Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Worlds Known and Unknowable
Recently read Edward P. Jones’s justly celebrated novel The Known World. The book, for which Jones received the Pulitzer last year, initially got a lot of attention because of its portrayal of free black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. But while much was made by the first reviewers of a fact that struck them as surprising, or little known, or bizarre, it would be easy to overemphasize the significance of black slave owning to the book’s design. The Known World offers a fairly dense portrait of an imaginary Virginia county in 1855 (while also extending its narrative briefly into the preceding years and far more extensively into subsequent decades), including in its rich canvas, slaves, slaveowners, free blacks, poor whites and other nonslaveholding Virginians. Jones’s black slaveowners are central figures in the narrative and something like the novel’s hook, but as you read beyond the opening chapters, their initially striking presence diminishes and they become unusual, but not outsize figures in a widely cast social and narrative panorama. To draw the obvious comparisons, Henry Townsend (the book’s most significant black slaveowner) is no Thomas Sutpen, or Sethe (of Morrison’s Beloved) or Nat Turner--not a monomaniac, or tragic hero, or figure of prophetic wrath. He dies within the first pages of the novel, and while you’re first inclined to think he’ll hang heavy in memory—the hovering dead father who embodies the heroic past or the burden of history--before you know it he fades from view.
It’s a lovely touch and, if I understand Jones’s aims correctly, it fits well with what drew him to the topic of black slaveowning in the first place. The point is not to stress—as much American writing has—the gothic horror of slavery, but a perhaps more awful thought: its ordinariness. In Jones’s depiction, the fact that Henry Townsend and some of his peers own slaves is testimony to the awful acceptability of chattel ownership. In the moral climate of the antebellum south as Jones envisions it slavery seems variously acceptable or troubling but rarely objectionable and almost never a sin or outrage. Even those who feel its injustice tend to accept it as a given fact of their world. The major concern of the book, in short, is to imagine what it would be like to swim in the sea of a local morality whose terrible limitations are fully patent in retrospect. Hence the book’s title, which refers to a 16th-century map owned by one of the novel’s characters and emphasizes the way he is beholden to a distorted and antiquated rendition of things. The whole point is that these people don’t know what we know.
The result is quite a different literary treatment of slavery than has been familiar, but also (now for the grand theorizing) a kind of historical novel that hasn’t been much in favor in recent years.
Let me explain roundaboutly. Jones has a number of impressive techniques for stressing his major theme. One is the low contour of the novel’s social landscape—lots of intersecting characters, but (as in John’s recent discussion of Magnolia) little in the way of strong central characters and thus small distinction between figure and ground. Everyone seems more or less equally prominent. (I’ve heard a friend say something similar of William Morris’s romances, where the point is to imagine a milieu consistent with Morris’s version of socialism; here the gist seems to be that everyone is part of the thick web of slave society.) Another is purposely restrained diction and an intensely digressive narrative style. Every chapter contains at least three subtitles and multiple plot lines, each of which appears to be interrupted by several anecdotes that point off in diverse directions. So, contra Alisdair Macintyre, while there are many little stories, almost no one’s life has a clearly defined narrative arc. Not quite Slacker, but seriously devoted to interruption and digression. Finally, there’s an unusual use of the third-person omniscient perspective. Jones’s narrator, who has no identity in the story, frequently pauses to tell us what will happen to a character ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. These outcomes play little role in the main events of the novel. They’re included just to remind us that, by contrast to the narrator and ourselves, every character is ignorant of the looming future.
The effect of all this, of course, is to emphasize the pastness of the past. They do things differently there. Jones underlines the point by remarking toward the end that his imaginary county disappeared when it was incorporated by imperial neighbors—a pretty clear metaphor for the way that, at least from one vantage, the antebellum south and the whole complicated world of Jones’s novel disappeared with the Civil War. The theme is also marked when one formerly slaveowning free black flees to Washington, D.C. and discovers that a runaway slave he has known has made the journey ahead of him to become an artist in her new, freer life. Her paintings (direct replacements for the inaccurate map of the title and in this manner, evident models for the novel itself) are miraculously vivid and detailed portrayals of the plantation she fled—not, I believe, with the implication that she remains prisoner to the world she escaped, but with the suggestion that only in retrospect can art give us a comprehensive understanding of the past. Moral clarity is an owl that flies only at dusk.
To put it this way, I think, is to see immediately how Jones’s novel looks unusual. An unkindly disposed reader might take the book to task for its sentimental humanism. There are good people and bad in The Known World and mixed too. The bad people are those who profit gladly from slavery and who treat slaves, and often others as well, with cruelty. The good are those who are capable of rising above the ordinary restraints of daily life to respond with generosity and love to the people they encounter. Everyone else muddles around in the middle, acting badly or well depending on their situations and interests. But the premise underlying all this—one consistent with the omniscient viewpoint (the paintings depict “what God sees”)—is that we can make the appropriate judgments and categorizations without much trouble. And we can do it the implication follows, because slavery is not part of our world.
All of this looks quite different from the version of the historical novel currently most prominent—the type evident in Beloved , but also, perhaps, in Middlesex , or Atonement, or The Swimming Pool Library . For all of these, the big point is that the past isn’t past at all, as some big shot said. Oh yeah, Faulkner. The locus classicus of this genre, it seems to me, is Absalom, Absalom!—where slavery and race are indeed gothic, the past haunts the present, and history is a dark and impenetrable mystery that can perhaps be placated or atoned for, but never simply understood.
In Absalom, Absalom, the model for Faulkner’s narrative--the example he will both invoke and surpass--is the oral transmission of story and legend. By the same token perhaps, the premise of the haunting power of history is genealogy. (Quentin Compson is cursed, and Shreve is not, because Quentin’s a southerner and a Yoknapatawphan; he inherited the curse. Indeed, as Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, a metaphysics of race—an understanding of racial inheritance as a kind of spiritual transmission—may be the element vital to both Absalom, Absalom and Beloved.) When Jones reaches for analogies, by contrast, it’s to the mundane work of academic historians. It’s clear that those people don’t know the past very well (somewhat as Quentin Compson’s father doesn’t really understand Thomas Sutpen) but it also seems evident that they know the past in the same manner as Jones’s narrator does. He’s not recounting legends and detailing curses and ghosts. He’s talking about the thick features of a foreign world.
The upshot, I think, is that Jones really sees history in a completely different manner than Morrison or Faulkner, for whom the past doesn’t just affect, but spiritually inhabits, i.e., haunts, the present. I think he wants us to recognize that the postbellum Washington, D.C. where many of his characters are headed will be a completely different world from antebellum Virginia, with a different set of moral problems. And I imagine that he would like us to consider that the Faulknerian view of history as ghost or curse or trauma might be an alluring mistake—that in conflating the past with the present, as it enables us to do, we might be, like the characters in Jones’s novel, completely misreading the world we actually live in and our responsibility for its evils.
I haven’t read The Known World, so this comments speaks to your grand theorizing instead:
First, I’ll confess that I’m unsatisfied with Benn Michael’s chapter on “Historicism.” In addition to violating <style appeal to history” that results in Robinson’s <i>The Debt</i>Or if the racial soul is a really just a metaphor for nonbiological historical continuity, then he needs an account of what it is that’s nonbiologically continuing. Which is just to say that he needs a soul. (167)
Only it isn’t. He shot me down when I asked what he would make of tradition by saying that the value of tradition relies on appeals to a racial soul, and he’s not wrong; but he does undervalue the importance of “nonbiological historical continuity,” even if it is arbitrarily acquired by virtue of birth to particular parents at a particular time in a particular place. Which returns me to your discussion of a historicism that posits a fundamental break between past and present. The past obviously shapes the present in a number of concrete ways: legal precedent, inheritance law, etc. Jones and Benn Michaels, from what I can tell, accept that and are instead interested in denying the implied answer to Shreve’s questions about “the South”:
What is it...something you live and breathe in like air? A kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? (289)
Or, more to the point, they distrust what Rosa calls “the substance of remembering” (115). My question--to you explicitly, but asked implicitly of Jones and Benn Michaels as well--is what’s the upshot to your upshot? What is gained from identifying the disconnect between past and present outside of the extreme cases of expiation (Nazi Germany, the South, etc.)?
P.S. I only took such space to set up that rather simple question so we’d have the Benn Michaels on the table...and so I could be shot down if I’ve misread him.
[The Valve ate my second and third paragraphs. Here’s how they should read.]
First, I’ll confess that I’m unsatisfied with Benn Michael’s chapter on “Historicism.” In addition to violating Godwin’s law, he jumps from drawing local conclusions about literature to global conclusions about, well, How The World Works. He’s right to distrust the “Beloved-style appeal to history” that results in Robinson’s The Debt, but from that cogent, local conclusion he moves to a denunciation of appeals to “self-knowledge” in the form of “racial heritage.” Logically, the argument’s still cogent, but I’m not sure whether it’s sound. One need not, as he insists, appeal to the “racial soul” to describe one’s relationship to history. When he says:
Or if the racial soul is a really just a metaphor for nonbiological historical continuity, then he needs an account of what it is that’s nonbiologically continuing. Which is just to say that he needs a soul. (167)
Oh, crud, Cephalous. You’re getting all specific on me. Am I going to have to go look at actual text to reconsider all this? If so, I’ll have to put it off for now. But a quick answer about the upshot of choosing history over memory (which is, I hope, shorthand for the difference we’re talking about): emphasizing history will mean assuming that no one living in the present has a privileged, supraempirical knowledge of the past. It’s true, of course, that you don’t have to assume a racial soul to believe that you’ve been affected by history. (In that sense, everyone’s affected by history, which is I think part of the reason for Jones’s wide social canvas. He’s less interested in special individuals than a whole society.) But you may need something like a racial soul to believe that you possess a history that is a special inheritance. If we doubt that inheritance, we might say that Shreve has no reason to defer to Quentin’s knowledge of Sutpen, but we might also say that Shreve should have no expectation of being indemnified from the legacies of slavery that are part of his contemporary world. From the historical perspective, Quentin isn’t gifted and he isn’t cursed. And Shreve is neither lesser nor immune from the evils of a racist society.
Another thought, Aceph. Jones’s interest can be put more directly, I think. He wants his characters to be able to escape from slavery without being forever marked by it--and without passing down a curse to their children. That’s one of the reasons an uncharitable reader might denounce him for sentimental humanism. A lot of Morrison’s fiction casts such hopes as vain, shallow, selfish--mere bourgeois ambition. I suspect that Jones is sympathetic to some kinds of bourgeois ambition, but I also think that he expects us to realize that treating the past as past need not be morally shallow. The point of allowing us to see the limitations of the antebellum south with stark clarity is not to make us feel good about our own freedom from such evils, but to show us that moral certainty is only possible after the dust has settled and thus, of course, to make us wonder what are the unrecognized limits on our own moral imaginations.
I’m writing a more substantial response to this, and will post it here or at my place later today. (Just so you don’t think I forgot...)
And I responded...on my blog, because it got far too long for the comment box. I’m not sure I accomplished anything other than working through Michaels’ argument to see the point you made only to determine, in the end, that I understand it intellectually but can’t actually imagine its implications/ramifications/fictionalizations/etc.