Volume X, Number 1, Spring 2014


"Péter Gaál-Szabó's “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back”: Zora Neale Hurston's Cultural Spaces in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah's Gourd Vine" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:

“Ah done been tuh de horizon and back”: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cultural Spaces in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
Gaál-Szabó, Péter
Debrecener Studien zur Literatur – Volume 16.
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011.
134 pp.
ISBN 978-3-631-61649-9 (Hardcover)

 

Péter Gaál-Szabó’s book focuses on the representation of African American female identity in Hurston’s fiction to explore the functioning of Modernist nonplaces, religious spaces, and gendered spaces in the two texts. Gaál-Szabó claims that despite the criticism of Huston’s male African American contemporaries who claimed Hurston’s fictional world was static and stereotypical according to white expectations, seen from the perspective of cultural spaces there is a dynamic interplay of African American cultural, religious, and gendered spaces in Zora Neale Hurston’s two novels. These spatial explorations can be conducted in the context of the anthropological turn and the current emphasis on spatial thinking. With relying on this context, Gaál-Szabó aims at turning critical attention away from Hurston’s use of language in constructing her characters’ identities. Also, there is an overall attempt to think of how to do theory after postmodernism that forms the background of the enterprise.

Hurston’s reception has had many twists and turns. Langston Hughes and Richard Wright criticised her work openly as using an image of the ‘Negro’ that appears in white minstrel shows, a life between laughter and tears that only shows an idealized, minority segment of the black population. It was the rising tides of Feminism and Black studies within the many currents of the Civil Rights Movement that led Alice Walker to rediscover Hurston’s grave and also her writings in the early 1970s, and Hurston’s critical fame has been rising steadily ever since. You may well recall Barbara Johnson’s excellent article on metaphors and metonymies in the construction of racial and gender positions in Their Eyes, while with the advent of cultural studies enhanced the interest in her work as an anthropologist doing thick description, and the blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction in her other writings as well. Gaál-Szabó’s book wishes to combine contemporary spatial theory and the anthropological interest in Hurston-studies to divert scholars’ attention away from Hurston’s language and to focus it on the functioning of cultural spaces instead. The book shows how female identities are negotiated dynamically in modernist nonplaces, in religious spaces, and in gendered spaces simultaneously, thereby escaping dualisms like male/female and sacred/ profane as well.

Chapter two surveys two antithetical approaches to space. The phenomenological approach endows the subject with the power to construct his world. Man can construct his space, and through this, his identity position, and also his body-image. Gaál-Szabó draws on Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard (among others) to illustrate this perspective. On the contrary, Marxist thinkers consider how the subject is produced and is ideologically confined by space, here the argument draws on Lefebre, Harvey, and Certeau, among others, to show various ideas of Foucaldian organized space with a totalizing and panoptic character. However, the book finds a middle way between these approaches in Certeau’s “walking” and Bhabha’s third space. Certeau grants the individual the upper hand in place construction, and Bhabha uses the concept of “third space” that refers to one’s building upon and negotiating a given socio-spatial paradigm.

Chapters three and four investigate the functions of cultural spaces in Hurston’s anthropological writing and place this within the context of African American modernism, respectively. On the role of anthropology for Hurston, the book claims that Hurston’s fiction models cultural rituals and processes in African American communities, and thus it can be seen as a series of anthropological treatises. (39) Moreover, Hurston’s use of cultural space bears similarity to trickster strategies in the African American folk tradition. She inverses typical African American spatial settings in a trickster-like fashion, for instance instead of moving North, her characters move South for a better life, and it is the jook, the African American pleasure house, that becomes the microcosm of the African American community.

This can all be reconsidered from the perspective of Hurston’s place within Black Modernism. Her South can be seen as a Modernist nonplace (à la Marc Augé), an antipicture in contrast to the black Modernist cultural space of the Harlem Renaissance in the North. Relying on Southern locations as nonplaces, she distances herself both from white representations of African Americans and from mainstream Black American self representations. Her method is mimicry, she imitates the minstrel tradition, but puts on a minstrel mask only to transmute it into “cultural performances which are at once linguistic, artistic, and politically informed.” (54)

Chapter five considers the role religious liminal spaces play in the construction of Hurston’s cultural space. Hurston intermixes different religious paradigms in her presentation of liminal sacred spaces and of the experience related to them. Christian sacred places and places of conversion are contrasted to sacred wilderness woodoo places, and eventually the two are linked. In Hurston’s retellings of traditional stories of conversion, sacred wilderness places offer characters the experience of ‘coming through religion.’ Similarly to other initiation rites, this is a three step process for Hurston’s protagonists: outside the community the characters’ experience functions to integrate them into the community. So for Hurston, sacred space turns out to be not only sacred but always societal and cultural. (73) Just one example: Janie’s experience of her womanhood under the pear tree in Their Eyes is both the first part of an initiation narrative and a story of eating from the tree of knowledge (with a difference now: pear tree), it is at the crossroads of the sacred and the secular worlds.

As far as gendered spaces are concerned, Gaál-Szabó claims that Hurston’s novels use spatial settings to explore how the female body is produced in hegemonic masculine social space and how women retain subjectivity through the counterhegemonic activity of shaping their own spaces. As part of this argument, chapter six shows how masculine space in Hurston is “transparent,” it is a homogeneous space that silences females. Then, interestingly, female social space is shown to bear “similar traits as masculine space because as it is structured on similar premises as its masculine counterpart, it maintains the female status quo through subversive power mechanisms.” (94) Therefore it is named after its masculine counterpart and is called transparent female space. In chapter seven, Hurston’s feminine spatiality is theorized. Gaál-Szabó finds that “Hurston moves beyond the binary of male/female, establishes a feminine sense of place apart from masculine social place, yet within it.” (101) This means that women construct places for themselves within the framework of masculine spaces, and their identity is constituted and negotiated in there. There are three kinds of such feminine places in Hurston: domestic space, the back yard, and outside these some sort of a built outside environment. Just one example, again the pear tree in the yard: it is an image of passive female subject in the form of the blooming tree that is dominated by masculine action, the bees. This is quite a traditional image of gender relations. Yet, this is also the space where Janie meditates, the place she comes back to, and where she thinks about herself; and so it becomes a filter, represents a set of values independent of the masculine world. Gaál-Szabó identifies this transformation of the function of a given female space “unsilencing” (107) (in the line of De Lauretis’ space-off, or Augé’s nonplace), the cultural act of reimmersion. Janie subverts controlling images of the black female and proposes an autonomous subjectivity yet embedded in a socio-cultural space. This process of thirding (Bhabha) establishes an integrated cultural space that allows the African American individual to become an agent within his/her culture.

The book performs a thoughtful act of critical positioning. It reinterprets Hurston’s position in relation to her African American male contemporaries from the perspective of cultural space along two constraints (culture and gender). At the same time, this focus represents a challenge for language oriented readings of Hurston’s texts. Although structurally clear, sometimes the book proves to be a difficult read because the introductory theoretical passages tend to be quite densely packed with information in each chapter. As a case in point, let me refer to the use of De Lauretis’ concept of the “space-off” used and critiqued in chapter 7. The concept is used and explained and critiqued (“the movement in and out of gender does not mean the abolition of gender in space-off but the inversion of gender in these spaces” (101)), then an overarching argument is built on this correction, namely that “feminine spaces, thus feminine subjectivity, are not merely ideological constructs” (101), and “Hurston’s characters perform their subjectivities, … proving an always already presence of the subject as a holistic, irreducible unit” (101). Then the concept of the space-off leads to yet another concept, Raoul Eshelman’s idea of performatist fiction (102) where subjects can resist totalization and contextualization, can be culturally reimmersed. – Given the importance of this line of thought for the argumentation and given that Eshelman explains this idea in the context of architectural space and fictional space as well, its integration into the preliminary discussion in the chapter on the theories of space would be enlightening. All the more so when taking into account that there is a lot at stake in this idea of the subject in terms of possible theoretical positions beyond postmodernism.