Negotiating the Marble Bonds of Whiteness: Hybridity and Imperial Impulse in Faulkner

By Hagood, Taylor | The Faulkner Journal, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Negotiating the Marble Bonds of Whiteness: Hybridity and Imperial Impulse in Faulkner


Hagood, Taylor, The Faulkner Journal


Finding links between Faulkner the young romantic poet and Faulkner the adult modernist fiction writer has proven difficult; the exuberant but melancholy singer of nymphs and fauns seems, at most, perhaps reborn as a sardonic aspect of the mature writer's complex and multifaceted ego, a narrative persona adopted primarily to make fun of itself.1 Judith L. Sensibar has shown how indispensable Faulkner's early work is in completing the composite picture of his career, and H. Edward Richardson and Gary Lee Stonum trace paths that lead from the Arcadian world of Faulkner's early imagination to the tortured modern landscape of his mature vision. Nevertheless, Faulkner scholarship often sees more dissociation than association between the poet and the novelist and short-story writer. A return to one of these early texts, however, reveals a figure that reappears throughout Faulkner's career, as the maturing writer returned to it continually, reexamining its many aesthetic, symbolic, and cultural implications. The text is The Marble Faun and the figure is the speaker itself: the half-goat and half-man image carved of marble and set in a formal garden. This figure is important because it is an image of whiteness that functions as a trope of hybridity: a hybrid body that at least partially if not completely subsumes the Other in its whiteness. As such, this figure informs the politics of a recurring body in Faulkner's work, a white but creolized body whose amalgamated make-up is hidden but that nonetheless encodes the dynamics arising from the juxtaposition and interaction of groups of oppressors and oppressed who must negotiate the hegemony of imperial impulse.

In the poem, a carved faun ruminates over his desire to escape his marble bonds and flee the garden in which he stands so he can roam about the surrounding glade. The faun would gladly relinquish his inherent rigidity as cold white marble and participate in the warm fluidity of the sylvan setting beyond the confines of the garden. Stonum reads the poem as a purely aesthetic complaint in which the faun attempts to negotiate a Nietszchian intersection of Apollonian and Dionysian artistic desires and experiences. Additionally, frozen as it is within its marble confines in a paradox of motion and stasis, the faun, as Sensibar notes, echoes the image on the urn in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In light of recent discussion of hybridity and the liminal position and nature of the United States South, however, the body of the marble faun can be further complicated and understood in terms of the racial constructs and imperial impulses and counterimpulses it registers.2

Delineating the complexities of the marble faun figure requires a reconsideration of the cultural, economic, and imperial aspects of the poem's sources. In fact, Keats's urn signifies more than the sum of the parts of its external aesthetics; it contains and makes meaning as an object, as a signifier of empire. Like other Keats poems, such as "On seeing the Elgin Marbles" or "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," Keats's urn merits the imperial gaze that would apostrophize it because it is a possession of and participant in the iconography of not just Greek but also British imperialism. The power of the British Empire is implicit in the ownership of the Greek sculptures in "The Elgin Marbles"-Lord Elgin's removing the marbles from their original location in Greece to London had sparked great controversy, as no less visible a figure than Lord Byron criticized what he saw as a blatant theft motivated by the desire to glorify British imperial power and cultural achievement.3 In "Chapman's Homer," Keats points out the colonization inherent in the act of translation and equates the experience of reading that text with Cortez's march across the New World to discover the Pacific Ocean (however inaccurate the facts in the poem may be). In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the urn signifies not just in the image on its exterior but in its value as a product, a vessel containing the silenced remains of an individual.

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