What I Learned From Faulkner

When my programme of filling in the gaps in my literary education reached The Sound and the Fury, I found less ferocious racism than I had expected. His Southerners’ self-perception as supporting their blacks rather than being supported by them (in the original, slightly redacted: “working to support a kitchenful of negroes”) seems weird to us but plays to my general doctrine that “No man is a villain to himself” and that oppressors often see themselves as victims.

Note that the word is “kitchenful” because these are domestic servants, what people used to call house-slaves, and that as far as I could make out, field-hands did not appear in the Faulkner at all.

The worst generalisations about African-Americans are put into the mouth of Jason, who is such a nasty character as to be the most unreliable of narrators. On the other hand, his remark that “negroes always have a watertight alibi for everything they do” makes me wonder. For this was my own observation while living in Africa. I used to say that if a certain poor and unhappy country in which I lived for months could only find a paying market for excuses, it would become an economic superpower overnight, and my native hearers ruefully admitted the truth of this satire.

What do I think is happening here? Why, a version of Edward De Bono’s Intelligence Trap, in that the immense African verbal facility, learned at Mother’s knee, is primarily instrumental and tactical. Were the culture to be biased less towards bullshitting your way out of trouble and more towards not getting into it in the first place, we might see continental progress.

A biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture quotes slaves’ excuses in very much the same terms as Jason, although from a very different set of values. CLR James regards the verbal habits as an entirely comprehensible response to utterly horrible conditions. The trouble is that none of the people I have heard the lies from were slaves, though their ancestors had been colonial subjects. So perhaps the mind-set I encountered was inculcated by colonialism and the mentality of corrupt extraction it brought, and not broken by generations of theoretical independence.

One might expect the concern with “watertight alibis” in the slaves of Antiquity and other maltreated groups – subalterns in the sociological jargon. Yes, that means women too. I do not know whether anyone has systematically looked for this. The mechanism involved would be that all speech has to be geared entirely to self-preservation. What would remain in need of explaining would be the odd psychology of the human being who obstinately tells only the truth.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 3 March 2020)

Posted on April 8, 2021 at 11:34 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Odds And Ends, Miscellaneous

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