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  • Dr. Tobe Levin Freifrau von Gleichen

Alice Walker’s Novel and a few good men: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Joseph Conrad, and Carl Jung

“Walker’s fascination with divided loyalties as much as double consciousness is trenchantly dramatized in Possessing the Secret of Joy, a tortured indictment of clitoridectomy that centers on the interplay between modern and traditional identities and cultural practices and the price that patriarchy may extract in the passage from one to the other.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The role of men in ending both female genital mutilation and the patriarchy that endorses it – whether traditional or modern — cannot be overemphasized. Of fourteen authors, three male contributors to Waging Empathy display their allegiance to the feminist pulse of the book.

In his chapter, „Breaking the Silence about Female Genital Mutilation in Possessing the Secret of Joy,” John Gruesser draws a second male trio on board, intellectual giants whose work illuminates the narrative.

Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Jr. and Tobe Levin at Harvard

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the don of African American literary theory, inspires Gruesser to consider the presence of Joseph Conrad and Carl Jung in Walker’s text and to interpret their presence as evidence of what Gates calls ‘signifying’. Gruesser explains: to ‘Signify’ is to repeat with “a black difference.” Motivated Signifying occurs in a negative critique. Unmotivated Signifying is a positive response that can appear “as a loving act of bonding.” As Gruesser shows, Walker signifies “in an unmotivated way on Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Recollections and in a highly motivated way on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”

“In Possessing the Secret of Joy,” Gruesser goes on, “Walker constructs a motivated counter-discourse to Heart of Darkness [in that she] depicts an African woman significantly revising her ideas about … traditional practices of her native continent as a result of … experiences in the US. Like Marlow, who journeys to a remote African location to remove a falsely revered compatriot engaged in the exploitation of the local people under the guise of civilization and progress, Tashi returns to her African homeland to eliminate an honored compatriot who tyrannizes over the Olinka in the name of purity and authenticity. Walker, however, concentrates on a traditional African practice that affects the lives of millions of African women. Whereas Marlow, a male outsider, reclaims another male outsider [for] the European colonizing mission and returns to Europe where he perpetuates the lie about Kurtz’s civilization, Tashi rises up against a fellow African woman, sacrificing herself in an effort to liberate girls from state-sponsored torture and falsity.”

Regarding Conrad’s 1899 novella, recall that captain Marlowe steamboats up the Congo River in search of the elusive station master Kurtz. Walker parodies the structure by flipping the African mission’s result. „In contrast to Marlow … who suppresses the truth, [in one example among many, for instance, by] telling the Belgian woman to whom Kurtz was betrothed that his dying words were her name, Tashi seeks to expose the [fabrications] that undergird female mutilation.” And Gruesser reminds us, “Just as Marlow’s presence causes Kurtz to recognize the ‘horror’ of the life he has led, M’Lissa’s lengthy discussions with Tashi cause the tsunga to see herself for what she really is….” To borrow Kurtz’s (last) words, “The horror! The horror!”

Thus influenced by the outsider’s viewpoint, M’Lissa asks, “What are we but torturers of children?” (226) — a weighty judgment in the African context, fodder for racists as for Walker’s critics. For M’Lissa’s confession broadens the chasm between ‘normal’ behavior and normalized sexual violence – the amputation of children’s vulvas — and thus invites revulsion. It is true; horrible acts give readers reason to withdraw, enlarging the distance between I and thou, referencing Martin Buber’s dialogical theory meant to close the gap separating one human being from another.

The Carl Jung character, Mzee, not unlike Buber, confronts this interpersonal abyss, refuses to confuse ‘doing’ with ‘being’ and quests to find what he shares with folks most unlike himself. Gruesser favors us with an excerpt from Jung’s memoirs in which the psychoanalyst had looked down on a new patient, based on her provocative, vamp-like look, until a dream placed the girl high up in a tower – a symbolic elevation that revealed what had gone wrong. The doctor’s apology, placing therapist and patient on an even keel, opens the way to successful transference and treatment.

John Gruesser

As Gruesser concludes, “It is apparently Jung’s ability as a therapist, a white European, and a man to understand and empathize with people different from himself that attracts the novelist to him. Summing up Walker’s use of the psychologist in her book, Michael Adams states, ‘The fictional Jung serves her as a character … who cannot discover himself unless he encounters the other, a self who is not whole until he integrates that … half of himself that is the other. To Walker, Jung represents the attempt to reconcile and perhaps transcend all oppositions: beyond white and black, beyond male and female, beyond Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism–beyond ethnocentrism and cultural relativism and toward universalism and humanism’” (176).

When asked about the reception in Africa of her book La Parole aux Négresses (1978), possibly the first by an African woman on FGM, Awa Thiam decries “an indescribable dishonesty” in African intellectuals who deny the basic identity of interests that Jung promotes. In Warrior Marks, she deplores their claim that the struggle “for women’s rights is something specifically … Western … [having] nothing to do with Africa, the real Africa, traditional and traditionalist Africa,” and she goes on: “I find that is very wrong. Liberty concerns us all, and fighting for universal rights is … a universal struggle” (Warrior Marks 289).

“Double loyalties” and “divided consciousness” – Gates’ words — certainly obscure the trajectory toward solidarity, but they don’t erase it. As Alice Walker and the international writers in Waging Empathy agree, we unite in one aim, to ban blades against girls, for their sakes and our own.


Adams, Michael Vannoy. The Multicultural Imagination: “Race,” Color, and the Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and K.A. Appiah.  Alice Walker. Critical Perspectives Past and Present. NY: Amistad, 1993. p. xi. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print. Quoted material from pp. xxvii, 113, 120.

Thiam, Awa. La Parole aux négresses. Paris: Denoel Gonthier, 1978; Black Sisters, Speak Out. Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. Trans Anne Adams. London: Pluto, 1986.

Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1993.

—– and Pratibha Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. NY: Harcourt, 1993. Print.

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