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Not Even Past: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten

Not Even Past: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Not Even Past: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten
    Book Description:

    Not Even Past highlights references to nineteenth-century U.S. slavery and anti-Black racism in literary and photographic projects begun during the late 1920s and early 1930s, including novels by William Faulkner and Nella Larsen, and portraits by Carl Van Vechten. These texts share a representational crisis, in which distinctions between present, quotidian racism and a massive, fully racialized historical trauma disappear. All identify persistent historical traumatization with intense subjective states (including madness, religious ecstasy, narcissism, and fetishistic enjoyment), and each explores the conservative, even coercive social character of such links between psyche and history. When the past of enslavement is not even past,narration freezes, black and white women lose their capacity to question or resist social and domestic violence, and racial politics fail.Anticipating contemporary trauma studies by decades, these disparate modernists' works constitute not an expounded or avowed but an interstitial trauma theory, which finds its shape in the spaces left by conventional public discourse. Their works parallel important essays by psychoanalytic thinkers of the same era, including Joan Riviere, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and Walter Benjamin, and their joint explication of relationships among psyche, history, and race offers important resources for psychoanalytic approaches to racial difference today. Despite their analytic acuity, however, Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten also themselves carry the traumatic past forward into the future. Indeed, the two novelists' tragic depictions of a triumphant color line and the photographer's insistence on an idiom of black primitivism lent support to white supremacy in the twentieth century. Yet even in their very failure, three U.S. modernists tell us that it is not enough simply to exercise critical acuity on the marks of past violence. Reading, however masterly, cannot interrupt a history in the midst of repeating itself; it can only itself reiterate the disaster.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4820-9
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-V)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. VI-VI)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-X)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    Fortandda,in Sigmund Freud’s 1920 workBeyond the Pleasure Principle, are elements of a game invented by his eighteen-month-old grandson.¹ The baby would hide or throw away his toys while announcing “o-o-o” (fort, “gone,” according to daily caretakers), and sometimes rediscover them with a joyful “da!” (“there!”). Freud read the game as a figuration of the child’s mother’s absence. More broadly, he identified thefort/dagame as “beyond the pleasure principle”: it is not driven by the search for gratification, since the baby is not representing something he wishes to have. Instead,fort/dais a critical activity; the...

  6. 1 “Little Black Man”: Repetition, the Lesbian Phallus, and the Southern Rape Complex in Sanctuary
    (pp. 22-43)

    Freudian theory has specific, original engagements with racial difference, albeit often entwined with its theorizations of sexual difference and sexuality. However, these irregular moments, when early psychoanalysis imagined bodies crisscrossed with physical differences and power differentials that radically exceed the classic Oedipal scene, are not so much a body of theoretical investigation as a collection of ambivalent, intermittent, and strangely static responses to racist institutional and social contexts. For example, Sander Gilman’s rich work demonstrates the degree to which the imperative to manage and defer anti-Semitic reactions, both within the medical profession and in Viennese society more generally, influenced Sigmund...

  7. 2 “Which Tooth Hit You First?”: Nation, Home, Women, and Violence in Requiem for a Nun
    (pp. 44-65)

    One of the most frequently-quoted lines in William Faulkner’s work is an aphorism taken from the otherwise little-read 1951 novelRequiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”¹ Barack Obama, president-elect as of this writing, paraphrased it in his March 2008 “speech on race in America” entitled “A More Perfect Union.” Speaking in Philadelphia, at a time when his nomination was not yet assured, and in response to vocal condemnations of his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, Obama asserted that history, and especially African American historical experiences of oppression, remains relevant to contemporary political debates. His...

  8. 3 “Anyone with Half an Eye”: Blackness and the Disaster of Narcissism in Quicksand
    (pp. 66-87)

    Can there be a reading of literature that calls into question our ability to read literature? Are there texts that donotreflect back to us an image of our own mastery? Such uncomfortable questions are, perhaps, behind the elaborate salving of doubts about historical, artistic, and moral values by both defenders and detractors of national-literary “canons.” We have an uneasy, sub-articulate suspicion that there is not, in fact, any necessary relationship between what we read and why we read it. We suspect, in ourselves, a certain narcissism, and we fear it; in particular, we fear that the relationship of...

  9. 4 “A Having Way”: Fetishism and the Black Bourgeoisie in Passing
    (pp. 88-108)

    Literary trauma studies often identifies traumatic writing with modernist formal experimentation, particularly estranging, unsympathetic, anti-traditionalist gestures. “The breakage of the verse enacts the breakage of the world,” as Shoshana Felman writes in her foundational “Education and Crisis”¹: the psychic disposition of the person reading a difficult text approximates that of the person subject to traumatic eventualities, and thus literature does not only represent, but also transmits traumatization. This and other familiar axioms of trauma studies are not only theoretical concepts, but also technical and ethical precepts: they introduce a technique for reading traumatic texts and assert the reader’s responsibility to...

  10. 5 “To Glorify the Negro”: Photographic Shock and Blackness in Carl Van Vechten’s Portraiture
    (pp. 109-136)

    Photography, for important modern and contemporary cultural theorists, is strongly associated with psychological shock. Walter Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography” (1931) is the germinal text: “The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret images whose shock effect paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder.”¹ Photography for Benjamin was one of many transformations of material culture (discussed at various points in his multifoliateoeuvre) that irrevocably changed the individual’s relationship to the passage of time by institutionalizing experiences of shock, including “the invention of the match and of the telephone, the technical transmission of information...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 137-144)

    My father’s colonnaded, Greek Revival house was built in 1848, overlooking the Mohawk River in Upstate New York. Between his property and the river there is a public bike path, built over railroad tracks that fell out of use decades ago. He sometimes converses with the passersby. Once, a stranger asked about the age of the house and, on hearing the date, asked avidly whether there were any chains in the basement.

    “Chains? For what?” my father asked.

    “You know. Forthem,” the man replied.

    Eventually, it transpired that the stranger, a white man, had read an article in the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 145-156)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 157-172)
  14. Index
    (pp. 173-177)