Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel

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One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

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“His normal sensitivity to negro behavior”: Looking for black and heterotopic spaces in Go Down, Moses

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Eudora Welty, Home by Dark/Yalobusha County.  1936.  Via.  This is also the cover image for the 1990 Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses.

What follows is some thinking-out-loud that will be part of the chapter on Go Down, Moses and Tent of Miracles–specifically, an attempt to tie together land and cultural expression in the two novels.  (Progress report: It’s coming along, but it has felt at times like I am a vulture circling high in the sky over an animal to make sure it is dead before I will alight on it.  I’m pretty sure it’s dead now.)

It’s below the fold to spare those who won’t be interested; here, though, is the tl;dr version: 1) At the time he wrote it, Go Down, Moses was Faulkner’s most intimate exploration of not just black-white relations but of black lives and black interiority.  Still, though, it is a novel that is ultimately more concerned with white attempts to come to terms with the post-bellum South.  Thus, those glimpses of black lives we have are (mis)read by whites, but some of them resist any attempt to read them.  This brings me to: 2) You can learn a heck of a lot about how to read Faulkner from Minrose Gwin.

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Pedro and Ike and Culture and Land: Some Comments on Tent of Miracles and Go Down, Moses

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The cover of a Brazilian(?) edition of Amado’s novel, via (though this particular copy of the book is no longer for sale at that site).

I have begun my reread of Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Tent of Miracles, which I have paired with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in chapter 2 of the book project. I’ll start off this post by making a couple of points regarding Ike McCaslin’s relationship to the land, and then I’ll make some comparisons between that and Tent of Miracles‘ treatment of Bahia, along with some initial remarks comparing Ike to Tent of Miracles‘ protagonist, Pedro Archanjo.  A good starting point for where I will be headed, though, is to compare the cover art for the Amado novel (which appears to be a scene from the 1977 film version) with that of the first edition of Go Down, Moses, which I posted here.  Though admittedly a bit of a cherry-pick on my part, that cover, with its depiction of a vast landscape empty of people, contrasted with the cover of Amado’s novel–the frame crowded with people, dressed and equipped with a fusion of Western and African-diaspora clothes and instruments–serves quite nicely as a starting point for this post.

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What does Roth know, and when does he know it? Some further thoughts

One of the sharecropper's houses with sweet potatoes and cotton on the porch, Knowlton Plantation, Perthshire, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi, 1939

A sharecropper’s house, with cotton and sweet potatoes on the porch. Knowlton Plantation, Perthshire, Mississippi, 1939. Via.

To the reader: This is a follow-up to my most recent post.  It’s not crucial that you read that one before proceeding with this one, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I think that what follows is more speculative than anything else; whatever legitimacy these claims have rests on the textual fact that the “now” of Go Down, Moses‘ section “The Fire and the Hearth,” set in 1941, takes place (depending on whose genealogical chart one consults) one or two years after the “now” of “Delta Autumn,” even though sequentially, “The Fire and the Hearth” appears second in the novel, while “Delta Autumn,” appearing sixth, serves as the novel’s climactic section.  Thus, even though Roth Edmonds (who figures prominently in both) never hints, not even obliquely, in “The Fire and the Hearth” that he’s ever had a lover, much less that she was a black woman by whom he’d conceived a child, and very much less that, as we learn in “Delta Autumn,” she and Roth are distant cousins, it’s reasonable to begin by assuming the events we learn of in “Delta Autumn” have a shaping influence on Roth’s actions and, more crucially, thinking in “The Fire and the Hearth.”  The trick is in the locating of those influences.  Maybe I have found some of those moments, without being guilty of squinting too hard at them.

(Note: What with the beginning of the new semester all but upon me, I really shouldn’t be taking the time I’m taking to post on this at all, much less shape it into a more elegant form; what follows, then, are more like notes than anything else.)

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What does Roth know, and when does he know it? Chronology and names in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Delta Autumn”

McCaslin genealogy

The McCaslin-Edmonds-Beauchamp genealogy in Go Down, Moses. Via.

Go Down, Moses is a tangle of a novel, both chronologically and genealogically, as this chart shows.  I already knew these things, of course.  In the course of my rereading, though, I am finding it to be even more tangled than in just the ways I had realized or had intended to address in the book project.  Two of those tangles are the sequencing of the stories (almost all of which, just to remind the reader, had prior existences as short stories) and the material Faulkner added to them in order to unify them into his novel.  The sequencing has nothing to do with chronology but, I am rather sheepishly realizing, with the gradual revelation of the extended McCaslin genealogy; the link to the webpage where I found this chart does a good job of tracing out the tree as each novel’s section in its turn reveals its branches.  (In this regard, Go Down, Moses‘ gradual, decidedly unchronological revelation of information from various sources/directions most strongly resembles Faulkner’s other great examination of the tragedy of slavery, Absalom, Absalom!)  But more to the point of this post, I have found myself paying closer attention to Carothers “Roth” Edmonds, whom the novel introduces us to in “The Fire and the Hearth.”  Roth is the man who now owns the McCaslin plantation that Ike McCaslin had refused to accept as his inheritance, and he is also, as we’ll learn in “Delta Autumn,” the father of the baby the woman brings to the hunting camp in hopes that maybe, finally, Roth will acknowledge them.  Lucas Beauchamp is “The Fire and the Hearth”‘s central figure, but he will barely figure into Go Down, Moses‘ other sections.  Rather, it is through Roth that “The Fire and the Hearth” introduces the novel’s central mystery: Why Ike has refused to take ownership of the family land.  This post’s subject, though, is a smaller mystery, one that, for me, anyway, has the potential to make Roth a more sympathetic figure than most take him to be.

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Book Project Notes: Transcribing and Re-orienting Chapter II

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The first-edition (1942) jacket for the novel Faulkner wanted to be called simply Go Down, Moses. Image found here.

It’s been a while since I have reported on my progress on the book project.  I thought I’d use this post to both comment on that and to do some sketching out of some work on it I’ll be taking up over the Christmas break.  To spare the uninterested, the rest of this post will appear below the fold.  If you do click to read on, apologies in advance for some of the Inside Baseball quality of what you’ll run into.

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