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Elements of the carnivalesque in Faulkner's "Was." (Special Issue: William Faulkner)

Many of Faulkner's commentators have noticed that behind the hilarious action of "Was" lurks the bleak reality of the plantation life of the slaves involved in the games and hunts of the story. How can a depiction of human beings as quarry and as ante in poker games, where fates are determined at the turn of a card, make us laugh? Is "Was" just another example of Faulkner's exaggerated fondness for the grotesque? The answer may lie in a consideration of the term grotesque in a wider literary context, namely that of the concept of camival and its impact on literature. According to the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, the grotesque is a category of the carnivalesque in that it serves to expose sides of reality which are otherwise suppressed during non-carnival existence. The purpose of carnival is to turn the normal order of existence upside down, allowing these suppressed tendencies to temporarily reign superior at the expense of the normal official order which is ridiculed. Carnival laughter is always ambivalent; it fuses "negation (a smirk)" in which authority is mocked, and "affirmation (rejoicing laughter)" in which the liberation from authority is celebrated.(1) We can justify, then, laughing at the hilarious aspects of "Was" as long as we keep both implications of this laughter in mind.

According to Bakhtin, whole sets of carnivalistic images rooted in the actual carnival pageantry of the folk have over the centuries made their way into the language of literature in a process which he calls the carnivalization of literature. Carnival imagery, when it appears in a literary context, allows for an articulation of suppressed sides of reality and an exposure of oppressive tendencies. During carnival festivities, Bakhtin tells us, "a new mode of interrelationship between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of non-carnival life" is worked out (p. 123). The great age of carnival was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The need for the corrective of carnival is precisely greatest under feudalism when "the vulgar conventionality that pervades human life" renders "all ideological forms, that is, institutions . . . hypocritical and false, while real life, denied any ideological directives, becomes crude and bestial."(2) The Old South possessed a particularly potent form of social hierarchy and there is a striking parallel between medieval feudalism and the plantation feudalism of the South portrayed in "Was." It is not surprising, then, to find elements of the carnivalesque in this story. "Was" transforms the crude and bestial life connected with slavery into a carnival pageant.

Carnival is above all the celebration of the pathos of shifts and changes, of the "joyful relativity" of existence, and its images are therefore necessarily deeply ambiguous and dualistic. Paired images of opposites or doubles are always part of the language of carnival. But, as Bakhtin stresses, "carnivalistic categories are not abstract thoughts about equality and freedom, the interrelatedness of all things or the unity of opposites . . . [but] concretely sensuous ritual-pageant |thoughts' experienced and played out in the form of life itself" (Problems, p. 123). In "Was" the characters live a carnival life. We meet two traditional carnival pairs: the contrasting master/slave (Theophilus McCaslin/Tomey's Turl) and the mirrored twins (Theophilus/Amodeus, nicknamed "Buck" and "Buddy"). The McCaslin brothers have turned existence upside down by moving the slaves into the plantation house and living themselves in a cabin.

The carnival act which has most frequently been transposed into literature is the dual act of the decrowning and ridiculing of an authority/the crowning and celebration of a mock carnival king: "he who is crowned is the antipode of a real king, a slave or a jester; this act, as it were, opens and sanctifies the inside out world of carnival" (Problems, p. 124). In "Was," the slave Turl is turned into the carnival king, and the master Buck is consistently duped and ridiculed. Faulkner simultaneously reverses the pairs master/slave and hunter/hunted in this story. Turl starts out as quarry in Buck's manhunt but as soon as he sets foot on the Beauchamp plantation it is Buck who becomes the quarry of Sophonsiba's manhunt. Turl is in control in the chase as he repeatedly outwits the hunters. He even becomes master of the hunting dogs that are sent to "tree" him:

when [the dogs] came boiling up around Tomey's Turl it looked like they were trying

to jump up and lick him in the face until even Tomey's Turl slowed down and

he and the dogs all went into the woods together, walking, like they were going

home from a rabbit hunt.(3) Later Turl disappears and the dogs are found trapped in "a ten-foot-square cotton-house in a field about two miles from Mr. Hubert's house" (p. 16).

The carnival act of decrowning/crowning traditionally includes a thrashing of the decrowned king. The "decrowned" master, Buck, appropriately receives such a thrashing from the "crowned" slave, Turl. Buck's plan to catch Turl in Tennie's cabin at midnight backfires. Turl runs out of the cabin, knocking Buck down and crushing the whiskey bottle he had put in his back pocket to save for the victory:

Uncle Buck was not hurt; it was only the wind knocked out of him where Tomey's

Turl had thrown him down on his back. . . . He refused to move until he knew

for certain if it was just whiskey and not blood. (p. 19) Turl not only becomes master of the hunt in "Was," but master of his own and of Buck's fate as well. It is he who deals the poker hand with which he both wins his sweetheart Tennie and sets Buck free from Sophonsiba. Hubert forfeits his chance at winning when he realizes who the dealer is:

"Who dealt these cards, Amodeus?" Only he didn't wait to be answered. He reached

up and tilted the lamp-shade, the light moving up Tomey's Turl's arms. . . . Mr.

Hubert sat there holding the lamp-shade and looking at Tomey's Turl. Then he

tilted the shade back down and took up his cards and turned them face-down and

pushed them toward the middle of the table. "I pass, Amodeus," he said. (p. 29) Thus Turl's dealership is the decisive factor for the outcome of the game.

Many of the games played in Go Down, Moses are significantly a form of gambling. "Gambling (with dice, cards, roulette, etc.)," Bakhtin tells us, "is by nature carnivalistic," and it is therefore "always part of the image system of carnival symbols" (Problems, p. 171). Carnival games give the participants a chance to liberate themselves from the rituals and conventions of everyday life. Through two poker hands, Buck is exempted from the consequences of dishonoring a lady. Many of Faulkner's commentators have made attempts to clarify the enigmatic second poker hand that seemingly defies a logical explanation. Some notorious inconsistencies, however, have their own carnival logic in this game. Slaves are normally assets, but in the upside-down world of "Was" Turl and Tennie are seen as liabilities. Moreover, what all of the players want in this game is not to win something but to lose something: Hubert, Buck and Buddy all want to rid themselves of the troublesome slaves and of the burden of living with Sophonsiba. Thus the three masters of this story all want freedom from their slaves and from their normal duties, a fact which reinforces the freedom/bondage reversal in the story.

In the first hand, Hubert performs a carnivalesque inversion of the win/lose terms when he says to Buck, "if you win, you buy Tennie, if I win I buy that boy of yours." Amazed, Buck asks, "the one that wins buys the niggers?", to which Hubert replies, "wins Sibbey, damn it!" (p. 24). Obviously winning, in this passage, involves having the lowest hand, since none of the players is interested in the gains represented by the stakes. Buck "wins" the first hand, i.e., he is stuck with Sibbey and the slaves.

In the second hand Hubert bets the burden of paying Sibbey's dowry against Buck's burden of marrying Sibbey. Once again, all players want to rid themselves of something. The critical point in this hand of poker comes when Buddy raises by bringing the slaves back into the stakes: "I'll bet you them two niggers,' Uncle Buddy said" (p. 28). Thus, Buddy deliberately confuses the terms of this game since the "nigger business" has already been settled in the first round between Buck and Hubert. Hubert is tricked into believing that Buddy is making a legitimate bet, and he stops the game to reconsider the stakes:

Then [Hubert] said: "We'll check up for a minute. If I win, you take Sibbey without

dowry and the two niggers, and I don't owe |Filus anything. If you win--"

"-- Theophilus is free. And you owe him the three hundred dollars for Tomey's Turl,"

Uncle Buddy said. (p. 28) Hubert interprets Buddy's raise in this game in the same carnivalesque terms as the first game. For him winning (with the lowest hand) entails buying Turl, and losing (with the highest hand) means that he must sell Tennie. Tennie is already sold (but not paid for), however, as a result of the first game. Hubert therefore draws the conclusion that "what it comes down to is, I either got to give a nigger away or risk buying one" (p. 28). Buddy has cunningly bet the pair of slaves as the asset/liability unit which they are. For Hubert, giving Tennie away is losing a $300 asset, buying Turl a $300 liability. Hubert's confusion, added to his realization of who the dealer is, leads to his folding; Buck is therefore free of Sophonsiba, but the twins are stuck with the slaves. In the twins Theophilus and Amodeus, whose very names are mirrors, Faulkner shows us two sides of the same coin: the masculine and feminine McCaslin. He does this primarily through the use of the carnival category of eccentricity, the purpose of which is to allow "the latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves? (Problems, p. 123). Buck and Buddy are both eccentrics in many ways, one of these being their isolated life as "husband" and "wife." The text of "as" consistently refers to Buck as a hunter and plantation manager, Buddy as a housewife. There are several explicit comments on their relationship in Part IV of "The Bear"; they are referred to at one point as "the one who ran the plantation and the farming of it and the other who did the housework and the cooking" (p. 261). Buck keeps both a caged fox and hunting dogs in his cabin and even uses a necktie consciously to distinguish him from his brother, "who didn't own a necktie at all" (p. 7). Buddy is seen almost exclusively in the kitchen preparing meals. It is always Buck who has the task of hunting down Tomey's Turl despite his fear of being trapped by the marriage-hungry Sophonsiba because "Uncle Buddy never went anywhere . . . even though they all knew that Uncle Buddy could have risked it ten times as much as Uncle Buck could have dared" (p. 6). Since he takes on the role of female, Buddy is not in danger of wedding Sophonsiba. But he is in fact compelled to leave his cabin once in "Was." He must save Buck from his obligation to marry Sophonsiba, a marriage which threatens the brothers' eccentric form of concubinage.

In the spirit of carnivalesque ambivalence, Buck and Buddy's comic marriage mirrors its own antithesis: the inevitable serious marriage between Buck and Sophonsiba. All carnivalistic states, since they celebrate change and renewal, "always include within themselves a perspective of negation (death) or vice-versa" (Problems, p. 125). We are given a glimpse of this through Sophonsiba and Hubert's campaign to trap Buck. But for the sake of the vacation of carnival this marriage does not materialize until existence returns to its non-carnival ordinariness in the subsequent stories. In "Was," Buck and Buddy live not only a temporary carnival life as husband and wife but act out the slave-master reversal as well. They have not lived in the manor house since their father died, having "moved all the niggers into the big house" (p. 6)--a reversal Faulkner described in greater detail in The Unvanquished (1938). Each evening, after securing the slaves behind the locked doors of the skeletal McCaslin manor, they return to their cabin to engage in a ritualistic poker game where they bet "niggers and wagon-loads of cotton with one another on the turn of a single card."(4) The hunt, on the other hand, is only a sporadic activity which is more a game of hide-and-seek than a ritual. In "Was," then, the twins act out a game/ritual reversal which is consistent with their carnivalesque existence.

The carnivalesque hunt in "Was" is a sharp parody of the ritual hunt in "The Old People," where Isaac earns the status of a hunter in the sacred order of the wilderness. Parody, Bakhtin claims, has a natural affinity with carnival as a non-official practice. One of the most important functions of parody, he suggests, is to break down "the power of myth over language" found in the serious genres (Problems, p. 60). One of Faulkner's commentators sees "The Old People" as "a miniature epic" which creates a vision of "the spiritual oneness of initiate, master, ancestors, animals, and wilderness."(5) This epic vision of a sacred primal order is consistently parodied by the carnival events in "Was." In this story the profane hunt has the double function of preparing the reader for its sacred counterpart in "The Old People" and of ensuring that the myth of primal oneness cannot manifest itself as absolute. It also foreshadows the events of "The Bear" and "Delta Autumn" in which the myth disintegrates with the killing of old Ben and the subsequent full-scale exploitation of Sam Fathers' sacred wilderness.

"Was" is told from the point of view of the nine-year-old Cass, "The Old People" from that of the twelve-year-old Isaac. Olga Vickery suggests that "the only reason for having the story told from the point of view of the child, Cass Edmonds, is that he is being initiated into the plantation world with its various duties, responsibilities and adventures."(6) Cass is initiated into the order of the tamed land, Isaac into the sacred order of the wilderness. But there is another important reason for employing the child's point of view in "Was."

The naive viewpoint of the child, along with that of the clown and the fool, has commonly been employed in literature as a means of attacking feudal reasonableness." Bakhtin calls this phenomenon, frequently used in comedy and parody, the "device of not understanding." When naivete is "expressed as the inability to understand stupid conventions" (Dialogic, p. 163), these conventions are themselves laid bare. Faulkner's Cass, like Mark Twain's Huck Finn, can be seen in this tradition. Through Cass's ignorance, we are given a glimpse of the absurdity of the conventions of the adult world. He does not understand Sophonsiba's ridiculous advances at Buck, and he does not see the hunt in the same terms as the adults do. In fact, he meets with the quarry while the hunters are sleeping:

The first thing he saw was Tomey's Turl's head slipping along above the lane fence.

But when he cut across the yard to turn him, Tomey's Turl wasn't even running.

. . . [Turl:] "Whut they doing now?"

"They're taking a nap now," [Cass] said. "But never mind that; they're going

to put the dogs on you when they get up."

"Hah," "Tomey's Turl said. "And nem you mind that either. I got protection now.

All I needs to do is to keep Old Buck from ketching me unto I gets the word." (p. 13) In "The Old People," the initiate, Isaac, also meets with the quarry, but this meeting has a completely different tone:

Then the boy saw the buck. It was coming down the ridge, as if it were walking

out of the very sound of the horn which related its death. It was not running, it

was walking, tremendous, unhurried. . . .

Then it saw them. And it still did not begin to run

"Oleh, Chief," Sam said, "Grandfather." (p. 184) In both of these meetings the quarry reveals itself for the children not as quarry but rather as kin. Cass and Turl are cousins having fun playing cat-and-mouse. For Isaac, meeting the totem buck, whom Sam salutes as his grandfather, is a religious experience which teaches him to respect his adoptive father's blood relations. The parody is reinforced by Isaac's biological father's name, Buck, and the fact that Turl, Cass, and Isaac all share the same grandfather: the plantation patriarch Carothers McCaslin. Thus, in the carnivalesque relativity that penetrates these stories, animals become blood relations and blood relations are quarry.

Blood is of enormous significance in the ritual hunt, being mentioned almost thirty times in the twenty-four pages of "The Old People." Isaac's initiation into the sacred order is consecrated through the killing of his first buck, "the hot smoking blood" some of which Sam wipes "back and forth across the boy's face" (p. 164). This is the "big blood" which earns Isaac the respectful title of "a man, a hunter" (p. 175). The only mention of blood in the hunt in "Was" is when Buck checks to make sure he has not lost any when the quarry's knocking him down breaks the whiskey bottle in his back pocket. This episode is a comic corrective to the epic seriousness of blood ties in "The Old People." And, as Bakhtin points out, "it is precisely laughter that destroys the epic" (Dialogic, p. 23). The comic hunt in "Was," which turns the social order upside down, serves to destroy the myth of "a community of blood that transcends race, and a oneness with nature that transcends itself" (Stewart, p. 53) in "The Old People."

With the disintegration of feudalism in Europe the importance of actual carnival festivities fades. But by this time literature has already undergone carnivalization, a process which reaches its climax, Bakhtin observes, in the oeuvre of Rabelais. Assimilated into literature, carnival imagery continues to manifest itself to a greater or lesser degree. The most thoroughly carnivalized story in Go Down, Moses is appropriately the one that depicts the institution of slavery. One of the purposes of carnival is to act out the actual inversion of social hierarchy. The acting out of a new order presupposes the exposure of the "vulgar conventions" of "the entire existing social structure" of the old order (Bakhtin, Dialogic, p. 165). Through Cass's naive mind Faulkner has fore-grounded the vulgar aspects of plantation slavery and chivalric courtship. He then allows the characters to act out the antithesis of these conventions, as we have seen, both by reversing the opposites of slave/master and hunter/hunted, and by splitting the male twins into masculine and feminine counterparts.

During the second poker game in "Was" Hubert warns Buddy that "this is the most serious foolishness you ever took part in in your life" (p. 24). Hubert is making an important point in this utterance. Many have seen Faulkner's wide-spread use of oxymoron as an expression of his artistic vision. Oxymoron can be seen as the carnival sense of the world condensed in language. In literature as in life, carnival and parody offer the liberating corrective of laughter, but this laughter is always ambivalent. Bakhtin stresses that everything has its laughing aspect; conversely, humor must contain the deadly serious or there would be nothing to mock. "There's not too fine a distinction between humor and tragedy," Faulkner himself tells us; "even tragedy is in a way walking a tightrope between the ridiculous--between the bizarre and the terrible."(7) The hilarious aspects of "Was," therefore, provide comic relief at the same time as they foreground the bleak reality of the black population's status in the Old South. (1) Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoeusky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 127. (2) Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 162. (3) William Faulkner, GO Down, Moses (New York: Random House, 1942), p. 14. (4) William Faulkner, The Unvanquished (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 53-54. (5) Jack F. Stewart, "Structure, Language, and Vision in Faulkner's |The Old People'," Ball State University Forum, 22 (1981), 51, 55. (6) Olga Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), pp. 126-127. (7)

Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958 (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 39.
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Author:Kleppe, Sandra Lee
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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