AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
AMST 246 - Lecture 25 - Faulkner's Light in August, Part IV
Chapter 1: “Passing” in Light in August [00:05:60]
Professor Wai Chee Dimock: OK, I’m going to get started. Last time, on Tuesday, we were talking about the use of the word “nigger” by various people– sometimes trying to be trivializing, sometimes obviously agonized but trying to disguise that fact. Sometimes by one’s neighbors, sometimes by oneself. But always nontrivial.
Today, we’re turning to the other side of the phenomenon and thinking about what it means to inhabit that adjective, “nigger”– what it means to embrace that as one’s identity. The Joe Christmas part of the story of Light in August is about what it means for somebody to choose to be black. It’s very important to recognize that this is a volitional act. It is a decision – active, conscious decision. In that sense, it’s also about someone poised on two contrary possibilities. Joe Christmas could be either black or he could be white. This either or possibility is something that actually becomes quite important in American literature outside of Faulkner.
I want to talk about one other book published very close to Light in August by Nella Larsen. As we can see, Nella Larsen herself is someone who could go either way. She’s classified as African American, because of the one drop rule. If you have the slightest bit of African American heritage, it classifies you as black. She’s classified as a black writer. But she really could be anything.
In fact, she disappeared in mid career and just completely vanished from public, until she was found dead. There were a lot of surmises that actually she was passing all those years when she disappeared. she wrote a novel called Passing about two black women, one choosing to be married to someone who’s identifiably black, and the other choosing to pass as a white woman, but not succeeding, at least not being very happy with that decision. Passing – this was published in 1929, very close to Light in August. As we can see from the book cover, it’s really about the choice of someone who looks completely white who is classified as black, but who chooses to behave as a white person, live the life of a white person.
In Faulkner, what you see is also a kind of passing. Let’s not forget that actually it’s very much similar to the dynamics in Nella Larsen’s Passing. It is someone– a man– who looks as white as the woman here, who actually is initially classified as white, but then chooses, in spite of his outward appearance, to embrace the life of a black man. It is passing in the opposite direction. It is self-blackening, a white person blackening himself. There’s no way he can blacken his interior. But at least he can try to blacken his inside, try to blacken his emotions, his choice of companions and all the rest of it.
This is what Joe Christmas decides to do when he starts on this run down this long street that goes from the south toChicagoto the north. And endless, for 15 years he’s on this street. That’s what happens to him when he’s on this 15 year-long street.
This is an incredible instance of self-blackening, somebody who doesn’t have to be black choosing to be black – against everything in him, his sense of smell, sense of sight, his sense of touch, everything– against everything in him, even though every inch of him is revolting against being classified as black and associating with blacks. That’s what he chooses to do. So it’s a very complicated kind of psychology. Usually when somebody identifies with someone, they embrace that identity because they like that identity. But in this case, it’s an absolute loathing of being black, and at the same time, deciding to be black. This is a much more complex psychology that we’re seeing in this novel.
Chapter 2: Joe Christmas’s Redoubled Double-Consciousness [00:06:12]
To understand this, I think we need to borrow the terminology from someone who talks about what he calls double-consciousness. This is W. E. B. Du Bois, an important thinker and activist from the nineteenth to basically the twentieth century. He wrote The Souls of Black Folk. This is what he says about African-Americans. Let’s not forget he’s talking about African-Americans, people who look black. This is what he says about the complicated consciousness that blacks have:
A person who looks black has no choice but to inhabit this double-consciousness, both to be aware of oneself, as oneself, having a completely internal relation to oneself. But at the same time, having another’s views superimposed upon oneself, because of the way other people are looking at you. It is this doubleness, one is looking at oneself through involuntarily through the eyes of other people.
But we shouldn’t forget that, in fact, Joe Christmas doesn’t look like a black man. He looks like the male counterpart to this white looking woman. It’s even more complicated than what Du Bois is suggesting. It’s not the double-consciousness of an obviously black man, but the double-consciousness of a white looking person, who even though he is repelled by the blackness, nonetheless embraces blackness. It is double-consciousness redoubled in terms of this degree of complexity.
Today, I’d like to talk about this kind of redoubled double-consciousness in Faulkner along three lines of inquiry. One: the importance of the light and shadow, which is epitomized, dramatized in the title. Next: something that we’ve sort of been talking about, the relation between a single individual and the population of group or multitude. Today, that’s what I’d like to return to. And finally: something that we’ve been talking about all the way through – about the question of genre and balance between comedy and tragedy.
Given this configuration, I’d like to look at three characters– basically the two ends of the spectrum and a mid point. I think that you know which two ends of the spectrum would be, would be Joe Christmas and Lena Grove, one tragic figure and the other a comic figure. And between the two of them, I would like to put now a third figure, the Reverend Hightower. We’ve been talking about Reverend Hightower in various contexts, but I’d like to bring him to bear now on the two obvious protagonists of Light in August.
Chapter 3: The Symbolic Pattern of Lighting a Match [00:10:01]
But first starting with Joe Christmas, I’d like to talk about three moments– actually, there’s more than three– but three clusters of moments revolving around the act of striking a match. It is so obviously a pattern, a symbolic pattern revolving around that act that I think is really worth thinking about the three of them in sequence and in the interrelations. The first instance of striking a match is when he’s contemplating killing Joanna.
It is an incredible passage. I just want to say some things about it and then come back to it again. There’s the striking of the match and then the dying out of the match – literally, the light dying out. But what is also interesting is that as the light dies out, then it becomes a completely auditory moment. It’s all about the sounds that come to Joe Christmas, the voices he hears. The light, the visual tableau completely gives way to an auditory soundscape.
Then there’s this weird kind of emergence of his own theology. We’ve been talking about the importance of Calvin last time and the play, the repetition of the name Calvin in Light in August. And here is this obvious invocation of his relation to God and what it means to repeat that line, “God loves me too.”
I want to point out these obvious things. Because this is the last class, I thought that it would be good to bring back briefly the other two authors. So – God appearing on the billboard, we actually have seen exactly this before in The Great Gatsby:
This is George Wilson at the moment when he’s starting out on his quest to kill the killer, the person who he thinks kills his wife, and pointing to this God on the billboard as the authority, invoking that authority to justify the mission that he’s just beginning.
The other way in which Fitzgerald would also come into play is the dynamic mix between the visual and the auditory. This is something that we talked about before about Daisy’s voice – “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened– then the glow faded, each light deserting her with a lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” The quality of sound described in terms of a visual image.
Finally, from The Great Gatsby, the great self-made man in American literature, described by Fitzgerald as a quasi-religious self-making. “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God– a phrase, which, if it means anything, means just that– that he must be about his Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
It is very hard to ignore the centrality of religion in both The Great Gatsby and in Light in August. In the case of The Great Gatsby, the religious language is really used to underwrite a special kind of self-making. What it means to be a son of God in the twentieth century and in a debased environment. That’s the kind of self-making that Fitzgerald is talking of, relatively non-racialized, even though we’ve seen that there’s a little bit of race in The Great Gatsby as well.
Against that example from Fitzgerald, let’s look one more time at what Faulkner is doing with exactly that configuration, the billboard, the interplay between the visual and the auditory and some invocation of God. It seems that when the light dies out, our only relation to light is by way of a dead match– a dead match and then it hits the ground. Then the light goes out completely. Instead what we get is all these sounds that come to Joe Christmas. He becomes an involuntary, strictly passive recipient of sounds that come to him.
That is the central function of Joe Christmas. We’ve talked before about how passive he is, that he’s less an actor than a recipient of either the goodwill, or in this case, the ill-will coming from other people. He really is a blank slate, on which other people, the entire community, can write the collective signature. He really is the bearer – it’s not a very good metaphor, considering that we’re looking at an auditory image, but just to switch to visual image briefly – he’s the bearer of the collective signature of that community.
The transition from light to darkness in this moment and transition from input coming into the eye and the input coming through the ear is the increasing of a dramatized passivity of Joe Christmas.
Chapter 4: The Racialized Predestination of Joe Christmas [00:18:07]
But there’s this further complication –since this is a racialized landscape. It seems to give us a racialized version of a Calvinist theology that we talked about last time. I want to think about what it means that the first italicized cluster was “God perhaps and me not knowing that too,” and then “God loves me too,” repeated twice. It’s almost as if the only thing Joe Christmas is sure about is that God loves other people. That is an undisputed statement. God loves other people. God loves everyone else. Maybe he loves me too.
There can’t be a more devastating self-reflection, speculation about yourself – that everyone else come before you. You are an afterthought, and maybe not even an afterthought in God’s mind. It’s written like those faded and weathered letters of last year’s billboard, that unimportant, that negligible to God.
An interesting racialized variation on predestination. It’s worth going back to Calvin for that reason and see why it lends itself so readily to this particular negative kind of racialization. Last time we talked about original sin and so on, so this another very famous statement coming from Calvin on predestination. There’s nobody more upfront than Calvin about predestination and what it means:
There’s no way you can quarrel with God. It’s his decision. He decides that you’re going to be condemned. It doesn’t make any sense to you, obviously, if you’re the condemned. You can’t make any sense of it. It’s completely incomprehensible.
But at the same time, if you’re a Calvinist you also have to believe that is irreprehensible. That God has every right to condemn you, even though from your point of view, it seems completely arbitrary. That is the meaning of predestination in a particular interpretation of a racialized context is that to be black is to be predestined in that particular way, always to come second, always to be an afterthought, and maybe even less than an afterthought in the mind of God. That is what Joe Christmas metaphorically as well as pragmatically chooses, given his own sense of being so negligible in the world. It could be one reason why he chooses to blacken himself, even though he doesn’t have to.
Faulkner’s version of predestination – the self-blackening of a white-looking man –completely honors lthe ogic of the gate of life being closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible judgment. It’s always under the shadow of race. I would say that the part of Light in August that is associated with Joe Christmas is very much the regime of shadows. And Faulkner’s quite heavy-handed about how often– we’ve said the original title of Light in August was Dark House. It could also be The Shadows of August because so much of the book is really about shadows. And the shadows tend to emerge in context of striking a match.
Chapter 5: Joe Christmas’s Lack of Agency [00:22:52]
Let’s go on to the next moment, next episode of Joe Christmas striking a match, lighting a lamp. This is the moment after the dialogue that we looked at last time of Joanna offering to send him to study with a black lawyer and turning over all her funds to him. Then the next thing that she asks him to do is to kneel with her and pray. This is all in that context.
Heavy emphasis on the alienation of Joe Christmas from his body. It’s not Joe Christmas who’s doing the walking. His body seemed to walk away from him. It’s not Joe Christmas who’s laying the razor on the table. It’s his hands that is doing it and his hands that is striking the match to light the lamp. The action is coming strictly just from the fragmented body parts. Highlighting the utter passivity of Joe Christmas himself, it is as if his individual fragmented body parts have agency, but not Joe Christmas as a whole. The consequence of lighting this lamp is this. This is what we see when the lamp is lit. He sees something else that casts a shadow on the wall:
It’s almost as if it’s irrelevant, but it’s actually going on. The most important thing is the play of that shadow on the wall. But we do know that the shadow is produced by that revolver. But here we have actually the symmetry of weaponry. Joe Christmas has come fully equipped. He has the razor in his hand, even though it’s not open. And Joanna has the revolver all ready. She thinks that it’s ready to go. That’s what Joe Christmas is seeing.
This is the outcome of that particular relationship that is completely under the shadow of race. We know Joanna would call him, “Nigger, nigger,” or “Negro, negro, negro.” That relationship is completely under the shadow of race. And this is actually the earlier moment where she talks about race as a curse, as an eternal curse. It’s the equivalent of predestination in America.
I’m not even going to read you the whole thing. You guys remember this passage. It is very much the invocation of the black shadow as the modern incarnation of the Calvinist doctrine of original sin. And a curse that falls upon you before you are even born. When you’re a baby, before you’ve done anything, even before when you’re in the mother’s womb that shadow is already falling upon you. It’s an extreme version of the Calvinist theology. And right here, we also see it not only as theology, but as dramatic action as the shadow of that pistol on the wall. We now know the final moment of Joe Christmas striking the match.
This is tragedy at work in Light in August. That there’s no denying the importance of tragedy. It depends on how much weight we assign to the Joe Christmas /Joanna Burden section of the novel. If we were to give primacy to that section, then the symmetry of weapons– the razor and the pistol, both chambers loaded in Joanna’s pistol, she really means for the two of them to die together – is the appropriate end for a tragic narrative. Even though Joe Christmas doesn’t die at the end, nonetheless, the stage is really set for that particular tragic outcome. There’s not a whole lot more after that. It couldn’t be any other outcome. There could be no other ending for Joe Christmas and Joanna. Either one of them had to die or the two of them had to die. But Faulkner can’t really think of any other ending for the two of them.
Chapter 6: Hightower as the Midpoint Between Joe Christmas and Lena Grove [00:29:43]
But thank God they’re not the only characters in Light in August. We’re beginning to make our way towards the other side of the spectrum. A very interesting transitional figure of someone who’s at midpoint between Joe Christmas and Lena Grove is Hightower. The image of the light and shadow and kind of contrast between light and shadow is also the visual landscape in which Hightower is situated.
This is the moment when Byron Bunch and Joe Christmas grandparents– at this point we sort of know that they are related. Byron Bunch going to Hightower and begging him to tell a lie so that Joe Christmas can have an alibi. Byron says it’s really your word against Joe Brown’s. If you would just say that he was with you that night, that will be better, stronger evidence than anything coming from Joe Brown. Hightower could have told a lie, and the lynching wouldn’t have happened. But this is what he decides –
This particular visual image suggests that Hightower is completely poised between light and shadow. There’s light that is coming from a shaded lamp. And he’s given an opportunity to do something significant in the world. To have saved Joe Christmas would have been a significant deed in the life of someone who actually has not done a lot of significant things. His life could have been much more consequential, and in fact, hasn’t been all that consequential. Saving Joe Christmas would have been a consequential action.
But Hightower just cannot bring himself to do it for all kinds of reasons. We can speculate on why he chooses not to do it. But that is a moment when his voice is very high as befitting his name, Hightower. What that very high voice is doing is turning away this opportunity. I think all of us would have different decisions whether or not to lie at that moment. His decision is not to lie and to allow the violence to erupt, as everyone can see that it’s about to.
This is the moment – he’s in this pool of light from the shaded lamp. But there’s another possibility for Hightower that comes actually only five pages after that. So Faulkner, I would say, is quite gentle towards Hightower in terms of the final place given to him in the story, in the novel.
Chapter 7: A Second Chance for Hightower [00:33:28]
We know that once before Hightower’s had tried deliver a baby. A black woman, and the doctor’s supposed to come, and the doctor arrives too late. Hightower delivers the baby, and the baby is dead. And then rumors go all around town that the baby is his. But it turns out that he actually get a second chance to deliver a baby. And of course, we know whose baby it is. He gets to deliver that baby because the doctor also arrives too late a second time.
It is crucial that this is a repetition, this is a replay of an earlier scenario that Faulkner ends on is this over again, if it’s a second time or it’s too late this time also. Also and again. It turns out that actually the second time around makes all the difference in the world. Because at this time Hightower is able to deliver the baby successfully. This is the consequential action that he manages to do, that is granted him. He’s not granted the bravery – or I don’t even know what word to use – if he had chosen to lie. He’s not granted that, mental laxness or mental toughness to lie for Joe Christmas. But he is granted something that is both more uncontroversial and with an obviously benign outcome– to deliver a baby when the professional doctor is too late this time too.
It turns out Faulkner is giving us, not only one kind of double-consciousness, but it is redoubled or maybe redoubled again in Light in August. There are two meanings to being “second.” In Joe Christmas’ usage, “God loves me too,” being second means that you are nobody. That you are nothing. That you count for nothing at all. You’re always going to be an afterthought. “God loves me too.” That’s what being second– it means losing out and not even having the dignity of losing out. Just a non-contender, in a field where everyone else is going to be ahead of you. That’s what it means to have the word “too” attached to you.
But that’s not the only meaning of “too” or in the variation, “also.” The second time we see that in the case of Hightower, “the doctor arrived too late this time also,” second actually means a second chance. That you messed up the first time around– or it wasn’t so much messing up, some babies are just born dead, but I think there was some messing up, it wasn’t a satisfied outcome, it wasn’t an acceptable outcome to most people – so you messed up the first time around, you get another chance to do it one more time.
The word “second” allows for that other usage. That is why, to my mind, Hightower is such an important midpoint between Joe Christmas and Lena Grove. He is taking us halfway in the direction of a much more affirmative view of what is possible, a much more affirmative view of the world.
But it is important to recognize that is a completely accidental development. There’s no reason, no logical reason why the doctor should arrive too late. It’s only because the doctor arrives too late that Hightower gets to deliver the baby. The doctor arrives too late because he’s old and didn’t want to be awakened up in the middle of the night, can’t find his key to the car. All these accidental developments contribute. And the doctor, other than the fact that he’s appeared once before, is an absolute stranger to the novel, he does not set out to benefit Hightower.
The second chance coming to Hightower comes to him by virtue of the pregnancy and the childbirth of a total stranger, Lena Grove, and the accidental lateness of another stranger, the doctor. We’re beginning to get into an arena where it’s really not Hightower’s action alone, but the combined action of all these other people, many of whom are strangers to him. It is the combined action of all these people that produces an outcome.
Chapter 8: The Wisdom of Crowds [00:39:38]
This is a moment to introduce some theoretical speculation on this point. James Surowiecki is a staff writer for The New Yorker. But five, ten years ago, he wrote a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, which got a lot of attention when it came out. His basic argument is that, when there’s a shortage of information, the collective conjecture, the collective guesswork, the aggregation of guesses from a lot of people, that aggregation is always going to be closer to the truth than the single guess of a single individual. It’s actually a complicated mathematical argument. It’s about the aggregation of conjecture being better, having a higher likelihood of being closer to the truth. Even though it doesn’t talk about statistics, actually it’s very statistical in its mode of thinking, it’s about chances and likelihood.
The other book that is also relevant and has the title Multitude is by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Much of the book isn’t related to what we’re talking about. But there is one line that is directly relevant – about the thinking about what the meaning multitude could have. For Hardt and Negri, multitude, is “the cooperative convergence of subjects … Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes the real.” It has some resemblance to Surowiecki’s argument – about how the possible can become the real. It turns out that the collective conjecture, the aggregation of individual guesswork, or the aggregation of action from a lot people, would put us in closer contact to how the possible can become the real.
These are the two contemporary lines of thinking about groups and about human populations – as opposed to human individuals – as the agents of history. It turns out that there’s also a nineteenth century precedent for Faulkner. We’re so used to thinking of The Scarlet Letter of a condemnation as the bigotry of Puritans. But let’s not forget thatHawthorne actually has a very important statement about multitude that runs contrary to our stereotypical view of Puritans:
It’s astonishing statement from The Scarlet Letter – saying that the great and warm heart is not the attribute of a single individual. That in fact, the human heart in its individual embodiment is likely to have lots and lots of shadows in it. The only way that those shadows can be relatively deactivated is when we think and aggregate. It’s a fascinating theory. Just offering it to you as a possibility.
Chapter 9: Multitude: Faulkner’s Kindness of Strangers [00:43:52]
I do think that this is what Faulkner in mind in giving so much play to total strangers, doctors, people who have no relation to one another in Light in August. His notion of the multitude is that it’s randomized, it’s statistical, it’s populational, it’s chancy. This is the moment, the extreme moment, in Light in August right before the killing of Joe Christmas. This is what Faulkner gives us.
I don’t need to say too much about this. Just that the halo is not the halo around a single face. It is full of faces. That’s the reason why Faulkner can go right back to how he begins – to the kindness of strangers. This kindness of strangers is not even ironized by everything that has happened in between page one of Light in August and the final pages. The kindness of strangers – yes, it has to recognize and take into account and acknowledge and put in the foreground the brutality of one’s neighbors. No question about it. It has to encompass all of that. But the kindness of strangers remains. So Faulkner is quite happy to bring in a person never before mentioned in Light in August in the last pages of the novel:
A seemingly extraneous detail at the end of the novel. The reason this furniture dealer is in the picture suddenly is that he’s there to witness the ongoing courtship between Lena Grove and Byron Bunch.
Chapter 10: Faulkner on Courtship and Marriage [00:46:23]
Let’s see what Faulkner has to say about courtship and marriage. It turns out he actually has given some thought to this – and to his rival, Ernest Hemingway. The relation between the two of them is not always cordial. This is Faulkner writing to Malcolm Cowley.
What we’re addicted to is marriage. It doesn’t matter if you fail 1,000 times, you still want to get married again. Given the fact, this totally clear-eyed evaluation of the outcome of marriage, but also the fact that it’s just going to be an ongoing addiction, we should not be surprised by what happens at the end of Light in August. When we’re talking about Hemingway I want to remind you that we’ve seen this kind of structure before, the matching beginning and end.
The ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms.” Beginning of the novel: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine-needled floor of the forest.”
Light in August. Beginning: “although I have not been quite a month on the road, I’m already inMississippi.” And ending: “Here we ain’t been coming fromAlabama for two months, and now it’s alreadyTennessee.”
It is Lena Grove – counting on the kindness of strangers and counting on the statistical fact that to every Lucas Birch there will was always be a Byron Bunch. Because marriage is an eternal addiction, that’s why the novel ends as a comedy. Thank you very much. [applause]
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