Review of Ishmael Reedís Mumbo Jumbo

By Ralph Dumain
(1977)

Introduction

I would like to synopsize some of the important events in this novel in order to provide a background for my analysis of it.

Synopsis

This novel chronicles the struggle between Jes Grew and the Wallflower Order (enforcer arm of the Atonists). Jes Grew is the outbreak of jazz, ragtime, and blues onto the world scene. Jes Grew is a psychic epidemic; it is the spirit of blackness overtaking America and the world in the 1920's. It is a plague, or rather an anti‑plague, which enlivens its victims into dancing, swinging, singing and talking crazy. The Wallflower Order is opposed to dancing and is desperately struggling to stamp out Jes Grew before it undermines the Atonist order completely.

Jes Grew was a liturgy without a text. "If it could not find its Text, then it would be mistaken for entertainment." The struggle centers over the search for the ancient black Egyptian text, the Book of Thoth.

The Book of Thoth was written as a guide to the use of rites (e.g. dance, spirit possession) for the regulation of agriculture. The knowledge in the book prevented the spirits from performing in a sporadic and uncontrolled fashion. The Book was the property of the ancient popular religion of Osiris and Isis, which had spread worldwide. The people's religion of Egypt was persecuted by the ruler Set, creator of the Atonist religion: worship only of Aton, the sun's flaming disc. The Book of Thoth was driven underground but survived through the ages. It was brought to the U.S. in the 1890's by Hinckle Von Vampton, immortal member of the Knights Templar.

The presence of the Text stimulated the outbreak of Jes Grew in the 1890's, which petered out. Jes Grew, rising again in the 1920's, needed the Text in order to thrive, lest unregulated by the power of the Book it die out again. Pro-Jes-Grew agents seek out the Text to achieve the victory of Jes Grew, Anti‑Jes-Grew agents seek to find and destroy the Text and pulverize Jes Grew.

The Knights Templar was a powerful mystical order that became prominent in the Crusades, but was later persecuted by the Church. Hinckle Von Vampton, wishing to reinstate his order with the Atonists, succeeds in placing himself at the head of the Crusades to destroy Jes Grew. The Text, however, has escaped his hands, and he must resort to other activities to fight Jes Grew.

Von Vampton becomes publisher of the Benign Monster, an exploitative avantgardist literary magazine designed to dilute, cheapen, trivialize and devitalize the black literary renaissance of the 1920's and thereby discourage people from catching Jes Grew. Von Vampton searches for a black litterateur for his rag, a Talking Android who will become a prominent figure in Black literature in order to defuse it.

On another front, the U.S. invades Haiti, center of black magical power in the western hemisphere. Haitian Voodoo generals come to New York in search of the Text and to capture a great White Host (Von Vampton) to feed one of their loas. Working with them are PaPa LaBas, head of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral in Harlem, and his associates.

A group of disaffected art history students have formed a secret society called the Mu'tafikah, which is engaged in raiding the Center for Art Detention (western art museums) and returning the magical art treasures looted from the world's peoples to the original owners. Their chief opponent is Biff Musclewhite, Curator of the Center for Art Detention, who succeeds in assassinating Mu'tafikah members.

The Text is in the hands of Abdul Sufi Hamid, a black Muslim, who is disaffected with the ways of black folks and who wants to whip them into shape, i.e. into a tightly disciplined organization. Unaware of the Book's import and deciding that it is unfit for Black consumption, he burns the Book of Thoth.

That, and the depression created by the Atonists to destroy the economic base of Jes Grew, put an end to the Jes Grew epidemic.

PaPa LaBas points out at the end that Jes Grew is eternal and indestructible. Jes Grew is life itself, he explains. "They will try to depress Jes Grew but it will only spring back and prosper. We will make our own future Text. A future generation of young artists will accomplish this."

Analysis

This book has much to say about music, art, religion, culture, and class society.

Afro‑Americans, victimized by their white oppressors who tried to destroy all cultural connections to Africa, have in adaptation to their circumstances in the U.S. distilled the essence of Africanity. Black Americans (the Jes Crew carriers) have lost the ancient religion: they don't know the deities or rites, but they have improvised their own religion and music. Improvisation has been the key to cultural survival. The X‑factor of Africanity that has survived the American experience has given rise to jazz, ragtime, and blues. In the novel Afro‑American innovations serve as an inspiration for more traditional African communities.

The contact between Black culture and western civilization long dominated by the fascistic force of Atonism (Puritanism, anti‑humanism, oppression, cult of the Omnipotent Central Administrator) produced interesting results. Whites hurried to stamp out African religion, but were in turn conquered by the magical force of Black music, and the dancing and language associated with it.

In primitive cultures music, dance, and art are strongly tied to religion; they are functional and magical. In capitalist society, where work is separated from pleasure and becomes drudgery without communalism or symbolism, art forms become entertainment. Furthermore, in a white racist society, Black culture could influence whites only through the medium of entertainment. People's desire to party and enjoy themselves takes precedence over racism. People are quite content to feed upon the spiritual energies of a people they despise without acknowledging, respecting, or rewarding the source. Nevertheless, interracial contact is anathema to the ruling class. It might lead to more black‑white unification and anti‑ruling-class perspectives. Hence, in the 1920's, when America is in "danger" of going Black, this could be perceived as a threat by the Atonist order.

It takes time for people to Catch On, for new (or old) ideas to diffuse. The media have a substantial role to play in this process. Cultural trends are very much at the mercy of the media. Imitations, dilutions, confusions, trivializations, and corruptions of new trends (e.g. in music, literature) can dissipate the spiritual power of the developing cultural trend. Bad music drives out the good. That is why Von Vampton's Benign Monster and Talking Android were so important: pretend to get hip to the new thing, turn it into a cheap, snickering, insincere, and shallow game to weaken and destroy the genuine article. Art is a powerful force in life and consciousness. Hence also the Center for Art Detention as a way of robbing people of their magical art objects.

The Book of Thoth had been composed in order to regulate natural forces by song and dance and to bring under control the sporadic outbursts of the spirits. If Jes Grew found its Text, the magical techniques described therein could be used to control the power of Jes Grew. The Text could be used as a basis for spiritual and political unification of blacks as well as non‑black "victims" of Jes Grew and to prevent Jes Grew from succumbing to the vicissitudes of faddism and entertainment.

The depression set back the Africanization of America for a generation. Jes Grew had to await its revival and the creation of a future Text.

Reed's novel appears to be an attempt at creating a text for today. Firstly, it stimulates readers to research ancient history, traditions, and magic unknown to most of us today. Secondly, it depicts the relation of song to dance, those plus art to magic and myth to people's religion and class society and thereby provides a comprehensive non‑white mythological interpretation of world history, i.e. from the point of view of the victims of history, who seldom have the opportunity to write history books.

Mythology of History

This novel makes quite novel use of African, Afro‑Caribbean, Greek, Christian, and scientific mythology. Reed recognizes that history has been written and mythology and science have been used to serve the purposes of the ruling class. He turns mythology and history around to serve his own purpose, that of a third-world, anti‑oppression, and pro‑soul perspective on history. Mumbo Jumbo is underground history—in two ways. First, it is underground, i.e., non‑official in the sense that a Marxist would write history: from the viewpoint of the oppressed rather than the oppressor. The difference is that a Marxist would show in analytical fashion how religion is formulated on the basis of a society's forces and relations of production. He would depict religious forces as political forces. Reed, in contrast, writes an underground history in a second sense by depicting magical, religious forces as material, political forces. Reed's history is a history of secret societies, of magical warfare. It is a spiritualized history.

The Wallflower Order, the Atonists, the Catholic Church, and the Knights Templar are all institutionalized forces of Puritanism, morbid anti‑humanism and power madness. The god Set is the proto‑fascist, anti-erotic ruler who suppresses Osiris and his people's religion. Moses is a bokor, i.e. a magical malpractitioner, a superficial and irreligious man who misuses ancient teachings for his own sick, egotistical ends. [1] Monotheism equals autocratic despotism, the rule of the one over the many. [2]

The voodoo generals, Papa La Bas' Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, and the Mu'tafikah are agents of the oppressed, specifically the world's colored, non‑western peoples. Osiris and Isis are the people's gods.

The relation between the class struggle and the West vs. East struggle requires further attention. Reed suggests that the white man is a bokor. When not intentionally malevolent, he is the pitiful victim of his own ignorance. The white man is also depicted as being victim to his own ruling class, as illustrated by the character Biff Musclewhite. Musclewhite is the archetype of the grotesque, childish, brutal, redneck lackey so common in this part of the world. By his own admission he represents the beaten‑down and brainwashed sons of Europe who, sunk deep in their oppression and cut off from natural sources of self‑esteem, seek redemption by identifying themselves with the fascism of their oppressors. [3]

On the other hand, Reed extends the third world to include the ancient Greek farmers who worshipped Dionysus as part of the world‑wide Osiran religion, and also the white "victims" of Jes Grew. Evidently, Europeans have non‑western roots. Reed also states in the book that westerners are out of touch with their own mystical traditions. [4]

Hence, Europeans are separated from their own underground history, from their own connections to the third world. Europe has been dominated for 2000 years by Judaeo‑Christian fascism. Could it be that Europe has something spiritually valuable buried underneath its ugly history? We can be thankful that western civilization is being called to account for its crimes: for its imperialism, its racism, its concentration camps, its mind-body dualism, its anti‑sexuality, to name a few. Philosophy's task since World War I, in which the western tradition died, has been to dethrone the West. Now the West is being taken to the scaffold and is about to have its ugly neck broken. Perhaps now someone can safely take a radical philosophical step—so outrageous that I know of no one who has thought of it—to write a Mumbo Jumbo for white people. Who knows, maybe the next incarnation of Jes Grew will be the polka.

Notes

1† The link between Moses, monotheism, and the ruling class can be corroborated by consulting Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud. Freud proposes that Moses was an Egyptian aristocrat who sought to impose his monotheistic ideal on the Jewish masses. Freud was a great admirer of Moses and an elitist as well. He claimed that the masses lack the capacity for instinctual renunciation, a sign of barbarity and immaturity. According to Reed, Freud was an Atonist.

2† The idea of individuality and multiplicity is reinforced throughout the book by usage of the numeral "l" instead of the pronoun "one." Numbers are written in numeral form rather than spelled out.

3† Here is the real "danger" of Jes Grew. If white America goes black, it gets in touch with its repressed self and ceases to be entrapped by Puritan guilt. It is harder to control a slave who feels he has a right to enjoy life.

4† In Rudyard Kipling's story "The Man Who Would be King" the British imperialist adventurer is saved from death in the highlands of India because he is wearing a Masonic symbol that means little to him but a great deal to his executioners—it was brought there centuries ago by Alexander the Great.

Spring 1977

Bibliographical note on first edition: Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972. 223 pp.

Uploaded, with slight editorial modifications, 15 May 2007
©1977, 2007 Ralph Dumain


30 Years Later

I am really embarrassed by this piece I wrote when I was a babe in the woods. It does reflect the susceptibilities of people who questioned their society in the '60s and the '70s and were subject to influences such as this. Not being grounded in intellectual methodology and the history of ideas, while rebelling against the dominant cultural order of the time, leads to periodic rebellions against "western civilization". Ishmael Reed's ideological satirical novels slant rebellion against the West in a different fashion than the more "mainstream" embrace of eastern mysticism, which also suggests that there was more than one counterculture. Reed's ideological play reflects the crackpot paranoid occultist views of black cultural nationalism, many of which have circulated in western societies since the 1920s, and which also rode the wave of the '60s-'70s.

There is, as you can see, a certain logic to this reconfiguration of cultural-mythical ideology, which effects a reversal of the valuation of ideological categories rather than their destruction. I attempted to make a connection between underground cultural consciousness and class consciousness, but was not yet prepared to see through Reed's game. I captured a key feature of Reed's approach, though I did not yet draw the appropriate conclusions from it: instead of revealing the material, secular origins of mythological concepts, Reed portrays historical material forces as the embodiment of occult, magical forces and the process of history as the machinations of secret societies. This is just how fascists see history.

The odd remark about the polka at the end reflects my exposure to ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, who studied the Tiv of Nigeria (and much later published a book on this people's music and culture), published the notable book Urban Blues in 1966, and was studying the Polish-American polka at the time I knew him. In the mid-'70s I was into ethnomusicology, anthropology, and ethnic studies. I only turned against anthropology, primitivism, and other such nonsense later on. While detailed personal memory of one's youth tends to be hazy and difficult to recapture play-by-play, I have stated on many occasions that I undertook a serious reevaluation of my perspective in 1980, when I realized where this society was heading and that irrationalism was not merely a peccadillo of obscure, harmless subcultures, but was poised to destroy the whole society. But the process of rebellion against people who think like Reed could not have been so sudden. As times change, assumptions change, especially when knowledge grows. I also got to see first-hand the fruits of the ignorance of those black subcultural elements that embraced this sort of counter-mythology, and in a drawn-out process, I must have consciously realized at some point that I wasn't going to countenance this nonsense.

I also got fed up with anthropology. Though I realized that Keil's slumming was not trustworthy, I didn't learn at that time to hate anthropologists as they deserve. I recall one outstanding incident in the early '80s—a Zen-like (pardon me for using this expression) moment when, during a conversation on a friend's porch, I had a sudden flash of insight and blurted out why I could no longer take any human institutions or cultures seriously anymore, because they were all primitive, barbaric, unconscious, and unfit to be taken seriously. I remember nothing of what I actually said, but after saying it I lost it, in an uncontrollable laughing fit that morphed into a panic attack when I couldn't catch my breath.

In 1986, that is nearly a decade after writing the above youthful essay, I published a harsh rejoinder to Ishmael Reed after reading his hatchet job on James Baldwin, a vastly superior writer and intellect, in the Washington City Paper. My guess is I had turned definitively against him about midway through that the preceding ten years.

I suppose my final evaluation of Reed is more nuanced, incorporating elements of both these extremes.

I attended readings of his works upon occasion over the years, in Buffalo and Washington. I think the last time I saw him in Washington was when he was on tour hawking his novel Japanese By Spring. I had a personal conversation with him which probably had something to do with Japanese fascism, which I believe he said was supported by Elijah Muhammed. But the only thing I remember him telling me was that he was not a nationalist (but . . .).

I had only learned so much in the 1980s. The 1990s witnessed an explosion in my intellectual development. Midway through this period, I encountered Shamoon Zamir's incredible essay on Reed, Blake, and the '60s.

Reed is a gifted satirist, perceptive about a number of things, and of course his satiric novels are presumably not meant to be taken literally, but at the end of the day, his "neo-Hoodoo" aesthetic is bankrupt.


Ishmael Reed: Literary Ambulance Chaser? by Ralph Dumain

Ishmael Reed, William Blake, and the '60s According to Shamoon Zamir by Ralph Dumain

On the Significance of The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
by R. Dumain

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Uploaded 15 May 2007

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