Printer Friendly

Beyond silence and realism: Trauma and the Function of ghosts in Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved.

If we can agree that human slavery, as it was practiced in the United States and the Caribbean, paradoxically shares with the Holocaust a unique status, a quality of being particularly atrocious beyond the realm of realistic or rational representation, we might be tempted to speak nothing but respectful silence in the face of these historical events. (1) And there are, in certain literary novels and stories that allude to these atrocities, gestures or attempts to "speak" such silences. The ending of Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" is an example. In the story, Benito Cereno, a Spanish captain of a slave ship, survives a revolt on board led by Babo, one of the slaves. Captain Delano, an American, boards the ship during the revolt but does not know that the slaves have taken control. The slaves pretend to be in the custody or charge of the Spanish officers while the American is on board, but the roles of both groups have in fact been reversed. Later, after the revolt is put down, and Cereno has survived, he falls into despair. Knowing now the conditions of those he has enslaved, conditions he had previously never considered much less experienced, Cereno loses his faith in humanity and universal order. He cannot share Delano's relief that they have survived the ordeal:

"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

"The Negro."

There was a silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

There was no more conversation that day. (256)

After Babo has been captured, he likewise refuses to speak: "Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say: since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words" (256).

Cereno, like Babo, now realizes the unspeakable nature of slavery, and neither one, even in his realization, can articulate or make any sense of such an atrocity. With what words does one explain such an experience? Even after his death, Babo cannot stop "speaking" this silence:
 Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the
 black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for
 many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the
 plaza, met, unabashed, the gazes of the whites, and across the
 plaza looked toward St. Bartholomew's church ... and across the
 Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia,
 without. (257)

Here, the slave's head addressing with silence the institutions of his captors would be one way to account for such an atrocity without committing the kind of barbarism of which Theodore Adorno speaks in his well-known essay "Cultural Criticism and Society." We might think of this gesture as Melville's own "After Auschwitz," his "After Slavery." (2)

But what happens when such a gesture--even if respectfully offered--only reinforces the stifling silence placed over the victims themselves? Should slave narratives be kept hidden away? Keeping in mind Adorno's famous quote, as well as the ending of "Benito Cereno," I want to examine two novels that transcend the boundary of silence "spoken" by Babo's death's-head. In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison's Beloved, a limit is established with regard to the historically-situated atrocity they both more or less address--a limit, not of language in general, but of the language of empirical, factual representation: what we conventionally mean by literary or historical "realism." To establish and then get beyond such a limit, both novels employ the tropes and literary techniques traditionally aligned with tales of the supernatural. In this way, they attempt to speak not silence, but that which might otherwise be unspeakable. These are ghost stories, except they are meant to be taken seriously. (3)

Adorno's essay, from which the now-famous "After Auschwitz" claim comes, was published thirty years after Absalom, Absalom!'s publication and twenty years before Beloved's, occupying historically the half-way point between each. And while U.S. involvement in World War II as well as global recognition of the Holocaust had not yet occurred when Absalom, Absalom! was being written, Faulkner had to face the dilemma of articulating a similarly unspeakable tragedy--that of the old South, destroyed by its dependence on a slave system it fought a war to maintain. (4) With Beloved, which comes after Adorno and the Holocaust, Morrison faces the same difficult task as Faulkner, albeit from a radically different perspective: to represent through language a historical event as unique, and therefore as impossible to explain rationally or describe realistically, as the Holocaust. To simplify (in order to get beyond) the dilemma that Adorno's famous claim implies and that the two novels in question face, "how does one avoid belittling the horror of an event like slavery or a doomed and barbaric socio-economic system based on racial identity while at the same time trying to represent such history?" (5)

In Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved, the dilemma of how to address slavery and its legacy results in a specific crisis of repression. Each novel attempts to find a solution to this by undermining both the authority of "realism" and then the authority of its own claims, warning the reader of the dangers of becoming possessed by such powerful history, however supernatural the account. By undermining their own accounts, both novels also remind us that such histories are in many ways impossible to "finish." Specifically, each novel employs the trope of the image of a ghost in order to attempt to explain the history in question. And each in turn recalls the attempt in order to allow an unutterable quality to resonate or linger at the novel's end. Absent and present, these ghosts arise from and point toward some violent, unjust, unfinished history. Or, as Phillip Novak argues, speaking particularly of Beloved, "because the past [which, for these characters, includes the experiences of slavery and infanticide] makes demands on the present that the present can never hope to meet, history remains at once an irrecoverable loss and a perpetually open wound, an alien presence in the present that can never be quite assimilated--a type of haunting" (201).

Using a ghost as a literary device is of course not new. Its appearance throughout classical tragedy as well as the works of Shakespeare is familiar enough, as is the gothic tradition in American literature itself, going back to Charles Brockden Brown and Washington Irving, not to mention Hawthorne and Poe, a literature filled with decaying houses and ghost-like dwellers but one which also acknowledges the significance of ghosts beyond that of mere diversion. Especially in Hawthorne and Brown, where Truth must always include and even begin with what we believe, empirical "reality" is only one of the many truths to which one's beliefs lay claim. (6) Both Faulkner and Morrison seem well aware of all of these traditions. In Absalom, Absalom! the servant and illegitimate child of Sutpen who eventually burns down the master's mansion--attempting, in effect, to end the Sutpen curse--is named Clytemnestra, implicitly reinforcing the novel's allusions to the Eumenides and other ghosts in the western literary tradition. And while Morrison's Beloved relies on West African notions of time as well as African/African American folklore (Bowers 212), the novel's use of ghosts similarly alludes to classical literature, especially to the idea of returning ancestral traits.

In each novel, the ghost introduces the important element of distance--from some unspeakable event and from the other characters in the novels. While Thomas Sutpen and the events directly tied to him are not finished, he and they are at least in the distant past. This, plus the fact that we hear about Sutpen, and hear his voice, only as he is summoned by and through others, gives him the dimension of being outside history, of escaping mere history's account of his enormity. When Miss Rosa conjures Sutpen, she endows him with larger-than-life qualities: "the invoked ghost of the man whom she could neither forgive nor revenge herself upon began to assume a quality almost of solidity, permanence ... it was still irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm" (AA 8). As such, Sutpen's ghost avoids the time-bound constraints of history. But secondly, a ghost as a literary vehicle gives us a richer understanding of how history itself works. Our popular western model of history--a linear narrative of events unfolding in strict chronological order--does not take into account its more recursive characteristics. This more conventional model of history tends to obscure the fact that the past is continuously influencing the present, and vice-versa. Ironically, throughout classical western literature, this model of history gets exposed for being flawed in this precise way. The desire to avoid one's history or ancestral traits is often the very premise of tragedy: the houses of Atreus, David, or Oedipus. Especially wherever history falls silent before inexplicable horror or injustice, the ghost embodies the haunting presence of the silent, invisible victims from that past. (7)

While there is one main ghost (8) in Beloved, Sethe's child whom Sethe murdered when the child was two, there are at least eight major ghosts in Absalom, Absalom!: the Sutpen family members--Thomas, Ellen, Henry, and Judith--and Bon, as they are conjured in the present by the living characters (and Henry, again, when he appears "in the flesh" to Quentin and Miss Rosa in the Sutpen mansion); Miss Rosa, from whom Quentin first hears about Sutpen; Clytie, as she appears to Miss Rosa on the stairs after Bon has been shot, and then at the novel's end, when she sets fire to the Sutpen mansion; and Quentin himself--ghost-like, victim of hauntings, and tragically alive all at once. Quentin acts as both the revealer of unspeakable history and the repressor of that history's revelation. But almost all of the characters in the novel are referred to as ghosts either because they are remembered so vividly as to be conjured (all the players in the Sutpen drama), or they are so obsessed with and consumed by the past as to be ghosts themselves. Quentin, for example, exists in one specific part of history as a human, yet his existence is really a collection of histories older than he is, since he is heir to the already faded and decadent owning class of the South: "Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South.... He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts"(4, 7). While he did not actually witness Sutpen's rise to and fall from power, Quentin nevertheless feels so compelled to take responsibility for knowing Sutpen's past that he embodies it now, in the present.

The main ghost in Beloved is a phantom which at some specific point in the novel becomes fleshed out. Readers must therefore suspend disbelief more drastically when reading Beloved than when reading Absalom, Absalom! (9) This shouldn't come as a surprise, given the obvious differences between the novels' positions as well as those of the authors themselves. Tempting as it has been to speak of Morrison as his student, she is not Faulkner; she is not even (as she says) "like Faulkner" (McKay 426). In Faulkner's novel, the central characters are white, passing, or free and provided for through a kind of benevolent, if condescending, paternalism. Slavery exists of course in Absalom, Absalom! but only as a background shadow or specter. (10) The central characters in Morrison's novel, on the other hand, are or were slaves themselves. The ghost in Beloved is not conjured (certainly not intentionally) the way such beings are in Faulkner's novel where most (white) characters have the luxury of telling one another stories over and over again. Storytelling requires subjectivity, and Morrison's ghost is "real"--as opposed to those who are conjured from, or obsessed with, the past--in many ways because of the absence of stories, because of the sixty million and more on whom silence was legally, and for the most part practically, imposed. That so many resisted or found ways around this imposition is testament to the will power and strength of the slaves themselves. As Eugene Genovese also reminds us, slavery in the South rested on the practical delusion that masters and slaves coexisted reciprocally within a system of paternalism--that masters provided food, clothing and protection for slaves in return for their labor--because without such an ideology in place, most slave masters could not continue to see themselves as essentially decent human beings, which they needed or wanted to believe. Paternalism implies equality, however, and the slaves, seeing through the contradictions of this ideology, were occasionally and then ultimately able to use it to their advantage as a means of asserting their humanity. Nonetheless, and until emancipation, slaves were legally considered property, and whatever autonomy they forged for themselves through so much sacrifice, their masters' access to the law guaranteed their own "right" to have the final say. (11)

While Beloved is ultimately a work of fiction in the form of a ghost story, it nonetheless started from and is based on, as critics remind us, "a true story actually lived by a certain Margaret Garner, who decided to kill her children and herself rather than be taken back to slavery" (Twagilimana 103). In Absalom, Absalom! however, the ghosts come from stories, from people telling stories. In Beloved, the ghost--often angry, selfish, demanding justice--comes to the people who were forbidden stories, whose stories were so often erased and/or violently taken from them. If anything, Miss Rosa, Quentin, and the others in Absalom, Absalom! are the ones doing the haunting, pleading the dead to explain themselves. In Beloved this is reversed: the dead make the demands there, since so many of the living have not yet, themselves, been able to afford such demands. By placing the stories and subjectivities of slaves and ex-slaves at the fore of her novel, Morrison corrects even as she is influenced by William Faulkner. As Arnold Weinstein notes, Faulkner's stories are almost always told from the perspective "of the hurting and hungry males who usurp the stage." Morrison, on the other hand, "has gone where Faulkner could not, has told the inside story of the black slave woman, both old and young, and she has endowed them--Sethe, Beloved, Baby Suggs--with a consciousness we will not easily forget" (428).

In one sense, both novels address the tragic dilemma of dependence and codependence which is slavery's legacy. Both novels also involve a personal crisis that speaks to and reflects a larger, social crisis. In Beloved, Sethe's decision to murder her own child, as well as the ghost such an act engenders, both reflect the larger, more encompassing tragedy of slavery--its practices, consequences, and unfinished history. That Sethe feels compelled to perform such an act in the apparently free state of Ohio reminds us of just how encompassing the institution and its attendant policies, including the Fugitive Slave Act, actually were. In Absalom, Absalom! Henry Sutpen kills Charles Bon, his own brother, in order to prevent Bon from marrying his (Henry's) sister, Judith. Henry's motive for doing this is to prevent not incest but miscegenation. Here, the act of the one white brother denying (by killing) his racially mixed brother reflects the larger, fatal paradox of the old South: an owning class relying on, yet denying personal or sexual relation to, a slave class--a class depending on the very people it enslaves and exploits for labor and lust. (12)

The novels also share other contradictions or dualities: both take place before and after the war; both take place below and above Mason-Dixon; both address the agonizing paradoxes that arise when one looks backwards toward a personal and communal trauma, the most appropriate symbol for any of which is the ghost, that lingering shadow that will neither take on the solidity of form nor completely vanish. Of Absalom, Absalom! Eric J. Sundquist notes, its "gothicism ... is not by any means the sentimentality of a minstrel show--not the benign dream in which 'all coons look alike'--but the nightmare in which black and white begin all too hauntingly to look alike" (99). It is in this light that I read similar, similarly gothic paradoxes in Beloved: the sexual favors Sethe is compelled to perform in order to purchase a tombstone for her child and by which alone she also buys the one elliptical word--not an actual name--to be chiseled in the stone. Even the name of the plantation Sethe escaped, as well as her own tortured memory of the place, haunts her with its maddening, irresolvable contradictions: "Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty" (6). In distinct and similar ways, Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved both explore what Earl E. Thorp calls the "central tragedy of the slave-white relationship," that torturous, paralyzing dilemma in which "neither side could love or hate in anything like fullness of dimension" (qtd. in Genovese 419).

The difficulty both novels face involves conveying these more encompassing, unspeakable aspects of slavery that have been repressed. Despite his views on poetry "after Auschwitz," Adorno still argues that art, supplanting history in the face of trauma, must rely on techniques of representation and signification at odds with our commonly agreed upon perception of reality. Part of his argument is that the only kind of art, philosophy, or historical narrative that can in any way account for such unspeakable horror and suffering must
 attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves
 from the standpoint of redemption ... perspectives must be
 fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be,
 with its rifts and crevices, as it will appear one day in the
 messianic light. (qtd. in Reijen 1; emphasis mine)

Here Adorno implicitly reminds us that novels such as these, in attempting to explain or at least examine an unfinished history, must do so beyond the restricting limits of empirical "realism." (13) Or as Morrison herself explained at the 1985 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, implicitly linking some of her own literary concerns with Faulkner's, "My reasons ... for being ... deeply moved by all his subjects had something to do with my desire to find out something about this country and that artistic articulation of its past that was not available in history, which is what art and fiction can do but sometimes history refuses to do" (qtd. in Kodat 187).

In Absalom, Absalom! the story of Thomas Sutpen is introduced to us by Miss Rosa, in whose voice the ghost of Sutpen "mused with shadowy docility as if it were [Miss Rosa's] voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house" (4). A ghost herself, she also has the ability to conjure spirits for others, in this case for Quentin, who will in turn become her ghost-writer. Her motives for telling Quentin the story seem simple enough: "So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe some day you will remember this and write about it" (5). But she and Quentin will actually attempt to explain the unfinished history of the antebellum South. Ironically, Miss Rosa blames the fall of the South on the fact that nonaristocratic men like Sutpen were the only ones powerful enough to fight for that aristocracy: "--men with valor and strength but without pity and honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose?" (13). As Quentin finally and only partially reveals, however, the more convincing cause of the South's demise is based on a paradoxical system in which an owning class is completely dependent upon a slave class--(implicitly) in Bon's case and (explicitly) in Clytie's, sexually tied to that class--to which it must deny any intimate relation.

Yet on some level even Miss Rosa must recognize this paradox. She has seen its ghostly presence herself when, after learning of Charles Bon's death, she rushes into the Sutpen mansion through the front doors and toward the foot of the stairs. Judith, who was to marry Bon, is upstairs with his body, and Miss Rosa is going up to see them both. But on the stairs she encounters Clytie, something about whom stops Miss Rosa, a stare and the face from which it emanates--"that face which was at once both more and less than Sutpen, perhaps I knew even then what I could not, would not, must not believe" (112). This is the first time Miss Rosa realizes that Clytie is Sutpen's daughter and, therefore, Judith's half-sister. Yet Rosa's recognition also underscores other elements of miscegenation and incest, for her realization, which comes in that moment of "reading" Clytie's face, also reveals, implicitly, that Bon is part black as well as Clytie's and Judith's half-brother. (14) In this same moment, in a sense the ghostly, prophetic window into the whole Sutpen tragedy, Clytie prohibits Miss Rosa from going upstairs to learn the details of the more temporal tragedy--that Bon has just been killed by his brother in order to prevent not incest but miscegenation.

As Daniel J. Singal argues, "the curse that Thomas Sutpen lays upon his family, and by extension upon the South, consists not only of a deeply inauthentic identity but also of the stipulation that that identity must be based on racial purity" (206). Singal later cites Philip Weinstein, noting, "That is the essence of the curse for Faulkner--not the noxious practice of turning human beings into property, but an identity model in which the slightest strain of nonwhite 'blood' produces an unacceptable level of contamination" (206). This "identity model"--in a system where the owning class depends upon, yet must deny any blood relation to, a slave class--presents the crisis around which Absalom, Absalom! centers. Although we learn that Sutpen's first child, Bon, and his daughter, Judith, from his second wife, fall in love with one another, the possibility of incest is seen by almost all characters as trivial--in fact, as Sundquist suggests, the one (miscegenation) must supplant the other (incest) in order for such a socio-economic system to remain in place. (15) What matters is that Bon is part black, and we do not learn of this directly until late in the novel. Quentin and Shreve disclose Bon's racial "impurity" by (re)creating the scene in which Bon, discovering that Henry now knows about his mixed blood, tells his half-brother, "--So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can't bear"(285).

But Richard Godden argues that Bon's blackness is hinted at throughout the novel and before Quentin and Shreve finally reveal (or fabricate) the fact explicitly. Specifically, Mr. Compson, who received Sutpen's story from his father, General Compson, alludes to Bon's mixed blood, but only through the use of a hidden, encoded language. What General Compson, Mr. Compson, Miss Rosa, and even Sutpen know about Bon--and therefore about the entire social/economic system of the old South--they must repress or at least defer, because to speak what they know would be to reveal the hypocrisy of a system that allows them to maintain the power of their class. Godden starts by quoting General Compson, as Quentin and Mr. Compson reiterate what he has said about Sutpen: "Grandfather Compson notes that Sutpen spoke of 'the old man's wife [having] ... been a Spaniard ... as you might flick the joker out of a pack of fresh cards'" (137). Godden then reminds us of the earlier reference to Haiti as the "blackjack" picked by "fate" and argues that the language here serves as a cryptic clue to Bon's mother's blackness. (16) Even stronger than these clues, however, is what General Compson hears from Sutpen in his law office during the war. Sutpen explains why he left his first wife and son: "yet they [the Haitian family Sutpen marries into] deliberately withheld from me the one fact which I have reason to know they were aware would have caused me to decline the entire matter" (212).

The only "fact" that would impede Sutpen's rise to power is a racially mixed child. And so he faces the very dilemma with which the land-owning class of the South, the class to which he aspires, ultimately damns itself: trapped by a denial of the fact that its power, its ability to own the land, is completely related to and dependent upon that slave class to which it cannot admit blood relations, yet without which it cannot exist. (17) The system is "unspeakable" to and for the owning class in that its hypocritical nature must not be revealed. And the tragic consequences of this system, only one of which is fratricide, are also--but for different reasons--unspeakable. What we see in Bon and even in Clytie, in their very features and skin tones, are the schizophrenic effects of a system that violently insists on, and yet as violently threatens to obliterate, divisions of social caste based on racial identity. Both and neither white, belonging both and neither to that race aligned with the slave class, Bon and Clytie embody this ghostly paradox. As Miss Rosa explains, Clytie seems to contain the war's "perverse and inscrutable paradox: free, yet incapable of freedom who had never once called herself a slave ... who in the very pigmentation of her flesh represented that debacle which had brought Judith and me to what we were" (126).

And here we might make an important distinction between the black and white women in Absalom, Absalom! as well as illuminate yet another aspect of the novel's cryptic allusions to miscegenation through its use of ghosts. Early in the novel Mr. Compson tells Quentin, with witty but seemingly unintentional irony, "Years ago we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts"(7). Here Mr. Compson hints at the extent to which the slave-owning class practiced the very thing it simultaneously feared and tried to prohibit. For such a practice, aligning by force slave women with all the bodily desires associated with the sexual act, necessarily reduced the white wives, even as it tried to elevate them, beyond the realm of human sexuality. Slavery itself, long before the War, had already made such white women into bodiless Victorian ghosts. Sundquist and Genovese both note the extent to which miscegenation on the plantation produced agonizing consequences, especially for young black women--its victims. But they remind us of the consequences for the white wives as well. (18) As Genovese argues, "slavery provided for a special kind of cheating, which converted white women into ethereal beings even as it degraded black women into alleged whores" (427). Winthrop D. Jordan enlarges upon the topic, illuminating its tragic complexities:
 The dissipation of the white gentleman was as much a tragedy for
 his white lady as for him. A biracial environment warped her
 affective life in two directions at once, for she was made to feel
 that sexual involvement with the opposite sex burned bright and hot
 with unquenchable passion and at the same time that any such
 involvement was utterly repulsive. Accordingly ... she approached
 her perspective ... partners as if she were picking up a live
 coal in one hand and a dead rat in the other. (149)

The novel's attempts to bring this over-arching paradoxical system to light, to "speak" it, must therefore involve those who similarly inhabit and no longer inhabit this world: Miss Rosa; Henry, come back to his father's house; Clytie, her face the darker apparition of her father's; and, finally, Quentin.

The most appropriate person to narrate the story of a society doomed to destroy itself must be himself a ghost--or someone intent on soon becoming one. I alluded earlier to the fact that Quentin is a ghost in more than one sense. He has, after all, already died in The Sound and the Fury which was published before but which takes place chronologically after the events in Absalom, Absalom! and so we know that Quentin is on his way to death. By the novel's end, Quentin appears all but dead in the tomb-like, frozen dorm room, lying down in "the dead moment before dawn" (298). His reappearance in Absalom, Absalom! functions as an attempt to explain and mirror the unfinished, haunted, and collapsing socio-economic status of the land-owning class to which he is heir. And his direct relationship to that class means that he must finally deny his hatred for it, because not to do so would be to admit that he is the product of slave labor--is chaotically, even incestuously related to the slaves themselves. For Quentin, as for his progenitors, the only way to evade his direct relationship to, and dependence upon, a slave class to which he cannot admit blood relations is to assign any corruption in his own class to miscegenation (Godden 156). And so he takes back what he has revealed about the old South--much as Henry renounces his fraternal relation to Bon and, by killing him to prevent further miscegenation, turns his once-brother back into "the nigger that's going to sleep with [Henry's] sister" (286). Quentin refuses, finally, to utter or completely reveal the fatal flaw in the history of that civilization he comes from, but this allows Faulkner both to reveal its source and refrain from doing the violence of simplifying such a system of greed and fratricide, of slavery and ruthless social divisions based on racial identity, of economic and sexual exploitation posing as genteel paternalism--a system, in other words, that could produce the whole Sutpen tragedy.

To speak beyond silence and realism as a means of explaining a historically situated atrocity like slavery--as well as its consequences, incest, and miscegenation--is to allow such history to remain partially obscured, partially unuttered. And there are several other ways Absalom, Absalom! achieves this, besides its use of ghosts. Most obvious is the way in which Sutpen's story is related: Quentin hears it from Miss Rosa (who was there to witness) and from his own father (who in turn heard it from Quentin's grandfather); Shreve hears it from Quentin but they both re-create (or fabricate) parts of the story themselves, and we the readers take in all the various accounts. That these accounts conflict at times, contain loose ends, and/or overlap, only serves to undermine the historical, factual authority of some "real" Sutpen story: Sutpen's (and by extension Bon's) is the South's story, but it cannot be completely articulated according to the standards of historical realism. The closest we come to direct contact with an active participant in the saga is when Miss Rosa and Quentin enter the Sutpen mansion and find Henry there. The old woman enters Henry's room first, alone, and we neither see nor hear the exchange between them. But we do experience the first and last meeting between the man who killed Bon and the grandson of General Compson, though Quentin will continue to experience this meeting and these impressions of Henry, as by ghostly visitation, long after they take place: "waking or sleeping it was the same: the bed, the yellow sheets and pillow, the wasted yellow face with closed, almost transparent eyelids on the pillow, the wasted hands crossed on the breast as if he were already a corpse; waking or sleeping it was the same and would be the same forever as long as he lived" (298).

Of all the novel's living phantoms, Henry here looks the most the ghostlike or ghastly in his physical resemblance to and attitude of a deceased person. Alive, however, and present enough to speak, he can only complete or echo Quentin's half-formed questions:
 And you are--?
 Henry Sutpen.
 And you have been here--?
 Four years.
 And you came home--?
 To die. Yes.
 To die?
 Yes. To die.
 And you have been here--?
 Four years.
 And you are--?
 Henry Sutpen. (298)

Henry, an actual player in the Sutpen drama, can "explain" the tragedy no better than anyone else in the novel. His short answers are certainly factual, but they do not address or explain the past, his or Bon's or his father's. Furthermore, the dialogue, itself--this frantic repetition of the words and phrases that never finally produce a satisfying explanation--mirrors the circular, tragic modality of the very institutions with which the antebellum South damned itself. It seems no coincidence that the theme of incest--the universal taboo, the practice by which societies that allow it self-destruct--returns with Quentin from The Sound and the Fury to this novel, reflecting not only Quentin's own familial obsessions but the very damnation the owning class of the South, to which Quentin is heir, has inflicted upon itself. Is it any wonder Sutpen longs for but cannot have male descendents to maintain his legacy, or that at least one of his descendents suffers from severe birth defects?

The closest we come to hearing the unspeakable "spoken" does come from one of Sutpen's progeny, though the articulation comes just as the mansion--great symbol of Sutpen's rise and fall--roars up in flames. And Jim Bond's indecipherable howling may be the nearest Faulkner ever comes to articulating the tragedy, not only of Sutpen, but of the antebellum South and its legacies. The last visual ghost-like image is of Clytie, in whose face Miss Rosa had previously seen the ghost of Sutpen himself. Clytie, the enduring female equivalent of Charles Bon (though just as doomed by her mixture of "black" and "white blood") sets fire to the house that the old curse might finally be "paid out":
 and then for a moment maybe Clytie appeared in the window from
 which she must have been watching the gates constantly day and
 night for three months--the tragic gnome's face beneath the clean
 headrag, against a red background of fire, seen for a moment
 between two swirls of smoke, looking down at them, perhaps not even
 now with triumph and no more of despair than it had ever worn,
 possibly even serene above the melting clapboards before the smoke
 swirled across it again. (300; emphasis mine)

This last glimpse of a ghost that tries to end the story--a gesture that will be repeated in Beloved--is further obscured by the conditional qualifiers I've italicized in the passage. Once again, in the face of such history only that which exceeds the boundaries of empirical, factual realism can ever be "true." But the curse lingers, of course, in the person of Jim Bond, in his inarticulate, furious outbursts. Such history cannot be finished, but here at least Faulkner allows it to exist in a form that is neither a stifling silence, nor a belittling explanation offered through rational logic or realism:
 there was nothing left now, nothing out there now but that idiot
 boy to lurk around those ashes and those four gutted chimneys and
 howl until someone came and drove him away. They couldn't catch him
 and nobody ever seemed to make him go very far away, he just
 stopped howling for a little while. Then after a while they would
 begin to hear him again. (301)

In this--linguistically the richest of all of Faulkner's novels--we are left with Jim Bond's howling, a human voice we can neither precisely understand nor entirely block out.

While Beloved shares Absalom, Absalom!'s allusions to the western tradition's use of ghosts, Morrison's novel also relies on other traditions that take ghosts to be ethereal phantoms, or spirits of the deceased embodied and returned. In Beloved, the characters are haunted (or believe themselves to be) by actual phantoms or fleshed-out apparitions. But the novel also undermines the certainty of this fact. It's possible, for example, that the young woman who arrives at 124 Bluestone Road after Paul D shows up is a living, though severely abused, child from a different family. Stamp Paid alludes to the possibility that Beloved might be the same young woman who was kept by a white man since she was a little girl (Morrison 235).

But whether Beloved is or isn't Sethe's child returned from the grave matters less than her (Beloved's) ability to signify what haunts the characters in the novel. As Denise Heinze points out, Beloved comes back to life not so much as the two year old who was murdered but as the alter ego to the central characters in the novel and as living memory to those "Sixty Million and More" who were killed in slavery--the fleshed-out symbol of a memory Sethe and the others must confront in order for it to be exorcised (177). In this sense, the novel reflects the elements of returning ancestral traits one finds in classical literature. The ambiguity of Beloved's identity also serves to strengthen her illuminating clarity as the speaker/revealer/judge of a history too traumatic to account for otherwise. The chapter that begins, "I am Beloved and she is mine" (210), for example, presents a stream-of-consciousness monologue that may or may not allude to the experience of being on a slave ship (the ambiguity of the passage obscures certainty), an experience Sethe's child would not have undergone. Ghost or human, Beloved illuminates the extent to which the characters in the novel are haunted by an unspeakable past--one that can only be partially revealed by, or in the presence of, someone uncannily connected to and cut off from that past.

As with Absalom, Absalom! the crisis in Beloved involves repression, in this case, of a memory too painful to recall--Sethe's murder of her own child--but it speaks to and for the larger, more abstract memory of slavery, as experienced by the slaves themselves, the consequences of which continue throughout the novel. The ghost here, as in Faulkner's novel, exposes what cannot be spoken by others through two important characteristics: supernatural authority (including illumination and measureless-ness) and historical permeability (the absence and presence of the past), both of which necessitate some violation of realism. Although the ghost, whether phantom or full blooded, is capable of jealousy, anger, and compassion, she/it does not recall, and is to that extent removed from, the events leading up to and surrounding Sethe's act of infanticide. As Heinze argues, Sethe can (and must) recount her past to Beloved where she could not do so in the company of others: "Perhaps it was Beloved's distance from the [past] itself, or her thirst for hearing it--in any case it was an unexpected pleasure" (58). Beloved clings fiercely to Sethe for identity--Sethe's murdered child was only two, without a fully developed sense of self--yet she stands for all African Americans traumatized or destroyed by slavery. Her undefined, or at least not-yet-fully-defined identity allows Beloved to possess a distance and clarity not reserved for any other character in the novel. At the same time, such premature, thwarted identity reflects the very struggle of the slaves and ex-slaves to gain a subjective voice, a sense of personhood against the effects of an institution that forced them to be, legally, at least, and often practically, objects of property. As Bonnie Winsbro suggests, "Without the past and the identity provided by Sethe, Beloved is any motherless child, any African American female--she is nobody and everybody, nothing and all" (136).

Because Beloved is free from the restrictions of human mortality, she can also experience and re-create events that happened before she was killed by her mother, events in the distant past that have been forgotten or repressed because they're too painful to remember. (19) But by giving voice to them, Beloved allows us to see the root of what causes Sethe to murder her own child. What is at first unspeakable in its brutality and horror--infanticide--becomes comprehensible in light of the larger, more atrocious fact of slavery itself. And whether or not Sethe overcomes her own sense of guilt, the novel at least clarifies why she takes such action, just as Quentin partially reveals why and how the old South doomed itself without necessarily accepting such explanations himself.

Like Absalom, Absalom! Beloved concerns the exposure of a history that has been repressed in order to attempt to finish it--that the characters and by extension the readers do not become possessed by it--and to demonstrate that such history cannot be completely contained by any single narrative of historical realism. (20) When Amy, the kind white woman who helps Sethe deliver her child tells her, "Can't nothing heal without pain" (78), she's also speaking for the necessity of recounting (temporarily, perhaps, and obscurely) such painful history in the name of catharsis. Heinze reiterates this point as it applies to our national consciousness and its relationship to the historical fact of slavery: "Like a childhood trauma, Beloved comes back in snatches until finally her history is retold, a discovery process shared by Morrison, her characters, and the readers as the primary step to collective spiritual recovery" (175).

Susan Bowers points out that Morrison based Beloved in part on the West African notion of cyclical time, a belief that the present and the past interact recursively (212). In this light, the dead must return in spirit before any of the novel's characters, and the whole community itself, can even begin to heal. Though this process begins with Beloved's arrival, the community will ultimately require rituals, specifically African and African American ones, in order to come to terms with the traumatic effects Beloved both refers to and embodies. As Linda Krumholz argues,
 Morrison uses Modernist and oral techniques in conjunction with
 specifically African-American cultural referents, both historical
 and symbolic, to create a distinctly African-American voice and
 vision which, as in Baby Suggs's rituals, invoke the spiritual and
 imaginative power to teach and to heal. (396)

Sethe's guilt at having killed one of her children; Paul D's tendency to keep his feelings in his chest's "tobacco tin"; Denver's self-imposed isolation--these symptoms reflect the characters' desire to keep an unspeakable past in the past, to repress a history too painful to contemplate, much less finish. Recovery is possible only when the characters confront not only their individual pasts but the historical fact of slavery itself and can begin only when Beloved, the memory of the past brought to life, appears.

Ultimately, the larger memory that Beloved embodies, that of slavery itself, while necessary to confront, is all too consuming in its agonizing contradictions and horror. It threatens to destroy Sethe. And Beloved's presence, once revealed to the extended neighborhood, causes outrage, incites the people to exorcise the ghost from Sethe's house and the community at large. In this, as in previous efforts led by Baby Suggs to heal the effects of trauma, the community must work together, utilizing rituals--song, dance, storytelling--that mimic yet precede historically those associated with psychoanalysis. As Krumholz reminds us,
 Morrison ... uses African and African-American rituals to
 facilitate the psychological cure, suggesting that African
 religious ritual provides an antecedent for the psychoanalytic
 method and that Freudian theories are modern European derivations
 from longstanding ritual practices of psychic healing. The healing
 ritual combines Christian symbolism and African ritual expressions,
 as is common in the African-American church. (398)

By the novel's end, recovery for Sethe, Paul D, Denver, and the community is a possibility, though it is not guaranteed. And Beloved, even her memory, has been forgotten: "like a bad dream.... Remembering seemed unwise" (274). Here, as in Faulkner's novel, the final obscuring of what is almost revealed serves both to emphasize how unfinished and infinite the history of slavery will always be, and to do that history the justice of not belittling it through under- or misrepresentation. "Although [Beloved] has a claim, she is not claimed" (174): such a pronouncement from the omniscient narrator reminds us that an adequate, rational account of this history is still beyond reach, that on certain levels, slavery and its consequences can be approached only indirectly or obscurely in order to prevent doing violence to their memory. (21)

How then to proceed beyond the more paralyzing aspects of such history? To keep a respectful distance from slavery, from its traumatizing horror, even as one acknowledges it as historical fact, as more than mere history but as lingering, malignant ever-presence--this is the paradox the central characters in Beloved must live with in order to go on living at all. By the time Denver decides to go beyond the boundaries of her home in order to bring in food, the ghost at 124 Bluestone is on the verge of consuming house and inhabitants. So omnivorous and demanding is Beloved at this point in the novel that it is easy to overlook the emergence of another ghostly presence. Paused at the very edge of the house and staring at the world before her, Denver remembers her grandmother as she was toward the end of her life--defeated by a skepticism that had become total disillusionment. By the time she dies, Baby Suggs has abandoned her hope and will, surrendering before her knowledge of the world and its people. It is Baby Suggs who returns now, an invisible apparition speaking to Denver:

[Denver's] throat itched; her heart kicked--and then Baby Suggs laughed, clear as anything. "You mean I never told you nothing about Carolina? About your daddy? You don't remember nothing about how come I walk the way I do and about your mother's feet, not to speak of her back? I never told you all that? Is that why you can't walk down the step? My Jesus my."

But you said there was no defense.

"There ain't."

Then what do I do?

"Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on." (244)

It would be a mistake to think that this is the "old" Baby Suggs, the Holy woman whose daughter-in-law has not yet committed infanticide, who has yet to battle with and then lose to hopelessness and despair. The voice here clearly knows the world and its ways, against which there is no defense. And, although such knowledge would not have been news to the disillusioned Baby Suggs--who quit the world because of it, and to whom death could not make the realistic horrors of this life any more apparent--the voice here is clearly not hopeless. If this is Baby Suggs, speaking from the other side, what, if anything, would she have learned? The implication in her command seems to be that one must actively choose to live before (or in spite of) our judging from experience whether or not life will be worth living. Or, as Emmanuel Levinas reminds us, one must accept that ethics is metaphysically prior to ontology. (22) And this illuminates yet another function a ghost might serve--that of being an "un-realistic" or, to be more precise, a "pre-realistic" voice of hope we might hold and follow through this demonstrably ugly, "real" world.

Here we might begin to find not final and complete closure or even resolution but the beginning of an ethics--a way of remembering the traumatic past in order (occasionally) to forget it. At a certain point in Shreve's conversation with Quentin, the Canadian-born roommate recounts Bon's and his mother's escape from Haiti. Shreve's description could easily apply to the very posttraumatic conditions brought on by the historical atrocities both novels address:
 you were not supposed ... to ever go back there ... which you
 were not supposed to know when and why you left but only that you
 had escaped, that whatever power had created the place for you to
 hate it had likewise got you away from the place so you could hate
 it good and never forgive it in quiet and monotony (though not
 exactly in what you would call peace); that you were to thank God
 you didn't remember anything about it yet at the same time you were
 not to, maybe dared not to, ever forget it. (239)

This is surely closer to the pathological, repetitious, and unconscious reactions of those who have undergone (without recovering from) trauma, the moments wherein one "acts out" or reenacts the significant event without ever resolving or exorcising it, the ghosts that can neither come back to life nor, finally, die. Beloved's ending, however, especially in light of what Denver hears from Baby Suggs, points toward a more conscious--that is, ethical--way out, an intentional choosing of life, in spite of its uncertainties and unavoidable horrors. Lest we think this approach conventional or glib, it is worth noting that Baby Suggs says nothing of forgiveness. It would be asking too much of those who suffered such historical atrocities to forgive their enemies. The point seems to be self-preservation, a conscious choosing of life despite and in the face of a traumatic past and an ever-hostile present.

Krumholz reminds us that it is Denver, born literally in the river that divides slave territory from the "free" North, who points toward a way out of the nightmare: "The novel concludes with Denver's emergence as a new teacher, providing the reader with a model for a new pedagogy and the opportunity for the reconstruction of slave history from a black woman's perspective" (397). But it is Baby Suggs's ghostly voice that first impels Denver to go out into the world, even as it acknowledges what that world is and continues to be. Such an ethics would involve re-seeing or re-hearing the ghosts themselves as a means of insisting on the "pre-" or "meta-real": a faith to guide one's actions against an empirical knowledge of the world. Or even, as Arthur Redding suggests, "The past, which has been either denied or utilized as a means of imprisoning us, can begin to function as a haunted place, a place through which we can imagine a future" (175).

Buffalo State College

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. "Cultural Criticism and Society." Prisms. Trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber. London: Neville, 1967. 17-34.

Bowers, Susan. "Beloved and the New Apocalypse." Toni Morrison's Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. Ed. David L. Middleton. New York: Garland, 1997. 209-30.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

--. Selected Letters of William Faulkner. Ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Godden, Richard. Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Heinze, Denise. The Dilemma of "Double-Consciousness." Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968.

Kodat, Catherine Gunther. "A Postmodern Absalom, Absalom!, A Modern Beloved: The Dialectic of Form." Kolmerten et al. 181-98.

Kolmerten, Carol A., Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg, eds. Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997.

Krumholz, Linda. "The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison's Beloved." African American Review 26.3 (1992): 395-408.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburg: Duquesne UP, 1969.

McKay, Nellie. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." Contemporary Literature 24.4 (1983): 413-29.

Melville, Herman. Tales, Poems, and Other Writings. Ed. John Bryant. New York: Modern Lib., 2002. 182-257.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1987.

Novak, Phillip. "Signifying Silences: Morrison's Soundings in the Faulknerian Void." Kolmerten, et al. 199-216.

Railey, Kevin. Natural Aristocracy: History, Ideology, and the Production of William Faulkner. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1999.

Redding, Arthur. "'Haints': American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 34.4 (2001): 163-82.

Reijen, Willem Van. Adorno: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Pennbridge, 1992.

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

Sommer, Doris. Proceed with Caution: When Engaged by Minority Writing in The Americas. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.

Twagilimana, Aimable. Race and Gender in the Making of an African American Literary Tradition. New York: Garland, 1997.

Weinstein, Arnold. Recovering Your Story: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison. New York: Random, 2006.

Winsbro, Bonnie. Supernatural Forces: Belief, Difference, and Power in Contemporary Works by Ethnic Women. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993.

(1) Let me make clear from the start that this paper does not presume to equate slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean with the Holocaust as equally atrocious historical events; the point is that both are so particularly abominable as to defy adequate "realistic" representation. Nor does the paper assume that these are the only historical atrocities in this category. As Doris Sommer reminds us, "Experience of the unspeakable is a categorical limit of language. Whether the stopping point is 'Auschwitz' or chattel-slavery, it is inassimilable for conventional history, and makes no human sense. At this full stop, the question is how life goes on without an appropriate scheme. The impasse can be acknowledged with silence or with apparently inappropriate schemes ..." (179).

(2) Toward the end of the essay, Theodor Adorno, addressing the state of critical theory after World War II, puts forward his famous claim: "Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (34). Sommer nicely summarizes the essential reasons why silence is one of only two possible responses to such atrocities: "In the limited reaches of our existing languages, the only expressions for witnessing remain storytelling and silence, the aphasic silence of a traumatized witness, the accusatory silence that refuses to collaborate, the fearful silence that anticipates more trouble" (168).

(3) See Sommer 179. She adds, "The forced voyage into slavery is likely the traumatic origin of an African American sequence of spiritual displacements that transmuted unbearable history into ghost stories, like the narratives of (Jewish) dislocation that psychoanalysis both theorizes and performs" (178). But Arthur Redding draws a link between the ghost stories of the gothic tradition and those, like Beloved, that address "real" or historical atrocities: "The repetition and reprisals of trauma, however, are likewise pinioned by history, and wonder...may well be as feasible a response to the return of the historically repressed as terror. No doubt the narrative strategies typically deployed by gothic border on the hysterical; the systematic attempts to banish, deny or exorcise the unruly, thronging ghost or ghosts transmutes into a frenzied attempt to punish or confine the medium or intercessionary" (166).

(4) Nonetheless, Faulkner claims to have created the moral equivalent of a Nazi in a fictional character (thereby anticipating the "real" thing). In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, he writes, "If I recall [Percy Grimm from Light in August] aright, he was the fascist galahad who saved the white race by murdering [Joe] Christmas. I invented him in 1931. I didn't realize until after Hitler got into the newspapers that I had created a Nazi before he did" (qtd. in Blotner 202).

(5) This essay is especially indebted to Catherine Gunther Kodat's "A Postmodern Absalom, Absalom!, A Modern Beloved: The Dialectic of Form," in which the author connects both of these novels to Adorno's notion of negative dialectics. As Kodat explains, "It is this haunting mediation of form and content that makes it possible to read Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved together and helps to explain the similar effects the texts have on their readers. Both novels force us to struggle with what is most resistant to expression (the nature and purpose of Beloved herself, the ultimate ramifications of Sutpen's design) and which, in its resistance, fuels some of the novels' most breathtaking technical accomplishments" (183).

(6) Redding reminds us of Hawthorne's (or the speaker's?) comments in the introductory chapter ("The Custom House") of The Scarlet Letter, a chapter likewise ghostly (I would add) for its absence and presence--Is this the author speaking? Is this part of the novel?--its twilight location between life and fiction. Redding quotes the speaker of Hawthorne's strange chapter: "Somewhere between the real world and fairy land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, [...] ghosts might enter [...] without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside" (168).

(7) Redding notes, "The limits of a constituted 'national' identity mark the struggle for dominion over the past, an ongoing competition over the shape and destiny of a set of histories that cannot be considered simply collective. And this is a matter of revenants. Ghosts throng at these occult borders, at the wounds of memory, where history shudders, where even the historicization of cultural images partakes of a disenchantment, clamoring for an unveiling of what has been occluded, hidden over" (168).

(8) Toward the novel's end, Baby Suggs "appears" to Denver as a kind of ghost, but since this apparition, so to speak, is aural rather than visual, I maintain that there is only one main ghost, even though Beloved stands in and for the ghosts of the "Sixty Million and More."

(9) It should be pointed out, however, that the number of attempts made by different characters--often contradictory--to tell Sutpen's story both encourages our disbelief and demands that we suspend it. There is no single "true" story; all versions, therefore and despite the contradictions, seem believable.

(10) Novak reminds us, "For while [Absalom, Absalom!] undoubtedly does work to engage America's troubled past, this engagement is presented entirely, perhaps inevitably, from the perspective of the whites who owned--or, as the case with Sutpen's father, felt themselves to be in competition with--America's slaves. The slaves themselves are fairly studiously confined to the position of setting. Thoroughly objectified, generally silent, they are depicted, not as subjects engaged in history, but as part of the material through which the processes of history are seen to work" (203-04).

(11) I am indebted to Michael Zeitlin for his helpful suggestions regarding critical sources--including Genovese's text--for this paper. Genovese reminds us that while many slaves may have recognized and even accepted the paternalist ideology their masters clung to, there were fundamental differences of interpretation between the two groups--differences that came with severe consequences: "Almost all [slaves], however, with lesser or greater intensity, fell into a paternalistic pattern of thought, and almost all redefined that pattern into a doctrine of self-protection. For masters, paternalism meant reciprocal duties within which the master had a duty to provide for his people and to treat them with humanity, and the slaves a duty to work properly and to do as they were told. Necessarily, the slaves had, from the white point of view, incurred an obligation to be grateful. The white point of view, however, rested on a catastrophic misunderstanding" (143-44).

(12) Admittedly, Thomas Sutpen does not originally come from the owning class, and while he initially and justifiably defies a system that grants privilege not according to one's talents and abilities but to the particular family one happened to be born into, he nonetheless adopts a strict definition of social caste based on racial identity. Or, as critic Kevin Railey argues convincingly, "Sutpen's demise seems supported by some cosmic justice ... however, the novel also makes clear that the reasons for Sutpen's demise stem from his inability or refusal to adopt certain paternalistic attitudes and his clinging to his own monadic isolation in the pursuit of wealth. In the story of Sutpen's rise, Faulkner questions the aristocracy of heritage, the pseudoaristoi; here, in the story of Sutpen's fall, Faulkner questions the aristocracy of wealth" (124).

(13) Aimable Twagilimana argues the following in relation to Beloved, though we could apply the same metarealism, to a certain extent, to Faulkner's novel as well:
 [I]t is a supernatural world in which everything is permitted,
 everything we have heard of, including a mother deliberately
 killing her own children. We need a gothic/mythic setting, that is,
 an isolated 'romance' setting as defined by Hawthorne, where the
 reader's imagination can be more fully activated, some place
 between the Actual and the Fanciful, to attempt a full emotional
 engagement with infanticide as an understandable reaction to the
 horror of the slave experience. (102-03)

(14) As Sundquist points out, "The 'debacle' represented by Clytie's 'pigmentation' is purposely ambiguous: it is the debacle of slavery and the war itself that makes Judith and Rosa widows without having been brides; but it is also the debacle of miscegenation, which the novel so continually engages as the curse and sin that brings Sutpen's design, like that of the South itself, to collapse" (114).

(15) "These potential sins cannot, of course, be so neatly separated--no more so [in Absalom, Absalom!] than in the history of slavery, where 'sons' were and were not sons and 'brothers' were and were not brothers, and where the successive mingling of masters and slaves, white and black, therefore could not possibly be the incest it unavoidably might be in fact ... slavery [therefore] controlled miscegenation and whatever incest accompanied it by denying that they had any meaning, by denying, in effect, that any limits had actually been violated" (Sundquist 122).

(16) Other moments in Absalom, Absalom! where this language arises subliminally, so to speak, to indicate the race of Sutpen's first wife include the following: "and this night when, overseer or foreman or something to a French sugar planter, he was barricade in the house with the planter's family (and now Grandfather said there was the first mention--a shadow that almost emerged for a moment and then faded again but not completely away ..." (199; emphasis mine); "So it was no tale about women, and certainly not about love: the woman, the girl, just a shadow which could load a musket ..." (200; emphasis mine); "It should have been me that failed; me, I, not he who stemmed from that blood which we both bear before it could have been corrupt and tainted by whatever it was in Mother's that he could not brook ..." (257; emphasis mine); "But if he suspected, why not have told me? I would have done that, gone to him first, who have the blood after it was tainted and corrupt by whatever it was in Mother's ..." (263).

(17) Even Mr. Compson comes close to acknowledging this paradoxical union between the owning and slave classes, wherein the former sexually exploits the latter yet must also deny any familial, blood relation to it:
 not the mistress to Henry, certainly not the nigger mistress to a
 youth with Henry's background, a young man grown up and living in a
 milieu where the other sex is separated into three sharp divisions,
 separated (two of them) by a chasm which could be crossed but one
 time and in but one direction--ladies, women, females--the virgins
 whom gentlemen someday married, the courtesans to whom they went
 while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon
 whom the first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it
 doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity. (87)

(18) In light of this, and focusing on Miss Rosa's ghost-like qualities, Sundquist illuminates her emblematic position in the novel as the postwar "nothusbanded" Southern Lady par excellence: "Rosa's obsessive rehearsals for Quentin of Sutpen's failed dynasty, the murder of Bon, and her own tortured courtship by 'the ogre' generate the atmosphere of spent dreams and feverishly maintained innocence in and against which subsequent versions of the tragedy are played out" (111).

(19) Sommer reminds us, "Beloved's readers have marked the importance of African spirit belief, especially in response to the Middle Passage, and they suggest analogies with Western psychoanalysis. Both interpretive systems acknowledge a reality beyond empiricism, and a temporality that disrupts the present with a nagging past" (177).

(20) Sommer nicely summarizes Beloved's "double-bind" of revealing traumatic history while leaving it respectfully obscured: "to tell Sethe's story to those who can be therapeutic witnesses is also to rehearse the pain that can reinscribe terror and humiliation. Yet not to tell would leave Sethe, Paul D, and an entire society of slave survivors without the history that binds them, leave them unwritten like the displaced postwar blacks who were 'Silent, except for social courtesies'" (163).

(21) Krumholz deftly relates Sethe's way of explaining to Paul D her motives for killing Beloved to the need for indirection--for meta-realism--when articulating the history of slavery itself: "Sethe's spinning motion around the room, around her subject, describes the necessity for approaching the unutterably painful history of slavery through oblique, fragmented, and personal glimpses of the past--that is, through means most often associated with fiction" (406).

(22) See Levinas's Totality and Infinity, especially chapter 4, "Metaphysics Precedes Ontology."
COPYRIGHT 2008 The Faulkner Journal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ramos, Peter
Publication:The Faulkner Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Previous Article:Remembering Aunt Callie and Mr. William.
Next Article:Texts, contexts ... and a curious Lacuna.

Related Articles
Taboo subjects; race, sex, and psychoanalysis.
Racial wounding and the aesthetics of the middle voice in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses.
The poetics of ruptured mnemosis: telling encounters in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
Black feminism and the canon: Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! And Morrison's Beloved as Gothic Romances.
Kindred specters; death, mourning, and American affinity.
Dirimens copulatio and metalinguistic negation in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
Paton, Alan. Cry, the beloved country.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters