F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 4 Class] Seeds of the Marvelous in Aphra Behn’s "Oroonoko"

In his influential essays that conceptualize the marvelous real as the engine of poetics and ontology in the Americas, Alejo Carpentier articulates the marvelous as an American instantiation of the baroque style that proliferates cross-culturally in literature and art.  For Carpentier, the “marvelous real is encountered in its raw state, latent and omnipresent, in all that is Latin American” (104).  While the marvelous real serves as the autochthonous poetics of Caribbean and Latin American writers, however, it does not merely function as an aesthetic intervention or manifesto with a political aspect but rather more broadly as a mythopoetic cosmogony and history of the space.  Carpentier even folds the “conquerors” into his framework, citing Hernán Cortés, who wrote of the nigh-incomprehensible “grandeurs and peculiarities” of the Mexican landscape and the unimaginable scope of Tenochtitlán (105).

While describing Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko as operational in a marvelous mode would be anachronistic, synchronistic themes do emerge from the text.  Her narrator opens the text with a description of Surinam and its inhabitants that seems to gesture toward the baroque excess, the “unruly complexities” (Carpentier 105), and the imbrications of landscape and myth that constitute the marvelous.  She describes the indigenous Surinamese in prelapsarian terms, emphasizing that “these People represented to me an absolute Idea of the first State of Innocence” and that “[t]hey have a native Justice, which knows no Fraud; and they understand no Vice or Cunning, but when they are taught by the White Men” (11, emphases original).  She emphasizes the perfection of their moral and epistemological engagement with nature in Edenic terms; and she implies that the European colonists risk becoming that garden’s serpent.  In recounting the animals for which they trade with the indigenous Surinamese, her depiction resonates with Carpentier’s portrayal of the landscape vis a vis “the unbridled creativity of [American] natural forms with all their metamorphoses and symbioses” (85).  She describes birds and snakes and insects “all of various Excellencies, such as Art cannot imitate” alongside “unconceivable” outfits made of feathers, highlighting at length the variety of colors, forms, and sizes involved (10).

The vivid depictions of violence against Oroonoko/Caesar also resonate with the poetics of excess the marvelous derives from history and its “veritable monsters” (Carpentier 83).  The torture Caesar undergoes, with whips “rending the very Flesh from their Bones” following which they “rubb’d his Wounds, to complete their cruelty, with Indian pepper” (Behn 72, emphasis original) is graphic, as his a subsequent episode during which Caesar attempts suicide by disembowelment, having “rip’d up his own Belly, and took his Bowels and pull’d ‘em out” (Behn 73).  The proliferation of violent imagery resonates with the ways in which the marvelous frames the intrinsically traumatic history of the Americas.

That aspects of marvelous poetics begin to suffuse Behn’s novel suggests a transhistorical resonance for that conceptualization within the New World milieu.  Placing Behn’s text in conversation with Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and other Caribbean theorists of the cross-cultural imagination might imbue the Black Atlantic with a marvelous valence.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” Oroonoko and Other Stories. Könemann, 1999, pp. 7-82.
Carpentier, Alejo. “The Baroque and the Marvelous Real.” 1967. Zamora and Faris, pp. 89-108.
---. “On the Marvelous Real in America.” 1981. Zamora and Faris, pp. 75-88.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris, editors. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Duke
     UP, 1995.

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