Interesting Counternarratives (Faulkner’s ‘Was’)

Counternarratives are a dime a dozen, so the keyword here is ‘interesting’. I can go into a rant here, as I’m but a ball of hate, to the effect that the basic annoying thing about the world is big, sloppy, counternarratives, dull counternarratives, and the fact that people think they are interesting when they aren’t. I think this is related to what I earlier called the ‘infernal wheel’ of the consciousness and the subconsciousness (as narrative and counternarrative). But I will spare you that rant, that negative definition.

An ‘interesting’ counternarrative is, to give a vague definition, a counternarrative that preserves the details of the original text (memory, experience, etc.) while giving it the sense of the uncanny. For example, in the last essay, I spoke about how I resisted the urge to write a follow up to the ‘Perhaps’ essay, despite the fact that it had a central, glaring hole (that of assuming a fundamental neurological subconsciousness) and this was out of a sense of despair at being able to read it. So, the uninteresting counternarrative here would be the conceptual one, the one where I’m forced into, unwittingly, a severe conceptual error for various reasons. (Similarly, ‘psychoanalytic’ narratives of guilt and repression would be uninteresting.) I go on to say that I looked to ‘the dream’ in order to remember the past, and that is what I here call the ‘interesting’ counternarrative.

A few words on ‘Ode to Nightingale’, incidentally: we all but came out and said that the first few stanzas of the poem were awful. They in fact would be awful if it weren’t for the fact that the speaker takes up and dismisses various cliches of internality (‘the blues”, “escapism”, “nostalgia”) at a pace resembling that of the flight of the nightingale itself. But there is still something ‘interesting’ about those moments, considered now as moments of dramatized failure — moments when one attempts to reach out for something but misses, landing instead at the cliche we spoke of — which always makes me think of the pathos behind the incredibly touching Racine play “Phaedra”. There is then a kind of irony or disavowal in the very speaking of the words, and furthermore momentary flashes that seem to shine through at the very moment of failure, when one says exactly what one wants to say. In that essay, we actually only touched upon the third stanza in OtN, the one about escaping the world and its woes, we pointed to the misanthropic tendencies of this stanza, but this, while personal, is not quite ‘interesting’, and this is basically because it is too tied down to content, it’s not self-reflective enough.

But let’s talk about Faulkner’s story ‘Was’. There is a dominant ‘white’ story there, told through the eyes of young Isaac I think. “Isaac”: this reminds me how the first counternarratives that one gets in that book are all Biblical — starting with ‘Isaac’, onto ‘Moses’, as well as the names of the two brothers,Amadeus and Theophilus — literally, ‘Lover of God’ in Latin and Greek. In general, the American South was sort of cast as a retelling of the Bible, in its very reinterpretation of the Bible, one that was not at all theological, but rather somehow more visceral — ie, one consisting of names, puns, and actual events rather than of ideas. Cf, the movie ‘Frailty’, where Bill Paxton plays a serial killer who takes his visions of God far too literally, or so it seems. I’m also reminded of Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, which seems to be a similar effort.

But that is the first counternarrative we encounter, and possibly the main reason for Faulkner’s fame, but actually, perhaps, not the most interesting one, at least, not in its current form. “Was” culminates in a poker game between two plantation owners Beauchamp and McCaslin, with the cards being dealt by Tomey’s Turl, the escaped slave. The hand is overwhelmingly in Beauchamp’s favor, but he, eyeing the half-black, half-white hand of Tomey’s Turl, folds. I think they were playing seven card stud or something, I don’t remember — anyways, all the cards were dealt face up — there was no question of bluffing. It was a question of which story would win out, since Poker is all about stories, in fact, about peicing together the highly concrete elements in a deck of cards in order to create a narrative. The fact that the elements being peiced together are all ‘the same’ (all cards are the same) is highly significant, it’s a way of thinking about the arbitrariness of a subconscious counternarrative that is not physiological but rather narrative. And in fact, the most significant element of the card game is the introduction of a *third* element in an infernal dichotomy. It is this third element that in fact ‘wins’, despite, oddly enough, the hand never being revealed — Beauchamp folds.



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