Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I got turned onto Marlon’s writing with A Brief History of Seven Killings. It’s become his breakout novel and the first I had heard of, but it’s far from his arrival on the literary scene. He’s outspoken about his publishing troubles (something like 80 rejections of his debut before finding a home at the legendary Akashic imprint) and – like George Saunders, Salmon Rushdie – found work as an advertising creative, slogging through dull jobs while writing on the side. I think my experience reading him is a lot like others who were taken by Seven Killings – a Booker Winner (Jamaica’s first) that came, seemingly, out of nowhere like a summer thunderstorm. And he’s quickly become one of my favorites, not just for his singular voice and raw intensity, but as a literary persona. He comes across as approachable, funny, super cool and someone who you could drink with. In fact, since his local bar is pretty close to my own apartment, it’s not hard to picture walking up to him – pina colada in hand – asking, “so which are the two pages your mother’s not allowed to read?”

It started as a joke, apparently: “Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the ‘African Game of Thrones.'” I can understand the marketing reasons behind it (GOT SELLS!), but it’s a shame that every review has come to describe Marlon’s latest in those terms, as though the book requires a reference to be understood. Without giving too much away: yes, there’s a surface-level parallel between much of Martin’s and James’s worlds. A King of the North and a Mad King; evil siblings and swords; monsters (vampires!), violence and a lot of fucking; necromancy too!; and not least of all, temporo-spatial portals providing physics defying shortcuts through a fictive medieval land. So it’s a legitimate comparison, if not the most helpful one for folks intimidated by the page-count (the first one runs out to 620+ pages of dense, challenging prose). And while the comparison struck me throughout my first read, I’d warn anyone looking to experience binge-able entertainment: BLRW might not be for you.

Shame, I said, but the comparison might be helpful if you focus on the differences. Take the sex and violence (please!) – it’s more intense, more brutal and far less gratuitous, which – this is hard to imagine without diving into the book – makes it all the more real and disturbing. I’m not talking in terms of how man people die, though there are lots, children and babies included, but it’s not on the Blood Meridian spectrum. McCarthy’s treatment of violence might actually be closer to Game of Thrones than anything in BLRW in that both works are just ridiculous: a complete onslaught of completely absurd, mindless blood-spilling that’s desensitizing (and maybe that’s the point). Before I read that Marlon makes the same point on this subject, I felt that the book creates an odd and intense sense of suffering – not simply violence. This was intentional, something like a rejection of the uses and abuses of violence in film and fiction:

I actually think this kind of antiseptic, clipped, edited version of violence I see in literature sells it short. If you don’t read the scene of the murder of a child and find it unbearable, then that scene failed. I think people are used to violence, but they’re not used to suffering. In Hollywood films, we see violence, but we don’t see suffering. In my writing of violence I do not escape suffering and I think one of my violent scenes is equivalent to 30 of someone else’s. I get this rap of being too violent, but actually what I’m saying is that violence comes with consequences and suffering and I don’t blink at either. So it’s going to reverberate longer in my books.

(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/17/marlon-james-interview-black-leopard-red-wolf)

Elsewhere, Marlon has spoken against gleaming contemporary lessons from a fantastical work, but if you frame the book’s concentration of suffering in terms of bodily violence towards the oppressed by those in positions of power it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the news today. The book is riddled with horrible acts of repressive violence and bigotry – slavery, rape, murder, psychological abuse, self-denying enchantments, literal blood-sucking, extreme homophobia – that never come across as moralizing or intended to teach a lesson. The ugliness of the world is ever-present and the characters, like us, must learn to deal with it on their own terms, as they do here so compellingly.

Apart from the treatment of violence – or better, suffering – what makes this book especially unique is its portrayal of sex and, particularly, homosexuality. I’m making comparisons again, but Tracker is the greatest and most surprising anti-hero since Omar from The Wire, both of whom happen to be gay. Homosexuality and gay sex are, like in Seven Killings, explicitly present throughout the book, but unlike Brokeback Mountain, it’s not the point of the story, as if to say, in ready-made Hollywood rebellion, “yes, gay sex is real – get over it!” There are a lot of holes and fingers and other parts going into various orifices with different levels of lubrication, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend it on any reading list, even – or especially – for prudish religious weirdos. Sex is sex. Its earthly delights and dangers are indifferent to where your dick goes. And anyway, the world’s readers have experienced a severe dearth of epic fantasies with gay heroes fucking sucking and swallowing while getting on with their badass business of saving the world from eternal damnation.

For me, the most challenging part of the book is its plot, which on the surface is super straight-forward but takes the reader through a maze of places, characters and political controversies that can be totally disorienting. A bounty hunter with a supernatural sense of smell (Tracker) has been hired to seek a boy, who we learn in the first words is dead. Literally:

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”

(James, 1)

Great. That’s not a spoiler, but I can understand if you’re asking what’s the fucking point? It’s not a bad question, and it’s what made me nearly give up on the book about 100 pages in. Where is this all going? Why do I care? The boy is dead, and you say that’s all I need to know – so why am I taking this journey? We quickly learn that these sorts of questions nag at the characters themselves, who all experience some form of existential dread and self-doubt at some point in the story. Part of the fun is seeing how their own motivations change and play out, especially Tracker’s, who is constantly challenged by others’ suspicion of authenticity. Part of me wished that the story were maybe 100-200 pages shorter, but those pages provide a rich backstory that – trust me – plays out beautifully in the end. It also helps that the villains and ghouls, to say nothing of the superb world-building and prose (it has a built-in culture of oral history as characterized by the griots: the Audible version has them singing), are complete brain candy.

Final takeaway: 10/10 – read this book, and more like it. If you can’t travel, read and learn some about the mythology of another not-so-faraway place. But if you can travel too, do that and take this as a guide.

(Book 2 is out soon, told by the Moon Witch Sogolon. Soon forward!)

Déja Vu and The End of History – Paolo Virno

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Why did I read this? 

K recently emailed some thoughts on déja vu, introducing an interesting concept of reincarnation that seemed similar (on the suggestion of another friend) to the notion of time’s non-linear passage in Arrival. I won’t reiterate his thoughts here, but I will say that while I myself do not believe in reincarnation, K’s email did encourage me to think more deeply about an otherwise ordinary, un-interesting (in the way an eye-twitch or little itch on the knee is un-interesting) rarity of experience. I was also aware of Paulo Virno’s philosophical study on the topic, so I went ahead and jumped in, hoping that I could bring more to the table in the discussion K raised.

I didn’t realize the depths of the water here…

Review

Before reading this short but difficult study, it’s helpful to remember that it originally appeared in Italian in the late 90s. Verso released the English translation about 15 years later, somewhat removed from its original historical and philosophical context, a period in which Francis Fukayama’s “end of history” thesis became an ideological foundation (read: neoconservative dog whistle) for imperialism’s “victory,” led by the United States, over the Soviet Union. So the illusion goes: bourgeois democracy had at last triumphed over communismbringing to realization the “best,” and final manifestation, of all historical actualities.

Not only is America winning, Fukuyama claimed, but the flourishing of democracy around the world is the fulfillment of a grand historical scheme. The end of the cold war and the disarray of the Soviet Union reflected a larger process -the realization of the Idea. History, Hegel believed (or Fukuyama says he believed), ”culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.” And that moment, it just so happens, is now. (New York Times, 1989)

While I’m convinced of the ideological purpose of Fukuyama’s argument (he was, after all, a State Department official during the Cold War), Virno’s is a much more charitable response, diagnosing a philosophical disease of which “end of history” thinking is a symptom.

In the quote above, Hegel is cited as a launching point for Fukuyama’s thesis, and while Virno wouldn’t disagree, Déja Vu details the picture more accurately, tracing this problematic (or diseased, as I’ve described it) history of philosophy backwards to Kojève, Hegel and, what may be the most challenging but rewarding section of the book, Aristotle. That is, the ideological outcome of the long-dominant and unchallenged Aristotelian relationship between potentiality and actuality may, it turns out, be a collective – and collectively mistaken – acceptance that history could ever reach a teleological end:

Virno’s analysis would appear to imply there no [sic] final telos or structural totality can be permitted if the world is one of endless potentialities – for historical time could not really exist if this were the case. Virno’s offensive offers us then to enter a philosophical battle over time whilst the political consequences of such a battle appear unclear, and for all we know, the price of endless possibilities may turn out to be no future at all. (Marx and Philosophy, 2016)

Rory Jeff’s conclusion above (“no future at all”) is one spin on Virno’s polemics against the “end of history,” though Virno himself would, I believe, take issue with it as the pessimistic interpretation. A more hopeful reading would be the one that replaces telos – a finality of human potentiality – and replaces it with something closer to Marx: Historical Man  – the subject of a truly human history that does not depend on the unfolding of events as if guided by the hand of a divine power (or “culmination of the Absolute”), but that guides history in her own direction, fully conscious of her unlimited potential and unhindered by “antagonistic forms” of bourgeois society that appears “natural” (and “final,” as Fukuyama might have it):

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close. (quoted in Fromm, 1961)

If there’s any doubt that Virno is onto something here, just open a newspaper. That so-called “triumph” of the West has proven false, with the promise of democracy leading to the resurrection of all varieties of reaction: nationalism, fascism, neocolonialism and the hollowing out of basic social / public services across the map. In other words, our well-known global and domestic instabilities defy the political premises on which someone could (disingenuously) declare a “flourishing of democracy.”

In that sense, it may seem a little odd that Verso would reintroduce the work to a larger audience now, when anyone with a basic grip on geopolitical realities could hardly accept the stalling of history. It would be a mistake, however, to limit Virno’s critique to what any and all refutations of the “end of history” have in common: namely, that on a basic empirical level, history is still moving. There are political, social, cultural (i.e., historical) battles yet to be won or lost. Instead, Virno goes beyond this ideological point, investigating the very structure of our understanding of time (see Chapter 2: “The Memory of the Present”) to reveal how “end of history” thinking could arise in the first place.

In other words, the relevance of Virno’s arguments does not have to be limited to refutation of State Department ideologues or Trumpian appeals to the “former greatness” of America. It can, I think, be applied to apocalyptic visions of our future (a la Wahhabism) or crude materialist “Marxist” predictions of the culmination of history in socialism, even something as simple as the Social Media Addict and every-attached-to-his-phone millennial. Virno, in other words, is revealing this structure of experience as a means of protecting us from its philosophical harms in the future. Using Henri Bergson as an intellectual foundation, this is  what he calls déja vu: 

“‘We feel that we choose and will, but that we are choosing what is imposed on us and willing the inevitable.’ The state of mind correlated to deja vu is that typical of those set on watching themselves live.” (Virno, 2015)

You may have noticed that I’ve left out egregiously huge details on how these arguments work:

  • What is the Aristotelian connection between potentiality and actuality? And how does that form the basis of our notion of history?
  • What does it mean for déja vu to be a collective, public experience and not, as we commonly hold it to be, a very personal one?
  • Perhaps most egregious in its absence: is there not a way to reclaim deja vu as a liberating capacity, one that fixes us not in our past, but shows us the future?

As I said from the start, I didn’t know what depths I was jumping into here. What I set out to do was show the general outline and purpose of Virno’s work, in order to make it a little more understandable if the reader decides to jump in herself. That said, the questions above could be your life raft. Hold on tight.

This leaves one last question for the review: should she jump in? Was it worth the time? For those interested in Critical Theory (and not uncomfortable with the stubbornly academic language of such work), Aristotle’s Metaphysics or the Philosophy of History broadly speaking, then yes – give it a go. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say the book is the most memorable philosophical text I’ve read, despite memory being its central subject.