Translated from Édouard Glissant

From: Edouard Glissant, Faulkner, Mississippi (Paris: Stock, 1996); translation and annotation by HS

At the time when Faulkner began to write, autobiographies of former slaves who had escaped from their condition and won, through education, the right to judge the system and those who had benefited from it, began to appear.[1]

Associations formed in the early twentieth century had sought out and recorded the memories of the last ex-slaves still alive. In the 1930s and 40s appeared Native Son [1940] and Black Boy [1945], two works by Richard Wright which depicted the true condition of the blacks. Naturally, nowhere in these texts is there to be found the slightest communion or solidarity, even hidden or disguised, between former slaves and former masters, despite the recognized fact that many house slaves (but never field slaves) followed their masters and helped them during the Civil War. Richard Wright’s refusal is total. There is no ascesis or sublimation, and not the first sign of forgiveness.

Faulkner must have read these works. It does not appear that he was disturbed or influenced by them. He may have agreed that the call to rebellion by black people was self-evident, but decided at the same time that it was not for him to take it up. And to consider everything, we know his contradictory opinions on the subject, including his declaration in favor of the integration of the schools or in favor of inscribing the names of black soldiers (though on a “distinct” list) on the monuments to the dead of World Wars I and II, which won him an uncomfortable standing in the town of Oxford toward the end of his life.

Faulkner is no civil-rights advocate or social reformer… He is not blind toward the inequities of the South, even if he is unwilling to let an outsider point them out. In this he is characteristically American: while the citizens of the USA can be ferocious in the critical analysis of their own society, a feature that is not found among all peoples, these very same lucid analysts are unable, or at least not very willing, to hear a foreigner expound their misdeeds. 

Faulkner cannot break away from his caste or from his country, the South. He says of Albert Camus: “We shared the same anguish.” What anguish was that? Certainly not the angst that haunts an existentialist thinker, but the anguish of having a vision of justice and yet being unable to speak it out (even at the price of separating justice from truth) since to do so would be to take sides against your own people.

There is another reason for Faulkner’s “suspending judgment” about the South. He needs the ambiguity of unveiling as a spring for the tragedy that he is developing. A certified declaration of the “badness” of the South would have interrupted once and for all the process of unveiling that takes place in his work. It is in and through the mysterious (or at any rate unspoken) articulation of gradual unveiling that the possible first crime reveals itself as damnation, that sin inaugurates tragedy….

For these reasons Faulkner treats his black characters without pity, describing them, as he does with all the people he puts into his work, brutally, with no stylistic understatement, sometimes in a very stereotypical way, with the respect that he thinks they deserve, that is, with merciless impartiality. 

Stereotypes… It is true that here and again Faulkner says (or has one of his characters say) that a white person will never understand the Negro. One never hears the symmetrical opposite… that “Negroes will never be able to understand the whites.” As if only the whites were possessed with the need to understand. “Negroes,” then, whatever you make of it. Stereotypical profiles, and invisible because they sink into a mass. Was this a case of respecting the opacity of the other, or the seed of a system of apartheid? A free depth of identity or a careless lack of interest? It depends on who in the work is talking.

            (pp. 90-93)

[1] Glissant’s chronology is radically foreshortened. A fuller account would include consideration of, e.g.: Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901), W E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Anyone who read English could learn about the experiences and feelings of enslaved people. The WPA slave narrative project began in 1936.

2 thoughts on “Translated from Édouard Glissant

  1. “In the 1930s and 40s appeared Native Son [1940] and Black Boy [1945].” Where are the works from the 30s? Or is this simply a metalepsis?

  2. It’s a small inaccuracy (hence the square brackets around the dates, which are my addition). I assume _Native Son_ must have been written during the 30s, not quite the same as “appearing”– but it seems clear to me that Glissant is relying on his memory here.

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