All too thinkable? Thomas Argiro's "Miss Emily After Dark".
I find compelling the evidence Argiro offers for the possibility of interracial relations between Tobe and Emily. The space for this connection has always been there of course, but, like Homer's encoded color, it has taken a while to notice it as a meaningful absence. When I was teaching "A Rose for Emily" last year in the Czech Republic, I was stunned when the very first comment by a student brought up the curious domestic arrangements between mistress and servant; the student assumed there must have been something between them of the more-than-meets-the-eye sort. A reader outside the US, let alone the US South, might more readily assume that a man and a woman living together for decades would have a sexual relationship, especially in light of Tobe's marked vitality and devotion. Racial difference may function as an unconscious block for readers conditioned to think of interracial romance as forbidden, problematic, transgressive.
In what follows, I try to think through the consequences of Argiro's claim that interracial romance is unthinkable in Faulkner's South. I press the conclusions of his reading to propose that something else remains hidden even after we have circled the sexual blanks in Faulkner's text, as Argiro does so perceptively and tactfully. I suggest that there is a distinction to be made between what is unthinkable and what is simply unthought. Since I tease out a difference that Argiro's own analysis allows for, I do not mean to suggest that he is wrong in using "unthinkable" in the way he does. Argiro's ingenious decipherment of encrypted forms of behavior brings into view what has been hidden; does it leave anything else unspoken for?
Presumably, the effect of the story's encoding of un(der)represented forms of desire invites the reader to appraise the damage done to individual lives by the South's racist regime, and to appreciate the emergence into visibility of groups once deemed socially dead. (Malcolm Bull would call this a coming into hiding: the development of social mindfulness that, say, racial injustice is a problem in the modernizing South which, even if it is not yet conspicuous to dominant classes, has moved from the status of entirely disregarded to awaiting attention just out of sight.) Argiro makes an invaluable contribution to our appreciation of what absence measures in Faulkner's texts: in his account, the story's narrative opens up spaces that could indicate interracial romance, for example, but which cannot be identified as such definitively. It is not that such a relationship must have taken place, but that it could have--without its possibility having occurred to anyone else. This strategy may suggest both that such forms of desire were hardly thinkable to most whites raised in the Jim Crow South, and also that the social and legal forms for such relations had not yet materialized. In what possible way could Emily and Tobe come out openly as a couple?
Once we accept the evidence that Emily has been sleeping with Homer, does the ultimate scandal of necrophilia trigger a sequence of related conclusions about other kinds of transgressive desire: Homer's homoeroticism; his romance of passing; incest; miscegenation? Once the townsfolk break into the attic, once the reader gets a glimpse at the closeted romances hidden in the narrative's elliptical passages, have we achieved the thinking of the unthinkable?
Maybe not entirely. Let me propose that the possibility of a sexual relationship between Emily and Tobe proves not so much unthinkable as unthought. I contend that this is a real distinction and not the quibble it may seem, and that its ramifications lead to a more complex account of how (racial, or other kinds of) ideology may work. Perhaps it never occurred to Emily's neighbors that there might be anything improper between her and Tobe, but it is the case that elsewhere in Faulkner's fiction of the same years sexual relations between white women and black men are thought about and described freely. Argiro cites Joel Williamson as observing that there are no major white women in Faulkner's fiction who have sexual relations with black men, with the exception of "the special case" of Joanna Burden. Yet the liaison between Joanna and Joe Christmas--theatricalizing as it does every feature of the fantasies that structure intimate relations between men and women of different races in the South--seems to me more exemplary than exceptional. One might say in fact that white men in the South seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about almost nothing but sex between white women and black men. When Jefferson's townsfolk are finally forced to confront the evidence of interracial sex, they accept it only through the ruse of insisting it was involuntary; they resort to the Jim Crow fantasy of rape, even if Joanna must be the least suitable exemplar of Southern female honor violated. Since historians of the plantation South have established that white planters' daughters or even wives sometimes chose male slaves to be lovers, it does not seem likely that white female desire across the color line would be inconceivable in Jefferson in the 'twenties.
Faulkner also portrays the interracial fantasy embedded in Southern sexuality in "Dry September," which hallucinates an erotic intimacy between a white woman and black man whipped up out of delusional projections of envy, guilt, and mastery as white men struggle to hold onto declining social prerogatives. Everyone treats Minnie as if a sexual act has taken place, and her imagined violation by a black man re-eroticizes her in everyone's eyes, including her own. Moreover, to put the question of interracial sex in Faulkner as a matter of "white women" crossing the color line, as Williamson does, is to betray presumptions about whose standpoint and agency count. In Light in August Joe Christmas has sexual relations with numerous white women who have decided to have sex with him; if he is a black man, though, he has also had to decide to cross the color line himself. And we cannot forget white women who may cross the color line without caring: the "dark complected" Lucas Burch/Joe Brown may be of mixed racial ancestry, but this makes no more difference to Lena than the race of her lover does to Joe Christmas's own mother.
Second, to categorize relations between white women and black men as unthinkable while the entire history of sex/race relations in the South made no secret of interracial "romance" between white men and black women strains the dividing line of denial. The numerous children of mixed race fathered by white men in the South betrayed the hypocrisy of the plantation design, one repeatedly confronted by Faulkner, and one his own ancestors on both sides illustrated. The townsfolk have no difficulty imagining what might be going on between Hightower and his black female cook once his wife dies (and they figure he's gone one step further when he replaces her with a black man; but that's another story, one told eloquently by Michael Bibler). Interracial romance could not be unthinkable; it wasn't even unknown. It could be left unthought, though, if you never thought about it. Once the sheriff in Light in August is told that Joe Christmas is a Negro, he then realizes that he's always known there was something funny about the fellow. Not paying attention is not the same as not knowing. And that's what we have in "A Rose for Emily," as well as in many other violations of sexual and racial protocols in Faulkner's South.
One could complain that I am being too literal-minded about "unthinkable," but what cannot be thought in any society possesses special potency in most accounts of ideology; for Zizek, as an example, it indicates the Real that is masked by the social fantasies that produce reality. Lacan understands the Real to be incapable of symbolic representation, and in Zizek's model, the Real involves the fundamental material and social antagonisms that organize the life of collectivities. Does ideology continue to function once we see through its deliberate misconstruals and lies about reality? This is the question Zizek poses in The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989, Verso 2008), and his answer is that ideology today no longer functions as deception and false-consciousness--what we don't know. Instead, our "unknowing" is on the side of how we act: what we do, not what we know. What we do is structured by an illusion, and that's what we fail to take into account, what fails to affect our behavior, because it is the sine qua non, the determining logic of all social practices. Marx remarked that ideology goes like this: "They do not know it, yet they are doing it." Zizek argues that this account made sense for a nineteenth century proletariat, but less so for contemporary societies well-informed and suspicious of ideological falsehood: today, the not-knowing is in the realm of what people actually do: "they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it" (Zizek 30). People know that goods cannot be made equivalent via an abstraction like money, and that the social origins of labor are "forgotten" in the formation of commodities. But as market dependents, we act as if we do not know. Or we know about the violation of democratic rights in the practices of post-9/11 detention camps and rendition policies, but we act as if these are correctable excesses in the defense of freedom rather than indispensable exceptions in the logic of putting freedom into practice.
What is habitually unthought nonetheless may be thought, it belongs to the domain of what the community knows. Jefferson knows blacks and whites have sexual relations, as it knows that there are some men who prefer men, that the family is an institution coiled around incest, and that in the South miscegenation might always also be incest. The evidence may be encrypted, but, read closely, it discloses a thinkable reality. In the terms of the story's plot, what's unthought is the possibility of an unforced sexual relationship between a white woman and a black man. That the question, however, is formulated as a matter of sex across the lines of race, itself betrays a fetishistic masking of more fundamental social ills in the Jim Crow South. A fixation on sex within the fiction of race gets fed and reinforced when the townsfolk break into the secret bedroom. The scene of necrophilia thrills a prurient audience, but they learn no more than what they already might have known.
What may be unthinkable to the plot is that two people could share a domestic relationship that might or might not include sex, and that might allow them polymorphous forms of desire and intimacy, congress of intellect, particular but conjoined histories of injury and creative resistance, and so forth. That Tobe simply walks out the back door says more about the town than about him; we cannot know if he decides simply that he has fulfilled his duty, or misses his partner too profoundly, or realizes how bereft he would be facing this town on his own, or anything. That's beyond the story's imagination, and perhaps beyond Faulkner's as well. Following Lacan and Zizek, Argiro finds the story's glimpse of the Real in the "grimace of love" fixed on Homer's skeletal face. Such a Real may involve more than the failure to gratify sexual desire. Homer's has become a death's head, with a look that reflects the putrefaction of an entire social order, and returns the gaze of any member of the audience willing to see the lack structuring self and community. You might say that the unthinkable for the community Faulkner depicts is that its origins lie in the reduction of some human beings to the status of inanimate chattel; that race is a fiction meant to justify the stealing of their very lives from others no different from ourselves; that present social reality is wholly compromised by continuing practices of subjugation, the exercise of advantage, and the refusal to act in ways that acknowledge such governing illusions. Of course Jefferson knows all this too, but they act as if they do not. Some things are left unthought so we are not inconvenienced; others remain unthinkable lest we be undone altogether.
John T. Matthews
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|Title Annotation:||"A Rose for Emily": A Roundtable|
|Author:||Matthews, John T.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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