Paula's Reviews > The Flagellants

The Flagellants by Carlene Hatcher Polite
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Oct 25, 10

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bookshelves: fiction, second-or-third-time-around
Read from September 24 to October 23, 2010

Really 3.5 (I hate grades). Although first published in France, The Flagellants is nonetheless a thoroughly American novel and one very much of its times (1960s). Hatcher Polite theorizes a version of Black Liberation that concerns itself with the self and the couple as both fatally enmeshed in, yet separate from, the "community" with and within which they struggle to define and enact their "freedom." She chooses as her protagonists Ideal and Jimson, a man and woman who throughout the novel perform a sadomasochistic dance with, it seems, full knowledge (and consent) that we, their audience, must play our part too, that of voyeurs. As noted in the "introduction' by Claudia Tate, Ideal and Jimson's quests for self-definition have to contend with the psychological debris of American racism and its history of slavery. As a black man and woman they have been "liberated to their own species of 20th-century alienation." Tate claims that Flagellation "was one of the first novels to probe questions of freedom that lie outside the perimeter of civil liberties." Words such as "liberation" and "alienation," in and of themselves, evoke that time, half a century ago, when many Americans, particularly the young and disenfranchised, thought that they could remake their world and establish for themselves a new, different, "freer" and more self-fulfilling place within it.
The novel is modernist in style, dialogic in form (shuffling back & forth between Jimson's and Ideal's points of view) and quasi stream-of-consciousness in its technique. Hatcher Polite's prose is often jazz-inflected and even poetic, in the sense of its musicality and evocativeness (e.g., "The good answer blew a succulent sound down through the center of their common growl"& "Jimson, since you want to be succulently involved in petals, open and display your pistils. Flower me minute flecks of yellow dust"). Jimson is of the black middle class, spoiled child (he was given his own car at 16), self-described poet, dabbler in attitude, & play-actor (he has acquired a West Indian accent). One might label him a sado-idealist with an "inner child" enthrall to feelings of inadequacy. Jimson doesn't ever work, really. He feels that mundane jobs that might pay the bills are beneath him. He finally secures a sinecure at the Bureaucratique, a job uniquely fitted to his talent for doing nothing. On the job, he writes poetry with titles such as "A Byzantine Lady Under Glass." Ideal has a hometown, comes from Black Bottom, comes out of history. She and her first husband Adam ran away from their town's cultural provincialism to the Big City, the Big Apple, The Village. Ideal is a dancer before she meets Jimson (also married) and before they take up together and become locked into their own dance of mental (and sometimes physical) flagellation. Because of his phony accent, Ideal doesn't at first take Jimson for an American Negro. Because of her light skin color, Jimson first takes Ideal to be Puerto Rican. It may be significant to their relationship that they come by their "difference" differently, he, through performance, she, by way of history. Prior to Jimson's employment at the Bureaucratique, Ideal is the breadwinner in the household. She, unlike her man, seems willing to defer the Ideal in order to cope with the reality of day-by-day survival. And it is after Jimson insists that she stay home to be exclusively his housewife that her alcoholism, jealousy and psychological dis-ease push her over the edge. She may or may not kick Jimson out at the end. What a relief if she does. Which is not to say that Ideal is any more sympathetic a character than Jimson. It's just that she is ultimately better equipped to do what's necessary.
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