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Black Like Us

FAULKNER, MISSISSIPPI;\o7 By Edouard Glissant; (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 274 pp., $25)\f7

May 16, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI

A few years after the 1970 Black Panthers trial in New Haven, Conn., Cleanth Brooks stood at the well of a packed lecture theater. It was April, and Brooks was the dean of Faulknerians, a courtly, white-haired gent of medium height, and the subject of that afternoon was William Faulkner's short story, "That Evening Sun." I don't know whether it was the odor of magnolia that wafted into the hall or just some pedagogical whim, but in the manner, one could only guess, of an old-time patrician white Southern gentleman entertaining his male guests after dinner, Brooks looked up from his notes and began to sing.

"I hates to see dat evenin' sun go down," he shuffled behind the podium to the chorus of "St. Louis Woman." "I hates to see dat' evenin' sun go down." Shuffle, shuffle. One hundred jaws in a variety of colors, went slack. Even in those Edenic days before political correctness (and even before Slim Pickens taught Cleavon Little how to sing in "Blazing Saddles"), Brooks' manner of dramatic presentation of Faulkner made more than a few people nervous.

So it is hardly surprising that, 15 years later, when Edouard Glissant stood before an audience of African American students and professors at Southern University in Baton Rouge and argued that it was time for a reconsideration of William Faulkner, for a fresh, black reading of his works, that a similar dropping of jaws occurred.

Faulkner was a man whose views on race were only slightly less complex than his prose. He made many enemies among his white neighbors with his emphatic and vocal opposition to enforced segregation of schools and universities. But he was also a man who was reported as saying, "But if it came to fighting, I'd fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes. After all, I'm not going to shoot Mississippians [meaning whites]." Although Faulkner's superb biographer Frederick Karl makes a strong defense--attributing this latter statement to depression, drink and a dunning by the British journalist Russell Howe--none of Faulkner's millions of words can be easily dismissed.

Yet Glissant, in his book-length essay, "Faulkner, Mississippi," makes a strong case for a reassessment of the author of not only the great middle tragedies "The Sound and the Fury," "Absalom, Absalom" and "Light in August" but also of the poet of the white trash Snopeses of "The Hamlet" and the underappreciated "Intruder in the Dust." His case is nothing less than that, no matter how Faulkner's personal Furies twisted his public speech, Faulkner was a great, world-beating multiculturalist.

Of course, Glissant is not talking about the wishy-washy multiculturalism that passes for an elementary school curriculum these days. An eminent writer from Martinique, Glissant has been preaching for some years--in his poetry, his novels and particularly in his essays--a sermon titled "The Poetics of Relation." For Glissant, authors who demonstrate the power of the "Poetics of Relation" have a complex understanding of the world that comes from thinking of identity as something that is grown, not in isolation but in relation to other peoples and other cultures. Faulkner ties perfectly into a sermon. Half a millennium of trading in human languages and souls has thrown together whites and blacks, blood and speech, into a genealogical and linguistic mixture that is inseparable in Faulkner.

Faulkner's ambivalent public stances on race relations, in fact, connect him more closely with the literature of the Caribbean than with the writing of his North American neighbors. Homogeneous epic institutions, Glissant argues, like the America of white Europeans or the tribe of the Jews, stake their claims on a clear line of descent back to a firm, unquestionable Genesis. Not so the communities of the Amerindians or the Caribbean, where origins are so clouded that each fractional mixture of Carib, European and African blood has spawned its own marvelous Creole word to describe it. "The word of the Story," Glissant says, "is not dictated by a God, or derived from a Law. It is the composite word, which contests, even if not openly, any idea of Genesis, a creation of the world, a legitimate genealogy guaranteed and passed down through bloodlines. I am speaking of the Creole tales of the Americas."

It's a fascinating way to read Faulkner--and Glissant provides many specific references that will send even the most memorious Faulknerites back to their bookshelves. Creole readings are inevitably spicier than the plain biblical fare. And even though Faulkner was God the Creator of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, "when Faulkner was writing," Glissant says, "what he put at risk was the supreme institution of this Southern community. He questioned its very legitimacy, its original establishment, its Genesis, its irrefutable source."

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