A Response to Emily Dickinson

Sea Sway

Thunder rolls and pulls
the waves against the shore
and me out of my dreams.
Half asleep, or so it seems,
I steal away into the night
and leave only my dog behind
for he seems safe and sound inside.

I feel the rain upon my skin
and the sand between my feet,
the salty air at once so sweet
as I jump and fall so deep.

Vast waters surround me,
scare me, possess me,
completely engulf me,
drown me, relieve me.

And with a final,
blissful heave
they resurrect me.

Soaked in
myself
I rise.

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Yes, this is dog: Thoughts on Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog, doge memes and Zoopoetics.

How long do you think you can stand it that dogdom, which through your questions you are gradually bringing to consciousness, is silent and will always be silent? (Kafka 21)

Kafka and I have had a rough start. Reading and attempting to analyse and interpret his Metamorphosis in high-school proved to be an extremely irritating experience for me. A couple of months ago I read and discussed his Jackals and Arabs in a seminar at University and only then began to wrap my head around just how complicated this man and his stories are, and reconsidered my attitude towards him and his texts. It was this seminar, or rather my brilliant teacher, who introduced me to a fairly new field within literary studies which feels like the answer to a question that I hadn’t even asked yet but immediately wanted to: Zoopoetics.

‘What is Zoopoetics?’, you might wonder, as did I, as did apparently so many people that a number of scholars around Karí Driscoll and Eva Hoffmann decided to create and publish a book with exactly that title – in order to answer this question that, like me, many may not even have thought about asking. The more I read of this collection of zoopoetic works, the more I realised that this approach to humanities in general and literature in particular is something that has long been overdue, and something that I want to contribute to. Why? Because just like Feminism challenges the established hierarchies between men and women, and Postcolonialism challenges those between “the West” and the rest of the world, Critical Animal Studies challenge the hierarchy between humans and animals – which, like all these other hierarchies, is not as clearly-cut a binary as most people believe it to be. Because what are we, after all, if not animals ourselves?

Especially considering the rapid pace with which we are destroying our planet and all its inhabitants, including ourselves, it seems only right to reconsider our self-imposed role as nature’s oppressor. Now don’t sweat it – this is not a post about animal rights or environmentalism, as important as these issues are. All I’m saying is that this is something that everybody should consider, since we’re all sitting in the same boat called ‘Planet Earth’ here.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida famously recalls the moment he realised that his own cat was observing him; he literally and figuratively speaking found himself standing naked in front of his cat’s eyes. He goes on to argue that, contrary to traditional Western philosophy, a poet’s way of thinking may be dubbed ‘animal thinking’, that is, a way of thinking that acknowledges that he, the poet, the human, is equally seen through the eyes of “the animal” as it is seen through his, and that all following thought derives from this initial encounter with the animal – something that traditional Western philosophy seems to have forgotten (Derrida 6).

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Derrida was the first scholar to use the term “zoopoetics”, and that he did in the context of the various animal presences in Kafka’s stories. Walter Benjamin, picking up on this topic in 1934, notes that animals, for Kafka, are “repositories of the forgotten” (Benjamin 810), and suggests that the animal body of the human is probably that which has been most forgotten in Western carno-phallogocentric tradition.

Even though the ‘animal turn’ itself is a fairly recent phenomenon, humanity’s fascination with and fantasy of our pets’ perception is probably as old as literature itself. The notion of the ‘philosopher dog’ (a term coined in 1983 by Theodore Ziolkowski) reaches all the way back to the second century BCE and Lucian’s three-headed hellhound Cerberus in Dialogues of the Dead, and was picked up in the 17th century by the father of the novel himself, Cervantes, in his Dialogue of the Dogs as well. As Joela Jacobs points out in her contribution to What is Zoopoetics?, the ‘philosopher dog’ came to be of special interest to modernist authors, who struggled with the inability of language to adequately capture individually perceived realities. Thus, modernist ‘philosopher dogs’ like Kafka’s are marked by skepticism towards the human language.

Today, where has it got to, today one could reach into the bowels of language and not find it! Our generation may be lost, but it is more innocent than its predecessors. I can understand our hesitation, it’s the forgetting of a dream dreamed and forgotten for the first time a thousand nights ago. Who would hold it against us that we have forgotten it for the thousandth time? (Kafka 33)

She draws a line all the way from Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog to the not very long ago quite popular ‘doge memes’, which are only some of the most recent and very playful manifestations of our imagining dogs being capable of using human language. In their own, creative ways, internet culture plays with and subverts the human-animal hierarchy and linguistic norms, by “creating a space for the breaking of rules, both of grammar and of typical human/animal divisions and hierarchies” and “turn[ing] the depicted failure of, for instance, a dog trying to type an email with his paws into a comical success (Jacobs 64).”

In this light, I was very much inclined to pick up Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog which I had spontaneously purchased the previous month in a book shop in Bratislava, but not yet had the time to read. Provided with this new perspective and understanding of literary animal presences in general and Kafka’s animals in particular, this short story proved – oh, the surprise – to be an engaging and deeply philosophical read, which, naturally, should be read more than once if one really wishes to gain some insight. Kafka gives a voice to the voiceless, for the purpose of reflecting on human existence (humans being perceived merely as “air” (Kafka 39) by the dog narrator, by the way), culture, philosophy and knowledge. Sometimes, it seems – and I am sure Derrida and countless other Zoopoets would agree – we need to see ourselves through the eyes of the “other”, the animal, in order to see more clearly.

An admirably strong heart and lungs not to be worn out ahead of time were given to us dogs almost out of malice, we resist all questions, even our own, being the barricade of silence that we are. (Kafka 21)

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1999 [1934]. Franz Kafka: on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death, trans. Harry Zohn. In Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2 (1931– 1934), ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 794–818. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills and ed. Marie-Louise Mallet. New York: Fordham University Press.

Jacobs, Joela. 2018. “The Grammar of Zoopoetics: Human and Canine Language Play,” In Driscoll, Karí; Hoffmann, Eva (eds.). 2018. What is Zoopoetics? Texts, Bodies, Entanglement. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kafka, Franz. 2017. Investigations of a Dog, trans. Michael Hofmann. London: Penguin Books.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. 1983. Talking Dogs: The Caninization of Literature. In Varieties of Literary Thematics, 86–122. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thoughts on: Insomniac Dreams

Let’s be honest – every one of us aspiring or amateur or wannabe writers has at least once entertained the thought of seeking for inspiration in one of our many bizarre, colourful and intricate dreams. At least I did. When I feel the urge to write something, anything, but for weeks and weeks on end my mind goes blank at the thought of my pen or my lovely, quietly clicking keyboard – as if my thoughts were hiding from my hands, too shy to be seen by anyone, even my own eyes. And all the while my waking mind is battling this horrendous writer’s block, my sleeping mind is as creative as ever.

I am a light sleeper, as Nabokov was, and even though I am not plagued by serious insomnia (yet) and I don’t have prostrate issues (luckily, that’s impossible without the required equipment) I do have a weak bladder and an even weaker mind. So I wake up several times a night, and I go to the bathroom and I check whether my elderly dog is still breathing and whether he still has water in his bowl and I suddenly realise I’m thirsty myself and eventually I go back to sleep. And I dream. And I wake up. And I repeat. And I catch myself thinking: Dream something interesting tonight. Dream something that I can turn into a story. But of course, I won’t. I will only dream the weirdest and most personal and incomprehensible dreams that do not make sense and are not of any significance to anybody but myself. Because in the end, Henry James is always right: Tell a dream, lose a reader.

Therefore, I was most intrigued when I found out that fairly recently a book had been published on the dreams of a genius mind, my latest literary obsession, Vladimir Nabokov. I could not help wondering whether James’ little piece of wisdom would still hold true, or whether it would be proven wrong, or whether, which I deemed most likely, this would be the exception to prove the rule.

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Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov, is more than an edited collection of Nabokov’s dream diary. The book consists of five parts. In the first part, Gennady Barabtarlo provides his reader with an introduction into John W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time and how it inspired Nabokov to attempt this experiment himself in 1964, following Dunne’s strict instructions. With his theory of serial time, Dunne attempts to explain phenomena like precognition and deja-vu through a detachment of time from space, of the mental from the physical. According to Dunne, the unconscious mind may travel along the timeline separate from the body, which is why one may dream of things that have not yet happened, as a kind of memory of the future.

The second part is an edited collection of the dreams that Nabokov scribbled onto his beloved index cards for the purpose of this experiment, enriched here and there with short comments, observations or translations by Barabtarlo and eventually followed by part three, a collection of even more of Nabokov’s dreams, which were recorded prior to and after the experiment, in his journals, memoirs or letters to his wife. The fourth part is a similar collection of dreams, however this time they are fictional dreams. Neatly sorted into categories, Barabtarlo quotes most if not all fictional dreams to be found in Nabokov’s novels and continues to elaborate on how Nabokov processed this fascination with time and dreams in his work, especially his post-experiment novels, in the fifth and last part.

To me, this book seemed like a unique hybrid between a philosophical essay, a literary study, a partial biography and fantastic conspiration theory, uncovering mindblowing coincidents and obscure connections which might make one doubt, for a second, whether one really doubts the possibility of precognition. Most of all, this read stimulated my mind and my perception of time, however flawed and incorrect Dunne’s theory may be. The workings of time will never cease to mesmerise me (and I bet I’m not alone in this) and reading Insomniac Dreams has been nourishment for my curious if sometimes idle brain.

I bought this book because I had been curious to get a glimpse of the most private and personal part of this genius mind, but it was Gennady Barabtarlo’s loving dedication, his diligent research and compilation, as well as his own humorous writing, that entertained me most. Indeed I feel like I’ve gotten to know a more intimate side of Nabokov, which I could not have any other way. Especially his issues with insomnia, the thoughts that came to his mind while he was waiting for sleep to relieve him (or deprive him) of his consciousness, and the not so extraordinary nature of his dreams made me realise one thing above all: This singular genius was a human just like me, troubled by nightmares and insecurities, indulging in simple pleasures, longing for affection, caring about the people dear to him. In reality, people can build their empires and pull up their walls, but in our dreams, we’re all the same – vulnerable.

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White Skin, Black Masks: Norman Mailer’s Hipster as a Form of Mimicry

The relationship between the counter cultural movements of the 1950s and 60s and their initial ideological role models, the African-Americans, is a much discussed and complicated one. Even though the Beats superficially admired the black ‘lifestyle’ and tried to adopt it for themselves, their understanding of it was guided by misinterpretation and superficiality at best, and ignorance and racism at worst. The Great Depression of the 30s and the Second World War had marked a breaking point for white American masculinity, and by extension white supremacy, and thus called for a reshaping and re-conquering thereof. Douglas Taylor explains the process by which this reformation was brought about with Herbert Marcuse’s term of the “bourgeoisification”[1] of the American working class. This was made possible by the G.I. Bill, which had opened up new opportunities for veterans of various (western) ethnicities, who had been previously confined to the working class, to now enjoy university education.[2] Thus, while the white ethnic man was busy with the establishment of a new middle class, according to Taylor, he projected all traits that had once been ascribed to himself but would now hinder his own upward mobility to the black and coloured population and to women of all colours – namely, for instance, “dirt, physicality, sexuality, labor, enthusiasm, and spontaneity”[3] – thus further fuelling racism and misogyny. Simultaneously, however, a countercultural movement was forming among young intellectuals, who distanced themselves from the limitations of societal conventions and conformity and instead embraced a rebellious but apolitical lifestyle that celebrated exactly these aforementioned traits which had been projected onto African-Americans. Representing the opposite of what society considered proper, blackness, black culture and black masculinity became recurring motives in countercultural writing.

In his essay Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity Douglas Taylor investigates the intersection of race and sexuality in post World War II US-American society, pleading for an intersectionalist approach in all further studies of black masculinity and underscoring the mutuality of projections, fears and hatred on both ends of the colour spectrum. Due to the extensive research that has already been done by numerous scholars including Taylor, it seems unnecessary to analyse both Mailer’s essay and Baldwin’s response regarding the insight that both provide on the problematic meaning of race and masculinity in the context of the early countercultural movement any further. Therefore, in this essay I want to shift the focus away from the “sorely menaced sexuality of the Negroes”[4] and turn instead to “the white man’s own sexual panic”[5], which Baldwin identifies as the cause for the Beats’ obsession with black masculinity. I want to argue that Mailer is indeed not much of a Hipster at all – he is merely mimicking one – and that his fascination with black masculinity may have its origins in a different place, namely an anxiety rooted in his Jewishness. In order to do so, I shall explore the relationship between Norman Mailer and James Baldwin as the epitomisation of the ambivalent relationship between Beats and Afro-Americans, which oscillates between cultural appropriation on the side of the Beats, and a subversion of Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of ‘mimicry’, which is conventionally discussed in a postcolonial context, on the side of Norman Mailer in particular, who may have been trying to adopt a ‘hip’ lifestyle in order to escape his own racial confinement as a Jew.

In his Black Skins, White Masks, Franz Fanon elaborates on the artificiality of the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’, which – in themselves – do not hold a lot of meaning, but instead have been inscribed with meaning within the racial discourse. For the longest time, however, it has been the privilege of the white man to construct these racial differences within and by the means of the racial discourse. Throughout the centuries, the word ‘black’ has been ascribed mostly with negative terms and has thus led to the association of blackness with negativity. This formation of meaning works primarily through the use of “a galaxy of erosive stereotypes”[6], a number of which Fanon recalls as follows: “The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly.”[7] Although the stereotypes which post World War II U.S.-American society attaches to Afro-Americans may be slightly more detailed and facetted than the abovementioned examples, they still are all but positive. While the Beat Generation – as it is represented by Mailer and most famously by Jack Kerouac – did not produce positive stereotypes to replace the antiquated, negative ones, they now attached positive connotations to them. ‘Dirt’ began standing for a down-to-earth life, ‘physicality’ for strength, ‘sexuality’ for masculinity and purity, ‘labor’ for self-sufficiency, ‘enthusiasm and spontaneity’ for freedom.

In his essay The White Negro, Norman Mailer claims that “[t]he hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”[8] He bases this thesis upon the equalisation of the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and the “psychic havoc”[9] that these had wreaked especially on the minds of young Americans, with the aftermath of slavery – the hatred, degradation, unfair and violent treatment – which Afro-Americans had and still have to deal with every day. According to Mailer, the young existentialist freely accepts looming danger as his constant companion, just like the Afro-American is forced to, and thus chooses to adopt the Afro-American as his role-model, who “kept for his survival the art of the primitive”.[10] Once more, the same old stereotype of ‘black’ as a signifier for primitivism is evoked. However, from the perspective of a Hipster, Mailer interprets it in a positive way, namely a celebration of purity and life:

he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.[11]

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In this context, Taylor legitimately remarks on the irony of Mailer, a white man, the source of the danger which Afro-Americans find themselves threatened by, now romanticising and appropriating this same danger for himself.[12] No matter how enthusiastically Mailer makes these assumptions and shapes his interpretation of a black lifestyle, he still is a white man determining the black man from without. The fact that he chooses to depart from past interpretations, or to at least twist these in a way, only reveals the objecthood of black individuals in the white gaze, and how black identity, as if it were made of clay, could be shaped by white hands according to their own choosing. This idea of objecthood is one of the main themes of the fifth chapter of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, ‘The Fact of Blackness’, in which he concludes that within this narrow framework of binary oppositions and stereotypes constructed by white discourse, there is no chance for the black object to participate in the discourse that defines them as an ‘other’:

And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. Why, it’s a Negro![13]

Fanon has painted a bleak image of the white, racializing discourse which continues to define and confine black subjects, and it echoes in Baldwin’s writing as well. In his essay The Black Boy looks at the White Boy, Baldwin’s response to Mailer’s White Negro, he reclaims his subjecthood; first of all, by participating in the racial discourse and voicing his own opinion on Mailer’s subject matter, and in doing so, secondly, by turning the tables and assuming the subject position, from where he defines and objectifies Mailer instead. He clearly identifies him as a fraud, a wannabe-Hipster, who then in turn would only be a wannabe black man, as opposed to Baldwin, who is a black man and thus exceeds Mailer in both authenticity and knowledge of the field in which Mailer so helplessly tries to hold his ground. As Taylor explains, because of his position in society as a renowned, white writer, “Mailer has the power to dominate and control; Baldwin, the power to unmask.”[14]

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In the process of unmasking Mailer, he goes directly for the roots of his ideas, for Jack Kerouac, the “King of the Beats”[15], whose writing he recognises as echoing in Mailer’s text and which he sovereignly dismisses as “absolute nonsense, of course, objectively considered, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”[16] He thus continues ridiculing Mailer, stripping away every last bit of his claimed authenticity and effectively disqualifying him. He recalls the times that he and Norman had spent together, as friends, sometimes surrounded by Afro-American jazz musicians, who Mailer in his essay identifies as the hipsters’ “cultural mentors”[17], and who “did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely “hip” and Norman did not know this”, instead, “[t]hey thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.”[18] Here, he uses Mailer’s own terms in order to expose not only his lack of authenticity, but also his sexual insecurity. Responding to Mailer’s fetishisation of African-American masculinity, he asserts that “to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others. The relationship, therefore, of a black boy to a white boy is a very complex thing.”[19] A complex thing it is indeed, especially if the white boy is not only white, but also a Jew, which is exactly where Baldwin pinpoints him in opposition to himself: “I am a black boy from the Harlem streets, and Norman is a middle-class Jew.”[20]

Fanon acknowledges similarities between the discrimination and harassment of Jews and that of people of African descent, but even more so makes a very clear distinction between the two, for “the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness. […] His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant. He is a white man, and […] he can sometimes go unnoticed.”[21] He even goes as far as to dismiss the Holocaust as mere “family quarrels”[22], because the Jew’s skin is still undeniably white and thus he belongs to the dominant race. Fanon bases his whole argument on outward appearance, because it is the black “uniform”[23] that can never be taken off and inevitably signifies the hateful stereotypes it has been imbued with, which ultimately enslaves black individuals to racism. However, this superficial approach does not suffice in an analysis of the complex similarities and differences in the experiences of both Jews and Afro-Americans, and an argument based on the trivialisation of the Holocaust can hardly be compelling. Nevertheless, Fanon’s elaborations provide valuable insight into a black writer’s perspective on such issues and illustrate just how difficult it is to compare these two fundamentally different experiences of racial persecution with one another.

Going back to Mailer’s White Negro, it indeed pays off to analyse his perspective not as a white one, but as a White-Jewish point of view, which is, albeit the colour of his skin, a perspective from the margins of white society. In the very beginning of his essay, he evokes images of Jewish suffering by mentioning “the tens of millions […] killed in concentration camps” and the fear of “a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber”[24], which are then followed by a screaming silence regarding this subject matter, and instead replaced by an idealisation and desire of black masculinity. In her essay The (Jewish) White Negro – Norman Mailer’s Racial Bodies, Andrea Levine argues that Mailer’s “fetishization of an aggressive African American response to a history of persecution is in part an effort to obscure the image of the cowed, impotent Jew, going meekly to the gas chamber.”[25] Emphasising the central role of gender in the shaping of Jewish identities, she asserts that Mailer’s obsession with African American masculinity derives from his anxiety to be labelled feminine and weak, a stereotype which has been well established in Western discourses, depriving male Jews of their sense of masculinity.[26] In this context, Baldwin’s assertions on the white man’s sexual insecurity take on even more weight.

Mailer’s wish to distance himself from his own racial classification and its implications of femininity becomes even more pronounced when one takes a look into his short essay Hipster and Beatnik: A Footnote to the White Negro, where he makes a distinction between “the white Negro” and the “crippled saint”[27], attaching physicality and violence to the former and mindfulness and impotency to the latter. He identifies the Beatnik as “often Jewish”[28], the addition ‘-nik’ originating in Yiddish and being a pejorative diminutive.[29] He further elaborates on the Beatnik’s compromised masculinity, saying that even though – just like the Hipster – he believes in the orgasm as the one true joy and value in life, “he has less body to work with in the first place, and so his chances for lifting himself by his sexual bootstraps are commonly nil”.[30] What Mailer implies is that ultimately, in a fairly immature contest amongst males, the Hipster will emerge as the one to declare ‘mine’s bigger.’ Thus, Mailer’s identification with the Hipster and his desire for a violent, black masculinity must be considered within the context of his debasement of the Beatnik’s and the Jew’s masculinity. He tries to escape the same feminising labels that he himself so readily attaches to ‘others’, who are in fact not so different from himself.

As Homi K. Bhabha explains in the colonial context, colonised individuals challenge the colonial order and the cultural stereotypes on which it is built by appropriating the colonisers’ culture. To an imperial system that is justified by a hierarchy established upon binary oppositions, resemblance is a threat. That is why Bhabha considers mimicry, used in an ironic manner, to be “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.”[31] The Hipsters’ fetishisation of what they considered to be Afro-American culture is by no means mimicry in this sense, but cultural appropriation. However, it represents a chance for Mailer to fit in, by trying to replace his own ‘otherness’ with the deliberate appropriation of an even more stigmatised form of ‘otherness.’ In a sense, his attempt to identify himself with the non-Jewish Hipster instead of the feminised Beatnik or even – to say it with Baldwin’s words – a mere “middle-class Jew”[32], he mimics a culture which in itself only mimics another culture, and he ends up being “almost the same but not quite”[33] in more than one sense. Neither can a Hipster ever live an Afro-American lifestyle, not only because they simply are not African American, but also because their idea of it is contorted by stereotypes, privilege and ignorance; nor is Mailer really a Hipster, if one can rely on Baldwin’s assessment. This becomes most evident in Mailer’s obsession with power, which is not only expressed in his desire for a violent masculinity, but also in his private conversations with Baldwin – “‘I want to know how power works’, Norman once said to me [Baldwin], ‘how it really works in detail’”[34] – and Mailer’s later, unsuccessful run for the Mayor’s office in New York, which contradicts all his elaborations on the apolitical, rebellious and careless Hipster.

While the fetishisation of black masculinity is, as Baldwin has already pointed out, a symptom of the white man’s own sexual insecurities, these insecurities reach a new level of complexity in the particular case of Norman Mailer. By mimicking Hipsters, who deliberately marginalise themselves by appropriating parts of the Afro-American culture, without ever being in the same danger that African Americans find themselves in merely due to their skin colour, Mailer finds a way of disposing of his own, hereditary racial marker by replacing it with a self-constructed one.

 

References

[1] Cf. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

[2] Taylor, Douglas: Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity. In: Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 1 April 2010, Vol.52(1), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Baldwin, James: The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy. In: James Baldwin. Collected Essays. New York: Literary Classics of the United States 1998, 278.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fanon, Frantz: Black Skins, White Masks. London: Pluto Press 2008, 99. (French original first published in 1952, English translation first published in 1967)

[7] Ibid., 86.

[8] Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro. Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Dissent Magazine. (Fall 1957), 279.

[9] Ibid., 267.

[10] Ibid., 279.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Taylor, 76.

[13] Fanon, 87.

[14] Taylor, 80.

[15] Glair, Christopher: The Beat Generation. A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008, 77.

[16] Baldwin, 278.

[17] Mailer, 285.

[18] Baldwin, 272.

[19] Ibid., 269f.

[20] Ibid., 269.

[21] Fanon, 87.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 86.

[24] Mailer, 277.

[25] Levine, Andrea: The (Jewish) White Negro. Norman Mailer’s Racial Bodies, in: MELUS, Volume 28, issue 2, 1 June 2003, 61.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mailer, Norman: Hipster and Beatnik. A Footnote to ‘The white Negro.’ In: Advertisements for Myself. London: Andre Deutsch 1961, 318.

[28] Ibid., 316.

[29] Ibid., 315.

[30] Ibid., 316.

[31] Bhabha, Homi K.: The Location of Culture. London and New York: Roudledge 2004, 122.

[32] Baldwin, 269.

[33] Bhabha, 122.

[34] Baldwin, 279.

 

Works cited

Baldwin, James: The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy. In: James Baldwin. Collected Essays. New York: Literary Classics of the United States 1998, 269-285.

Bhabha, Homi K.: The Location of Culture. London and New York: Roudledge 2004.

Fanon, Frantz: Black Skins, White Masks. London: Pluto Press 2008.

Glair, Christopher: The Beat Generation. A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008.

Levine, Andrea: The (Jewish) White Negro. Norman Mailer’s Racial Bodies, in: MELUS, Volume 28, issue 2, 1 June 2003, 59-81.

Mailer, Norman: Hipster and Beatnik. A Footnote to ‘The white Negro.’ In: Advertisements for Myself. London: Andre Deutsch 1961, 315-318.

—. “The White Negro. Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” In: Dissent, 3, Fall 1957, 276-293.

Taylor, Douglas: Three Lean Cats in a Hall of Mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Eldridge Cleaver on Race and Masculinity. In: Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 1 April 2010, Vol.52(1), 70-101.

The Fabric of Slavery in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! […] And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (Morrison, Beloved 3-4)

In Beloved, Toni Morrison deals with slavery and especially its legacy. She transcends conventional literary and linguistic boundaries, through the creation of a novel that cannot easily be labelled with a specific genre and through a celebration of modernist narration modes like stream of consciousness, in an attempt to convey to her readers the unconveyable experience of slavery and its aftermath. James Baldwin, one of the most powerful and influential black novelists of all time, who Morrison has herself confessed to be a great admirer of (Troupe 76), stated in one of his essays that it is nearly impossible “to convey to a white man the reality of the Negro experience” (272). The experience he speaks of is that of black people in twentieth-century western society, which was still greatly affected by the aftermath of slavery.

In his novel Absalom, Absalom!, which was published in 1936, William Faulkner has his characters tell the story of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a white man who was born into a poor family in Virginia and gains wealth by morally and legally questionable means. Based on this wealth, he hand-crafts himself his own dynasty in the form of a plantation, which eventually fails. After having produced no heir to inherit his plantation, one racially mixed son, Charles Bon, having been killed by the other legitimate one, Henry, who then had exiled himself, Sutpen himself gets killed. His plantation is eventually burned down by his half-black daughter Clytie, who herself, together with madness-stricken Henry, is then consumed by the flames.

Narrated from a white perspective of nostalgia for the Old South, slavery does not appear to be an issue at first glance. Within the narrative, a racial dialectic is established from the very beginning, and even though at certain points one wonders whether racial differences were not less important to Sutpen than class differences, the oppression and domination of Blacks through Whites is a recurring theme. Sutpen’s grand design was built and maintained by slaves. Slavery was the basis of his dynasty, just like it was the foundation of the South’s flourishing economy. Thus, when looking at the bigger picture, the story of the rise and fall of Sutpen in fact represents the story of the rise and fall of the Old South.

The racial dialectic of Absalom, Absalom! first manifests itself as Thomas Sutpen is introduced to the readers as well as to Quentin: “Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt […], with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed” (8). Quentin then reflects in a stream of consciousness what he has been told by Miss Rosa: “[…] Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation – (Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) – tore violently” (9). Hence, it is the narrator as well as the characters who use the dialectic of the semiotic other.

Going back to Morrison, who claims that white American literature is constituted through and revolves around a “dark, abiding, signing, Africanist presence” (Playing in the Dark 5), J. G. Brister underscores the fact of this presence in Absalom, Absalom! and further suggests that blackness is depicted as a power in itself which poses a threat to the white system of slavery (39). Indeed, descriptions of Sutpen’s slaves are nearly always paired with imageries of violence or savageness. What seems even more prominent than the threat of blackness, however, is the fear of miscegenation, which is represented by Clytie, Charles Bon and Jim Bon. Clytie is Sutpen’s daughter, born by a slave woman. Even though she legally is a slave, Sutpen treats her differently from his other servants, although not comparably to his legitimate white daughter Judith. Miss Rosa recalls this ominous in-between state of Clytie:

“Clytie, not inept, anything but inept: perverse inscrutable and paradox: free, yet incapable of freedom who had never once called herself a slave, […] – Clytie who in the very pigmentation of her flesh represented that debacle which had brought Judith and me to what we were and which had made of her (Clytie) that which she declined to be just as she had declined to be that from which its purpose had been to emancipate her, as though presiding aloof upon the new, she deliberately remained to represent to us the threatful portent of the old.” (Faulkner 156-157)

Charles Bon is also Sutpen’s racially mixed offspring, though his blackness is not as obvious as Clytie’s. It is merely hinted at throughout the novel, before his mother’s racially mixed background is uncovered by Quentin and Shreve. In the end, his mixed race and the threat of miscegenation – Charles wishing to marry his half-sister, Henry’s sister Judith – outweighs family ties, bonds of friendship and the anomaly of incest, as Henry kills his half-brother because “it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which [he] can’t bear” ( Faulkner 356).

Sutpen’s own views on this matter, on the other hand, seem to be more ambivalent. On the one hand, class differences seem to be of more importance to him than racial differences. When young boy Sutpen was running an errand for his father and was told by a black servant to use the back entrance of the plantation owner’s mansion, he “learned the difference not only between white men and black ones, but he was learning that there was a difference between white men and white men” (Faulkner 226). This is the key to his whole life story, as it is in this instance that he makes up his mind about wanting to be the owner of such a plantation one day; this is when his idea of his great design is starting to take shape. His wish for transcending class boundaries is the force that sets his career as a plantation owner in motion.

When he arrives in Jefferson with his band of slaves and the French architect, “who looked like he had been hunted down and caught in turn by the negroes” (16), he does not seem to make a difference between his black slaves and his white supposed employee. When the architect tries to escape from Sutpen, “he [Sutpen] […] got his dogs and his wild niggers out and hunted the architect down” (218) just as he would a runaway slave. His ruthless ambition and greed thus overshadow any ideological or moral consideration, and, as “he was at this time completely the slave of his secret and furious impatience” (34), indeed even overshadow his own agency as a free human being, utterly captivating his whole existence.

Nevertheless, his demonstration of power over blackness is quite prominently featured in the novel and especially evident in his defeating of a slave revolt in the West Indies and his casual participation in violent slave fights.

“[…] as a grand finale or perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the ring with one of the negroes himself. […] standing there naked and panting and bloody to the waist and the negro just fallen evidently, lying at his feet and bloody too […]” (Faulkner 29).

Thus, Sutpen defines his identity as well as his whole existence by oppressing the ‘other’, which, however, is not only the black slave, but also destitute Whites, like the French architect or the family he was born into or even his wifes. In his dynasty, he is the king and everybody below him is there only as a means to maintaining his rule, just like the purpose of his wife was only to produce an heir, the failure of which resulted in her being cast off, just like Sutpen’s affair Milly.

Ultimately, Sutpen and his plantation can be read as symbolic for the Old South itself, as Ralph Behrens suggests (26). He embodies the ideology and the values that create the foundation of the system of slavery in the South; a combination of greed with a disregard or a reshaping of ethics only to serve the purpose of the creation and maintenance of a microcosmic do-it-yourself dynasty. Another scholar, Olga Vickery, recognises Sutpen as a representative of all plantation owners of the Old South; “[he] himself is a mirror image of the South, for his career in Jefferson merely repeats in a foreshortened form the rise of many families whose longer tenure of the land has given them respectability” (93). The symbolic character of Sutpen is further illustrated in the following metaphor: “[…] if ‘untamed’ be synonymous with ‘wild,’ then ‘Sutpen’ is the silent unsleeping viciousness of the tamer’s lash” (Faulkner 156). With these words, Sutpen is reduced from being the creator and implementer of his grand design to a mere instrument in the hands of a slave driver, who himself is only a slave to a plantation owner who himself in turn is only a slave to the system of slavery in the Old South. This was also illustrated earlier with Sutpen being the slave of his own obsession.

To conclude, Absalom, Absalom! is written from a white perspective of nostalgia for the Old South that oozes with a racial dialectic of oppressing the semiotic ‘other’. This ‘other’, blackness, is depicted as vicious, brutal and ultimately as a threat to white supremacy. The most threatening phenomenon, however, is that of blurring the supposedly clear distinctions between Black and White. Miscegenation, as represented by Charles Bon, Clytie and Jim Bon, is feared as even greater a perversion than incest and is thus eliminated through the course of the novel – besides mad, broken Jim Bon. He remains only to bemoan and witness the legacy of the great tragedy, not only of Sutpen’s Hundred but of the Old South itself, not of their downfall but of the black lives that were taken, used, abused and crippled in the process. Just as it was the case with the Old South itself, in Absalom, Absalom! racism and greed as well as the obsession with the class system get interweaved into the fabric of slavery. Faulkner himself notes in 1957 on the character of Sutpen:

“What he was trying to do – when he was a boy, he had gone to the front door of a big house and somebody, a servant, said, Go around to the back door. He said, I’m going to be the one that lives in that house, I’m going to establish a dynasty, I don’t care how, and he violated all the rules of decency and honor and pity and compassion, and the fates took revenge on him.” (quoted in Blotner and Gwynn 35)

Sutpen’s rise, fall and punishment, therefore, symbolise the rise, fall and punishment of the Old South. Faulkner attempted to speak the unspeakable nature of slavery, not from the perspective of the victims, but from the perspective of the culprits of one of the greatest crimes against humanity. The legacy of slavery, those who are left behind, are the Jim Bonds, broken and crippled. They will later be given a voice in Toni Morrison’s writing. For now, there only remain the incomprehensible cries of Jim Bond. “Of course you can’t catch him and you don’t even always see him and you never will be able to use him. But you’ve got him there still. You still hear him at night sometimes. Don’t you?” (Faulkner 378)

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” 1949. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998. Print.

Behrens, Ralph. “Collapse of Dynasty: The Thematic Centre of Absalom, Absalom!” PMLA 89.1 (Jan 1974). 24-33. Web. 2 December 2009.

Blotner, Joseph and Gwynn, Frederick L., eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957-1958. New York: Vintage, 1959. Print.

Brigster, J. G. “Absalom, Absalom! and the Semiotic Other.” The Faulkner Journal 22.1 (Fall 2006/Spring 2007): 39-53. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. London: Vintage, 2007. Print.

–. Playing in the Dark. 1992. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.

Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Touchstone, 1989. Print.

Vickery, Olga. The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. Print.