Wednesday, November 16, 2011


 "I would stare out to sea, envying the sailors riding out on merchantmen on the gift of good weather, wondering if there was some far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth's rim where a freeman could escape the vanities cityfolk called self-interest, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom---all the bilge that made each day landside a kind of living death." From Middle Passage.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "From the first sentence of MIDDLE PASSAGE, your novel seems to embrace the theme of Flight. This theme appears quite often in African American literature. How is your novel different from others that have explored this topic? In 2011, where can a black man run to? What might he be escaping from?"

Yes, and yes again: the slave narrative, one of America's most indigenous literary forms, is all about flight. The flight or escape from slavery: Frederick Douglass's daring tale of escape, or that of Henry "Box" Brown who mailed himself to freedom. I think if we poke at this idea a little bit, slavery can be seen as a metaphor for anything that constricts or confines human imagination and the universal desire to be free. 

The cage one might wish to escape from could be an arranged marriage (for a man or a woman), as is the case with Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage. Or it could be escape from an abusive marriage. Or a suffocating family life. Or a spirit-depleting job. Or an affluent social class to which one feels he or she doesn't belong. Think of all those science fiction stories in which characters try to escape from future dystopias. Or the flights of Huck and Jim. Or all those supposedly broken-hearted soldiers who joined the French Foreign Legion after a love affair went sour. Or nearly every Sinbad story starting with that character feeling bored at home and deciding to sail off on a ship (in most stories he's soon shipwrecked.) We find this theme of flight throughout world literature, and the reason is because the experience is both primal and paradigmatic. (It also forms the basis for the adventure story, which is one of my favorite forms of fiction.) In my notebooks, I long ago jotted down a short list of experiences that serve much the same archetypal storytelling function as flight---primal "ground situations" (to use John Barth's phrase) from which one can conjure entire fictional worlds (but don't ask me where I first read about this list because I've forgotten its source):

1. Birth.
2. Death.
3. Marriage.
4. Attaining adulthood.
5. Serious illness and recovery.
6. War and concluding peace.
7. Choosing a vocation and launching a career.
8. Setting out upon a long journey.

The theme of flight is, I think, a variation on  #8, "setting out upon a long journey." In Middle Passage, the flight that Rutherford Calhoun takes by going to sea to avoid marriage hurls him from the frying pan into the fire. An immature young man at the novel's opening, he is forced to achieve adulthood by all the challenges and crises he experiences at sea. He lives through the death of many, through a serious illness, through war (the slave revolt on the Republic), and finds a new vocation when by the novel's end he has indeed become a sailor. So the novel hits every theme in the above list except for birth as it cycles through the three basic conflicts in storytelling: Man vs. nature. Man vs. man. And Man vs. himself.
          But Ethelbert asks, "In 2011, where can a black man run to?"

This question makes me wonder if there is a need for flight for black men in general. What is it they need to flee from? (If one has broken the law and the police are at one's heels, well, yeah, I guess there is a need for flight, which is the title, of course, for the second section of Richard Wright's Native Son.) But I can't racialize this question in a general way. What it does is make me recall one of my favorite Zen stories, which is (once again) a variation on #8 on the above list:

          Two monks, one old and one young, traveled on foot for several days from their home to another village. The trip was tiring. They ran out food. Their feet became blistered. Rain one evening soaked their robes. As they finally approached their destination and could see the village that had taken them so long to reach, the younger monk became excited. He began to walk faster. Then he started running toward the village. The older monk did not run. He maintained his steady pace of walking. And he called out to the younger monk, Here also it is good.

No comments:

Post a Comment