Sutpen's Designs: Masculine Reproduction and the Unmaking of the Self-Made Man in Absalom, Absalom!

By Cunningham, J. Christopher | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Sutpen's Designs: Masculine Reproduction and the Unmaking of the Self-Made Man in Absalom, Absalom!


Cunningham, J. Christopher, The Mississippi Quarterly


[T]he Archimedean paradox is ... the paradox of the self-made man. The problem in mechanics is the appropriate form of the making of men in machine culture, the form of virgin birth propel' to that culture.... This is what sex in machine culture looks like.

-- Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines(1)

Breeding, however, when applied to humans, is a term that tends to be used by people who are not themselves so nice....

-- Walter Berm Michaels, "The Souls of White Folk"(2)

THE NAME OF ABSALOM, ABSALOM!'S NOT-SO-NICE SELF-MADE MAN, Thomas Sutpen, comes to us from the Greek Thomas, this latter a rendering of the Hebrew word for "twin," t'om. Such duplicity resonates with the twinned exclamation of the novel's title, and indeed gives access to the obsessive concern with reproduction and repetition found throughout the text. All of which would be little more than a New Critical non sequitur but for the insistence of recent critics like Mark Seltzer and Walter Benn Michaels that we pay attention to such provocative wordplay. Indeed, in his reading of American naturalism, Seltzer has articulated an entire network of cultural anxieties and imagined negotiations surrounding the slipper), and multivalent notion of reproduction. Counterpoised to a feminine, bodily logic of creation, Seltzer identifies a masculine "autonomous and masturbatory economy of production" (p. 31), one that finds most perfect expression in the paradoxical self-creation of the self-made man (p. 171). On the other hand, writing on the cultural and biological reproduction of race, Walter Benn Michaels suggests that by the 1920s the "class-passing" of a self-made man like James Gatz/Jay Gatsby represents a dangerous, transgressive force in conflict with an increasingly virile ideology of American class and racial purity (pp. 195-196). Through a reading of Faulkner's novel of self-production and reproduction, I extend both Seltzer's and Michaels's accounts of "the paradox of the self-made man," arguing that America continued to be obsessed with the "appropriate" forms of men-making. A site of intense cultural conflict, not only does the self-made man give us entry into the broader problems of reproduction and "breeding," but "he" comes to represent competing and, for Sutpen at least, violently incoherent ideologies of what it means to be American.

The Self-Made Man

Twins generate a kind of representational or reproductive conundrum: there is no answer to the question of which one of the two comes first, of which twin is the original. Each twin forever indicates its double in a paradoxical and infinite circularity of signification: they are both, of course, originals--they are produced from the same union of egg and sperm, their genetic material is unique--and yet, simultaneously, they are both forever "copies" of each other. Original and reproduction in one (or two, as it were), twins offer us a means of access, an analogical entry to the set of issues and problems generated by the self-made man. Twins--to bring this etymological trajectory full circle--suggest a tentative way of thinking, specifically, about Faulkner's self-made man, the "twin" of Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen, and, ultimately, a way of thinking about the multiple logics of reproduction that he and the text (re)produce.

There are two Thomas Sutpens--he is, as it were, twins. The first is precisely that: the first, the origin, the original. This is the Sutpen who "abrupt[s].... out of a quiet thunderclap,"(3) who arrives in Jefferson on horseback, "man and beast looking as though they had been created out of thin air" (p. 35). This is the Sutpen "who came out of nowhere" (p. 5) "acquired his land no one knew how and built his house, his mansion, apparently out of nothing" (p. 9), who, a veritable Jehovah, decrees his plantation into existence, "creating the Sutpen's Hundred, the Be Sutpen's Hundred like the oldentime Be Light" (p.

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