- Lohengrin’s Swan and the Style of Interiority in “Of the Coming of John”
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, “double-consciousness”, charity interiority, poïesis, mimesis, Richard Wagner, Lohengrin
The impressions and sense perceptions of humans actually belong in the category of surprises; they are evidence of an insufficiency in humans. … Recollection is … an elemental phenomenon that aims at giving us the time for organizing “the reception of stimuli.” Which we initially lacked.—Paul Valéry, Analecta
Readers of W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, will recollect the pivotal scene of rising action in the 13th chapter, “Of the Coming of John,” when a young black man named John Jones sits in Times Square watching the bustling human activity of the streets.1 For some time, while at college at the Wells Institute in Johnstown, he [End Page 211] had been pondering what it must have felt like to think all things in Greek, along with the contradictory profundities of modern German thought, aimed at achieving that state of enlightenment when the electrified intellect cuts through the dimming veil of superstition and surpasses its quotidian state. So, it is with a clarity of mind not unlike Leibniz’s that Jones sits there astutely attentive to the world of motion and men, which reminds him of the sea, changelessly changing, bright and dark, grave and gay, invitingly tumultuous. Appreciating the details of clothing fabric and style in the hustle bustle of the crowd as indices of wealth, he recognizes the scene he is observing to be the world. And since many of the richer and brighter of the world seem to be hurrying all in one way, he concludes that the street they took was leading somewhere of significance. “This is the World,” Jones thought, or at least something just as spellbinding. When a young couple suddenly come into view, whose particularities so absorb Jones’s whole attention, he unhesitatingly and rather incautiously follows them through the crush of the crowd to the ticket office of the Metropolitan Opera House, which was then Midtown on 1411 Broadway, and so a rather short walk up from the square, where he unwittingly pays five dollars to enter he knew not what.
This New York scene is narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, focused on Jones’s impressions of things in a style that depicts the temporal immediacy of his perception as they occur and his impressions, without any reflection on their meaning. Meticulously internalized, narrating Jones’s thinking, and even then only minimally depicting his thinking about what is happening around him, the passage presents instead impressions that are more like thought images than anything else. It is a pivotal scene for the short story on three counts. The first has to do with the narrative perspective; the internalized impressionism marks a shift in what had been the narrative perspective for the first five pages, which is to say more than a third of the entire 14-page story. For though the story is being narrated in the third-person perspective of a character in the story, recounting events in Jones’s career at the Wells Institute, most likely the narrator is directly acquainted with and a party to those events. There are a number of explicit narrative markers that indicate this portion of the story is being told by a teacher at the institute who is not only personally acquainted with but also fond of Jones. Beginning with [End Page 212] its opening description of the location of the Wells Institute at the end of Carlisle Street on the west side of Johnstown on to its account of Jones’s graduation, the opening five pages function as a lengthy exposition telling what we need to know about where Jones came from: “He came to us from Altamaha,” who or what he is, and what he had to contend with to get an education. All of which is as meticulously externalized as the New York scene is internalized.
The second reason for the New York scene being pivotal is...