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AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
- Faulkner's Light in August, Part III
Professor Wai Chee Dimock focuses on the unresolved problem of race in Light in August, focusing her discussion on the variety of reflexive and calculated uses of the word “nigger” as a charged term toward Joe Christmas. She shows how the semantic burden of the word varies – used under duress by Joe Brown and the dietician, deliberately made light of by Hightower and Bobbie, fused with the contrary meanings of Calvinist theology by Joanna Burden, and finally ironized by Joe Christmas himself. Dimock uses these multiple uses of the word “nigger” to meditate on the making of racial identities and our collective input into that process.
Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.
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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
AMST 246 - Lecture 24 - Faulkner's Light in August, Part III
Chapter 1: The Unresolved Problem of Race in Light in August [00:00:00]
Professor Wai Chee Dimock: OK, we’re getting started. I just want to remind you, refresh your memory about what we were talking about before the break. First, the concept of strangers and kindness of strangers thatLena would be a recipient of. Then we were talking about neighbors and what could come to us from neighbors – not always good things. Hightower is a recipient of the not always good things coming from our neighbors.
But Hightower, as we also know, is emphatic that – in spite of what happens to him, in spite of the beatings and so on – that he’s actually surrounded by good people. It takes a tremendous act of willpower to be able to say that. This is the quote from Hightower. “They are good people. All that any man can hope for is to be permitted to live quietly around his fellows.” It is a proposition, a statement thrown in our face and in the face of all the things that have happened to him.
Today what I’d like to do is to use race as a test case for Hightower’s proposition. We know that Joe Christmas is someone whose racial identity is ambiguous – I would say from beginning to end. We never know for sure what his parentage is – we have guesses, but we don’t know for sure. And we certainly don’t know the genetic makeup of someone like Joe Christmas.
In that context, I think it’s especially relevant to talk about some of the contemporary discussion of race. This one is not even so new. It came out in 2003. It was a special issue of Scientific American – “Whether Race Exists” – and it makes a strong argument that race is misleading in the sense that when you look at the physical characteristics, the facial features of people, and we assume that race has a very solid existence, that is real. But actually the facial characteristics or the physical attributes do not always correspond to our genetic makeup. So how people look actually is not a good way to tell who they are biologically.
The scientific argument in the special issue of Scientific American is about the importance of thinking outside of the box of noticeable or observable visible characteristics, thinking instead about what difference race makes in a medical situation. This is Scientific American after all. This was back in 2003. Even earlier than that, on the front cover of Time Magazine, is the new face ofAmerica. It’s aboutAmerica becoming a mixed-race nation. That is the case now. I look at everyone, yeah, quite often I can’t really tell what background, ethnic background people are from. And that is the case. This is a computer-generated image. We don’t really know. She’s made up of the traits of many races, and so it’s hard to tell. But she’s a very typical American face.
Around the same time, a book came out by F. James Davis called Who is Black? This was quite an important book when it came out in 1992. In its 10th anniversary, PBS actually did a special program titled Who is Black? featuring that book. Its argument is very pertinent to Faulkner’s novel. We don’t actually know who is black in this novel. It is a question that is not answered. Perhaps it is not meant to be answerable, not even at the end of the novel.
This is an image that Tao used for her section. It was a great section. I was very happy to be there. So I’m just borrowing the image from her – an Ebony Magazine quiz, 1952. Even back in 1952, people were realizing that if you look at people, you don’t really know what race they are. Most people would get a few wrong answers for that quiz.
This is just to set the stage for the very complicated and maybe not-meant-to-be- resolved landscape that Faulkner has set up for us in Light in August. What I’d like to talk about today is the word nigger. And of course, that’s the word that would have to be used. Because just as in the ’50s, the word “negro” was the standard term. In the ’20s and ’30s, “nigger” would have been the standard term. It was not originally a racial slur. The use of the word “nigger,” even though it wasn’t necessarily a racial slur, it nonetheless was a charged epithet. It always has carried excessive semantic burden. And because it carries excessive semantic burden, it also opens itself up to multiple uses.
Today we’ll look at the way that word is being used by different people in different contexts and for different purposes. We’ll go down the list. We’ll be talking about all this, and also spoken by other people. And also when the word is spoken by the person himself. I just noticed this microphone has a way of diminishing itself. These are the people that we’ll be looking at who use the word nigger. First, Joe Brown. Then the dietitian a couple of times. Then Hightower. Then Bobbie the waitress. Then Joanna Burden. And finally Joe Christmas himself, he uses the word nigger for himself.
Chapter 2: Under Duress: Joe Brown uses the Word “Nigger” [00:07:01]
First, let’s look at the way Joe Brown uses that word. At this point, Joe Brown is being questioned by the sheriff. We know that Joanna’s body has been discovered. Her house has burned down. And the sheriff is questioning Joe Brown. There’s $1,000 that is up for anyone who can help solve the case. Joe Brown has high hopes that he’ll be the one to get the $1,000. But as the sheriff questions him and more and more comes out, it seems less and less likely that the $1,000 will be in his own pocket. So he’s getting desperate. That is when that word comes up:
This is the classic race card that we recognize so well. Unfortunately, it still has some currency. He’s playing the race card, because he’s desperate. What is really interesting is how subtle this portrait, even of someone like Joe Brown who has so little saving grace to him. This is someone who is supremely unlikable. But even for someone who is supremely unlikable, Faulkner, nonetheless, portrays him as someone who’s not incapable of feeling ashamed. It is shameful, even for someone like Joe Brown to use the race card. He would do that only when there’s nothing else he can do.
He’s not such a racist that he’s blind to what he’s doing. Even though this is Joe Brown, doing one of the despicable things that he’s capable of doing, in the very act of doing that, he recognizes completely that he is being despicable.
Chapter 3: The Dietitian’s Involuntary Use of the Word “Nigger” [00:09:45]
So this is one kind of self-contained usage of shameful, and shameful even to the person who is doing it. And the next couple of usages all revolving around the dietitian. And we know that Joe Christmas is behind the curtains and watching this whole scene unfolding between the dietitian and her beau and eating toothpicks and having no idea what’s going on outside of the dietitian thinking that he knows everything. So she drags him out. And this is what Joe sees when she drags him out.
She’s never called him that before. It’s at this moment of extreme vulnerability on the part of the dietitian that that word would come rushing up. It has some relation to the Joe Brown usage in the sense that this is a word that comes out when your back is against the wall, basically. This is the thing that you fling at people. But the dietitian is more resourceful than Joe Brown. She is able to use that word in some other contexts. This is the next installment of the word “nigger” coming out of the mouth of the dietitian. She has something else to offer Joe Christmas. Her hand is outstretched, and upon it lay a silver dollar.
This is the evolution of the dietitian, she’s not so vulnerable now. That she’s actually on the verge of going on the offensive, but not quite. Because she just wants to strike a bargain. She wants to cut a deal with Joe Christmas. What she doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t understand the concept of bribery. Joe Christmas is really interesting in that way. He doesn’t always understand kindness. And he even doesn’t understand the next thing down, which is bribery. So for him, the silver dollar just means endless tubes of toothpaste. It can’t be more repugnant. But he knows enough to know that rejecting that silver dollar would be an automatic guarantee of the appearance of that word from the dietitian.
A pattern is beginning to develop. First, complete vulnerability on the part of the dietitian. Then not-complete vulnerability, but her scheme is being foiled unwittingly by Joe Christmas. So the word comes out again. It’s sort of a handy, part involuntary, but part reflexive and part handy, almost instrumental, usage of that term.
Chapter 4: The Dietitian’s Instrumental Use of the Word “Nigger” [00:14:01]
We’ll move on now to a completely instrumentalized usage. With the dietitian, it begins with a non-instrumentalized involuntary usage. But by the third time she uses that word, it is completely instrumentalized and completely calculated. That’s when the dietitian goes to the matron of the orphanage and uses that word, “nigger,” one more time.
Down to that little detail, ‘people of your and my age.’ They actually are not the same age. When you have somebody using that kind of construction, you know that they’re highly manipulative and know exactly what they’re doing. That little giveaway detail at the end is the icing on the cake of this racialization, this very deliberate racialization of Joe Christmas in order to get him sent away from the orphanage. The dietitian, I would say, is probably right up there, along with Joe Brown, in terms of unlikeability. But she is better at what she’s doing. She succeeds in pinning the epithet “nigger” on Joe Christmas.
This is the first thing that we should say about that epithet – it is something that someone else pins on you. It doesn’t grow from inside you. It is not a genetic attribute about you. It’s an attribution. It’s not an internal, congenital attribute. It is an attribution that is foisted upon you. And that is what the dietitian is doing right there.
This is the use of the word “nigger” on one side of the spectrum, Joe Brown and the dietitian. And now we’ll move on to the other end of the spectrum where it’s sheer agony to use that word. By the time the dietitian uses the word the last time, she’s actually very good at what she’s doing. It doesn’t really touch her anymore. She’s completely distanced herself and therefore able to manipulate that word.
Chapter 5: Hightower’s Agonized Use of the Word “Nigger” [00:16:54]
Here, on the other side of the spectrum, is someone who simply cannot have that distance from that word. It’s an agonized usage. This comes up in the context of a conversation between Hightower and Byron. Byron is telling him about this new development– about burning down the house, Joanna’s body and so on– but also about Christmas.
It is that utter disparity between the bodily gesture, the facial expression, the bodily expression on Hightower, and the still, controlled, lightness of tone. That is what gives Hightower away. That not only is the possibility of Joe Christmas being black, not only is it the most terrifying of possibilities, but it’s so terrifying that he can’t really afford to acknowledge its gravity. It’s not just that it’s just terrible, but he can’t even admit to it. It’s that double combination that suggests just how grave the situation is. Because Hightower knows exactly what’s going to happen. Once the question of race comes into play, there’s probably just one outcome. He knows it from his own personal history, from what has happened to him and to his cook and that was really nothing compared with this. It’s just a terrible scenario, the endpoint of which he can already see, and that’s why he’s behaving in this particular way.
Chapter 6: The Two Faces of Hightower [00:19:37]
But there’s also a tension, a division here – the lightness of tone and the involuntary shrinking and sweating, the kind of devastation that’s coming over Hightower. It points to the doubleness of Hightower. I think it’s worth talking about. This is a slight digression – but Faulkner’s quite emphatic about the two faces of Hightower. Sometimes we tend to see him too much as a victim, and certainly what’s happened to him invites us to think of him as just a victim of his neighbor’s violence. But Faulkner is empathic from beginning to end that he is two-faced.
Down to the twin glares of his spectacle, to an earlier moment – where everybody’s coming out of the church and the reporters were taking a picture of him, and they took picture of him from the side and he looked like Satan – down to this moment, when this lightness of tone is belied by the involuntary shrinking of his body, Hightower seems to be the meeting place for two contradictory impulses. We can say that, metaphorically, he’s also the meeting place for the goodness of strangers and the meanness of the neighbors. He really is a kind of unresolved meeting place for those two cross-currents. But right now, right there he’s trying his best to trivialize that event in saying that it really is nothing at all. It is of no consequence.
Chapter 7: Bobbie’s Trivializing Usage of the Word “Nigger” [00:21:31]
Coming now to Bobbie the waitress, we’ll look at one instance, another instance of someone trying to make light of that fact, the possibility that Joe could be black. This is the two of them lying in bed. And he makes this confession.
Faulkner is going out of his way to make this a peaceful scenario. This is the equivalent of that lightness of tone that Hightower is using when he is facing the possibility that Joe Christmas is black. Here, Joe Christmas is making that confession himself, but really he doesn’t know. But all the emphasis here is on how peaceful the scene is. He’s just stroking her. He doesn’t stop when he makes that confession. It’s as if nothing is happening. Faulkner wants to create the illusion that nothing is happening. But actually, everything is happening.
Bobbie’s reaction goes along with the pretense that this is really nothing at all. She’s not going to believe in it. There’s nothing to it. But we also know that that takes a lot of willpower, that that assertion, ‘I don’t believe it’ or there’s nothing to it. You’re just imagining it” – it actually takes a lot of willpower to say. And how fragile that the assertion is becomes clear when one other thing happens. And then Bobbie uses the word nigger one more time. This time in a completely different tone of voice.
Chapter 8: Bobbie’s Involuntary Use of the World “Nigger” [00:23:57]
This is much later – when Joe has killed his foster father in the kitchen accidentally. Now he’s going to see Bobbie one more time. Now they know that they have to leave, that they’re in big trouble. This is a moment of duress, the equivalent of the dietitian’s duress, the equivalent of Joe Brown’s duress. And this is what Bobbie says under duress.
Not by design. It is involuntary usage. It is telling that that’s the word that always, or at least every single one, everything single character in Light in August would reach for. That is the word that would come involuntarily into our mouths when we are under duress.
No matter what good intentions we have or how much willpower we hope to bring to bear on a racialized situation, that willpower is always going to be unequal to the terrible weight, the cementing weight that comes with that word. Every individual effort to lighten or trivialize that epithet, every attempt to make light of that word is going to fail. This is probably another possible meaning for Light in August – an attempt of various people to make light of the phenomenon of race and not succeeding. So Bobbie is, in that sense, not even an especially interesting character on her own, other than as a kind of a dramatizing, concentrated version of the sort of involuntary reactions and involuntary usage of that word when we ourselves are under duress. This seemingly marginal detail in Hightower—actually it isn’t marginal– the reaction to the word “nigger” is an entry point to his psychology.
Chapter 9: Joanna Burden’s Theology of the “Nigger” as an Eternal Curse [00:26:58]
There’s one person for whom the word “nigger” is front and center, and in many ways she is more extreme to be a generalized case. Faulkner uses Joanna Burden as a fairly atypical case of thinking, very emotional response to the word “nigger.” That it’s, in many ways, on the far end of the spectrum, that nonetheless reflects on the medium, on the mean of that spectrum. She has an extreme notion of what the word “nigger” means, that it is an eternal curse, the context of which is the death of her grandfather and her half-brother Calvin. Joanna’s grandfather and her half-brother Calvin were killed by a white person. They were killed by Satoris. Let’s not forget that they were not killed by a black person. They were killed by a white person. This is the account that Joanna would give of the reason why the two of them are killed. This is what her father says to her.
This is about as thoroughgoing a curse as could be. It’s basically comprehensive, cover all the bases. It covers every single member of the white race, and it goes on for an eternity. That curse will never go away. Why is it that when two white people are killed by another white person that that is the case of the curse of the black race? That is a really interesting bit of logic. But Joanna’s father is firmly convinced that that is the case. That if there had not been blacks in this world– which actually probably would have been true– if there had not been blacks in this world, the grandfather and Calvin would not have been killed by Satoris. Even though it seems like a strange kind of logic, once you spell it out in that way, actually it is a strange, but nonetheless truthful statement.
And this is how Joanna’s interpretation of that statement, her elaboration on that image of race as an eternal curse on the blacks, obviously, but also on the whites as well. And given what her father says, this is what she herself thinks.
A modern interpretation of an entire race being crucified. It turns out that according to Joanna and her father that the dynamics of race and the legacy of slavery is such that whites will be crucified upon the black cross for as long as they live, for as long as they are human beings on earth. So it’s an extravagant claim.
It’s predicated on the notion, and in some sense, it’s a summary of all that we’ve seen so far, which is that the racial epithet is in fact an epithet that all of us reach for involuntarily when we are under duress. It’s almost a kind of psychological necessity for us to call someone black. That all of us as human beings, because all of us are under duress so much of the time, there’s just no way to avoid being under duress some of the time. Because there’s such good chances for all of us to be under duress, there also good chances for all of us to call someone black. We just need to make that kind of attribution on someone.
It’s because of that basic human psychological need that the relations between the races– so-called races, even though the membership of each one is always going to be in flux– but the relation between the supposed races, that relation is always going to be fraught, always going to be a terrible relation.
That’s why, according to Joanna, it’s not just the black shadow falling on white babies, but she actually goes so far as to say that that shadow is underneath them as well. This is an incredibly detailed, all-encompassing black shadow that basically envelops everyone. It’s on top of you. It’s underneath you. You arms are flung out, and it follows the shape of your arms. Basically, it completely envelopes every inch of you. There’s no escape from that black curse.
This is really an incredible claim. I think that it’s helpful, in order to contextualize that claim, to think about the Burden genealogy. I’m sure Faulkner would object to this kind of schematic summary, but this is what we have. The Burden geneaology starts up with someone called Nathaniel Burrington. It’s changed to Burden by Calvin Burden who has a Huguenot Protestant wife and friends. And then Nathaniel Burden joined his father with two wives, the Mexican wife Juana or Joanna, and a wife fromNew Hampshirewho’s Joanna’s extra mother. And then Calvin Burden, his son, first son killed by Satoris along with the grandfather and then Joanna Burden. This is the Burden genealogy.
Chapter 10: The Burden’s Calvinist Genealogy [00:34:47]
And we’ll see that two names are being repeated twice. The name Nathaniel appears twice. And the name Calvin appears twice. Faulkner loves to play with names. This is another instance – because we all know who Calvin is, and he has everything to say about original sin and predestination. John Calvin right there, looking like someone who would make that kind of statement about original sin. This is his treatise, Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. And this is what he says about original sin:
It doesn’t really actually take the reprehensible action of anyone for us to be liable to God’s wrath, that actually we inherit that. The important thing is that it is hereditary. It is passed on from one generation to another without the volition of the person upon which it is visited and without even necessarily any reprehensible action on whom that original sin is visited. It simply is something that is passed on automatically from one generation to another.
This a longstanding tradition of thinking about an evil that we can’t escape, that we’re just involuntarily signed up on to this legacy of evil and punishment and curse. I would say this is Joanna’s genealogy. And this is also partly Faulkner’s genealogy as well. I wouldn’t say that he’s a Calvinist, but he’s certainly very, very interested in this kind of thinking, a curse that is transmitted across time, across generations.
But there’s another party to this genealogy, Nathaniel Hawthorne. We already have seen how important Hawthorneis. And it turns out he really is a figure of longstanding relevance to Faulkner. The Hawthorne-Faulkner connection. We know that in The Scarlet Letter there’s the Reverend Dimmesdale who commits adultery with Hester Prynne. In As I Lay Dying, there’s the Reverend Whitfield who commits adultery with Addie. So Whitfield, Dimmesdale, and Whitfield actually making a speech that sounds almost like Dimmesdale’s speech at the end of The Scarlet Letter. And then in Light in August, the name Nathaniel is resurrected one more time. It’s almost as if Faulkner’s just paying kind of this late tribute to an author who’s been very, very important to him.
Given the fact that the Hawthorne connection is actually a connection by way of The Scarlet Letter, which is, in some sense, a novel not just about sin, some kind of sin, past sin that Dimmesdale certainly can’t shake off and maybe Hester can’t shake off either, a sin that will stick to you and follow you wherever you go. It’s not only just about that, but it’s also about sexual depravity or sexual license to some extent, even though that is not represented at all in The Scarlet Letter and not really represented in any details.
In both those novels, in both The Scarlet Letter and As I Lay Dying, the sexual license is only gestured at. We know the outcome of that elicit sexuality in the sense that we see Hester’s illegitimate daughter Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, and we see Addie’s illegitimate son Jewel, and there’s also a connection between Pearl and Jewel as well. We see Addie’s illegitimate son Jewel in As I Lay Dying. But in both those novels the sexual license is not really represented. It’s not part of the novel.
Chapter 11: Joanna Burden’s: the word “Negro”as Sexual License [00:39:38]
In Light in August, we do see that sexual license front and center. What makes this even more complicated is that it’s mapped onto the platform of race. It is the weird combination of belief in Calvinist original sin coupled with sexual wildness on the part of Joanna Burden. And that is when the word “negro” comes up. This is yet another of the licentious context for the use of the word “negro.”
It might seem incomprehensible that someone like Joanna Burden, who spends all her time trying to help blacks in the south, who is the on the board of dozen charities and black schools– basically has dedicated her entire life to racial uplift– should be doing this. But I think that it actually is – I think that as far as Faulkner is concerned, this incredible sexual license actually goes hand in hand with a belief in Calvinist predestination. If you really believe that you are going to be stuck with original sin, that that is going to be upon you, that black shadow is going to be upon you no matter what you do, then it doesn’t really matter what you do. It is a weird granting of license. That if you’re going to be evil anyway, no matter what you do, then you might as well actually be evil in your conduct as well. There’s something of that logic.
But I don’t even think that it’s as logical as that. For Faulkner, it’s just the two sides of Joanna. Maybe, just as Hightower has two faces, Joanna also has two faces, and the whole tradition, Calvinist tradition, also has two faces. That is Faulkner’s contribution to thinking about this particular kind of theology.
But we also notice is that Faulkner tends to stick in all kinds of weird details into this otherwise just kind of full-dressed description of sexual license on the part of Joanna. He also has weird kind of references to two other traditions. One is Beardsley and the other is Petronius. This is Beardsley, the celebrated illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. This is Salome, showing human beings in this kind of very erotic and wild gestures. This is another illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. And as for Petronius, this is actually not quite a novel. This is sort of the beginning of the novel genre – Petronius, the writer of Satyricon. The reason that it’s related to the Faulkner novels often, especially Light in August, is that this early novel is about two foreigners with Greek-sounding names, Encolpius and Giton in Southern Italy.
This is the first instance of northerners going south. Not quite Yankees going south toMississippi, but similar dynamics. Joanna and her father and the whole family know that they’re hated as Yankees and carpetbaggers as we’ve seen last time. The whole dynamics of people from one region going south and being hated by the locals. But in this case, there’s this additional complication. That this is a very cold northerner going to the hot south, and in some instances, being heated up by that tropical environment. But basically staying cold and hot. So this is the pendulum swing of Joanna from that incredible sexual license to the other side. And she also, interestingly enough, she also uses the word “negro” in that context when she swings to the other side.
The syntax I think is very interesting, that what is in the parentheses, the still face of the spinster and then the animal body, are kind of a perfect summary of the two sides of Joanna. Even for Faulkner, it’s very ungainly syntax or deliberate syntax. Then that last part of that, the bastard negro child. And is not accidental that this is the moment where suddenly she’s invoking Calvin. I would like to see father Nathaniel’s face and Calvin’s face.
This is almost as if this is the new twentieth century edition to The Scarlet Letter and the new twentieth century edition to the longstanding theology of Calvin. That this is what happens when you inherit from those two traditions is that you both do good by supposedly helping blacks. But then you also engage in this uncontrollable sexual orgy with them. And the bastard negro child is this kind of also involuntary outcome of the union of those two sides.
Chapter 12: Joe Christmas’s Ironic Use of the Word “Nigger” [00:47:03]
It’s sort of easy to see why Joanna is not going to be an easy person for Joe Christmas to deal with. Anyone would have a hard time trying to negotiate, trying to deal with someone like that. And Joe Christmas’ response is like this. At this point, Joanna wants him to go to school. Wants him to study law with a black lawyer and wants to turn over all her funds, all the money that she has. And it’s not insignificant. She wants to turn over all the money to him, and this is his response.
This is a moment when Joanna is both completely tone deaf, but also just an incredibly sad person. That this is the best she can do for him. She’s too embarrassed. She’s trying to bribe him as well. She’s trying to say I’m going to turn over all the money to you. And it really doesn’t matter if you study law. You know how to use the money for your pleasure, really. She can’t really bring herself to say that word.
She wants to do the most for him. And she will not admit to it. She would not name what she’s turning over to him. All the ellipses of those unfinished sentences. She’s both tone deaf, but also actually at the maximum point of goodwill and love maybe even towards him, wanting to do the most for him. And his way of responding is by being totally ironic about the word “nigger” and obviously about her as well.
We can say when the word “nigger” is used in that context, it’s also a moment of psychological duress. That maybe he just even can’t bear to acknowledge the fact that she wants to do so much for him. I think that that would be one way to read that. That this is actually not a moment when there’s no love felt or that that romance is over. It’s not that. But that maybe it’s too much. And that the way that he’s responding to that is by being totally cynical, satirical and ironic about the whole thing. This scene is really open to any number of readings. All we know that it is definitely not an innocent word when it’s used by oneself. That it is as charged and as painful to use as when it is attributed to oneself by other people.
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