In her timely and original book How to Read African American Literature: Post-Civil Rights Fiction and the Task of Interpretation, Aida Levy-Hussen focuses on contemporary fictions depicting slavery to participate in the critical debate around the significance of “historical return” (3-4), which centers on the value and power of the past to shape present-day cultural and political agency. Rather than taking a unilateral position, Levy-Hussen shifts the focus to the implicit desires driving the questions about the past’s relevance and presents new possibilities to address what she identifies as an “[i]ncreasingly obdurate critical impasse in black literary studies” (16). While acknowledging the long-standing reluctance to apply psychoanalytic theories to African American texts, Levy-Hussen makes a case for their careful, critical use and shapes several chapters around the “psychoanalytic idioms [of] trauma, masochism, and depression” (7), connecting her project most notably to Christina Sharpe’s Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (2009) and Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (2010) as recent works on desire, fantasy, and queer theory in African American literary criticism. She is careful to note that her “use of this theoretical paradigm is critical, non-exclusive, and often disloyal” (8), signaling her project’s resistance to the universalizing, apolitical origins of psychoanalysis. The first chapter, “Against Prohibitive Reading (On Trauma),” examines the tension between the promise and reality of neo-slave narratives as reparative, providing a “therapeutic reading,” which “speaks to the desire to make sense of an unredeemed past and its painful legacy and to locate agency and a capacity for social change in the act of reading” (4). Levy-Hussen identifies the rejection of these claims as “prohibitive reading” that finds “fictions of historical return … dangerous and to be avoided” (5). Rather than taking a specific stance in this debate, Levy-Hussen chooses instead to look at the way therapeutic reading “operates as a literary figure: inviting decoding, engendering a diverse range of direct and indirect psycho-affective responses, and accommodating a variety of competing interpretations” (6). By focusing on texts that include “proxy readers, quests for origins, overt or ironic eschewals of history, [and] historian-protagonists,” How to Read African American Literature makes more transparent the way desire shapes the process to know a marginalized, previously inaccessible history and to signify a relationship to the slave past. For example, the analysis of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), a text at the center of memory politics, includes trauma theory’s troubling of historiography and Denver’s role as existing in the paradox of a compelling past she cannot access. The character of Denver represents the tension between prohibitive and therapeutic readings. When read in relation to David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981) and Morrison’s Jazz (1992), Beloved contributes to a meta-analytical engagement with competing representations of historical evidence and accessibility, of “periodization” and “traumatic time” (29). The efforts to record and reclaim the past appear partial and compensatory, but the absences, once acknowledged, hold value in what they reveal about present desire to claim and know this past. Beginning by recognizing that slave narrative fictions reveal the inherent connection between “the desire for liberation” and “the desire for the reenactment of punishment and pain” (53), the second chapter “re-imagine[s] masochism as a restorative practice” (55), a project that would counter self-censoring “respectability” politics and encourage more nuanced, expansive consideration of African American sexual politics. Sharpe’s scholarship supports Levy-Hussen here as representing “politicized theories of masochistic fantasy and desire,” work which Hussen suggests offers “the only form of historical engagement that contains such a radically reparative promise” (58). In a provocative reading of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Levy-Hussen contrasts the risks and limits represented by each protagonist in their relationship to sexual violence. Butler’s Dana avoids sexual assault when she murders Rufus. This choice exposes the limits of “transhistorical subjectivity” when she opts for repression over radical empathy with her female ancestors who had no choice other than to endure rape. In contrast, Jones depicts the “sexual as indispensable,” specifically through masochistic fantasy that “exceeds master’s control” (82). Both readings allow Levy-Hussen to show the way therapeutic reading, with its reparative investment in a return to a past violation, functions as a literary figure enmeshed with masochistic desire and offers the “possibility of living with contradiction” (92). In “The Missing Archive (On Depression),” the third chapter, Levy-Hussen analyzes racial depression or melancholia in Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips (1993), Alice Randall’s Rebel Yell (2009), and James Alan McPherson’s “Elbow Room” (1977) stating that it results from rejections of ideal representation and irreverence toward idealized, sanitized visions of the civil rights era. Through this disconnection between the contemporary characters and the movement’s legacy in its distilled form, a new consciousness arises that, as Levy-Hussen finds in her astute explorations, releases contradictions and complexities from the constraints of political expediency. In her final chapter and also in the postscript, Levy-Hussen positions her project as one that shifts the direction of the field away from well-worn arguments to “de-familiarize the investments” (134) enacted through the therapeutic versus prohibitive readings. Instead, Levy-Hussen suggests pursuing the way a text “enlists allegory and humor as its primary and unrelieved narrative strategies to enact its foreclosure of historical desire” (141). This section includes an analysis of Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982) and specifically a relationship in the text between Minty, a character standing in for history as it “remains inaccessible” (143), and Andrew, who remains “unable to parse Minty’s true essence from his protective longing” (144). Through their impossible relationship, Levy-Hussen illuminates a longing to reach and repair the past in post-civil rights literary representations of slavery, linking Minty to “the uncanny” (151) and the “intra-psychic conflict at the heart of contemporary African American literary imagination” (152). The uncanny, or an estrangement found within the familiar, also becomes useful in her reading of Morrison’s Paradise (1997), which “challenges us to re-imagine or re-invent history’s narrative form” (164). The desire to control “history’s narrative form” within conventional forms, depicted in the novel by the town of Ruby, stands in tension with the women’s Convent and its rituals that represent Morrison’s sustained literary engagement with “an ideal of interpretive nonclosure” (168) in relation to the slave past. Through this innovative, revitalizing work with trauma, masochism, and depression, Levy-Hussen promotes reading that “defies the transparent rationality of the political directive” to release African American literary criticism from “interpretive strangleholds” (171-72). Throughout How to Read African American Literature, she performs critical maneuvers that support more expansive interpretations, including reversals or counters in which she occupies the other position to resist fixity and to acknowledge foremost the role of desire in relation to the past. In this way, her critical enterprise liberates African American literature from perpetuating impositions and entrenched paths by raising questions and modeling strategies that will lead the field forward in promising new directions. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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