- Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth-Century Tropical Narratives by Charlotte Rogers
In its examination of the long literary tradition surrounding the tropics, Jungle Fever holds that the very idea of the “tropics” is a cultural construct, one that says more about the western imagination than about the tropics as a region. Specifically, the book analyzes how five novelists from Europe and Latin America follow and depart from this “tropical” literary tradition. The book explores Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, André Malraux’s La voie royale (The Way of the Kings), José Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine (The Vortex), Rómulo Gallegos’s Canaima, and Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps). Charlotte Rogers studies how these five novels project an image of the tropics created by western fears, desires, science, and imperial and national projects, an image that reflects the seer more than the seen. This book provides elegant research into the west’s literary discourses about its own otherness. [End Page 141]
Jungle Fever follows William Cronon’s argument that wilderness “is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history” (quoted on 3). It also embraces Rob Shields’s concept of the “place-myths,” which are “imagined geographies that are created slowly over time, but the forces that shape them are historical and cultural rather than geological and climatological” (3). This is quite true of western attitudes not only toward the tropics, but toward all regions that are defined as the west’s cultural others. We need not look much farther than Edward Said’s classic and ground-breaking Orientalism and other postcolonial critiques. Rogers’s book would have benefited from examining how these novels’ takes on the tropics differ from the western imagination’s take on the east (as theorized by Said) as well as its take on other cultural regions.
Following Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell, Rogers analyses the hero’s journey in terms of a reverse quest romance; the hero that departs from home does not overcome his obstacles and adventures and does not return triumphant over adversity. Instead of narrating the hero’s successful return, these novels are accounts of the antihero’s failure, and they debunk the very foundation of “quest romance” as a genre. Rogers also argues that these novels question not only the genre but also the allegedly rational superiority of the west. These narratives reveal a transition from romanticism to modernism in that they incorporate the language of medicine and psychiatry to explain the madness that possesses the tropical hero and his inevitable mental decline and failure. For Rogers, “[w]hile eighteenth and nineteenth century adventures extol the virtues of empire and rationality embodied in their heroes, their twentieth century counterparts . . . contain dark subtexts that reflect the authors’ growing ambivalence toward Europe’s colonization of large swaths of the globe” (19).
Psychiatric discourse serves the purpose of questioning western supremacy in the first two novels that Rogers studies. Rogers convincingly argues that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a good example of the modern rise of psychiatry as a dominant “monologue by reason about madness,” as Foucault defined it in The History of Madness (quoted on 54). Marlow’s mediation of Kurtz’s discourse is a way of silencing Kurtz’s madness. The same can be said of Conrad’s own editing, which cut much of Kurtz’s dialogue from the manuscripts. These are signs of the same control of reason over irrationality and of the lack of mutual intelligibility between the sane and the mad. The novel portrays a stylistic (psychiatric) treatment of madness beyond a mere anecdote about Kurtz going native/mad in Africa. For Malraux’s La voie royale, Rogers’s research shows that the author was familiar with public medical opinion and France’s general anxiety regarding disease in tropical colonies. Rogers makes reference to the pamphlets circulating at the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931 and demonstrates...