- The Wager of Death: Richard Wright With Hegel and Lacan
Ginger: Listen, we'll either die free chickens or die trying.
Babs: Are those the only options?--Chicken Run
All that [the slave] has is at stake; and even that which he has not, is at stake, also. The life which he has, may be lost, and the liberty which he seeks, may not be gained.--Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom
What we know of Richard Wright's biography supports a psychoanalytic approach to his work. His association with the psychoanalysts Frederic Wertham and Benjamin Karpman, as well as the texts found in his library--among them books by Karl Abraham, Helene Deutsch, Otto Fenichel, Sándor Ferenczi, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, Melanie Klein, Theodor Reik, and Géza Roheim--attest to his familiarity with the field.1 According to Margaret Walker, Wright remained "intensely Freudian"-indeed, "obsessed with psychoanalysis" (286, 245)--throughout his literary and philosophical career.2 The potential of the encounter between Wright and psychoanalytic criticism has nevertheless remained largely unactualized. Instead, what one finds is a catalogue of often reductive readings stubbornly deaf to the complexity and inventiveness of Wright's literary and theoretical oeuvre.
Abdul JanMohamed's study of Wright is a welcome corrective to this history. In The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archaeology of Death, JanMohamed has revised his earlier essays on Wright into a reading that almost covers the prolific author's entire oeuvre. In comparison with the essays, The Death-Bound-Subject foregrounds psychoanalysis, particularly of the Lacanian variant, as its primary methodological tool. An exemplar of clarity, the study moves chronologically through Wright's published texts, leaving out only some of his shorter fiction and nonfiction, the travel narratives produced in the 1950s, and the posthumously published novels Lawd Today! and A Father's Law (the latter came out only in early 2008). Apart from its productive mobilization of psychoanalysis, The Death-Bound-Subject offers an important reassessment of Wright in that it neither disavows nor condemns the troubling insistence with which scenes of graphic (and often misogynistic) violence are replayed in his work. JanMohamed demonstrates that, whereas the reasonable response to the unreasonable repetition of such tableaus of murder, mutilation, and lynching may be to recoil from them, the horror and disgust with which we shield ourselves from the intractable brutality in Wright simultaneously prevents us from observing the hard core of the existence that the author delineates: an existence in which the racialized subject is caught up in, because brought into being through, an endless negotiation with his or her imminent death.
If Wright's readers have been alternately appalled at and frustrated by the relentless negativity of his work--often considered a symptom of the author's psychic compulsions or the ham-fisted didacticism of his residual communism--JanMohamed shows the absolute necessity of Wright's insistent attention to scenes of brutality, of physical, social, and psychic humiliation. He explains this focus in terms of Wright's ongoing negotiation with "the death pact," a kind of obstinate working-over of the practices binding the enslaved (and, after the abolition of slavery, the racialized) subject to injury, dishonor, and degradation, processes that Orlando Patterson theorizes through the Hegelian master-slave dialectic in Slavery and Social Death (1982). For Patterson, slavery is instituted as "a substitute for certain death," "usually violent death"; the enslaved subject is a being integrated into the master's symbolic universe as "a socially dead person" (337, 5). In this death pact of master and slave, the latter's death sentence what JanMohamed calls his "actual-death"--is commuted insofar as the slave acquiesces to his "social-death." Only "symbolic-death," a Lacanian concept that I turn to below, offers a possible way to pry open the slave's futureless horizon.
The Death-Bound-Subject convincingly reads Wright's oeuvre as a persistent negotiation with the vicissitudes of the death contract. The process begins with his first book, the 1938 short story collection, Uncle Tom's Children. JanMohamed demonstrates that...