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The Critical Reception of Ishmael Reed
Patrick McGee. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's, 1997. x + 149 pp.
Bruce Allen Dick. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport: Greenwood P, 1999. xii + 261.
As announced in his introduction, Patrick McGee wishes to contextualize the misogyny of Ishmael Reed and his characters--"the negation of the other"--as a symptom of larger historical forces from which the author's work emerges. His second aim is to study "the nature of desire itself as a force without a determinate goal," a sort of Lacanian "das Ding." Because much of the evidence is new, deriving from a critical application of Lacan's concept of desire as well as Adorno's notion of "the work of art as a system of contradictions," Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race is a very important contribution to Reed scholarship. McGee demonstrates a familiarity with African American critical concepts, including those that develop from black expressive cultures such as Vodoun, jazz, blues, and the toasts--the dozens of verbal rituals, the monkey tales--of the Signifying Monkey. Actually, McGee's book seems to be a response to Michael Awkward's challenge to white critics to investigate the question of race in African American literature. In the [End Page 979] introduction, McGee repeatedly identifies himself as a white male critic, claiming that as such he can learn "to be more conscientious" in his "own critical practice about possible nonracist places for white males within the critical discussion of African-American literature." By insisting on identifying himself as a white male critic trying to analyze a black text, McGee perhaps partially undermines his argument that Reed "resists the ends of race by longing for the end of race."
The book is composed of an introduction, two major parts with several sections, and a conclusion that culminates into a critical study of Japanese by Spring. The introduction lays ground for part one, "Two Heads: The Form of the Symptom," by arguing that "the misogynistic representations" in Reed's work are consciously and "carefully planned" to both challenge feminist readers and expose the expectations they bring to a literary text. More specifically, McGee traces Reed's misogyny to Vodoun, an articulation of "the radical hybridity of black Atlantic culture," insofar as it reasserts itself as "the negation of the other," which repeatedly manifests itself in the "form of misogyny" in Reed's case. While part of this section is devoted to Reed's Hoodoo Aesthetics and how it relates to Western aesthetic theories, the larger part is devoted to Reed's misogynistic representations in The Last Days of Louisiana Red and Reckless Eyeballing. If anyone had doubts about Reed's misogyny, the evidence is here "provided" (will Reed recover from this?). Bold statements such as "PaPa LaBas's misogyny, like the misogyny, if we can call it that, of Ishmael Reed, cannot be separated from the economy of desire," here relating to the story of Antigone, appear throughout this section. In all fairness, McGee's goal is to historicize misogyny in order to argue that Reed's misogyny is itself a symptom of history and that no critic should regard it as a "black thing"; McGee wants us to accept the misogyny of Reed and his characters and then to situate it in a historical context. Unfortunately, McGee does not succeed in saving Reed from the charge of misogyny.
In "Jes Grew: The Return of the Thing," McGee turns his attention to Mumbo Jumbo and Jes Grew as a Lacanian Das Ding, something without a fixed name. Here McGee is at his best when he closely analyzes Vodoun and characters in Mumbo Jumbo. For example, he cogently demonstrates how PaPa LaBas and Abdul Hamid function as Reed's "two-headed aesthetic." Although McGee excels in foregrounding his analysis [End Page 980] in eclectic critical theories, it seems that he makes a faux pas when he reads Jes Grew as "the black hole at the center of...