The Southern Literary Journal 38.2 (2006) 19-39
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Jean Toomer's "Kabnis" and the Language of Dreams
"Whoever you are, my warm glowing sweetheart," Kabnis says in Jean Toomer's Cane, "do not think that the face that rests beside you is the real Kabnis. Ralph Kabnis is a dream" (83). This passage raises several questions. To whom, obviously, is he speaking? But also, is he saying, paradoxically, that the real Kabnis is a dream? Or is he presenting himself as a dream, on the assumption that there is another, real Kabnis? With this passage, the doors to ambiguity have been opened. Striking and enigmatic as they are, those words can be easily overlooked. They are, in fact, almost hidden in the midst of an overall abstruse paragraph, which is embedded within the complex piece. These lines could be regarded simply as part of the text's obscurity, or as an element adding to its puzzling character.1 Those words, in short, would not strike us as crucial if dreaming were not at the core of the entire piece. "Kabnis," the most complex and intriguing of Toomer's works, brings into literary form the elusive qualities of human dreams.
In "Kabnis," dreaming is an implicit, rather than an explicit, event. Unlike other literary works in which dreams are expressly presented as such—the closest example to "Kabnis" may be "Esther," one of the lyrical sketches included in the first part of Cane, in which we are told that "Esther begins to dream" (24)—"Kabnis" introduces us to an oneiric [End Page 19] experience without announcing it. There are a few direct references to dreaming, but even these are wrapped in the fabric of dreams. Dreaming is not a material used as part of the work, but a substance that shapes and permeates it throughout. The substance of "Kabnis" is the substance of dreams. "Kabnis" is a dream. And yet, this closet drama can be read not only as a fictional dream—a literary recreation of an already imaginary experience, a potential labyrinth Borges would approve of—but also as an account of possible events. Without misrepresenting either the realm of reality or the realm of dreams, "Kabnis" as a literary work bridges the two. I argue that Toomer uses the language of dreaming in "Kabnis," including grotesquery, emotional projection, and symbolism, to portray both Kabnis and himself as marginalized modernists.2
Several critics have identified connections between "Kabnis" and the sphere of dreams and the unconscious. Brian Joseph Benson, for instance, points out that in certain passages of "Kabnis," Toomer "lapses into a dreamlike reverie" (242). B. F. McKeever observes that the "cryptic commentary" Lewis makes on slavery near the end of the piece is surrealistic. McKeever also says that "Kabnis rehearses the fate of a 'dream deferred'" (205). Nellie Y. McKay refers to Kabnis' experience in the canebrake as a nightmare (242). John M. Reilly explains that the "visit to the room of Father John becomes...an excursion into the past...and, for the blacks variously compromising with their social environment, an encounter with the terms of the underlying identity." Immediately after, Reilly refers to the room as an "underground/unconscious setting" (205). If we follow the clue provided by Reilly—the underground as a metaphor of the unconscious—more examples come to light. In the introduction to the 1975 edition of Cane, and referring also to the events in Father John's room, Darwin T. Turner speaks of a "journey underground, a Walpurgis-Night experience" (135). In accordance with Reilly, Montgomery Gregory associates the word "underground" with race, and adds a new element: "We have a 'powerful underground' race with a marvelous emotional power" (168). Finally, Robert Littell says that "Mr. Toomer's view is unfamiliar and bafflingly subterranean" (169).
Reilly's amalgamation of the concepts of "underground" and "unconscious," and the vision of the underground as a place in which entities like race, identity, and emotions can be found, a place to be reached through an "excursion" or a "journey"; the...