A New Heaven and Earth.
Reviewed by Mary James Dean
Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 16-18
The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 416 pp. $19.95.)
Alice Walker in The Temple of My Familiar creates a mythical saga, a journey to the source of unity behind our racial, sexual, and cultural diversity. Walker’s compression back to the “African Eden” provides a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, which gives energy to propel the soul forward with a revised cosmic understanding.
The novel leaves characters serving theme and events subordinate to mission. While the characters are believable, the plot is so dispersed, in eons of time, that the reader is asked to abandon logic and coherence in a “willing suspension of disbelief” and embrace a surreal blending of people, animals, cultures, countries, and sexes in a black, feminist, evolutionary view. The whole globe is caught up in a sensual, spiritual, liberating experiment toward an unfettered life.
The narrative voice shifts repeatedly as different characters tell their stories and add threads to the cloth in a Faulknerian weaving of a mythological past that becomes history.
The narration, although it is telling many stories, is always plaintive, simplistic, and almost ethereal in its timeless wisdom. It is both stream of consciousness and unconsciousness; as she says, “There was no seam. It was whole cloth. ” Out of this whole cloth, she renames people and events with brilliant use of language. Drawing from history, theatre, art, literature, psychology, she recreates a new universe with remnants of the old.
The five major characters in the novel–Fanny, Suwelo, Carlotta, Arveyda and Lissie–all become symbols for the contemporary voice that searches meaningful linkage to the past. In their separate journeys, they are bound together in strange and convoluted ways, perhaps signifying the ultimate unity of all persons. Fanny’s line goes back through poor blacks in Georgia and on back to Africa. Fanny’s grandmother, Celie, we met in The Color Purple. But that is only a taste of the many linkages of people, throughout time and places, visioned in the book. Lissie, the cornerstone of the entire novel, has been many people in different centuries, has been lover to men called Hal and Rafe, having children by both, but this is only one of her lives. Other lives take her back to Big
Mama Eula May who dipped snuff, made sugar tits, and said, “Ooo Wee” and also forced radical changes on the Island of the Gullahs off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Another life finds her in Africa being sold by her uncle to Arab slave traders. Still earlier, she was in a harem in North Africa, a cousin to black and white tree dwellers, an ancient priestess, Earth Mother, lover of men and women, daughter of a lion, and claiming to have had both black and white, male and female existences.
Behind the genealogies, Lissie’s and the others, that overlap black and white, Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female, there is constant quarrel with male/ white/materialistic/sexless history, and there is a search for a “first glimpse of ourselves before we, and all Britain, all Europe, became pressed into the forms created for us by civilization.”
This search comes to focus not on what divides races, cultures, countries, but on what unites the globe and binds us essentially to the rhythm and generativity of life. This is not a linear search, but a circular, cylindrical one that traces power back to “Isis, mother of Horus, sister and lover of Osiris, Goddess of Egypt. The Goddess, who, long before she became Isis, was known all over Africa as simply the Great Mother, Creator of All, Protector of All, the Keeper of the Earth, Thc Goddess.”
There are women in all the genealogies that lay claim to the noble earth mother tradition, but it is Lissie in whom the vision is consummate. She is as many lives as the imagination can create, each building on a blend of primal instinct, imagined history, and sensual fantasy. It is through Lissie that connections are made about people, animals, selves, passions, truths of time and space, for she is lesbian, man, woman, black, white, lion, goddess, priestess, warrior. She dates back to a time when human and animal were totally free and blended in harmony. But when men began to rule, they became jealous of women’s preference for animals and, thereafter, hunted animals mercilessly. Women lost their their [sic] animality and were only “familiar” with men; they lost their passion and their wildness.
It is this return to the generative passion that is Walker’s vision. The New Gospel is circular, Blakean, Laurentian, reaching back to all that has gone before and incorporating it into a prophetic unify of ourselves today. “Artists. . . were simply messengers. On them fell the responsibility for uniting the world.” Alice Walker has become an artist to unite the world.
Interestingly, she uses Laurentian symbols to describe the “familiar” and its “temple.” The “familiar” is an animal–part bird, part fish, and part reptile, (reminiscent of the phoenix and Quetzlcoatl imagery in D.H. Lawrence.) Its “temple” is a Native American adobe hut, representing freedom and rebirth. Walker describes the bird as trapped beneath a metal washtub (its naturalness stifled by white, metallic, middle-class restrictions on the natural self.) Centuries of slavery of mind and body, and particularly of the genitals, have all but crushed its free spirit. But, wonder of wonders, it breaks through the metal washtub to be free, rising like the phoenix, with “wings it had never used
before,” a victory of the solar plexus, the archetypal, primordial self.
This is, perhaps, the most irreverent holy book I have ever read, in which nothing is sacred and everything is holy. But, like other holy books, it is an overlay of stories, people and events that start, stop, and repeat as if compiled over centuries of time. Its mythology places black women at the center, for a return to the source of life in the African sun goddess.
But the sun may lure us, as it did Icarus, toward disaster if we fly too high or desire too much. Alice Walker has desired much in Thc Temple of My Familiar. She has soared in all directions, with no boundaries. The reader is left with little sense of focus on an organic plot, but with also a great sense of something masterful being done.
Although the cosmic connections are there, this is essentially an interior vision. The characters come together primarily to tell their stories and experience sexual and emotional revitalization, with little realistic relationship to everyday life, love and work. The novel stays trapped between the cosmic vision and the interior psychological struggle, so that the flesh and blood characters are important for their contribution to the symbolic imagery of the unity of all people.
The message remains clear, however. It is a celebration of oneness, peace, and forgiveness in the midst of diversity. As Mama Shug says, “Helped are those who love all the colors of all the human beings, as they love all the colors of animals and plants; none of their children, nor any of their ancestors, nor any part of themselves, shall be hidden from them.”
The universality of Alice Walker’s profound message of ultimate unity may be seen in this white reviewer’s own Mississippi history, as I remember that my grandmother was also called Big Mama. And she dipped snuff, made sugar tits, killed hogs, ate sorghum and fatback, spat offthe back porch, and said “Ooo Wee!”
MARY DEAN, M.A., D. Min., a native and long-time resident of Mississippi, now lives in Rochester, N. Y., where she practices marriage and family therapy.