Copyright 1998 by Madison Smartt Bell

First published as "Guided by Voices" in

The Washington Post Book World, May 10, 1998


Called Away

Madison Smartt Bell

The last time I came back from Haiti, I used a Haitian car service to get into Manhattan. I hadn't known such a thing existed, but there was a dispatcher shouting in Haitian Kreyol when the crowd of Caribbean travellers flushed out onto the curb at Kennedy Airport, hawking a fleet of sleek black cars. My driver was a young Haitian, and during the quiet half-hour transit we spoke to one another in French; it seemed a good way for me to cushion my culture shock.

When I mentioned the research reasons that had taken me to Haiti, the driver asked me why I should have chosen the Haitian Revolution as a subject for a series of novels. I had been asked that question an awful lot of over the past couple of years, and I had a whole anthology of reasonably truthful replies stored in my mind like a worn pack of cards, but after I'd shuffled through all of those, I gave him the strictly Haitian answer: C'était un ésprit qui m'appellait à le faire. It was a spirit which called me to do it. Or in Kreyol, Genyen youn espri ki rele'm pou fè sa.

If one's sense of self is largely constructed out of language, then it may begin to slip when one moves from one language to another. Languages, or even different manners of speaking within a single language, are passports from one culture to another. In writing fiction set in contemporary American subcultures I had become accustomed to setting my personal self aside in order to imagine experience for characters entirely unlike me. When I began writing about Revolutionary Haiti, I had to make more radical transitions in order to imagine what the subjective experience of an eighteenth century French colonial, or of an African imported to Haiti as a slave, would have been like. All this I did through books and maps and pictures and imagination, apparently with a fair success. Haiti was embargoed during the time when I wrote the first of my trilogy of novels on the Haitian Revolution, so I did not go there until afterward; that third transition was the most radical of them all.

In explanation of a moderate prolificity which has sometimes been admired and at other times held against me, I like to say that my work is dictated to me by demons. It's a workable ploy, a reasonably effective way of brushing off the question. If people ever pressed the point (it's funny how they don't), they'd find out that I actually believe it. Of course it is not that way all the time; that would be too much to pray for. Most of my writing time is a labor of craftsmanship, interminably engineering the rock toward the top of the hill.... But there are other moments, usually with short stories but sometimes with key sections of a novel too, when the narrative simply pours itself onto the page without my having any sense of constructing it. I become no more important an instrument than the pencil I hold, when the narrative is speaking itself through me. These moments are euphoric enough to make all the surrounding laboriousness worthwhile. Psychologists sometimes call them "flow states." Certainly that state of mind has a great deal in common with light to medium hypnotic trances. Another word I like to use for it is possession.

Vodou, the Haitian religion, involves regular abdication of the self, to make way for the spirits who literally, actually mount the heads of their servants just as a rider mounts a horse. The lwa of Haitian Vodou roughly resemble the pantheons of most other polytheistic religions; they equally resemble the archetypes of the collective unconscious posited by depth psychology. One need not believe in the supernatural to accept the phenomenon of possession, which can be explained (though not explained away) by analogy to hypnosis and multiple personality syndrome. But to Haitian believers, the lwa are as real as rocks. I can say myself that the episode when a stray spirit from a nearby ceremony ripped its way into my head remains the most terrifying and the most seductive of my life.

How does one come to such a point? A modern, First-World citizen thinks of both his conscious and unconscious mind as being discreetly contained within his brain. But at the root level of Haitian society, among the paysans who form the vast majority of the population, the unconscious is not internal but external. There's nothing especially "primitive" about that; you find in early Christian texts, for example, that what we now would consider to be wishes and impulses are discussed as the external promptings of daemons. Well-educated Haitian intellectuals may operate on a continuum between the two extremes; they function in the First World as separated, self-actualized individuals, but when they are reabsorbed into the roots of Haitian culture, they too can be possessed by it all....

In traveling to Haiti I began to accept the breakdown of my personality which would commence at the Port au Prince airport and continue as I went deeper into the country. It started linguistically, with the shift from English to my inferior French and the even more rudimentary Kreyol I have been able to master. Shards of the different languages would jangle together in my head until finally, gratefully, my thinking would pass into a kind of wordless silence. Comprehension of what was going on around me was no longer the consequence of thought but rather came floating toward me from without, like the inexpressible insights which flower in your dreams. Impulses for action were also external and often had the force of orders from spiritual messengers. In obedience to these I sometimes did peculiar things which were very difficult for me to understand myself, much less explain to anyone else, once I had returned from Haiti. As for my self, it eroded so completely that once, upon catching a glimpse of my face in a mirror, I merely wondered how the white person had got into the room.

Yet I was still somehow doing historical research for the novels, and my trip was usually financed by some magazine assignment to do with the Haiti of today. My notes would collapse day by day from English through French and a little Kreyol until finally I could execute nothing but pictographs. My notebook evolved day by day into a magical object, which, by the end of the trip, I would have to carry always under my belt buckle, next to my skin.

All this gave me a better insight into what it might be like to be Haitian, which was what I needed for the novels. The nonfiction assignments were a bit harder to perform. It was very difficult to organize the experience of being in Haiti into a piece of writing because the experience had nothing at all to do with any of the ways of thinking I normally use for composition. I failed many times, and when I finally succeeded it was because I stopped trying to organize it all and instead simply typed up concentrated fragments of this or that, spread them out on the floor like a giant solitaire game, and began drawing pictures of possible relations between tjem. When I saw that these pictures resembled the ornamentation on the sword of the lwa Ogun, I realized I was actually making a vévé, one of the mystical diagrams used to summon the gods-- I was doing what the spirit had called me to do.

I... I... I... In the First World, all art is ego-driven, and alas, I am no exception to that rule. I am as greedy and lustful for more and more praise and reward for my work as any other writer in America. My best claim is that at least I am ashamed of it... but that is not at all the same as being free of it. Anyway I'm no worse than the rest of us. If art is to be self-expression then it must always be self-gratification too, so there is no real altruism for artists, even less than for other people. The only way out of this bind is to go to Haiti, where the self has little to do with what you make as an artist, where the work to be made simply uses you as its instrument of passage into the world, where not only your work but your whole life can be dictated to you by daemons.

Haiti is a magical, mystical, marvelous island, and in historical reality it is the very ground of liberation-- the one spot in the Western Hemisphere where African slaves shattered the chains that shackled their European masters to them. Today, Haitian culture is potent enough that I dare hope that it can free me from the tyranny of self. Gegne youn espri ki rele'm pou fè sa. At the very least, it has changed the way I think of my calling.