Pedro and Ike and Culture and Land: Some Comments on Tent of Miracles and Go Down, Moses

tenda-dos-milagres-jorge-amado-

The cover of a Brazilian(?) edition of Amado’s novel, via (though this particular copy of the book is no longer for sale at that site).

I have begun my reread of Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Tent of Miracles, which I have paired with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in chapter 2 of the book project. I’ll start off this post by making a couple of points regarding Ike McCaslin’s relationship to the land, and then I’ll make some comparisons between that and Tent of Miracles‘ treatment of Bahia, along with some initial remarks comparing Ike to Tent of Miracles‘ protagonist, Pedro Archanjo.  A good starting point for where I will be headed, though, is to compare the cover art for the Amado novel (which appears to be a scene from the 1977 film version) with that of the first edition of Go Down, Moses, which I posted here.  Though admittedly a bit of a cherry-pick on my part, that cover, with its depiction of a vast landscape empty of people, contrasted with the cover of Amado’s novel–the frame crowded with people, dressed and equipped with a fusion of Western and African-diaspora clothes and instruments–serves quite nicely as a starting point for this post.

I finished my re-read of Go Down, Moses over the Christmas break but, aside from my earlier posts on that novel’s chronology and what we learn about Roth from paying closer attention to the chronology of the chapters in which he appears, I found I didn’t have much else to say, then, after that reread.  I’d gone back to it in large measure because I was looking for moments when Ike rhapsodizes about the land, but he never does, much as he loves to hunt on it.  Or, rather, he does rhapsodize about it, but chiefly speaks of a changeless and immutable version of the land in which the men who visit it do not leave a mark in or on it–a version, moreover, that he seems to have no interest in preserving for anyone else after he is dead:

[I]t was his land, although he had never owned a foot of it.  He had never wanted to, not even after he saw plain its ultimate doom, watching it retreat year by year before the onslaught of axe and saw and log-lines and then dynamite and tractor plows, because it belonged to no man.  It belonged to all; they had only to use it well, humbly and with pride. Then suddenly he knew why he had never wanted to own any of it, arrest at least that much of what people called progress, measure his longevity at least against that much of its ultimate fate.  It was because there was just exactly enough of it.. He seemed to see the two of them–himself and the wilderness–as coevals, [. . .] the two spans running out together, not toward oblivion, nothingness, but into a dimension free of both time and space[.] (“Delta Autumn,” 337)

That last phrase–“free of both time and space” is crucial for Ike.  It is in his relinquishment of his claim to his grandfather’s plantation that he seeks to free himself from its legacy and, even, from history itself, even refusing ever again to look at the plantation ledgers once he realized, at 16, that that record of the slaves’ births and deaths revealed that his grandfather had conceived a child by one of his own daughters.  Now, their “yellowed pages in their fading and implacable succession were as much a part of his consciousness and would remain so forever, as the fact of his own nativity” (“The Bear,” 259).  (More about the ledgers a little later.)

In refusing his inheritance of the farm, however, Ike loses his chance to have an heir: His wife, when she learns that he will not take possession of his grandfather’s land, has sex with him only once, to consummate their marriage, and she does not become pregnant.  Thus, we have, at the beginning of Go Down, Moses and at one other place, something like an epitaph for Ike: he is an “uncle to half a county and father to no one” (“Was,” 3).  He retains (for himself) his innocence and seems to assume that so long as he does, so also will the land–but, again, only for him, and only for so long as he is alive.  As his cousin Carothers McCaslin (referred to in the novel as “McCaslin”) caustically tells him after Ike declares himself to have freed himself of the accursed land by refusing to take ownership of his family’s share of it,

‘[I]t took Him a bear and an old man and four years just for you.  And it took you fourteen years to reach that point and about that many, maybe more, for Old Ben, and more than seventy for Sam Fathers.  And you are just one.  How long then?  How long?’ and he

‘It will be long.  I have never said otherwise.  But it will be all right because they will endure–‘ and McCaslin

‘And anyway, you will be free.–No, not now or nor ever, we from them nor they from us.[‘] (“The Bear,” 286)

(It strikes me now, in rereading this post before hitting the old “Publish” button, just how much Roth, as we see him in his dealings with Lucas Beauchamp in “The Fire and the Hearth,” will come to assume as a given his grandfather McCaslin’s claim here.)

Contrast Ike, then, to Tent of Miracles‘ protagonist, Pedro Archanjo.  Far from wanting to free himself of a cultural world that would not exist had it not been for slavery, Pedro revels in it and even seeks to document and preserve it.  He, whom the novel introduces to us in the moment of his dying, is in just about every way Ike’s polar opposite, especially as regards the matter of offspring:

Two men came striding up the street.

“I knew one of his sons, worked with him down on the docks until he ran away to sea.”

“But Pedro never married . . .”

“Well, he made upward of twenty children anyway, he was a studhorse if ever there was one.”

The speaker laughed loudly and his companion joined in.  Yes, Pedro Archanjo had always come out on top.  But where did that other, louder laughter come from, Rosália?  Only twenty?  Come on now, add a few more sons, camarado, don’t be bashful; that was a powerful tool I had, you know; it broke in virgins, it seduced married women, it was God’s gift to whores–what with one thing and another, and one woman and another, Pedro Archanjo helped populate the world, meu bom. (44)

Just in case you think the above passage might not be representative of the novel as a whole, Tent of Miracles is more than a little preoccupied with describing–and celebrating–the life force.  Ike, for his part, affirms the power, even the sacredness of the sex act, even if not performed within the context of marriage or its promise; but whether because he himself has had sex only once that we know of, or because he is (rightly) repulsed by his grandfather’s conceiving slave children by his own slave children, he seems never to be especially “manly” in his scenes in Go Down, Moses, no matter his age.  I wonder if Ike’s chastity (a discipline partly chosen, partly forced upon him) is why what he most seems to admire about the woods is its capacity for regeneration–specifically, its ability to recover quickly from men’s visits to it–but not for its fecundity, its aliveness.  Two favorite adjectives of the narrator for Ike’s scenes in the woods are “traceless” and “trackless.”  The woods seem never to change for Ike, even when, as the narrator tells us of the annual November hunts in “Delta Autumn,” “they had farther and farther to drive, the territory in which game still existed drawing yearly inward as his life was drawing inward” (320).  At any rate, from Ike’s perspective in Go Down, Moses the land never becomes anything, never seems to produce anything, except when logged or converted to farmland, and those activities are what doom it.  The land that is the South, for Ike, is a kind of stage for the working out of God’s will through history, but he cannot conceive of the South as anything more or other than wilderness or land.  It seems not to be a place for him, which is to say that he does not conceive it as a space in which people live and to which they form an emotional attachment and out of which cultural expression emerges.  If one wants to read a novel that would introduce one to Southern folkways, Go Down, Moses would not be that novel.

Tent of Miracles, on the other hand, immediately immerses the reader in the cultural materials of Bahia–indeed, those materials seem to emerge from the soil and then are worked into their forms (italics in the original):

In the neighborhood of Pelourinho in the heart of Bahia, the whole world teaches and learns. [. . .] [F]rom the working of metal and wood, the blending of medicines from herbs and roots, and the cadence of quick-blooded rhythms, is created a fresh, original image of novel colors and sounds.

Listen to the wood and leather drums, the twanging bow, the beaded gourds and rattles, the tambourines and coconuts, the metal bells and gongs, atabaque, berimbau, ganzá, adufe, caxixí, agogô: musical instruments of the poor, rich in melody and rhythm. Music and dance were born on the common man’s campus. (1)

Pedro is at the heart of this world: aside from being quite the ladies’ man, he is a storyteller, santeria priest, artisan, and much else besides.  Perhaps most important to the novel’s plot, though, he is a genealogist and ethnographer of his people, eager to document that Brazil’s ethnic composition is much more mixed than its white-skinned citizens are comfortable in admitting.  In chapter 2 of the book project, I compare the McCaslin plantation ledgers to the books Pedro writes, arguing that they are different volumes of the same Book and that Ike, after refusing to re-read (or add to) his volume (as we’re told in “The Bear”) is forced to do those very things in his encounter with Roth’s lover in “Delta Autumn”–the pages are not yellowed and fading but, as the narrator says of the woman, “ineradicably alive” (343).  Ike, acting on the assumption that history is linear, has the misfortune of being a character in a novel whose very form assumes the opposite: even as the pages of the calendar advance chronologically, the doings of people loop back on themselves–heck, Ike should have seen this to be true in his kinsmens’ constant recycling of the names McCaslin and Carothers.  At any rate, while Ike’s linear view and (very) long view of history seems to be the source of his despair as he realizes not only that Roth’s lover is black but that she is also distantly related to both Roth and Ike (in other words, his attempt to remove himself from history, he realizes, has not stopped the very things that had prompted his action), Pedro–and, indeed, Tent of Miracles–embodies a model of history that Martinican writer Edouard Glissant argues, in “The Quarrel with History” is peculiar to the Caribbean but which, I would claim, works equally well when thinking of the New World as a heterotopic space:

[A] people can have to confront the problem posed by [an increasingly global historical] consciousness that it feels is “vital,” but that it is unable to “bring to light”: because the lived circumstances of this daily reality do not form part of a continuum, which means that its relations with its surroundings (what we would call its nature) is in a discontinuous relation to its accumulation of experiences (what we would call its culture).  In such a context, history as far as it is a discipline and claims to clarify the reality lived by this people, will suffer from a serious epistemological deficiency: it will not know how to make the link.

*   *   *

[O]ur diverse histories in the Caribbean has produced today another revelation: that of the subterranean convergence.  They, thereby, bring to the light an unsuspected, because it is so obvious, dimension of human behavior: transversality.  The implosion of Caribbean history (of the converging histories of our peoples) relieves of us the linear, hierarchical vision of a single History that would run its unique course.  It is not this History that has roared around the edges of the Caribbean, but actually a question of the subterranean convergence of our histories.  The depths are not only the abyss of neurosis but primarily the site of multiple converging paths.  (in Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, 61; 66)

I think Faulkner understands this very well, even if he’d never heard of Glissant and even if he never quite has anyone say anything like this in his novels: Go Down, Moses‘ very form, as does that of Absalom, Absalom!, embody the decidedly non-linear quality of history even as its chief protagonists take that linearity as a given.  (It’s no accident that at a lecture I heard Glissant give back in 1992, he called Absalom, Absalom! a Caribbean novel not only because Thomas Sutpen learns how to manage slaves while in Haiti (and, of course, while there conceives Charles Bon by his first wife, whom he later learns is of mixed race) but also due to its plot’s immersion in the rules that govern the Caribbean’s central economic system, the Plantation.)  Go Down, Moses‘ subterranean convergences happen offstage, as, for example, when James Beauchamp leaves Mississippi on the eve of his 21st birthday rather than receive the thousand-dollar legacy left to him by Ike’s father, only to make his return via his granddaughter, Roth’s lover.  Tent of Miracles, meanwhile, is not history and isn’t set geographically in the Caribbean, but its assumptions of the truth of subterranean convergences drive its two plots (Pedro’s life, and the twists and turns of Brazil’s national government’s attempt to honor him on the centennial of his birth while simultaneously hosting a trade delegation from then-Apartheid South Africa).

Some version of all of this will end up in chapter 2.  What you’ve read isn’t a self-contained argument, really, so much as it is in part a development of something that gets vaguely hinted at in that chapter as it currently stands–how Ike and Pedro could not be more different as characters–and (what is new to me) that their differences can be accounted for by drawing out their differing notions of land and place, which will help me link up with that notion of the land that I explored in the Columbus chapter.  Thanks for reading this far.

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One thought on “Pedro and Ike and Culture and Land: Some Comments on Tent of Miracles and Go Down, Moses

  1. Pingback: “His normal sensitivity to negro behavior”: Looking for black and heterotopic spaces in Go Down, Moses | Domestic Issue

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