Art, chess, Chessboard, coffee, Comics, Gengar, glasses, graphic novel, Grotesque, horror, Horror Comics, Joshua Jammer Smith, Junji Ito, Manga, original photograph, Spirals, spoon, still life, Uzumaki
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
2 April 2019
Batman, Batman Arkham Asylum A serious House on Serious Earth, Champion of Unreason, Classical Hero, Comicosity, Comics, Dave McKean, Flawed hero, Grant Morrison, graphic novel, Grotesque, Identity, Individual Will, insanity, Michael Greenhale, mythology, Postmodernism, psychology, Psychosis, The Comics Classroom, The Journey, Underworld
This is the first publication I have to my credit. When this essay was written I was still working on my B.A. and the idea that anything I wrote could be published was a bit of a revelation. I had given a presentation over Arkham Asylum at a school event alongside several other students who had created presentations about Graphic Novels, and a year later, when given the opportunity to write about anything I wanted to, I decided to write down my ideas about Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s beautiful graphic novel.
My friend Michael Greenhale, who regularly writes a post entitled The Comics Classroom for the site Comicsosity, offered to publish it, and it stands as I said before as the first published essay of mine anywhere on the internet.
If you want to read the entire article simply follow the link below
Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth remains in my mind the greatest graphic novel ever written due to its complexity, its classical tradition, the way it helped re-create the character of Batman to ensure his cultural relevance to a new generation, and the flawless execution by both the writer Grant Morrison and the artist Dave McKean.
Recently I was given the opportunity to present my views concerning the graphic novel and in this presentation I explained why I felt this work stands as such a triumph by comparing it to the classical oral traditional structure. I will attempt to condense my ideas here and demonstrate that one of the core themes of the work is the journey, and its role in re-creating Batman for a new age.
If you want to read the entire article simply follow the link below:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Adam Kesher, Betty Elms, Blue Velvet, Charlie Rose, coffee, Corruption, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Diane Selwyn, E Unibus Pluram, Entertainment, Evil as Force, Friday the 13th, Grotesque, Hollywood, horror, It's truly truly difficult to find good coffee and by good coffee I mean the type that leaves you feeling as if you've actually tasted something beyond human understanding close to the furnace of all , Laura Herring, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Los Angeles, Lynchian, Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts, Narrative Structure, Nightmare on Elm Street, nipple rubbing, Paranormal Activity, psychology, Rita, sex, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Surreal, television, The Cowboy, Winkies
Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.,
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
When I asked my friend Michael, who’s my go-to film buff, about the film Mulholland Drive he posted a gif from a Lynch film with the sentence “Get yourself some damn good coffee.” The best coffee I’ve ever drunk in my entire life has come from my mother’s French press, but I need to get to Wallace and Lynch.
I watched Mullholland Drive for the first time with my father. I’m not entirely sure if that satisfies David Foster Wallace’s criteria of what qualifies as “Lynchian” but it feels like it should. Mom and M were out of the house, I can’t remember the specific cause, and so Dad, who had been taking a film course to satisfy a credit for his bachelor’s degree, brought home the film telling me a friend of his in the class had suggested it. There was also some mention that the film might have a lesbian scene in it, but to be honest that, like most of the actual film, is a bit blurry enigma. What I distinctly remember is the feeling that I had seen this film before in caricatures of typical “independent films” either on Family Guy, The Simpsons, or else one of the numerous television shows I watched at the time. Images would appear that were so surreal or absurd while the music tended either to put me on edge or else push me steadily towards madness, and by the time Naomi Watts and Laura Herring wound up in bed together the scene wasn’t really all that out of place, though my teenage hormones made it a bit of a distraction. The reason I bring up my father is that for a moment there was an event in which a grown man and his teenage son were sitting in the dark, watching two women fuck on the screen, sitting on separate couches unaware of what the other’s expression was.
To be fair I’m not sure you could call the sex scene in Mulholland Drive “fucking” so much as heavy open mouth tongue based kissing coupled with some light nipple rubbing.
This is a rather awkward, yet strangely fitting, introduction to serve my purpose. This essay is not so much a review of Mulholland Drive, but rather a review of an essay that I had no idea would actually leave such a distinct impression upon me. And the odd part is the essay in fact made me remember a film I had seen and so when I began this piece I wondered what would be better approach: write about the film or write about the essay which is writing about another film entirely for the most part but said first film wasn’t made when the essay was written so is there an ethical concern writing about a film and using the essay to support this argument and eventually I just said screw it and went forward.
David Lynch Keeps his Head is the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a book I bought partly because I had begun Infinite Jest but also because a friend of mine had bought the book before me and raved about it (he was a creative writer but one of the smart ones who tried to push himself creatively in what he read and wrote about) and after he and I lost touch I encountered the book again at a friend’s house while I was watching her dog. The cover strikes you immediately, largely because it’s comically grotesque, with a little boy with an obscenely large head licking his chest while steam pours out from his ears. I wonder at times if I compromise whatever artistic credibility I have when I write things like this, but the book is most certainly worth your time and money if only because you’ll be able to freak out your mother and girlfriend (or boyfriend, we’re open minded here at White Tower Musings) for a month with the cover. Once you get bored with that you can read about watching television or else how David Lynch is a genius, but the movie is Dune is absolute swill.
Reading the essay, I was constantly remembering the general feeling that Mulholland Drive created particular during three specific quotes. Wallace says in section 10 of the essay:
If the word sick seems excessive to you, simply substitute the word creepy. Lynch’s movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. […] It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you are feeling about one of David Lynch’s movies and what you are feeling about David Lynch. (166).
Even though it’s been years since I watched the film I can’t disagree with Wallace in this passage because to this day there’s still a miasma of psychic shock and recovery that was watching the film. That’s not hyperbole, just an effort to convey the lingering sensation of watching a Lynch film, a good Lynch film. It’s not so much that the film is grotesque the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Hostel is, nor are his films psychologically terrifying the way The Shining or Psycho were(though I did jump when the grotesque homeless man first appeared). These films are genre based films, specifically horror, and the fundamental aspect of horror is that once the first experience is done it is possible to overcome the experience and, possibly, even laugh at it later. A great example of this is the Paranormal Activity films and just about any Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The films of David Lynch are not horror films however for even after you have processed the experienced there is a discomfort and emotional awareness that doesn’t leave the viewer. David Lynch as a director has probed into the viewer psyche and, if I may use a grotesque metaphor here, effectively licked the inside of their skull leaving a lasting membrane the viewer can still feel decades after the fact.
Grotesqueness is part of the man’s aesthetic however, for unlike the previously established gore-filled horror-genre films, Lynch’s movies are attempting something different creatively.
Wallace offers up a great assessment:
The absence of linearity and narrative logic, the heavy multivalence of the symbolism, the glazed opacity of the character’s faces, the weird ponderous quality of the dialogue, the regular deployment of grotesques as figurants, the precise, painterly way screens are staged and lit and the overlfush, possibly voyeuristic way that violence, deviance, and general hideousness are depicted—these all give Lynch’s movies a cool, detached quality, one that some cineastes view as more like cold and clinical. (167).
He continues this later on by noting:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
This is most certainly the case for me as I look back again to Mulholland Drive. The main storyline is…damn near impossible to describe, and so I won’t bother to attempt to except to address the character of Betty/Diane. Played by Naomi Watts the narrative, such as it is, follows Betty as she encounters a woman known as Rita who has suffered a terrible car crash and can’t remember who she is. Betty recently moved to Los Angeles and many critics and fan of the film have noted that she comes to embody the standard naïve outsider hoping to make it big in L.A. Most of this is certainly true, for Betty freely helps Rita after her accident and by the end of the film she has seemingly been destroyed as she eventually buys into the grotesque realities of the Hollywood system. She’s an aspiring actress, and when the plot flips, and Rita is revealed to be a successful actress, betty is left a shriveled waste of malevolent intent. It’s not enough that she has failed, she has exploded because of her kind nature.
There are other numerous subplots to the film, such as the director Adam whose life is steadily destroyed by forces controlled by a mysterious and grotesque dwarf in a room with a single light, as well as the man who opens the film suffering a terrible nightmare about seeing a grotesque man behind a “Winkies.” These stories exist and possess a great relevance to the “plot” but because the narrative is disjointed, and because the film is shot in a way that is often dream-like the viewer is left to try and assort the various pieces together hoping that they can find some meaning.
Betty is a sympathetic character however, and by the end of the film it’s painful to see she has fallen from that kindness which once defined her.
Betty Elms: She’s letting me stay here while she’s working on a movie that’s being made in Canada. But I guess you already know that. Well, I couldn’t afford a place like this in a million years… unless, of course, I’m discovered and become a movie star. Of course, I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star. But, you know, sometimes people end up being both. So that is, I guess you’d say, sort of why I came here.
Betty Elms: I’m sorry. I’m just so excited to be here. I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place. Well, you can imagine how I feel.
By the end of Mulholland Drive Betty’s fall is tragic since it came from such an idealistic high however the narrative delivery makes it difficult at times to really be sure that her end result, the character Diane Selwyn, isn’t the actual reality and that Betty may not be so much a figure of sympathy but really just the imagination of Diane attempting to construct a narrative in which she’s actually the sympathetic character who’s just a victim of abuse and manipulation. What is important to note however is that this structure does not make it difficult to watch Lynch’s film, in fact it only informs it more. Betty is either the victim of evil, or else a perpetrator of it, and at a certain point there isn’t much of a distinction. At least, as Wallace suggests, in a Lynch movie.
Wallace addresses this in his essay:
It’s not just the fact that twisted people do hideous things to one another in Lynch’s films, these critics will argue, but rather the “moral attitude” implied by the way Lynch’s camera atrocities in Lynch movies are never staged to elicit outrage or even disapproval. The directional attitude when hideousness occurs seems to range between cynical neutrality and an almost voyeuristic ogling.
The claim, though, that because Lynch’s movies pass no overt “judgement” on hideousness/evil/sickness and in fact make the stuff riveting to watch, the movies are themselves a- or immoral, even evil—this is bullshit of the rankest vintage, and not just because it’s sloppy logic but because it’s symptomatic of the impoverished moral assumptions we seem now to bring to the movies we watch. (203).
This is an important passage, not just for David Lynch Keeps his Head, but for review writing in general. A few weeks past I wrote a review of Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram which was about television’s affects upon culture, creative writing, and Postmodern consciousness. While writing this review I noted how often Wallace had to keep reminding his reader that television was not a cancerous sore on the face of humanity, and one passage in particular says it far better than I could:
I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here. Though I’m convinced that television today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synecdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes. (36).
Violence is frequently, and accurately, coupled in our society, and those who contribute to media should be conscious of what they are actively placing into the universe. The only problem is that because television and film-watching are both “passive” exercises you “receive” the medium rather that “actively” generating some part of it yourself, there has arisen an “elitism” coupled with bullshit morality in our society and so film makers who explore violence will always suffer the wrath of people who are bothered or disturbed by violent or perverse content. Lynch’s movies freely employ violence, this is a fact, but not to the level that it becomes pornographic or gratuitous. As Wallace wrote, whatever violence exists within his universe the acts performed and recorded do not provided a kind of malignant catharsis, nor are they designed to be employed as black humor. Death, pain, destruction, and murder just are.
This is a problem and I recognize it immediately because human beings don’t like ambiguity, or ambiguity of this caliber. Trying to explain that something just is, doesn’t fit into the narrative structures that human beings live their lives by. In the Judeo-Christian faith that was I surrounded with as a young man, acts of evil or monstrosity were performed because there was an evil supernatural tempter swaying the will of human beings in the form of The Devil. As I got older, and received more education, I learned that human beings’ motivations could also be swayed by economics, there are financial reasons for evil deeds because people are greedy or hungry. Adding a bit more complexity to this sexuality becomes a factor in the compelling of people to violence, for sex inspires passions that blind people to reason and so a lover may be drawn into a fit of violence after he catches his boyfriend in bed with two other men, or a wife may kill her husband’s mistress because she won’t share him. These are examples of causes and effects that fit narratives most people would recognize and be comfortable with, but Wallace brings up an important point when he notes that violence in David Lynch films aren’t about narratives because in Lynch films narratives are contorted, twisted, and may not even be real.
It makes sense that that concept would disturb people, because it’s a narrative structure people are unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable with, because it seems at first to suggest that violence happens for no reason at all.
Human beings since their infancy have needed an individual or location that possesses an “other” quality so that they can justify their existence. This sentiment is probably best expressed in the movie Scarface when Tony Montana drunkenly leaves the restaurant:
Tony Montana: What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy!
As for Wallace himself he manages to find some kind of conclusion, or creative recognition in the violence that occurs in Lynch movies:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, frce. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villans seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literallt possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynnch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
This was a rather long quote, but it was necessary to get to the end of this essay. Technically speaking Wallace’s essay is about him visiting the set of David Lynch’s then upcoming film Lost Highway, which I admit I haven’t seen. The only Lynch films I’ve seen are Mulholland Drive and Dune, which as I as well as Wallace note really isn’t a Lynch film at all, but the first film left a permanent impression on me. Reading Wallace’s essay then made me re-evaluate the experience so that Lynch as a director became not just a man who made weird and unwatchable films, but an important artist whose vision and philosophy towards art wasn’t that much different from my own.
Lynch as an artist seems to be always attempting to understand the forces that compel human beings, either by their own force of will or by outside influence. Looking at Mulholland Drive this last impression of evil seems more and more relevant for ultimately every character falls prey to the evil forces that seem to occupy the city of L.A. Betty and Adam both are human beings trying to fulfill a narrative of their own life until outside forces, evil forces, eventually corrupt their will and force them into paths they don’t desire or can live with in the case of Betty.
Human beings are comfortable fitting into narratives, and so when a director purposefully eschews narrative structure and directs the audience to observe stories in a position that seems outside the traditional structure, the natural response is to be disturbed. This is only proof however that a real aesthetic reaction has taken place.
Rather than simply call Lynch “sick” or “warped” the reader who watches a Lynch films and feels tremendously bothered by it, which for the record Wallace most certainly was and he even describes his experience seeing Blue Velvet with a group of friends in the essay, shouldn’t just say that Lynch is “sick” and leave it at that. There are many films which are designed to simply entertain the viewer and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, a problem with only watching such movies is that one becomes trapped into the standard narrative tropes and so when a film comes around, or a film maker, who violates that norm the reaction becomes to label him as “sick” or “evil” when all he has really done is attempt to question the rhythms of humanity.
One last point should be addressed however and that’s the idea I introduced at the beginning with my little anecdote: what is a Lynchian moment? A teenage boy watching an erotic moment in a movie with his father most likely doesn’t satisfy that idea, but on some level I believe it does. Wallace defines it as best he can for the reader:
An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively—i.e. we know it when we see it. (161).
It’s fair to state the fact that a great number of men have rented, bought, or downloaded Mullholland Drive simply to watch Naomi Watts and Laura Herring kiss and touch boobs. It’s a lamentable fact, largely because a great many of these men have entirely missed what a truly strange scene they’re actually watching. Yes, two beautiful women are engaged in an erotic act, but by the time the viewer gets to this scene it is an act rooted in the Lynchian structure of the film, which is a fancy-pants way of saying it’s fucking weird. Weirder than this is watching this scene with your father, but let me at least save the old man from any embarrassment by noting that the pair of us bonded afterwards by noting at the same time that “that movie was fucking weird man.”
You know it when you see it. It’s like great coffee, you know it when you taste it, and afterward you’ll never forget it.
In case the reader is at all interested I’ve included a link to a few videos related to Mullholland Drive
The opening “Diner” scene which taught us to never pay attention to dreams or to buy cheap coffee:
The “Coffee scene” which reminded us that napkins are important:
The “lesbian” scene, which really isn’t a “lesbian” scene at all and I highly encourage you to avoid reading the comment section because it will make your skin crawl:
And a brief interview with David Lynch where he responds to a question about Mullholland Drive and discusses the idea of “abstractions”:
And finally here’s an interview with David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose promoting the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again talking about David Lynch and the epiphany, his words, he experienced after watching the film Blue Velvet with some friends:
I legitimately hope that I haven’t put anyone off see in Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet. I acknowledge that I’ve made the film sound like either a surreal unwatchable film or else a bad porno, so allow me one last moment of your time when I say that Mulholland Drive is most certainly worth your time as a film. If I can’t convince you, please remember that a recent BBC Poll put it at the Number 1 film of the decade and Indie Wire explains this out if you follow the link below:
Barn Burning, Civil War, Essay, Flannery O'Conner, generational trauma, Grotesque, Literature, Sense of Self, Southern Gothic, Southern Pride/Self Loathing, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird, William Faulkner, Willie Morris
I see fire
Burning the trees
And I see fire
I see fire
Blood in the breeze
And I hope that you remember me
Sooner or later everyone has to kiss Faulkner’s ass and it appears that it is my turn (I can only hope he showered first the drunken old rep). My sarcasm aside, there is a
reason Faulkner has remained an established persona within the literary world; the man is a damned great writer. And note the diction of the last sentence for despite what anyone attempts to proselytize you with, there is a significant difference between what is good and what is great (What about Bob? is a good movie, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters are great ones). Now when I suggest that the name Faulkner inspires envy and wonder in the minds and hearts of literature scholars such as myself, I do not jest. The name Faulkner summons the idea of power in prose for the man was able to work magic with a few lines and craft, not simply wonderful arrangements of words, but an actual reality of the world he inhabited.
Allow me the indulgence of a long quote from the short story Barn Burning and you may see my point:
“The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ours! mine and his both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet”
Faulkner’s ability shines like the Lighthouse of Alexandria. (I told you I had to kiss ass, get used to it.) The easily overlooked line that demonstrates Faulkner’s ability as a creative writer is so subtle it can be passed without notice. The boy’s “stomach” read. Now this move may seem obvious upon first glance, for any who have had to suffer a creative writing course have been forced to receive a writer’s discovery of their own such cleverness. But the ability of great writers is the effort to take an object or experience of human life and present it in a way that makes the experience or object seem fresh. Take what is old and make it new, for therein lies truth. With this idea in hand let me observe the rest of the text above and appreciate the scene in a new light. Many writers would be content to simply describe a scene and imply that there was tension through words and drama and action. Faulkner calls bullshit and throws down a Full House (two cheeses and three hungers, still beats a straight every time). The hunger of the boy is crafted through the hard odor of cheese and canned meat, one immediately summons the frigid aroma of tin, while all the while we are delivered this wonderful tension that grows from the description of the food. We gain a sense that the boy is wanting in more than just the physical pangs of starvation and once this achieved we are given the conflict of the plot. His weakened state is further emphasized by the confusion of action on his own part. “Our enemy” as opposed to his “father’s enemy” I believe is the final play to the introduction and, to say it best by today’s standard, nails it.
I read the short story Barn Burning last year while taking a twentieth century American Literature course and was thrilled to finally be reading Faulkner in a Upper Level English setting. There was a real excitement that I would be observing a master at work and that I would be able to communicate with my peers about the power of the Southern Giant outside of the pathetic realm of high school literary analysis. I was disappointed. For one I did not respond much to the text. Second my peers were less than exemplary. My professor was exceptional and helped make the text come to life as a real “modern” work, however the failure of my own initiative as well as that of my literary compatriots disappointed me to the work, and thus Faulkner passed me by.
I’m waiting for this to matter. Or in other words, why should I care about some story about cheese and tin cans?
Very well, allow me to resume. Barn Burning is a short work but captures the idea of the Southern Grotesque, in that there is a decay occurring in the culture of the south. While the culture and people may not necessarily be suffering physically, there is a sense of something lost; a former slight has worked its way into the consciousness of all the players involved and shown them to be fools. Barn Burning is the effort to show this in the form of a young boy whose father burns the barns of every man who he happens to work for. The boy remains nameless to us and in this way I believe he could in some way be meant to be the putty character in fiction that allows us to imprint ourselves onto the character. The Boy seems Faulkner’s effort to show some goodness of the south and what is left of it. The potential for rebirth and dignity to a people with a history stained with travesty. As for the father, Abner, Faulkner is clear:
“That night they camped in a grove of oaks and beeches where a spring ran. The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths – a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”
Abner is later revealed to the reader, not to the boy, as a war profiteer. A cowardly bigot pursuing only his own self interest who looted and pillaged during the war (Civil of course, it is southern literature) rather than fight for his homeland. Faulkner allows the fire to define Abner, letting it totally manifest his character so that there is no hope for redemption. For nothing that burns with malice can hope to be redeemed. I do not want to sit and examine the individual symbolism of each component of the piece, but rather to understand why this sense of malice is a staple of the Southern Gothic. Why must we be so grotesque in the south?
One would immediately respond that perhaps we’re still pissed off about losing the Civil War. That the loss was our opportunity to craft ourselves, as losers are wont to do, as the real victors and employ the damaged ego as a shield and crutch for future generations. I cannot speak for all southerners, but living in Texas as long as I have, and being forced to bear witness to, time and time again, confederate flags on the back of pick-up trucks I gain a sense that being southern is a sense of pride and dissatisfaction. Recently I discovered at my In-law’s house a collection of National Geographic’s and one of them bore the title Faulkner’s Mississippi. Reading the article again I found one passage that says it best:
“Here was a man, the writer Elizabeth Spencer says, “one of us right over here at Oxford, shocking us and exposing us to people elsewhere with story after story , drawn for the south’s own private skeleton closet…the hushed up family secret, the nice girl who wound up in the Memphis whore-house, the suicides, the idiot brother kept at home, the miserable poverty and ignorance of the poor whites…the revenge shootings, the occasional lynching’s, the real life of the blacks. What was the man trying to do?”
This article, written by Willie Morris in 1989, Willie not William, only adds to my question. What is so grotesque about the south? Faulkner’s Barn Burning is not the only instance of a sense of loss and attempting to hide it. Consider the other great southern trends. The work of Flannery O’Conner is the embodiment of Southern repugnance’s. The Sound And the Fury, a novel I have read and endured as best I can, reveals a broken family attempting to maintain its sense of dignity in the face of its “embarrassments.” Many have read To Kill a Mocking and remember the instance of Boo Radley, hushed up and hidden for fear of embarrassment. I work with these examples because they are the best known, as well as the most distinct examples of the southern tradition to be bombastic and secretive all at once. While it may be a mistake to place all of the blame upon the Civil War, I do believe that the influence of if upon Southern consciousness has created this wounded sense of self, or at least it has for upper class whites.
Faulkner’s efforts as a writer are to me an effort to treat the south as it was in his time, and, in some ways, remains to this day. Barn Burning follows the emotional upheaval of loss. It is about losing your past and finding yourself in a present you didn’t choose. The Barn is not simply a place where young men lost their virginity in the hay loft and cows munched on cod while dropping turds. The barn stood as a sign of privilege and wealth for many southern land owners, in that it could indicate that you possessed enough capital to invest in further enterprise. Abner burns that enterprise to the horror of his son.
“Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty – it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own. “
So we see once again a grotesque perversion of the self. I began this essay saying that everyone at some point or another will have to kiss Faulkner’s ass. Allow me to revise that position. Anyone from the south will have to, because he was the first to drop his drawers and show the world his own. This pathetic metaphor aside Faulkner loved his Mississippi but was intelligent enough to know it for what it was, a place of magic power and malevolent potential. By showing his ass he directly confronted the grotesque in his beloved country, and allowed future writers the chance to do the same. But I do not want to end with the image of Faulkner bent over with his pants around his ankles and still puffing away on his pipe.
“His breathing was easier now and he decided to get up and go on, and then he found that he had been asleep because he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whippoorwills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them. He got up. He was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing – the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.”
Despite the fire that may have burned him and his fellow southerners, Faulkner I believe was an optimist in some form. The potential greatness of the south would rest, not in political achievement, but in artistic brilliance that has yet to be copied in such magnitude of will.