Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Beyond Silence and Realism: Trauma and the Function of Ghosts in Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Beyond Silence and Realism: Trauma and the Function of Ghosts in Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved

Article excerpt

If we can agree that human slavery, as it was practiced in the United States and the Caribbean, paradoxically shares with the Holocaust a unique status, a quality of being particularly atrocious beyond the realm of realistic or rational representation, we might be tempted to speak nothing but respectful silence in the face of these historical events.1 And there are, in certain literary novels and stories that allude to these atrocities, gestures or attempts to "speak" such silences. The ending of Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" is an example. In the story, Benito Cereno, a Spanish captain of a slave ship, survives a revolt on board led by Babo, one of the slaves. Captain Delano, an American, boards the ship during the revolt but does not know that the slaves have taken control. The slaves pretend to be in the custody or charge of the Spanish officers while the American is on board, but the roles of both groups have in fact been reversed. Later, after the revolt is put down, and Cereno has survived, he falls into despair. Knowing now the conditions of those he has enslaved, conditions he had previously never considered much less experienced, Cereno loses his faith in humanity and universal order. He cannot share Delano's relief that they have survived the ordeal:

"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

"The Negro."

There was a silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

There was no more conversation that day. (256)

After Babo has been captured, he likewise refuses to speak: "seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say: since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words" (256).

Cereno, like Babo, now realizes the unspeakable nature of slavery, and neither one, even in his realization, can articulate or make any sense of such an atrocity. With what words does one explain such an experience? Even after his death, Babo cannot stop "speaking" this silence:

Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the plaza, met, unabashed, the gazes of the whites, and across the plaza looked toward St. Bartholomew's church . . . and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia, without. (257)

Here, the slave's head addressing with silence the institutions of his captors would be one way to account for such an atrocity without committing the kind of barbarism of which Theodore Adorno speaks in his well-known essay "Cultural Criticism and Society." We might think of this gesture as Melville's own "After Auschwitz," his "After Slavery."2

But what happens when such a gesture-even if respectfully offered-only reinforces the stifling silence placed over the victims themselves? Should slave narratives be kept hidden away? Keeping in mind Adorno's famous quote, as well as the ending of "Benito Cereno," I want to examine two novels that transcend the boundary of silence "spoken" by Babo's death's-head. In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison's Beloved, a limit is established with regard to the historically-situated atrocity they both more or less address-a limit, not of language in general, but of the language of empirical, factual representation: what we conventionally mean by literary or historical "realism." To establish and then get beyond such a limit, both novels employ the tropes and literary techniques traditionally aligned with tales of the supernatural. In this way, they attempt to speak not silence, but that which might otherwise be unspeakable. These are ghost stories, except they are meant to be taken seriously.3

Adorno's essay, from which the now-famous "After Auschwitz" claim comes, was published thirty years after Absalom, Absalom! …

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