AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
AMST 246 - Lecture 23 - Faulkner's Light in August, Part II
Chapter 1: Christianity and Southern Hospitality [00:00:00]
Professor Wai Chee Dimock: Let’s get started now. I’ll be coming to Tao’s section today, but I actually have to teach a class at the same time, so I’ll be a little late coming to your section, I’ll be there at about 1:45. I’ll see you there.
I want to refresh your memory about what we talked about last time, about the kindness of strangers. Last time we spent a lot of time talking about the kindness of strangers – as an instance of Faulkner updating a long tradition of thinking about the kindness toward pregnancy outside of wedlock – Lenaupdating Leda from the Greek mythology. And also the idea of community – thinking about Lena’s relation to the Southern community, Southern hospitality as an updating of the ancient Greek idea of hospitality to strangers. Today we’ll be thinking more about that, but introducing a new term, and bringing Christianity into play. You guys probably know this already – Christianity is very important in Light in August, and especially the Christian concept of how we should conduct ourselves towards our neighbors. We’ll be thinking about that, and the various permutations of the Christian concept – treat your neighbor as thyself.
But before we go into that, I just want to talk a bit more about the narrative structure of Light in August. ObviouslyLena is an important part of the narrative. She represents the undramatic half of the narrative, very peaceful, very monotonous. The only way drama can come into her part of the story is when the supporting cast takes over and upstage her and become the protagonist within just that short space of time. The undramatic narrative revolves aroundLena, modified by those people that she comes into contact with. Opposite to that is a dramatic structure – we’re beginning to see that in the reference to Joanna Burden and her house being burned down, and the spectators saying that it would be good to have some “human fat meat” to quicken the fire. Very dramatic development, and various other characters also contribute to that dramatic narrative. Today we’ll be looking at Joanna Burden, Reverend Hightower, and obviously Joe Christmas.
But I want to start by going back and looking squarely at this injunction from Leviticus, which is probably one of the central tenets of Christianity. And we should consider, not just the last line, which is the line that all of us know, but take it in its full context. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Loving your neighbor is in the context of you obeying God. It is under the rubric of your devotion to God, your obedience to God that you should love your neighbor. And it’s further complicated by the notion that you should not take vengeance against others. We might not necessarily think of this prohibition against vengeance – in fact, we don’t really associate Christianity with the prohibition again vengeance. There’s no prohibition against vengeance in our current legal and ethical thinking. Punitive justice is an instance of collective vengeance. It is institutionalized. And yet, at least in Leviticus, there’s a prohibition against vengeance.
Chapter 2: Political Theology of the Neighbor [00:04:31]
If you think about what that means, and putting that also under the rubric of loving your neighbor– all this is very important to Light in August. But I want to further introduce one other consideration, which is a relatively new book that came out by three very important thinkers and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, Eric Santner, and Kenneth Reinhardt called The Neighbor. The three of them each had an essay in this book called The Neighbor. And the argument is about what the concept of neighbor could mean after the Holocaust, and after the numerous instances of genocide that we’ve witnessed in the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. It seems that the human propensity is to turn against those among whom you’ve lived all your life. It takes such a short space of time. Generations of people might be living together in the same place– all of a sudden, you turn against the person next door to you.
The three philosophers think of this as a case of political theology. This is a very interesting concept. It’s thinking about the ethics of social conduct, of behavior, towards people who are not kin to you, who have no blood ties to you, you have no obligation other than just the obligation of treating them as neighbors, and what the appropriate conduct would be, what are the limits to being someone’s neighbors, and what are the licenses that you can take. I’d encourage you just to take a look at this book, if you just want to do some reading in philosophy.
Let’s go back now to what we’ve been talking about a bit last time – I just want to remind you of this discussion – this exchange coming right at the heels of thinking about Byron Bunch being in love. “ ‘It’s a big fire,’ another said. ‘What can it be? I don’t remember anything out that way big enough to make all that smoke, except that Burden house.’ ‘Maybe that’s what it is,’ another said. ‘My pappy says he can remember how 50 years ago, folks said it ought to be burned, with a little human fat meat to start it good.’ ‘Maybe your pappy slipped up there and set it afire,’ a third said. They all laughed.”
Chapter 3: The Hatred of Southerners for Northern Abolitionists [00:07:06]
This is the other face of the community. Going along with Lena, we have this idea that human beings are just all kindness, and that’s all there is. But we just know from experience that that’s probably just half the story. Faulkner is very emphatic about showing us the other face of the neighbor. And there’s a genealogy to the Burden house. In Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” that people who do good, or consider themselves to do good, quite often actually incur the resentments of those they do good to. It’s an interesting kind of psychological dynamics. “Take up the White Man’s burden–/ And reap his old reward:/ The blame of those ye better,/ The hate of those ye guard.”
I think that it actually is quite a natural human tendency not to want to allow other people to take care of you in this particular way, of doing good to you. And so resentment is actually kind of natural reaction. And what the White Man’s Burden means, especially in the context of doing good to a different race. Obviously that issue was front and center during reconstruction, when you have all the slaves becoming freemen, and what to do– and how to educate them and induct them, really, into citizenship.
Lots of Northern reformers went South, and a lot of them, including Joanna Burden’s family, had the idea that they would be there as social reformers, and would be educating the ex-slaves. But they also went by a different name in American history, and that is the name of the carpetbagger. And we can see a very vivid illustration of that, the huge bag that is more than an appendage, really. It’s the defining feature of this person. And there were many, many cartoons about how much they were resented in post-bellum South.
This is one image of how doing good, or the claim to do good, can actually benefit yourself. Likewise, the self groaning under the burden of the– how did that go? It’s an actual burden right there. And I’m not entirely clear about the logic of this. You guys should just try to figure it out, and email, or just write a blog about this, or email me, if you can figure out the exact logic. Anyway, there’s resentment there, but it’s complicated. Political cartoons can be really a great way to think about political history and social history, and certainly a very important background to Light in August.
What we now see is the outcome of that. Joanna Burden, as we know, is still there as someone who’s doing good. She is on the board of multiple charities, she gives money, she has a black lawyer. She’s spent her whole life working towards the welfare of the black population. This is what happens to her at the end of that life.
But the way that Faulkner is telling the story – the actual tone of it – is very different from the tone that I just used. “ ‘She was lying on the floor. Her head had been cut pretty near off.’” Oh, this is– as is the custom in Light in August– a very dramatic episode is rendered to us, is retold to us by someone who was there, but not a central player in the story. This whole discovery of Joanna Burden’s body was reported by Byron Bunch to Hightower. And Byron wasn’t there to do the discovering, either. He was reporting what a countryman says – a total stranger, and coming to town in a wagon, a total stranger being given this important function of discovering Joanna Burden’s body. Here is this countryman from nowhere, telling about the event:
Chapter 4: Tragedy as Comedy in the Death of Joanna Burden [00:10:52]
OK. Faulkner is actually repeating himself. It’s the same kind of construction thatLenauses when she talks about herself climbing out of the window for the last time. It was a little difficult, that time, but if it had been that difficult from the first time, she might not need to be doing it now. It’s exactly the same rhetorical structure. What is weird is that even in Lena’s case– even though it could have been seen as a totally unfunny story, it’s told in a funny way. And this episode – it’s really hard to see how it could be funny in any fashion, except for the way Faulkner has chosen to tell the story.
This is something very deep in Faulkner – his temptation, his compulsion, is to tell a tragic story from a comic point of view. We can the speculate about why this is such a pattern in him. But I think that he really doesn’t want to give tragedy the entirety of the field. If we can think of the narrative field as either full-occupancy or half-occupancy, tragedy is granted no more than half occupancy of the narrative field at any given moment. Maybe it’s not even half; here it seems to be less than half.
So here’s the country man worrying about all the things that one really shouldn’t be worrying about when you’re discovering a dead body. And the very contrived plot detail that Joanna Burden’s head is turned around, so she’s looking backwards. And it turns out that there’s a very venerable genealogy to that particular posture of the dead human body or human head in relation to the rest of the body. It turns out that the epic is coming into play here as well. In the Divine Comedy, in Canto XX, there’s a very famous episode of Dante and Virgil going to hell and seeing all these people in hell being punished, and Dante’s way of punishment is by the logic of contrapasso, that the punishment is the repetition of your crime. This is what he sees– a whole group of people with heads set around.
And this is an illustration, a Flaxman illustration, of all these people in hell, their heads turned backwards. And the reason that they are punished in this particular way is that in life, they were soothsayers. They claimed to be foreseeing the future. And of course, in Dante’s cosmos, this quite severe Christian cosmos, unlike the Greek tradition, human beings are not really supposed to know anything about the future. Foreknowledge is not a privilege that human beings can claim. So as a consequence of claiming foreknowledge of the future, these people were punished in hell by having their heads turned backwards.
We can now think of Faulkner reaching out to this as a fit punishment for social reformers. Social reformers also claim to have some kind of privileged relation to the future, and they’re reforming the present quite often because they have this vision about the future. They want the present to approximate the vision of the future that they can see. Maybe that is the connection between Joanna and these ancient soothsayers.
There’s a kind of a thematic connection, but the tonal connection is different. If we think about Dante’s incidents in the Divine Comedy, there’s just no humor in it. It’s a terrible sight to see all the people with their heads turned backwards. And likewise, in this representation, there’s nothing funny about this. It could have been done in a funny fashion, but it’s never done in a funny fashion, whereas Faulkner’s representation of Joanna is definitely comic. So it seems that every time, any time Faulkner invokes an analogy from a prior text, it’s always rewriting the text, and changing especially the tone of that episode.
From Joanna, we get a kind of complicated picture of the malice of neighbors. Well, actually, she’s not killed by her neighbors, as we’ll find out. Even though the neighbors are kind of rejoicing and having a lot of fun over the fact that she is killed, and that her house is burning down– even though they are enjoying it, they’re actually not the instruments for her killing. This is important to remember. Also that Faulkner, for some reason, chooses to get at it from a very odd angle, so that it’s not exactly sympathy that Faulkner is trying to generate from the reader. We should ask, what kind of readers’ responses he’s is cultivating in that particular episode? It’s definitely not sympathy for Joanna. That puts us in a very peculiar relation as well, because in some sense, we are the neighbors to Joanna. We are just like those neighbors who are having fun at her expense. We the readers are also having fun. This is the kind of narrative that Faulkner is giving us.
Chapter 5: The Reverend Hightower and the Malice of Strangers [00:19:07]
But to move on to the next figure, who also enacts a kind of dance, a permutation of the various meanings of neighbor– and this one, actually, is given more space in terms of this full development of the various incarnations of the concept of neighbor. Here is the Reverend Hightower, who came to town, and then all of a sudden he loses his job as a minister, and then rumors start going around about his relation with blacks, as well. And this is what happens to him one night.
This is exactly the same people– the same people who were kind toLenaprobably were all Klansmen. It was quite a common– it has very deep roots, actually, in some Southern communities. And lots of people were Klansmen that you might not think would be Klansmen. New studies also have shown that actually lots of women were Klansmen, as well. It wasn’t just men.
But what is interesting– there are actually two interesting facts about this. One is that the men are not masked. I think that that says a lot. In fact, in any kind of Klan action, the people would be hooded, so you don’t actually see the faces. But this is a variation on that. These men are not hooded, they’re not masked. That’s a very important thing, revealing their identities fully to Hightower. And then the other detail is that they want Hightower to leave town, and he does not go. Even though he’s been beaten unconscious, he still refuses to leave. These two are very important variations to the customary story about Klan violence. And we’ll see what comes from that. That Faulkner’s both giving us a very recognizable Southern history, but also, he’s giving us a very important variation on this Southern history.
Let’s follow the permutations of the malice of strangers. “He refused to tell who had done it. The town knew that that was wrong, and some of them men came to him and tried again to persuade him to leave Jefferson, for his own good, telling him that next time they might kill him. But he refused to leave. He would not talk about the beating, even when they offered to prosecute the men who had done it. But he would do neither. He would neither tell nor depart. And then all of a sudden, the whole thing seemed to blow away like an evil wind. It was as though the town realized at last that he would be a part of its life until he died, and that they might as well become reconciled.”
This is the crucially different story that Faulkner is telling about Southern history. The malice of your neighbors is the starting point – but it is not the endpoint. It would be too easy, too much of a cliche to say these people are just bigoted, that they’re going to persecute anyone who’s not of the same mind. It would be much too simple to say that.
This is the very important variation. The men are not masked. They put it within Hightower’s power to report them. And the town is, in fact, ready to prosecute those men. Legal action is about to be initiated, and certainly there’s actionable violence. But just as those people who were beating Hightower put it within his power to report on him, he refuses to use that power that they’ve put into his hands.
Chapter 6: The Ethical Challenge of Hightower [00:24:07]
There is a strange kind of symmetry. For me, this is the most interesting and compelling kind of reciprocity– that you put yourself in the power of someone that you hate, and you don’t use the power that those whom you hate, or those who hate you, have vested in your hands. Given the fact that there’s so much violence going on, this is an incredibly delicate ethical gesture on both their parts. I would say that this is– I don’t know, I mean, maybe this is too utopian, I’m just reporting to you – but this is what I think Faulkner is doing. This is the way that he would like to tell the story, the way that he hopes that human beings will conduct themselves under those circumstances.
I should also point out that, in the book that I mentioned earlier, The Neighbor, there’s a strong argument in favor of ethical violence, that sometimes you just can’t help doing violence to someone, but how to be ethical about that. So for me, this actually is an instance of ethical– qualified, highly qualified, but nonetheless, ethical violence. And I think it’s because of this – because this is violence within limits. It is violence that actually has a degree of lawfulness to it, in the sense that the law is going to prosecute them. And those perpetrators have put themselves under the jurisdiction of the law. There’s a degree of lawfulness to that kind of violence because of that.
Hightower actually has this to say about his neighbors. He says, “ ‘They are good people. They must believe what they must believe, especially as it was I who was at one time both master and servant of their believing. And so it is not for me to outrage their believing nor for Byron Bunch to say that they were wrong. Because all that any man can hope for is to be permitted to live quietly among his fellows.”
This is one kind of idea. It’s that you can’t really change what people believe about you. They can have all kinds of wrong beliefs about you– there’s no way you can change those beliefs. There’s no way you can change how some other people feel about you. Feeling is not something that you can dictate, and other people, if they happen to hate you, there’s nothing you can do about that. That is a very tough-minded evaluation of the privacy of certain kinds of sentiment that are not pretty, that do not make for harmonious relations among human beings. And hatred is a very powerful reality for Faulkner. You just have to live with that, that some people just don’t like you all much. And given the fact that, how can you still manage to live quietly and peacefully among people who don’t like you all that much? That is the ethical challenge for Hightower.
All this suggests that for him, for now, at this moment– on page 75– Hightower is the voice of a certain kind of ethical norm in Faulkner. And it’s not surprising that his name is Hightower. It’s almost kind of very elevated, very high kind, maybe impossibly high kind, of ethical norm. Very few of us actually can behave as he does at this moment. But I think that we should also be aware that Hightower actually doesn’t occupy that moral height all time. Just as the narrative field is quite often a field of half-occupancy– nothing can fully occupy that field– moral elevation is also a place where you can’t have full command all the time . So here is another image of Hightower – a sullen, distant figure from the town’s point of view. People don’t like him all that much. What they think about him – ”But the town said to Hightower that if Hightower”– and this is not talking about his black cook anymore, and not talking about the violence. They’re talking about something else, to other things about Hightower. One is that he seems complete fixated on the Civil War. He seems completely fixated on this grandfather’s death in the Civil War. The horse is still galloping. That is the reality for him. And the other, that his wife is going crazy in that marriage, and he seems oblivious to it. This is the town’s commentary on those two other aspects of Hightower’s life, and you can see why he doesn’t have full command of the ethical elevation that we’ve just seen him in.
All of a sudden the neighbors have been transformed from the perpetrators of violence to an independent voice of judgment on Hightower and on the marriage. They’re functioning more like a Greek chorus in the sense that they have some knowledge about the marriage that is denied to Hightower himself. We should not forget for a minute that a man who has such a delicate ethical understanding of a certain kind of situation having to do with violence that is done to himself can be completely blind in another situation where it would have been good for him to be just a little more sensitive.
So here’s the utter lack of sensitivity in Hightower – it qualifies his claim to that ethical height that we’ve seen. It’s in fact a different issue. It doesn’t take away from the beating, it doesn’t take away from the Klan action, but it does suggest that Hightower is a divided figure, and he doesn’t speak for Faulkner all the time. Faulkner is actually using his neighbors sometimes to pass judgment on him, just as he is a dispenser of judgment on others. This is neighbors in a different light, but there’s yet another twist. Faulkner doesn’t stop. This is a constant switching back and forth. The swing of the pendulum from the right being on the neighbors’ side to the right being on Hightower’s side, and injury being done to Hightower. So this is the neighbors in yet another light –
“Within two days”– this is a little bit later. Hightower is trying to deliver a black baby. The baby dies. And within two days, rumors were going around town.
This is yet another interesting portrait of how people behave as a collectivity. That as a collectivity, we tend to say things that we do not actually, ourselves, individually believe in. This is the nature, quite often, of rumors, or just kind of standardized statements about the current situation that you just repeat a certain line. This is the nature of a line, that it’s fed to others, and that we would mouth without thinking about it. And all of us do it. It’s not just people living in a small town. All of us tend to say certain things that we haven’t actually personally thought about, including damaging things that we can say about someone, like having a child and allowing the child to die.
This is the nature of rumor, and Byron’s insight– and he knows these people very well– is that in one sense, it is speech that seems hurtful that actually doesn’t have personal malice in it. We have to be very careful to distinguish that hurtful speech can certainly inflict injury on the person that that speech is about. It can inflict injury. But something can’t inflict injury without having a lot of personal malice in it, and that is the crucial distinction that Byron wants us to make.
Chapter 7: Alternation between Joe Christmas and Lena Grove [00:33:56]
We can see that things are constantly switching back and forth. From Tuesday– the protagonist and supporting cast switching; background and foreground; dark and light; Light in August, Dark House; kind and unkind neighbors; dramatic narrative versus undramatic narrative. All of this is coming to head in the alternation between Lena Grove and Joe Christmas.
This is a very interesting narrative innovation on the part of Faulkner. We’ve seen in The Sound and the Fury that it is a four-section novel. In As I Lay Dying, too many sections to count, the story splits into tiny little narratives. In this novel, it’s the story of two people who are strangers to each other. It’s really a huge challenge how you could tell a story about two people who have no connection to each other, but make the two stories one novel. We’ll see how that is played out – whether Faulkner is completely successful in integrating these two into a single story.
Today, we’ll look at part of what he’s trying to do, I think, and look at the contrasting functions of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas in this novel. We know that one is a positive catalyst for the community. All the good things about the community come out when we see Lena Grove in action. All the bad things about the community come out when we see Joe Christmas’s part of the story. So one is a positive catalyst, the other is a negative catalyst. But what is odd is that even though this seems to put them on opposite ends of the narrative spectrum, quite often Faulkner also contrives to make them meet as well. There’s an interesting kinship, actually, between the two of them, even though they seem so different. So we’ll talk about the linguistic kinship, and also the fact that both of them seem to be passive receptacles for what is coming to them.
So first, I think you know this, but just want to repeat it. From Lena, this is the story. “ ‘Folks have been kind. They have been right kind.’” It is a very monotonous story. In that sense, she’s not very great character, not a completely helpful character to Faulkner, because she only knows one thing, and the story never changes. So he really has to introduce a kind of a counterpoint toLena, whose very name already precipitates a negative response from the people who are learning about his name for the first time.
Here’s the foreman – Joe Christmas is just about to get a job from these people. “ ‘His name is what?’ one said. ‘Christmas.’ ‘Is he a foreigner?’ ‘Did you hear of a white man named Christmas?’ the foreman said. ‘I never heard of nobody a-tall named it,’ the other said.”
Just to have the name Christmas– and I can’t really think of a name that is less neutral, less innocuous than the name Christmas – even for us, to hear someone called Christmas, there will be a kind of strange response from most of us. And sure enough, there’s a strange response from these two people. Why is it that we’re not entirely immune from that? It’s not as if the world that Faulkner is creating is completely separate from our world. In many ways, we’re part of that world. But we’re suddenly seeing an extreme reaction these two people. All of a sudden– nobody has even thought of him as being a foreigner, suddenly he’s got to be a foreigner, even worse than that. Even foreigners don’t have a name like Christmas. He suddenly is in an unclassifiable, but negatively unclassifiable, category. The rest of the story really plays on the consequences, in many ways, of having a name like Christmas.
Chapter 8: Kinship Between Lena Grove and Joe Christmas [00:38:41]
But for now, I don’t want to go there yet, but to talk about a strange kind of kinship betweenLenaand Joe, who otherwise seem so different. It’s a counterintuitive kinship and I think it’s also quite deliberate. So let’s just go back to this passage that we’ve talked about last time, about Lena’s peaceful journey, “behind her the four weeks, the evocation of far, is a peaceful corridor paved with unflagging and tranquil faith and peopled with kind and nameless faces and voices,” is the nature of Lena’s journey. Oddly enough, the same kind of language is used again at a very different moment in the story, for Joe Christmas, when he’s actually just about ready to do the killing. “ ‘Maybe I have already done it,’ he thought. ‘Maybe it is no longer now waiting to be done.’ It seemed to him that he could see the yellow day opening peacefully before him like a corridor, an arras, into a still chiaroscuro without urgency. It seemed to him that as he sat there the yellow day contemplated him drowsily, like a prone and somnolent yellow cat. He would not move, apparently arrested and held immobile by a single word which had perhaps not yet impacted, his whole being suspended in quiet and sunny space, so that hanging motionless and without physical weight he seemed to watch the slow flowing of beneath him.”
Exactly. One could just putLenaright in there, and it would have been a description of her journey. I hope that it makes no sense to you – why Faulkner would want to use this peaceful description for Joe Christmas right before the moment of violence. This it’s something that cries out to be interpreted by the reader, why there should be the duplication of the once-appropriate language forLenainto this completely inappropriate and counterintuitive context. But all we can say is that this is a quite heavy-handed attempt on Faulkner’s part to generate a linguistic kinship between the two of them.
Let’s look at another instance. In fact, we see it in the use of gerunds in talking about this moment of impending, incipient violence, when he is held suspended, but very peaceful. And so this is the use of gerunds, and we’ve seen that in Lena, as well.
“ ‘That far within my hearing, before my seeing.’ ‘I will be riding within the hearing of Lucas Burch before his seeing. He will hear the wagon, but he won’t know. So there will be one within his hearing before his seeing. And then he will see me and he will be excited. And so there will be two within his seeing before his remembering.” Highly conspicuous use of the gerund.
There’s also a parallel, highly conspicuous use of the gerund for Joe Christmas. “Knowing not grieving remembers a thousand savage and lonely streets.” The same use of the gerund, but in a completely different context and completely different thematics. So we have to think a little more about why it is, even though the two of them seem polar opposites that Faulkner, nonetheless, sees and is emphatic about the kinship between the two of them.
Chapter 9: The Passivity of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas [00:42:44]
Maybe one way to think about it is to once again think about the relation between an individual and a collectivity, or at least various representatives of that collectivity. And withLena, we’ve seen that she really is a passive receptacle for all the Southern hospitality that is coming to her. Maybe that’s why she’s really not that interesting on her own, that it really takes action from other people to vest her narrative with any kind of action at all. Left to her own devices there will be no story to tell, really. And so she’s a passive receptacle in the sense that she’s really the narrative device by which a community gets to tell a story, by which the action of a community gets dramatized, and gets registered within the compass of a single individual.
I would say that that is also the narrative function of Joe Christmas, as well. That in many ways, even though he’s probably more psychologically complex than Lena, and it will be interesting to think about what kind of psychology he has– in spite of the complexity of his psychology, he has a similar narrative function in the sense that he is the vehicle by which somebody else’s action, somebody else’s drama, gets registered. He is the blank slate on which someone else writes a dramatic narrative.
Here is the continuation of that peaceful moment when he’s about to do the killing. “He just sat there, not moving, until after a while he heard the clock two miles away strike 12. Then he rose and moved toward the house. He didn’t go fast. He didn’t think even then, Something is going to happen. Something is going to happen to me.”
That syntactical construction– not, I’m going to do something, but something is going to happen to me, so that I will actually kill someone– it’s that bizarre transformation of what would have been a very familiar sentence. So even the most dramatic action that he’s responsible for is cast as something that is happening to him, almost without his volition.
We see that this is actually the logical combination of a pattern that has been the dominant pattern all through his life. It goes back, this moment goes back to when he was a kid, when he was hiding and eating toothpaste in the closet of the dietitian, and getting sick from the toothpaste, and then witnessing this completely bewildering thing that is going on between the dietitian and the man who is in her room. Then all of a sudden he throws up and the dietitian realizes that there’s someone hiding in her closet. This is what happens – she’s furious to know that she and the other man, that the two of them, are not alone in the room:
Joe has not always been racialized – initially, when all of this is happening, people have suspected there’s something maybe a little odd about his racial composition, but nobody, up to this point, at least nobody from the administration– has called him black. It’s at this moment – when he is the unwitting, involuntary, unintentional witness to this scene that is unfolding in the dietitian’s room – that this adjective is thrown at him. And everything about the description – he’s hanging from the hands of the dietitian, he’s witnessing a face that is completely transformed, the recipient of that hiss, that is coming at him. Almost complete passivity on his side. So that’s what he is – the blank slate on which the dietitian is writing her own furor and her own story.
One more example. This is his relation to his adopted father, McEachern. We have various ways to pronounce that name. I’m just going to pronounce it “McEach-ern,” you can pronounce it any way you want.
This is not the kind of uncontrolled violence that is coming from the dietician, but the very disciplined violence that is coming from his own foster father, adopted father. But no matter what kind of violence – it can be either out of control or it can be totally under control – he is there like a saint, like a monk, calm, seemingly untouched by that violence.
That’s part of the interesting fact about Joe Christmas. It’s almost as if there’s so little content to him– although I hesitate to say that, because that doesn’t seem quite right, either. But whatever it is that is lacking in him, there’s no lashing out from him. Even the killing is not really that, it doesn’t seem to be a kind of a lashing out at the way he’s treated. He seems to be as blank a slate as possible, although he’s probably not as blank a slate asLenais. A lot more content than Lena, but still a relative blank slate on which a various succession of characters write a very, very dramatic story. This is the structure, and that’s why there’s this very deep kinship between the two of them, even though they might appear entirely different.
Have a wonderful break, and I hope that you get a lot of the reading done over the break.
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