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In 1989, the Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant visited Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi. His visit spurred him to write a revelatory book about the work of one of our greatest but still least-understood American writers.
"A fascinating way to read Faulkner. . . .[Glissant's] case is nothing less than that, no matter how Faulkner's personal Furies twisted his public speech, Faulkner was a great, world-beating multiculturalist."—Jonathan Levi, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A sharp, challenging, and wholly unique tour of Yoknapatawpha County." —Kirkus Reviews
"Passionate. . . . Glissant's prose sometimes vies with Faulkner's for intricacy and evocative nuance." —Scott McLemee, Newsday
"Glissant tries to engage Faulkner on many fronts simultaneously, positioning himself as a critic, a fellow artist and as a descendant of slaves. . . He makes a convincing case that Faulkner is not just another 'dead white male author.'"—Scott Yarbrough, Raleigh News & Observer
"[An] ambitious and, at times, rambunctious expedition into Yoknapatawpha County." —Christine Schwartz Hartley, New York Times Book Review
THE ROAD TO ROWAN OAK
She calls my attention to how much (in the pictures in this magazine) the two writers look alike. Both men have an expression that is not haughty but very reserved. They stare straight at you. One is utterly calm, the other withdrawn as if into a dream of greatness. Perhaps they are looking deep within themselves at something they share, far from any onlookers. Do I really see this or is it more a writer's silent whim to bend things absentmindedly toward what he has written? I have often associated them in my books, falling into the commonplaces of the times. Both of them are authors of the Plantation; they are two men on the edge of a caste, in a space where all is about to crumble, two colonials in fact, but so marginal among their own kind, two poets concerned with the relentless question of race and the stormy connection of one race to the other you have dominated for so long. One of these two writers, leaning toward the universal, pretends not to see this other race; the other approaches it with a wise but scattered incredulity. Both of them live on a frontier of life, on a margin where it is very hard to evaluate or trace any connection with the Other; they are trying to get around the Other, to sound its depths, and they return with mysteries, visions, and things of great beauty. They remain fixed, however, in their respective distances, tormented yet condescending. Saint-John Perse's head is tilted upward; whereas William Faulkner's head is held stubbornly parallel with the ground, as if secured by some straight and unavoidable prop.
Truly,they are in harmony with each other, although geographically so distant one from the other, and involved in projects so opposite. "Lacking" poetry, the latter would even dig into the bare and ardent earth and finally pitch camp there. The former would exhaust all speakable poetry in the universal abstract phrase in which, in the end, he lives. I look at the two images. The allure is the same: the air of the Planter, returning from the task, who does not find it unbecoming to take care of his animals, which perhaps he prefers, or pretends to prefer, to humans. I am not going to pity the Planter. I sound these two minds, two minds sharpened or exacerbated by the situation in which they find themselves caught or implicated, reacting to it, commenting on and transforming the world around it. They choose to settle into this situation and to justify it somehow by this very choice, nevertheless letting their work go far out into the world beyond.
I believe it must have been this way for Albert Camus. We are talking about artists (of sensibility as much as mind) who are situated on the frontier, on the border between two apparent or actual impossibilities. Camus with the Algerians (Arabs) and the French (Whites). Saint-John Perse with the Antilleans, the Black and White Creoles. Faulkner with the North, the "so-called haven" of the Negroes, and with the White Southerners who cannot but choose to prefer their mothers (or, rather, what they take to be truth) to justice.
Would it not be contemptible to approach such important works by methods that, in truth, appear utterly secondary relative to the breadth and insight of the works themselves? How can you reduce Faulkner's pantheistic Comedy to what he did or did not say about the race question in the United States? But how can you fail to take this question into consideration?
I will not focus solely on racism or the morality of the relationship with the Other. We are living in the moment when an indivisible world harmony and the conceptions it suggests are breaking up, a time when partial harmonies arise everywhere and converge toward a generalized disharmony, something the writer feels strongly he cannot explore without first renouncing this indivisibility that established him, sovereign and seer, in his place and words. To renounce the indivisible is to learn a new way of approaching the world; in so doing the writer learns to deploy all of his works in this approach, to become accustomed to this new and generalized disharmony while trying to follow its innumerable traces.
Whatever attitude he adopts in his rapport with the Other and whatever global vision of the Other he has formed, the writer has no choice but to disturb this vision through his work, even after expressing it in the work. Because finally he must renounce indivisibility and terrifying unicity. The author's way of plumbing the universe is the mark of his relevance, no matter what anguish, doubts, regrets, and remorse he suffers "in private."
Something clicks, and I begin. We veer around the subject—Faulkner's works—which we can feel spreading out like music, "neither close nor far." We do not pretend to know how to get there, yet we think it is within reach; days go by in dreams and worry.
The click. At the turning of a note, at the end of a short story, or in a speech in the middle of a novel, the work stands up before you. That is, its landscapes, streaks of twilight, colors (mauve and tawny predominating), and especially its smells, its haze and smoke, all rise from a yet invisible countryside; its crazed and fierce animals and its allotment of people, who share, without anyone suspecting it, the same bewilderment—the whole ensemble of his work stands before you as though erected by an architect who constructed a monument around a secret to be known, pointing it out and hiding it all at the same time.
To point out and to hide a secret or a bit of knowledge (that is, to postpone its discovery): this is a great part of Faulkner's project and the motif around which his writing is organized.
We had been settled for less than two weeks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a house that was too large. We still had not put in what we needed in terms of furniture and supplies. For us, the United States—what you call "America" when you dream of coming here—was a vast body of shadows and mysteries. Eating omelettes and hash browns at Louie's Cafe (fried up on the hot griddle with a hint of cayenne so pleasing to our West Indian palates) was a new pleasure. We were hardly put off by the tyranny against cigarette smokers. We had already visited some of the neighboring bayous, so we decided to visit Rowan Oak, Faulkner's house in Mississippi in Oxford (recast in his works as Jefferson), a town that meant little more to us than the one in England.
What were West Indians going to do in the home of this Southern Planter? When you come to the United States you watch television until three in the morning and your eyes are bleary, trying to learn the language, of course, or to catch something of its meaning, but also because you are fascinated by who knows what, say basketball or football (in Martinique, sports commentators talk, as though naturally, of playoffs and Super Bowls), or maybe baseball, whose secrets you try in vain to fathom (all you see are players chewing gum and spitting on the ground, communicating at a distance in sign language with their teammates). Or you watch for the violence that everyone here seems to accept as just one of those "things" or "you-know-whats": a young girl raped and killed near one of the lakes in Baton Rouge at seven in the morning (she was out jogging); a young Black delinquent arrested and beaten badly by the police. Was he the murderous rapist? No. This time it was two young and idle Whites. The sheriff was asked if he regretted having beat up an innocent person in this way. As far as we could understand, he replied, "You know, he was lucky to get out alive. Anyway, a young male Negro"—were those not his very words?—"is always in danger of getting killed in this country." So then, Faulkner, Oxford, Rowan Oak?
Still his work remains. His sequels, his theory, the unending parade of published books, not to mention the manuscripts stuffed in drawers, the "failed" debut poems with their symbolist pretensions, the early novels with their famous "character psychology," and the short stories: so many variations, not in the style but in the subject matter of an ever-invented country, some of them like the awkward advances of a body fleeing the spoken. And then the avalanche, an onslaught of rocks leaving no precipice to stand on, or from which to launch an "opening." From Sartoris to Absalom, Absalom! From the blue-green to the notched rock. From granite to striped jasper.
The "idea" of these books followed us on the trace, the road. We tried to recall them, to estimate their worth, as we saw it. This was our first time driving on American roads, lined with encampments of Burger Kings, fried chicken places, bars, and gas stations, which had replaced small towns and settlements. They were as shabby and mundane as any roadside on earth, but their very ordinariness stunned us with an incomprehensible feeling of exoticism.
Suddenly, past the border between Louisiana and Mississippi—marked by an indistinct sign—it seemed that another "something" bore down even more heavily. Up to that point, the road had led across gentle terrain (no doubt the idea we formed of Louisiana) where the proximity of the Gulf or the stretches of salt and fresh water, sea, and river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans seemed to wash the countryside with a kind of mist. We had entered into a tragic and irremediable thickness.
We were thus controlled by Faulkner's thinking. We felt an indefinable, engulfing menace. We found we could no longer count the churches—temples designed for the rites of despair ("the shabby church with its canting travesty of a spire")—which were hardly less numerous than the houses. Such were our preconceived ideas.
We thought we saw dirt trails intersecting up in the distance, crossroads painted in whites and calm yellows, adding a sheen of dust on the dry mud. We imagined hearing the old buggies bumping along the hard crest of the road with their iron-rimmed wheels and greased axles. We imagined seeing and hearing an accursed horse or a burdened old mule seek impossible shade under a thatch of leaves. We thought all these leaves were fighting their own fight: determined not to turn yellow (as if, all by themselves, they wanted to kill the time that fell so harshly there).
Strange advance, as we pushed into an unknown oppression that seemed to rise from everywhere (which happens when you insist on going into a hostile milieu). We would leave it behind only to rediscover it at the next turn. No doubt this area was pleasant enough. Having missed the entrance to the Interstate, we followed the back roads, and this very conventional rural reality weighed on us with a heaviness we could not explain.
Almost immediately after we saw the sign for Mississippi, we passed a little mound, a hill where three crosses stood, at odd angles, the tallest in the middle. Silence fell upon us; then one of us murmured, "Did you see that?" The three crosses, made from the rough trunks of young trees, kept following us as if keeping us under surveillance, as in those portraits where the sitter's gaze sticks to your back wherever you go and ends up terrifying you. It seemed this was the calling card of the Ku Klux Klan (someone had told us that the Klan originated in a pretty little town near Baton Rouge: St. Francisville, I believe). Those crosses had been stationed there to put us on notice, to let us know that we had to be on our guard.
Ambivalence. We knew conditions for Blacks were no better in Louisiana than in Mississippi. Under the spell of William Faulkner's works, though, we had conferred upon the latter an absolute weight of representation for the Deep South. But, in fact, Faulkner never claimed to expose, criticize, or improve conditions for Blacks in the United States.
Our ambivalence was prolonged by wandering, a strange roving yet to come. When we finally reached Oxford, we were not able to find Rowan Oak. We drove in circles. Clumps of trees, sloping fields, a few roads branching out like tributaries, but no sign. By chance, we drove onto the University of Mississippi campus, where we asked the first student we met for directions to Faulkner's house. He did not know of Faulkner. We were taken aback and confused. Was he a science major, studying physics or chemistry? It was inconceivable to us that Faulkner could be unknown to anyone here who had any connection whatsoever with literature or culture.
Our ambivalence turned to panic as the day wore on. It was as though we had to pass a test before we could reach Rowan Oak; as though, in order to enter into the meanings of Faulkner's works, to see them stand before us and cry out in the woods and fields, we had to pass the test of their "difficulty," their resistance, had to force a path into their thick wilderness, into what we could call only their "deferred revelation."
Faulkner's books have always seemed to me to work this way. Deferred revelation is the source of his technique. This has nothing to do with the suspense of a detective novel or with social or psychological clarification; rather, it is an accumulating mystery and a whirling vertigo—gathering momentum rather than being resolved, through deferral and disclosure—and centered in a place to which he felt a need to give meaning.
Suddenly, something clicks. We are delivered from our wandering. Between tall, implacable trees on the edge of a side road, a barely visible sign indicates the entrance to Rowan Oak. The place has an air of comfortable retreat and the house at the end of the road seems imposing but neglected. This is characteristic of the United States, both North and South: glitter and glamour are always side by side with ruin and dilapidation. (Tourists in New York, for example, expect to be awed.) As if even in famous places, such as Rowan Oak, the ephemeral lies in wait, as if the building were about to be dismantled only to be rebuilt and placed on view somewhere else.
The house itself is at once a Plantation manor (casa grande) and family home. We discover later that the stable is a pathetic little structure, weather-beaten and rusty, like the ones we can find next to the Black slave sheds (sencillas; the title of Gilberto Freyre's work is always relevant). The configuration of the Plantation was the same everywhere, from northeastern Brazil to the Caribbean to the southern United States: casa grande e senzala, the big House and the slave hut, masters and slaves. Even with its four front columns, the main facade of this house does not suggest the proud luxury and absolute power that such an architectural composition usually claims by evoking the houses and temples of ancient Greece and Rome.
We had visited Nottoway Plantation, near Baton Rouge, which is backed by a levee protecting it from the floods of the Mississippi River. (I have been told that Black and White children alike still learn to spell its name with the old song: M-i-s, s-i-s, s-i-pea pea aaaaayeah.) The mythic river, Chateaubriand's exotic Meschacébé, the Deep River of Southern Blacks. The grand Old Man, site and booty for so many battles in the War of Secession, a channel of life and death leading from the continent's Nordic heart to its Creole delta.
1. The Road to Rowan Oak
2. The Faulkner Dossier
3. In Black and White
4. The Trace
5. The Real—The Deferred
6. The Deferred—The Word
7. The Frontier—The Beyond—Back on the Trace