Faulkner's Racialized Aesthetics:
Modernist Loss and Initiation Rites in Faulkner and Literary Studies

Judith L. Sensibar

This essay draws from my forthcoming book and my previously published work concerning what I characterize as William Faulkner's poetics of racialized loss. 1  Here I focus on the contemporanity or nowness of these poetics by suggesting their relevance to the teaching and practice of literary studies in the 21st century. Specifically, I am interested in some of the similarities between the brutal rituals of 19th and 20th century Southern white children's' Jim Crow education into racism that Faulkner's fiction so painfully re-enacts and the initiation rites many of our American graduate students must endure to succeed in our profession.

The Problem:
Lisa Ruddick has noted that “For years literary scholarship has been refining the art of stepping away from the humane connection.”2 Thus my question: how to advocate a return to emotion in our analyses and in our classrooms, a belief in some integrity and even authenticity of the “interior” self ― which I want to argue that modernism at its best (for example, Faulkner's fiction) is about and not seem nostalgically humanist in the negative sense? 3  More specifically, I wonder if by insisting that our students be so concerned with so many poststructural modes of self ― selves that are always conceived of and analyzed as constructed ― we force them to deny and distance themselves, to thus lose touch with the similar level of feeling and sense of interiority that Faulkner's white children's education into Jim Crow racism (their “legacy,” Faulkner calls it) forces them to deny and suppress? Faulkner's fiction tells us, if we let ourselves read it empathically, that these are feelings that “constructed” or not, make us able to love without fear, shame, and disgust and make our desire unbounded by culturally mandated difference. Such readings are what make us passionate about literature and able to empathize with what we read and thereby to learn to value or, at least accept as human, the messiness of our own and others' interiority. As one of my colleagues said recently, “A problem I find with much literary theory today is that in any of its variants it abstracts from literary works, and those works capture us because of their individual characteristics, their quiddity. It's just like psychology and people: we don't love types ― we love David.”4
     Here I can only allude to the ways in which the rituals of Southern white children's education into race and racism practiced during slavery and in the Jim Crow South in which Faulkner was born and raised and about which he always writes, shape his Modernist aesthetics.5  To illustrate my point I will read and discuss one of several kinds of Faulknerian initiation scenes. Then, I want to push a little further to wonder why even the most sophisticated Faulkner criticism continues to insist that loss in his fiction is, in the end, simply a Southern variation on the usual high Modernist nostalgia and all the freight that goes with it. I won't bore you with the litany as you're all numbingly familiar with it. I suggest that when we encourage and in many cases, insist on such readings of Faulkner in our American classrooms, we enact another kind of brutal education rite, one that is designed to teach our students that to be a successful reader/critic/academic, one must suppress the messiness of emotions unleashed by his tropes and poetics of racialized loss. (I'm just using Faulkner criticism and this particular unread trope as an example. Much current criticism in other areas would do as well.)
Unlike the tropes of loss idealized by the High Modernists, the “Men of 1914” ― a flight from emotion ― F's, masked, and to this date read as a similar flight ― is, in fact, founded on a series of tropes that dare not speak their names.

An Alternative Approach:
With Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (1942) as my example, I'm going to read the climatic scene of young Roth Edmond's brutal initiation into race and racism.
   Go Down, Moses is Faulkner's last great novel about loss and mourning. Set like his other novels, in the racially charged cultural terrain of his own North Mississippi, it is about the power of the memory of a love that a racist society cannot (will not?) tolerate, a love for everything that blackness first signified to its white children. 6  Here, Faulkner gives the experience of casting aside and demeaning his black mother to another white boy named Roth Edmonds. He begins by sketching Roth's life before he learns his culture's cruel lessons of racial difference. Until the boy is seven, he identifies completely with his black mother and her family:

Even before he was out of infancy the two houses had become interchangeable: himself and his (black) foster-brother sleeping on the same pallet in the white man's house or in the same bed in the negro's and eating of the same food at the same table in either, actually preferring the negro house, the hearth on which even in summer a little fire burned, centering the life in it, to his own.

This centering, the core of Roth's identity, is Molly Beauchamp and her family. Roth assumes that all children's' earliest identification is with a black mother and that everyone has

The first remembering projected upon a single woman whose skin was likewise dark. One day he knew, without wondering or remembering how he had learned that either, that the black woman was not his mother, and did not regret it; he knew that his own mother was dead and did not grieve. (my italics)  7

     Since Roth's white mother died at his birth, his black mother, Molly Beauchamp, is the only mother he has ever known. Yet while he describes his mirroring relationship with her, he claims to feel no regret or grief when he learns that Molly is not really his mother. Faulkner clarifies the psychic form that Roth's denial takes. To identify not only with the feminine but the black feminine is so shameful and so taboo that the feelings associated with that self have to be killed: “not regret . . . “not grieve.” That loss, because one is never permitted to mourn for it, is felt always as a loss. He then describes the child's conscious fall into race and his subsequent attempts to dismember his black mother in order to assure himself and his community that he is, indeed, white.
     At first Roth experiences his black and white families as “interchangeable” and “same.” Molly literally is his mother. He does not know “race.” He prefers the Beauchamp house and family to his biological father's because he associates it with emotional and physical warmth ― with the safety of unconditional love. In this time he and his foster-brother Henry, roaming the woods, hunting, and playing together were “sufficient, complete, wanting . . . only to love, to question and examine unchallenged, and to be let alone” (107).
     Then one night when he and Henry are seven, Roth suddenly refuses to sleep at the house where his life is “centered” or to share a bed or pallet with Henry. Roth spends the night “lying in a rigid fury of the grief he could not explain, the shame he would not admit” (109). In the morning, he sees that the pallet where he had ordered Henry to sleep alone, is empty. Having cut out his “center,” Roth exiles himself to his biological father's house. Yet within a month he returns to his black family's house and announces, “trembling a little, lordly, peremptory: ‘I'm going to eat supper with you all tonight.'” Molly is impassive but appears infinitely agreeable: “Course you is,” she said. “I'll cook you a chicken.” But when she calls him to the table where in the past they have all eaten together, he suddenly sees that Molly's husband

Lucas was not there and there was just one chair, one plate, his glass of milk beside it, the platter heaped with untouched chicken, and even as he sprang back, gasping, for an instant blind as the room rushed and swam, Henry was turning toward the door to go out of it.

Projecting his own “shame” at what he has done on to his foster-brother, Roth lashes out at Henry:

“Are you ashamed to eat when I eat?” he cried. Henry paused, turning his head a little to speak in a voice slow and without heat: “I aint shamed of nobody,” he said peacefully. “Not even me.” (110)

Molly, as Faulkner's white mother, Maud Falkner said of ”Mammy Caroline Barr,” to whose memory Faulkner dedicated Go Down, Moses, “knows her place.”8 Taking it now, because Roth has assigned her to it, she shocks the white child into the enormity of his cruelty and his loss by presenting it to him at a primal level ― feeding and touching. Roth's his black father's “absence,” his black brother's exit, the single place-setting and the platter heaped with untouched chicken mark his self-imposed and permanent exclusion from his black family. Thus framed and fixed —“It was too late”― Roth panics. Momentarily he is blinded and can't breathe; like the young Thomas Sutpen in his fall into race, Roth loses all sense of time and space as he literally sees his identity with and ties to his black family disintegrate before him. 9
     The narrator concludes, “So he entered his heritage. He ate its bitter fruit” (GDM, pp. 107-110). The violence of Roth's fear and his rage at the shame and emptiness he feels is imaged here, as it is for Joe Christmas in Light in August, as food made by a black mother/lover which he cannot eat. He has indeed dismembered the breast. In the process he has also dismembered himself. Roth is permanently damaged. He will spend his life compulsively and brutally repeating that first loss which he was not permitted to feel. 10
     I suggest that what F is getting at ― what the moral and emotional and physical, often self-medicated anesthesia represented and enacted by his Southern white boys and “men” is ― is a response to the brutal initiation rituals their elders force them to perform in order to be raced white and firmly gendered male or female. Their response (which is what their education intends) is a “flight from emotion” and humaneness. We see this flight and its horrific consequences in Light In August, Absalom, Absalom! and even The Sound and The Fury. Not all emotion ― sex disgusts them; they can only touch in violence and/or sadism because they have had to cut off what they loved most to touch, that first love ― the black maternal. (By black maternal, I do not mean simply the mother. I mean what Faulkner's own fiction tells us – the whole constellation of psychological, familial, social, and cultural connections and intimacies that a white child's education into race forces him/her to deny and demean and, finally, to kill with sentimentalism.) Faulkner's brilliant and painful contribution to Modernism and to humanism was to imagine a language to articulate this hitherto unspeakable psychic destruction. These white children and the adults they become still feel shame ― not for what they have done but for what, despite their education into race, they have failed to do. And so, mostly, they feel rage. And they feel empty. And utterly alone. “The road goes on and on.” (It's an expensive flight). Because their initiation into racism requires that they not feel grief ― “not grieve” and “not regret” (GDM 107) ― they endlessly repeat their defining moment in which they write difference where previously they have felt and seen and loved only the “same.” (Sutpen's and his grandson's falls into race; Quentin Compson's; Joe Christmas', etc., are all marked by blinding psychological and linguistic fragmentation). They survive these rites physically, but they are psychically crippled: they cannot love anyone, especially, as young Henry Beauchamp observes, not themselves.
     Faulkner's critics act similarly by refusing to read/repressing or suppressing the disturbing tropes that speak the brutality of these initiation rites. For example, why don't we discuss the ways in which Faulkner has entwined alcoholism and racism in his delineation of the fall of Sutpen so specifically set out in his first and final appearance? As you know, by the time Sutpen commits the brutal act that results in his murder/suicide, he has become an alcoholic. Why do we never read Charles Bon's letter? Why do we ignore the metaphoric bridge of language (that is in both cases a strong assertion of self in the face of white erasure) Faulkner creates between the Beauchamp family and Roth Edmond's unnamed lover and their son whom Roth's racist “code” forces him cast aside (GDM 110 and 343). Why don't we ask about all those angry young boys and men who are always being force-fed or force-feeding themselves “white lightning” and vomiting or violently throwing away their food? And what about the ubiquitous “rank, negro smelling quilt(s)” ― where Faulkner's white boys invariably flee to find comfort, warmth and even experience fleetingly, as Roth does in Go Down, Moses, a rebirth? This is messy stuff, this compulsively repeated flight from the first love, this grief forbidden and denied. There is no “beauty” here in “hard, dry things.” 11
     As critics and teachers we encourage/force our students into similar flight when we carbo-load them with theory that insists that they distance themselves from texts BEFORE they have learned how to do the kind of reading that lets them feel and thus begin to understand and analyze this really dangerous language like Faulkner's poetics of racialized loss.
     My intent here is not to cast blame; I won't dwell on specific examples. However, you can find them in many of the teaching approaches outlined in the MLA Guide to Teaching the Sound and the Fury and, I imagine, other guides in the same series. 12 Nor am I exempt. I observe what I can only describe as a kind of brittleness and numbness of affect in much of the writing of my own graduate students.
     We also brutalize Faulkner's fiction and our students by valorizing critique that distorts and essentializes it to fit a theoretical and critical model. For example, for a prominent scholar to write that for Faulkner “race-mixing is the only game in town” and that his novels focus “obsessively on its (miscegenation's) psycho-cryptic power”13  is a kind of facile and hip labeling that empties and trivializes art which painstakingly probes an issue that continues to be of epic importance in American culture today. Witness just three recent examples: the scandal that erupted when Strom Thurmond's mixed-race daughter revealed her existence and published a memoir; the outrage provoked by the DNA resolution to the Jefferson/Hemings controversy; the racial tensions and the controversies unleashed and elucidated by the Bush Administration's response to its New Orleans citizens who were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Racism and how the Slave and Jim Crow South (and North) educated its white children into race is one of the principle issues that Faulkner wrote about. It preoccupied his fiction and structured his poetics. It is also an issue that still fractures American children's childhood friendships and destroys families, business relationships, and communities. We need to understand its rituals. Faulkner's modernist aesthetics can help us do this if we will let them.
     It is a slippery slide, this theory that so thrilled us with its power to unmask but that now seems to be being used to deplore and mock feeling. The MLA Guide to Teaching The Sound and the Fury notes the advantage gained by using a “constructivist approach” when teaching it to college Juniors and Seniors: “By forcing the novel away from its own terms (moaning, missing, incest, love, pride, endurance), a reader may unearth what its narrators seek to repress (inequality, authority, exploitation, history) . . . ” (126-127. Our students know what's going down. They read these books. They see what's being published by some of the best presses. For example, Jane Gallop's Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (Duke, 1997). So, how do we teach them to dare empathic critique in the face of their eminent professors' published and so validated trivialization and abuse of their sexuality and desire and yes, transference love that is mobilized in a classroom where mutually intense involvement with texts is occurring? 14  How?

1 “Who Wears the Mask? Memory, Desire and Race in Go Down, Moses,” in New Essays on Go Down, Moses, ed., Linda Wagner-Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), pp. 101-128; “Writing Loss in Racialized Culture: William Faulkner's Jim Crow Childhood,” in The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 33.1 (Spring 1999): 55-61 and ”'We have Waited Long Enough': The Story of William Faulkner, His Black and White Mothers, and His Wife,” New Haven: Yale UP (forthcoming).
2  Lisa Ruddick, “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism.” <> Section: The Chronicle Review: B7. Published originally in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 November, 2001.
3  Like Ruddick I am not writing here about the so-called culture wars between advocates of Western tradition and postmodernists, but about scholars who belong to neither camp: who “are not traditionalists yearning for a return to the (western) canon or a monolithic view of culture” but who “nonetheless have convictions about ‘what sustains people' that many literary scholars would dismiss as conservative, universalist, or ‘humanist' illusions,” who have “faith, for example, in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful.” Ruddick, “The Near Enemy.”
4  Minda Rae Amiran, SUNY-Fredonia, in email to author, 22 November 2006.
5  See note 1. Above.
6  The journalist and activist Lillian Smith's memoir, Killers of the Dream (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1949) is a searing account of her Southern childhood which was “haunted“ by the specter of her own brutal initiation into race and racism. She wrote that a Southern white child's education into race marks its violent passage from child to adult. Central to this education is the tissue of lies about what a black person is, lies that center necessarily on the person whom the child loves most, the black “mother” who has cared for him or her since before memory began. Smith states it succinctly: the most bitter lesson her white parents taught her was “that my old nurse, . . . was not worthy of the passionate love I felt for her but must be given instead a half-smiled-at affection similar to that which one feels for one's dog.” She concludes, “I learned to cheapen with tears and sentimental talk of ‘my old mammy' one of the profound relationships of my life. I learned the bitterest thing a child can learn: that the human relations I valued most were held cheap by the world I lived in” (Killers, p. 19.)
7  Go Down, Moses (New York, Random House, Vintage International Edition, 1990), 106-107. Hereafter cited in text as GDM.
8  See GDM, the Dedication page and James Dahl's interviews with Maud Falkner, “A Faulkner Reminiscence: Conversations with Mrs. Maud Falkner” in The Journal of Modern Literature, 3 April 1974): 1027, 1028.
9  For Sutpen's childhood fall into race see Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Random House, Vintage International Edition, 1990), 181-184.
10  We learn how Roth is damaged but not Henry or Molly or Lucas. The Faulkner who wrote Go Down, Moses, is also a man of his time. He never tells how Henry is damaged, although perhaps we hear his creator's fervent wish in Molly's and Lucas' actions and in Henry's corrective reply to Roth, given “peacefully” and “without heat.” Lee Jenkins was the first to note Faulkner's black characters' very limited agency and subjectivity. He also observed that such characters as Henry often serve as a “reminder of the dream of violated fraternity” where Faulkner writes Roth's “shame” and “grief” at his cruelty to Henry while Henry is “never shown as having been capable of anticipating the event, of having been hurt or offended by it . . . . He (like other black characters) is simply rendered as already having assumed . . . the mask of submission.” As such, he appears “not as a human but as a nonhuman, a thing, without rights or feelings, an object . . . to whom things are done.” Jenkins then wonders “if this is what Faulkner is referring to when he declares that ‘the white man has forced the Negro to always be a Negro rather than another human being.'” Faulkner and Black-White relations: A Psychoanalytic Approach (New York: Columbia UP, 1981), pp. 21, 22.
11  See T.E. Hulmes's iconic essay, “Romanticism and Classicism” (1913-1914) reprinted in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971) 770, 772.
12  John Mathews, “Text and Context: Teaching The Sound and the Fury after Deconstruction” in Approaches to Teaching Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, eds., Stephen Hahn and Arthur F. Kinney (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1996): 126, 127. For another example, see the current MLA catalog description of Approaches to Teaching Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in MLA Publications, Fall 2006-Spring 2007, p. 12.
13  Patricia Yaeger, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990 (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2000), p. 97. Her otherwise elegant, empathetic and much needed reading of Southern women's writing, is diminished by her setting up Faulkner as a straw-dog.
14  See Jane Gallop's and James Kincaid's essays in Critical Inquiry 25, (Spring 1999): 599-616.

Copyright (c)2007 Judith L. Sensibar