe a revised black freedom and liberation" (Coleman 1995: 631).

5 Discussing the way in which Johnson rewrites the tradition of the slave narrative, Lorraine Quimet specifies: "the mongrelized characteristics of the form and its structural capacity for movement (from sin to salvation, ignorance to wisdom, bondage to freedom) make it the perfect vehicle for Johnson's mapping of a phenomenology of freedom and for his identity politics" (Johnson 2000: 34).

6 As April Langley affirms, Equiano's movement has a profound cultural significance: "In the movement from freedom and enslavement in Africa to slavery, freedom, and racial enslavement and oppression in the New World, Equiano complicates the notion of freedom through his developing and changing kaleidoscope that imagines communities across geographical and historical landscapes of African literatures and cultures of the diaspora" (Langley 2001: 48).

7 As in Johnson's short story, "The Education of Mingo," both master and slave influence each other's behavior. Linda Selzer points how Mingo, the slave, "begins to function as a mirror for Moses, [his master]" (Selzer 2003: 106). Reminding us of the "homunculus" in Goethe's Faust, Mingo is more than a product, a passive receptacle of his Moses's ideas. He thus influences Moses in the same way Jackson seems to influence his master, Chandler.

8 Focused upon the story of an African prince taken as a slave to America, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688) represents "an early attack upon the colonial problem of the human slavery, of sufferance and degradation" (Sanders 1997: 259).

9 The change of Equiano's name is significant: Gustavus Vassa is the name of a Swedish nobleman who lived in the 16th century, and who lead the Swedish people into a war of independence against the Danes. Thus, Vassa is the first Swedish king who led his people out of slavery.

10 Equiano's fictional persona is even more complicated if we take into consideration Vincent Caretta's suggestion that Equiano was not born in Africa, but was born a slave in North Carolina, where his baptismal record has been found. If Caretta is right, then critics and historians will have to find a "new interpretation" to Equiano's narrative (Sollors 2001: xxxi).

11 Possibly, Equiano's acculturation to the Western world is performed only "to win his freedom and bring about his physical and spiritual salvation" (Costanzo 1987: 41, in Sabino and Hall 1999: 6). From another perspective, Equiano's "Christian rhetoric" (Orban 1993: 655) can be seen an irreversible superimposition of a Western identity and an erasure of his African one.

12 The second part of Rutherford's journey from Africa to America retraces Equiano's uprooting passage from his African homeland to the New World. If in Equiano's biography Africa appears as an Edenic homeland with a specific ethnicity, in Johnson's fiction Africa is initially a blank space, which will be later inscribed through the Allmuserian worldview.

13 Notice here how Rutherford's voyage by sea was initiated by his theft: he steals Josiah Squibb's papers in order to embark on the Republic. Once on board, he fabricates a new version of his autobiography in order to persuade the captain of his lack of protection, family and financial means.




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In addition, he ironically expresses in his writing his understanding of the shrewdness of his own race: "Maybe I shouldn't say this, but we all know it anyway: namely, that a crafty Negro, a shrewd black strategist, can work a prospective white employer around, if he's smart, by playing poor mouth, or greasing his guilt with a hard-luck story" (28).

14 From the Greek word, parasitos meaning "beside the grain," from para, beside + sitos, grain. In his essay, "The Critic as Host," Hillis Miller underlines the antithetical meaning of this prefix, "signifying at once proximity and distance, similarity and difference, interiority and exteriority" (Miller 1979: 219).

15 Even if Conrad's treatment of colonialism in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim draws upon Kipling's Kim, he differs from Kipling and the other English authors of his age: "Alone among writers like Kipling, Haggard, Henley, and Stevenson, Conrad lived both as a native of a colonized country and as a member of a colonizing community. Thus, he achieved what they never could, although some, like Kipling, tried: a view from the other side of the compound wall" (McClure 1981: 5).

16 In spite of the fact that Rutherford is an African American, he is forced into the position of a colonizer who goes to Africa on a slave ship. To borrow from S. X. Goudie, "Calhoun is a black man playing a white man's colonial game" (1995: 111). Moreover, since identity also means physicality, he has to beware not to be taken for an African and thrown back into slavery.

17 Johnson's understanding of the Middle Passage can be compared to Toni Morrison's view in Beloved. If in Morrison's text, the perspective is that of numberless female slaves taken to America, in Johnson's text, it is that of an observer. On the one hand, Beloved tells her story in fragmented, confused images that offer sympathetic identification to the reader with her traumatic experience. One the other hand, Rutherford's voice is more orderly and controlled, therefore intended to disambiguate the reader's perception of the narrated events. While Morrison presents the experience of the Middle Passage through dissipated perceptual metaphors, Johnson's focus is on the more concrete, visual aspects of the passage. Here I disagree with Vincent A. O'Keefe who stresses that "Rutherford (and Johnson) may simply be unable to articulate Allmuserian perception through language," and that "the narrative techniques of Middle Passage prevent readers from sharing that experience, contrary to Johnson's intentions" (O'Keefe 1996: 641). On the contrary, the horror of the event is augmented by the Rutherford's inability "to watch," as well as by his awareness of being an accomplice "in taking part in the captivity of the Allmuseri" (66).

18 The analogy between the crew of the Republic and the motley American-scape is obvious. Notice how the crew is described after a tempest: "Without speaking we all clapped out hands together as one companythirty-two sopping-wet cutthroats black-toothed rakes traitors drunkards rapscallions thieves poltroons forgers clotpolls sots lobcocks sodomists prison escapees and debauchees simultaneously praying like choirboys, our heads tipped begging forgiveness after this brush with death in Irish, Cockney, Spanish, and Hindi for a litany of collective sins so long I could not number them" (82).

19 See here how during a storm Rutherford meditates upon the ocean's "vortices that were mirrored in [him]" (79).

20 He thus illustrates Bakhtin's conception of the novel as a "dialogized heteroglossia," which incorporates diverse and sometimes contradictory views that subvert the monolithic supremacy of a unitary language.

21 My affirmation is also supported by Brian Fagel, who observes Calhoun's ability to "speak from the middle"a thing which "creates a moment of postcoloniality." Fagel also discusses the two effects of Calhoun's middleness:




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"the confinement to middleness of Calhoun's colonial moment, and the transcendence of coloniality via enunciation from the point of confinement" (1996: 625).

22 The short stature is another common point between Kurtz and Falcon: while in Johnson's text, we are explicitly told that Falcon is short, in Conrad's story, Kurt's very name means "short" in German.

23 The documents are given by Marlow to Kurtz's cousin, to a journalist, and to Kurtz's lover, signaling their distribution to three symbolic spheres.

24 Ironically, as if to draw attention to the deceitful, many-faced character of his (postmodern) writing, Rutherford tells us from the very beginning that his main occupation is that of a thief, one who would fabricate different versions of his life-story in order to take advantage of certain situations.

25 In this context, the Allmuseri god transported by Captain Falcon to the Western hemisphere symbolizes the climax of his Ahab-like desire to subdue the essence of the colonized culture.

26 Both Melville's and Johnson's texts take their inspiration from Frederick Douglass' novella, "The Heroic Slave" (1852), which depicts the successful slave rebellion aboard the ship Creole in 1841. Led by Madison Washington, the African slaves manage to take control of the ship en route from Virginia to New Orleans, and change the course of the ship to the British free port of Nassau. Douglass' main objective was to emphasize Washington's heroic stature, his ability to outwit the white crewmembers, as well as his ideals of liberty and equality.

27 As Helen Lock stresses, "although Melville uses different techniques, he and Johnson nevertheless are making the same point: both illustrate how when the master/slave, ruler/ruled roles are inverted, each side reveals the characteristics of the other, for better and worse, until, as at the end of Orwell's Animal Farm, there is no discernible distinction" (Lock 2000: 59).

28 Rutherford has a similar vision of a reversed situation, during one of his discussions with Falcon, when he is told about the African god they carry on the ship: "Could it be that in a dimension alongside this one I was a dwarf sitting in a Chinese robe, telling a white mate I had captured a European god and, below us, the hold was crammed with white chattel?" (102).

29 Babo, Atufal, Diamelo and Francesco are Africans whose haunting presence can be traced both in Melville's and Johnson's texts. In Middle Passage, the scene after the mutiny makes direct reference to Melville's characters. Rutherford narrates: "I saw three Allmuseri sitting on the benches; I recognized two more named Babo and Francesco passing a bottle of the skipper's best bellywash, and still another called Atufal, a big man who had an iron collar around his neck and stood behind the mate arguing–if my hasty translation could be trusted–for them to toss him over the side" (Johnson 1990: 131). Moreover, the slaves' desire of killing the mate reenacts another scene in Melville's text, in which the former slaves argue over the killing of the cook–whose life is finally spared. Significantly, the same scene can be traced in Douglass' The Heroic Slave, where Madison Washington does not allow his black men to kill Grant, who is lying unconscious on the deck.

30 In this way, the crew sees in Rutherford's drifting nature ("a vagabond," who "got nothin' to lose" (87)) his possibility to kill Falcon and still escape the hand of the law.




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At the same time, Falcon wants Rutherford to become his spy, and turns him into an accomplice by poisoning his "perception of the other[s]" (58), by unraveling their secrets. Besides, Rutherford himself acts as the agent of the African revolt, since he offers them the key that unlocks their fetters.

31 Parmenides, Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century B.C. In his poem, On Nature, he depicted the universe as having one, continuous, fixed nature.

32 In addition, by revising the Platonic/Cartesian dualism between (the inferior) body and (the superior) spirit, he suggests that both corporal and mental aspects are equally important and in constant process.

33 His question to Ngonyama proves enlightening for his ability of reverse roles: "If you were captain of this ship, what would you do?" (119). In Ngonyama's answer, his desire to return to Africa transpires, so that the whole Middle Passage appears as a nightmare, "a tale to thrill–and terrify–our grandchildren" (119). With deep psychological implications, the voyage on board of the tight-packer is thus understood by the Africans as a plunge into the unreal, a departure from their holistic understanding of the universe and an entrance "into the madness of multiplicity" (65). Alluding to Ishmael's rhetorical question in Moby-Dick ("Who ain't a slave?"), Falcon's monologue before his death also prophesizes an apocalyptic vision of America as a dystopian land of anomalies, in which former values no longer hold: "It came to me as I lay here, a nightmare that this was the last hour of historyÖ Everything from ancient times to now, the civilized values and visions of high culture, have all gone to hell in fire old hamlets filled high with garbage, overrun with Mudmen and Jews, riddled with viral infections and venereal complaints that boggle the mind and cripple whole generations of white children who'll be strangers, if not slaves, in their own country. I saw families killing each other. People were killing in alleyways. Sexes and races were blurred" (144–45).

34 The episode of embracing the dead is also present in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Marlow has to lift and throw overboard the dead body of his African helmsman, so that it will not be eaten by the other members of his crew who are cannibals ("I hugged him from behind desperately" (73)). At this moment he meditates upon their "subtle bond" and mournfully realizes the loss of his partner (73).

35 Kristeva points to the etymology of the word "cadaver," from the Latin cadere, "to fall". She also discusses the idea of loss in relation to the abject corpse: "There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from the border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limitcadere–cadaver" (Kristeva 1982: 3).

36 At a general level, Paul Giles cogently notes: "one of the greatest needs of any culture is to proscribe its own form of abjection, to censor those models of deviance that the culture itself produces" (181).

37 Ironically, Falcon's colonial log helps him to accomplish his liberating mission. Falcon's written word serves as an instrument of exposing Papa Zeringue's involvement in the slave trade. The log manages to turn the tables on Rutherford's side by making Santos aware that his black employer is one of the principal investors in a slave ship. An Allmuseri via his grandfather, Santos distances himself from Papa's complicity in the colonial web.




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Having the Herculean Santos on his side, Rutherford dares to request "a full endowment" for the African children "until they come of age" (203). By making a black character an accomplice in the slave trade, Johnson draws our attention to the network of power in which the master/slave antagonistic positions are still preserved. As Rutherford understands the fragility of his momentary triumph, he keeps the logbook as his future "insurance," the ace in his pocket that will enable him to preserve his acquired rights.

38 Analyzing the novel from Isadora's perspective, Elizabeth Muther convincingly comments: "Isadora's offstage adventuring, however, is at the center of Johnson's purpose in Middle Passage. Crises of gender, of family and destiny, drive the plot of Johnson's novel and provide a key to reading its parodic representations of classic male quest adventures. The stock quality of Isadora's character–she is a composite of misogynistic stereotypes–conceals the strength of her embedded rival story. She goes to sea, and she stays at home, but her story is a critical locus of resistance in the novel" (Muther 1996: 649).

39 As Kawash herself admits, "what emerges is a risky practice of singularity that recognizes the securities of identity and community to be illusory and takes a chance to the unknowable and the uncertain" (Kawash 1997: viii).

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