Contestatory Voices in a Composite Text: Grinding Cane’s Double Pastiche

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Contestatory Voices in a Composite Text: Grinding Cane’s Double Pastiche

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Title: Contestatory Voices in a Composite Text: Grinding Cane’s Double Pastiche
Author: Alff, Dave
Advisor: Benston, Kimberly
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of English
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Running Time: 84077 bytes59742 bytes
Issue Date: 2005
Abstract: Through its opening epigraph, Cane acquaints readers with the task of tracing Georgia’s elusive, vaporous genius: Oracular. Redolent of fermenting syrup, Purple of the dusk Deep-rooted cane. (Toomer 1) In two sentence fragments parceled into four lines, Jean Toomer progresses from the indeterminate adjective, oracular, and its smoky evocation of the prophetic to the graspable cane root. By opening with an adjective of ambiguous referent, Cane’s preface forces the reader either to read up the page, affixing “oracular” to the title, or down the page through an elliptical layering of imagery that at last resolves back to “cane.” Reading up, we receive “oracular Cane,” while reading down, subtracting descriptive clauses, we compute “oracular cane.” The oracle’s precise manifestation appears unreachable, interwoven between vertiginous and paginated material. If it is the book which is oracular, then the Georgian sugar fields are diminished to a synecdoche of spiritualism, a subordinate element of a textual system which is actively staking teleological claims. However, if it is the reed which constitutes the locus of rural southern black mysticism, then the pages of Cane offer only a secondary documentation of a substance and aurality independent of its print. In turn, when examining the tonal and rhythmic qualities of this aurality we must ask, to use Brent Edward’s terminology, whether Cane is generatively lyrical, an oracular source in itself, or merely a compilation 3 of lyrics such as the sheets which accompany musical records and have only a “kind of secondary or bastard status flat on the page” (587). Through the epigraph’s spatial ordering, Cane encourages readers to speculate into the relationship between the composed text and its constitutive materials. If reading up the page seems ridiculous, then consider that when reading down, “fermenting syrup” comes before “deep-rooted cane.” If read from top to bottom, the spatial and temporal arrangement of Cane’s epigraph compels readers to work backwards from the industrial process of fermentation, to reverse engineer and thus glean from the syrup the root. This root, literally vertiginous and figuratively genealogical, is accessible only through smelling the rich redolence of the commodity syrup – it is through the syrup’s aroma that we detect a hint or haunt of the original plant. In order to retrieve the roots of the erstwhile oracle, the liquid syrup demands a pliable hermeneutics which permits such non-linear and atemporal readings. Although the reader should strictly differentiate cane from Cane, this process of differentiation can be engaged only by reading Toomer’s book, just as the cane root can only be recalled from smelling the syrup’s redolent scent. Perceiving that his book would outlast the backcountry singers which it intended to eulogize, Toomer conceived of Cane as the textual preservation of a nearly extinct southern folk culture. Chronologically, the untexted musical, narrative, and sermonic exchanges personified as a folk spirit tend to precede Cane and the modernity into which the book was disseminated. However, with the epigraph’s evocation of oracle, an entity which can state the future in the present, Cane’s placement of the syrup before the root contradicts traditional conceptions of temporality; the epigraph suggests that Cane’s relationship with oral folk will resist schematization by linear chronology. Rather, Cane inhabits a temporal space of simultaneity wherein texted and untexted expression appear to exist in a para-literary and even reciprocally instigative relationship. Just as this almost extinct southern song culture informed Cane’s authorship, so too did Cane contribute to that culture by originating the characters, narratives, sermons, and songs in a text which could be read by modern readers. This co-dependence between Cane and folk reflects the broader period paradigm of a modernity whose literature, music, and art had been shaped by untexted folk and whose anthropology had simultaneously constructed the terms “folk,” “folk song,” and “folklore” as means for referencing perceived pretextual expression. The epigraph’s direction to read against folk’s commodified fermentation applies to Cane’s entire text, although the southern cycle with its prominent cane motif particularly demands recognition of the parallel processes which convert cane fields into syrup and folk expressions into literature. Of this cycle, “Karintha,” “Becky,” and “Carma,” sketches of women at adolescence, middle, and old age, provide an intertextual narrative detailing the corporeal origination and textual reification of folk expression. As a story of childbirth, “Karintha” elucidates the conditions of authorship for one particular folk song, and the extension of Christological teleology to describe the aftermath of a pine mill fire. “Becky” thematizes illicit birth as the epicenter of folk generation and “Carma” the extra-marital affair. As folk simultaneously evolves into literature and literature is constructed from folk, Cane’s characters are themselves both sources and products of folklore and folksong. This co-dependent circularity undermines the certain explication of the relationship between the text’s characters and incorporated My phrase “reciprocally instigative” is inspired by Laura McGrane’s wording “mutually generative” in “Mother Shipton Speaks: Sounding Oracles in Eighteenth-Century Print Culture.” folk, thus troubling the seemingly simple task of differentiating cane from Cane. Although it is impossible to separate these materials completely (as it would be impossible to differentiate the various features of the cane reed’s anatomy by only smelling the syrup’s scent), with an acknowledgement of Cane’s co-dependent and reciprocally instigative relationship with folk, we can read against the grain of “Karintha,” “Becky,” and “Carma” in order to evaluate the degree to which that folk exerts pressures on its framing text. In other words, we must measure the degree to which the oracular cane resists its placement within a potentially lyrical Cane. Since Cane is lyrical or at least contains lyrics, and folk is by its nature oral, the non-linear reading encouraged by the epigraph demands undertaking an auditory investigation in which we examine the voices presented and authorized within Cane’s text. Specifically, we must question the narratory authority of Cane’s speakers in order to reveal contestatory voices suppressed by the text’s seemingly monological progression.
Subject: Toomer, Jean, 1894-1967. Cane
Subject: Toomer, Jean, 1894-1967 -- History and criticism
Terms of Use: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/us/
Permanent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10066/642

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Alff, Dave. "Contestatory Voices in a Composite Text: Grinding Cane’s Double Pastiche". 2005. Available electronically from http://hdl.handle.net/10066/642.

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