The Cyclical Relevance of Southern History (which is, itself, cyclical)

I had occasion to look up the famous William Faulkner quotation about the undead past and, after reading about the rather bad sounding Requiem For A Nun from which it was taken, happened to land the Google machine on an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from 2012 about a much better Faulkner book, Absalom, Absalom!, printed in the New York Times.

These paragraphs struck me as rather relevant for America in a time of Trump. Thomas Sutpen is an ambitious early American from the story within the story told by Absalom narrator Quentin:

What Faulkner gains from this bundle of references is a suggestion of cycles, of something ongoing. As the Southern frontier murders its way west over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries — a phase absent to the point of amnesia from our national memory, but which re-emerges here like a wriggling worm — the region keeps generating [people like the character Thomas Sutpen], repeating its themes: Indian removal, class resentment and land hunger, as well as a stubborn race hatred that coexists with intense racial intimacy. Faulkner needed Sutpen’s story to be not just authentically but intrinsically Southern this way, less a symbol than an instance of the Southern principle. Only then does it make an adequate object for Quentin to fixate upon and go mad contemplating.

No book that tries to dissect the South’s psyche like that can overlook its founding obsession: miscegenation. There we reach the novel’s deepest concern, the fixed point around which the storm of its language revolves. After Sutpen ran off to Haiti as a young man — it emerges that a humiliating boyhood experience, of hearing a black slave tell him to use the back door of a big house (he wasn’t good enough for the front), had produced a shock that propelled him to flee — he married a girl there and fathered a son with her. Soon, however, he discovered that she had black blood, and that his son was therefore mixed, so he renounced them both. He sailed back to the South to become a planter. A plausible thing for a white Southern male to have done in the early 19th century. But what Faulkner doesn’t forget, and doesn’t want us to, is the radical amorality of the breach. On the basis of pure social abstraction, Sutpen has spurned his own child, his first son.