Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.

The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink

At one time I worked my way through all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels (in Mike Mitchell’s translations, published by Dedalus), and although his first, The Golem (1914), is his most famous, it was his last, and least successful in terms of sales (selling less than 3,000 copies, compared to 220,000 of The Golem, according to this article), that stuck with me.

Published in 1927, The Angel of the West Window tells a dual story. The narrator — unnamed till virtually the last page, when he’s revealed to be one Baron Müller — learns that he is the only surviving descendent of the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and occultist John Dee, when he inherits a sizeable packet of the man’s journals and private papers. Embarking on the task of ordering these papers into some sort of narrative, Müller finds occult elements starting to invade his own life. Dee’s papers describe how, early on in life, he looked into a mirror and found his reflection talking back to him, promising what sounded to be a great future, in which he:

“…shall know neither rest nor repose till the coasts of Greenland, where the Northern Lights glow, shall be conquered… He who holds the Green Land in fief, to him shall the Empire beyond the sea be given, to him shall be given the crown of England!”

Dee immediately makes plans — which include finding a way of making sure the then-Princess Elizabeth would drink a potion to make her fall in love with him, and thus ensure his kingship of England — but finds himself frustrated at every step. Elizabeth, once she is queen, toys with him, agreeing to his plans for an expedition to Greenland only to cancel them a moment later. And though she drops hints that she knows the nature of the potion Dee contrived to have her drink, and occasionally implies that the two of them have some sort of special relationship, she makes no move towards marrying him — in fact, she orders him to wed one of her ladies-in-waiting who clearly hates him.

Meanwhile, a number of peculiar characters enter the narrator’s modern-day (i.e., 1920s) life. Lipotin, a trader in antiquities — whose nickname, Mascee, is oddly the same as that of an antiques pedlar known to John Dee — provides him with a number of occultly significant objects, including a locked Tula-ware puzzle-box and a green-glass mirror, while the Russian Princess Assja Shotokalungin drops by, wanting to buy from him a certain antique spearhead, which she seems sure he owns, even though he doesn’t.

For me, the Dee part of the novel works so much better than the narrator’s. Dee’s story is all about how his promised glories are constantly denied him, and how he turns more and more desperately to the occult, only to meet with a constant cycle of repeated promises, delays, more promises, and ultimate frustration. He enters into a partnership with Edward Kelley, an ex-criminal (his ears have been cut off as punishment for forgery) who provides Dee with a small amount of powder that can turn lead into gold, along with a book that describes how this powder might be used to make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the book is in code, and the pair soon use up their small stock of powder in making the gold they need to continue their studies (and to fund Kelley’s dissolute lifestyle). Kelley, though, can summon the Angel of the West Window, an awesome, otherworldly presence (with something of a demonic air: “the thumb on the right hand pointed downwards, it was the left hand thumb”) that promises to teach Dee the key to the book’s cipher, though always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, never today. (It does, when their need is at its most dire, replenish their stock of powder, so they can make more gold, and continue their desperate studies.) Along with Dee’s second wife Jane, the pair leave England for Prague, where Dee wants to see what the Emperor Rudolf II, who claims to be an alchemical adept, can teach him, but Rudolf is paranoid, controlling, and on the edge of madness. Then the Angel of the West Window declares that Dee must share his beloved wife with the lecherous Kelley.

In between reading of Dee’s troubles, the narrator finds himself at the centre of an occult battle for his soul, fought between forces he only gradually comes to understand. On the one hand, there are the Gardeners, a group of enlightened beings who provide the occasional prod on his path to illumination; on the other, there’s the Goddess Black Iaïs, who “rules the realm of anti-Eros, whose power and extent no-one suspects who has not himself been initiated into the mysteries of hate”, and who wants the antique Spearhead of Hywel Dda, once in the possession of John Dee. Despite all this being a clear parallel to Dee’s story, the narrator comes across (to me, anyway) as almost wilfully stupid in being unable to tell what’s happening to him, and as a result, his part of the story seems mostly about him being shunted from one incomprehensible event to another. There’s a lot of occult talk and mysteriously significant events, but no real human-level drama, as there is with the Dee tale, and all of the narrator’s gains feel like something given to him, rather than something he’s earned.

It eventually emerges that the narrator is to experience the fulfilment of what was promised, centuries ago, to his ancestor John Dee. Dee got the nature of that initial promise wrong, interpreting it wholly in terms of worldly gains, when it was meant only in spiritual terms. (“Green Land” is used, in the novel, to refer to the land of the dead, and of the spiritually enlightened, and it was this land that was promised to Dee, not the land of the same name that exists in the material world.) By the end of the book, I found it difficult to accept that the narrator had done anything to earn his spiritual elevation — he’d seemed to learn no lesson, having merely been batted about between occult forces like a spiritual tennis ball that just happened to end up on the right side of the net.

Reviewing The Angel of the West Window in 1936, Jorge Luis Borges called the book “a chronicle of confused miracles, barely salvaged, from time to time, by its poetic ambience”. (Of Meyrink’s literary career as a whole, Borges says: “His books became acts of faith, and then of propaganda.”)

It didn’t, to me, feel that Meyrink was merely peddling some occult system. At times, the supernatural events that happen to either Dee or the narrator felt genuinely weird and shocking (in particular, the pronouncements of Bartlett Greene, with whom Dee shares a prison cell near the start of the novel) rather than being contrived. The best parts — the Dee parts — actually seemed to be all about how, the more enticing the promises of the occult are, the more empty, frustrating, and soul-destroying is their effect. It might have been better simply as Dee’s story, with no modern counterpart, but by the end, despite often tedious passages in which many supposedly significant things were happening but no real meaning emerging, The Angel of the West Window does, nevertheless, work a little literary magic.

From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston

From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, is perhaps most well known today for being the first work T S Eliot lists in his “Notes on The Waste Land”, where he says that Weston’s book suggested “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of his poem. Eliot, of course, later said these notes were a publisher’s requirement to bulk out the book publication of The Waste Land, which has led some to dismiss them entirely, or to see them as one more layer of obfuscation around the poem, and Eliot himself later said he regretted sending so many readers “on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail”. But From Ritual to Romance, which aims to trace a link between medieval Holy Grail romances and the earliest fertility rituals, certainly had its influence on what the poem says and how it says it. As Eliot wrote in 1957 (quoted here):

“I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!”

Sir Gawain approaching the Grail Castle, illustration by Caroline Watts

Weston’s book makes no bones about its own debts. It’s firmly in the tradition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of syncretist anthropology that first came out in 2 volumes in 1890 (and had expanded to 12 volumes by 1915), causing both scandal (for its treatment of Christ’s story as just another myth) and literary influence. Both Weston’s and Frazer’s books have their basis in the idea that “vegetation rituals” — “a symbolic representation of the death and re-birth of the year” — by which ancient peoples sought to ensure the fertility of their crop lands, are the foundation for later religious practices — though it becomes clear from Weston’s book that for her, at least, the fertility sought through such “vegetation rituals” extends not only to the fertility of the soil but human fertility and, later, a sort of spiritual fertility through union with “the supreme Spiritual Source of Life”.

Central to the Grail quest is the idea of a king and a land that are ailing. The king and his land are one. As one sickens, so does the other; to heal one is to heal the other. Weston traces this idea back to “the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race” (a phrase which immediately highlights a huge cultural gap between Weston and the reader of today), from the Rig-Veda and Babylonian Ritual to the Ancient Greek cult of Adonis. At this point, she says, the belief surrounding such “vegetation rituals” can be seen as having two sides, the exoteric and the esoteric, the public ritual and the secret Mystery cult:

“…and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer…”

Weston says: “the original use of the ‘Tarot’ would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land…”

Ultimately, she sees in the Grail story a continuity between Ancient Attis-Adonis & Mithraic cults and early Christianity, an “essential harmony… between the Old Faith and the New”, which somehow survived the point at which Christianity, on becoming dominant in the West, sought to distance itself from past beliefs by declaring any similarities to be the mockeries and snares of the Devil. This essence of ancient-to-medieval continuity “lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction.” Weston sees, in the essence of the Grail romances, a “Christianized Mystery” — an esoteric heart to what is, to most, a purely exoteric religion.

Weston sees surviving Grail romances, though, as being mostly written by people ignorant of their deeper meaning. To Chrétien de Troyes (who died in 1185), for instance, she says, “the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.” Traditional folk-tale themes get thrown in with the relics of ancient rituals, and “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us.” Weston even suggests the severance might have been deliberate:

“The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”

In speculating on how these ancient rituals passed into medieval romances, Weston suggests an intriguing possibility, worthy of a modern-day weird tale, which might have occurred in a Christian land where remnants of the pagan past could still be found in crumbling mountain temples or island retreats, and which might be chanced upon by some lone, wandering knight:

“The earliest version of the Grail story… relates the visit of a wandering knight to one of these hidden temples; his successful passing of the test into the lower grade of Life initiation, his failure to attain to the highest degree.”

There’s an obvious similarity between Eliot’s Waste Land and Weston’s book. Both are reacting to how new ideas had undermined religious belief and, along with that, the sense of a deeper meaning in life. But whereas Eliot’s poem is all about the loss of faith, and takes on a highly fragmented form, Weston seems assured of renewing the sense of meaning in modern life by deepening the roots of her culture’s religious life beyond Christianity and further into the ancient past. Her approach is all about seeing the whole, rather than the parts. (She criticises earlier commenters on the Grail stories for concentrating on the meaning of only one particular element at a time — the Cup, or the Lance, for instance — without seeing each as part of a necessary whole.) Towards the end of her book, Weston breaks out in what sounds like a moment of passionate and genuine belief:

“…the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.”

I’m sure Weston’s methods don’t stand up to modern academic standards but, like the seed of ancient ritual she herself finds in medieval Grail romances, there remains in her book the kernel of a poetic ideal, a link between ancient human beliefs and modern needs. And, while we may think it’s nothing but magical thinking that led previous cultures to think that, by performing their “vegetation rituals”, they could take an active part in renewing the land’s fertility, today it’s become essential that we take part in what was, before, a natural process, if only to undo the damage we’ve done to the Earth’s ability to support life. Perhaps the Grail is needed today more than ever.

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

The World Broke in Two (cover)Bill Goldstein’s book looks at a single year (1922) in the life of four writers — Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, T S Eliot, and D H Lawrence — all of whom were at some sort of creative impasse at the beginning of the year, and all of whom, by the end of it, had set out in a new direction:

“Behind these four writers’ creative struggles and triumphs and private dramas—nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles—lay a common spectral ghost: the cataclysm of World War I that each of them, in 1922, almost four years after the Armistice, was at last able to deal with creatively.”

None of these writers fought in the war, but all were deeply affected by it. Lawrence, for instance, had pretty much been hounded out of Britain; first being found unfit to fight, then being suspected (because he had a German wife) of being a spy. Woolf’s mental suffering during the war might have happened anyway, but it certainly can’t have helped to know that, while she was fighting her own inner battle, the world on the outside was tearing itself apart. Eliot’s breakdown — partly due to overwork, partly to his troubled marriage, partly to the effort of writing his poetry — expressed itself in The Waste Land, but chimed well enough with the post-war mood that, when it eventually came out, was taken to be expressive of the times. E M Forster, meanwhile, had been stuck on his “Indian fragment” for more than ten years. His previous novel, Howard’s End, had come out back in 1910, and some people were assuming he’d died.

The War shattered the world, and with it all the old certainties. To these writers, it was as if the very nature of human being had changed. How could anyone write in the same old way? But all four very much needed to write, and needed to find a new way of doing it, to say what they had to say:

“The techniques these writers experimented with in 1922 were an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming.”

What each of them needed — or had found, but needed the confidence to see through — was a way of exploring their inner worlds, of expressing dissonant, complex inner states, where there was no established technique for doing so. It was as if, as far as the novel was concerned, human beings had ceased to be defined entirely by their position in a society bound by shared values (as they were to the Victorians), and now had to be understood, each of them, as a world of their own. Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps most purely about that sense of isolation and separation; Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with its narrative centre skipping from character to character, combines that sense of each us being our own, separate, vibrant inner world of memories, sensations, regrets, judgements, and passing notions, with the sense of constantly brushing against the equally distinctive worlds of others, all the time apart from them, but at the same time connected, by shared memories and experiences.

Eliot finished The Waste Land near the beginning of the year — during his convalescence from a breakdown — but seems to have spent most of the rest of 1922 being difficult with his potential publishers, on the one hand asking for as much money as he could get, on the other failing to type up the poem and let his publishers see what they were actually paying for. Forster returned from an official position in India, stopping in Egypt to see a man he’d fallen in love with years previously, only to find him dying. Woolf began the year in bed, recovering from illness. Lawrence, the writer who, of the four, I know least about, is the most distant from the others. While Woolf, Eliot and Forster all met up quite often in England in 1922, Lawrence was in Italy, Australia, Ceylon, and then America. (Perhaps for the best. As Goldstein says: “There was very little about Lawrence that wasn’t irritating to someone… The only possible permanent reconciliation with Lawrence was a posthumous one.”)

E M Forster, painted by Dora Carrington

The thing that seems to have acted as a turning point for at least the three novelists covered here was reading two books. James Joyce’s Ulysses had been serialised between 1918 and 1920, but was published in hardback in 1922, and it was in this form that Woolf, Forster and Lawrence read it. This was also the year that translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu started coming out in English. And generally, among those three novelists, the basic reaction seems to have been the same: that Ulysses was technically impressive, though something of a drag to get through, but Proust was a revelation, offering proof that there was a way to explore the new inner life in a novel.

Eliot told Woolf that Ulysses was “a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the 19th century”, but that wasn’t what a novelist desperate to find a way to start a new novel wanted to hear. Woolf felt Ulysses was important, but found it “a mis-fire” — “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” Lawrence and Forster made similar remarks. With Proust, though, the language is very different. “I plunged into Proust,” Forster wrote. Woolf longed to “sink myself in” Proust “all day”, and, Goldstein notes, although she realised she couldn’t write like Proust, soon enough, having read him, “she was writing like herself again.”

By the end of 1922, Woolf was working on Mrs Dalloway; Forster on A Passage to India; Eliot had published The Waste Land; Lawrence, in Kangaroo, had written directly of the experiences that had led him to leave wartime England.

The Worm Ouroboros, cover by Keith Henderson

Inevitably, I can’t help thinking about the fantastic and supernatural fiction of the time. I’ve covered some of it on this blog: 1922, for instance, saw the publication of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which certainly wasn’t seeking new models of what it meant to be human, but can still be seen to be addressing the aftermath of the war, though in a very different way. Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), and J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) are both post-World War I works, and Tolkien’s experiences in the war certainly shaped The Lord of the Rings. But it was the supernatural fiction of the 1890s that seemed to have already been writing about a new way of understanding what it meant to be human. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray both addressed the idea that the old model, of people being a single, distinct personality both within and without, no longer worked. Modernist works like Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land seemed to be trying to work out how to write about what it meant to be human when you threw away this idea of being a single person altogether. The Waste Land takes fragmentation as its central metaphor. Hesse looked at the same idea — of one person being multiple — in his 1927 book, Steppenwolf. His idea was that that inner multiplicity could only be fully accommodated by indulging every part of it to the full. (Which reminds me of what Krag says to Maskull as the reason for his having to make such a violent, disturbing, and personality-changing journey across Tormance in A Voyage to Arcturus: to “run through the gamut”.)

Mrs Dalloway, first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell

But it seems to be Woolf, in Mrs Dalloway, who accepts and finds a way to work with the idea that we are not of “fixed and enduring form” (as Hesse puts it), by presenting her protagonists less as characters in the Dickens manner (with fixed external traits and not much else besides) than as constantly-changing centres of experience, whose personalities alter depending on whom they are with, and what memories or sensations come foremost to their mind. It feels like the most healing of the ideas made in response to this “world broke in two”.

But, of course, it has its dark side, in Septimus Smith, the most explicit victim of the World War presented in any of the four works Goldstein discusses. Smith is an example of what can go wrong with this new idea of human beings, when they lose their delicate centre and become trapped by violent memories and unfaceable emotions overpowering their present reality. Smith’s “writings” — his obsessive and often nonsensical ideas — are his way to try to fix some sort of centre in his wildly-decentred inner world, but they are unworkable (“there is no death”, “there is no crime”, “trees are alive”). Where Mrs Dalloway herself slips nostalgically into the past and drifts back to the present, all the time making new, minor adjustments to her understanding of herself, Smith flounders in a storm of experiences that no idea of what it means to be human can ever help him with. For him, the world is The Waste Land, but it’s debatable whether reading Eliot’s poem would have helped him. Perhaps reading Woolf’s novel might?