Saturday, November 06, 2004

Love & Death in the American Novel (350-450)

We’re back to Leslie Fiedler. This partis where it gets interesting, or at least where he starts making some comments I can appreciate—and which were extremely bold for 1960. In this section on “Achievement & Frustration,” he takes up a number of themes and examines them in the context of a number of important American novels.

One theme Fiedler examines is “the irreparable breach between black and white” which we’re supposed to believe is “healed by love” in America (353). Fiedler explains it so wonderfully cynically when he says it “is the Southerner’s dream, the American dream of guilt remitted by the abused Negro, who, like the abused mother, opens his arms crying, ‘Lawsy, I’s might glad to git you back agin, honey’” when we come running back (353). So true. We noted that same hypocrisy in my American literature class in reading Olaudah Equiano’s account as well, that horrific love of the abuser on the part of the slave—though in his book it’s all the more horrific because we know for sure that Equiano is sincere in his writing since at the time he’s a free man. As I write this, though, I wonder. Frederick Douglass says he never once gave a straight answer about whether he was well treated as a slave because he knew it was never safe to trust a white person. Maybe Equiano was just conditioned the same way and it came out sounding like an abused person. What am I thinking? That’s exactly what an abused person sounds like.

Fiedler talks about life for Huck and Jim on the raft, that Huck’s statement is so important: “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” (353). The only freedom—for Jim at least—can be in this imaginary free space, “a gift from the non-Christian powers of nature” (353).

Another way Fiedler analyzes Huckleberry Finn, though, is to consider the symbolic elements of Jim & Huck’s relationship; Fiedler argues that it is less like father and son than it is like spouses: “Only marriage is a relationship complicated enough to stand for so complicated and ambiguous a cluster of meanings” (354). They understand each other so deeply that father and son just won’t do.

This relationship is termed “hierogamos,” which I just learned is defined as a sacred union or marriage of sorts. Apparently (from the internet hits I got on the word) it’s a religious term. Anyway, according to Fiedler, three conditions must be met in order for there to be true hierogamos: “the longed-for spouse, the questing lover, and the sacred setting” (354). By the time he’s reached this detail, we’re past the discussion of Twain, but we can easily gather the sacred setting of the river and the raft for Huck and Jim, though I’m not precisely sure how to categorize the longed-for spouse and the questing lover in Huck Finn. Fiedler’s example is to speak generally of the “American earthly paradise” as the West, whether it is in movie Westerns, or in Hemingway’s western frontier of Africa.

Fiedler uses this discussion of the West to move into a closer analysis of Hemingway’s work. He’s actually considered some of Hemingway before, but in this case, he is talking about the exclusion of women, about the love of men for each other. He touches on the cleverness of Hemingway’s story, “Big Two-hearted River,” which really is interesting because of its “double-barreled” (as Fiedler calls it) quality. There’s the evident text about the fishing and then the subtext about his choosing between fishing and prayer. But it’s incidental statements Fiedler makes that truly charm me: “What Hemingway’s emphasis on the ritual murder of fish conceals is that it is not so much the sport as the occasion for immersion which is essential to the holy marriage of males. Water is the symbol of the barrier between everywhere in our fiction” (357). I love it that Fiedler makes fun of the fishing (in a serous and true way) and calls the stories for the homoerotic, testosterone-soaked events that they are.

Fiedler’s real point, though, obviously is that in “Big Two-hearted River” as well as in several other American stories Huck Finn and Moby Dick, we see strong imagery of “baptism and transfiguration” (358). I guess that shouldn’t be especially surprising in our protestant society.

A little later, Fiedler talks about one kind of love that does appear in an American novel. In this case it’s a love triangle, but it’s an “unnatural love triangle,” found in Saul Bellow’s 1947 novel, The Victim, “where it assumes a peculiarly American mutilated form, being, in effect, a triangle without an apex or with only a hypothetical one, which is to say a triangle without a woman!” (364). Fiedler goes on to say that not much of Bellow’s work has female characters, other than fantasies; instead “his world is a world of men in boarding houses, men whose wives are ill, or have left them, or have gone off on vacation” (364). So that’s one form of love in the American novel.

Anyway, back to the black-white issue, Fiedler mentions that psychological research proves (supposedly) that “in dreams of white men […] the forbidden erotic object tends to be represented by a colored [sic] man” (365). We have racial tension that isn’t evident in European literature. The dynamic between European sidekicks and rivals is different. We have Leporello and Don Juan and Caliban vs. Prospero. But Fiedler says Americans are a bunch of “Calibans […] fugitive slaves” (368). Our relationships are confused, he says, because our country didn’t begin with automatic hierarchical and aristocratic social distinctions. This lack of social distinction has made relationships in novels confusing, even with slaves. The result has been the distinction of the blonde, blue-eyed Nordic people taking de facto, Nordic hegemonic, mythical social control (368).

But the conflict with races persists. Fiedler says that when we are faced with deep conflicts, we’re inclined to turn to legend for the answers. If we do that, we might falsely believe that “our dark-skinned beloved will rescue us from the confusion and limitations of a society which excludes him” (390). And if we listen to the writers we’ve been talking about, it’s easy to see how we might be convinced, “honey.” We erroneously think it will be as if our black friend “knew our offense against him were only symbolic” (391). Wisely, Fiedler ends this chapter with a quotation from Jim: “It’s too good for true, honey. Too good for true” (391).

Chapter XII. “The Blackness of Darkness: Edgar Allan Poe and the Development of the Gothic.” Here we learn more about Poe, who I knew has much confused information written about him—but I didn’t know that he was party to the disinformation. It turns out that he enjoyed spreading incorrect information about himself and seemingly hired a twisted executor for his will on purpose—and true to expectation that executor fouled things up so that it took a few generations of scholars to figure out what really happened.

We’ve already read that in the gothic novel especially, incest is a recurring theme. In Poe’s stories and his novel, Gordon Pym, we should find it perhaps more disturbing than usual, though, since Poe married his thirteen year-old cousin and apparently watched her waste away from some unnamed disease. He appeared to have a taste for young family members. Fiedler refers to “the gothic mode” in the context of Poe as a “form of parody, a way of assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of grotesqueness” (424). That is one form of grotesqueness that he didn’t have to parody, apparently.

The reasons for this chapter title are very interesting, though, and they relate in several ways to the material. Obviously, the gothic material is dark by definition. In addition, though, because Gordon Pym and Melville’s “Benito Cereno” were among the first literary efforts to include black characters, these works have been marginalized, or kept in the dark for some time (400).

Another book that takes up race very directly is Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, in which the slave bears the child of her master, and nurses both her own baby as well as the mistress’s baby. Since both are so blonde, they are hard to distinguish between, and when the slave learns her baby is to be sold, she exchanges the two. Fiedler’s analysis here is extremely interesting. He says, “Twain makes clear that there is in the South no absolute distinction of black and white, merely an imaginary line—crossed and recrossed by the white man’s lust” (406). Ultimately, Twain suggests “that all sons of the South, whether counted in the census as black or white are symbolically the offspring of black mothers and white fathers, products of a spiritual miscegenation at the very least, with compounds the evil of slavery with an additional evil” (407). That’s powerful rhetoric.

I’m struck again and again at how original these ideas were when Fiedler wrote them. It’s becoming clearer as I get towards the end of the book how much he influenced thought of the second half of the twentieth century.

No comments: