Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Page references in parentheses are to the Harvest paperback from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Claude McKay’s 1929 novel Banjo provides a fascinating view of the Marseilles demimonde inhabited by a loose group of copains of African descent who live by panhandling, casual labor, and periodic work as seamen. Subtitled “A Story without a Plot,” the narrative is as episodic and aimless as the lives of the characters depicted. Apart from employing a sort of Chekhovian “slice of life,” still something of a novelty when the book was published, this technique is altogether appropriate for McKay’s theme which privileges id over superego, immediate sensual experience over ratiocination. Accepting the racial mythology which had been used to denigrate blacks, he simply inverted the associated values, celebrating intuition and the wisdom of the African body as inherently superior to the enervated European mind. 
To contemporary readers this bipolar opposition is likely to seem pernicious for purely political reasons as it treats ethnic difference as essential. In spite of the fact that Taloufia, Banjo, Bugsy, Goosey, and the gang often discuss racism, Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, and similar issues, the book’s chief focus is more psychological than historical or social. In fact, while always acknowledged, racism and black alienation are regularly secondary to the book’s celebration of life lived in the moment and the embrace of immediate sensual experience.
The line of hedonistic thinking extends from antiquity . Fifty years before McKay’s book, Walter Pater had formulated a passionate cri de coeur from similar attitudes with his ambition “to burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The same attitude accompanied by a racial paradigm like that in Banjo is central to Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” where petty hoodlums are praised for violent crime because their experience is so intense.
The tone of the whole volume is established in the opening passage in which Banjo exults in the breakwater, calling it “mahvelous” and “wonderful.” The book is filled with breathless excited catalogues.  One example occurs in Chapter 11 “Everybody Doing It.”
The scene was a gay confusion – peddlers with gaudy bagatelles; Greek and Armenian vendors of cacahuettes and buns; fishermen calling shell-fish; idling boys in proletarian blue wearing vivid cache-col and caps; long-armed Senegalese soldiers in khaki, some wearing the red fez; Zouaves in strking Arab costumes; surreptitious sou gamblers with their dice stands; a strong mutilated man in tights stunting; excursion boats with tinted signs and pennants rocking thick against each other at the moorings – everything massed pell-mell together in a great gorgeous bowl. (140)
Such delight – the scene is “gorgeous” -- is familiar to modern American readers. One might almost be reading Whitman or Jack Kerouac. Ray and Banjo, and presumably their author as well, are Ur-hipsters.
It is this anti-philosophy, not racial theorizing, that leads Ray to make such currently unacceptable statements as “We are a fun-loving race” (194) and to admire Banjo for his “negation of intellect” (242) or to note “the happy irresponsibility of the Negro in the face of civilization.” (313) Though it is blacks whom he characterizes as having an “intuitive love of color” and “strong appetites,” (165) he is in fact stating a categorical preference.
McKay sometimes sounds racially specific about this ability to lose oneself in the dance of life. “Negroes,” he says “are never so beautiful and magical as when they do that gorgeous sublimation of the primitive African sex feeling. In its thousand varied patterns, depending so much on individual rhythm, so little on formal movement, this dance is the key to the African rhythm of life . . . “ (105) Yet his claim is that through such harmonious participation one penetrates, not to an understanding of Africa alone, but to the very essence of reality. The most dramatic expression of his celebration of ecstatic experience is surely the lengthy scene that concludes Part I with a description of Banjo’s “orchestra” playing “Shake that Thing.” The passage mounts to a grand crescendo that concludes “eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent – the dance divine of life . . . Oh, Shake That Thing!” (58)
One might speculate about the role McKay’s homosexuality played in this insistence on pleasure’s demands, but it could equally be linked to the “roaring twenties” ethos or even to his Communism, meant, after all, to provide the greatest well-being to all (though the Stalinists could not understand him). To me, neither a child of the new twentieth century nor gay nor an orthodox Communist, his attitude is reminiscent of the painfully lovely lyrics of John Keats who found refuge from a world of pain in the immediacy of his experience and in poetry that made his passionate subjectivity available to a world of fellow sufferers, a grand band of copains made up of all those making their way along this black earth.
1. The same distinction, familiar already from D. H. Lawrence and others, appears in the négritude poets who owed so much to McKay.
2. All life naturally and unreflectively avoid pain and seeks pleasure. In written sources, apart from scattered passages in Sumerian and Egyptian texts and the book of Ecclesiastes, the most systematic exponents of hedonism in antiquity were the Cyrenaics.
3. See, for instance, also passages beginning on pages 13, 52, 67, 86, 284, and 307.