Passing as miscegenation: whiteness and homoeroticism in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
In Faulkner's novel, the obvious homoeroticism of Charles's and Henry's relationship is mirrored by the homoeroticism between Quentin and Shreve. Both Quentin and Henry, however, young men brought up in the patriarchal South, divert their attention away from their homosexual desires onto a more open topic for their time and region: the taint of black blood. Blackness is offered as the final answer for which the narrators and readers search to explain why Henry kills Charles. The novel shows race to be a simplifier and (as in McDowell's reading of Passing) the safe(r) zone that permits evasion and/or erasure of homosexuality. However, repressed desires and homosexual panic lead to hysteria and self-destruction in both Quentin and Henry. This repressed homoeroticism finds veiled expression in the narrative structure of the text itself. By blurring the boundaries and emphasizing the interconnections of race, gender, and sexuality, Faulkner reveals that hierarchical categories are arbitrary, they serve to facilitate denial, and they are mutually imbricative, relying on each other to function. (1)
Faulkner uses narrative in this novel and others to suggest a blurring of social boundaries and binaries, including those of desire. As Heide Ziegler points out, "Quentin Compson listens to Rosa Coldfield while talking to himself. He also speaks and listens at the same time, when he and Shreve identify with Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon: telling and listening merge; they become indistinguishable activities" (645). This fusion of speaking and listening suggests the possibility that other binaries--male and female, gay and straight, black and white--are not as rigid as our culture represents them. Alex Vernon argues that
While the story turns on the historical Southern taboo of racial intermixing, Faulkner artfully incorporates generic miscegenation into the novel's structure. The narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! can be viewed as a "cross-breed" of several literary forms, including (among others) the naturalist novel, biography, autobiography, and the oral tale largely associated in the American South with black culture.... Its narrative miscegenation ultimately unsettles the South's erroneous yet fundamental insistence on strict black-white speciation. (155-56) (2)
Absalom, Absalom! emphasizes the lack of definitive borders between black and white (Charles passes for white and the reader and characters "discover" that he has black blood only near the end of the novel), between the past and present (the narrative shifts in time without demarcation or warning), between individuals (the narrative also shifts without demarcation or warning from one narrative voice to another), and even between thoughts themselves (as sentences are often unpunctuated and blend into one another). Through these techniques, the narrative's blurring and crossing of boundaries unsettles the culture's insistence on seeing other types of difference, such as those related to race, gender, and sexuality, in black and white.
The whiteness to which the novel's young Southern males are born or aspire and which shapes their view of themselves and their society is coded as masculine and heterosexual. As Mason Stokes points out in The Color of Sex, "whiteness works best when it attaches itself to other abstractions, becoming yet another invisible strand in a larger web of unseen yet powerful cultural forces" (13). Dyer elaborates, "If race is always about bodies, it is also always about the reproduction of those bodies through heterosexuality" (White 25). White supremacy merges with compulsory heterosexuality because white supremacy involves dominance and control over women and blacks, and to be penetrated by another suggests submission or passivity. (3) From a white supremacist point of view, the white male body is that which possesses and penetrates; the black body, like the female and the homosexual body (which the dominant culture perceives as feminized), is that which is penetrated and possessed. The taboo against homosexuality resembles that against miscegenation, Faulkner's ostensible focus, because both often necessitate "passing," both can often involve "coming out"--risking the danger of public exposure of both color and desire, and both fail to reproduce biologically the whiteness our society values above all else. Historically, as Warren Hedges notes, "[d]isruption in racial categories also destabilizes categories of gender; blackface and cross dressing ... went hand in hand" in the late-nineteenth century, for example (231). (4)
The dominant culture continues to link its fears of homosexuality with its fears of blackness. Closer to Faulkner's time and culture, the motto of the KKK was "Don't be half a man, join the Klan" (Altman 200). The implication here is that all truly white and truly masculine people have the same agenda to protect their privileged status, and all of those people who don't belong under white robes are not real men and not real whites. Once again, conventional masculinity merges with whiteness. Even today--though possibly to a lesser extent--U.S. society considers both whiteness and heterosexuality normative, invisible. As Other, blacks and homosexuals have historically faced similar oppression in our society. (5) In his 1971 study Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, Dennis Altman quotes a letter from the gay black writer James Baldwin to his nephew: "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger." Altman adds, "So it is with the homosexual" (71). In both cases, the oppression involves the dominant group's projection of undesirable qualities onto the oppressed.
As a Southerner, Faulkner was well acquainted with racial oppression, but he was also familiar with the gay culture of the early-twentieth century. In 1915, Havelock Ellis published his famous study Sexual Inversion, which documents that a distinct gay culture did exist during Faulkner's time and was known to those outside the group. Many critics note Faulkner's close friendships with homosexuals in Paris and New Orleans. And the theme of homoeroticism is one that Faulkner explores in other works. For example, Neil Watson observes in Go Down, Moses "the triple threat of forbidden desires, the explicit interracial and incestual taboos juxtaposed with the implicit, still unnameable taboo of homoeroticism" (205). Richard Godden and Noel Polk reread the ledgers in "The Bear" to uncover a repressed tale of homosexual desire in the family chronicle that they believe explains Ike's rejection of his birthright as convincingly as the more accepted reading of the patriarch's past interracial incest. Michelle Ann Abate explores homoerotic imagery in The Sound and the Fury, and Duvall examines male homosexual panic in Light in August.
Compulsory heterosexuality was also a practice with which Faulkner was familiar. Either he or his publisher deleted four scenes showing same-sex erotics from his early novel Mosquitoes (Gwin 132). But in Absalom, Absalom! even the characters notice that something is omitted, or at least unacknowledged. As Mr. Compson says, "They are there, yet something is missing" (80), and Henry says to Charles, "You give me two and two and you tell me it makes five and it does make five" (94). The "something missing" to which Mr. Compson refers is the information that explains why Henry shot Charles. The something extra to which Henry alludes (the extra that allows two and two to make five) is Bon, the extra son who introduces dangerous racial and (I argue) unspoken sexual tensions. As Quentin and Shreve struggle to justify events of the past and Mr. Compson records all that doesn't add up, Faulkner suggests an ambiguity of desire. The unexplained, the silence in the narrative, suggests the closet that often conceals homosexual desire. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, our culture often links homosexuality to absence and silence, labeling such desire "unspeakable," a "love that dare not speak its name" (202). While the characters sense an absence that may be queer, the novel foregrounds unnamed homoeroticism for the reader. Throughout the first half of Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner plainly suggests the homoerotic attraction between Charles and Henry, complicating the question of sexuality and desire. Faulkner tells us many times that "Henry loved Bon" (71) and that Quentin and Judith "had been seduced almost simultaneously by a man whom at the time Judith had never even seen" (73). Faulkner at first implies a young man's love and admiration for an older, more sophisticated friend, but soon the descriptions of these characters and their relationship become noticeably sexual and the gender distinctions blur:
And it would be hard to say to which of them [Henry or Judith] he [Charles] appeared the more splendid--to the one with hope, even though unconscious, of making the image hers through possession; to the other with the knowledge, even though subconscious to the desire, of the insurmountable barrier which the similarity of gender hopelessly intervened;--this man whom Henry first saw ... in the slightly Frenchified cloak and hat which he wore, or perhaps ... presented formally to the man reclining in a flowered almost feminised gown ... this man handsome elegant and even catlike and too old to be where he was, too old not in years but in experience. (75-76)
Charles's physical appearance and demeanor suggest the feminine, and his experience differs so markedly from that of other young men as to have aged him prematurely. Henry fantasizes about Charles Bon ("by whom he [Henry] would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride" ) as he would about a lover, and the greatest barrier to their union is their similarity of gender. In fact, Henry's growing love for Charles is described as his "corruption" at the hands of the older man (91).
In the relationship between Charles and Henry, the woman, Judith, is ancillary. Faulkner tells us that Charles "paid Judith the dubious complement of not even trying to ruin her, let alone insisting on the marriage either before or after Sutpen forbade it" (78). And the author suggests, "Perhaps in his fatalism he [Charles] loved Henry the better of the two, seeing perhaps in the sister merely the shadow, the woman vessel with which to consummate the love whose actual object was the youth" (86). The way the woman functions in this relationship is not unusual. Stokes asserts that "[w]hite supremacy ... can be usefully understood as a homosocial network that commodifies and appropriates the bodies of white women and black men in order to consolidate both whiteness and heterosexuality as governing ideologies, ever present abstractions, condensed forms of panic, and political structures" (18). Stokes's explanation practically reiterates Faulkner's description of his triad of characters:
[I]t was not Judith who was the object of Bon's love or of Henry's solicitude. She was just the blank shape, the empty vessel in which each of them strove to preserve, not the illusion of himself nor his illusion of the other but what each conceived the other to believe him to be--the man and the youth, seducer and seduced, who had known one another, seduced and been seduced ... before Judith came into their joint lives even by so much as a girlname. (95)
We see here a homosocial bond reified through the body of the female, an object of exchange our culture uses, as Claude Levi-Strauss points out in The Elementary Structures of Kinship, to solidify partnerships between men (115). Faulkner's repetition of the word "seduced," however, suggests more than a homosocial bond; it suggests sexual desire. Judith functions as a decoy, providing acceptability to the closeness of the two men, and as a token to be exchanged, a sign of their affection for one another.
Judith's whiteness is essential to her symbolic function in this relationship. As Faulkner tells us, Quentin has grown up in a South in which there are three classes of the "opposite sex"--"ladies, women, females--the virgins whom gentlemen someday married, the courtesans to whom they went while on sabbaticals in the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom that first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity" (87). Because Judith is a white lady, no sexual activity is expected or permitted in her relationship with Bon. The asexuality of their interactions ensures that her liaison with Bon does not deprive Henry of the erotic energy of this triad, and the potential for sexuality (when they "someday marry") permits an outward show of proper heterosexuality. This sexual categorization of women explains why Bon's involvement with the Octoroon mistress makes so little sense to Mr. Compson as a reason for Henry's murder of Charles. Because she is a woman of mixed race, Charles's sexual involvement with her would not only be expected, but assumed, and a ceremony between them that holds no legal weight would not likely trouble Henry. Perhaps the certainty of sexuality between Charles and this woman also explains why the relationship inspires little emotional interest for Quentin: "In fact, Quentin did not even tell Shreve what his father had said about the visit. Perhaps Quentin himself had not been listening when Mr. Compson related (recreated?) it that evening at home" (268). The assumption of a heterosexual union detracts from the homoerotic potential of Henry's and Bon's relationship in a way that the asexual bond with Judith does not, and it is this homoerotic potential that fascinates the two young Harvard men. Judith's whiteness also makes possible the four years probation in which Charles and Henry depart together to decide if and when they will rejoin the sister/bride who waits at home. The war held white women captive and passive, unlike white men, who could go off to fight, and unlike free blacks, who could attempt to flee for the North.
Judith, however, is not just any white woman. She is sister to both men in this exchange. In addition to miscegenation, Faulkner links homoeroticism to another more overt taboo--incest, forming what Watson has labeled in Go Down, Moses a triple threat. Similar to Henry, in The Sound and the Fury Quentin Compson fantasizes about his sister's lover Dalton Ames, casting himself in a feminine role at the moment of intercourse between Dalton's parents: "If I could have been his mother lying with open body lifted laughing, holding his father with my hand refraining, seeing, watching him die before he lived" (80). If we read Absalom, Absalom! with The Sound and the Fury in mind, we can assume that the Sutpen legend's incestuous intricacies also enthrall Quentin. (6)
Why does this combination of taboos recur in Faulkner's works? Michael Davidson's term hemophobia, which describes human fears of and obsessions with blood, suggests the way the prohibitions against miscegenation, incest, and homosexuality correlate: "Bleeding disorders raise concerns about the porousness of boundaries, the vulnerability of the bodily envelope, the infection of bodily fluids--concerns that parallel phobias about sexual deviance and racial mixing" (44). Each of the taboos relates to blood and bloodlines, the passing on or failure to pass on traits that we deem desirable or undesirable, and their association does not occur solely in literature. According to Claude Levi-Strauss, "incest ... combines in some countries with its direct opposite, interracial sexual relations, an extreme form of exogamy, as the two most powerful inducements to horror and collective vengeance" (10). But as Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks asserts, the combination of these taboos actually makes some forms of incest permissible:
The strict separation between those who were kin (racially similar people) versus slaves (racially dissimilar people) rendered the incest taboo void a propos the latter group.... The prohibition of miscegenation should above all be understood as the tenacious refusal to grant legitimacy in order to preserve the possibility of incest. (42-43)
Faulkner illustrates this possibility explicitly in "The Bear" where the patriarch, Carothers McCaslin, has a daughter, Tomasina, with his slave Eunice and then later impregnates Tomasina, causing Eunice to commit suicide. McCaslin's actions are legally permissible due to his racial dominance over Eunice and Tomasina. The scenario becomes more complicated in Absalom, Absalom! only because the man is black and the woman is white, someone whom the culture deems too valuable to bear illegitimate offspring, and legitimacy is made impossible by both the incest and the miscegenation taboos.
How does the third prong of this triple threat, homosexuality, figure into the dynamic described above? Perhaps the prohibition against miscegenation facilitates unacknowledged homosexuality as it does unacknowledged incest. In reinforcing the notion that black men are not really "men," antimiscegenation laws may have made homosexual acts with black men seem less transgressive, in the same way that incest with slave offspring was not really considered incest. Often, in masculinist culture, the effeminized position, the penetrated, is offensive, but penetrating another man is sometimes considered a sign of dominance over him and does not necessarily indicate that the penetrator identifies himself as homosexual. (7) For example, Maurice Wallace reads a threat of homosexual rape in the climactic fight scene with Mr. Covey in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
Unmistakably, the portrayal of Covey, enraged by the slave's insubordination ripping the slaveboy's clothes from his body "with the fierceness of a tiger" (102), is a graphic recapitulation of Anthony's savage assault on Hester.... Douglass musters a physical strength heretofore unrealized in resisting Covey. The latter's violence is counteracted by the former's as one's phallic will--Douglass's--overcomes and 'feminizes' the other's--Covey's. If, in this scene, Douglass is a slave made a man, then Covey, by the designs of a historic fiction of binary exclusivity in matters of race and sex, is a man made a slave/woman. (92-94)
By linking the taboos against miscegenation, incest, and homosexuality, Faulkner suggests that the triangulation of these arbitrary boundaries on desire permits the simultaneous maintenance and breaking of taboo by the dominant power group.
Faulkner points out a similar social implication between the taboo against racial mixing and the taboo against homosexuality. After the four years of denial that Absalom, Absalom! figures as the Civil War, Charles and Henry finally come together, the phallic "pistol lying yet across the saddle bow unaimed" as they approach the gate of Sutpen's Hundred. Henry finally penetrates Bon with a bullet after warning him not to cross the barrier. Earlier Henry had placed himself in the feminine role, fantasizing that Charles might despoil him as "the sister, the mistress, the bride" (77). In switching from the stereotypically feminine to the stereotypically masculine role, Henry acts out his conflicted emotions. The result is fatal whether this scene is read as a symbolic consummation of Henry's homosexual desire or, alternatively, as an enactment of his homosexual panic. According to Sedgwick, homosexual panic arises when the intense male social bonds that male entitlement demands become difficult to distinguish from the "most reprobated bonds" of homosexuality. The similarity of the two bonds, one socially mandated and one socially prohibited, causes confusion and fear that one's peer and perhaps even oneself, may be a homosexual. The fear and confusion leads to violence against those perceived to be a homosexual threat (185-86), but the absence of a clearly visible marker of homosexuality leads to hyper-vigilance lest we fail to recognize "them" and thereby implicate ourselves in their sins. Faulkner points out that the same difficulty complicates the distinctions between black and white, suggesting that both hierarchical binaries are artificial: that which we abhor may often be unrecognizable, and it may therefore be everywhere or nowhere. So, the social abjection of blackness and/or homosexuality creates hysteria and is ultimately untenable.
Crossing the gate at Sutpen's Hundred is a symbolic penetration and a transgression of conventional social boundaries. The phallic gun and the threatened homestead suggest the violence enacted against those who bring the possibility of homosexuality too close to home. In the next chronological scene, Judith learns she cannot marry Charles because Henry has killed him. Charles's penetration by another man has made the marriage impossible. On a figurative level, the direct consummation of homoerotic desire, bypassing the female, is destructive to both heterosexuality and whiteness because whiteness has been socially construed to connote virility and dominance. Quentin and Shreve eventually arrive at the conclusion that Charles is part black to explain Henry's action because a white man could not be penetrated in this way. Quentin's and Shreve's labeling of Charles as black simultaneously reinforces stereotypes of blackness as passive/feminine and provides them with "black"-tinted spectacles to shield them from the uncomfortable recognition of homosexual desire.
In the second half of the novel, Faulkner suggests that Quentin's and Shreve's fascination with Henry's and Charles's story stems at least in part from identification. As the college students recreate the tale in the present, their identities merge with those of the young men from the past: "four of them and then just two--Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry" (267). Faulkner links the two pairs further through homoerotic descriptions of Quentin and Shreve as they struggle to understand Charles's and Henry's mysterious conduct. As they talk, Shreve sits half-naked, a fact that Faulkner notes repeatedly. Shreve has a "naked torso pink-gleaming and baby-smooth, cherubic, almost hairless" (147). And "from the waist down the table concealed him; anyone entering the room would have taken him to be stark naked" (177). Here Faulkner suggests the gaze of another who might enter the room and note Shreve's "stark nakedness," thereby implicating the two in something improper. Dyer points out that we don't often see naked white male bodies in film because "a naked body is a vulnerable body" (White 146). And "a sense of separation and boundedness is important to the white male ego" which does not risk "being merged into other bodies" (152). Faulkner repeatedly associates Shreve with Charles, another feminized male. The concealment of Shreve's lower body further suggests secret, forbidden activity. Shreve's actions and Faulkner's descriptions of them often seem vaguely sexual: "soon he will raise the window and do his deep-breathing in it, clench-fisted and naked to the waist, in the warm and rosy orifice above the iron quad" (176). "Warm and rosy orifice" seems an oddly sexual way to describe an open window, and a phallic stiffness resonates from the "iron quad." The Sound and the Fury also suggests a homoerotic tie between the two roommates. A fellow Harvard student jokingly describes Shreve as Quentin's husband, and Quentin notes that Shreve twice touches his knee as they ride in Mrs. Bland's car; here Quentin twice moves his knee away (147-48). In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner suggests that, as they ponder the unexplained aspects of Charles's and Henry's relationship, Quentin and Shreve develop an unconventional bond:
They stared at one another ... their quiet regular breathing vaporizing faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air. There was something curious in the way they looked at one another, curious and quiet and profoundly intent, not at all as two young men might look at each other but almost as a youth and a very young girl might out of virginity itself--a sort of hushed and naked searching. (240)
Faulkner describes the naked searching of a sexual awakening as these two young men talk about love in a "happy marriage of speaking and hearing" (253). (8)
That Faulkner figures the language itself as a marriage further supports the reading of homoerotics in this text. The surface of the text clearly suggests the homosocial bonds of narrative itself. Men come together--first General Compson and Thomas Sutpen, then Mr. Compson and Quentin, then Quentin and Henry Sutpen, and finally, Quentin and Shreve--to tell this story to each other.
Their individual relationships to the story differ, but in each case the telling of the story strengthens their bond to each other. (9) In the Harvard dorm room, the narration slides from the homosocial to the homoerotic. Alex Vernon suggests that Faulkner's use of the marriage trope to describe the young men's conversation is relevant to the characters' obsessions with genealogy and bloodline: "Quentin and Shreve cannot physically continue a family line, but oh how they can further a story" (162). Vernon elaborates, "The novel's evolving narrative line, particularly as furthered by Quentin and Shreve, invokes a direct correspondence with the evolutionary process whereby genetic transmission through sexual intercourse becomes narrative transmission through conversational intercourse" (170).
Their talk, however, is more than simply the transmission and reproduction of a story. In The Literary Speech Act, Shoshana Felman writes about the seductive power of speech:
Speech is the true realm of eroticism, and not simply a means of access to this realm. To seduce is to produce language that enjoys, language that takes pleasure in having 'no more to say.' To seduce is thus to prolong, within desiring speech, the pleasure-taking performance of the very production of speech. (28)
Quentin and Shreve seem to delight in the performance of speech, arousing themselves and each other as they enlarge the narrative by turns. As Shreve narrates, Quentin punctuates his additions to the tale with "yeses." At the end of chapter 6, as the tale appears to build to a climax, Quentin's final "yes" is followed by Shreve's breathless, "Wait then ... For God's sake wait" (174-75), and the two prolong and postpone the culmination of desire. Later, when Shreve again takes the narrative lead saying, "Let me play a while now" (224), the storytelling becomes a seductive display designed to heighten ecstasy. Faulkner's italicized sentences, which encourage quick reading and overemphasis, resemble seething passions that can barely be controlled. David Minter points out that when Faulkner tells us the two young men's talk soon "overpass[es] to love" (AA 253), the word choice is particularly apt "since it is not only love that Quentin and Shreve begin to discuss; it is love they begin to experience" (78). As Quentin and Shreve take turns as storyteller, they use the seductive power of language to penetrate their subject, Charles and Henry, and each other:
there was now not two of them but four, the two who breathed not individuals now yet something both more and less than twins.... not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness and that not mattering either: what faces and what names they called themselves and were called by so long as the blood coursed. (236-37)
Two becoming one (or four becoming two) echoes biblical language describing sex and marriage, and this male union centers on the erotic image of horseback riding. Words allow the two youths to understand, to identify with, even to merge with each other and with their long-dead counterparts, and Faulkner links their verbal and mental merger to the physical throb of the blood.
Quentin, however, is still a product of his culture. Quentin's and Shreve's awakening that the novel figures as a marriage in language, coupled with the repressed knowledge of the similar sexual desire of the past, induces a form of homosexual panic in Quentin similar to the panic displayed by Henry Sutpen. Quentin succumbs to the first manifestation of this panic after discovering the aged Henry lying in bed: "He was twenty years old; he was not afraid, because what he had seen out there could not harm him, yet he ran; even inside the dark familiar house ... he still ran" (297). If Quentin is not afraid, perhaps he runs from a recognition of himself in Henry Sutpen and the running is a hysterical response to his attempt to repress this knowledge. Quentin and Shreve project the screens of blackness and a heterosexual surrogate onto Charles's and Henry's relationship in order to make it less threatening. But these same screens are not available to Quentin in his interaction with Shreve; repression of forbidden desire is therefore even more important for the Quentin in the Harvard dorm room than it was for the Quentin living in the past, and this repression is marked by repeated references to whiteness. Faulkner emphasizes that Shreve is from Canada (208, 276, 289), an area far removed from the racial tensions of southern Mississippi in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Compared to Mississippi, Canada is further associated with whiteness through the snow that covers the landscape and the fact that relatively few blacks lived there. In New England, the frequent references to the color of his skin, referred to as pink (147, 176, 177, 220) or blond (141), and the white snow or ash emphasize Shreve's whiteness and symbolically underscore a continued repression: "There was snow on Shreve's arm now, no sleeve on his arm at all now: only the smooth cupid-fleshed forearm" (176), and a pipe "lay overturned, a scattering of white ashes fanning out from the bowl, onto the table before his crossed naked arms" (205). These references to snow and white ash occur in tandem with references to Shreve's naked flesh and to Cupid, or Eros, the God of Love. The ash spills from an "overturned" phallic pipe, as if the snow and ash were meant to freeze or extinguish the desire engendered by this nakedness. Symbolically white often represents purity and absence, marking a repression or closeting of desire. (10) Racially, identification with cultural definitions of whiteness--which, as discussed earlier, are coded as masculine and heterosexual--would be the antidote to a socially disgraceful desire that lies beneath the surface.
Such forbidden desires might elicit a fear of being labeled a race traitor, "someone who defies the rules of whiteness so flagrantly as to jeopardize his or her ability to draw upon the privileges of white skin" (Ignatiev 82). W. J. Cash, who in 1941 published the landmark critical study of Southern history and culture called The Mind of the South, refers to this anxiety as the "savage ideal ... that ideal whereunder dissent and variety are completely suppressed and [white] men become, in all their attitudes, professions, and actions, virtual replicas of one another" (93-94). Like Quentin Compson, Cash, shortly after "tell[ing] about the South" (AA 142) and betraying the bond that supposedly unites all white men, committed suicide (Hobson 247), thereby testifying to the power of the savage ideal and the shame of being labeled a "race traitor."
But as Quentin and Shreve discover more about the past and about each other in their "tomblike" room, their repression becomes harder to maintain: "Then the darkness seemed to breathe, to flow back; the window which Shreve had opened became visible against the faintly unearthly glow of the outer snow as, forced by the weight of the darkness, the blood surged and ran warmer and warmer" (288). Quentin's surging warm blood, forced by darkness, competes with the cold white snow on the threshold of the window Shreve has opened. The window's threshold represents the familiar boundaries between our culture's definitions of black and white, male and female, gay and straight, a liminal space that, as evidenced by the repeated references to it, obsesses Quentin (and Faulkner?) almost as much as the Sutpen tale. Presumably, this is the same window that launches Quentin's first conscious moment at the beginning of section 2 in The Sound and the Fury: (11) "When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch" (76). If, as I suggest, the window represents the threshold between racial and sexual binaries, the fact that its shadow returns Quentin to temporality on the day of his suicide seems significant. It connects his suicide not only to feelings of displacement in his time and culture, but also to feelings of displacement regarding his position with respect to these binaries. This window is the figurative shadow hanging over him as well as the literal one. His suicide occurs in June, nearing the end of his term at Harvard, but for a time, at least, the distancing snow of New England provides the safety that enables Quentin to finish in his mind the tale begun back in Mississippi and to consign it to a safe cultural and temporal space: "Now he (Quentin) could read it [his father's letter], could finish it--the sloped whimsical ironic hand out of Mississippi attenuated, into the iron snow" (301). Whatever truth Quentin might glean from this sloping hand of Mississippi is attenuated, temporarily, by the cold, obscuring, distancing whiteness of the snow.
In this white world, miscegenation is the answer that the two young Harvard men impose on the tale near the very end, after generations and pages of struggle to explain what prevented the marriage between Charles and Judith and what prompted Henry's murder of Charles. But if, as Noel Polk suggests, we examine this conclusion critically, we encounter some significant flaws in their logic:
First, you have to believe that Sutpen is far more race-conscious than he proves himself to be in any other place in the novel. Second, you have to believe that Bon at birth had physical characteristics--skin pigmentation, hair texture, lip thickness: something--that identified him as black, but which disappeared as he got older so that he could enroll at the University of Mississippi and pass as white all of his life. Third, if you believe that Supten was worried about dynasty, traditional problems of primogeniture, you have to overlook the Mississippi law that forbade a black son to inherit a father's estate. (20)
Though their conclusion does not add up on the literal level, symbolically it makes perfect sense. Thadious Davis points out that Faulkner's "white world must have its 'Negro,' because it cannot face itself without this scapegoat, this buffer which, even in its most ineffectual symbolic shape, can absorb the shock of self-confrontation" (237-38). That which these particular white men cannot face in themselves, that which they seek to buffer via the "Negro," is a recognition of their homoerotic desire. In the elite New England setting of Harvard, overwhelmingly white in landscape and population, Quentin must import his black-white scapegoat via the story. If, as Anne Goodwyn Jones suggests, "[white] southerners constructed their manhood on a daily basis of racial difference" ("The Work of Gender" 53), what better way for Quentin to reassure himself of his masculinity than to impose racial difference on the actions of Charles and Henry that might otherwise seem uncomfortably similar to his own? (12) Significantly, the novel's structure suggests that Quentin discovers the "truth" about Charles's racial heritage when he goes upstairs to find Henry in bed. (13)
In the approved tale, what prevents heterosexuality is not homosexuality but blackness. In Quentin's and Shreve's retelling, however, just after Henry learns of Charles's black blood, we encounter a scene in which it is impossible to ignore the homoerotic suggestion:
Now it is Bon who watches Henry; he can see the whites of Henry's eyes again as he sits looking at Henry with that expression which might be called smiling. His hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol by the barrel, the butt extended toward Henry. Then do it now, he says. Henry looks at the pistol; now he is not only panting, he is trembling. (285-86)
Charles's hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears holding a symbolic phallus; he then extends the butt toward Henry and invites him to "do it now." (14) Looking at Charles's symbolic phallus, Henry pants and trembles. Rather than acknowledge the homoerotic tension, Henry projects this taboo onto the more familiar one of miscegenation. Quentin trembles in a similar way as he lies in bed in the cold dorm room at the novel's end. Because he is lying in bed, Quentin's panting and trembling conjures images of orgasmic ecstasy. Quentin's shaking, however, has often been interpreted as a hysterical symptom of repression, a hysteria that might also be labeled homosexual panic. (15)
Judith Butler suggests that passing engenders homosexual panic because, if the disguise is so easy, we may be misled by others or we may even mislead ourselves. By discovering the secret of miscegenation as the "truth" in Absalom, Absalom! Quentin and Shreve attempt to locate the Otherness of Charles and Henry in the antebellum past, thereby containing it. A homosexual Otherness might seem more frightening because it resonates more closely with Quentin's and Shreve's present. But as Shreve hints at the end, miscegenation is not contained in the past either: "in a few thousand years, I who regard you will also have sprung from the loins of African kings" (302). This blurring of category and distinction that Faulkner suggests through Absalom, Absalom!'s narrative structure, through the ambiguous desires of its characters, the racial amalgamation suggested at the novel's end, and the conflation of homosexual desire and miscegenation, even up to this last quotation, destabilizes the powerful cultural force of whiteness.
(1) Thanks to my colleague Dr. Cristina Mathews for helping me to articulate more clearly the ideas in this paragraph.
(2) Similarly, examining Light in August, Ickstadt links the modernist form of the novel, "the deconstruction and reconstitution of narrative order," with Faulkner's attempts to blur artificial binaries: "the topos of 'passing' ... is at once a reference to a social fact, a cultural fantasy, and a metaphor of the blurring and crossing of boundaries characteristic of the modernizing process as much as of the modernist text.... Passing, with its subversive implications that question (yet also reaffirm) existing hierarchies, could be regarded as a significant metaphor of modernism itself" (531).
(3) As Lee Edelman notes, "The black body, as material supplement or signifier, as that which must be possessed in order to validate the dominant subject's putative possession of the phallus, must endure a symbolic inscription corresponding to that of the female body" (qtd. in Wallace, Michele Faith 88).
(4) During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the minstrel show was a popular venue for blurring the boundaries of and exploring the connections between race and gender. In these often homoerotic performances, in which black face allowed the performers greater sexual freedom, "white men played not just black men but black women as well" (Hale 157). Offering further evidence of the historical association of gender with race, Robyn Wiegman cites the practice of castrating the male lynching victim: "in the disciplinary fusion of castration with lynching, the mob severs the black male from the masculine" (124). This practice not only removes the supposed threat of black male sexuality, but it also symbolically removes the power of the phallus, thereby feminizing the black male victim. In fact, male African Americans and Native Americans were not even called "men" in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries because manliness connoted civilization and whiteness (Bederman 50).
(5) Michael Davidson points out that more recently, "The National Hemophilia Foundation's attempt to screen out homosexuals as blood donors in the early days of AIDS ... was linked by many gays and lesbians to racist practices in the nineteenth century ... that divided black blood from white blood" (44). Davidson also recalls that in the media's treatment of AIDS, believed then to be a gay disease, the predominantly black country Haiti "often function[ed] as an 'entry' point for the disease.... AIDS comes from the outside, entering the national body through unprotected borders" (50).
(6) Though small differences in the timeline, characterizations of Quentin, and characterizations of Shreve (including the fact that Shreve's last name is McCannon in The Sound and the Fury, but in the appendix to Absalom, Absalom! his last name is MacKenzie) argue against reading these as the same two characters in each novel, Faulkner's retelling of stories throughout his career argues that we should read these two works together. In a Paris Review interview, Faulkner said, "He [the artist] must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do" (Holmes 11). Faulkner describes his approach to the story he tells in The Sound and the Fury in this way. He felt he had not gotten it right the first time, so he told the story again, and again, and again, each time from a different perspective. We see the same pattern in Absalom, Absalom! as each character adds to and revises the tale that is told to him. Given Faulkner's philosophy about rewriting and retelling tales and the fact that he practices it in each of these novels independently, it is no stretch to read Absalom, Absalom! as a type of prequel to The Sound and the Fury in which the author goes back in time to supply the background that may shed more light on the tale of Quentin Compson. The fact that Faulkner described Yoknapatawpha County, where these two and other major novels are set, as his own postage stamp of soil, further suggests that we should view this community and its inhabitants, across time and across the covers of books, as a whole.
(7) According to De La Torre, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "Cuba's African population also was categorized as feminine.... Until emancipation, the plantation ratio of males to females" ranged from 2:1 to 4:1. "Usually, black women lived in the cities and towns. Hence, slave quarters, known as barracones, consisted solely of men, creating the reputation of their non-macho roles. Skewed sex ratios made black males the targets of the white master who as bugarrones could rape them" (220-21). Often these acts were committed by men who considered themselves to be heterosexual.
(8) As Jay Watson points out, "the 'thrust' of spoken language itself ... further eroticizes this marriage." Watson explains that speaking is "an act of penetrating-with-the word" and hearing is a matter of "being-penetrated-by-the-word."
(9) Two females, Judith and Miss Rosa, also tell the story. Their narration is one-directional, instead of collaborative, as it is with the men, and the women's telling does not lessen, in fact may increase, their social isolation.
(10) Dyer points out the many associations of whiteness with absence or death in Western art and letters. Around 1910, incidentally about the same time Absalom, Absalom! is set, the term "white death" referred to tuberculosis, accounts of which often referred to the "sublime pallor" of the victim with an implication of longing (White 209). Dyer's assertion that "the purity of whiteness may simply be the absence of being" (80) resonates with Quentin's eventual suicide at the end of his first year at Harvard.
(11) I am indebted to Jay Watson for pointing out this connection.
(12) Duvall notes a similar form of homosexual panic in Light in August. Percy Grimm conflates passing for white and passing for straight when he accuses Reverend Hightower of taking down his pants for Joe Christmas, and he removes Joe as a sexual threat by castrating him: "The 'black blood' that flows from Christmas's hips and loins is metaphorically and metonymically menstrual blood; Joe bleeds where women (and only women) bleed." (64). Also significant is the fact that the fire that destroys Henry, Clytie, and the remains of the Sutpen mansion begins in the mansion's closet.
(13) In chapter 8, Faulkner has Shreve retell Quentin's account of visiting Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa. Just as Quentin is about to climb the stairs, the narrative shifts without transition (280) into an imagined recreation of the scene in which Thomas Sutpen tells Henry of Bon's Negro blood. The novel's structure suggests that Quentin learns of this conversation when he talks with Henry that night at the top of the stairs in Sutpen's Hundred.
(14) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, the word "butt" was used to mean both "the thicker end" of a tool or weapon and a buttock. Faulkner may have included these double entendres consciously or unconsciously.
(15) Hedges's homoerotic interpretation of the ending of Melville's Billy Budd seems relevant to explain Quentin's panic. According to Hedges, Budd's fate "highlights the links between homophobia and Jim Crow: a white man who is too visible, undisciplined, or colorful can almost at any time and regardless of his intentions become a white man lynched" (240). Such was the fate of Faulkner characters Bon and Christmas, and Quentin may fear the same fate for himself.
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|Title Annotation:||William Faulkner|
|Publication:||The Faulkner Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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