Jim Bond's America: Denaturalizing the Logic of Slavery in Absalom, Absalom!

By Latham, Sean | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Jim Bond's America: Denaturalizing the Logic of Slavery in Absalom, Absalom!


Latham, Sean, The Mississippi Quarterly


Despite the deep connection to the history and tragedy of the American South that permeates all of his novels, William Faulkner remains, to borrow a phrase from Lukacs, one of the most eloquent novelists of "transcendental

homelessness."(1) For some of his characters, like Quentin Compson and Henry Sutpen, this profound sense of dislocation evolves from their entry into a broader world that reveals the extreme limitations of a subjectivity too closely tied to a mythologized ideal of home. For characters such as Benjy Compson, however, homelessness is not discovered but is instead constitutive of an identity that cannot even generate a home from which to speak. While Benjy is certainly the most powerfully imagined figure of this type, his "sound and fury" is recreated with an important difference by Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom!. At the conclusion of this novel, we hear once again the voice of homelessness, as Jim Bond wails in the wake of the fire that finally destroys Sutpen's mansion. This cry, however, evolves from more than just the loss of a house, for this mulatto descendent of Thomas Sutpen registers the pain of the destruction of the coherent boundaries of self which ought to shape themselves around ideas of home, family, and nation. Lost in the cultural and historical spaces between Africa, Haiti, New Orleans, and Jefferson, Jim Bond represents the historical foreclosure of a unified and redemptive notion of home. More than any Compson or Sutpen, Bond reveals the limits of Yoknapatawpha County, and in so doing calls our attention to those other, less familiar places in Faulkner's world where the carefully policed boundaries of race, nation, and identity quickly crumble. So that we can begin to hear the story toward which Faulkner could only gesture through the tortured and nightmarish howls of Jim Bond, we must turn our attention away from the well-known haunts of Cambridge and Jefferson.

To recover such a narrative requires us to take up the argument of Paul Gilroy, who cautions that the contemporary cultural critic must strive to avoid "the fatal junction of the concept of nationality with the concept of culture."(2) The apparent simplicity of this warning masterfully understates the stakes of the argument in which Gilroy is about to engage. Literature departments of all kinds are typically structured around the assumption that nationality, and culture are effectively identical, an assumption that allows us to distinguish between say American and British modernism. This (con)founding assumption that a nation is the producer and guarantor of a specific and local culture has been further strengthened by an increasingly particularistic conception of cultural studies which has transformed Jameson's famous imperative to "always historicize" into a command to locate texts too exclusively within narrowly conceived discourse networks. For Gilroy, however, this conjunction is not only incorrect but "fatal." But fatal to whom or to what? In Gilroy's case, the conflation of nation and culture effectively erases the historic and artistic record of those peoples who cannot lay claim to an unproblematic national identity. As a corrective to this threatening blindness, Gilroy offers the heuristic model of the "Black Atlantic," which seeks to imagine a cultural space operating in the interstitial zones between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Here productions and contradictions emerge which cannot be glimpsed when the critical gaze remains entranced by a particular nation-state. Thus, Gilroy argues, we must work to reverse the growing particularism of cultural studies so that we can construct "an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective" which will look beyond the horizons of the nation to the broader structures of a "supra-national" modernity (pp. 15, 11). In such a model, culture can be grasped not as the product of a specific nation but as part of a complex and often disjunctive modernity that expands well beyond political borders. …

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