Tag Archives: Toni Morrison

Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions

Edward John Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound, in the Years 1840–1; Sent by the Colonists of South Australia, with the Sanction and Support of the Government (London 1845)

eyre1-00.jpgI imagine most people think of the journals of nineteenth-century British explorers of the Australian continent as raw material for historians and creative writers, rather than works to be read for their own sake. In fact, the journals were generally written up on the long sea voyage back to Britain, not raw at all, and most if not all of them were intended to give pleasure to the general reader as well as information to actual and prospective colonisers. If one test of a work of literature is whether it lives on in the mind of the reader, then I have some evidence for Eyre’s Journals. It’s more than 40 years since I read it, and this morning I woke up with this passage running in my head:

It was a dreamy kind of feeling, and I could have let the sands of life drain away to the last grain.

I was pleased to find the complete two volumes on Project Gutenberg, so was able to check the quote, and its context. It turns out, of course, that my memory was inaccurate – the original is much better. Here’s part of the entry for 17 May 1841 culminating in the part I was misremembering – the ‘we’ referred to are Eyre and his sole companion for this part of the journey, the Aboriginal man he calls Wylie:

Our stage to-day was only twelve miles, yet some of our horses were nearly knocked up, and we ourselves in but little better condition. The incessant walking we were subject to, the low and unwholesome diet we had lived upon, the severe and weakening attacks of illness caused by that diet, having daily, and sometimes twice a day, to dig for water, to carry all our fire-wood from a distance upon our backs, to harness, unharness, water, and attend to the horses, besides other trifling occupations, making up our daily routine, usually so completely exhausted us, that we had neither spirit nor energy left.

Added to all other evils, the nature of the country behind the sea-coast was as yet so sandy and scrubby that we were still compelled to follow the beach, frequently travelling on loose heavy sands, that rendered our stages doubly fatiguing: whilst at nights, after the labours of the day were over, and we stood so much in need of repose, the intense cold, and the little protection we had against it, more frequently made it a season of most painful suffering than of rest, and we were glad when the daylight relieved us once more.

On our march we felt generally weak and languid – it was an effort to put one foot before the other, and there was an indisposition to exertion that it was often very difficult to overcome. After sitting for a few moments to rest – and we often had to do this – it was always with the greatest unwillingness we ever moved on again. I felt, on such occasions, that I could have sat quietly and contentedly, and let the glass of life glide away to its last sand. There was a dreamy kind of pleasure, which made me forgetful or careless of the circumstances and difficulties by which I was surrounded, and which I was always indisposed to break in upon.

Another great moment is on 6 July  1841, when Eyre and Wylie reach their goal, the town of Albany. It’s a brilliant example of the mechanism described by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark where a white writer uses – in this case – an Aboriginal character to embody some aspect of himself that he can’t acknowledge. This extract begins just after the two exhausted travellers see the apparently deserted town, the rain ‘falling in torrents’:

I was startled by the loud shrill cry of the native we had met on the road, and who still kept with us: clearly and powerfully that voice rang through the recesses of the settlement beneath, whilst the blended name of Wylie told me of the information it conveyed. For an instant there was a silence still almost as death – then a single repetition of that wild joyous cry, a confused hum of many voices, a hurrying to and fro of human feet, and the streets which had appeared so shortly before gloomy and untenanted, were now alive with natives – men, women and children, old and young, rushing rapidly up the hill, to welcome the wanderer on his return, and to receive their lost one almost from the grave.

It was an interesting and touching sight to witness the meeting between Wylie and his friends. Affection’s strongest ties could not have produced a more affecting and melting scene – the wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance, with which he was embraced by his relatives, the cordial and hearty reception given him by his friends, and the joyous greeting bestowed upon him by all, might well have put to the blush those heartless calumniators, who, branding the savage as the creature only of unbridled passions, deny to him any of those better feelings and affections which are implanted in the breast of all mankind, and which nature has not denied to any colour or to any race.

Upon entering the town I proceeded direct to Mr Sherrats’, where I had lodged when in King George’s Sound in 1840. By him and his family I was most hospitably received, and every attention shewn to me; and in the course of a short time, after taking a glass of hot brandy and water, performing my ablutions and putting on a clean suit of borrowed clothes, I was enabled once more to feel comparatively comfortable, and to receive the many kind friends who called upon me.

He’d have us believe he only mentions the ‘wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance’ to make an anthropological point. For the son of a Bedfordshire vicar, feeling ‘comparatively comfortable’ is quite enough, thank you very much.

This is the book that Patrick White was reading during London Blitz when the idea for Voss came to him.

 

Grand Master C L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry

C L Moore, Jirel of Joiry (©1934, 1935, 1936, 1939; Ace Fantasy Books 1982)

jojThis book reminded me of something the late poet Martin Johnston said about H P Lovecraft: ‘The writing is terrible but it gives you great nightmares.’ In this tremendously inventive fantasy the main character, the fierce but beautiful warrior lady Jirel, takes five separate journeys into four different demonic worlds. Think Dante’s Hell without the theology, the politics or the poetic vision, but plenty of gusto, gore and unspeakable horrors.

Jirel of Joiry has been on my list of recommended science fiction/fantasy books for a long time, probably because its protagonist was among the first women to star in heroic fantasy genre fiction. I began reading it now for reactive reasons: I was irritated by a recent egregious bit of click-bait that dumped on adults who find some YA and children’s literature and by extension fantasy seriously interesting (no argued rebuttal needed beyond invoking Sturgeon’s Law); and a ham-fisted, over-analysed fantasy episode in a mainstream novel made me yearn for some unabashed genre writing.

Weird_Tales_October_1934The book’s five related short stories were first published in the 1930s. The first, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’, inspired the cover illustration of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared (see left). You don’t get much more unabashed than that.

The Weird Tales cover actually owes more to its assumed readers’ tastes than to the story itself: in the scene it purports to illustrate, Jirel is clad in armour and holding an unsheathed sword, and the black god, encountered in a black building on a dark, dark night, is described as follows (on page 29):

The image was of some substance of nameless black, unlike the material which composed the building, for even in the dark she could see it clearly. It was a semi-human figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss. And though it was but an image and without even the semblance of life, she felt unmistakably the presence of something alive in the temple, something so alien and innominate that instinctively she drew away.

This goes easier on the emotive adjectives and adverbs than most of the writing, but it’s fairly representative  I particularly like the way, having used nameless a little too often in recent pages, the writer reaches for an alternative and finds innominate, for this is a book in which there are many things that the narrator tells us are beyond the power of words to name or describe. Do I need to tell you that within an overwrought page Jirel is compelled by mysterious global forces to kiss those pursed lips, with chilling consequences?

The stories are all fast moving, violent and dazzlingly inventive, easy to mock when paraphrased, but told with a gleeful lack of irony. The sexual politics are fascinating: Jirel is a formidable warrior who is violently ambivalent about the idea of being dominated by a male, whether human or demonic, and who has deeply antagonistic relationships with the only other significant female characters. But even more fascinating is the play of black and white. Jirel herself is identified as red, because of her hair; the attractive/deadly male figures are all at the darker end of the swarthy-to-black spectrum; and an emphatic white is reserved for lost, spectral figures such as the blind, galloping horses in the cover illustration of my edition of the book, or the fabulously evil characters such as the witch in the fourth story, ‘The Dark Land’:

It was a woman – or could it be? White as leprosy against the blackness of the trees, with a whiteness that no shadows touched, so that she seemed like some creature out of another world reflecting in dazzling pallor upon the background of the dark, she paced slowly forward. She was thin – deathly thin, and wrapped in a white robe like a winding sheet …

But it was her face that caught Jirel’s eyes and sent a chill of terror down her back. It was the face of Death itself, a skull across which the white, white flesh was tightly drawn. And yet it was not without a certain stark beauty of its own, the beauty of bone so finely formed that even in its death’s-head nakedness it was lovely.

And it goes on – the word ‘white’ occurs four more times in the next paragraph, which also mentions the absence of colour and shadows, twice each.

It was impossible not to think of Toni Morrison’s 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison describes a mythologised blackness ‘pulled from fields of desire and need’, and ‘the silence of an impenetrable inarticulate whiteness’ that occurs again and again in fiction by white US authors. I don’t know if she has a taste for genre or may even have read Jirel of Joiry, but I hope she would enjoy the way it allows images and motifs from white US’s Africanist imagination to thrum with innominate energy.