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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 363-364
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Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber. Subversive Voices: Eroticizing the Other in William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2001. xiii + 183 pp.
Evelyn Schreiber's relatively brief monograph on the works of Faulkner and Morrison follows a spate of similar intertextual studies through the late 1980s and '90s. These include a number of essays published in major journals; an edited collection, Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned (1997); and a book-length treatment, Philip M. Weinstein's thoughtful, almost confessional, What Else But Love?: The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison (1996). While discussion of the relationship between the two writers' work has been productive and is certainly not exhausted, Schreiber's work, unfortunately, does little to advance this project. Schreiber's argument, in light of the work that precedes it, is surprisingly conservative. Faulkner's texts, she claims, support "the existing symbolic structure," only occasionally allowing the subversive voices of women and blacks to disrupt this structure, while Morrison's texts "highlight the gaze of the Other" and "strip the imaginary erotic relationship to the other." Moreover, the argument is weakened by the author's decision to discuss each writer's works separately, by an odd choice of critical bedfellows, and by a heavy-handed application of psychoanalytic theory.
In her brief introduction, Schreiber rallies to her project a disparate array of theorists and critics: Jacques Lacan, Raymond Williams, Paulo Friere, Gloria Anzaldúa, Mikhail Bakhtin, Homi Bhabha, W. E. B. Du Bois, and bell hooks. While Schreiber most consistently employs the psychoanalytic framework of Lacan, her use of his work, filtered as it is through cultural theory and identity politics, is at best idiosyncratic and, at worst, representative of the type of crude, mechanical analysis that has undermined the value of psychoanalytic literary analysis. Often conflating Du Bois's notion of "double-consciousness" with Lacan's concept of the split subject, Schreiber distorts Lacan's central idea, that subjects are necessarily alienated. Lacan's project of decentering the ego is fundamentally at odds with the project of identity politics to which Schreiber turns in her discussion of Morrison: this places her in the difficult position of criticizing Faulkner's white characters for their nostalgia, while praising Morrison's characters for attempting to retrieve their "own ancestral past." In effect, by slipping from the psychoanalytic to the cultural, Schreiber seems to be claiming that what is psychologically true for all members of society is culturally useful only for its marginalized "others." What is most disconcerting, however, is Schreiber's misunderstanding [End Page 363] of Lacan's concept of "le petit objet a." It is absurd to assert, as she does, that the petit objet (what in Lacanian analysis is the disturbing part-object representative of unconscious desire) is, for Ike McCaslin, the wilderness.
Ultimately, Schreiber raises more questions than she answers. What role do Faulkner and his narrators play in permitting or even encouraging the subversive voices of women and African Americans in his work? What is the price, psychoanalytically speaking, of repressing these voices and desires? Does Morrison allow the subversive voices of whites to emerge in her texts? How does the search for an ancestral past in Morrison's novels, a search that Schreiber acknowledges as subversive and enabling, differ from the nostalgia expressed in Faulkner's work? And what does it mean to say that some "black characters incorporate (that is, perform as) whites"? Or that "in order for black characters to achieve subject status, they must reject white desire and discover their own through African American values"? Weinstein's book on Faulkner and Morrison, which Schreiber acknowledges reading, both raises and explores these essential and difficult questions. Reading Schreiber after Weinstein is disconcerting. While Weinstein relies less overtly on psychoanalytic theory, his analysis is more critically astute, complex, and nuanced than Schreiber's; as such, it demands a much better analytical sequel.
Nancy E. Batty
Red Deer College