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What would it mean to recognize the nameless protagonist of Colson

By Barbara Harris,2014-11-13 17:57
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What would it mean to recognize the nameless protagonist of Colson

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    Old Afflictions: Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides

    the Hurt and the Post-Soul Condition

    He decided his toe had developed an abuse pathology, and kept returning to the hurt as

    if one day it would place the pain in context, explain it. Give it a name.

     Colson Whitehead, Apex Hides the Hurt 139

     The protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is never given a name. This elision, this

    withholding, would perhaps be unremarkable in itself it is not unheard of in fiction

    (Fludernik 248) if it were not so strongly reminiscent of Whitehead‘s earlier work, John

    Henry Days, the last words of which invite us to speculate as to the name of its

    1protagonist as well as his fate. Then, of course, there is the irony of the fact that this protagonist‘s occupation is entirely concerned with naming things: he is a ―nomenclature

    consultant‖ (22), a highly-paid specialist in branding, who has been tasked with breaking the Winthrop town council‘s deadlock over a decision about whether (and what) to

    rename itself. If all of these signs suggest that Whitehead is generally, and Apex Hides

    the Hurt particularly, occupied with questions of identity, then it would seem that we are invited to ask: what name names this giver of names?

     If we knew the answer to this question (were it possible for there to be a matter-of-fact about what is left unsaid in a work of fiction), we might perhaps understand the peculiar pathos of the plot, which leaves us in suspense to the very end over whether it will a.) keep its current name, derived from the Winthrop family that brought it its first and primary industry (a barbed-wire factory), now in decline; b.) adopt the brand-friendly name ―New Prospera,‖ backed by the town‘s new hegemon, corporate software

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    maverick Lucky Abderdeen; or c.) revert to the name originally given the town by the freed slaves who founded it, ―Freedom,‖ as proposed by mayor Regina Goode (herself

    a direct descendant of the founder known simply as Goode). The delaying of this decision is aided and abetted by the narrative presentation, which repeatedly displaces the ongoing present to revisit the nomenclature consultant‘s past, the sequence of events that have led him to this point: having risen to the top of his profession on the strength of naming a multiculturally-correct brand of bandages ―Apex,‖ he has a

    breakdown of sorts after allowing a stubbed toe to grow into a life-threatening infection requiring hospitalization and amputation. As the first job he has been offered since ―the incident,‖ and hence his first chance at reclaiming his professional role, the decision

    over the town‘s identity is evidently a decision over his own identity: ―This place,‖ the consultant reflects, ―was the sum of old choices, the heap of his years. In that nameless town, he asked himself, what was he going by lately? What name was he traveling under? Perhaps his banishment to this place was only fitting. Unavoidable‖ (190). Why a ―banishment‖? Why the hesitation to decide?

     Adding to the mystery of the hesitation is a pervasive atmosphere of sexual tension in Winthrop, a ―muted area between desire and consummation‖ that the

    consultant names ―Tantalasia‖:

    Tantalasia: the in-between place where you‘re not sure if you should say

    something, if it is truly as important as it appears to be that you say

    something, the right words.

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     Living in Tantalasia. Neither Winthrop nor New Prospera. Nor

    Freedom. It occurred to him that in its current suspended state, the town

    was effectively nameless. (115, 117)

    The condition of being ―nameless,‖ lacking ―the right words,‖ is directly associated with a

    ―suspended state,‖ ―between desire and consummation‖ – in this case, not only vis-à-vis

    ―the food thing,‖ but in reference to the consultant‘s odd flirtation (―winking and weird glances,‖ ―come-on[s]‖) with his dinner companion, the mayor of Winthrop, Regina

    Goode. While Regina (the town‘s ―queen, as it were) is technically at liberty, being

    divorced from her husband (113, 123), our protagonist is aware that, in some way, to ―consummat[e]‖ this flirtation would be to cross a line: ―he reminded himself that he had a long-standing rule about sleeping with clients‖ (123). Here, indeed, Whitehead puts those cards on the table: ―She had a way of speaking that reminded him of his mother and his cousins. And he thought: Is that it? Some sort of Oedipal thing churning below decks?‖ (124)

     Is this all an ―Oedipal thing‖? What would it mean to recognize the nomenclature

    consultant as an incarnation of one of the most notorious archetypes? For indeed, he is literally ―limping,‖ his limp a kind of self-inflicted curse or an incarnate personality disorder, a continual reminder of who he is in the absence of a name or a place. Likewise the self-cursed Oedipus, another king banished from his own kingdom, marked by his wounded feet:

    OEDIPUS. And when you first held me, was I hurt?

    CORINTHIAN. Your own feet can testify to that!

    OEDIPUS. An old affliction; why speak of it now?

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    CORINTHIAN. Because I set you free from a spike that pierced your feet.

    OEDIPUS. A hideous blemish I‘ve carried from the cradle.

    CORINTHIAN. That‘s how you came to have your name.

     (1031-1036)

    ―The name ‗Oedipus,‘‖ the translators gloss for us, ―can be taken to mean ‗swollen foot‘‖ (Meineck and Woodruff in Sophocles 44n1036). Q.E.D.?

     However, it must be said that this homology between Whitehead and Sophocles is hardly exact. In fact, the nomenclature consultant has already solved his Riddle of the Sphinx (by correctly naming a product ―Redempta‖ [36]), gaining his Kingdom of

    Thebes (―he was at the top of his game,‖ ―he could look down upon the city and think he

    owned it‖ [57, 59]), Recognized his Transgression (―the deception that was [his] stock in trade‖ [170]), and Fled in Disgrace (into ―his stupid exile‖ [179]). All this before meeting

    his mother/love-object in the first place? A love-object, it should be noted, who remains merely potential, part of a rather crowded field (as he is courted simultaneously by Albie Winthrop, Lucky Aberdeen, Regina Goode, and Beverley ―the sexy librarian‖ [124])? If,

    indeed, Colson has written another Oedipus narrative, he has certainly subjected it to

    2substantial revision. Chopped up, displaced, distorted, thrown out of true, what is the ―Oedipal thing‖ doing here?

     The strongest thematic connection between Whitehead‘s narrative and that of

    Oedipus, it might be said, is in the sense of guilt common to both. The nomenclature

    consultant, for instance, ―jump[s]‖ whenever he hears of one of his brand names in the videos playing at a corporate retreat ―as if he had been suddenly accused of something

    (151); he perceives the Hotel Winthrop, the oldest building in town, not only as a sign of

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    ―what had been‖ but as a ―looming accusation‖ (40). The very words that are his stock

    in trade increasingly appear to him to be ―false names‖ behind which things ―hid‖ their ―true natures‖: ―A name that got to the heart of the thing – that would be miraculous.

    But he never got to the heart of the thing, he just slapped a bandage on to keep the pus in‖ (182-183). The implication, here, is that the truth which is hidden is an awful truth.

    In psychoanalytic terms, the work of branding is a work of repression, bandaging or concealing the ―pus,‖ ―hid[ing] the hurt,‖ with the appearance of an intact surface. In social terms, the ―hurt‖ that is hidden is the historical harm of slavery, which will be

    covered up no matter which of the three proferred options is chosen for naming the town. As the consultant grimly reflects, ―Freedom‖ is the American brand par excellence: a cliché, a euphemism, bearing no recognizable relation to the slaves‘ real

    experience, which would be better reflected by such unspeakable place-names as ―Kidnap,‖ ―Torture,‖ ―Lynch,‖ ―Genocide,‖ and ―Rape Street‖ (128). Indeed, if names are

    ―bandages,‖ then even the seemingly transgressive name, reinstating the decision taken

    by subaltern black ancestors as against that of the past or present white hegemons, will be just another exercise in cooptation, a soothing balm for ―history‖ itself, insofar as

    history is what hurts‖ (Jameson 102).

     As the consultant becomes ever more aware of his own complicity with historical amnesia, his role as an agent of repression, this hurt is increasingly internalized in the form of self-loathing: ―he cursed himself‖ (Whitehead, Apex 153). The falsity of what he

    does, ―the deception that was [his] stock in trade,‖ translates into a falsification of who

    he is: at the peak of his success, when the consultant look[s] down at his arm,‖ he no

    longer sees ―flesh‖ but ―the job‖ (90). This anger at himself, as Freud might have put it,

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    seems very naturally to translate into ―a delusional expectation of punishment‖: at the

    ad-industry award dinner, the consultant falls into an almost hysterical fear that he will be exposed as a fraud: ―what if everyone everywhere wore their true names for

    everyone to see, he muses in quiet terror then flees the scene (170-171).

     In this sense of his own hollowness, the nomenclature consultant strongly recalls the character of J. Sutter in John Henry Days, who seems to epitomize this guilty

    consciousness. This appears most clearly when J. tells One-Eye the story of a college semester spent listening to lectures by the ex-black nationalist revolutionary Toure Nkrumeh. Why does the news of Nkrumeh‘s death bother J.? He has abandoned all the

    political idealism that drew him to journalism in the first place; he is a junketeer, not a revolutionary. As One-Eye says, he‘s ―not upset that the guy‘s dead,‖ and that in itself

    constitutes the substance of the guilt, the sense that you should be feeling something

    that good people feel when someone dies (335). In his heart, he has killed Nkrumeh,

    and by extension, the portion of ―soul‖ that tied him to the race and its history: this is a

    father-murder, and he will pay for it.

     Paying for it is what Apex Hides the Hurt seems to be about. Ultimately, the

    solution the consultant opts for, out of the process of working-through that constitutes the narrative, is a name that somehow embodies the unthinkability of kidnapping, torture, lynching, genocide, and rape, a name that embodies a refusal of resolution: ―Struggle‖ (210-211). Evoking the famous dictum of ex-slave Frederick Douglass If there is no

    struggle there is no progress‖ – this name, like ―Freedom‖ and ―Winthrop,‖ is ancestral;

    it is the bequest of Field, the town‘s other ex-slave patriarch, Goode‘s gloomier

    3counterpart, Remus to his Romulus, history‘s loser. Perhaps this is why the choice of

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    ―Struggle‖ can be made to feel right, paradoxically satisfying, even though it explicitly

    calls for a renunciation of satisfaction: indeed, this is precisely what Melanie Klein means by the term ―reparation,‖ which she defines as the ―attempt to make good the injuries which we did in phantasy,‖ and which she sees as a fundamental moment in the

    moral development of the subject (parallel, in a sense, to the Freudian working-through of the Oedipus Complex) (68). Only a promise to struggle, to fight, at the cost of

    gratification, can ―make good the injuries‖ without simply ―hiding the hurt.‖

     Perhaps Apex Hides the Hurt can be read as a kind of meditation on the situation in which the writer (and, in different ways, his readers) is embedded, what Mark Anthony Neal calls ―the post-soul condition‖ (140). Where the generation of the Civil

    Rights and Black Power movements, facing an overwhelming exclusion of African-Americans from cultural representation, sought to construct a distinct ―soul aesthetic‖ as the repository for its aspirations, as Neal notes, the ―post-soul generationto which

    Whitehead belongs is one for which ―the significant presence of African-American

    iconography within mass consumer culture/mass media‖ is ―a state of normalcy‖ (5,

    121). Just as the sampled sounds of soul music à la James Brown and Curtis Mayfield formed the base structure of hiphop‘s post-soul sound (George 4), the iconography of

    the soul generation‘s ―cultural nationalism‖ is recycled into a ―New Black Aesthetic‖ –

    but ―a nationalism perhaps rife with guilt over the fact that NBA is deeply embedded with forms of corporate capitalism‖ which are themselves engaged in an ―intense

    commodification of black popular culture(Neal 112-113). If the concept of ―soul‖ in

    African-American culture traditionally meant a precious racial ―essence,‖ an ineffable

    aura of authenticity and realness that came from a painful history of dues paid, a sense

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    of group belonging, and commitment to the project of cultural nationalism built on that foundation (Major 434, Van Deburg 195), the failure to manifest soul would seem to

    imply unreality, fakery, crossing over and selling out, betraying the culture and the

    4 history of sacrifice (the ―hurt‖) that created it.

    While definitions of post-soul, at least those posited by those who have staked their own generational sense of identity on it, have tended to suspend such judgments of value, to affect a kind of diffidence over whether essences or truths exist, whether African-Americans can or should have any all-encompassing collective project, or what such a project could possibly be founded upon, it seems to me that Whitehead‘s

    writings betray a sense of anxiety over the source of cultural value, of guilty indebtedness to the past. In his introduction to the collection Giant Steps: The New

    Generation of African American Writers, cultural impresario Kevin Young, to whom

    Whitehead dedicates his book The Colossus of New York (ix), insists that while ―there is

    a long line of folks for us to acknowledge, to praise, to owe our current literary lives to,‖

    the post- in ―post-soul‖ does not signal even the wish for a definitive break from or

    supercession of soul: ―I see it as the writer‘s job, particularly the African American writer‘s job, not to ‗kill the literary father,‘ but rather to celebrate our ancestry‖ (8, 4). Nonetheless, Darryl Dickson-Carr suggests, post-soul aesthetics ―evoke the younger

    generation‘s desire to transcend the definitions of the older, to rise above while being posterior(190).

    To rise above while being posterior: what better formula for the insoluble problem of ―belatedness, the unacceptable but equally unavoidable indebtedness to one‘s ancestors that Harold Bloom posits as the generative condition of literature (Bloom xxv)?

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    Certainly, if Whitehead‘s work is any indication, questions of African-American literary

    and cultural ancestry, if not necessarily the same as those of a nearly all-white, all-male Western Canon, continue nonetheless to be fraught with Oedipal anxieties, haunted by debts to shadowy cultural fathers and to the names they have bequeathed.

    Notes

1 We are never told the full name of the protagonist of John Henry Days, which is given

    only as ―J. Sutter.‖ The novel ends: ―He stands there with the sun on his face deciding, as if choices are possible . . . [S]he asked, what‘s the J. stand for? He told her‖ (389).

    Could it be John? As in John Henry? We are given reasons to suspect it: his aunt, Jennifer Sutter, had a childhood love for ―The Ballad of John Henry‖; J. Sutter‘s attempt to beat the record for the number of days straight ―junketeering‖ is consistently, if

    ironically, likened to John Henry‘s contest against the steam drill; just as John Henry is destined to die trying to beat his ―machine,‖ it is hinted that J. Sutter is destined to end up as one of the casualties of a senseless shooting incident that afternoon . . . (278-280, 111, 163, 236, 370). Nonetheless, in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon‘s The

    Crying of Lot 49, with its terminal suspension between ―symmetrical‖ possibilities (141), we are denied any certain knowledge.

    2 In this, too, Apex Hides the Hurt interestingly mirrors The Crying of Lot 49, with its

    obvious-but-ambiguous allusion to the Oedipus story. While Thomas Schaub argues that the apparent dissimilarities mask deeper congruities (―Oedipa has slept with a

    father [i.e., Pierce Inverarity] not, it‘s true, her own father – but with a kind of national

    father nevertheless‖), Dana Medoro abandons this more straightforwardly Freudian

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    analysis (―Oedipa‘s quest does not replicate the Oedipal plot,‖ she declares, i.e., ―Oedipa‘s is not Freud‘s story of femininity‖), attempting a more complex identification of Oedipa with the Sphinx who challenges Oedipus ―the feminine, monstrous (and

    arguably menstruous) figure of mystery‖ (Schaub 140-141, italics mine; Medoro 73, 85-

    86). Whitehead‘s protagonist, too, draws this comparison, as Lucky remarks that he ―[looks] like the Sphinx come to town . . .‖ (Apex 86).

    3 I am inclined to read the names ―Field‖ and ―Goode‖ as an allusion to Malcolm X‘s famous dichotomy between the ―house Negro‖ who clings to whatever privileges have been secured by loyalty to a white master ―this good white man‖ – and the totally

    unprivileged ―field Negro‖ who owes no such allegiance, who calls things what they are: Im a field Negro‖ (11). It is interesting, in this respect, to note that X, icon of the soul aesthetic and its promise of authentic cultural identity, is another man missing a name. 4 A caveat is warranted here: Robin D.G. Kelley, in Yo Mama’s Disfunktional!, argues

    that this essentialist picture of what ―soul‖ meant is really constructed after the fact – in

    part by white scholars seeking to reduce the plurality of black cultural forms to a single identity; in truth, ―it was almost never conceived by African Americans as an innate,

    genetically derived feature of black life,‖ but as a ―represent[ation],‖ a symbolic (and highly artificial) means of ―shedding‖ the essentialist baggage of ―old ‗Negro‘‖ identities (23-27). To the extent that this argument is persuasive, the ―post-soul‖ moment is

    virtually coterminous with the ―soul‖ moment. But what of the ways in which ―soul‖ discourse has circulated and to some extent still circulates within African-American

    communities as an identitarian construct, and even a means of ―policing,‖ as indicated

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