Identity within post-Apartheid South Africa: An existential dilemma

Identity within post-Apartheid South Africa is conceptualised by an existential dilemma arising from the transition into a democratic South Africa from a colonial and Apartheid past. Here, the very notion of (South) African identity in relation to this past is fraught with existential paradox – while reconstructed in relation to the ‘new’ South Africa it cannot be removed from its colonial and Apartheid history. The following essay will discuss the nature and existential dilemma of being a contemporary South African citizen with regard to my identity as an intentional/unintentional ‘bearer of the past’.

In his speech entitled I am an African, delivered to National Assembly on 8 May 1996 during a debate on the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, addressed the cultural, religious, historical, and linguistic diversities of (South) African identity. His speech, delivered in the form of an elegiac poem, praised the diverse identities which construct the post-Apartheid South African milieu, and has in it the suggestion that South African identity is one which is formulated within the context of a myriad of origins and histories which have constructed the present. This conceptualisation of identity as existing in relation to the past can be conceptualised within the philosophical framework of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘dialogism’. According to Bakhtin, one’s identity is dialogic as it is constructed in relation to others as well as to the past and exists in a perpetual ‘dialogue’ with that which serves to inform it (Bahktin, 1981). Thus political identity within the contemporary South African context exists in relation to the Apartheid past, which has direct bearing on the construction of identity within the present. While having been born in 1992 just as Apartheid was reaching its end, I have little recollection of having lived under the Apartheid regime. However, I have been witness to the repercussions of a long history of racialised oppression within the contemporary South African context, which is a chronically unequal society, divided along racial lines – a reflection of the Apartheid past which saw the political, economic, and social discrimination of people based on racial categorisation. The manifestation of this on my political identity as a ‘white’ South African citizen is that I have inherited certain privileges by virtue of being ‘white’ that people of colour have not. Peggy McIntosh, in her article, White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack (1990), conceptualises this notion of ‘white privilege’ as advantages that ‘white’ people experience that people of colour do not which function like an “invisible package of unearned assets” (31). In my personal life this has manifested in my (unearned) social status – where I am positioned toward the top of the hierarchy of social status, trumped only by ‘white’ men. Because of this, I have been able to access certain job opportunities, particularly in sales positions as I am perceived as being not only ‘trust-worthy’ but also attractive, according to a Westernised standard of beauty. Here, the implication of this is that my physical appearance and my perceived social identity is ‘good enough’ to associate with particular brands. Added to this, is the language I speak and how I sound when I speak – I have never been required to adopt any other language besides my mother tongue and because of my eloquence in speaking and writing in a high-status language (English) I have been afforded opportunities above others and regarded as being ‘intelligent’ solely on account of being able to express myself in an ‘eloquent’ manner.

While I aspire to the lofty ideal of an ‘equal’ South Africa, I realise the impossibility of ‘moving on’ from the past, as the past permeates into the present and is in continual dialogue with it. The tragedy of my experience in contemporary South Africa is that because of my identity being historically linked to that of the oppressor, I am made to bear responsibility for the Apartheid past by virtue of having a ‘white’ skin, despite never personally being a part of the Apartheid regime and being too young at the time to have a significant impact on the world, let alone conceptualise the insidiousness of its nature. In this way, I bear the burden of the sins of my forebearers. I cannot exist in the space of contemporary South Africa without serving as a reminder of the brutality of the past, my ‘white’ skin reflects the history of colonialism, the language I speak serves as a stark reminder of the imposition of European culture and the privileging of its idiosyncrasies above those of others belonging to cultures considered to be of ‘less worth’. This being said, I cannot consciously allow myself to take responsibility for the atrocities of the Apartheid past, as this is a particularly psychologically harmful position to occupy on account of the immense amount of guilt associated with it. However, I do acknowledge the injustices of the present which are as a direct result of the past and to an extent I do feel very guilty for the privileges I have and the suffering of others as I know that the social structure of contemporary South Africa is a mirror to Apartheid.

The conceptualisation of the term ‘African’ is contentious as it is defined differently amongst different people. Strictly speaking, ‘Africans’ are the natural people of Africa emerging from the Motherland of Africa, whether people on the African continent or their descendants in the Diaspora. By this definition, no one is an African unless they can also be considered a ‘black’ person, but not every ‘black’ person is an African. This conceptualisation is contentious as it excludes people whose ancestry is not ‘African’ according to the strict interpretation of the definition but who still identify as culturally ‘African’ and do not identify with their historical culture or that of their forebearers. Such people have adopted an ‘African’ identity despite not being ‘African’ in the strict conceptualisation of the word. Perhaps the place to begin to conceptualise an understanding of identity within South Africa is the Constitution, which defines the Republic of South Africa as “one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values… human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms…” (Section 1 (a)) and asserts that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in […] diversity” (Preamble). The Constitution affirms a notion of national unity that deliberately seeks to challenge the politics of separation that had become the cornerstone of the Apartheid regime. However, the notion of South Africa “belonging to all who live in it” is an impossible ideal as South Africa ‘belongs’ increasingly to “the few who can access the instruments of democratisation, the few who benefit from resilient colonial and apartheid patterns of privilege [and] the few who can feed from the troughs of patronage, protection and graft” (Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2015, p. 7). Here, the elusive ideal of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ is corroding. The notion of ‘South African’ then is problematic, as firstly, there is no consensus as to which persons can be classified according to this construct and secondly, the notion of a ‘national identity’ itself is fraught with idiosyncratic problems on account of the sheer amount of diversity within the nation. According to Benedict Anderson, “the nation is imagined in the sense that notions of citizenship and belonging to a broader community allow for the creation of boundaries that are very often more symbolic than physical realities (Anderson, 2006, p. 324)”. Thus the notion of a South African national identity is an imagined ideal, constructed within the context of a colonial and Apartheid past. While I might not be racially ‘African’ in terms of the way I physically look, I feel that I am South African as I identify with South African culture and not the culture of any other nation-group. In post-Apartheid South Africa, the characterisation of ‘South African’ identity is constantly changing and undergoing reconstruction.

I feel that as a History and English educator, I have a significant responsibility toward implementing change within the conceptualisation of race in South Africa. The manner in which the History of a particular people or culture is taught is particularly significant as the history of a people or culture affects the way one conceptualises that people or culture within the present and has a bearing on the very self-esteem of persons who identify with that particular history. Additionally, history has in the past and continues to be used as an ideological tool, to imbue particular values into learners – in particular, the agenda of the post-Apartheid administration has been to imbue the values of non-racialism, thus the curriculum is structured to include histories which are able to showcase and impart these values. As an English teacher, while I recognise the colonial history and violence associated with teaching a (colonial) language, I also see the nature of the subject as a particularly valuable vehicle by which to achieve change. Here, the texts which learners are exposed to are in a significant way, able to shape their paradigms. In particular, I personally like to challenge canonical literature and hegemonic views (particularly those which are oppressive) through literature. However, I do think that the English curriculum has a long way to go before it is truly inclusive and decolonised.

Despite the histories and pasts which inform the present, identity within post-Apartheid South Africa is being reimagined and reconceptualised, and perhaps education remains the best vehicle for change.



Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Bahktin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination. (M. Holquist, Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mbeki, T. (1996). I am an African. Cape Town.

McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49(2).


Textbooks, Power, Ideology in the South African History classroom

The formal teaching and learning environment represents an institutionalised medium through which children “acquire socially approved values and attitudes” (Dean, Hartmann, & Katzen, 1983, p. 13). Within the teaching and learning environment, the study of History is a particularly potent means of transmitting values, especially where the interpretation of the past is used in the construction of an understanding of the present (Dean, Hartmann, & Katzen, 1983, p. 13). Textbooks, as a medium of instruction within the formal teaching and learning environment, are capable of “both reflecting and transmitting dominant social values” (Dean, Hartmann, & Katzen, 1983, p. 13) and knowledge as they act as an “officially sanctioned version of knowledge and culture” (Engelbrecht, 2006, p. 2). University of Pretoria researcher and historian, Professor Charles van Onselen considers the textbook “a playground for ideologues and politicians” (Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 14) on account of the ideological and political influences on the construction of knowledge within textbooks – particularly within History textbooks. Similarly, critical educational theorist, Michael W. Apple views the textbook as an instrument designed to give legitimacy to particular forms of knowledge which function in the interests of those who hold power within society. He is particularly critical of what he and others refer to as the “hidden curriculum” – that which contributes to and perpetuates the reproduction of ideologies that support existing structurally based inequalities (Apple, 2004, p. 34). Therefore, while the textbook is formally a medium for the transmission of educational content, it is also an ideological instrument of the state which presents a “limited and particular perspective in order to perpetuate and entrench the existing hegemony” (Chernis, 1990, p. xxiv).

Moreover, the textbook can be understood to pass on “sociocultural inheritance” through the “encoding of language and images” (Morgan, 2011, p. iv), as it serves to capture the zeitgeist of the education system’s epistemological foundation in terms of its curricula and pedagogical orientation through its representation of the past. The representation of a group’s past is often intimately connected with its identity – who ‘we’ are (and who we are not) as well as who ‘they’ are, a romanticised view of ‘nation’ and the distorted image of the ‘Other’ (Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 520; Williams, 2014, p. vii). A “nation,” according to Benedict Anderson (2006) is an “imagined political community” (6): imagined because although most of the members of the community will never meet directly, they maintain affinity to each other through shared history or symbols. Notably, Anderson established a connection between print media and the development of nation-states. Media, as that of the textbook, is a manner in which to popularise the ‘nation’ – its history and its leaders – as well as to ‘educate’ citizens and “cultivate a sense of national identity” (Chisholm, 2008, p. 354). Education, can thus be viewed as not only a manner in which to impart the “officially sanctioned version of knowledge and culture” (Engelbrecht, 2006, p. 2) but also to develop “faithful supporters of the society” (Thomas, 1990, p. 26) and achieve “national unity or political reconciliation in societies marked by political or cultural diversity” (Eckstein, 1985, p. 857).

Interestingly, within the South African context, historical narratives presented within school History textbooks were used to both validate and legitimise white supremacy during the Apartheid era as well as foster the reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa, illustrating that historical and cultural influences shape national reforms, and that power relationships play an important role in the social construction of knowledge. As Foucault (1995) writes, “power and knowledge directly imply one another; there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (27). This relationship is seen wherein history was used to validate the social and political structure of the Apartheid regime. During the Apartheid era, an officially sanctioned historiographic mythology was propagated by History textbooks as instruments of hegemonic ideology (da Cruz, 2005, p. 2). Here, the History textbook served as a powerful tool for the legitimation of the white supremacy (da Cruz, 2005, p. 80; Dean et al., 1983, p. 17). The tenents of the Apartheid education system under Christian National Education (CNE) were founded on a historiography that promoted traditional Afrikaner values and Afrikaner nationalism, thus developing and “excessively ‘White-centred’ view” (Cross, 1986, p. 186) of history. During the Apartheid era, the positive influence of ‘whites’ – particularly ‘white’ Afrikaners was emphasised within school History textbooks and “differences between whites and so-called ‘non-whites’ were highlighted to establish a more favourable disposition for the ‘white’ ‘in-group’ (Engelbrecht, 2006, p.2)” in order to justify and legitimise the Apartheid system.

The rewriting of South African History textbooks after the democratic elections of 1994 became a tool to counter the excessively ‘white-centred’ historical narratives which were perpetuated within Apartheid historiography as well as to aide in the reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa. The focal point of South African historiography up until now has been to reverse the colonial portrayal of Africans and the Eurocentric paradigm within textbooks (Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 519). Previous Minister of Education Kader Asmal (2004) conceptualised this new reconciliatory task of South African history wherein he described Apartheid history as the history written by the hunter, an announced that it was now time to hear the history of the lion:


The lion, we have always hoped, will one day have its day … The lion will one day rise up and write the history of Africa. We know, very well, the kinds of histories that have been written by the hunter. Those books only serve the hunter’s interests … We now want to hear the lion’s story. We now want to hear the lion’s roar. (2)


In his metaphor for the historiography of South Africa, Asmal calls for the replacement of the “history of the hunter” with the “lions roar,” suggesting that a process of Africanisation should be undertaken to replace the Eurocentric ‘white’ historiography. According to Engelbrecht (2008), Africanisation, which entails the replacing of the Eurocentric content of the previous curriculum with Africa-related contents, has resulted in the perpetuation of a new officially sanctioned historiographic mythology (Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 519). This suggests that despite the effort to redress the historical distortions of the past, one dominant perspective has been replaced for another dominant perspective – namely, Afrikaner nationalist ideology for an African nationalist ideology and that history is “again serving an ideological objective by striving to establish a single, simplistic perspective on the past” (Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 519). This undermines the tenent of a post-colonial approach to history which asserts that there is no single ‘Truth’ or grand narrative only multiple ‘truths’ or perspectives. This presents the challenge for History educators to carefully consider the use of the textbook within the South African classroom by critically assessing any knowledge which claims the “status of a master narrative, fixed identities and an objective representation of reality (Morgan, 2010, p.300)” and to be conscious of the way in which textbooks can serve to counteract and discourage modes of learning which seek to challenge these assertions – that is when textbooks “present knowledge as something dogmatic and […] undermine the exercise of a critical understanding” (Wain, 1992, p. 39).

This consideration is particularly pertinent within the South African classroom where textbooks are of particular significance as they play a crucial role in teaching and learning in schools where many classrooms are constrained by limited resources. Within these under-resourced teaching and learning environments, educators and learners often have limited or no access to any other educational media or sources of historical knowledge other than that which is contained within the textbook (Ball, 2006, p. 27; Morgan & Henning, 2011, p. 169; Morgan, 2011, p. iv). Textbooks in under-resourced teaching and learning environments form an extension of the curriculum as they provide educators with much of the scaffolding to deliver what the curriculum requires (Johannesson, 2002, p.89). Quality textbooks and learning materials are therefore critical in assisting educators within these under-resourced teaching and learning environments. Minister of Basic Education, Angelina Motshekga, highlighted the importance of the textbook as an educational tool within South African schools wherein she opined that “the textbook is the most effective tool to ensure consistency, coverage, appropriate pacing and better quality instruction” (Motshekga, 2009). While quality textbooks and learning materials can improve the quality of teaching and learning, using textbooks as the sole source of historical information can have negative consequences on account of the percieved immutible authority of the textbook by learners. Here, as previously discussed, the textbook can not be viewed simply as a medium for the transmission of educational content, but also needs to be considered as an ideological instrument, imbued with bias, distortions and limited perspectives. It is therefore important to carefully consider the use of textbooks within the History classroom as not to perpetuate ideologically charged, biased, distorted and limited perspectives of history.

It therefore should be the imperative of the educator to recognise the power of the textbook as an ideological instrument designed to give legitimacy to dominant social values and officially sanctioned versions of knowledge, especially in the South African context where classrooms are under-resourced and textbooks often form the sole source of historical knowledge – in order to safeguard against limited, distorted, biased and ideological versions of history and to promote multi-perspectivity rather than singular one-sided versions of a dominant historiography.




Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Asmal K. (2004). Keeping memory alive, shaping our future: The ten-year celebration of freedom. In Address by the Minister of Education. Cape Town.

Ball, A. F. (2006). Multicultural Strategies for Education and Social Change: Carriers of the Torch in the United States and South Africa. (J. A. Banks, Ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Chernis, R. E. (1990). The Past in Service of the Present: A Study of South African School History Syllabuses and Textbooks 1839-1990. University of Pretoria.

Chisholm, L. (2008). Migration, Citizenship and South African History Textbooks. South African Historical Journal, 60(3), 353–374.

Cross, M. (1986). A Historical Review of Education in South Africa : Towards an Assessment Author(s). Comparative Education, 22(3), 185–200.

da Cruz, P. (2005). From Narrative to Severed Heads: The Form and Location of White Supremacist History in Textbooks of the Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Eras. A Case Study. University of Cape Town.

Dean, E., Hartmann, P., & Katzen, M. (1983). History in black and white: an analysis of South African school history textbooks. Belgium: United Nations Educational.

Eckstein, M. A. (1985). Comparative education: Concepts and theories. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlewaite (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education: Research and studies (pp. 855–858). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Engelbrecht, A. (2006). Textbooks in South Africa from Apartheid to Post- Apartheid: Ideological Change Revealed by Racial Stereotyping. In E. Roberts-Schweitzer, V. Greaney, & K. Duer (Eds.), Promoting Social Cohesion through Education Case Studies and Tools for using Textbooks and Curricula. World Bank Institute: WBI Learning Resources Series.

Engelbrecht, A. (2008). The impact of role reversal in representational practices in history textbooks after Apartheid. South African Journal of Education, 28(5), 519–541.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish (2nd ed., A. Sheridan, Trans). New York: Vintage Books.

Johannesson, B. (2002). The writing of history textbooks in South Africa. Internationale Schulbuchforschung, 24(1), 89–95.

Morgan, K. (2010). Scholarly and Values-driven Objectives in Two South African School History Textbooks : An Analysis of Topics of Race and Racism. Historical Social Research, 35(3), 299–322.

Morgan, K. (2011). Textbooks as mediators in the intellectual project of history education. University of Johannesburg.

Morgan, K., & Henning, E. (2011). How school history textbooks position a textual community through the topic of racism. Historia, 56(2), 169–190.

Motshekga, A. (2009). Statement to National Assembly by the Minister of Basic Education on Curriculum Review Process.

Polakow-Suransky, S. S. (2002). Historical Amnesia? The Politics of Textbooks in Post-Apartheid South Africa. In Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans.

Thomas, R. M. (1990). The goals of education. In R. M. Thomas (Ed.), International comparative education: Practices, issues & prospects (pp. 25–56). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Wain, K. (1992). Different Perspectives on Evaluating Textbooks. In H. Bourdillon (Ed.), History and Social Studies – Methodologies of Textbook Analysis. Amsterdam: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Williams, J. H. (2014). Nation, State, School, Textbook. In J. H. Williams (Ed.), (Re)Constructing Memory: School Textbooks and the Imagination of the Nation (pp. 1–9). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Intersectionality, The Catholic Religion, Obijiwe spirituality, “two-spirit”, hagiography, oral tradition and the semiotic in Louise Erdrich’s “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse “

Yowi - Priest Killer by David Kingman (2010)

Yowi – Priest Killer by David Kingdom (2010)

The term ‘intersectionality’ was first introduced into feminist theory by American feminist law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper entitled “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics” published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum. In her conceptualisation of the term, she used it particularly to “denote the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of black women’s employment experiences (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1244).” She describes how the qualitative experiences of black women cannot be adequately described through traditional conceptualisations of the experiences of racism and sexism alone, but rather through the manner in which these systems of oppression and power intersect and consequently reinforce each other (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 8; Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1244). In this assertion, intersectionality demarcates the importance of the inclusion of the qualitative experiences of multiply marginalised individuals, particularly black women, in a manner which encourages an analytic shift from the mere addition of multiple independent strands of inequality to a conceptualisation which multiplies and transforms the experienced societal inequalities and unjust social relations through the emphasis on the complex manner in which these inequalities intersect and proliferate rather than layer the effects which they produce (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 6).

However, if intersectionality is understood as indicative of all societal interaction, it should be understood as a theoretical and methodological manner in which to assess the complex interactions of domination and subjugation between all social phenomena, not just that of a particular subordinated group (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 8). Here, specifically it can be understood as an analysis of the interactions of particular socially constructed systems rather than particular categories such as “racialisation rather than race, economic exploitation rather than classes, gendering and gender performance rather than gender (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 12.).”

In relation to this social constructionist conceptualisation of intersectionality, a more discursive definition of intersectionality is outlined by Lykke (2010) in Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing as:

[…] a theoretical and methodological tool to analyze how historically specific kinds of power differentials and/or constraining normativities, based on discursively, institutionally and/or structurally constructed sociocultural categorizations such as gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, age/generation, dis/ability, nationality, mother tongue and so on, interact, and in so doing produce different kinds of societal inequalities and unjust social relations. (50)

In this conceptualisation of intersectionality there is particular emphisis on the interaction between the ‘power differentials’ inherent within sociocultural categorisations which underpin societal inequalities and unjust social relations. This is what Foucault terms “systems of power (Foucault, 1976, p. 381)” – the complex matrix of domination and subjugation formulated within hegemonic sociocultural power structures which are formulated along rigid binaries and necessitate the location of subjectivity within these constructed boundaries of that which it both produces and asserts. Here, intersectionality is a theoretical and methodolgical framework in which to analyse how hegemonic systems intersect to produce and assert societal inequalities, unjust social relations, as well as how individual subjects “negotiate the power-laden social relations and conditions in which they are embedded (Lykke, 2010, p. 51)”.

Perhaps one of the most relevant examples of intersectionality within Erdrich’s novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is that of Catholicism and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs which serves to inform and complicate the hermeneutics and intersections of ontoligical paradigms, spirituality, culture, gender, identity and sex within the narrative. An example of the intersection of Catholicism, Obijiwe spiritual beliefs and gender is seen in the life of Father Damien Modeste, who is a biological female fulfilling the role of a Catholic priest within the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Within Catholicism, the ordination of women to any grade of order – deacon, priest, or bishop is considered a “grave delict”, along with “pederasty, collections of juvenile pornography and violating the seal of confession (Zagano, 2011, p. 103)”. Women are prohibited from ordination in the Catholic Church on account of “theological anthropology (Kalbian, 2005, p. 104)” – in which the Catholic Church argues that since sex has ‘appropriate roles’ dictated by biology and physical stature stemming from anthropological nature, it is reasonable to exclude women from ordination within the Church (Kalbian, 2005, p. 104). In this, men are imbued with the capacity to hold positions of institutional power and authority within the Catholic Church while women are ascribed ‘different roles’. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theology held that women were subordinate to men; as Pope Pius XI proclaimed that “for if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love (Pope Pius XI, 1930, p. 15)”. However, in the post-Vatican II period, the Catholic Church has downplayed the subordinate position of women, as illustrated within the sentiments of John Paul II: “[B]oth man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image (Pope John Paul II, 1988, p. 6)”. Here, while the Catholic Church embraces a rhetoric of egalitarianism it is contradicted by its subordinationist views on the ordination of women. This so-called ‘theological anthropology’ underpinning the exclusion of women from priesthood, reveals the “rigid gender scheme (Kalbian, 2005, p. 10)” of the Catholic Church which views biological sex and gendered attributes as “natural, not socially constructed (Kalbian, 2005, p. 13)”. In this sexed construction, the Vatican is insistent on the femininity of the Church itself – ensuring a metaphorical heteronormative construction between ordained father (male) and mother-Church (female). Here, the exclusion from ordination of women in the Catholic Church ensures the ‘morality’ of sexual ethics within a heteronormative construction (Kalbian, 2005, p. 128).

Thus the position of Father Damien displays the intersection of gender and Catholicism as he a biological female fulfilling the role of a priest in the Catholic Church – an identity which is incompatible with the rigid gender scheme of the Catholic Church which does not view gender as constructed but rather sees gender and sex as interchangeable concepts. Furthermore, it presents a theological problem as it challenges the ‘naturalness’ of ‘God’s creation’ of humans as ‘male’ and ‘female’ and disrupts the heteronormative ‘morality’ of the church itself. However, despite the Catholic Churches decree regarding the position of women in the church, particularly that of the irreconcilability of being biologically female and receiving holy orders; when Father Gregory Wekkle tries to assert Agnes to a female subject position in proclaiming; “You are a woman… a woman cannot be a priest…you’re sacrilege” (206), she rejects his gendered assertion of her and restates her identity as “nothing but a priest” (206). In this, Father Gregory Wekkle attempts to re-inscribe a heteronormative framework onto the identity of Agnes, reflecting the position of the church regarding the ‘synonymous’ relationship between biological sex and gender but also to ‘normalise’ his sexual intercourse with her according to the heteronormative imperative – further inscribing the official doctrine of the church on its position regarding homosexuality. Her assertion of herself as “nothing but a priest” (206) suggests a rejection of gender dualism in favour of an androgynous or rather, an ‘incoherent’ subject position which according to Judith Butler in “Identity, Sex and the Metaphysics of Substance” from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2008), “fail[s] to conform to the gendered norms of “cultural intelligibility” (23).

This ‘unintelligible’ subject position outside the binary framework of a dualistic conceptualisation of gender is syncretised by Father Damien’s appropriation of elements of Obijiwe spiritual beliefs into Catholic orthodoxy. In the representation of the gender mixing of Father Damien (seen in the constant shifting from the identity of Father Damien to Agnes DeWitt), Erdrich evokes the historical Anishinaabe conceptualisation of a third category of gender identity which exists outside of “traditional Western understandings of male and female, men and women (Iovannone, 2009, p. 40)”.

This ‘third-gender’, often referred to in English as “two-spirit” or “berdache” is referred to by an array of indigenous names documented in “over 155 (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008)” different Native North American tribes such as I-coo-coo-a (Sauk and Fox tribes), Agokwa (Ojibwa tribe), Hee-man-eh (Cheyenne tribe), Ougokweniini (Anishnawbe tribe), Winkte (Sioux and Lakota tribe), Ihamana (Zuni tribe), Nadleeh (Navajo tribe), Tanowaip (Shoshoni tribe), Kwidó (Tewa tribe) and Manly Hearts (The North Piegan tribe) (Paige, n.d.). In the novel, Erdrich uses only the Native North American terms Winkte and Wishkob and uses neither the term “two-spirit” nor “berdache”. The term “berdache” remains a term used by anthropologists, but is considered to be a European, racist slur, indicative of the history of colonial oppression of Native North Americans by European colonists (Paige, n.d.). In order to distance Native North Americans from the derogatory connotations of “berdache” as well as the reductionistic nomenclature of the LGBTIA+ community (such as gay, transgendered etc.), the term “two-spirit” was adopted during the annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference of 1990 as a calque of the Ojibwa phrase niizh manidoowag (“two spirits”) (Němečková, 2008, p. 35). Here, the traditional nomenclature of the LGBTIA+ community in terms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, asexual and ‘other’ do not adequately describe the nature of “two-spirit” – a third category of identity which exists outside of traditional Western understandings of male and female. It refers to individuals who “partly or completely take on aspects of the culturally defined role of the other sex and who are classified as neither women nor men, but genders of their own, referring to gender variant roles, rather than a complete crossing over to an opposite gender role (Iovannone, 2009, p. 40)”, it is thus a “separate gender within a multiple gender system (Němečková, 2008, p. 40)”. It is because such individuals are not considered to be male or female, that they cannot correctly be categorised as “homosexuals” (lesbian or gay identities), nor can they be categorised as “transgendered” (although this is the closest term in LGBTIA+ nomenclature) as they do not have an incongruous sex and gender identity as Native North Americans regard them as occupying a natural and accepted gender identity and furthermore the nature of “transgender” implies a dualistic conceptualisation of gender – which is incompatible within the Native North American conceptualisation of multiple gender identities. In addition, the term “transgendered” does not communicate the important spiritual role associated with such individuals who are regarded as “emissaries from the Creator (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008)”, sacred and gifted among all beings because they harbour two spirits (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008). However, on account of European colonisation and the adoption of the ‘moralistic’ code of Christianity, the “existence of the two-spirit community has been systematically denied and alienated from their Aboriginal identity (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008)” and as a result, two-spirit people are often viewed as perverted and have lost their relevance to Native North American American society.

It is this spiritual role of the “two-spirit” individual which Father Damien channels in the assertion of the identity of “nothing but a priest” (206) – a role which displays similar significant spiritual significance to that of the traditional role of the “two-spirit” person – arguably situating Father Damien as a hybridised subject, situated at the intersection of Catholic Orthodox views on the role of women and the Obijiwe cultural conceptualisations of gender identity. This syncretism is alluded to wherein Father Damien, in his letter addressed to the pontiff asserts that the “the ordinary as well as esoteric forms of worship engaged in by the Ojibwe are sound, even compatible with the teachings of Christ” (49). Here, the concerns of the text create a compatible relationship between Catholicism and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs/culture through a “complex web of borrowings, reappropriations, and transformations (Chapman, 2007, p. 149)”. This syncretic appropriation of Catholic Orthodoxy and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs is epitomised within Father Damien’s mingled prayer to both a holy figure from Catholic hagiography as well as to the central Anishaabe trickster god; “Saint Augustine, Nanabozho, whoever can hear me, give me a little help now” (266). This blending of Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs represents the intersection of Catholic hagiographic elements and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs within the novel. Here, St. Augustine and the central Anishaabe trickster god, Nanabozwe form symbolic representations for the complex identity of Father Damien/Agnes DeWitt/Sister Cecilia. The figure of St. Augustine forms a significant symbol as within Catholic hagiography as he is honoured for his “conversion from a former life (Catholic Online, n.d.)” – an archetype similar to the conversion of Agnes DeWitt to the priest Father Damien Modeste – labelled the “transfiguration of Agnes” in the first part of Erdrich’s novel. This labelling of the identity conversion as the “transfiguration of Agnes” moreover, alludes to the biblical transfiguration of Christ, wherein Christ transfigured into radiant glory upon a mountain and signifies the “point at which human nature meets God (Lee, 2005, p. 2)” – ironically also the point at which Agnes transfigures as she believes she met God in human form after the flood which took the lift of Father Damien Modeste I. The evocation of the Anishaabe trickster god, Nanabozwe is similarly significant as the figure of the trickster is a mythological figure who “shift[s] shape or gender (Hynes & Doty, 1997, p. 17)” – symbolising the gender mixing or ‘shifting’ of Father Damien/Agnes DeWitt. This, moreover, reveals the point of intersection between Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe oral tradition.

The intersection between Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe oral tradition is particularly illustrated within “wall of books” (198) that serves as a barrier between Father Damien and Father Gregory Wekkle. Here, the books represent the print culture of Catholic hagiography which is in opposition to the orality of Anishaabe culture. It is only when this “wall of books” collapses during the night as a result of Father Gregory Wekkle’s “dream-thrashing (Rowe, 2004, p. 207)” that they are brought together sexually. It is particularly significant that it is through dreaming that the barrier between Father Damien and Father Gregory Wekkle is broken down, a non-print mode of communication which is directly related to the unconscious and the orality of Anishaabe culture where the boundaries of language, like that of gender and heteronormative sexual ethics collapse. This break-down of the linguistic barriers within the realm of the unconscious through dreaming evokes the Kristevian conceptualisation of the “semiotic” which is closely related to the Lacanian ‘pre-mirror’ stage – that is that which is pre-symbolic and not constituted within a linguistic dimension such as dreams, emotions and music. Significantly, the Lacanian mirror stage heralds an important step in the process of ‘ego’ formation as the subject develops a unified selfhood (Olivier, 2005) – it is similarly through the “violation of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church in terms its scriptural doctrines and its mission to convert ‘pagans’, like the Obijiwe that Father Damien discovers his true sacred vocation (Rowe, 2004, p. 208)”.

In the same way, it is through the interaction with the semiotic that Sister Cecilia transforms into Agnes DeWitt. Here, her piano performances of Chopin represent an “alternative economy of sexual desire (Iovannone, 2009, p. 61)”, situated within the pre-linguistic dimension of music. In her performance of Chopin, Sister Cecilia experiences a sexual climax:

One day, exquisite agony built and released, built higher, released more forcefully until slow heat spread between her fingers, up her arms, stung at the points of her bound breasts and then shot straight down…. she […] experienced a peaceful wave of oneness in which she entered pure communion… Chopin’s spirit became her lover. His flats caressed her. His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles. His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue. His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane. (15)

This physical orgasm at the keyboard represents “Erdrich’s version of a saint’s mystical rapture (Chapman, 2007, p. 156)”and experience of ecstasy, however, in this instance the rapture is catalysed by Chopin instead of a vision of God. This representation of musical performance as erotic complicates the binary models of gender and sexuality in that the erotic mode of desire and sexual orgasm experienced through music is “not defined by a gendered subject (Iovannone, 2009, p. 61)” or gaze, but rather, the fluid and aural realm of music conceptualised within the Kristevian “semiotic”. The erotic nature of her performance of Chopin is described by Berndt Vogel:

It became clear … as the music slowly wrapped around him, that he was engaged in something for which he would have had to pay a whore in Fargo…a great sum to perform. (21)

It is perhaps this inclination toward the aural, fluid realm of music within the “semiotic” situated outside of the linguistic dimension that “predisposes Agnes DeWitt/Father Damien for the successful integration (Hein, 2009, p. 135)” into the Obijiwe community which itself exists outside of the realm of linguistic intelligibility of Euro-American and Catholic ontological paradigms. This fluidity perhaps alludes to Father Damien’s assimilation of the role of the “two-spirit” – a role which similarly exists outside of the realm of “cultural intelligibility (Butler, 1990, p. 23)” Furthermore, this fluidity presents a challenge to what Luce Irigaray in The Sex Which is Not One (1985) describes as the traditional monolithic masculine concepts of linearity, unity and oneness and subsequently problematises the ‘systems of power’ imbued within the doctrine of the Catholic Church itself.

It is then perhaps significant that Agnes DeWitt adopts the identity of Father Damien Modeste after he drowns in a flood and she is “washed away from her existence as a farmer and piano player into her new life (Hein, 2009, p. 139)”. Here, the motif of water represents her fluid identity which is beyond “cultural intelligibility (Butler, 1990, p. 23)”, but also serves to destabilise and transcend the binary framework constructed within the rigid doctrine of Catholicism which precludes the multiplicity and fluidity of gender identities and sexualities. Furthermore, it evokes the Christian sacrament of baptism by immersion in water – which signifies purification from original sin, admission into the Church as well as name-giving; much in the same manner in which Agnes believes she has been visited by the spirit of God in human form and renames herself as Father Damien Modeste shortly thereafter. This motif of the baptismal quality of water and its faculty for spiritual ‘rebirth’ through the transformation of Agnes to Father Damien Modeste with “new eyes” is described by Agnes in her letter to the pontiff:

I met the undertow, a quick dark funnel not visible from shore. It must have pulled me farther down the stream, for when I came up, I was floating swiftly, moving in a grand swell. The current crested at the surface and all I had to do was paddle lightly. Even in my swirling gown, it took almost no effort. My dress caught air and floated behind me like a wedding train. It could have dragged me under, but instead I was pushed along. Buoyant, I dropped fear, dropped worry, went beyond cold into a state beyond numb. The rush was so swift and strong. Blessed One, I now believe in that river I drowned in spirit, but revived. I lost an old life and gained a new. Memories resurfaced. Berndt’s square hand in mine. The careful baritone of his warm voice. Perhaps, soon, I would join him. Then again perhaps I would live. The latter prospect suddenly intrigued me. I looked at the banks as I swept by and I wondered why Agnes was sad in such a strange world. Things look different from the middle of a flooded river. In the flow, time is erased. I had new eyes. (41)

Herein, water serves as a metaphor for the spiritual birth of Father Damien – much like the breaking of water signifies natural birth. The old life of Agnes as a farmer and piano player is washed away and ‘drowned’ and she emerges from the water with a new identity – that of the priest Father Damien Modeste. In the symbolism of her “dress” being “caught in the air” and floating behind her “like a wedding train” and threatening to “drag her under” but instead being “pushed along”, Agnes describes how her new identity as Father Damien is free from the constrains of womanhood –as both Agnes DeWitt and as Sister Cecilia were, as women, outside of the patriarchal hegemonic systems of power, with Agnes being held up to the societal expectations and demands of marriage by Berndt and Sister Cecilia being denied the capacity to hold a position of institutional power within the Catholic Church.

The motif of water as a metaphor for the spiritual birth of Father Damien is brought full circle in his burial in water. Here, Mary Kashpaw, Agnes’s/Father Damien’s Obijiwe housekeeper and friend who is aware of his female biology, buries his body in water:

Towing her priest in his damaged rowboat, holes hacked in the bottom, she paddled out into the lake. She stopped where the water was of an anaerobic cleanliness, cold, black, and of an endless depth. As the sky filled with light, she watched the old heavy rowboat slowly fill and then sink. Father Damien’s slight figure, serene in its halo of white hair, lay just under the waves. As the dark water claimed him, his features blurred. His body wavered for a time between the surface and the feminine depth below. (351)

Here, once again, Father Damien lingers between the liminal space of masculinity and “feminine depth” – the incomprehensible location of the Obijiwe “two-spirit”. He is born from water and is returned to water – a reinscription of the Biblical assertion that men are born from dust and to dust they shall return. This cyclic conclusion of the life of Father Damien appropriately ends in the manner in which it began but also mirrors the manner in which it ended.

Thus Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse presents a multiplicity of intersections between Catholic religion, Obijiwe spiritual beliefs, culture, gender, identity, sex, Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe oral tradition illustrating the manner in which these intersections construct the interaction between these systems “not as a simple dialect, but as a complex web of borrowings, re-appropriations and transformations (Chapman, 2007, p. 151)”.

Works Cited

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Crenshaw, K., 1991. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, Volume 43, pp. 1241-1299.

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Hein, C. J., 2009. ‘Can the Squaw Bluff?’: Negotiations of Vision and Gazes in “Tracks” and “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” by Louise Erdrich. American Studies, 54(1), pp. 121-142.

Hynes, W. J. & Doty, W. G., 1997. Mythical Trickster Figures. Alabama: University Alabama Press.

Iovannone, J. J., 2009. “Mix-Ups, Messes, Confinements, and Double-Dealings”: Transgendered Performances in Three Novels by Louise Erdrich. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 21(1), pp. 38-68.

Irigaray, L., 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. s.l.:Cornell University Press.

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Laframboise, S. & Anhorn, M., 2008. Native American concepts of gender and sexual orientation. [Online]
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Lee, D. A., 2005. Transfiguration. New York: Bloomsbury.

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Němečková, A., 2008. The Incredible Story of Agnes de Witt. Diploma Thesis, pp. 1-63.

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Pope Pius XI, 1930. Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage). Boston: St. Paul’s.

Rowe, J. C., 2004. Buried alive: the native American political unconscious in Louise Erdrich’s fiction. Postcolonial Studies, 7(2), pp. 197-210.

Zagano, P., 2011. Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in relation to Foucauldian ‘systems of power’ and their consequent ‘truths’


In “Truth and Power”, an excerpt of a translated transcription of an interview with Michel Foucault by Alesandro Fontana and Pasquale Pasquino in June 1976 – published as “Intervista a Michel Foucault” in Microfiseca del Poetere in 1977 – Foucault argues, in relation to ‘systems of power’ and their consequent transcendental ‘truths’, that:

“The problem is not changing people’s consciousness – or what’s in their heads – but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth. It’s not a matter of emancipating the truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the form of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time (Foucault, 1976, p. 381)”.

In a postmodernist conceptualisation, Foucault’s ‘systems of power’ can be defined as ‘grand narratives’ which produce and assert hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ that are seemingly self-reflexive and incompatible with the notion of legitimacy of multiple opposing and alternative discourses or ‘truths’. These ‘systems of power’ are constructed in terms of rigid binaries which necessitate the location of subjectivity within the boundaries of these constructed categories or ‘truths’. The following essay will provide a critical discussion of these ‘systems of power’ and their consequent transcendental ‘truths’ vis-à-vis the aforementioned argument in Foucault’s “Truth and Power” which function within Jeanette Winterson’s postmodernist novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.

Within a postmodernist conception, the notion of hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ which are associated with ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’ such as patriarchy, history, heteronormativity and Christian ideology, are reformulated into a multiplicity of alternative and opposing discourses or ‘fictions’ which exist simultaneously as ‘metanarratives’ or multiple ‘truths’. In this formulation, these hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ become a multiplicity of ‘fictions’. This harmonious relationship between multiple ‘truths’ as opposed to a hegemonic transcendental ‘truth’ is symbolically depicted in Elsie’s advice to Jeanette: “‘There’s this world,’ she banged the wall graphically, ‘and there’s this world,’ she thumped her chest. ‘If you want to make sense of either, you have to take notice of both’ (32)”, wherein the different conceptualisations of the ‘world’ Elsie alludes to function as a metaphor for multiple manifestations of ‘truth’.

Furthermore, Winterson’s novel, itself, presents a narrative imbued with many of the stylistic conventions associated with postmodernism in literature, namely; “intertextuality, fragmentation, the questioning of ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’, the problematising of closure and antilinearity (Mota, 2004, p. 192)” It is therefore appropriate that the narrative presents a deconstruction and subversion of the rigid binaries of the various ‘systems of power’ presented in the text – ultimately complicating the hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ of ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’ through its structure and content.

Through narratively juxtaposing the biographical history of the author Jeanette Winterson herself with fairy tales, biblical myth and fantastic elements, the novel serves to complicate the “truth” in terms of these ‘systems of power’ such as ‘history’ and Christian ideology and in turn disrupt the constructed binaries associated with these ‘systems of power’. The deconstruction of Jeanette’s conceived ideology demonstrates the manner in which self and identity are narrative constructions. It therefore suggests the ‘fictionality’ of the ‘truths’ constructed within these ‘systems of power’ – such as heteronormativity and biblical myth through juxtaposing these hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ as ‘fictions’ in a metatextual way with fairy-tale narratives and biographical material which serves to expose the incoherence and instability within the binary structure of these penetrating grand discourses or ‘systems of power’. The structure of the novel, moreover, represents the intermingling of simultaneous discursive threads and binaries into a cat’s cradle so knotted that it “undermines the authority of canonical texts, patriarchal discourses, and dichotomous binaries (DeLong, 2006, p. 274)”.

The absence of linearity in the text is described by Jeanette Winterson as being “experimental” with interests that are “anti-linear”. She elaborates on this by stating that the novel can be read “in spirals” which, according to her, “allows for infinite movement” (Xhonneux, 2012, p. 103). This “spiral” shape of the novel is evoked through her weaving of discursive threads through a “narrative logic of association and digression, and by the insertion of fantastical tales that move out of a realist frame (Xhonneux, 2012, p. 103)” This “narrative logic of association and digression” is illustrated in the instance wherein Jeanette has to go to school for the first time, pulls her pajama top over her head and hurts her ears on account of the neck hole being too small. This reminds her of when she went deaf. The story continues to unfold in this ad hoc manner, drawing on associations and digressing from them again. This “spiral” structure of the text itself, is an attempt to destabilise and transcend a binary frame inherent in the hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ imposed by the multiple ‘systems of power’ under which the identity of Jeanette is constructed. It arguably can be read as portraying the “multiplicity and fluidity of sexuality and gender (Yakut, 2011, p. 38)” and also Jeanette’s own search for identity and meaning which is removed from these ‘systems of power’ altogether.

Moreover, the antilinear structure of the text vis-à-vis the absence of chronological time order, consequential order of events and logical pattern of unity, serves to undermine, as argued by Luce Irigaray in The Sex Which is Not One (1985) the traditional monolithic masculine concepts of linearity, unity and oneness and subsequently problematises ‘systems of power’ and their transcendental ‘truths’ (Önal, 2007, p. 2; DeLong, 2006, p. 263). This serves to simultaneously destabilise and transcend the binary framework which “precludes the multiplicity and fluidity of sexuality and gender (Yakut, 2011, p. 38)” as well as dissolve the hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ of the conceptualisation of gender and sex within the rigid binaries of male/female, man/woman and masculinity/ femininity. Thus, in relation to these debilitating binaries of gender and sex, Winterson’s text presents the body is the “site on which the cultural inscriptions and patriarchal prescriptive restrictions are affixed. (Yakut, 2011, p. 39)”. This is describes by Winterson wherein she proclaims:

“Sexuality or the versions of sexuality that we are served up from the earliest moments are prescriptive and in many ways debilitating, people don’t get a chance to find about themselves. They are told who they are, that they fit in to certain patterns. How many people can honestly say that they have made their own choices? But that’s largely because of the picture book world that we’re offered the story that we are told about ourselves rather than being encouraged to tell our own stories (cited in Yakut, 2011, p. 39)”.

Here, Winterson illustrates the debilitating nature of the rigid binaries served up as a proscriptive “picture book” of ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’ which assert hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ – here, in particular, that of heteronormativity.

Through naming the narrator after the author, the text further complicates the relationship between the fictional and the autobiographical subject (Mota, 2004, p. 194). In doing so, this allows the structure of the novel to be conceptualised according a Kristevian model wherein there are two ‘axes’ to the text (Chen, 2014, p. 6). The first is a ‘vertical axis’ which connects readers as well as the author Jeanette Winterson to the text in terms of the novel itself drawing upon biographical ‘history’ of Winterson herself. It is because of this that the novel can also be classified as a postmodern Künstlerroman – a chronicle of writer’s development through the endowment of the text’s narrator with the author’s first name which simultaneously highlights the text as a ‘portrait of the artist’ (Brown, 1997, p. 239) as well as serves to subvert the ‘implicit’ boundary between author and fiction. The ‘horizontal axis’ of the text serves to link the text to other texts and thus refers to the intertextuality of the multiple discursive threads within the text in which there is a juxtaposition of the autobiographical ‘history’ or ‘truth’ of Winterson herself with Biblical myth (‘truth’) and fairy tale, in an “Irigarayan language that comes from everywhere at once (DeLong, 2006, p. 264)”. Here, Frederic Jameson describes this intertextual relationship between texts as being apprehended through “sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or – if the text is brand-new – through the sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions (cited in Chen, 2014, p. 7)”.

It is through this juxtaposition of multiple discursive threads that the identity of both Jeanette, the narrator, as well as Jeanette the author is simultaneously constructed and deconstructed through evoking and subverting of the binaries constructed within these ‘fictions’. Winterson describes this in her own words by stating that:

“People’s powerlessness comes from feelings that they can’t manage, and especially those that they can’t articulate. Being able to write a story around the chaos of our own narrative allows you to see yourself as a fiction, which is rather comforting because, of course, fictions can change. It’s only the facts that trap us. I’ve always thought that if people could read themselves as fictions they would be much happier (MacPherson, 2008, p. 268)”.

Herein, Winterson illustrates the relationship between narrative and ‘systems of power’, placing Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a ‘fiction’ which through its project of simultaneously constructing and deconstructing the ‘truth’ of the author herself, emancipates her from the facts or ‘truths’ of various ‘systems of power’ such as history and heteronormativity.

This subversion of the ‘implicit’ boundary between author and text, in accordance with poststructuralist theory, illustrates the nonexistence of the immutable self/subject – since subjects are not autonomous beings but are subject to their cultural context and ‘being in the world’ of which is constituted by a multiplicity of social networks, institutions, traditional épistemes, ‘grand narratives’, dominant discourses and political discourses (Yakut, 2011, p. 4) – evidence of the imbued pervasiveness of these multiple ‘systems of power’ on the ‘construction’ and manifestation of ‘truths’ (par ‘fiction’) of the subject and thus, as a consequence, serves to destabilise the so-called ‘truths’ of these ‘systems of power’ altogether. This, moreover, illustrates that individuals are unable to define themselves by simply drawing the boundaries of their sexualities as “one cannot stand entirely outside of heterosexuality, neither can s/he stand entirely inside of it as sexuality is not natural and innate but historically, discursively and culturally constructed (Yakut, 2011, p. 9)”.

Through destabilising the ‘systems of power’ ingrained in the categories and identities which are structured as binaries, such as heterosexual/homosexual, truth/fiction, good/evil, the novel challenges the legitimacy of these culturally constructed ‘narratives’ or ideological ‘fictions’/ ‘truths’ and in doing so, reveals the incoherence and instability within them (Yakut, 2011, p. 4). It moreover, exposes how ‘power’ is granted and maintained in a construction where there exists only opposing choices (Reisman, 2011, p. 11).

Here, the character of Jeanette is seen as negating these constructed binaries in an attempt to deconstruct and destabilise the ideological ‘systems of power’ and their ‘truths’ imposed on her by her mother and the religious community she inhabits. She “hovers between masculinity and femininity since she struggles to trespass the boundaries of a heteronormative understanding of sexuality and gender (Yakut, 2011, p. 59).” Through her resistance and therefore subversion of these boundaries which are inherent in the so-called ‘truth’ of the ‘system of power’ or ‘grand narrative’ of heteronormativity, Jeanette transcends her socially and culturally constructed configuration and rewrites herself, consequently reclaiming her identity or ‘truth’ and simultaneously defying and evading ‘grand narratives’ or ‘systems of power’ such as patriarchy and the myth of origin (Yakut, 2011, p. 75) which attempt to impose various ‘truths’ upon her. These rigid binaries imposed on Jeanette by her mother and the religious community she inhabits are furthermore illustrated wherein Jeanette says, “She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies. (3)”. This polarization is, moreover, aptly depicted wherein Jeanette lists who were the enemies and who were the friends (according to her mother). This illustrates the dogmatic binaries under which Jeanette is subjected to and in turn, the framework within which, she tries to locate her identity. This is illustrated wherein she states that, “I discovered that everything in the natural order was a symbol of the Great Struggle between good and evil (16)”.

A further subversion of these binaries entrenched by ‘systems of power’ is represented in the depiction of the orange demon, who is “neither male nor female… that ambiguous part which defies categorisation” (DeLong, 2006, p. 269). Here, the ambiguousness of the orange demon mimics the subjectivity of the Jeanette who, too, defies the socially and culturally constructed binaries of the heteronormative ‘system of power’. Furthermore, the presence of the orange demon subverts the traditional notion of the binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ asserted by the ‘Christian’ ‘system of power’ wherein Jeanette asks the orange demon; “Demons are evil aren’t they?” to which the orange demon responds “Not quite, they’re just different, and difficult (108)” (DeLong, 2006, p. 270). This is significant as it challenges the constructed ‘truth’ of the binary categorisations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ under the Christian ‘system of power’ and ultimately resists these binary categories altogether – arguably serving to undermine the ‘truth’ of the Christian ‘system of power’ altogether.

Moreover, the recurrence of oranges within the text in terms of the mother’s retort “oranges are the only fruit”, represents the binary logic of Jeanette’s mother wherein she refuses to acknowledge the existence and legitimacy (‘truth’) of multiple and opposing discourses which locate subjectivity within a heterosexual frame based on her religious doctrine of Christianity. Here, there exists a rigid conception which refuses to legitimise alternative sexualities, where one can be either a heterosexual man or a heterosexual woman and there is no recognition of other sexual and gender subjectivities such as lesbian, transsexual and transgender. Jeanette’s mother’s rigid binary logic is illustrated wherein she remarks, after hearing “the family life of snails” on the radio, that the “family of snails [is] an abomination, it’s like saying we come from monkeys (21)” – further illustrating her refusal to acknowledge alternate views and possibilities and highlighting her entrapment in the binary of heterosexual logic which necessitates identification and desire to be opposed (Yakut, 2011, p. 44). In this sense, the orange can also be read as “signifying the boundary between mother and daughter (Carter, 1998, p. 17)”, wherein Jeanette’s lesbian subjectivity exists outside of the rigid binary of heteronormativity of which her mother is bound to. Furthermore, the use of the reoccurring motif of the orange serves to invert the homo/hetero binary, as all oranges are orange in colour – representing a heteronormative conceptualisation yet other things may be orange in colour as well – representing a subversion of heteronormative conceptualisations of sex and gender in relation to the motif of an orange itself – indicating that, indeed, oranges are not the only fruit or rather, that not only oranges are orange.

Jeanette’s schism from the binary logic imposed on her by her mother and her religious community is further developed wherein she reveals her disappointment in the discovery of her mother’s fabricated ending to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, wherein St. John Rivers marries Jane instead of Mr. Rochester. She cites this as one of the most painful events of her childhood and compares it to the moment she discovered her adoption papers:

“It was like the day I discovered my adoption papers while searching for a pack of playing cards. I have never since played cards, and I have never since read Jane Eyre (56)”.

Herein the ‘true’ ending of Jane Eyre has been concealed from Jeanette just as the ‘truth’ of her adoption has been concealed from her, ultimately resulting in the blurring the boundaries between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’. Here the narrative demonstrates what Lyotard argues in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) that ‘grand récits’ or narratives have been replaced by what Lyotard calls ‘pétit récits’ or little narratives which deconstruct the ‘truths’ and assumptions of ‘systems of power’ on which conventional notions of narrative and history are based (Méndez, 2010, p. 27) Here, similarly, the narrative of Jane Eyre has been replaced by the constructed narrative or ‘pétit récit’ of Jeanette’s mother.

The fable of Winnet Stonejar represents a parallel narrative to the narrator and by association, the author herself in the form of yet another ‘pétit récit’. Here, the name “Winnet” is arguably a deliberate and amalgamated hybridisation of the authors own name “Jeanette Winterson”, where the first half of her surname “Win” is merged with the last half of her first name “net(e)”, resulting in a prefix and suffix of which the name “Winnet” is constructed. This deliberate similarity between the name of the author and Winnet arguably signifies the parallel relationship between the story of Winnet and the author herself, resulting the juxtaposition of personal subjectivity and patronymic claiming. Here, Winterson bestows upon the heroine of her fable, the surname “Stonejar” – which signifies the imposed construction of patriarchal discourse upon her, wherein, in the language of patriarchal discourse, the woman is defined as a vessel – which simultaneously serves to suggest an entrapment under this selfsame discourse (DeLong, 2006, p. 273).

It, moreover, forms a broader discursive thread between the author, narrator and Winnet Stonejar. In this sense, it is a fiction within a fiction, representing the multiplicity of the metanarrative structure of the text itself, which weaves together autobiographical material and fiction with various other discursive threads. In doing so, the novel itself, arguably represents a project wherein the author identity is reconstructed through various hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ rewritten as postmodern metanarratives or ‘fictions’ and thus becomes fictionalized in itself.

Another instance wherein the hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ of a ‘system of power’ is rewritten is in the fuzzy felt depiction of the biblical myth of Daniel in the lion’s den, wherein Jeanette portrays the lions as devouring Daniel – a deliberately inauthentic portrayal of the ‘truth’ of the traditional narrative. Here, Pastor Finch reacts to Jeanette’s version of the story by insisting that her representation is “not right (13)” and patronising her by enquiring if she “know[s] that Daniel escaped?” as in her portrayal, “the lions are swallowing [Daniel] (13)”. Here, pastor Finch’s reaction represents the rigidity of the binary logic associated with the power system of the Christian myth. It, moreover, expresses fluidity in meaning and exposes the vulnerability of this ‘system of power’ through illustrating the contradictory, malleable and deceptive nature of this hegemonic ‘transcendental’ ‘truth’. This instance, moreover, depicts the Foucauldian detachment of the power of truth from the ‘system of power’ or ‘grand narrative’ of Christianity as well as simultaneously challenges all other ‘systems of power’ and ‘grand narratives’ by suggesting that ‘truth’ can be deconstructed and reconstructed in a manner which differs from the ‘initial’ narrative altogether.

Thus, the narrative of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit presents a challenge to the hegemonic transcendental ‘truths’ which are produced and maintained by ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’ such as patriarchy, history, heteronormativity and Christian ideology, through the subversion and resistance of the rigid binaries constructed by them. Moreover, the postmodern structure of the text itself, in terms of intertextuality, fragmentation, the questioning of ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’, the problematising of closure and antilinearity, serve to challenge the ‘traditional’ monolithic masculine concepts of linearity, unity and oneness and subsequently serves to problematise the ‘systems of power’ and their transcendental ‘truths’ altogether, exposing the fluidity and malleable nature of ‘truth’ itself when these ‘systems of power’ or ‘grand narratives’ are reconstituted as ‘fictions’ or pétit récits’.

Works Cited

Brown, A. B. (1997). Inverted Conversions: Reading the Bible and Writing the Lesbian Subject in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Journal of Homosexuality, 33, 233-252.

Carter, K. (1998). The Consuming Fruit: Oranges, Demons, and Daughters. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 40(1), 15-23.

Chen, X. (2014, August). Peeling the Orange: An Intertextual Reading of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Thesis. Leiden University.

DeLong, A. (2006). The Cat’s Cradle: Multiple Discursive Threads in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Literature Interpretation Theory, 14(3-4), 263-275.

Foucault, M. (1976, June). Truth and Power. (A. Fontana, & P. Pasquino, Interviewers)

Irigaray, L. (1985). This Sex Which Is Not One. Cornell University Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

MacPherson, P. (2008). ‘Fictions can change. It’s only the facts that trap us’: Images of female sexuality from Oranges to Velvet. Women: A Cultural Review, 261-274.

Méndez, F. C. (2010). The Limitless Self: Desire and Transgression in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body. Thesis. Universitat de Barcelona.

Mota, M. (2004). What’s in a Name? The Case of Twentieth Century Literature, 50(2), 192-206.

Önal, E. (2007, December). Analysis of the Use of Parody in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Boating for Beginners. MA Thesis. Middle East Technical University.

Reisman, M. (2011). Integrating Fantasy and Reality in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Rocky Mountain Review, 11-35.

Winterson, J. (2009). Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. London: Random House.

Xhonneux, L. (2012). The Classic Coming Out Novel: Unacknowledged Challenges to the Heterosexual Mainstream. College Literature, 39(1), 94-118.

Yakut, Ö. (2011, February). Sexuality and Gender in Jeanette Winterson’s Two Novels: Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body. MA thesis. Middle East Technical University.


Religious value conflicts in the psychotherapeutic process

The following essay will discuss the inevitability of value-conflicts associated with differing therapist-client religious and spiritual values in the psychotherapeutic process. It will furthermore discuss the importance of addressing therapist religious values in order to preserve professional competence and respect client rights, particularly in the heterogeneous South African context where religious diversity is a marker of a rich cultural diversity.

Few individuals can profess to hold neutral attitudes when it comes to religion. Similarly, among atheists and agnostics, it is difficult to find a dispassionate disbeliever. This is reasonable, considering that religion concerns itself with matters of significance. However, although these concerns might be of great significance to many religious adherents, they are not viable for the field of psychology. Questions concerning the ultimate existential truth fall outside the scope of psychology as there are arguably no empirical methods within psychology to provide insights into the veracity of religious clams. However, what psychologists can do is assess the implications of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices for human behaviour and emotional functioning (Pargament, 2002).

Religion and spirituality can be considered to be dynamics of functioning which are unique to the human species. This unique human dimension has been argued to encompass a “fourth dimension” of well-being according to the bio-psycho-social model (Hefti, 2011, p.612) which is considered to be a predominant model for the understanding of human functioning in the field of psychology (Hefti, 2011, p.612). It explains how biological, psychological and social factors interact in the health and well-being of individuals. Furthermore, the extended model, with the added dimension of spirituality, is a holistic and integrative framework through which psychologists can understand how religion and spirituality, along with the traditional constituents of the model, can effect psychological health. It is therefore important to the psychotherapeutic process that therapists include the spiritual dimension when addressing psychological health concerns of their clients.

However, as the subject of religion and spirituality is one where it is impossible to express neutrality, therapists need to first assess their own values regarding religion and spirituality in order to maintain their own professional competence in the psychotherapeutic process.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English (2010), values are defined as “beliefs about what is right and wrong and what is important in life”. Values are furthermore, described by Narasimhan, Bhaskar and Prakhya (2010) to “lie at the core of personality” and are suggested to influence one’s behaviour and attitudes – which, in themselves, are described as manifestations of one’s fundamental values (Glover, Bumpus, & Log, 1997).

Values, then, are arguably fundamental constituents to human behaviour and in turn, professional behaviour. It has long been asserted that endeavours within scientific disciplines should remain objective and value-free, including those which fall into the realm of psychology. According to Gaylin (2000), the “desire to be non-directive and value-free, stemmed from a yearning [in the field of Psychology] to be admitted as a bona-fide member of the scientific community”.

However, It has been found by several authors that the psychotherapuetic process is not value-free and that therapists are not only influenced in their professional work by values, but both tacitly and overtly impose values on their clients, even when they explicitly intend not to. (Odell & Stewart, 1993; Gaylin, 2000; Corbett, 2011). Furthermore, research has indicated that therapist’s values influence clinical descision-making when facing ethical dilemmas in terms of fulfilling ethical professional requirements as therapists are “likely to implement a course of action that is guided by their personal values (Odell & Stewart, 1993, p.129)”. This indicates the centrality and importance of values to the psychotherapeutic process.

This being said, therapists bring their personal values into the psychotherapeutic process when dealing with all psychological problems, including religious ones (Pargament, 2002, p.170). Here, a therapist’s own religious values are likey to manifest and will most likely differ from those of their clients. These religious value-conflicts are likely to be particularly commonplace in the heterogeneous South African population where the diversity in culture is coupled with varying religious beliefs and interpretations of spirituality. According to the South African constitution, “no single faith tradition can be considered to have preference over others, particularly in public settings such as schools, correctional facilities and hospitals (Janse van Rensburg, Poggenpoel , Szabo, & Myburgh, 2014)”.

It is then important that psychologists, particularly those working in the South African context, acknowldege the inevitable influence of their personal and religious values in the psychotherapeutic process and are aware of what their own values are (Muran & Hungr, 2013).

Psychologists should acknowledge that there is a power differential inherent in the psychotherapeutic process as the client seeking therapy is typically in a state of emotional distress and is vulnerable (Hamilton, 2013; Odell & Stewart, 1993; Gaylin, 2000) and that as a matter of professional competence, they ought to address their personal and religious values in order maintain the boundaries respect for client as stipulated in the South African consitution.

Thus, because of the impossibility associated with attitudes of neutrality regarding issues of religion and spirituality and the inevitability of therapist’s value-impositions on clients within the psychotherapeutic process, it is important to address therapist’s religious values in order to preserve professional competence and respect client rights in the diverse South African context.


Corbett, L. (2011). The sacred cauldron : psychotherapy as a spiritual practice. Wilmette, Illinois, United States of America: Chiron Publications.

Gaylin, W. (2000). Perspective: Nondirective Counseling or Advice?: Psychotherapy as Value Laden. The Hastings Center Report, 30(3), 31-33.

Glover, S. H., Bumpus, M. A., & Log, J. E. (1997). Re-Examining the Influence of Individual Values on Ethical Decision Making. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(12), 1319-1329.

Hamilton, R. (2013). The frustrations of virtue: the myth of moral neutrality. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 485–492.

Hefti, R. (2011). Integrating Religion and Spirituality into Mental Health Care, Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. Religions, 2, 611-627.

Hornby, A. S. (2010). Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (8th ed.). (J. Turnbull, D. Lea, D. Parkinson, P. Phillips, B. Francis, S. Webb, . . . M. Ashby, Eds.) Cape Town, South Africa: Oxford University Press.

Janse van Rensburg, A. B., Poggenpoel , M., Szabo, C. P., & Myburgh, C. P. (2014, July). Referral and collaboration between South African psychiatrists and religious or spiritual advisers: Views from some psychiatrists. South African Journal of Psychology, 20(2), 40-45.

Muran, J. C., & Hungr, C. (2013). Power plays, negotiation and mutual recognition in the therapeutic alliance: “I never met a client I didn’t like…eventually”. In A. W. Wolf, M. R. Goldfried, & J. C. Muran, Transforming Negative Reactions to Clients: From Frustration to Compassion (pp. 23-44). American Psychological Association.

Narasimhan, N., Bhaskar, K., & Prakhya, S. (2010, October). Existential Beliefs and Values. Journal of Business Ethics, 96(3), 369-382.

Odell, M., & Stewart, S. P. (1993, April). Ethical Issues Associated with Client Values Conversion and Therapist Value Agendas in Family Therapy. Family Relations, 42(2), 128-133.

Pargament, K. I. (2002). The Bitter and the Sweet: An Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Religiousness. Psychological Inquiry, 13(3), 168-181.

Beloved as a Literal and Imagined Embodiment of History

In her thesis, “The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting:” Contemporary Fictions and the Rewriting of Histories, Sheenadevi Patchay states that:

“Beloved, the character, is a literal (though also imaginative) embodiment of the lost past which refuses to be finally forgotten. It haunts the present like the trauma of all unresolved pain, but by assuming physical form creates a space that conflates historical, physical, geographical and narrative dimensions (Patchay, 2007 p.14).”

The following essay will provide an argument in support of Patchay’s above statement through a detailed analysis of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved as well as discuss the character of Beloved as a “real” flesh-and-blood ghost by analyzing the characterization of Beloved within Morrison’s novel. Furthermore, the character of Beloved will be discussed as a fictional representation of the victims of the “The Middle Passage” during the Atlantic slave trade.

Morrison’s novel Beloved is a neoslave narrative based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave in Cincinnati in 1856, who committed infanticide by slitting her infant daughter’s throat to let her die and have ‘freedom’ rather than being taken back to slavery. Here, Morrison’s novel functions as a fictional account of the historical story of Margaret Garner, where the character of Sethe can be read as a rewriting of the real-life Margaret Garner in fictional form as her circumstances within Morrison’s novel reflect the real-life circumstances of Margaret Garner.
In this interpretation, Beloved is seen to be the literal (re)embodiment of the murdered baby’s spirit as a “real” (flesh-and-blood) ghost. This interpretation of the character of Beloved is supported by Sethe herself as the name “Beloved” is also the word inscribed upon the tombstone of Sethe’s (unnamed) murdered baby. Moreover, Beloved questions Sethe about “the ‘diamond’ earrings she (Sethe) used to wear, earrings that had been confiscated from Sethe during her imprisonment eighteen years earlier (Malmgren, 1995 p.98)”, in doing so Beloved indicates having knowledge of which she otherwise would not know unless Beloved was in fact the flesh-and-blood (re)embodiment of her murdered daughter. Beloved is further described as having an appearance which implicates that she is the (re)embodiment of Sethe’s murdered daughter in the body of an eighteen year old where she is described as having “the skin and complexion of a newborn despite her eighteen years (Malmgren, 1995 p.98)”. This suggests that Beloved physically resembles Sethe’s murdered daughter in the appearance of her infant-like complexion. More convincing, however, is the appearance of the “disfigurements [of] three parallel scratches on her forehead and a neck scar [in] the little curved shadow of a smile in the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin (Malmgren, 1995 p.98)” – which suggests that Beloved bears the stigma left from Sethe’s assault upon her daughter upon herself. Beloved also appears to know the tune to “a song that Sethe had herself made-up and sung to her children, a song no one else could possibly know (Malmgren, 1995 p.98).” This convinces Sethe that Beloved is “a miracle that is truly miraculous,” that is, that she is the reincarnation of her murdered daughter.

Beloved is the “literal (though also imaginative) embodiment” of the historical account of the infanticide of Margaret Garner but also represents the imagined and/or – reconstituted (re)memory of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade upon the victims which has “returned to haunt the present (Jinping, 2012 p.7)” in the flesh-and-blood form of Beloved herself. Here, Beloved represents the victims of “The Middle Passage” alluded to in the novels epigraph of “Sixty Million and more” which refers to the “Sixty Million and more” slaves who died in “The Middle Passage” during the Atlantic slave trade. This interpretation of the epigraph is explained by Morrison herself in her interview with Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie published in the novel Conversations with Toni Morrison where she states (in reference to the epigraph in Beloved) that:

“Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million. There were travel accounts of people who were in the Congo … saying, ‘We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies.’ That’s like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those ships.”

Beloved embodies the experience and rememory of “The Middle Passage” victims through her exhaustive and constant references to the slave ship experience. Beloved is associated with imagery of water where she is depicted as rising out of the river, possibly an allusion to “The Middle Passage”. Furthermore, Sethe becomes incontinent when she first sees Beloved, spontaneously urinating at the sight of her – possibly alluding to the moment of childbirth where a mother’s waters break – here, Sethe is “about to give birth, not to Beloved, but to her own rememory (Patchay, 2007 p.42).” Beloved, in her infantile monologue, makes references to the trauma of the slave ship experience:

All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching (Morrison, 2007 p.248)
The above is a reference to the appalling conditions under which the slaves of the Atlantic slave trade were kept (described in Morrison’s own words as being “choked with bodies”) in ships during the voyage of “The Middle Passage.” Beloved further alludes to “The Middle Passage” in her descriptions in her monologue of “the men without skin (Morrison, 2007 p.248)” – a description of the white slave traders who appear skinless to the black slaves, “the dead man on my face (Morrison, 2007 p.248)” – the slaves who have died aboard the slave ship and are literally touching the other slaves because of their proximity to one another in the over-crowded small space of the ship’s cargo hold and the “blue water (Morrison, 2007 p.252)” – a literal description of the sea.Thus the embodiment of Beloved as the “Sixty Million and more” of the epigraph not only serves to “eulogize” the slaves who died in “The Middle Passage” of the Atlantic slave trade but “to re-imagine what the life of a female slave was like (Patchay, 2007).”

Through the novels epigraphic dedication to the “Sixty Million and more” victims of the middle passage and the character of Beloved signifying the victims through her (re)memory of the infantile monologue which references the trauma of the slave ship experience, Beloved “exemplifies a magical realist feature (Łobodziec, 2012 p.109)” and ultimately merges the historical account of Margaret Garner, the fictional representation of Sethe, the (re)embodiment of Beloved as both flesh-and-blood ghost and rememory of the “Sixty Million and more” and the narrative of the novel.
Though invoking the trauma of “The Middle Passage,” Beloved:

“embodies the dual nature of traumatic memory in that she evokes both a crisis of death and a crisis of life. Her fleshly appearance brings to life memories that contain both life and death – the death of some, enabling the “life” or freedom of others, and thus turning out to be a “death-in-life (Patchay, 2007).”

Here the character of Beloved “evokes both a crisis of death and a crisis of life” through a literal and physical flesh- and-blood embodiment of trauma and the accompanying rememory of the “lost past which refuses to be finally forgotten.”
Beloved is a magical realist (re)imagining of both a literal and imagined past in terms of the historical account of the story of Margaret Garner and of the “Sixty Million and more” slaves who died in “The Middle Passage” of the Atlantic slave trade. She embodies in physical form a retelling of the true story of Margaret Garner but also represents the flesh-form “ghost” of the trauma of the “Middle Passage” and of black slave women which ultimately “haunts the present like the trauma of all unresolved pain” and “refuses to finally be forgotten.” Through her magical realist identity, Beloved resists a singular interpretation but functions on multiple allegorical levels and through this ultimately “creates a space that conflates historical, physical, geographical and narrative dimensions.” Thus, Beloved is as Sheenadevi Patchay describes in her thesis, “The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting:” Contemporary Fictions and the Rewriting of Histories.

Works Cited:

Dizard, R., 2010. Toni Morrison, the Slave Narratives, and Modernism. THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW, 51(2), pp. 389-405.

Holden-Kirwan, J. L., 1998. Looking Into the Self That Is No Self: An Examination of Subjectivity in Beloved. African American Review, 32(3), pp. 415-426.

Jinping, B. A. O., 2012. On Magic Narrative Technique in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Cross-Cultural Communication, 8(3), pp. 1-7.

Łobodziec, A., 2012. Toni Morrison’s Discredited Magic – Magical Realism in Beloved Revisited. Brno Studies in English, 38(1), pp. 103-121.

Malmgren, C. D., 1995. Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Critique, XXXVI(2), pp. 96-106.

Mayberry, S. N., 2009. Review of Justine Tally’s article entitled “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Origins”. African American Review, 43(1), pp. 178-180.

Morrison, T., 2007. Beloved. London: Vintage.

Patchay, S., 2007. “The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting:” Contemporary Fictions and the Rewriting of histories. Thesis submitted in fulfilment of Doctor of Philosophy, pp. 32-54.

The Logic of Absurdity: “Catch-22”

The following essay will provide a critical discussion of chapter thirty-nine entitled “The Eternal City” in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 in relation to the postmodern condition of individual and society as governed by the principle of “Catch-22”. Moreover, the use of a post-modern variety of black humour throughout Catch 22, as defined by Patrick O’Neill’s article “The Comedy of Entropy: The Contexts of Black Humour” (1983), will be examined in relation to the key moments and characters presented within the discussion of “The Eternal City” as well as throughout the novel itself.

Catch-22 presents a narrative structure situated in absurdism. The notion of the absurd is parallel to existentialism in that it concerns the condition of human existence in a postmodern world governed by the inadequacy of religious meta-narratives to provide meaning and the absurdity and apparent meaninglessness of human existence. The absurdism that is situated in Catch-22 thus is concerned with the internal conflict and disillusionment that is inherent within the human tendency to seek value and meaning in existence and the ultimate inability and failure to do so in a postmodern world in which certainty is made impossible by the collapse of meta-narratives and the overabundance of information.

Yossarian presents a figure situated within the existential conflict governed by the logic of absurdity that is “Catch-22”. In “The Eternal City” where Yossarian goes absent without leave to Rome in order to find Nately’s whore’s kid sister, the decay and destruction of the streets of Rome, such as that inherent within Aarfy’s murdering of a whore, are presented as an underworld in which the descent into hell of Dante’s Inferno is alluded to. This representation expresses a “sobering picture of the human predicament (Green, 1995)” as Yossarian’s vulnerability echoes the existential loneliness inherent within the absurdism of the human condition. Moreover, in his descent into hell, the figure of Yossarian is juxtaposed with the figure of the Christ:

“The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he know how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!”

In this contrasting of the figure of Yossarian with the figure of the Christ, the antiheroic figure of Yossarian is revealed to fall short of the Christ figure in that he is “unable to save Nately’s whore’s kid sister or to “resurrect” at the end (del Pilar Berruete Rodriguez, 1999)”. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the figure of Yossarian with the figure of the Christ serves to place the antiheroic figure of Yossarian in a position of degradation as a result of the contrast between the figures as unlike the figure of the Christ, Yossarian is “not elevated but mocked because he thinks he can be free rejecting Cathcart’s offer and going to Sweden (del Pilar Berruete Rodriguez, 1999).”

This revelation of the failure of Yossarian perhaps elevates the notion of the absurdity of the human condition in a postmodern world and serves to establish the novel itself as a “postmodernist product (del Pilar Berruete Rodriguez, 1999)” since Yossarian comes to understand the notion of the logic of absurdity that governs the principles of “Catch-22” in his internal realization that “human beings are symbol-making animals, capable of creating multiple and contradictory “realities” (del Pilar Berruete Rodriguez, 1999).”

Moreover, in elevating Yossarian’s own existential loneliness through his ultimate failure to “resurrect”, the events within “The Eternal City” foreshadow Snowden’s revelation of the “meaning of life” within the novel’s concluding chapter “Catch-22” in which Yossarian, through Snowden, discovers that; “man was matter… The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.” This revelation allows the reader to “reflect on the logic of the absurd itself as played out under this text’s conditions: that a world so irrational, where distinctions between past, present and future collapse, could actually exist seems implausible in the extreme, yet when judged by the terms of the governing framework, the confusions of such a world seem plausible indeed. (Green, 1995)”. But ultimately, Snowden’s revelation serves to lampoon the human condition governed by the logic of absurdity which is “Catch-22”; as well as the existential loneliness of the postmodern condition of the individual and society which occur as a result of the inadequacy of any all-encompassing meta-narratives to provide meaning and ultimately by the (tragic) lack of meaning in existence – as exposed through Yossarian’s comprehension of Snowden’s revelation of the “meaning of life”.

The definitive and concluding theme of Catch-22 within “The Eternal City”, then, is one which is primarily concerned with the postmodern condition of the individual and society as governed by the principle of “Catch-22”, wherein the notion of the absurdity of the human condition is elevated and excruciatingly scrutinized with microscopic detail within Yossarian’s descent into hell within “The Eternal City”. Moreover, the centrality of the novels preoccupation with these themes further establishes the novel itself into the realm of the postmodern.

Herein, the novel is further founded into the postmodern by not just its primary themes but also the construction of the narrative itself which firstly, forthrightly insists on its own fictionality by acknowledging the fictionality of both its setting as well as its characters within its epigraph:

“The island of Pianosa lies

in the Mediterranean Sea eight

miles south of Elba. It is a very small

and obviously could not accommodate all of

the actions described. Like the setting of this novel, the characters, too, are fictitious.”

This acknowledgement presents an overt self-reflexiveness which is characteristic of postmodern texts and thus clearly defines the narrative itself as a work of fiction and therefore eliminates the suspension of disbelief or illusion normatively produced by works of fiction in which the narratives are presumed to be realistic. This effect perhaps removes the novel from the position of attempting to mimic reality or rather thus deceiving the reader through a narrative which would be nothing more than a shallow spectacle in which the reader would not be challenged and thus by contrast by acknowledging the fictionality of the text the novel forces the reader to acknowledge the fictionality of the narrative thus establishing an emotional distance between reader and narrative and through this distance, forcing the reader to be critical of the social realities presented within the narrative as well as examine the novels central concerns with the absurdity and the existential loneliness human condition in relation to one’s own postmodern position as individual and society.

Moreover, the narrative structure is profoundly fragmented, this too being characteristically of a postmodern nature. Herein the fragmented narrative can be read as a “mammoth orchestration of individual comic bits and routines into a kaleidoscopic comedy revue, the cumulative effect of which is to situate Yossarian ever more irretrievably in the world defined by “Catch-22” (Green, 1995)”. The lack of chronological structure or fragmentation of narrative within Catch-22 results in an excessively irrational montage where “distinctions between past, present and future collapse [and events within the narrative] seem implausible in the extreme, yet when judged by the terms of the governing framework, [that is the logic of absurdity that defines the situation of “Catch-22”] the confusions of such a world seem plausible (Green, 1995).” This montage effect is representative of Yossarian’s negation of the trauma inherent in his negation of the horrific experiences of his involvement in the Second World War as well as on a psychological level, his own coming to terms with the postmodern condition of humanity.

Moreover, the narrative of Catch-22 uses the strategy of black humour as a means of negating Yossarian’s trauma as well as serving to intensify “the horror [of his experience and] reinforce the [ultimate] anti-war message (Green, 1995)” which the text presents. O’Neill defines black humour to mean humour which “is variously grotesque, gallows, macabre, sick, pornographic, scatological, cosmic, ironic, satirical, absurd, or any combination of these (O’Neill, 1983).” Moreover, according to the New Columbia Encyclopedia definition of black humour, black humour is used explicitly to express the “absurdity, insensitivity, paradox and cruelty of the [post]modern world.”

The use of black humour in the narrative if Catch-22, then, appropriately serves to elevate the novels central thematic concern with the absurdity of the human condition through representing the absurd reality within the novel as a “postmodernist “final breaking of the mirror” (Aanensen, 2011)” which includes a “radical doubt towards representation” such as Lyotard’s “master narratives” (Aanensen, 2011).” Yossarian is a character situated in the midst of death; it is his consciousness of death and his ““deep-seated survival anxieties” [which] most obviously and completely control his life (LeClair, 1975)” which establish him as a black humour anti-hero.

Perhaps the most profound use of black humour in the novel is that in the description of Snowden’s death:

“Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared—liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch.”

Here, Snowden’s grotesque death is portrayed in a manner which seemingly refuses to acknowledge the tragedy of the situation through presenting it in a way in which the trauma inherent in the situation is negated by the incongruity of the contextual gravity with the assimilation of Snowden’s dislocated internal organs (as a result of being hit by flak) with the vivid description of the gutted contents of his dislocated stomach. This representation of Snowden’s death in a manner which can be seen as “a refusal to treat what one might regard as tragic materials tragically (O’Neill, 1983)” is stylistically characteristic of black humour. Moreover, the incongruity inherent in the assimilation serves to reduce the trauma of Snowden’s death, ironically through intensifying the salients of the inherent horror to the extent of absurdity.

The disconcerting treatment of the subject of death within Catch-22, intensified through both the use of black humour and Yossarian’s own preoccupation with avoiding death, serves to emphasize the “physical vulnerability of man [wherein] death in [the] novel is presented as a conversion process whereby human beings become mere matter and are assimilated into the non-human (Cacicedo, 2005).” Herein, “Heller implies that man may become no more than the fruit, vegetables and meat he consumes (Cacicedo, 2005).” Thus, if read in this manner, the scene in the novel where Snowden is killed, is only intensified by the novels concluding revelation of Snowden’s description of the meaning of life. The character of Yossarian, then, through his preoccupation with avoiding death and his position as a black humour anti-hero is set up as a “voice of refusal… [and]… resistance to the inevitability of death (Cacicedo, 2005)” and as an “antithesis to …“the embodiment of weaknesses in American middle class society” (Aanensen, 2011).”

Furthermore, the characterizations of the other characters within the text are set up to lampoon “Americanism” through their absurd and exaggerated representation of American youth, their comic names (for example Colonel Korn and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen) and their “Sheer incompetence and concern for just about anything but strategies of war (Aanensen, 2011).” Herein the comic lampooning of the human condition as well as American society through the characterizations of Yossarian as well as other characters within the text, juxtaposed with the texts use of black humour results in the novel itself being satirical.

Thus the depiction of Yossarian’s descent into hell within “The Eternal City” and the likening of his figure to the figure of the Christ achieve the effect of revealing the condition of the postmodern individual and society as one entrenched within absurdism as well as an existential loneliness. This central thematic concern is only intensified through the self-reflexiveness and fragmentation of the narrative wherein the illogical montage is placed alongside the use of a post-modern variety of black humour throughout the novel. This serves to not only to negate the trauma inherent both Yossarian’s situation as well as that which is found within the human condition of the reader himself/herself but ultimately expresses the absurdity of a postmodern world governed by the logic of absurdity which is epitomized by the situation of “Catch-22.”

Works Cited:

Aanensen, M. (2011). The Soldier as Satirist: A study of Black Humor in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. University of Agder, Department of Foreign Languages and Translation. University of Agder.

Cacicedo, A. (2005). “You must remember this”: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. CRITIQUE, 357-368.

del Pilar Berruete Rodriguez, M. (1999). From Horror to Humour: Tracing Parody in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Philologia, 37-45.

Green, D. (1995). A World Worth Laughing At: Catch-22 and the Humor of Black Humor. Studies in the Novel 27, 186-195.

LeClair, T. (1975). Death and Black Humor. Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 17(1), 5-40.

O’Neill, P. (1983). The Comedy of Entropy: The Contexts of Black Humour. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, 146-166.