The System of Dante’s Hell
The Gold Diggers and Other Stories
Thumbing a lift from Dante is evidently getting fashionable. First, there was Robert Rauschenberg; and now LeRoi Jones uses the descending circles of the Inferno as the structure of an autobiographical novel about a Negro childhood and adolescence in Newark, N.J. This scaffolding gives the book an ambitious appearance, but it doesn’t seem to me to serve much organic function, except, possibly, providing guide-lines to the author’s memory and imagination. Certainly, the reader can do without it: the Hell that Mr. Jones writes about is terrible enough without bringing in factitious echoes of Dante. Early on Mr. Jones gives a brutally uncompromising warning: “This thing, if you read it, will jam your face in my shit. Now say something intelligent!” Faced with a challenge like that, the reviewer needs all the help he can get; fortunately, Mr. Jones makes his intentions clear in a short epilogue to the novel called “Sound and Image”:
What is hell? Your definitions.
I am and was and will be a social animal. Hell is definable only in those terms. I can get no place else; it wdn’t exist. Hell in this book which moves from sound and image (“association complexes”) into fast narrative is what vision I had of it around 1960-61 and that fix on my life, and my interpretation of my earlier life.
He goes on to talk of the Negro’s “dichotomy of what is seen and taught and desired opposed to what is felt” in a society “where God is simply a white man, a white ‘idea’…”. and argues:
For instance, if we can bring back on ourselves, the absolute pain our people must have felt when they came onto this shore, we are more ourselves again, and can begin to put history back in our menu, and forget the propaganda of devils that they are not devils.
“Hell,” he concludes, “was the inferno of my frustration. But the world is clearer to me now, and many of its features more easily definable.”
Mr. Jones’s conclusion is almost serene, but the preceding narrative is anything but that. The first part of his book is a rapid, disjunctive series of impressions of the vitality, squalor, violence, and promiscuity of urban slum life, in which any kind of coherence or organization is sacrificed to the demands of immediacy and intensity:
Darkness. Shadows, the brown flags fold. Blue windows. Placards with large-lipped women. Lovers. You have a checkered swag, now cool it. Down the stairs. Pause on the stoop, to look both ways. The King of the Brewery tilted under night. A hill, for air, and my space. To Norfolk Street. The fag’s boundary, they had a limit.
This is probably satisfying to write but soon gets monotonous to read. In spite of the endeavors of some recent writers, language remains a frail instrument that can rarely perform all that is asked of it. And nothing is harder than to convey the sensation of direct, unmediated physical …