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Faulkner's Southern reflections: the black on the back of the mirror in "Ad Astra." (William Faulkner) (Section 1: Black South Culture)

Critics as diverse as Hodding Carter and Thadious M. Davis have asserted that the Southern African American characters in the Faulkner canon are his strongest characterizations - that Dilsey and Luster subvert the narrative moment from Quentin and his father in The Sound and the Fury (1929), that Charles Bon and "the 100 savage negroes" usurp the narrative throne from Quentin and Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). The focus of my inquiry here is not only to support the assertion that Faulkner's African American characters are strong - indeed, often overwhelming (consider, for example, Joe Christmas in the 1932 novel Light in August) - but also to assert two other related points: that a generative base of that strength in Faulkner's African American characters is their very Southerness, and that from the very beginning of his career - in his very first short storie - Faulkner developed his African American characters as subtextual exemplars of true strength.

At the onset of the short Story "Ad Astra" (1918), readers are introduced to four American and Irish soldiers serving as members of the British Army during World War I and an Indian officer/ companion. It is noteworthy that Faulkner immediately posits color with the black subadar from India, and Southerness with the white segregationist soldier Sartoris and, later, the M.R These two cardinal indices are integrally linked in the very first paragraph of the story.

The war is clearly in its death throes, with Germany all but defeated, and this ragtag group is simply trying to wait out the last days of official action in France without being injured. Of the four, Bland is the most eloquent, and it is he who, though drunk, sets the tone and plane of meaning of the story with this statement concerning the subadar: "|He can attend their schools for the bleachskinned ... but he cannot hold their commission, because gentility is a matter of color and not lineage or behavior'" (409).

When Bland drunkenly makes his statement as he looks at the subadar, he invokes a recurrent pattern in Faulkner's early short stories which concern the myriad strains of racial disharmony. In these stories, there is frequently a background narrator who implies that the black characters involved in the plot are at least as important and as good as the white, but because the world values color over content, the characters of color find themselves socially disadvantaged. Relatedly, Faulkner uses his narrator to foreground the racial grid of all of his later novels, including The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!: The early short stories posit in the minds of Faulkner's earned and intended audience his views on race so that, as a Southernwriter who will later write exclusively about the contemporaneous South of the United States, his views of race are posited a priori with his sincere readership. This rhetorical scheme allows the narratives in the novels to concentrate on the development of other Southern themes, such as the class conflict between the white landed-gentry minority and the white majority of the dispossessed agricultural underclass (As I Lay Dying, 1930), the myth of the Antebellum-South-as-Camelot (Absalom, Absalom!.), and the lure and exploitation of the land (Go Down, Moses, 1942).

Thus, as a proponent of Faulkner's early authoring intentions, the subadar in "Ad Astra" occupies an extremely complex position, for which there seems no solution: By his own superior efforts, he has become an officer in the very foreign army that has colonized his homeland of India, but because he is faced with color, class, and cultural discrimination, he is not allowed to give commands to whites of lesser rank in the British Army. Color is for him the great negator. Further, his enforced lack of authority is emblematic of his status in his chosen society. As is so often the case for the non-white characters in Faulknees early short fiction, the subadar suffers psychological dissolution because he does not know, or cannot find, his human place in his chosen world, where he is perpetually considered an "other"; and in his chosen world, "otherness" is equivalent to being both corporeal and invisible. That is, to be an other is to be one of the walking dead.

In the soldiers' car, where most of the key dialogue exchanges occur, the subadar repeatedly shows his clear superiority to those around him, while at the same time he is completely negated by the other characters, who do not even acknowledge his existence by name, always referring to him only by title. And, of course, in the social milieu of the characters with whom he has chosen to surround himself, his title is worthless. The absence of a personal ascription for him also symbolically mirrors his blankness in the milieu in which he tries to excel. Bland says to him," You spoke before the Union once. I remember you.'" "'Ah,'" the subadar replies, "'Oxford. Yes.'" But all the subadar remembers of this important academic event is that, for a small while, he thought himself an equal, because he thought of himself as white. Thus, responding to Bland's remembrance of the Oxford speech, the sudabar says," |I was a white man for that moment'" (409). For the subadar, the painful dimensions of being black around his chosen white peers are self-inflicted as well as group-inflicted: Never in his own mind, or in the minds of his chosen associates, can he ever excel to any height that will gain him acceptance among those who are as color-conscious as he. This trope is used again and again in Faulkner's work which has the black subtext of strength; but interestingly the subadar's strength is negated in "Ad Astra," perhaps because he is not from the Southern United States.

Relatedly, the complexity of the subadar's situation stipulates the complexity of the narrative, which is periodic and dystaxic. Faulkner's purposefully convoluted narrative is constructed in an obvious stylistic attempt to evoke in the reader the emptiness and loneliness of World War I Europe as well as the emptiness in the lives of those who joined of their own volition in a "War to End All Wars" rather than be labeled. cowards and losers at home. Rather than be labeled a loser and a member of an "inferior" race by associating himself with his conquered homeland, the subadar has chosen to adopt the race, culture, mores, education, and war of his people's conquerors. In this way he believes he has seized power, since he has made a conscious choice to seize control of his life; he is unable to bear the truth that his choice is still derivative, still the choice of a defeated spirit.

In story after story in the early part of Faulkner's career - e.g., "Sunset" (1919), "Red Leaves" (1920), and "Dry September" (1921) - we see this pattern re-enacted. The characters of color try to establish a place in a white-ruled society only to fail dreadfully or to have their choices pejoratively filtered through the perceptions of those with power. Thus, in the early stage of Faulkner's career, when he was developing only short stories, the theme of social displacement based on color was already explicit, the trope did not have to be the focal point of the later novels, all of which are absorbed with race as a subtext (consider, for example, Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust, 1948). Having already posited the way his characters were to be read, Faulkner freed himself to move the scheme of color to the background - still present, still the catalyst, but a shadow - and thus seem to write about other, larger issues of the American South. It is my assertion that there was no other subtextual scheme for Faulkner except the Southern trope of pejorative color perception.

The omniscent narrator, who is actively involved in channeling "Ad Astra" to fit Faulkner's stipulating intentions, includes this description of Bland, as the subadar looks on longingly: "He was blond and tall. When he passed through a room where women were he left a sighing wake like a ferry boat entering the slip" (409). This is the microcosm that stipulates the macrocosm of the subadar's place in a Eurocentric world. Thus, this indirect quote represents much more than the subadar's envy of the sensuous latitude granted Bland around women who look much like Bland and little like the subadar.

Bland serves as the subadar's untouchable other: Both are graduates of Oxford (Bland, too, was a Rhodes scholar); both have appealing courage and compassion, but because of the darkness of his skin, and the different religious base and culture from which he comes, the subadar is denied the same acceptance that Bland receives. The harsh facts of this reality are preposterous to anyone of the intellectual bearing of the subadar. Thus, even as he tells himself that he is white, in his psychologically dissonant state he makes an even more preposterous mental leap: He invents platitudes that are no more than desperate attempts to rationalize his existence and give him, the darker-skinned other, a place of superiority in his social situation:" A man sees further looking out of the dark upon the light than a man does in the light and looking out upon the light ..." (409). Thus, ironically and futilely, the subadar attempts to refute Bland's whiteness and his own blackness. In removing his own blackness, he inversely proves the Faulknerian subtext again: Without the Southern trope of blackness, there is no strength.

By refuting himself, he also fails in his attempt to present himself as a man who controls his own destiny. A prince in his own country, the subadar chooses to forsake his title and live in competition among those with whom he is not allowed to compete fairly. His confusion and self-loathing are never clearer than when he describes his chosen fate of denying his own birtright and cultural and racial lineage: |By removing myself I undid in one day what took two thousand years to do. Is not that something?'" (427). He tries to show that, by this chosen act of self-negation, he has power and autonomy. But to persons of color in Faulkner's world, power and autonomy are riterely soothing illusions: Strength (Faulkner's "endurance") earned through ceaseless suffering is their sole powerful province.

Ironically, the subadar, who is a prisoner of himself as well as his chosen society, has learned nothing from the story of the German prisoner, a character Faulkner inserts to explain the subadar's role (note that, once he removes his own blackness, the subadar is not even allowed to explain himself to himself) and to sbow that most times, in this life of those "already dead," the individual's fate is decided by powers far greater than any the individual may possess. Even though the subadar agrees with the German prisoner that" |everyone touched by the war is dead" |(421), whether killed or not, the subadar cannot respond in any self-sustaining way to the emptiness and contradictions of the life he faces. Thus, he acknowledges no fate, for he does not recognize himself reflected in the flames of the hatred of war, or in the milky eyes of those who can only see the melanin content of his skin.

Faulkner also urges the German to point out the emptiness of group choices as devices for self-validation; validation will come only through unearned suffering. The German chooses no group in the same way that the subadar chooses no fate yet clearly Faulkner arranges the German's actions and dialogue in such a way that the readers see the German's actions as positive. On the other hand, the subadar is completely alone in his self-chosen group, a group be thought would bring him social approval and validation but which instead brings only total isolation as an other and brings a world with no discernible group that will claim him.(1) Surely such an emptiness takes a dire psychological toll on him. With no viable group to which he can belong, the subadar is denied a positive self-concept both by his society and himself. But when the German prisoner faces the honors of his life by burning all of his personal effects - his medals, identification, the pictures of his wife and child - he thereby extracts himself from a group he did not choose (leaders of the German army), giving up his identifiation with his former validating group and signiftg his non-personhood (again the living dead) as well as taking a self-validating action.

Finally, it takes the M.P., the keeper of order (in this case, also the law of social order), to drive the subadar's fate home to him, a fate that is inescapable as long as the subadar's skin is darker than that of his peers. Although it is the subadar, along with the narrator, who provides the most intellectual insights in the story, and though it is the subadar who is of noble birth and existential reserve, his self-perceived, upwardly distancing qualities cannot remove him from the denigrating label the M.P. gives him. The subaday's fate is as decided as that of the German prisoner:" |When I came to this goddamned country,'" the M.P. says," |I thought niggers were niggers. But now I'll be darned if I know what they are. What's he? snake charmer?'" (419).

Thus, the subadar's color is, itself, his fate - a fate which, ironically, he has chosen for himself by seeking to escape all his world would have him be (only to have his attempt at escape result in social and ontological negation) and also the same fate to which his chosen social milieu, a human milieu corrupted by, inhuman actions, would have shackled him in any event. His world, ruled by race, violence, classs, and caste, is larger than his individual intentions. When this early Faulkner character negates the one intrinsic detail that Faulkner believed gave certain characters their strength - i.e., the existential resolve through persecution brought on by their color - the subadar removes the only Faulknerian buffer between himself and nothingness.

The subadar in "Ad Astra" is only one of many characters Faulkner used early in his career to posit his racial contexts. Avoiding the negation-by-race-and-class theme in the surface narrative of later novels such as Sanctuary (1927) may have allowed Faulkner to publish those novels in a much more racially insensitive time than ours. In any event, race and class, though ever present in the longer novels, are never the ostensible points of discussion, even in a work as racially based as Absalom, Absalom! In that novel the surface narrative describes the failure of Thomas Sutpen's "grand design" of life as a successful planter and slaver, though the text is completely underpinned by the mosaic of tragic miscegenation.

The "Southern situation," then, moves throughout Faulkner's early and late work, short stories and novels, in different ways for different intertextual, metatextual and extratextual reasons. But the same catalyst remains the prime mover: The perception of blackness in the United States provokes both great pathos in the shape of superior African American characterizations, and great narrative unity in the shape of superior fictions that are black-based.


(1) As Edward Byron Reuter points out in "The Personality of Mixed Bloods," group identification is the usual way that the outsider attempts self-validation. "The individual's conception of himself, perhaps the most important single item in the determination of personality development, is commensurate with, and is the counterpart of, the prestige of his group" (206).

Works Cited

Carter, Hodding. "Faulkner's Ambiguous Negro." Sewanee review 18 (1979): 63-81. Davi, Thadious M, Faulkner and the Negro. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1981. Faulkner, William. "Ad Astra." The Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage, 1971. 407-29. Reuter, William Byron. "The Personality of Mixed Bloods." Race Mixture . New York: McGraw, 1931. 197-211.
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Author:Martin, Reginald
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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