A Faulknerian interlude: Frank Pagano on “Was”

I wrote briefly here last week about William Faulkner’s Flags In the Dust. My appreciation of Flags In the Dust derives entirely from the St. John’s Summer Classics course I took on it from “tutors” (professors) Frank Pagano and James Carey. Mr. Pagano is the author, most recently, of “The was that is not: Some comments on Faulkner’s ‘Was,'” which he has given us permission to post on Power Line.

In this year’s Summer Classics program Messrs. Pagano and Carey will be teaching Xenophon’s Memorabilia in-person on the Santa Fe campus the week of July 17-21. The catalog listing is posted here together with related information. I highly recommend both the book and the course. Xenophon’s Memorabilia is a great book and Messrs. Pagano and Carey are great teachers.

In my comments on Faulkner I expressed the concern that Faulkner would be canceled, if he wasn’t already. Mr. Pagano’s analysis of “Was” below the break picks up with a reflection of that concern. He writes:

* * * * *

William Faulkner’s novel Go Down, Moses is a meditation on an African-American spiritual, on the human spirit seeking freedom. Nevertheless, some readers have complained that Go Down, Moses sentimentalizes slavery. The first episode in the novel, entitled “Was,” is regarded as the chief culprit.

This evaluation seems odd to me about a work whose main character, Isaac McCaslin, spends his life atoning for the crimes of his family. That is not to deny that “Was” chooses to depict comically a grievous offense against the humanity of Tomey’s Turl: at the outset of the story, his putative owners will not allow him to marry the woman he loves. The question is then whether a comic portrayal is a sentimental one.

“Was” begins by introducing Isaac McCaslin. But Ike was not. The tale takes place before the birth of Ike. One might expect that it is the story of how Ike’s parents decided to marry. To the contrary the story and most of the comedy are devoted to the explanation of how Ike’s father avoided marrying Ike’s mother. If “Was” were the whole of Go Down, Moses, then Ike never is. Indeed, the narrator of “Was” is Carothers McCaslin Edmonds, Ike’s “elder cousin” who, born in 1850, is in fact sixteen years older than Ike. During the era before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (December 6, 1865) Ike was not. Moreover, Edmonds is the great grandson of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, the first and now dead sinner of the novel. Ike is the grandson. The generations are mixed up. The later (junior) generation is older. “Was” seems to skip Ike’s generation.

In “Was,” the reader is not told the complete truth about Tomey’s Turl. Ike’s Uncle Hubert reveals that Tomey’s Turl is a “white half-McCaslin,” but the full truth is not exposed until Ike reads the ledgers in the “The Bear.” Faulkner places the discovery of the fact that Tomey’s Turl is the result of incest in the reading and reflecting voice of Ike’s thinking. Tomey is Lucius Quintus’s daughter and Terrel is his son/grandson. Ike is associated with the reader’s discovery of the second sin. “Was” cannot be fully understood until “The Bear,” the central episode that connects the attack on the wilderness with the exploitation of enslaved race. This concealment is the greatest concession to the comedy. It also shows that Ike’s birth ends any possibility that Go Down, Moses will treat slavery comically. The brothers Buck and Buddy are the half-brothers and uncles of Tomey’s Turl who is Ike’s uncle and cousin. Incest is a logical outcome of the enslavement and dehumanizing of the African race.

I will claim with only a little argument, for the sake of brevity, that Faulkner agrees with Sophocles that the incest prohibition is the law of laws. It is the human law that creates the family and thereby allows for the flourishing of our humanity. Oedipus Tyrannus shows relentlessly and thoroughly the fundamental character of the incest prohibition. Here is an indication of Sophocles’ view: Oedipus violates the prohibition in an attempt to avoid fulfilling a Delphic oracle that prophesies that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Now he thinks that his mother and father are the Corinthian King and Queen Polybus and Merope and not the Theban King and Queen Laius and Jocasta. So he avoids Corinth and travels toward Thebes.

Oedipus is caught between the two components of the being of parents: procreating and nurturing. Unlike the situation in the family established by the incest prohibition, he had two sets of parents who divided the parental identity. He was nurtured by Polybus and Merope and generated by Laius and Jocasta. The incest prohibition permits the generating and nurturing family to be one. In essence it creates the individual known as the father. Thus it is significant that one of Ike’s father figures, Sam Fathers, is the mixed-race descendant of a Chickasaw chief and an African American slave. Sam’s name means in Chickasaw “Had-Two-Fathers” because Sam’s generating father, the chief called Doom, married Sam’s mother to one of his slaves who became his nurturing father.

To commit incest is the fullest expression of denying that person and that race humanity. The irony is, perhaps the comedy is, that the perpetrator also denies himself humanity. In Go Down, Moses (and Absalom, Absalom!) slavery and incest are equivalent. In conformity to this equivalence, the plot of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! might be summarized as a portrait of how slavery makes a father a monster. Faulkner follows Mark Twain and acknowledges that Huckleberry Finn’s Pap (he receives no other name) is the paradigm of the father poisoned by the institution of slavery. This is not, I think, a sentimental view. But “Was” does not disclose this equivalence between incest and slavery. Why?

We learn from the ledgers that the year that “Was” takes place is 1859. Part of the comedy is the neglect to mention the impending Civil War, or at least the commotion of the late 1850’s. Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech is delivered June 16, 1858. The Dred Scott decision has been handed down. Buck and Buddy knew from their father’s will that he wished to half acknowledge his parentage of Tomey’s Turl. It is also evident that they figured out long before 1859 that Tomey’s mother, Eunice, committed suicide because Tomey was the daughter of Lucius Quintus, and he committed incest with her; perhaps he raped his own daughter. In “Was” Buck and Buddy know the whole truth about their father’s crimes and their relationships to Tomey’s Turl. Buck and Buddy do not talk about the sins of their father. They communicated through the ledgers, as though they could not face each other in talking about the deeds of their father.

“Was” is comical. The comedy depends on not discovering the incest in the McCaslin family. If we consider the novel as a whole, or at least “The Bear,” “Was” depends upon the failure of Buck to marry and Ike to be born. “Was” provides a quick report of Ike’s life, and how he hears about this episode in the lives of Buck, Buddy, and Tomey’s Turl. We do not learn why his cousin would tell him the awkward story of how his father tried to avoid marrying his mother. We do not hear the account or even the reason that Buck decided after the war to marry Sophonsiba.

These comic inclusions and omissions add up to the underlying terror of “Was.” The terror is too great to present directly. It is too dark for tragedy because in the face of the father’s sins nobility is not a possibility. “Was” is a darker situation than Euripides’ Medea. Medea destroys her children not only for the sins of their father against her but also for her sins against her own family. Tomey’s Turl is the heir of a terrible sin, a sin not his own. Ike tries to take his place.

In “Was” Buck and Buddy have decided that the McCaslin family is the sin. It should have no offspring in the next generation. The story dwells on the determination of the two brothers to avoid children. This is a greater burden on Buck than on Buddy. Obviously to prevent the sin of this family from continuing they must prevent Tomey’s Turl from having children. It is not clear that he knows the whole truth about himself. Certainly, Buck and Buddy would not tell him, and we do not know that he figured it out for himself. Whether he does or does not know, nonetheless he would bear the greatest weight of the family curse. The incest prohibition requires great restraint within all families, but it would not achieve this restraint anywhere if it required complete abstinence from procreation. Yet this is what Buck and Buddy ask of themselves and of Tomey’s Turl.

Buck and Buddy want to put the sins of their father in the past. These include slavery, incest, and perhaps rape. They think that they can achieve this confinement if they put an end to the generations of the family or at least the generations bearing the family name. The sins of the family then are not. The family crime “was.” But this extreme solution cannot be. It exacts a greater punishment on Tomey’s offspring than the original offense. The crimes of Lucius Quintus cannot be put in the past. The story “Was” is a was that is not. The past is different from what they tried in this episode to accomplish because the present is different from what they attempted to produce. “Was” is the explanation given to Ike about how the sins of slavery and incest cannot be buried in the past. This fact explains Ike’s birth. He is born only after Tomey’s Turl and Tennie have a surviving child. His birth is the “was” that is. He is
meant to atone for the sins of his grandfather.

I will refrain from arguing how I believe many of the stories in Go Down, Moses are alternative possibilities for the future of the south. I only note that Ryder in “Pantaloon in Black” imitates unsuccessfully Lucas (McCaslin) Beauchamp in “The Fire and the Hearth.” Instead I shall refer to the words of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” Who is speaking? When do they speak? What is their relationship to the flight of the Israelites from Egypt? Why do they harken to this past? The captivity and release of the Israelites are a was that is. To misunderstand the distinction between the was that is and the was that is not, according to Faulkner, is to fail to understand the effects of American slavery on the present.

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