We translators, if we so
choose, may have a patron saint Jerome who was the first to translate the Bible
from the Hebrew into Latin. But we may also have a non-Christian patron king,
the king of
With the Egyptian king in mind we shall examine the episode in Philadelphia Fire (44-45) where the protagonist Cudjoe is perched at the top of the steps leading up to the entrance of the Art Museum. Frequent mention will also be made of two other books by John Edgar Wideman: Reuben (1987) and Fever (1989). Indeed those three volumes of fiction, published in quick succession in three short years at the end of the 1980s, could be read as a Philadelphia Trilogy, a companion to the better known Homewood Trilogy which dates from the beginning of the same decade.
As applied to
From this vantage-point in the museum's deep shadow in the greater darkness of night it seems an iron will has imposed itself on the shape of the city. (44, emphasis mine) [End Page 603]
He [Cudjoe] can tell thought had gone into the design. And a person must have stood here, on this hill, imagining this perspective. Dreaming the vast emptiness into the shape of a city. (45, emphasis mine)
Wideman's reader may take "a person . .
. imagining this perspective" to be William Penn--a guess which appears to
be borne out by the next paragraph, when Cudjoe is
suddenly reminded of the Founding Fathers, "dead now. Buried in their
wigs, waistcoats, swallowtail coats, silk hose clinging to their plump calves.
A foolish old man flying a kite in a storm" (45). That last sentence of
course refers to Benjamin Franklin rather than to William Penn, as
In William Penn's Instructions used as an epigraph to the novel, his vast ambitions come out forcefully:
Let every house be placed, if the Person pleases, in the middle of his platt . . . so there may be ground on each side, for Gardens or Orchards or fields, that it may be a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholsome.
Note the "never
be burnt" and the "always be wholsome."
His is not a man-made perishable city. Rather it sounds like the creation of a
god-like figure, 4 whose "greene
Country Towne"--i.e. a latter-day
And yet theological
considerations should not mask more mundane concerns in William Penn's
blueprint for a
story, selfishness is equated with the clogging of arteries in the human but
not humane enough heart. The blood clots of self-interest stop the necessary
"traffic" between men and isolate individuals from the community.
Paradoxically, with its rigid plan, its "geometrical grid of streets,
perpendicular, true angled and straight edged" (Fever 248),
Robert Morris was the
"Financier of the American Revolution." Among the "other
circumstances" he hints at, we may safely include the convening of the
First Continental Congress in 1774, of which he was a member, and the
Declaration of Independence, to which he was also a signatory. So in Wideman's work in the late 1980s,
By 1990 in Wideman's fiction, William Penn's
William Penn's ideal city
was "never [to] be burnt." Philadelphia Fire is the answer to
that other claim. In Part Three of the novel, the city is burning, just like
Best to let it burn. All of it burn. (159)
Not only is Philadelphia
burning; with present-day "private developers" (78) the city feeds on
fire, it lives on it, it expands through fire, as they choose systematic arson
to clear the old slums and make room for a new Philadelphia, which could be
renamed New Athens 6 by Mayor Goode, acting as a new William Penn.
William Penn's planned Garden of Eden, his "greene
Country Towne," turns into hell, an "inferno."
Indeed, in Reuben's lingo,
And now we can go back to our "foolish old man flying a kite in a storm." Benjamin Franklin may help us on the second leg of our tour of Wideman's Philadelphia insofar as he represents the time element, as opposed to William Penn's timeless dream of an [End Page 606] Eternal City, which is what Cudjoe believes he can see spread out in front of him from the Museum steps: "This is how the city was meant to be viewed. Scale and pattern fixed forever. . . A miraculous design" (44-45). But this is the shape of the city before the heart starts pumping, i.e. before time is included in the picture.
We have just seen what is
left of William Penn's
Philadelphia Fire has a main plot and a number of
subplots, including Cudjoe's search for the lost
little boy Simba-Muntu. But the central event in the
novel is the attempt by schoolteacher Cudjoe, with
his pupils from the ghettos, to stage Shakespeare's The Tempest in one
This narrative is a sport of time, what it's about is stopping time, catching time. See how the play [The Tempest] works like an engine, a heart in the story's chest, churning, pumping, tying something to something else, that sign by which we know time's conspiring, expiring. (133)
So that is what that
"foolish old man" was doing flying his kite in a storm: in terms of
physics he was mapping the paths of the storms, or tempests, over the American
continent; metaphysically he was trying to catch time. The heart-shape of
A sizeable part of Reuben
deals with Eadweard Muybridge, considered to be the first
man to have photographed movement in California in 1878, when he did a series
of twelve shots of a galloping horse and thus revealed to the world that at one
point in the race all four hooves were off the ground (Mozley).
Muybridge even appears as a character in Reuben, albeit a ghostly one,
when he engages in a superb dialogue with Reuben in a piece strongly
reminiscent of the Entretien entre d'Alembert et Diderot. 7 The topic is photography,
I belong to you, the city says. This is what I was meant to be. You can grasp the pattern. Make sense of me. Connect the dots. I was constructed for you. Like a field of stars I need you to bring me to life. My names, my gods poised on the tip of your tongue. All you have to do is speak and you reveal me, complete me. (44)
Later Duchamp acknowledged
a possible debt to Marey (Frizot
253-54). Certainly Paul Richer's stickmen in dots,
drawn from Marey and Londe's
photographs, show a striking resemblance to Duchamp's famous Nude. As it
happens, thanks to Walter C. Arensberg (Duchamp's
main American patron who has brought together Duchamp's life work in the
Muybridge's technique as a
photographer, Reuben's craft as a lawyer, 10 and Wideman's art
as a writer are truly similar. Incidentally, Reuben read law in
In Philadelphia Fire the three parts are distinctly unequal in size, and very different, indeed, in style. The first one makes up about half the book and appears less experimental. But the second part comes as a shock to the reader: it does away with any justifying thread. There is no continuous narrative. Fragmentation reigns supreme through dozens of separate items juxtaposed in what looks like haphazard or chaotic fashion. They do compose thematic series though: but these only appear if the reader connects the dots, brings life to this ragged rhapsody, puts time and movement back into the picture. The fragments in Part II are indeed stop-time still-frames which need a reader's eye for synthesis. Writer Wideman may proceed here exactly as photographer Muybridge did when he tried to catch time--the paradox of the photographer being that to catch time he has to stop time, to decompose, atomize or "anatomize motion" (Reuben 63): "Muybridge has stopped time for his subjects" (22). Observe that in Part II of Philadelphia Fire Cudjoe also tells how he has tried to stage [End Page 608] The Tempest and failed. The author and his character are both trying to capture time. We are also told in Part II how the police and the City are bent on destroying what members are left of the MOVE organization. A fragment in Part II is a letter from Ramona Africa, an imprisoned member of MOVE:
Dear Mr. Wideman. On the Move!
presently in jail in upstate
Fortunately, you cannot catch movement. In Reuben, Muybridge admits: "Motion escaped my net. . . . My pictures never caught it" (63). The MOVE organization is still "On the Move!" as the letter will have it, and as shown by the furor and mobilization around Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence. 11 As for Cudjoe, he failed in his attempt to stage The Tempest.
Does writer Wideman fare better? Can he catch time? He probably tried earlier in his literary career through very strict control of textual time in his first three novels; then, in the Homewood Trilogy, by having a number of characters (John, Bess, Doot) actively recapturing part of their suppressed world under the auspices of such gods as Damballah. The use of such triads, triptychs or trilogies as The Homewood Trilogy (1985), The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (1992) and Identities (1994) may also be perceived as a determined attempt at mastering time through the author's control over republication of earlier works in a new format. Clearly he is still keen on authorial manipulation of time as fiction time, now extended to clusters of books rather than limited to one title as was the case at the start of his career. But with Philadelphia Fire he has added another tool to his box, as the reader is now called upon to connect the dots, to complete the picture and bring it to life. As long as the reader can be relied upon to provide continuity, the author feels free to carry discontinuity ever further, to explore movement through atomization, to try and catch time by ever-increasing decomposition. The process affects all aspects of literary creation, including the concept--or rather sense--of identity, as in Philadelphia Fire, where different personas share the fictional scene: "Cudjoe," "J.B.," "I," "not I."
For textual organization, the same process is responsible for one of the most attractive and effective features of Philadelphia Fire: its division in three unequal parts, each with its specific rhythm, all three juxtaposed in a dynamic pattern based on "multiple meter," "staggered accents," and "consciously clashed elements," to borrow from Robert Farris Thompson's study of "rhythmized textiles" in Flash of the Spirit (207-22). With its three widely differing parts, Philadelphia Fire is an "emphatic multistrip composition" that requires to be scanned metrically as textual syncopation. The de-centering of "the central event" helps generate added energy and proves a powerful incentive to the reader's imagination. The "fabulator" is most emphatic about it: [End Page 609]
This is the central event I assure you. I repeat. Whatever my assurance is worth. Being the fabulator. This is the central event, this production of The Tempest staged by Cudjoe in the late late 1960s, outdoors, in a park in West Philly . . . . The Tempest sits dead center . . . it is the bounty and hub of all else written about the fire, though it comes here . . . nearer the end than the beginning. (132)
"Multistrip phrasing" in Mande and other African-related textiles is interpreted by Thompson as a deliberate "venture into disordered regions" (Thompson 211, 222); and people who come back from chaos do so "with a power not available to those who have stayed in the control of . . . society" (Douglas 95), as they have reached back to the prime chaotic energy that preceded creation and shapes of any form.
Cudjoe's short meditation on the shape of
First, the problematic
union of movement and stillness. In Reuben's third segment, titled
"Cudjoe," Reuben pores over a series of
twelve frames by Muybridge entitled Woman Kneeling for Jar: "Locked
inside them, like the woman's form transposed into the jar's clay, was that
elusive secret of motion the photographer sought. / Extraction was the problem.
Releasing the genie from the jar" (47). The word "jar" pops up
again at the beginning of Philadelphia Fire, when Cudjoe
plays with a souvenir, a crystal ball with a winterscape
in it: "When you turn it upside down, a thousand weightless flakes of
something hover in the magic jar" (5). Those two American urns could be
linked to another famous one, T. S. Eliot's "Chinese jar" in Four
Quartets, when the poet looks for "the form, the pattern," for
that which enables words to reach "the still point of the turning
world," where "the dance is / But neither arrest nor movement"
(Eliot "Burnt Norton," II, l.62-64), "The stillness, as a
Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness" (IV, l.140-43).
When discussing the shape of a city such as
Second, more attention should be paid to the treatment of narrative as fragmented raw material and serialization of items, which relates to a view of unity as "anti-logos" (Deleuze 112-85), or open-ended multiplicity, essentially marked by multiple rhythms--and here we may want to compare with other art forms, such as Romare Bearden's "rhythmically-oriented" collages (Powell 240), or Mande-related textiles. [End Page 610] At the beginning of Philadelphia Fire, Cudjoe recalls his meeting with a Greek woman: "She will teach him the Greek for her body parts. Hair is . . . eyes are . . . nose is . . . the Greek words escaping him even as he hears them. . . . No language she speaks is his. . . . Words are empty sounds" (6). Here the protagonist is divorced from her language, her "logos." The beautiful Greek pre-existent unity falls apart: the Greek woman's body falls apart. She is both anatomized and atomized. There is no Logos anymore. Wideman may do away with William Penn's Philadelphia and its pretensions to eternity; he may turn away from the Logos and any conceptual model based on fixed categories, as epitomized by "the paradigm of race" (Fatheralong xxiv). His favorite pharaoh would be Philadelph rather than the Aton castigated in Ishmael Reed's hieroglyphic and epidemic 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. 12 Basic to Wideman's fiction is his total rejection of the "atonist" mind based upon what he terms in his "Introduction" to W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk "either/or terminal distinctions: black/white, male/female, young/old, good/bad, rich/poor, spirit/flesh" (Wideman, "Introduction" xiii). His writing goes beyond such impoverishing alternatives and seeks for the hidden colors: "Black and white gone. What came next" (The Cattle Killing 142). "Possibility" is the master word here. For all that, in Wideman's work--so far--there is no "atomologos composed of quarkgrams," to quote a funny phrase (Richard 20). "Leg is . . . Arm is . . ." (Philadelphia Fire 7): there is someone to "connect the dots." Cudjoe can do it in Part I of Philadelphia Fire. And in Part II, the reader is implicitly called upon to cooperate, to complete the shape of the novel, so that it may become what Wideman has called a "funny version of call and response, my particular version of communal work being made" (Coleman 159-60). We are reminded here of Robert D. Pelton's words about the trickster figure: "His stories are a passage enabling structure to enfold chaos and become again communitas" (Pelton 227).
So to Cudjoe's
double question "Who's zooming who? Is someone in charge?" we may
safely answer: yes, with Wideman we are all in
charge. And his readers would like to believe that they are his tricksters--not
the creator, not makers, but shapers 13 --that his
Jean-pierre Richard teaches literary translation to
postgraduates at the
1. Whether or not initiated by the
Ptolemy kings, translation work on the Torah started in
2. In ancient Greek, adelphos ("born from the same womb," "brother") occasionally meant "sister," as in Euripides's Electra (536). The more common word for "sister" was adelphè; philein: "to love."
3. From ancient Greek mousa: a Muse. Originally, a mouseion was a "temple of the 9 Muses."
4. Compare with "This job, like
God's, of making a city had wearied J.B." (
5. Robert Morris (1734-1806),
English-born American financier and statesman. In 1747 he moved from Lancashire
6. Compare with The Lynchers: "Independence Hall, the Mint, had been cleaned and restored. . . . They want the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason" (110).
7. Written by Denis Diderot in 1769, published in 1830. See Diderot (873-85).
8. See Paul Richer's drawing, Homme descendant un escalier, from Albert Londe's successive photographs, in Richer. Richer's drawing is reproduced in Frizot (253).
9. See Cabanne (273-83) and McMullen (438). It may be worth noting here that Wideman contributed an essay to the Fall 1971 issue of the same journal; see Wideman, "Fear in the Streets" (611-22).
10. For an explicit parallel between law and Muybridge's photography, see Reuben (17).
11. See Wideman's
"Introduction: Mumia Abu-Jamal, 1995." Mumia Abu-Jamal was born in
12. About the "Jes Grew" epidemic that started in
13. Pelton: "Legba is a creative agent, not the creator--a shaper, not a maker" (84).
Cabanne, Pierre. "Interview: Marcel Duchamp." The American Scholar 40.2 (Spring 1971).
Coleman, James W. Blackness
and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman.
Deleuze, Gilles. Proust et les signes (1964). 3rd edition.
Diderot, Denis. Oeuvres.
Douglas, Mary. Purity
and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.
Eliot, T. S. The
Frizot, Michel, ed. Nouvelle histoire
de la photographie.
Harl, Marguerite. "Traduire la
Bible." Douzièmes Assises
de la Traduction Littéraire
Harvey, William. Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis. 1628.
McMullen Roy. "Painters's Painting: Cubism." The American Scholar 40.3 (Summer 1971).
Mozley, Anita Ventura, ed. Eadweard Muybridge: The Stanford Years, 1872-1882.
Muybridge, Eadweard. Animal Locomotion. An Electro-Photographic
Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, 1872-1885. 11 vol.
Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in
Powell, Richard J.
"Art History and Black Memory: Toward a 'Blues Aesthetic.'" History
and Memory in African-American Culture. Ed. Fabre and O'Meally.
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo
"Causation, Causality and Etiology: A Meditation on 'Two Meditations.'"
Ed. Maurice Couturier. Representation and Performance in Postmodern Fiction.
Proceedings of the Nice Conference on Postmodern Fiction (April 1982).
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de l'homme en mouvement.
Sennet, Richard. Flesh and Stone.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash
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Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and
------. The Cattle
------. "Fear in the Streets." The American Scholar 40.4 (Fall 1971): 611-22.
"Introduction." The Souls of Black Folk. By W.E.B. Du Bois.
Abu-Jamal, Mumia, 1995." Live from Death Row.
------. The Lynchers (1973).
------. Sent for You
------. The Stories of
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