In the fall of 2016 I began writing a review essay that focused on four recent texts about Nat Turner: two historical monographs, Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, and a new play at the New York Theatre Workshop—Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem. At stake in the essay, which remains unpublished, is a question of narrative: how do scholars and artists tell the story of US slavery’s bloodiest uprising? By extension, what onus do we place on history and fiction as categories of authority concerned with what is “true” about this (or any) event, and what is not. Fiction, of course, is untrue, yet we frequently understand it as second-order truth telling. History, on the other hand, is true insofar as it points to sources duly noted as part and parcel of the very narrative that weaves such citations together, though the fulsomeness of such truth may be limited by available sources and other contingencies. I was curious to test Maya Jasanoff’s observation that Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” offers “something a historian would be hard-pressed to achieve: . . . build[ing] dramatic power through the misperceptions of an unreliable narrator, and follow[ing] this with an explosive revelation of truth.”
Can fiction offer a viable, even preferable alternative to history?
Good novelists and historians both recognize the objective limits of their respective crafts, of course—even as they ply them with distinction. In between these well-wrought exemplars, however, lies considerable gray area. One of the many important aspects of Nat Turner’s legacy is the way such a remarkable actor and event annihilate most stable negotiations between history and fiction as fact and fabrication. History’s best practices, by both accident and design, cannot responsibly convey the depth and range that mark Nat Turner’s legacy. Yet, counter to Jasanoff, no Melvillian fiction (or insightful critic like Jasanoff to interpret it) has emerged. Pulitzer Committee and James Baldwin be damned, William Styron’s 1967 novel has not aged well. Nor have the arguments of his most vociferous critics. Instead we find a growing number of texts that deepen the historical-fictional morass. As an antidote I wished for my review essay to invoke a third category of authority to make sense of this insufficient binary of history and fiction.
Religion reflects on these in-between spaces, offering a critical disposition capacious enough to contend with both ultimacy and its constructedness. Spanning history and fiction, so-called “truth” and “untruth,” religion represents, we might say, all there is to confront all there is.
The vacuum of certainty surrounding Nat Turner has yielded a surfeit of meaning. As a phenomenon, the uprising offered an immediate proof-text for slaveholders’ worst fears—that enslaved people were aggrieved, that they could strike back collectively, exacting violent revenge in the process. From contemporary sources and later WPA (Works Progress Administration) interviews we learn that news traveled quickly, no doubt encouraging enslaved subjects even as they braced for the draconian regulations and retributions that immediately spread across the southern United States in response. Versions of Nat’s story have found consistent retelling since the Civil War in periodicals, novels, comics, drama, film, and scholarly works addressing the uprising’s history, memory, and cultural reception. All of these sources are beset by—even as they participate in—a fog of indeterminacy that mirrors the earliest “authoritative” account of the uprising: the notoriously unstable text of the Confession, allegedly Nat’s oral statement transcribed by a local white attorney in the short window between Nat’s capture and his trial. The 1831 Confessions hosts nothing less than a rhetorical battle for narrative control of the uprising. Is infanticide justified or evil? Is Nat a religious virtuoso or a lunatic? A deep and informed reading recognizes the text fighting at cross-purposes with itself. Doing justice to such internal contradiction requires something akin to biblical source criticism even to attempt disentangling the voices.
Such unreliability of narrative, its ironic indeterminacy of voice, is precisely why the event’s legacy remains so vital. It proves impossible to confine, and so we must make every effort to do so. As Albert Schweitzer noted about the Historical Jesus, these various historical and fictional “real” Nats wind up bearing an undeniable resemblance to the person who invokes him. (In this, to be sure, I am no exception.) “Facts” are always slant, never objective but carefully cultivated to political ends. And so, we can trace the generational shifts: Nat the monster, Nat the Marxist revolutionary, Nat the Black Power activist, Nat the “savior of women”—what is real anyway?
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While it is not something one generally claims so bluntly, I am an ironist. My research, teaching, and more general disposition in religious and literary studies reflect irony’s stable and unstable forms. Consider this introductory blurb for one of my courses, “Irony in Religion and Literature,” which claims that,
Religion and literature both generate meaning from human experience. Sometimes these meanings are stable but more often they are not. Life is uncertain and the meaning we give it through literature and/or religion matches this instability. Irony allows us to hold multiple meanings, contradictory truths, in tension, equipping us to deal with the absurdity of reality in meaningful ways—even when there may seem to be no stable meaning.
The enemy is fundamentalism in all its forms. The benefit of understanding religion as an ironic prospect derives from encouraging students to abjure rigidity and imagine religion in the fullness of its capacity for play with, and improvisation upon, extant forms and structures in creative ways. To argue as I do that irony bears an indispensable role in both the reality and redressment of American racial dynamics, then, means neither to take such dynamics unseriously nor to lack sincerity of conviction in dealing with them. Irony is not a joke but the abiding, improvisational compulsion to flourish within the joke of human reality. It subverts determinate meaning, to be sure, yet it also—less famously, yet no less powerfully—solidifies meaning in the face of indeterminacy, never surrendering to nihilism. Like religion, and like racial constructions, irony builds communities around the contingency of meaning, through which diverse people and groups may find relationship even while also violently keeping others away. It demarcates at the same time it draws together, constituting, in W. Clark Gilpin’s phrase, “the form of wisdom, and its limit.”
In this way, Nat Turner’s renewed cultural prominence during the autumn of 2016 augured something more than its clear connection to the entrenchment of a white supremacist order, emboldened by, among other things, a monstrous appropriation of poststructuralism. The final “save” of my lamented review essay, advocating religion’s capacity for managing tensions between fact and fiction, occurred in the second week of November 2016—providing a clue to the terms of its abandonment. Offering undue tribute to no regime, I credit the events of that week only with reflecting a symptom of larger anxieties already in place for some time, anxieties that linger in the conscience of every ironist who dares to care and not to care: What are irony’s limits? What if people fail to understand? What happens when you denude “facts” or advocate for multiple truths? Does that differ from simply playing “both sides”? Can one conscionably discuss Nat Turner’s inscrutability when perhaps what matters most in the present tense is the certainty that he fought and died in struggle against an evil system whose fingerprint remains evident in institutions that abide and flourish to this day—institutions in which we both, dear reader, remain complicit? What could there be, more than this?
A little more than a year ago, elements of the “post-truth” reality it is my vocation to diagnose and negotiate came to life in the relentless form of a most carnivalesque nightmare. How could I advocate for indeterminacy in print as I watched it become weaponized against vulnerable human bodies and souls in real time?
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The interrogative position for this forum—“Is this all there is”—invokes a powerful episode in volume three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle (a title—Min Kamp in the Norwegian—whose own irony resonates anxiously in the present moment). The protagonist, Karl Ove, now a teenager, finds himself in the midst of transition. A junior participant in the Norway Cup, he has traveled from his provincial home to Oslo. During a match he collapses from heat exhaustion and, on the brink of consciousness, hears Roxy Music’s “More than This” playing in the distance:
“More than This” was so captivating and so beautiful, and all around me in that . . . summer night lay a whole capital, not only crowded with people, of whom I knew nothing, but also record shops with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good bands on their shelves. . . . The traffic hummed in the distance, everywhere there was the sound of voices and laughter, and Bryan Ferry singing More than this—there is nothing. More than this—there is nothing.
Karl Ove exists in this moment outside himself, ecstatic—an observation that holds true in several regards: The novel’s autobiographical elements see Karl Ove Knausgaard (the author) imagine, stylize, and render this (presumably) lived, historical experience in the form of his fictional protagonist Karl Ove. He presents this moment, this space in between consciousness and unconsciousness, as somehow out of time, yet also a significant point of demarcation: Karl Ove’s embarkation from “Boyhood Island.”
Beginning and end, this episode reflects on the way moments of uncertain transition may later impose retrospective organization upon the superfluity of human experience. Herein we witness the perfect synthesis of truth and fiction, fact and fabrication. Life is so strange, so large, so ironically superlative even in its tedium that “lies” alone can contain its veracity. Framing this moment, and perfectly so, an enigmatic chorus:
More than this? There is nothing more than this.
Knausgaard’s prose presents the chorus differently from both the recorded performance and from the way I offer it above: “More than this—there is nothing. More than this—there is nothing . . .” sounds comically wooden in comparison to Bryan Ferry’s recursive delivery. Canonical lyrics prove hard to come by, but most sources forego determinate punctuation—perhaps in the attempt to echo Ferry’s enjambment, which sounds something like “More than this, there is nothing more than this,” a move supported by the next line’s variation: “Tell me one thing more than this” (and note that Knausgaard omits this line, marking it—deliberately or not—as misremembered).
“Nothing more” pulls double duty that I also detect in the “all” of this forum’s titular interrogation, “Is this all there is.” “Nothing more” registers as both negation and plenty. “All” reflects both excess and deficiency. We live in the negotiated space between these options—creative, improvisatory, open-ended in defiance of over-determination, indeed—ironic. What happens then, when instead of over-determination, in lieu of fundamentalism, the horizon of emergency becomes “post-fact,” “fake news,” characterized by indeterminacy, lack of definition, even nihilism? How shall we manage those shapeless things to come?
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There is a moment in the 1831 Confessions where Thomas Gray interrupts Nat Turner, who is in the midst of describing the voices and visions that spurred his uprising:
Ques. Do you not find yourself mistaken now? Ans. Was not Christ crucified.
Here Nat offers another interrogative position—a question that isn’t a question. Perhaps Gray asked the question. Perhaps he presents Nat’s answer with fidelity. Perhaps none of it happened and Gray supplied the exchange after the “fact.” Perhaps Nat spoke his response with unquestioning resolve. Perhaps Gray and his editors, in their haste to publish, overlooked a question mark. Contemporary scholars often fail to notice the construction, supplying the question mark erroneously when offering the quotation.
Whatever the explanation, the exchange from Gray’s perspective paints Nat as a lunatic. From Nat’s perspective the exchange registers as prophetic. Its uncertain punctuation casts it as more profoundly uncertain. As religionists such ambivalence—any ambivalence—ought to remain our strength, not our unmaking. The study of religion, ranging as it does across ongoing negotiations between fact and fabrication, pushing beyond bifurcations of history and fiction to convergences of ultimacy and its constructedness, provides an outstanding pedigree and intellectual disposition for creativity and even meaning in the face of relentless nada.
Is this all there is. I tell you there is nothing more than this.