Unforgotten

Unforgotten

I am attending a new seminar with Mark Scarbrough, this time up in Salisbury Connecticut, a town in the northwest corner of the state. The ride is another half hour beyond Washington (where we read Emily Dickinson with him), and not all of it as pleasantly rural as Route 63, but two hours with Mark is worth the roundtrip, in time and environs. The end-of-winter landscape – dirty snow, ratty leaf litter, and crumpled plastics – is not unsupportive of our subject author’s penchant for the bleak, even though he writes from and about the Deep South. This spring we are reading Faulkner, who was the center of Mark’s dissertation at Madison. Even though Mark was electrified/elated as a young man by his discovery and first reading of Absalom, Absalom! – seeing himself on a page, feeling written, known, given breath, as a southern man – he intended his scholarship to be as a medievalist. But a Faulkner seminar given by Toni Morrison changed his course. (No doubt!) Now all of that inherited and newly wrought wisdom and insight are passing to us, and I am luxuriating in it, word by precious word.

The first of Faulkner’s work we read was If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem, and we read it complete before the first seminar meeting. Without any of Mark’s commentary I found myself subsumed and entranced – embedded, silkened – giving myself over to the idiom and times, to the place of the South, willingly flooded, floating, absorbed, transported, witnessing, watching, wondering, yearning. I made my sense of the work, and then after two lectures, layered in what Mark (and Ms. Morrison) and Faulkner himself give light to, what they together uncovered, discovered, revealed about us all, the colonized peoples of modernity whose only salvation is art, that hopeful endeavor which suspends us humanely, tenuously, tenderly between meaning and meaninglessness.

For those of you that don’t know the book, If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem comprises two novellas alternately told: The Old Man and The Wild Palms. Old Man refers to the mighty Mississippi, and wild palms to the Gulf coast and from the first I wondered if the river would meet the sea, as it does in the delta; if the stories would cross either in plot or landscape or metaphor. I think they do, and not in any overt or cheap B-movie way. (Faulkner meticulously keeping his Hollywood scriptwriting separate, as work, not Art.) Rather the main characters each make their way and are carried to the same man-made landscape, a delta of sorts we call prison. The stories do wend and weave.

Both stories are tales of humans caught in the forces of nature, though they recognize, confront, and illuminate struggles that play out at greatly different natural scales: the unconquerable Earth processes outside ourselves on the one hand, and on the other, the evolutionary mandate of all life to reproduce, to procreate – that relentless internal driver no less overwhelming than flood or quake or wildfire. A Force Majeure, each: flood and passion, water and blood, rapids and flow channeling detritus, waste through human landscapes, both charted and not.

The Tall Convict in The Wild Palms battles floodwater uncontainable by levee, uncontrollable in any way, and despite his many chances to escape, despite an opportunity to survive by his own hand, satisfied, dignified by elemental labor, he chooses to return to custody, to return the boat not his, to return his charge the pregnant woman, to gainsay the safety of prison and of convention, to embrace an alienated labor and the company of men, so as to eschew the confounding circumstances of freedom and sex. He willingly pays the high price of freedom from.

In The Wild Palms Charlotte and Harry, appositively, are on the run, fleeing the tsunami of conventional domesticity, the swamping of partnered love by parenthood, the heavy heavy burdens of conformity and safety. They say no, together and separately, to security made meaningless by its provider: the two bad arts of pulp fiction and decorative figurines. And also to their never-to-be-born child, the unwanted agent of another depersonalization, another subjugation, and a harbinger of the death of romantic love. Charlotte pays the highest price for freedom to – to be other than a procreative subject and a creative serf. I see her as a heroine of sorts, although Faulkner did not write her as a main character. (Harry is an antihero, and unremarkable, unloveable in his ineffectual rebellion and sensual pander.) I identify with Charlotte’s struggle to be more than a vessel, to keep primary the love of her life, to define and create herself rather than be defined biologically, hormonally – to challenge the change in selfhood prescripted by nature. Contraception gives women this choice now; tragically for Charlotte the only out was abortion, and her gain was nought. As for myself, I am undefeated. I have wrestled nature (and society) to a tie, preserving the very intellect that makes me me, giving up procreation and its lineal claim on immortality to have instead a creative life, a life lived co-creatively, a life filled with creation. I have done this without forsaking love, or the blessings of children; miraculously they have found me, and what I am and know, what I feel and make – of sinew, nerve, and sight – will live on in them, and beyond.


 

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