What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

by zunguzungu

“Masks! O Masks!
Black Mask, red mask, you white-and-black masks
Masks of the four cardinal points where the spirit blows
I greet you in silence!
And you, not the least of all, Ancestor with the lion head.
You keep this place safe from women’s laughter…”

–Leopold Sedar Senghor “Prayer to Masks”

“…they had faces like grotesque masks”

Marlowe, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

A few pages before that one is my favorite line from Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s description of Roman imperialism as “men going at it blind–as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” I think it’s only superficially a throwaway line: not only does it pinpoint the specific utility of a certain kind of ignorance, but illustrates exactly what kind of darkness it is that Marlowe was exploring; a thing can be unseeable, too, because you have your eyes closed.

I was reminded of that line when I showed my class the Sembene Ousmane film Black Girl last week. It’s a powerful film, almost a polemic, and in telling the story of a young Senegalese woman lured into a life of domestic servitude in France, it bears a certain resemblance to a Free the Slaves documentary. Looking to live a dream of la belle france that she seems to have found in fashion magazines, she follows her employers to their home in the Riviera, where she discovers instead a life of drudgery from which she lacks any of the tools to escape. Apparently unable to speak French, she can neither engage with the environment in which she finds herself, nor does that environment make any efforts to connect with her (her employers essentially diagnose her problem as a modern version of Dysaethesia aethiopica). And she eventually kills herself.

My students responded with a certain amount of resistance. They’d heard this kind of story before, and although they weren’t exactly unsympathetic (they were willing to let the employer share in a certain amount of the blame, for example) more than a few responded specifically against the idea that Diouana’s suicide was in some sense, a praiseworthy or courageous act. Sembene has, as the Unrepentant Marxist puts it, frequently ended his films “on a note of passive resistance in the face of palpable defeat,” but, like my students, I found myself dissatisfied with “refusal” as a form of resistance, especially in this case. Diouana, after all, celebrates her victory by being dead.

That said, Sembene certainly doesn’t mind letting his films function as propaganda: like his more recent Moolade, an “issue” film about female genital mutilation, Black Girl caricatures the film’s villains almost beyond recognition, and I would venture that he’s not above a certain kind of virtuous victimizing to make his point. But what propaganda does poorly–and this, I think, was the substance of my students’ reaction–is address the overdetermination of events, or (since I was reading James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” last night), the extent to which the categorical logic of the the “social problem” text are insufficient to describing the kind of freedom that someone like Diouana longs for.

Perhaps, I suggested, we could use the idea of tragedy to better parse the situation. After all, the fact that she dies is recognized as tragic by everyone in the film–even her repugnant employers–and since it’s the only time the employers’ emotional state of being is accessible to us, there’s a kind of achievement in that, if that’s the right word. If it’s not, what I mean is simply this: out of tragedy comes a kind of community whose absence has been the driving motor of the narrative up until this point. There’s something interesting in that.

What, then, is Diouana’s tragic flaw? The vulgar Fanonian reading might place the blame on her desire for consumption: had she not been seduced by the lure of Western commodities, she would not be dead, and the film makes it clear that she wants the job because the dresses her employer gives her initially have piqued her desire. She therefore wants to go to France to shop in the stores she sees in her elle magazine, and one could derive a kind of anti-consumerist plea for cultural purity in the film, if one wanted.

But this “culturalist” reading* doesn’t connect very well with the film’s actual attitude towards “culture.” For example, what is the life she leaves behind in Dakar’s African quarter? Such a culturalist reading, one that would urge her to avoid the blandishments of the West, has to “go at it” very blind indeed to imagine that her point of origin is, in any way, freed from the taint of the West. Dakar had long been a cosmopolitan point of mediation between France and the interior country, a kind of cultural entrepôt, and we see concrete signs of this history in the lived architecture of its inhabitants, from the Senegalese politicians in suits and ties to the bridge that cleaves the African quarter of compounds and tinroof shacks both to and from the European quarter of high rises and roundabouts.

Part of the problem with culturalist readings–and Sembene’s films persistantly trace this kind of problem–is that a person like Diouana has at least a very rational reason to want a change in lifescape, however ultimately disastrous it may prove in practice. In this case, it is silently significant that the Ecole Populaire (which we see Sembene himself lounging in front of) is a clearly male-only space; the possibilities offered by education, in other words, are “kept safe from women’s laughter” just as that great culturalist Senghor imagined. And while the film is populated by a significantly large number of Senegalese men in the process of acquiring Western tools and technologies–from the Parliamentarians to the students at the Ecole and Diouana’s young brother, seen “driving” an automobile he’s fashioned out of twisted wire–Diouana’s boyfriend disapproves of her trip to France, both because he himself has never been (but would like to) and because he prefers that she remain a possession, dependant on him.

There’s an implicit critique of the first generation of African statesman (like Senghor) that becomes, here and there, almost explicit, as when Diouana’s boyfriend stands next to an “uhuru” textile print of Patrice Lumumba and scowls at her. Or when, at the Place de L’Independance, he “gets familiar” with her and they quarrel: only a moment later (after newsreel footage of Senghor himself laying a wreath) she walks on top of the monument with a kind of calculated carefree aura that reminds me of nothing so much as a 1930’s Hollywood film trying to evoke the transcendant charm of feminitity. “Sacrilege!” he shouts, “Descendre!” But it isn’t clear whether his rage stems more from the sight of a citizen failing to pay proper respect to the nation’s dead or from seeing a woman skipping across a monument to the patria’s brave men, especially moments after she dared protest at being pawed by him (significantly, as they were having their photograph taken). For him, perhaps, there is no clear distinction.

In any case, while her relationship with him is structured by this kind of tension, the way they work through this problem is still noteworthy. After this scene–in which he (implicitly) asserts the kind of “woman stay in your place” culturalism that so many African leaders have been prone to–he returns bearing a gift, an elle magazine, and together they leaf through its pages. Similarly, though he never particularly cottons to her job with the Pouchets, it was his assistance that originally helped her get that job. The point being, I suppose, that not only is “culture” an impossible thread to disentangle in theory, but in practice, too, the assertion of “culturalism” is always in a two-way dialogue with those for whom it has no meaning, and for whom it may be an oppressive force, but not a determining one. In these scenes, it is ultimately Diouana who gets her way, and that’s interesting.

In any case, the other problem with culturalist readings is that an “object of culture” like Diouana’s mask changes in significance constantly throughout the film, becoming not only a metaphoric signifier of culture, but a concrete object through which culture is lived. This, too, is a theme within Sembene’s work. In a short story called “Tribal Scars,” Sembene suggested that West African scarification rituals might have been a practical response to the predations of slave raiders: since a slave with a scarred face would fetch a lower price, the story speculates, young boys would be scarred to make them less attractive targets. As far as I know, this is not a theory that has any empirical evidence to back it up, but that’s not really the point. Instead, what we see in texts like these is Sembene’s effort to rethink culture not as a superstructural extrusion of something else (be it metaphysical essence or economic foundation), but as the medium through which living politics are practiced and experienced.

Like the scarification rituals of “Tribal Scars,” Diouana’s mask is an object whose significance is derived from the uses to which it is put. It is, first, merely a plaything for her brother, and not a particularly valued one; when she picks it up from the ground, some sand has gathered in the eyehole, which she brushes off. And when she gives it as a gift to her new employers, it is a kind of trope for the possibility of shared community: however unequal the relationship may be, the gift given to an employer (and warmly received) signifies the potential extent to which the personal engagement between the two parties might transcend the boundaries of the harsh economic system that imbues them with the particular powers and vulnerabilities they have. While Diouana might be a member of a surplus labor pool, a person forced to work by the acephalic violence of resource monopolization, she does, nevertheless, connect with her employers through that mask. It is real, they marvel, and it is a thing of value for reasons they cannot fully express. And while the Pouchets might be a member of a colonialist class of professional racists, socially gifted with the fruits of violent dispossession, they too have something to offer Diouana, positioned as she is between a rock and a hard place.

In the essay I alluded to a moment ago, Baldwin writes “…escape is not effected through a bitter railing against this trap; it is as though this very striving were the only motion needed to spring the trap upon us. We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth; and yet it is precisely through our dependence on it that we are most endlessly betrayed.”

The tragedy of the film, then, is signified by the mask’s final transformation: from a shared object of community, it becomes–at the end of the film–the sign that cultural divisions have been re-drawn. As the dialogue between Diouana and the Pouchets becomes the kind of dysfunctional dance Baldwin describes (Mrs. Pouchet declares that “If you don’t work, you won’t eat,” to which Diouana responds “If I don’t eat, I won’t work”), Diouana’s impossible position reasserts itself. Before Diouana kills herself, she takes the mask back (recognizing that her employers’ possessiveness towards the mask are only a reflection of the ways they have commodified her), declaring that she is nothing but a slave.

While the Pouchets were innocent, per se, of that intention, tragedy isn;t really about intention. Instead, it would be better to say that they are innocent of any action, attitude, or possibility that is not utterly conventional. In his single act of penance, when Mr. Pouchet attempts to return the mask to Diouana’s parents by crossing the bridge that separates and links the African quarter to the European, he is utterly blind to the world he is entering–in tackling a darkness, he goes at it blind–which is nicely figured by the sunglasses he wears to protect himself, either from being seen or seeing. And when Diouana’s little brother picks up the mask–instantly recognizing it for what it is–he mirrors Mr. Pouchet’s defensive action: he puts the mask over his face and follows after Mr. Pouchet, up to the bridge emblazoned with an Air Afrique banner, his unreadable and expressionless masked face staring and silently passing judgement. Mr. Pouchet becomes increasingly agitated as he retreats, looking behind him with the air of a white liberal in East Oakland, unwilling to cross to the other side of the street or lock his car door, but deeply, deeply uncomfortable. The final shot of the film takes on Mr. Pouchet’s perspective, a long slow moment where the child’s gaze, through the mask, is directed at us.

Like the sunglasses Mr. Pouchet wears, as he crosses that bridge into Africa, the mask has become for the unreadable child an assertion of cultural opacity, the kinds of careful mystifications constructed by insiders to prevent outsiders from knowing how to navigate, a marking off of space that proceeds by creating a darkness. Like the sunglasses worn by the “man with no eyes” in Cool Hand Luke, the masks worn by both Mr. Pouchet and the child now suggest violent hierarchy, and the construction of spatial barriers in which “a failure to communicate” is inevitable. And just as the mask has, implicitly and explicitly, been a symbol for Diouana herself, it now articulates her tragedy: that the kinds of willing subjections on which society is based, what Weber called the “enigma of a servitude to which one voluntarily consents, and which is integrated by the subject as a component of its personal will,” has become, simply and completely, slavery. Her tragedy is not that she was enslaved; her tragedy is that she didn’t have to be, and yet was.

* JF Bayart’s The Illusion of Cultural Identity persistantly uses “culturalist” with the same sorrowful disdain that a Red Sox fan shows for those of us whose team has not been kissed by the Gods, and I’ve picked up that usage.