Everywhere humanity appears to be at war with itself. Yet we spend so much of our time with our mildly pained faces averted. Often we just don't know what to do. That's why creative writing really matters. It takes facts and documents them vividly. But writers also reconstruct life. By speaking out, writers re-invent the world in words. In doing this, they create new zones of possibility for liberation.
Historically, the anti-slavery movement was very effective in using the printing press both to document and to imagine the life of a slave. For the critical reader these are often both historical works and timeless aesthetic creations. In most cases there will be limited perspectives and distortions of point of view. Voices stutter and stammer, and cover up, and style eloquently glosses, justifies and glorifies. Language offers enlightenment but also clouds judgments. There is much to be learned from reading a range of pro and anti-slavery texts. There are contradictions on both sides, and neither progress nor cruelty is ever inevitable.
As we sharpen our critical faculties as readers the hope is that we might develop a deeper awareness of our own times, and perhaps we will free ourselves in turn from the likelihood of becoming passive mind-slaves to dominant conventions and cultural codes.
The historic struggle between established white supremacies and black minorities is just one harrowing narrative of the human enslavement of thoughts and feelings on many levels. The struggle is ongoing, and what we often fail to observe is the suffering on our own doorstep - whether it is prostitution or child exploitation, homelessness or mental illness, or racism, or homophobia.
Historical texts are also often a tangle of complex codes. If you have not come across Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, I would strongly recommend reading it. Many historians take Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to be the first English novel. But Behn's Oroonoko is an earlier fiction that combines a romance-genre sense of love and adventure with a delight in the exotic otherness of the raw subject matter.
William Spengemann has curiously called it 'The Earliest American Novel'. Indeed it does lay claim to being 'the first literary narrative in English about an American colony' and 'the first literary work in English to grasp the global interactions of the modern world.' (Catherine Gallagher, p.ix, p. 3). Clearly it is appealing to start the American or English novel tradition with a book by a woman, on the subject of slavery. Gender and race oppression shared many common features, after all?
The story is at times elegant and witty; bit it is also racy and episodic. But in Behn's Oroonoko there is also a lurid, ambiguous and contradictory fascination with the grotesque, especially at the end of the story. In brief, the hero kills his wife before meeting his own violent death. The cruel, almost absurdly comic spectacle of the smoking corpse at the conclusion of the narrative is, on my reading, a brave imaginative treatment of the ideological violence at the core of this text. Books are also comedies, and Behn has something to sell. Is that what intended? We have been trained not to ask or to answer such questions!
Sample from the last pages of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688):
He (grieved to death, yet pleased at her noble resolution) took her up, and embracing of her with all the passion and languishment of a dying lover, drew his knife to kill this treasure of his soul, this pleasure of his eyes; while tears trickled down his cheeks, hers were smiling with joy she should die by so noble a hand, and be sent into her own country (for that's their notion of the next world) by him she so tenderly loved, and so truly adored in this: for wives have a respect for their husbands equal to what any other people pay a deity; and when a man finds any occasion to quit his wife, if he love her, she dies by his hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her. It being thus, you may believe the deed was soon resolved on; and 'tis not to be doubted but the parting, the eternal leave-taking of two such lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving, as the relation of it was to be afterwards.
|Elegant and Noble Murder|
All that love could say in such cases being ended, and all the intermitting irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young, and adored victim lays herself down before the sacrificer; while he, with a hand resolved, and a heart breaking within, gave the fatal stroke, first cutting her throat, and then severing her yet smiling face from that delicate body, pregnant as it was with the fruits of tenderest love. As soon as he had done, he laid the body decently on leaves and flowers, of which he made a bed, and concealed it under the same cover-lid of Nature; only her face he left yet bare to look on: but when he found she was dead, and past all retrieve, never more to bless him with her eyes and soft language, his grief swelled up to rage; he tore, he raved, he roared like some monster of the wood, calling on the loved name of Imoinda. A thousand times he turned the fatal knife that did the deed toward his own heart, with a resolution to go immediately after her; but dire revenge, which was now a thousand times more fierce in his soul than before, prevents him: and he would cry out,
"No, since I have sacrificed Imoinda to my revenge, shall I lose that glory which I have purchased so dear, as the price of the fairest, dearest, softest creature that ever Nature made? No, no!"
Then at her name grief would get the ascendant of rage, and he would lie down by her side, and water her face with showers of tears, which never were wont to fall from those eyes; and however bent he was on his intended slaughter, he had not power to stir from the sight of this dear object, now more beloved and more adored than ever.
He remained in this deplorable condition for two days, and never rose from the ground where he had made her sad sacrifice; at last rousing from her side, and accusing himself of living too long, now Imoinda was dead, and that the deaths of those barbarous enemies were deferred too long, he resolved now to finish the great work; but offering to rise, he found his strength so decayed that he swayed to and fro, like boughs assailed by contrary winds; so that he was forced to lie down again, and try to summon all his courage to his aid. He found his brains turned round, and his eyes were dizzy, and objects appeared not the same to him they were wont to do; his breath was short, and all his limbs surprised with a faintness he had never felt before. He had not eat in two days, which was one occasion of his feebleness, but excess of grief was the greatest, yet still he hoped he should never recover vigour to act his design, and lay expecting it yet six days longer; still mourning over the dead idol of his heart and striving every day to rise, but could not.
In all this time you may believe we were in no little affliction for Caesar and his wife: some were of opinion he was escaped, never to return; others thought some accident had happened to him: but however, we failed not to send out a hundred people several ways, to search for him. A party of about forty went that way he took, among whom was Tuscan, who was perfectly reconciled to Byam. They had not gone very far into the wood but they smelt an unusual smell, as of a dead body; for stinks must be very noisome that can be distinguished among such a quantity of natural sweets as every inch of that land produces: so that they concluded they should find him dead, or some body that was so; they passed on towards it, as loathsome as it was, and made such rustling among the leaves that lie thick on the ground, by continual falling, that Caesar heard he was approached: and though he had, during the space of these eight days, endeavoured to rise, but found he wanted strength, yet looking up, and seeing his pursuers, he rose, and reeled to a neighbouring tree, against which he fixed his back; and being within a dozen yards of those that advanced and saw him, he called out to them, and bid them approach no nearer, if they would be safe. So that they stood still, and hardly believing their eyes, that would persuade them that it was Caesar that spoke to 'em, so much was he altered; they asked him what he had done with his wife, for they smelt a stink that almost struck them dead. He, pointing to the dead body, sighing, cried,
"Behold her there."
They put off the flowers that covered her, with their sticks, and found she was killed, and cried out,
"O monster! that hast murdered thy wife."
Then asking him why he did so cruel a deed; he replied, he had no leisure to answer impertinent questions. "You may go back," continued he, "and tell the faithless Governor he may thank Fortune that I am breathing my last; and that my arm is to feeble to obey my heart, in what it had designed him."
But his tongue faltering, and trembling, he could scarce end what he was saying. The English, taking advantage of his weakness, cried,
"Let us take him alive by all means."
He heard 'em; and, as if he had revived from a fainting, or a dream, he cried out,
"No, Gentlemen, you are deceived; you will find no more Caesars to be whipped; no more find a faith in me: feeble as you think me, I have strength yet left to secure me from a second indignity."
They swore all anew; and he only shook his head, and beheld them with scorn. Then they cried out "Who will venture on this single man? Will nobody?"
They stood all silent while Caesar replied, "Fatal will be the attempt to the first adventurer, let him assure himself" (and, at that word, held up his knife in a menacing posture).
"Look ye, ye faithless crew," said he, "'tis not life I seek, nor am I afraid of dying" (and at that word, cut a piece of flesh from his own throat, and threw it at 'em), "yet still I would live if I could, till I had perfected my revenge. But oh! it cannot be; I feel life gliding from my eyes and heart; and if I make not haste, I shall fall a victim to the shameful whip."
At that, he ripped up his own belly, and took his bowels and pulled 'em out, with what strength he could; while some, on their knees imploring, besought him to hold his hand. But when they saw him tottering, they cried out,
"Will none venture on him?"
A bold Englishman cried, "Yes, if he were the Devil" (taking courage when he saw him almost dead), and swearing a horrid oath for his farewell to the world, he rushed on him. Caesar with his armed hand met him so fairly as stuck him to the heart, and he fell dead at his feet. Tuscan, seeing that, cried out,
"I love thee, O Caesar! and therefore will not let thee die, if possible,"
and running to him, took him in his arms: but, at the same time, warding a blow that Caesar made at his bosom, he received it quite through his arm; and Caesar having not the strength to pluck the knife forth, though he attempted it, Tuscan neither pulled it out himself, nor suffered it to be pulled out, but came down with it sticking in his arm; and the reason he gave for it was, because the air should not get into the wound. They put their hands across, and carried Caesar between six of 'em, fainting as he was, and though they thought dead, or just dying; and they brought him to Parham, and laid him on a couch, and had the surgeon immediately to him, who dressed his wounds, and sowed up his belly, and used means to bring him to life, which they effected. We ran all to see him; and, if before we thought him so beautiful a sight, he was now so altered that his face was like a death's-head blacked over, nothing but teeth and eye-holes: for some days we suffered nobody to speak to him, but caused cordials to be poured down his throat; which sustained his life, and in six or seven days he recovered his senses: for you must know that wounds are almost to a miracle cured in the Indies; unless wounds in the legs, which they rarely ever cure.
When he was well enough to speak, we talked to him, and asked him some questions about his wife, and the reasons why he killed her; and he then told us what I have related of that resolution, and of his parting, and he besought us we would let him die, and was extremely afflicted to think it was possible he might live: he assured us, if we did not dispatch him, he would prove very fatal to a great many. We said all we could to make him live, and gave him new assurances; but he begged we would not think so poorly of him, or of his love to Imoinda, to imagine we could flatter him to life again: but the surgeon assured him he could not live, and therefore he need not fear. We were all (but Caesar) afflicted at this news, and the sight was ghastly: his discourse was sad; and the earthy smell about him was so strong that I was persuaded to leave the place for some time (being myself very sickly, and very apt to fall into fits of dangerous illness upon any extraordinary melancholy). The servants, and Trefry, and the surgeons, promised all to take what possible care they could of the life of Caesar; and I, taking boat, went with other company to Colonel Martin's, about three days' journey down the river. But I was no sooner gone than the Governor, taking Trefry, about some pretended earnest business, a day's journey up the river, having communicated his design to one Banister, a wild Irishman, and one of the council, a fellow of absolute barbarity, and fit to execute any villainy, but rich; he came up to Parham, and forcibly took Caesar, and had him carried to the same post where he was whipped; and causing him to be tied to it, and a great fire made before him, he told him he should die like a dog, as he was. Caesar replied, this was the first piece of bravery that ever Banister did, and he never spoke sense till he pronounced that word; and, if he would keep it, he would declare, in the other world, that he was the only man, of all the whites, that ever he heard speak truth. And turning to the men that had bound him, he said,
"My friends, am I to die, or to be whipped?"
And they cried, "Whipped! no, you shall not escape so well."
And then he replied, smiling, "A blessing on thee"; and assured them they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock, and endure death so as should encourage them to die;
"But, if you whip me," said he, "be sure you tie me fast."
He had learned to take tobacco; and when he was assured he should die, he desired they would give him a pipe in his mouth, ready lighted; which they did. And the executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; after that, with an ill-favoured knife, they cut off his ears and his nose and burned them; he still smoked on, as if nothing had touched him; then they hacked off one of his arms, and still he bore up, and held his pipe; but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost, without a groan or a reproach. My mother and sister were by him all the while, but not suffered to save him; so rude and wild were the rabble, and so inhuman were the justices who stood by to see the execution, who after paid dearly enough for their insolence. They cut Caesar in quarters, and sent them to several of the chief plantations: one quarter was sent to Colonel Martin, who refused it, and swore he had rather see the quarters of Banister, and the Governor himself, that those of Caesar, on his plantations; and that he could govern his negroes without terrifying and grieving them with frightful spectacles of a mangled king.
Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise: yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive all the ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.
|The Indian Queen - John Dryden|
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, edited by Catherine Gallagher. (Botson and New York: Bedford St Martin's, 2000)
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