Couldn"t never get this bad back home in the land of opportunity and the bitch wit the torch.(1)
The novel Philadelphia Fire (1990) is considered to be one of Wideman"s best novels. It garnered him a second PEN/Faulkner award; an award which is particularly prestigious since it is judged and funded solely by authors. The novel is founded upon the father-son theme, and more specifically the ways in which fathers have failed their sons(2), or the ways in which fathers have created an uninhabitable world for their sons. Philadelphia Fire revolves around two actual events. Most importantly, the imprisonment and mental illness of Wideman"s son Jacob runs through the novel like a continuous thread. In the summer of 1986, Jacob Edgar Wideman was one of four youths from a camp in Maine touring the west of the United States. During an overnight stop in Flagstaff, Arizona, he stabbed Eric Kane, his white roommate, to death, and fled in the group"s rental car. Six days later, in the company of his parents, he presented himself at the Flagstaff police department.(3) At a later hearing in juvenile court, "a judge ignored a day and a half of expert medical testimony, chose the narrowest possible definition of mental illness, and declared my son not committable to a mental institution, and thus not eligible for treatment."(4) Jacob was referred to solitary confinement, where he had stayed over a year and a half at the time Wideman wrote about the occurrences in Philadelphia Fire. In 1988, Jacob was put to trial in adult court, where he pleaded guilty to the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1984, Wideman minutely analyzed the events leading up to his brother"s crime in Brothers and Keepers, and thus provided both for himself and his audience a reading of the crime that put causes and effects in their proper perspective. The book made his brother"s crime understandable. Jacob"s crime, however, can in no way be ascribed to the harmful effects of a poor socio-economic environment, drugs or shunted possibilities. It is rather, as Wideman implies, a consequence of the psychotic schizophrenia the boy suffers from.
The irrationality of his son"s crime carries within it substantial consequences. It is not possible for Wideman to come to terms with it in a similar way as he did with his brother"s crime. As James R. Giles points out, "[Wideman"s] son"s violent act seems so motiveless, so much a random assault upon any sense of communal stability that it cannot be transcribed in the way that Robby"s tragic, but not incomprehensible mistake is."(5) The ordeal has furnished Wideman with bewilderment to such an extent that the narrative fiction often dissolves entirely. In those instances, we hear Wideman"s own voice, directly addressing himself, his son, and his readers. In that respect, Philadelphia Fire takes up a place apart from the rest of Wideman"s writings. He is forced in a different role as a writer. His extreme torment over and insecurity about his son"s crime deeply infuse the novel. Philadelphia Fire is heavily interspersed with questions, and Wideman, in some of the passages emerging from an I-narrator, indicates literally that he is unable to maintain the fiction in his narrative. The narrative eventually disolves into a postmodern discharge of images in the third and last part of the novel.
There is a second occurrence which marks the novel throughout. On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia municipal police bombed the MOVE-headquarters and thereby wiped out an entire block of 53 homes. MOVE was formed in 1970, under the leadership of Vincent Leaphart, who later took on the name John Africa. Congregating in a West Philadelphia row-house, MOVE members led a community life based on naturalist, vegetarian and occasionally nudist principles. Their main aim consisted in propagating an awareness of the immorality of the "system". In a MOVE-statement, the "system" is held responsible for such diverse problems as "alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, wife abuse, child pornography, every problem in the world."(6). These beliefs eventually crystallized into a continued protest and provocation of Philadelphia municipal police forces, which in the 1970s had "the worst record in the nation for racism and brutality"(7). Their provocations included refusing to take their garbage out, fortifying their house, overtly toting fire arms and installing a PA system on their roof with which they blared out propaganda over the neighbourhood and accused police authorities of injustices. In 1978, this led to a first armed confrontation with the police. In the shooting, a police officer, Joseph Ramp, was killed and several other police and fire brigade members were wounded. Later that day, MOVE member Delbert Africa was dragged out of the house and severely abused by the police. The beating, shown on the evening news, was very fierce: "Many of the blows were strong enough to lift Africa off the ground entirely."(8) Yet, the police officers were acquitted whereas nine MOVE-members were sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Joseph Ramp.
There has been a lot of discussion about the question who killed Ramp. MOVE members maintain their innocence, pointing out several inconsistencies in the evidence used against them. 20 Years On The Move, abridged in "Information gleaned from 20 Years On The Move"(9) and blatantly biased against the police, argues that police officials changed their initial statement about Officer Ramp having been shot in the back, which would indicate he was accidentally shot by one of his colleagues. Moreover, the article points out that no fingerprints were found on the weapons, showcased as evidence seized from the MOVE house. It also points out that police illegally destroyed evidence by bulldozing and levelling the MOVE house shortly after the MOVE members had been arrested.
MOVE, claiming flagrant injustice had been done to them, stepped up their provocations. They set up a new headquarters in 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. A PA system "was broadcasting profanity at all hours of the day and night. Armed members prowled the rooftops, rats and roaches invaded neighboring houses because MOVE refused to take out its trash. Neighbors were threatened, and fights ensued."(10) On May 13th, 1985, it came to a second confrontation between MOVE and the police. By then, due to the election of Philadelphia"s first African-American mayor, Wilson Goode, and an economic boom, racial tensions seemed to have diminished. MOVE, however, could not be abated. They incited complaining locals to present the police with their grievances, so as to ignite another confrontation between the police and MOVE. After hesitations on the part of city officials, especially because of mayor Goode"s non-intervention policy, the police applied thorough measures to end the provocations for once and for all. From a helicopter hovering above the building, they dropped a bomb which destroyed the MOVE house, as well as 53 surrounding houses. Six adults and five children, all MOVE-members, were killed.(11)
The relevance of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia Fire lies in the fact that it symbolizes the cruelness of the system. The system, epitomized by city life, has overgrown human beings. There are two sides to this statement. On the one hand, in the fact that human beings are effectively subordinate to a system, it implicates that life is no longer considered the highest good. More important has become the question whether a person"s life either conforms to or collides with the rules set out by the system. In that respect, Wideman takes on a rather anti-capitalist stance. The small elite holding the reins of society, as well as many members of that society, are guided by greed and desire for power. This rat-race struggle for "Money Power Things"(12) holds in it all the elements that set up for a fall. People who do not walk within the lines sketched out by the small elite are exterminated like vermin.
On the other hand, as the system has come to encapsulate human beings both externally and internally, there is no sanctuary to be found. One can run, but one cannot hide. Many of the seemingly independent passages intertwined in the novel, in fact question one or other possible sanctuary. These passages, however, unfailingly end with a negative response. Suicide, religion and physical flight do no longer offer the possibility to escape, as I will demonstrate further.
The two events described above, the murder committed by Wideman"s son and the bombing of the MOVE-headquarters, are deeply entrenched in Philadelphia Fire. They are twisted, churned, they appear and reappear, as if Wideman is trying to relate them in a way that would make them understandable or even acceptable. But he ultimately fails. He is no match for the crushing system that is nearing its apocalypse. The entire novel is imbued with a growing sense of disintegration, both on the stylistic as on the thematic plain.
Philadelphia Fire is divided into three parts. The first part is still largely set up according to traditional narrative techniques. A protagonist, Cudjoe, serves as the actorial focalizer for a heterodiagetic narrator. This situation carries within it the typical restrictions for the narrative. The reader is presented exclusively with the limited visions and thoughts of one fallible person, who is neither sure of the world nor of himself. Yet, this limitation can as well be an advantage, and Wideman does employ it as such.
I have mentioned that Wideman"s early novels were steeped in modernism.(13) The first part of Philadelphia Fire reveals that Wideman has not unburdened himself of that tradition. The influence is especially clear in the way he employs the heterodiagetic voice combined with actorial focalization. However, there are more features betraying a modernistic heritage. As far as style is concerned, Wideman often resorts to a variant of the stream of consciousness technique, though never as pronounced as James Joyce does in the "Penelope"-chapter in his Ulysses. Wideman does take pains to divide the train of thought of his protagonist, Cudjoe, in sentences with a relative degree of logical coherence. The thematic material in the first part of Philadelphia Fire is, in accordance with the works of celebrated modernists like Joyce and William Faulkner, infused with references to the mythology of the antiquity.
These elements are particularly strong in the first pages of Philadelphia Fire. In those pages, we are presented with Cudjoe, an African American who has returned to Philadelphia after a ten year stay on the Greek island of Mykonos. The story sets in Greece, which has often appeared in Wideman"s work as a locus of escape and cowardice. The writing style serves to reproduce as closely as possible the mind of Cudjoe. Short, elliptic sentences form a packed phalanx. External events are not presented directly to the reader, but are entangled with memories, emotions and thoughts of Cudjoe. Thus, the first pages come to constitute a form of stream of consciousness. Throughout this all, the reader remains somewhat puzzled, especially since the novel opens in medias res and the highly condensed style does not immediately solve the basic reader-questions (who? when? where? what?). In the opening sentences, moreover, confusion is created by the use of definite articles and pronouns (e.g. "a day like this", "the island"). These, however, are a logical consequence of the actorial focalization employed: although the reader has no clue which island is meant by "the island", or which day by "a day like this", the protagonist, whose thoughts we are presented with, does. This situation makes the role of the reader ambiguous. Instead of indulging in a story directed and edited by an auctorial focalizer, he enters directly into the mind of one person, who seems unaware of the fact that his thoughts are laid out in a novel. The reader thus enters in the role of voyeur. This situation is especially strong if the author succeeds in putting down a lifelike character, and in my opinion, Wideman does in the first part of Philadelphia Fire.
On a day like this the big toe of Zivanias had failed him. Zivanias named for the moonshine his grandfather cooked, best white lightning on the island. Cudjoe had listened to the story of the name many times. Was slightly envious. He would like to be named for something his father or grandfather had done well. A name celebrating a deed. A name to stamp him, guide him. They"d shared a meal once. Zivanias crunching fried fish like Rice Krispies. Laughing at Cudjoe. Pointing to Cudjoe"s heap of cast-off crust and bones, his own clean platter. Zivanias had lived up to his name. Deserted a flock of goats, a wife and three sons up in the hills, scavenged work on the waterfront till he talked himself onto one of the launches jitneying tourists around the island. A captain soon. Then captain of captains. Best pilot, lover, drinker, dancer, storyteller of them all. He said so. No one said different. On a day like this when nobody else dared leave port, he drove a boatload of bootleg whiskey to the bottom of the ocean. Never a trace. Not a bottle or bone.(14)
In this opening paragraph, everything presented is "digested" by Cudjoe. The specifics of Zinavias" name and fatal accident are known to Cudjoe, as is made clear by the references to their talk over a platter of fried fish, by the fact that Zivanias had actually told him he was the best "pilot, lover, [...]", and that the fact had not been denied by anybody else. Moreover, we are only supplied insight into Cudjoe"s thoughts ("He would like to be named for something [...]").
Later in the beginning of the first part of the novel, it is made clear that Cudjoe is mentally hovering between the day described, the day of Zivanias" fatal accident, when he was on the Greek island of Mykonos, and another day, after his return to Philadelphia ("this city of brotherly love"(15)). The sentence: "He dreams his last morning on Mykonos once more."(16) is instrumental in this respect. In both instances, the reliving of Cudjoe"s last day on Mykonos and his presence in Philadelphia, the present tense is used, which is instrumental in depicting a sketch of Cudjoe as lifelike as possible, and it refers to the thematic material touched upon in the first pages. The the use of the present tense and the minimal transition from one situation to the other, highlights the idea that Cudjoe is subject to a double presence, as it were. This double presence refers to the tension between the two forks of African American awareness, as I have mentioned them in the second chapter. I will come back to this further.
Cudjoe, an African American, is in Greece. Wideman himself has been there on his honeymoon in 1965, at a time when he sported a veneration for white culture and learning. The reason why the mention of Greece is not a coincidence is linked to this biographical importance. Greece is the birthplace of white European culture. At one point in the opening pages, Cudjoe is presented sitting on the quayside, at the eve of his departure for Philadelphia. The description of the setting implicitly refers to the myth of Icarus:
Yesterday at this same dockside table he"d watched the sunset. Baskets of live chickens unloaded. Colors spilled on the sea last evening were chicken broth and chicken blood and the yellow, wrinkled skin of plucked chickens. Leftover feathers geyser, incongruous snowflakes above stacks of empty baskets. The island exiled today. Jailed by its necklace of churning sea. No one could reach Mykonos. No one could leave.(17)
According to a Greek myth, Icarus and his father Daedalus, who is said to have built the labyrinth of Minos, king of Crete, were incarcerated in a fortress on Crete. In an attempt to escape, Daedalus crafted wings from feathers and wax, with which father and son attempted to fly to Sicily. Icarus however, attracted by the sun, flew too high. The heat of the sun melted the wax and scorched the feathers of his wings, so that he fell into the sea and died. Daedalus reached the shores of Sicily safely.
Some textual markers in the quoted paragraph evoke this myth. Self-obvious is the link between the mentioned "feathers" and the feathers of Icarus" wings, which, after his fall, floated in the sea as a silent witness of the tragedy. But there are other elements as well. Cudjoe, for example, was watching "the sunset" while the remains of chickens float in the sea and flutter over the quayside. The sun, of course, was the instrument that caused Icarus" fall, and yet it did set as it always does, afterwards, oblivious of the tragedy. Furthermore, in "the island exiled today" and "no one could reach Mykonos. No one could leave." there are echoes of Icarus" failure to escape Crete.
This mythological innuendo is very appropriate as to the novel"s thematic content. If one focuses solely on Icarus and the fall he makes because of his desire to near the sun, a thematic element, closely linked to Wideman"s biography, is foregrounded. The element of flight and failure, metaphorized in the myth of Icarus, is a reality both for Cudjoe and for Wideman. An important thematic strand in the novel is the fact that the sixties have had a ruinous effect on African Americans. Blacks in the sixties strove to be granted equal rights and equal powers. Wideman argues that they were not able to handle those powers, once they were obtained.(18) Of course, Wideman must have been pondering the deleterious effects of the sixties on African American communal life, and particularly as epitomized by his brother"s tragedy, but there is more to it than that. Although Cudjoe is a fictional character, and although it is dangerous to equal a creation to its creator, it is reasonable to claim that Cudjoe is for a large part a mirror image of Wideman himself.(19) The sense of failure that pervades Philadelphia Fire issues in the first place from Wideman"s own tragedy. The flight of Icarus drawn by the sun stands for Wideman"s own flight into the world of white culture, drawn by wealth and success. I have sketched how Wideman felt he had to sever from his family to obtain some degree of respectability. At first, he appeared to succeed fairly well: his academic achievements led to being the first African American tenured professor at one of the US" most esteemed universities: the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. He could not deal with it though. Being African American and part of one of the strongholds of white higher learning seemed irreconcilable. In 1973, he accepted a teaching position in Laramie, Wyoming and left the metropolis of Philadelphia to settle in American hinterland. One paragraph in Philadelphia Fire is particularly revealing in this respect. At the end of part one of the novel, Cudjoe meets Timbo, who was, like him, one of a little more than a handful African Americans to graduate from a respected university and who is, in the narrated present, cultural attaché to the mayor. In one of their conversations, they question what has went wrong. In doing so, Timbo explicitly mentions Wyoming, epitomizing the remote hiding place African Americans retreated to after realizing they did not have what it took to handle "the world":
Timbo. Why did we believe we could turn this country around?
Cause we wanted more than we had and that seemed the way.
I"m writing about the fire.
About the fire, but about us too. About believing we could take over. Build a better world.
We did take over, didn"t we? I mean, shit. We had the whole world in our hands and we blew it. Dropped it like a hot potato. Whew. I don"t want it you can have it. Tossed it back to Daddy and exited for goddamn parts unknown. Kathmandu. Wyoming. You know what I mean.(20)
In terms of the myth of Icarus, the sun can be said to stand for power. In much the same way, Icarus" fall can be taken to signify the retreat to "goddamn parts unkown." White America, the initial objective of Wideman, and many other African Americans is, in the paragraph above, symbolized by Daddy. The reference fits in with African American history, and the shared sense among blacks of having been patronized by whites, as indeed they have been. One can think of the reluctance to give African Americans the status of citizen or voting rights. This is made clear as well by the ways of dealing with blacks. To name but one small example, one could refer to the derogatory manner (although hardly experienced as such by whites) of addressing blacks as "boy" that was usual until the 1950s, and persists until this day as an offensive term.
It is the (white) "Daddy" who supplied the wings that enabled the ascent to higher powers, to fame and success. Like Icarus however, the rise was abruptly broken when the wings disintegrated. The fact that Cudjoe fled to Mykonos, moreover, is significant. The Greek island is infamous for its gay community and its nudist beaches. On these beaches, the physical differences between people were exposed, and thus, in a way, annihilated themselves. It is to say, as everybody allowed everybody else to peak under their clothes, people readily admitted to having a common core.
On Mykonos scuffing his way through hot sand he"d seen naked bodies every size, shape and color stretched for acres between green sea and rocks spilled at the base of cliffs, bodies so casual, blasé, he ignored them, preferred them at night, clothed, in the restaurants and discos. Funny how quickly he"d gotten used to nakedness. Hair, skin, bones. What was different, what was the same about all the bodies.(21)
In this world of self-effacing blatant difference, Cudjoe was able to submerge and become an invisible man, in the tradition of Ralph Ellison. There is an explicit intertextual reference to Invisible Man, when Cudjoe, in one of his talks with Timbo, observes: "Worked at a bar. You could find me there regular as rain. Black face behind the bar at Spiros. A fixture. Part of the island. Like naked beaches and caves and cliffs. Everybody loved me. Then forgot me. Invisible man."(22) Apart from the mention of "Invisble man", the passage, and in extension, Cudjoe"s stay on Mykonos, echoes a passage in the preface to Invisible Man: "I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."(23) This reference is not surprising. Ralph Ellison was the first and only African American author Wideman had read while a student of English at the University of Pennsylvania. The book inspired Wideman with mild veneration for Ellison, which remained strong throughout his later academic career. Wideman has taught Ellison year after year and has written articles on him.
Nevertheless, there is a second way in which the myth of Icarus can be fitted into the novel. This second interpretation foreshadows the novel"s main theme, as well as some of its ramifications. The myth of Icarus plays with, among other things, the theme of a father failing his son. Daedalus gave his son wings, incited his son to fly, but he was not capable of preventing his son"s disaster. Hence, the father, Daedalus, is ultimately responsible for the fiasco of the son, Icarus. In the novel, the (main) theme of fathers failing their sons recurs on several levels. Cudjoe, for instance, is a father who has failed in many ways. In the second part of the novel, Wideman presents himself as a father who has failed his son. In the third part, J.B., a homeless man, is orphaned by a system that has spit him out.
Cudjoe"s failure as a father alludes to his leaving his wife and family behind. On a deeper level of signifying, however, Cudjoe"s failure as a father has to be seen as a failure against his entire race. His return from Greece to Philadelphia is instigated by news he heard on the bombing of the MOVE-headquarters in Philadelphia. He wants to find Simba, a boy who was the only survivor of the bombing, and write a book about the occurrences. In his conception, the book might be able to create an ample public awareness of the injustice. Soon after his return however, it becomes clear to him his mission will not be easy, if not impossible. Simba has disappeared without a trace. Simba represents in some ways the son Cudjoe has failed. During a conversation with Margaret Jones, a former member of the organization, he feels his presence in Greece was an unforgivable mistake:
Polite, accommodating to a degree, she also maintained her distance. Five thousand miles of it, plus or minus an inch. The precise space between Cudjoe"s island and West Philly. Somehow she knew he"d been away, exactly how long, exactly how far, and that distance bothered her, she held it against him, served it back to him in her cool reserve, seemed unable ever to forgive it.(24)
The line of thought Wideman seems to be following is closely linked to what I mentioned earlier. Cudjoe"s mistake is inherent in the dialectics of his life: the thesis being his life as an African American, the antithesis his education at a white university, and the synthesis of both his retreat into mindless hedonism on a Greek island. Cudjoe was unable to merge his education with his being an African American. As he wanders around Philadelphia, it becomes clear to Cudjoe what he should have done: he should have employed his education in the uplifting of his people. Although he is not directly to blame for the fire, he bears part of the responsibility for it, as he did not try to prevent it. This is made clear in one of the conversations between Cudjoe and Timbo. Cudjoe, implying that the city is falling apart and will drag everybody with it, elicits the reply:
Right. But that ain"t the mayor"s fault. No more than it"s my fault or yours, Mr. Cudjoe. Where you been hiding all this time? Could have used a few more good shoulders at the wheel. You copped the education and ran, man. Maybe you know something none the rest of us bureaucrats know. Maybe you should have stayed home. You could have told the mayor what to do with King and his bunch of loonies.(25)
Cudjoe thinks at first that finding Simba, the symbolic lost son, and writing a book that will change the world, will rectify his falling short. His plans end with disillusionment, however. He does not find Simba. The lost son is lost for good, and the blame ultimately lies with the father, who has not been able to create a world where children can live. Philadelphia is indeed represented as a city where children can no longer be children. They are forced in the role of adults. The most straightforward example of this is the so-called Kaliban Kiddie Korps. This group of extremely young hoodlums spray-paint the city with their slogan "Money Power Things."(26) With it, they signal their intention to take over society. The slogan is in a way a new and improved version of the African American protests in the sixties, as the "kiddies" do not want to grown-up, they do not want to be white (which, according to Wideman, was the nature of the sixties" black protests):
They want to take over, man. Little runty-assed no-hair-on-their-dicks neophytes want to run the city. Yeah. Money Power Things. MPT. What you see on the signs is saying they want their share. Claim the only difference between them and grown-ups is grown-ups hold the money, power and things. Funny, ain"t it? Same shit we wanted back in the sixties. Only these kids bolder than us. They don"t want to be something else. They don"t want to be white or shareholders or grown-up. They want it all, everything adults have, the MPT. Then they"ll run the world their way. Run it better than we do. So they say. And I halfway believe they could. Know what I mean, Cudjoe? Be hard to fuck up worse than we"re fucking up. You know what I mean. They got a point there.
Bottom line is this, though. Get this. When the kids in control of MPT, they gon ship us old motherfuckers like you and me away. Old Islands, bro. Ship us off to these elephant graveyards where we spozed to die. See, getting old is getting greedy and useless. So everybody over twenty-one got to hat up. [...] It"s fair, they say, because everybody"s young once. And nobody has to grow old it they don"t want to. Hint. Hint. You dig? They say it"s just birth control in reverse. Fairer, they say. Cause at least the olds have their chance to be young.(27)
Children have gone astray. Cudjoe has come too late to attempt saving a society that is slowly disintegrating. His return to Philadelphia, an attempt at reintegration in (African) American society, painfully reveals to him that he has lost. In the beginning of the novel, during a conversation with Margaret Jones, he still thinks of saying that "[...] we"re all in this together. That he was lost but now he"s found."(28) At the end of the novel, however, he feels undone: "As the balloons raced away they emptied him. His lungs. His heart. He knew the precise moment when the string snapped. A kind of twang, pop. He has no more to give. The string"s played out. He lowers his eyes."(29)
Philadelphia Fire is ultimately a novel about the African American adult awareness of having created a world where there is no longer a place for children. Disillusionment and uncertainty are expressed on many levels. In the first part of the novel, which concentrates on Cudjoe and shows Wideman"s modernist heritage, the uncertainty is very well expressed by the use of the heterodiagetic voice combined with actorial focalization. Some paragraphs, for instance, consist almost exclusively of questions which Cudjoe is pondering. In one instance, questions strung together take up more than two paragraphs:
Why couldn"t he sleep more than a few hours a night since he"d been back?
Mind attached to body. And who is in charge? Which is Roy Rogers and which one the Gabby Hayes sidekick? His body begging for rest. His mind jerking it out of bed, forcing it to sleepwalk. Or did a message from the bladder snatch the ghost awake?
Mind and body. Body and mind. Was he actually someplace else, in a dimension where the stink of this stale cabinet didn"t exist? Just the idea of it? Was he sealed hermetically within glass walls manipulating a robot arm? When the titanium fingers touched an object, what did he feel? Could body know mind? Or vice versa? He"d always wondered about other animals. What went on in their heads? If you stared into the eyes of a dog long enough, would it speak, mind to mind, bear doggy witness, give up its doggy secrets? Was the animal his mind rode, the animal staring back at him from mirrors, any more likely to speak than a dog?(30)
In addition to the fact that the recurring question-form is instrumental in revealing (Wideman"s) uncertainty, these paragraphs demonstrate once more that he is still deeply influenced by modernist rhetoric. The paragraphs stylistically refers to the modernist device of the stream of consciousness. Cudjoe"s thoughts are presented in the rather unstructured, impromptu way thoughts tend to occur. Moreover, the contents of the presented thoughts are significant. Cudjoe, in short, muses on the nature of the distinction between mind and matter, mind and body; if in reality one should say: "mind over matter", or rather: "matter over mind". Cudjoe wonders if there might be a third entity ("Was he actually someplace else [...]"), a personality, a spirit combining both. The very nature of humankind, and animated life in general, is called into question. This, again, complies with modernist rhetoric, but there is an extra dimension in Wideman"s case. Cudjoe"s train of thought foreshadows a paragraph in the second part of Philadelphia Fire. In that passage, Wideman himself emerges as an I-narrator to relate about the mental disease his son suffers from.
Jacob Wideman is prone to psychotic schizophrenia, which is defined as "a mental disease marked by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, frequently accompanied by delusions and retreat from social life."(31) Those delusions include both auditive and visual hallucinations. Thus defined, the nature of the disease is clearly linked to Cudjoe"s train of thought about the troubling relation between mind and body. In popular speech, schizophrenia is equalled to a "multiple personality disorder." The connection between both interpretations is obvious: as there is no fixed link between feeling, thought and action, the same impetus may cause very different reactions on different occasions. A schizophrenic is known to be subject to extremely variable moods, which can change over the course of a few minutes.(32)
How does it feel to be inhabited by more than one self? Clearer and clearer, in my son"s case, that he is more and less than one. Perhaps his worst times are those when he"s aware, in whatever horrifying form that awareness takes, that he must live many lives at once, yet have no life except the chaos produced by divided, warring selves. The utter frustration, loneliness and fear accompanying such an awareness are incomprehensible. If there ever is an I, a me beyond the separate roles he must play, its burden would be to register the damage, the confusion wrought by his condition.(33)
Schizophrenia is a keyword in Frederic Jameson"s discourse on the postmodern condition. In his article "Postmodernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism"(34), Jameson argues that people in the late capitalist society are no longer able to grasp the totality of the world. He claims that contemporary culture is more and more determined by space and spatial logic. Time and temporality, which used to be the basis of man"s understanding of the world, are disintegrating. There is a multiplicity of elements on the syntagmatic axis, to the extent that people are no longer capable of organizing their premonitions and memories in the temporal multitude. Hence, the cultural production of the individual can result only in fragmented shards devoid of (temporal) logical coherence. Rather, these pieces of cultural production stand aside each other.(35)
To illustrate this, Jameson refers to the definition of schizophrenia as outlined by the psychoanalyst Lacan. The latter argues that schizophrenia is in fact a rupture of the axis of meaning, which consists of interlocking, syntagmatic chains of signifiers that together make up an utterance or meaning. When the connections between signifiers break down, the resulting situation will consist of a chaos of separate and non-related signifiers.(36)
According to literary theories of postmodernism, the unrelated multiplicity of signifiers corresponds to a network of images that is characterized by two specific features. On the one hand, the "connection of images ["signifiers", in Lacan"s discourse] is no longer dependent of a traditional logic, like a plot or an intellectual argumentation."(37) It is rather so, that images in postmodern literature extract their right to exist solely from a preceding image, which evokes the image in question. That leads to the second characteristic of the postmodern network of images. Vervaeck argues that, as "one image calls on another, there is no longer a fixed base of which those images are an illustration."(38)
This is arguably the case in the third part of Philadelphia Fire. In that part, the reader is presented with J.B., short for James Brown, a name J.B. rejected "when the singer stole his thunder."(39) J.B. is a homeless man, wandering through the streets of Philadelphia and prone to horrible, apocalyptic visions. In his fragmented mode of consciousness, the bankruptcy of society is thrown into the face of the reader.
J.B. is a second mask for Wideman. In the second part of Philadelphia Fire, Wideman has implied that he is no longer capable to write the story he should be writing. The reason for this is his incapacity to come any closer to understanding his son.
Will I ever try to write my son"s story? Not dealing with it may be causing the forgetfulness I"m experiencing. [...] I do feel my narrative faculty weakening. A continuous underlying distraction so that if I look away from what I"m doing, I lose my place. What I"m doing or saying or intending engages me only on a superficial level. I commit only minimal attention, barely enough to get me through the drill I"m required to perform.(40)
The second part, is, in this respect, a perfect illustration of this distraction. Wideman himself speaks many pieces, and yet, he often tracks his story back to Cudjoe, who is shown in 1968 as he directs African American children to play The Tempest in a Philadelphia park. In many instances, the shift from the extradiagetic level (Wideman himself) to the embedded intradiagetic level (Cudjoe"s story) is not made clear by any textual marker. Moreover, in the use of personal pronouns, especially in the alteration between I and he, but as well you, the reader gets the impression that although Wideman is trying to hold on to the narrative fiction, the material is so personal that he fails to maintain distance.
For example: at one point in the second part of Philadelphia Fire, a man is depicted sitting in a car, contemplating the turn his life has taken. He wonders if fate is fixed entity, or if a different decision in his youth would have led to an entirely different life. In the paragraph below, the shift of the third person pronoun to the first person my, is in some way bewildering, for there is no transition between the external description of the thoughts of that third person and the internal thought contained in "My life was all those times." An extra characteristic in Philadelphia Fire, and in most of Wideman"s writing, is the loose way in which punctuation is employed. Dialogues, for example, hardly ever get any quotation marks. This is also the case in the following paragraph. The reader does not have the indication by quotation marks, that the narrative shifts from the external description to an internal thought. In my opinion, the entire following passage is a transcription of the musings of one and the same person: Wideman.
For a split second he actually sees all the moments of his life. [...] Does not need to look away from what he is doing because he"s seen enough to know they"re there. And he can proceed. Can hold the idea of them in his mind for as long as he wishes while he"s doing something else. My life was all those times. Every single little twitch. Every nerve end firing. Every scream. Every turning away. He luxuriates in the abundance. Could weep at the notion that somehow all of it happened, happened once to him, was him and would never happen again, never had before. Oh. He was precious. Oh. How did the shit get piled so high? And here he was responsible for it. Knowing no other god. No good reason not to rip the wheel off the steering post. Except he"s not strong enough for that.(41)
Some pages beyond this paragraph, Wideman openly renounces the fictionality of the character of Cudjoe, when he poses the question: "Why this Cudjoe, then? This airy other floating into the shape of my story. Why am I him when I tell certain parts? Why am I hiding from myself? Is he mirror or black hole?"(42) The question, and the implicit rejection of the narrative fiction, is strongly embedded in postmodern narrative techniques. One of the most important characteristics ascribed to postmodern novels, is the fact that the author presents the depicted world as a fiction: "Because a postmodern novel explicitly shows the fictional nature of the world it describes, it presents to a certain degree a tautologous world-view. The world in the novel is explicitly presented as a world of books, a story, a fiction."(43) That this is exactly what Wideman is doing becomes even clearer when we look at the following paragraph. He intervenes explicitly as the I-narrator, he talks to the reader saying he, the narrator, should not be trusted completely:
This is the central event. I assure you. I repeat. Whatever my assurance is worth. Being the fabulator. This is the central event, this production of The Tempest staged by Cudjoe in the late late 1960s, outdoors, in a park in West Philly. Though it comes here, wandering like a Flying Dutchman in and out of the narrative, many places at once, The Tempest sits dead center, the storm in the eye of the storm, figure within a figure, play within play, it is the bounty and hub of all else written about the fire, though it comes here, where it is, nearer the end than the beginning.(44)
The shift towards postmodernist narrative techniques in these passages in part two of Philadelphia Fire foreshadows, as I have mentioned, the more thorough plunge into literary postmodernism in the third part. J.B., the protagonist in that third part, is a homeless man wandering through the city. At one point, he is begging, wearing a tag saying "I am a vet. Lost voice in war. Please help."(45) It is a metaphor for what has happened to Wideman. There are no words left, no narrative techniques, to attain some alleviation for the inner torment caused by his son"s incomprehensible crime. One consequence for the remainder of the novel lies in the fact that the third part is in a way the least pretentious part. Wideman does no longer try to create an easily comprehensible narrative, a narrative that readers can easily digest as an alternate, plausible version reality. Instead, he sketches the irrevocable apocalypse of the city, resorting to an explosion of images.
As J.B. rummages through the city, all kinds of horrible scenes intersperse the narrative. Some of these scenes appear to be intended as part of fictional reality of the novel. Other scenes, however, are delusions playing before the J.B."s mind"s eye. More often than not, the narrative is devoid of textual markers. It is often completely unclear to the reader that the story shifts from the description of fictional book-reality to the description of J.B."s hallucinations. For instance, J.B. is depicted eating his lunch out of a dumpster at the back of a fast-food restaurant. This scene might very well be part of J.B."s authentic actions (though be it in the fictional reality of the novel). However, all of a sudden, lacking textual markers, the scene unwinds in a horrid vision of police exterminating J.B. and a group of other derelicts. The vision, in its use of "Zyklon B", explicitly refers to the Nazi-holocaust:
Gotcha. The noose slips silently over their unwashed, uncircumcised necks. They cry like babies. Cops herd them with cattle prods into the holds of the unmarked vans. Black Marias with fake shower heads in their airtight rear compartments, a secret button under the dash. Zyklon B drifts down quietly, casually as the net. Don"t know what hit you till you"re coughing and gagging and puking and everybody in a funky black stew rolling round on the floor. J.B. dies frustrated, wondering how this life would have been different if he"d availed himself of the opportunity to open that last box.(46)
The box, referred to in the last sentence, is a food container J.B. had secured from the dumpster. He had saved it, because he wanted to dwell on the tantalizing possibility of finding riches in the box: "Maybe he"s hit the trash-can lottery. A five-course meal, shrimp cocktail, T-bone steak, soup, salad, fries, baked Alaska and somebody"s Cartier watch, credit cards and keys to a new BMW."(47) Hence, the vision has, next to its obvious function as a metaphor for destruction, another implication. Again, someone is denied a chance at improving his life, which is what happens to all of the children who appear in the novel.
The vision is, as I mentioned, a delusion. J.B. reappears alive and well, only to register another blatant scene of destruction. He is a witness of the suicide of a thirtyish upper-middle-class white American, who jumps from the nineteenth floor of an office tower in Philadelphia"s city center. The depiction of the man"s corpse, and the reaction of the passers-by to it shows how "the city has become so immersed in brutality and violence that it has lost its capacity for compassion"(48). Instead of seeing the suicide as a sign that there is something wrong, people come close to fighting for a view of the dead man: "Everybody craves a piece of the action. Like it makes people feel better to see one of their own kind mangled or dead. Another one gone and thank goodness it"s not me. No. Blood and guts everywhere, but not mine. Yes sirree it"s dangerous and mean in this city of brotherly love, but I"m still here."(49)
The man is called "Richard Corey", with an intertextual reference to a 1896 poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson,(50) in which the unexpected suicide of the rich, handsome and friendly protagonist shocks a small American town. Before his suicide in Philadelphia Fire, Corey served for an instant as a focalizer in the story. As he saw J.B. begging, he feels a strange sense of familiarity, as if both of them were ultimately in the same position:
You see, my friend, when you think about it, when you go beneath the skin, beyond appearances, we"re very much alike. Brothers of sorts. Don"t you agree? We"re victims, aren"t we, both of us? Stuck playing roles we have been programmed to play. You never had a chance; neither did I. We"ve turned out the way we were supposed to.(51)
In the paragraph, the bottom line of Philadelphia Fire is contained. Both are indeed victims. Victims of urban American warfare, as Giles points out.(52) Hence J.B."s sign "I am a vet." although he never fought in Vietnam. In my opinion, It would be more justified to claim they are victims of a system that "Xeroxes image after image after image"(53) of the same defective role-patterns. Cudjoe, J.B. and Richard Corey are captives of a system that forces them to repeat again and again roles that have proven their destructivity. I mentioned, in the second chapter, the fact that Wideman considers the loss of contact between generations one of the main causes of of the contemporary disintegration. Both in the external world as inside of each person, the three ages are present. When these fail to influence each other in a nurturing way, problems are likely to occur. This is highlighted again in Philadelphia Fire. At one point in the novel, J.B. is reading a passage in the diary of Richard Corey, which he obtained from the man"s briefcase that had been forgotten after the accident. The passage evokes the breach between generations, in that children have become, due to the aforementioned reasons, old men, and old men have become children: "Children have learned to hate us as much as we hate them. I saw four boys yesterday steal an old man"s cane and beat him with it. He was a child, lying in his blood on the sidewalk. They were old, old men tottering away."(54)
Throughout this apocalyptic vision of contemporary society, marked by the fact that every individual is forced to play out a part, hopes of redemption have become anachronisms. In many instances, scenes are depicted in which a certain hope speaks through. In the first part, for instance, Cudjoe returns to the basketball court in Clark Park and plays with locals, the way he used to. Basketball is an important leitmotif throughout Wideman"s writing. Critic Giles argued that "Wideman refers to grace and dexterity on the basketball court in much the way that Hemingway alludes to bullfighting, as a trope for agility in using words, for the act of writing itself."(55) The thematic implications of basketball are at least as important. Wideman has spoken on the subject in several interviews. Basketball represents to him one of the last forms of true democracy. In a 1998 interview for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he observed:
Basketball court was sanctuary, place of refuge, and everybody kind of knew that [...] no matter what else was going on outside—gangs, drugs, whatnot— [...] You could have all sorts of gangsters and tough guys on the sidelines, but there was a communal respect for the game. Here was this institution that we had created—we being young men—and it was the most democratic institution in the country. Anybody could come and play and it was some of the best basketball. It was great and democratic also because we were the referees, the scorekeepers, we did it all. It was our thing. It was this beautiful thing. We created this great game.(56)
For Cudjoe, it is his last and only sanctuary after his coming back to Philadelphia. Yet, even the basketball court is invaded by the destruction of the outside world. On the last pages of the second part, Cudjoe tells Timbo about a dream he had of a boy lynched on a basketball court: "a boy is lynched from the rim. A kid hanging there with his neck broken and drawers droopy and caked with shit and piss. [...] and the dumb thing is I"m also thinking in this dream or whatever it is, is if they"d waited a little longer his legs would have grown, his feet would have reached the ground and he"d be OK."(57) Cudjoe"s dream is a fictionalized version of an actual event. Wideman has pointed out that one of the worst things that happened while he was still teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, was "reading about a kid who was lynched, literally lynched, on a basketball court in Philadelphia. Found his body hanging in the morning."(58)
Another sanctuary that has proven its inability to salvage people is religion. In the second part, the I-narrator (Wideman), relates a visits to the opera Oedipus in Philadelphia. He felt that Oedipus receiving sanctuary was what moved him most about the play, and he told so to one of the singers. The singer replied that "God"s grace is a gift you can"t earn, but you can"t throw it away either."(59) On the very next page, however, in a passage I have quoted above, a man sitting in a car, presumably Wideman himself, is depicted, contemplating the horrible turn his life has taken. The man concludes: "Oh. How did the shit get piled so high? And here he was responsible for it. Knowing no other god."(60)
Throughout the entire novel, the impossibility of finding a sanctuary is also present on the symbolic level. There is no water to fight the fire figuring in the title. Giles points out: "As in Eliot"s The Waste Land, water in Philadelphia Fire has lost its healing powers; on every level, the city is burning and there is no redemptive water in which to immerse oneself."(61)
Already in the first paragraph of the novel, quoted above, water is represented as a force of destruction. Zivanias, the captain, is taken by the sea. A few pages later, Cudjoe reminisces the death-struggle of his grandmother: "She lay in bed, thinner every day the summer after the winter his grandfather died. She was melting away. Turning to water which he mopped from her brow, from her body parts when he lifted the sheets."(62) In the passage, it is made clear that water is life. Absence and loss of water unambiguously equal death.
That is the case in the third part of Philadelphia Fire. J.B., who has fallen asleep on a bench, is set to fire by juvenile hoodlums. In an attempt to save himself, he drags his blazing body to the fountain in the middle of Independence Square, "even though he knows as he pumps his legs and pumps his heart and mumps his legs and pumps his heart and pumps his scorched lungs and clutches with his fingers for white flutters of spray, by this time of night the water"s been turned off for hours."(63) His ensuing death irrevocably seals the doom of the city.
Life in Philadelphia Fire, ultimately becomes a thing devoid of meaning. J.B."s thoughts shortly before his horrible death seem the capture the mood of the novel: the only reason why people continue living their absurd lives is the fact that they can"t decide to put them to an end:
Too late to be sorry enough for all he"s done and undone in a lifetime. Fuck it. Two words he usually settles for as he tries to reason why. Or why not. At least once a day he"s bullied into this familiar dialogue, forced to admit he has no life worth thinking about and forced to admit he"ll continue saying yes to it. On with it. Another breath, another step, not because a gun"s held to his head but because he can"t think of anything that"s better. No one to blame but himself. He"s the stubborn one who chooses to hang on when no reason to hang on. Except he"d managed to hang on yesterday. So here he is today.(64)
(1) Wideman, John Edgar. (1990) Philadelphia Fire. New York: Random House. 1991 (First Vintage Contemporaries Edition). 80.
(2) Doreatha Drummond Mbalia, quoted in: Giles, J.R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade: John Edgar Wideman"s Philadelphia Fire". Violence in the Contemporary American Novel: An End To Innocence. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 2000. 57.
(3) see: Norman, Michael. "To an Author, Violence Comes Again." New York Times, September 4, 1986. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/04/specials/wideman-violence.html. October 27, 2000.
(4) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 116.
(5) Giles, James R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade". 57.
(7) "Lessons From Philadelphia: MOVE Has Its Day In Court". The Brown Daily Herald, Wednesday, April 3, 1996. see: http://www.netspace.org/herald/issues/040396/kuriloff.f.html. November 28, 2000. n.p.
(8) ibidem. n.p.
(9) "Information gleaned from 20 Years On The Move". n.p.
(10) "Lessons From Philadelphia: MOVE Has Its Day In Court". n.p.
(11) ibidem. n.p.
(12) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 89.
(13) These "early novels" are respectively A Glance Away (1967), Hurry Home (1970) and The Lynchers (1973), although The Lynchers already showed less modernist influence.
(14) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 3-4.
(15) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 5.
(16) ibidem. 5.
(17) ibidem. 5.
(18) For a more extensive discussion of the effects of the sixties on African Americans, especially as outlined by Wideman, I refer to the second and third chapter of this dissertation.
(19) In the part two of Philadelphia Fire, Wideman goes so far as to admit using Cudjoe as a mask for his own torment. I will come back to this further on.
(20) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 82.
(21) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 27.
(22) ibidem. 87.
(23) Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House. 1952. 3.
(24) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 9.
(25) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 81.
(26) ibidem. 89.
(27) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 89-90.
(28) ibidem. 22.
(29) ibidem. 198.
(30) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 53.
(31) Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (second edition).
(32) This information was supplied by Antje Rosenhahn, medical student at the University of Jena, Germany, who has worked with schizophrenics in the psychiatric department of Jena"s University Hospital.
(33) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 110.
(34) Jameson, Frederic. "Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." Translated as: Bru, Sascha (translator) "Het Postmodernisme, of de culturele logica van het late kapitalisme." Yang, 1, 2000. 82-123
(35) see: ibidem.
(36) see: Jameson, Frederic. "Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." 101.
(37) Vervaeck, Bart. Het postmodernisme in de Nederlandse en Vlaamse roman. Brussel: VUBPress and Vantilt, 1999 (2000). 40.
(38) Vervaeck, Bart. Het postmodernisme in de Nederlandse en Vlaamse roman. 44.
(39) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 156.
(40) ibidem. 115.
(41) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 106. (my italics)
(42) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 122.
(43) Vervaeck, Bart. Het postmodernisme in de Nederlandse en Vlaamse roman. 18.
(44) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 132.
(45) ibidem. 174.
(46) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 177.
(47) ibidem. 177.
(48) Giles, James R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade: John Edgar Wideman"s Philadelphia Fire." 64.
(49) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 181.
(50) Giles, James R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade" 72.
(51) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 175.
(52) Giles, James R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade" 62.
(53) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 141.
(54) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 187-188.
(55) Giles, James R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade". 67-68.
(56) Wideman, John Edgar. "Memory Game." Interview by Stephen Salisbury. The Philadelphia Inquirer. October 20, 1998. http://www.philly.com/packages/history/arts/literature/wideman.asp. April 15, 2001. n.p.
(57) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 94
(58) Wideman, John Edgar. "Memory Game." Interview by Stephen Salisbury. n.p.
(59) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 104.
(60) ibidem. 106.
(61) Giles, James R. "A Postmodern Children"s Crusade." 65.
(62) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 6.
(63) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. 188.
(64) ibidem. 186.