| || If an image
can represent a thousand words or a single word behave as a bullet in the
way that titles summarize a novel, poem, or painting, what can be said of how this
ammunition operates in American primitivist literature? For a society preoccupied with
looking to other cultures for self definition, being the case that America is a relatively new
nation made up of many outside cultures, the impact of its voyeurism and emulation of
other cultures becomes a political gazing, reflecting unspeakable value.
While sometimes a value
can not be uttered but visually represented as metaphor to tattle on a hidden truth, truthfulness sometimes requires going underground, to shuffle around
and return as art. Still, society may not be prepared to understand art's true intent which is
to educate, not entertain. However, writers are often aware of the impact they have upon
their readers, and such awareness presupposes intention, influencing the written word.
Since a writer writes from what he knows, he has a native experience, however, his
awareness of being watched transfers to a primitive state when a reader's regard influences
a writer's objectivity. Such primitivizing upon literature is two-fold. On one hand, a writer
writes because he is compelled for art's sake, yet then his awareness of an audience may
cause him to excise, self-censor, camouflage or show rebellion with a tone that may feel
aggressive, sanctimonial, or boundary making. Because an author is reminded that what he
writes will eventually be read by someone other than himself, the reader
then becomes co-author of a shareable vision. This insight is very much in the keeping with the technique of
the film suture.
In film theory, the cinematic suture applies itself to three easy steps of telling the
truth via messages navigated by visual contact between subject and observer. In every way,
the suture is a dialectical existential contract between an author, a reader, and a work of art--
I see you, therefore I am. You see me, therefore you are. We see one another, therefore we
seem to exist. In film theory, the suture is made evident when slowing down the frames to
observe how dialogue relies on actors looking at something (step 1), then shows another
angle to reveal the reaction of the viewed subject/object (step 2), to pullback for a longshot
on the relationship judged by the secondary cameraman, the viewer himself (step 3).
Gertrude Stein in "Autobiography of Alice B Toklas" agoraphobically hides behind the
screen of her writings as she is hyper-aware of being watched. To protect
her official art, Stein
employs a false front by suturing her true views via the ventriloquist narrative. It is
a brilliant way for an author to protect a soft, emotional core when it is a known fact
that there is a person
lurking over ones shoulders casting judgement, hindering creativity. However,
in most suture reflexive cases, there is not that much awareness of
an outsider's voyeurism to put a writer underground as Stein went when hiding behind
her lover's persona. Actually, the primitivist-suturist gaze is fairly direct and is best
illustrated in the films "King Kong," "Blonde Venus" and "Jazz Singer."
If the primitivist-suturist gaze is conscious of another's gazing,
is offered by the objectified is no unintentional message. Regarding the
assimilation of Eugene O'Neil's "Hairy Ape," Yank, there is an uncanny
transportation from text to screen when he is morphed into the apish Kong
figure of Mr Wallace's "King Kong." When Kong struggles with the white woman,
Mildred Pierce (Ann Darrow), their gaze of politics expresses masculine vision
which defines how men desire women to perceive them. In essence, these female
figures, however much they may wish to look away, can't because as women they
desire to be possessed and dirtied up by savage beastliness. Meanwhile, Yank
and Kong chase after their white goddesses as if to beg for ethnic cleansing.
Because Beauty can not turn away from the Beast, a fatal attraction is born.
Underneath, O'Neil's message surfaces a political editorial affixed to the end
of his play, that is not about gender struggles but human need:
"And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs." (P.198)
What does O'Neil
mean by "perhaps the Hairy Ape at last belongs"? Can a non-white person feel adequately comfortable in America? Yank
tells us No when he rips up the streets of Park Avenue.
Kong tells us No when triangulating for safer ground upon the tallest
building. Why does Kong need to escape? He does not want to be primitivized
by the flashes of tabloid cameras. Yank too refuses to be scoffed at by the
high-browing New York elite or excluded from the worker's union because of
his darkness. All Yank wants in life is to belong
somewhere, and Kong would rather go home to his island. However, escape is
not possible when the white-American stalks with eyes, evades desire,
and recants with eugenic notions that force the black-American psyche
into feelings of inadequacy.
Therefore the exploit and capture of Kong and Yank is a metaphorical political telling of the
long history of many African-Americans enslaved by commerce surviving off its
negative imprintation and primitive gaze. W.E.B. DuBois states in "The Souls of Black
Folk" (1903) that this exploit is a double-consciousness of "always looking at one's self
through others, of measuring one's soul by the tips of a world that looks on in amused
contempt and pity."
While double-consciousness lurks in the American psyche, DuBois elaborates that the
two-ness of "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled striving; two
warring ideas in one dark body," is a binary of human sufferance affecting humanity as a
whole. However, the Denhams of the world would rather scapegoat blame and place
responsibility upon their exploited captives to say "Beauty killed the Beast." For example,
when Kong is sacrificed, it is a matter of appeasing corporate power for the gawking pleasure
of the masses which is really an express telling of social mores supporting lynchings. (Ouch)
If Beauty is "in the eye of the beholder" and Beauty kills the Beast,
what can be
deduced is that the very act of beholding some object is a
hostage via the gaze. Yet looking
and gazing, is not necessarily evil, for in the film "Blonde Venus,"
Cary Grant is solicitously
seduced by the white goddess, Marlene Dietrich who strips out of an ape suit to primitivize her
sexuality. In this case, the male white-god figure, Mr Grant, can't look away from the beastly
babe, a blonde in hiding, because she possesses notions of primitive jungleness in her Hot
VooDoo, which is a turn-on to the Saxon movie-going Viking. Harkening to Langston Hughes'
"Slave On The Block," the obsession to emulate African-American culture, particularly the
Blues, is often the norm of white Harlem interlopers and a most
undesired gaze :
"THEY WERE PEOPLE who went in for Negroes-- Michael and Anne-- the
Carraways But not in the social-service, philanthropic way, no.
They saw no
use in helping a race that was already too charming and naive and lovely for
words. Leave them unspoiled and just enjoy them, Michael and Anne felt. So
they went in for the Art of Negroes-- the dancing that had such jungle life about
it, the songs that were so simple and fervent, the poetry that was so direct, so
real. They never tried to influence that art, they only bought it and raved over
it, and copied it. For they were artists, too." (P.19)
The motivation of a writer reflects social and aesthetic values, complementing truth.
The evidence of conceptual triggers, whether authentic (native) or copied (primitive) brings the
self into a work of art with ones personal history accumulated over time. What one comes
away with may not have been intended or hoped for but rather reflects something higher than
ones control. While "King Kong" entertains the masses with a lynching of the sort as when
Kong is murdered in the public eye, a negative primitive gaze is present. In contrast, the
complimenting primitive gaze such as in "Blonde Venus" suggests that it's okay to copy and
emulate "jungle people" because sex sells. Although these two modes of primitivist suturism
represent the good and ugly, the message conveyed in the "Jazz Singer" when Al Jolson puts
on a blackface and sings a song to his mammy is that he's singing
for all the Jews of the world, and is more native than primitive
because he is performing from the familiar-- his soul.
While native primitivism passes as kosher, the reputable art depicted in "Jazz Singer"
battles against the negative influence of images pandering to the masses. An author like Edgar
Rice Burroughs gives the public eye what it wants in his "Moon Men" and "Red Hawk"
serials by making a profit off stereotyping Native Americans as savage injuns when calling
for eugenics to rescue mankind by the words of an Indian' slave woman (again, a "beauty
killed the Beast" trope):
"Like the coyote, the deer and the mountains we have been here always. We
belong to the land-- when the last of our rulers has passed away we shall still be
here, as we were in the beginning-- unchanged. The come and mix their blood
with ours, but in a few generations the last traces of it have disappeared,
swallowed up by the slow, unchanging flood of ours. You will come and go,
leaving no trace; but after you are forgotten we shall still be here." (RH, p.164)
Regardless of the ugliness of Burroughs' bigotry, his grossly reproduced series sold out
across America like hotcakes. This evidently says something about current opinion. How
America can be entertained today by bold prejudice on a large commercial level, sponsored by
Disney Incorporated, is bewildering and telling of addictive behavior that can forgive a cultural
genocide. While Burroughs' art is self-conscious, solipsistic
(I exist, therefore you are you), it
is yet aware of the audience so it becomes self-reflexive and shows literary suturism with a
negative primitivist bent toward self-satisfaction, especially since Burroughs disregards the
negative impact of his slander upon multi-cultural society. Although Burroughs gave his
readership exactly what it wanted, he couldn't conceal his inner truth which is the one that
says, "I see a new race" and it isn't the "Cro-Magnon race of paleolithic times" but rather a
calling to the "sterilization of criminals, defectives and incompetents with
birth control and public instruction in eugenics." While Burroughs tried to
conceal his intention to bleach humanity with his writing, the truth, as
evident in all great art, is inescapable.
What is an artist's intention? It is a question of reading
when an author's intent pays tribute, exploits, distorts or
enhances readers toward personal truths. Therefore looking, eyeing, and gazing is synonymous with
reading, or rather, seeing to believe, glimpsing for insight. Comparatively, reading in the
realm of the cinematic suture delivers to the foreground the primary relationship between
author and reader when recognizing a reader's integral function as secondary
auteur in the storyboarding of of the literary narrative.
While most film sutures consciously manipulate an audience for
psychoramic reactions, the literary suture subtly burrows into the
consciousness of a reader, vanishing its absorbed message which
is only observable after a reader returns to a passage
or word to highlight content in the way that a film editor may splice together
several frames of celluloid for isolating a concept.
When eyes command the mind to single out meaning, the modi operandi
of writers such as O'Neil, Stein, Hughes and Nella Larsen, become
exposed. When eyes glimpse back over text to reread Cather, Eliot,
Burroughs or Saroyan, the armature of intent is made known. Each author here is
revered for his prominent role in society as some kind of misfit for each has individually
shaped society with personal truth, but in what manner and purpose is the question.
Burrowing into a reader's psyche is the master of allusive concealment, Willa Cather,
for in her novel, "The Professor's House," a reader is boldly propelled into a distorting
extreme close up of a time long gone and made witness to obscure metaphors which
ornament and layer compounded views via still life objects such as "forms"
(p. 9) and "patterns" (p. 13). These images serve to represent the future-past of Godfrey
St. Peter's true exterior self and make him into something of a
Prufrockian figure. Here, St Peter is a withered intellectual desexualized
like a "headless, armless female torso" (Professor, p. 9) or "a patient etherized upon a table"
(Prufrock, line 3), maintaining house for a group of women concerned with appearance and
ever looking to foreign opinions for self development. Such a case is telling of the primitive
gaze when St Peter looks to Tom Outland for self definition while the women of the St Peter
household look to Paris for an encounter with the exotique. Such ladies could no doubt carry
on a conversation "talking of Michelangelo" (Prufrock, ln 14). Yet all these social and
environmental trinkets are but literary tropes, props designed to distract the reader from
experiencing the exposed nerve of Cather's message which is a felt
presence but a distant
presence as many of these objects and events get in the way of beholding the nerve of humility
and its insufferable loneliness.
To clearly witness humility is to strip away the literary trope of telling a story created
around descriptive ornamentation. However, what if society is not interested in learning but
would rather regard a pretty picture, maybe take a break and do some travelling with a good
book? Perhaps the way to deliver a message then is to conceal, entice, earn trust and reveal
truth, very, very slowly. For Cather, the suture-to-tell-truth technique is evident for she splices
her novel into three parts: Book 1, The Family; Book 2,
Tom Outland's Story; and Book 3,
The Professor, to create isolated close ups where each section is reflexive of the other and
achieves a political testimony that might otherwise not be so well delivered to the masses if the
masses were conscious of the author's intent. To tell the truth then is to conceal it with
colorful narrative because sometimes the truth is painful and requires the sugaring of time for
clear observations to be encountered. What Cather implies is that in order to see this moment,
one must be comfortable and look extremely close at the past as if viewing a germ on a slide
through a microscope. In every way, Book 1 of Cather's "The Professor" is a germ on a slide
which becomes a Hollywood cinematic pullback (like the opening scene of Robert Altman's
"The Player"). Many readers may feel put off because no time reference can instantly be
located for anchoring, yet Cather might argue that there is no time like the present for the
present is created by past actions. Thus when Cather's hero, Tom Outland, has a nativist
experience while spiritually adopting the remains of an extinct Native American civilization,
the moment is like crystals dropped into perfectly clear water':
"I remember these things... This was the first time I ever saw it as a whole. It
all came together in my understanding, as a series of experiments do when you
begin to see where they are leading. Something happened to me that made it
possible for me to co-ordinate and simplify... For me the mesa was no longer an
adventure, but a religious emotion. I have read of filial poetry in the Latin
poets, and I knew I was made for this place." Tom Outland, (p. 226)
And for Cather, what time is this? A time for filial benediction which is really about honoring
Native American ancestors as the true progenitors of American cultural heritage, for it is not
history alone that makes America great but the land which stimulates art
and is a harking back to the Transcendentalist
value which regarded Nature as the muse of artists.
Although Tom Outland appreciated Beauty, his proposal to preserve the Blue Mesa's
artifacts was rejected by the Smithsonian Institute which returned him homeward with the
discovery that his research and efforts could not withstand the
greed of American commerce. Tom Outland's effort could not outlast the "outlandish" harsh
reality of vampyric imperialism, but Cather did her best to post
the message of "hell no, we won't go" when sending her mummified Mother Eve
artifact over the cliff to avoid capture and primitivization (p. 221).
Joining Cather in the creative technique of allusion and metaphor is T S Eliot and his
"Waste Land," which should not be confused with the Blue Mesa but be received in high
contrast. While Cather sections off her novel into three variant degrees of magnification,
beginning rather fuzzy-myopic and ending brilliantly panoramic, "Waste Land" is divided into
five sections with four visual perspectives as the narrator disassociates and is channeled into
personas that dissociate elsewhere, dissolving into greater fuzziness until a complete obscured
blur is achieved. Such movement causes confusion and is confounded by the difficultly of
foreign languages palimpsested upon allusive metaphor disguised as mythic cleverness. One
must wonder why, ever why, Eliot conceals the raw nerve of his poem? Perhaps it is just a
matter of regarding who's looking at him while he writes "Waste Land." In this case, the
gazing culprit is Eliot's imagist colleague, Ezra Pound, master of the "condensare" which is
means "big cut" to excise personal signs of one's vulnerability. In actuality, the condensare is
a form of self-censorship (but don't tell this to the master lecturers of the English department).
Therefore the end result of Eliot's work is an example of poetic chiseling and manipulation
distancing the reader from dealing with Eliot one-on-one. Conversely, at the extreme end of
the to tell the truth's spectrum is William Saroyan whose most honest writing makes him least
vulnerable for his words are but heart propaganda and free agents of liberated art. While
Eliot has his moments to use words like bullets when cancelling out the negative images with
"Shanti, shanti, shanti." Saroyan's entire journalistic monologue speaks face-to-face with the
reader and gives the appearance of being a fresh work just pulled from the typewriter i.e.
"This morning I got it back. It is before me now and I am tapping at it, and this is what I have
written." (p. 66) It is the same kind of moment when Langston Hughes says, "Looky, look at
me... I am Harlem!" in his poem "Air Raid Over Harlem" (ln. 130)
While looking at the Harlem Renaissance experience of Hughes' "Slave On The Block"
and Larsen's "Quicksand," there is less hiding out in 'metaphorland' and more focus on
documenting the real for what it's worth. While Larsen's voice as a narrator is swallowed up
by a feeling of depersonalization because she most likely wrote something of an autobiography,
and having to be aware of the imposition of a reader's gaze, no doubt went underground to
share her private, painful story. Hughes on the other hand probably had special cushioning of
being male and a being older. However, what is agreeably shared by the pair is that as
African-Americans of the 1920s, they felt like outsiders,
being neither black nor white in the
mulatto-negro's society. Yet, these writers created a new color-rich humanity neither neutral
nor neutered but individualistic. As nativist documentarians, Larsen and Hughes played up to
the primitive eye, exposed the in-vogue appreciation of Harlem blues couture for what it meant
to the genuine authentic contrasted against the emulating poser. As Gertrude Stein would offer,
such new self invention was a question of protecting the integrity of "authentic art" versus
"official art." Bringing the work of Pablo Picasso's "Les Des Madamoiselles D'Avignon," to
measure true art from false art, or true intent from false intent, that 1907 cubist portrait of
African culture merged with French society by the hand of a Spaniard is but a monumental
achievement of true and authentic art reflecting modern times appreciating Beauté gorgeaux.
Whereas for Larsen's heroine, Helga Crane, when she is artistically rendered by Herr Olsen
into a savage waif, annexed aside the exploits of an ebony hued Luther from "Slave on The
Block", the message is shared-- such primitive depictions captured by elite blackfacing artisans
is a robbery of the human soul.
In summation, viewing and telling reflects intent, fear, and desire for some kind of
truth. How an author tells the truth depends on the relationship he has with his public eye.
Cather gives herself great distance by focusing on minute details which temporarily distort a
reader's understanding of the political undertones while Larsen projects a disembodied voice to
document the sad tragedies of her life, and Stein hides behind ventriloquism to raise her self
esteem by hundreds of compliments. Meanwhile Eliot barricades behind allusion to conceal the
raw core of his message which is run, turn from me for I am but a lonely guy.' And then
there is the reverse, the confident truth-telling shamans, O'Neil, Saroyan and Hughes who
succeed untainted by public scorning because they do not give much credence to what the
neighbors might think. And too is the liar, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who gets away with fibbing
because America appreciates a good lie. And the greatest lie ever told?
"Beauty killed the beast."