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The Tragedy and Comedy of Resistance: Reading Nathalie Sarraute: Dialogue and Distance
Theory And Cultural Studies
Carole Anne Taylor. The Tragedy and Comedy of Resistance: Reading Modernity through Black Women's Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000. 280 pp.
To some scholars, the idea that Black women writers use comedy and tragedy to explore how oppressive social orders construct, reconstruct, and deconstruct identity, subject positions, and real lives is not new. Indeed, such scholars recognize that the attempt to represent the un-representable demands an unconventional use, blending, and re-negotiation of genres. They understand that any literary representation of African American culture requires humor, spirituality, and a little madness in order to reconstruct human identity from the legacy of enslavement. This understanding is not universal, however, a problem that is central to Carole Ann Taylor's work. The Tragedy and Comedy of Resistance: Reading Modernity through Black Women's Fiction gives a compelling analysis of the intersections of modernity, postmodernity, and poststructuralism in literary representations of blackness. It is an invaluable contribution as it articulates a foundational premise that, until now, has been under-theorized.
Taylor takes on a lot in her analysis, examining tragic through comic modes of literature in order to detail what she calls "the paradox of resistance"--the idea "that any resistance necessarily participates in what it resists." Her discussion takes issue with the ways in which Euro-American theory tends to position itself outside of real life, therefore becoming unable (or unwilling) to address oppressive social constructs. Taylor presents a convincing examination of storytelling as theory, the [End Page 1039] complex and complicitous positioning of writer and reader, problems of genre, and conflicting representations of modernisms and (post)modern subjectivities.
The text includes a Prologue and Epilogue that frame two main sections. The prologue positions her explanations of tragic and comic theory in relation to M. M. Bakhtin's, Hélène Cixous's and Raymond Williams's theories on the dialogic interplay of tragedy, comedy, and the carnivalesque. Such theories, Taylor argues, come close to representing the resistance inherent in tragedy and comedy, but they fall short of producing a "transformative ideology" that can reform or redress a tragic social order.
In part 1 she offers an impressive look at how Black women's fiction struggles with the inherent problems of representing, witnessing and internalizing tragic constructions of "Otherness." In cogent readings of Toni Morrison's Beloved, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, and Bessie Head's A Question of Power, Taylor successfully pinpoints the largely ignored issue of how complicity as author, reader, or witness complicates notions of resistance through literary theory.
Part 2 examines William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Gertrude Stein's Ida and "Melanctha," and Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse and Mules and Men, putting racial subjectivity and "the gaze" at the forefront. Here, Taylor shows the conflicted subject positions of these authors and demonstrates how social contexts and constructs shape the way that the comic mode is used to negotiate the tragic.
Finally, the epilogue posits the possibilities of a "critical (post)modernity" that uses comedy to heal the wounds created by a tragic social order and asks how a critical community can move beyond representation to bear witness and take action. Although the text is too expansive in its inquiry and takes on too much, I appreciate Taylor's suggestion that "intercultural dialogue must resist the demand for consensus" and that such dialogue must acknowledge that "actual worlds pre-exist written texts." Thus, she opens a much needed discussion for a large theoretical gap in literary representations of blackness.
Kimberly D. Blockett
University of Wisconsin-Madison