Analysis of Like the Night by Alejo Carpentier
Like The Night, Alejo Carpentier’s short story contributes to the rich arena of post-colonialism. It essentially deals with the colonial discourse and the Westerner’s psychic interaction with this discourse. Through an allegorical representation of the Westerners as a solder, The writer uncovers the West’s debased and disfigured conceptions of the Other on the one hand, and highlights the effect that these conceptions on the westerner’s psychology.
The story also covers important post-colonialism related themes like the egocentrism of the Western individual, the ethnocentrism of the Wester community, the conception of women in the West as a patriarchal society, and war propaganda in the West as a democratic society. In this critical analysis of the Like The Night, I circumstantially deal with the two major themes. The first is the West and its colonial discourse.
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In this part, I interpret the social and political implications of the story, That is the protagonist’s percept of the self in relation to the other and the other sex in his society, the protagonist’s vision of the other race, and the political discourse that emerges in the circumstances of the war. The second part is a minute examination of the protagonist at the psychological level. To wit, I expose the different components of the Protagonist’s psyche and reveal the psychic reaction to the colonial discourse that he participates in forging and spreading.
However, Prior to that I dissect other aspects of the story, particularly the narrative structure and the notion of time, to facilitate the access and the understanding of the story as such. In Like The Night, the narrative technique employed is the first-person narration. The narrator is the main character who is reporting his experience of a solder in the army of the Greek. He starts by a description of the preparatory events of the war waged against the Trojans.
Throughout the story, the narrator commits many analytic errors and uncovers hideous aspects of his personality that make us, as readers, distance ourselves from his perspective and start questioning his reliability. The first mistake committed by the narrator is separating himself from the rest of his community. His narcissism of a solder makes the reader somewhat loath his interpretation of the events and, thereby, decreases his dependability to a great extent. Other personality traits urge us to completely split from his view-point and rely unilaterally on our own interpretations.
The traits are chiefly his racism, sexism, and hypocrisy. Time in the story is of special significance in Alejo Carpentier’s Like The Night. The story takes one day: begins with the preparation of the Greeks’ war against the Trojans and ends soon after the departure to it. However, the story embraces many events and discusses many issues that are as remote and disconnected historical contexts as Foulke de Neuilly’s crusade, Montaigne’s Essays, and the Great Landing. This rebellion on time’s most central characteristic, sequence, destroys the notion of time itself and leave us with Timelessness.
This fictional device is brilliantly employed to refer to the feature that unifies the wholeness of the Western history: the irrational perception of the other as inferior to the self. The protagonist, in regards to his percept of the other sex, is chauvinistic par excellence. He perceives women as an important element in society, but their importance lies strictly in their function of entertaining man. The word ‘body’ recurs repeatedly in the story always in association with a female. Thus, for him his mistress does not go beyond being a body that was created for his own sexual pleasure.
The protagonist’s conception of women as inferior beings narrows his understanding of manliness too. This latter is for him the mere capability of sexual performance. His sexual potency and promiscuity are, accordingly, confirmations of his success in his relation with women. As to the narrator’s self-image in his own society, He distinguishes himself from the layman of his own community. His function of a solder that feeds his sense of superiority becomes designative “we seemed to be men of a different race”.
This newly discovered persona permits him to judge the other in reference to the superior self. Unlike “men who knew nothing but the smell of the soil” he owns and controls knowledge and destiny. The protagonist’s vision of the other race and culture is suggestive of the same self-praise. He finds it most logical to, even unjustifiably, attribute courage, civilization, reason and morality to his own race. His cultural and moral objectivism entitles him the standard of goodness and development, and gives his race complete authority over the other races.
Therefore, the heroic mission of bringing civilization and faith to them is indisputably theirs. The instance of the imposed ‘evangelization’ of the ‘spiritually retarded races is a proof of this ethnocentric attitude: “… and as for our holy faith, the Word must be imposed with blood. ” The other races on the other hand are expected to interact approvingly and submit to his commands. Their own properties cease to be theirs when the protagonist’s superior race happens to be desirable of them: “… unless we found our fortune in some yet undiscovered regions, inhabited by rich tribes for us to conquer.  In this respect and intending to strip colonization of its deceptive mask, Aime Cesaire contemptuously says: Cesaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: MR, 1972. Print. … the essential thing here is to see clearly, to think clearly – that is, dangerously – and to answer clearly the innocent first question: what, fundamentally, is colonization? To agree on what it is not: neither evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny, nor a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, nor an attempt to extend the rule of law.
To admit once for all, without flinching at the consequences, that the decisive actors here are the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force, and behind them, the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization which, at a certain point in its history, finds itself obliged, for internal reasons, to extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies. 5] In Ancient Greek and modern and post-modern Europe, Democracy as a political doctrine is a common thread. In such system, the governments do not have an absolute control over people’s freedom of thought and behavior. However, those in power put great reliance on propagandas to control how people think. In the case of war, the democratic governments seeking war against other nations create propagandas and ensure that they reach the majority of the citizens. They use what Walter Lippmann referred to as the “Manufacture of consent”.
Noam Chomsky, explaining this notion said: “The idea is that in a state such as the U. S. where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think. ” This idea of war propaganda is very present in Alejo Carpentier’s Like The Night. Agamemnon, The Mycenaean King leading the Greek armies in the Trojan war, gave an exceptional consideration to the propaganda by sending messengers specially to promote the legitimacy and the necessity of the war.
The messengers applied a strategy consisting of two levels, both of them managed to activate people emotions against the Trojans. In the first, they told the soldiers that their defining characteristic, courage, is challenged by the Trojans. In the second, the described the beauty of Helen of Sparta and the inhuman treatment she underwent in her abduction. The strategy succeeded to manipulate the Hellenistic society pictured in the story especially because of its racism.
In dealing with this aspect of the Western civilization, Alejo Carpentier implicitly evaluates it as extremely racist and emotional. The conversation with parents is an event of great significance in story as well. It provides us with very interesting insights about the different layers of the protagonist’s psychic interaction with colonial discourse. The father, inexpressively sad about his son’s expedition, thinks that respect does not derive necessarily from being a solder and believes that life is full of other sources of happiness.
Nonetheless, the fact that the father thinks that respect and happiness are not only related to the social status of the solder implies that, indeed, he does consider it a crucial factor of social success. This bears witness of the success of the war propaganda in reaching all the components of the Western society. The mother expresses her concern to her son about the uncertainty of his return, warns him of the potential hazards that the journey might be fraught with, and inquires about the safety of the ships and the skills of the pilots.
In an obtrusively contradictory language the narrator clearly demonstrates that he is not simply delusional and unveils his deliberate involvement and complicity in the falsification of the objectives of the expedition; This questions his quality of a trustworthy reliable narrator; Unable to offer any kind guarantees, the protagonist resorts to two complementary dimensions of distraction, a material and a spiritual dimension. In the first he mentions all the extraordinary stuff he can find in those remote and mysterious parts of the world.
When the mother faces his ‘remarks’ with her ‘facts’ he falls back to talking about the nobility of his mission and how it makes of him a representative of the Christian faith and a savior of the other nations. This strategy succeeds to, if not to eradicate the mother’s concern, put an end to the conversation. The parents, although dubious about the nobility of the war, consider their son’s participation in the war a source of unmeasurable pride and ostentation, at least in front of the neighbors.
This stands as a proof that all the components of the Western society construct collectively the image of the self as inherently and unquestionably superior to the other who, simply by dint of being the other, is unfavorably positioned. By the Sweetheart in the third part of the short story, Alejo Carpentier does not refer to an actual female. This would stand contradictory with the narrator’s perception of women that he expressed from the very beginning and through out the story. His perception of women, a mere body, is compatible with him having a submissive mistress and not a chaste lover.
The sweetheart is a constituent of the narrator’s psyche. What she represents is the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious which, beside the personal unconscious, constitutes the human unconscious. The characteristics of this psychic system are that it is impersonal, universal and that it does not develop at the level of the individual. In an attempt locate the manifestation of the archetype, Carl G. Jung speaks of “active imagination [which is] a sequence of fantasies produced by deliberate concentration”.
This deliberate sequence of concentration comes secondarily as a source of the archetype. In Carpentier’s story, this active imagination is the narrator’s meeting with the Sweetheart. This latter is located in a desolated and enclosed part in his unconscious. To get to that location the narrator has to sneak in surreptitiously as if some conscious mechanism would blockade him. The different points that he discussed with the sweetheart stand for the universal, pre-existent forms of the collective unconscious, the archetypes. The sweetheart asks the narrator about the preparation.
His response is an impatient flow of almost the same noble objectives he listed for his mother, as if he is testing their validity. The sweetheart’s response is traumatically unfavorable. She crushes his fantasy with her mistrusts of the nobility of the cause. The thing that will constitute the ground of his ambivalence. The narrator remains rigid and unable to question his standpoint. His inflexibility urges him to judge Montaigne’s thought as ‘impious’ and the sweetheart’s opinions as ‘errors’ triggered by emotional and irrational stimuli. He disparately connected the purely philosophical disagreement to orthogonal causes.
The narrator’s understanding is mixed with the trauma caused by his psyche’s refusal to accredit his sense of heroism which can open his doors on perpetual triumph and prosperity. His ambivalence gradually settles in an irritation that was sufficient to make him regret the meeting. Finally, the father’s return makes him sneak out the same furtively he sneaked in. Once more, Unlike the Freudian symptom that is a disguised, repressed or forgotten, thought that the conscious mind disapproved of, the archetypes in the Jungian school of thought have never existed in the conscious but are quite determinative of people’s perception.
In Like the night, these archetypes firstly manifest in the narrator’s precariousness of his own assertions: It is quite palpable that he does not believe in these assertions. Therefore, their repeated recurrence urged the narrator to face them. Realizing that they are more consistent and compelling than to be overruled with mere impressions he decides that, to save what was left of his self-esteem, he has repress them back in his unconscious. As explained above the narrator, being conscious of the sweetheart’s arguments, represses them in his unconscious using moral judgment.
Freud says: “ Puisque la representation en question est inconciliable avec « le moi » du malade, le refoulement se produit sous forme d’exigences morales ou autres de la part de l’individu. ”. Thus, Alejo Carpentier makes use of the Jungian and the Freudian philosophies to picture the intricacy of the psychic ambivalence of the Westerner at both the collective and the personal levels. The emotional tension of the narrator that was caused by the sweetheart’s skepticism re-emerges in the fourth part of the short story when he described the quarrel, although he still cannot forget it, as ‘stupid’.
The unbearable psychic effect of this ambivalence makes the narrator go to the harbor to distract himself. notwithstanding, the ambivalence returns more emphatically when he flinched at the thought of his approaching travel and his inescapable abstinence. The author continues his usage of Freudian philosophy by introducing the symptom as an cine qua non ingredient of the process of repression. The narrator’s fear of abstinence is a symptom of his psychic disorder. It is a disguised manifestation of the repressed thoughts that he stimulated in his active imagination (his meeting with the sweetheart).
In regards to this Freud says: “le desir refoule continue a subsister dans l’inconscient; il guette une occasion de se manifester et il reapparait bientot a la lumiere, mais sous un deguisement qui le rend meconnaissable”. Therefore, it should be clear that the abstinence is not a genuine concern of the narrator as much as it is a manifestation of his psychical defeat. Completely defeated, the narrator goes impatiently to see his girl. She is a prostitute in a patriarchal society.
This makes her submissive and quite fallible to have an independent, therefore potentially challenging, vision of the world. Recognizant of that, the protagonist resorts to her for a doze of complacency. He helplessly needs her to counterpoise his situation. Expectedly, the girl does not disappoint him. She receives him with hugs and frisson and tells him exactly what he needs to hear. This proves to what extent his ambivalence is agonizing … to the extent that he depends on an external, and most importantly a weaker, element to settle his internal debate.
The girl’s jubilant reception manages to divert, though temporarily, the protagonist’s thoughts to reckoning the grandeur of his role and mission. The sweetheart re-emerged in the opening of the last part of the story, but with a new symbolic representation. Before unveiling what she stands for, I should make a swift examination of the circumstances in which she reappears as they are very significant in understanding the symbolism in this portion of the story: The protagonist returns drained and intoxicated to his house.
His physical exhaustion is accompanied with an immense mental and emotional disturbance. As soon as he approached the bed he disarms himself. It is in this frail and defenseless situation that the sweetheart appears, or rather is invoked. The sweetheart in the second reappearance stands for the psychoanalytic notion of the Self. The Self in the Jungian psychoanalysis is different from the ego. The latter is only the temporal structure that identifies us as different from the other. It is what the protagonist forcefully adheres to irrespective of its incompatibility with reason and morality.
Jung’s description is perfectly explanatory of the protagonist’s situation: An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.  563 The Self, on the other hand, is the totality of the psyche as a whole. It compasses the ego, the conscious and the unconscious.
Likewise, it is the central archetype of the collective unconscious. representing the Self, the sweetheart comes to the protagonist offering her body and an opportunity for unification or, in Jungian terms, individuation. Going through this process, one aims at self-realization through the integration of all the components of psyche. “The actual processes of individuation – the conscious coming-to-term with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self – generally begins with a wounding of the personality”. This, again, proves harmonious with the protagonist’s trauma after his dispute with the sweetheart.
The self of the protagonist is invoked as the protagonist starts to disfavor the whole idea of the expedition. Anew to the situation and cursing his unreadiness for such change, the protagonist realizes the delicacy of the process: “I would not say that my youth was incapable of catching fire once again that night, under the stimulus of this new pleasure”. His concern gives rise to an immense discomfort and made him stop, announcing the failure of his individuation; his coming to terms with himself. The story ends with the narrator’s new perspective.
His drastic, sudden change of viewpoint that comes as a result of his acceptance of his own ego’s failure before the majesty of the Self increases his reliability as a story teller but not to an extent where we can assuredly trust him as readers. Also, it proves that he clang to the debased objectives of the war propagated by the Greek leaders because they nurtured his ego with vanity. Now that his ego is humiliated, his impressions are more realistic and compelling and his knowledge is universal. He even allows himself to perceive the world through a female’s eyes, Helen’s.
This whole knew situation does not solve his problem, it just makes him dive in an bottomless ocean of regret and negativism as his voyage has become inescapable. All in All, Alejo Carpentier’s Like The Night criticizes many aspects of the Western Civilization. It is a deconstruction of the Western history through a systematic disjointing of the actual historical events and how the Westerners ,themselves , recorded them. In this respect, one can say that the short story is a fictionalization of the Aime Cesaire’s Discourse On Colonialism. Furthermore, the psychoanalytic diagnosis of the Westerner is noticeably dominant.
The Westerner is represented by an allegorical figure, a solder. This latter is depicted a mise en scene of huge psychic contradictions. The story promotes the idea that the westerner, that has always been celebrated as a more rational human being, suffers from severe psychic disorders, and that his acts emanate from an emotional interpretation of the world. This assertion meets with Frantz Fanon’s in his Black Skin White Mask. Therefore, The totality of the story is a significant contribution , or rather a fictionalization , of the post-colonial theory.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: MR, 1972. Print.
M-L Von Franz, “The Process of Individuation” in Jung ed.,Symbols.
Carl G. Jung,The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London 1996)
Carl G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (1944). In CW 12. P.
Freud, Sigmund, and Sigmund Freud.Cinq Leçons Sur La Psychanalyse: (suivi De) Contribution À L’histoire Du Mouvement Psychanalytique. Paris: Payot, 1989. Print.
Carpentier. Like the Night