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.
Time to delve into Cosmos as a first-time viewer, even if the series is some sort of anamnesis, some remembering of the one by the one. Who is this charioteer who captains our journey? We are all space brothers and sisters, soulful star people cruising around in outer space — can you get with that? The voice of Reason beams via television satellite into the Library of Alexandria, and just like that, we begin to communicate across time, in many languages, awakening into freedom. From Alexandria, the General Intellect pulses consciousness out into space. Time to do something, we say to ourselves, with our knowledge of the cosmos. As Sagan’s series shifts into a second episode on evolution of life through natural selection, however, it begins to sound grossly eugenicist. I hear June Tyson singing in reply, “It’s after the end of the world. / Don’t you know that yet?” I keep wondering to myself, “Where is phenomenological reality? When and where is consciousness? Who is the ‘you’ hailed by Sagan’s speech?” By the show’s astrology-debunking third episode, I’m nodding off, in search of better dreams. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Sagan’s philosophy.