Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you

Vachel Lindsay's Congo is something I think about a lot--and only partially because I think of it every time I see or hear anything about Resident Evil 5. It exerts a weird fascination on me, and I never quite know what to make of it. What's going on here? What's Lindsay's deal? I suppose there have been papers written that try to answer that question, but I haven't read them. You might suggest that before I talk I should read...a book, but the fact is, I'm not going to.

How is this poem racist? The subtitle "a Study of the Negro Race," immediately followed by "1. Their Basic Savagery" does not seem very ambiguous, and all the business about Mumbo Jumbo (one assumes that this is where Ishmael Reed got the title) and voodoo and witch doctors certainly seems to confirm this.

But then you get to the rather disappointing ending, where everyone converts to Christianity and the savagery is defeated and everyone is happy and civilized hurrah. This would seem to make the poem more imperialistic than racist, per se, even if the two concepts are closely linked. Under this interpretation, we would take "basic" to mean "initial" rather than "fundamental."

But if we want to take the "white man's burden" approach, we have to confront the part about King Leopold being tortured in Hell--as well he should be, be there such a place. This would seem to indicate a dim view of colonialism in general. Is Lindsay trying to say that all of this savagery is the result of corruption by occidental influences? Certainly some of the images of native barbarism seem to take this view:

Just then from the doorway, fat as shotes,
Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,
And tall silk hats that were red as wine.

So we might say that the poem is really describing the problems that result when a "primitive" culture is suddenly confronted with Western, capitalist society. The fact that Lindsay himself was a socialist would seem to lend credence to that interpretation.

Really, though, I don't think that interpretation is going to fly. Because if this is only the result of European interference, then "basic" can't mean "initial," can it? But a lot of the behavior described obviously has nothing to do with later influences. Come on, people:

Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
And "BLOOD" screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
"BLOOD" screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,

and so on. It's not a hard case to make. So just what the fuck does King Leopold have to do with this? I feel as though all we can do at this point is to equivocate, and say, okay, so things were bad initially, but then Leopold came and ruined things in a different way. But is that really what you're arguing, Vachel? Really? And what kind of a name is "Vachel," anyway? It sounds like something one of the terrifying parents-to-be showcased on Baby's Named a Bad, Bad Thing would come up with. Seriously, guys and gals, but mostly gals: YOUR CHILDREN ARE NOT FASHION ACCESSORIES. Some people really, REALLY should not be parents.

But I digress. The point is: we're really supposed to believe that African petty nobility imitating Western fashions is pretty much just as bad as BLOOD MURDER VOODOO CURSES BLARGH? Unfortunately, I really do think that Lindsay is making some version of this argument--if anyone has any other interpretation, I'd be all ears.

So in conclusion: the milieu of Resident Evil 5 is pretty seductive/evocative, but I still kind of think it was ill-advised. And although "The Congo" still contains some striking imagery, I think that Vachel Lindsay was, at the least, guilty of some very woolly thinking (and a casually orientalist mindset--but if you're gonna unequivocally condemn people for that, not too many people of his era are gonna get out alive)--which, however, is much less bad than other things he could have been.


Post a Comment

<< Home