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Stowaway on a Slave Ship to Africa : MIDDLE PASSAGE <i> by Charles Johnson (Atheneum: $17.95; 288 pp.; 0-689-11968-2) </i>

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Charles Johnson’s first book, “Black Humor,” was published 20 years ago in Chicago, and that collection of drawings--political cartoons, really--startles now, when viewed through the lens of history, his and ours. The art is skillful, the captions trenchant. The theme is race relations, but the tone not what we might have expected from a young black college student living near one of the most racially polarized of American cities, in one of its worst times: Bobby Seale bound and gagged at the Chicago 8 trial; Fred Hampton dead in a police raid on his southside apartment.

Johnson remembers these cartoons as inspired by the black separatist philosophy of Amiri Baraka, whom he’d heard lecture at Southern Illinois University, taking no questions from whites. What strikes you about “Black Humor” now, though, is its gentleness, and its tentative exploration at times of territory beyond racial polarization. A raceless kangaroo whose pouch contains two joeys--one black, one white--reads a newspaper with the headline “New Open Housing Rules.” A black rally speaker, having excoriated black integrationists as Uncle Toms, leaves through the stage door with a white woman who calls him “Tom.” A black couple prepare to tell their white child what he apparently hasn’t yet figured out.

Fast forward two decades, and Johnson--having done graduate work in philosophy and turned from visual art to fiction--is director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, with three published novels to his credit, as well as a collection of short stories (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) nominated in 1986 for the PEN/Faulkner award and a recent book-length study of black writing since 1970.

In his highly readable though densely philosophical fiction, Johnson gives us characters forced to chart a middle passage between competing ways of ordering reality: sensual or ascetic, Marxist or Freudian, Christian or pagan. They quest for a unity of being beyond all polarities, for what the heroine of his first novel calls “the one thing all . . . things have in common. And happily for them and for us, they usually find it.

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Johnson describes “Middle Passage” as an effort at “serious entertainment,” a blurring, in other words, of another ancient pair of opposites, philosophy and art. He shares with his mentor, the late novelist and critic John Gardner, the Tolstoyan conviction that all true art is moral, not the promulgating of doctrine (which inevitably distorts morality) but the exploration and testing of values.

The formula fits “Middle Passage.” Though never preachy, it’s informed by a remarkably generous thesis: that racism generally, and the institution of slavery in particular, might best be seen as having arisen not from political or sociological or economic causes, not (God help us) from pigment envy, but from a deep fissure that characterizes Western thought in general, our tendency to split the world into competing categories: matter and spirit, subject and object, good and evil, black and white. One of the novel’s epigraphs, from the “Upanishads,” grows increasingly rich in implication as we read “Middle Passage”: “Who sees variety and not the Unity wanders on from death to death.”

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed 22-year-old slave from southern Illinois, drifts into New Orleans in 1829 and experiences a shock of recognition. For Rutherford, who narrates the story, the city is a place of sensory overload, an assault of smells, “if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to steamy sexuality.” The city suits his desire for adventure, experience, excess; it seems to be himself. His opposites are the Creoles downstream, who “sniffed down their long Continental noses at poor, purebred Negroes” like him. So he falls in among the thieves and gamblers upriver and becomes one of them.

Rutherford further defines himself in opposition to Woman. Isadora Bailey, whom he encounters one morning at the waterfront, is pretty “in a prim, dry, flat-breasted way,” and everything Rutherford isn’t: “frugal, quiet, devoutly Christian.” She is completely, in other words, out of place in New Orleans. Rutherford regards this daughter of a large Boston family free since the Revolutionary War as “positively ill with eastern culture.” Naturally, she wants to reform him. Naturally, he resists reformation--to the point of stowing away on a slave clipper bound for Africa to escape marriage to her. (She has arranged the marriage with his creditor by paying off Rutherford’s debts.)

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By turns mimicking historical romance, slave narrative, picaresque tale, parable, and (finally) sea yarn, indebted (among many other writers) to Swift, Coleridge, Melville, and Conrad, “Middle Passage” invites but frustrates categorization. And that’s exactly its point. The storytelling sounds historically credible at first (Johnson’s research and command of language are impressive), but the counternaturalistic signals begin early, and they’re intended. Idioms have sometimes a distinctly modern flavor: “down to earth” to describe Isadora’s father, “hung over” to describe Rutherford. All the characters in “Middle Passage,” in fact, sound as if they’re double majors in classics and philosophy. “It seemed so Sisyphean,” says Rutherford of a lovelorn fellow sailor, “this endless seeking of a single woman’s love . . . in all others, because they would change, grow old, and he’d again be on a quixotic, Parmenidean quest for beauty beyond the reach of Becoming.” His narrative comes to resemble an act of ventriloquism, a dreamlike projection of 20th-Century writer into the voice of roguish ex-slave, the writer winking behind the mask at time, blurring past and present. There’s no clear line between Rutherford’s world and our world, his journey and our journey. All polarities collapse by design here.

The opposition between Ebeneezer Falcon and Peter Cringle, captain and first mate of the metaphorically named “Republic,” furthers Rutherford’s process of self-definition on the passage to Africa. Cringle is Isadora in drag: a gentleman whose “whole air spoke of New England gentility.”

Falcon, by contrast, is a carnival sideshow: a pederast, solipsist, and dwarf. He too seems to have taken a first in philosophy. Dualism is a permanent biological condition, he tells Rutherford: “Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other--these ancient twins are built into the mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun, they are signs of a transcendantal Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself . . . . Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.”

No wonder Cringle plans to set him adrift.

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Between Cringle and Falcon, Rutherford can’t choose, though both try to force him to. He can’t find his loyalties, though he seems to take up and put down each of their perspectives at times. His unwillingness to choose makes sense, since Johnson blurs all ethical categories, showing the ministerial Cringle unable to “see himself, his own blighted history, in the slaves,” the satanic Falcon (“known for his daring exploits and subjugation of the colored races” capable of generosity in the end. Not until “The Republic” takes on its cargo in Africa--40 Allmuseri tribesmen and their mysterious totem--does Rutherford finally begin to declare an allegiance.

Johnson creates the Allmuseri for pretty obvious thematic reasons. An ancient tribe of magicians, they are less a biological clan than one held together by shared values. For Rutherford, who feels “the presence of countless others in them,” they are the “Ur-tribe of humanity itself.” Without fingerprints, incapable of abstract thought, unable to distinguish the white crewmen as individuals, the Allmuseri envision Hell as the failure to experience “the unity of Being everywhere.” And their god--which Falcon has plundered for the most Western of reasons, fame and fortune--is King Kong, Tolkien’s ring and Spielberg’s ark all rolled into one. Even Falcon recognizes it’s beyond dualism: “The Allmuseri god,” he tells Rutherford, “is everything, so that the very knowing situation we mortals rely on--a separation between knower and known--never rises in its experience.”

The Allmuseri become Rutherford’s vehicle for self-knowledge, providing him with a passage beyond categories, beyond opposites, beyond desire and fear, and toward what we would want for him, and for ourselves. “Middle Passage,” suffused with the quasi-Buddhist sensibility that seems increasingly common in Western writing today, ends quietly, surprisingly.

What always saves the novel from the intellectual scheme that would otherwise kill it is the sheer beauty of its language. Here is Rutherford’s vision of his father’s death 20 years earlier: “I beheld his benighted history and misspent manhood turn toward the night he plotted his escape to the Promised Land. It was New Year’s Eve, anno 1811. For good luck he took with him a little of the fresh greens and peas Chandler’s slaves cooked at year’s end (greens for “greenbacks” and peas for “change”), then took himself to the stable, saddled one of the horses and, since he had never ventured more than ten miles from home, wherefore lost his way, was quickly captured by padderolls and quietly put to death, the bullet entering through his left eye, exiting through his right ear, leaving him eternally eight and twenty, an Eternal Object, pure essence rotting in a fetid stretch of Missouri swamp.”

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Philosophy and art are not simply joined here. They are one.


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