“In the direction of system”: Two passages from The Grandissimes

Aurora aurora-and-clotilde-nancanou-receive-joseph-frowenfeldand Clotilde Nancanou receive Joseph Frowenfeld. Illustration by Albert Herter from an 1899 edition of The Grandissimes. Image found here.

George Washington Cable’s most famous novel (1880) is sneaky with regard to its examination of Creole New Orleans in those years just prior to and just after the Louisiana Purchase: strident when the reader expects (but does not necessarily want) it to be; wry, even sly, when the reader does not expect it. Consider these two brief examples involving Aurora and Clotilde Nancanou, the mother and daughter whose genteel destitution figures prominently in this novel.

The first passage provide a glimpse of the domestic dynamics of the Nancanou household:

[Aurora and Clotilde] sat down opposite each other at their little dinner table. They had a fixed hour for dinner. It is well to have a fixed hour; it is in the direction of system. Even if you have not the dinner, there is the hour. Alphonsina [their black cook] was not in perfect harmony with this fixed-hour idea. It was Aurora’s belief, often expressed in hungry moments with the laugh of a vexed Creole lady (a laugh worthy of study), that on the day when diner should really be served at the appointed hour, the cook would drop dead of apoplexy and she of fright[. . . .] Not that she felt particularly hungry, but there is a certain desultoriness allowable at table more than elsewhere[.] (216-217)

“In the direction of system” strikes me as both a marvelously evocative turn of phrase on its own terms and one that also speaks to the strange combination of surface rigidity and domestic compromise–perhaps even an unspoken resignation–at work in a world that we today rightly characterize as brutalizing and dehumanizing toward people of color, whether freedmen or not. System–structure, rules, codes–must be in place, even if those whose actions are ostensibly most governed by that system are “not in perfect harmony with” it. Moreover, as the concluding sentence makes clear, the system referred to is intended for public visual consumption; the novel’s later brief public scandal of Joseph Frowenfeld (the American who serves simultaneously as the author’s mouthpiece, the novel’s moral center, and Clotilde’s romantic interest) being seen leaving a mulatto woman’s house with a head wound is a scandal precisely because it is public.

[The dynamic at work here, by the way is strikingly similar to that regarding the establishing and (lack of) policing of the dress codes (and the reasoning behind them) depicted in Mexican casta paintings from the colonial era. The intent behind the dress codes was to make one’s class–and, indirectly, one’s caste–more publicly certain. Implicit in the code was the assumption that lower-caste members, no matter their skin color, tended not to be financially successful. But some lighter-skinned members of those lower castes inevitably did make money, as artisans, as merchants, etc., and it is all but certain that some of those with the means tried and succeeded in passing as higher-caste members. The dress code therefore provided them with a legally-sanctioned disguise.]

These public displays in the direction of system, in combination with domestic desultorinesses, can lead to some rather odd musings in the face of the more awkward consequences of the Peculiar Institution, as is the case with this second passage:

That same morning Clotilde had given a music-scholar her appointed lesson, and at its conclusion had borrowed of her patroness (how pleasant it must have been to have such things to lend!) a little yellow maid, in order that, with more propriety, she might make a business call. (205)

While Clotilde is a very young woman whose mother seems to have protected her from situations in which she would have come to understand that the mulatto girl’s existence might not have been a source of much pleasantness at her student’s house, it’s still hard not to recall this famous passage from Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War diary: “[L]ike the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think-” (source).

Such a world is one of tacitly-sanctioned virtual disguises even more impenetrable than the clothes one wears, a world of very odd public dances on whose strangeness no one comments. Thus, it is no accident, given Cable’s characters’ preoccupation with appearance (in all its senses) and underlying identities and entangled family roots of plantation families (just as one example, two men in the novel are named Honoré Grandissime, one a Creole, the other his mulatto half-brother), that his novel’s opening scene is a masked ball.

The “ideology of form” and Go Down, Moses

The Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses. Image found found here.

Hosam Aboul-Ela’s book, Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, begins at the same place Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi does: that it might be useful to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world, what Aboul-Ela calls the Other South. But whereas Glissant limits his discussion to Faulkner as a Caribbean (or Plantation) writer, Aboul-Ela’s range is more global and more overtly materialist in orientation. He uses the work of Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a progenitor of (economic) dependency theory as a starting point for articulating a theory of postcolonial experience that originates in those regions rather than in Europe or the United States. He devotes a little over half his book to laying out the resulting “Mariátegui Tradition” before moving on to reading Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion) and Absalom, Absalom! through this critical lens.

Given the orientation of the intellectual tradition of the Other South that Aboul-Ela outlines, it’s understandable why he chooses these works to discuss at length: they are the Faulkner novels that lend themselves most readily to such readings, driven as the plots of each are by the arrival in Mississippi of outsiders and their getting and controlling of property and wealth and the attendant power to the benefit of the Few As Possible and the detriment of local folks. But a chapter section entitled “The Ideology of Faulkner’s Form,” his lead-in to his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, made me curious, in connection with some comments I made here, what Aboul-Ela might have to say about the ideology inherent in Go Down, Moses‘ form. So, below the fold I once again mount my GDM hobby-horse.
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“They endured”: Further comments on Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi

Caroline Barr (1840-1940), the Faulkner family maid, to whom Go Down, Moses is dedicated. Image found here.

“They endured,” as readers of “Appendix: Compson” know, is the sum total of how Faulkner describes Dilsey, the Compson’s black maid in The Sound and the Fury. Glissant finds that a crucial textual touchstone in his effort to determine how Faulkner locates African-Amercans in his (Faulkner’s) vision of the South. If you read closely the excerpts from Glissant’s Faulkner book that I included in my previous post, two arguments emerge.

The first is that Faulkner confers not merely a sort of nobility upon black people relative to whites, he even holds them aloft–or prefers to hold them aloft–from History. They, unlike Faulkner’s whites, have no fate, no destiny to work out:

[Zack Edmonds] thought [as he looks at Lucas Beauchamp], and not for the first time: I am not only looking at a face older than mine and which has seen and winnowed more, but at a man most of whose blood was pure ten thousand years when my own anonymous beginnings became mixed enough to produce me. (Go Down, Moses 69, italics in the original).

Though Glissant does not say so explicitly, his early statement that Faulkner’s vision is that of epic invites the analogy: In that epic vision of the South, blacks are to the gods as whites are to mortals . . . except, of course, blacks are by and large unable to shape circumstances to their own advantage. Marginalized deities? The second is that, while Faulkner clearly sees such a positioning as honorific and ennobling of black people, Glissant and, by extension, African-Americans, see this (or should see this) as patronizing at best and, at worst, a denial of the same human agency that Faulkner’s whites have been cursed with.

All the above is why, as I’ve thought about all this, Go Down, Moses seems such a central text in the Faulkner canon–perhaps even the central text–and I’m not just saying that because if it weren’t for this novel I might very well not have written the dissertation (such as it is) that I did, much less be revisiting it now. In GDM, it seems clear, we find not only, through Ike McCaslin in particular, Faulkner’s clearest iteration of his conception of black people, we also find its most forceful rebuttal–as forceful as any that Glissant or any other critic could offer. The question that arises in my mind is, just how aware was Faulkner that his novel does that.
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A reading of a casta painting

(Note: This post, crossposted here, is part of a larger interest of mine in identifying the characteristics of visual and textual rhetorics of interracial mixing and seeing what larger conclusions we can draw from those characteristics.)

Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Yale, 2004). Amazon link here. Image found here.

Posts both at my other blog and at this one on the genre of casta painting continue to draw a fair amount of traffic, so as a follow-up to those posts I thought I would post some brief comments on Katzew’s book and offer up not so much a reading of a painting as a kind of wading-into of the various social codes casta paintings participated in.

Here are some things I hadn’t know before reading this book that seem to me of significance: First of all, casta paintings are apparently exclusively a Spanish colonial–more precisely Mexican–genre (though Katzew notes the existence of one known casta painting set from Peru). This was surprising to me because the French Caribbean colonies likewise had worked out elaborate nomenclatures for various racial combinations–though theirs involved black-white combinations, and the New Spain system carried within it an implicit didactic element for its audience, about which more later. The other thing I didn’t know was the extent of these paintings’ popularity: Katzew notes that there are 100 known complete sets of these paintings (a set usually consists of 16 paintings; some depict up to 19 racial combinations) and any number of paintings belonging to now-incomplete sets. The other sign of their popularity is that, similar to but stricter than the guild system for painters in Dutch and Flemish culture, the Spanish crown regulated the licensing of artist workshops and who could paint what subjects in the colonies. Specifically, the Crown determined through examination who could paint religious and royal subjects and how to paint them, but no such regulations governed casta paintings; Katzew politely suggests that this lack of regulation accounts for these paintings’ “wide range of quality” (9).

If you have more than passing (no pun, about which more later) interest in this subject, look for this book. Katzew’s book is exemplary art history, with the emphasis here on the “history” part. But though there is lots of history, it serves to provide much-needed context for what would otherwise be rather enigmatic paintings. But neither does it skimp on images: there are 265 of them, most of them in color, not counting large closeups of some of the paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings included here are held privately and published here for the first time, thus adding to the book’s value.

Reading Katzew’s book reassured me that for the most part I hadn’t just been talking through my hat in those earlier posts regarding these paintings’ ambiguities for their audiences. Because her book is a work of art history, as opposed to criticism, she does not in the end argue for a definitive way to think about them. Rather, by so firmly establishing their cultural and social and legal contexts, Katzew makes clear that a far safer way for us to think about these paintings is that how they were understood in the 18th century depended on a whole complex of issues. They are part American exotica for primarily Spanish consumption, part visual codification of class and racial codes (and, thus, reassurance for Spaniards that everything is under control) . . . and yet, something about the very necessity to create a casta system in the first place would lead to its eventual (partial) deconstruction in the form of the wars for independence in the first quarter of the 19th century. The title of Katzew’s conclusion pretty much sums it up: “A genre with many meanings.” It’s outside the scope of her book to do so, but I would push that conclusion harder: Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

Imagine if the King of Ambiguity in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, had instead been a painter in 18th-century colonial Mexico. I think you’d have a pretty good sense of the complexities casta paintings presented for their immediate audiences–and, for that matter, for us.

An example of what I mean is below the fold.
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