Book Project Notes: Chapter II, Alternative Narratives, and Presuming to Speak

caroline-barr-the-faulkner-family-maid

Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom William Faulkner dedicated Go Down, Moses.

I have begun transcribing some of my dissertation’s second chapter into Domestic Issue‘s Chapter I.  This will consist of a comparative reading of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, out of which will emerge both some further elaborations of ideas developed in the prologue for this project (the idea of the New World as a space whose difficulty in being read has its starting point in the land and/but manifests itself most overtly in human beings via racial intermixing, as articulated chiefly by Glissant and Santiago, with an assist from Foucault’s notion of heterotopia). I’ll also be rereading both these novels to account for any changes in my thinking and try to integrate, as needed, the ideas from the prologue.

Also making their appearance here will be two new ideas to throw into the mix.  The first, which I call Astonishment, is the narrative moment in which either the narrator or a character in the narrative (and maybe even on occasion, I will suggest, the writer himself/herself) is unable to articulate what s/he is experiencing.  In the texts I’ll be examining from here on out, Astonishment occurs when the narrator or character suddenly becomes aware that s/he is in the presence of someone of mixed race, but I will make the claim that it is also a trope for the initial Encounter between Europeans and the landmasses of the Western Hemisphere.  (By the way, Astonishment as I will be describing it in this chapter is not something that occurs in the so-called tragic mulatto narratives that were popular in this country in the 19th century; in those, the woman’s (with very few if any exceptions, the “tragic mulatto” character is a woman) origins are often so obviously telegraphed to the reader that when the revelation occurs, the only person surprised is the woman herself, and perhaps her would-be husband.)  Into that void of unarticulateable wonder rushes the rhetoric of Apocalypse, meant here in its twin senses of “destruction” and “revelation”: the wrecking of old orderings of and assumptions about the world, and the glimpse of the beginnings of a re-ordering that is not yet identifiable (here revisiting as well from the prologue the idea of the New World as an indeterminate space), which, certainly in the primary texts in this chapter but also in the ones to follow in this project, miscegenation certainly causes.

The other idea, which I will develop in the chapter that follows this one, is what I am calling “a language.”  I’ve italicized the “a” because Foucault argues that heterotopias have their own language; we cannot merely import languages from spaces outside them and expect them to be adequate to the task of describing who or what occupies those spaces.  The italicized “a,” therefore, is meant to indicate that that language cannot be just any already-existing language but one generated from within that space by its members; we, listening in on the language of this space, can identify it as a language but can comprehend it imperfectly at best.

So, then, that is the outline for the chapter.  Below the fold, I want to talk through a couple of (very) big-picture matters that have to do with my position relative to the materials I am working with, not to mention the arguments I’m making about those materials.

One of the wonderful things about being married to a very smart woman is that, apropos of nothing, she can (and will) ask questions that prompt me to think about my work in ways I hadn’t consciously thought about too much but which are crucial for me to give some thought to as a reader and writer.  Little if any of this will appear even in passing in the project itself; yet, without question, they shape how I am approaching this material.

One day a couple of weeks ago, she asked me (and I am paraphrasing here) whether I thought my strong sense of identity with my home state of Texas was an influence on my argument that this hemisphere’s cultural productions required an approach to reading them that is rooted in this hemisphere.  I had never before considered that as a possibility, but in the instant she asked it I could see that it might very well be.  Some quick biography here: Not only was I born in Austin, I am a fifth-generation Texan.  (My great-great-grandfather immigrated to Texas from Norway in the latter years of the Republic of Texas and was a prominent early resident of Austin.)  But even if all that were not true of me, I think I still would have recognized that Texas’ history does not neatly fall into lock-step with the more-familiar narrative of U.S. history (European colonizing of the eastern coast at the expense of indigenous peoples; independence; westward expansion, this time at the expense of enslaved people of African descent as well as indigenous peoples) until, officially, 1845, the year it became a state.  Even the Indians in Texas were, for the most part, different from the Indians east of the Mississippi (Texas Indians tended to be nomadic); the first full-scale settlements were Spanish; Spain lost these lands when Mexico gained its independence.  One could even make the case that when the Mexican government began selling land grants in Texas, it was the United States’ first colony.

All of which is to say that for most of my life I have been accustomed to (and comfortable with) looking at my country’s history through a Texas lens, a lens that does not look at that history straight on but, as is appropriate given its location relative to the rest of the 48 contiguous states, from one side.  My two years of living in Mexico, after I graduated from college, also developed in me that tendency to look at my country from another point of view.  Mexico has a painful, love-hate relationship with the U.S., enhanced by the fact that Mexicans have a much longer historical memory than do we citizens of the U.S.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  I had just read about the death of Santa Anna (without much question, Mexico’s most disastrous military leader and president ever) in a history of Mexico I was reading; its final paragraph stated that in all of the country there was not a single monument to him.  I mentioned this to a Mexican friend of mine, who replied, without missing a beat, “Texas is a monument to Santa Anna.”  I laughed–it’s a one-sentence, bitterly wry summation of post-Independence 19th-century Mexican history up to the 1846-48 war with the U.S., for which Texas’ annexation by the U.S., complete with its disputed border with Mexico, provided the (flimsy) pretext for my country’s attack.  But my laugh was still an awkward one.  My friend was a good friend, yes, and by that point I felt completely at home in Durango; but, my extreme ease there aside, I was not Mexican.  Just how fully could I, a Texan and citizen of the U.S., participate in that laughter?

caroline barr headstone

Caroline “Callie” Barr’s headstone. The lines below the dates read: “Mammy” Her white children bless her. Image found here.

This leads me to the second question my wife asked me, this one just yesterday, and the reason I posted Caroline Barr’s picture at the beginning of this post.  Faulkner deeply loved Barr, who had pretty much raised him from infancy, but he has received plenty of criticism for presuming, in his dedication to her for Go Down, Moses, that that love was reciprocated.  Then there is the account of her funeral, which Faulkner insisted be held in his living room–over the objections of Barr’s family.  Reading about those days immediately following Barr’s death will make you feel deeply uncomfortable: it is the record of a man grieving so deeply and genuinely–and, one can put it this way, selfishly–he seems to have lost the ability to acknowledge that Barr’s family had a larger and more appropriate claim than did Faulkner to grieving their mother/grandmother/aunt as they saw fit.  Barr’s headstone, which Faulkner paid for and which you see here, is a brief but overt trace of the extent to which Faulkner made his (and his family’s) grief speak in place of anyone else’s.  Along these same lines, then, my wife asked me how, either in my text or in myself, I dealt with the question of appropriating and assigning meanings to cultural expressions that are not of my own nation and culture.  It’s an excellent question, especially given a passage in the prologue that I had trouble writing in which I say that, while few would argue with Santiago that the United States is a hegemonic culture relative to the rest of Latin America, I’d still include my country in the space of the entre-lugar because of our writers’ complicated, even adversarial relationship with our nation’s culture and politics and history.  The knottiness of that section came about precisely because of these questions of appropriation, of my earnestly being aware of the fraught relationship my country has with the other nations of this hemisphere, and thus not wanting to come across as sounding like some sort of Columbusing Ugly American.  So, what I said to her by way of response was this: While, yes, I am looking at cultural expressions here, my real subject is their rhetoric: how, within the heterotopic space of New World writing, the language of these mixed-race relationships gets expressed.  These moments tend to be rather intimate ones; they only rarely gesture in the direction of a future much changed from the Now of the narrative, and they certainly do not claim in those moments that they themselves are somehow archetypes of New World culture.  The fact that this rhetoric emerges again and again, throughout the hemisphere and over the centuries, among whites, blacks, and indigenous peoples, and is produced by writers who are clearly hostile to such relationships as well as those who openly celebrate them, I think allows me to make the larger claim that they function as a trope of New World culture more generally.  At least, this is what I hope I am accomplishing, with as much awareness of and respect for the cultures and the histories of these peoples that I can muster.

So, then, this is where I am.  Since the new semester has begun, work will go more slowly.  I’ll do my best to post here occasionally to let you know just how slowly it’s going.

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One thought on “Book Project Notes: Chapter II, Alternative Narratives, and Presuming to Speak

  1. Pingback: Book Project Notes: Transcribing and Re-orienting Chapter II | Domestic Issue

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