- Claudia Rankine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the Untimely Present
A discourse of timeliness haunts the marketing and reception of recent writing by African American authors. A quick review of a few works shows just how much. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's marketing description for Angela Flournoy's The Turner House (2015), a novel about post-recession Detroit, assured potential buyers that it was "A powerful, timely debut" ("Angel Flournoy"). Blake Butler of Vice praises John Keene's Counternarratives (2015), which collects stories of black life in the Americas from early colonization to present, as "one of the most vitally timed books of the year" (Butler 2015). Jabari Asim's Only the Strong (2015), set in a fictionalized version of St. Louis in the 1970s, bears a front-cover blurb praising the novel's "eerie timeliness" (Bell 2015). In a compilation of reviewer blurbs for Paul Beatty's Man-Booker-Prize-winning novel The Sellout (2016), three separate reviewers praise the book as "timely" ("The Sellout"). Ron Charles's Washington Post review of T. Geronimo Johnson's Welcome to Braggsville (2015), a satire on race, lynching, and liberal America, applauds the novel for forcing Americans to confront their "national amnesia" concerning the history of lynchings and racial violence in the U.S. "Welcome to Braggsville," he concludes, "It's about time" (Charles 2015). Charles's idiomatic conclusion suggests that something belated has—at last—come to pass. It's about time, that is, that implicitly white, novel-reading Americans remember the deep history of racial violence in America. And yet, as Charles's review somewhat inadvertently points out, timeliness itself works by way of cultural amnesia, in the operative privilege of forgetting that racial violence has been the status quo since colonization and so this or that book seems particularly relevant just now. This is the bind of the timely: it attempts to make literature relevant by attaching it to cultural events, but the attempt is predicated on a forgetfulness that should remain troubling.
Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric—a surprise bestseller in 2014 that has made Rankine one of the foremost figures for thinking about race in America—did not escape the discourse of timeliness in its reception. This is hardly surprising, given that Citizen's poems chart the correspondence between the microaggressions of everyday racism and the fatal aggressions [End Page 225] of highly visible police violence and hate crimes in the United States and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous passage of Rankine's book records the names of those recently killed by hate crimes and police violence, a macabre list that has grown with over subsequent printings of the book, literally keeping time with America's ongoing racial violence..1 Rankine's close attention to racism in America led Dan Chiasson, poetry critic for The New Yorker, to comment that Citizen is "An especially vital book for this moment in time" (Chiasson 2014). Recall, too, that Blake Butler described John Keene's Counternarratives as a "vitally timed" book. Chiasson's remark, like Butler's, adds an important nuance to the timely by drawing a connection between timeliness and vitality, that is, between timeliness and life.
While Chiasson's description of Rankine's "vital book" speaks rather straightforwardly to his perception of the book's importance, his word choice also follows Rankine's writing back to a modernist philosopher of life and untimeliness, Friedrich Nietzsche. In his preface to "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," the most renowned of his four Untimely Meditations published between 1873 and 1876, Nietzsche characterizes the "untimely" as that which "acts counter to our time and thereby acts on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come" (1997, 60). Following from Nietzsche's definition, does it not seem possible that the supposed timeliness of African American writing has more to do with "untimeliness," in acknowledging an ongoing disjuncture between amnesia and racial memory that continues to take shape along the rift of the color line?
I propose over the course of this essay that Rankine's poetry re-envisions Nietzsche's philosophy of life, particularly his notion that life emerges from a...