By Isabel Adonis
I read William Faulkner's Light in August in my early teens and I scarcely understood it. But I understood something and many years later a woman at a party mentioned that she had read the same novel at college. For a while she talked about miscegenation and on my return home I decided that this was something that I wanted to look into. I wandered down to the little second hand bookstore in Bethesda where I used to live and it was the first book that I found there, as if it had been waiting for me to claim it. I am mixed race, my mother was Welsh and my father was from the Caribbean. Many people treat me as if I am black, an exotic, and a foreigner. But I have lived a life like the character in the book, lonely isolated and forever going round in circles searching for my authentic self. And just as in Faulkner's deep south I live in a society which is determined to make me bad, determined to make me take the role of scapegoat, to make me 'the other' of themselves.
In the novel we learn that Joe Christmas' skin tone is "parchment" and that he doesn't know his parents though he suspects one of them was black. He was left on the steps of an orphanage on Christmas day, hence his name. In the book he is aged thirty-three so we know that he has a Christ-like persona: he has come to redeem our sins. As a little boy in the orphanage he is fond of making his way to the dietician's room where he likes to suck on her toothpaste. On one particular afternoon he has taken the toothpaste from the sink when he hears her returning to her room with the interne from the local hospital. For safety, he hides behind a cloth curtain and witnesses her making love. Because of his anxiety he eats too much toothpaste and is sick. As a result, he is caught by the dietician.
Faulkner makes a distinct parallel between the sweet soft toothpaste and the sweet pink smooth dietician. Food and sex - that which we desire. He draws an image of cleanliness, health and vitality around the dietician. Joe Christmas is an innocent; he knows nothing about sex or toothpaste for that matter but he suddenly becomes the object of her intense fear. The young woman believes that this young boy will expose her secret lovemaking. She offers to bribe him with a dollar but he cannot understand what she is doing and he refuses, thus returning to her, her sexual guilt. This scene marks the ground on which he will live his life where food and sex are linked with the white woman. In her panic at being found out by the authorities at the orphanage her attention is drawn towards the janitor, a dirty man, who works in the boiler room. He is in reality the father of Joe Christmas' unmarried mother, though this is not made apparent to the reader until the end if the novel. She notices that he has a Bible on his knee.
'I've watched you for five years, sitting in this very chair, watching him,' she says, referring to the little boy…' Watching him and hearing the other children call him nigger. I know you came here just to watch him and hate him. "The janitor replies, " I knowed he would be there to catch you when God's time came. I knowed. I know who set him there, a sign and a damnation for bitchery."
In the janitor's eyes Joe Christmas is literally the embodiment of evil; he has been sent by God to expose "womansinning" - the hidden shameful sexuality of the white woman which he sees as the root cause of all the problems of civilisation. He advises her to wait as he has done, to inform the matron as to the real identity of Joe Christmas. But when he bursts in on her naked in her room she tells him that she will tell the matron that the little boy is black. Faulkner identifies the source of racism in the sexual repression of the white woman and the projection of her sexuality onto black men.
The janitor attempts to kidnap Joe Christmas but is foiled by the police. He wants to keep the boy within his sights to await God's retribution. Even at a young age Joe is aware of his difference, aware that the old man is continually watching him. And the look is sexually and morally ambiguous: on the one hand, he is an abomination but on the other he is, for the moment, innocent. Being mixed race he challenges the sexual image of the white woman, the icon of white society, the very image of femininity and purity. His parchment skin raises questions of identity and morality - is he black or white? Is he good or bad? His very demeanour is a threat, a reminder of the hidden conflict within the woman. She cannot feel safe in his presence and for that reason he must be disposed of, eliminated, and sent to a black orphanage. But he has no place there either; as he is almost white.
He is adopted by a country couple called Mr and Mrs McEarchen who endeavour to give him a religious upbringing, a hard and punishing existence in their attempt to make him good. They are unaware of his mixed ancestry but seem to know that there is something wrong with him. Faulkner relates in chilling detail the punishment given to Joe Christmas as a teenager for failing to learn his catechism. He is sent to his room, and when Mrs McEarchen brings him a tray of food he throws it against the wall and eats like an animal off the floor. Their efforts are so oppressive that they teach him to hate them. But he has no choice but to accept the identity he has been given. He rejects the soft approach and kindness of the woman because it undermines his male identity in his passive resistance of Mr McEarchen. Food in his relation with the white woman becomes another manipulation of the bad white man.To confirm this identity he asserts his manhood by humiliating a black girl. He later takes up with a white waitress, a prostitute, whom he informs that he has negro blood. Once more food and sex are linked together. He is continually drawn to the primal scene of his inner conflict. The situation leads to a fight in which Mr McEarchen is hit over the head with a chair. The waitress ends up hating Joe, and herself, for treating him like a white man.
He spends his life wandering "and from that night each street ran into one street and was fifteen years long." He always tells the women he sleeps with that he is a negro. If he appears to be honest, that is making himself black, he can hide the uncertainty of his identity, hide what he is really frightened of. Saying he is black is as much an untruth as saying he is white. A white man of course never has to say he is white. For a while he lives with a black woman but his whole being resists her blackness while he tries his very best to be black. Though he seeks a relationship it is a white woman that he needs. To a black woman he is a white man. He is lonely, dispossessed and alienated from society, thinking always that it is his loneliness that he is trying to escape from, and not himself. One afternoon he arrives at a big house, outside a small town in which lives a middle-aged white woman called Miss Burden whom "the coloured folks look after" and he moves into the cabin on her land. He makes his way into her kitchen for the first time and discovers the "invisible food" and he recalls the toothpaste he has eaten as a boy. He remembers the taste, the smell and the taste of his tears as he revisits the trauma of his childhood, "If its food you want, you will find that,' she says in a voice calm, a little deep, quite cold."
Her words seem to imply a hidden agenda, and the food she provides is black food –field peas and molasses. During the day, Miss Burden only speaks trivia. She represents herself as carrying "the white man's burden" and is also an outsider and a good match for her alienated companion. She is the descendant of a long line of Calvinists, religious fanatics whose main beliefs were a fear of hell and slaveholders. Her own father was a dark man since her grandfather married a Spanish woman. We hear how her grandfather cursed black folks for being 'the weight and wrath of god. But we done freed them now. In a hundred years they will be white folks again.' She spends her life doing good to black folks and supporting black colleges. In her mind at least she is the patron, benefactor, and that is how she treats him. One evening she relates to Joe Christmas how when she was a girl she had a terrifying dream in which she saw all black people as shadows, as things, not as people. She thought of all the white children coming into the world with a black shadow falling upon them as they drew breath. She sees this black shadow in the shape of a cross from which the children are trying hopelessly to escape. Her father confirms to her that there is no escape, 'you must struggle, rise and you must take the shadow with you…but you can never lift it to your level.' Her vision of society is white, and Christian in which black people are mere adjuncts, objects in the world of white people who must at all costs attempt to raise them high towards God, doubtless a white man.
Their relationship develops into a sexual one and "it was as though he had fallen into a sewer, a sewer that ran by night." He feels himself sinking helplessly, surrendering to physical security as though he is the woman and she the man. He eats the food she prepares and they make love knowing all the time that this is not his life and that they do not belong together. He notices that she never invites him inside the house proper; the food is always left in the kitchen and when he enters the house at night, he oversteps her white boundaries and feels like he is committing a crime. Miss Burden exhibits no desire for food, and she separates his need for food from his desire for her, thus creating an unbearable tension. She literally makes food good and sex bad.
He is transfixed, drawn in to a situation he cannot control. He knows it from the past and it has meaning for him. He watches Miss Burden conduct all her affairs by day with an icy coldness; while by night she turns into a blaspheming nymphomaniac as all her pent up sexual desires find opportunity with him. All the while he is drawn in to her confusion and he begins to feel corrupted by her. He is afraid, 'like a man being sucked down into a bottomless morass.' But some unknown quality holds him and he cannot leave and what he now saw by daylight 'was a phantom of someone the night sister had murdered.' She starts to talk about a child and has put on more than thirty pounds in weight, more than she has weighed in her life. She doesn't eat with her lover, but she slavishly ministers to his needs. Food and sex are also confused in her mind as she attempts to control her sexual desire by over-eating. 'She wants to be married,' he thinks, and he considers the ease and security that marriage would bring.
On the night that he thinks he will suggest marriage she chides him for 'wasting his life' and suggests instead that he attend a black college and takes charge of her estate. He has taken a job at a wood yard; he also makes money selling bootleg whisky. She suggests that if he tells the authorities he is black, he will not have to pay for anything and that he will learn to appropriate money. He is dumbfounded by her suggestion and he refuses her offer, as when he was similarly silenced with money as a young boy. He gets angry and insults her by suggesting that she is too old for sex. In her mind there is no question of marriage. In her secret shameful night-time persona, his hidden blackness matches her own dark sexual appetite, but by day, and in public, she remains pure and white, and he carries all the shame. But the separation starts to break down. He is thinking of the respectability of marriage but she insists on continuing to project her shame onto him by maintaining her daytime role as educator and reformer of blacks. This is why he feels corrupted by her. With this sexual taunt Joe Christmas threatens her with the consequences of her own pure self -image. But in reality things have already gone too far for him to break off. He doesn't want to be the black man; he doesn't want to be categorised as such since this would deny to the world his whiteness. He wants to be accepted for what he is and no one will, or can do it.
The big house represents white society, in which he must live, or die, and his relation to it is seen in three distinct phases. First he is in the cold outside trying to get in; then he is inside in 'hot wild darkness'. Finally he feels himself in a psychological wilderness where he has no relation with anything. Because he has no identity, he has no place to stand, he is a disembodied man who cannot act from his own volition but merely react to the circumstance that he finds himself in. He cannot see that the big house is a phantasy, that it is an empty framework of thought and rules derived from a legacy of slavery and injustice. No final certainty, no final 'home' exists in reality, rather it is a figment of his longing, his need to belong. Having projected her sexual guilt onto him he becomes frightened and his anxiety is increased when Brown, who shares the cabin with him looks as though he will tell the community of his sexual improprieties. He now takes on the persona of the dietician in his phantasy; he feels feminine and panic-stricken. He rips off his clothes and wanders around in the night clutching a knife. His vulnerability is exposed, he is overwhelmed and knows he must transform himself through action. In the psychological wilderness of his mind, he wrestles with the devil - the promise of a life of ease, a place in the world, at the price of the betrayal of his manhood.
After receiving a note from her he returns to the bedroom to find her kneeling in prayer and she implores him to pray with her. She asks him three times to kneel. 'It's not me who asks it' she says.When he refuses she begs him to stay while she prays for God's forgiveness. They face each other and she says 'There's just one thing to do,' to which he responds 'there's just one other thing to do. He sees her arms unfold and notices that she is carrying a revolver. The white, religious reforming Miss Burden has entered the chamber of secrets, the bedroom of her shameful desire. She must now make him accept the responsibility and reform him or else kill him - and kill her shame. Joe Christmas must submit or be destroyed. There is no way out for either of them. Later we discover that he has slit her throat with his knife. He makes his way to town. On the way he meets a black woman and exchanges his shoes for her brogans as if to signify that he now has no white place to stand. He is seen and apprehended, although he wants to give himself up. He knows this is the end of the line for him. Finally he escapes and seeks sanctuary in the kitchen of a preacher where he is discovered, shot, and castrated for making love to a white woman. The white man, Percy Grimm - Faulkner calls him 'the player' is doing his duty by God, thus reclaiming the white woman's sexual purity and innocence. It appears that even in death his sexual identity is threatening.
This tale is complex and complete in its execution. As a young boy Joe Christmas sought safety in the only way he knew how; by hiding behind the curtain. He witnesses sex and he forms a mental attachment to the white woman and to food. This story represents the limits of his existence from which he cannot escape; the story which is his life and to which he returns again and again unable to find the freedom he is looking for. He spends his life re-enacting his early trauma. This prefigures Eldridge Cleaver's characterisation of the white woman as the 'symbol of freedom'.
In his relationship with the waitress, his move to seek safety ends in disaster when he involves the woman in a brawl with his stepfather Finally he is drawn to seek safety with Miss Burden and this ends in his death. Because of his early experience he always seeks safety in whiteness - a feminine whiteness that can cover up his blackness, his tainted blood. But in every move towards it he steps inevitably into insecurity; for he likes what he does not like and his partners have no interest in him as a person. He is a repository for their sexual guilt, lack of responsibility and identity. On the other hand Miss Burden looks to blackness to find redemption. This is her safety. This is not her own inner blackness but blackness externalised, projected in the form of the black man and the black colleges that she patronises. She hasn't and doesn't find fulfilment because the blacks say 'coloured folks look after her.' She also wants him but doesn't want him; her own desire is fragmented because she cannot take responsibility for sex. She separates out her relationship with him with clear boundaries as if she were two mutually exclusive women - one virtuous and the other shameful.
In the mirror of race and identity they are equals; both are outsiders and both endeavour to hide their authenticity. They are both religious mediums. God acts through her and Joe Christmas is an innocent who has no option but to be guilty. His struggle to claim his birthright is always thwarted as he always moves away and not towards the very thing he desires. He always moves towards whiteness seeking out his own brand of purity: this image having been absorbed into his memory at a tender age. This image is created through his fear as he enmeshes with his abuser. Miss Burden is however a racist since she cannot conceive of a change of view for herself, she alone can change him while remaining unchanged herself. Further, she is prepared to institutionalise him, make him stand, give him a place in the society but as a black not as a white. Equality is never an option. He must always be below her.
In the wood yard he takes the position of a black man in order to cover up his true darkness. If he says he is black then he is safe; he can cover up his real shame of not knowing who he is and repress his innocence. He must tell all his white lovers that he is black because he needs to be accepted for what he is. Miss Burden on the other hand is wedded to a religious image of blackness, which she feels duty bound to expunge; an image for her born out of a violent heritage. Each is looking to the other for redemption, white looks to black and black looks to white and each resists the other so that communication is not possible. Even when they make love, the possibility of intimacy is missed. Neither has an authentic voice since each is looking to the other and to the past to be saved. In the moment when they speak the same words, in the moment when they see themselves in the mirror of the other, only death is possible.
They are twins each looking at their own fragmentation. He sees her whiteness, which in turn brings sexual submission revealing his feminine nature. She sees his blackness, which reveals her (male) sexuality. Each becomes their opposite. The white side of black comes to the fore in Christmas while the black side of white comes to the fore in Miss Burden. During the day they reverse roles. It's the mirror itself, the confrontation with self that is excruciating - Faulkner makes them speak the same words. Each of them feels bound to kill the other, which is themselves. In the face of Joe Christmas the inherent conflict of the white woman is exposed, the divided mind; and for him the white face reveals his own black/ white dilemma. Miss Burden, the white woman is upside down in her body and her sexual desire is sublimated by food: She eats instead of saying anything meaningful. Desire for food overrides her authentic desire for sex. She thinks she is carrying the white man's burden but in fact she herself is the black man's burden. She projects her sexuality onto Joe Christmas who feels drawn in to her confusion. What he desires is not considered, he is an object in her world. For him to be a subject in the world is not permissible.
Faulkner's analysis exposes the roots of racism in the repression and denial of the white female sexuality by white men and women, but this is balanced by the parallel story of Lena Grove, a white woman who carries her own burden (of pregnancy) and looks for the man who has abandoned her with uncritical innocence. There isn't time to go into this here, but by doing this Faulkner avoids universalising race and scape-goating women.
Culturally we are a long way from the religious Deep South of the 1930's he was writing about, but psychologically we have hardly moved. Nevertheless, the novel speaks to us today, and challenges any idea that the problems of race can be solved by politics, let alone by miscegenation. Like Joe Christmas, I am racially divided, but like Miss Burden, I am also morally divided between the pure image of woman and the reality of desire. I like to blame society and history for this, but then I am also part of that, am I not?