Writing Seeing: The Known World (2)

November 21, 2012

Continued from the previous post.

The knower of The Known World displays the extent of its omniscience by glazing the narratives of various characters with extraordinary disclosures that are temporally and causally severed from the events unfolding on the page. As these sorts of disclosures accumulate, they open a disjuncture between sentences that are necessary for narrative cohesion and those whose lack of necessity casts them as indulgences — indulgences which ultimately offer little more than an announcement of the knower’s presence and an aggrandisement of its abilities. Here, for instance, is a paragraph on the activities of Anderson Frazier, a Canadian muckracker who visits antebellum Virginia and writes “a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors.” The knower takes a short step forward in time, beyond the Civil War, to reveal that “[t]his series [proved to be] Anderson’s most successful,” and then leaps headlong into the future to reveal that

nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.

The information gleaned from this temporal leap, presented as only an aside in a much more straightforward narrative, serves no discernible purpose other than to demonstrate the knower’s ability to leap into the future and so disclose knowledge unobtainable by others.

Elsewhere, the knower furthers its self-aggrandisement when it makes certain disclosures for the purpose of amending the inferior knowledge of others. Sometimes, for instance, the knower rectifies knowledge preserved for posterity but wrongly recorded. After noting that “[t]he census of 1860 said there were 2,670 slaves in Manchester County,” it reveals that “the census taker, a U.S. marshal who feared God, had argued with his wife the day he sent his report to Washington, D.C., and all his arithmetic was wrong because he had failed to carry a one.” At other times, the knower not only rectifies knowledge that has been wrongly recorded but also restores the knowledge lost when records are destroyed. After detailing the arrest of a man named Jean Broussard, a thief who attempted to sell another man’s slave in 1855, the knower notes that the records of the Broussard trial “were destroyed in a 1912 fire [which] killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building where the records were kept, and five dogs and two horses.” Despite their destruction, however, knowledge of the trial survives through the knower: after noting that the trial lasted less than one full day — “the trial itself [ran through the] morning and the jury deliberations a portion of the summer afternoon” — the knower goes on to tell the story of one of the men who took part in the deliberations. Unsatisfied with simply disclosing its knowledge of its world, the knower gravitates towards lapses and losses of knowledge which require amendment and clarification. With this gravitation, the knower construes its own knowledge as comparatively precise and therefore superior in ways that call attention to its presence and its capabilities.

More than that, the knower also shows an attraction towards attempts at recording knowledge which omit crucial details insofar as they are made by those who lack the omniscience of the knower itself. In the early sixteenth century, for instance, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller sketched out a great map, entitled ‘The Known World,’ which was the first of its kind to feature the word ‘America.’ Finding a copy of the map adorning a wall in the office of John Skiffington, Sheriff of Manchester County, the knower notes that “[t]he land of North America… was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing.” Calvin Newman, the brother of Henry Townsend’s widow, is similarly drawn towards a world whose totality will forever elude him. Harbouring a secret and forbidden love for Louis Robbins, the adult son of Henry Townsend’s former master, Calvin plans to start anew in the north after having long been captivated by “one of the first photographs ever taken of life in New York City,” a photograph of “a white family sitting all along their porch… [with] a dog looking off to the right.” The dog is what most captivates him because, a moment before the shutter snapped, the dog appears to have been “transfixed” by “a whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured.” Yet instead of allowing that world to remain as unknowable to readers as it must be to Calvin, the knower goes on to reveal the backgrounds of those people and the name of the dog beside them. Time and again the knower follows characters who fumble through their world as if through shadowed corridors, but then it forces them to recede from view as it illuminates the world so that what escapes them does not escape readers as well. While the omniscience of the knower might otherwise allow for a clear observation of the lives of these characters, that omniscience insinuates itself, like a pane of clouded glass, into the space between them and those who read about them.

Repeatedly, of course, the knower turns its omniscience to more traditional purposes by laying bare the innermost torments of characters involved in some dilemma or disaster. Calvin’s urge to outrun his love for Louis is only one among many. Oden Peoples, one of Sheriff Skiffington’s nightwatchmen, privately worries that his Cherokee blood leads his colleagues to look down on him. William Robbins, Louis’ father, works hard to maintain the secrecy of his longstanding love for his slave Philomena, but he loves her so deeply that the secrecy of the relationship produces in him a sense of shame which he feels he must also keep secret. As the knower uses its omniscience to disclose the details of these characters’ lives, it engenders sympathy for them and thereby serves the humanist ideal. Often, however, it has hardly begun to engender sympathy for them before it veers away from them to treat their fates as playthings and as excuses for further displaying the extent of its omniscience. Moses, the deputy overseer of the Townsend plantation, is subjected to an especially heartless disregard. Having spent a lifetime hoping to someday rise to the station of master, Townsend’s death impels him to comfort his old master’s widow, Caldonia, by telling her stories about her husband’s youth and about how, years ago, Townsend and Moses worked together to build the plantation from nothing. Moving back and forth in time to find Moses at various moments in his life, the knower details a personal history of disturbing contradictions and complexities. It poisons Moses with a devastating concoction of unassailable loyalty to Townsend, burgeoning love for Caldonia, aspirations of advancement and grandeur entirely unfit for a slave, and nostalgia for the youthful vigour that slavery has stolen from him. But then, after drifting away from Moses’ conversations with Caldonia to sound the depths of his memory, the knower uses an image of the young slave to leap ahead to the end of his life and close down his entire story with a single sentence — quiet, simple, direct, and blunt — which casts a chill over the heartbreaking passages preceding it. When the young Moses pauses in his efforts to help create the Townsend plantation, taking a moment to gather his thoughts and perhaps to recover his breath, we are told that “[h]e was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning.”

Although the knower knows the details of its world in all their abundance, it cannot resist the discussion of details whose disclosure is not required by the causal connections between events that advance the narratives of The Known World. The result of this lack of resistance is the disclosure of details with an implied sense of urgency that is not equal to the momentum of the narratives they interrupt and with an attitude that implicitly reduces the importance of those narratives to mere occasions for the very disclosures that interrupt them. By virtue of its own omniscience, then, the knower is crippled with a sort of indifference. It cannot sustain a focus on the details that are most integral to engendering sympathy for the characters it follows, and so it cannot give itself over to them in a way that honours the essential demand of humanism. It discloses a great deal about all of them but appears to care nothing for any of them. Rather than simply the humanism of the myriad narratives it contains, what makes The Known World remarkable is the tension it strikes between that humanism and the inhuman deism of its knower. When the knower’s calm, disconsolate disclosures give the novel a form that countervails the humanist substance of its narratives, the prose that must be flayed in order to reach those narratives emerges as a quality of greater substance.

The novel knows all this about itself, as is made evident in its final pages when Calvin arrives in Washington, D.C., and by chance encounters Alice Night, one of the slaves on the Townsend plantation who has long since run away. Alice is “a woman people said had lost her mind” after “[a] mule kicked her in the head and sent all common sense flying out of her,” and she was known for her habit of leaving the plantation after sunset to wander aimlessly through the surrounding forests, “mapp[ing] her way again and again through the night.” Now Calvin beholds the outcome of Alice’s endless “mapp[ing]” of Manchester County. In a Washington saloon, he beholds two walls on which are hung two enormous, three-dimensional, bricolage maps that serve as implicit correctives to the incomplete cartography of Martin Waldseemüller. The first is a map of Manchester County rendered in awesome detail, “a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure,” which marks “all the [county’s] houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells.” “It is what God sees when He looks down on Manchester,” Calvin says, although he notes that “[t]here are no people on this ‘map’.” On another wall nearby is a map of the Townsend plantation that appears similar to the county map but shows one important difference. “There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a bar, not a chicken, not a horse, [and n]ot a single person is missing. … [E]very single person is there, standing and waiting as if for a painter and his easel to come along and capture them in the glory of the day. Each person’s face… is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God.” So, for all the breadth and accuracy of her vision, Alice is crippled in a way that echoes the crippling of the knower and, as such, the knower is drawn to disclose the details of her visions. Panoramic perception diminishes human scale. The broader one’s view of a world and the more expansive one’s knowledge of it, the less distinct are the individuals who experience it and the less important their experiences appear to external observers. As goes the madwoman, then, so goes the knower, so freely drifting through its world that it vacates the world and rises above it, distances itself from those who live in it, and then details their lives with an aloofness that stands at odds with the warmth its omniscience might otherwise afford them.

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