Thursday, July 7, 2011

Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, opened with a couple other thoughts

       I've been caught up with the second of my reviews for more formal publication.  Hopefully, it will get accepted without much in the way of revision.  I feel a curious lack of focus right now concerning the blog.  I have a set of formal issues that relate to the dissertation, but not much that can translate into a set of interesting short postings.  Additionally, my current readings are focused on material for the upcoming budget cuts fights, which might translate into future posting, but the entire topic feels extremely distant despite the fact we will be entering into this fight in less than three months.  Finally, the factional conflicts that defined a lot of my focus on the blog over the past couple months have reduced significantly without getting rid of the basic dimensions of the post-election stalemate, nor leading to the substantial transformation of the parties involved.  There might be something to write about after the next Joint Council meeting, but until that date later in the month, there isn't much to discuss on that front either... despite the fact that we still need to put a great deal of intellectual energy as well as ground work before we begin the school year.

       Perhaps the only other thing worth mentioning despite this long series of negatives is the recent alternative history that I just read.  Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain was originally published in 1988, and recently republished by leftist publishers, PM Press.  Bisson's alternative history operates on the premise that John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry succeeded because of the aid given to him by Harriet Tubman, who missed the actual raid due to illness.  The success of the raid radically transforms the history of the country leading to a series of revolution that begins with the formation of the south as a separate history, Nova Africa, and the eventual transformation of it and the rest of the country into a set of socialist republics.  Reminiscent of the two alternative histories constructed by Steven Barnes, Lion's Blood and Zulu Heart, the novel offers an alternative Afrocentric  history of the nation, defined by living shoes, structures of collectivization, and fast Egyptian cars, albeit with a far more utopian tone than the Barnes novels.

      The narrative is divided between the time period of 1959, where the socialist nation of Nova Africa is about to launch a successful space flight to Mars, and the twin narratives of a young slave who joined Brown in the insurrection as a memoir later in life, and the letters of a northern doctor who joins the struggle due to his abolitionist views.  The two narratives are stitched together by the journey made by the great-granddaughter of the former in order to deliver the papers to a museum of the relatively recently formed USSA.  The split narrative allows for the exploration of the complexities and ambiguities of the revolutionary process, gesturing to a long history of conflict, continued issues of sexism, as well as the ordinary issues of loss and alienation.  The recently formed second socialist nation is still haunted by the poverty created by the long revolutionary struggle, and the revolutionaries are still negotiating the long legacy of white supremacy that defined the earlier era.  In this sense, despite its later publication, the novel strongly aligns with the 'ambiguous utopias' of the 1970's such as The Female Man and The Dispossessed.

     In spite of that, the narrative is more deeply haunted by the double catastrophe contained in the collapse of the project of the reconstruction, as well as the implicit second reconstruction of the civil rights era.  The narrative imagines a radical alliance of abolitionists, Jacobins, Haitian and Italian revolutionaries, as well as the red republican supporters of Marx.  If this gestures to the ability to resist the historical collapse of the revolutionary movement of the mid-19th century, which Marx sees the fight against slavery as central to  that narrative, it also gestures towards a different future for the New Left coalitions that had recently collapsed under the weight of neo-liberalism, backlash, as well as their own contradictions.  Which was, it should be noted, a movement that Bisson played a role in.  The act of mourning contained in the novel becomes most evident within the description of the underground white supremacist and dystopian novel, John Brown's Body.   The narrative of our present is returned to us as a grotesque and unrealistic fantasy, a cheap and despicable reactionary pulp novel.  The utopian narrative reminds us more the catastrophe of our present, defined by the domination and exploitation of imperialism and capitalism, and perhaps more bluntly, the driving force of white supremacy a contributing structural factor for both.

     In this sense, Bisson's novel sits comfortably besides the historical novels of Luther Blissett and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, novels that invert the historical teleology of the historical novels explored by Georg Luxacs.  These novels explore the transition of history, not as progress, but as catastrophe.  The narratives attempt to explore the revolutionary trace contained within that wreckage, a trace always contained in the failed possibilities of those times.

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