Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Racial Mixture, Racial Passing, and White Subjectivity in Absalom, Absalom!

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Racial Mixture, Racial Passing, and White Subjectivity in Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt

In his 1987 study of the critical reception of Absalom, Absalom! Bernd Engler points out that "since the mid-Seventies the only interpretations to gain favour have been those which, at least partly, regard Absalom, Absalom! as the conscious realization of an open work of art" (246). Somewhat testifying to how the text's indeterminacy specifically concerns the interconnection of race and narrative, Engler's survey also shows that noteworthy monographs from the decade include those concerning "Faulkner's attitude towards racial questions" (252) as well as "the novel as a study in narratology and/or epistemology" (256). Indeed, even as Quentin and Shreve finalize their reconstruction of the endlessly uncertain past by reading Charles Bon's whitelooking body as "passing white," Faulkner does not supply any evidence for Bon's racial mixture outside the white character-narrators' invention.

Engler is quick to note, however, that most race-related scholarship does not fully attend to the novel's open-endedness, as exemplified by four studies from 1983: "Walter Taylor, Eric J. Sundquist, Thadious M. Davis, and Erskine Peters begin, as do most others, with the dubious assumption that Bon's identity as Sutpen's part-negro son has been clearly established in the text" (253). And it seems that this problem is still compromising the Absalom, Absalom! scholarship.1 For example, while critiquing the discursive domination of "'legitimate' white caretakers of history," Maritza Stanchich bases her postcolonial reading upon the same white "legitimacy" and uncritically follows Quentin and Shreve's re-creation of Bon as "a free mulatto who can 'pass' as white": "When the narrators of different generations are faced with Bon, a free mulatto who can 'pass' as white and threatens to upset the South's rigid race caste, their preCivil War and post-Civil War fears overlap and intermingle.... The strategy of the narrative seeks to uphold white domination by representing all characters of color through Rosa, Quentin, General Compson and Shreve, the 'legitimate' white caretakers of history" (608).

Margo Crawford's 2004 psychoanalytical study of racial mixture in Absalom, Absalom! shows the same problem. For, while revealing how the novel's white subjects cannot represent "interracialness" as a coherent Other but only as "abstract contradictions," and thus exposing their own "méconnaissance, the recognition that is misrecognition, the 'me' that is 'not me'" (76), Crawford fails to apply her critical paradigm to the white subjectivity that has made Bon-her most discussed example-"interracial" in the first place. Given that the narrators do not racialize Bon until Quentin and Shreve's conclusion, her discussion sounds highly questionable when she finds in Mr. Compson's "limbo halfway" metaphor for Bon's elusive existence (AA 98) a reference to his racial mixture: "He [Mr. Compson] connects 'blackness' to the body as pure corporeality and 'whiteness' to the power of the mind ('mentality'), and he imagines Bon as being a mind that is limited and trapped by a body" (Crawford 81).2

Besides the sense of closure the work appears to offer by ending with Quentin and Shreve's subjective account, one can rightly attribute this persisting pitfall of Absalom, Absalom! scholarship to the critical discourses applied by readers. For, attempting to examine the racial oppression, physical or discursive, dramatized in the novel, race-oriented readings have necessarily had to name Bon a racial Other-whether it be Stanchich's narratively colonized "character of color" or Crawford's "interracial abstraction." By turning Bon's indeterminable white-looking body into a fixed object of racial investigation, and by doing so for their own argumentative agenda, those criticisms have echoed Quentin and Shreve's narrative invention and thus unwittingly reinforced, rather than elucidated Faulkner's deconstruction of, white subjectivity.3

That, to make a coherent narrative whole and thus fashion themselves as authoritative discursive agents, Quentin and Shreve (and commentators on the level of critical discourse) transform Bon into a "black son of a bitch" (AA 286) demonstrates Toni Morrison's theory on how white subjectivity relies upon blackness in a circular manner. …

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