Time in Two Parts

two part time

“I’ve recently started to finish learning Bach’s Two-Part Inventions.”

This awkward sentence nudged itself into some of my written correspondence this morning, and I gagged a little when I reread it before sending. My first impulse was to emphatically land my finger on the delete key, and to retype something a bit more polished sounding. I’m revisiting the Bach Inventions, in the hope of finally learning them all. Nice, right?*

I imagine that the awkwardness in the original has something to do with the overload of verbs up front – startedto finish, and learning are a fair number of actions to take into account. Particularly as they are only meant to signify a single but continuing process.

Yet there is also the problem of starting to finish something. What does that mean? I know what starting is, likewise finishing. But at what point in a project do you start to finish? Is three quarters of the way through a safe bet? Halfway? What if all beginnings are, in fact, the start of a finish? Isn’t that the teleological nature of all our endeavors? When we begin something, it is with the intention to end it. And so perhaps what strikes me as strange about saying I’ve recently started to finish learning the Bach Two-Part Inventions is that, in truth, I started them quite a long time ago. Only recently have I made a point to finish learning them.

Little more than a month ago, my goals were measured in chapters and sections (sometimes paragraphs and sentences) of a large written document that had a very clear end in sight.** Without these goals, I literally have no idea how to live my day.

I need new goals. And the first one that appeared was Bach. Because Bach and I have unfinished business.

As a twinkly eyed piano performance major, I had – like everyone else – learned four or five out of the fifteen two-part inventions. There’s a reason for this. They are pedagogically sound, in a way that something like Burgmueller’s études simply aren’t. Whereas the latter teaches you how to do something technically difficulty with your fingers (and okay, yes, that is important but…), the former teaches you how to think two different lines at once. The right hand and left hand are discrete entities, that are yet functioning together. (That’s called counterpoint.) And this is a really hard thing to get, which is why, after vowing (in the way that nineteen year olds vow things) to learn all fifteen by the end of fall term, I had abandoned them completely and changed my major.***

I switched to French & Comparative Literature and never looked back. Really. A decade later, after a doctorate in French & Comparative Literature, it is pretty clear that I have not looked back even once. (To be fair, I looked sideways a few times, like that gap year after my MA program that I spent juggling anywhere between four to five part-time jobs at once… You can see how we graduate students get ourselves into these situations – situations in which more higher education seems like a good idea. If impoverished overemployment is the only alternative to the lonely, low-paid labor of the mind, then I say no thank you.)

This is how I currently find myself in the unique situation of having time on my hands. The kind of time that comes from taking a significant pause between major life events – life events like finishing one’s PhD and expecting one’s first baby. What exactly do you occupy yourself with in the interim? Besides polishing up a few dissertation sections into article form, and reading all the books you’ve been eyeing longingly for the last five years, and taking long (slow) walks, and googling things like “Is attachment parenting really anything worth considering for more than five minutes?” and napping…

And that’s when Bach appeared. Because Bach takes time and concentration. Much more than I ever had as an undergrad, and certainly more than I will ever have again. There seemed to be no better answer to the question “How shall I fill my empty time?” If this particular epoch of liminal existence feels like a three month plane ride, then why not fill it with the kind of things one never has time to do?

So every morning, I sit down at my keyboard and slowly (painfully slowly) tap away at a line of music that, after two hours or so, is rendered more or less speedy in tempo, more or less accurate in notes. And this sounds excruciatingly boring. And it is sometimes. (Especially when I click back into “good music major” habits and actually play some warm-up scales.) But it is also a divine luxury, to be able to sit peacefully, without disturbance, and take all the time that I need.

And this practice expresses what really is so important about Bach Inventions as opposed to any other series of keyboard literature floating out in the world: they require slowing oneself down nearly beyond imagining. It is a lesson I never learned as an impatient teenager in the practice room; it is a lesson that I never learned as an impatient graduate student in the library. The lesson of tedium is hard won, and much of life is tedious indeed.

Much of art is tedious, in fact, requiring an immense amount of techne and very little of the inspired whatchamacallit of human brilliance. These have their temporal implications as well. Craftmanship takes years of repetition to develop whereas this flash of inspiration – the creative genius that I suppose we may in some ways thank Kant for (de)limiting: “Beautiful art is the art of genius”**** – is to be understood as the work of the moment. The thunderclap, the lightbulb, the “Eureka!” of the bath tub.*****

So I attempt to finish this piece of music in the remaining weeks the way that other soon-to-be parents occupy themselves with reading baby books and decorating the nursery. But I cannot imagine that the newly arrived member of our home will be at all appreciative of my ability to interpret the timbre of its cries or the color of its vomit, nor with how well the whimsical paintings on the walls match the crib bedding. It will also, in all likelihood, fail to be impressed by its mother’s ability to play all fifteen of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. But it may notice the stores of maternal patience that she has acquired in the process.

This is time in two parts. On the one hand, the large openness of the time it takes to make a human, on the other hand, the screeching pace of a metronome moving from 68 BPM to 120. Counterpoint, which is not the same thing as harmony at all. It functions – like multiple stratas of time – in dissonance and resolve.

*Hire me as an editor. I have competitive rates.

**Dissertation.

***That is actually the fault of Shostakovitch.

****This is expressed in the Aesthetics book of The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).

***** The exclamation is attributed to Archimedes, who discovered that bath water is displaced in equal proportion to the amount of naked Greek body you submerge in it.

The Millennium Trilogy and Relearning to Read the “Readerly” Text

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There was not – if I’m being honest – much thought behind my decision to suddenly drop everything nothing and finally read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Not that I insist on putting too much thought into one’s choice of reading material. In fact, I would call myself a proponent of the spin-around-in-bookshop-and-point strategy of literary selection. But I had in fact made myself a post-dissertation reading list full of gems that I have been meaning to enjoy for years. (PS – I finished my dissertation. I’m a doctor. A book doctor.) On the list were many names (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Somerset Maugham, Marlon James) but Stieg Larsson, certainly not. This absence was based on nothing other than the fact that, since I’d been living without him for this long, I could go on doing so. In fact, this is the only sound reason for not reading anything ever.

Because I began grad school when these three novels came out (and because, I’m just going to admit it, I don’t tend to read popular books) I missed them entirely. I did hear vaguely about the controversy involving Larsson’s partner, who was denied inheritance after his death. But mostly because this was the kind of thing that we people who lived together without getting married and took ourselves very seriously discussed in disgusted tones. Just another example of matrimony qua bourgeois conspiracy.

So besides the knowledge that the series revolved around one (or several) tattooed, pyromanaical female protagonist(s) who displayed violence toward the vesidae family of insects, I had no reason to pick them up off the thrift store shelf for two bucks a pop. I did not even read the back covers. And if I had any thoughts at all, which I doubt, they might have been the following: 1) These books clearly represent some kind of sweeping cultural phenomenon/franchise that I have missed entirely. 2) I mean, what else has ever come out of Sweden? Let’s see…Linnaeus’s taxonomy and…Pippi Longstocking…I like both of those things, so… 3) Judging by the bright covers and the comments plastered all over them, I’m pretty much guaranteed a good time here.

In the end, I was looking for entertainment. And Larsson definitely delivers. I have been sitting on my patio for the last week, completely unaware of the world around me, following the exploits of a phenomenally strange young woman and her journalist buddy as they dodge bullies, elude police officers, steal from the rich, publish the stories of the poor, and generally fight the good fight.

But more than mere escape, I have also been relearning a valuable skill that has been beaten out of me like a bad habit in the last few years – how to take pleasure in reading. How to get lost in a book. How to feel for and with a character.

I say “skill” because I think it actually is. It may seem like total absorption in compelling prose could be considered a skill the way falling off a chair could be considered a skill. But it takes more than that to enjoy reading. There is a reason that the vast majority of the population rarely spends any significant time with books. It takes quiet concentration, which is a difficult thing to generate. It takes time and attention – actually, it takes a combination of those two things functioning simultaneously. It takes practice. (And also, by the way, it is kind of hard to spontaneously fall off a chair. Really hard. If you’re already sitting in it, and it’s not too high, it’s damn near impossible. Let’s not discount the effort involved, is all I’m saying…)

I can’t mention the words “pleasure” and “reading” in the same sentence without thinking of Roland Barthes and his Le Plaisir du Texte (1973). This annoys me slightly because here I am, joyfully attempting to separate myself from literary theory, but I can’t help it. This kind of thing has been imprinted upon me and besides all of that, I do love Barthes. I always have. It is in this work that Barthes comes back to the idea of “readable” (lisible) and “writable” (scriptible) texts that he put forth in S/Z (1970). Except here, they directly correspond to pleasure and bliss (jouissance). In French, jouissance means bliss, but also orgasm…which, yes, giggle giggle, is dirty, but also implies delayed but intensified gratification, as opposed to immediate sensation.

If I wanted to massively oversimplify this (and I do! This is not an academic article! Let’s oversimplify for the sake of thinking some neat-o thoughts that we can actually wrap our heads around! Let’s take all of Barthes and put it in a ‘nutshell’ because we CAN! It will be fun!) I would say that the “readable” text, which gives pleasure, is a passive experience, wherein the reader is “pleased” or “pleasured” as it were, but “to no end” (intellectually/sexually). One is stimulated but not satisfied, is perhaps a way of saying it. Then the “writable” text, which produces bliss/orgasm is a multilayered phenomenon in which the reader is not a passive subject, but rather participating in the “writing” of the text itself. That is complicated to explain. The way I’ve understood it is that, with a “writable” text or a “writable” reading, the reader must forge connections in order to fully understand the impact of the work. And that impact may actually be something different than the author intended, because it has to do with what the reader brings to the situation of the read/written moment. (And you’ll have to forgive me at this point if it seems I’m exclusively drawing from the introductory portions of S/Z rather than engaging Plaisir more specifically…we work with what we know…)

I bring all this up because, in simple terms, what Barthes is getting at is a politely overintellectualized way to say that some books are “literature” – even “great literature” – and some books are not. But that is not quite true either. It is more so that some readings are literary and some are not. And that part is on us.

I wouldn’t say that the Millennium Trilogy qualifies as whatever complex things Barthes means by the “writable” text. I’d say there is a lot of pleasure here and very little bliss. And indeed, my own reading (sitting here on the patio with my sweet tea and fly swatter wearing a muumuu and sunglasses, having apparently forgotten to either shower or seek gainful employment) could not be qualified as literary by any means.

For all that, I don’t think that taking pleasure in reading is quite so shallow as Barthes seems to imagine. And I think that there is something interesting, specifically, about Barthes’ very sexual terms as applied to Larsson’s work.

One of the running themes throughout the three books is violence against women – sexual violence in particular. This takes some gruesome forms, but it also takes the form of silent reflections and subtle actions of men that devalue (but do not violate, per se) the women in their lives. In fact, this is perhaps the one characteristic of the book that makes it “not only” some kind of “escape” but also a social commentary (albeit a subtle one).

So when we’re thinking about passive and active roles of reading (readable/writable, pleasure/bliss), I wonder how important it is to consider the sexual roles that Larsson portrays throughout the books, and to consider whether they relate at all to the experience of reading. If we take this text to be one of passive pleasure, a readable text in which we have no participatory (“writerly”) role, is it possible to see this as a purposeful limitation of our experience? Instead of pure escape within the (exciting, stimulating, titillating) plot of the text, is it possible to consider that we become passive precisely because this is part of the experience that Larsson means to portray in the sexual dynamics of the various characters?

There is a kind of oppressive flatness to the book that I think is purposeful. All characters are flat. Even though Lisbeth Salander is a genius with a tortured past, she is entirely static. Mikael Blomkvist is a “good guy” and nothing more. But here’s the thing. To his credit, Larsson is aware of this flatness. Why else, in the second book, when you are just about to tear your hair out with the sheer boringness of Dag and Mia does he kill them off? (I’m not spoiling anything – it’s on the back cover.) Because he knows that they are better off dead. So I don’t think we’re dealing here with someone who simply wasn’t gifted enough to write character, I think he’s giving us two-dimensional shadows for a reason. And they may be flat, but they weave throughout the multiple layers of some rather stocky plot lines.

So here’s the thing, I keep thinking about that rather off-putting scene that serves as the prologue for the second book. A thirteen year old Lisbeth Salander is strapped down to what we later find out is a hospital bed, and surveyed lasciviously by a man who we later discover is Dr. Teleborian, the renowned child psychiatrist. There’s a real concentration on the flatness of her position, as opposed to the uprightness of the doctor. He tightens the straps that are holding her flat to the table, but he never lays a hand on her. He is mobile, while she is immobile. This is meant to be construed as a sexually sadistic relationship and a violation, but it is emphasized that his pleasure comes from the position of power, not from any physical contact.

I guess my point here is that it might be worth exploring whether this particular scene could in some way be a representation of the reader’s relationship to the character in the scene of the encounter with the pleasurable text. It makes me cringe, but is it possible to consider that we as readers might also be locked in a sadistically imbalanced torture scene? Are we, as pleasure readers, Dr. Teleborian, sadistically surveying the helplessness of the characters upon the flat plane of the page itself? One of the goals of Larsson’s books was to expose the hidden realm of violence against women in Sweden, a task that he presumed he could accomplish more powerfully as a writer of literature rather than as a journalist. But that begs the question: why? Well, because that is the thing about fiction – the reader holds a position. Fiction is not a closed universe the way non-fiction purports to be. And here, I wonder if he puts us in such an odious position in order to more forcibly bring about a confrontation with a violence that lies just below the surface of pleasure. We take pleasure in the text, and part of this pleasure is in the flatness of characters combined with the dimension-laden intricacy of plot.

So while it would seem possible to construct a clear analogy between the “doctor” and “patient” and the reader and character, there is one clear and important distinction. Dr. Teleborian is in a position of power. We, as the readers – and particularly the readers of pleasure – are not. Indeed, we are passive as well. I would say that, precisely because this is a “readable” rather than a “writable” text, in Barthes’ terms, we do feel the immobility of the flat character (for we cannot do or change anything about the text), while simultaneously experiencing the mobility of the work itself, in which we are capable of participating in various positions.

(This might all be a way of simply noticing off-hand that Larsson has employed the omniscient third-person narrator point of view. In which case, I need a tee-shirt that says “I spent five years getting a doctorate and all I got was this lousy basic knowledge of literary devices.”)

Is my point that pleasurable reading is necessarily sadistic reading? Of course not. I certainly could not live with that. (Although, I kind of think that may be where Barthes goes in Plaisir.) I think reading for pleasure (as opposed to bliss) is a wonderful thing. Let’s not all suddenly feel dirtier than we already do about our mass market paperbacks. My point is that, in this particular text, the author has perhaps mobilized certain aspects of such reading (particularly the subject/object relationship) in order to bring to light a pervasive violence that is not only represented within the book, but that then reaches beyond the text itself in order to signify the relationship between the reader and the read. Yet that dualistic relationship is then brought into question, necessarily and precisely because the text is not “writable”. In other words, we are exposed to the position of the sadist, while yet escaping that position.

Which is my argument – boom! you didn’t see that coming! – for reading the “readerly” text.

Isidore Okpewho’s Myth in Africa (1983)

Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…

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Myth in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

London: Cambridge, 1983

Preface:

Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)

Africa and oral narrative theory: a critical survey

This chapter is incredibly useful if you want a quick “state of the discipline and how it got there” refresher on the various scholarly trends that were picked up by those who analyze myth – not necessarily African myth, but myth in general. I have a feeling that this is, literally, the “Oral Literature 101” survey course he was probably teaching at the University of Ibadan. He very usefully goes through several schools of thought, but also organizes them based on categories for which he provides an illustration at the back of the book.

(It may be important to note that by “state of the discipline” I mean the state of the discipline in 1983. Some developments have occurred since then, but I must say, it’s not a popular topic, so what you’re getting in 1983 is probably a pretty accurate contemporary picture…)

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Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

Who owns the story? Is it an individual work or a collective effort? Is it a object merely in the service of religious ritual or is it an aesthetically informed piece of poetry? (Imagine if you will the difference between reading the Koran for purposes of religious practice or for purposes of analyzing the poetry in which it is composed, which is stunning.)

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Okpewho addresses some of these questions and quite a few more. This is a fairly specific text, but if you’re interested in African oral literature – or, actually, in any of the commonly known epics (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Illiad and/or the Odyssey)-  you will certainly find some merit. I really enjoy Okpewho’s writing – it’s clear that he is far more concerned with poetry than with the mathematical functions of the folktale like some good Russians we know *ahem*Propp*ahem* and this carries through.

So for your enjoyment, my notes on The Epic in Africa

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self-imposed leisure reading

Okay, I did it.

I wrote a dissertation prospectus and passed the defense, which means that in order to be crowned DOCTOR, I have but one tiny, little, no-big-deal hoop to jump through called ‘writing a dissertation’…

I also survived the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in New York City. (ACLANYC2014) These are some things I learned…

1) Edouard Glissant is very popular among pretty much everyone right now.

2) Apparently Glissant’s writing has nothing to do with the Caribbean.

3) All the men who study his theoretical work are frustrated Deleuzians.

That sounds a little harsh, because I did hear some AMAZING papers that made me very psyched to see this body of writing, that I care about SO MUCH, becoming popular. (Okay, to be fair, I got really psyched about it after I had my requisite former indie-kick reflex of whininess that something obscure and cool I used to surprise people with is now mainstream. But whatever, Glissant’s work is so wonderful and everyone should read it. So there.) But it was a wee bit discouraging to hear one or two concepts picked up, taken out of context, and used for a project that is completely unrelated to Glissant’s whole oeuvre. What was more frustrating was to hear people say that taking his words and concepts completely out of context and plugging them in somewhere else was something that he “would have wanted”…I mean, the man has been dead for, like, two seconds. Assuming to know the intellectual wishes of the recently deceased strikes me as being…well…tacky…too soon…

4) Nollywood is a thing.

5) Adichie is much more interesting than I thought she was

6) Judith Butler is not a gracious guest. She introduced her talk “Capital/Punishment” by saying, “I’m not sure why I’ve been asked to speak about this topic. But here is what I have to say…” Dang, JB, are we bothering you? And where are the cats? I don’t understand a thing you’re saying…

7) All food in New York is better than any food anywhere else. Fact.

I also made it from Montreal to Atlanta to New York to Montreal without throwing up or having a panic attack, even when I went through customs and finally fessed up to living with my Canadian husband. They passed me right on through.

So I am now on a much-needed break, before I start writing this dang dissertation. And what did I do? HIT THE LIBRARY!!!

Wait, what?

Yes, I’m hitting the library. The fiction stacks. The fun stuff. The goods. I have to get in a week of everything I just dang feel like reading before it’s back to the history and criticism and theory and random anthropological studies and folktales and novels that seem to be glaring at me, daring me to understand what’s going on…an open book, you see, is also a closed book…

So I ravenously wandered around the English language fiction section at the BANQ (then ravenously wandered up and down St-Denis for some food and discovered that there is banh mi place literally steps away from the library…) and went home with my hands full:

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys because, as a major Jane Eyre fan and a postcolonial literature scholar, I’ve been meaning to read it for ages.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maughm because this dude cracks me up and because The Magician was batshitcrazy and I want more.

The New Moon’s Arms and The Salt Roads by Haitian-Canadian, Toronto based sci-fi writer Nalo Hopkinson because my very dear friend passed her dissertation defense this week, which means that she’d better be constructing the book proposal RIGHT NOW, and she’s going to need a sounding board.

The Hungry Tide by Amitov Ghosh because I heard approx six people mention this text in relation to the fascinating new genre of criticism called, “The Blue Humanities”…or, as I prefer to call it, “Water n’ Stuff”…

Okay, HERE I GO!!!

this week in books: histoire du Sénégal

This week was largely devoted to brushing up on my Senegalese history. I’m revising an article – crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s (as well as changing most of my which’s to that’s…good lord did I not go to middle school?) and I realized that while the literary premises were sound, the paper was really lacking context. (And by “I realized” I mean “my adviser – the fiercest editor I’ve ever met – suggested that I needed to put all the literary pish-posh into some kind of cohesive historical framework”…) So I went about kicking myself for the thousandth time since I began working on my ‘dissertation project’ proper for having wasted my intellectual youth coming up with clever ideas instead of cracking open a dang history book, and then I hit the library.

Full disclosure: this is not polished thinking…this is the product of skimming a few books before doing more substantive work…if you are a historian (*cough cough* – I know you guys) let me know what’s wrong here and what I need to do to fix it because I’m just wading through books and trying to figure it all out…

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I found a few sources that were particularly good. I FINALLY got around to reading  Mamadou Diouf’s L’Histoire du Sénégal: le modèle islamo-wolof et ses péripheries (2001) which is, of course, a fantastic source. Diouf is the dude, as far as I can tell. The dude who knows the stuff.

The most helpful part of this book for me, since I am working on cities, was the brief section related to the establishment of the Quatre Communes in 1848. It’s really important for Diouf to concentrate on this because a big part of his project is looking at the center/periphery model. I think we’re quite accustomed to thinking of colonized spaces in Subsaharan Africa as métropole/vast washes of undeveloped space with a trading post or two. In significant ways, however, Saint-Louis in particular, and the other three cities of the Quatre Communes (Dakar, Rufisque, Gorée) will be as important, if not more, than Paris (or Nantes or Bordeaux). Not forever, but certainly in the 19th century.

So, in case you were curious, the Quatre Communes were the major four cities in Senegal during the 19th century, the majorest one being Saint-Louis (not Dakar, as you might think). According to Diouf, a distinct population is developing here that is removed from both the ‘traditions autochtones sénégambiennes’ as well as the dictates of the ‘mission civilatrice’ (135). These four cities are inhabited by “originaires’ – people who inhabited these spaces before France, mostly comprised of an Islamo-Wolof population, as well as French colonists and traders. The demographics are the French, the increasingly powerful population of mulâtres that I will talk more about, freed slaves and servants.

Here’s the thing, everyone living in these cities falls under the category of French citizen, while everyone in the intérieur is going to fall into the category of French subject. This is important. These originaires are going to be the roots of the future class of évolués who will take over power from the French after independence in 1960.

These places are pretty well urbanized. I would argue that, if you think real hard about what French cities looked like in the 19th century, they are probably not too far off from a Saint-Louis. Remember, France is in the middle of various bloody revolutions that distract from the building of proper infrastructure. There are no sidewalks or plumbing. Live chickens are being sold at the market. People are rampantly dying from disease. The Industrial Revolution is only just beginning. We’re not exactly in “tradition vs. modernity” here yet. Time has not split.

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Right now I’m still going through Jean-Pierre Biondi’s Saint-Louis du Sénégal: mémoires d’un métissage (1987) and I’m not sure how sound it is academically (there are no citations…is this something historians get away with that I don’t know about? y’all are a rebellious bunch), but I’m intrigued by the premise that the singular aspect that made this town thrive was its ability to adapt in the form of métissage. Off the top of my head, I’m not totally sure how people are translating this term, so I’m going to leave it in the French because it gets real tricky real fast in the English.

Most importantly, this  book discusses the rise and fall of a powerful class of mulâtres (again, untranslatable) who essentially controlled the town. Not French traders, not African warlords, but in point of fact, it was mostly the children of white French traders and their Wolof concubines who ran the town until the arrival of Faidherbe in the 1850’s. This is mainly due to the legal status that they were, in fact, granted. It was perfectly acceptable for French traders/settlers to “marry” a local gal and, upon leaving, to give her a fair amount of the profit/property accrued during his stay in Saint-Louis, which would then pass on to any children. (Which is still not exactly just compensation for, you know, forced concubinage but that’s not really at issue right here right now…) This isn’t far off from the situation of the legendary ‘octoroon’ character of New Orleans (à la George Cable) except that these signares would become exceedingly influential due to their accruing of funds and then their participation in local trade.

I’ve mentioned that this had to do with their right to seize their French ‘husband’s’ property when he made his merry way back to France, and the right of their children to inherit, but what is the status of these relationships? In fact, because it was seen by the French to be absolutely detrimental and impossible for men to have their delicate French wives tagging along to the colonies with them, these ‘marriages à la mode du pays – concubinage – were entirely (by law, probably not my the fledgling Saint-Louisian Catholic Church and less so by any of the Muslim/Wolof population) accepted. Biondi also puts some emphasis on the fact that these ‘marriages’ were made not between French citizens and, say, daughters of the local (African) ruling class, but rather between French citizens and female slaves. What this indicates is that for these signares, throughout several generations, you have a powerful class of women emerging out of a position of complete subjection. This IS NOT to romanticize the situation. What is important is that this particular space, Saint-Louis, seemed outside of any hierarchical dualisms that were guiding, well, the rest of the world, in this one specific case. It is not ideal, and this class of métissage is not to be commended or condemned. They were slave-holding and exploitative individuals to the same extent the French were. It’s more a representation of this crazy anything-goes urban space of Saint Louis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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All right, this final book, Jean-Pierre Dozon’s Saint-Louis du Sénégal : palimpseste d’une ville (2012) I can’t spend that much time on here (remember when I said that I was working on an article? Yeah, that’s still happening…) but out of these three texts, it absolutely has the most interesting premise. In his intro, Dozon calls Saint-Louis a kind of “hyperville” and by this he means a place of extraordinary qualities – emPHAsis on EXTRAordinary – in the same sense we would say EXTRAterrestrial. He gets there by mentioning the very buzz-word-y ‘lieu de mémoire’ – a concept developed by Pierre Nora and others which essentially implies that objects/places have overlapping layers of meaning, developed throughout time, that become a charged space where memory continues to live. EmPHAsis on presentness instead of pastness of memory, right?

For Dozon, the whole of Saint-Louis would best be examined as a space of overlapping temporalities, overlapping collective memories, overlapping populations, traditions, religions, artistic practices, economic systems, political infrastructures, etc etc etc… This renders it a space that is not France and not Africa and certainly not just a ‘hybrid’ combination of both but something truly à part.

I like this. I think it’s groovy. And if you ever actually go to Saint-Louis this is EXACTLY what it feels like. You are truly in a different time and I do not mean that in the study abroad, urban safari, “Africa is so ‘traditional'” sense. Where you are is both no-where and now-here, and you have a hard time figuring out whose historical trajectory you’re standing in the middle of. People will tell you – it’s Saint-Louis’s.

because it was there…

Hi, how are you today? I’m fine, you know, surviving the sudden blizzard, rocking some Boubacar Traoré, and…oh yeah…wait…not fine at all – eating puréed lentils!!!

Why, you ask?

Gentle reader, (is that phrase trademarked? can I use that?) because I lost my mind for about five minutes and decided that lentil soup was fine, but puréed lentil soup would be better. That it would be creamy and soupy and wintery and delightful.

It is freaking baby food, gentle reader. Baby food.

And if you’re into that kind of thing, I have the recipe for you! But the rest of us will be over here, eating a hot, steaming plate of ANYTHING BUT THAT.

So what inspired this moment of madness? Why did I take a perfectly decent pot full of lentils and turn it into a green slushy? Because I had made a smoothie that morning, and the immersion blender was sitting RIGHT THERE on the counter. I seized it without thinking and before I knew it, green baby food.

The reason I’m bringing this up – and I have a reason besides the useful advice that should accompany every culinary pitfall – is that I’m sitting here, eating my lentils, writing a conference paper for what seems like the fourth time, and I have a suspicion that whatever regrettable moment of thoughtless overconfidence ruined the soup project is also at the heart of why I seem to be still…writing…this paper…

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I am writing on a perfectly wonderful novel, Marie-Célie Agnant’s Le Livre d’Emma. (It’s available in translation as The Book of Emma.) And because Agnant is brilliant, everything that could possibly need to be said about this text (especially in eight page format) is already in the text. A close reading could really say everything that I need to say about the intergenerational collective trauma of the Atlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage, the resonance of this trauma in the contemporary Caribbean world, and the ocean as the basic intertextual signifier of traumatic history and memory. Let me repeat. It’s…already…there…you don’t need a language to talk about the trauma experienced by the novel’s eponymous character because it already has a language. Marie-Célie Agnant wrote it.

But I decided that this needs to be a trauma theory paper. Why? Because it was there. (Literally, Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience was sitting open on my desk. And it’s so brilliant and so…um…what’s the word for when you can’t not mention something…? Ununmentional? Post-unmentionable?)

(I kid…)

And I’m not saying it didn’t provide some much needed foundations. It did. But it provided the much needed foundations for what soon became twenty pages of a dissertation chapter. In the mean time, I still have a conference presentation to write. And according to my abstract, it is an ecocriticism paper that incorporates two other novels…

So, this is where my comparison breaks down because, obviously, using an immersion blender and ending up with baby food is quite different than using trauma theory and coming up with a sizable chunk of (albeit rough) dissertation work. My point is, “because it’s there” is not a good enough reason to purée your food, or to use a theoretical framework.

A smart person who shall remain nameless once told me that if you’re gonna bust out the theory, it’s because you can’t get where you’re going without it. (This unnamed person did not use the phrase “bust out the theory”…) It has to be ‘necessary,’ not just ‘possible’…(you guys know who I’m talking about now?) Meaning, you can’t just grab it because it’s there and throw it into your analysis. What you have in front of you – you know, the text – may be perfectly clear the way it is.

(I think someone probably also told me NOT to immersion blend every dang thing in sight…)

Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be in the kitchen, inventing a recipe for vegan lasagna with *ahem* hearty lentil béchamel…