- The Subterranean Performance of History between Harlem and Rome in William Demby’s The Catacombs
[N]o, I feel not like God, but rather like some benevolently mad theatrical impresario who eagerly, paternally, leafs through the press clippings of his countless actors and actresses, dispersed monads, who like nomads are wandering over the theatrical caravan routes of the world.—William Demby, The Catacombs (1965)
The Catacombs (1965), written by African American novelist William Demby, is set in early 1960s’ Rome, where the author had returned to study art history after serving on the Italian front during World War II.1 The novel is a metafictional account of Demby’s experience of writing his novel, a project at once jeopardized and sustained by the definitive emergence of media of mass communication. The complex relationship that the text establishes with other media, especially television, produces the halting quality that characterizes the novel, whose plot is consistently interrupted by the news. The text opens by marking the narrator’s obsession with time, his concern with the entanglement of historiography, politics, and the act of writing, and his ludic approach to modernist artistic techniques:
This is a day in March. Here in Rome it is nine o’clock in the morning. The sun has finally come out and my Rotella collages have begun to dance like gorgeous jungle flowers. I sit here at my desk waiting for Doris to come. With her approval I am writing a novel about her. I know that she has spent the night with the Count, and I am waiting for her to come and tell me about it in detail. In the meantime, I read my newspapers, five from Rome, one each from Turin and Milan.(3-4)
This dual accounting for both clock time and historical time is characteristic of the novel’s sense of historicity, which is keenly attuned to symbolic as well as affective measures of experience. March marked the beginning of the year in the Roman calendar, a beginning accompanied by sunlight after the winter months. This sense of a new beginning, with its emphasis on time, prefigures the key structural elements of the text, in which past, present, and future coalesce into temporal and spatial simultaneity. As a work of historical metafiction, Demby’s novel frames its opening scenes of writing and reading by establishing both the historical time of the writerly project and its textual narrative conditions. We learn that the narrator is assembling his story in real time as he waits for Doris, one of the characters, to narrate her life to him, thus foregrounding artistic agency and the referentiality of literary language as central concerns of the novel.
Early reviews accused The Catacombs of lack of clarity and coherence, and emphasized the alienation of the text from the African American experience.2 Edward Margolies and Klaus Hansen have described this experimental text as a late modernist attempt that falls short of its theoretical promise. Robert Bone and an Italian scholar of American culture Andrea Mariani have instead offered a more constructive criticism. In his introduction to the paperback edition, the former analyzes the text in terms of information theory, whereas Mariani explores the structure of the novel and its treatment of time in terms of abstract expressionism, positioning the text between the “heritage of modernism and the postmodern pastiche” (81). Mariani’s analysis hinted at the resistance to narrative offered by the [End Page 417] text yet failed to see the numerous references to cubistic time as an ironic engagement with Western modernist art. The paradoxical resistance to narrative—upon which both critics and admirers of the novel center their arguments—triggers instead what I call the performance of history enacted by the written text. The Catacombs, I contend, performs history in the space between historiography and fiction, where the past—particularly the history of blackness—surfaces from the narrative in the guise of performed archaisms and cultural stereotypes that invoke primitivism and exoticism as well as dramatic events such as slavery and the colonization of Africa. These emergent historical traces offer themselves in turn as “new” objects of inquiry. Performative history constitutes a form of critique...