- Performance, History, and Myth:The Problem of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo-Jumbo
The work of Ishmael Reed presents both a puzzle to be solved and a problem to be engaged. Reed's intentional elusiveness invites the critic to fathom the difficulties of his prose by closely analyzing the patterns of allusion and reference that make up so much of his fiction. To provide a satisfactory solution to the puzzle of his individual works, the critic must further consider the problem of Reed's relationship to the literary movements of his time. Fortunately for us, Reed is not especially retiring as an advocate of his own work. Indeed, the occasional animus against his oeuvre may be a reaction against the claims he makes on behalf of his fiction. To be fair, these substantial claims on our attention are made not only by the author of those texts alone but also by the texts themselves.
Reed's project has two distinct, though related parts. He wishes to loosen the stranglehold of the Judeo-Christian tradition on the cultural patterns of black people everywhere (not simply Afro-Americans).1 Further, he wishes to reestablish the virtue of fiction as performance on the [End Page 97] part of the artist, wresting it from the domination of the West, which to his mind has emphasized contemplation and tranquility over performance and activity.
Two aspects of Reed's fiction make it problematic to place his work within the context of historical fiction. His emphasis on the fantastic and the surreal, if not the unreal, would seem to sever the relationship between the work of art and the world outside the work. The more fantastic the work, the more it demands to stand on its own terms without validation by comparison with the outside world. In other words, the more heavily presentational a work, the more likely it will subordinate propositional concerns such as historical faithfulness or accuracy. In a similar fashion, Reed's imperative toward performance would seem to emphasize the moment of the work itself and militate against an historical motive. Nevertheless, it is possible to recognize in Ishmael Reed's fiction a central place for the interweaving of history and fiction. He most nearly plays the role of an historical fabulist who seeks to revise fiction—to "rehistorify" it—by taking liberties with the established historical "facts" of Judeo-Christian culture. By doing so, Reed hopes to revise our historical understanding and create a new myth for black history: The tension between the requirements of history and the requirements of myth leads both to the richness and to the poverty of his fiction.
Reed's sense of history devolves from an understanding that the historical "facts" as we understand them are wholly fictions propagated by the masters of high Western culture. As such, this conventional, account downplays (if it does not completely ignore) the significance of people of color throughout the world. In America, the influential role of Afro-American, culture has been denied its proper historical place; it has, instead, been trivialized and marginalized. The writer, argues Reed, "rehistorifies" black fiction and black culture by firmly emphasizing the capacity of the text to record a revised history. But this recording of history requires a "rewriting" of the larger context of the past, both historically and mythically. Following this imperative, Reed's work must emphasize simultaneously both the historicity of the present and its mythic dimension relative to a revised cultural hegemony. It is simultaneously presentational and propositional.
Commentators on the novel have long recognized the complexity of the relationship between literary art and history. As early as the influential Historical Novel (1937), Georg Lukács argued that wholly verisimilar representation did not necessarily guarantee a novel's historicity. Flaubert's Salammbo (1862), for example, displayed a kind of "accuracy" that worked in the service of a greater ahistoricity. "In Flaubert there is no . . . conection [End Page 98] between the outside world and the psychology of the principal characters. And the effect of this lack of connection is to degrade the archaeological exactness of the outer world: it becomes a world of historically exact costumes and decorations...