jeudi 24 mars 2011

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Analysing a literary work, an artistic work, often remains a delicate approach, where the commentator must keep linked to his



by Jérôme POINSOT



Atibô-Legba, l’uvri bayè pu mwê, Agoé !

Papa-Legba, l’uvri bayè pu mwê

Pu mwê pasé

Lò m’a tunê, m’salié loa-yo

Vodu Legba, l’uvri bayè pu mwê

Pu mwê sa râtré

Lò m’a tunê m’a rémèsyé loa-yo, Abobo[1].





Introduction : the Post-modern, a Category of the Baroque Genre


Analysing a literary work —an artistic work— often remains a delicate task, where the commentator must remain linked to his/her critical process and show that he is open and receptive to the work at the same time, in order to perceive the sensations, the emotions and the thoughts suggested by the text. This is all the more the more since one of the major discourses to which he/she must confront precisely deals with the light interaction between the emotional sphere on the one hand and the cognitive sphere on the other hand, in so many different fields of experience from art and life. This is the very exploration that I hope to undertake in this paper. I hope that my deciphering of the artist’s work will not obscure the motion of the reading.

With the advent of contemporary critiqueespecially across the Atlantic, swept along by the French theory, oscillating between the poles of the “post-structuralism” and “postmodernism”, or even the “deconstruction”, some people could try to comfortably tidy up contempory literary creations, particularly if they appear chaoticnot to say disconcerting. That is why apprehending Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty becomes interesting, not to say with the polemical eye of the critique, but with the patient and the benevolent perspective of the philologist, to make clear the feel of originality, the finesse and relevance of a novel which, it could be stated, has not yet received the attention and the critical recognition that it deserves.


In fact, in attempting to characterize Zadie Smith’s novel, one arrives at the matter of the conjugal crisis Howard and his wife Kiki face. As for the rest, the reader is often at a loss, because the action that takes place is so multifaceted, and the tones varied. Now, faced with such a diverse and heterogeneous area, it would be beneficial to quote the critic Georges Molinié[2] :

It is from that point of view [of the psychology] that it is advisable to consider many elements most commonly listed by these novels’ critics : love affairs, most of the time suddenly reciprocal, always violent and complete ; youth, sometimes extreme, of particular case of contrary ways set against the liaison (rough or perfidious actions of brigands or official enemies struggle ; theatre of operations proliferation ; roles of the rivers, the seas, of exoticism ; frequent connection of one or many central plots with secondary dramas which can end into profusion ; impressions of surprise and developments, incomprehensible and astonishing appearances of conjunction and encounters ; variable distances, not uniformly determinable, of the fiction with the historical or geographical framework ; final triumph of faithful love which will have endlessly claimed its freedom, at the time reunion which can take the form of recognitions (the whole could sometimes lead to have the heroes undergo a kind of maturing in a long term ; weak or useless meaning of moral or religious references.

Reading this paragraph, we can just be stirred by its perfect adequacy with Zadie Smith’s novel It is not a mere contemporary novel, but rather, a genuine baroque novel. This is why we will follow Eugène d’Ors’s steps[3] into his trans-historical conception of the Baroque, and we will first tackle this text from the genre’s stylistic point of view in order to establish to what length Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty is truly of the Baroque aesthetic.




1) The Baroque, Stylistic of the Genre


Dealing with the Baroque matter in literature is often perilous. Indeed there are many texts which deal with this genre, sometimes with a fearsome erudition. This is the case of the excellent book by Bertrand Gibert[4] which outstandingly summarizes the major points of this artistic and literary movement. If Heinrich Wölfflin[5] is a precursor of it in the field of Art history, we mainly have to thank Jean Rousset[6] for introducing Baroque aesthetic to literature. However, whether it be Jean Rousset’s work or Ernst Robert Curtius’s[7] (fluidity, ostentation, morbidity, mythologism, concetism), or to handle a generic analysis of the mixing of genres, without managing to restore its own dynamics : we mean its carnivalesque inversion.

Stemmed from the antique tradition of the Saturnalia[8], this carnivalesque inversion dynamics has travelled all along the middle ages[9], and has been brightly studied by Mikhaïl Bakhtine who packed and commented its reappearances in François Rabelais’ work[10], through chapters especially devoted to Forms and Pictures of the Popular Celebrations, the Ludicrous Image of the Body or moreover the “Basic” Materiality and Corporal Aspect. Typical of the baroque aesthetic[11], this inversion is the result of the popular tradition and is linked, as soon as it appears, to the need of finding a temporary outlet for the oppression suffered by enslaved populations, or those who were still very highly oppressed[12].


As far as genres are concerned, Zadie Smith’s text is outstanding. Indeed, the facts it is presented to the reader as a mere matter of the novelistic genre, it keeps mixing up genres, not only literary genres[13], but more generally speaking, artistic genres.

Now, Didier Soulier had already noticed what follows : “ […] the mixing of genres (which) conveys the nature of the baroque experience, ambiguous and indefinable since it is an exception to the categories of thought[14].” This novel was named after Nick Laird’s poem “On Beauty[15].” It is not a coincidence that poetry is of primary importance in Zadie Smith’s text : one of the major characters of the plot, before being Howard’s first mistress, is a poetess in charge of a writing course at the University of Wellington : “Claire was an excellent teacher. She reminded you how noble it was to write poetry, how miraculous it should feel to communicate what is most intimate to you, and to do so in this stylised way, through rhyme and metrics, images and ideas.” We can see that the theme of the lyric expression, and its ability to infiltrate the text plays an important role in this novel. The other genre that surreptitiously weaves its way into the text, is theatrical genre since it is not rare to find dialogues whose theatricality is undeniable during Howard’s numerous scenes of arguments under Zadie Smith’s pen. It is so during his trip to London where Michael encounters him on the way from the metro station to the Kipps’ London home. Their conversation, begun with a misunderstandingMichael being uninformed of the fleeting affair between Jerome and Victoria, almost ends with a disputatio of medieval theology[16]. This theatricality is also pushed to an extreme degree at the time of a very violent argument when Kiki and Howard try to talk (203) :

‘What is it, Howard ?’

Howard had just finished ushering his resistant children out of the room. They were alone. He turned round quickly, his face a very nothing. He was at loss as to what to do with his hands and feet, where to stand, what to rest upon.

‘There’s no “it”,’ he said softly, and pulls his cardigan around himself. ‘Particularly. I don’t know what the question means. It ? I mean ... obviously, there’s everything[17].’

Finally, a strong potential of dramatization is at play in three major scenes, which stand out in the text : Howard’s guffaw during the Glee Club at the annual night party of the University (347-348), the sudden intrusion of a chambermaid during his torrid date with Victoria at the hotel (380-381) and at lastly at during the noisy final argument, in the street, at the occasion of a students’ celebration (409) where all the hidden truths of the novel are revealed in a dramatic turning point.

To finish with the mixing of dramatic genres, I would like to focus for a moment on the existence of critical discourse. Actually, they are rather seldom, and when criticism is considered in a more significant way in the novel, it is each time through irony or a parody. That disparagement of criticism comes from the simple face that it is composed of a considerably abstract matter[18]. One of which the incomprehensible jargon is a mark of vanity[19]. That is what we encounter, when after his conversation with Zora, Jack French, with a “Baroque[20]” way of speaking, cannot prevent himself from sinking into lexicographical reflections on the expression “stymie” (149). Or, for that matter, when Monty attempts to annihilate the meaning of Howard’s speech, using, in his turn, his own “textual anarchist” (327) concepts. Finally, far beyond the Linguistic arbitrariness of a discipline, what Zadie Smith’s novel suggests, is a rift in the linguistic activity which would prevent the characters from acceding to a sincere and efficient speech.

That rift of the linguistic activity will be filled up, in the narration by resorting to other media like painting or music. That is how music is very present in the novel, in such a way that it becomes a major psychological motiveespecially when it approaches and deals with the theme of Death. From the Requiem by Mozart to its interpretation by Kiki in a symphonic poem, to Carl’s musical commentaries, passing by the slam concerts displayed at the bus stop and by the Ave Verum sung at the occasion of Carlene’s funeral, music and singing are felt as the only ways of expressing emotions, and to articulate them in a language. As a lyric power, music reaches its peak as Levi carries out some locations in order to steal Hyppolite’s painting, Maîtresse Erzulie :

He was still restless. He hadn’t brought his iPod out with him today, and he had no personal resources to cope with being alone without music (406). (…)

‘I know you’ve been crying,’ insisted Kiki, but she didn’t know the half of it : couldn’t know, would never know, the lovely sadness of that Haitian music, or what it was like to sit in a small dark booth and be alone with it—the plangent, irregular rhythm, like a human heartbeat, the way the many harmonized voices had sounded, to Levi, like a whole nation weeping tune (408).

All this leads me to my last pointbut not the least which is the importance of artistic painting in the novel. By virtue of their professions and sensitiveness, all the novel’s main characters move in an environment where painting is omnipresent. In the novel, Monty has “the largest collection of Haitian art in private hands of that unfortunate island” (113). As far as Kiki and Carlene are concerned, they became friends by sharing their memories and their philosophy of life around Hector Hyppolite’s painting, Maîtresse Erzulie (175). Kiki “admires” (174) the painting that Carlene bought in Haiti “before [she] met [her] husband.” We can say that this very painting plays an important part in the novel. To take back a French Creole expression, we could say that it is its “poteau-mitan” (the load-bearing pole), because it is under Erzulie’s patronage and of her values, that friendship between Carlene and Kiki will be shaped, as well as a somewhat cultural transmission will occur between Carlene and Kiki. It is around this occurrence that all the novel’s meaning will crystallize, especially via the attempt of spoliation of the legacy fomented by the Kipps. I shall return to this point later. The other aspect which should be remembered concerning the paintings is the argumentative support they bring to the narration by the illustrations they carry out, by the means of descriptions devoted by the narration (ekphraseis[21]). Thus Erzulie’s painting applies very well to the character Kiki, a woman in love but deceived, steady and whose fresh beauty was hot (172) :

But she’s my favorite. She’s a great Vodún goddess, Erzulie. She’s called the Black Virginalso the Violent Venus. (...)

‘Really. So she’s a symbol ?’

‘Oh yes. She represents love, beauty, purity, the ideal female and the moon ... and she’s the mystère of jealousy, vengence and discord, and, on the other hand, of love, perpetual help, goodwill, health, beauty and fortune.’

‘Phew. That’s a lot of symbolizing.’

‘Yes, isn’t it ? It’s rather like the Catholics saints rolled into one being (175).’

Now, let us see what Claire Malcolm thought of Kiki when she met Howard (227, emphasis mine) :

Claire remembered when Howard first met his wife, back when Kiki was a nursing student in New-York. At that time her beauty was awesome, almost unspeakable, but more than this she radiated an essential female nature Claire had already imagined in her poetry—natural, honest, powerful, unmediated, and full of something like genuine desire[22].

As far as Howard is concerned, he worksas Monty had doneon a book about Rembrandt. Thus Zadie Smith, mobilises three crucial points in her novel, already collected by Eugène d’Ors in his essay about Baroque aesthetic : first of all Rembrandt’s face as the paragon of the Baroque painting[23], and above all the surprising coincidence with which Smith updates, in her turn, the themes of history and dissection, which allowed Eugène d’Ors to introduce his definition of Baroque in his chapter “Anatomy and History[24]”.

In the same way, the novel’s second chapter, “The antomy lesson”, named after Rembrandt’s famous picture : Dr Nicolaes Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm, 1632, perfectly illustrates the work of dissection of which the character Howard will be subject. In this chapter (Nosce teipsium, “know thyself”, 144), where behind the untimely discovery of this affair with Claire Malcolm, the motivations for his disenchantment with Kiki will appear.

Finally, the projection of the final scene of the painting Hendrickje Bathing, 1654 (442), since it represents “Rembrandt’s love, Hendrickj” (443), with all the interplay of glances that Kiki and Howard indirectly exchange, in a shaping mise en abyme, perfectly emphasizes that in spite of their misadventures and recent separation, Howard and Kiki will remain very attached to each other.


2) The Baroque : Carnivalesque Reversal


These generic elements being components of the Baroque aesthetic set up, I am now going to focus on what constitutes, more adequately speaking,the driving force of this novel. It is surprising that this question, which has already been tackled in all the works I have already quoted, has never been fully treated. Bertrand Gibert who quickly invokes the reversal phenomenon, is not very eloquent about the question of the carnivalesque reversal in the Baroque aesthetic, sometimes referring, here and there to the Satyre Ménipée. However, his attitude really reflects a constant tendency of criticism towards this crucial point of the Baroque art, that of its popular roots and its tendencies to contestation, and indeed, to anarchy. Besides, Bertrand Gibert explains to us the reason for denouncing, in the field of criticism, “an historical resistance of the middle-class or Gallican France towards Baroque art[25].” This is what I shall attempt to remedy now. In his work about the Baroque novel, Georges Molinié’s position is positive on this point :

What strikes us, when we read all these Greek and Baroque novels, is the permanence of an efficient and flexible narrative model : the dramatic progression by a radical change of the situation data, which can lead to a complete reversal, often with ill. We will recognize there, from a wider point of view, the special image, the antithesis, of the art of changing, of the universal impulse, which was so well announced by Montaigne, and a deep example of the Baroque aesthetic. It is impossible, on this topic, to find the slightest significant difference between the Greek and the modern practices of this constituent technique of the novelistic genre : this feature is too fundamental[26].

From the historical point of view, Anne-Marie Le Bourg-Oulé, couldn’t be more precise on the Roman origins of this phenomenon of carnivalesque reversal which clearly comes from the Saturnalia celebration :

The origin of this feast is told to be lost from immemorial times. It had already existed in the Ancient Greece before Rome was founded and that it would have been introduced into the city under the Consulate of Sempronius and Minucius. According to the legend, Saturn, king of Crete, chased by his son Jupiter, took refuge in the capital of Janus’ Empire. The fugitive prince received hospitality there, and, as a show of gratitude, taught agriculture to his host. The latter, to pay him tribute in return, made him a partner in his kingdom. They founded all the neighbouring cities together ; when they died, the posterity devoted two months to them, December to Saturn, and January to Janus, and celebrations were instituted in their honour. The reign of Saturn is described as a golden age during which no man could be a slave and no good could belong to a sole owner. From there came the idea that an entire equality should rule during the Saturnalia[27].

As far as Mikhaïl Bakhtine is concerned, he revealed some interesting points about the symbolical meanings of this reversal :

Unlike official festival, Carnival time was the triumph of a sort of temporary emancipation of the dominating truth and of the current system, of a temporary abolition of all the hierarchical links, privileges, rules and taboos. It was the authentic celebration of time, of the evolving future, of alternations and revivals. It opposed to any perpetuation, any perfecting, any end. It aimed at an uncompleted future.

The abolition of all the hierarchical links assumed a very peculiar meaning. Indeed, in official celebrations, hierarchical distinctions were underlined deliberately, each person had to appear equipped with all the decorations and titles, ranks and service records, and hold to the place devolved to his rank. This celebration aimed at establishing the inequality, contrary to the Carnival which considered everybody equal, and allowed a particular form of free contacts, friendlier between persons parted in normal life by the insurmountable fences that were erected by their conditions, their financial situations, their employment, their age and their marital status.

In contrast with the exceptional hierarchical organization of the feudal system, with the extreme division into states and corporate bodies in everyday life, this free and friendly acquaintance was very deeply felt and formed an essential part of the carnivalesque world perception. The individual seems endowed with a second life which allowed to be in new contact, absolutely humanlike, with one’s fellow mates. The alienation temporarily vanished. Man came back to himself and felt being a human among human beings. The genuine humanism which characterized the relationships was not by any mean the fruit of imagination or abstract thought, it was really achieved and proven in this alive contact and perceptible. The utopian ideal and the real fused together temporarily in the carnivalesque perception of the world, one of a kind[28].

Thus, the Carnivalesque reversal “allows at last to cast a new look on the universe, to feel how all that exists is relative and therefore a totally different order of the world is possible[29]” Finally, “it matters however to emphasize that the carnivalesque parody is very far from the modern parody which is purely formal and negative ; indeed while denying, the first one consists in a revival and a renewal in the same time. The mere and pure denial is in general totally unfamiliar to the popular culture[30].”

After casting these new lights on Baroque aesthetic, we will be able to discover examples of it in Zadie Smith’s novel. A few general remarks are needed, at first, on this novelist’s technical writing. The very stylistic feature that the reader should be recognized as hers is her ability to tone the events down, as well as the circumstances and the developments of her stories. Besides this toning down makes up a major facet of her art which allows her to postpone the moments of crises, which increases the suspense and amplifies the violence of the denouements when they arise. Thus, a major turning point of the fiction which is so to speak camouflaged in the maze of the narrative ramifications and the forest of the peripeteias : it is a question of a fundamental reversal, on which the whole harmony of the novel is built. Whereas Victoria and Howard, a little merry indeed, have just made love in a pitiful way the evening of Carlene’s funeral wake, Howard’s desire suddenly disappears to get reversed at last (318, emphasis mine) :

Together they got dressed, Howard hurriedly and Victoria languidly, with Howard taking a moment to marvel at the facts that the dream of many weeks—to see this girl naked—was now replaying in a dramatic reverse. He’d do absolutely anything to see her with all clothes on.

From then on, Howard’s impetuous and instinctive craving will lessen, up to the point he totally leaves Victoria, lightly dressed in a hotel’s room[31]. From that point, the reader could expect Howard, who up to then had benefited from Kiki’s magnanimous forgiveness, to find the course of a normal life again. In reality, nothing of the sort happens, since news of his misconduct finally catch up with him, after Carl’s disclosures, during the student party that we have already mentioned. However, it could be seen in this novelistic psychology effect a mere fictional reversal. If we examine it more closely, we realise very quickly that this psychological change was not fortuitous because it is carried, from this third chapter structure point of view, by a reversed development. The third chapter entitled “On beauty and being wrong” is composed of twenty-five paragraphs : thirteen are numbered ; twelve are preceded by a flower. When we take a closer look at the way in which this chapter is created, two conclusions come to mind. Firstly, out of twenty-five chapters, the two last ones are dedicated to the outcome (discovering of the painting under Levi’s bed and revelation by Zora of the affair between Howard and Victoria ; separation of Howard and Kiki) and that secondly, out of the twenty-tree remaining paragraphs, these which start by a flower become the majority and virtually perfectly symmetrical to those numbered in the first half, and it was all since the flower, which follows the paragraph number eight, that is to say from page 362. Now, this paragraph marks the beginning of the novel’s conclusion, in connection with the disappearance of the painting of Erzulie, which Monty Kipps preferred to hang in his office, in the Black Studies department. So, structurally speaking, we can conclude that the inversion of Howard’s psychological dynamic is already a consequence of the reversal of the very construction of this chapter, around the disappearance of the painting of Erzulie.

The second reversal, we want to emphasise now, is double. We may remember that in this novel, men tend to appear the sole holders of the intellectual power, whereas women would rather be in full possession of bodily or sensory skills[32]. From the beginning of the novel, the rivalry which opposes Howard Belsey, a White liberal, with Montague Kipps, a black man whose convictions are traditionalistic is emphasised.

Consequently, the Kipps’ moving in Wellington forecasts the violent confrontation which will take place at the University, regarding the discriminatory lectures which Monty Kipps could deliver. As such, the debate which takes place during the University meeting (319-331), particularly arranged to close the matter, represents an eloquent example of the surrounding tension and of the complete antagonism which opposes the opinions of each character. Now, at the end of that meeting, Howard cannot manage to win the case because Monty Kipps’ lectures are passed at a crushing majority. As far as Zora is concerned, she manages to get a postponement of the decisions concerning the discretionary and unregistered students (333), what gives an actual expression of the ideas that Howard intended to defend against Monty’s attacks. Better still, at the end of the novel, Howard is not the one who obtains Montague’s institutional surrender, but his daughter Zora, a young woman, one generation younger than him, by probably threatening Monty to disclose the love affair he was having with a student, Chantelle (439, emphasis mine) :

It had been in her power, after all, to get both Monty and Howard fired. To Howard she had strongly suggested a sabbatical, with reprieve he had taken, gratefully. (...) Monty had been allowed to keep his job but not his principles. He did not contest the discretionaries and the discretionaries stayed, although Zora herself dropped out the poetry class. These epic acts of unselfishness had lent Zora a genuinely unassailable moral superiority that she was enjoying immensely.

To conclude, I would like to close this non-exhaustive approach of the carnivalesque reversals by a comment with regard to Howard’s first name. I am anxious to report an observation I made about an inversion of which the first name of Howard could be very likely the result of it. When one tries to understand why Howard behaves as he does in the novel, one cannot escape from going back over the strong relation of hatred which links him to his father although distantly. To sum up, I can say that Howard is his father’s spitting image, though opposite, morally and intellectually speaking (291-302). Harold, a retired butcher by trade, is racist and homophobic, seems to only master a very poor vocabulary—he has never read any book but frequently watches television— ; he beats his son at calculation while playing Countdown, whereas Howard is unbeatable with the letters. In short, we nearly can say that Howard is his father’s opposite. Now, if we pay more attention to it, we realize that actually at the level of vowels’ order, Howard is really Harold’s opposite. As for the consonants, so to speak they do not vary : the H- and the -d are the same, and there is only the -r- of “Harold” which becomes a -w- in “Howard”, which can very likely be explained by the fact that in Haitian Creole, the English [r] does not exist, but in Creole, the consonant [r] is pronounced [w]. Therefore, Howard is a reversed picture—carnivalesque—and mixed with his father Harold’s white racist values.

These carnivalesque analysis done, we can henceforth find a confirmation of it in a programmatic basis of this work, namely at the threshold this very novel.

She spoke without looking at him. ‘You know what’s weird ? Is that you can get someone who is a professor of one thing and then is just intensely stupid about everything else ? Consult the ABC of parenting, Howie. You’ll find that if you go about this way, then the exact, but the exact opposite, of what you want to happen will happen. The exact opposite.’

‘But the exact opposite of what I want,’ considered Howard, rocking in his chair, ‘is what always fucking happens.’ (…)

Kiki pressed her fingers on each temple like a carnival mind-reader.

Thus the dynamics inversion is attributed to a mere and simple display of Carnival. However, this carnivalesque inversion of the world, deeply baroque, could not form the only macrostructural facet of inversion in the text. It is also propped up by many others more reduced, which are disseminated all along the novel It is a matter of another very sparsely commented feature of the baroque aesthetic, which consists in adjusting “the meeting of the extremes (coincidentia oppositorum), of the deep misery and of the insolent luxury[33]”, the obvious antagonism which opposes, for example, the destitution of Tchou’s flat (358) to Monty Kipps’s luxurious office, at the Black Studies (405) is a revealing example. According to Bertrand Gibert :

The very contradictory aspirations seem to define “the baroque psychology”. Hesitations between refinement and renunciation, luxury and deprivation, magnificence and asceticism (…) When Montaigne notices (half a century earlier) that “our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of opposite things” (On Experience) he takes up again the antique phrase of concordia discors, concordance based on the antinomies, unities “brought together in the discord”. Now it is not the harmonious appeasement which characterises the baroque expression at its start but on the contrary, the exasperation of the contradictions[34].

Stylistically speaking, the concordia discors consists therefore in having elements agree, elements which are a priori logically or semantically incompatible. We find there all the stylistic phrases of opposition, from the oxymoron to the antithesis. Opposition phrases, which are what plunges the baroque text into the sphere of instability and conflicting chaos. The refusal of the non-contradiction is moreover very well described by Kiki after Carlene had explained the Erzulie’s symbolic values (175, emphasis mine) :

Phew. That’s a lot of symbolizing.’

‘Yes, isn’t it ? It’s rather like the Catholics saints rolled into one being.’

‘That’s interesting…’ began Kiki shyly, giving herself a moment to remember a thesis of Howard’s, which she now wished to reproduce as her own for Carlene. ‘Because… we’re so binary, of course, in the way we think. We tend to think in opposites, in the Christian world. We’re structured like thatHoward always says that’s the trouble.’

‘That’s a clever way to put it. (…)’

So it is Erzulie’s phrase which created this kind of un-categorization and of the syncretism of the values ruining the opposing and differential functioning, of the language, thus setting the entire novel under the semiotic running of the concordia discors. This process generates texts abounding in contradictions of which the reader has to be in charge by his own involvement, succeeding in co-enuncing them in order to understand them, which endows these contradictions with a strong hermeneutic potential. That phenomenon is not deprived of pragmatic effects on the working of the text because the reader is required to seize it round the waist to make it work ; by lack of that, the latter will be drowned in a chaotic flow effect almost impossible to think. So we can say that in Zadie Smith’s novel, the reader is constantly confronted with situations of conflicts which do not end up in breaking off.

All that allows us now to finally envisage a stylistic process systematically used by Zadie Smith in her novel, of which the least we can say is that it is an issue, as it seems to have been ignored by the academic treatises : I mean the counterpoint. It is indeed very difficult to find articles, and even less stylistics works dealing with this matter, whereas it is very regularly and abundantly used—not to say heavily—in the baroque literature and especially in Zadie Smith’s novel, of which we can say that it is a contrapuntal novel above all else. Nevertheless, I managed to find an interesting definition in the Dictionnaire des termes littéraires by Hendrik van Gorp, Dirk Delabastita, Lieven D’hulst, Rita Ghesquiere, Reiner Grutman et Georges Legros[35] :

Counterpoint (lat., contra = in front of, opposite ; punctum = stitch)

i. Music technique which consists in superimposing numerous “voices”, each one of them is keeping its melodic autonomy, contributing nevertheless to form an harmonious whole.

2. In a more general meaning, the term designates a semantic process based on the contrast or the conjunction of separate elements, particularly two plots which are confused : confer Les Faux-Monnayeurs (1926) by A. Gide, or Point Counter Point (1928) by A. Huxley.

In fact, this stitch allows the narrator to give his text a polyphonic dimension and to exploit in the same way the conflicting potential of the semantic contradictions which, in the concordia discors, managed to keep in touch thanks to a thematic and unifying link, which establish a certain dialogism. To take up again a counterpoint example that I have already partially commented, I want to return a few moments to the opposition which reigns between Howard and his father, Harold. We have seen what their antagonisms were so I will not go back to it, but I want to underline here the importance of the link which prevents these opposites from splitting off for good : to be specific, it is a question of Joan’s death, Harold’s wife and Howard’s mother (295, emphasis mine) :

The moment his head connected with the velvet he felt like he’d been sitting here with Harry these forty years, the both of them still tied up in the terrible incommunicable grief of Joan’s death. (...) Two Englishmen stranded together with nothing in common except a dead woman they had both loved.

Thus, the counterpoint brings together two antagonistic theses (arguments) around a theme which continues, by lack of being worn out, but in a more illustrative than argumentative way[36]. Zadie Smith’s text is, from that viewpoint, saturated with counterpoints ; let us be allowed to only examine some of them.

A place often comes back again in this carnivalesque novel, which is the city of Venice. Before going there as a family with their children (81), Howard and Kiki had already been there as lovers, at the occasion of a romantic escapade (425). Now, Claire Malcolm announces to Kiki her wedding with Warren Crane, during a trip in Italy (56) : at “the birthday of St John the Baptist”, Claire proposed to Warren, by telephone, to marry her, which he immediately accepted. Then she put on her red Salomé dress she bought in Montreal : “I wanted to get married in my Salomé dress and take a man’s head with me. And, goddamn it, I did. And it’s such a sweet head,’ said Claire, pulling it gently towards her.” Whereas the Belseys’ Venetian romanticism implies a sincere love match, the eccentric production of the Cranes’ wedding in Italy causes the ruin of the authenticity and the equity of this mutual agreement, by a sacrifice production. Claire’s wedding, far from proposing a positive and genuine vision of marriage, presents a sanguinary and counterfeited display. Then, after Howard’s unfaithfulnesses, Claire and Kiki’s wedding are, in fact, two terrible masquerades.

Another example of counterpoint which this time focuses on, the two portraits of chiefs, Jack French and Erskine Jegede (65-66). Jack French is “The dean of the Humanities”, whereas Erskine Jegede is the “Director of the Black Studies (19)”. This very brief passage especially interests me. It comprises a description of Jack French, followed by one of Erskine, after a short transition which is exactly revealing of the concordia discors : “Compare and contrast with Erskine (65)”. In fact, it is almost a question of a counterblazon of Jack French, followed by the blazon of Erskine[37]. Both are presented according to common themes : French’s Anglo-Saxons’ clothing bad test (“in their New England slacks”) contrasts with the dandy Erskine’s Cuban stylishness (“a three-piece suit of the yellowest of yellow” with “a pair of pointed Cuban-heeled shoes”) ; the dean’s emaciated face “cut-glass architecture” contrasting with the generous curves (“the curves of his bumptious body”) of his colleague of the Black Studies. As far as their ages are concerned, they remain uncertain, but it is perfectly sure that French’s complexion is of “those fellows they dig out, after 900 years”, whereas Erskine looks in the prime of life, such as “a bull doing his initial two-step dance toward you”. At last, “his shining, hairless pate [Erskine’s]” whereas French has “a thin yet complete covering of grey silk hair”. From a psychological point of view, “those story-book freckles” of Erskine make him pleasant and appealing, whereas French’s appearance “gently perplexed” of “his sentimental eyebrows” make him a less reassuring character, not to say frankly melancholic … To conclude on a political stance, the reference to Wyndham Lewis would rather place Jack French on the side of a political scepticism, whereas Erskine’s dancing bull and Cuban-heeled shoes would at least make him a determined democrat, not to say a revolutionary. Those are two viewpoints of the world, radically different, which go together to listen to the Requiem by Mozart.


Arrived at this stage of our analysis, we can already conclude that Zadie Smith’s On Beauty surprisingly fits with all the typical stylistic practices of the baroque aesthetic. Everything in its writing, refers to those practises : its fiction and its narration are shaped with a very characteristic stylistics of genres, which, besides taking up again the baroque themes established by the European tradition, sets up carnivalesque reversal aspect of the world saturated by the counterpoints of the concordia discors. Although this approach is aesthetic, it is not devoid of effects concerning the meaning of the text, which as a result, seems split up, contradictory from all sides, not to say chaotic. Now, we are going to see that that impression is only superficial, and that beyond a mere actantial stake, Haitian culture does give its whole meaning and coherence to this novel.




3) The VodúnVodún Rebuilding of the Meaning : Mythological Reading


One of the baroque writers’ favorite games—not to say their delight—consists effectively in camouflaging in their work many networks of latent meanings which will permit to make their text work as soon as the centrifugal force exerted by the concordia discors will blast its semantic cohesion away. To this end, narrators often feign to tone down its significance, when it is not merely and simply a matter for them to contest it, in order to deceive the reader all the better. So it is with the Vodún beliefs which, in addition are missing in the novel, when present, they are very quickly played down. Even if Victoria is ironical about the painting collection owned by her father, openly making fun of their macabre aspects : “Great if you like Baron Samedi[38], staring at you from every corner of the house” (113). As for Carlene, she makes a fool of the superstitious fright created by the Erzulie’s painting over her maid : “Poor Clotilde won’t look at her, can’t even be in the same room as her—did you notice ? A superstition” (175, emphasis mine). However, we must not trust these comments : once these denial displays spotted, we have to notice that when Kiki discovers that Claire Malcolm had been Howard’s mistress and that the situation is becoming serious, the narrator hastens to mention : “She [Kiki] stood like a zombie, her eyes quite dead to any appeal from him, her smile nailed on” (121, emphasis mine). Far from being a mere amusing folkloric artefact, the Vodún mythology is used in reality as a network of values to take refuge into, in spite of the appearance of simplicity which could emerge from these beliefs. And fter Carlene explained Erzulie’s symbolic hyperpower to Kiki, that divinity is finally restricted to the mere material presence of a very valuable beautiful picture, which matters for the proper progress of the fiction thread. Let us read what Alfred MÉtraux tells us about this divinity :

Ezili-fréda-Dahomey is usually compared to Aphrodite. Both goddesses look like each other to the extent that a pretty mulatto from the West Indies can make think of a Homeric divinity. Like Aphrodite, Ezili belongs to the sea spirits’ group, but she freed herself from her roots to become a personification of feminine grace and beauty. She has all the features of the pretty young woman : she is coquette, sensual, a friend to luxury and pleasure, spendthrift to the extent of extravagance.

In the sanctuary, there is a room or a nook of a bedroom devoted to Ezili. Her pink and blue dresses are kept there with her jewels, whilst area washbowl, a towel, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, a comb, a lipstick and a nail-cleaner are expecting her. As soon as Ezili possesses a supporter, man or woman, this one is taken in this closet in order to be adorned. (…) She likes men too much not to distrust womenher rivals. She treats them with haughtiness and greets them by clinging her little finger to theirs. Ezili is a ‘lady of etiquette’ and when she feigns to speak French, she purposely adopts a northern French accent. When she goes back to her boudoir clung to two lovers’ arms, men crowd around to escort her. (…) Ezili-fréda must not be confused with the Great-Ezili, an elderly lady paralyzed with rheumatism, who drags her knees and uses a stick[39].

Now, it happens that in the Vodún pantheon, Erzulie’s incarnations are numerous :

The main loas seem to have increased for the sake of it by the addition to their name of nicknames derived from African languages or from the Creole. (…) Ezili-wèdo, Ezili-doba, etc. In most of the cases, this divinities proliferation is, from a religious viewpoint, without any real significance[40].

We can therefore find many other avatar of Erzulie in the war figure of Ezili Dantor, the patron of the lesbian, a gashed woman with fulfilled figure, protecting her child with one hand and holding a knife in the other, the Great-Ezili, an elderly lady paralyzed with rheumatism, who drags her knees and uses a stick, the tall Ezili, Ezili jé-ruj (Erzulie ‘red eyed[41]’), the jealous lover, Ezili Kaoulo, the angry amorous, Ezili Mapyang, the violent and harmful lover… From that moment it is possible for us to find again these Erzulie’s figures disseminated across the entire novel. Behind the character of Victoria, whose beauty is irresistible, is hidden Ezili-fréda-Dahomey, all the more so because it is in a “boudoir (…) [which] did not appear to be a Christian girl’s bedroom” (310) that Howard and her make love. As for Ezili Dantor, we recognize in her the character of Kiki : of stout build (“two hundred and fifty pounds”, 14), she made a threat on Howard’s life (“Don’t you come near me. Don’t you come near me. I’ll kill you if you do”, 123), tries to protect her children : comforts Jerome (44), protects Zora from the ambient “self-disgust” (197), is worried about Levi (401), for finally leaving Howard to start a new relationship with a woman (436). Regarding the Great-Ezili, we find it again behind the ill countenance, painful[42] and weakened of Carlene. Kiki is as well Ezili jé-ruj, Zora Ezili Kaoulo, the angry amorous during her quarrel with Carl, after he slept with Victoria, during the student party (409). To conclude, the refusal of Claire to accept Zora in her courses by supposed reprisals against Howard, could really make of her an Ezili Mapyang[43]… We also find others indications of the femininity in the novel, but which are linked this time to the picture of the moon : “She [Erzulie] represents love, beauty, purity, the ideal female and the moon” (175) ... In London, Carlene wears around the neck “a substantial piece of art deco jewellery with a multifaceted moonstone at its center” (40). During the concert of the Requiem, Kiki meditates on her sadness and her pride of the mother while “[t]he moon was massive overhead” (70). As for Jack French’s secretary, Lydia, she compares Claire Malcolm with “a moonbeam” (149).

Nevertheless, this feminine symbolic of the moon comes to contrast, in the Vodún imaginary, with the sun, masculine in essence : “the moon. So much more lovely than the sun and you can look at it without fear of harm” (71). Not long before, it is clarified that “[t]he sky had misted over slightly, allowing the sun to cast itself in a misleading godly role” (58, emphasis mine). However, the only one character whose virility is linked in the novel to the sun is Carl, whose beauty fascinates literally Zora, while she gets ready to get back the swimming goggles he borrowed her by mistake (132, emphasis mine) :

For a full ten seconds, as if there were no material there at all, she was presented with the broad line of it running along his thigh to the left, making three-dimensional waves of his bumblebee stripes. Beneath this arresting sight, his balls pulled at the fabric of his shorts, low and heavy and not quite lifted out from the warm water. His tattoo was of the sun
the sun with a face.

Moreover, it is not insignificant that this encounter between Zora and Carl takes place at the swimming pool, most of the Vodún divinities being reputed staying under the water : “A lot [of Loas] are living at the bottom of rivers or in the abysses of the sea. The hougan and the mambo [the Vodún priest and priestess] who have great ‘knowledge’ are going to visit them in their water dwelling place[44] (…)” As for Kiki, her memory of Carl’s beauty is associated with the summer concert of Mozart (200).

In fact, we can conclude that Carl is an incarnation of the god Legba who is the most hailed and respected of the loas. “Master of the mystical gate which divides man from spirits, (…) Legba is also “the master of the roads and the footpath”. Under the name of ‘Crossroads Master’, Legba is the divinity of the roads crossing—places haunted by bad spirits and favourable to the magic arts[45].” From that moment, we also understand why Carl is so interested in the thematic of the crossroads in his musical archivist work, at the library (375) : “Five days ago, Carl had elected the subject of crossroads. All mention of crossroads, imagery on album cover of crossroads, and raps based on the idea of a crossroads in someone’s life journey.” This Vodún thematic of the crossroads is developed four page farther by Carl himself, with the notably presence of serpents :

Carl leaned back in his own chair and casually explained to her a little about the image of the crossroads and how frequently rappers use it. Crossroads to represent personal decisions and choices, to represent ‘going straight’, to represent the history of hip-hop itself, the split between ‘conscious’ lyrics and ‘gangsta’. The more he spoke, the more animated and absorbed he became by his subject.

‘See, I was using it all the time myself—never even thought about why. And then Elisha says to me : ’member that mural in Roxbury, the one with the chair hanging from that arch ? And I’m like, yeah, of course, man, ’cos I live right by thereyou know the one I’m talking about ?’

‘Vaguely’, said Zora, but she had only been to Roxbury once on a walking tour, during Black History Month back when she was in high school.

‘So you got the crossroads painted there, right ? And the snakes and this guy—who obviously I now know is Robert Johnson—I lived my whole life next door to this mural, never knew who the brother was ... anyway : that’s Johnson in this picture, sitting at the crossroads waiting to sell his soul to the devil. And that’s why (man, there’s a lot of noise out of there). That’s why there’s a real chair hanging from the archway in that alley.
My whole life I been wondering why someone hung a chair in that alley. It’s supposed to be Johnson’s chair, right ? Sitting at the crossroads. And that’s totally filtered through hip-hop
and that, like, reveals to me the essence of rap. YOU GOTTA PAY YOUR DUES.
That’s written on the top of that mural, right ? Near the chair ? And that’s the first principle of rap music.

We find back there, in Carl’s explanations, the meaning of the crossroads in the Vodún mentality, guarded by Legba but suppressed by Levi : place where the believer must choose between the “the straight and narrow” or accept to “sell his soul to the devil”. We now understand why it is not surprising that this theme of the crossroads obsessed him so much, without that he “never wondered why” (on two occasions). Furthermore, we can notice, in this passage, a resurgence of the historical and Dahomean mythological roots of the Vodún, which is the archaic worship of the serpent god Damballah-wèdo[46].

Finally, to conclude this first quick overview of the elements of the Vodún pantheon, I would like to turn my attention to a moment on a surprising evocation of the relationships which link Jerome, Zora and Levi. At the ninth paragraph of the chapter “The anatomy lesson”, Jerome secretly anticipates of one day his return home in order to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family. Arrived in Boston, in spite of an execrable weather, he meets Zora who came back from the least improbable purchase (“on a whim”, in a shop “she had never visited before”) of a volume of Irish poetry in a second-hand bookstore. It was then that Levi who, at that moment, should have been in class joins both of us. These unexpected reunion seems incredible to them (234, emphasis mine) :

‘This is insane. I don’t even ever come this way. I usually get the train !’

‘Man, that’s freaky. That’s just not right,’ said Levi, whose mind naturally lent itself to conspiratorial and mystical phenomena. They shook their heads and laughed, and to relieve the sense of freakiness recounted their journeys to each other, taking care to assert common-sense arguments like ‘Well, we’re often in Boston towards the end of the week’ and ‘this is nearest to the T-stop we usually use’, but nobody was especially convinced by this and wonder continued.

It is then that Jerome calls his mother who reacts in turn by her surprise, but also by offering a shred of understanding :

Well, I can’t believe thatthat’s crazy. I guess there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatioright ?’ This was Kiki’s sole literary quotation, and she used it for all uncanny incidents and also those that were, in truth, only slightly uncanny. ‘It’s like what they say about twins. Vibrations. You must feel each other’s presence somehow.’

‘But isn’t it insane ?’

The allusion to Shakespeare[47] shows well how it is a matter of supernatural in this meeting, which subsequently confirms Kiki’s rationalisation of an hardly illogical hypothesis : Jerome, Zora and Levi… would be twins ! We estimate well the incoherence of such words : three children cannot be twins, but triplets. Thus we must distinguish, among these three children, which ones could set up, on an imaginary side, pair of twins. This question is not difficult to come up with because in the novel, Levi does nothing like his brother nor his sister : he is not a student, he works, he is ideologically tied up to a sort of a Black Workers’ International that he names : ‘the street’ : “The street, the global street, lined with hustling brothers working corners from Roxbury to Casablanca, from South Central to Cape Town” (245-246), whereas Jerome and Zora only move about in the environment of the university middle class. So, Jerome and Zora would be twins, on a repressed and imaginary side. Now, it exactly happens that in the Vodún beliefs, twins are invested with a great power, so much so that they are worshipped :

The living or dead twins (marassa) are invested of a supernatural power which makes of them exceptional beings. In the Vodún pantheon, a special place is reserved for them beside the great ‘mysteries’. Some claim that the marassa are more powerful than the loas. They are invoked and hailed a the beginning of a ceremony, immediately after Legba ; in certain regions, particularly in Léogane, they have the precedence over this divinity (…)

The twins (marassa) dead or alive are deified and their spirits are all the more dreadful since they are famed to be—just like the livingquick-tempered, violent and touchy. There is a link between the marassa and the rain. (…) Saint Nicholas passes as being their father, and Saint Claire their mother. (…)

The child who, in the order of birth, follows immediately the twinsthe dossou, if he is a boy, the dossa if she is a girlcombines in his or her only person the power of both and so possesses a more extensive power than theirs. “The dossou is stronger than the marassa, stronger than the loas[48].”

If Jerome and Zora are marassas, Levi is their dossou, and their mother’s name would be Claire. However disturbing the repeat of this feminine first name may seem, we are going to show that far from being a mere conjecture, this imaginary structure of the Belseys sibship is really realised in Zadie Smith’s novel. If we observe carefully the outcome of the novel, we realize two things : on the one hand, it is the disclosures of Carl to Jerome and Zora, during the argument at the students’ party (409) which allow to penalize Howard’s loose living and to bring to light Monty’s ideological hypocrisy, and in the other hand, it is thanks to Levi’s complicity that Kiki will finally manage to find Erzulie’s painting which the Kippses had tried to steal from her—a painting she plans to sell afterwards in order to come to the assistance of “the Haitian Support Group” (437). Therefore the children Belsey do resolve all the intrigues of the novel, which is eloquent about their power ! During the noisy quarrel which opposes Jerome and Zora with Carl and Victoria, we must not forget that Zora finally succeeds in understanding and admitting what she has just heard—the Howard’s relationship with Victoria—by only noticing the disastrous effects of Victoria’s treason on Jerome’s face in tears (419). Even if Jerome does not seem to have an important part in this quarrel, yet he and his sister, both of them get the better of Carl, Legba’s avatar[49]. As far as Levi is concerned, his action becomes brighter than Jerome and Zora’s ones. Whereas Howard and Monty’s pranks will receive a solution negotiated behind Wellington’s back, Erzulie’s flagrant crime, the Kippses’ embezzlement attempt, which will lead them straight in front of a judge, for a trial (436).

At this stage of my exposition on the Vodún pantheon in Zadie Smith’s novel, two mysteries still remain : the Vodún roots of Kiki and the reasons for the baroque aesthetic of the novel On Beauty. We saw that Kiki was having the role of Erzulie in the novel, and that she was also the marassas and a dossou’s mother. However, we must acknowledge that in the feminine first name chain we have already taken down, Kiki has no phonetic similarity with Carlene or Caroline or Claire, apart from the initial sound [k]. However, we showed that in this baroque novel, the characters’ identity could be dubious and that it could sometimes be proved numerous. It is precisely the case with Kiki Simmons whose first name, finally, serves as indicator for us. It is in fact only with a transcultural reading that we managed to elucidate those two questions, as nothing in the novel gives us a slightest hint or at least a perspective. Thus we had finally to learn that in the Vodún pantheon, a mythological entity called Mrs Kikit exists, who belongs to the Guédé family of which Baron Samedi is a part[50]. We already explained that as a spirit of the death, their appearance was producing a funeral and macabre terror. But their personalities are also endowed with a side which, in the baroque perspective which concerns us, is quite interesting :

The only appearance of the Guédé is enough to provoke fright on account of the funeral visions they evoke, also by their cynicism, their joviality and their sauciness, they temper the fear and the indistinct anxiety they provoke. Their arrival is always welcomed with delight by the audience. They are to be relied upon to introduce during the most solemn ceremonies a touch of cheerfulness. Their only nasal voice manages to create a comic effect, whereas it is an imitation of the Grim Reaper’s speaking. Their language is also from time to time unexpected. They twist the most common words or replace them by others whose connotations are filthy. (…) They have a wide repertory of obscene songs they sing with a silly look, their fingers raised whilst prolonging indefinitely some notes. Their favourite dance is the banda which is characterised by violent swaying walk and lascivious postures. In some houmfò [sanctuaries], an enormous wooden phallus is erected upon the Guédé’s altar in case the god would claim this attribute. The possessed that rig themselves of it out execute obscene dances or indulge into lewd jokes.

This symbolical polyvalence of the Guédé, both messengers of death and bearer of life cannot do without reminding us the carnival celebrations. We can find this ambivalence again in the portrait of Ezili Dantor, of which we said it was corresponding to the character of Kiki. In his outstanding work, Alfred MÉtraux fairly and precisely mentions, a ceremony he had requested in their honour : “One day when, with Lorgina’s intervention, I offered a great feast to the Guédé, those ones rushed up in crowd and danced joyfully until dawn. Among the guests, someone brought Guédé-caca, Guédé-entre-toutes, Pignatou-Guédé and Mrs Kikit[51] to my attention !”. Thus it would be a Guédé and carnivalesque goddess who, in Zadie Smith’s novel, would give Kiki her name.


4) The Vodún Reconstruction of the Meaning : Ritual Dynamics


These camouflaged cultural souvenirs of the Vodún pantheon shown, I am now going direct my examination to the Vodún dynamic of this novel, more strictly speaking. Zadie Smith did not indeed content herself with impregnating her characters with Haitian mythology : apparently she also tried to endow her text with ritual inflexions taken from Vodún practices. Of course, this Vodún ritualisation of the text is not strictly speaking explicit, but if we compare some characters’ peculiar behaviour—and more precisely Howard’s, not to name him—with Alfred MÉtraux’s description, we exactly realize in fact the religious impact and to mention it the initiation impact of the novel. That is where this text is deeply original, since it tries nevertheless to make Howard’s occidental loose living constructive by transposing it on the Vodún liturgy point of view. The first point we are going to examine is possession. It is a quite common phenomenon of the Vodún practice because it is the only way for this religion to exist : “[the] relationships between the invisible and the human are easy and constant at the same time. The loas communicate with their believers, either by revealing to them into a dream or as a human[52].” So much that “the possessions somewhat replace as it were the statuary and the imagery which are nearly missing to the Vodún. It is said in Haiti that loas are best known by watching the possessed ones[53].” These divine appearances take mainly place during the collective ceremonies which have been organised since the slave trade, hidden from profane sight. Without going into details—which would be too long and tedious—, we will paint a panorama which will be useful later as a reading grid. Like Alfred MÉtraux, we will first deal with the “phenomenon of the possession or of the trance whose role is fundamental in the Vodún[54].”

In its initial phase, the trance shows itself with symptoms of a clearly psychopathological nature. It reproduces in its broad outlines the clinical picture of the hysterical fit. The possessed first give the impression that they have lost the control of their motor system. (…) Sometimes these fits break out suddenly, some other times they approach with harbinger signs : distracted or anxious expression, slight shaking, gasping for breath, bead of sweat on their foreheads. Their faces take a nervous or sorrowful expression[55].

Now, Howard feels in a similar state during Carlene’s funerals under the effect not of sadness, but of the music and the fear of death[56] (286-288). Then Howard flees from the funerals to go to his father’s, a visit which is not only a failure, but throws himself into the memory of his mother Joan’s death, deceased forty-six years earlier (294). At that very moment, Howard goes to the Windmill Pub where he drinks a bottle of Cabernet and a pint of beer (305). Besides the narrator hastens to comment on : “It takes a lot of practice to ensure that a whole bottle of Cabernet and a pint of beer makes only a slight dent in your sobriety, but Howard felt he had reached this stage of accomplishment” (305, emphasis mine). Beforehand, during the celebration of their thirty years wedding anniversary, Howard had already drunk a lot (107). Therefore, he arrived rather tipsy at the Kippses’ where he seizes a glass of red wine again (307). Of course, it is quite possible to understand, in psychological terms, what must be really called Howard’s alcoholism : Claire’s neurotic example, of her “miserable childhood deprived of love” (224) composes moreover a pertinent counterpoint of it. But, to come back to our Vodún rites, the result is nonetheless interesting to notice since they involve a drunkenness phase[57] :

The state of possession lasts more or less during a long time, often only a few seconds when the subject is “made drunk”, that is to say slightly dizzy. (…) The ones that the possessed who make turn round by courtesy, just like the one who brings the hounsi their necklaces, generally are overcome by this slight drunkenness : they have been lightly touched by the loas whom they have approached[58].

Finally, it is in this advanced drunkenness that Howard will be lead to make love with Victoria, “already turned over on to her stomach, her head pressed against the bed as if an invisible hand were restraining her with a plan to suffocation” (316, emphasis mine). What kind of a hand is the one which holds Victoria back ? And why does the narrator feel bound to clarify that she is “invisible ?” We clearly see that in fact, in this surprising description an allusion to the supposition that Victoria would be handled by a supernatural intervention. That is the way Vodún trance and possession are when “the relation that exists between the loa and the human whom he grabbed hold on is compared to the one who links a rider to his mount. That is why it is said of the first one that he “rides” or “saddles” his chouval (horse)[59]”. Is Howard not standing astride Victoria, at that moment ? However whether Howard incarnate a Guédé or that Erzulie pretends to show up in the person of Victoria or Howard, this scene of trance is made obsolete—and in fact, deceptive—, by Victoria’s sexual over expressiveness, as well as Howard’s mediocre sexual capacities[60].

Finally another element—very miniscule—allows us as well to guess another Vodún dynamic at work in the novel : it is about an initiation process which is called réclusion (imprisonment) by the Vodún rituals. Explaining it in details would be useless, anyway Zadie Smith does not take it up again as it is. Nevertheless, it is a rather long and complex initiation process since it lasts one week, during which the applicants to the priesthood, the houngnò, follow a set of ceremonies and liturgical procedures in order to be consecrated hougan or mambo. The principle of the réclusion is simple : each houngnò has to choose the loa he wants to honour and to prepare himself to get in a special touch with it, by the way of the possession. “What happens, all doors closed, in the bedroom of réclusion (djévo) is a secret that no initiate is allowed to disclose[61]. (…) during the seven days of their reclusion, they [the novices] cannot move, laugh or speak without permission[62].” When this initiation ceremony is finished, “the initiates are in a state of weakness which exposes them to dangers of a supernatural order. They protect themselves against them by respecting the interdicts and by submitting to a quiet and pure existence : they do not work, they do not leave their dwelling places, they keep off the sun and the evening dew, abstain from pork, “cold” food and frozen drinks[63]”. If we had to sum up that ceremony, we could say that that is a moment of an extreme fragility when a spiritual metamorphosis, almost identical to the one which allows a caterpillar to become a butterfly, takes place. That is why this ceremony takes in a closed place, in order to protect the novices of any possible threat, hence the idea of imprisonment. Reproducing in a novel such a process would be both too artificial and really too tedious—Howard is not a Vodún monk ! —, but it is already surprising to find under Zadie Smith’s writing expressions relating to imprisonment and to prison environment, especially when it is about the University where culture and degrees are expected to improve the human, to open their minds and the new possible professional perspectives. Let us read what Levi thinks (407, emphasis mine) :

He felt the despondency universities had long inspired in him. He had grown up in them ; he had known the book stacks and storage cupboard and quad and spires and science blocks and tennis courts and plaque and statues. He felt sorry for the people who found themselves trapped in such arid surroundings. Even as a small child he was absolutely clear that he would never, ever enrol at one himself. In universities, people forgot how to live. Even in the middle of a music library, they had forgotten what music was.

Now, Howard put a lot into his academic career, to such a point that , in return he expects a vital protection and emotional safety (438, emphasis mine) :

Ten years in one place, without tenure, was a long time. His children were grown. They would soon leave. And the house, if it were to stay as it was, without Kiki, would be intolerable. It was in a university that he must now put all his remaining hope. Universities had been a home for him for over thirty years. He only needed one more : the final, generous institution to take him in his dotage and respect him.

An unbearable family, a shelter, and a jail : such is the paradoxical representation of the university that the novel develops. We can especially notice it when Victoria tries to revive Howard’s desire after his bitter failure at the faculty meeting (334, emphasis mine) : “in the grotty stairwell, the natural light came in through two grated windows in a manner both penal and atmospheric, reminding Howard, incongruously, of Venice.” This evocation of Venice recalls the debate we already mentioned earlier about love and the wedding : it finds here a conclusion that would be clarified just before the outcome, at the time of the spring-cleaning carried out by Kiki (424, emphasis mine) : “[t]he greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.” We also find an expression more complete of this family and academic confinement at the beginning of the novel, when Levi comes back from his work to intend his parents’ wedding anniversary (79, emphasis mine) :

He looked out with dread at Wellington as it began to manifest itself outside the grimy windows. The pristine white spires of the college seemed to him like the watchtowers of a prison to which he was returning. He sloped toward home, walking up the final hill, listening to his music. The fate of the young man in his headphones, who faced a jail cell that very night, did not seem such a world away from his own predicament : an anniversary full of academics.

Kiki also experiences this prison dimension of the family and of the university is also experimented by Kiki on the occasion of the Christmas and New Year holidays, when she hopes she will meet Carlene (264, emphasis mine) :

Many dull parties followed : for the Art History Department, drinks at the President’s house, and at Vice-President’s (...) This, after all, was the month in witch families began tightening and closing and sealing ; from thanksgiving to the New Year, everybody’s world contact, day by day, into the microcosmic single festive household, each with its own ritual and obsessions, rules and dreams. You didn’t feel you could call people. They didn’t feel they could phone you. How does one cry for help from these seasonal prisons ?

Regarding the notion of microcosm, we notice it implies that, in a second time, a projection of the “ritual and obsessions, rules and dreams” of the university and of the family, in brief, of jail, is possible over the whole universe, the macrocosm, to become an actual cosmogony.


From then, we can rediscover pretty religious examples of imprisonment in the whole novel. Just before meeting Carl again at the swimming pool—let us mention it again, Carl is the incarnation of the god Legba—here is how the narrator describes us the pool, from Zora’s viewpoint (130, emphasis mine) : “Up beyond the stadium seating, at the very top of this giant room, a glass wall let the autumn sun in and shot it across the room, like the searchlights in a prison yard.” In this comparison, the narrator assimilates the swimming pool to a prison. At last, during Howard’s inaugural lesson, the students flock in such quantity that the room is packed ; there are also “students lined up against the wall like prisoners waiting to be shot” (141, emphasis mine).

However, this imprisonment especially concerns Howard. Anyway, Zadie Smith emphasises him, at the end of her novel, by notably explaining how he reached such a level of weakness, after such a real-life experience of confinement. In fact, it dates back to his mother’s death, when he was ten years old (295, emphasis mine) : “he felt like he’d been sitting here with Harry these forty years, the both of them still tied up in the terrible incommunicable grief of Joan’s death.” We already know that Howard hates his father, but we also learn that what he abhors above all is the British middle-class’s way of life (308, emphasis mine) : “He had run from a potentially bourgeois English life straight into the arms of an actual American one—he saw that now—and, in the disappointment of the attempted escape, he had made other people’s live miserable.” So Howard has been retreated in the distress of his mother’s death for all that time, and the grief of this confinement carries on[64]. It is what we also notice on the occasion of the course he gives on Rembrandt’s painting, “Dr Nicolaes Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm, 1632” (144, emphasis mine) : “But today Howard felt himself caught in the painting’s orbit. He could see himself laid out on the that very table, his skin white and finished with the world, his arm cut open for students to examine.”

We can conclude from this analyze that Howard will have to wait for a meeting with the supreme woman-mother, Erzulie (as the figure of Victoria), to split from the confinement of his bereavement. Of course, the way Zadie Smith drew a metaphor of these two rituals of possession and imprisonment in her novel—like a real mambo priestess—puts any religious proselytism to an end, since the more operational they are in the novel, their univocity and their efficiency are not a matter of fact, as much by the deceptive side of the possession as its parodical dimension. Moreover, Alfred MÉtraux tells us that

At first sight, the richness of the ritual and the respect of the tradition “Africa-Guinea” which the priests claims to agree with would lead us to think that the Vodún is soiled with rigid formalism. In fact, there is nothing of the sort. A very wide margin is saved to the officiant’s imagination and he can always possibly introduce surprising and new details in the ceremonies he arranges, so long as he respects the general outlines. Each sanctuary has its own style which often reflects the personality of the hougan or the mambo who conducts it. According to the place where it takes place, the same ceremony will offer numerous variants. When we describe a Vodún ceremony, we must always take of this personal factor in account, in order not to give a detail a too general importance and significance it may not have[65].




Conclusion : the Transculturation, the Baroque Symbolic Renaissance


Up to now, I succeeded in assessing how Zadie Smith’s novel, far from limiting itself to a mere postmodern evocation of contingent and matrimonial anarchical and contradictory events, is not only a matter of a poetics of the baroque genre, derived from the European tradition, but is underlain as well by a carnivalesque dynamic of inversion straight drawn from the Vodún religion. More precisely, it is Erzulie’s tutelary feature which is the cause of this baroque aesthetic : whether it is by the systematic syncretism of the concordia discors it imposes, or as well by its carnivalesque reversal.

On that occasion, we saw that this novel was drawing its plots from major issues which the characters are confronted to, from the American intellectual circles, and to which they could not manage to find an answer : is affirmative action necessary or should it be blamed, is marriage a reliable commitment, what is the place for desire and sexuality in society—particularly as far as homosexuality is concerned—, is it legitimate to exploit financially our fellow creatures’ work ? To what extent can theory support real-life experience or, on the contrary, suffocate it… Finally, all these questions are crystallised in Carl’s mouth, on the occasion of his quarrel with Zora and Jerome, during this famous students’ party (418) :

But that’s a joke around here, man. People like me are just toys to people like you… I’m just some experiment for you to play with. You people aren’t even black any more, man—I don’t know what you are. You think you’re too good for your own people. You got your college degrees, but you don’t even live right. You people are all the same’, said Carl, looking down, addressing his words to his own shoes. ‘I need to be with my people, man—
I can’t do this no more.’ (...) ‘You so sure of yourself, you so superior’, she heard him splutter as he rang the doorbell. ‘All you people. I don’t know why I even got myself caught up with any of you, it can’t come to no good anyway.”

In fact, all these assertions support an issue, which is to know how we ought to behave if we really want to live like human beings. So it is a serious crisis of the American values—and more generally Occidental—which this novel invites us to, crisis to which it tries precisely to find an answer by the means of a popular culture : the Haitian culture. We hope we managed to show sufficiently how the Vodún mythology succeeded in giving meaning and cohesion back, where division and insoluble contradictions only appeared to the Westerners’ eyes. From this standpoint, Zadie Smith’s approach is quite special—and to be honest, rather sophisticated—which makes us attend a real dream of transculturation, a phenomenon fully examined by Fernando Ortiz in his anthropological work, Cuban Counterpoint : Tobacco and Sugar :

Entendemos que el vocablo transculturación expresa mejor las diferentes fases del proceso transitivo de una cultura a otra, porque éste no consiste solamente en adquirir una distinta cultura, que es lo que en rigor indica la voz angloamericana acculturation, sino que el proceso implica también necesariamente la pérdida o desarraigo de una cultura precedente, lo que pudiera decirse una parcial desculturación, y, además, significa la consiguiente creación de nuevos fenómenos culturales que pudieran denominarse de neoculturación. Al fin, como bien sostiene la escuela de Malinowski, en todo abrazo de culturas sucede lo que en la cópula genética de los individuos : la criatura siempre tiene algo de ambos progenitores, pero también siempre es distinta de cada uno de los dos[66].

In his introduction to the Counterpoint, Bronislav Malinowski is even more explicit :

[L]o esencial del proceso que se quiere significar no es una pasiva adaptación a un standard de cultura fijo y definido. Sin duda, una oleada cualquiera de inmigrantes de Europa en América experimenta cambios en su cultura originaria ; pero también provoca un cambio en la matriz de la cultura receptiva. (…) Todo cambio de cultura, o como diremos desde ahora en lo adelante, toda transculturaciÓn, es un proceso en el cual siempre se da algo a cambio de lo que se recibe ; es un « toma y daca », como dicen los castellanos. Es un proceso en el cual emerge una nueva realidad, compuesta y compleja ; una realidad que nos es una aglomeración mecánica de caracteres, ni siquiera un mosaico, sino un fenomeno nuevo, original e independente[67].

It is actually thanks to the intervention of the whole Vodún pantheon that Howard will set himself back on his foot in his American reality again, by the apparent failure of his academic career, at the occasion of his sabbatical year which allows him in practice to reach his rebirth among his kin. Kiki being away, he is the one who takes care of his children and his house—in a quite motherly introjection—which allows him to finally adapt to reality : at the end of the novel, he sweats, uses a cell phone and eventually drives his car. This rebirth also allows him to restore their intrinsic meaning to the works of art, but above all their emotional power—with the final Rembrandt’s painting, ‘Hendrickje Bathing, 1654’—, and thus to accede again
—amorously, it goes without saying—to Kiki’s fondness.
It is the transculturation of the Haitian popular values that allows Howard to become at last humane. It is also evoked by Claire Malcolm—in a sibylline way[68]—in a nevertheless significant moment : when she has an argument with Howard, during his wedding anniversary (120), before Kiki catches her in the act “one of her fingers thoughtlessly, drunkenly, slip under a gap in his shirt to his skin [of Howard]”, which will cause an open crisis in their couple. For us, this transculturation of the Haitian mythology is done by the characters of the younger generation like Zora and Levi. It is also symbolised by the character of Tchou, who survives by hawking imitations in the streets. Aware of the cultural and financial value of the painting of Erzulie, he organises its theft from Monty Kipps’s office with Levi’s complicity. The Kipps’s attempt of despoiling being thus thwarted, then Kiki plans, in agreement with Erzulie’s values of “perpetual help, goodwill, (…) and fortune” (175) to sell this painting and to give the money of its sale to the “Haitian Support Group”. Now, the conditions in which Levi nicknames his Haitian friend ‘Tchou’ seems to us the least unconfirmed : it is true that this poor and puny Haitian is attached the first name ‘Chouchou’ (243), but it is all the more disquieting that the author of this symbolical restoring of the painting of Erzulie should be a French teacher whose nickname corresponds to the name of an old Paris publisher, well known and specialised in art books and psychoanalytical works publishing (Les éditions Tchou). Thus Tchou plays the role of a symbolic bridge—almost like a suture stitch, in the Lacanian sense of the termbetween aesthetic and imaginary values on the one hand, and its moral and financial values on the other hand ; even more : he dishoards them …

Finally, through her carnivalesque aesthetic, Zadie Smith does not indulge to any religious proselytism, but broaches the Vodún forms of worship in terms of a popular mythology, as Moses I. Finley did with the Greek pantheon in his study The World of Odysseus. From an almost anthropological viewpoint, such an attitude is really outstanding for its fecundity : the Vodún is not shown as a religion to revere, but as an available set of values and moral references likely to revive the human being in his dignity and to make his society more fitter to live in and fairer-minded. Thanks to Erzulie, the fundamental values of the human dignity are in fact reintroduced : the right to the “discord [on the one hand], and, on the other hand, [to] love, perpetual help, goodwill, health, beauty and fortune” (175). As many values that the Haitian people managed to keep up throughout its history in spite of the numerous trials it is constantly facing, and that Claire Malcolm managed as well to detect in the nature and the popular roots of her discretionary student Chantelle. It is all the more noteworthy that originally, the religion of the Haitian Vodún be a popular traditionin fact a creationwhich is characterized by a humanizing anthropomorphism :

Mythology, in the narrow sense of the term, has been lowered to the level of do-it-yourself, of village gossips ; it concerns less in the spirits’ personal life than their relationships with their believers. It is a practical and utilitarian religion which cares more about the matters of the ground than the Heavens’ ones. (…) In other words, Vodún mythology is constantly enriched by the stories of divine interventions in the human matters, interventions that, in fact, are ‘acted’ by temporary actors. (…)

The difference is minimal between the supernatural society of the loas and the Haitian peasantry, which imagined it. The spirits are distinguished from the human beings only by their extensive ‘knowledge’ or, what comes to the same thing, by their power. All are characters of the soil that share the tastes, the habits and the passions with their believers. They are like those ones, food lovers, crafty, bawdy, touchy, jealous and prone to violent fits of rage quick dissipated ; they love or hate each other, see each other quite a lot or avoid one another as the people living in a hamlet would do. When they revealed themselves by the means of possession, their behaviour in public is not always what would be expected from supernatural beings. They happen to speak coarsely, to swear, to drink excessively, to quarrel with other loas, to beg, or to play schoolboys tricks[69].

Therefore On Beauty is a novel in which we can observe the surpassing of the impasses of an Occidental and lost mentality, by means of a popular wisdom, self-evident and discreet : the one of the Haitian people.








Novels :

Smith, Zadie, On Beauty, London, Penguin, 2006.

Depestre, René, Hadriana dans tout mes rêves, Paris, Gallimard, 1988.


Critical works :

Bakhtine, Mikhaïl, L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Tel », 1982, rééd. 2003.

Curtius, Ernst Robert, La littérature européenne et le Moyen Âge Latin, Paris, PUF, 1956 ; rééd. Presses Pocket, coll. “Agora”, 1991.

Gibert, Bertrand, Le baroque littéraire français, Paris, Armand Colin, coll. “ Collection U ”, 1997.

Le Bourg-OulÉ, Anne-Marie, Roi d’un jour, Paris, Albin Michel, coll. « Bibliothèque Histoire », 1996.

MoliniÉ, Georges, Du roman grec au roman baroque – Un art majeur du genre narratif en France sous Louis XIII, Toulouse, Centre de Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le-Mirail, 1982.

Ors (d’), Eugène, Du Baroque, Paris, Gallimard, 1935 ; rééd. 2000.

Rousset, Jean, La littérature de l’âge baroque en France, Circé et le paon, Paris, Corti, 1953.

Soulier, Didier, La littérature baroque en Europe, Paris, P.U.F., 1988.


Ethnogaphical works :

MÉtraux, Alfred, Le vaudou haïtien, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Tel », 1977, rééd. 2007.

Ortiz, Fernando, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar, Madrid, Ediciones Cátedra, 2002.

[1] Atibon Lgegba, open me the gate, agoe !

Father-Legba open me the gate

So that I can come inside

When I go back, I will hail the loas

Vodún Legba, open me the gate

So that I enter ;

When I go back, I will hail the loas, Abobo (MÉtraux, 2007, p. 88, we translate).

[2] MoliniÉ, 1982, p. 20-21.

[3] Ors (d’), Eugène, Du Baroque, Paris, Gallimard, 1935 ; rééd. 2000.

[4] Gibert, Bertrand, Le baroque littéraire français, Paris, Armand Colin, 1997, coll. “ Collection U ”.

[5] Wölfflin, Heinrich, Principes fondamentaux de l’histoire de l’art, Paris, Plon, 1952 ; rééd. Gérard Montfort, 1986.

— Renaissance et baroque, Paris, Le livre de poche, 1967, rééd. Gérard Montfort, 1988.

[6] Rousset, Jean, La littérature de l’âge baroque en France, Circé et le paon, Paris, Corti, 1953.

[7] Curtius, Ernst Robert, La littérature européenne et le Moyen Âge Latin, Paris, PUF, 1956 ; rééd. Presses Pocket, coll. “Agora”, 1991.

[8] On that subject, see Anne-Marie Le Bourg-OulÉ, Roi d’un jour, Paris, Albin Michel, coll. « Bibliothèque Histoire », 1996, p. 87-111.

[9] It can be recognized particularly in the twelfth century, in the courtly poetry that falls within the province of obscure inspiration of the trobar clus, of which the troubadour Marcabru was a master. Pierre Bec, in his Anthologie des troubadours (Paris, U.G.E 10/18, coll. « Bibliothèque médiévale », 1979, rééd. 1994), specifies on the matter that “its production is difficult because it is based a lot on a popularizing heritage which is beyond our knowledge, into a wide proportion” (p. 88, emphasis mine).

[10] Bakhtine, Mikhaïl, L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Tel », 1982, rééd. 2003.

[11] Gibert, 1997, p. 207, emphasis mine : “Its success (the satire’s), is linked to the taste, typical of the baroque mentality of the reversal”. The only weakness of the work by Bertrand Gibert—excellent in other respects—is that he only evokes on an ad hoc basis this reversal dynamic, while he does not clearly establish his popular sources, and that much before the religious wars (cf. 3. The Crucible of Conditions, p. 67-68). If he specifies that the Classical Age worked for the “repression of all the forms of disorder”, he noted a little further (p. 76) that “the court entertainment (…) is originally a gentry’s pleasure : it presents the court’s events as he searches for the equivalents of the Farce and of the Carnival” (emphasis mine).

[12] We find there again Levi’s emphasis on the means of subsistence of the Haitian refugees who live in Boston and Wellington.

[13] Let us notice, by the way, the tumultuous opening of the novel, by a revival of the epistolary genre, with the three electronic mails sent by Jerome to his father, announcing him his adventurous affair with Victoria.

[14] Soulier, Didier, La littérature baroque en Europe, Paris, P.U.F., 1988, p. 248, we translate and underline.

[15] Smith, Zadie, On Beauty, London, Penguin, 2006.

[16] “This medieval turn to the conversation was too much for Howard (38)”, from which a situation comedy ...

[17] Emphasis mine. Note that in this dialogue, narrative commentaries have the role of real stage directions.

[18] When Claire tries to prompt the slammer Carl to a reflexion on his own poetic practice, she cannot help thrusting at him, in a quite abrupt way, a general survey of versification, explaining to him that “was made. Iambs, spondees, trochees, anapaests (259).”

[19] “A lot of time she felt the professor to be speaking a different language from the one she has spent sixteen years refining. After the third class she went back to her dorm and cried. She cursed her stupidity and her youth (250, emphasis mine).” For an illustration in a context of the obscurity of the criticism language, we shall report to the lesson that Howard teaches on the drawing Seated Nude (251-253).

[20] “But nothing in French’s armoury of baroque sentences seemed sufficient for dealing with a girl who used language like an automatic weapon (146).”

[21] To such an extent that the description of the quarrel scene at the Kipps’, in London, the narrator is more specific in the original text : “Then the tableau came to life” (39, emphasis mine).

[22] Emphasis mine.

[23] Ors (d’), 2000, p. 93, we translate : « the absolute baroque painter is Rembrandt : baroque because he proceeds from Luther, because exalts individual life ; because he’s sustained by a sense of responsibility, an ethical sense ; since he introduces inner life into religion, finally because amidst all the artists from the North, he is certainly the one who to owes the least to classical Italy …” What draws Eugène d’Ors’ attention above all, is “the atmospheric tenderness” of Rembrandt’s paintings (p. 94).

[24] Ors (d’), 2000, p. 65, we translate and underline.

[25] Gibert, 1997, p. 34, we translate.

[26] MoliniÉ, 1982, p. 137, we translate and underline.

[27] Le Bourg-OulÉ, 1996, p. 88, we translate.

[28] Bakhtine, 2003, p. 18-19, we translate and underline. It is particularly interesting to notice that the carnivalesque reversal is the only symbolical mode which allows to project utopia into Reality. By this way, it is the only solution for the characters of Zadie Smith’s novel to succeed in reconciling and mending thought with reality.

[29] Bakhtine, 2003, p. 44, we translate and underline.

[30] Bakhtine, 2003, p. 19-21. Therefore it is important to keep in mind that what the baroque carnivalesque reversal pursues is to implement a call into question of the world and its values in order to give rise to other ones. The parody it carries out does not only aim a playful purposes, and its objective is not the least the elaboration of a conceptual and ethereal universe.

[31] Since the beginning of this passage, the narrator has very clearly announced, in internal focalization : “He was feeling absolutely nothing. Not even guilt, not even lust (379).” Then the latter will slip away at the last minute exclaiming : “I’m sorry I can’t do this (382) !”

[32] It is in any case what Carlene explains, page 96 : “Men move with their mind, and women must move with their bodies, whether we like it or not. That’s God intended it—That is what I have always believed so strongly.”

[33] Gibert, 1997, p. 64, we translate.

[34] Gibert, 1997, p. 110-111, we translate and underline.

[35] Paris, 2001, Honoré Champion, coll. « Dictionnaires et Références », we translate and underline.

[36] We are resolutely, here, on the side of the hypotyposis.

[37] The reader may has noticed the inversion of the traditional order : blazon VS counterblazon.

[38] In the Vodún mythology, Baron Samedi belongs to the Guédé family who “are not ‘Dead’, but Spirits of the same nature than the others, whose activities and functions are a matter for Death” (MÉtraux, 2007, p. 99, we translate). “Baron Samedi, Baron-La-Croix, Baron-Cimetière, Guédé-nibo and Mrs Brigitte are the very much in the public eye representatives of this dreadful family. The ‘Barons’ shape a sort of so close-knit triad that we do not know whether they are distinct divinities or the three sides of the same divinity. The popular imagination attributes to Baron Samedi the appearance of undertaking business” (MÉtraux, 2007, p. 100, we translate).

[39] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 97-99, we translate.

[40] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 78, we translate.

[41] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 78, we translate : “As for the ones who receive the epithet ‘red-eyed’, they are, without exception, harmful spirits and cannibals. Let us remind ourselves that the redness of the eyes is a distinguishing feature of the werewolves.” When Levi calls to Tchou, that one is also red-eyed …

[42] Let us remind ourselves that Carlene’s cancer prevents her from walking and makes her take, beside her chemotherapy, “painkillers, of the kind only hospitals can prescribe” (277).

[43] This proliferation of Erzulie’s incarnations in the novel sets an other matter : the one of a possible derivation of of the feminine characters’ first names. The reader may have noticed it, in fact there is a very strong phonetic closeness—not to say a family tie—between the feminine character’s first names : Carlene, Caroline (the dreadfully beautiful, Erskine’s cold and noble wife, a lawyer), with the reversed first name : Claire… right up to its masculine form, with Carl ! Then the question of the roots of Kiki’s nickname arises, but we will come back to it later.

[44] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 80, we translate.

[45] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 89, we translate.

[46] On this issue, see MÉtraux, 2007, p. 29-31. The way with which this Vodún thematics of the crossroads is applied to rap music is to say the least original, accompanied by the injunction of the price to pay. There it seems that it is not as much of Vodún offering—which are always in food or sacrifices form—as a rather subtle manner to link, in a contradictory way, once again, the matter of the money as cultural practices, whether they be urban or academic …

[47] Indeed Zadie Smith’s novel includes many precise references to William Shakespeare’s work. While Kiki’s exclamation is taken from the famous passage in Hamlet (Act 1 scene V) after it is said that “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”, Kiki uses this quotation in order not to be deeply concerned by a deleterious situation, but on the contrary, to be delighted with her children’s supernatural encounter.

[48] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 129-132, we translate.

[49] Carl will not come back in the rest of the novel.

[50] See above, page 11.

[51] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 101, we translate and underline.

[52] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 106, we translate.

[53] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 81, we translate.

[54] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 106, we translate.

[55] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 107, we translate and underline.

[56] From the Requiem to the Ave verum by Mozart, music plays an important role of emotional catalyst in this novel, like the music during the Vodún ceremonies. We especially notice the importance of the choir singing. Furthermore, it is at that moment of the novel that the theme of death appears heavily, as Carlen’s burial arose anxiety and oppression.

[57] This inebriation also refers to the first award of the Slam contest won by Carl, at the bus Stop : “Bring on the poetry. I love that … Now : tonight it’s up to y’all who wins—we got a jeroboam of champagne—yeah, thank you, Mr Wellington, there’s your vocabulary word-for-the-day—a jeroboam of champagne, which basically means a whole lot of alcohol (222, emphasis mine).” So alcohol plays an undeniable festive and Dionysiac role in this novel. However, it is not without reason that the Master of Ceremonies insists on this expression Jeroboam of Champagne : we must say that the use of this phrase in literature is quite exceptional. From an intertextual point of view, the evocation of a “jeroboam of champagne” allows us to establish a direct link with the novel by René Depestre, Hadriana in all my Dreams, where the heroine finally manages to get away from the zombification cast on her by a hougan who had imprisonned her good angel (her spirit) in an empty jeroboam : “As for you, Madam, in view of your beauty as far as your nobility, you will be locked up into this ancient jeroboam of champagne. It belonged to the cellar of a Norwegian king of baroque times” (we translate and underline). So far from being a mere gratification, Carl’s victory, with his jeroboam as a prize, forecasts his manipulating by the other characters : “People like me are just toys to people like you (418)”. This final protest also constitutes an inversion of the novel by René Depestre because it is not a woman (Hadriana) but a man (Carl) who is under a white teacher’s spell, not a black hougan’s one.

[58] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 109, we translate.

[59] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 106, we translate. It is nevertheless possible that the erotic exaggeration played by Victoria would not be a mere trance but an ironic parody of the contemporaneous pornography.

[60] However, it is possible to interpret this sexual intercourse scene differently. In fact, this scene is an actual initiation rite for Victoria : from the Lolita girl she was, she suddenly rises to the woman’s and mother’s status (see the “maternal kiss” she gives Howard, at the end of the excerpt, 318). Now, it is not insignificant that her attainment of the sexual maturity happens during her mother’s funeral watch. In her excellent work devoted to the matrifocality in Guadeloupe (I’m the mother, I’m the father !, thesis of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, January 2000), Stéphanie Mulot explains very well that as long as her mother is alive, a young mother cannot reach the rank of a woman nor of a mother, at least as long as she has not confided her child to her mother’s care. Thus, “a woman just remains her mother’s daughter, without really being the mother of hers until the day when her own daughter, by leaving a child, will procure her an actual maternity.” As Victoria has no child to offer Carlene, she can only take advantage of her mother’s death in order to become a woman in her turn : “Look, I hate to be cheesy, but it’s true : Jerome’s lovely, but he’s a boy, Howard. I need a man right now (318)”.

[61] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 178, we translate.

[62] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 178, we translate.

[63] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 188, we translate.

[64] On this subject, it is important to notice that the question of the social confinement is generated by the mother’s death which gives structure to the whole novel because the disclosure of Howard’s bereavement (295) follows Carlene’s death (276) which itself makes echo to Kiki’s mother’s (364).

[65] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 141, we translate.

[66] Ortiz, 2002, p. 260, we translate : “We consider that the term of transculturation better expresses the various stages of the process of the transition from a culture to another, because it does not only consist in acquiring a separate culture, what strictly speaking, conveys the Anglo-American term acculturation, but because it also forcing implies the loss or the uprooting of a previous culture, what could be qualified as a partial loss of cultural identity, and the later creation of a new cultural phenomena which could be called neoculturation. Finally, as the Malinowsky’s School upholds rightly, in all cultural mixing the same thing happens as in the genetic copulation of two people : the human being has something from his two parents, but is also always different from both of them.”

[67] Ortiz, 2002, p.125, we translate : “Indeed, the essence itself of the process we want to name is not a passive adaptation to a standard of fixed and precise culture .Undoubtedly, any wave of European immigrants in America experiments changes in its native culture, but it also produces changes in its welcoming culture. The German, the Italian, the Polish, the Irish, the Spanish always bring to the American peoples, when they emigrate, something of their culture, of their eating habits, of their popular music, of their languages, their traditional songs, of their superstitions, of their ideas and of their temper characteristics. Each change of culture or, as we will say henceforth, each TRANSCULTURATION is a process in which something is given in return for what is received ; it is, as the expression means it, “it is only fair”. It is a process in which both parts of the equation get modified. A process in which a new reality, composite and complex emerges, a reality which is not a mechanical hotchpotch of nature, nor even a medley, but a new phenomenon, original and independent.”

[68] “All your silly ideological battles …’ she said, (…) ‘You both know they don’t really matter. The country’s got bigger fish to fry now. Bigger ideas,’ she whispered, ‘are afoot. Aren’t they ? Sometimes, I don’t even know why I stay here.” This last question strangely recalls Carl’s final interrogation …

[69] MÉtraux, 2007, p. 81-83, we translate.

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