Ishmael Reed chips away at Freud, portrays Herr Doktor as an “Atonist” in his brilliant 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. PaPa LaBas lectures about Freud in the book’s “Epilogue” — tells of his attempt to communicate with Freud, thwarted by the latter’s “entourage”: Freud’s “ego defenses,” his sycophants and followers. “Freud,” Reed writes, “whose real talent lies in the coinage of new terms for processes as old as the Ark,” reacted with revulsion upon encountering America’s racial diversity. He pitted his “Austrian” conception of civilization against “occultism,” or what in conversation with Carl Jung he called “The Black Tide of Mud” (208-209). The “Id” is Freud’s “boogeyman” — a denunciation of all that is Other: racially other, culturally other, religiously other. What does it matter now? Freud has receded in the culture’s memory, replaced by neuroscience. Or so it seems. Time, perhaps to listen to Stanislav Grof’s Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research, a seminar Grof recorded at Naropa in 2004. Change the channel, flip the script. Or as Gene Youngblood would say, “Secede from the broadcast.”
Books can present themselves as sacred works: “received word.” They can also serve as ceremonial objects containing the teachings of ancestors. Authors share mythoi and logoi. Exchanges occur cross-culturally. Histories are understood to unfold within and share the form of religious myths. History is the latter’s translation and dissemination across space-time. These myths and histories can be mixed and sampled, played with a difference by the storyteller, as they are by Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo. Stories can be intercut with myths as the two rhyme across time. Stories become circles within circles, as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
I listened to an hour-long podcast on Welsh author Arthur Machen this afternoon, and not once was there mention of Machen’s membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. “An odd and unfortunate omission,” I think — though I concede that the podcast was otherwise quite informative. Why should it matter? Omissions of this sort are perhaps how the occult stays occult. I wonder, too, about Ishmael Reed, who includes Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Thoth in the multi-page “Partial Bibliography” at the end of his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. Crowley’s book is a study of the Tarot. Reed mentions neither Crowley nor the Tarot elsewhere in Mumbo Jumbo. Yet The Book of Thoth — the mythic one, the one alleged to have been written by Thoth himself — is the “Text” sought by the warring secret societies in Reed’s novel. This is but one of many aspects of Mumbo Jumbo deserving further study. I wonder, too, for instance, about the novel’s critique of Sigmund Freud and the references to Freud’s protégé and rival, Carl Jung. Freud is said to have fainted on two occasions — and Jung was present both times. On the first occasion, Jung “spoke about being fascinated by some recent discoveries of ‘peat-bog corpses.'” Jung’s interest in the subject of mummies and corpses “got on Freud’s nerves,” causing the latter to faint in the midst of dinner. On the second occasion, Freud fainted during a discussion of a Karl Abraham paper, an Oedipal reading of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. (See Nausicaa Renner’s essay, “Freud Fainting.”) Reed focuses, though, not on the fainting but on Freud and Jung’s reactions to America. For Freud, the place was “a big mistake” — part of some monstrous “Black Tide of Mud.” Reed suggests that Freud was an Atonist. Jung, meanwhile, was more ambivalent about America. Like Freud, however, he viewed America as a place where Europeans would have to undergo a transformation to survive — a process Jung called “going Black” (Reed 209). Reed takes the additional step of celebrating this process, granting it agency and giving it the name “Jes Grew.”
There’s a story here to be told. Let there be magic. Note the power that Ishmael Reed grants to “Rev. Jefferson,” father of “Woodrow Wilson Jefferson” in Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo. Can I find my Text and become articulate? When asked to justify his power, Rev. Jefferson cites John 2:14. Christ booted the businessmen from the Temple. Let’s give Trump the boot. Fredric Jameson observed a use of pastiche in art and fiction produced under “postmodernity.” Postmodernism is a “cultural logic,” a “condition” felt and lived in our current historical period, the era of “late capitalism.” Pastiche is a style or mode adopted by artists in this period — a kind of “blank parody.” Reed’s novel, however, is satire of a critical bent. The book is a pointed, powerful criticism of Western civilization. Jameson included in his essay on “Postmodernism” a famous phenomenological description of his experience of a hotel in Los Angeles. Reed lived in Oakland, taught at Berkeley — lived the historical moment differently, constructs a rich elaborate allegory of the Nixon years. Reed decolonizes consciousness across millennia. Western ways of thinking are shown to be products of a racial policing of consciousness. It is a product of a certain kind of schooling, a cultural, religious, elite-controlled linguistic system. Reed turns economic events, depressions and the like (period markers for Marxists like Jameson) into signs of Voodoo Warfare, spells cast upon the Atonist imperium. Colonized people continue to wage war because the opponent, the white-supremacist adversary, poses a threat to survival, making it difficult to breathe. The latter group’s rituals of capitalist development and production are destroying the planet. Money is the Atonist order’s currency — the god to be worshiped above all others. The thing that money’s chasing, however, the thing it’s trying to “bop” or “co-opt” is an “anti-plague,” a source of cultural vitality and invention imagined to be “carried” by people of color (but capable of spread to others). The “contagion” metaphor that fuels Atonist thought, the white racist fear of a spreading blackness, the fear of becoming a “white minority”: this entire style of thought is absorbed into Reed’s novel. The result, though, is not “pastiche” or “blank parody.” Reed “signifies with a difference,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues. Contagion is blanked of its negative connotations, as what spreads is what saves. “Jes Grew” is the spirit of Osiris seeking to reassemble the pre-Atonist ancient Egyptian past. People “catch the spirit”; they’re moved by it. They’re lifted up, buoyed by the likes of Bobby McFerrin. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” is the letter sent, the message received. So I think as I ponder the day.
Ishmael Reed begins his novel Mumbo Jumbo with a dictionary definition of the title phrase. He does so to demonstrate that White Americans have appropriated this phrase. They use it ignorantly, disrespectfully, forgetful of its origins. The term derives from the Mandingo ma-ma-gyo-mbo, meaning “a magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away” (7). Mandingo or Mandinko is a language spoken in West Africa (Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and Senegal). Reed tells us with his title that his book is the work of such a magician. How would that work? Who are these “ancestors”? Are they black? Are they white? Why are they “troubled”? Where is “away”? I flip through old journals reading trance-scripts from the dawn of the Trump era (just after the election but prior to the inauguration). How was I able to write like that? Is it because consciousness is able to be in two or more places at once? Or is it on account of them loas? Nina Simone recorded three tracks based on originals by Bahamian artist Exuma: “Obeah Woman,” “Dambala,” and “22nd Century.”
I wrote about the latter song four years ago. Exuma called himself “the Obeah man.” The cover of his first album bore the message, “the future is freedom, the past a chain / the present, anybody’s game.” PaPa LaBas is described as an “obeah-man” (45) in Mumbo Jumbo.
Ishmael Reed’s depiction of race in his novel Mumbo Jumbo avoids essentialism by emphasizing culture and religion as collectively authored, orally-transmitted utterances — sayings that can be played with, jazzed with, riffed upon. Figures like Papa LaBas and Black Herman exist eternally, as do the novel’s Knights Templar characters. They possess a magical capacity, remaining of fixed age, archetypal, unchanging across the ages, as joyous people, the Jes Grews, battle the forces of repression, the monotheists, the Atonists.
I prepare a series of video mini-lectures on Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Julius Lester’s telling of “Stagolee,” and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Along the way I glimpse the famous white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechen, as depicted by the Jazz Age artist Florine Stettheimer in her 1920 painting Asbury Park South.
Van Vechen remains a controversial figure, in part due to his 1926 novel, the title of which I don’t wish to repeat (though it appears that Langston Hughes was one of the book’s defenders). Countee Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois regarded it as an “affront to the hospitality of black folks.” Ralph Ellison condemned Van Vechen — as did Reed, given that he modeled Mumbo Jumbo‘s villain Hinckle Von Vampton after him.
Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as himself in the recent Watchmen series on HBO. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo figures prominently as a primary object of study in Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey. Watchmen is a work of alternate history, as is Mumbo Jumbo. Both works help us remember our history, parts of which have been buried in the white political unconscious. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, is an event dramatically reenacted in Watchmen‘s opening episode, and the US invasion and occupation of Haiti reappears to consciousness in much the same way as one reads Mumbo Jumbo. The two works rhyme with each other — “repeat with a difference,” as Gates would say — in other ways as well. Reed’s secret, conspiratorial white-supremacist Atonist Order finds its correlate, its contemporary near-equivalent, in Watchmen‘s secret “Cyclops” conspiracy. Each work also features as its hero a black detective: PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, and Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night in Watchmen. Yet there are differences. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Attribution of that saying to Twain appears in print in 1970, as in “A Said Poem” by Canadian artist John Robert Colombo. But Twain’s actual words appear in The Gilded Age, a novel Twain co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” The old legends and their systems of order are in pieces due to migration, diaspora, forced separation of people from the lands of their ancestors. The crack in the cosmic egg. With these multicultural fragments let us assemble a mosaic — something colorful, like the drawing by Cuban-born artist Alberto del Pozo on the cover of The Signifying Monkey.
When the “Talking Android” makes his debut at Villa Lewaro in the affluent Westchester County suburb of Irvington-on-Hudson in Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo, many of those in attendance are wearing “Cab Calloway for President buttons” (156). (Villa Lewaro, by the way, was the home of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female self-made millionaire in America. Walker is the focus of a Netflix miniseries called Self Made, released this past March.) Reed’s novel opens a portal of sorts; it encourages readers to imagine an alternate history. During the act of reading, one enters a state of uncertainty. Details that appear to be fictions nevertheless rhyme across time — Calloway’s bid, for instance, reminiscent today of Kanye’s. One is led to conclude, as the novel does in its closing lines, that “Time is a pendulum. Not a river. More akin to what goes around comes around” (218). When PaPa LaBas and Black Herman interrupt the debut by revealing the Talking Android’s true identity as Hubert “Safecracker” Gould, an Atonist in blackface, they move to arrest Gould and his sponsor, Hinckle Von Vampton. LaBas and Herman are interrupted in turn, however, when a Guianese art critic rises from his seat and demands that they give an account. “Explain rationally and soberly,” he says, “what they are guilty of. This is no kangaroo court, this is a free country” (160). To satisfy the critic’s demand, LaBas and Herman launch into a tale of ancient Egypt. We learn of an ancient form of theater involving ritual magic — one that “influenced the growth of crops and coaxed the cocks into procreation” (161). In this theater, Reed writes, “The processes of blooming were acted out by men and women dancers who imitated the process of fertilization” (161). The best of these dancers was Osiris. History is reimagined here as an ongoing conflict across the ages between followers of Osiris and followers of Osiris’s brother, “the stick crook and flail man” Set (162). “People hated Set,” writes Reed. “He went down as the 1st man to shut nature out of himself. He called it discipline. He is also the deity of the modern clerk, always tabulating, and perhaps invented taxes” (162). The text over which these opposing groups fight is (of course!) “the Book of Thoth, the 1st anthology written by the 1st choreographer” (164).
Either I’m noting and observing happenings and surroundings, exercising awareness, asking questions, entertaining thoughts — or what? Gardening, cooking, napping, hugging my daughter, texting with friends, reading, traveling, collaborating and conversing with others. The work of each day is to write and do all of the above. According to Black Herman, though, or the Black Herman who appears in Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo, “Doing The Work is not like taking inventory” (130). To PaPa LaBas, he says, “You ought to relax. […]. Improvise some. Open up, PaPa. Stretch on out with It” (130). Perhaps I should heed his advice.