Read for its latent meanings, Intruder in the Dust traces the cause of racial lynchings to a model of identity formation based in exclusionary tactics. At this symbolic level, the novel's two central developments, the mob frenzy to lynch Lucas Beauchamp and the murder of Vinson Gowrie, appear to be motivated by a desire to identify and empower the self through the abjection of another. Disguised by doubling and distanced by undeveloped characters and a convoluted plot, the novel's project is to mount an inquiry into the fundamental problem at the crux of the psychoanalytic and psycholinguistic master narrative of identity, namely, that difference, in particular, white, male difference (what Lacan calls "the phallic distinction"), appears to be insecurely secured by repression. Stripped to its essentials, the identity narrative stipulates that alienation, or displacement, prevents culture's binaries, like male and female or black and white, from collapsing into one another. This narrative accepts as axiomatic that authority and autonomy are purchased by enforced subordination and that egalitarianism is a threat to differential meanings. Faulkner's novels, however, accept no first principle as a given; rather, they relentlessly expose and question a system of signification that exalts [End Page 788] exclusionary tactics—like the lynching of Lucas Beauchamp—as the foundation of meaning and identity.
Faulkner's bewildering novel, Intruder in the Dust, is a fiction about burial and retrieval. By my count, various bodies are buried and exhumed five times, and the novel's narrative technique mirrors this subject; that is, the text withholds or buries meanings, retrieves them, and quickly reburies them. For example, ostensibly, Intruder in the Dust is a murder mystery, but few who have the read it can recall the identity of either the murderer or his victim. In fact, the murderer is Crawford Gowrie, and he kills his brother, Vinson, a murder that should horrify us but does not, because the text works to withhold or bury this fratricide. In effect, their story is never told, or, more accurately, it is told by proxy, displaced onto another, the narrative of a relationship between an adolescent boy, Chick Mallison, who is identified as white, and an elderly, dignified man, Lucas Beauchamp, who is both father figure to Chick and culturally defined as "black." This narrative of a father-son relationship, like its double, the murder of Vincent Gowrie, also centers on burial and retrieval. As the novel opens, Lucas is about to be lynched. His offense, the novel insistently tells us, is refusing "to be a nigger" (18), that is, refusing to play a culturally assigned role that is defined by the word "nigger." The work of the novel is to avert this lynching, and in a move that seems to defy credibility, Chick can only save Lucas by digging up a buried corpse.
These events, burial and disinterment, are, I suggest, symbolic. Specifically, they symbolize the way we compose polarized meanings in language. Binary meanings seem to depend on repressive tactics: we advance one term in a binary by subordinating, or burying, another. For example, the term, "male," takes on meaning in opposition to female, and white is distinguished by its difference from black. If male and female are alike or if white and black blend, the meanings of both terms are obscured. Burial symbolizes an effort to displace and deny, so as to construct dominant and subordinate positions in a polarized opposition. Disinterment, on the other hand, symbolizes an end to burial in a restoration to a former equal footing that burial disturbed.
I have defined the symbols of burial and retrieval in terms of language's constitution of binary meanings, but these images also refer, respectively, to repression and the return of the repressed, the basic mental processes by which the mind distinguishes cultural meanings. Repression is our refusal (or burial) of a meaning; the return of the repressed is the restoration, or disinterment, of the rejected meaning. The psychoanalytic account of identity formation exalts repression (a shutting out) as enabling the separation that constitutes [End Page 789] a separate self and separate meanings, even as it neatly sidesteps, or represses, Freud's finding that repression always...