Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Miscegenated Time: The Spectral Body, Race and Temporality in Light in August

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Miscegenated Time: The Spectral Body, Race and Temporality in Light in August

Article excerpt

IN THE REPRESENTATIONS OF HISTORY and in the individual acts of historiography that constitute so much of William Faulkner's major fiction, miscegenation plays a pivotal role in figuring the author's extensive historical imagination. It is not simply that miscegenation becomes a metonym for the tragic aftermath of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and it is not simply that fictional, ersatz historians like Quentin and Mr Compson or Ike McCaslin and his cousin Cass Edmonds must accept, in their reconstructions of the past, the irrevocable imbrication of black and white bodies and their histories.1 Instead, miscegenation in Faulkner acquires a broader valence, coming to represent not just pivotal events to be denied or rued but the very process of historical change and genealogical transmission. In both Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and the later Go Down, Moses (1942), the two works that most directly examine legacies of the past, the miscegenated bodies of Charles Bon and his offspring and Lucas Beauchamp and his descendants disrupt the genealogical and ideological ambitions of white patriarchs like Thomas Sutpen, Carothers McCaslin, and even Ike McCaslin.2 For Thomas Sutpen and his autochthonic desire to begin his own history and control its course, Charles Bon and his children represent the inevitable return of an unwanted past and the unbearable certainty of an adulterated future.

For the slave-owning Carothers McCaslin, Lucas Beauchamp also represents an unwanted future as the mixed-race son to whom McCaslin would rather bequeath money than acknowledge. Appropriately, the figurative emptiness of this bequest becomes literal when it is discovered that the inheritance consists of a series of deferrals in the form of I.O.U.'s. Similarly, though Ike McCaslin has repudiated his own claims to the McCaslin inheritance and its troubled racial history, he is unable to escape the legacy of slavery and the region's dispossessions, miscege-- nations, and disavowals. Embracing the vanishing woods as recourse from history and as the undergirding of an alternative, familial inclusiveness, Ike is confronted with that which he thought he repudiated when an unwed descendent of Lucas Beauchamp enters his tent seeking formal acceptance into the family. Like Old Carothers's before him, Ike's response to his mixed-race relative is to disavow her by paying her off.

What is crucial here is the way in which the return of the miscegenated body as difference within the same (lineage) disrupts, but at the same time underscores, the temporal underwriting of identity in Faulkner's major historiographic fiction. Miscegenation figures the fact that Sutpen's racist, dynastic ambitions are always already corrupted and destined to transmogrify into the Other, just as it figures the impossibility of Ike's burying one past and mourning a purer, more ideal one. Both Sutpen and Ike McCaslin are confronted with bodily challenges to idealized conceptions of their heritage, but both fail to accept the Other as a constitutive - and not merely contingent - part of their own legacy and identities. Ultimately, what both characters cannot accept or control are the inevitable changes that punctuate the movement of history and alter the content of genealogy and inheritance. The resulting traumas, which are historical in nature, confirm Patrick O'Donnell's observation that in much of Faulkner's work "the quest for origins and the attempted limning and inscription of identity is sundered by corporeal materiality" (48). In Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, for instance, that recalcitrant materiality intrudes as racial hybridity or uncertainty-a hybridity that implies a disjunctive, protean, and often circular history that must be continually reckoned with, rather than the continuous or teleological one Faulkner's white patriarchs presume.3

For the Southern, white historical imagination depicted in these texts, the figure of miscegenation jeopardizes what Homi Bhabha calls "the authenticating 'inward' time of tradition" (149), a time when "difference returns as the same" (154) to constitute the temporality of nationalism or ethnicity. …

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