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"Lady Tiger in a Tea Gown": Decadence, Kitsch, and Faulkner's femme fatale.

OF THE DECADENT FIGURES THAT PERMEATE FAULKNER'S EARLY ART, fiction, and poetry few are as conspicuous as the femme fatale. (1) The presence of dangerous, exotic seductresses who are clearly inspired by his reading in decadence is particularly pronounced in four tightly-clustered texts--poem "XXXVII" (1924) of A Green Bough (1933), Soldiers" Pay (1926), Flags in the Dust (completed in 1927), and The Sound and the Fury (1929)--all of which describe female characters through similar images and tropes. The decadent trappings shared by women in these texts, however, belie significant differences in their relationships with men, in the degrees to which they exist as subjects with psychological depth and nuance and in the functions they serve in the narratives in which they appear. Faulkner's basically contemporaneous femmes fatales of the 1920s receive a wide range of treatments, some ironic: in the first of these texts the femme fatale is a looming sexual threat to a patriarchal order; in the last, the figure's qualifies are deliberately misapplied to a vulgar society matron. The differences between these femmes fatales can be contextualized in contemporary debates about the status of decadence as a viable expression of modernism. (2) Faulkner's implicit participation in this cultural conversation is notable because he seems to occupy different positions in it almost simultaneously and finds nuance and possibility in the femme fatale even when his work suggests that the figure's conventions have outlived the emotions and dynamics they concretize into art.

The femme fatale is perhaps the most iconic figure of fin de siecle decadence. In the femme fatale, female agency is hypersexualized and invariably entails the downfall of the men she attracts, either through obsession, sexual depletion, or murder. Fin de siecle artists and writers invest the archetype of the dangerous seductress with a number of specific characteristics, many of which inform Faulkner's work. The power of the femme fatale is such that she takes on apparently male attributes: Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin dresses as a swordsman, and women from history who assumed traditionally male positions of authority were frequently represented as femmes fatales. (3) The notable presence of queens like Cleopatra and Semiramis in decadent culture is underwritten by the link between the femme fatale and the pagan or non-Western world, with attendant associations of irrationality, depravity, and the supernatural. In more extreme representations, the femme fatale is not altogether human and is frequently associated with serpents, great cats, or demons. In much fin de siecle art, the harm that the femme fatale brings to those she transfixes extends into a larger cultural crisis; by putting the family in peril through the irresistible allure of non-procreative and often fatal sex and by sapping or stealing the energy men require to be productive in the public sphere, the femme fatale violates tradition and murders the future.

The femme fatale is a politically overdetermined figure, animated by strong and often contradictory cultural forces. Perhaps most obviously, it is energized by misogyny. Beyond the pleasure the femme fatale takes in cruelty toward men is a fundamental dependence on her victims; Rebecca Stott notes that "a femme cannot be fatale without a male being present" (viii). (4) Though the misogynistic implications of the equation of female power and male depletion may never be entirely absent, the femme fatale is too complex and dynamic a figure to be reduced to a projection of male fear and resentment. As a figure of extremity, it can be deployed for radical or oppositional purposes. Adriana Cracuin's work on the presence of the femme fatale in women's writing leads her to reject a reading of the figure as being generated solely by misogyny as an "inadequate ... narrative of male sexual neurosis" (16) and Peter Nicholls argues that the energies that drive the femme fatale constitute a larger sociopolitical critique, claiming that in decadent culture, sexual perversity "spells the ruin of bourgeois rationalism" (19). Even in its foundational decadent articulations, the femme fatale is animated by a tension between liberated strength and limiting stereotype; Elliot Gilbert argues that through "a notable representation of perverse sexuality in their work," Beardsley and Wilde "participate in a devastating fin-de-siecle attack on the conventions of patriarchal culture even as they express their horror at the threatening female energy which is the instrument of that attack" (133-34). Moreover, an instinct to see a political statement or social critique in the femme fatale must acknowledge that, in the decades before and after the turn of the century, the figure was available at many levels of cultural consumption. Paradoxically, this figuration of exoticism and uncontrolled sexuality was widely circulated through mass culture intended for bourgeois audiences, and its presence in a variety of discourses means that its significance was in constant negotiation. (5)

The femme fatale was an intriguing and problematic figure for twentieth-century modernists, many of whom recognized decadent art as an important precursor to their own. In the 1920s, modernists were divided over whether decadence was a compelling strain of modernism or a cliched echo of late Victorianism. For inheritors of decadent culture, the femme fatale functioned, in part, as a contested marker of the new through or against which modernisms could define themselves. On one hand, the femme fatale was particularly attractive to American writers as a vehicle to challenge the cultural puritanism and bourgeois decorum that, to many, characterized American culture in the 1920s. On the other, modernism's iconoclastic privileging of the new--the very sensibility that made the femme fatale a compelling figure--led to a heightened awareness that cultural material could become stale. For those who felt that the figure was no longer as provocative or outrageous as it once was, mockery or repudiation of the femme fatale became a gesture of modernity. (6)

The femme fatale's ambiguous position in modernist culture is reflected in the significance Faulkner's critics ascribe to it. A number of critics have established Faulkner's familiarity with the figure and the texts through which he encountered it: we know, for example, that he was familiar with Flaubert's Queen of Sheba from The Temptation of Saint Anthony; Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin ; Pater's gloss on the Mona Lisa in The Renaissanc; the poems of Swinburne (of particular relevance are "Cleopatra," "Dolores," "Faustina," and "Laus Veneris"); and Wilde's Salome. He also was familiar with Beardsley's iconic images of femmes fatales. (7) Attention to Faulkner's reading in decadence is frequently presented as biographical background or source study, and when discussed in this manner, the femme fatale frequently assumes significance as an indicator of Faulkner's artistic development. Some see an interest in the femme fatale as an expression of modernism; for example, Daniel Singal argues that femmes fatales are introduced into Flags in the Dust to disrupt Horace Benbow's "Victorian sensibility" (106) by leading him to commit acts that he would otherwise find unthinkable, and concludes that their presence ensures that "Horace's story amounts to an impassioned assault on nineteenth-century southern culture" (109). Others put distance between Faulkner's interest in decadence and the major novels. Andre Bleikasten, for example, implying that the received figure of the femme fatale was a barrier to Faulkner's development, dismisses Margaret Powers in Soldiers' Pay as a "Beardsleyan avatar of the femme fatale" that amounts to "an excrescence of [Faulkner's] juvenile infatuation with the Decadents, with no recognizable posterity in his mature fiction" (Ink 21). (8) The significance of this disagreement is underscored by the fact that both Singal and Bleikasten's readings are convincing--while Faulkner's femmes fatales are tasked, in part, with disturbing the status quo, his treatment of the figure changes to the point that femmes fatales in the late 1920s send up those that appear in work just complete&

Clearly, Faulkner's work changed a good deal flora 1924 to 1929, bur we should not lose sight of specific shifts in the treatment of the femme fatale in these larger developments. Rather than ground my discussion of the changes in Faulkner's femmes fatales in a biographical narrative of artistic maturation, I wish to highlight the extent to which the figure's meaning was in flux as Faulkner was drawing upon it. More specifically, I suggest that in the femme fatale, a figure that was intended to challenge convention was, by the 1920s, being brought down by the same energies that animated it. The femme fatale's vulnerability to the very critique it embodies allows us to examine one of modernism's defining characteristics--the need to articulate the new and vital against the familiar and conventional. To this end, I will briefly rum to Adorno, whose work is sensitive to the forces that drain art of the cachet of the new in modernity. Simon Jarvis emphasizes Adorno's argument that obsolescence is central to aesthetic innovation:
 Adorno's theory of the unavoidable need for the new in artistic
 production ... depends not on the idea that works of art are
 betting better and better.... Such development is a matter of what
 breaks down or decays as much as of what new invention can be
 mustered. The diminished seventh chord, which once sounded
 shockingly dissonant, has now faded to a melodramatic cliche.

In his posthumous Aesthetic Theory, Adorno uses what be terms l'art pour l'art to exemplify the process by which unsettling or radical art ceases to be so or, to use his term, becomes neutralized.

Though he is basically dismissive of prominent aesthetes, particularly Wilde, Adorno recognizes the movement as a precursor of subsequent modes of modernism. He emphasizes two reasons for the failure of l'art pour l'art to maintain the critique it ostensibly poses. First, history renders what once were the most shocking aspects of decadence, such as the celebration of Satanism, redundant. Adomo claims that in the twentieth century, "evil broke through the civilizatory hurdles with a bestiality compared to which Baudelaire's outrageous blasphemies took on a harmlessness that contrasts grotesquely with their pathos" (257). Second, he argues that commodity culture co-opts l'art pour l'art's capacity for critique, and even the grounds on which critique might be posed. L'art pour l'art achieves its proclaimed freedom from moral and educative utility by occupying the status of the commodity: it "deceives about the commodity world by setting it aside; this qualifies it as a commodity" (237). Though it may trade on the distinction bestowed by exotic tastes and exquisite sensations, for Adorno this artistic movement amounts to little more than commodified culture for mass consumption. The ideals of aesthetic detachment and purposeless beauty are compromised to the point of negation, and he grimly concludes that "the watchword l'art pour l'art was the mask of its opposite" (239). L'art pour l'art takes on significance beyond what Adorno implies were its modest literary achievements as a memento mori of art's struggle to retain meaning in modernity, a struggle that, he implies, is largely futile.

Adorno does not deal with the figure of the femme fatale specifically and sees less of value in l'art pour l'art than Faulkner does. Nevertheless, his Aesthetic Theory is useful to my discussion because it offers a characterization of art after its capacity to shock or challenge has been neutralized. For Adorno, neutralized art moves into a new aesthetic register and circulates as kitsch. An aesthetic category associated with bad taste and mass culture, kitsch is, for Adorno, the residue of art that has been co-opted by the social forces it once challenged. Kitsch diminishes the emotions it ostensibly evokes: Adorno identifies "one of its most tenacious characteristics" as "the prevarication of feelings, fictional feelings in which no one is actually participating, and thus the neutralization of these feelings" (239). As we shall see, once the femme fatale becomes neutralized, the sexual and social threat the figure embodies dissolves into a "middle-of-the-road hedonism" that, according to Calinescu, characterizes the pleasure of kitsch (244).

For an example of the shift in meaning the femme fatale was undergoing in the 1920s we need look no further than Faulkner's own library. Lothar Honnighausen points to W. S. Braithwaite's Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1920 and Yearbook of American Poetry, a copy of which Faulkner owned, as evidente of the ubiquity, if not overexposure, of the femme fatale during this period (84). (9) In this collection, which contains "Ave" by Walter Adolphe Roberts (44-45) and Herbert S. Gorman's "Lilith, Lilith" (45), femmes fatales literally appear one after another. The figure's presence in a middlebrow anthology suggests that it had been thoroughly digested by the literary establishment and become commonplace (we will see in Flags in the Dust that having more than one femme fatale in a text undermines the figure's power). Accordingly, decadent art began drawing criticism for being indistinguishable from kitsch, especially by writers in avant-garde circles. An example of this criticism can be found in a satirical sonnet entitled "To a Greenwich Village Aesthete," published by David Gordon in The Double Dealer in 1923. Gordon's sonnet makes it clear that the femme fatale no longer has anything to do with modernism, and does so by describing the figure in terms evocative of kitsch:
 Whistler and Wilde said Beauty was unmoral
 And bards with dandruff wrote erotic stanzas
 Of dames with eyes of jade and lips of coral,
 Thrilling the Philistines in Leeds and Kansas. (137)

The subject of these "erotic stanzas" is unequivocally the femme fatale: her jade eyes evoke the figure's exoticism, and the "lips of coral" presumably signify hidden dangers upon which men run aground. For the author of this poem, the derivative repetition of this tired figure is the work of third-rate poets who opportunistically ape simplistic axioms of decadence, and whose writing is arresting only to unsophisticated readers in secondary marketplaces.

"Her Scarlet Smile": A Green Bough

Rather than align Faulkner with one coherent attitude toward the femme fatale, or to establish one point at which his attitude toward it changed unequivocally, I suggest that his work is interesting for the different inflections the figure takes on. One of Faulkner's earliest treatments of the femme fatale appears in the rarely discussed poem "XXXVII" of the poetry cycle A Green Bough (hereafter in the text, "XXXVII"). Although Faulkner did not publish A Green Bough until 1933, "XXXVII" was composed in 1924.10 "XXXVII" demonstrates Faulkner's interest in locating the femme fatale's oppositional properties and, perhaps, betrays their limits. The central persona of the sonnet is the mythic Lilith, who was often invoked in the late nineteenth century as a powerful femme fatale. (11)
 The race's splendor lifts her lip, exposes
 Amid her scarlet smile her little teeth;
 The years are sand the wind plays with; beneath,
 The prisoned music of her deathless roses.

 Within frostbitten rock she's fixed and glassed;
 Now man may look upon her without fear.
 But her contemptuous eyes back through him stare
 And shear his fatuous sheep when he has passed.

 Lilith she is dead and safely tombed
 And man may plant and prune with naught to bruit
 His heired and ancient lot to which he's doomed,
 For quiet drowse the flocks when wolf is mute--
 Ay, Lilith she is dead, and she is wombed,
 And breaks his vine, and slowly eats the fruit. (60)

Here, Lilith's power is such that all men are helpless before her; Faulkner's use of the sonnet form suggests that even the poem's speaker is in her thrall. Lilith's depletion of male power manifests itself in the poem's castration imagery. The poem begins and ends with images of castration, from the suggestion of vagina dentata ("Amid her scarlet smile her little teeth') to the "vine" of patriarchal promulgation's being "broken." This challenge to male potency extends into a fundamental opposition to any sort of organic generation. Just as her roses are "deathless," artificial and outside the cycles of nature, Lilith ignores human mortality. For her, death and life are states of being between which she regularly passes. The parallelism and rhyme of "tombed" and "wombed" that terminate the first and penultimate lines of the sestet suggest that Lilith usurps the locus of maternity and gives birth only to successive incarnations of herself, a self-replication that is ultimately sterile.

"XXXVII" invests the femme fatale with a protean quality. Lilith herself is not named until the third stanza; pronouns alone are used in the first two. Faulkner suggests a potential fluidity of identity, for the "she" in the first two stanzas does not become Lilith until the sestet. Moreover, the phrase "the splendor of the race" is intriguingly unfocussed: Faulkner does not specify which race the beautiful, lethal woman is the "splendor" of. This potential slippage between pronouns and names, and between historical epochs, is reflected intertextually; Joseph Blotner notes that "XXXVII" was originally called "Cleopatra" (Biography377), and the germ of the poem may come from Swinburne's poem of the same name. (12) Faulkner's knowledge of Wilde's Salome is also incorporated into "XXXVII," for the poem's last lines echo Wilde's Salome as she addresses the head of John the Baptist: "'Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanann. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit'" (327). The permeable borders between texts and identities suggest that Lilith, Cleopatra, and Salome are all animated by the same seductive, exciting femaleness. The passage of time and changes of era are of negligible importance to the femme fatale, who is animated by a cumulative mass of experience. For her, "the years" are merely "sand the wind plays with."

In "XXXVII" Lilith's emergence seems to evoke excitement, and the poem takes the femme fatale seriously. Faulkner presents Lilith as a figure of modernity who threatens patriarchal tradition, the "heired and ancient lot to which [man is] doomed." More importantly, Faulkner describes her in terms of socially dangerous art. Her confinement has aesthetic undertones, for she is equated with "prisoned music"; the "frostbitten rock" in which she is "fixed and glassed" suggests portraiture. (13) Lilith's power is a result of her ability to defy the fixity of her frame, and by erupting into a patriarchal order she constitutes an aesthetic interrogation of husbandry, utility, and familial and religious tradition. However, while the structure of the critique presented through Lilith is pronounced, the critique itself is not particularly compelling. Though Faulkner attempts to use the femme fatale as an oppositional force, "XXXVII' may confirm Adorno's judgment that while l'art pour l'art provides an "energetic antithesis of art to the empirical world" the significance of l' art pour l'art is limited by "the abstractness and facile character of this antithesis" (237). Faulkner's Lilith certainly constitutes an "energetic"--if not annihilating--antithesis to the world she stares down. Nevertheless, she is also a somewhat "facile" figure of opposition, if only because her representation is entirely governed by decadent conventions that, in the mid-1920s, were familiar to many. Moreover, the poem's celebration of the femme fatale's power is muted by the fact that though Lilith was once dangerous, and may be so again, she is not now.

"Lady Tiger in a Tea Gown": Flags in the Dust

The decadent inflection of "XXXVII" is consistent with the fin de siecle tone of much of A Green Bough; it is, in fact, preceded by a poem modeled on Swinburne's "Hermaphroditus." Perhaps surprisingly, some decadent figures become more pronounced when Faulkner's work becomes more palpably regional. In Flags in the Dust, Faulkner's first Yoknapatawpha novel, the femme fatale resumes the oppositional function marked out in "XXXVII" through female characters that defy sexual convention and challenge Southern ideologies of gender. However, despite being given significant space in the narrative and a historical context in which to exist, the figure strains to be meaningful. Adorno's narrative of aesthetic neutralization makes itself felt in Flags in the Dust, for as the figure of the femme fatale takes on substance it loses force and its situation in history betrays a degree of redundancy. In Flags in the Dust, the femme fatale enters Yoknapatawpha in the person of Belle Mitchell, who leaves her husband to marry the aesthete Horace Benbow. Bored, confident, and unafraid of violating local niceties, Belle shares a number of characteristics with Lilith in "XXXVII." She is sexual without being maternal; she calls her daughter Little Belle "sister" (698), a re-arranging of familial endearments that indicates her refusal to define herself through motherhood. Faulkner writes that her first husband "called Belle 'little mother' until she broke him of it" (696), and her defiance of the language of the family recalls the last line of "XXXVII," in which the "vine" of patriarchal lineage is broken. Indeed, the dynamic of the immortal Lilith's sterile self-replication underlies Belle Mitchell's naming of her daughter Little Belle. She is a pagan in the Protestant South; Horace associates her with the depravities of Nero's Rome when he describes her as "Ahenobarbus' vestal" (690). With her transfixing eyes and feline sensuality, Belle, who "flower[s] like a hothouse bloom, brilliant and petulant and perverse" (691), is less a fully drawn character than an aggregation of decadent imagery.

To an extent, the decadent overtones of Belle's representation can be attributed to Horace Benbow's focalization. Belle seems to justify Bleikasten's observation that
 Woman's otherness, in Faulkner's fiction, is seldom the otherness
 of another's self; more often than not woman turns out to be merely
 a male self's other, the fantasmal projection of its secret desires
 and fears. ("In Praise" 141-42)

Horace habitually understands Belle through the distorting filter of his own fin de siecle sensibilities. He experiences their lovemaking as a loss of agency and vitality; during sex he thinks of Belle's "enveloping him like a rich and fatal drug, like a motionless and cloying sea in which he watched himself drown" (758). And Horace is not the only corpse on the floor of her "motionless and cloying sea"; in his last line of the novel, he mutters that Belle "'had ghosts in her bed'" (854). He perceives her as a phallic woman and ignores his own complicity in their loveless marriage by thinking of her as "a swordsman who asks no quarter and gives none" (854). The legitimacy of Horace's perceptions of Belle as a femme fatale is predicated on the fact that she never emerges as a subject. Faulkner's decision to exclude her consciousness from the shaping of the narrative means there is no "real" Belle against whom we can compare Horace's stylized representation. Though we feel the limitations of Horace's perception, Faulkner does not let us see around them. (14)

Despite Horace's role in shaping the narrative, the presence of the femme fatale in Flags in the Dust cannot be accounted for through the foibles of a single privileged focalizer. Faulkner underscores the significance of the femme fatale through Belle's sister Joan Heppleton, with whom Horace has a brief affair while Belle is in Nevada getting divorced. Diane Roberts describes Joan as an "emanation" of her sister (128), and the sisters are described in near-identical imagery. Like Belle, Joan is tagged with associations of pagan Rome--the "bronze splendor of her hair" (802) links her to Nero's family name "Ahenobarbus" ("Bronze Beard")--and both women are linked to imagery of predatory cats. Horace understands Joan's sexuality as a destructive force barely contained in a cosmetic layer of socialized humanity, likening her to a "lady tiger in a tea gown" (804). (15) Both sisters share Lilith's phallic gaze. Just as Lilith returns the shepherd's gaze with a vengeance (her "contemptuous eyes back through him stare"), when Horace first meets Joan on the street he is struck by "that air of hers, lazy, predatory and coldly contemptuous" (803).

Rather than try to specify the extent to which Horace is responsible for the similarities between Belle and her sister, we must ask why the text commits so much to the figure of the femme fatale, and what it accomplishes in the narrative. In Flags in the Dust, Faulkner places the femme fatale in a regional context to interrogate traditional Southern pieties. This critique is most forceful in the antagonistic bur oddly complementary relationship between the femme fatale and the Southern Lady as embodied in Narcissa Benbow. Faulkner's juxtaposition of female stereotypes has precedent; Betina Entzminger argues that in Southern literature the femme fatale serves as a reservoir for the sexuality and agency denied by the ideological configuration of white women as chaste, noble, and devoted to family (2). The text's implicit pairing of Joan and Narcissa exemplifies this polarization of women on the grounds of sexuality: Joan's considerable sexual experience has taken her around the world while Narcissa's sexual purity roots her in the Benbow family home. Though Joan and Narcissa never meet, Faulkner puts the characters into dialogue when Horace and Joan use the Benbow house for their trysts after Narcissa has left to marry Bayard Sartoris. One of Joan's "feline trair[s]" is "a prowling curiosity about dark rooms" (807), and she is particularly drawn to Narcissa's bedroom. One night, after making love with Horace--and, perhaps, still naked--Joan tries to enter it. Horace stops her, and Joan senses his discomfort as she lingers at the doorway. With a "cold derisive curiosity" she accuses him of thinking of her presence there as "sacrilege" and "desecration" (808), terms that reflect the veneration of the Southern Lady. By threatening to close the distance between herself and Narcissa, her sexless counterpart, Joan exposes Horace's conservatism, which she curtly dismisses as "junk" (808). Ina larger sense, Narcissa's exaggerated purity seems to provoke the return of Joan's hypersexuality. By creating two starkly different characters that seem to want to occupy the same space but are not permitted to do so, Faulkner calls into view a libidinal economy in which female sexuality must be either absent or exaggerated to an extreme degree.

Joan Heppleton is, arguably, clumsily tacked on to Flags in the Dust, for she arrives without warning, and neither her affair with Horace nor her abrupt departure has lingering consequences in the narrative. (16) The fact that the text contains two almost interchangeable femmes fatales suggests that the figure is a harrowing but somewhat ephemeral instrument of social critique that strains to do the work with which it is tasked. Paradoxically, in its determination to make use of the femme fatale, Flags in the Dust seems to signal the figure's drift into irrelevance. Adorno's argument that history renders l'art pour l'art redundant partially explains the unsatisfying quality of the critique Joan offers:
 The carefully chosen words ... of a Barbey d'Aurevilly have ...
 dulled to an old-fashioned naivete hardly befitting any artificial
 paradise; Aldous Huxley was already struck by the emerging
 comicalness of Satanism. The evil that both Baudelaire and
 Nietzsche found to be lacking in the liberalistic nineteenth
 century, was for them nothing more than the mask of drives no
 longer subject to Victorian repression. (257)

Joan is a "mask" for a long-repressed libidinal drive, but the critique she embodies is belated. Perhaps the historical moment during which repressed Southern drives needed to be made palpable through the femme fatale had passed. Indeed, elsewhere in his work, Faulkner interrogates the figure of the Southern lady through Narcissa Benbow without the elaborate apparatus of decadence. (17)

"All Men that Marry Me Die": Soldiers' Pay

It is somewhat surprising that Flags in the Dust makes such an investment in the femme fatale, because by the time he completed it Faulkner had already limned the extent of the figure's possibilities elsewhere. Soldiers" Pay realizes the latent irony at which Horace Benbow's complicity with the representation of Belle Mitchell as a femme fatale subsequently hints. The novel quietly recognizes the figure as a fiction, both in the sense of being an inaccurate projection and a materially reproduced fantasy. In doing so, Faulkner turns a vehicle of iconoclasm into a symptom of imaginative dullness.

In Soldiers' Pay, the figure of the femme fatale is attached to Margaret Powers, the war widow who accompanies Donald Mahon, the hideously wounded soldier, to his father's house in Georgia and attempts to nurse him back to health. Inspiring and frustrating desire in most of the novel's male characters, Powers is tagged with many of the same decadent associations that shape the presentation of Lilith, Belle, and Joan. She is self-possessed and independent, and her surname contrasts her to the novel's ineffectual or impotent male characters. She is described in masculine terms and her strength is concentrated in the castrating gaze; upon "[meeting] her black stare" Januarius Jones "tried to look her down bur her gaze was as impersonal as a dissection so he averted his own and fumbled for his pipe" (64). Soldiers she meets on a train have difficulty guessing her age: she "seemed ... young: she probably liked dancing yet at the same time she seemed not young--as if she knew everything" (23-24). These comments position Powers as a muted version of Lilith, standing outside linear human mortality. Even though Mahon suffers his injuries long before he meets Powers and despite the fact that she acts as his caregiver for much of the narrative, the tableau of the vampiric woman hovering over a depleted victim informs their relationship. Even some of Powers's own statements flame her as a femme fatale. She suggests that becoming romantically involved with her will lead to death, warning one suitor that if "I married you you'd be dead in a year.... All men that marry me die, you know" (245). Though this statement is a rueful expression of loss rather than a declaration of power, it nevertheless suggests a causal link between sex and death central to the femme fatale.

Soldiers' Pay establishes the femme fatale as a stereotype that circulates socially. As a striking and at times outspoken woman travelling alone, Powers draws a good deal of attention, much of it ambivalent. Michael Zeitlin argues that she functions as a "specular screen," an object "reflecting the other's fear, the other's desire" ("The Passion" 358), and we must consider her representation as a femme fatale in light this of dynamic. For example, the naive and callow Cadet Lowe perceives her in terms that recall Faulkner's other femme fatales: "remarking her pallid distinction, her black hair, the red scar of her mouth, her slim dark dress, [Lowe] knew an adolescent envy of the sleeper. She ignored Lowe with a brief glance. How impersonal she was, how self-contained. Ignoring them" (23). Lowe is disconcerted by her narcissistic indifference to the men who stare at her. His perception of her even returns to familiar imagery; the "red scar of her mouth" echoes Lilith's "scarlet smile." These observations are, however, made early in the narrative and set up assumptions about Powers that are subsequently undercut. Faulkner implicitly challenges Lowe's impression of her assured indifference by allowing his readers access to her interiority. Powers' thoughts, some which are represented through interior monologues, suggest that her emotional unresponsiveness is a consequence of her war experience. She too is a victim--her "scar-like" mouth answers the scar on Mahon's brow more directly than it does Lilith's "scarlet smile." Zeitlin identifies the significance of the revelation of Powers' interiority: "the 'Beardleyan' object suddenly begins to speak in a strange personal idiom ... and so the object must become a subject to be identified with" (368). (18) Faulkner replaces Lilith's elemental malevolence with post-war melancholy and so gives Powers a psychological depth that the figure of the femme fatale cannot accommodate.

In Soldiers' Pay, then, Powers is repeatedly and inaccurately understood as a femme fatale. One reason that characters in the text take recourse to the figure is that it is very much at hand; as a result, Soldiers" Pay reflects the extent to which the figure pervaded the contemporary cultural marketplace. The figure of the femme fatale is both summoned and subtly undone when Powers first enters the narrative:
 She was dark. Had Gilligan and Lowe ever seen an Aubrey Beardsley
 they would have known that Beardsley would have sickened for her:
 he had drawn her so often dressed in peacock hues, white and slim
 and depraved among meretricious trees and impossible marble
 fountains. Gilligan rose. (22)

The stylistic excess of the passage places Powers in the decadent tradition, and the final short sentence ("Gilligan rose") suggests that she has an immediate effect of arousal on the men who gaze on her. However, this passage also opens multiple avenues for irony. Powers gets lost in her own description in that her actual person is not described with any specificity. Faulkner further undermines this stylized description by reminding us of the multiple male gazes needed to transform her into a femme fatale; the string of conditionals ("Had ... would have ... would have") underscores the contingency of this circuit of gazing. The passage also reminds us that the femme fatale is a cultural figure that pre-exists Powers. Martin Kreiswirth observes that Faulkner's decision to "explicitly esche[w] the soldier's point of view" in the passage problematizes the allusion to Beardsley: "since Gilligan had never seen a work by Aubrey Beardsley he could not possibly 'have known that Beardsley would have sickened for her" (44). This problem invites us to conclude that the two soldiers, who are clearly not artists or members of the cultural elite, share a reaction to certain women with Beardsley, a high priest of decadence. Here, the figure of the femme fatale does not jolt the assumptions of the coarse or unimaginative but is surprisingly congruent with them.

"Cruel Fate in Eight Yards of Apricot Silk": The Sound and the Fury

Given that the figure of the femme fatale makes itself felt in Soldiers" Pay--even if, as I have argued, it is ironized--we might expect it to do so again in The Sound and the Fury, a text in which female sexuality transfixes and horrifies men and is frequently associated with death. (19) While the femme fatale does appear in The Sound and the Fury, the nature of this appearance suggests the figure's drift away from the oppositional function it serves in other elsewhere. Though the figure appears with many of the imagistic associations it bears in other texts, its meaning has been flattened out. Instead of being taken seriously by a speaker, as in "XXXVII," or assuming force as a character as it does in Flags in the Dust, the femme fatale is dropped casually into conversation by someone who does not take it seriously.

The femme fatale appears in an unlikely and somewhat mundane context: in the bickering that goes on in and around Quentin's dormitory on the day of his suicide. More specifically, it is mobilized by Quentin's sardonic Canadian roommate Shreve MacKenzie to insult Mrs. Bland, the mother of a classmate. Gerald Bland and his mother are unlikely characters to be described with the language of decadence. The aptly named Blands are parvenus from Kentucky whose pretences of gentility are undermined by their chauvinism and crass ignorance of tradition (like Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!, they are in the process of becoming aristocrats by imitation and by buying the required props). Mrs. Bland takes an interest in Quentin because of his Southern background and, more generally, because it is her habit to evaluate all of her son's acquaintances.

Though Quentin eventually attempts to beat Gerald up, it is Shreve who truly loathes the Blands, particularly Gerald's mother. The two have exchanged insults before; Mrs. Bland has "called Shreve that fat Canadian youth twice" (958, my italics). Shreve's insults are precociously allusive, perhaps to answer Mrs. Bland's accusations of provincialism. In what well might be a running joke, he mocks Mrs. Bland by likening her to a femme fatale when be informs Quentin that a letter she has left for him is from "Semiramis," the licentious and bloodthirsty Assyrian warrior-queen (954). (20) This appellation is deliberately ridiculous because it hyperbolically emphasizes the importance of a summons from Mrs. Bland. It is also a clever way to express the tensions amongst the characters involved. First, Shreve mocks the intimate relationship between Mrs. Bland and her son by invoking a femme fatale who ruled alongside her illegitimate son. Second, Shreve's equation of Kentucky matron with one of the pagan world's most powerful queens is an exaggeration of Mrs. Bland's sense of Southern aristocracy, which irritates him tremendously.

The Sound and the Fury does not encourage its readers to linger over Shreve's joke, and certainly does not announce it as a moment of aesthetic significance. Paradoxically, it is the innocuous nature of Shreve's joke that makes it important. Shreve voices a decadence that has been neutralized--the figure through which he characterizes Mrs. Bland is neither arresting nor fresh. The extent to which the figure is drained of its power is underscored if we note the way it echoes Faulkner's description of the femme fatale elsewhere. Calinescu's definition of kitsch as the "parody of aesthetic consciousness" (241) is a useful way to characterize the relationship between Shreve's use of the figure and Horace Benbow's. Shreve's sarcastic description of Mrs. Bland as "cruel fate in eight yards of apricot silk" (958) ironically echoes Horace's description of Joan as a "lady tiger in a tea gown," and he plays with the archetype of the ageless femme fatale when he refers to Mrs. Bland as "a remarkably preserved woman" (958). (21) If, in Flags in the Dust, characters described as femmes fatales are invested with power and socially explosive sexuality, Shreve's use of the figure allows him to insult Mrs. Bland for being gauche, old, overweight, and petty.

Shreve's irreverent voicing of the femme fatale may seem to suggest that Adorno's narrative of the decline of serious art is a useful way to characterize Faulkner's treatment of the figure in the 1920s. However, rather than sounding a death-knell for an early mode of modernism, Shreve's joke actually offers a fresh take on it. We misread Shreve if we understand his joke as evidence of the inability of decadence to retain meaning, or as a clearing away of cliche to make room for a new and uncompromised modernism. His tastes are neither those of a Philistine nor of an elitist modernist, and he is able to make use of the femme fatale precisely because he recognizes that it has become neutralized. He does not have Adorno's modernist expectations for art, and his joke demonstrates what Adorno's work cannot: that shopworn ideas can still be used pointedly, and that wit can be brought to bear on cliche. If history and the marketplace have transformed the femme fatale into kitsch, Shreve momentarily transforms it further by making a neutralized decadence productive. Tomas Kukla claims that kitsch is "totally incompatible with even the mildest form of questioning; that is, with irony .... Once kitsch is interpreted ironically, or as a parody, it ceases to be kitsch" (97). Perhaps, then, we can say that Shreve insults Mrs. Bland through a parody of a parody of aesthetic consciousness, thereby creating postmodern play from the husk of a dead modernism. (22) The trajectory of the femme fatale in Faulkner's work in the 1920s suggests that even as he achieves his first unequivocally modernist masterpiece in The Sound and the Fury he demonstrates a degree of detachment from a modernist cultural economy that generates energy through the rejection of art that has become stale. (23)

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. and ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Bleikasten, Andre. The Ink of Melancholy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

--"In Praise of Helen." Faulkner and Women / Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1985. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986. 128-43.

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974.

--, comp. William Faulkner's Library: A Catalogue. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1964.

Brooks, Cleanth. Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven: Yale UP, 1978.

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1987.

Cracuin, Adriana. Fatal Women of Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Djikstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Donaldson, Susan V. "Cracked Urns: Faulkner, Gender, and Art in the South." Faulkner and the Artist: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1993. Ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996. 51-81.

Entzminger, Betina. The Belle Gone Bad: White Southern Women Writers and the Dark Seductress. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2002.

Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. Novels 1926-1929. New York: Library of America, 2006. 541-876.

--. A Green Bough. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1933.

--. Soldiers' Pay. Novels 1926-1929. New York: Library of America, 2006. 1-256.

--.The Sound and the Fury. Novels 1926-1929. New York: Library of America, 2006. 877-1144.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Beautiful and Damned. Ed. Alan Margolies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Freedman, Jonathan. Professions of Taste: Henry fames, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Gilbert, Elliot L. "'Tumult of Images': Wilde, Beardsley, Salome." Victorian Studies 26 (1983): 133-59.

Gordon, David. "To a Greenwich Village Aesthete." The Double Dealer March-April 1923: 137.

Honnighausen, Lothar. William Faulkner: The Art of Stylization in his Early Graphie and Literary Work. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Irwin, John. Doubling and Incest / Repetition and Revenge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1975.

Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Kreiswirth, Martin. William Faulkner: The Making of a Novelist. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Kulda, Tomas. Kitsch and Art. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1996.

Marinetti, Tomasi. Selected Writings. Ed. R. W. Flint. Trans. R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli. New York: Fartar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

Matthews, John. "Faulkner and the Culture Industry." The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner. Ed. Philip M. Weinstein. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Menon, Elizabeth K. Evil by Design: The Creation and Marketing of the Femme Fatale. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2006.

Nicholls, Peter. Modernisms. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Polk, Noel. Children of the Dark House. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.

Roberts, Diane. Faulkner and Southern Womanhood. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.

Seidel, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1985.

Sensibar, Judith L. Faulkner's Poetry: A Bibliographical Guide to Texts and Criticism. Assisted by Nancy L. Stegall. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1988.

Singal, Daniel. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997.

Stott, Rebecca. The Fabrication of the Late- Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Wilde, Oscar. The Major Works. Ed. Isobell Murray. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Zeitlin, Michael. "Faulkner and Psychoanalysis: The Elmer Case." Faulkner and Psychology: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1991. Ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 219-41.

--. "The Passion of Margaret Powers: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Soldiers" Pay." Mississippi Quarterly 46.3 (Summer 1993): 351-72.

--. "Versions of the 'Primal Scene': Faulkner and Ulysses." Mosaic 22 (1989): 63-77.


University of Manitoba

(1) For the purposes of this article I will refer to the tradition that gives rise to the femme fatale as decadence, which I take to be the strain of aestheticism most preoccupied with artificiality and perverse sexuality. I presume extensive overlap between decadence and what Adorno calls "l'art pour l'art." For a useful contemplation of the term, see Freedman 202-03.

(2) For examinations of the relationship between modernism and decadence, see Calinescu 151-211, Freedman 124-29, 245-75, and Nicholls 42-62.

(3) For sake of precision the femme fatale must be aligned with, and put in contrast to, the phallic woman, the "desired and dreaded focus of the oedipal triangle" (Zeitlin, "The Elmer Case" 230). There is significant overlap between decadent figure and psychoanalytic position, but the importance of retaining the femme fatale's historical specificity and conventional characteristics prevents their equation. Perhaps we can conclude that while the majority of femmes fatales are phallic women, far fewer phallic women are femmes fatales. For a discussion of Faulkner's phallic women, some of whom are femmes fatales (Belle and Joan) and some of whom are not (Miss Jenny), see Zeitlin, "Versions" 66-67, 72-73. For a discussion of the presence of the phallic woman in the unfinished novel Elmer, see Zeitlin, Elmer 225-27, 230-33.

(4) See also Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity, which reduces the figure of the femme fatale to a weapon in what he terms the fin de siecle "war on women" (vii).

(5) For evidence of the extent to which the femme fatale pervaded French mass culture--including political caricature, advertising, and fashion--see Menon.

(6) Marinetti's masculinist Futurism takes back the power appropriated by the femme fatale; in "Founding and Manifesto of Futurism," he writes, "like young lions we ran after Death ... we had no ideal Mistress raising her divine form to the clouds, nor any cruel Queen to whom to offer our bodies, twisted like Byzantine rings!" (40). In Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned, Anthony Patch's bookshelves are filled with "the over-invoked shades of Helen, Thais, Salome, and Cleopatra" (86).

(7) For a discussion of Faulkner's familiarity with Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony and Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, see Brooks 127-28 and 120-24. For Pater's Mona Lisa, see Kreiswirth 31, 53. For Swinburne, see Honnighausen 146, and for Wilde and Beardsley's Salome see Honnighausen 158-61.

(8) The distance Bleikasten sees between the femme fatale and Faulkner's mature work has been implicitly challenged by other critics. For a discussion of the femme fatale in Absalom, Absalom!, see Honnighausen 157-59. Polk discusses A Fable's equation of the city of Paris and Lilith, which is made on the grounds that the city demands that the men who enjoy the pleasures it offers them sacrifice their lives in wartime (207). The figure of the femme fatale also informs Joanna Burden in Light in August, and The Hamlet invokes Lilith in a meteorological context.

(9) For bibliographic information about Faulkner's copy of Braithwaite's anthology, see Blotner, Library 15.

(10) Blotner has located a draft of the poem dated 9 December 1924 (Biography 377).

(11) For further discussion of Lilith and decadence, see Entzminger 3,163, and Dijkstra 306-09.

(12) For a bibliographic history of "XXXVII," see Sensibar 53.

(13) Susan V. Donaldson contextualizes "XXXVII" in the trope of aesthetic containment of femaleness in Faulkner's work (72-74).

(14) Only a handful of characters offer opinions of Belle that challenge Horace's. Miss Jenny soberly discourages Narcissa's hysterical revulsion toward Belle, and Bayard Sartoris bluntly appraises her at the end of the novel: "Fat woman" (861).

(15) After noticing Joan on the street, Horace is overwhelmed by a frightening memory from a childhood visit to a circus, in which he sublimates a fear of castration: he "found a tiger watching him with yellow and lazy contemplation; and while his whole small body was a tranced and soundless scream, the animal gaped and flicked its lips with an unbelievably pink tongue.... in [Horace] a thing these many generations politely dormant waked shrieking, and again for a red moment he dangled madly by his hands from the lowermost limb of a tree" (802).

(16) Flags in the Dust was published in a heavily edited form as Sartoris in 1929 after having been rejected for publication by Boni and Liveright in 1927. Much of the Horace Benbow section was trimmed and his relationship with Joan Heppleton was deleted entirely. Faulkner seems to have been minimally involved in the editing process, which was largely undertaken by Ben Wasson. Nevertheless, the fact that the novel's second femme fatale vanished during the editorial process can be taken as a further indication of the character's redundancy. See Blomer, Biography 559-84.

(17) For subsequent appearances by Narcissa, see Sanctuary and "There was a Queen."

(18) For a psychoanalytic reading of Powers, see Zeitlin, "The Passion" 364-70.

(19) For an analysis of the relationship between death, desire, and sex in The Sound and the Fury, see Irwin 41-47.

(20) For a discussion of Semiramis and decadence, see Entzminger 3.

(21) In the poem "Ave," which Faulkner knew from Braithwaite's anthology, Walter Adolphe Roberts draws a link between contemporary woman and pagan queen that is quite similar to the one Shreve makes parodically:
 The pomp of capitals long left to rust/Glows in her flesh and her
 ironic eyes./ Gazing on her, old pageantries arise/Of queens and
 splendid courtesans, whose lust/ Was power to loot a peacock
 throne, or thrust/Satraps to battle for their beauty's prize./This
 Theodora flaunted, and none otherwise/La Pompador and Lais gone to
 dust./ Her wit is a keen weapon wrought for war/ Against the
 grayness of democracy./No broadsword this, but a bright
 scimitar,/Tempered in flame and edged with subtlety./Her art is
 life: in braver days that this/She would have throned it with

(22) For a discussion of the relationship between British aestheticism and postmodernism, see Freedman 24-25, 76-77.

(23) The implications of Shreve's joke can be further clarified by turning to John Matthews' perceptive demonstration of the nimbleness with which Faulkner navigated the demands of the culture industry. Matthews claims that in the 1930s, Faulkner turns to an aesthetic position he describes as being "bemused and skeptical" and that is equally distant from "mass culture and high modernism" (73). Shreve's joke about Mrs. Bland is an early example of this sensibility
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Author:Tromly, Lucas
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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