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Walter Benn Michaels opens his recent book, OurAmerica: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, with an analysisof the incest theme in William Faulkner's The Sound and theFury, cueing the reader right away that the collective\"our\" of the title is purchased with some heavy irony.Michaels' provocative opening gambit is that the ReverendShegog's Eucharist sermon, in Faulkner's last chapter, can beread as \"repeating and interlacing the twinnedfantasies\" (OA, 1) of the novel. The first suchfantasy is social and corresponds to the word nativism inMichaels' subtitle: the Compsons, in different ways, wish theycould sustain their family endogamously, that is, withoutreliance on the legal conventions of kinship that must inevitablyintroduce outsiders to the clan. According to Michaels, thestatements \"I have committed incest I said\" (Faulkner,95) and \"because like I say blood is blood and you can't getaround it\" (297) are exemplary, indeed are the apotheoses,of nativist logic as manifested by Quentin and Jason,respectively.
The second fantasy, which corresponds to theword modernism in the subtitle and which always occurs in somerelation to the first, is linguistic: it involves the wish that wordscan become things by functioning\"onomotopoetically\" outside the in some sense arbitrarysystems of syntax and substitution which govern the way meaningis normally engendered. The pertinent textual analogs here areQuentin's qualifying \"I said\" in \"I have committedincest I said\" Benjy's habit of substituting wordsabout his sister for his actual, physical sister. Thus can Shegogbe said said to \"twin\" the fantasies in question when,having interpellating the congregation as \"breddren andsistuhn,\" he insists in his sermon that the word of God becomesChrist's flesh.
Since we know that Ellison read and admiredFaulkner, Hemingway, and many of the other modernists on whichMichaels bases his study, it is perhaps not surprising that InvisibleMan, first published in 1947, reads at times uncannily like areply to Our America. If nothing else we can note that itincludes an ironic and sometimes a burlesque treatment of thetwinned fantasies in question. And it seems clear enough that thetrope of invisibility over which so much scholarly ink has beenspilled is a sustained effort to subject identitarianism, indramatic and original ways, to critical scrutiny. One could gofurther to make a case that Ellison, like Michaels, wishes topronounce upon various kinds of chauvinistic human behaviors forwhich only tautological justifications are available: considerBrother Wrestrum's statement that \"In the brotherhood we areall brothers\" (392). Indeed, in the last chapter, in whatseems almost a kind of wink to Michaels, the narrator more orless owns his own incoherence by describing his project or questas a \"rave\" (581) which stands in need of excuses like\"What else could I have done\" (572) and \"What elsecould I do\" (581).
I have at least hinted that, for Michaels, thenativist modernist need not be conscious of the racial fantasy ofnationhood. Quentin is here again exemplary, proving as he doesthat \"you don't have to be attracted to your sister\"(6) to want to participate in the nativism whose logicalimperative is incest. Such an assertion strategically allowsMichaels to generalize from thematic examples to pragmaticmatters \"outside\" the text, while leaving to one sidethe cognitive and rhetorical questions of agency and intentionwhich we can think of as framing a literary speech act.Meanwhile, Ellison remains profoundly interested in thesematters; for him, a novel is a symbolic action which forms\"an argument about the nature of reality.\" The Freudianaxis of conscious and unconscious cognition is, indeed, crucialto the incest theme as troped by Ellison in chapter 2 of thenovel--familiar to many of us, I hope, as the Trueblood episode.To see this, we need only recall how Mr. Norton's failure toremain conscious after being \"spoken for\" by a blacksharecropper named Jim Trueblood, prevents him from hearing someunquieting about race in America during the \"GoldenDay\" episode in chapter 3. In short, Ellison teaches thatwhat is needed for full consciousness, or what comes as itsreward, is a decisive degree of control over one's story: theautonomy of telling which will turn out, as well, to be thenarrative payoff of the novel as a whole.
The Trueblood episode that occupies chapter 2of Invisible Man provides us with a convenient confluenceof Ellison's complicated views on agency, narrative, andnativism. At this point in the novel, the nameless narrator (whoI'll call IM) is a model student at a Southern black college, andwhen the college president, longsuffering Dr. Bledsoe, asks himto chauffeur a wealthy Northern white trustee for the afternoonof the annual, commemorative \"Founder's Day\" (37), itis clear that we are being urged to think of the \"foundingfathers\" and of \"our\" constitution. With time onhis hands, Mr. Norton, the trustee, asks IM to show him thecountryside surrounding the campus, at which point the car, as ifof its own accord, \"bound[s] over the road\" (38) whileIM \"half-consciously\" (46) follows a whitecenterline we cannot fail to recognize as a scenic correlative ofthe Freudian bar of repression. Of course, Norton isn't\"supposed\" to be conscious the squalid sharecroppershacks and ox-drawn carts dotting the horizon, and when IM pointsthem out, forgetting for a moment his duty as censor, a suddenchange in the landscape comes fortuitously to the rescue: Nortonclaims he \"can't see them for the trees\" (41), and thecountry drive is kept, for the moment, in check. But Norton'scompulsion to repeat history proves to be very strong indeed, and\"as though compelled by some pressing urgency I could notunderstand\" (50), he ends up acquainting himself with ablack sharecropper named Jim Trueblood who has recentlyimpregnated both his wife and daughter.
Later on, back at the college, IM sees an opencopy of Freud's Totem and Taboo in Norton's room, and wecome closer to fully grasping the meta-critical, self-reflexivedimensions of Ellison's \"argument about the nature ofAmerican reality.\" It now becomes clear how a subtitle like\"Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives ofSavages and Neurotics\" has helped Ellison to script a scenein which an \"uncivilized savage\" and an ostensibly\"civilized neurotic\" exchange fantasies which are invarious ways \"twinned.\" By locating the incest fantasyalong a racial axis, Ellison manages to suggest that black andwhite, like conscious and unconscious and like \"savage\"and \"neurotic,\" are \"twinned\" concepts whichmust be brought and thought together, but the point all along hasbeen to bring nativism into the writerly consciousness; inletting the Truebloods continue endogamously, Ellison reproducesthe nativist symptom indeed, but only, I would contend, in orderto effect a homeopathic cure for a national-literary neurosisWalter Michaels may not have been the first to diagnose.
If this point seems a bit strained, we can findan even more explicit example of this linguistic fantasy inchapter three of the novel. Reverend Homer A. Barbee is a Chicagopreacher and friend to Dr. Bledsoe who visits IM's campus justafter the Trueblood episode. Ellison calls attention to the factthat the church service at which Barbee will preach is a\"formal ritual\" (111), and it begins with gospel churchmusic. IM describes the \"thin brown girl\"'s choir soloas \"controlled and sublimated anguish\" and emphasizesthat he \"could not understand the words, but only the mood,sorrowful, vague, and ethereal\" (117); later, when Barbeepreaches, his sermon about slavery and oppression devolves at onepoint into a series of three non-signifying\"Mmmmmmmm\"'s (128). These Mmmmmmmm's are especiallyinteresting in light of the fact that Michaels bases his cruciallinkage of linguistic modernism and cultural nativism on twoliterary examples of the very same sound, claiming that Mmmmmmmdemonstrates how \"Once the sign becomes a thing it no longerfunctions as a sign\" (5); seldom has one letter of thealphabet been asked to do so much literary critical work.Moreover, Michaels finds these momentous murmurs in two literaryexamples where the ritual behavior associated withtransubstantiation coincides with \"the musical quality\"(4) of sermons. In a kind of modernist reinscription of ReverendDimmesdale's sermon in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter,Faulkner has Reverend Shegog preach an Easter Eucharist sermonwhich, according to Michaels,
Fairy tales are violent. In most tales still told or read today, the violence is punitive, as Maria Tatar and others have shown us. Violence in the tales (with its obverse, a system of rewards) often educates and \"disciplines\" children in what Tatar calls a \"pedagogy of fear\" in one of her chapter titles. For example, the Grimms love to end their Marchen with violent retribution for the wicked deeds of their anti-heroes and, particularly, anti-heroines: the wicked stepmother in \"Snow White,\" who must dance in red-hot iron shoes; the wicked stepsisters in \"Aschenputtel\" or \"Cinderella,\" whose eyes are pecked out by doves; the wicked stepmother in \"The Juniper Tree,\" who is squashed by a falling millstone; the witch shoved into the oven in \"Hansel and Gretel,\" who, in Anne Sexton's sardonic version,
Reasoning: As expressed by the subtitle, companies: (1)