“Is this the Region, this the soil, the clime,
Said then the lost archangel, this the seat
That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best
Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free;”-Paradise Lost
Upon initial viewing, it’s hard to define John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Paul Brunick begins by noting it “is an unclassifiable collage of archival footage, canonical literature and severe winter landscapes. Conceptually ambitious and oblique in the extreme, it’s an experimental work that is difficult to unpack critically but impossible to engage without context” and then he immediately tries to help us “get it”.The juxtaposition of an “anonymous black figure”, wandering the Alaskan wilderness in a neon raincoat with found footage of mid-century Britain gets the message across eventually, even to this clueless white American. It’s the viewer’s responsibility to engage with the film until we understand what Akomfrah is trying to say. The parts that remain opaque might be things we’re not entitled to know.
A man wanders alone in Alaska, surrounded by nothing but snow and cold. It doesn’t take much “context” to eventually understand that this is an allegory for the immigrant experience in Britain, presented in an incredibly sensory way. The found footage feels almost like a trick of memory or observation and the differences between the film quality, colors and era create a sense of detachment. It’s as though the wanderer has been present for these experiences, but only as an outsider, observing without participation. They are not his, and yet they are. The bright colors of the raincoat against the stark white seem like an homage to the yellow suit Caryn mentioned before we watched the film as a class, something lively and part of the fashion landscape back in Africa, but strange and alien in drab post-War Britain. A further separation.
To me, the most striking thing about the film was the use of what the New York Times calls “landmarks of Western literature”. The images are accompanied by the words of Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and even Nietzsche. The Western Canon is daunting and highly valued, and mainly comprised of dead white men. As the wanderer walks, we hear excerpts from what we are taught is Great Literature. I wonder if this is Akomfrah speaking to us about his own outside challenges as an artist. Surely it is daunting to set out and create work as a person of color, marked and with a pervasive sense of being an outsider. What is the point of creating new and daring work when we’ve already decided what’s “good”, when what you’re doing is so different. Especially when your upbringing spans two continents and you may not be sure where you “belong”.
Even more telling, Akomfrah did not hire actors to read these works. Instead he used books on tape. An interesting and undoubtedly intentional choice, it further reinforces the idea of the artist and the outsider. When the credits roll it’s surprising to see some big names in western dramatic arts among them, present in this work only because they happened to read the widely available audiobook. It again adds to the feeling that the canon is set, we have decided what few (white, male) people are “good” or talented. What kinds of people get to contribute, get to echo in our ears, and that none of them have last names like “Akomfrah”.
The use of John Milton’s Paradise Lost seems especially important, chosen even for the film’s trailer. In a way, it’s use subverts the established narrative who the “good artists” are and the parallels between the Paradise Lost and the immigrant experience are not hard to draw.
It’s not feasible to read and absorb all of the 480 page epic poem from the 1600s for a four page paper about something else. Luckily, there’s a strange corner of YouTube where hot dudes review books. Cliff Sargent, of Better Than Food Book Reviews explains that within the poem “The most humane character, with the best lines and monologues, is not God, is not Adam and Eve, is certainly not Michael the archangel. It’s Satan. The quintessential angel/slave turned King of the Damned…Like Odysseus, he plunges into chaos outside of Hell and goes and travels to the surface and the unfortunate thing about this is that God has this whole omnipresent ability so he can totally see Satan swooping on his wings into the Garden of Eden”.
It’s not hard to see the Satanic figure in Paradise Lost as British Colonialists. We spoke of African immigrants lured to Europe with misled expectations, that Britain was a “mother country”, a place that wouldn’t seem so alien or be so cold in weather and in reception. Maybe the grass was greener back home, warmer in many ways. I imagine leaving warmer, friendlier lands for England would feel a little like being lured from the Garden of Eden by a charming serpent, unaware it’s a colonialist in disguise. However, Satan, the charming, rebel outsider, almost presented by Milton as misunderstood, could also be representative of the immigrants themselves, while the colonialists, God like, watch their every move.
Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewing The Nine Muses for The Guardian, suggests that the film is telling us that “stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms.” Indeed, Akomfrah has taken these literary giants and appropriated them for his own work. In his hands their meaning completely changes, presented with the detachment palpable throughout the film. Yet they also gain a new relevance. One line, from Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels echoed in my mind after viewing The Nine Muses: “The sea refused me, the sky didn’t see me. I wasn’t there”. Watching the lone figure wander an icy, empty, landscape, interspersed with images of “progress”, we can certainly understand why he feels like he wasn’t.