Two Sentences About Racism


I realize that I haven't offered much in the way of Catholic observation for some time, not through lack of desire, but through lack of any insight that would project beyond the boundaries that encase this flesh. I have a myriad of observations that are meant for Steven, but few that seem to have any substance to share. They would, upon being presented to the world, become as ghosts, thin, substanceless things, unfit for either the living or the dead.

And so instead, I take my observations where I find them. And where I'm finding them of recent date is Faulkner, and so it is with this marvelous, insightful, and in some sense heartrending passage. It is difficult reading, but bear with it. The narrator is Quentin Compson's father, but the person being spoken of is the son of one of the characters and one of the instigators of the fall of the house of Sutpen.

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

Yes, sleeping in the trundle bed beside Judith's, beside that of the woman who looked upon him and treated him with a cold unbending detached gentleness more discouraging than the fierce ruthless constant guardianship of the negress who, with a sort of invincible humility slept on a pallet on the floor, the child lying there between them unasleep in some hiatus of passive and hopeless despair aware of this, aware of the woman on the bed whose every look and action toward him, whose every touch of the capable hands seemed at the moment of touching his body to lose all warmth and become imbued with cold implacable antipathy, and the woman on the pallet upon whom he had already come to look as might some delicate talonless and fangless wild beast crouched in its cage in some hopeless and desperate similitude of ferocity (and your grandfather said, 'Suffer little children to come unto Me'" and what did He mean by that? how, if He meant that little children should need to be suffered to approach Him, what sort of earth had He crated; that if they had to suffer in order to approach Him, what sort of heaven did He have?) look upon the human creature who feeds it, who fed him, thrust food which he himself could discern to be the choicest of what they had, food which he realized had been prepared for him by deliberate sacrifice, with that curious blend of savageness and pity, of yearning and hatred,; who dressed him and washed him, thrust him into tubes of water too hot or too cold yet against which he dared make no outcry, and scrubbed him with harsh rags and soap, sometimes scrubbing at him with repressed fury as if she were trying tow ash the smooth faint olive tinge from his skin as you might watch a child scrubbing at a wall long after the epithet, the chalked insult has been obliterated--; lying there unsleeping in the dark between them, feeling them unasleep too, feeling them thinking about him, project about him and filling the thunderous solitude of his despair louder than speech could: You are not up here in this bed with me, where though no fault nor willing of your own you should be, and you are not down her on this pallet floor with me, where through no fault nor willing of your own you must and will be, not through any fault or willing of our own who would not what we cannot just as we will and wait for what must be.

"And your grandfather did not know either just which of them it was who told him that he was, must be, a negro, who could neither have heard yet nor recognised the term 'n-----', who even had no word for it in the tongue he knew who had been born and grown up in a padded silken vacuum cell which might have been suspended on a cable a thousand fathoms in the sea, where pigmentation had no more moral value than the silk walls and the scent and the rose-colored candle shades, where the very abstractions which he might have observed--monogamy and fidelity and decorum and gentleness and affection--were as purely rooted in the flesh's offices as the digestive processes.

I'll be the first to admit that it is tough going, and a book full of sentences like that requires an enormous mental effort to stay focused on the train of thought. And that effort is repaid time and again in both humor and pathos. Faulkner brilliantly limns the lives of three people involved with this small child, and at once sets the whole story on a different level. The child is the child of the man Judith (mentioned at the beginning of the sentence) desired to marry. This is the man that almost singlehandedly brings down the Sutpen dream, pulling from Sutpen's grasp the Absalom of the story. And it is a story ultimately about the consequences of our sins and actions in the world--how nothing is without its due weight and gravity--its tremendous loaded karma. All actions are spiritual actions, carrying weight not only in this world but in the hereafter, and not only in the hereafter, but in the War in Heaven that is waged on a daily basis. Faulkner encompasses this, understands this, has so thoroughly internalized this that he has chosen this convoluted and seemingly endless prose style to bring it home to us. There is a weight about our actions that we have no say in--except that if we fail to recognize it, we will fail ultimately in all of our dreams. One wrong choice can multiply out of all reason--truly. But it is the accumulated weight of wrong choices that force us in to yet more wrong choices--sin begets sin in a cycle unending unless by grace and sacrament we put an end to it.

That is the glory of the Catholic faith. Faulkner's sinners are trapped in the calvinist Gothic world in which whatever redemption may be available waits beyond the actions of the present. The weight of the past bears down on everything and crushes even the slightest movement toward grace. The elect are the elect and they are few indeed and doomed as all are doomed.

And yet, mysteriously, because there is redemption, Faulkner, dark and deep, is also deeply humorous and deeply compassionate and deeply joyful. There is always hope about Faulkner even among the ashes and the burning houses and the murders and the bigotry and the weight of the past and the press of the present and any other distractions and diversions there may seem to be. I read Faulkner and I am not depressed, but I am impressed with his solid grasp and deep understanding of the nature of humanity and of how people see one another and how they relate to one another.

Absalom, Absalom! is a difficult book, a very difficult book. And yet, it is one of those books whose difficulty is rewarded many times over for the patient reader. It is one of those books that few people try, but that many would do themselves better service by making the attempt. Everyone who reads this blog in a day is capable of reading and understanding the book, and unlike many of the things on which we spend our time, reading something of this power and this virtuosity is time well spent and deeply rewarded, both in the satisfaction of hard intellectual work and in the insights that the author shares with the willing reader.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 15, 2008 7:34 AM.

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