Jacob Trosen blog on Laura Winkle essay on Nancy Cunard’s anthology featuring Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression”. Make-up blog.

In Winkel’s essay, the primary argument that I was engaged by is found on page 523, during which Winkle argues that part of the work of the Nancy Cunard’s Negro: An Anthology , especially the work by Zora Neale Hurston, is concerned with refiguring black Modernity as one of the creative forces of, but also in reaction towards, Modernity at large. Central to the problem as Winkle sees it, is that by presenting an alternative history of, as Aldon Nielsen writes, “active producers of the modern” then, “we must have modernity already there before us,” and thus “all such histories must immediately be seen as revisionist” (523). However, Winkle argues that Hurston’s “affirms this temporality” (that the Modern is something black modernity is responding to). She argues that Hurston’s defense of black mimicry constitutes a reaction towards detractors of black arts and culture within the context of Pound’s “make it new”. Continues to argue that Hurston turns this argument about originality around by reinscribing mimicry as a kind of variation on the source material, rather than a slavish imitation. Winkle writes that this is, in fact a way of “actively constitut[ing[ black “experience” as different from everyday dominant modes of perception in modernity…demand[ing] that [the bricolage mimicry] be understood as a confrontation of dominant narratives of modernity in the present moment (523).

While I certainly agree with Winkle that Hurston’s goal is a reimagining of what constitutes originality to include a kind of early sampling, the problem that I have is that I don’t believe Hurston would accept the claim that black modes of life are necessarily in response to modernism, but rather that there is something distinctly modern inherent within black art. That the goals and aesthetics generally agreed to be central to modernity are goals that are simply part of the African-American experience. To this end, we can look to several of the entries in Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” starting with “Negro Folklore”. When Hurston writes, “Negro Folklore is not a thing of the past…nothing is too old or too new, domestic or foreign, high or low, for his use” we could easily imagine the same sentence to describe Joyce’s “Ulysses”, or perhaps with a stretch, “The Wasteland” (27). Central to the concept of simultaneity is this same faith in the ability of art to transcend (to varying degrees) the delineating power of time. This ability, to call upon the work and ideas of the past with the same aptitude and force of the present seems to be the exact same negotiating of allusive power that we see in major landmark works in the white modernist canon. Furthermore, in the sections “Angularity” and “Asymmetry” we find descriptions that cannot be considered without connoting a kind of counterpoint. Hurston writes, “The presence of rhythm and lack of symmetry are paradoxical, but there they are…there is always rhythm, but it is the rhythm of segments. Each unit has a rhythm of its own, but when the whole is assembled it is lacking in symmetry.” (26). Fundamentally, this description of the intertwining of asymmetry and rhythm can be understood in a way as similar to our discussion of the two wheels turning in Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts”. Stein’s use of repetition that slowly accumulates and accumulates on the one hand, while charging forward with a steady pace on the other, reminds us of the same kind of play/friction between asymmetry and rhythm in Hurston’s essay.

Fundamentally, however, it is important to note that Hurston’s essay takes the form not of a descriptions of black art and life that is reactive is some constitutive way towards modernity, Rather, the essay seems primarily concerned with a recontextualization, or translation of black ways of viewing and understanding the world that are misconstrued by a white audience. At no point does Hurston argue that these characteristics are a new phenomenon. It is one thing to say that the essay itself is a reaction towards the values of modernism, and the gaze of the white modern. However, what is vital to our reaction to Winkle’s reading of Hurston’s entries in Negro:An Anthology is that the argument is that black modernity is a reaction to, and viewing it as concerned tied to modernism worries the boundaries of revisionary historicizing, negates the fundamental viewpoint of Hurston. These “characteristics of Negro expression,” while certainly fitting within many of the central aesthetic characteristics of modernism, are to Hurston, fundamental to blackness all the way down to its perception of the world, springing from their collective, shared experience of that world.

Works Cited

Cunard, Nancy. Negro: An Anthology. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Winkiel, Laura A. “Nancy Cunard’s Negro and the Transnational Politics of Race.” Modernism/modernity 13.3 (2006): 507-530. Web.


Jacob Trosen — Narratorial Slippage in A Passage to India

For me, one of the most interesting features of the novel are the ambiguous slides between text that can clearly be read as a character’s interiority, text that can clearly be read as a narrator’s commentary, and nebulous sentences where possession is muddled. As we’ve encountered in class, muddling appears to almost approach (if it isn’t exactly used as such) a kind of jargon, or invented technical language in this novel. In light of the narrator’s and the characters’ concern with the concept of a certainly muddled India, and perhaps a muddled world-at-large, and this narrative weirdness, I’d like start considering each through the other in a scene between Fielding and Adela after the trial has ended.

In this scene, Fielding and Adela appear to come to a similar position about the strangeness of the preceeding events (what occurred at the caves, why she recanted, what the echoes to begin with, how she’ll deal with her engagement to Ronny), and the narrator takes over and describes their shared interior experience: “She was at the end of her spiritual tether, and so was he. Were there worlds beyond which they could never touch, or did all that is possible enter their consciousness? They could not tell. They only realized that their outlook was more or less similar, and found in this a satisfaction. Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not the apparatus for judging” (293).

If we start by just looking at the range through which these sentences pass, we begin to slowly see how unclear the gap between narrative speech and character interiority becomes, especially if stress is placed on the reading. We begin seemingly clearly, with a description of both Adela and Fielding at the “end of [their] spiritual tether[s],” here we can imagine that this statement works similarly to the previous sentence, wherein Adela chastises herself internally for suggesting that the two of them may remain in contact telepathically. In this case, being at the end of a spiritual tether can be read as a recognition of Adela’s of herself, and a recognition of Fielding’s of his own length down that line. However, it is equally possible to read this as a statement by the narrator, seeing the effect of this conversation on both characters, rather than a description of their own internal realization. While the stakes for this first sentence may be rather low, the ambiguities soon become much more important.

In the next sentence, this same tension suddenly becomes much more powerful. Depending on which reading of the previous sentence, the following sentence can be alternatively read: “Were there worlds beyond which…wondered Fielding and Adela simultaneously? They could not tell.” or as an aside to the reader from our narrator–who is constantly asking similar questions, or making similar statements to the readers elsewhere–ending the aside with the statement that regardless of which (worlds beyond, or not) Fielding and Adela are none the wiser.
The same tension is at play in, “Perhaps life is a mystery…” but by the last two sentences, “Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not…” we seem to have left Adela and Fielding far behind somehow. By the time we read the hundred Indias sentence the text far more resembles the speech of the narrator, contemplating their experience as the narrator does with Mrs. Moore on page 230: “She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time…If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation–one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue of black air”. Somehow, as the text seems to shift between the actual thoughts of Fielding and Adela, and a narrative gloss of those thoughts, we find ourselves back into the voice of the narrator himself. This slip-sliding through the barrier between character interiority and narrative aside, blurs the lines of demarcation we might try to establish in order to give a solid reading of the narrator. Especially because this sliding occurs not only between the Anglo-Indians and the narrator, but also between the Indian characters and the narrator’s speech. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to have to leave that for another time. Maybe someone else can take this up in this format.