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RANDALL WILHELM University of Tennessee Framing Joe Christmas: Vision and Detection in Light in August “Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.” —The Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon OVERHALFWAYTHROUGHLIGHTINAUGUST,READERSAREFINALLY shown the startling image from which the mystery’s events have flowed, the brutally murdered and bloody corpse of Joanna Burden, displayed on a bed sheet before a burning mansion for the gathering crowd to see. The narrator describes the spectacular quality of the scene and foregrounds the power of the image to fascinate and freeze onlookers in their tracks: “those who crowded to look down at the body on the sheet [were stunned] with that static and childlike amaze with which adults contemplate their own inescapable portraits” (287-88). The scene performs as a type of memento mori, the sprawled corpse a violent sign of the inevitable death awaiting us all, but the sheer brutality of her murder as well as her shocking display on the bed sheet provokes distinct responses from its audience as they stand transfixed and immobile before the disturbing vision. The narrator, hovering above and outside the frame of the narrative action, lingers over the swelling crowd, informing us that their “dull and static amaze” was “brought down from the old fetid caves where knowing began, as though, like death, they had never seen fire before” (288). As visual theorists such as Norman Bryson and Hal Foster have noted,1 this type of visual experience signals a kind of ocular stupor where the collective gaze looks blindly at the world, its vision not blocked or returned but temporarily co-opted and frozen, unable to comprehend the visual field before it. After all, for all the crowd’s intense staring in this extended scene, readers only get the specific detailsaboutJoanna’scorpsefromByronBunch,whoseshortdescription 1 See Bryson’s Vision and Painting for an accessible sampler of approaches to various visual systems and gazes and their varied effects on viewers. Foster’s VisionandVisuality provides a bevy of approaches to the problems of historical and contextualized vision throughout the history of the visual arts. 394 Randall Wilhelm allows us to see the body more clearly: “she was laying on her side, facing one way, and her head was turned clean around like she was looking behind her” (92). But while the crowd obviously observes this grotesque scene they cannot speak of it themselves. It is as if the trauma of witnessing the visual spectacle has positioned them temporarily in a space outside of language, beyond cognition, and within this disconcerting gap between vision and knowledge the narrator rises to fill the lack. Exploring the role of the visual in Light in August leads to a discussion of its role as a means of potential knowledge and as a narrative tool of power and obfuscation. To open this discussion, I cite the visually arresting scene of Joanna’s corpse on display for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it foregrounds the interplay between vision and knowledge, and because it exposes the narrator’s role as an “arranger”2 who shapes episodes of visual consumption through framing devices such as the rectangular bed sheet. As Faulknerians know, nearly all of Faulkner’s writing is in some way bound to issues of mystery and detection, of solving crimes (moral or legal), of at least attempting to come to terms with the unsolvable and the vagaries of time, change, and despair. Viewing Light in August through the lens of the mystery or detective genre reveals a shared fascination with vision and visuality, with seeing and being seen, with spectatorship and surveillance, with visual systems and strategies of representation that perform as (sometimes) spurious models of knowledge. As many scholars have noted, the detective story offered a form elastic enough to allow for infinite repetition and variation but one which frequently relied on the primacy of vision to see beyond surfaces—finding the “smoking gun” or the elusive “eyewitness”—as a key to solving “the perfect murder.” Criticalassessmentsoftheliteraryformofthedetectivegenreprovide further parallels and often read like discussions of Faulknerian form. David Lehman, for instance, offers a compelling definition of the detective story, especially for an analysis of the visual politics of Light...


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pp. 393-407
Launched on MUSE
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