Literary World

Radicalism In Edgar Mittelhozer’s My Bones And My Flute


Literature’s purpose is to serve humanity by reflecting the behavior of individuals within a given society so that readers can learn-by either avoiding such vices or imbibing from the experiences. Before Mittelhozer’s narration, the West Indies had experienced numerous crises. The author had taken the advantage of the tragic situation to recreate the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763. The study therefore, had examined Mittelhozer’s My Bones and My Flute, set in a jungle of Guyana. The study consequently explored some of the vices that have brought racial discrimination, political, economic, identity and moral crises that led to the ultimate revolution and of course the replacement of the existing law at the jungle with people’s oriented law. It used Marxist critical approach to unfold events in the text; and carefully situated them within their radical milieu as antidotes to bring about change in the society. Taken a cue from the foregoing, Nigerians were urged to get united and fight corruption, injustice, despotic tyrants who portray themselves as political leaders and of course the insurgents in every nook and cranny of the country.
Key Words: Literature, Marxism, Politics, Economics, Revolution, Law and Injustice

Edgar Mittelholzer’s allegorical novel, My Bones and My Flute represents the radical struggles of the Caribbean writers against oppressions. Radicalism therefore, is the belief that there is a need for a clear awareness of the root causes and character of things, by which one can recognize and penetrate superficial or false appearances; in political terms. This is often accompanied by the belief that society requires fundamental and drastic changes. According to the online Wikipedia, “radicalism denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways” (n.p). It is derived from the Latin’s root word, “radix”. However, the denotation meaning of radical has changed since its eighteenth-century coinage to comprehend the entire political spectrum-yet retains the “change at the root” connotation to fundamental revolutionary societal change (n.p). This proposition is closely linked to the West Indies’ political experience.

The history of the Caribbean is peculiar. It does not involve gradually and naturally out of the remote mythological and archaeological past, but begins abruptly with the “discovery” of the Bahamas in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. After a while, there comes, the discovery of gold at the region which beckons at the colonizers’ attention to the region, and later on sugar which turned out to be a very lucrative crop. This mining of gold and to the greater extend, the discovery of great economic potential of sugar-cultivation in the world market precipitated the institutionalization of slavery in the West Indies. Under the slavery, the humanity of the blacks is progressively eroded, especially with arduous work for hours and stringed penalties for absenteeism and the promulgation of the slave code which gives legal sanction to slaves.

This bleak experience leads to the abolition of slave trade in the region. Three fundamental reasons are however advanced for the positive actions which are economic, political and humanitarian. Even when the long expected emancipation of the Caribbeans came, it fails to usher in immediate fundamental changes in the lives of the people. Financially, they are ill-equipped. Most of them survive through subsistence farming or seasonal itinerant labour rather than work long hours for meager wages in the plantation of their erstwhile masters. Thus, the Caribbean has been therefore, described as a plural society made up of people displaying different modes of behavior and who are held together by economic reasons, rather than by a sense of belonging to a common culture. The brief biography of Edgar Mittelhozer’s has for us an apt example.

Mittelhozer is born on the 16th December, 1909 in New Amsterdam, the country’s largest city to the family of Austin Mittelhozer and his wife Rosamond Mabel. He is a famous Guyanese novelist. He is the earliest novelist from the Indian West region to establish himself in Europe and to have gained significant readership. Mittelhozer, who earns his living by writing fiction, is considered the first professional novelist to come out of the English-speaking Caribbean. His novels include characters and situations from variety of places within the Caribbean, and arranged them in time of early period of European settlement to twentieth century.

For instance, Mittelholzer’s Corentyne Thunder is said to have signaled the birth of the novel in Guyana. The thematic preoccupation of the novel is on the colonial experience of the Guyanese people. It is published in 1938 when Mittelholzer was aged 29. Most of his works feature a cross-section of ethnic groups and social class struggles, dealing with subjects of history, politics, economics, psychology, and moral interests. He is certainly the most prolific novelist to be produced by the Caribbean. However, he has committed suicide in England on May 5, 1965 at the aged 55. It is an incident that remained enigma to so many critics the world over.

The incident seems to be as the result of the increase difficulties he encountered in being published toward the end of his life that must have affected him seriously to resort to such a drastic measure of taken his own life. He is also badly in need of money to support his first wife and children, as well as his second wife and a son. However, this perception might be far from being truth because, the character, voorman in the novel My Bones and My Flute who also commits suicide, seems to be a representational of Mittelhozer himself, especially when one considers where he writes,” he who touches this parchment seals himself in a pact with me…to listen to my music, and, when I beckon, to join me in death. I shall never rest till the day that my bones and my flute are found and interred with Christian rites…” (124). This is just one instance out of many others in his works. This appears to be a window through which one can see clearly that Mittelhozer merely acted what he writes in his novels. Though, in an interview shortly after his demise, his second wife, Jacqueline Mittelhozer says, “he would not have killed himself if he could have supported our son and myself, and his other family, as he wanted. He wanted to do it all himself” (n.p). The reason advanced for committing suicide by the second wife may form part of the secondary reason as to why he burns himself to death, but certainly not the primary reason. The primary reason as earlier pointed out seems to be replaying of his script.

My Bones and My Flute is a story of a young artist, Woodsley, who accompanies the Nevinson family on a voyage into the deep Guyanese jungle. There, the bone of a Dutch plantation and a slave owner, Jan Pieter Voorman, lies unburied on the forest floor. The Nevinson family is cursed when they touched a manuscript Voorman has left behind. The curse manifests itself mainly in the form of the insistent sound of a phantom flute, until the novel reaches it climax.

The outline of the novel is strange. The unusual thing about it is that morality works as in form of European ghost story which mixes with the Caribbean’s history of slavery, political unrests and economic bottlenecks. The Berbice Slave Rebellion is the real subject of this novel, buried as the bones of the white slave-owner. The ghosts are presented as the spirits of the Whiteman plantation owner. Mittelhozer is credited for presenting the white plantation owner- and not the slaves-as the flute-playing ghost.

Having so done, the novel then proceeds to undermine the ghosts have been wronged. This continues to present more and more complex depiction of the white spirits that come to haunt the characters. Towards the end of the novel, Woodsley has transformed the characters and thrown them into crisis. This leads to the outstation of the colonial rule in the jungle. The jungle is a symbolic representation of Guyanese society. It has been discovered that the haunting flute has dabbled into the black art used to strengthen the struggle for total emancipation of the Carribeans. Woodsley then becomes so obsessed with the colour and class of his fellow characters in the novel. This has so much spurred him to lead the revolution that brought about the replacement of the Whiteman’s law with that of the masses in the novel.

At its best, Mittelhozer is here presenting a complex, but realistic characters, setting the racial tones, crisis and political struggles in his ghost thrilling story, My Bones and My Flute. Mittelhozer is fully aware that the common, racial attitudes of the whites has affected Woodsley so bad that he never develops further as a character in the novel despite his higher academic qualifications. This is one reason that spurs him to fight the existing law in the jungle, until is being replaced with the people’s oriented one. This is a symbolic representation of the Carribean’s voice, political freedom and the quest for better life as recreated in the novel, My Bones and My Flute.

Theoretical Approach
The Karl Marx’s theory of reading of a literary text concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system. This has since gained credence amongst scholars such as George Wilhelm and Friedrich Hegel among others. The approach in this study would reveal that one has only deducted some elements of Marx’s theories and not taken them in entirety. Marxists are also concerned with historical and cultural issues. They therefore, identifies with social and economic factors such as a crucial denominator of relationship in the society as we have seen in the synopsis of Mittelhozer’s My Bones and My Flute. The people have worked so hard in their quest for meat but bone is given to them instead. This is a universal experience that can be found even in our own Nigeria today. The political class have high-jacked the country’s wealth, leaving behind millions in abject poverty, most of whom do not seem to have reasons for living.

Marx sees a capitalist society as basically a class society where the oppression of a class by another is perpetrated. The philosophy of Marxism is deeply rooted in what is known as “dialectical materialism” which stresses economic determinism as an index of social struggles just as we have seen in Mittelhozer’s My Bones and My Flute. Thus, the interest of Marxist literature is to defend the cause of the oppressed. These critics, therefore, believe that the achievements of this goal are by evolving an egalitarian society where the ideal is stressed. The following lines from Bayo Lawal seem to have summarized the cardinal points of Marxism as a literary theory:
In the capitalist system, work or labour, is deceitful because, in Marx’s view man
likes to be proud of what he creates and in the capitalist society, the fruit of
man’s creative ability is for the capitalists. Man therefore, becomes estranged from
what he produces. He is also alienated from the person who gets what he creates
for him to sell at a price very high than the cost of the production to strengthen
and to ensure the exploitative connection (126).

From the forgoing, it can be deduced that Mittelhozer has presented a complex, but realistic characters, setting the racial tones and struggles for political and economic freedom in his profound ghost story, My Bones and My Flute. The novel is not only put in the landscape of Guyana’s society that is filled up with supernatural and mythic elements, but also in the consciousness of how the artistic process can work on daily reality so as to transform it into something strange and fantastic for people to learn from.

In My Bones and My Flute, Mittelholzer once again revisits the subject of the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763. It is carefully weaved to give a reader graphic pictures of the plight of the people. This is akin to what Jane Bryce observes, “Mittelholzer crafted his words to give the reader a unique sense of the occasion, using several paragraphs from his book, My Bones and My Flute to demonstrate the suffering of his people” (n.p). This suggests that the novel is a product of history, trying to recreate events that have taken place in the past. However, it is important to note that Mittelhozer has gone extra miles by not allowing the European and American books he read to influence his writings. This claim seems to be better expressed in the words of Juanita Cox where he puts, “in Mittelhozer’s case he has struggled to promote the growing consensus that West Indian writers should endeavour to produce materials that are uniquely West Indian in characters” (n.p). This is somehow similar to the negritude philosophy that beckons on the African writers to weave stories that will tell the rest of the world, that we have history, culture and religion long before the Whiteman sets his foot into the continent of Africa. Chenua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngugi wa’Thiongo’s Grain of Wheat and Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewels among others have for us fantastic examples. In another place, Cox argues:
Mittelholzer saw nothing inherently wrong with writing about certain aspects of West Indian society, he nevertheless felt deeply uncomfortable within the context of 1950s Britain, about literary material or cultural practices which appeared to nurture or intensify white racial prejudice and notions of West Indian primitivism. Having been subjected to regular bouts of maltreatment by his Negrophobe father on account of his swarthy complexion, Mittelholzer was acutely sensitive to the pernicious presence of race ideologies not just in the Caribbean (the legacies of which he explores in novels such as The Life and Death of Sylvia and A Morning at the Office) but also across the globe (n.p).

This has beautifully situated the writings of Mittelhozer within its Caribbean- milieu, drawing from the Guyanese political experience to teach moral lessons. Having said this, the rest of the paper will attempt to establish elements of Marxism as a critical lens adopted by the paper to demonstrate how radical approach is used to bring about change in the society. In doing this, the paper shall look at issues such as class struggle, politics, and revolution in Mitteholzer’s My Bones and My Flute among others. There may be other issues raised in the text but, the researcher chooses to tilt his analysis towards Marxism’s elements in it.

Class Struggle
The text preoccupies itself with the subject of equality. It is systematically demonstrated in My Bones and My Flute as well as in The Life and Death of Sylvia, by replacing the laws of the jungle with codes of the suburbs. The jungle symbolically represents the Caribbean nations. It portrays this with bleakness showing the lives of coloured people whose worship of ancestral ju-jus has changed into a strong united force to fight back at the Whiteman’s injustices meted on them almost on a daily basis. Woodsley, the protagonist in the novel is indeed angered at the injustice of the Western world on them. This includes the subject s of civilization as Cox asserts, “negroes and coloured” alike – had been civilized for at least as long as Americans. His desire for Caribbeans to be accepted as a ‘civilized’ equals is rooted not only in the self-proclaimed belief that “human characters are basically the same everywhere in the world and cultural influences of the Carribeans” (n.p). This appears to be the representation of what is happening to many peoples across the globe today including our own Nigeria.
This claim is graphically portrayed in the flute imagery in the novel. The insistent sound of a phantom flute in the novel suggests the fall of the white’s culture and law. The event is symbolic in the book. It suggests that Mittelhozer draws inspiration or simple recreated the account of Berbice Slave’s Rebellion of 1763. This seems to be a way of telling the Carribeans people that the tyrants can be defeated again as the slave did in the past.

Nigerians need this kind of mindset to come out of the political muddle that has engulfed the country for the past three decades. We do not need angels to come down from heaven to make things right for us, we all need to start the struggle for change now, or never.

The allegorical ghost thrilling story is challenging the political class to recognize the workers in the society, because on them the state economic thrives. That they should be given the kind of attention, wages, salaries and other entitlements that they deserved. Then, he turns to the masses, stressing that they must also realize that they have to participate in a future government if they want to be able to claim that they are patriotic Guyanese who are prepared to contribute to the well-being of the nation. This is dramatized in the novel as a cultural practice that metamorphosed into full fledged revolution. Woodsley believes very strongly in the rights of each individual to express their own personal concerns and preoccupations. This opines that all human beings are equal before their Creator, he or she that fears Him and does His will is most closed to Him.

As Cox observes, “it is the complex nature of [Caribbean] social origins, and the conflicting loyalties involved in the scheme of…race, class and economic status, which dictate that each must tread his own lone-wolf path of literary expression” (n.p). This is portrayed in the novel in the role of the ghost that comes to fright the characters at the jungle. It somehow suggests that some political class is known for mischievous acts. It is demonstrated in My Bones and My Flute, where the white plantation owner- and not the slaves- are presented as the flute-playing ghost. Cox further adds “this suggests that Mittelholzer, particularly when we take into consideration novels like Corentyne Thunder, My Bones and My Flute, A Morning at the Office, and the Kaywana Blood had recognized the importance of providing for the region documented records of the religions, politics, economic and socio-cultural past and present” (n.p). With this, it may not be wrong to say that My Bones and My Flute has so much in common with Guyana’s history. This has also beckoned at the subject of power which is central to the reading of the novel. Closely related to this, is who does the work and who takes the profits? In the words of Petamber Persaud, “ in My Bones and My Flute, Mittelholzer once again revisits the subject of the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763”(n.p). This claim can be critically seen in the character of Woodsley who had all the necessary education qualifications to be among the first class citizens, but does not seem to be growing economically in any way in the novel.

What we have seen towards the end of the novel is akin to the assertion of Marx that goes thus, “unstable societies develop sites of resistance: contradictions build into the social system that ultimately lead to social revolution and the development of new society upon the old” (1088). Mark’s position seems to have captured the corrupt practices that we are witnessing today among the political class. Some of them have assumed the position of demi-gods believing that nothing will work in Nigeria without them. The flute metaphor for instance is an archetypal representation of injustices meted on the Caribbean’s peoples by extension Nigerians. Mittelholzer’s sensitivity to Western racial prejudice clearly provides some indication as to why he felt driven to write a novel about coloured middle class society such as My Bones and My Flute. This is demonstrated in one of Mittelhozer’s essays tittled, “The Caribbean Voices”, where he writes: “We have been looked upon too long as “natives” and for once and all, I want to have the truth out, I want the English and Americans to realize that there are colored “natives” out here who can be just as educated and refined as they can be… [; at the same time] all our failings and foibles will be pictured without bias” (19). This seems to have demonstrated Mittelholzer’s anger at the injustices of the Western countries to the Caribbeans. This idea is seen in so many places in the character of the white slaves owner in the novel not the slaves. The ghosts are presented as the spirits of the white plantation owner. It is Mittelhozer’s genius to portray the white plantation owner- and not the slaves-as the flute-playing ghost. Thus the flute-playing ghost becomes the metaphor echoing injustices, corruptions, humiliations, and murders amongst other forms of inhuman treatments that aptly captured the plight of the Caribbean’s peoples. Thus, the only way-out for the jungle dwellers is to fight back. They have done it with all they had, and gallantly won because their thoughts, words and actions are in harmony. This is fittingly demonstrated in the imagery of fire used to ward off the evil spirits at the jungle of Guyana in the novel, and the great revolution that led to the outstation of the plantation owner’s representatives and the subsequent replacement of the law at the jungle with that of the masses. This is beautifully portrayed in the characters of the Caribbean slaves in the novel and their fellow country men and women dwelling at the jungle of Guyana.

My Bones and My Flute is concerned with presenting the problems confronting the Caribbean peoples. The study identifies and discusses such problems, which include racial discrimination, bad political atmosphere, economic challenges that ranges from unemployment, poverty and, of course the ultimate revolution that led to the replacement of the existing law of the jungle with a new one. This seems to be a platform through which Mittelhozer and the rest of Caribbean writers used to reflect the society in their writings. Most of these works are subtly presented in such a way that will provoke the reader to right thinking and right action as we have seen in the text above. This is in line with the sensible radical Marxism. Mittelhozer’s cleaver presentation of characters and events in the novel has in so many ways spurred the revolution towards the end of the novel. However, the central message to a society in a dire need of transformation seems to have been well presented, acted upon and of course won by the jungle dwellers. Taking a cue from how events unfold in the novel and the huge success made at last, it seems convenient to opine that Nigerians need to go back to the bottomless pit of our rich cultural heritages and picked treasures upon treasures re-worked them in such a way that they can be channeled to give us one voice just as the jungle dwellers did in the novel with the view to fighting all forms of injustice, insurgency, corruption, poverty, unemployment and despotic tyrants in every facet of our nationhood.

Works Cited
Primary Source
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Great Britain: Heinmann Books, 1962. Print.
Lawal, B. & Olugbae, K. “Issues in Contemporary African Social and Political Thought”
Vol. 1. Ibadan: Vantange Publishers, 1989. Print.
Mittelhozer, Edgar. My Bones and My Flute. London: Secker & Warburg, 1955. Print.
— The Jikington Drama. London: Secker & Warburg, 1960. Print.
— A Swarthy Boy . Trinidad: Royal Press, 1958. Print.
— The Life and Death of Sylvia. London: Secker & Warburg, 1960, Print.
Okunoye, Oyeniyi. “Locating the Other: Re-Reading Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners”
Gege, Ogun Studies in English Vol. 5. Ago-Iwoye; OOU Press, 2005. Print.
Secondary Source
Bagoo, Andre. “The Ghost of Edgar Mittelholzer”. Web. 9 November, 2014.
Bryce, Jane. “Edgar Mittelhozer Memorial Lecture Examines the Genesis of CarribeaWritings”.
Web. 9 November, 2014.
Cox, Juanita. “Edgar Mittelhozer: A Carribean Voice” Web. 10 November, 2014.
Persaud, Petamber. The National Library Centenary, Part Two: “My Bones and My Flute”.
Web. 11 November, 2014.
Seymoour, Arnad J. “ Mittelhozer and the Ghost of Voorman”. Web. 12 November, 2014.U

Umar Osabo

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