- Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned
This volume of fifteen essays on the novels of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison meets one’s expectations and then some. As expected, reading these two laureates’ works in light of each other leads the contributors to many perceptive insights into individual novels by both writers. As one would also hope, the essays provocatively explore various pairings of novels by the two writers. The volume is organized around such pairings: after the first section of four essays centering on intertextuality, the second section of seven essays is devoted to various pairings, and then the third section of three essays focuses on parallels between Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved.
Several of the pairings are particularly notable. Starting with parallels between Joe Christmas and Cholly Breedlove as dangerous exiles from their communities, Philip Weinstein extends his discussion of “the humiliation of the will, the discovery of impotence consequent upon a failed legacy” to a series of Faulkner’s and Morrison’s male characters. Karla F. C. Holloway opens up Beloved and As I Lay Dying by considering them as “narratives of mourning,” narratives that not only “give body to the dead” but in the process “decompose as they impose a spirit to occupy the disembodied space.” Lucinda H. MacKethan thoughtfully compares Ike McCaslin and Milkman Dead as readers of signs who become their authors’ models for the reader as co-creator of the texts. Reading Jazz in the light of Absalom, Absalom!, and vice [End Page 485] versa, Roberta Rubenstein pursues a similar argument, asserting that both novels depend upon the withholding of meaning as the character-narrators employ mixtures of observation and invention, a narrative form that “places in the reader’s hands the responsibility for constructing the meaning of [the] text.” Akin to MacKethan’s focus on reading and Rubenstein’s attention to the shared invention of meaning, Phillip Novak perceptively demonstrates that Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved probe such issues as how stories are told or known, “the fundamental inability to explain” many phenomena, and the “unrealized possibilities” of stories like these “that are started only to unravel.”
In addition to insights into individual novels and to the added insights that evolve from such pairings of novels, the volume becomes a symposium on the complex issue of influence. In Novak’s terms, the volume addresses such questions as “What are the consequences of citing affinities, tracing out affiliations, establishing connections? What does it mean to say that one text is like another?” The question is not simply how Faulkner may have influenced Morrison but becomes the more profound issue of how readings of each author’s fiction are influenced by readers’ familiarity with both oeuvres. Nancy Ellen Batty develops the Lacanian-based notion that the intertextual overlappings between Morrison’s and Faulkner’s novels result from “the ceaseless desire of language itself to circulate within a wider cultural field.” The question of Morrison’s attitudes toward Faulkner is another dimension of the contributors’ explorations of the question of influence. For Andrea Dimino, Morrison’s “re-vision” of Faulkner is both a “tribute” and a “continuing combat,” and John N. Duvall demonstrates that Morrison’s comments on Faulkner’s work suggest her unresolved ambivalence toward his possible influences on her work. Keith Byerman sees Morrison as the “literary daughter” who needs to tell her own story because her predecessors, including Faulkner, “have gotten the story wrong,” most notably by reducing all black women, and therefore Morrison, to “cipher[s].” As this volume collectively reveals, the relationships among the texts of these two are infinitely complex; as Patrick O’Donnell terms it, there is a “differential intertextuality” at play.
The icing on this volume’s cake is Carolyn Denard’s essay. With her own expansive vision, she explores the mythic dimensions of the “writer’s gaze” of Morrison and Faulkner. For Denard, both novelists elevate their characters to ultimate levels of meaning because of their [End Page 486] “long look,” their “long view of history,” a...