LEAVING CREATION TO UN-CREATE ITSELF: Carah Naseem on James Chapman’s Degenerescence

james chapman

Degenerescence, James Chapman, Fugue State Press

The storyteller has many faces and many voices. It is his responsibility to hide behind the faces and voices of peoples past to tell about the things that have happened. He weaves beautiful often obtuse words into a quilt of drama and intrigue wrapping you in it, kindling the fire of familiarity in your mind. The storyteller tells the same seven stories in words forever sevenfold.

James Chapman is disenchanted with the storyteller. In his Degenerescence, Chapman undermines the storyteller, he takes the story and breaks it over his knee; he then cares for it, nurtures it, and strips it of what it’s worth, leaving only the raw event, the ‘it’ of the story, and tosses everything else aside. Chapman captures the ostinato of the ancient mind pattern, conjuring the habits of the pre-Sophoclean man. In essence, James Chapman has written an epic.

Said epic begins in a world defined by lack of definition. It is a world constructed of words; if a word exists, then so the object exists. Each named thing, each thing in existence, is divine, and has purpose to exist. We enter into a world of primordial semantics, devoid of all implication. Take, for example, this excerpt:

Speak of fish. Take it in your hands. Fish is brought here by the speech of the name “fish.” Speaking the name “fish” enables fish to appear. First fish appears in the mind, then in the hand… (16)

In this, Chapman has portrayed the rudimentary desire to obtain, and to do so by speaking words. He communicates with the reader not in a cerebral fashion, but instead taps into a more primal brain function, for the proto-Babel language.

In Degenerescence, we see the world being destroyed and recreated by a tumultuous goddess named WOE, who takes it upon herself to define the world through the speaking of words; she speaks words for one thousand eight hundred days, and creates a world of her own. She births seven daughters, with the stillborn inkling of an eighth, with the intention to send them into the world that she created, only to have them each fail in succession, and return to their heavenly abode—a hut—where their mother cares for them once more.

WOE watches on as the world she created moves without her. The people have appointed themselves a king, with whom she speaks regularly. The rest of the people, however, deny the presence of WOE’s daughters, her only ambassadors to her world:

They live together among the white cedars. WOE has created the world, yet only her seven daughters know her. All other persons of her creation ignore her or shun her as a shamed mother, an unmarried mother. She created them, and they treat her as a shamed mother, an unmarried mother. (39)

Note the usage of repetition, calling to mind ancient Sumerian devotional literature. What that particular excerpt has in common with ancient epics is that they have concepts that any reader can relate to. The words used are remarkably relatable, and yet eerie in their foreignness. There’s something queer about reading your life 2000+ years ago. Are we so mutable and recyclable? So the story goes.

And so the novel begins to tell things that happened. WOE looks on in horror as Portuguese explorers, Magellan and Pigafetta, step foot on the land of her people and give them words empty of substance. They give them the flowery, obtuse words of story, and the world she founded begins to collapse before her. Her words hold no water, and her world, too, holds no water. She comes to find truths about it, flaws. It is not, in fact, a world, but a mere island, to be called Mulatto, amongst many islands that the Britons (to represent the Western people) have conquered, and plan to conquer. WOE laments as the history of her people, however ungrateful they are, succumbs to this new story of Veni, Vidi, Vici.

It is interesting to note, for all those historians and anthropologists out there, Chapman’s geographic placement of WOE’s world. Upon further research, one can see that Magellan indeed circumnavigated the globe. However, Pigafetta accompanied him on his voyages to the Maluku Islands of the Indonesian archipelago only. Our created people of the novel, the Mulattans, are mentioned alongside the races of Dyaks, Jakurs, Battaks, and Fuegans, who were actually tribes of people from Borneo, Sumatra, and South America. Chapman, therefore, remains painstakingly within the confines of Magellan’s knowledge, but also filters it through the voice of the people, ignorant to all other things. The effect is a curious one, such that one feels the people live on a sort of congealed continent, a Pangaea of sorts.

WOE perceives her world as a Pangaea, a giant mass which she recreated on her own. And now, having nearly forgotten herself and her meaning because of her people’s neglect, she decides to leave. She sinks into her Panthalassa, the endless sea, and leaves her daughters, all her creation to un-create itself and to write itself a history.