- “Not Even Past”: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud writes of the compulsion to repeat in a number of different circumstances: in the persistent nightmares of shell-shocked First World War veterans, in the habitual fort/da game of his grandson, who tosses a spool away and rediscovers it as a means of representing and mastering his mother’s periodic absences, and in the patterns that emerge in analytic transference. His compact yet suggestive formulation of the relationship between loss, creative play, repetition, and mastery, particularly as encapsulated within the alternation of presence and absence evoked in his grandson’s game, has served as a central reference point for studies of trauma, linking together psychic loss with linguistic expression.
In her debut book, Dorothy Stringer draws upon Freud’s theoretical foundation to begin her discussion of how U.S. modernist literature and photography both inscribe and erase racial and historical trauma in the wake of a past “not even past.” She then returns to Freud in her conclusion to parse out what might be “beyond” trauma studies as it currently stands. Along the way, she engages and intermingles other texts, authors, and theories in a manner that does far more than rehearse familiar theoretical conclusions. Over the course of five brief but dense chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, Stringer traces a rich but somewhat idiosyncratic path through modernist literature and art, examining William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing, and Carl Van Vechten’s portraiture with and against a wide range of psychoanalytic theory. She explores the intersection between racial and historical trauma and artistic production, and argues that these artists “encoded” their interest in U.S. slavery in “tropes of subjective interiority, particularly depictions of such privileged inner states as madness, religious ecstasy, narcissism, and fetishistic enjoyment” (3). Thus, she works to unpack how these works register trauma “in the spaces left by conventional public discourse” (3).
While Stringer links the primary works she focuses on with contemporaneous psychoanalytic thought (Joan Riviere, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin and Melanie Klein), she also underscores how they anticipate contemporary trauma theory. Her introduction deftly summarizes the rise of trauma studies and the theoretical debates therein, paying special attention to the work of Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, Dominick La Capra, and Michael Rothberg, before [End Page 945] turning to three landmark works of American literary criticism not usually thought of under the rubric of trauma studies: D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1966), and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992). Stringer persuasively draws attention to how these texts situate trauma within a specifically American context, underscore nationally specific problems of historical memory and racial injustice, and are importantly attuned to the way that “trauma can be appropriated, can serve mastery” (16).
The first two chapters concentrate on two of Faulkner’s minor texts: Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun. Stringer draws upon the work of Judith Butler, Riviere, and Freud to illuminate Temple Drake’s fantasies about race and gender and to illustrate her larger claims about the racialization of trauma as a discursive phenomenon. In Stringer’s reading, Requiem for a Nun, which returns to but significantly alters the story of Temple Drake, frames slavery and institutionalized anti-black racism as key structural determinants of national history and individual identity, and she calls attention to how both of these novels demonstrate Faulkner’s positioning of racial and sexual violence within white national identity.
The third and fourth chapters center on Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing and underscore the reinscription of traumatic histories on the surface of the black female body. Here she stresses how Quicksand inscribes narcissism and ecstatic religious conversion, and how Passing attends to fetishism, particularly in the sexual commodification of black women. Provocatively, Stringer highlights the way...