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LITERARY CRITICISM AND CULTURAL THEORY Edited by William E.Cain Wellesley College A ROUTLEDGE SERIES
LITERARY CRITICISM AND CULTURAL THEORY WILLIAM E.CAIN, General Editor SATIRE AND THE POSTCOLONIAL NOVEL V.S.Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie John Clement Ball THROUGH THE NEGATIVE The Photographic Image and the Written Word in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Megan Williams LOVE AMERICAN STYLE Divorce and the American Novel 1881–1976 Kimberly Freeman FEMINIST UTOPIAN NOVELS OF THE 1970s Joanna Russ and Dorothy Bryant Tatiana Teslenko DEAD LETTERS TO THE NEW WORLD Melville, Emerson, and American Transcendentalism Michael McLoughlin THE OTHER ORPHEUS A Poetics of Modern Homosexuality Merrill Cole THE OTHER EMPIRE British Romantic Writings about the Ottoman Empire Filiz Turhan THE “DANGEROUS” POTENTIAL OF READING Readers and the Negotiation of Power in Nineteenth-Century Narratives Ana-Isabel Aliaga-Buchenau INTIMATE AND AUTHENTIC ECONOMIES The American Self-Made Man from Douglass to Chaplin Thomas Nissley
REVISED LIVES Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship William Pannapacker THE REAL NEGRO The Question of Authenticity in Twentieth-Century African American Literature Shelly Eversley LABOR PAINS Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcott on Work and the Woman Question Carolyn R.Maibor NARRATIVE IN THE PROFESSIONAL AGE Transatlantic Readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Jennifer Cognard-Black FICTIONAL FEMINISM How American Bestsellers Affect the Movement for Women’s Equality Kim Loudermilk THE COLONIZER ABROAD Island Representations in American Prose from Melville to London Christopher McBride THE METANARRATIVE OF SUSPICION IN LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICA Sandra Baringer PROTEST AND THE BODY IN MELVILLE, DOS PASSOS, AND HURSTON Tom McGlamery THE ARCHITECTURE OF ADDRESS The Monument and Public Speech In American Poetry Jake Adam York THE SLAVE IN THE SWAMP Disrupting the Plantation Narrative William Tynes Cowan READING THE TEXT THAT ISN’T THERE Paranoia in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel Mike Davis
RACIAL BLASPHEMIES Religious Irreverence and Race in American Literature
Routledge New York & London
Published in 2005 by Routledge 270 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016 http://www.routledge-ny.com/ Published in Great Britain by Routledge 2 Park Square Milton Park, Abington Oxon OX14 4RN http://www.routledge.co.uk/ Copyright © 2005 by Taylor & Francis Group, a Division of T&F Informa. Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group. This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. “To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge's collection of thousands of eBooks please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk.” All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cobb, Michael L. Racial blasphemies:religious irreverence and race in American literature / Michael L. Cobb. p. c.m.—(Literary criticism and cultural theory) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN: 0-415-97126-8 (alk. paper) 1. American fiction—20th century— History and criticism. 2. Race in literature. 3. Religion and literature—History—20th century. 4. Race relations in literature. 5. Blasphemy in literature. 6. Religion in literature. I. Title. II. Series. PS374.R32C63 2005 810.9′3552–dc22 2005019850 ISBN 0-203-64229-5 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-68969-0 (OEB Format) ISBN 0-415-97126-8 (Print Edition)
For three fantastic mentors: Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Debra Campbell, and Hortense Spillers
Chapter Painfully Obvious: Nakedness and Religious Words in James One Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
Chapter Arresting Whiteness: Religious History and “Local” Color in Two Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood
Chapter “She was Something Vulgar in a Holy Place”: The Resanguination Three of the Word in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones
Chapter “Actual Sacrilege”: The Blasphemous Narration of Time and Race Four in William Faulkner’s Light in August
This book was written as a dissertation in the delightful Cornell University English Department. I’m grateful for such a collegial and intellectually exciting place. I must thank Cornell, University of California, Berkeley, and the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell for much needed financial assistance during the research of this project, I must also thank my tolerant parents for all sorts of articulate and inarticulate support throughout the years I wouldn’t “get a real job.” I’m also deeply thankful for the friends and colleagues I met in graduate school, who are too numerous to mention here, so they’ll have to wait for the next project for the effusive praise they deserve. There are also fantastic people at the University of Toronto, where I now delightfully reside and teach, who’ve generously encouraged me as I start my professorial career. But they, too, will be given proper acknowledgement in the near future. For now, “thanks for moving me up to Canada” will have to make due. I’m absolutely indebted to name the following teachers, friends, and colleagues who contributed most directly to this book’s emergence: Emily Apter, Lauren Berlant, Homi Bhabha, Bill Brown, Jonathan Culler, Elizabeth DeLoughery, Jacqueline Goldsby, Beth Povinelli, and Andrew Bricker. Ellis Hanson has been so crucial, and I owe him much. Most thanks, of course, belong to the stunning Hortense J.Spillers, whose brilliant example and dear friendship make thinking for a living necessary. Chapter three was published in the University of Toronto Quarterly, and I appreciate being able to republish it here. And I’m compelled to mention Routledge and William Cain for including me in this exciting series.
Simply stated, blasphemous language was the language that a variety of influential writers in twentieth-century American literature used to articulate the problem of racial difference. The appearance of an irreverent, unfaithful, and angered rhetoric of religion enabled the literary expression of racial distinction to be more than a historical or sociological reference to the very real and very destructive histories and systems of unequal race relations in contemporary American society and culture. This book’s primary examples—James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Paule Marshall, and William Faulkner—all were engaged in a form of literary sacrilege that complicated not only religious language but also the figurations of racial embodiment that obsessed their aesthetic sensibilities. Although, as we shall see, there were very good, historical and mimetic reasons for the persistent connections between race and religion, these writers all relied, in varying degrees, on something much more rhetorical: on how, as Jonathan Culler suggests, “religious discourse and religious belief seem to occupy a special privileged place, as though it went without saying that any sort of challenge or critique were improper, in bad taste.”1 Rather than only be thought of as a specific set of beliefs, theologies, or church or spiritual histories, religion, I want to emphasize, can also be considered as a “discourse” about something strong and acceptable—about something that then also can inspire the kinds of critiques that would be “in bad taste.” And, indeed, the aesthetic innovations created by my exemplary writers came not only from the sensations of religious discourse’s privilege, but also from the improper, blasphemous utterances that usually accompany an oppressive orthodoxy. In one of his incarnations, T.S.Eliot conceived of religion, and particularly Christianity, as an idiom for connection that helps maintain “control and balance,” the only “hopeful course for a society [to] thrive” given the ever present dangers of a continually changing society.2 Christianity had been a way of imagining a solid and special tradition, through which the “unity of culture” was made possible. Thus religion, for Eliot, was the name, the trope, for a traditional conception of culture threatened by “cultural disintegration,” by direct challenges to a unity (that tends more to hegemony)3; religion was a transcendent expression of a particular kind of culture Eliot frequently elaborated. With something sacred, however, something blasphemous is not far behind.4 Often evil and emphatic, verbal offenses against the sacred are in direct contradiction to the agreed upon idea of religion. In an Eliot point of view, that would mean the kind of utterance that attacks the unity of a privileged, traditional discourse. Inasmuch as my authors’ writing can and should be characterized as direct challenges to cultural norms about racist division and antagonisms, the language used to express the problems of racial
division—without reifying and necessarily promoting those racial qualities described by the hegemonic “unity of culture”—is one that deliberately circulated in a register of unorthodoxy. Each of my authors attack the privilege of religious discourse, making literature the kind of writing that was in bad taste when “in good taste” meant a white-dominated cultural, political, and literary scene. More precisely, what an irreverent comment about religion demonstrates is an axiom that Ellis Hanson articulates in his Decadence and Catholicism: “In our own time I think it is valuable to recognize the fact that Christianity has no necessary content, no essential politics, no inherent meanings, apart from the practice of individuals.” 5 Blasphemy reveals that religious or traditional expressions are only established by conventions—and those conventions can be challenged, especially at the level of language. In direct contrast to Eliot, Hanson helpfully and lyrically suggests, “if we continue to dwell in language on the nature of God, we find not a transcendent signifier but an uncertain one, flickering, inconsistent, that burns and is extinguished with its articulation.”6 Blasphemous utterance takes this linguistic “play” to a hostile extreme: its anger, its tension and frustration, come to signify the inadequacy of the transcendental signifier of traditional conceptions of a white literary culture that set the terms of racial representation in a most inequitable manner. So in this book I explore the ways religious language could not be transcendent— could not guarantee a specific content or truth. Such failures of transcendence were crucial for the complication of racial and racist representation in American letters. In part because the very American genres of social apology and protest influenced the way we conceive of writing about race, there is a rampant literalism in many discussions of racial difference—a literalism that parades as a form of racial orthodoxy, a form of transcendent signification. The “realness” of a fictional racialized body, even when it is merely and forcefully a representation (and often a racist representation), is often thought to be evidence of a hard reality. Rey Chow, in a discussion about Chinese literature, articulates this particular problem of the critical reception of minority literature, even when such criticisms are politically informed and well-intentioned: No matter how nonmimetic, experimental, subversive, or avant-garde such diasporic writing might try to be, it is invariably classified, marketed, and received in the West as Chinese, in a presupposed correspondence to that reality called China. As in the case of representations by all minorities in the West, a kind of paternalistic, if not downright racist, attitude persists as a method of categorizing minority discourse: minorities are allowed the right to speak only on the implicit expectation that they will speak in the documentary mode, “reflecting” the group from which they come.7 We can extend Chow’s analysis to illuminate particular issues within the critical reception of the United States’ literature that specifically attempts to address minority issues of race. Years ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tells us a similar, literary history that still haunts the critical reception of race writing. He argues that a realist reading protocol thrived and thrives:
Form was merely a surface for reflection of the world, the world here being an attitude toward race; form was a repository for the disposal of ideas; message was not only meaning but value; poetic discourse was taken to be literal, or once removed; language lost its capacity to be metaphorical in the eyes of the critic; the poem approached the essay, with referents immediately perceivable; literalness precluded the view of life as allegorical; and black critics forgot that writers approached things through words, not the other way around. The functional and didactic aspects of formal discourse assumed primacy in normative analysis. The confusion of realms was complete: the critic became social reformer, and literature became an instrument for social and ethical betterment of the black person.8 But, as Gates argues, “black literature is a verbal art like other verbal arts. ‘Blackness’ is not a material object, an absolute, or an event, but a trope; it does not have an essence as such but is defined by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity.”9 One relation in “black literature” (which includes writing about blackness by white writers [as well as vice versa]), is the blasphemous one. The traditional reading of race through a documentary imperative is necessarily contradicted by irreverent tropes of blackness (and whiteness). It is my contention that the ability to speak inaccurately, or blasphemously, about race disables the realist requirement that makes racialized bodies much too coherent and legible within the p:darameters of a conventional rhetoric—a rhetoric dominated by a documentary perspective that denies the linguistic play of a simultaneously religious and racial language. Hanson believes “the divine contagion that is religion is traceable in part to the viral quality of language itself, always in motion, corroding our every defense, and inevitably contaminating its putative referent with its peculiar and alien inflection.”10 In many ways, Baldwin, O’Connor, Marshall, and Faulkner used the “divine contagion” of religious rhetoric to place the “putative” referent of a racialized body into the “always in motion” and viral quality of linguistic innovation. Racial Blasphemies is thus a study of the literary relationship between religious language and representations of race in modern American literature. I articulate the way Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones and Faulkner’s Light in August establish an innovative literary tradition—often overlooked—that renders race through an unusual deployment of religious rhetoric, one that blasphemes sanctified notions about what religious language—and, indeed, what race—is thought to communicate. I challenge established readings of the connections between religion and race, important readings that too often rely on thematic and historical explanations about the significance of religious belief—readings that do not closely investigate the way religious rhetoric represents the hard-to-articulate condition of race. I do so because there is what we might call an “over-historicization” of the religious utterance in contemporary American literary studies. New historicism, more generally, is a critical mandate that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls one of a few, “strong theories” that have dominated, perhaps too much so, our literary and critical responses since at least the mid-1980s.11 In contrast, I take seriously Sedgwick’s call to employ what critics have begun to invent: “an unhurried, undefensive, theoretically galvanized practice of close reading,” for “there are
important phenomenological and theoretical tasks that can be accomplished only through local theories and nonce taxonomies; the potentially innumerable mechanisms of their relation to stronger theories remains the matter of art and of speculative thought.”12 Likewise, I depart from insisting on the “strong” historical facts of religion as it is practiced in the historical world of to the United States. Instead, I demonstrate that religious language, for these authors, does not necessarily reference traditional religious histories, theologies, or institutions; instead, it also references, it talks to and around, the painful ambiguity of racial embodiment in twentieth-century American culture and literature. More specifically, I argue that religious words function as curses, as exclamatory expressions that irreverently name, if not size-up, the arbitrariness of racial distinction in a nation and a century virulently maintained along unequal, racist lines. For instance, religious words on a billboard compel Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes to stop driving, and he curses, “Jesus is a trick on niggers.”13 By using a furious, frustrated rhetoric, these authors express, however obliquely, the inadequacy of racial representation, and halt typical and realistic accounts that maintain hyperbolic distinctions and histories posited between white and African American races and ethnicities. Within the profane religious language of some of the twentieth century’s most prominent writers, one can find the early foundations of a sophisticated literature about race—a literary tradition that revises dominant aesthetic models of racial apology and protest. Chapter one, “Painfully Obvious: Nakedness and Religious Words in Go Tell It on the Mountain,” sets the stage by describing a symptomatic over-historicization of the importance of religious rhetoric in Baldwin’s work. Reading for historicism is often a protocol that also reads for realism. In the context of Baldwin, such a reliance on history denies the otherwise complicated rhetorical or literary effects of religious rhetoric. The chapter is specifically concerned with John Grimes, the main character in Go Tell It on the Mountain, who converts to a version of Christianity that curses his very exposed, very naked flesh. Within the novel’s evangelical religious tradition, the blackness of the African American skin is deemed sinful and in need of a white-inflected religion that denies the otherwise positive attributes of racially marked flesh. John, however, is unwilling to confirm the equation that skin and sin mean the same thing. He challenges the traditional version of religious history, and describes blackness as a religious “curse” word that “was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son.”14 I argue that when John learns to repeat his community’s religious and historical text, his irreverent inflection demonstrates that religious words do not trap him into beliefs that only value whiteness. Instead, John’s tone articulates a more capacious understanding of the obscenities and tragic histories lurking within his black flesh. Chapter two, “Arresting Whiteness: Religious History and “Local” Color in Wise Blood,” intervenes in two primary, and inevitably dead-ended, questions that dominate O’Connor criticism and that suggest a persistent need to make O’Connor’s text respond to her own social reality. Strangely, these questions do not come into substantial intellectual contact: first, is O’Connor or isn’t O’Connor religious? And second, is O’Connor or isn’t O’Connor a racist? In response, I argue that questions of race inevitably invoke questions of religion. And the most questioning religious character in O’Connor’s novel, Hazel, is also the character whose race is most at issue. Provocatively, whenever he hears religious rhetoric, or is accused of being religious, his uncertain racial
identity is highlighted; his whiteness becomes darker, and Hazel, when confronted with religion, is in danger of becoming “black.” Hazel’s status as white is certainly a “hazy” issue. Many critics suggest that whiteness is the race less-embodied and racially distinct—a race that attempts not to be a race. Wise Blood, however, makes the universality of whiteness impossible by highlighting Hazel’s futile struggle for the promise of whiteness’ purity. But whenever Hazel speaks religious words, such as “Jesus,” the narrative immediately interprets them as curses (“‘Listen at him cursing’” ), and these curses reference Hazel’s dark, racially suspicious past. O’Connor uses religious words to blaspheme whiteness out of its easy and uncritical claims on universality, and in many ways religion is intimately connected to what we’ll see is a “historical” blackness. The religion of Hazel’s blackness makes whiteness recede into its own necessary connections with the way blackness, for O’Connor, represents the limitations of any body, highlighting what simultaneously exists in O’Connor’s version of the “local”: not whiteness, but its opposite, blackness; not religion, but religion’s opposite: literature. As a consequence, I argue that O’Connor’s religious idiom, as it functions blasphemously, names not universal transcendence but rather the problem of the body’s ephemeral quality. Chapter three, “‘She Was Something Vulgar in a Holy Place’: The Resanguination of the Word in Brown Girl, Brownstones,” attempts to situate an Afro-Caribbean writer more firmly into a canon of American and Afro-American letters by focusing on a central problem of racial affiliation in the US:blackness flattens divisions between diverse populations in the US. “Black” can mean so many things, and can categorize and miscategorize so many kinds of people of color. Marshall’s most acclaimed novel highlights these racial instabilities that make the category of “blackness” so difficult; not everyone can make their bodies adequately expressive of a homogenized color. As much criticism on the novel has already pointed out, the ownership of a house, previously occupied by white tenants, directly symbolizes the relationship these Afro-Caribbean characters have with both “blackness” and the dominant US nationality. What has not been noticed, however, is the manner in which the occupation of a previously white religious language is another register Marshall employs to depict often-neglected complexities of racial embodiment in immigrant American culture. Emphatic religious language (“My God,” “God truth,” “Oh Jesus-Christ-God”) draws attention to the Barbadian women’s ability to make a previously white vernacular semantically appropriate for their divergent black bodies: “Silla, Be-Jees, in this white-man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun.”15 In sharp contrast to characters like the “old white woman” (and her daughter, the “religious fanatic and a walking dead”), the protagonist, Selina, notices that “words were living things [for her mother], She sensed them bestriding the air and charging the room with strong colors” (71). These characters’ colored and emphatic relationship to religious words brings back to life a dead rhetoric through its ability to be allegorical, to speak obliquely to the divisive and hybridic conditions of the novel’s diasporic, racially complex culture submerged within larger narratives of white, American social mobility and success. The “forked-tongue” of religious language thus here attends to the ambivalent, personal histories and racial tragedies within an American immigrant culture that divides and flattens its protagonists between two nationalities and two races under one grand sign of “blackness.”
The book concludes with chapter four, “‘Actual Sacrilege’: The Blasphemous Narration of Time and Race in Light in August.” Faulkner synthesizes all the book’s concerns with racial and representational instabilities that are signaled by an opaque and emphatic use of religious rhetoric. In this novel, accurate storytelling about the “actual” is destabilized by a blasphemous religious rhetoric that indicates the vexed temporality of narration. We cannot understand the specific chronological properties that make the central character, Joe Christmas, either white or black, and thus we cannot have a“realist” representation that would faithfully describe Joe’s body in any traditional sense. Joe’s history is both religious and confused; indeed, we are not even sure if he is of mixedblood. In an exemplary instance, Christmas is whipped because he refuses to memorize his Protestant catechism. The narration renders Joe’s response to the punishment with a paradox: “His face was now quite white despite the smooth rich pallor of his skin.”16 His possible white heritage rushes to the surface of his body, and the uncertainty of Joe’s confused flesh is one way Faulkner explores the potent and emphatic place religious rhetoric has within the textual illumination and representation of his racelessness. When Joe is forced to repeat religious words, we are left with the way Joe’s “parchmentcolored” (277) face cannot be read or described in any “real” sense, Hence, I claim that strong, religious language describes the “actual sacrilege” (63) of a body that cannot announce its race—a sacrilege that provokes confusion about the events that constitute the “actual” past. This chapter thus enables an account of blasphemous, religious language in Faulkner to be as much a problem of race as it is a problem of narrative, Moreover, the example of Faulkner concludes the book by arguing for the crucial presence of an obfuscating racialized religious rhetoric within each of this study’s authors. Without a doubt, the early and mid-twentieth century historical crises of interracial relations dramatically influenced the development of American literature. And each writer demonstrated her or his fortunate inability to ever tell the story with an accurate precision that might otherwise lose sight of the ways that race, like religion, can be a very playful, if not distasteful, trope.
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
Chapter One Painfully Obvious: Nakedness and Religious Words in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
“JESUS CHRIST!” John Grimes, the protagonist from James Baldwin’s 1952 novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is cursed. More exactly, he is cursed by the words others use to describe his body—words more in the service of making him a representative of his African American community rather than detailing his own unique shape, Indeed, “John…was expected to be a good example”1 for his community Consequently, John’s body, often in the precious view of others, is very conspicuous, and the commentary around him does not help John clarify what is disturbing, baffling, if not delightful, about his displayed body. For instance, as John dusts his front-room’s mantle piece, its collection of family photos, “the true antiques of the family” (28), makes John feel vulnerable: the photos “had all been taken in infancy, a time and condition that the children could not remember. John, in his photograph lay naked on a white counter-pane, and people laughed and said that it was cunning. But John could never look at it without feeling shame and anger that his nakedness should be here so unkindly revealed. None of the other children was naked” (28). John’s contribution to the historical record of the family, the image of his young, un-remembering self, provides many opportunities for the unsettling critical commentary of others. His body is left much too open to the suggestive, often abusive, force of others’ words. In one particularly haunting assessment of John’s appearance, we begin to learn about the “nature” of the pernicious remarks John is forced to entertain about his body: “His [step]father had always said that his [John’s] face was the face of Satan—and was there not something—in the lift of the eyebrow, in the way his rough hair formed a V on his brow—that bore witness to his father’s words?” (27). As John looks at his black face in the mirror for evidence that would lend credence to his stepfather’s religious account of his appearance, he forces a coherence between what his body looks like and the way his stepfather has described his body. The religious words seem accurate, but John is not certain about their correspondence with part of his body—the features, the “details [of his face] did not help him, for the principle of their unity was undiscoverable” (27).2 The words his stepfather utters are examples of the most articulate expressions available for
John as he ponders his appearance; nevertheless, John feels that there might be something else to his facade—“unity” has not yet been discovered. Something about his body is not captured by his stepfathers religious commentary. This incongruence between John’s body and the words that surround him highlights a prominent tension animating much of the novel: religious words, like his stepfather Gabriel’s satanic condemnation of John’s potentially sinful flesh, erroneously describe John’s physical form, And religious rhetorics are of supreme importance: the language of Christian conversion is the primary manner in which the characters connect themselves to each other, instilling in one another a sense of historical continuity and community. Religious words, however, capture John’s body incomprehensively The words are not satisfying because they promote, as we’ll soon learn, a too-general understanding of historical belonging that is supposed to unify all the black characters in the novel. John’s confused response to the commentary around the spectacle of his naked body productively interrupts his place in the history of his family, friends, ancestors, and, indeed, his African American race. Furthermore, John’s own sense of incongruence enables Baldwin to critique and write against traditional representations of African American experience in a literary text. As a primary instance of an American writer who incorporates religious language to render the “fiction of blackness,”3 Baldwin, with Go Tell It on the Mountain, demonstrates an immediate paradox that appears in much African American fiction: in order to write about the hyper-embodied condition of “race,” African American writers often employ what is conventionally thought of as another-worldly register—”sacred” words (that exist, nonetheless, in worldly forms), In a typical discussion of his work, one of Baldwin’s critics suggests that black preachers “adapt mythic scripture to the mimetic needs of their congregations—making the tenets of Christianity relevant to the reality of black experience. The style and goal is contrary to rationalistic conceptualization; instead it seeks to communicate known religious doctrine through the emotions and senses.4 But Baldwin, I’m convinced, does not use his writing to communicate the “tenets of Christianity” through a “contrary to rationalistic” appeal to emotions that will make the tenets “relevant” to the history of “black experience.” The preacherly style of this novel does more than reference the residue of Baldwin’s early evangelical training; it demonstrates more than the way “Baldwin’s experience as a minister in a black storefront church was so vigorously applied to his prose.”5 Instead, when we read closely the religious descriptors (i.e. “the face of Satan,” the religious words of his preacher-stepfather) attributed to John’s prominent nakedness, his very apparent body, we can see that religious language provides Baldwin, throughout the novel, with the ability to arrest quick assumptions about what kind of histories black bodies indicate in his literary text. The religious modifiers that surround John as he struggles to find some descriptive unity in his appearance, some explanation for why he looks the way he looks, do not reference the church, its history, or its religious beliefs as much as they reference John’s corporeal confusion, his sinful and embarrassing bodily difference. In this chapter, I will intervene within the important historical readings of Baldwin that do not consider his reliance on religious rhetoric except to position him in a nowcliché, however accurate, relationship with the black church, especially with the way this institution has held a central place in the cultural history and the cultural imaginary of African Americans. As a consequence, this chapter will not be about religion or religious
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
history as religion is often described; instead, following the neglected critical protocols of Kenneth Burke, I will be “concerned not directly with religion [or the history of specific practices within a specific religion], but rather with the terminology of religion; not directly with man’s [or woman’s] relationship to God, but rather with his relationship to the word ‘God.’“6 This chapter will be about Baldwin’s religious rhetoric, not his religious belief. And this rhetoric has much to do with the inscrutability of the African American body, the inscrutability of racially marked skin. In any race novel, much of the crisis of the racialized body is related to the numerous ways skin is read by others. Hortense Spillers describes the flesh as “the concentration of ethnicity”7; Robyn Wiegman calls skin the site that enables “the visible relation that collapses social subjectivity with skin and marks an epidermal hierarchy as the domain of natural difference.”8 And within Baldwin’s novel, one’s skin is an index of one’s membership in a black community that defines itself through its religious character. John, for instance, imagines, through a conversion hallucination, his ancestors, “the robes of some barely covered their nakedness,” as a stumbling, injured group of people: “some did not cease to pluck at their flesh, which was rotten and running with sores” (203). Here, the body is the text that announces a religious and historical connection John is expected to share: “The stripes they had endured would scar his back, their punishment would be his, their portion his, their humiliation, anguish, chains, their dungeon his… And their dead testimony would be his!” (201). This extension to a captive past, articulated by a series of images that leave John with a restrictive, corporeally inscribed “dead testimony,” illustrates the primary version of racial affiliation this novel describes: racially ethnic associations with others will be achieved once one’s scarred skin resembles the skin of those who came before. When one repeats the flesh of the past, one secures her or his racial membership. Moreover, it is the “dead [religious] testimony” from the barely covered ancestors that organizes the abuses of the flesh; religious words, in this text, lend a lexical coherence to the scars of African Americanness. Baldwin thus explores the somewhat circular connections between the body and a history of racial affiliation by exploiting the manner in which the African American flesh, through a religious vernacular, is considered to be sinful, and hence, in need of religious redemption, in need of religious words. Indeed, John’s skin, like all of the characters of the novel, is a locus of sin as much as it is a locus of ethnicity. At a crucial moment in the text, we learn, through a collection of similes, what John’s “sin” might mean: And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church while he was there alone, sweeping, and running water into the great bucket, and overturning chairs, long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared. It was like Roy’s [his brothers] curses, Roy…cursing in the house of God, and making obscene gestures before the eyes of Jesus. It was like all this, the walls which testified that the wages of sin was death. (19) Although a series of comparisons designate that John is having trouble defining what his “sin” is, the most tangible noun we have is “darkness.” And this darkness is found within
a persistent location throughout the text: the “sin was in the flesh” (217). By analogizing sin with dark skin, the racial connotations become obvious: John is sinful because his skin is black. Moreover, this dark flesh, in John’s most elaborated association, resembles a “curse”—an obscenity in church, a blasphemous performance. Much like Roy, however, all the members of the congregation have a cursed relationship to the “tabernacle,” and all the members articulate their sinful, black flesh using the religious words made readily available by the sacred space. When, for instance, the church’s preacher finishes describing the hardness of the Word, he encourages the congregation to express its agreement to his sinful description of the flesh and the difficulty of a religiously dedicated life: “And they cried: ‘Amen! Amen!’” (17). In unison, each churchgoer expressly confirms that her or his flesh is sinful and in need of religious faith, and more exactly, in need of religious words that will make sense of the potential corporeal dangers each black body might generate. They must confirm the common characteristics of their flesh by denigrating their flesh, pronouncing the kinds of words that promise to relieve them of its sinful, dark qualities. The implication by contrast, of course, is that a skin not dark and sinful—skin that is white—is more desirable and pious. Vexed instances of the embrace of a religious rhetoric that communally confirms the black flesh through its condemnation run throughout the text in a consistent manner. The complexity of racial marking and belonging is drawn into quick legibility through the religious discourse that is both the solution to and prerequisite for the sinful description of the black flesh. Another congregation member, Elisha, teaches John that Jesus’ name is the “only name that’s got power over Satan” (55), if not over the mark of Satan John has been told unifies his face in a dark ugliness. Hence, I want to explore the way Baldwin manipulates the intimate relationship between black flesh and forceful religious nomenclature in this novel’s aestheticization of the African American history of communal belonging. This community’s religious “history” is not a solution to John’s anxiety about what it means to be vulnerable and black. Indeed, the photograph of John on the mantle is situated amidst other photos and objects called a “brave confusion” (27). Instead, history is a puzzle—a puzzle that forces John to interrogate just how comprehensively he will be scarred by the past and by the description of his flesh through this past. John later poignantly describes blackness as a religious “curse” word that “was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son” (197) in order to conceptualize what it means, and how it hurts, to be black in this novel—especially once “black” means having an antagonistic relationship to ones own flesh. I want to argue that the persistent inclusion of religious language—often described as swears or curses—serves to emphasize the historically uncertain contours of John’s unkindly revealed, black flesh— the yet-to-be described descriptions of a black body. More specifically, Baldwin’s use of religious rhetoric, through the contrary example of John (the novel’s central intelligence), intervenes in a dangerous explanation of blackness that is reliant on a negative characterization of the flesh—a characterization that necessitates a religious idiom that will always, by definition, reject the black skin. But for John, religious rhetoric functions as a rhetorical, exclamatory mode of expression; it draws attention to the inadequacies of the African American race’s often underscrutinized cover stories (religious words), its too-simply named descriptions of race that painfully simplify what most obviously covers and marks the African American body as an African American body—the body’s flesh. John’s own excruciating, religious
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
exclamations, his own stressed vocalizations of the “Amen” of his community, draw attention to his just too-apparent naked and colored skin. But this attention does not adequately label the complexity of John’s experiences of inhabiting a racialized body in mid-twentieth century US. culture. As a consequence, through the drama of John’s conversion, Baldwin is able to challenge the manner in which African American literature reasserts and references, almost exclusively, repetitive historical stories that capture and fixate on the vulnerability of the black body—on its sinful and naked qualities. Through John’s own emphatic and violent engagement with his community’s religious vernacular, he is able to arrest one version of a racial, historical belonging and manipulate the vernacular; he thereby enables the articulation of his own, less obvious, and perhaps less negative, account. Curiously, John’s own blasphemous inflections, however critical of his community’s narratives, do not push him away from the only communal language and racial identification available; John’s arrest is not the same thing as a rejection of his community’s language. Instead, the critical pause enables John to mine the community’s religious rhetoric, its painful racial legibility, for its ability also to indicate his alternative and more personalized existence within such a religious history. That is, John is able to curse and revise the dominant commentaries about his black skin, using the most pious and prominent words available: Jesus Christ! In the following pages, then, I question African American criticism’s reliance on historical readings of the black church. In contrast, I articulate that Baldwin’s relationship to religious words is primarily lexical, and not historical. I then showcase the pitfalls of the traumatic model of historical and painful racial affiliation inhering within the evangelical conversion experience that John, despite his active resistance, has no choice but to repeat. Finally, in the last section, I focus on the blasphemous results of John’s own eventual acceptance of the Lord’s Word: John learns to repeat his community’s religious text, his community’s description of the black flesh, but his inflection, with its resisting insight, makes all the difference for John’s continued and thriving existence within a community sinfully organized around the power of religious language.
RESISTIBLE HISTORY As I have already pointed out and have argued elsewhere, there’s too much historical good-sense saturating interpretations of Baldwin’s uses of religious rhetoric.9 Baldwin, indeed, appears to follow a typical pattern of African American letters that, as Eric Sundquist argues, relies on the way “black” religion operates as the “core expression of African American culture,” serving as “a foundation for modern African American culture as an extension of slave culture.”10 Even when critics usefully foreground the linguistic dimensions of black church rhetoric, they do so to elaborate an abstract, historical foundation and origin, which explains religious language’s relevance for a contemporary moment that might be otherwise considered secular.11 Indeed, John’s religiously marked flesh leads him back to where “history” often, however effectively or ineffectively, seems to lead us: to an image of an “origin,” the image of John’s ancestors, which lends shape—if not causal coherence—to what happens in the present.12 As Sundquist helpfully argues, so much African American criticism, in an attempt to “right” the historical amnesia of official, national culture,13 elaborates “histories,” often taking
shape through imaginative reconstructions of the African American past. One result of such historical recovery, however, is the conflation of religion with African American history, which, leads I feel, to a persistent reduction of the more flexible figuration of a religious blackness Baldwin creates through his writings. So much has been written on the mutual inflection of African American and religious experience.14 And often, religion is one of the most notable and dominant themes of African American “poetry,” and vice versa; religion has been a “primary occupation of the black American for the first century and a half of composition,”15 Trudier Harris, in an introduction to a collection of new essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain, describes the novel’s “thematic tradition” as the “influence of black fundamentalist religious traditions on African-American literature,” the literary representation of the historical and sociological phenomenon of the importance of the Black church for African Americans, She contrasts, somewhat too cleanly, this tradition with a “critical” practice more concerned with the formal and theoretical concerns that give the novel its praiseworthy “repetitious constructions, its realism, its evocative force, its almost hypnotic effect.”16 Harris’s claims about the “thematic” (as opposed to the figurative or critical) religious dimension of African American experience echo the very speedy links made between the church and the race that are often made by historians and literary critics who infuse ultimate value in the church’s organizing socio-historical importance for black life: Carter G.Woodson called, in 1939, the Black church “an All-Comprehending Institution,” which left “practically no phase of the history of the Negro in America untouched.”17 W.E.B.Du Bois famously argued in 1903 that “The Negro church of today is the social center of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of African character.”18 Mel Watkins portrays Baldwin’s novel as a “complex, deeply textured tale of a black youth’s salvation and religious conversion,” a tale that “captures the frenzy and almost orgiastic passion of the black Baptist church.”19 In accounts such as these, the black church is the primary figure for the African American lifeworld that, until recently, did not have such obvious and valuable formal coherence. C.Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya assert, in 1990, “It has been only in the past twenty years that scholars of African American history, culture, and religion have begun to recognize that black people created their own unique and distinctive forms of culture and worldviews as parallels rather than replications of the culture in which they were involuntary guests.”20 Following a Durkheimian model that contends that religion is a “social phenomenon,” Lincoln and Mamiya offer “the black sacred cosmos” as the exemplar, the always “Central” institution of African American history and culture in which “a shared group experience that… shaped and influenced the cultural screens of human communication and interpretation”21 was made possible. Baldwin, however, strays from familiar narratives about what makes blackness blackness,22 and in order for Baldwin to move beyond historical fact and mimetic representation of the African American lifeworld,23 he frustrates a connection to the past by exploiting religious words that do not draw into relation, so cleanly, rhetorical figures of speech with racially distinct bodies. Indeed, as the discussion of John’s sin as his dark flesh implies, religion does not uncomplicatedly belong to African Americans. In his scathing critique on the protest fiction that dominated the African American literary scene of his early career, Baldwin critiques Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of black characters for the way she “would cover their intimidating nakedness, robe them in white,
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
the garments of salvation; only thus could she be delivered from ever-present sin, only thus could she bury, as St. Paul demanded, ‘the carnal man, the man of the flesh.”24 As a consequence, Stowe solidifies, according to Baldwin, the link he then troubles in Go Tell It on the Mountain: “black equates with evil and white with grace.”25 By dramatizing this connection in the struggles of John, Baldwin highlights the negative qualities of religion’s relationship with the representation of black characters that a strictly historical reading misses. Baldwin does not want to articulate, uncritically, the relation that makes black evil without investigating the other possible meanings that blackness can have even within such a pernicious, religious vernacular. So as Baldwin fixates on John’s nakedness, he questions the more ambivalent relationship that African American characters cultivate with religious descriptors that too conveniently become the signs of a coherent African American history with a correspondingly coherent community: the primary obsession of African American literary and cultural work.26 As Baldwin moves away from the then-dominant protest tradition of African American literature, part of his written labor and innovation is the creation of a piece of writing that does not “bury” the “carnal man, the man of the flesh,” with a white, religious-historical garment that confirms the flesh’s negative (and black) carnal qualities—flesh reasserting some version of historical and literary captivity. Baldwin thus uses his first novel to address the place religious words have in African American culture—to lay bare the nakedness, the unholy quality, of the black body, thereby challenging whether or not such flesh is really sinful.
ARRESTING OBSCENITIES The words that promise John’s salvation throughout the text (i.e. “Jesus Saves”) incorrectly refer to, quite deliberately, John’s church experience. In a traditionally religious sense, John is not, by any means, “saved” by the end of the narrative. His conversion does not annihilate or forgive his sin, and his relationship to the church is not secured. If anything, the conversion experience highlights the ways John’s black flesh drive him from a community that denigrates the disorderliness, the darkness, of his skin, As a consequence, John’s salvation, at first, seems only to be in the service of others, and in the service of others’ needs to make their own personal histories coherent. For example, Gabriel’s mediated voice allows the image of John on his knees in front of the altar to introduce and conclude a coherent narration of his history in the church: And John was on his knees… And, rising, Gabriel thought of how the Lord had led him to this church so long ago, and how Elizabeth [his wife], one night after he had preached, had walked this long aisle to the altar, to repent before God her sin. And then they had married, for he believed her when she said that she was changed—and she was the sign, she and her nameless child, for which he had tarried so many dark years before the Lord. It was as though, when he saw them, the Lord had returned to him again that which was lost. (150) Gabriel’s quick lineage, however, is nervously unsettled by the incompleteness of John’s conversion; John has yet to fulfill his compensatory duties in Gabriel’s historical
imaginary. In response, Gabriel wants to exact violence on John’s body in order for it to fulfill the image of obedience that would make the “dark years before the Lord” as causally sound as he desires; he orders John onto the ground. The image of John on his knees before the Lord is especially urgent. Mark Seltzer describes a primary function of “the body” when it appears in much twentieth-century discourse, a description that might index John’s communal service, his own role as someone who must kneel before the altar: The body, one might say, always becomes visible as a model for something else. The something else for which the body increasingly appears as a model is the public sphere, and not merely because proliferating histories of bodies and sexualities amount to the thrilled exhibition of private bodies and private desires in public. The spectacular public representation of violated bodies has come to function as a way of imagining and situating, albeit in violently pathologized form, the very idea of “the public,” and more exactly, the relations of bodies and persons to public places.27 As John is laid bare, his exhibited and converting body is this text’s public spectacle, enabling the interior secrets and stories of others to be “imagined” and “situated” within the church and its idea of “the public.” The vulnerability and “nakedness” of John’s corporeality, which functions as “the center of the crying, singing saints” (189), encourage the often violent reflection of the individual, the often so intimate-that-no-oneelse-knows-stories to find a social coherence in a figure that fixes and attaches the congregations’ bodies to the physical space and place of the church. John’s acceptance of “the Word” enforces the other characters’ causal sense of their own particular narratives because he, like them, accepts the denigration of his flesh that religious conversion establishes. That is, he consents to have his flesh resemble his ancestors’ scars; he consents to having the dead religious testimony mark his body as African American. Hence, through religion, other characters’ histories create racialized family resemblances (Brother Elisha, Sister McCandless, etc.) between members of the congregation, and they create a common, violated flesh that necessitates the “so many dark years before the Lord.” As John learns to repeat the religious words that will save him, each member of the congregation will construct her or his own version of belonging to that public, that space where communal and racial bonds, however violently, are sanctified and recognized. As he watches John, the form of Gabriel’s own historical narrative (called a “prayer”) finds coherence in his reclamation of the past, of “that which was lost.” His model of historical narrative does not produce a progression in time but rather repetitive structures that make John’s body necessary only because it falls into the narrative absence Gabriel feels, the corporeal sacrifice he has made to be part of his raced community. The ghost of his past—literally his first son from an earlier relationship—will, for him, be resurrected by the conversion of John into his own community, his own religious belonging that constitutes the way it hurts to be black in this novel. The spectral quality of Gabriel’s understanding of race must find a body, a replacement, that will both complete and insure the trajectory of the historical lineage Gabriel creates. John makes Gabriel’s religious and
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
racial belonging coherent. John’s body resembles Gabriel’s lost child whose absence is a past scar, indicating that John, like his ancestors, like Gabriel, has suffered in the past. Gabriel’s narrative is very representative of the ways race has been traditionally conceptualized and historicized using a traumatic model. For years now, Spillers has been drawing attention to the ways the ghostly quality of “race” as a concept, a cultural marker, a biological “fact,” an identity politics, and a literary device migrates in twentieth century American culture.28 Much current criticism in American literary and cultural studies, indeed, attempts to locate the slippery meaning of “race,” often African American “race,” through varying modes of (predominantly historical) inquiry.29 “Race,” in Spillers’ estimation, “haunts the air,” as it “travels,” as it “speaks through multiple discourses.”30 Indeed, even though it appears to be obvious, “blackness,” as much criticism has already explained, only becomes apparent after an extreme amount of cultural, political, and ideological work, making lucid and identifiable the category of African American race.31 Moreover, Gabriel’s own definition of blackness and racial membership, with its ghost-like qualities, often functions, as it does for much African American criticism, as a frozen figure of timelessness, as a traumatic repetition outside of normative historical progressions.32 But before we laud this development, we must take into account the function of models of black, traumatic history. Well before Paul Gilroy, Hortense Spillers offered a “black Atlantic”33 reading that still gives us new critical protocols for thinking about the history of “African-American life in the United States.” This history is articulated under the pressure of the ghost-like “origins” of the African American, and specifically the origins of the African American body: the slave trade turned, and still turns, the flesh of African Americans into captive bodies, but this distinction is “hidden to the cultural seeing by skin color”: But I would like to make a distinction…between “body” and “flesh” and impose that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions. In that sense, before the “body ” there is the “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography. Even though the European hegemonies stole bodies—some of them female—out of West African communities in concert with the African “middleman,” we regard this human and social irreparability as high crimes against the flesh, as the person of African females and African males registered the wounding. If we think of the “flesh” as a primary narrative, then we mean its seared, divided, ripped apartness, riveted to the ships hole, fallen, or “escaped” overboard.34 Spillers, here, argues that the socio-historical event of slavery affects the forms and figures that will be used to describe the specificity of African American experience. The history of slavery and the slave trade gave and continue to give a specific slant to the ways one can even begin to imagine the African American body, let alone American nationality. For Spillers the primary “text” we need to scrutinize in African American studies is a “hieroglyphics of the flesh whose severe disjunctures” have been hidden by an assumption that skin color creates a recognizable body, a body that too quickly
assumes its freedom through its ability to generate discourse and iconography, if not history. Spillers understands the ways discourse positions different “natures,” different “fleshes,” into something like a coherent body. But as she points out, specific versions of symbolic freedom actually restrict what is meant by the African American body. These restricted versions too often translate the flesh of slaves (and their descendents) into bodies made coherent by symbolic activity of the “ruling episteme…[that] remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement, as the human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in endless disguise.”35 In the extreme light, or color, of the captive body, we forget its primary text—because, in part, we have a seductive narrative that makes the African American body’s flesh wounds quickly coherent and captured in a violent figuration of “history’ that asserts its repetitive specificity through symbolic mutilations that seem to defy historical movement—offering, instead, a repetition of the same. This symbolic circuit, however, is not, as Spillers hints, “historical,” nor is it really a circuit that might produce movement, transition, or even the voyage implied by the slave trade. Although thought to be the preeminently historical event, the “middle passage,” the name for the transformation of captured flesh into slavery and African Americanness, Spillers draws attention to the figurative dimension of the journey into the present through slavery, the “originating metaphors of captivity,” that risk parading as a definitive historical inquiry. The trick Spillers advocates, in her search for critical relief, is actually a “break” with the frequent figuration of African American history—a break that resituates the African American body as a place of potential inquiry, potential questioning that will not find solutions indexing only the history, or the legend, of captivity She chooses to focus not on the body after its so-called defining historical moment, but rather on the flesh that precedes the captive body, that could be articulated as a whole host of other kinds of “bodies” with diverse histories that might not be so traumatic. The likelihood of recreating the kind of event when something like flesh is anterior to the body, however, can only be heuristic; the flesh can only be read through the traces it leaves on the body. Those traces, fortunately, are made available for the eye, although they will not lead to any one authentic origin of what makes a body a body. The flesh-trace is not magical because it explains something about blackness; instead, the trace is magical because it stops a certain kind of explanation of blackness, a narrative that locks black subjectivity too closely within a captive subject position. Gabriel’s own version of a historical, origin narrative is arrested by the way John refuses the religious, historical captivity prescribed by his community. Thus, Gabriel is locked into a version of his own church origins that inevitably fails—his historical imaginings are doomed, and are interrupted by John who irreverently responds to his command to assume his position in Gabriel’s narrative:“John turned suddenly, the movement like a curse” (150). Through his body’s defiant movement, John’s own capitulation to Gabriel’s command is narrated as more blasphemous than faithful. Moreover, Gabriel’s reaction to John’s resistance to performing his historical and filial duty is anger, which unravels the tidiness of Gabriel’s historical narrative. Already, John has been defiant in his physical expressions: “Gabriel had never seen such a look on John’s face before” (150), The description of this movement as an affront to Gabriel’s historical piety loops back to the defiant looks Gabriel has experienced throughout his
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
life: “John’s staring eyes tonight reminded Gabriel of other eyes: of his mother’s eyes when she beat him, of Florence’s [his sisters] eyes when she mocked him, of Deborah’s eyes [his first, unloved wife] when she prayed for him, of Esther’s eyes [his mistress] and Royal’s [his dead son’s] eyes, and Elizabeth’s eyes tonight before Roy cursed him, and of Roy’s eyes when Roy said: ‘You black bastard’“ (150). What Gabriel receives, during John’s conversion evening, is a series of looks that assault Gabriel, that swear at him and remind him of his own, racialized and bastardized body, immediately bringing the reader back to the central black bastard of this novel, John.36 John’s movement, John’s looks, and indeed John’s body serve as blasphemous interruptions in Gabriel’s story. John’s looking is a “curse” that unsettles Gabriel into a difficult rather than smooth narrative of blackness. But his looking occasions images that culminate into a racial slur (“You black bastard”). John’s movement, his sudden turning is articulated, with a simile, as a curse— a swear word that closely indexes Roy’s “black bastard” exclamation. We might then read swears—curses—as the obvious, very corporeally inflected “utterances” that emphasize, without condemning, the “black bastard” quality, the black sin, of this novel’s characters. John’s swear-like movements make the conversion experience different than the experiences others have always expected of him. His body, instead of singularly enabling the congregation to watch and make coherent their own tales of their religious and racial origin, stops a smooth translation of his flesh’s movement into another exemplary confirmation that the Word will “save” John just like it saved the others. His own form, his own body, might not be held captive by the ancestors’ “dead testimony,” the haunting and repetitive stories of pain that promise to inscribe his flesh in a typical, slave-inflected manner. So I will next demonstrate the way John’s defiant relationship to a flesh that must be described through antagonistic religious words indicates an alternative, blasphemous use of such rhetoric, He invests, through his own body’s purchase on the typical narrative of historical and original membership—what Spillers calls the “familiarity of the [slave trade] narrative,” with a power “to startle. In a very real sense, every writing as revision makes the ‘discovery’ all over again.”37 Spillers names her project, “An American Grammar,” the symbolic order she wishes “to trace” through the ways African American flesh is positioned into violent discourses about the body, discourses that eclipse the flesh and make race and ethnicity into something so easily read and indicated. I understand her inquiry into “grammar” to mean that the placement of particular flesh into symbolic systems (the position of the flesh that acquires a body through its entrance into a national grammar) relies on positions offered by traditional discourses that often do not allow those positions of the flesh to move into other kinds of symbolic expressions. As Spillers reminds us, through a reversal of the traditional childhood dictum, the words we use to describe bodies with histories of captivity have violent consequences: “We might concede, at the very least, that sticks and stones might break our bones, but words will most certainly kill us.”38 But that fatality brought on by words (the way the black subject dies over and over again in and through such words) ironically produces, for Spillers, a critical distance—enabling the “primary’ perspective on the violence of naming that will inevitably occur to black bodies, which will inevitably hurt, but might also yield another story of the body to the “cultural seeing,” As John moves his “sinful” body into the community’s religious rhetoric using a blasphemous accent, something basic, indeed
something “obscene,” about John’s black flesh (and perhaps about America and its captive subjects) comes into a renovated critical view.
THE CURSE OF NAKEDNESS Part of what makes John’s conversion experience obscene is that it reveals something unpredictable and shocking about blackness. Indeed, John’s conversion is quite different than the other characters’ threshing-floor events; his sense of historical belonging is interrupted by his divergent vantage point—a difference that has everything to do with the way he inhabits and understands his flesh in a personal, rather than communal, manner. Because the pain he suffers on the church floor has little to do with significant historical events in his own life, he is less susceptible to the succoring charms of the community’s historical coherency. Unlike the other major characters of the novel, John, whose “earliest memories—which were in a way, his only memories” (11), is not yet in need of the frustrated search for history-making that will make him less lonely in his pain; he is not in immediate need of organizing his past, painful experiences of his body into a coherent religious narrative. His body is neither another example of a public sphere built by the collective sharing of a crisis, nor is it an example of the hardness of the religious Word. John has another corporeal reaction that makes his submission to the religious-historical narrative more complicated.39 Baldwin’s novel reinforces what others have theorized about religious rhetoric.40 it promises to inspire insight where once there was only dogma. John’s engagement with his community’s vernacular gives John certain “basic” revelations into the way his body is being overwhelmed by the community s historical machine. Religious language is thought to be, in the words of Louis Althusser, a kind of revelatory idiom that is “accessible to everyone.” Althusser, in his now infamous scene of interpellation (the scene of the subjects hailing into ideology—a scene that arrests the elementary mystifications of ideology that he calls “my little theoretical theatre”41) sets the stage of his investigation by giving us an exemplary instance when the obscured “obviousness” of social relations appears for critical scrutiny within a religious example: As St.Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos,’ meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being.’ It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects—and that that does not cause any problems—is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.42 Althusser uses the religious “Word,” the “Logos,” to give definition to what is obvious about “obviousness”:we live unevenly in and through language, and this condition, at first glance, is felt not to cause problems; our existence in language is too apparent to question readily. He qualifies this field of the elementary, the Logos, by asserting that
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
what often occurs is the ideological enterprise of making recognitions felt, not thought: “I only wish to point out that you are I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.”43 Within this schema, in order for the obviousness of an ideologically determined existence, say the obviousness of “race,” to be experienced and sensed as “real,” the ideological effect requires practices, rituals, to install that very sense of “elementariness.” We then can ignore the elementary condition because we are assured that, because so basic, it must not be a result of something ideological. A prominently racialized subject, then, is made to feel natural in her or his racially obvious status; it is intimately tied to the “essence” of the condition of being racialized that need not solicit further scrutiny, The unevenness of living within the Word is thus hard to articulate; there is something much too natural to critique readily. Althusser’s labor, then, enables some kind of renovated recognition of the obviousness of ideological effect. Conspicuously, the examples Althusser uses to instruct us, to help us detect and think about the elementary ideological effect that so often escapes detection or reflection, are religious. He requires that we look through the religious instance at what is most obvious (for instance, John) in order to understand how we are made to feel and not think that the effect is elementarily ideological.44 He continues, in the final passage on the church: “We observe that the structure of all ideology, interpellating individuals as subjects in the name of a Unique and Absolute Subject is speculary….”45 Seeing, then, is believing. But seeing such believing in another light might interrupt the established belief. It’s no accident that religious language helps Althusser illustrate the ideological effect of subject formation that otherwise captivates the subject in his or her own predetermined position in social discourse. 46 The religious Word is able to articulate, usefully, the oppressive nature of “ideology” at the same moment it creates its own uncritical relationship to obviousness. John certainly learns to understand that his race, which is felt to be the most obvious thing about himself, is ideologically constructed. He has been ritualized into thinking that his blackness is inevitable and that he must accept the Lord’s and the community’s Word on what it means to be an African American. But this procedure enables the possibility of a critique. That which has bound John also enables him to understand such bondage: religious words help denaturalize John’s racial subjugation at the same instance they position him in his ideologically saturated role in a racist social discourse; they give him his own placement in an “American Grammar.” As in Althusser, religious rhetoric is a good case study about the way John has been coerced into feeling inevitably marked “sinful” like his ancestors. Specifically, every one around John assumes that he will learn to become a needy Christian—which is to say that every one had always expected John to hurt like him or her, to be black like him or her. John’s response, however, is productively wary. The opening lines of the book describe John as literally preoccupied by his community’s religious words: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father, It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the moment of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was too late” (11). Although John is supposed to be a speaker of religious words, a preacher, John begins belatedly to think about what had “been said so often” with a “too late” quality that
infuses the destiny of John’s mouthing of religious words with a sense of dread. The horizon of the taken-for-granted in John’s life is interrupted, and John begins to investigate what everyone considers most obvious about his life. In John’s expected translation from sinner into saint, in his assumption of the community’s vernacular, he is equipped with the capacity for unexpected kinds of physical movement, unexpected kinds of “turning and turning” that bluntly defy the typical historical narrative the conversion experience insinuates. In addition, John’s questions bring into relief the ambiguity surrounding the “it” of being “like all the other niggers,” the “it” of African American racial experience. Baldwin does not permit the narrative that uncovers the constructed quality of the “natural” African American body to release his characters from the difficulty of that “cultural” distinction; “race,” however an effect of cultural practices and unfair exclusions, still exercises a physical hold on his characters—race still has, indeed, a “nature,” an “it,” one that Baldwin is careful to represent. Within this space of personal interrogation, John imagines his ancestors pulling at their naked flesh wounds; he begins to wonder if such a history of flesh—the seemingly automatic translation from flesh into a raced-body—is really as necessary as it seems. The way John, like Althusser, is able to detect and “think” about the elementariness of the ideological effect, the obviousness that normally runs under the critical radar, is through the “speculary” dimensions of the religious performance. John’s conversion enables an “out of body experience,” during which he is able to watch himself transform into another member of his racialized community: he is given an epochal distance on “whatever was happening in his distant body now” (196), In an innovative manner, Baldwin here invests much value in John’s ability to witness, to see, John’s induction into a religious vernacular, his own historical-religious captivity. Through such looking, Baldwin endows his central character with the capacity to understand that his body is stuck in an erroneous description—that his body is perniciously described and communally positioned by the religious words that are supposed to save him from his flesh. As a consequence of such critical vision, John questions whether or not he is in need of the same kind of religious-historical salvation. John is able to watch the ritual that forces him to feel sinful and black. Religious words, through the conversion experience, make John into a spectacle—one in which he is also a spectator—that reveals to him what is most elementary and, therefore, most ideological about himself. Specifically, since the logic of African Americanness constitutes its constituents into members of a religiously characterized “historical” community through an injurious description of the black flesh, John’s conversion, his ultimate engagement with his community through religious rhetoric, gives him an original insight into the sinful and hurt version of the black flesh.47 John, through his unrealistic conversion imaginary, is able to watch religious words rise to the surface of his body as the injury of blackness. For instance, as he scrutinizes, closely, the contours of the “burning face,” (the face of Gabriel, his already converted black father), John is confronted with angry threats: “I’m going to beat it out of you. I’m going to beat it out of you’” (199). What he wants to beat out of John’s body and onto John’s physical surface is the “sin” of John’s skin—a sin that will then call from John’s body a terrorized plea for religious salvation. Gabriel wants to make John’s face also burn, to be injured, with its confession of its sinful “race,” and through that confession, his sin and skin will be given a religious name. But John’s movement does not hurt, his body does not yet burn with the sin of race. Instead, he is
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
confused by the incongruence between the historical expectations indicated by the religious words and the way John feels something that is not coherently named by the church history. John experiences the conversion in a whirlwind of bewilderment that defies the community’s conventional accounts. The curse of his moving body, his negative flesh, produces pain, and as it turns away from and turns back to his stepfather through the conversion, this pain—this curse—cannot be shook off: “And he began to scream again in his great terror, and he felt himself, indeed begin to move—not upward, toward the light, but down again, a sickness in his bowels, a tightening in his loin-strings; he felt himself turning, again and again” (194). The pain, however, is not definitively descriptive of his body; John’s body senses something else. John’s turning, his converting, causes physical discomfort that subsequently provokes questions about the correspondence between the adoption of a religious identity and the physical sensations that are supposed to indicate this identity: “Is this it? john’s terrified soul inquired—What is it?—to no purpose, receiving no answer. Only the ironic voice insisted yet once more that he rise from that filthy floor if he did not want to become like all the other niggers” (194). The questions of the experience, asking about an undefined “it,” find some kind of more precise articulation in the command from an ironic voice that urges that he not become “like” all the other “niggers,” that he not give into the sort of community building brought on by the conversion. The “it” of the question has something to do with the experience of being like “all the other niggers”; the conversion on the floor of the church, that is, will make him into a nigger, or more euphemistically, and in the vocabulary of the religious conversion, into a sinful, and therefore, needy “Christian.” Earlier in the narrative, John scrutinizes those who have already been drawn into the religious and racial belonging of his community: “The darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power, in the scorn that was often his while he listened to the crying, breaking voices, and watched the black skin glisten while they lifted up their arms and fell on their faces before the Lord, For he had made his decision. He would have another life” (19). This racial hesitation, this desire for another life, suggests that he has his own spin on the narrative that would make his own flesh glisten with blackness. He has another kind of darkness or claim on his “sin” that forces him to resist the community’s explanations. But because this resistance is, in some sense, futile, and John finds himself going through the conversion motions and vocalizations, Baldwin goes to great length to articulate both the interruption and the hesitation into the religious record. Part of the labor of John’s narrative lies in putting John’s hesitation into the same race and the words that belong to and define his congregation. John learns to take religious words and twist them into a blasphemous utterance. That is, his interruption becomes a vocalized twist; it becomes the difference between saying “Jesus Christ” like one means it and saying “Jesus Christ” meanly, Baldwin, here, makes a suggestive move: he critiques the dominant religious discourse of the community without abandoning its vernacular; for critique need not mean the same thing as a complete rejection of the old language in favor of the development of a new, contrary language. Baldwin uses the oppressive religious idiom to articulate the intense challenge to the dominant, negative racialization achieved through the prevailing historical narrative that denigrates the black body with religious words. The play between religious piety and sinful, skinful deviance installs a wedge into a quick reading of the importance of Baldwin’s use of religious rhetoric:it cannot be either merely lauded or condemned. And
there is useful insight to be had once the characters are spilt between the paradox the Word of the religious white and the world of the sinfully black. Religious words, as both Althusser and the voice of John’s conversion experience exemplify, have the ability to be an “ironic” register—they can say two things, they can describe two positions (acceptance and critique) within a community, within the same utterance, In order to create this double discourse out of religious words, John needs to inflect the language with a more ironic tone of voice that is able to also suggest the particularity of his own relationship to the “hardheartedness of his own black resistance.” The intensity of John’s stubborn refusal to unhesitatingly assume a racial and religious identity suggests that his own blackness might not be so bad. As I argued in an essay I published a few years ago, John, through his conversion, has more than just a tortured relationship to his flesh—a queer relationship. Let me recast that argument here, with greater attention to the intricate relationship his race has to blasphemy and queerness.48 First of all, we learn John has a less obvious and more pleasure-producing account of racial origin. It is a story that is described conventionally as injurious, but it is also a story of obscene pleasure. Once John is twisting on the “threshing floor,” he remembers where his blackness began: Yes, he had sinned:one morning, alone, in the dirty bathroom, in the square, dirt-gray cupboard room that was filled with the stink of his [step]father. Sometimes, leaning over the cracked, “tattle-gray” bathtub, he scrubbed his fathers back; and looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, on his [step]father’s hideous nakedness. It was a secret, like sin, and slimy, like the serpent, and heavy, like the rod… Then the ironic voice, terrified, it seemed of no depth, no darkness, demanded of John, scornfully, if he believed that he was cursed. All niggers had been cursed, the ironic voice reminded him, all niggers had come from this most undutiful of Noah’s sons. (197) John “quotes,” through the way his body moves and looks, the religious story of racial origin. The ironic voice asking questions about the “it” of race, reasserts, once again, its damning descriptions of “all niggers.”According to this plea, John should try to sidestep their history and deny his sinful flesh in favor of the religiously cleansed, whiteness of the Word (that makes its needy congregation dirty and black). It is important to note that the scriptural narrative of Ham, who “saw” a naked and drunk Noah, is, for John (and for Baldwin), the folk interpretation of the way the mark and curse of Canaan (Ham’s son) is originated; the act of seeing is intimately linked up with a sexual violation that becomes a racial mark.49 This biblical story, which has historically given racist ideologies scriptural sanction, is the narrative explanation for why the sin of seeing, and desiring to see, the “nakedness” of John’s stepfather is a reenactment of an erotically charged action that resulted in “All niggers [being] cursed” with blackness: this is the inaugural story of Genesis that marks Ham’s children as an inferior race, that marks African Americans with a racial difference that is acquired by the protagonist’s act of looking at his father’s nudity. But despite the warning, John repeats the origin of blackness; he reinvigorates the reasons for why the African American flesh is marked as sinful (at least in a
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
heterosexually dominant, and fundamentally religious, logic) and reasserts the awful relationship between traumatic history and sinful skin. Yet John is much less reverent as he accedes to the racial order prescribed by the line of fathers he is expected to resemble: “Was this why he lay here, thrust out from all human or heavenly help tonight? This…his deadly sin having looked on his father’s nakedness and mocked and cursed him in his heart?” (197). The fact that this insight is communicated in the form of an astonished question suggests that his acts of looking and mocking might not be immediately legible to John as conventionally sinful gestures. His question is an afterthought, attempting, but not quite yet able, to understand his reasons for needing to lie down before the Lord’s Word. John is not yet aware of the damaging implications of his nascent but developing queer desires. Moreover, his blasphemous stance toward his father indicates that he might not be in accord with the religious description of his flesh’s sinful quality.50 In other instances of his looking at the male body, with adoration, John is not tortured but titillated; when John watches the older boy Elisha, whom he desires, the narration reads: “He saw the veins rise on Elisha’s forehead and in his neck; his breath became jagged and harsh, and the grimace on his face became more cruel; and John, watching these manifestations of his power, was filled with a wild delight” (53). That is, as he watches Elisha, who had already “knelt before John’s father…[and] kissed [his father] with a holy kiss” (56), John is thrilled by the spectacle of Elisha’s dark flesh. He enjoys its very pulsating qualities (breath and blood), its “manifestations of power” that are also the manifestations of the way John can enjoy his own corporeal effect on another’s body. John has not yet learned that he should not enjoy these elements of the black body. He has not yet accepted the religious words that will give a negative account of the body’s power his gaze now enjoys. Thus John must, like the others, be disciplined into the religious vernacular that stops the way, as Elisha puts it, “the devil” makes one “Look like you just a-burning up” (55). In another instance in which John experiences delight in the black bodies of other boys, he recognizes that there might be shame in his delight, but this shame only prohibits the explicit articulation of his desires: “In the school lavatory, alone, thinking of the boys, older, bigger, braver, who made bets with each other as to whose urine could arch higher, he had watched in himself a transformation of which he would never dare to speak” (18–19; emphasis mine). A more accurate description, however, would be that John wishes he would never dare speak openly about this transformation. But John, through the conversion, reverses this preliminary prohibition, and he learns to make his race talk—he learns to express his own injurious process of racialization that might not be as painful as everyone assumes. Indeed, when John rises from the threshing-floor, he translates the curse of blackness into a language that he has always had at hand. Here, John is not imagining his conversation with his father: John struggled to speak the authoritative, the living word that would conquer the great division between his father and himself… It came to him that he must testify: his tongue only could bear witness to the wonders he had seen. And he remembered, suddenly, the text of a sermon he had once heard his father preach. And he opened his mouth, feeling, as he watched his father, the darkness roar behind him, and the very earth
beneath him seem to shake; yet he gave to his father their common testimony. ‘I’m saved,” he said, “and I know I’m saved.” And, then, as his father did not speak, he repeated his fathers text: “My witness is in Heaven and my record is on high.” (207) By now, John repeats the “authoritative” words, the curse words, that everyone thought he would repeat, but not exactly in this blasphemous manner. He assumes an improper position in the “common testimony,” and he acknowledges that he is black (“the darkness roar[ed] behind him”). The division between his father and himself would be overcome— thereby highlighting what has always been known (he would be like his father) but, until now, has not been available for critical reflection. In this moment, John’s filial replication of his father, through the somatic mouthing of his father’s text, happens at the same moment he looks strongly and unashamedly at his father’s body—a reproduction of the original racial witnessing, of Ham watching Noah that marks John’s body as sinful and in need of the religious idiom that can only falsely promise to save him from his flesh. John’s own unspeakable “darkness,” the underarticulated and unrealistic “wonders” he has seen, lead him to his assumption, his “mouthing” off, into the religious syntax of the African American race. As John is about to leave the street and enter his house, his own version of what has happened to his body requires another poignant moment of interruption occasioned by the emphatic quality of religious speech; he punctuates the occasion with his own version of the “authoritative” word he now mouths much to his community’s delight. He focuses on Elisha. A number of glances are shared, and in these final moments of this novel’s “cultural seeing” give John the language to communicate his knowledge of how he got to this location, to this “conversion”: “‘no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there” (220), The urgency and stress of John’s plea for the memory of his own particularized historical record suggest past and future stories that cannot be told in words other than religious words that belong to the italicized “there,” the traditional location on the floor of the church. There is also the localization of his own historical event of religious and racial conversion—the place where his body is fixed, watched, and made sinful and black through his community’s collective religious-historical testimony. Yet, now, John has a “new name in…glory” (220), one which authorizes him to exist as part of the community, as part of the race, but which also enables him to stress that that existence, that religious and racial designation and historical record, implies much more, no matter what. Moreover, this authority underwrites John’s ability, in the end, to stare and smile, defiantly, at his father—the man he has seen naked, and the man, who like all African Americans with a traumatic past, he is supposed to become like. The novel ends with these words: “They looked at each other for a moment, His mother stood in the doorway, in the long shadows of the hall… ‘I’m ready,’ John said, “I’m coming. I’m on my way’“ (221). In this “middle passage” between the obviousness of the street and the so-called privacy of his home, John announces that the way in which he will now enter his father s house is “To Be Announced.” He is only saying what he will do, pronouncing but not quite enacting his intentions to capitulate to an early request to come inside, to come “home” into the race and the religious mottos of his family’s hearth. The final statement
Painfully obvious: Nakedness and religious words
of the text freezes John in place—it stops his endless turning. But this is a place from which John announces that his movement is imminent, and that movement has not been thoroughly determined or described before it occurs. In a critical essay written some years later, Baldwin asserts, “if the father can say ‘Yes Lord.’ the child can learn that most difficult of words, Amen.”51 Gabriel has most certainly learned how to apostrophize the Lord, and hence John is able to watch himself learn that “most difficult” curse word, bringing him into an “agreement,” however uneven, with the community. The difficulty of the religious word lies in the complexity and multivalence of the word itself; its semantic force certainly exceeds its most obvious denotations. But, with that difficulty comes John’s corporeal revelations, his own insight into why he must be so unkindly revealed. Even if the words he uses conceal the complete story of his body, John’s own conversion, his own manipulation of the powerful religious exclamations at hand, enables his own historical account of his acceptance of his race to be acknowledged by those around him. As the epigraph of the novel’s last section implies, John is a “man of unclean lips” who “dwell[s] in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (191). He uses the dirty, foul religious curses of his people to enable the articulation and image of his own historical beginnings, his own place from which he can now “read” and announce himself to be “on [his blasphemous] way.”
Chapter Two Arresting Whiteness: Religious History and “Local” Color in Flannery O’Connors Wise Blood
IMPOSSIBLE WHITENESS James Baldwin used religious language to complicate racial designations, racial histories that we often take for granted. Curiously, Flannery O’Connor similarly used religion to make racial distinctions productively ambiguous. Most critics, however, do not think of O’Connor as challenging conventional notions of race. Alice Walker, for example, argues that O’Connor’s writing is “is not about race at all.”1 Walker continues, “If it [O’Connor’s corpus] can be said to be ‘about’ anything, then it is ‘about’ prophets and prophecy, ‘about’ revelation, and ‘about’ the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don’t have a chance of spiritual growth without it.”2 But in her dismissal of race for religion, Walker misses what Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, describes as the “connection between God’s grace and Africanist ‘othering’ in Flannery O’Connor.”3 Walker does not account for the way “race” is articulated through an idiom of “revelation,” religion, or “spiritual growth.” As a consequence, Walker’s explanations do not illuminate the difficult connection between blackness and religion that Morrison rightly senses in O’Connor’s corpus.4 Specifically, readings such as Walker’s leave us in the dark in particular when we consider the relationship between race and religion noted by Hazel Motes, O’Connor’s reluctant street preaching protagonist from O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood. Midway through the text, Hazel utters, without explanation, “‘Jesus is a trick on niggers.’”5 Presumably Hazel is responding to a large sign whose white, painted words, “Jesus Saves,” have arrested his first drive in his recently purchased used car. Hazel’s comment is opaque because we’re not sure why Jesus is a trick on African Americans. The only references to African Americans in this chapter occur when the car salesman blames poorly functioning automobiles on the fabr ication skills of a “bunch of niggers,” one of whom is a special worry: “They got one nigger up there [North]…is almost as light as you or me” (71–72), It is significant that racial comments in this chapter are racial slurs, which serve as the linguistic markers that attempt quickly to distinguish the black and white races in O’Connor’s novel. But these slurs do not conveniently explain Hazel’s decision to describe religious belief, and specifically “Jesus,” as a deceit made at, and
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
“on,” the expense of African Americans. And not much criticism on the relationship between religion and race in O’Connor’s work can help us make sense out of the fast link Hazel’s sentiment makes between some version of Christian belief and racial distinction.6 For some time now, O’Connor’s portrayals of African Americans have been called “racist.”7 This kind of critical name-calling is not helpful. Instead of dismissing or ignoring her complicated relationship to race, I want to offer another analytical route to pursue. I want to argue that her religious rhetoric functions as an emphatic idiom that names, if not creates, the racial frustrations that animate much of O’Connor’s novel. These words produce crises of racial representation by making their referents—both “niggers” and “whites”—hard to represent using the quick symbols, colors, images, and especially histories normally insinuated by assertions of hyperbolic racial difference. As we will learn from O’Connor, racial nomenclatures cannot be precise because the bodies they are supposed to describe are not. O’Connor’s Hazel certainly provokes issues, both racial and aesthetic, that highlight the difficulties inhering in the way “race” must take shape through specific operations of language.8 As far as I can tell, no one has written extensively on the way that O’Connor’s language makes Hazel’s race uncertain. We have no exacting physical descriptions of his flesh that would visibly distinguish his body’s race. Instead, we have descriptions of his outfit (“he had a stiff black broad-brimmed hat… His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it” ); we have descriptions of his eyes, (“the color of pecan shells and set in deep sockets” ), and even piercing descriptions of his skinny weight (“the outline of a skull under his skin was plain and insistent” ). Nothing about his physical characteristics can confirm, visibly, to the reader whether or not Hazel is white, black, or even some combination of black and white (say, “hazel”). What is striking and precise about O’Connor’s commentary about her characters’ physical appearances is her obsessive but not-easily racialized attention to the color of objects and the flesh of people that, like the “glare-blue” suit, make color an impor-tant feature of her narrative. Perhaps color is there merely to frustrate our ethnic read of her characters’ flesh. As if to emphasize further the uncertainty of the color of Haze’s body, O’Connor persistently features the antinomies of black and white in the clothing and objects that dress and surround her street preacher. Haze’s black hat, for example, is replaced, with a white hat—a switch that apparently makes no difference: “When he put it on, it looked just as fierce as the other one” (111). The labor O’Connor puts into creating moment such as this one suggests that only obliquely will we trust the color of Hazel’s appearance. These quick scenes instill a sense of distrust in a color’s ability to make distinctions that would communicate Hazel’s precise racial identity, Instead, we are left with a body whose name, like our view of its ethnicity, is one perplexing “Haze.” Can we assume Hazel’s whiteness? In a critique of racial distinctions, Robyn Wiegman concisely points out that “bodies are neither black nor white,” and thus urges that we “examin[e] the history, function, and structure of visibility that underwrites much the binary formation, producing an epistemology of perception that simultaneously equates the racial body with a perceptible blackness, while defining, in its absence, whiteness as whatever an African blackness is not.”9 O’Connor simultaneously critiques and exploits the way whiteness operates It is my contention that through an ostensibly white character like Hazel, as a racial category within a literary text, thereby highlighting the way that an oppositional blackness poses
serious literary considerations for a writer involved in writing realistically about race. The emergent field of “whiteness studies” describes the failures of whiteness that O’Connor’s novel certainly shares.10 Warren Montag concisely describes the paradox through which “whiteness” conceives of itself: “universal was one of the forms in which the white race historically appeared,”11 That is, whiteness, as a race, defies the logic of a concept that is defined by distinctions; whiteness cannot be distinct or particular.12 And this desire to not be a race is in constant risk of not being achieved. If whiteness is the race that attempts not to be a race, that attempts not to be distinctive, it is racial category that cannot be easily expressed in the more divisive and demarcated medium of literature that relies on making characters very local and distinctive, that relies on what we might describe as a racial logic. Whiteness, on the literary page, cannot be what it wants to be—universal, pure, and not open to radical contingency. So for whiteness to be represented on a literary page, it, in some sense, must always be articulated, however unawares, through an idiom of its own failure. It is my belief that O’Connor understood as much. But rather than be satisfied with documenting the impossibility of the white race’s transcendence in her literary corpus, she uses the failure of whiteness to give greater complexity and texture to whiteness’ opposite: blackness. In some great sense, O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood is about the failure of the white body, which thus moves hyper-local figures of blackness center stage. Seen from this perspective, O’Connor curiously is a forceful writer of the African American experience, but only obliquely so…only obliquely through the ways that whiteness will fail to not be black, and, as we shall see, religious. Let me explain. Ralph Ellison understood that whiteness could not be what it wanted to be, and he argued, well before Toni Morrison, that blackness always implicitly defines whiteness’ literary projects. In an under-discussed piece of criticism, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Ellison asserts, in a very suggestive image, that the “segregated” word dramas of American letters play upon “the body of a Negro giant, who lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and scene upon which and within which the action [of American literary and cultural life] unfolds.”13 Blackness is embedded in all assertions of a white literature. So, if white universalism and white literature does indeed rely on the suppression of the local and very corporeal body, then the paradoxical “nature” and representation of a white body’s lived experience always works against its own assertion of universality. Moreover, these assertions of pure form occur in texts where particularities—specifically the particularities of “the Negro” and the “veil of antiNegro myths, symbols, stereotypes and taboos”—are usually operative.14 Indeed, “when we look closely [locally] at our literature,” as Ellison economically asserts, the often oblique presence of the “Negro” “is to be seen operating even when the Negro seems most patently the little man who isn’t there.”15 We can begin, then, to find the “little man” who is supposed not to be there when we think seriously about Hazel Motes’ very ambiguous racial designation as white. And significantly, this ambiguity is brought to our attention by the vexed relationship Hazel has with religious words. In a reversal of religions promise of transcendence, the curse of religious language is synonymous with the “curse” of a racially black designation that always makes impossible any pure, literary representation of whiteness. Motes, a reluctant street preacher who eschews his persistent religious affiliations, frequently attempts to sever himself from any relationship to religion and, thus, also from the
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
Negroes who have been tricked by Jesus. Martha Stephens, in an early essay on Wise Blood, makes an insightful point when she discusses O’Connor’s revisions of early, shorter stories that became the primary chapters of the novel. Through her revisions, O’Connor “began to move the central character farther and farther away from the reader,” explains Stephens, “so that he becomes a much stranger and more puzzling character, an individual whom the reader must constantly struggle to come to terms with.”16 Stephens makes this claim by calling attention to Hazel’s uncertain and perhaps contagious relationship to an African American character, suggesting that the mere association with blackness makes Hazel “stranger,” and thus a struggle for the reader. Part of this struggle certainly comes from O’Connor’s own eccentric relationship with the representation of African Americans. O’Connor notoriously refuses to elaborate and give much depth to her black characters who appear in caricature, in their “Negro” personas that conjure all sorts of images and metaphors of darkness that aid her literary objectives. In an interview, O’Connor comments, “In my stories they’re [black characters] seen from the outside.”17 She writes about African Americans in what might best described as a superficial blackness that is hard to incorporate into a laudatory representation of African Americanness; thus, Hazel’s identification with African Americans makes the readers identification with Hazel, according to Stephens, a bit strained. It seems curious, then, to articulate why an ostensibly white character like Hazel, who is considered the novel’s prophetic speaker of religious words, becomes more distant and confusing as he becomes associated, if not identified, with blackness.18 Religious words provoke, interestingly enough, Hazel’s association with blackness. For example, when Hazel makes an aggressive comment to a female train passenger, “I reckon you think you been redeemed” (14), the woman’s body registers a ripe reaction: “She blushed” (14). Although an ostensibly “white” woman, the mere assertion of her religious salvation causes the woman’s face to have a sudden burst of color. Moments later, Haze has a similarly colorful response to his own question—a response that has a close relationship to the hue of Haze’s complexion: “If you’ve [another passenger] been redeemed,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to be.’ Then he turned his head to the window. He saw a pale reflection with the dark empty space outside through it” (16). As his pale face is reflected back to him, something dark emerging within his reflected face startles Hazel, triggering Hazel’s anxious response, Immediately, Hazel launches into an aggressive denial that he will repeat throughout the entirety of the novel: “‘Do you think I believe in Jesus?’ he said, leaning toward her and speaking almost as if he were breathless. ‘Well I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if he was on this train’” (16). As if to suggest that believing in Jesus would make the darkness of his face rise to the surface of his skin, Haze denies his religious belief. By doing so, he denies that he might blush or darken with the color of redemption, the darker color of his otherwise white body To make this connection more dramatic, Hazel cannot avoid the way others think he looks “religious.” One character, who does not know Hazel, makes a metaphorical expression that might be more literal than at first reading: “‘Some preacher has left his mark on you’” (51). And a taxi cab driver, for another example, refuses Hazel’s assertion that he “ain’t a preacher” by insisting, “‘You look like a preacher. That hat looks like a preacher’s hat…it ain’t only the hat… It’s a look in your face somewheres’” (31). Something about Hazel’s appearance instantly suggests religious belief, a religious belief that begins to mark and darken him into perhaps another “nigger” who had been tricked
by Jesus. Hazel emphatically asserts, “Listen… I’m not a preacher” (31). Hence, an attempt to empty his flesh of its colored traces that mark him as peculiar and not white, Hazel throughout the novel rejects the assertions made by others that he is, or indeed looks, like a speaker of religious words: like a preacher. In demonstrative moments, the color of Hazel’s face disappears when he stops speaking about religion. For example, “the color and the expression drained out of his face until it was as straight and blank as the rain falling down behind him” (189). Being religious, then, conjures up the specter of being the color black; being anti-religious takes away the faces color. Hazel’s own nagging darkness thus works against his ostensibly white race, which might be the way anyone operates within a white body: his body leaves traces; it is implicated in all sorts of historical connections that tie him to specific places, histories, and intimacies, that leave him unable to live up to whiteness’ claim on universality. Specifically, then, I want to argue that Hazel’s failing white body marks an important moment of aesthetic arrest. The darkening and resolutely external view of Hazel makes him into a “black” character in a form that helps O’Connor frustrate the easy and coherent writing of whiteness, with its implied promise of universality. The primary way O’Connor implicates Hazel in darkness is by Hazel’s association with the language of Jesus that belongs, “as a trick,” to African Americans. Certainly I’m not the first to focus on her religious rhetoric or on race. I, however, want to qualify O’Connor’s peculiar use of religious words by suggesting that this idiom draws attention to the ways whiteness is always and suggestively thwarted by its very intimate and figurative relationship with blackness. Religious words name the inevitable confusions, if not white rages, that come with any kind of imprecise racial marking that incongruently applies its distinctive logic to different bodies. And the name of that confusion is deliberately irreverent. For instance, whenever Hazel speaks religious words, such as “Jesus,” the narrative or other characters immediately interpret them as curses (“‘Listen at him cursing’“ ) that have an expletive quality that is not in the service of communicating religious knowledge, belief, or history as it is conventionally conceived. Hazel’s religious idiom functions blasphemously: it emphatically conveys not universal transcendence but rather the problem of black locality, history, and hyper-embodiment; it names the fleshier side of a body that has no adequate language or easy representation except for these curse words that do not describe, accurately, the locality of the body. In the following pages, then, I will demonstrate the ways religious rhetoric, as a caricatured name for the trickiness of blackness usually assigned to “niggers,” doggedly pursues and curses O’Connor’s unlikely street preacher, Hazel. Religious words push him into racially coded historical relationships that explode an easy understanding of race’s ability to be communicated by distinct and discrete color, and thus thwart his ability to be purely white. I will then focus on the ways that this wordy and “dark” pursuit situates the limits of Hazel’s universality at the surface of his ambiguously raced body that thus serves as the figurative limit of a literary text that must always contend with particularity rather than universality. Finally, I will describe Hazel’s last, and inevitably futile, attempt to abandon this body and his activity in the story s narration. The persistent presence of a baffling and black corporeality is one way O’Connor, through her racist stereotyping, is able to articulate that black bodies critique whiteness. Moreover, she is thus able to insert herself, critically, into established models of realist fiction, Through this destructive name-calling quality of religious rhetoric, O’Connor demystifies the dream of whiteness
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
and charaeterizes its desire for literary abstraction as futile. In the end, we are left with a “grotesque” and racially uncertain body, ravaged by religious words. And this body helps O’Connor inaugurate a “deeper kin[d] of realism”—if not a deeper kind of literature about race—that she finds lacking in mid-century American letters.19
A HISTORY OF PROBLEM SKIN As I have been arguing throughout this book, there is a rampant literalism in the ways minority bodies are read—in the ways that literatures by and about blackness are put into a realist and/or protest genre of cultural reporting rather than literary innovation, As the example of Baldwin helps me assert, these texts are made really real by their supposed historical value that is accrued by the often erroneous assumption that minorities are faithful witnesses from their community, natively informing what it means to be an authentic identity rather than using or being used in literature to develop aesthetic innovations. O’Connor, however, tries something different—she frustrates both history and bodies when it comes to writing about racial divisions, when it comes to assigning religious and racial names to her characters who never stay coherently within their easy racial designations. Specifically, the uncertain status of a racialized body like Hazel’s, who is neither black nor white nor written by an African American, is one way to help us to challenge traditional reading protocols about race. His uncertain status also helps us sort out the kinds of complicated associations between Southern history, religious language, and literary genre, which are the primary preoccupations of O’Connor’s first novel, if not much of Southern Literature.20 Critics such as John F.Desmond claim that “All the crucial questions—about her vision of history, about the relationship between past and present, about her artistic practice—ultimately lead back to the metaphysical foundation: her radical sense of the order of reality.”21 As much criticism has already elaborated, history and religion are intimately entwined in O’Connor’s work. But what I’ve been suggesting is that what has not been adequately investigated is the manner in which O’Connor racializes these connections, and thus challenges her fiction’s foundational order of this reality. Although questions about the literary portrayals of history do, indeed, point to something traditionally “metaphysical” in O’Connor’s work, they can also point to something much less “meta.” As Hazel’s race is put under deep suspicion by his proximity to the train’s porter, an African American character, we learn that the questions of race and history have a primary importance in O’Connor’s text. Here, a more explicit relationship is established between religious rhetoric and a history of its association with African Americans. Religious words become the names for the difficult historical condition of blackness Hazel intimately shares—a sharing that colorfully transforms, as we have seen, Hazel’s appearance. Let me explain this point in detail because this tension about the past, and Hazel’s inability to mark clearly the divisions between black and white history, are the primary strategies through which O’Connor expresses her own desire for a complicated literature about race. Upon seeing the porter for the first time, Hazel assumes a position that might be described as a lynching pose: “He got up and hung there a few seconds. He looks as if he were held by a rope caught in the middle of his back and attached to the
train ceiling. He watched the porter move in a fine controlled lurch down the aisle and disappear at the other end of the car. He knew him to be a Parrum nigger from Eastrod” (12). The proximity between the image of Hazel hanging from a rope and the immediate view of the porter walking down the train aisle forces a connection between the two figures, where the more ambiguously racialized character, Hazel, assumes the burden of a predominantly black iconography of lynching. This racial intimacy, however, is more than just a position the characters’ bodies assume. The porter is the only character who appears in the novel’s present tense with whom Hazel explicitly acknowledges some concrete historical connection. Hazel recalls the “nigger” family from his hometown, Eastrod: “I remember you. Your father was nigger named Cash Parrum” (18). Ignoring the porter’s denial of this identification, Hazel, when he falls to sleep, rests literally assured that he has correctly recognized the porter’s personal history that he himself shares. This association between the porter and Haze ushers in all sorts of racially implicated memories of their collective past: “Now there were no more Motes [in Eastrod], no more Blasengames, Feys, Jacksons…or Parrums—even the niggers wouldn’t have it” (21). The emphatic end of this sentence—“even the niggers”—stresses not only the way Hazel chooses to highlight just how undesirable the town became for its inhabitants (with the implication that “niggers” would settle for less than whites), but also the manner in which the town’s history, for Hazel, ends with the removal of its African American population, the Parrums—the alleged family of the train’s porter. The blacks are the final comment on a specific history Hazel wants to avoid. O’Connor’s choice here to make black bodies indicate a difficult and lost historical record, making black bodies reference a kind of negative, other time that exists in the past is a conventional move. Although often labeled “ahistorical,” what is more precisely meant by this description of the black past is that black culture has a different relationship to official American history, one not so influenced by modern and often racist Western, European categories of progress and modernity. As I made clear in the previous chapter, one way African American history accrues critical importance is through the very accurate claim that there is a missing historical record that might have paid more attention to its alternative historical events, claims, and figurations of the past. As a consequence, then, discussions about black history are often prefaced by assertions that it is a victim of historical amnesia, thereby infusing, in part, this historical record with an alternative status that is always shot through with a sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful assertion of its own ahistorical historicity. Whether or not this primary critical and activist move for its suppressed historical alterity is effective is not as important as the more simple assertion that black bodies do have a history that is different than white bodies, and this history lodges one into a more traumatic relationship with the past characterized by a lack of an official chronicle that would clarify and order past memories (in the manner a white, European record is often thought, but rarely ever able, to provide). That is, distinct descriptions of historical records help distinguish racial ethnicities, or divide bodies into different racial arrangements suggesting different relationships to past time as well as different relationships to the manner in which those histories can be narrated.22 Indeed, literature that attempts to render the complexities between the United States’ most historically divided races often renders the differences as differences between different historical records. And as we’ll explore more deeply in the final chapter of this book, whether or
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
not there are different histories, the figure of the past is crucial in marking the different temporalities blacks and whites are represented as inhabiting, and by extension, the different perceived biologies of those temporalities. Hazel, however, is twisted between both kinds of time, both kinds of bodies. And the strange category of religious language describes this twisting. Hazel’s own ability to share, occasionally, in a black history, moreover, resonates with the crisis the American South has with the United States’ national, white history. Michael Kreyling, in his study on the invention of Southern literature, asserts, “race was a roomy vehicle for all the ramifications of history—especially in the mid-century years when the transition from aesthetic formalism to literary history was grudgingly acknowledged.”23 Although race is often discussed as a facet of the historical life of the South, many essays about O’Connor do not consider the way she uses the uncertain distinctions between differently raced bodies as a “roomy vehicle” to challenge prevailing attitudes race, literature, and religion.24 Even though he is not specifically discussing O’Connor, Kreyling helps our argument when he describes the mid-twentieth-century’s anxiety about inter-racial relationships: Du Bois’ prediction that the history of twentieth century would be the history of the color line seemed so infallibly accurate as to identify ‘color line’ and ‘history’ (vii). When driven partisans of massive resistance [Herbert Ravenel Sass of South Carolina]…fulminated against the ‘miscegenation and widespread racial amalgamation’ that they feared would be the outcome of desegregated classrooms (45), behind their hysteria was the fear of the ‘loathsome copulation’ of history and the southern (white) dream of identity.25 Race produces something too real for whites who would prefer to sidestep its difficult contribution to the South’s history. As others have noted, the fears of the miscegenation of history with white dreams of identity do enter, forcefully, into O’Connor’s work.26 But the kind of analysis Kreyling offers helps us push the correlation further by highlighting the formal implications of the anxiety of race for Southern literature: race brings attention to historical arrangements that challenged the southern white dream of identity; race undermined the period’s then dominant, aesthetic, and primarily white formalism by ushering in the need for literary history and detail that affect such pure fantasy forms. In the case of O’Connor, this insight is helpful as we articulate one way she aestheticizes race: race restores the question of history where religion might have otherwise occluded or trumped its record—and it is a history that is not aggressively in service of white universality, of white art. Through figures that are joined by race and religion—black figures—a white universality, indeed a white formalism, becomes suspect. O’Connor thus chooses to asetheticize the South’s tortured relationships to its own historical record through an aesthetic model reliant on what Kreyling describes as “the configuration of race, tragedy, moral turbulence blood violence, and guilt and expiation (the Faulkner-Quentin model), apparently so unquestionably appropriate—even natural— to southern rites of community.”27 Wise Blood is especially attentive to the historical tragedies of race and blood that bleed white formalism of its easy claims on literary merit. The violence of the “wise” blood of Hazel’s own questionable race and his potential
place within the darkness of Southern history both suggest the “guilt” by association thesis that underwrites much of the vexed and paranoid juridical and cultural technologies of racial classification in the United States called the “one-drop rule.”28 Within the shady logic of this rule, the traces of blood that might rush to the surface of a body—thereby revealing its more “precise” racial color—are considered “wiser” than any other kind mode of racial distinction. The potential dangers of an intimacy between the races, much like Hazel’s spectral sharing of the unofficial and racialized lynching poses, fueled the “one-drop” rule with hysteria about the miscegenation of specifically white and black races in American politics and culture. So one question I’d like to pursue: how does race help O’Connor bleed the dream of white formalism of its claims on universality? The argument is complicated, so let’s proceed slowly. The “one-drop” rule, the most exactingly imprecise sign of African American racial membership, certainly haunts the history within this wise book. And it most explicitly haunts one of Hazel’s persistent shadows, Enoch Emery, who “had wise blood like his daddy” (79), a daddy who looks “just like Jesus” (51). Enoch is a peculiar character— dim, self-indulgent, and obsessive—who immediately befriends Hazel once he arrives in the town where most of the novel’s action takes place. Enoch is dominated by his passions without much control or regard for the more conventional roles of society. Thus, he serves as a nice counterpoint to Hazel’s desire for power, constraint, and self-denial— Hazel’s desire for whiteness. Unlike Hazel, he does not seem too concerned with the regulation of his blood, or his inevitable place within his natural history. But much like Hazel, Enoch is ambiguously raced, and the narration also plays with the color of his skin: for instance, at a point when he commits a theft, he “had darkened his face and hands with brown shoe polish so that if he were seen in the act, he would be taken for a colored person” (174). This action alone might be thought to secure his racial distinction, but as we already know, skin can lie about what kind of blood it conceals. Indeed, the “one-drop” legislation’s obsession with minute quantities of African American blood suggests that one might not even know one’s own racial affiliation, especially if, like Enoch, the blood is much “wiser” than the rest of his body. The final moments of Enoch’s appearance in the novel involves him in a very criminal activity that permanently makes the material of his body a frustrated racial ambiguity. Enoch, in his child-like and desire-driven way of inhabiting the world, wants to see a children’s movie idol whose personal appearance is advertised on the street: “Gonga! Giant Jungle Monarch and a Great Star! Here in Person!” (177). He proceeds to attend the appearance, but not quite understanding that the “jungle monarch” would be there as a person in a gorilla costume (and not as a real gorilla). Enoch is devastated by the ruse and especially Gonga’s too human response: “‘You go to hell’” (182). So, Enoch revenges the insult: he pummels the actor and steals the suit for his own private use. The narration describes the assumption of this darker skin: In the uncertain light, one of his lean white legs could be seen to disappear and then the other, one arm and then the other: a black heavier shaggier figure replaced his. For an instant, it had two heads, one light and one dark, but after a second, it pulled the dark back head over the other and corrected this. It busied itself with certain hidden fastenings and what appeared to be minor adjustments of its hide.
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
For a time after this, it stood very still and didn’t do anything. Then it began to growl and beat its chest; it jumped up and down and flung its arms and thrust its head forward. The growls were thin and uncertain at first but they grew louder after a second. They became low and poisonous, louder again, low and poisonous again; they stopped altogether. (197) Becoming gorilla is certainly not the same thing as becoming African American. But the racist stereotypes of a more “primal,” “primitive,” and less human embodied status are circulated within O’Connor’s own rhetoric, and they cry out in this description of Enoch’s own version of black face. O’Connor often creates images of blackness that are only skin deep, stereotypical, and capable of being co-opted and assumed not to reveal a greater complexity in racial representation. More specifically, however, O’Connor parodies the “primitives” lack of humanity that is served to make whiteness the only race of full-personhood. Indeed, as Etienne Balibar argues, racial distinctions, especially in relation to white universality, conjure up all sorts of less-than-human associations.29 Sally Fitzgerald, long-time friend of O’Connor s, assures us that the sometimes disparaging comments we in find in O’Connor’s writing about African Americans are not evidence of something racist, but rather an “easy’ use of “the prevailing locution of the South.” Fitzgerald comments that the blacks, like the ones on O’Connor’s farm, were “primitive” and “perhaps served as trees obscuring her view of the social forest.” O’Connor “evidently felt unable to get ‘inside their heads,’ in her own phrase.”30 Nevertheless, O’Connor did not shy away from frequently incorporating flattened, if not upsettingly stereotypical African American characters in her texts. Indeed, in the infamously titled short story, “The Artificial Nigger,” O’Connor describes a degraded lawn jockey as a “mystery” 31 that cannot be penetrated, but a “mystery” that is also the central concern of the short story. Black bodies, instead of merely indicating an opportunity for derogatory name-calling, present O’Connor with figures of superficial confusion that call into question what it means to be “human,” that call into question what is going on inside of the human head, as well as how one can even describe different styles and races of humanity using a literary text. It is noteworthy that the image of attempting to enter into someone’s head is prevalent in all of O’Connor’s fiction, and it is the image that closes Wise Blood. So one must emphasize that a scene like Enoch’s assumption of a Gorilla head (of his transition from white head to dark head) is a scene where Enoch becomes a productively frustrating body—one with a “heavier,” excessive corporeality that escapes easy description. In this scenario where the darkness of a body shows just how primitive and hazier “in the uncertain light” the body might become, O’Connor mines the connotations of the false ape, the aping of the aping of a human being; and she exploits, I feel, the manner in which racist stereotypes can complicatedly turn in on themselves and produce unexpected and confusing misnomers. Certainly, she plays with the “appearing in person” paradox that the gorilla costume suggests, and she forces her most blood-driven character to assume that persona, that animal quality that becomes harder and harder to see and understand in her fictive operation.32 Enoch’s ethnicity, if not his humanity, becomes harder to determine. There is an implicit desire to sidestep predicaments like Enoch’s—predicaments in which a history of wise blood, too much body, and the dark stereotypes of African
Americans emphasize “material” as an obstacle. We are blocked in our desires for some kind of simpler belief, some desire for an easy assumption of a white humanity that must be uncomplicated—a desire for an easy representation of the race that does not want to be different at all. This black and obscured material reminds me of O’Connor’s own aesthetic obsession with the paradox of communicating universal, religious truth claims using a language that cannot be universal. As I’ve already mentioned, literary language relies on making distinctions. And it seems apparent that the racial logic of making distinctions becomes one register in which O’Connor wrestles with the difficulty of communicating wholeness in something as divisive and local as literature. In her commentaries on the craft of writing, O’Connor has a persistent and very predictable frustration with her vocation: “what the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is, what-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying with them.”33 O’Connor, here, wrestles with her desire to be both a religious and a secular writer. A related critique of religious authors who write in very religious ways rests in a devaluation of a kind of prose that fails to see the importance of the local: “By separating nature and grace as much as possible, [the Catholic writer] has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and obscene.”34 What these concerns point to is a deflation of what she alternately calls “material” and “nature,” and the writerly problem rests in privileging transcendent grace, or religious belief, over the material and local writing with which one must start. The problem can also be considered as a problem between material differences and non-material universalities (samenesses). As to be expected, this tension between spirit and material allegorically rears its head in O’Connor’s fiction: Hazel is a character who is vexed by his corporeality, and who pursues, as we shall see, some abstract belief in nothing, no-thing, and no bloody Christ who will speak in sentimental (and therefore obscene ways). Hazel is the character in pursuit of his own complicated assumption of whiteness that always implicitly devalues his body’s racializing, materializing tendencies. Enoch, on the other hand, is someone who is circumscribed by his body, by the way his blood leads him to a place where he is a baffling combination of materiality. He, like the blacks on O’Connor’s farm, present historical mysteries O’Connor cannot crack (and perhaps does not want to crack) open and reveal. To remain divided between grace and nature, however, would render her fiction as obscene and sentimental as the impoverished genre of Catholic writer O’Connor forcefully indicts. As a consequence, O’Connor brings the transcendent and the material into a frustrated relation that motivates her writing to be a more sophisticated achievement. Our own confusion might increase when we remember O’Connor’s professed devotion to Catholicism—once we remember she is explicitly critical of some forms of religion in her literary texts, She alternately lauds and condemns religiosity, and she alternately lauds and condemns her literary craft when the two registers come into contact. As a consequence, a whole industry of criticism takes up the debate in the form of questioning whether or not O’Connor is religious or blasphemous, and whether or not she privileged her religious or literary ambitions.35 Rather than contribute directly to
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
these conversations, I would prefer merely to note that this persistent tension fuels her writing, as it fuels much writing that wants to communicate something “universal” using something so “local” as a literary text.36 The point I want to emphasize is that this stress between the secular craft of writing and the sacred realm of belief always foregrounds not universality but the problem of the “material,” of what O’Connor thinks of as the “local” and the “historical,” suggested by figures of the “body” (if not usually the racial body). Similarly, more at issue in the literary text is the way the universal can never really be accessed; one is always stuck in the literary—always stuck in mud, as it were, with the very local, the very dark body And one must, as O’Connor shrewdly notes, twist within the limitations of the medium: the limitations of locality, history, and, indeed, blackness, Thus religious words and the way they are so closely connected with a body’s racial markings become the way O’Connor comments on both the fictional medium and the race that is called on to be inadequately represented through this medium. Hence, religious words are always implicated in a corporeal problem that cannot leave its nature behind in favor of something more abstract—like the white race. So, when the localizing limitations of the body or fiction’s material is worked through the question of race, one way to conceptualize race is in terms of the ways racial distinctions call attention to the circumscribed “nature” of a body: corporeality cannot offer the possibility of relief from the corporeality; thus whiteness, which is supposed to be a racial designation of the body, cannot offer more than a wish for somatic egress—the wish to not be racialized, or black. Tellingly, the character of Enoch reminds the reader of the boundaries of human flesh; he does not seem to mind his darker skins. Poignantly, after Enoch has been morphed into the ape, the narration comments: “No gorilla in existence, whether in the jungles of Africa and California, or in New York City in the finest apartment of the world, was happier at that moment than this one, whose god had rewarded it” (197–198). Enoch has been remunerated with what his blood has desired: he has been given the ability to become something dark and strange. He has been given the ability to have his blood rush to his own surface and announce its otherwise hidden character: “his blood was in secret conference with itself every day, only stopping now and then to shout some order at him” (134). Thus his “God,” something religious, has pleased Enoch by making his body what it has always secretly wanted to be: dark, excessive, traditional, and happy in its mystifyingly physical shape. O’Connor does not critique this development; rather, she enables the excessive body to twist within its own limitations, its own skins that become a source of delight rather than fright. Enoch, indeed, is the only character in the novel who is left satisfied, who gives into the heritage he was always supposed to have. We might then say that for O’Connor, the figures of the historical past usually have a black color, dark skins, that can be acquired and shift the physical forms of Enoch or even, quite reluctantly, Hazel. This dark, local color certainly panics Hazel’s claim on whiteness, so it is no wonder that Hazel is imaged as constantly fleeing from any type of historical association. His pure form is at constant risk of being redeemed by history. But the black and religious past is unavoidable. Immediately after the first confrontation with the porter, Hazel falls asleep in a berth that he “wanted…all dark, he didn’t want it diluted”—in a berth echoing with “the porter’s footsteps coming down the aisle, soft into the rug, coming steadily down, brushing against the green curtains and fading up the other way out of hearing” (19). The darkness of this scene, where “he was lying like a
coffin” (19), introduces difficult descriptions of Hazel’s younger years that are saturated with the very religiosity Hazel eschews in the present tense of the story At this point, Hazel thinks and dreams about his own vexed and dying lineage; he describes the death of his two brothers, and the ways he “was going to be a preacher like his grandfather” (21). Again, religious words become the focal point of Hazel’s racially implicated history—they organize O’Connor’s account of his history and his body. The mediated narration of Hazel’s history features one scene where his grandfather preaches: But Jesus had died to redeem them! Jesus was so soul-hungry that He had died, one death for all, but He would have died every souls death for one! Did they understand that? Did they understand that for each stone soul, He would have died ten million deaths, had his arms and legs stretched on the cross and nailed ten million times for one of them? (The old man would point to his grandson, Haze. He had a particular disrespect for him because his own face was repeated almost exactly in the child’s and seemed to mock him.) Did they know that even for that boy there, for that mean sinful unthinking boy standing there with his dirty hands clenching and unclenching his sides, Jesus would die ten million deaths before He would let him over the waters of sin! Did they doubt Jesus could walk on the waters of sin? The boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn’t going to leave him ever. Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed. What did the sinner think there was to be gained? Jesus would have him in the end. (21–22) The tenor of this sermon, the repetition of the quantity and extremity of Jesus’ corporeal sacrifice for the souls of others (stretching arms and legs), and the forceful delivery of the grandfather all serve not to highlight the “souls” of the saved, but rather the place human physicality has within a cycle and history of religious redemption. Interestingly enough, Hazel’s body, not his soul, is the focus of the grandfather’s descriptions: “dirty hands, clenching and unclenching his sides”; Hazel’s face repeating and mocking the grandfather’s face, repeating and mocking his own wise blood. Apparently, even though this boy and his body is thought to be mean, mocking, sinful, and most suggestively, “dirty,”37 it does not seem to matter in any conventional religious sense of salvation— religious belief eventually wins out in spite of all Hazel’s sin; Jesus would “have him in the end,” and the physical extremities Jesus had and would have experienced guarantee the grandfather’s inevitable conclusion. Religious redemption is assured, and the soul will be granted relief from the waters of sin. The way such assurance is understood, however, is through the anxious interactions bodies (of Hazel, Jesus, the Porter, and others) have with the constancy of a religious relationship, or more exactly, the constancy of religious words that always conjure up a vexed relationship with a dark history that cannot be forgotten or easily written. The words historically echo in Hazel: “Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed.” As a consequence, the body of Hazel and the body of Jesus become the main point to consider in figuring out the way religion makes historical, and often racial, connections between bodies in this text. What is then special about this kind of corporealized and racialized attachment to history is that its alternative qualities frustrate Hazel’s ability to forget the traces of his
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
material past. Jesus would never let Hazel disregard his “redemption”—that inevitable link between Hazel’s sinful body and the sacrifice Jesus makes in order to make Hazel’s body his own possession, to make him another part of his sacrificed body that would mark a certain type of historical time implicated in racial associations that signify such a past. Indeed, Hazel is haunted by an image of Jesus that, like Hazel’s own racialized pose in the train, follows Hazel and connects him to a past he cannot avoid: “He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher, Later he saw Jesus moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown” (22). By following Hazel through life, the image of Jesus keeps calling Hazel back into the “dark,” a dim space threatening to debilitate Hazel’s ability to walk away from his predetermined, inevitable religious calling as a preacher, away from his personal history that pursues him relentlessly. Hazel is unable to be as self-determining as he desires, to be as absent from the past. His hazy associations, his shady memories, assert a type of historical record that puts his body into precarious and dark positions that risk his ability to have the “footing” that would prevent him from drowning in such a past. At the end of the first chapter, Hazel awakes from his dream memories, from his thoughts of a home he has physically lost, only to be trapped in the dark berth. Hazel calls out for the porter’s help: “I’m sick!’ he called. ‘I can’t be closed up in this thing. Get me out!’” (27). Poignantly the porter responds by not moving, by dwelling in the arresting quality of an alternative—and for all intents and purposes, black—history: “The porter stood watching him [Hazel] and didn’t move” (27). It is this point when Hazel curses the porter: “‘Jesus,’ Haze said, ‘Jesus.’” Here, Hazel uses a strong language to indicate that he is caught in the berth as he is caught in a historical association with the blackness the porter also possesses, As a response, the porter continues not to move, but “in a sour and triumphant voice” responds to Hazel’s call for Jesus with a literalization of Haze’s curse: “‘Jesus been a long time gone’” (27). In this instance, as the only black character with a voice in this novel points out, Jesus will not redeem Hazel in his historical predicament. He will not relieve Hazel from the flood of memories that threaten to trap him in the coffin of the past, that threaten to envelop him in racial associations that put his own ability to move at risk. Instead, Hazel’s religious utterances are merely words that indicate the impossible situation in which Hazel finds himself—in which he finds his body stuck and only able to reference what is in the dark recesses of a very local and material history, and, indeed, in the literary story he would prefer to avoid.
TAKING THE LORD’S NAME IN VEIN Although impossible to evade, religious rhetoric has a peculiar force Hazel still goes through the motions of resisting. This idiom, as I have been suggesting, indicates the material predicaments that frustrate his ability to move away from the darkness of history’s blackened bodies and into the whiteness of universality, into a universal form of literature, Haze, however, fulfills the past prophecy that predicted he would be a preacher; he becomes a speaker of religious words. Nevertheless, Hazel makes a significant change in what he preaches; he, at the level of language, rebels against his
religious past. Repetitively, he asserts sentiments similar to the ones he expresses to the taxi cab driver: “‘Listen,’ he said, ‘get this: I don’t believe in anything’” (32). Hazel formalizes this belief system in a paradoxical “church” he starts preaching: “‘I preach peace, I preach the Church Without Christ, the church peaceful and satisfied’” (140). He believes in a religion that does not have the primary body (a primary past reference) usually found in the inevitable Christianity that pursues him everywhere he goes. Indeed, at one point in a sermon, he asks, “Where in your time and your body has Jesus redeemed you?… Show me where because I don’t see that place. If there was a place where Jesus had redeemed you that would be a place for you to be, but which of you can find it?” (166). So he creates, at least at the level of his own rhetoric, a new church with a negative (“without”) name (“Christ”) that devalues the corporeally based theology of Christianity. Again, the absence of a body inherent in this name inspires Hazel to attempt to evacuate the close, fleshy connections religious rhetoric terrifyingly always offers him. He tries to alter the way one’s body will be affected by his preaching; he wants to break the obsessively material symbolic cycle of Jesus’ sacrifice by highlighting the universal potential that might be had by the lack of a central, religious body. For instance, Hazel stands upon the used car he purchased and exhorts the virtues of his church to people every night on the street: “Listen here. What you [people] need is something to take the place of Jesus, something that would speak plain. The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new jesus! It needs one that s all man, without blood to waste, and it needs one that don’t look like any other man so you’ll look at him. Give me such a jesus, you people. Give me such a new jesus and you’ll see how far the Church Without Christ can go!” (140–141). With a Church evacuated of its Christ, a substitution is required: a figure that leads the Church to new destinations, new possibilities of going “far”—if not far away from the past. Importantly, this new jesus should have no blood to waste, to wash, and to redeem others into a stumbling relationship to the past, into corporeal evidence of what once happened long ago. The complicated associations between wasted blood, Christ, and Hazel’s resemblance, are ostensibly sidestepped by the new, more innocuous jesus that is a “something” that would “speak plain.” Moreover, Hazel qualifies his new jesus as a new figure that exists in purely rhetorical terms: “There’s no such thing as any new jesus, That ain’t but a way to say something” (158). That is, the new jesus is not a body, it is only a collection of words. The new jesus expresses a wish for nothing, for no-thing. It is not a big jump to make the association between plainness and whiteness, especially since the plainness of the new jesus’ speech is connected to the new jesus’ more frugal relationship to blood. In Hazel’s economy, blood is a dangerous item that gets one into trouble if it is dispersed, if it is wasted— and if it redeems and connects people into a religious, racial identification with the past. Yet, as Enoch is blissful in his newfound form, the world of heavy and consuming skins antagonizes Hazel who would prefer to be as plain, and as rhetorical, as his new jesus. Hazel does not want his own skin to be noticeable; much less does he wish to have excessive and noticeable flesh that plays tricks on his humanity. To add insult to injury, Enoch continues to counter Hazel’s
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
desires by fulfilling, much too literally, Hazel’s request for a new jesus: he gives Hazel’s rhetoric a very fleshy substitution, what he considers the perfect fit for Hazel’s words—a shriveled, dark mummy Enoch steals form the city’s museum after hearing Hazel’s sermons about the new jesus. Effectively, Enoch disables the possibility of the new jesus being just a way of saying something, Instead, he has given Hazel a body that locks him back into the world of racialized, historical associations. Enoch has focused, however inconveniently, Hazel’s ministry around a body; he has given fleshy weight to Hazel’s purifying rhetoric. As if an historical contagion, the skin of this unwanted new jesus encourages other people’s attachments and provides occasions for others to encourage Hazel to help elaborate such attachments. For instance, Hazel’s quasi-love interest, Sabbath—who moves in with Hazel without his permission—acquires an unusual fondness for the new jesus: Sabbath coos at its appearance, “Her hands grew accustomed to the feel of his skin,” and she immediately adopts the “cute” thing (185), and sets up house with Hazel. It is at this point when Hazel realizes that he must leave town, that he must leave the apartment, the girlfriend, and the new surrogate child because something about his Church Without Christ is not working. Something about the new jesus’ accustomed feel of skin and the comforts of intimacy are weighing his mind and his body down. As an alternative, “he was going to move immediately to some other city and preach the Church Without Christ where they had never heard of it. He would get another room there and another woman and make a new start with nothing on his mind” (186). That is, Hazel’s intentions of having nothing, no skin, are thwarted by the persistent assertion of skin and its historical, intimate connections. In order to stay on track, he must evacuate the habit of living that is making “nothing” impossible; Hazel is being overtaken by the material somethings that are entering his mind and forcing him to elaborate connections over time. The new jesus’ skin is attaching itself to his own skin. Newness is thus unfeasible when surrounded by decaying material like the mummy/new jesus, for decaying flesh is the kind of flesh that immediately announces its past, its longevity that is on a quick and noticeable path toward distinction. To put this another way: the new jesus quickly indicates that the material of something might stop one dead in his or her tracks, and share its decaying history with someone like Hazel. Therefore, Hazel desires to flee town, lest he become stuck in the material of past—in the flesh of a history that only announces its decay, a fleshy history that sticks to Hazel’s body and literally weighs him down in a rotting domesticity. As we might now predict, this freedom of skin, however, is not possible. Sabbath, while watching Hazel pack his bags, commands the mummy: “‘Ask your daddy yonder where he was running of to… Ask him isn’t he going to take you and me with him?’” (187). This question of familial demand ignites what Hazel does next: It [his hand] lunged and snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall. The head popped and the trash inside sprayed out in a little cloud of dust. “You’ve broken him!” Sabbath shouted, “and he was mine!” Hazel snatched the skin off the floor. He opened the outside door where the landlady thought there had once been a fire-escape, and flung out what he had in his hand. (188)
The alacrity of Hazel’s disposal of the debris of skin of his dark “child” suggests that Hazel thinks that the removal will enable his departure. If he eradicates the material, then perhaps his new jesus will once again be just a way to say something, and not a fleshy and decaying body that invites Hazel into a very local intimacy. Sabbath, however, launches into a rebuke that firmly reestablishes the religious connections Hazel cannot avoid: “I knew when I first seen you you were mean and evil,” a furious voice behind him said. “I seen you wouldn’t let nobody have nothing. I seen you were mean enough to slam a baby against a wall, I seen you wouldn’t never have no fun or let anybody else because you didn’t want nothing but Jesus.”(188) Again, Hazel’s appearance is read as decidedly religious, and despite his preaching about a Church Without Christ, people will always give him (or make him into) a body that resembles Christ’s—whether it is a new jesus mummy or the persistent accusations of Hazel’s devout Christianity that convert Hazel into a racialized body. Sabbath has always known him, immediately. That is, she has always had some intimate history with Hazel because he looks religious, he looks like he cares about Jesus. Her historical evidence for her claims are Hazel’s attachments to Christ, which, once again, can be read on his body. Moreover, this close kind of reading paves the way for Sabbath’s peculiar intimacy. Hazel’s physical shape is the focus of Sabbath’s rage and she flattens him, through her accusations that Hazel is religious, into someone she has always known, always understood; thus, she justifies her claim on his affections. He is hence reduced to an idiom of the too familiar that, like the relation with the porter, suggests the darker and hazier side of Hazel’s body—in fact, it is an idiom that brings into sharp relief that Hazel does have a body that others imagine they can easily read through the attribution of religious belief. He is converted into a caricature of religion and the black race that is too local, too easily described, and too easily made into someone else’s attachment. That is, Hazel has become entirely superficial and easily implicated in unearned and erroneous intimacies that are not satisfying descriptions of his own body. As a consequence, an indepth read of his body has been short-circuited in favor of a more “super-natural” read of his face. He is all too religious, much too grace-full, to be of any real substance, of any real emotional possibility and sustained connection for Sabbath or anyone else for that matter. Significantly, this ready-made read of Hazel’s surface lends itself to illicit and faulty copying; his religious message and his racialized corporeality can be reproduced and revised instantly. For example, a conman, Onnie Jay (a.k.a. Hoover Shoats), wants to market Hazel’s church; in order “to get anywheres in religion,” Hoover Shoats wants to “sweeten” up Hazel’s image and sermons, and market his prophetic message. He begins by renaming the church, “the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ,” and declares, quite erroneously, that copying—that reproduction—would not debauch either Haze’s original message or Hazel’s body: it, according to Hoover, “don’t make any difference how many Christs you add to the name if you don’t add none to the meaning” (157), In Hazel’s psyche, Hoover could not be more wrong: this kind of lexical elaboration, the addition of Christs, gives too much value, indeed too much body, to the meaning of a body, and not
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
enough to the ways his rhetoric evacuates meaning as it evacuates the flesh. It adds, rather than removes, the body of Christs to a title that wants to eschew such a body. This crisis of reproducibility is further exasperated once Hoover Shoats violates, through flesh, the copyrights of Hazel’s church. Shoats finds a Hazel look-alike to preach the new church’s message, and the effect of this copy rivets and disturbs Hazel: “He [Motes] was so struck with how gaunt and thin he looked in the illusion that he stopped preaching. He had never pictured himself that way before” (167). Hazel had never imagined the results of others twisting his own words into a physical copy that speaks the wrong words, which encourage others to watch for the coming of the new jesus, for the body that will help make legible their own painful histories. This copy excessively and erroneously points to an original that does not extend Hazel’s own corporeal material into nothing; instead it is making Hazel’s body much too intimate, much too real and fleshy. The copy draws attention to the way the original desire for “nothing” has become something that almost but not quite resembles Hazel’s body—a something does not deliver the precise message of his words. I am convinced that O’Connor continues to make a statement through Hazel’s plight about fictional representations of religious figures. These figures disintegrate once they are opportunistically copied by conmen, or say by an obscenely sentimental Catholic writer who writes only typically about the metaphysical at the expense of a complicated materiality—or too simply and sympathetically about African Americans. Therefore, it is helpful to think about the relationship art has to copying, Walter Benjamin, in his wellworn discussion of mechanical reproducibility, describes the ways technologies of reproduction inaugurate the “decay of the aura,” which means that reproductions erode the original artwork that relied on its awe-inspiring “distance”: “the definition of the aura as a ‘unique phenomenon of distance however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art is categories of space and time perception. Distance is the opposite of closeness. The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability is indeed a major quality of the cult image,”38 Literature, however, is not an easy cult image, especially in a world that accommodates standardization and mechanization rather than a suggestive and distant universality. As I quoted above, O’Connor is nervous about participating in a project of religious writing that might also fall into an obsession about real things, real materials, that might easily be copied or made too typical. O’Connor writes about the too-real-realism infecting midcentury literature through a similar concern with distance that resonates with Benjamin’s: “We have become so flooded with sorry fiction based on unearned liberties, or on the notion that fiction must represent the typical, that in the public mind the deeper kinds of realism are less and less understandable.”39 She believes that typicality has killed something “deeper” in the work of art—it gives us closeness without a scene of aura and unapproachable awe, and she soon qualifies this depth with a cognate use of Benjamin’s “distance.” The figure of the “grotesque” prophet communicates this complicated idea: In 19th century American writing, there is a good deal of grotesque literature which came from the frontier and was supposed to be funny; but our present grotesque characters, comic though they may be, are at least not primarily so. They seem to carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity. I believe that they come about
from a prophetic vision peculiar to any novelist, but particularly and, in these times, deliberately peculiar to the novelists whose concerns I have been describing. In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.40 O’Connor wants to break the surface of typical realism, and make visible, or at least “prophetic,” the “invisible burden” of the grotesque figure. She makes Hazel figure as a grotesque prophet preoccupied with distance, moving beyond the closeness that threatens to make him too typical, too domestic. O’Connor then contrasts this figure with its copy, its proliferation that poses the threat of closeness and reproduction, with typicality, with scenes of do mestic intimacy that force him into historical relationships that make his body not suggestive of something much more distant, universal, or indeed, white. She begins to show just how flat Hazel becomes when his reproducible religious message calls attention to his flattening body. Instead of distance, he acquires closeness—and his body becomes a more confusing surface O’Connor can only describe from the outside. Because, however, Hazel is represented as being a character in struggle between distance and proximity, white and black, ahistorical and historical, and profane and sacred, O’Connor makes him a contested figure whose substance comes, in part, from his ability to mark the problems of material, and indeed, historical representation in her fiction. His status as copy or original becomes an urgent matter that infuses whatever surface he will become with an enormous amount of possibility (both good and bad). In response to the copy of his image, the decay of his own pretension of an aura-like whiteness, Hazel eliminates the copy that invades him with too much closeness. Hazel, with an intense, “white face” (201), confronts his bad double from behind the wheel of his car: “You ain’t true… You believe in Jesus” (203). Hazel commands the double to take off his clothing, his hat, and the other trappings that make him resemble Hazel. And with his car, Hazel runs the man into the ground. The narration describes: The Essex stood half over the other Prophet as if it were pleased to guard what it had finally brought down. The man didn’t look so much like Haze, lying on the ground on his face without his hat or suit on, A lot of blood was coming out of him and forming a puddle around his head. He was motionless all but one finger that moved up and down in front of his face as if he were marking time with it. (204). This image condenses many of the issues at the still-beating heart of this novel, which wants to be smarter than other religious novels: the wise blood that is seeping into the ground, as he dies, makes the “other” Prophet distinct from Hazel. He no longer looks like the original—he is a bad copy who becomes increasingly illegible as a copy. Moreover, the double moves his finger as if he “were marking time with it.” Again, we can recall the way that the porter also marked time by referencing Jesus’ long absence, an absence that provokes Hazel’s dark memories of home and historical connection. To make this association even stronger, the dying, gasping words of the dying, gasping double are repetitively religious:
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
“Jesus…” the man said. “Shut up like I told you now,” Haze said. “Jesus help me,” the man wheezed. Haze gave him a hard slap on the back and he was quiet. He leaned down to hear if he was going to say anything else but he wasn’t breathing anymore. (205) The marker of time is also the speaker of urgent, religious words, whose blood and body indicate the destruction, the passing, of time. Hazel must flatten, quite violently, the other character to make the double not look like him, and to make time not matter in the way it does, to not resemble Hazel’s own vexed matter. He must make the other him racially distinct in order to make Hazel himself appear distinctly not racialized, not able to mark time with his much too historical body. This violence, however, makes no lasting difference, and Hazel cannot maintain the divisions between him and religious others. Hazel cannot leave town—he cannot simply be pure aura or universal message. Racial divisions, like murderous moments of wasted blood, do not teach Hazel to stop his violent flight out of town, out of his locality where people both begin to mean things to him and begin to make him mean something. Moreover, he is locked into a confusing relationship about what his reproducible copy might mean. The narration immediately moves to the next morning when Hazel is in a mad dash out of town, and he stops at a filling station, where his material problems come through in an unwarranted discussion he has with a gas station attendant: Haze followed him around telling him what is was right to believe. He said it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth. He sad he had only a few days ago believed in blasphemy as the way to salvation, but that you couldn’t even believe in that because then you were believing in something to blaspheme, As for Jesus who was reported to have been born at Bethlehem and crucified on Calvary for man’s sins, Haze said, He was too foul a notion for a sane person to carry in his head, and he picked up the boy’s water bucket and bammed it on the concrete to emphasize what he was saying. He began to curse and blaspheme Jesus in a quiet intense way but with such a conviction that the boy paused from his work to listen. (206) Hazel is here shot through with contradictions: he cannot believe in blasphemy because it attaches one too closely to something in which to believe; he does not want to believe in anything that is not tactile, but the tactility of say Jesus, is much too foul and therefore only a bad notion. Then Hazel starts to blaspheme Jesus—to engage in the kind of word work that he had just moments before condemned for implicating and connecting one too strongly to the belief in something. Here his vexed and necessary relationship to tactile material or bodies inevitably asserts itself, inevitably thwarting his ability not to believe in anything. Moreover, he cannot help but blaspheme and repeat Jesus’ name, The religious word, therefore, calls the boys attention to Hazel’s corporeality and the blood of the body, especially bodies that are too closely attached to histories and places that divide the world into specific histories and towns that cannot be generalized into an instance of
nothing. The solution Hazel only tentatively finds to this religious problem of his body, however, is to avoid this kind of blasphemous wording, this kind of naming that urgently brings him back to the dark resemblance, the dark past, he shares with Jesus.
BREAKING THE SKIN OF THE TEXT In Hazel’s final drive out of town, he is pulled over by a policeman because, as the officer puts it in the idiom of racial profiling, “I just don’t like your [Hazel’s] face” (208). This exchange results in the policeman destroying Haze’s car, thereby destroying Hazel’s possibility of flight out of town, history, body, and race. In an ironic twist, once our antihero is stopped dead in his tracks, his unlikable face finally begins to suggest an aura; it “seemed to reflect the entire distance across the clearing and beyond, the entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank sky that went on, depth after depth, into space” (209). It is only when he has been crippled in his feverish dash from his own corporeal histories and predicaments can Hazel’s face can begin to “whiten’: it can reflect everything and begin to suggest universality. This view of the “entire distance” is an insight that reveals to Hazel that in order to believe in “nothing,” he must become “nothing.” Another way to phrase this in the terms of his race: in order to become universally white, he must become nothing; he must have no body to assert its distinctive qualities and be easily incorporated into the technologies of racial and historical distinction, which cannot be avoided when he moves through the world, especially the world of literature. His pursuit of nothing, of whiteness, then, has been all wrong: the terms of his paradoxical relationship to material, to racial difference, and to religious preaching keep trapping him in historical associations over which he has no “real,” no physical, control, That is, his desire for whiteness is tenaciously connected to the history blackness indexes. Consequently, he decides not to go anywhere, and returns to the place where he is boarding, to blind himself and to stop preaching his Church Without Christ. In the final pages of the novel, Hazel falls silent and begins the long process of destroying his body through inactivity.41 Other characters, however, still see, read, and connect all sorts of descriptions to Hazel’s decaying shape. His landlady, Mrs. Flood, for instance, provides another perspective that inevitably racializes Hazel, and gives us another perspective on the ways whiteness, as it is traditionally defined, cannot be a condition of the body. Hazel’s posture, although initially frightening for Mrs. Flood, becomes fascinating, and the landlady finds herself attached to this man who will respond in only the briefest of ways. At one exchange, when Hazel repeats that he is “not clean” (224), Mrs. Flood gives him the associations that emphasize just this fact. She notices that he, unlike Hazel’s dream of the new jesus, has left, or wasted, blood on his nightshirt and bed: “‘It’s easier to bleed than sweat, Mr. Motes,’ she said in the voice of High Sarcasm. ‘You must believe in Jesus or you wouldn’t do these foolish things. You must have been lying to me when you named your fine church. I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t some kind of a agent of the pope or got some connection with something funny” (225). Again, blood, history, religion are brought into intimate relation, and the landlady accuses Hazel of having all three, thereby connecting Hazel with something funny, perhaps referring to the “trick” played on “niggers”: the hyperembodied condition of the body that lends itself to all sorts
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
of historical attachments and associations. Here, as with elsewhere, Hazel has no ability to evade the ways in which people constantly situate him in a system of belief that he has spent the bulk of the novel denouncing and fleeing. The landlady subsequently forces an intimate relationship with Hazel; she, like Sabbath, wants to make history with Hazel’s compelling body. His body is too alluring, and she finds his visage mysterious and perplexing: “Watching his face had become a habit with her; she wanted to penetrate the darkness behind it and see for herself what was there” (225). Hazel, here, despite his great efforts to be otherwise, has become “black,” a reflection of darkness that recalls Hazel’s earlier image of seeing his reflection in the train window, and also recalls his historical dreaming within the train’s berth. Certainly, Hazel is a version of what O’Connor would call “the realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the modern instances of the grotesque.”42 Not coincidentally, the figures that enable her analysis of this deeper and less explicit reality are usually figures in black, lending further credence to Ellison’s and Morrison’s claims that American literature often required “dark” and often abused Africanist presences to make itself articulate. Indeed, O’Connor urges a “descent through the darkness of the familiar”43 to find this new kind of fictional realism, this realism of distance. Blackness and black bodies are the religious limit, the darkness of the familiar, of O’Connor s fictional eye: they are the material that thwarts the possibility of a white universality, what Kreyling calls the “southern white dream of identity” defined without a traumatic and black history. Her writing, like the writing of the New Critics, will not be able to be purely formal, purely universal, or purely white; Southern whiteness, like the New Critics’ formalism, breaks down once the dark history of the other race speaks itself into a more explicit existence. And that speech is certainly religious—it is compromised by the words of a Jesus who died for our sins, who created the possibility of life out of a condition of morbidity, of history that cannot be universal and cannot be white. Through the black limit something more can be suggested in the writing (but not necessarily denotated in what is written) about another kind of important reality. The narrative ends with what might be described as a morbid fascination with blackness, a fascination that urges one to break open the skin of blackness’ limit, to mine it for its own semantic weight. Despite the grotesque, uncertain qualities Hazel’s disintegrating body, Mrs. Flood cannot help but become attached, and she even proposes a marriage of “convenience.” The final passages about Mrs. Flood’s relationship with the reluctant and frustrated preacher feature descriptions of the ways in which Hazel’s dark form has become the boundary she has trouble reading, and this reading makes possible her imagination: She had never observed his face more composed and she grabbed his hand and held it to her heart. It was resistless and dry. The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared. She leaned closer and closer to his face, looking deep into them, trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn’t see anything. She shut her eyes and saw the pin point of light but so far away that she could not hold it steady in her mind. She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as
if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light. (231–232). The stress on Mrs. Flood’s own imaginative transformations of Hazel’s ever darkening shape does not take away from the simple fact that Hazel still does have a body, one which cannot help but return to the hearth he has been assumed into against his will Mrs. Flood is blocked by something, unable to read him for illumination, for understanding what “cheating” has occurred between them, or for the details that would make her connection to him, her desperate pleas for his continued presence in her life, legible. He is only surface now. She has the body there with her, and her initial solution is to make him into something white, something light (Mrs. Flood-Light), within the dark familiarity that actually only presents so much obscurity. She gives him the aura, with its condition of ever-increasing distance. This kind of operation, however, can only occur when her eyes are wide shut, enabling her to analogize, to feel “as if,” Hazel’s body is more than the “composed,” outline of a skull that suggests that so much is restricted from her own comprehension. Here, however, is the limit of distance and possibility, Hazel’s body, although now not much more than a surface that only offers a surface read of what lies beneath, engenders Mrs. Flood, Hazel’s closest reader, to imagine what must be beyond the suggestive limits of his body. The narration hardly lauds this as a triumphant or satisfying moment: Mrs. Flood finds whiteness, but that whiteness immediately recedes into the distance; she feels “blocked at the entrance of something,” and she is at the “beginning of something she couldn’t begin,” This closure violates the possibility of Mrs. Flood’s white attachment, and instead she is left with her desires to make history with and out of Hazel’s fascinatingly dark and mysterious shape. O’Connor thus abruptly leaves us with an overwhelming description of the United States’ majority race: whiteness is the horizon of impossibility that negates any possibility of relations, histories, and bodies—the material stuff, “the concrete particulars,”44 that are the subject of O’Connor’s fiction. It is the frustrating and paradoxical pursuit of no substance that violates the medium of fiction, that violates the medium of a body. When something like whiteness is achieved, then the story must stop. This stopping, however, is important: the push toward whiteness is arrested, It is crucial to remember that Hazel’s dark shape has not been destroyed—in fact, he has only imaginatively achieved whiteness in Mrs. Floods eye. Instead, Hazel cannot die on the pages of her novel—he keeps returning with a face that would make Mrs. Flood remember important words from her own past: “She recalled the phrase, ‘eternal death,’ that preachers used” (211). That is, Hazel’s body, despite its push for white impossibility, still offers the words that occasion the stop into its inevitable push into no-thing through a demand to remember the past, the “eternal death” that makes clear the history that cannot be forgotten: “Jesus Died for YOU” (207). This arrest of universality brings one back to the local, and, as a consequence, O’Connor sets herself up to continue writing other novels and stories about the complicated histories between black and white races. Whether or not her uses of the races, complicated metaphors of blackness and darkness are noble or positive seem less to the point. Instead, it is useful to articulate that she constantly and productively implicates and aestheticizes whiteness in a frustrated historical relation that requires the coding of blackness as confusing corporeality that
Arresting whiteness: Religious history and “Local” color
cannot be eliminated from the surface of the literary text in part because it will not be described enough. Indeed, black bodies (the frequent bearers of the black symbolics), in important ways, become the confusing surface of the literary text that inspires the artistic developments of the mid-twentieth-century, that critiques the pretensions of white formalism, of white universality, that do not get caught up in local colors. Moreover, O’Connor then is an excellent example of an American writer who resorts to tricky, religious rhetorical moves to infuse the representation of race with an ambiguity that always forecloses the possibility of adequately rendering, on the literary page, the flexible and dark color comprising what it means to be racially marked or unmarked in the United States. And curiously, through her determination to figure race with an idiom of religious of cursing, O’Connor serves as an example of complicated and challenging writer of African American literature.
Chapter Three “She was Something Vulgar in a Holy Place”: The Resanguination of the Word in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones
“LORD, LEMME DO BETTER THAN THIS” In a late chapter of Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, the central mother in the text, Silla Boyce, irreverently describes some harsh truths about the way the blackness of her skin fails to offer an authoritative description of her Barbadian self—the way blackness fails to account for the differences between African Americans and AfroCaribbeans. Her comments are a response to the decision not to include other racial, ethnic minorities (such as African Americans) in her community’s Barbadian home owners association, and it is a speech that contradicts any dream of racial unity predicated on the color of one’s flesh. Silla exclaims: Take when we had to scrub the Jew floor. He wasn’t misusing us so much because our skin was black but because we cun do better. And I din hate him. All the time I was on the floor I was saying to myself: ‘Lord, lemme do better than this. Lemme rise!’ No, power is a thing that don really have nothing to do with skin color. Look how white people had little children their own color working in coal mines and sweat-shops years back. Look how those whelps in Africa sold us for next skin to nothing…1 Whether or not we agree with these assertions, such difficult sentiments emphasize the way race and power in the American context are often too simplified under a rubric like “African American,” a rubric that is often synonymous with “black,” and therefore neglectful of the variations of black experiences within the African Diaspora. Without a nuanced language of intra-racial difference, Silla understands that some racial “truths” are hard to articulate: “‘No, Nobody wun admit it, but people got to claw their way to the top on those on top got a right to scuffle to stay there’” (225). No one else wants to say what she has to communicate about intra-racial ambition, but Silla understands that she must, and must say it in such a way that will render, more faithfully, the actual racial dynamics that make her own home owners association so difficult to create and maintain.
The resanguination of the word
It’s no accident, then, that her more complicated accounts of herself and her own people require a frustrated appeal to the Lord: “Lord Lemme do better than this.” This arduous task is not unlike the similar verbal missions the other characters must perform when the color of their bodies is thought to explain, quickly, their own experiences of racial distinction in the mid-twentieth-century United States.2 The blackness of their bodies is not eloquent, especially when they experience the racisms of blackness in the context of immigration, with radically different narratives of national and international belonging. Mary Helen Washington’s afterword to Brown Girl, Brownstones understands the crucial, interlocking differences between Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans that are elided by color: By skin color, by African origin, by their colonized status, the West Indians of Paule Marshall’s novel are inexorably connected to all black Americans, but it is their distinctiveness that yields the peculiar themes and images of the novel. The Boyce family does not belong to the tradition that created such American novels as Richard Wright’s Black Boy or Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. These transplanted Barbadians are employed, literate, ambitious, property-owning, upwardly mobile, tough community of first-generation immigrants. Not one person in this novel is unemployed. These people came to “this man country,” as they call it, on purpose, as willfully as many white immigrants; and they exercise their collective force to get what they want.3 Although I hesitate over Washington’s characterization of the divergences between the traditions of African American and Afro-Caribbean literatures (and her somewhat disparaging implications about the kinds of concerns occupying the more traditional canon of African American letters), she is correct to highlight the potentially silenced variation occluded by an overwhelming focus on skin color.4 Washington reminds us that the United States is considered a destination of “opportunity”; despite the color of their skin, these characters came here on purpose, to improve their living conditions, and thus share in (albeit unequally) similar narratives of promise (and despair) with white American immigrants.5 She reminds us that narratives swirling around race’s “color” are thus more complicated than we quickly and conventionally understand; color is a large and imprecise category that Frantz Fanon figuratively describes as the “epidermalization” of inferiority, an epidermalization that creates the assumption that there are hard, truthful “fact[s] of blackness.”6 Complexity is denied by the biological, and thus authoritative, figure of color thought to clarify difference because of a tendentious reference to actual bodies that index, through varying degrees of blackness, their minority racial status.7 Hortense Spillers describes the stereotypical language of color, and its seemingly “natural” authority, as so “loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents beneath them to come clean.”8 But coming clean is the necessary imperative, and sometimes such cleaning requires the unexpected use of strong, if not dirty, language. Within Marshall’s novel, the ownership of a house, previously occupied by white tenants, directly symbolizes the relationship these Afro-Caribbean characters have with dominant mid-twentieth century
U.S, culture. What has not been observed by Marshall’s critics is the manner in which Marshall uses the occupation of a previously white and authoritative religious language as another register to depict the intricacies of racial embodiment in immigrant American culture. In part because the language they employ has already been possessed, like the houses they strive to own, by white speakers, no easy expressions belong to these characters. However, emphatic, if not blasphemous, religious language that comes from a predominantly Christian lexicon (“My God,” “God truth,” “Oh Jesus-Christ-God”) draws attention to the Barbadian women’s strained ability to make a previously white vernacular semantically appropriate for diverse, not flat, black bodies: “Silla, Be-Jees, in this whiteman world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun” (70), In sharp contrast to characters like the “old white woman daughter” (the “religious fanatic and a walking dead” ) the protagonist, Selina, notices that for her mother, “words were living things to her. She sensed them bestriding the air and charging the room with strong colors” (71). In her essay, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” Marshall writes about her mother and her friends who inspired the novels female characters: “They fought back, using the only weapon at their command: the spoken word.” More specifically, she describes their colonial resistance through their artful play with language: “They had taken the standard English taught them in the primary schools of Barbados and transformed it into an idiom, an instrument that more adequately described them—changing around the syntax and imposing their own rhythm and accent so that the sentences were more pleasing to their ears.” One crucial part of transformation was the addition of “more vivid… Biblical quotations” to add an emphasis that enabled that kind of renovated expressiveness needed by the real and fictional Barbadian women of Marshall’s world.9 As I argued in the first chapter, because religion is a frequent feature of much twentieth-century black writing, a great deal of excellent—and historically accurate— criticism has been written on the connections between African American culture and religious experience. In accounts such as these, the church itself, much like the blackness Silla laments, is thought to organize and formalize the links between very different kinds of people loosely affiliated by the color of their skin’s pigment. As a result, the black church often becomes a flattened figure for the African American lifeworld that makes “religious expression” equivalent to “black expression.” Yet, Marshall changes our conception of what religious language can communicate about racial coherence and as a consequence changes our ideas about what the centrality of blackness will be able to suggest. On the one hand, the strength of her characters’ religious utterances does not come from reference to the theological or sociological tenets of an African American or African Caribbean congregation; indeed, her two primary characters, Silla and Selina, have a different relationship to the Afro-Baptist churches of the States or the predominantly Anglican churches of Barbados. Silla condemns organized religion: “the rum shop and the church join together to keep we pacify and in ignorance” (70). On the other hand, their lexical strength does not hail from the black forms of religious language that exist outside of, or mixed among, the more colonized forms of religious experience. Instead, relief comes from the literary properties of a kind of religious utterance that deliberately complicate the way the black body is positioned in the grammar and syntax of a racist culture. I believe it is important to investigate what Spillers and other critics do not consider when arguing for the critical and literary work that must occur around the utterance of
The resanguination of the word
blackness. Marshall’s text steals words from an authoritative, religious vernacular that is loaded with all sorts of “mythical prepossession.” Moments of stressed female speech throughout the novel draw attention to the ways the body’s colorful cover story, the body’s “race,” is not an easy or coherent story, let alone a story that can be told with easy or coherent words. And these words put stress on the body, much as they put stress on the religious articulatlon of that body. Frantz Fanon similarly ends his 1952 lament, Black Skin, White Masks, by resorting to a religious rhetoric that bursts open what exactly the fact of black skin might suggest when it is too restricted and fixed into a racist, colonized discourse. Fanon is aware of language’s phenomenological consequences: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”10 This power and assumption of a speaking subject has the potential to become, in Fanon’s citation of Paul Valéry, “‘the god gone astray in the flesh.’“11 Fanon finds himself “in a world where words wrap themselves in silence; in a world where the other endlessly hardens himself.”12 As an interruption in the silence (and this silence’s related “hardening” of the other’s body through the figurations of epidermalization), Fanon ends his study by using a religious idiom to suggest a linguistic openness that is otherwise prohibited in his world: “My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”13 Fanon ends with an emphatic apostrophe, described as a prayer, that works as the expression that will let the body question rather than merely be understood, intervening in the way the minoritized body becomes an object so quickly assumed into the iconography of racial otherness that supports uneven racist arrangements. Fanon, much like Silla, relies on the rhetorical power of religion to articulate this changing body—a rhetoric that enables one to trust the body’s ability to ask questions rather than reassert “answers” that only harden the body into one pernicious type of description. Silla, similarly, must scrub her way through the dirt of racist stereotyping, and appeal—“Oh Lord”—to greater linguistic powers. She arduously apostrophizes an otherwise inarticulate complaint about black female differences, Silla engages in a form of critical speaking advocated by Spillers, who notes, albeit in a different context (and makes no mention of religion), the sheer difficulty of speaking that must be confronted and resisted “in order to speak a truer word concerning” the black feminist self.14 Religious apostrophes equip Marshall’s characters with the ability to represent their bodies as racialized bodies asking difficult questions, with the ability to make their “fact of blackness” more like an open and less-weighty “fiction of blackness.” The pages that follow will demonstrate the manner in which these religious apos trophes help the novel’s female agents to come clean.
DEAD RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE For some characters in this text religious language is a dead language. This deadness serves as the novel’s model of power and authority—a model of power and authority that is often associated with “whiteness,” which, semantically speaking, is the opposite and denial of colorful complexity. In the text’s early pages, a young Selina wanders through her mother’s rented house, fantasizing about the now-departed white tenants, while the
mediated voice brings into strong relation the strange and elusive ethnicity of whiteness with the physical spaces of the house: “She rose, her arms lifted in welcome, and quickly the white family who had lived there before, whom the old woman upstairs always spoke of, glided with pale footfalls up the stairs. Their white hands trailed the banister; their mild voices implored her to give them a little life” (5). Not only are these white people ghosts of the house, they are part of the suggestive materials left behind: “Opening off the hall was the parlor, full of ponderous furniture and potted ferns which the whites had left, with an aged and inviolate silence. It was the museum of all the lives that had ever lived here. The floor-to-ceiling mirror retained their faces as did their voices” (5). Whiteness, indeed, is part of the décor and the ambience, and inspires the speaker of the passage to conclude that Selina cannot be part of room. Her body’s description is not as elegant or as eerie as the whites: “A torn middy blouse, dirty shorts, and socks that always worked down into the heel of her sneakers. That was all she was. She did not belong here. She was something vulgar in a holy place. The room was theirs, she knew glancing up at the frieze of cherubs and angels on the ceiling; it belonged to the ghost shapes hovering in the shadows” (6). The museum-like, holy quality of the place draws attention to Selina’s body, which is not as frozen and timeless as the whites. Her torn and dirty clothing indicates movement and decomposition. Her body s “vulgarity”—it blackness—is foreign to the white presence that still haunts the home even after bodies such as Selina’s move in and sully its interiors. Notice how the descriptions of the whiteness present in the rooms’ silences culminate in the image of cherubs that are frozen, stopped, not moving—that are dead “ghost shapes” that hover in the shadows but still possess “voices.” Throughout this novel, a constellation is drawn between whiteness, religion, and the question of whether or not Selina’s black body can occupy or possess these white rooms, and whether the available language can help in answering this question. The traditional religious vernacular establishes the vulgarity of Selina’s body, and reduces her dark color into an uneasy relationship in the white space and voices—her brown body, and indeed her black voice, do not belong in the brownstone. But can she innovate the dead language to serve her own vulgar purposes? We understand at the onset of these passages that Selina learns more about these fixed angels, these white tenants, from the “old woman upstairs,” the last remaining white occupant who was the white family’s servant. Now an invalid, this woman, Miss Mary— who is “surrounded by her legacies, and holding firm to the thin rotted thread of her life” (20)—is also surrounded by the religious fervor of her daughter, whose religious words are as useless as Miss Mary’s past because they no longer can address the situation in which they both currently find themselves. When the daughter, Maritze, confronts her mother about leaving the brownstone (“‘Every decent white person’s moving away, getting out. Except us” ), the scene yields passages that dispose of the possibility of living in the present: “The frail hope [of moving] died in Maritze’s eyes and she was a wan and broken thing again, as empty of life as the room with its dust-yellow fog. Slowly she folded the clipping [of nice, new houses] and put it back in her pocketbook with the rosary and the book of prayers she read on the subway going to work” (36). Her hopes die as she stops talking about the future, and she becomes as wan as the dead room where her mother only speaks about the past she shared with a white family
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Maritze retreats into a “whimper”: “‘Oh forgive me, forgive me, Blessed Virgin…forgive me…’ she repeated in a penitent obligation to her mothers cracked laughter” (36). In concert, Miss Mary’s voice, like her daughter’s own body and voice, is for all intents broken (“A choked protest came from Miss Mary’s ruined cords”) and her death is described with an image of arrested speech: “Selina saw the wizened form [of Miss Mary] contorted in the last throes, the pinched mouth open as if to speak” (203). Both women’s instruments are degraded, unable to help them leave the frozen space of the brownstone. Miss Mary herself understands that no amount of word-work, especially religious words that parade as hope (as for Maritze, who keeps the clipping of another house with the book of prayers she reads in transit), can reinvigorate their much too historically dead lives. Earlier, Miss Mary critiques her daughter’s church-going activities: “‘You and mass. Oh Blessed Mother, as if that was going to help her!’ she said to the statue of the Virgin on the mantel, its head shrouded in dust and the arms extended in mute invitation” (20–21). At this point, Miss Mary’s address to an immobile and dead image of religion is not a gesture of religious devotion but a strong evocation that indicts the power that white religious rhetoric is thought to possess. Much like the house that is now old, dusty, and frozen in its white past, the two remaining white women still live transfixed amidst ghosts; they, like the statue of the Blessed Mother, are shrouded in dust, shrouded in the past, which adds to the muteness of their bodies and broken voices circulating within these rooms. Miss Mary gives up this direct address to repeat the mantra of memories that bring her back to another time rather than to the decay of a present with no future. Religious words and going to church do not ameliorate the rooms where Miss Mary and Maritze are living their death. These white characters serve as a model of religious rhetoric for the black characters who not only interact with them and their words but with the houses they used to own and now only haunt. Just as the black characters do not easily restore the brownstones to their previous luster, they do not easily revive the religious words that, along with the white bodies, are frozen into place—a place in the house if not a place in a racist, linguistic discourse. Selina, the novel’s central intelligence, is suspicious of the way white religious words, however much they are transformed by black religious traditions, mute the bodies of her loved ones. Her sister Ina is a devoted churchgoer who, according to Selina, plays life too safe, whose voice has no force or power. In church, “Ina would sing, her mild eyes fixed on a stained-glass window of Christ holding three lambs. When the sacrificing bell rang and the priest elevated the Host Ina would raise her soft face to the mosaic of Christ” (192). The church makes her docile, accepting, and calm—unable to exact the kind of personal eloquence for which Selina strives: vocabulary that will make her stand up against the world of so much heavy and potentially destructive language. Selina’s father is a more extreme example of the ineffectiveness of religious belief, of adherence to a doctrine that cannot adequately address the real problems circling him until his inevitable death. In particular, her father, Deighton, who suffers a variety of failures and defeats, finds soft solace, not strong voice, in a religious sect that attempts, in typical evangelical fashion, to give new spiritual life to the downtrodden of the city. Selina, who wants to support her dad, attends one service of the church, where she watches Father Peace, the leader of the congregation, deliver a sermon. Importantly Selina articulates the irreverent sentiment that she carries throughout the novel: “For a
long time he tossed the meaningless words into the rapt silence” (168). These religious words, much like the white words of the decaying brown-stone, are dead metaphors for Selina as for Marshall—they are meaningless in that they cannot help empower people of African descent who must assume the dead whiteness of religion, even if they inflect that whiteness with a traditional African American religious language or more traditional forms of black religious rhetoric. For even such mixed language similarly fixates on the past at the expense of the vitality of the character desiring religious belief. Lauren Berlant, in an analysis of dead metaphors in the contemporary US public sphere, helps us understand what might be at stake when Marshall treats some words, some metaphors, as dead as the white spaces of the brownstones: I use the word “dead”…in the rhetorical sense designated by the phrase “dead metaphor.” A metaphor is dead when, by repetition, the unlikeness risked in the analogy the metaphor makes becomes so conventionalized as to no longer seem figural, no longer open to history: the leg of a table is the most famous. In the fantasy world of national culture, citizens aspire to dead identities—constitutional personhood in its public sphere abstraction and suprahistoricity, reproductive heterosexuality in the zone of privacy. Identities not live, or in play, but dead, frozen, fixed, or at rest.15 Though Berlant’s concerns are generated in a different context, she helps us understand why one would be concerned with dead metaphors. The deadness of one’s aspiration to dead identities or dead words is a desire for the conventional, which operates as the authoritative, which in turn enables the kind of abstraction that is thought not to be torturous, thought not to be open to the potential ravages and uncertainties of history. Indeed, Miss Mary’s memories of the past and her daughter’s religious responses freeze them into a fixed and sturdy place that is thought of as dead. This place does not enable them to create new histories; Miss Mary is so saturated with one kind of history that she is unable to live in a livelier present. White history, in this novel, becomes as natural and as immobile as the words used to help render this history: religious words, descriptions of fixed cherubs, are often meaningless for the black bodies that would like to find themselves in these historical places, these rooms purchased after the whites have left for other real estates, As a consequence, the assumption of a dead religious vernacular by black characters like Ina and Deighton has curious effects that cancel blackness in favor of something much lighter and whiter than the tragedies that their own bodies bring to the “church” of the brownstone. They adopt a homogenizing rhetoric of belonging that does not necessarily belong to them as much as it reasserts similitude in the authoritative eyes of a white religious tradition. Fortunately, religious language has no necessary content, and its authority can be challenged by a very literary feature that belongs to some black women willing to push their religious utterances into something vibrant and new—something more open to history and the less-than conventional. As long as they do not merely believe and sincerely repeat the dead, authoritative expressions of belonging that are most available to them, they can give life back to the color that otherwise deadens their skins. Instead of
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preaching religious belief, they can make religion into a form of literary articulation— apostrophe.
MAMA DON’T PREACH Although Selina’s mediated voice, as I have already indicated, describes Father Peace’s religious words as “meaningless,” the narration revises this description when it focuses on Peace’s body: “Then suddenly his plump hands gripped the table and he shouted” (168). For the voice, the physical quality of the body speaking religiously becomes the main point that helps one understand the “real” significance, the real meaning of these words. The kind of attention that Selina’s interior monologue gives to Peace’s increasing “eloquence” directs us to have another kind of close attention to his sermon, which runs counter to the actual words Peace offers: “‘God flows through my personal body. Don’t ever have limitations in your awarenesses. If you live after the things of the flesh you shall perish but if you do condemn the deeds of the body you shall have eternal life…’ The short arms described eloquent arcs; he strode up and down in a kind of a dance” (168). Despite the condemnations of the body in the literal sense of Peace’s religious words, the words’ eloquence comes from his body, his dancing and his arcs, and the eloquence his body achieves despite the limitations of the body or the limitations of the words his body utters. We can take part of Peace’s religious rhetoric literally: God flows through his “personal” body; God, as in Fanon, is “astray in the flesh.” As Peace elaborates: “Individual freedom is something glorious to attain for only then can you be truly one with God. Be wholly independent. God’s conception and nobody else’s” (168). Religious words, despite their refusals of the body, give Peace and his parishioners a way to talk about themselves. Specifically their bodies flow with the words of God that need not bind and “limit” the way the flesh has been interpreted by others. Peace’s sermon of liberation, however, is undercut by the specifics of his theology, the specifics of making strong religious words strong dogmatic expressions that start preaching a similar message to the one the brownstone’s white religious voices “preach” about Selina’s vulgarity. Instead of enabling the body to be independent from other’s conceptions, Peace asks for the body to be annihilated by its dependence on belief. He imposes limits on the flesh, and specifically imposes on the literal place of everyone’s fleshy creation: the mother. Peaces explains, “‘God is your father, your mother, your sister, your brother, your wife, your child, and you will never have another! The mother of creation is the mother of defilement. The word mother is a filthy word. When a person reaches God he cannot permit an earthly wife or so-called children to lead him away. God is all!’” (168–169). The word “mother” is filthy not only because it distracts attention from God but also because it takes away the ability to conceive of everything as part of God. The word is filthy because it speaks specifically about “earthly” bodies, and earthly bodies “defile” and make vulgar the otherwise pristine and universalizing rhetoric of Father Peace. That is, the feminine figure of creation reminds one of how God is not, perhaps, everything; the mother reminds one of her own particular and historical bodies that are not immediately commensurate with the amalgamation that is Peace’s God. Deighton’s powerful reaction reinforces the way one must deny one’s self in order to be in union with God’s unanimity: “Deighton leaped up from his seat…trembling, the
perspiration coursing past his blind eyes. ‘So true!’ he cried. ‘So true. I am nothing!’ And his arms flew out in a gesture that did, indeed, cancel his entire self. ‘God is everything. Need you, Father, need you’” (169). The act of speaking religiously with a universal theology in mind must deny the body and the self, and Deighton leaps from his sweat and tears to gesture and speak himself out of a specific existence. The intention of the words requires a corporeal transcendence that cannot take into account or relate what is physically happening to characters like Deighton, The intense physical experiences indicated by his perspiration, for example, have no place in a language of belief that needs to cancel corporeal particularity by gesture and utterance; his faith must be placed in how “God is everything” and in how Deighton is nothing. The vexing figure in Peace’s theology is the vulgar mother that reminds one of one’s own earthliness, ones own specificity and corporeality. Tellingly, Selina responds with physical pain after she watches her father cancel his own body for the Lord’s: “Selina’s head ached and she felt the tears rising. She did not understand. She was no longer wise or old, but confounded by life still. She thought suddenly of Percy Chancellor [a friend’s parent] presiding like a threatening god at the head of his table on Sundays. They were alike, he and Father Peace. They ruled” (169). Here, Selina realizes the power and authority of a religious posture that, much like the frozen and white cherubs in the parlor, confound her conceptions of life with a painful ache that denies her ability to join in the presiding presence that a religious tradition enables. Her body does not let her fit into this universal logic, this supreme power, In order to join in this chorus of amens belonging to a specific theology that supports God’s universality by the denial of individual’s bodies, Selina must join the men’s aggressive and life-canceling piety that is more about power than peace. The male form of speaking religiously is a pursuit of an authority that denies the flesh (and the mother and the vulgarity of the “word” mother). Such a pursuit thwarts the theological unity offered by a group attempting to transcend the pain of being embodied as black, of being captured as a corporeal material in a world that historically erodes and despises this material. Importantly, when the poetic women speak in this novel, they are not preaching as much as they are cursing and commenting on the conditions that negatively sexualize and racialize them as bodies that matter much too much to be part of a powerful, white, and dead language of higher unity. Silla, for instance, explains to her friend Iris her own stressed relationship to the church: “You always bringing up the church in everything. Don you think I sent the little beasts to Barrow’s Church and they was up there reciting the ‘Little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head’ and thing so! You think that changed them?” “As for you! It’s years since you darken the door-mouth of a church,” Iris said. “And years to come!” Silla added, “And you know why, Iris? It not that I’s some heathen or the other, but that my mind turn from the church, I see too many hypocrites prostrating themselves before the cross each Sunday. The same ones buying house by devious means. Lemme tell you, Iris, you don see God any better by being sanctified and climbing the walls of a church and tearing off your clothes when you’s in the spirit, or
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even when you’s up in the so-called High Church, choking on the lot of incense and bowing and kneeling for hours and singing in various tongues. Not everyone who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ gon enter in…” (68–69) Silla is skeptical of the effects of organized, communal faith; she no longer attends church because she sees an enormous amount of hypocrisy in an inconsistent and complicated adherence to the religion. Her critique focuses on the show of religion, the gestures of belief that cannot be substantiated by the transformed and holy lives nominally dedicated to the faith. Importantly, she describes scenarios where the religious words that are cried or recited, (“Lord, Lord”; “Little Lord Jesus lay…”) might not enable anyone to see God better, might not actually indicate the salvation implied by dutiful attendance and prostration in church. Religious language is not always a sincere lexicon; it might not reflect the actual beliefs of the parishioners who do not necessarily practice what they preach: there might be less-than-religious means of racial advancement (“buying houses by devious means”) lurking behind the expression of religion. Marshall herself described her mother’s friends’ theological conceptions as having little to do with the way they employed religious words: “As for God, they summed up His essential attitude in a phrase. ‘God,’ they would say, ‘don’ love ugly and He ain’t stuck on pretty.’”16 That is, there is nothing precise about religious expression that lines up with a definitive judgment about not only prettiness and ugliness but about any dichotomy. We cannot find out something definitive or dogmatic about God but we still have his words to make more vivid our politically motivated speaking. There is something, then, about religious language, when uttered by Afro-Caribbean women, that gives their voices a particular kind of irreverent authority and, conversely, gives the rhetoric another kind of “color,” another kind of semantic meaning that infuses the deadness of the white, religious words with another kind of life. When Selina ascends her home’s staircase, she hears the white voices of the dead, religious rhetoric: “their mild voices implored her to give them a little life” (5). The way she and others give this rhetoric a little life is not by making this rhetoric describe fixity, frozenness, and the immobility of the house and the white history and culture that mark them as perpetually inferior, with “dirty shorts and socks” and a “collapsed” black body. Instead, the primary women of this novel, indeed the primary colors of the text, give a little life by adding their own color, their own vulgarity, which challenges the frozenness and hopelessness of the white space, the white race, and the white grace. Barbara Johnson’s essay on the rhetorical figure of apostrophe in lyric poetry clarifies the kinds of political force available in Silla’s strong, colorful, corporeal, and religious utterances. Apostrophe, according to Johnson, involves the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker… Apostrophe is thus both direct and indirect: based etymologically on the notion of turning aside, of digressing from straight speech, it manipulates the I/thou structure of direct address in an indirect, fictionalized way. The absent, dead, or inanimate entity addressed is thereby made present, animate, and anthropomorphic. Apostrophe is a form of ventriloquism through which the figure throws voice, life, and
human form into the addressee, turning its silence into mute responsiveness.17 The transformation of the religious silence of the brownstone into a responsiveness, however mute, is one way this novel gives life to the otherwise deadening racial descriptions that threaten to lapse back into dead caricature rather than character development. The kind of color the religious apostrophes’ words give to the room is not unlike the kind of color these women must give back to their bodies otherwise threatened with incorporation into the selfcancellation of the same, universal, whitening rhetorics that Father Peace or the bas-reliefs of blackness as unified African Americanness would prefer. Silla, as she talks to a room of people, as well as a room of dead whiteness, is able to make that room come alive by her simultaneously indirect and direct way of ventroliquizing what is really occurring in that space. It is not only haunted with a dead, white religion, She throws her heavy voice into the voiding house and imbues it with color, her body’s color, and vulgarizes the space with her own powers of earthly creation. Silla’s speech resanguinates the deadness of the brownstone’s space: “Her voice soared, staining the kitchen with its violent color” (33); “She sensed them bestriding the air and charging the room with strong colors” (71). Instead of the whiteness of religious language remaining dead speech, this woman speaker transforms the architecture of theology and history that has transfixed and frozen her people into a universalizing cancellation of the body’s specificity. Here is where the female speaking voices, through religious apostrophes, re-animate the dead rhetoric that surrounds these women in the kitchen. As Johnson points out, questions of “animation inhere in the rhetorical figure of the apostrophe” that, through the power of a direct/indirect address, give the object of the address a life that it has either lost or yet has not.18 Indeed, Silla’s talk is described in very corporeal and living terms: “Her words hung solid and foreboding in the air” (32); “The words were living things to her” (71). Part of this colorful violence comes from the way Silla “became the collective voice of all the Bajan women, the vehicle through which their former suffering found utterance” (45), a vehicle that fills the space, “ensnaring all within its reach…[retaining others] within its hold, loving its rich color” (46). Thus, the politics involved in Marshall’s work is a politics of giving life to the bodies and spaces that are always threatened by dissolution in the masculinist universalizing and authorizing impulse, advocated by the religious speak of Father Peace, one that vulgarizes any attention paid to the mother. This politics is, as Johnson puts it, “a demand” for life in rhetorical system of relations that would prefer to deny life and efface different voices. Significantly, Johnson asserts that this demand revolves around a feminine figure—a figure that, as Father Peace well knows, conjures up many connotations of life, nature, earthiness, and body. In a discussion about the lyric poetry of child-loss, Johnson argues: “If apostrophe is structured like demand, and if demand articulates the primal relation to the mother as relation to the Other, then lyric poetry itself—summed up in the figure of apostrophe—comes to look like the fantastically intricate history of endless elaborations and displacements of the single cry, “Mama!” The question these [lyric] poems are asking, then, is what happens when the poet is speaking as a mother, a mother whose cry arises out of—and is addressed to—a dead child?”19 Although Marshall’s novel is not a child-loss lyric, Johnson helps us understand is that the figurative operations of
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apostrophe resemble a feminine type of speaking that anyone can assume. “[S]peaking as a mother” means one craves dead or absent things such as children, concepts, metaphors, religious descriptors, enabling these “things” to be reanimated with significant possibility. One need not resort to the deconstructive and psychoanalytic theories and reading protocols Johnson uses to explicate the operations of apostrophe. And although it resembles certain strains of essentialism, this peculiar kind of “écriture feminine” is not restricted to biologically female bodies—Johnson’s own examples include male poets. Instead, the position that women are assigned in a larger system of male-centered discursive options—in our case, the vulgar speaker opposed to Father Peace’s theology and the dead white religion of the past—can be assumed by those who are committed to the demand for animation and possibility otherwise extinct in the deadness of the prevailing religious language’Zs connotations. To ask for bodies not to be cancelled in the name of a religious universality is to ask to speak in the vulgar tones of the feminine that “demands” life, that demands new or lost color in the detritus of a white space, race, and face of power. Thus, Silla does not preach with her words; she does not attempt authoritative conversions (other than linguistic) into a universalizing religious theology. Instead, she colors her world with a strong, lyric voice that gives voice back to her body and the space where that body lives; it is her ability to speak but not preach the religious language of her own body’s physical emphasis. She is a vulgar preacher that stops preaching in order to throw voice and life into absent and dead things (like a house) that can only be addressed (and cannot speak), There is no congregation here, no direct I/Thou structures that make the Thou much more important and metaphysical and authoritative. This kind of rhetorical emphasis engenders, through the female-speaking-position, an indirect cry to a lineage of oppressive social arrangements that always subordinate the locality of the feminine body—it is an indirect cry that nevertheless demands that something be returned to the hyper-embodied body’s ability to structure its own iconography, its own language, which is made poetic by the strong religious words that readdress their bodies back into rhetorical life. In many ways, the object of this novel is Selina’s need for the rhetorical power of the feminine speaker: Selina must learn to cry for “Mama!,” something she does not easily accomplish because she tends to be much more inclined toward and identified with her father, especially after his death. She needs to learn apostrophes kind of muteresponsiveness, a feminist politics that might not be as explicit as it is emphatic. That is, she learns that the very specific and local knowledge about her black skin cannot be easily articulated with the language around her—language that so easily and erroneously makes her body into a dark symbol reflecting the fear it installs in white people. Selina understands that this darkness is their “idea of her [that] was only an illusion, yet so powerful that it would stalk her for years,” In response to the illusion of her self: as she looks in a mirror near the end of the novel, “She cried because, like all her kinsmen, she must somehow prevent it from destroying her inside and find a way for her real face to emerge. Rubbing her face against the ravaged image in the glass, she cried in outrage: that along with the fierce struggle of her humanity she must also battle with illusions?” In response, “her angry lament filled the entrance, reached the street” (291–292). At novel’s end, she learns to put this lament about the illusions and ghosts of her body, her cries to Mama, into the strong, religious apostrophes; she puts her pain into the strong
sounds that her body is capable of making into a speech much like her mother’s. As she leaves the immigrant neighborhood and culture of the Barbadian women, for example, she wants to give a complicated voice to her community and to her new directions into the future rather than the past. After a mild confrontation, Silla ushers her daughter away with a word, “G’long” (307), accompanied by hand gestures that add the kinds of corporeal, very local emphases I have been describing: “Her hand sketched a sign that was both a dismissal and a benediction” (307). This gesture is important: it is strong, like a benediction that carries her daughter away from the physical spaces of the novel, At this point, the narration shifts into a mediated voice illustrating the very physical landscape that seems to be ruined (“Faces hung like portraits in her mind as she walked down the street: Suggie and her violated body, Miss Mary living posthumously amid her soiled sheets, Miss Thompson bearing the life-sore and enduring, Clive and his benign despair, her father beguiled by dreams even as he drowned in them, the mother hacking a way through life like a man lost in the bush” ). The narrative, yet, does not permit despair to empty Selina of the kinds of power, however local, that she receives by her attention to the other primary characters of the novel and her own place within this ambivalent detritus: “Those faces, those voices, those lives touching hers had ruined her, yet, she sensed…they had bequeathed her a small strength” (308). The strength is “small,” which might also be another way of reducing the scale of what she is capable of, or, more precisely, what she would be expected to assert in a landscape of potential destruction. Indeed, the very last sentence of the novel is notable for its very specific and petite description of the noise that Selina feels compelled to make. She addresses the partially dead landscape she still wants to animate with what little she has: a sound that will suggest the important smallness she has within such a world that has been ravaged by the difficult and deadening circumstances of the black community. The text reads, it [watching the streets of her Barbadian world] was like seeing the bodies of all the people she had ever known broken, all the familiar voices that ever sounded in those high-ceiling rooms shattered—and the pieces piled into this giant cairn of stone and silence. She wanted, suddenly, to leave something with them. But she had nothing. She had left the mother at the meeting hall wearing only the gown and her spring coat. Then she remembered the two single bangles she had always worn. She pushed up her coat sleeve and stretched one until it passed over her wrist, and without turning, hurled it high over her shoulder. The bangle rose behind her, a bit of silver against the moon, then curved swiftly downward and struck a stone. A frail sound in that utter silence. (310) The silver clink of the bangle is Selina’s method of charging the physical space—those “high-ceilings” with white frozen cherubs—with color, however faint and however mute its color might be. Its sound, much like Selina’s understanding of her place within the space, is “frail,” but it is at least something in the otherwise totalizing, universalizing, and “utter” silence. Just before this moment, in the last direct dialogue she has with her companion Rachel, Selina asks for some kind of linguistic power to give back to the brokenness and shatteredness of her community. Significantly, she engages in a religious apostrophe that is not directed as much at God as it is in her own ability to assert herself
The resanguination of the word
in an increasingly desolate landscape: “‘Give us strong agreement, responds: “‘Amen,’ Rachel said, ‘Amen’” (309). These strength in our time, oh Lord,’ she said, laughing sadly” (309). Rachel, in words mark the necessity for not only strength but for strong sound and life amidst so much Afro-Caribbean silence. Moreover, they are conspicuously using the religious vernacular of her mother, the mother, who has the power of speech to make religious and black language into a rhetorical figure of speech that can respond to the tragedies and difficulties of the immigrant Barbadian lifeworld. It is this somewhat “mute [and very local] responsiveness” that concludes Marshall’s first novel about a girl “with a slender body and slight breasts and no power with words” who learns about the “full meaning of her black skin” in a world where people, “everywhere, sought to rob her of her substance and her self” (289). Like Fanon, she asks for the strength to always have a body that asks questions, questions that will make some noise, rather than endlessly wrap itself into silencing words that parade as the universal truth about a colored body. By using religious apostrophe she blasphemes the dead religious language into another kind of rhetorical life, one capable of making her body’s color more colorful, more full of stressed significance that will not be docile and not accept the cultural syntax and desolate architecture that constantly attempt to limit the body of African descent by grand definitions of color.
Chapter Four “Actual Sacrilege”: The Blasphemous Narration of Time and Race in William Faulkner’s Light in August
“TIME, THE SPACES OF LIGHT AND DARK, HAD LONG SINCE LOST THEIR ORDERLINESS”1 In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education “all deliberate speed” ruling,2 William Faulkner wrote himself into a well-known controversy with an irreverent letter published in Life Magazine. In this correspondence he urged the NAACP and “all the organizations who would compel immediate and unconditional integration” to “Go slow now. Stop for a time, for a moment.”3 As one might expect, such a seemingly conservative stance toward racial integration could not generate uniform appeal, and Faulkner crafted a number of letters and gave speeches clarifying just exactly what he meant by his desire for careful speed.4 Although the pragmatics of institutional transformations—from a segregated educational system into an integrated one—obviously inspired some of his comments, what is curious is the manner in which Faulkner here, as well as throughout much of his writing, desires some time, if not some other kind of time, to think through a set of complicated issues about the “nature” of racial difference: some kind of time to think through the values, traditions, and technologies of separation that underwrite and naturalize the racial distinctions between black and white. Faulkner certainly understood the dangers of making racial distinctions too meaningful, so in these responses he made explicit what his earlier fiction had already obliquely illustrated: despite the very real social conditions and ideologies that needed swift amelioration, the knee-jerk assumption of the essential differences between two distinct races—often reinforced through the segregated institutions, ideologies, and practices of the South—could not be made too quickly, lest well-intentioned, affirmative actions naturalize distinctions that should not be made in haste if America were to think more critically about the ways racial designations perniciously divide rather than unite the United States.5 Although frustrating, it is useful to take time to think about the predicates of racial distinctions. As Faulkner articulates in these essays, letters, and in his earlier novels, the ideological terrain of racial assignment is circumscribed by deliberate manipulations of “time,” by the ways that meaningful and value-saturated accounts of “time” are translated into a kind of “history’ that purports to belong, distinctly, to white or black people. As
we’ve known for a while, in the South, and in Southern U.S. literature in general, tensions about the precise relationship between different kinds of time and the different races have animated the race drama of the “house divided.”6 James Snead, for instance, helps us think about the question of “history’s” relations to racial distinctions when he argues—by using Hegel’s “first and still most penetrat-ingly systematic definition by a European of the African Culture’”—that there are clear divisions between the time in which both of the US’ then-dominant races could be related: “Hegel’s definition of black culture is simply negative…black culture is the antitype, ever on the threshold. Black culture, caught in ‘historylessness’ (Geschichtslosigkeit), is none the less shielded from attack or assimilation precisely by its aboriginal intangibility.”7 According to this temporal taxonomy, whites live in traditional historical narratives of progress, while blacks live outsides of western historical events—lodged in a traumatic relationship to the U.S. nation that cannot account for the terrors of its alternative and oppressed history. Although a helpful essay, I part with Snead because, as Faulkner’s letters reveal, significant racial revolution could not be achieved within these two racialized versions of the historical record, these two divergent descriptions of what kind of time meaningfully belongs to what kind of racialized body. Instead, I want to emphasize that Faulkner understood one still often-overlooked lesson about US race relations: the transformation of attitudes about racial difference during the emergence of racial desegregation and Civil Rights late in Faulkner’s life could not be thought of as occurring in sacrosanct and cleanly divided conceptions of black or white temporalities, divided conceptions of black or white histories. History is shared, confusing, and more racially complex, and the literature that articulates such a history must go slow, and must work through the dynamics that too easily assume the differences between black and white. It’s certainly difficult to go slow when urgent political pressures are asking for longawaited speed. Thus Faulkner’s response to the forceful cry for quick amelioration of the “race problem,” his desire for “time” to stop, was controversial, if not blasphemous. “Blasphemous” is the correct word because, throughout this chapter, I will argue that Faulkner relies on an emphatic and stressed language of religion to confuse, productively, the twinned and mutually dependent categories of time and race. He deploys an irreverent language of religion that is conceptually blasphemous because it has very little to do with specific theologies, histories, or spiritualities of Judeo-Christian faith traditions. In an edited volume on Faulkner criticism, Doreen Fowler helpfully questions if “a coherent system of religious values and thought inform Faulkner’s novels?” 8 I want to ask a series of related questions: if there is no such religious coherency, and we’re not burdened to historicize the specific theologies and traditions of various American religious sects, then what literary effect might the deliberate incoherence of Faulkner’s religious rhetoric create? If Faulkner presents us with peculiar uses of religious language, what kind of rhetorical work might religious words produce, independent from the traditional ways scholars conceptualize the meaning of religion? As answers to these questions, I want to suggest that Faulkner relies on a tense rhetoric of religion to express, most generally, the stressful quality of racial embodiment in the US that should not find an articulate coherence in any narrative; he relies on a blasphemous twisting of the religious language to signal to the reader the impossibility, indeed the undesirability, of precise racial representation otherwise achieved through traditional acts of racial narration—through
The blasphemous narration of time and race
conventional, literary forms of racial articulation that otherwise rely on the commonsensical tropes of the temporal, “historical” difference between black and white. William Faulkner concludes this study because his own use of a blasphemous religious language, his own confrontation with the racist times, tells us that the clear narration of a firm, racial reality is impossible. It is no coincidence that Ralph Ellison’s titular essay from Shadow and Act uses Faulkner’s suggestive metaphors of race to describe the confused difference between “shadow and act,”9 For Ellison, racialized bodies often take on the burdens of representing “acts,” actual events of the body that have happened, and give the literature, “the shadow,” a sense of its own reality. According to Mark Seltzer, the genres of American realism and naturalism tend to feature hypercorporealized bodies, often in racialized forms, that lend the literature its necessary sensations of materiality and reality.10 Yet Faulkner’s religious figures in black and white foreground, with typical modernist flourish, the impossibility of any precise and coherent realistic description of racial difference, Faulkner emphasizes the way that the “reality” of race, with its hypercorporeal realisms, cannot be an easily narrated project; the realities of race, subject to the divisive logic of “the color line,”11 do not neatly make their way into discrete historical periods, or even discrete literary representations. “Faulkner’s texts,” according to Snead, “describe an entirely unhappy foundation of habit, custom, and law that divides certain races-particularly those defined as ‘Negro’ and ‘white’-using color as the prime signifier of difference.”12 Through his “unhappy” foundation of racial reality, Faulkner blurs the colors between the races, and thus the representational technologies involved in making distinctions with words. Subsequently, he innovates the way race can be written and read into a fiction, and he joins the irreverence of Baldwin, O’Connor, and Marshall as they resist the strategies of representation that link, violently, realism and race.13 Light in August, for example, presents us with the famously ambiguous and blasphemous Joe Christmas, whom Hortense Spillers calls, “Faulkner’s powerful effort to give a grammar to American race magic.”14 This grammar is certainly one constituted by what I’m calling a sacrilegious religious rhetoric—a rhetoric Faulkner, not surprisingly, conceives of as a universal register, if not the much-needed idiom of desegregation.15 In his most grammatical, vocal outbursts of the novel, Christmas, while on the run from the law (figured, as we’ll soon see, as a run from “time”), storms a “negro church” where “he turned and climbed the pulpit, where Brother Bedenberry had done clumb out the other side, and he stood there—he was all muddy, his pants and his shirt, and his jaw black with whiskers—with his hands raised like a preacher. And he began to curse, hollering it out, at folks, and he cursed God louder than the women screeching” (323). As Christmas inexplicably takes over the pulpit, he blasphemes God and expresses a rage, a curse, which we never explicitly hear—Christmas’ curses are not direct addresses, nor do they communicate overheard information, and we are left with the characterization of his strong speaking from the pulpit as a enraged “it” that is hollered out to an undeserving black congregation. This scene of unintelligible, irreverent god-talk quickly recalls the novel’s earlier image of a pulpit, when Gail Hightower, a racially sympathetic preacher who is reputed to have interracial relations, obsesses over the stories of his Confederate soldier grandfather. Hightower is prone to tangle his sermon with unclear and poorly narrated stories and legends about his past, and these confusions render his preaching irreverent,
for he was “up there in the pulpit with his hands flying around him and the dogma he was supposed to preach all full of galloping cavalry and defeat and glory just as when he tried to tell them on the street about the galloping horses, it would get all mixed up with absolution and choirs of martial seraphim, until it was natural that the old men and women should believe that what he preached in God’s own house on Gods own day verged on actual sacrilege” (63, emphasis mine). What this passage suggests about “sacrilege” is not something about the specific condemnations of God or God’s will that we never hear directly, but rather something about being confused and getting precise religious messages, such as the “dogma” of absolution, all “mixed up” with more secular stories of one’s personal historical stories with the present tense. That is, the sacrilege happens because there is distortion of the “actual,” a confusion of time and appropriate place where precision is otherwise sought—Hightower’s historical repetitions obsessively saturate his everyday, so he cannot help confuse the past with today; he cannot help but tell incoherent stories that will not describe, with accuracy, both religious and historical truths. Together, these two passages about the defiled pulpit, about the irregular uses of religious speaking, help us interrogate the presence of a blasphemous utterance in Light in August. Instances of Faulknerian religious irreverence, I believe, articulate the confusions of being racially mixed because the story of race in the United States is not a historical story that can be told openly, accurately, or along actually distinct racial lines. Religion expresses the confusion of the historical clock that would prefer precision and accuracy when assigning value and significance to the differences between black and white in the twentieth-century United States. Such mystifying white or black noise reinforces the primary confusion Joe Christmas serves in the novel, a confusion specifically of racial identity. “We observe [in Christmas] a figure drowning in the sea of phenomena, enacting and re-enacting a purposeful purposelessness of movement that is bizarre, madly pointed… Animated by forces beyond his knowing,” argues Spillers, “Christmas provides an analogy to the deracinated person, fixed in cultural vestibularity. Time passes for him, over and around him, but it has no subjective properties he might call his own.”16 What Spillers suggests but does not necessarily elaborate is that race and time, legibility and storytelling, are irresolvable conundrums posed by a character like Christmas. Joe presents us with mysteries that cannot be solved, especially using conventional notions of racial difference, notions buttressed by the so-called historical differences between black and white. As a consequence, I would prefer not think of Christmas as yet another example of the tragic “mulatto.” Instead, I want to shift discussions of his racial ambiguity slightly away from a literally corporeal conception of confusion. The question of race his figure asks, communicated through a blasphemous, religious language, is actually a fundamental question about the inability to render, precisely, a story about “real,” corporeal events—events, here, being thought of as biological bodies with histories that must conventionally be told using two racially distinct historical values. Although historical occurrences undoubtedly influence the invention of form,17 I want to suggest that Christmas is a confusing figure because he does not have his precise kind of time—we have no specific racial designation usually made legible through the narration of a specific and discretely racialized history—that is, he is a confusion of text because we do not know the “history” of his body’s racial status, and so we cannot place him easily into a racially historical, and thus culturally
The blasphemous narration of time and race
recognizable, symbolic. His race reality, indeed his physical distinctiveness, is not narrated with the kind of clarity that is sometimes too quickly assigned to racialized persons who appear on the fictional page.18 One is then productively prohibited from entering into a strictly historicist analysis that often subtends descriptions about racial ambiguities in twentieth-century US culture and literature. In a by no means orthodox correspondence, Slavoj i ek describes the “actual” body, the flesh, as persistent problem for any kind of representation: the “real” body is that which cannot be reached and described through a symbolic (the Symbolic) order— through narrative.19 I’m not asserting that bodies do not have language; on the contrary, bodies are intensely narrated, are dressed up, as Spillers argued before i ek, in all sorts of iconography that turn the flesh into often abusive narratives, mediations, ideas, and icons.20 i ek writes: [O]ur most elementary phenomenological relationship to the living body…is based on the radical separation between the surface of the skin and what lies beneath it. Let us recall the uncanniness, even disgust, we experience when we endeavor to imagine what goes under the surface of a beautiful naked body-muscles, organs, veins… In short, relating to the body is an effect of the symbolic order; it can occur only in so far as our bodily reality is structured by language, In the symbolic order, even when we are undressed, we are not really naked, since skin itself functions as the ‘dress of the flesh.’ This suspension excludes the Real of the life substance, its palpitation: one of the definitions of the Lacanian Real is that it is the flayed body, the palpitation of raw, skinless red flesh.21 Perhaps a racial logic underwrites this formulation of the differences between the Lacanian Symbolic and Real. It relies on a division, on a distinction, between the surface of the skin—its text—and what lies beneath—ostensibly, the physicality, the phenomenology of the body. The “Real” emerges on the surface text as a flayed body, as pure biology violently severed and defracted by the textual body the Real assumes in the Symbolic. The Real can never be reached through the surface text, and can only be suggested through images that vividly render something that escapes signification (like the “Body in Pain”)22—something painful that cannot be described using language, something that lies beneath. Real bodies always escape symbolics; their palpations, their physical rawness, cannot be rendered accurately. But one still necessarily resorts to language to describe the body, especially if a literature about race must focus on the ways that some bodies matter much too much.23 One way that this very literal, ultra “Real” body is communicated through language is through an oblique figuration of the body that must be made vivid, intense, and obvious—a figure that, in all of the examples of my book, is usually racially and painfully distinct as African American (or at least of Afro-descent in the American context). Traditional symbolics in distressed form are needed to push the language into an approximation of a less-symbolic state. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari understood this necessity when they articulated an answer to their question, “What is a Minor Literature?” In their study of Kafka, which can certainly be applied to an African American and American context,24 Deleuze and Guattari write, “A minor literature
doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language.”25 In the minor occupation of a major literature, the project is an internal dismantling of the dominant language that restricts the minor’s assertion or voice. Deleuze and Guattari continue, “Language stops being representative in order to now move toward its extremities or its limits.”26 It accomplishes this goal of nonrepresentation using language that is intense and strong: through the use of “intensives or tensors.”27 Although Faulkner is not necessarily a minority, he writes about minorities with a high degree of precision; he writes a minor literature using the majority language at hand. Moreover, Faulkner certainly challenged our notions of what a language about race could represent, and he certainly desired to push language to its extremities. As is well known, Faulkner asserted, “I am trying to say it [everything] all in one sentence, between one cap and one period… I’m still trying to put all mankind’s history in one sentence.”28 One intense form of a language about race, where almost too much is not being said (but still suggested), is the irreverent statement. I thus want to consider the blasphemous religious utterances as minor, intensive utterances that push Faulkner’s language about race to its fleshy, parchment limits. In i ek’s discussion of the flayed body of the Real, in his attempt to give symbolic shape to the Real, a strong minor utterance is a “distorted voice,” a “word that ‘kills,’ breaking through the skin surface to cut directly into raw flesh-in short, by means of a word whose status is that of the Real.”29 In the following pages, then, I will argue that religious words can be twisted into emphatic expressions that “kill” the symbolic layers of racial and racist distinction in order to suggest something more complicated, something more real (and Real), about the racialized body that is narrated and written only obliquely—but never accurately or faithfully. The decision to align and describe, however indirectly, Joe with religious words that turn him into an inscrutable device of mediation is a decision not to describe Joe’s body in any realistic sense that would carefully distinguish him as black or white. I will trouble the way that critical confusions about Joe’s body too quickly are resolved by describing him as a precise mulatto figure, which can then allegorize and historicize the tragic history of unequal race relations in the twentieth-century United States; Joe is symptomatically made much too real, symbolically so, and we are left with a very coherent portrait of white and black race relations that only really speaks to the social conditions of minority embodiment. In the final section, I will specifically explore how religious words are “words that kill,” and what specifically they kill are the clear figurations of “Time,” of a racialized histories, that attach to and describe Joe as African American. These religious words drive Joe’s necessary flight from precise temporal schemas that aid in the articulation of racial differences. Joe’s race, however imprecise, cannot be escaped; he is, after all, a textual body, a text that needs its corporeal distinctions. Even though Joe flees time, as he flees the law of intelligibility, he returns into the community’s necessary linguistic mediation as a religious, sacrificial object of distinguishable language. Nevertheless, with such religious “words that kill,” the complexity of Joes’s body, a minor instance of another corporeal story will be suggested and enabled through Joe’s irreverent inflection of the community’s sacrificial word— however faint and imprecise that story might be. Put most simply, then, religious expressions kill time and obfuscate the way the racial body is rendered. In Light in August, the sacrilegious rhetorics of religion, and the words
The blasphemous narration of time and race
about religious mediation, all surround Christmas with a confusing noise that cannot tell, accurately, the time of his race, of whether he is historically white or ahistorically, or “otherhistorically,” black. Even when Joe capitulates to conventional religious expressions about the time of his body and the darkness of his race, his blasphemous tone, when surrendering to such expressions, implies so much more that cannot be— indeed, should no be—described faithfully. We learn form the story of Christmas, then, not to trust the divisive “realities,” otherwise known as “histories,” of racial distinctions; we learn to be blasphemous in our conception of the racial truth, or even the racial “reality” that any “once upon a time” would like to present and preserve.
THE HISTORY THAT DIFFERENCE MAKES The sequence of events explaining the motives behind Joe Christmas’s murder of Joanna Burden feature the pressures Joanna puts on Joe to identify, precisely, his racial heritage. These requirements are articulated as identity imperatives that have much to do with acts of writing and representation: for instance, well after their sexual relationship has been arrested by Joanna’s desires to make him into a husband, and then into “something between a hermit and a missionary to negroes” (270), Joanna leaves white, paper notes on Joe’s Negro cabin cot: “he saw it [the note] as he entered, lying square and white and profoundly inscrutable against the dark blanket” (272), Joanna uses these notes to bring Christmas not only back into her house, but also back into their strained and difficult relationship, in which she craves something definitive from Joe—specifically, Joanna craves a commitment to her life that is figured as a commitment to his definitive racial identity as black. She wants him, like the white note she leaves, to be deciphered against the darkness of the blanket that serves as the frame for the white confusions of the letters. When he responds to the call of her white letters, she details her plans for Joe to take over her business and personal affairs—plans that would require him to claim an African American identification. The narration reads: “‘Tell them,’ she said” and Joe responds, “Tell that I am a nigger too?” (277). This urgent demand is reminiscent of the reaction Joe has when he sees the notes on his cot: “He should have seen that he was bound as tightly by that small square of still undivulging paper as though it were a lock and chain” (272). Joe is an outlaw in more ways than one, and he carries secrets, important mysteries that characters such as Joanna hope to be resolved using the twinned logics of racial and historical precision. It is no accident that this criminal, this “slave,” is chained, as it were, to words that are in the service of making his skin mean something coherently different and differentiated to the other characters he encounters. These notes recall the way that Joe is always somehow locked, or clocked, into a racialized relationship with paper, with a desire for Joe to account for himself-—for his time spent, his own origin story that would confirm his distinction as black with a specific relationship to a kind of past time that would indicate that he is African American. Joe throughout the novel is always captured by little pieces of paper such as these— notes that want to make him into a legible racial quantity. The notes, however, are not as definitive as characters like Joanna would prefer. Significantly, the content, the writing, of these papers are never revealed in the narration. These ambiguities suggest an indecipherability that mirrors Joe’s own inscrutable face. Certainly throughout the text,
Joe’s skin, his own surface that thwarts a precise reading of his racial identity, is described in letter-writing terms, specifically as “parchmentcolored” (277). His face is a confusing and racially undecipherable text he cannot avoid, much like Joanna’s notes and needs for precise racial identification. In many ways, the issue of the legibility of race brings “light” to the issue of the legibility of letters, of words, that will make clear the otherwise confusing story of Joe Christmas’ baffling physical presence, his baffling color that does not easily make a significant literary difference, that does not easily place him in the correct kind of history one can easily read and understand once they see Joe. Through such a connection, Faulkner makes a comment on the relation between storytelling and racial classification that calls forth a concern about whether or not a confusing body, which does not have a precise racial designation, can be coherently communicated through a literary symbolic so reliant on clean and commonsensical, if not temporal, tropes of difference. That is, Joe is an exemplary flesh-text whose surface cannot be read in any conventionally historical way. Joanna’s demands, furthermore, require that Joe must be written out of “white” time, cast out into a black world that would be distinct, other, and definitely not simultaneous with the white characters in the novel. That definitive distance must be put between him and her, enabling her own racially philanthropic attractions to him to be as secure as the racial spaces distinguishing them from one another. Distance, representations of race, and time, as anthropologists have long instructed us, are intricately related. In his influential study, Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian echoes, but elaborates, Snead’s historical taxonomies of black and white. Through his oft-quoted concept of coevalness, the “uses of time” help define the difference between the western ethnographer and the “other” he or she studies. Fabian argues, “the history of our [anthropological] discipline reveals that such a use of Time almost invariably is made for the purpose of distancing those who are observed from the Time of the observer.”30 Time, in this instance, is not so much a measurement of passing moments, as it is a description of different qualities of existence that define different people within those qualities (i.e.: modern v. primitive; new v. old; white v. black etc.).31 Dividing people into different temporalities, different conceptions of what makes time meaningful as history, creates an effect of distance that thus denies the sharing of the same time or epoch—the denial of coevalness is one strategy in the creation of legible distinctions between bodies, especially bodies that might not be easily distinguished. Certainly this denial thrives within a large volume of scholarship that radically posits a separation between Joe’s black and white histories, black and white versions and narratives of time. The clear distinctions of Joe Christmas’ mixed-blood, of his actual assertions of racial difference, have long encouraged critics to assume that Christmas is a typical mulatto character, which is, as we must know by now, another way of describing him as definitely not white.32 There is an understandable desire to make Joe’s racial ethnicity a perfect example of racial amalgamation capable of allegorizing the tensions, if not the distances, between black and white, enabling very “new historicist” and “realist” protocols that dominate the interpretation of this modernist novel.33 Joe’s “strange [race] career” readily becomes, for critics such as Eric Sundquist, a career about specific historical relationships puncturing the “house” of a divided—separate but not coeval— United States that cannot be racially united, only relentlessly divided. Such critical moves, however compelling and elegantly rendered, neglect the literary “fact” that we
The blasphemous narration of time and race
simply do not know if this drama can be so easily divided, and thus, understood. Years ago, Cleanth Brooks asked us, “what do we really know about Joe’s ancestry?”34 We do not have the appropriate kinds of evidence that can lend credence to even the explicit claims that Christmas and others make about his “mixed” blood. More pressing, we are not given the reality of a body confirmed by a history that would lend us an explicit assurance of his blood-heritage, the history of his body that will assign him the role of white or black, or “mixed,” and thus black and not-white. The narrative frequently puts Joe into situations that cannot get a hold of his past, and more importantly, his racial identification that people assume but cannot confirm. Brooks goes to great pains to demonstrate that the two passages that have fostered a fragile supposition that Christmas is indeed a mulatto, “The first is Joe’s flaunting of his alleged Negro blood—as when he tries to shock the white prostitute by telling her that he is a Negro. The second is the hypothesis put forward by Gavin Stevens…‘black blood drove him first to the Negro cabin. And then white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it. “(p. 393), etc.” (49). Characters might, however, lie. And both Christmas and Gavin Stevens do not have the last word on Christmas’ mixed-ancestry. As Brooks correctly emphasizes, we are left in a perpetual state of not knowing if this amalgamation even exists. Thadious Davis follows Brooks’ cue, and describes, correctly, that Joe is not known to be a mulatto, and so one must, in “Light in August…treat the Negro as an abstraction rather than a mere physical presence in the southern world” (129). More importantly, Christmas cannot be treated easily as an abstract “Negro.” And his strained relationship with religious language, as we shall see in the next section, serves to remind us, repetitively and ineloquently, of this impossibility.
THE DIFFERENCE THAT RELIGION UNMAKES When Joe is young and has not yet accumulated that much “time,” his adopted father, McEachern, forces Joe to learn Protestant catechisms. The novel persistently draws into relation Christmas’ flesh with the printed, religious word: “Where is the book? He [McEachern] said. The boy [Joe] stood before him, still, his face calm and a little pale beneath the smooth parchment skin. “You did not bring it,” McEachern said. “Go back and get it.” His voice was not unkind. It was not human, personal, at all. It was just cold, implacable, like written or printed words. The boy turned and went out… “Do you know it now?” he said. The boy didn’t answer, rigid, erect, holding the pamphlet before his face. McEachern took the book from between his hands. Otherwise the boy did not move at all. “Repeat your catechism,” McEachern said. The body stared straight at the wall before him. His face was now quite white despite the smooth rich pallor of his skin. Carefully and deliberately McEachern laid the book upon the ledge and took up the strap. He struck ten times. (149–150).
In this violent scene of pedagogy, Joe does not cry as his skin becomes a distressed surface that will not retain sacred knowledge. This drama of religious words, moreover, highlights the way that Joe will not be rendered comprehensible despite the desires of other characters to read his face’s parchment. The refusal to learn the religious words provokes a disciplinary violence that cannot precisely describe if Joe is white, black, a parchment paper, or “implacable” like “written words.” Joe’s relation to this language is strained and in severe contrast with the sternness of the white McEachern, who is typeface, white face, and who wants Joe to enter into a disciplined relationship to words and religious devotion that would make him as legible, if not as monotonously so, as himself. Joe, however, remains implacable, and he is beaten raw, which makes no difference. His face, well after the beating, still resists racial legibility—Joe refuses to adhere to the catechism and his face is described as “inscrutable” (153). But he remains in frustrated relation to the book, as to Joanna’s notes, because he is required to “take the book” (153) with him, and be faithful even though he refuses to budge into religious scrutibility. Religious words, the specific words of which we are never explicitly told, distort Joe’s parchment face as they distort his race, and we are once again left with a minor and oblique voice in pain that challenges the way a story of Joe’s flesh can even be told. As the scene from the pulpit demonstrates, Joe, unlike McEachern, speaks blasphemously. Soon after Christmas has blasphemed the black church, his search party discovers a “scrap of paper” wedged into a “split plank on the edge of the church” (326). This scrap serves as a sustained comment on his criminal and irreverent behavior. Although unsigned, ostensibly the note, which is addressed to the sheriff, was written by Joe Christmas’ “unpractised hand” (326). The scrap comes from a cigarette container with a “white inner side” and contains an “unprintable” “single phrase,” in a penciled scrawl that suggests that it was written “perhaps in the dark.” This moment also recalls the other illegible (to the reader) notes that surround Christmas, and invoke the complications of writing surfaces around and on Christmas—there is always a mixture of potentially white and potentially black exteriors that can transform declarations and evidence of an identity into an undecipherable scrawl. More pressing, however, is that what we are left with is a note that defiles not only the space of the church (with an unprintable single phrase, perhaps a curse word) but also defiles our sense of clarity and coherence, and our related knowledge of white and black. The miscegenated writing surface has been defiled by messages that cannot be written or decoded by the reader. This message has something to do with the way Joe will not be captured just by the textual notes others chain him with; Joe can also create his own symbolic utterances and flee the scene of his blasphemous crimes by way of his inflammatory exclamations. The tension mounts when Lucas Burch responds to the message: in a hoarse voice, coming from a face that “looked strained and a little mad, with frustration and outrage,” Burch asserts, “‘Didn’t I tell you?… I told you all the time! I told you all the time!’” (326). The sheriff does not tell us what Lucas has been repeating “all the time”; in fact the sheriff aggressively responds and threatens Burch with the question, “‘Tell me what?’” (327). Apparently the repetition of Burch’s message about Christmas has not sunk in, or perhaps the sheriff merely wants to irritate his prisoner. Nevertheless, this exchange not only describes in vivid detail something in language we are not privy to, but also points to the anxiety about the unprintable scrawl of Joe Christmas that stirs outrage, anger, and Lucas’ looks that are “desperate, frayed almost to endurance’s limit” (327). Something
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about the purposeful withholding of precise description creates anger and fuels the chase for Joe Christmas, the chase to put Christmas in his place—to capture him and make him into a coherent and decipherable criminal. The law officers and laws of the community will have the final word on Joe Christmas’ identity so the frustrated ambiguity about the mystery of Christmas—the ambiguity about his character and race—will not have to be pondered “all of the time.” Moreover, the precise “nature” of Joe’s criminality will be decided once Joe’s body is incarcerated and made legible as racially coherent through the unofficial, quasi-juridical lynching technologies the community wants to read and place Joe’s recalcitrant body as black. Joe’s mediated voice knows as much, “They all want me to be captured, and then when I come up ready to say Here I am” (337). The deliberate allusion to the biblical narrative of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, “Here I am,”35 puts the capture, the lynching, and the precise designation of his African Americanness in terms of a religious idiom. This religious characterization is a persistent feature in the descriptions of Joe’s eventual imprisonment and explicit articulation as a specific body that is racialized and made legible as not white.36 And more than a simple punishment for the crime, the precision of Joe’s racial legibility is crucial for the community’s ability to describe itself to itself; they need to have the kind of sacrificial object, which René Girard calls “the surrogate victim,”37 that critics of this novel, using Girard, describe as the essential component for the establishment of the religiously mediated sacrifice. The town needs its victims to establish the kinds of religiously “mimetic” relations and rituals that help cohere a community through images of a displaced object for the community’s necessarily violent tendencies. The destruction of Joe can help explain the kinds of destructive race relations that mark the South, and specifically Faulkner’s southern communities, as a violent and racialized landscape—where “racial violence” becomes, as McKay Jenkins writes, “an emblem of its [the South’s] struggle for self-definition.”38 That is, evidence of this racial struggle, and Southern identity, must be found and coherently and religiously explained by turning an object such as Joe Christmas into the sacrificial victim of the South. Gavin Stevens, in his brief appearance, describes such a logic of racial recognitions that subtend the religiously inflected sacrifice Christmas cannot avoid. Stevens narrates Joe’s racial ambiguity to his professor friend. In direct address Stevens explains: And it was the white blood which sent him to the minister, which rising in him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and all reality, into the embrace of a chimera, a blind faith in something read in a printed Book. Then I believe that the white blood deserted him for the moment. Just a second, a flicker, allowing the black to rise in its final moment and make him turn upon that on which he had postulated his hope of salvation. It was the black blood which swept him up into that ecstasy out of the black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment. And then the black blood failed him again, as it must have in crises all his life. He did not kill the minister. He merely struck him with the pistol and ran on and crouched behind that table and defied the black blood for the last time, as he had been defying it for thirty
years. He crouched behind that overturned table and let them shoot him to death, with that loaded and unfired pistol in his hand. (449). As Stevens narrates the final scene of Joe’s appearance in life, there is an obsessive need to make Joe’s body into a switchboard for the blood that would lead him to either the realm of order—the “blind faith” of the chimera of a “printed Book,” of white blood—or to the realm of disorder and incivility of a jungle darkness. He could foolishly try not to be “black” and give into the white order of his blood, or he could be a dark criminal and he could reject the codes of conduct and civility of whiteness. Both modes of blood relations within his body fail to move him in one articulate and successful direction, and thus he becomes a confusing victim—not necessarily black and not necessarily white, and not necessarily religious. Moreover, he demonstrates an agency uncommon among victims: he enables the town to mark him as a black criminal by deliberately staging this confusion of blood, and letting the “white” blood win by not lodging him out of a white society that requires his black death to be literalized. Despite the frustrations and inadequacies of this explanation, what does become clear is Stevens’ need to narrate, precisely, the “time” of Joe’s religious victimization. Here, discussions of different kinds of blood are actually discussions of different routes into black or white temporality Stevens denies the coevalness of Joe’s blood by placing Joe’s criminal surrogatehood into a rigorous time schema that facilitates the easy description of his competing and incompatible bloods: “Then, I believe”; “Just a second”; “then the black blood failed him again”; “defying it for thirty years”; and so forth. What becomes clear is that the timing of Joe’s body is an explicit narrative concern that must be in place in order for Stevens to narrate a history of precise color on Joe’s textual surface, to narrate a distinct history of competing blood. This need helps revise the religious sacrifice of Girard’s theories of collective mediation, acts of “generative unanimity.” In other words, it reveals the way that Joe’s deliberate citation of Christian sacrifice, “Here I am,” will not faithfully adhere to the South’s formal logic of the cultural lynching. Girard’s theories of the sacrificial victim think of religious time as repetitive, and thus able to generate collective citations of a violence that make the “unanimity” feel coherent, collective, and sheltered over a time that repeats. Ritual religious time, through the Girardian sacrifice, is still ordered and makes formal sense. Faulkner, however, refuses to make Joe’s sacrifice so easily narrated into a repetitive mediated body of the community’s expendable outsider. Joe’s body does not easily fall into the ritual time schema advanced by Girard: All religious rituals spring from the surrogate victim, and all the great institutions of mankind, both secular and religious, spring from ritual. Such is the case, as we have seen, with political power, legal institutions, medicine, the theater, philosophy and anthropology itself. It could hardly be otherwise, for the working basis of human thought, the process of “symbolization,” is rooted in the surrogate victim. Even if no example taken alone offers conclusive proof of my theory, their cumulative effect is overwhelming; all the more so because they coincide with archetypal myths that tell, in apparently “naïve” fashion, how all man’s religious, familial, economic, and social institutions grew out of a body of an
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original victim. The surrogate victim, as found of the rite, appears as the ideal educator of humanity, in the etymological sense of e-ducatio, a leading out. The rite gradually leads man away from the sacred; it permits them to escape their own violence, removes them from violence, and bestows on them all the institutions that define their humanity.39 Despite the allure of this thesis for Faulkner scholars, the Girardian narrative does not simply work here; Stevens cannot easily make Joe Christmas into a “JC or Jesus Christ” that would help the community define itself, lead itself out of the violence of religions that defines, according to Girard, the religious experience (“violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred”40), Christmas is not exclusively a sacrificial object. He is not simply an outcast that helps the community displace its own violent and violating tendencies; he is not simply the religious object that makes, for Girard, religion into “another term for that obscurity that surrounds man’s efforts to defend himself by curative or preventative means against his own violence. It is that enigmatic quality that pervades the judicial system when that system replaces sacrifice. This obscurity coincides with the transcendental effectiveness of a violence that is holy, legal, and legitimate successfully opposed to a violence that is unjust, illegal, and illegitimate.”41 Gavin’s embedded narrative, for instance, cannot easily maintain the outsider status that is required of the Girardian surrogate victim in part because Joe’s death is not necessarily ritualistic: Christmas is sometimes white (perhaps always white if we are not, like Brooks, convinced of Stevens’ narrative explanations) and he let himself be caught—he let himself be more than an object because Joe has something to do, indeed, “say” about his execution into the cultural logics of mediation. As the concern with putting this narrative of the surrogate victim into an exact and obsessive temporal sequence, one with a specific and non-repetitive teleology, suggests, the exact mediation of Joe’s violent body is not a repetitive story (at least from Stevens’ point of view). It is not necessarily the fodder for myth—whereas myths ritualistic repetition helps the collective to, in a typically religious fashion, “concentrate its attention on determining a regular sequential pattern that will enable man to anticipate these onslaughts and take measures against them.42 Religious time need not be so ritualistic and repetitive. And Joe’s confusion of the sacrificial ritualistic schema reveals the potential for blasphemy even within the community’s most sacred forms of intelligibility. 43 Faulkner uses these tonal and temporal inflections of religious rhetoric productively to make the placement of Joe’s body into a recognizable temporal schema—for instance, in either a teleological or repetitive mode—not definitive. Indeed, before Joe is assassinated, for numerous pages, Joe is quite lost in time, and when he is most out of time, he is most unrecognizable as a potentially black racial outlaw, as a candidate for surrogate victimhood. For instance, in pursuit of the elusive, racial meaning of Christmas, the mediated voice of Joe describes his relationship to his own attempt to escape the authorities. Christmas is able to move from place to place and person to person just as long as they do not recognize him as the criminal on the loose, as long as he cannot be placed in a particular outsider relationship to the community’s time. Indeed, whenever Joe stops long enough to talk to others, he wants to know where he is in time. When he looks at a “gaunt, leatherhard woman,” although he is starving, the question he asks of her is not about food or hunger but his other vexing corporeal condition—his inability to
mark time: to know not only that he has not eaten, but to know when he last ate. The narration reads, “And then the gaunt, leatherhard woman come to the door and looked at him and he could see shock and recognition and fear in her eyes and while he was thinking She knows me. She has got the word too he heard his mouth saying quietly: ‘Can you tell me what day it is? I just want to know what day it is’” (332). Because she has word, in fact “the word” about his criminal behavior, the woman is able to recognize Joe: “‘What day it is?’ Her face was gaunt as his, her body as gaunt and tireless and as driven. She said: ‘You get away from here! It’s Tuesday! You get away from here! I’ll call my man!’” (332). Here, despite their obvious physical similarities (both faces are not suggestive of a precise color—leatherhard and parchmentcolored are both “gaunt”), the “word” about Joe has criminalized him, made him different, and made him precisely not welcome in “Tuesday!” The leatherhard woman exists in precise, conventional time, and she is able to assert, quite emphatically, the day—what time it precisely is. The leatherhard woman relies on the kinds of distinctions between temporalities that often inform, as Fabian helps us understand, the creation and writing of “other” people. Joe, when he is assumed to be black (or mulatto), is forced out of (or divided from) white time; he doesn’t belong where the leatherhard woman belongs because he doesn’t know the day or time, and, more importantly, “She has got the word” that he no longer fits into the community. She lives in a world of precise distinctions, and is assured of who Joe is, even though Joe has no idea. She knows time and she knows Joe to be racially distinct, someone who belongs in a contrasted other kind of time that must be extracted and sacrificed from her own home and community. The denial of his coevalness is akin to the radical assertion of his racial difference and distance from the norms of a whitedominated community that banishes and sacrifices its racial others into a different temporal schema. Unlike the leatherhard woman, Joe does not have the word, or the “Word,” that will make divisions; he has yet to figure out how to refigure the religious expression of who he is (“Here I am”) right now, in this time, using the most available words at hand. Although he has yet to figure it out (or himself out), he must assume the role of the outcast, the one out of the more modern and white time of the town. In response to his encounter with this woman, Joe continues his long distancing running that amplifies the way his knowledge of time, as well as his place in white time, is never quite secure. Unlike the leatherhard woman, he is not so sure of his place, or displace, in her temporal distinctions. The narrative, while he runs, describes the way Joe does not understand the conditions and status of his body, for instance, if he is awake or asleep. The confusion of corporeal status most stringently is expressed by making Joe’s temporality a problem of his racial knowledge (of his confusion of light and dark): “Time, the spaces of light and dark, had long since lost orderliness. It would be either one now, seemingly at an instant, between two movements of the eyelids, without warning. He could never know when he would find that he had been asleep without remembering having lain down, or find himself walking without remembering having waked” (333). Just like the uncertainties of his black or white blood, Joe’s black or white place in time corresponds with the uncertain status of his sleeping or waking body. He cannot be divided into different temporalities, different colors, as easily as the leatherhard woman divides him because he has not “got the word too,” he is not yet able to sacrifice himself in quite the precise way that traditional technologies of racial legibility would more conveniently provide.
The blasphemous narration of time and race
This running out of time is concluded by an allusion to an earlier chapter about the personal history and losses of the precise measurement of time and race, a history that is described as “the street which ran for thirty years”: It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside of it. Though during the last seven days [on the lam] he had no paved street, yet he has traveled further than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle. ‘And yet I have been further in these seven days than in all the thirty years,’ he thinks. ‘But I have never got out of that circle. I have never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo,’ he thinks quietly, sitting on the seat, with planted on the dashboard before him the shoes, the black shoes smelling of negro: that mark on his ankles and gauge definite and ineradicable of the black tide creeping up his legs, moving from his feet upward as death moves. (339) Again, time is not easily discernable because it takes on more than a repetitive quality—it is still distinctly marked as both “thirty years” and “seven days,” which do not measure time in either a repetitive or teleological schema as much as they indicate different qualities of knowledge Joe alternately possesses. What precisely he learns from the greater distance he has traveled in seven days versus thirty years has something do with the dark color of the “black shoes smelling of negro” acquired during his running. The blackness moves up his legs; it, like the circular road, makes a circle on his legs and begins to mark him as black as he approaches, like the “black tide creeping up his legs,” his own inevitable sacrificial death.44 Yet, even then, Joe’s body is not naturalized in a deliberate color of black or dark—the shoes mark his body, he does not. But the mark of color, Joe begins to know, helps stop the indiscriminant blending of time. Earlier in the narrative, when day and night, black and white, situate Joe in an uncertain relation to his race, Joe begins to understand the force of stopping and describing time—these are moments of corporeal arrests where he can make racial distinctions about his body and figure himself strategically among others. Just before his first lover Bobbie leaves him, her friends have beaten Joe to the ground, in part,45 because his assailants want to find out if he is indeed “a nigger”: “We’ll find out. We’ll see if his blood is black” (219). While he is semi-conscious, the tension of the narrative is expressed through a strong religious utterance that does not neatly organize him into black or white time, black or white narrative strategies, but does offer a strong statement about himself that others, if not readers, can understand: Perhaps he was conscious of somewhere within him the two severed wireends of volition and sentience lying, not touching now, waiting to touch, to knit anew so he could move… Then the wireends knit and made connection. He did not know the exact instant, save that suddenly he was aware of his ringing head, and he sat up slowly, discovering himself and getting to his feet. He was dizzy; the room went around him, slowly and smoothly as thinking, so that thinking said Not yet But he still felt no pain, not even when, propped before the bureau, he examined in the glass his
swollen and bloody face and touched his face. “Sweet Jesus,” he said. “They sure beat me up.” He was not thinking yet; it had not yet risen that far I reckon I better get out of here I reckon I better get out of here (220– 222). As Joe looks at himself in a glass, he is not only dizzy but he is also struggling to understand what precisely has occurred. He is not necessarily thinking, “yet,” so he has difficulty constructing a narrative that would give him a more precise picture of the events and himself that could help him recognize what has happened to his body, that could help him think, and thus help him feel his pain. In place of this story are the strong words, “Sweet Jesus,” that announce his swollen and “bloody face” as evidence of a beating. His coming into consciousness can only be expressed through emphatic religious utterances—words he has resisted all of his life, but words that are at hand, words that help articulate his swollen and bloodied face. Before this attempt at description about the events that have occurred around his face and his bloody figure, the mediated voice of Joe, or at least the words that are suggestive of the sounds Joe hears as he is passed out on the floor, are lacking the kind of temporal mediations that coherently organize the different events; there are no narrative stage directions that tell the story clearly. For instance, the voices of his assailants are italicized words not filtered through a narrator, “here bobbie here kid heres your comb you forgot it heres romeos chicken feed too jesus he must have tapped the sunday school till…but we cant leave it lay here on the floor….” (221). One can construct some idea of what is going on, but the temporality of the voices is not precisely described as existing with alternative tenses (past, present, future). Instead of a helpful grammatical tense, there is the repetitive “here” that makes the space around Joe’s beaten body, “it,” not designate any kind of distinct temporal sequence, a sequence that would help render the narrative (or his body) more coherent. It is only when we the words stop being italicized that we have indicators of time: “Then the blond woman stood above him and stooping… Then she was gone… Then they were gone: the final feet, the final door” (221). So when Joe speaks, out loud, “Sweet Jesus,” he is attempting to translate himself out of italics into a tensed language the community (and the reader) can understand; he translates himself out of a series of corporeal and confusing impressions about the violence that has been rendered on his body because his racial illegibility infuriates those people around him who want to know what kind of blood out of which he is made. But rather than successfully narrate what precisely happened when, Joe’s religious expression signals the way he will not be able to organize and account for any clear narrative save an assertive and emphatic expression that something has happened to him, “it”—Sweet Jesus. As with his race, nothing definitive can be explained with the typical laws of expression governing not only Joe but also the laws of the narratives themselves. From then on, time stops being measured accurately and Joe cannot distinguish and measure the difference between the events of his life; Joe’s mediated voice begins to make all moments equivalent, fungible, and non-distinct—with significant breaks that make differences only strategically matter: From that night the thousand streets ran as one street, with imperceptible corners and changes of scene, broken by intervals of begged and stolen
The blasphemous narration of time and race
rides, on trains and trucks, and on country wagons with he at twenty and twentyfive and thirty sitting on the seat with his still, hard face and clothes (even when soiled and worm) of a city man and the driver of the wagon not knowing who or what the passenger was and not daring to ask. The street ran into Oklahoma and Missouri and as far south as Mexico and then back north to Chicago and Detroit and then back south again and at last to Mississippi… And always sooner or later, the street ran through cities, through an identical and wellnigh interchangeable section of cities without remembered names, where beneath the dark and equivocal and symbolical archways of midnight he bedded with the women and paid them when he had the money, and when he did not have it he bedded them anyway and then told them that he was a negro. (224) Joe’s road and Joe’s time are so indistinct that others cannot know “who or what” he is; and Joe certainly plays with this ambiguity because sometimes he needs to express a racial distinction. In order to avoid sexual payments, he says to presumably white women that he is a negro, and must be let go—”Usually all he risked was a cursing from the woman and the matron of the house, though now and then he was beaten unconscious by other patrons, to waken later in the street or in the jail” (224). The generic instances of the same, long road of time are events that flatten measurements of time into one big, indistinct place, only to be stopped and made distinct through the racial designation of “negro.” Yet Joe is somehow never caught in his racial assertion because time does not matter; his race and precise narrative do not really describe him and get him caught into the cycle of symbolics that could precisely locate him not only in culture, but also in time. Joe, however, understands the need to sometimes give people the divisive explanation about his race, thereby breaking the confusion of narrative time with a precise moment of racial arrest, When Joe nears the destination where he will be captured—when he will announce, “Here I am”—he has learned that he can twist the legibility everyone wants through an unfaithful, blasphemous utterance of who he “is.” He asks a negro wagondriver, “‘What day of the week is this? Thursday? Friday? What? What day? I am not going to hurt you’” (337). The driver’s response announces the precise day of the week with an emphatic religious expression: “‘O Lawd God, it’s Friday’” (337). Here, the religious words introduce not religious belief but the strong assertion of a specific moment in time: it’s Friday. Joe cannot keep running out of time, for he is getting closer to his linguistic capture as a “negro.” Joe, as the Stevens’ quotation suggests above, willingly submits himself to the sacrificial logics the town needs for the kinds of precise definitions of community it must have to maintain its southern identity. As if to say, “Thank God It’s Friday,” Joe judiciously moves to his place of inevitable capture where he will submit to the identitarian logics and symbolics required by those in hot pursuit of his legibility—after all, he does need to exist in language. The description that follows the precise day of the week is a decisive counterpoint to the running out of time that has absorbed him most of his life, the running out of racial distinctions that would coherently place in one form of time that would race him across a racialized finish line. Something changes with this last question about the day of the week:
Yet he is not hurrying. He is like a man who knows where he is and where he wants to go and how much time to the exact minute he has to get there in. It is as though he desires to see his native earth in all its phases for the first time or the last time. He had grown to manhood in the country, where like the unswimming sailor his physical shape and his thought had been molded by its compulsions without his learning anything about its actual shape and feel. For a week now he has lurked and crept among its secret places, yet he remained a foreigner to the very immutable laws which earth must obey. For some time as he walks steadily on, he thinks that this is what it is—the looking and seeing—which gives him peace and unchaste and quiet, until suddenly the true answer comes to him. He feels dry and light. ‘I don’t have to bother about having to eat anymore,’ he thinks. ‘That’s what it is.’ (338) Although the “immutable laws which the earth must obey” suggest a natural understanding of the body (given Joe’s decision to stop eating, to stop running from the legal and symbolic authorities) those laws, to my ear, sound much more like juridical racial laws—articulated under the biological metaphors of the one-drop laws obsessing the country and its fears of miscegenation—of distinction, which recognize and mark Joe just as easily (or persistently) as the time of day—Friday. He is the foreign body that can run all it wants to, but all this “looking and seeing,” this cultural reading that is the “is” of his body, inevitably is immutable; he will be sacrificed according to the most sacred mediations of his community. He concludes to give up on his running, outlaw body, and to submit to the racial coding of the sacrifice and lynching, He gives into the very religiously inflected “Here I am” of the community’s obsessive need to read and place Joe into words, into the white Word that must make him readable and sacrificable on all those scraps of white paper. As I have been suggesting, Joe’s citation of the Word, and of the temporal othering and racial scapegoating, will not be easy. His body has already given up on itself; it will collapse under the pressure of the community’s religious language of sacrifice. This collapse, however, is not definitive or final. His submission to the right kind of time, and the “Word,” results in some spectacular scenes of very blasphemous and confused expression, Percy Grimm, whose insistence that sacrificial violence turn Joe into a definitive citation of “negro,” utters the penultimate words that Joe Christmas hears before the quasi-lynching, words that describe the violence inflicted on Joe’s increasingly legible body: “‘Jesus Christ!’ Grimm cried, his young voice clear and outraged like that of a young priest. ‘Has every preacher and old maid in Jefferson taken their pants down to the yellowbellied son of a bitch?’” (464). The fury of Grimm’s sacrilegious phrases adds a rhetorical force to the violence and physical injury and religious citation he exacts on Christmas’ body—like the bullets and the castration, Grimm’s strong utterances will be direct expressions of an angry need to make Joe into the black body. He gives Joe the outraged word that will code him and place him in a blackened time that is distinct. The phrase, however, is not total; Joe is not rendered as distinct and definitive as the religious words used to announce his specific racial otherness, his legibility as black. After he castrates the dying Joe, the narration reads:
The blasphemous narration of time and race
Then Grimm too sprang back, flinging behind him the bloody butcher knife. “Now you’ll let the white women alone, even in hell,” he said. But the man on the floor had not moved. He just lay there, with his eyes open and empty of everything save consciousness, and with something, a shadow, about his mouth. For a long moment he looked up at them with a peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes, Then his face, body, all, seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself, and from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon the black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories for ever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and new hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant. Again from the town, deadened a little by the walls, the scream of the siren mounted toward its unbelievable crescendo, passing out the realm of hearing, (464–465) Although Joe has submitted to this violent dissolution of his ambiguous body—although he has given into the Word that attempts to narrate precisely just who, what, and when he is—Joe’s body is anything but secure and forgotten (or displaced as the Girardian theory requires). The religious word is turned into a sacrificial curse word, “Jesus Christ!,” that is then supplemented with a body that can only “seem” to be a pale body emptying of black blood, As the body collapses under the pressure of the angered rhetoric that attempts to render its specific race, it can only continue to confuse and bewilder the “forever” of the viewers: their white time, their march forward (not backwards) towards peaceful old age, will be perplexed by the constant and nagging presence of a violent scene that cannot be adequately explained, that is not lodged into some other time, or some definitive and lurid and realistic account of racial difference. The denial of coevalness has not necessarily been achieved. The rising black man, who might not be black or white at all, becomes a monumental, and very proximate, fixture of their uncertainty. Joe will remain “the seemingness” that will never be quite explained, and never really quiet. The sound of the siren resonates the angered “Jesus Christ” that has wanted to situate, forcefully, Joe as an entirely legible and othered text. The siren and the expletive become the distorted voice, “deadened a little by the walls,” that announces the kill that cannot quite die In a number of ways, religious words are the words that murder, through a blasphemous and angry twist, the precise coding of time that otherwise aids in the marking of racial distinctions—symbolic distinctions that parade as if they are natural conditions of the body that can be comprehensively read as black or white. The decision to render Christmas’ murder using the religious rhetoric of sacrifice, “Here I am,” and to further this citation into an angered use of religious words—“Jesus Christ”—are not negative choices. The words and the sacrifice they describe do not saturate and precisely render Christmas’ body. Although he has been lynched into a racial logic of intelligibility—he is lynched for his criminal behaviors, his racial miscegenation—his
body’s ambiguity will not die—the nagging “what-ifs” of his race keep ticking away at the ostensibly definitiveness some call the cultural logic of lynching.46 There is no end to the body’s impressions even though there is an end to the religious words that capture and describe its qualities. These religious words that kill, these blasphemous and violent moments in cultural legibility, still suggest something that eludes the timing and symbolic certainty of the actual religious sentence or utterance. And behind the blasphemous utterances that surround the racialized bodies of not only Light in August, but also of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Wise Blood, and Brown Girl, Brownstones, there are more complicated stories about the ways a “body does get around”47 in a field of racist intelligibility. These bodies are saying something angry and strong from a pulpit, but in voices not too specific, or real; their voices are filtered, but filtered through a more generous, literary conception of the body’s flesh. And in the end, there is something more irreverently intoned about the racial differences of our times.
NOTES TO INTRODUCTION 1. Jonathan Culler, Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 71. 2. T.S.Eliot, “From The Idea of a Christian Society,” in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975), 288. 3. Eliot, “From Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” in Selected Prose, 305, 293. When I mention “hegemony,” I am thinking of the term in the Gramscian sense. 4. In his impressive, albeit conservative, legal history, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie, Leonard Levy offers the most spare definition of blasphemy, it “means speaking evil of sacred matters,” which really means speaking contrarily to established religious beliefs (Leonard W.Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred From Moses to Salman Rushdie [New York: Knopf, 1993], 3). 5. Ellis Hanson, Decadence and Catholicism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 371. 6. Ibid., 365. Hanson is succinct in his critique of Eliot: “Eliot insists that religion is necessary to culture, and he espouses a politics and aesthetic of uniformity, continuity, and coherence, with Christianity as its moral foundation” (367). He rescues Eliot a bit, but I think his characterization explicates they way Eliot is in opposition with the playfulness of religious language that Hanson delights in and finds exciting in decadent literature. 7. Rey Chow, “Introduction: On Chineseness As a Theoretical Problem,” in Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory ed. Rey Chow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 16. Although Chow is overstating the case, and although there are certainly examples to the contrary, I think this kind of polemic is a necessary intervention into the very sociological readings of race that still tend to dominate the way minority writing (by and/or about minorities) is discussed and made into a curricular object. See also Hortense Spillers’ “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date,” in boundary 2 21:3 (1994):65–116. 8. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 30. 9. Ibid., 40. 10. Hanson, 21. 11. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading: or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 1–37. 12. Ibid., 23. 13. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood 1952 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999), 76. Further citations will appear in the text.
14. James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain 1952 (New York: Dell, 1980), 197. Further citations will appear in the text. 15. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones 1959 (New York: Feminist Press, 1980), 70. Further citations will appear in the text. 16. William Faulkner, Light in August 1932 (New York: Vintage, 1990), 149–150. Further citations will appear in the text.
NOTES TO CHAPTER ONE 1. James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain 1952 (New York: Dell, 1980), 13. Further citations will appear parenthetically in the text. 2. Indeed, John is not willing to capitulate to his flesh’ resemblance to something so unreligious. 3. I am reversing “the fact of blackness,” from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952; New York: Grove Press, 1967), 109–140. 4. Mel Watkins, “An Appreciation,” in Baldwin: The Legacy ed. Quincy Troupe (New York: Touchstone, 1989), 122. 5. ibid., 121. 6. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), vi. 7. Hortense J.Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics (Summer 1987), 67. 8. Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 9. 9. In the case of Baldwin, there is a will to forget about the figurative dimensions of Baldwin’s literary articulations of African American experience, a will to forget about his desire to push the literary articulation of race in exploratory directions—especially when the issue of religion is scrutinized. As a consequence, the literary evaluation of Baldwin’s religious rhetoric is usually in the service of biographizing Baldwin’s real and lived experiences in the very important black church. Religion underwrites the realistic evaluation of Baldwin’s project. And although we now know that Baldwin was exaggerating his own autobiographical details, confusing events, and embellishing the past in order to create the rhetorical and figurative effects that made his work so popular, contagious, loved, and reviled for generations of readers, activists, and critics, many people have wanted to make Baldwin’s stories evidence of the “real” life Baldwin, and others, must have lived. Biographer James Campbell describes Baldwin’s “recurring characteristic: an interpretation of events which is not quite a misinterpretation, but rather, a heightened reading, made in retrospect, but with the benefit of what might be termed ‘hind-second-sight.’ This reading uses facts somewhat as a poet might treat them, that is not to say it abuses them, but that it attempts to forge them into the kind of truth which goes beyond matters of fact” (Talking at the Gates: A Life of james Baldwin [London: Faber and Faber, 1991], 4). When Baldwin strayed from less-autobiographical critical or fictional writings, critics would become quite upset. Once, for instance, Baldwin’s third novel, Another Country, appeared on the literary scene, the difficulties of including this book into Baldwin’s critical reputation quickly emerged as a problem of how to situate Baldwin. It became harder to find the exemplary figure of Baldwin in his fiction, and this began to panic the figure’s adoring public. For instance, in The Crisis, Constance Bardeen begins her favorable review of the novel with naming the crisis of its critical reception: “It has been both praised and damned for its subject matter, its language, character development, and its literary and artistic quality… One fact is certain, its appearance has not passed unnoticed. Seemingly, everyone who has read the book has been compelled to make some definitive statement concerning its
merit” (Constance Bardeen) “Love & Hate,” in The Crisis [November 1962], 567). With the advent of Another Country, the only assured thing that could be said about the intense debates about the value of the book is that the novel provokes controversy and commentary along almost every aspect of the novel: theme, character, language, and aesthetic distinctiveness. Elizabeth Hardwick, of Harper’s Magazine, provides an interesting case study of a critic who quickly changes her mind about Baldwin’s writing when his fiction took the critical center stage. Soon after the publication of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, Hardwick cannot laud Baldwin enough; “It often occurs to me in reading him or thinking about him that he is, even so early in his career, a great man who may give works of lasting value to American letters”; “There is some lofty quality of mind that connects him at every point with the highest aims of the great tradition of English letters. And we feel this even as we look at his picture in a sweat shirt among the rubble of Harlem where he was born”; and “He suffers; he is personal; he is immensely intelligent; he is frightened; he is original” (Elizabeth Hardwick, “The New Books,” in Harper’s Magazine [224: January 1962], 94). These honorific portraits, however, cannot be sustained when he gives her and the world Another Country. Hardwick actually feels “distress” because she believes him to be a good and important writer. She laments:
In certain respects, this novel is a representation of some of the ideas about American life, particularly about the Negro in American life, that Baldwin’s essays have touched upon. But what is lacking in the book is James Baldwin himself, who has in his non-fictional writing a very powerful relation to the reader. Essentially, Another Country is a conventional, hard-boiled novel of love and sex; and conventional is true even though the sex is often between Negroes and white and between homosexuals. It is written in a perfectly competent but uninspired manner; it lacks humor and the true wildness that would express what Baldwin seems to have in mind. The novel has very little of his other writing. (Elizabeth Hardwick, “The New Books,” in Harper’s Magazine [225: July 1962], 90) Already, we have the divisions between the literary versus the critical writings that are, interestingly enough, marked through the absence of “James Baldwin himself,” the missing selfportraiture that helps him establish a “very powerful relation to the reader.” Instead of Baldwin himself, we have a tepid treatment of some aspects of American and African American life that lacks the wit of his other, less-fictional, writing. And much to Hardwick’s chagrin, we have a book that is “all about Love. Love. Love…and there is hardly any action in the book, hardly any demonstration of character that isn’t sexual” (Hardwick, July 1962, 90). We do not have Baldwin, but we do have, according to Hardwick, repetitive series of love scenarios, with actions and characters built exclusively out of a sexuality that threatens to become the ensemble representation of love clichés—that is, we have bad literature and not auto-biography, and in the case of Baldwin, only auto-biography counts as literature. Fortunately, this earlier criticism, but tenacious, strand of criticism, is starting to give way to a new kind of engagement with Baldwin, who, in these versions, does not have to just be a witness to the real horrors of African American life. The very helpful and, surprisingly recent, volume dedicated to engaged and multi-layered evaluations of Baldwin is Dwight McBride’s collection of essays in James Baldwin Now (New York: NYU Press, 1999). 10. Eric J.Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993), 458. Sundquist’s work, especially on Du Bois, charts the way one part of religious experience, “Spirituals,” inform
an intellectual and cultural lineage that gives coherence to the kinds of double-vision Du Bois famously articulates in The Souls of Black Folk. Although he sidesteps the specific histories of African American religious experience, Sundquist explains the way Du Bois transforms religious experience into a figuration of black/slave history that provides Du Bois and others a formal structure for identifying with the very general themes of salvation, mourning, work, and endurance that the Spirituals announce. My argument about religious languages formal capabilities, however, differs from Sundquist. I argue that religion helps evac-uate official and traumatic version of historical significance from the blackness of bodies in order to keep race an open abstraction than can only raise questions and suspend any final reading of the raced body. 11. In an article by Michael Eric Dyson, “What’s Derrida Got to Do With Jesus?: Rhetoric, Black Religion, and Theory” (in One Nation Under God?: Religion and American Culture eds. Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L.Walkowitz (New York: Routledge, 1999), there is an initial attempt to focus on the religious rhetoric that is theoretically informed, and influenced by “cultural studies.” His focus on the ways in which “speaking and writing can be viewed as a dominant shape of black intelligence; speaking and writing can be viewed as the crucial rhetorical surfaces on which black identity is inscribed,” often lead us, however, to a very quick understanding of black identity and the surfaces that contain “speaking and writing” (76). Moreover, much like others before him, the focus on religious rhetoric yields more discussion about the historical significance of the black “oral” tradition, the political efficacy of black religious speaking as an effective form of public sphere speaking, and the ways in which African American experience can gain a logic and coherence through religious expression: “words can lend ontological credence to racial identity, and…religious language can house an existential weight, a self-regenerating energy, that can be levied against the denials of black being expressed in racist sentiment and practice” (84). At the heart of this analysis, the strictly literary qualities of religious language are often neglected in favor of social and historical explanation that can help articulate a program of resistance. Although I appreciate and often agree with this gesture, this brand of analysis tends to not explore, adequately, the ways in which the racial codes are often created by religious rhetoric, thereby complicating the project of understanding the aesthetic relevance of religious rhetoric, especially if a literary project is not only directed towards giving “ontological credence” to an articulate shape of a “black being” that may or may not benefit from the aestheticization of blackness. This chapter, however, seeks to explore the connections between religious rhetoric and the literary world where bodies are racialized through deliberate, formal techniques of language. A literary understanding of literature, moreover, need not imply a political evacuation. The concern with the language of any set of representations that appear in a literary text need not only be focused on a primarily mimetic idea of what literature is supposed to reflect, and the need not to be “real,” “natural,” or “historical” seems important if race is to be named as the complicated abstraction it actually tends to be. 12. This statement refers to a now typical description about what “history” seems to mean for literary critics. See, for a prime example, Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), especially pages 1–19; see also Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981): “only a genuine philosophy of history is capable of respecting the specificity and radical difference of the social and political past while disclosing the solidarity of its polemics and passions, its forms, structures, experiences and struggles, with those of the present day” (18). 13. Baldwin, himself, was quite invested in assuring the primary importance of African American history—he lent his celebrity to a 1968 hearing on the establishment of a committee on “Negro history and culture,” where he asserted “My history is also yours” and that the integration of the African American historical record in national curriculums was a key to the security of civil rights and successful integration (See Howard N.Meyer, ed.
Integrating America’s Heritage: A Congressional Hearing to Establish a National Commission on Negro History and Culture [College Park, Maryland: McGrath Publishing Co, 1970], 42). In this instance, Baldwin follows a typical pattern of African American social reform that invested much in historical corrections. For instance, a 1939 NAACP pamphlet, “Anti-Negro Propaganda in School Textbooks,” describes why African American history is so desperately needed: “They [the parents of African American children] are beginning to see, as never before, that these false theories [of a primarily white America and the inferiority of African Americans] that we hear so much about today, have been so deftly placed in our textbooks, that their subtle infiltration, not only in the minds of growing white youngsters but in the minds of Negroes themselves, has been an almost unconscious development” (“Anti-Negro Propaganda in School Textbooks,” pamphlet [New York: NAACP, 1939], 5–7). The correction of such omissions and stereotypes is often conceived as a revised historical knowledge that should become official curriculum, especially in public schools. Hence, Baldwin appeared before the special hearing to argue for the establishment of a national committee on African American history and culture. 14. Much of the analysis I cite in the next paragraphs is reliant, implicitly or explicitly, on the seminal work on the specificity of the black experience of Baptist-based faiths by Mechal Sobel’s Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979). This historical work, although upsetting in some of its large claims about West Africa, is valuable as a study that inspired subsequent historiographical work that took seriously the idea of a “black sacred cosmos” that was articulated through a dominantly white Christian religion that could easily acculturate and oppress minority populations such as African Americans. Sobel offers, “the black Baptist faith gave coherence to prewar slave society. It provided the possibility for meaningful lives with meaningful goals. It was a black creation, made in contact with the white Baptist faith and affecting that faith, but it remained the very special Sacred Cosmos of blacks, filled with spirit and joy and mourning and time past, all used to understand the present. Seeing themselves as the New Israel, waiting for Gods redemption, black Baptists knew they would ‘emerge the conqueror’” (xxiv). Although this an extremely useful and helpful intervention into understanding that religion is not always bad and oppressive, and although this is most certainly the case in some instances, this kind of specific lauding of the syncretic nature of the black Baptist faith and its influence on the historical importance of the black church for African American cultural projects sidesteps what hurts and hinders the articulation of African Americanness that is a primary occupation of Baldwin’s own writing. Hence, I am less willing to only celebrate the importance of the hybrid religious experience of African Americans when reading Baldwin, who is very critical of the way religion negatively codes the flesh of African Americans. 15. Harris, quoting Richard K.Barksdale and Kenneth Kinnamon’s Black Writers of America, “Introduction,” New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18. 16. Trudier Harris, 17–25. 17. Carter G.Woodson, “The Negro Church, an All-Comprehending Institution,” The Negro History Bulletin 3:1 (October 1939):7. 18. W.E.B.Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; New York: Fawcett World Library, 1961), 142. 19. Watkins, 113. 20. C.Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H.Mamiya, 2. 21. Lincoln and Mamiya, 2. 22. The very influential Robert A.Bone, writing in 1956, offers an early critical reading that continues to take a hold of most critics of this novel, a reading that forces us to find exemplary African American historical tricks in the text. He, for example, writes, “Go Tell It on the Mountain is thus a novel of the Great Migration. It traces the process of secularization that occurred when the Negro left the land for the Northern ghettos. The theme, to be sure, is
handled ironically. Baldwin’s protagonist ‘gets religion/ but he is too young, and too innocent to grasp the implications of his choice” (Robert A. Bone, “James Baldwin,” in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974], 33). For other versions of this argument, see Harris’ introduction to New Essays on Go Tell it on the Mountain. The most glaring omission in Bone’s argument is the way that all of the characters, who all migrate north, are not also migrating into secularization, but secularization’s opposite: they all devote themselves to the hardness of the religious Word. Ironic or not, Baldwin perpetually leads his black characters back to church, back to the threshing floor where conversions occur, not merely to honor and repeat and reproduce a religious history, but also to give shape to, to give words to, what it means to be black in the United States. The bulk of Go Tell It on the Mountain tracks the sheer arduousness of what it takes to come to church, what it takes to belong to a place that would “swell with the Power” that the church “held, and like a planet rocking in space, the temple [John’s church] rocked with the power of God” (15): Gabriel’s, Elizabeth’s, and Florence’s stories of eventual evangelical acceptance, called “Prayers,” are the interior sections of the text that all are punctuated with severe injustices that cannot be avoided. All characters, moreover, have “sinned.” And all of his characters really have no choice but to capitulate to the demands of the religious community. 23. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes this point quite clear when he describes the way the history of slavery and uplift collapsed form and content in African American letters, a history that is characterized as propelling African American artists inevitably into an unavoidable tradition of social reform: “By the apex of the Harlem Renaissance, then, certain latent assumptions about the relationships between art and life had become prescriptive canon. In 1925, Du Bois outlined what he called ‘the social compulsion’ of black literature, built as it was, he contended, on ‘the sorrow and strain inherent in American slavery, on the difficulties that sprang from emancipation, on the feelings of revenge, despair, aspiration, and hatred which arose as the Negro struggled and fought his way upward.’… The confusion of realms [life and art] was complete: the critic became social reformer, and literature became an instrument for the social and ethical treatment for the social and ethical betterment of the black person’ (Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self [New York: Oxford, 1987], 30). Gates continues and eventually claims, “Black literature and its criticism, then, have been put to uses that were not primarily aesthetic; rather, they have formed part of a larger discourse on the nature of the black and his or her role in the order of things” (42). 24. Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” 30. 25. Ibid., 30. 26. Hortense Spillers makes a more elaborate and sophisticated version of this point in her “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date” Diacritics (1994). 27. Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Life and Death in America’s Wound Culture (New York: Routledge, 1998), 34–35. 28. In addition to Spillers, the ambiguity of race, in novels that wish to articulate racial difference, inspires a host of problems that document the flexibility of racial difference. Novels about racial passing, for instance, Nella Larsen’s Passing, become opportunities for critics and readers of African American literature to explore, often thematically, what happens when racial difference cannot be so quickly assigned by the way a body appears (or does not appear) to be racialized in a minority fashion. In one of the more sophisticated analyses of Larsen’s text, Lauren Berlant suggests that this text narrates a desire for racial relief, a desire for the suppression of minority embodiment that makes the privileges of abstract citizenship a possibility. Because, “The white, male body is the relay to legitimation, but even more that the power to suppress that body, to cover its tracks and its traces, is the sign of real authority, according to constitutional fashion,” (Lauren Berlant, “National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life,” in Comparative American Identities. ed. Hortense J.Spillers [New York: Routledge, 1991], 113), Larsen’s protagonist Irene wants the ability to
erase her own traces, her own too-local and specific body. Berlant, however, alludes to the ways in which “American women and African Americans have never had the privilege to suppress the body,” and thus gives a special position to the mulatta character: “the most abstract and artificial of embodied citizens. She gives lie to the dominant code of juridical representation by repressing the ‘evidence’ the law would seek—a parent, usually a mother—to determine whether the light skinned body claimed a fraudulent relation to the privileges of whiteness” (113). And as a figure, the “paradigm problem citizen,” she has the capacity to appeal for body relief, for the “state’s prophylaxis,” that would allow corporeality to be made less important, if not invisible. Such excellent readings of racial and dominant forms of embodiment or disembodiment, as Berlant’s discussion of the “State” indicate, immediately make race too coherently thematic at the expense of focusing on the ways such frustrating forms of “deep embodiment” are required so African American writers can articulate difference from abstract embodiment. Berlant, and others, de-emphasize the ways in which narratives have been made purposefully to articulate the multiple uses, political or not, of a hyperembodied body. Berlant anticipates and counters when she asserts, “But sometimes a person doesn’t want to seek the dignity of an always-already-violated body, and wants to cast hers off, either for nothingness, or in a trade for some other, better model” (114). This is undoubtedly true; but Larsen and other African American writers such as Baldwin were in the business of making literature that would highlight some value, “dignity” or not, in what makes African American embodiment recognizable, indeed different than other forms of embodiment, through their literary practice. That is, there is value in exploiting the abjectness of racialized difference in a literature with the expressed purpose of articulating such a difference. Racial difference, as the figure of the mulatta immediately indicates, is also a textual problem: how does one represent racial specificity and “deep embodiment” when what racial difference means is always contested, always vacillating between a presence and absence of difference, between racialized bodies and abstract and “white” erasable bodies? As Irene’s husband Brian answers Irene’s questions about why people pass for different races, Brian responds, “If I knew that, I’d know what race is” (Nella Larsen, Passing in An Intimation of Things Distant: The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen [New York: Anchor Books, 1992], 216). Part of the work of Passing is to elaborate a greater written texture to the “is” of race. 29. Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000) and Robyn Wiegman’s book are helpful in tracking the difficult permutations “race” in the twentieth century. 30. Hortense J.Spillers, “‘All the Things You Could Be Now, if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race,” in boundary 2 23:3 (1996), 78–79. 31. Recent useful examples include: Samira Kawash, Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Narrative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); Patricia McKee, Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); McKay Jenkins, The South in Black in White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999, Siobhan Somerville, Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). 32. Despite many attempts to correct, through literature, the African American historical record, we are often left with images of histories that reassert the lack of a historical record for African American bodies, especially when the point of historical origins resides within narratives of slavery and historical recovery. Toni Morrison is a primary culprit who, when faced with no possibility of an historical archive, decides to make one up, only to then misname her labor, “I consider my gravest responsibility is not to lie”: “It’s [her ‘access’ to the ‘interior life’ of slaves] a kind of literary archeology: on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world these remains imply” (Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Out
There, 302). Curiously, the “remains” of the slave life most saliently captured in the urcontemporary-literary text about slavery, Beloved, is the protagonist Sethe s savagely whipped back, a body/text that occasions a reading of the marks of her very-recent slave past as a natural history. Her scars are the kinds of remain that occasion a cry from the white woman who helps deliver Sethe’s baby: “Amy unfastened the back of her [Sethe’s] dress and said ‘Come here, Jesus,’ when she saw. Sethe guessed it must be bad because after that call to Jesus Amy didn’t speak for a while” (Morrison, Beloved [New York: Plume, 1987], 79). Amy’s solution to the problem posed by the difficulties of the historical marks, the problem of the silence following her call to Jesus, is to turn that history into a “chokecherry tree… You ‘ve got a whole tree on it [her back]. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder” (Morrison, Beloved, 79). And Amy repeats the last sentiment, “Wonder what God had mind,” as the solution to the very physical index she has of a past, violent event, lending the historical narrative a repetitive quality that makes quick connections between African American history with the “naturalized” text of the ripped-open slave body that must always be imagined, transformed through a literary name: “I’m trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left…then the approach that’s most productive and trustworthy for me is the recollection that moves from image to the text. Not from the text to image” (303). The repeating image, which Morrison describes as floating around, obsessing the artist, engenders a “trustworthy’ text, a “truth,” that postures as a “filling in of the [textual] blanks, and the act of historical recollection is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding’” (305). The flood of history, the memory, of an imagined and scarred body yields the “recovery.” Yet, this kind of “history,” often punctuated by wonder about “God’s” motives, sounds very much like the what “black culture” and “black bodies” have always loaned the European, critical imagination: the capacity for a repetition that sidesteps narratives of historical progress and transformation, In Morrison’s literary treatment of African American history, the history of slave bodies becomes the same thing as “historylessness,” a traumatic return to the natural condition of blackness, where the body becomes the text that undermines white logics (Amy is silenced by the slave body she finds and reads), where the text confirms its inability to be self-conscious, to be able to read itself into the kind of knowing (or sight) that Amy is able to possess and exact, in spite of Sethe’s own corporeal experience (Sethe continues to call her scars a “tree” throughout the narrative). Morrison, in her own descriptions of historical significance and her literary dramatizations of slave history, falls prey to what Wiegman calls an immediate difficulty in the description of racial specificity: the risk of asserting an essence of blackness. The sign of history becomes its opposite (timelessness), and one “remembers” over and over again what was lost, what represents the piercing hurt of the historical record. 33. See Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic; Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). 34. Hortense J.Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, Diacritics Summer 1987, 67. 35. ibid., 68. 36. John is born out of wedlock. 37. Spillers, “Mama,” 68–69. 38. Ibid., 68. 39. For example, John has numerous moments when he is made a witness to the power of religious words—a watching made possible, within the narration, by the materialization of religious words into objects, or through the Word’s manifestation in physical proxies. Certainly in this novel religious words are the texts lingua franca, “scare-quoting” John’s entire life as they literally erupt on almost every page. Just as the words, usually in italics, draw attention to themselves to the reader, religious words are made obvious to the novel’s characters through their “materialization,” through their appearance in the legible, material
culture of the text. Literalizations of the novels often repeated phrase—“but the Word [of the Lord] is hard” (58)—occur throughout: for instance, religious words, as we know, exist as the Grimes’ family’s “flowered mottoes” that communicate religious messages in “raised letters” (27); as red painted letters in the store-front church window, “TEMPLE OF THE FIRE BAPTIZED” (50); as the domineering Bible on the church’s pulpit; and as a “scarlet altar cloth that bore the golden cross and the legend: JESUS SAVES” (53). But, these religious words, appearing as solid, materialized objects, are what enable John to construct his own American Grammar book, his own racial “how-to” instruction manual, by drawing him back to the impossible but necessary scenes of his own racial origin, his own dark flesh:
He tried, but in such despair!—the utter darkness does not present any point of departure, contains no beginning, and no end—to rediscover, and, as it were, to trap and hold tightly in the palm of his hand, the moment preceding his fall, his change. But that moment was also locked in darkness, was wordless, and would not come forth. He remembered only the cross: he had turned again to kneel at the altar, and had faced the golden cross. And the Holy Ghost was speaking— seeming to say, as John spelled out the so abruptly present and gigantic legend adorning the cross: Jesus Saves. (194) John’s origin, his own historical starting point, is shot through with contradictions: it has no recognizable temporality (“no beginning, and no end”), and it, like Spillers’ distinctions between flesh and body, can only be heuristic—it is a moment locked in darkness, in the flesh that can only be accessed through words that do not bring forth a pre-divine moment before the fall into black skin. But the only available words within the “wordless” darkness are religious, spoken through the Holy Ghost at the same moment when John learns to spell the legend across the altar. John, through the painful process of interacting with religious rhetoric as objects or people, watches and spells out his own rediscovery in a language that does not correspond with and alleviate the physical sensations of his own body. John learns to repeat the words that hurt and domineer his flesh—they are the available language for the public expression of the pain his body feels around the religious world devoted to the hardness of the religious Word. As Sister McCandless, another congregation member, instructs, “You is in the Word or you ain’t—ain’t no halfway with God” (59). More intimately, John learns that the space within this word is capacious enough to include him in all of his unprincipled disunity, in all of his unknowing darkness that has no beginning or end, just the power, as Spillers describes, “to startle.” 40. Kenneth Burke makes a similar claim when he relies on the instructive possibilities of religious forms to describe the functions of literature in The Philosophy of Literary Form 1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 1–9. Walter Benjamin makes a similar gesture in “The Task of the Translator.” 41. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” in Lenin and Philosophy trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 174. 42. ibid., 171–172. 43. ibid., 173. 44. As in Baldwin, Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” also gives “religion” an intense exemplar status of the abstract that exacts a violence on the body; moreover, he gives us a way of looking at the violent qualities of words, a method of looking at the ways words hurt bodies that have no choice but to repeat them. Judith Butler argues, in an essay on Althusser, what she considers to be an often-missed point in discussions about Althusser’s essay: “The present chapter attempts to reread that essay to understand how
interpellation is essentially figured through the religious example. The exemplary status of religious authority underscores the paradox of how the very possibility of subject formation depends upon a passionate pursuit of recognition which, within the terms of the religious example, is inseparable from a condemnation” (Judith Butler, “Conscience Doth Make Subjects of Us All: Althusser’Zs Subjection,” in The Psychic Life of Power [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997], 113). Not much rereading, however, requires one to understand just how reliant Althusser is on the religious example: the last section of the article, as Butler herself admits, is called, “An Example; The Christian Religious Ideology,” an example that gains its exemplary force from the way it, as Althusser puts it, can be “accessible to everyone.” (Althusser, 77). Indeed, religion is everywhere in the piece not just because the “Church” was once, in Althusser s mind, the one dominant Ideological State Apparatus (that presumably [but not really] gave way to the more contemporary dominant Apparatus, the “School”), but also because religious ideology and religious ideological apparatuses, so quickly and forcefully illustrate, for Althusser, the ways in which ideology operates its subjection magic. He argues that the religious brand of “know-how” puts into relief “imaginary” relations to the productive and more “real” world that ideological “knowhow” cultivates and relies upon to reproduce, endlessly, the “individuals” subjection into unequal and distorted entry into the social, imaginary relations. These relations, moreover, still have a misnamed and misrecognized link to real, “material” conditions that are considered to be relevant to subject and ideological formations, however distant, because distorted, such relevance may seem. Religion so quickly makes easily coherent, in its exemplary force, the ways in which ideology and ideological state apparatuses work. Butler, however, finds the use of religious exemplarity frustrating and restricting in advance (it is a condemnation). And this frustration creates, in Butler’s analysis, a critical blind spot; she does not excavate the ways that frustration can be useful in its restriction. Instead, for Butler, religious exemplarity raises questions of morality and “condemnation’ that further limit the possibilities that an individual can pursue when striving for the very important project of “recognition,” a recognition that is an imaginary and restricted misrecognition that is the always already submission of the individual into social and imaginary relationships that make up the field of social and communal intelligibility. Butler makes no thorough claims about what she thinks “religion” is and the ways in which “religion” link up to moral condemnations; she worries, “How does this religious figuration restrain in advance any possibility of critical intervention in the working of the law [of identity, of sociality, etc.]?” (109). Her assumption of a restricted, and therefore damning, religious figuration in Althusser implicitly yields an uncritical deployment of the religious that reproduces the very frustrations that Butler has with religion: the uncritical acceptance, the “readiness to accept guilt to gain purchase on identity is linked to a highly religious scenario of a nominating call that comes from God” (109). Like Pascal, whom both Butler and Althusser cite as a perfect instance of ideological misrecognition offered through the state apparatuses, Butler just bows down before religious words, repeats them, and unwittingly starts to believe in their immediately comprehensible force, while claiming that they are wholly restrictive. 45. Althusser, 180. Emphasis in the original. 46. Butler is quite helpful when she exploits the scene of interpellation to demonstrate the much ritualized dimension of the scene that requires a movement of the human body that is also a capitulation to a grammar of subject formation, a repetitive practice of ideological “knowhow” that is a guilt-ridden “assumption of the grammatical place within the social as a subject.” In an interesting correspondence, Butler’s description of the interpellating subject recalls, in my mind, John’s conversion into blackness. She writes:
The one who turns around in response to the call [of the police man]does not respond to a demand to turn around. The turning around
is an act, as it were, conditioned by the “voice” of law and by the responsiveness of the one hailed by the law. The “turning around,” is a strange sort of middle ground (taking place, perhaps, in a strange sort of “middle voice”), which is determined both by the law and the addressee, but by neither unilaterally or exhaustively. So Butler can emphasize the way that the imaginary ideological relation is, as Althusser puts it, “endowed with a material existence,” she describes what is not perceived to be “imaginary ”—but rather material: the body in motion, the body in ritualized repetitions. As the body turns, indeed as John’s body turns on the threshing floor, there is the chance that it might not turn in the automatic fashion that insures the subject’s submission into sociality, into a form of being that is always a subjection. Butler questions: Is there a possibility of being elsewhere or otherwise, without denying our complicity in the law that we oppose? Such possibility would require a different kind of turn, one that enabled by law, turns away from the law, resisting its lure of identity, an agency that outruns and counters the conditions of its emergence. Such a turn demands a willingness not to be—a critical desubjectivation—in order to expose the law as less powerful than it seems. (Butler, 130) Butler decides that the law seems powerful because there is a “theological fantasy of the law” that does not allow for the possibility of “materialism’s,” bodies’, abilities to resist the law. Butler hopes, in a very characteristic gesture, that a failure to turn into grammatical place would “undermine the capacity of the subject to ‘be’ in a self-identical sense, but it may also mark the path toward a more open, even more ethical, kind of being, one of or for the future” (Butler, 131). Baldwin’s novel, however, would not be the place to look for such an optimistic, renegade “courage not-to-be.” John does accept the laws call, and he turns, converts, into the place, the place of religious words, he has resisted most of his life. (201). 47. And with this type of religious witnessing, he must learn that this process showcases pain, showcases the violence of being so naked and raw, son “unkindly revealed.” Baldwin everywhere corroborates a more specifically religious theory of the body found in Elaine Scarry’s inquiry into Western religious texts. Scarry writes, “the graphic image of the human body substitutes for the object of belief that cannot be represented.” The hurt image of the human form, which, unlike “God,” can be represented, is necessary because it assures the faithful of the belief’Zs existence, the “realness” of God (and the religions belief system organized under the image of God). When John, for example, is in church and looks at the others experience moments of religious ecstasy, he is reassured of the existence of what has been read in the Bible: these transformed bodies “made real for John that patience, that endurance, that long suffering, which he had read of in the Bible and found so hard to imagine” (15)—“their singing [and their wounds] caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord” (14). In the Judeo-Christian texts, as Scarry points out, Gods “realness” is both absent and present and thus needs some kind of formal structure where the religious and the
secular words can be made, destroyed, and remade (Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the Word [New York: Oxford University Press, 1984], 198). That is, when the realness of God and faith in God is in doubt, the corporeal human form will be narrated as a kind of suffering that serves as “evidence” of Gods otherwise abstract, but still felt, ubiquitous power—a power that is everywhere and nowhere on every page of the JudeoChristian scriptures, a power that is made manifest in words and bodies that believe in such words. Hence, religious scripture, religious language, acquires representations of its power, its semantic force and value, through the rhetoric’s corporeal representatives: violent and violated bodies in pain provide visual evidence for an otherwise abstract and ubiquitous intensity—they provide evidence for the nagging “it” of racial belonging that is made equivalent to religious belonging, thereby more concisely establishing the relations between bodies and words. More exactly, bodies is pain indicate the power and presence of religious words. Bodies, in effect, become the proxies of the Word-power, the semantic force of a religious vocabulary. And inevitably, these powerful words, these powerful indications of Gods semantic and somatic power, unleash their destructive force on John’s body. In order for John to become the newest evidence/incarnation of the Word (and thus part of a community organized around the Word), John has to watch the pain and hardness of the Word; he must watch his body hurt with the formal force of religious rhetoric. 48. Michael L.Cobb, “Pulpitic Publicity: James Baldwin and the Queer Uses of Religious Words,” in GLQ 7:2 (2001):285–312. 49. As I’ve mention in “Pulpitic Publicity,” in his biography of James Baldwin, David Leeming writes, “Obsessed by guilt Jimmy [Baldwin] and John were fascinated by the story of Noah’s son’s sinful viewing of his fathers genitals, and were turned to the rumors of sexuality in the church and the clears signs of it on the streets outside… Both were saved by the direct help of young male ‘saints’ with whom they had fallen in love” (Leeming, James Baldwin New York: Henry Holt, 1994, 85). The specific scriptural reference in Genesis is one where Ham incestuously takes advantage of his father’s s drunken stupor, brags to his brothers about it, and thus receives the curse for his son (Genesis 9.20–26). The annotation of the NRSV argues that “the curse implies that Canaan’s subjugation to Israel was the result of Canaanite sexual practices (Lev 18.24–30).” The Leviticus reference is the passage after the infamous passage that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Lev 18.22),” which makes such sexual transgressions enough of a crime to justify cultural alienation and forced exile. Whether the exile is a result of ritual impurity or homosexual offense is much debated. Nevertheless, John reads himself into the offense, and links it to his own “sinful” practices. 50. At a crucial moment during the conversion, John becomes simultaneously self-reflexive and haughty in relation to the demanding religious and racial presence of his father: “John laughed and moved a little away. ‘I seen it. I seen it. I ain’t the Devils son for nothing ” (198). And this seeing of the “it” recalls the ambiguity of racial and religious experience, and situates that ambiguity, that uncertain referent, in the sexualized body of both his father and John himself. To force this corporeal location, John brings sound into the sensual equation: “And I heard you—all the nighttime long. I know what you do in the dark, black man, when you think the Devils son is asleep. I heard you, riding up and down, and going in and out. I ain’t the Devils son for nothing’“ (198). John’s own defiant vocalizations of the sound and sight of his fathers sex acts, his own angry narration of Gabriel’s sexual (and racial and religious) history, draws into strong relation the noise of his fathers sex and the darkness of the space in which the sex occurs, as well as the color of the race of his father’s body, John tells us that he can hear the color of Gabriel’s body because he has previously seen his own father’s nakedness; John has viewed and eroticized Gabriel’s “sex”: “‘And I hate you. I hate you. I don’t care about your golden crown. I don’t care about your long white robe. I seen you under the robe, I seen you!’” (199). Although it is an imagined instance, John speaks
strongly, emphatically here, about his father’s sex, sexual practice, and racialized body. And although he does not care about the golden crown, he immediately implicates himself in the sexual cycle that secures the mark, and hence the flesh, of blackness, and thus the need for religious words that would save him from such flesh. John has seen what Ham saw, and he understands the way “a curse was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son” (197). John, that is, has a deeper understanding about what occurs whenever people reassert their racial and historical identifications through looking at black nudity, where the nudity of John is the texts most recent incarnation of the Word of blackness. 51. Baldwin, “Nothing Personal,” in The Price of the Ticket, 393.
NOTES TO CHAPTER TWO 1. Alice Walker, “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” in Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor ed. Melvin J.Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark (Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1985), 77. 2. Ibid., 77. 3. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 14. 4. Timothy P.Caron, in his Struggles Over the Word: Race and Religion in O’Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright (Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2000) has argued that the racial blind spots in O’Connor’s work, and in the work of her critics, are persistent. Moreover, he believes that these persistent readings “replicates the white South’s response to racial inequality: why concern ourselves with racial inequality in the here-and-now when everything will be remedied in the hereafter?” (51). 5. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood 1952 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 76. Further citations will appear parenthetically in the text. 6. Although there is much scholarship on the potential relationships that O’Connor had with Civil Rights, the “race question,” and other social concerns surrounding her writing, much of the debates revolve around a similar set of questions, culminating into very illuminating historicist accounts of her work. See, for instance, Susan Edmunds, “Through a Glass Darkly: Visions of Integrated Community in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” in Contemporary Literature 37:4 (Winter 1996), 559–585. Also, see the very instructive John Lance Bacon, Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), especially the chapter, “The Segregated Pastoral.” Rather than highlighting the correspondences between her work and the immediate social context of her writing, my chapter is more preoccupied with the way the question of how to represent racial distinction influenced her literary aesthetic. 7. These early critics who explicitly state as much: Claire Kahane in “The Artificial Niggers,” Massachusetts Review 19 (1978): 183–98. Melvin G. Williams in “Black and White: A Study in Flannery O’Connor’s Characters,” Black American Literature Forum 10 (1976): 130–132. 8. A useful study of this kind of critical analysis can be found in McKay Jenkins, The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1999). See also Patricia McKee’s Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999). Another more historical study is Valerie Babb’s Whiteness Visible: The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature and Culture (New York: NYU Press, 1998). 9. Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 8–9.
10. Besides Morrison, the list of foundational texts that have come to be associated with “Whiteness Studies” include, among many others: David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991); Richard Dyer, White (New York: Routledge, 1997); and White Lies: Race and the Myth of Whiteness (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999). 11. Warren Montag, “The Universalization of Whiteness,” in Whiteness: A Critical Reader ed. Mike Hill (New York: NYU Press, 1997), 285. 12. The most helpful essay on the uses of the category of the universal to implement racialized distinctions, see Étienne Balibar’s “Racism as Universalism,” in his Masses, Classes, and Ideas (New York: Routledge, 1994). 13. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1953), 28. 14. Ibid., 29. 15. Ibid., 29. 16. Martha Stephens, The Question of Flannery O’Connor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 93. 17. Katerine Fugin, Faye Rivard, and Margaret Sieh, “An Interview with Flannery O’Connor,” Censer (College of St. Theresa, Winona, Minnesota) Fall 1960. 18. Some essays are articulating responses to this question: D.Dean Shackelford, “The Black Outsider in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor,” The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 18 (1989): 79–90; Ralph C. Wood, “Where is Your Voice Coming From: Flannery O’Connor on Race,” Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 22 (1993–1994):90–118; and most recently, the Edmunds essay cited above. 19. O’Connor, in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” laments the lack of a coherent artistic vision she attributes to groups of writers like the Southern Agrarians. She finds that the writer now must work according to her or his own principles, and then proceeds to sketch, quickly, the reasons for her own realistic innovations—her interventions into an American realistic genre of writing she finds shallow and predictable. 20. Michael Kreyling’s Inventing Southern Literature (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998) is helpful in charting the developments of not only Southern literature, but also criticism and academic institutions around Southern literature. 21. John F.Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1987), 2. 22. James Baldwin makes a quick comment about Faulkner’s choice to describe primarily his African American characters in an appendix to The Sound and Fury as “and they endured,” Baldwin recognizes the supreme importance survival and, hence, timelessness functions to articulate what the African American presence suggests for the most significant writer of the South (“Everybody’s Favorite Protest Novel” in The Price of the Ticket [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987]). 23. Kreyling, 34. 24. One example is the informative but still much too coherent discussion in Janet Egleson Dunleavy’s “A Particular History: Black and White in Flannery O’Connor’s Short Fiction,” in Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor ed. Melvin J.Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark (Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1985), 186–202. 25. Kreyling, 34. 26. The previously cited essays by Dunleavy, Bacon, and Edmunds describe in detail this influence. 27. Kreyling, 110. 28. For a helpful discussion of the way blackness has come to be defined through the clumsiness of the one-drop distinction, see F. James Davis’ Who is Black?: One Nations’ Definition (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991). 29. Balibar writes that every human universalism must involve a “definition of the human species, or simply the human…[leading] to an infinite process of demarcation between the
human, the more than human and the less than human (Supermen and Untermenschen) and the reflection of these two limits within the imaginary boundaries of the human ‘species’” (197). 30. Sally Fitzgerald, “Introduction,” in Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), xix. 31. O’Connor, “The Artificial Nigger,” 230. 32. Montag is helpful in his somewhat historical discussion of whiteness’ emergence and reliance on the kinds of demarcations Balibar describes: “In a certain sense, one of the moments in the invention of the white race was its universalization in a movement that replaced the distinctions between ] black and white ‘races,’ Varieties of human species’ according to Buffon, with the distinctions between the human and the animal” (285). 33. O’Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” in Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (New York: The Library of America, 1988), 809. 34. Ibid., 809. 35. Marshall Bruce Gentry, in his Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1986), gives a concise summary about the dominant strands of argument in O’Connor criticism. I will condense the positions outlined: 1) there is no theological intent in her work; 2) her religious position is overly harsh and moralizing; 3) there is something not religious but very demonic in her writing; or 4) there is some combination of religious and non-religious elements in her writing. 36. I am thinking about a typical narrative concerning the relationship between universal truth claims (qua religion) and literature that makes religion and literature almost synonymous, or at least fungible—the story W.K.Wimsatt, in 1948, quickly derides when he asserts, “In the now well known formula, poetry was more and more to take the place of both religion and philosophy,” (The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry [New York: Noonday Press, 1948], 275). 37. See chapter one for a discussion on the way sinful, dirtiness codes black flesh, and makes this coding reliant on a religious rhetoric that always demeans blackness at the same moment it describes it. 38. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 243. 39. O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” 814. 40. Ibid., 817. 41. It would be an error, I think, to read Hazel’s flight from body, from movement, and from color as a promotion for the pursuit of white universality. The associations that connect blackness with decay, negativity, primitive, and an ahistorical historicity are indeed difficult to amalgamate into a positive portrait of African Americanness. But neither are the frustrated and improbable flights away from white body the stuff out of which representations of a good white identity are made. The too quick reading of Hazel’s plight and his racist involvement with ambiguously and not-so-ambiguously raced bodies would attribute racist motivations to O’Connor’s work. 42. O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in Collected Works, 817. 43. ibid., 819. 44. O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” 802.
NOTES TO CHAPTER THREE 1. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstone 1959; (New York: Feminist Press, 1981), 224. Further citations will appear in the text.
2. Helpful critical attention has been encouraged by Mary Helen Washington’s “Afterword,” Brown Girl, Brownstones (New York: Feminist Press, 1981), 311–324, Paule Marshall’s own biographical essays, as well as the extreme importance of Silla’s verbal artistry. Quite recently, Eugenia DeLamotte explains Silla’s power in a chapter from her book, “‘The Mothers Voice,” in Places of Silence: Fiction of Paule Marshall (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 10–40. 3. Washington, ibid., 312. 4. In contrast, Barbara Christian advocates a reading protocol that would jettison a more nuanced scrutiny of the distinctions between African Americans and Afro-Caribbean texts; for Christian, Marshall’s novel “is an American novel, for it records the immigrant’s experience, which gives America so much of its uniqueness. In this novel, though, the immigrant experience is…heightened in that these newcomers are black, subject to the racism of this society as well as to America’s hesitation to accept anything ‘alien’ into its body” (Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976 [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988], 81). 5. The work of Carol Boyce Davies is crucial in figuring the more global dynamics of AfroCaribbean women’s literature critically within the boundaries of the postcolonial analytic— even if she thinks of postcoloniality as a premature “misnaming of realities.” See, “Writing Home: Gender, Heritage and identity in Afro-Caribbean Women’s Writing in the U.S.” in Black Women, Writing Identity: Migrations of the Subject (New York: Routledge, 1994), 113–129. Hortense Spillers, in (“Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World,” in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition eds. Hortense J.Spillers and Marjorie Pryse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 151–175, also contributes to this kind of criticism of Marshall. Religious rhetoric as rhetoric, however, does not make it into their analyses. 6. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks 1952 Trans. Charles Lam Markham (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 11. 7. When Ralph Ellison answers a question about the definition of “Negro culture,” he reminds us of something that is hard to remember: “I know of no valid demonstration that culture is transmitted through the genes” (Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act 1953 [New York: Vintage, 1964], 261). Although quite commonsensical by now, his statement demonstrates one of the most impressive gifts found within Ellison’s criticism—he refuses to make the characteristics and “culture” of “blacks,” “slaves,” “Negroes,” or “African Americans” uncomplicatedly adhere to the physiology or pigmentation of the body that quickly identifies (or misidentifies) the “nature” or “color” of African American experience in mid-twentiethcentury US culture. Instead, he is fully aware of the way that abstractions like “slave” or “Negro” or “black” roughly describe “a people whose origins began with the introduction of African slaves to the American colonies in 1619, and which today represents the fusing with the original African strains of many racial blood lines—among them English, Irish, Scotch, French, Spanish, and American Indian ” (262). Insistently, he mixes up the cultural “blood” of African Americans with “mainstream American culture,” yielding the kinds of expressions that reveal the “close links which Negro Americans have with the rest of the nation and these cultural expressions are constantly influencing the larger body of American culture and are in turn influenced by them” (263). Through his deliberate refusal to reduce blackness to genes, and his desire to remind his reader how the physical metaphors of connection must be read quite closely (“blood links,” “body of American culture”), Ellison reminds us that African Americanness is as much a metaphor as a constitutive and influencing fact of American culture writ large. The black body is not always a real body as much as it is a literary figure that frustratingly responds to and shapes the products of African American and American culture. As a consequence, he always confuses the abstractions that try to annihilate the differences within larger abstractions like “slave” and “Negro” by pointing to the divergences of the “reality.” He productively does so, however,
not by focusing on local, historical instances that undermine large statements about “Negro Culture,” but by focusing on the way that these realities are confused with their abstractions, These dark “shadows” are often mistaken for the physical reality, the acts. The genes of African American experience are overshadowed by the illusions one finds in cultural products about African Americanness: words and art, “the blues, the spirituals, the jazz, the dance” that were primary cultural possessions of those who were not given full, official freedom. The confusion between shadow and act makes the project of creating an art that is intimately tied up with the representation of race often lose track of the illusion, the art, that needs to be attended to in order to enable one not to resort to the typical protocols of misreading. These protocols are forgetful of the way that reality, especially the reality of blackness, is presented, and thus filtered, through an illusion. 8. Hortense J.Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” 65. 9. Paule Marshall, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” Callaloo 18 (Spring– Summer 1983):27. 10. Ibid., 17–18. 11. Ibid., 18. 12. Ibid., 229. 13. Fanon, 232. In Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), Homi Bhabha’s influential reading of Fanon interprets the lines right before his apostrophic prayer (“I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness”) as evidence for Fanon’s “deep hunger for humanism” (61), however ironic such humanism might be. This characterization of Fanon helps Bhabha focus on a loosely defined political project using the in-sights of postcoloniality and poststructuralism:
What remains to be thought is the repetitious desire to recognize ourselves doubly, as, at once, decentered in the solidary processes of the political group, and yet, ourselves as consciously committed, even individuated, agent of change-the bearer of belief. What is this ethical pressure to ‘account for ourselves’-but only partially-within a political theatre of agonism, bureaucratic obfuscation, violence and violation? (65) Bhabha focuses on the deep hunger for connection and humanist projects of “every consciousness” as the desire for a specific account of a self that can transform one’s world through specific political acts in spite of sophisticated knowledge about the way solidarity and political activity often violently excludes and violates those very political subjects. That is, despite the insights about the ways communities and cultures are always mired in a violating contingency, there is a “pressure,” a “desire” also to feel grounded in action and political activity—to be active in the socio-political transformations that only partially reflect and make up that speaking subject. Bhabha then names the pressure of this account of the person as the pressure of “belief,” the weightiness of being the “bearer of belief.” This description echoes his earlier, and quite characteristically poststructuralist, conflation of the fiction of identity with other “fictions” of constancy and power: “have our fables of identity ever been unmediated by another; have they ever been more (or less) than a detour through the word of God, or the writ of Law, or the Name of the Father; the totem, the fetish, the telephone, the superego, the voice of the analyst, the closed ritual of the weekly confessional or the ever open ear of the monthly coiffeuse?” (57). For Bhabha, the consistency of these supreme interlocutors is laced together in a parallel construction that serves to underscore the way each source of mediation is thought to be a solid and consistent linguistic trajectory that enables us to feel that our own identitarian fables are actual and real. We are given weight and the ability not to feel entirely partial by assuming that there is strength and consistency, if not annihilating and destructive power, in the ultimate Other (God, the letter of the Law, Dad, or even the hairdresser). One, that is, feels most
coherently human when she or he has a powerful and potent discussion partner, another person or concept that witnesses and pushes the speakers story of a self into a realist genre. Bhabha, although quite suggestive and helpful, is reliant, here, on a reading of religion that is much too thematic, that assumes that ones religious talk is actually directed toward a powerful, and thus binding, discussion partner or explicit political program, that the mediation in an other that one desires is thought to be there in all of its consistency and strength. I want to shift the emphasis away from the coherent interlocutor Bhabha assigns thematically to God, and pay more attention to the way that Fanon’s voice deliberately becomes politically literary when he evacuates the fixity of his addressee through the religious apostrophe. Moreover, I want to think about the way that the literariness of the religious apostrophe helps Fanon, and later Marshall, open up the linguistic field of race. Fanon’s final prayer speaks not to a perceived reality (or transcendence) but rather to something that cannot be actualized or even thought of as something coherent. Indeed, Fanon’s own literary appeals to religious rhetoric at the close of his study, his deliberate use of apostrophe, addresses something that is deliberately not there, that is absent, and that cannot always provide one with a mooring post for one’s identity—a pernicious fiction of identity Bhabha otherwise sophisticatedly critiques. Fanon concludes his lament with literary language that uses its stylized qualities to open up the possibilities of signification rather than close and wrap the speaking subject with the entire “weight of a [racist] civilization.” 14. Spillers, 65. 15. Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University, 1997), 60. 16. Marshall, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” 28. 17. Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1987), 185. 18. Johnson, 198. 19. Ibid., 198–199.
NOTES TO CHAPTER FOUR 1. William Faulkner, Light in August 1932 (New York: Vintage, 1990), 333. Further citations will appear parenthetically in the text. 2. Faced with the volatile potentials and actualities of integration in a segregated society, the Courts subsequent rulings did not foster speedy transitions. The famously slow-moving phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” from Brown II, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), has now become a cliché about the unwillingness for the Court to take quick action in desegregating the volatile South. 3. William Faulkner, “Letter to a Northern Editor,” in Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters Ed. James B.Merriwether (New York: Random House, 1965), 87. 4. See especially, a letter originally published in Ebony, “A Letter to the Leaders in the Negro Race,” as well as a number of speeches, “Address to the Southern Historical Association,” and “On Fear: Deep South in Labor: Mississippi” in Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters. 5. Throughout such responses, Faulkner struggles with the different conditions and different qualities of white and black races as they are conceptualized through concerns about the entire scene and cultural apparatuses around public education and pedagogy. While thinking about the divergent conditions between black and white schools, Faulkner posits an ideal that came under fire: “what we nee[d] in Mississippi was the best possible schools, to make the best possible use of men and women we produced, regardless of what color they were. And even if we could not do that, at least let us have one which would make no distinction among pupils except that of simple ability, since our principal and perhaps desperate need in America today was that all Americans at least should be on the side of America; that if all Americans were on the same side, we would not need to fear that the other nations and
ideologies would doubt us when we talked of human freedom” (“On Fear; Deep South in Labor: Mississippi,” in Essays, 94), Citizenship and pedagogical opportunity needed to be unified rather than divided according to the shady logic of color. Although his overall policy recommendations, and precisely what he means by going “slow” are dispersed and suspect (especially his desire for people of color to be calm and respectful), his concerns are in the service of thinking through the divisive knee-jerk reactions that uncritically “cloud the issue by that purely automatic sympathy for the underdog simply because he is under…” (“A Letter to the Leaders in the Negro Race,” 107–108), Faulkner understands that the issues raised by educational opportunity are the issues that engage the complicated and shifting nature of racial difference not only for the South, but for the US and the world at large. Consequently, he advocates careful rather than “automatic” attention to the “race issue.” 6. Noticing as much, however, is not particularly difficult. Concerns with time, especially as they are articulated through questions of history, are a dominant theme in the literature and history of both the Old and the New South. As the extremely influential W.J.Cash so elegantly states, “So far from being modernized, in many ways it [the South] has actually always marched away, as to this day it continues to do, from the present to the past” (The Mind of the South, li). For a historical writing about these very concerns, see C.Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana Press, 1960). 7. James Snead, “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T.Minh-ha, and Cornel West (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 216–217. 8. Doreen Fowler, “Introduction,” in Faulkner and Religion: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J.Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), ix. 9. Ralph Ellison, “The Shadow and Act,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1953), 273– 281. 10. See Mark Seltzer’s impressive chapter, “Physical Capital,” in Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992). Seltzer writes, “These [the model American citizen, for instance] are the bodies-in-the-abstract that populate consumer and machine culture. But it is not merely that the privilege of the relative disembodiment requires the more deeply embodied bodies (in con-sumer culture: the female body, the racialized body, the working body) against which this privilege can be measured. Beyond that, it requires those more visibly embodied figures that, on the one side, epitomize the tensions between the typical and the individual and between the artifactual and the natural and, on the other, are the figures through which these tensions can be recognized and displaced or disavowed. And, beyond that, it is just these tensions, epitomized by and displaced upon the overly explicit embodiments of physical capital, that fascinate and arouse interest in consumer culture: for instance, the erotic visibilities of the female body or the ‘raciness’ of the racialized body” (64), These bodies, moreover, arouse interest in the consumer culture of American literature and the ways this literature, with its appeals to protest and sentimentality, were heavily consumed by a literary marketplace. 11. Of course I am referring to W.E.B.DuBois’ oft quoted concept from The Souls of Black Folk. 12. James Snead, Figures of Division, (New York: Metheum, 1986), 2. 13. One can hardly wait for Jacqueline Goldsby’s brilliant dissertation, After Great Pain: The Cultural Logic of Lynching and the Problem of Realist Representation in America, 1882– 1922 (Ph.D. Diss., Yale University, 1999) to make it into print. In her rigorous historical and literary scholarship, Goldsby demonstrates the ways that technologies of realism and realistic representation were intricately connected to highly violent and spectacular representations of racial difference. 14. Hortense J.Spillers, “Notes on an Alternative Model—Neither/Nor,” in The Difference Within: Feminism and Critical Theory eds. Elizabeth Meese and Alice Parker (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1989), 168.
15. Faulkner’s own notion of a unified voice about educational policy and the crises these policies evoke is a religious voice. In response to the fear of the race issue and desegregation, Faulkner writes, “There are many voices in Mississippi…there are all the voices in fact, except one. That one voice which would adumbrate them all to silence, being the superior of all since it is the living articulation of the glory and sovereignty of God and the hope and aspiration of man. The Church, which is the strongest unified force in Southern life since all Southerners are not white and are not democrats, but all Southerners are religious and all religions serve the same single God, no matter by what name He is called. Where is that voice now…” (“On Fear,” 98–99). Despite the truth value of his claims, Faulkner clearly regards religious rhetoric as a strong and universal voice—it is an idiom of unity, if not the necessary voice of desegregation. 16. Spillers, “Neither/Nor,” 168. 17. For instance, according to Arthur F.Kinney, Faulkner, “[a]pparently haunted by an actual lynching in his own town—that of Nelse Patton—he set out to write, fictively, a detailed analysis of racial attitudes and lynching in Light in August, both deepening and mystifying racial matters by using as a protagonist Joe Christmas, a man who may or may not be partly black” (Go Down Moses: The Miscegenation of Time [New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996], 26). Although there are telling similarities between the plot of Light in August and the story of Nelse Patton—such as the details surrounding the death of Mrs. McMullen, whose throat was allegedly slit by Nelse Patton in 1908 (see the Lafayette County Press 9 September 1908 [Oxford, Mississippi])—the deliberate confusions of Christmas help Faulkner make race be what Hortense Spillers calls a “mystification” (“Notes on an Alternative Model—Neither/Nor,” 168), make race not correspond so quickly with the historical lynching of Patton. 18. See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 30. 19. I do not, at least not here, want to make a large argument about psychoanalysis and race; much work has already begun. See, for instance, Barbara Johnson’s book, The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and Gender (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). Yet, there has been much too much attention paid to the Lacanian imaginary rather than the hyperembodied racial symbolics used to render something like the Real. One notable exception is Hortense Spillers, “All the Things You Could Be Right Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race,” in boundary 2 (1996). In contrast to any psychoanalytic orthodoxy, I prefer to use the concepts developed by psychoanalytic thought to help read metaphorically, much along the lines of Diana Fuss’ Identification Papers (New York: Routledge, 1994). 20. In chapter one, I described Spillers’ cogent distinctions between body and flesh. 21. Slavoj i ek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), 116. 22. See my discussion of Elaine Scarry’s work in chapter one. 23. I really do not want to make a large argument about psychoanalysis here. I only want to think about the ways of reading about the inscrutability of a body that must make it into a literary text. i ek’s formulation helps me suggest this kind of relation more forcefully. 24. And it certainly has been already. For an exemplary instance, see Lauren Berlant’s “’68, or Something,” in Critical Inquiry 21:1 (Autumn 1994), 124–155. 25. Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “What is a Minor Literature?” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T.Minh-ha, and Cornel West (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 59. 26. Ibid., 65. 27. Ibid., 64.
28. David Krause, “Reading Bon’s Letter and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!,” PMLA 99:2 (March 1984), 225–241. Krause quotes from Joseph Blotner’s Selected Letters of William Faulkner. 29. i ek, 116. 30. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 26. 31. This argument is not exclusively Fabian’s. My understanding of the sign of history (the chronicle of past events and distinct moments in time) has been influenced by Nicolas B.Dirks’ assertions that “History is surely one of the most important signs of the modern,” in his essay, “History as the Sign of the Modern,” in Public Culture 2:2 (Spring 1990), 25. Dirks builds interestingly upon the work of Hayden White. 32. I’m thinking of the paranoid logics of the one-drop rule, particular to the pathology of racial difference in the United States. 33. Eric Sundquist’s canonical study of Faulkner exemplifies the way that the racial confusions offered by Faulkner in the figure of Joe are sometimes overlooked when there is need to make him a distinct caricature of black and white race relations. Following a compelling historicist project, Sundquist reads the figure of Joe as one who does, indeed, contain mixed blood: “Light in August is the greatest American treatment of the problem of ‘passing’” (71). He assumes the mixed, mulatto status of Christmas, which quickly brings Joe’s blood into a precisely confused relationship between black and white that speaks to the larger social troubles of the early-twentieth American century, As a consequence, he relies on the number two: black and white, divided houses, which reasserts a quick and distinguishable economy of difference, perfectly embodied in the passing mulatto, that is the real and realistic story lurking behind the modernist Faulknerian narrative. In sharp contrast, Thadious Davis counters Sundquist’s assertions of Joe Christmas’ mixed blood when she forcefully notes, “Joe Christmas is not the ‘tragic Mulatto,’ a set character type. He does not neatly fit into the mold. Faulkner carefully establishes Joe as a man who does not know his biological background. Joe as an orphan is unable to determine his race according to the usual procedure of blood lineage” (Thadious M.Davis, Faulkner’s “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983], 169). 34. Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963), 49 35. See the NSRV, 22.1–19, especially 22.1: “After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” 36. Judith Butler takes up this issue of precise subjective interpellation and the story of Abraham and Isaac, in an essay on Althusser. She writes, “The present chapter attempts to reread that essay to understand how interpellation is essentially figured through the religious example. The exemplary status of re-ligious authority underscores the paradox of how the very possibility of subject formation depends upon a passionate pursuit of recognition which, within the terms of the religious example, is inseparable from a condemnation” (Judith Butler, “Conscience Doth Make Subjects of Us All: Althusser s Subjection,” in The Psychic Life of Power [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997], 113). 37. Spillers and Sundquist have already described Christmas as a Girardian surrogate victim. See, for instance, Sundquist, “The Strange Career of Joe Christmas,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Faulkner’s Light in August ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), 113; Hortense Spillers, “Neither/Nor.” 38. McKay Jenkins, The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 1. 39. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 306. 40. ibid., 31. 41. ibid., 23.
42. ibid., 32. 43. As I elsewhere argue, sometimes the most vicious denotations of the blasphemous religious sentence might not reveal the “truer” intention of a sentence. As a consequence, sometimes the most toxic expressions of a self can be concealed by the strength of a religious sentence that does not correspond with the literal expression. See my discussion of this phenomenon in “Pulpitic Publicity: James Baldwin and the Queer Uses of Religious Words,” in GLQ 7:2 (2001):285–312. 44. For a discussion of the way that representations of blackness are intricately linked by representations of death, see Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead: Death and “Black” Subjectivity in Twentieth Century Literature and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). 45. Bobbie and her friends are also combative because of Joe’s first murder, and they are accessories to this crime. 46. The work of Jacqueline Goldsby, especially her forthcoming book based on her dissertation work, “After the Great Pain,” has been crucial in my thinking about the ways that race, realism, and lynching are crucial for the establishment of a particularly American tradition of letters. 47. I am referring to Lena’s final comments at the novels end: “‘My, my. A body does get around’“ (507).
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A Althusser, Louis, 23–25, 117nn. 41, 42, 43, 44, 118nn. 45, 46, 133n. 36 B Babb, Valerie, 122n. 8 Bacon, John Lance, 121n. 6, 123n. 26 Baldwin, James, 1, 4, 5, 9–32, 33, 39, 84, 104, 106nn. 14, 1, 2, 9, 110n. 13, 111nn. 14, 22, 112nn. 24, 25, 113n. 28, 115nn. 35, 39, 119nn. 46, 47, 120nn. 48, 49, 50, 121n. 51, 123n. 22, 133n, 43 Balibar, Étienne, 44, 122n. 12, 123nn. 29, 32 Bardeen, Constance, 107n. 9 Barksdale, Richard K., 111n. 15 Benjamin, Walter, 55, 116n. 40, 124n. 37 Berlant, Lauren, 70–71, 112n. 28, 128n. 15, 131n, 22 Bhaba, Homi, 126n. 13 Blotner, Joseph, 132n. 28 Bone, Robert A., 111n. 22 Brooks, Cleanth, 91, 96, 132n. 34 Brooks, Gwendolyn, 64 Brown v. the Board of Education, 81, 128n. 2 Buffon, Georges, 124n. 32 Burke, Kenneth, 11, 106n. 6, 116n. 40 Butler, Judith, 117n. 44, 118n. 46, 133n. 36 C Campbell, James, 107n. 9 Carson, Timothy P., 121n. 4 Cash, W.J., 129n. 6 Chow, Rey, 3, 105n. 7 Christian, Barbara, 125n. 4 Cobb, Michael, 28, 120nn. 48, 49, 133n. 43 Culler, Jonathan, 1, 105n. 1 D Davis, Carol Boyce, 125n. 5 Davis, F.James, 123n. 28 Davis, Thadious, 91, 132n. 33 DeLamotte, Eugenia, 125n. 2
Deleuze, Gilles, 87, 131n. 22, 132nn. 26, 27 Derrida, Jacques, 109n. 11 Desmond, John F., 40, 123n. 21 Dirks, Nicolas B. 132n. 31 Du Bois, W.E.B., 15, 42, 108n. 10, 111n. 18, 112n. 23, 130n. 11 Dunleavy, Janet Egleson, 123nn. 24, 26 Durkheim, Émile, 16 Dyer, Richard, 122n. 10 Dyson, Michael Eric, 109n. 11 E Edmunds, Susan, 121n. 6, 122n. 18, 123n. 26 Eliot, T.S., 1–2, 105nn. 2, 3, 6 Ellison, Ralph, 36, 60, 83, 122nn. 13, 14, 15, 125n. 5, 129n. 9 F Fabian, Johannes, 90, 97, 132nn. 30, 31 Fanon, Frantz, 65, 66–67, 79, 106n. 3, 125n. 5, 126nn. 10, 11, 12, 13 Faulkner, William, 1, 3, 7, 81–104, 106 n. 16, 114n. 31, 121n. 4, 122n. 8, 123n. 22, 128nn. 1, 3, 4, 5, 129n. 8, 130n. 15, 131n. 16, 132nn. 28, 33, 34, 133nn. 37, 45, 47 Fitzgerald, Sally, 44–5, 123n. 30 Fowler, Doreen, 83, 129n. 8 Freud, Sigmund, 114n. 30, 131n. 19 Fugin, Katerine, 122n. 17 Fuss, Diana, 131n. 19 G Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., 3, 106nn. 8, 9, 112n. 23, 131n. 18 Gentry, Marshall Bruce, 124n. 35 Gilroy, Paul, 19, 115n. 33 Girard, René, 94–96, 103, 133nn. 39, 40, 41, 42 Goldsby, Jacqueline, 130n. 13, 133n. 46 Gramsci, Antonio, 105n. 3 Guattari, Mix, 87, 131n. 22, 132nn. 26, 27 H Hanson, Ellis, 2, 105nn. 5, 6, 106n. 10 Hardwick, Elizabeth, 107n. 9 Harris, Trudier, 15, 111nn. 15, 16, 22 Hegel, G.W.F., 82 Holland, Sharon, 133n. 44 Hurston, Zora Neale, 121n. 4 J James, Henry, 114n. 31, 122n. 8 Jameson, Fredric, 109n. 12 Jenkins, McKay, 114n. 31, 122n. 8, 133n. 38 Johnson, Barbara, 75–76, 128nn. 17, 18, 19, 131n. 19
K Kafka, Franz, 87 Kahane, Claire, 122n. 7 Kawash, Samira, 114n. 31 Kinnamon, Kenneth, 111n. 15 Kinney, Arthur F., 131n. 17 Krause, David, 132n. 28 Kreyling, Michael, 42, 60, 123nn. 20, 23, 25, 27 L Lacan, Jacques, 86, 131n. 19 Larsen, Nella, 112n. 28 Leeming, David, 120n. 49 Levy, Leonard, 105n. 4 Lincoln, C.Eric, 16, 111nn. 20, 21 M Mamiya, Lawrence, 16, 111nn. 20, 21 Marshall, Paule, 1, 4, 6–7, 63–79, 84, 104, 106n. 15, 124n. 1, 125nn. 2, 3, 4, 5, 126n. 9, 128nn. 13, 16 McBride, Dwight, 108 n.9 McKee, Patricia, 114n. 31, 122n. 8 Meyer, Howard N., 110n. 13 Montag, Warren, 35, 122n. 11, 123n. 32 Morrison, Toni, 33, 36, 60, 64, 114nn. 31, 32, 121n. 3, 122nn. 8, 10 N Nelson, Cary, 109n. 12 O O’Connor, Flannery, 1, 4–5, 33–62, 84, 104, 106n. 13, 121nn. 1, 4, 5, 6, 122nn. 7, 17, 18, 19, 123nn. 21, 24, 30, 31, 124nn. 33, 34, 35, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44 P Pascal, Blaise, 118n. 44 R Rivard, Faye, 122n. 17 Roediger, David R. 122n. 10 Rushdie, Salman, 105n. 4 S Scarry, Elaine, 119n. 47, 131n. 22 Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky, 4, 106nn. 11, 12 Seltzer, Mark, 17, 83, 112n. 27, 129n. 10 Shackleford, D.Dean, 122n. 18 Sieh, Margaret, 122n. 17 Snead, James, 82, 84, 90, 129n. 7, 130n. 12 Sobel, Mechal, 110n. 14
Somerville, Siobhan, 113n. 29, 114n. 31 Spillers, Hortense, 11, 19–21, 22, 65, 66, 67, 84, 85–86, 105n. 7, 106n. 7, 112nn. 26, 28, 114n. 30, 115nn. 34, 35, 37, 38, 116n. 39, 125n. 5, 126n. 8, 128n. 14, 130nn. 14, 16, 131nn. 17, 19, 20, 133n. 37 Stephens, Martha, 36–37, 122n. 16 Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 16 Sundquist, Eric, 15, 91, 108 n.10, 132n. 33, 133n. 37 V Valéry, Paul, 67 W Walker, Alice, 33, 121nn. 1, 2 Washington, Mary Helen, 64–65, 125 nn. 2, 3 Watkins, Mel, 16, 106 nn. 4, 5, 111n. 19 White, Hayden, 132n. 31 Wiegman, Robyn, 11, 35, 106n. 8, 113n. 29, 122n. 9 Williams, Melvin G., 122n. 7 Wimsatt, W.K., 124n. 36 Wood, Ralph C., 122n. 18 Woodson, Carter G., 15, 111n. 17 Woodward, C.Vann, 129n. 6 Wright, Richard, 64, 121n. 4 Z Zizek, Slavoj, 86–87, 131nn. 21, 23, 132n. 29