U.S. Intellectual History Blog

They Reared Up Against Him Like Demons: Frederick Douglass and Catharsis

The Frederick Douglass Ireland Monument, by Andrew Edwards

While sailing from Boston to Ireland in 1845, Frederick Douglass found himself the subject of a great deal of attention. Some of it was kind, if a bit insistent, even invasive. Douglass was on board as a fugitive; the publication of his Narrative earlier that year had brought him not only considerable notoriety in the States but very real danger, as the book’s candid inclusions of real names and details left no doubt about his status as a former enslaved person and alerted his former enslaver–and any other interested parties–to his presence in Massachusetts. Many passengers, discovering these facts, begged Douglass to tell him his whole story. When Douglass demurred, they pressed the captain of the ship to request an impromptu lecture on the quarter deck.

A newspaper account of Douglass’s first speech in Ireland relays what happened next[1]:

[Douglass] had not uttered an entire sentence when one of the slaveholders said, ‘that is a lie.’ When he got into the middle of another sentence, another slaveholder said ‘that is a lie’ in true American fashion. Well said he, if every thing he had stated upon his own authority was a lie, he would read for them what they would admit was not a lie. He then took up a book and quoted from it the laws of the slaveholding states. A spark of fire thrown into a magazine could not have produced a greater explosion.—They could not bear to have the iniquities of slavery exposed, and they reared up against him like demons.

This seems to me a truly remarkable passage for a couple of reasons. First, I added the underlining, but you’ll no doubt appreciate the rich irony of Douglass’s phrase “in true American fashion.”[2] (Note also that he says “true American” and not “true Southern fashion.”) But the more substantial point is contained in the way that Douglass smashes the organized disruption which his hecklers are bent on creating. Simply by reading statutes aloud—by confronting the proslavery hecklers with the self-portrait they had created in law—Douglass turns them into howling “demons,” no longer capable (at least for the moment) of the kind of practiced, calculated denials they tried to use before.

One way of thinking about this little episode—which in its powerful simplicity resembles a biblical parable—is to focus on the fact that the text Douglass reads out is law. One might say that, by exposing the monstrosity of using legal formulae to further such obviously immoral purpose and to legitimize such inhuman deeds, Douglass in a sense is able to assume that legitimate authority which Law is supposed to hold: to paraphrase Hillel, in a place where there are no laws, strive to be the Law. If we think this way, it is important—necessary even—that Douglass is reading from American laws.

But Douglass also later takes out a variety of devices that had been used to chain, whip, or otherwise torture and restrain enslaved people and displays these to the gathered crowd. These objects are just as eloquent as the laws Douglass read, especially after Douglass retells the stories of the men and women whose necks and hands they had encircled. What is important about both these devices and the law is something more than just authority because they are more than just evidence. They attest to more than that something happened; they point beyond mere incidence. Their power is not forensic but, in a special Aristotelian sense, tragic.

Glosses of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy are a drachma-a-dozen, and innumerable scholars have argued over the fine points of translating the key sentence which lays out that enigmatic definition. For my purposes, I’m going to use one easily available through Project Gutenberg:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; […] in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.[3]

In this translation, “pity and fear” replace the more typical translation “pity and terror,” and “proper purgation” replaces what is generally left untranslated as “catharsis.” But “purgation” is useful, especially if we apply it to the scene from Douglass, for how else does Douglass describe the reaction to his reading of the law but as an “explosion?”

That may be a little opaque, so let me try to explain where I see a connection. When Douglass reads the laws and displays the torture devices, it is the performance of these actions rather than the words which hedge and buttress those actions (the narrations) that creates a particular kind of sensitivity in the audience. The ideal nature of that sensitivity (in Aristotle’s view) is “pity and fear,” but what is actually more important is the way the performer’s actions intensify the members of the audience’s sensitivity to each other, to the action itself, and to the original action which the performer is imitating. The successful creation of this sensitivity is felt as a kind of purgation or flush—a kind of fever or explosion. The pro-slavery hecklers are not the only ones to feel this: in fact, they seem to be just more vocal, but everyone in the audience is absorbed into the moment, exploding outward in a new kind of sensitivity to one another, to Douglass, and to the fact of slavery which those laws and chains represent.

In other words, when Douglass reads the laws, he’s not simply telling people things they already half-know. When he displays the torture implements, he’s not just confirming the rumors his audience has half-heard (or, in the case of any slaveholders present, probably suppressed). Or rather, it is important that these are things that people have half-heard and half-known because with his performance, Douglass is re-presenting the content of that knowledge as a completed whole—as an “action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.” Laws and chains aren’t explanations or descriptions, which will always be partial or ongoing. They are congealed actions, a permanent deposit of human activity that can be displayed to an audience as a complete whole.

I was thinking about these issues as I read the coverage of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. What’s the big deal? many people said. Didn’t we basically know all of this—if not in detail, at least in outline? But that reaction seems to me to miss the essential point of what is going on. The book’s evidence—new or widely known, embellished or scrupulous—is not really what people are reacting to. It is rather the way that the book creates a sense of its own completeness and, most importantly, the way we encounter it as an action—the book is itself a kind of imitation of Wolff’s original actions of interviewing, sitting in the Oval Office, walking through the White House—the thing we are responding to, connecting with is Wolff’s astonishing, extended action of being there, amidst the campaign and then the administration. The explanations, anecdotes, details—in short, the narrative—is secondary to that action.

The explosion which has greeted Wolff’s book—and I don’t just mean the tweets—can then rightfully be thought of as a purgation, as a catharsis, although I don’t mean that in the way the term is most often used—as a kind of relief and a cleansing. There may be some of that for some people, but what seems fairly clear is that the book has permitted people to re-develop a variety of sensitivities that they have spent the past year and a half (or more) declaring were burned out. The book’s content may not be “shocking,” but it may have the effect of releasing us from the burden of having to declare that we have lost the ability to be shocked. Our responses to it may release us from the weird cycle of having constantly to decide if we are shocked or not, if we should attribute some new administrative action to shrewdness or impulsiveness. If catharsis is—as I’m arguing—simply a heightened sensitivity that is experienced communally, I cannot but see how Fire and Fury—like Douglass onboard that Irish-bound vessel—is a nearly classic example.

[1] The whole piece—collected in the Frederick Douglass Papers as “Slavery and America’s Bastard Republicanism”—is amazing, both for the drama of this episode and for Douglass’s inimitable rhetorical power.

[2] The newspaper account I’m quoting from was mostly an indirect transcription of Douglass’s words: rather than republished verbatim, verb tenses and pronouns were shifted to the third person and some explanatory comments were added for the Irish reader. In other words, we can most certainly attribute that phrase and its irony to Douglass, even if the Irish editors no doubt enjoyed it also.

[3] I excised the clause “in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play” for the simple but adequate reason that I have very little clue what it’s supposed to mean.

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