Consciousness, Psychology, and the Patriarchy: William Faulkner and the Zombie



Popular culture has been ripe with all things monster for decades. An examination of today’s culture shows the rise of the zombie permeating our media. One can hardly look around without finding some reference to an apocalyptic event including those undead walkers. Perhaps it is our fear of human extinction, or at least the end of life as we know it, throwing us into a dystopian rebirth of humanity. However, “zombie” is by no means new, nor is it defined in only one way.

The idea of the zombie comes from Haitian culture, in which slaves were often described as “dead men working the cane fields,” as is evident in “The Magic Island” by W. B. Seabrook (92-103).  These creatures were neither the dead, nor were they the living, but they also were not the monsters we see in present day adaptations of the zombie. Zombies described in Seabrook’s story were risen from the dead to serve only as slaves (92-103). They were not hungry for brains, overtly sexual, or any of our other modern tropes. They had simply “…been raised like Lazarus from the dead…a soulless human corpse…to act and move as if it were alive (93). We can immediately see, then, that there could be a definition of zombie to expand beyond what we see on the big screen, and the Oxford English Dictionary confirms just that. According to the OED, zombie can also include the figurative meaning “A dull, apathetic, or slow-witted person” (OED). An expanded definition makes “zombie” easier to understand in the context of interpreting some works of literature.

William Faulkner was no stranger to taboo. He never shied away from the subjects of miscegenation, incest, rape, or even necrophilia. One need not take a great leap to assume we might find the undead hidden in his works, and in fact, some of them do include hints of the recently deceased speaking from beyond including Emily in “A Rose for Emily,” and Quentin Compson from The Sound and The Fury. One novel, however, contains a plot completely driven by the death of its main character, without which there would be no story: As I Lay Dying.  One barely need say the Bundren family is confronting death in this novel that sees a family struggle to bury their dying mother in her familial burial plot whilst being forced to also overcome both natural and unnatural obstacles. What is really worthy of deeper examination is the way we understand the character of their dying mother, Addie Bundren and her state of being. Was she truly “dead” throughout the novel? When did she die, and by what definition was she “dead”? Can our fascination with zombie culture help us answer the question: Was Addie Bundren a zombie? To begin answering these questions, there are a few concepts we must grasp before we can deal with her character.

Understanding Consciousness

Most of us tend to understand consciousness through the long-held Cartesian teaching of self: “I think therefore I am” (Descartes). In short, Descartes tells us that because we are able to think, it follows with necessity that we are beings—the mind creates the reality of the brain (Descartes). If we break that down into slightly more palatable portions, we can understand Descartes to mean our mind rules our bodies, giving us our psyche, which is to say our sense of self (Descartes). The mind, then, is the all-powerful tool that leads not only our thoughts, but our emotions. At least one man disagrees.

Antonio Damasio has called Descartes’s theory into question in his book Descartes’ Error. Damasion goes through an intense explanation of the physical makeup of the brain, including many disorders, to tell us that the brain simply cannot be the leader of all things thought and emotion at all times because the brain can be faulty (1-258). One example of this faulty synopsis within the brain can be demonstrated through what we commonly know as Phantom Limb Syndrome, in which a patient with an amputated limb fails to recognize, and even feels pain in, a limb that is no longer there (Mount Sinai). Damasio takes this theory further into a study he calls the “neurobiology of rationality,” and examines what happens within the brain of stroke patients (85).

Studying something called “Anosognosia,” a neuropsychological disorder affecting stroke patients and patients with other brain injuries or diseases, Damasio found that while a patient may be completely paralyzed on one side of their body, they may fail to recognize their own deficiencies (62). He goes on to say that even when faced with not being able to ambulate, the patients when asked will answer “I’m fine” (62). There is a disconnect between the mind and the body that Damasio posits is not some “psychologically motivated denial” (62). Rather, what Damasio has found through his studies is “The denial of illness results from the loss of a particular cognitive function” (63). Michael Shermer writing for Scientific American seems to agree, suggesting that we cannot simply say that the mind causes consciousness, but rather states “Because we know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, until proved otherwise, the default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness. I am, therefore I think” (Shermer). With what we might call “faulty wiring” sending incorrect signals to the body and the mind, we can then surmise that a person really may not know who or what they are simply because of what they think, therefore telling us our sense of self can be misleading.

Knowing that a loss of self can be devastating to a person’s mental well-being, we must also delve into the realm of psychology because even though we might not exactly form who we are by a Cartesian model, the problem of confusion about the self becomes a deeply seated problem of the human mind. The mind and body cannot be completely disconnected, after all. No matter from whence the signals come, both mind and body must communicate to keep the human in a healthy state of being free from internal discord.

The Psychology of Zombies

In a compilations of essays entitled The Years Work at the Zombie Research Center, Stephen Watt breaks popular zombie tropes into digestible pieces for us in his essay “Zombie Psychology”.  Notably, Watt finds one distinct difference between the psychology of zombies and humans: Desire and Drive (68). Watt quotes Freud from his “Uncanny,” “It is only rarely that a psycho-analyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics, even when aesthetics is understood not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feelings…” (68). From this, Watt explains how desire and drive operate on different levels, and how that is present within zombie films. “Drives,” Watt explains are, “comprised of an impetus, aim, object, and source…” (74). Again referencing Freud, Watt states that a breastfed infant does not so much have a desire (specifically a sexual desire in Freud’s world) for its mother, but for the source of the milk that will give it sustenance (75). This is clearly separated from “Desire,” which Watt explains differs because, for one, “the object receiving the pulsion, or physical force,” is treated differently (74).  There can be emotion attached to an object of desire, but not for an object connected with drive (74-75). It is the difference between Tallahassee, a character from the film Zombieland, carrying out a relentless search for his beloved snack, Twinkies, and his friend, Columbus’, neighbor/ love interest turned zombie who tries to eat him, according to Watt (60-61). Tallahassee has a desire for something for which he feels an emotion, while the girl known only as “406” has a drive to eat to stay alive—sadly, Columbus is meaningless to her (60-61). In this sense we can see that “Drive” and “Desire” separate not only humans and zombies, but create a distinction we might call “Animal” and “Human”. Having explored both consciousness and psychology as they will be used within this paper, we can move forward to examining the star of the show: Addie Bundren and her personal connection to the aforementioned subjects.

Unearthing Addie

When asked by Jean Stein what he would say to people who say they do not understand his writing, “even after they read it two or three times,” Faulkner simply replied “Read it four times” (The Paris Review). Faulkner makes an important point about the very characters he created by making that statement. Some of his most simplistic seeming characters are complex in ways that take much study to understand, if it is even possible to fully understand his characters at all. As E. L Doctrow states in “On As I Lay Dying,” Faulkner writes a novel in which “Nothing is explained…the people in the book will always know more than the reader,” and so we are left to try to surmise from our own knowledge what might have been going on inside the minds of the characters (New York Review of Books). It follows then that we really must focus closely on the character we mean to dissect.

It goes without saying Addie Bundren was actually dead at some point within the novel. She was, after all, the one who “lay dying” from the title placed inside a coffin and transported by wagon to her burial plot of choice. There is proof from an overwhelming stench of decaying flesh that followed the troop on their journey, to the buzzards who popped in looking for a free meal that Addie Bundren was indeed a corpse proper, and we will not debate that notion with this paper, although some might say this is debatable (1-261).  For the purposes of this paper, we will look specifically of the time before Addie’s death proper to find if, by some definition, she could be classified as “undead,” or as some may say “a zombie”.

It is important for us to decide where Addie was in time—something that can be complex in Faulkner novels, and to give definition to her words—another complexity added by Faulkner. We immediately find within the first few pages of her chapter, Addie goes through an elaborate sequence to basically tell us one could not understand what it means to be in a specific state of being—to be a mother, be fearful, or to be proud, without never having been those things (171-172). This is predicated by her reiteration of her father’s mantra “the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time” (169). Within the first few passages of her chapter, she tells us about a part of her life she would later qualify as when she was alive. What is assumedly the time she spent as a teacher was the time during which she was preparing “to stay dead,” or by her own uncanny definition, her state of being alive (169-170). This marker in her life was highlighted by the rare opportunities she had to spend alone, and find happiness by punishing her students (169-170).

After she married Anse Bundren, Addie becomes pregnant with her first son, Cash (171). By her explanation, this is the time when she “knew living was terrible and that this was the answer to it” (171). Falling on the knowledge of Addie’s knowing things by their opposites, we can see that because Addie had a certain distaste for children, she felt having children of her own was the opposite of living, death, so that this became a period of transition for Addie from which she would change from feeling alive to dead, at least mentally. For a woman who did not want to be a mother, we might understand what was a, most likely, unavoidable byproduct of marriage—pregnancy and birth to mark the time of Addie’s loss of self.

Addie has no real motherly connection with her firstborn son. “Love” was not unlike any other word to her, but “just a shape to fill a lack” (172). Addie states she never used the word with Cash, but rather “let Anse use it” (172). In her thoughts, having children only “violated” her “aloneness” (172). In fact, Addie felt “tricked” by not only being a mother, but what we might assume is marriage as she says “he had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen,” and that even Anse had been “tricked by words older than Anse or love” (172). Her “revenge” for all this trickery would be to become despondent as she states “he would never know I was taking revenge,” and she then says he made him promise to bury her in her hometown, Jefferson (173). Addie may not have been dying when she made this statement, but she certainly believed she was in need of burial, and she also believed Anse was dead, but unware of his own condition (173).

Thinking about the previous discussion about consciousness and psychology, it is important to note here that there could be a scientific explanation for what Addie was experiencing. First diagnosed in 1882, a disorder known as Cotard’s Dellusion was first diagnosed by Dr. Jules Cotard (Ruminjo & Mekinulov). This syndrome causes patients to believe they are either figuratively or literally a zombie (dead) (Ruminjo & Mekinulov). While the delusion was noted as being quite rare, the syndrome is still diagnosed today, and causes serious impairment that must be treated with either medication or electroconvulsive treatment (Ruminjo & Mekinulov).  Of course we must not assume Faulkner was pointing to this disorder, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that Addie could have suffered from this disorder that made her feel she was dead. It is also not impossible for Faulkner to be privy to the disorder, and so it is just one thing to keep in mind.

As Addie lived her life without much feeling, she enters into an affair with a man who was an “instrument ordained by God” (174). Looking for happiness, Addie dreamnt of her lover, the preacher (174). She describes her sexual affair as sin, and states it is a “duty to the alive” (174). The affair (sex) was not a “duty” to Addie because she was not one of “the alive”. Unfortunately for Addie, her affair leads only to another child, and she ruminates once more on her father’s thoughts on being alive and dead (175). She thinks her father could not have even known what he was talking about because he was male, did not bear children, and never had to cover up a pregnancy resulting from an affair (175-176).

Following the birth of the child, Jewel, born by Addie and the preacher, Addie continues to have children in order to pay Anse back for her adulterous offspring (176). She says she gave Anse three sons, and she could now “get ready to die,” which by her definition of knowing life and death would mean she was done having children, and could know what it meant to live. For Addie, knowing life is to be dead. Addie Bundren did not want to be a mother. She wanted to disconnect from her children and her husband. She only felt childbirth was her “duty to Anse” (174).

Her friend Cora Tull was constantly reminding her she “was not a true mother” (173). However, by the end of her chapter, Addie dismisses all Cora said to her by saying Cora did not understand sin or salvation (176). If we understand Addie’s definition of “sin” to be sex, we might conclude “salvation” to be love. Being truly alive for Addie might mean having sex without the bounds of marriage and childbirth—something from which she could walk away and be alone. Death to Addie was being restricted by marriage and children—the very things which kept her from going “down the hill to the spring” where she could just “be quiet and hate them” the children who were of “blood strange to each other” and “strange” to her (169-170).

While most of this interpretation of Addie comes from a personal perspective on words, or lack thereof, and their meanings possibly further complicating and confusing the character of Addie Bundren, there are two built in observers within the novel who shed more light, and thus lend more credibility to this interpretation.



The Carpenter and the Fisherman Do Psychology

            When we fail to understand a person or their behavior, one of the best places to dig for clues is from their family. Those connections are an easily accessible gift handed to us by Faulkner within the same novel unlike some of his characters in his other novels, who must be read across several texts to really understand.  While it could be said all the characters give us a lens through which to view their dying mother/wife/friend, two in particular narrow the focus closer than the others. Cash and Vardaman give unique insights into their mother and her plight.

Building a coffin for his own mother must be a painful, painstaking task. Cash takes on the task with pride, even giving us the specifics of its design. “I made it on a bevel” begins the thirteen point list describing how he knew he simply must build his mother’s coffin (82). The list seems like incoherent mumblings, written in broken sentences and thoughts. A closer examination shows a man privy to a great deal of knowledge about the world, including physics and, apparently, phrenology.

Number eight on the list contains only two words: “Animal magnetism” (83). What could animal magnetism have to do with a dead woman’s casket? How does it even relate to things like creating “more surface for the nails to grip,” or explaining the stress caused by living humans on a house or a bed (82-83)?  At first glance, or even second or third, it probably makes little sense, but as Faulkner suggested, we might read it one more time to understand. Rosemary Franklin believes she has uncovered the real meaning behind the short phrase in her essay “Animal Magnetism in As I Lay Dying”.

Franklin explains most of Cash’s list with drawings to help explain the bevel (27-30). Important here is her explanation of what might have been knowledge beyond carpentry learned by Cash. She says Cash speaks “in an almost syllogistic form, but the simple sentences and language disguise the complexity of his logic” (24). Franklin paraphrases other critics of the novel as dismissing Cash as a “simpleton,” but goes on to explain he should not be dismissed because “his entire theory of carpentry is built upon his understanding of this [animal magnetism] pseudoscience” (24). She continues to say that “magnetism” helps drive the plot of the entire novel, and “helps clarify problems encountered in other characters than Cash” (25). According to Franklin, animal magnetism is a type of “science” involving “hypnotism,” which believers thought “cursed all through living things” (25).  “Animal magnetism,” Franklin writes, “became especially well known around 1840, when it became associated with another pseudoscience, phrenology” (25).  Phrenology, Franklin explains, was a “primitive form of psychology (25). Therefore, Cash was not just in the business of coffin building, the carpenter was roughly practicing psychology on his mother.

We might surmise a couple of things from his mention of animal magnetism associated with his mother. One, Addie must have had some sort of emotional disorder—magnetism came from the “emotional centers” in the brain, and two, Addie was technically still alive at the time he was building the coffin because magnetism “cursed through living things” (25). Addie, then, for as much as she believed herself dead was not yet dead.

Vardaman lends insight of a different type. Regardless of the fact this chapter contains only one sentence, these five words might sum up his mother more astutely than anyone, including herself: “My mother is a fish” (84). This young boy, the youngest child of the Bundrens, is trying to deal as best he can with the death of his mother, to be sure, but he does not equate her in any other way than to the fish he caught earlier (71-72). The thought of a fish is astoundingly significant when compared to Addie because even those with only passing knowledge of fish know that once they procreate, they usually die. Vadarman’s mother had effectively lived the life of a fish—an animal, who stayed technically alive only long enough to have children, then made her transition to death. This brings our thoughts back to the aforementioned theories of zombie psychology—the natural, the human with desires, and the animal, the zombie who functions only within the realm of drive.

Diagnosing Addie: Is She A Zombie?

            Viewing Addie as a character, a fish if you will, caught somewhere between being a human with desire, and a zombie who only functions on drive, we can possibly determine if she was, indeed, a zombie. George Marion O’Donnell helps us understand the human/animal dichotomy in his essay about the works of Faulkner entitled “Faulkner’s Mythology”. Within his essay, O’Donnell takes a closer look at other Yoknapatawpha families, the Sartorises and Snopes. He aligns the Sartoris family with the idea of being “human” because of their morality, and situates the Snopes opposite of them as animals because of their “a-morality” (286-290). Of significance to this paper, O’Donnell looks into the life of the Bundrens, classifying them as some Sartoris-Snopes hybrid, saying they are human because Anse keeps his promise to Addie to bury her—a moral act, but “almost animalistic” due to their “low mentality” and uncontrolled sexuality (291). He states “they are infected with a-morality; but it is the a-morality of a physical nature” (291).

Addie herself recognizes her having children as an unpleasant byproduct she really does not choose, but is forced into by “duty” (171-172). Her own sexuality had caused her to become no more than an animal fit only for reproduction—drive, and not happiness—desire. It is if Addie had diagnosed her own disease. The theory of a woman valued nearly only as chattle is not lost on E. L. Doctrow, either. As he states in his essay “The Bundren family relationships are cruel…Dewey Dell and her mother Addie are the gender afflicted…” (New York Review of Books).

We might also view Anse’s response to the loss of his wife as that of an uncaring man only set on bettering his own life with new teeth, and replacing the property he had just lost when, after Addie’s burial, Anse does not mourn, but instead remarries announcing “Meet Mrs. Bundren” (261). His actions certainly do not point to the moral man spoken of by O’Donnnell. William Faulkner himself described Anse’s reaction at the end of the book as a coping mechanism saying “The father having lost his wife would naturally need another one, so he got one” ( The Paris Review). Whether Anse is only being pragmatic is definitely up for debate as William Van O’Connor writes in “The Grotesque in Modern American Fiction,”  “Anse Bundren is the very voice of propriety in his own respect for Addie’s wishes (we have no reason to believe he is insincere in this), but he uses the funeral journey as a means of getting himself new teeth and a new wife” (346).  As practical as it might be for this man to need a wife to cook and clean around the house, it is also doubtful he needed to grab the very first one he saw because he did have an older daughter who could have worked in the home. It also calls not only his character into being, but his state of being. Addie was probably wrong with her assumption that Anse was dead, because by her own definitions, Anse was alive and fully capable of having sex when, where, and with whom he so chose.

Another important point made by O’Connor is that Addie is a woman “desperately trying to find her sense of significant being…” (346). We need not stretch far to compare Addie Bundren to our first mention of zombies in this paper, the Haitian slaves. While she certainly is not of color and is not enslaved in the most proper definition of the word, Addie felt she had been duped. She was “tricked” not by Anse, but by life about what marriage was. She was as disposable as any farm animal. Anse dropped her in the grave, and promptly found a new wife (261). One might even say it was no more difficult for Anse to switch Addie for a new wife than it was for him to trade Jewel’s horse to the Snopes for mules (184-193). If Addie truly is the equivalent of farm animals, she really is very close to Seabrook’s zombies.

Jessica Baldanzi and Kyle Schlabach offer more insight into Addie, and the handling of her corpse, in their essay that explores As I Lay Dying as a way to help understand the Georgia Crematory Scandal. The scandal in 2002 found 300 bodies left unattended to rather than having been buried or cremated in rural Georgia, and the authors use Faulkner’s novel to help explain the handling of the dead (38-55). For the purposes of this paper, we will focus only on their interpretation of Faulkner.

Dewey Dell was the Bundren daughter pregnant with an illegitimate child, and the duo write about her situation “Dewey Dell attempts to erase the illegitimate child…but she knows…the child is written into her poor, rural narrative” (48). Childbearing seems to be an accepted fate of the poor Bundren women as exhibited by both Addie and her daughter. They got pregnant. That was just part of their lives. It was an expected duty from which the only escape was death. Furthermore, the two authors go on to explain why Anse, maybe not so moral after all, goes to all the trouble to bury Addie in Jefferson. Anse needed to make sure Addie was properly buried because to do otherwise would have meant “Addie’s improperly buried body would have left damaging evidence of his marital disrespect” because her body stunk as much as did the fact she was barely dead before he replaced her (51). Even the preacher with whom Addie conceived a son disrespects Addie, showing he only used her for his own sexual purposes Baldanzi and Schlabach point out (51).

Called to the house for her passing, Whitfield the preacher remarks “she had sworn then that she would never tell it” (178). The man of God with whom Addie had found respite was only worried for his own well-being, and Addie knew so. She says in her chapter “I hid nothing. I tried to deceive no one. I would not have cared. I merely took the precautions that he thought necessary for his sake, not for my safety, but just as I wore clothes in the world’s face” (175). What Baldanzi and Schlabach posit is that Faulkner in As I Lay Dying is doing is “exhuming the truth of post-Civil War America,” and with his words “There is no such thing as was-only is” he gives an “elegant testament to the haunted character of humanity…” (53).

“Haunted” and “humanity” serve for interesting parallels where Addie Bundren is concerned. Not only does Addie really reflect gender inequality during the time this novel was written, but she might serve as more than just a female character who dies. As Susan Willis writes, the characters in As I Lay Dying “fascinate and trouble our thinking” (587). “Faulkner,” Willis says, demonstrates how “…history’s seemingly insignificant characters” and “literary modernism might be conceived as the proper mode for articulation of history” (587).

If we can imagine Addie Bundren and family teaching us the history of the American South, we surely can envision her using the lens of zombie scholarship. Even though it might have been unintentional ( Although, there is nothing definite with Faulkner) seeing as Faulkner was writing this story well before our real media frenzy that is “zombie”, Faulkner has seemingly touched on yet another taboo. If not quite taboo, one might say uncanny subject.

Addie Bundren is not only a woman bound by her duties as an unwilling wife and mother, she has decided that she is dead. She finds some reprieve in an adulterous relationship only to end up with another child, and therefore, more lack of life. The zombie phenomenon of the twenty-first century can help us understand consciousness, the psyche, of a woman caught between the animal—the zombie who functions on drive alone, and for which reproduction is necessary for survival, and the human, who has desire, hopes, dreams, for whom we might say happiness is necessary for survival, at least for the survival of the self.

Native American poet, activist, and one of the great philosophers of our time John Trudell has said many people are zombies (YouTube). Their minds have been stripped of  human qualities by what he calls “technologic miners” who “mine their minds,” removing their ancestral identity (YouTube).  He says modern humans have “entered the reality of the already dead who are just spending their lives waiting to die” ( YouTube). Of course, he is speaking here directly about the human connection with Earth and what he says are the “ancients,” but his theory can be expanded in the instance of Addie to include her as a woman who has been stripped of her human identity by a patriarchal society who keep her as no more than an animal fit for breeding. It is because of this dehumanizing of human beings, says Trudell, that we lose our connection with our descendants, thus we can say this why Addie felt no real connection to her children—she was a zombie (YouTube). We can understand Addie as a zombie because, as Trudell explains the word “human” only means “bone, flesh, and blood,” but it is our access to the “being”—the part of us that connects us to the universe, which is missing in Addie Bundren (YouTube). It is that connection to the universe through our spirit, our “being,” that gives us power in life (YouTube). Mining of things like uranium leaves behind toxic waste, and it is no different when the “being” is mined from humans, according to Trudell (YouTube). He goes on to explain that the toxic aftereffect of the mining of the “being” from humans breeds a disease inside of us that causes us to forget what it means to be human, namely the “fears, doubts, and insecurities” that distort our “perception of self and reality,” and this is the most important aspect to keep in mind concerning Addie Bundren (YouTube). Addie has no true reality of self anymore, tying together everything about consciousness and psychology, but more importantly showing that she can be read as a zombie if we define “zombie” as someone with a distorted sense of self.   Trudell says we are in a place “where spirits get eaten” by these “slavers,” and Addie is no exception (YouTube). Addie’s spirit was stolen from her just as technology steals away spirits today.

If asked directly if Addie Bundren is a zombie, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”. Addie fits the criteria of a woman whose consciousness is flawed by psychological disease brought about by lack of happiness. She is a woman who is, of course, a human, but is treated as no more than a man’s disposable horse. More importantly, Addie lacks the agency to speak for herself against her oppression. She is similar to the Haitian zombies in Seabrook’s tale in that, because of her place in history, she is an enslaved woman that even her children recognized as having problems.

Addie, the physically alive, mentally dead mother was in a period of transition during her chapter. She moved from a woman who was very much a live, to a woman who had lost herself. She was what we might call now “turning”. Addie Bundren became a zombified woman, numb from the burden of multiple unwanted births and the husband who only cared for her in the capacity he would his cattle. She resigned herself, and completely envisioned herself, as being dead before her time was up. It should not go without notice that Faulkner never says from what ailment Addie dies. Perhaps she was so depressed she climbed into bed never to leave it again just as a salmon never leaves the spot on which it lays eggs. Vadarman was right. His mother was a fish—a fish not quite alive, but not yet dead, flopping on the bank trying desperately to die.













Works Cited

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American Identity in “As I Lay Dying” and the Georgia Crematory Scandal.”

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Damasio. Antonio, Decartes’Error. Penguin Books: New York. 1994. Print.

Descartes, Rene. “Discourse On Method.” Web.

Doctrow, E. L. “ On As I Lay Dying.” The New York Review of Books. 24, May 2012 Issue.

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Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Vintage Books: New York. 1990.Print.

Franklin, Rosemary. “Animal Magnetism In As I Lay Dying.” American Quarterly.

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Winter 1987. Johns Hopkins University Press. PDF.


Short Book Blurb: Stephen King’s Revival


Stephen King’s Revival is nothing if not a treat for readers both new and his long-time dedicated fans. The story takes readers on a journey of one man’s life from childhood to retirement. The protagonist, James, morphs from child to teen to adult to elderly man, musician to drug addict, admirer of a man of the cloth to unwilling accomplice to the macabre.

The characters, in true King fashion, seem like people readers might remember from their own lives, each of them dynamic and lifelike. With a plot that’s easy to follow, yet far from boring, the story draws readers in, captivating them in true “What will happen next” style.

Although the novel sports 403 pages (in the hardbound addition), it truly is a quick read, easy enough to complete in a weekend. The format of the novel also lends itself to be easily “paused,” if you will, allowing one to restart without losing track of place and time.

Revival approaches what might be controversial territory for some readers—religion, the afterlife, and paganism, but it is a great read nonetheless. I would recommend this book to all my friends, King fans or not.

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Faulkner’s Native America: Anti-imperialism in Go Down, Moses


When reading the works of William Faulkner, one will encounter many troubling themes: Incest, rape, misogyny, and racism are all present, as well as a few others. Given that Faulkner penned his stories pre-Civil Rights Movement, it is not shocking to find pejoratives used to describe people of color. In fact, to exclude those words in these post-Civil War stories might even make them seem inauthentic to the time and place in which they are set. Racial slurs make reading difficult, to be sure, but they were an ugly part of our collective American history, so perhaps we forgive Faulkner that sin. What becomes unusual, though, is Faulkner’s strange handling of Native Americans. Even though Faulkner found it necessary to use debasing, uncomplimentary names in reference to both women and people of color, Native Americans were not referenced in that manner within the Native stories in Go Down, Moses. The question then becomes did Faulkner truly show respect to the people whom he recognizes as having been wrongfully evicted from his beloved Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, or did he somehow use the Native connection to exude a spirit of “American-ness”?

Perhaps it would be fitting at the outset of this essay to recognize what may well be the obvious. The Native voice in the works of Faulkner is not truly “Native”. Our connection to indigenous people within these stories is made through the consciousness of characters who are at least partially white, and through the pen of a white author. While at different points Faulkner did utilize his rendition of the “black” voice, he did not do so with his characters who claimed Native blood. Faulkner’s use of voice within his stories could lead one to claim that no Native voice even exists within the stories—a claim with a tinge of validity, but not if we delve only slightly deeper into the annals of Southern literature.

The questions one must ask when thinking of the Native voice, or lack thereof, within the works of Faulkner are: do we need another Joel Chandler Harris, were the voices of Uncle Remus et al valid, and can Faulkner create genuine ethnic characters without (mis)appropriating the ethnic voice? The first two questions have already been explored in scholarly circles, and the answer is that we do not another author to misuse ethnic voice for some show of Southern sympathy and nostalgia, only giving us inauthentic characters who misrepresented an entire culture. The last question is something we can explore further within this essay, but first we will orient ourselves to the very place invented by Faulkner: Yoknapatawpha.

This invented place, the homestead of the Snopes, Bundrens, and  Compsons just to name a few of Faulkner’s characters, was said to have a Native significance in name by Faulkner himself. According to Jay S. Winston, Faulkner claimed that the very name Yoknapatawpha meant “water flowing through the flatland,” and that it might have sounded better to a “Chickasaw ear” than to the rest of the world, making us think it was truly derived from Native language (130). Winston suggests this particular definition gives the county an “Indian Eden before its fall” appeal (130). However, Winston goes on to say the meaning dissolves as H.B. Cushman studies several Southeastern Native tribes. He finds that what the word would really mean is “land ploughed” (130). If this is true, then some of the very “Native-ness” (i.e. hunting) described by Faulkner in Go Down, Moses is lost because the Native epicenter was that of the hunter and not agrarian (130). More importantly might not be what Faulkner thought the word might mean, but another interpretation of the word.

Winston goes on to tell us that Marc A. Nigliazzo identifies the word as meaning “yocona and patawpha,” which translates to “split land” (130). By this definition, Winston writes, we are given the duality of the Native experience—one “divided against itself,” represented by “Indian-ness and the destruction of the Indian” (130). It might have been accidental, but it is plausible that by naming his county, Faulkner captured an integral part of Native life—a life in which tradition was broken by modernity. Of note is that if we believe this latter definition of “Yoknapatawpha,” we can also appreciate true Native roots rather than a stereotypical, revisionist historian’s representation of what had occurred in Mississippi in order to make way for the cotton plantation.

Arnold Krupat writes in “Postoloniality and Native American Literature” that it is the move away from the oral traditions of Native American people into the Eurocentric tradition of the written word that proves not assimilation, but rather something he calls “anti-imperialism” (170). It is in a sense Native America’s way of turning the enemy’s first weapon, language, back upon them. Krupat quotes John De Forest who penned History of Indians of Connecticut as saying Native languages were “cumbersome and difficult to manage” (165). Krupat then wonders “Difficult for whom,” in recognition that the natural language of someone is only difficult for an outsider who might be unwilling to learn (165). If it is true, as Krupat paraphrases Daniel Brinton as saying, that “the essence of nationality is in a nation’s literature,” then Native Americans have been part of our landscape only since they adopted the written story, at least according to those who believe the oral tradition to be too low brow for respectable society. Many of us do recognize oral story telling tradition as equally as important to the fabric of our Nation as the written, but the written tradition and use of English were certainly the only way for Native Americans to be counted amongst the role of “Americans” during the late 19th century.

Interestingly, Faulkner, by giving his county in Mississippi a Native name, flips that aspect of nationality and language appropriation on its head, for if  Native Americans appropriating English and the written story is a show of  “anti-imperialism’, we might also say that a white Southerner using a Native American word—one not easy to understand or pronounce—would also be “anti-imperial” in nature, as he takes the language of the “others” and brings it back to a place of central importance, so much so that it is the name of an entire county. Faulkner redefines nationalism in his written works by making Yonknapatawpha a place where the “others” were European settlers who assimilated inside the Native world rather than the reverse. Although there is something to be said that this is a place undergoing change brought about by colonization—it is a place divided by tradition and modernity, but at its roots, it is Native American.

Faulkner seemingly felt a deep need to connect to the land in “Delta Autum” as he writes of Ike McCaslin’s observation of the land “watching it retreat year by year,” and his lack of desire to own land “because it belonged to no man” (337). It is Ike, the boy trained as a hunter by Sam Fathers, who carries out the Native traditions and thoughts, although he has not one drop of Indian blood in his veins. This is an interesting characterization because as Jay S. Winston quotes James Harvey Krefft as saying “The rise of Yoknapatawpha depends ultimately on the fall of red Yoknapatawpha,” yet as Winston remarks, “the absence of the Indian, which was so essential to the creation of the nation, now stands as a barrier to the ability of that nation, and its people, ever truly to feel at one with the land” (130). Ike, then, represents the disconnect between what one culture valued, and what another undervalued until it was endangered. Notably, Ike as well as Sam Fathers, also represent the importance of the oral tradition in Native storytelling, something hinted at by only one tiny phrase.

In “The Bear,” Ike combs through ledgers, investigating the McCaslin past, when we are given one particular entry that might seem fairly insignificant, but is certainly worth discussion. “Tomasina called Tomy Daughter of Thucydus @ Eunice Born 1810 dide in Child bed June 1833 and Burd. Yr stars fell” (255). This passage is, of course, leading us into the discussion in the story concerning not only miscegenation, but incest involving Tomy, and her son Turl. However, the line “Yr stars fell” is of note for us in our discussion. What could easily be dismissed as folklore from yonder years retains meaning even within contemporary Native culture.

Jimmie Durham, Native American (Cherokee) poet and artist writes in his poem “A Woman Gave Me a Red Star to Wear on My Headband,” “…In the history of my people it is found, /“In 1833 stars fell,” in a list of great events/ Such as, “In 1814 we won a battle against/ The soldier…” (131). There was an actual event in 1833 in which a meteor shower occurred (Lurie). This event, apparently, carries great meaning for Native people, as Durham likens it to a “great event” in which “a battle” occurred (131). Writing the mentioning of the stars falling off as nothing more than “folklore” is a misstep, as Paula Allen suggests in “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations”. According to Allen “The great mythic and ceremonial cycles of the Indian peoples are neither primitive in any meaningful use of the term, nor are they necessarily the province of the folk…”(267).

Peter Lurie suggests in “History’s Dark Markings” that this line reveals something of the novel’s “epistemological workings,” but only in that the remembrance of the darkening of the sky works to begin the darkening of the plot for Ike (37). While it makes perfect sense that the line does reveal some origin of the story, a meteor shower hardly represents darkness. Rather, it comes closer to representing something mystical—something valued as religious in Native culture, therefore, once again, connecting us to Native roots. While this is clearly written in the ledger, this would be the type of story passed through the oral tradition of Native culture. By showing appreciation for this tradition, Faulkner has again shown an anti-imperialistic tone. What Faulkner really does here is to allow his very white character to mimic the Native characters, a strange reversal of ethnic interaction.

Writing in “Indigenous Doom: Colonial Mimicry in Faulkner’s Indian Tales,” Bruce G. Johnson explains Homi K. Bhabha’s theories on “mimicry” and “cultural hybridity,” saying that “mimicry will therefore always produce the ironic gap of ‘difference’,” but Faulkner found a way the space between the cultures could be “partially bridged” (102). Faulkner, according to Johnson had a good working knowledge of the Native culture in his region (102). Faulkner, in a letter to Malcom Cowley, explains that “The line dividing the two nations,” speaking of Chickasaw and Choctaw, “passed near my home” (102). When asked directly about his knowledge regarding the Native ancestors of Yoknapatawpha, he said simply “I made them up” (102). According to Johnson, Elmo Howell has said that Faulkner had no real access to this type of information, and hated to research, so any representation of Native life would be highly inaccurate (102). Even though the authenticity of his characters might be doubtful, Faulkner may have fooled his critics by doing more research than they had believed as it is also believed that Faulkner owned at least one book concerning archaeological information about Mississippi, which included information about Native American life there from which he could have gleaned information about land ownership (102).

The ideal of private land ownership is part of what led to the demise of Native people in the United States, and Faulkner recognizes this in “Delta Autumn” when Ike thinks about the prospect of land ownership: “It belonged to all…He seemed to see the two of them—himself and the wilderness—as coevals…the two spans running out together…into a dimension of both time and space where once more the untreed land warped and wrung to mathematical squares of rank cotton for the frantic old-world people to turn into shells to shoot at one another, would find ample room for both…” (337). Ike McCaslin wants the hands of progress to turn back in time, giving back the land to all the people. It was what others deemed progress that destroyed the land, and Ike recognizes that the Native belief in communal ownership would preserve the land. Here, Faulkner shows that people of Native origin mimicking Eurocentric ideas would destroyed Native culture and the land, but he simultaneously sets his white character in a place where he is mimicking the Native culture—the colonizer engaged in anti-colonialism by mimicking “the others”.

Some might call this mimicry in celebration of the past a purely romantic notion, but according to Robert Woods Sayer in “Faulkner’s Indians and The Romantic Vision,” this ideal “should not be dismissed as hopelessly out of touch” (35).  “What most compellingly underlies its different expressions is an intuition of the radically different nature of Indian culture as against the civilization of modernity, and a conviction that in important ways the former is superior to the latter,” perceiving, according to Sayer, a “cultural dichotomy” (35).

To be sure, Faulkner engaged in some amount of romanticism concerning life in the South. Most of his work  contains slavery, or the effects of the Southern plantation on the world, as central to his novels. However, it is his Native characters, as Sayer suggests, who because they are “fraught with symbolic and even allegorical significance; and the meanings that they symbolically and allegorically convey are romantic in nature,” are truly, “in a real sense central to his work” (34). Sayer goes on to say that “one of the two modes of communion” for Native Americans in literature is one where “the essence of Indian identity—and superiority—seems to lie most crucially in attunement and oneness with nature” (35). Although, this observation of the representation of Amerindians is most likely true within the works of Faulkner—those with Native ties are more in tune with nature in Go Down, Moses—it seems an unfair observation to say this characterization somehow cheapens the Native connection in his work. In fact, in order to fight back against a society built around the destruction of nature for the furtherance of planter society, Faulkner needs to ground his characters in connection to the Earth. Since that human/earth connection is most strong in Native religions, it only makes sense that his characters, albeit seemingly romantic and stereotypical, are conservation minded. We must also not forget that Faulkner’s Native characters are not truly “Native,” but only mimicking their aboriginal ancestors, therefore, the character traits would seemingly have to be somewhat romanticized because they are something passed down rather than something organic.

Ike McCaslin, as we know, was  trained in his Native ideals by Sam Fathers, a man who was not full blooded Native himself. Fathers, whose name suggests a position of ancestry and leadership, was the descendent of “Ikkemotubbe himself, who had called himself Doom…and the quadroon slave woman” as we learn in “The Old People” (157). Fathers “whose face and bearing were still those of the Chickasaw chief who had been his father,” not only took on the genetic traits of his Native ancestors, but also carried on the tradition of hunting rather than falling to his mother’s traits, which undoubtedly would have included working on a plantation. He was a hunter, just as his ancestry might suggest. He “farmed no allotted acres of his own…performed no field-work for daily wages,” upsetting the balance expected to be kept by a man who was, by the one drop rule, black (TOP-161). In this sense, Faulkner might even suggest that freedom from slavery lies in not only rebellion against the institution, but a return to communal land ownership and Native traditions.

The idea of communing seems central to the hunting camp in which Ike hunts with the other fellows. This shared parcel of land is characterized as being a nature preserve of sorts—one that Ike has been coming back to for “more than fifty years,” but one which Ike observes in “Delta Autumn” as “drawing yearly inward as his life was drawing inward” (319). Ike himself had once convened with Sam Fathers, being initiated into the world of men, more specifically Native men, when Fathers marks his face with “the hot smoking blood” of his first kill in “The Old People” (156). In “The Men Who Killed Deer: Faulkner and Frank Waters,” Benjamin S. Lawson suggests that Ike “inherits and experience and a value system from Sam’s ‘vanquished and forgotten people’” (180). This mystical handing over of power suggests another break away from the dominating culture and traditions.

For the most part, the passing on of land ownership from father to son marked the passing of the torch in many Faulkner novels. It was land that gave these sons their power over women and slaves. However, in Go Down, Moses, Sam passes the proverbial torch to Ike through Native tradition, and it is up to Ike to continue the traditions, including communing with fellow hunters, regardless of the fact by the time we get to “Delta Autumn” Ike “no longer had any business making such expeditions” (320).

Ike’s dialogue suggests that perhaps he is on this expedition to teach more so than to hunt. Making a very strong conservationist statement, Ike says “The only fighting anywhere that ever had anything of God’s blessing on it has been when men fought to protect does and fawns” (323). In fact, one might say this statement not only speaks to preservation of nature, but denouncing war as well, including the Civil War mentioned only a page before. As Ike remembers the lay of the land pre-moderninty, he notices the changing landscape from the organic flora and fauna to neon lights and the sounds of trains (323-324). The only thing of somewhat natural nature, although manmade, but from natural, organic materials, are the Indian mounds, “raised by aboriginal hands as refuges from the yearly water and used by their Indian successors to sepulcher their fathers’ bones” (324-325). Ike thinks, “No wonder the ruined woods I used to know dont cry for retribution! he thought: The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge” (347).

We build a nation not with bricks and mortar, but with nationalism—defined by the OED as “Advocacy of support for the interests of one’s own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations” (OED). The concept so many find themselves confused in is that “country” is separate from “nation”. Country is the land, the rivers, trees, mountains, and things no one can really “own,” while “nation” is a thing people by default do own because they construct it.

For Indigenous people, being separate “Nations” from the one European setters constructed using the land of the Natives, immediately made them subalterns, outliers, “others”. In order to construct a nation that would withstand economic hardships, it was necessary for settlers to appropriate the land needed to build agricultural communities from those who had shared it before colonization. Native people were not complicit concerning the theft of sacred lands, and so we coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to enact a Biblical power in a government set on creating nationalism so strong, even the tragedy of genocide would not deter supporters. In return, Native people held as strong as they could to traditions of their cultures, passing them from generation to generation until they were forced to assimilate. Full assimilation did not necessarily take place, to the chagrin of many. For what might seem assimilation, use of written words and the English language, can easily be, as Arnold Krupat suggests, no more than a tool in the war against the oppressor.

Faulkner’s ancestral residents of Yoknapatawpha showcase this Native awareness and resistance. From the name of the very place Faulkner would spend his life’s work constructing, to the characters and actions contained within, Native ideals fuel at least of few of his stories—the name of the county is the backdrop for all his work. As romanticized and cliché as some of his characters are, Faulkner escapes misusing the Native voice, while defying American nationalism by telling the story of the American South, built on stolen land, and falling to its demise by a disconnection from the very Earth on which it was built. Disturbing as some of Faulkner’s themes may be, he redeems himself with not only his applauded literary form, but his anti-colonial themes contained in his Native stories.

 Works Cited

Allen, Paula. “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations”

College Composition and Communications. 24:3. 267-270. 1973. PDF.

Durham, Jimmie. “A Woman Gave Me a Red Star to Wear on My Headband.” Harper’s

            Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry. Ed. Duane Niatum. Harper &

Row:San Francisco. 130-131. 1988. Print.

Faulkner, William. “Delta Autumn”. Go Down, Moses. First Vintage International Ed. Vintage

Books. New York. 319-347. 1970. Print.

“ The Bear.” Go Down, Moses. First Vintage International Ed. Vintage

Books. New York. 181-314 1970. Print.

“ The Old People.” Go Down, Moses. First Vintage International Ed. Vintage

Books. New York. 155-178. 1970. Print.

Johnson, Bruce G. “Indigenous Doom: Colonial Mimicry In Faulkner’s Indian Tales.” Faulkner

            Journal. Fall 2002/Spring 2003. 18:1/2. 101-128. PDF.

Krupat, Arnold. “Postcoloniality and Native American Literature,” The Yale Journal of Criticism

  1. 7:1. PDF.

Lawson, Benjamin S. “The Men Who Killed The Deer: Faulkner and Frank Waters.” Faulkner

            Journal. 2002. 18:1/2. 179-191. PDF.

Lurie, Peter. “History’s Dark Markings.” The New Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner.

Cambridge University Press. New York New York:2015. PDF.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Nationalism”.

Sayre, Robert Woods. “Faulkner’s Indians and The Romantic Vision” Faulkner Journal. Fall

2002/Spring 2003. 18:1/2. 33-49. PDF.

Winston, Jay S. “Going Native in Yoknapatawpha: Faulkner’s Fragmented American and “The

Indian”.” Faulkner Journal. Fall 2002/Spring 2003. 18:1/2. 129-143. PDF.

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Native American Literature: Activism in Art



In thinking about the relationship between art and activism, I wondered just how many involved in the American Indian Movement were also actively writing. The question then became: is literature a profound part of activism, and if so, how does that work? For Native Americans, the written word is a relatively new concept in comparison to nonnative written works. Practicing oral traditions, much of Native literature was not even considered literature until someone put those most basic Native stories (i.e creation stories) into print. It took even longer for Native stories to be appreciated as something worthy of scholarly study. Today, much of Native literature is still considered to be in the realm of something children would read rather than the serious business we associate with other literary greats like Hawthorne or Faulkner. What might be important in our modern world is to view these works with a different lens—one that values them as being as great as any contained in the Norton. This paper outlines the importance of the written word as a form of activism, and also touches on the value that should be given to Native literature.

Jimmie Durham once said about Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds that “there is no way to see his work as ‘ethnic,’ as ‘Indian Art’; but there is no way to escape the Indian reality his work represents” ( Townsend-Gault). Perhaps what Durham spoke is true of many Native artists, be they visual, musical, or written artists. Although not all art created by Native people is inherently “ethnic” as Durham noted, the connection to Native culture in their art is inescapable, making the connection between Native art and activism easy to make. Life is often represented in art, and vice versa, giving way to social activism through art.

In fact, sometimes a work of art could be considered as one of the highest forms of activism: using a colonizer’s own culture in ways to foster understanding between cultures. As Mágara Averbach mentions in “Translation and Resistance in Native American Literature,” when Native Americans move away from the spoken word stories to writing, and more importantly, writing in English, they are using “inverse appropriation” as “a weapon in the fight for survival” (166). Not only a figurative fight for survival, this battle to survive colonization into which Indigenous People were forced, made “appropriation” a necessary part of their lives. Although using words as weapons seems cliché and ineffective, one must understand both Native culture and the power of words within their culture to fully realize the importance of Native writing and literature within the culture few white Americans comprehend.

According to Paula Allen writing in “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations,” There is much more at play than simply story telling in the sense most white Americans relate to. Rather than writing for artistic pleasure or expression, Allen tells us Native writers generally write to convey a message—there is deep meaning and morals planted within the stories (267). We do not often equate the moralistic story with western literature as this facet of literature is more often connected with other cultures. Rather, according to Allen, most nonnatives tend to relate Native literature with that of “folklore”—something “primitive” or “heathen,” without much merit (267). This becomes problematic because by categorizing Native literature in this way we not only take away its relevance in our society, but also do not learn to appreciate or understand them as relevant to their own culture. As Allen says, “Literature is a facet of culture. Its significance can best be understood in terms of its culture, and its purpose is meaningful only when the cultural assumptions it is based on are understood and accepted” (267). Understanding Native culture, then, leads to understanding Native literature. Once we understand the deep meaning embedded within the literature and realize these are more than folklorists’ tales, we then might be able to glean the meanings we should absorb, which is paramount to understanding why Native literature is so important in Native activism. The literature can act as a liaison between cultures.

One culture struggling to understand another, or even worse, denying the other does or even should exist, has been a long standing problem in our national history. According to Kathryn Winona Shanley in “The Paradox of Native American Intellectualism and Literature,” the Native American figure has gone through different stages of representation during and following colonization, which she likens to narrowing the focus of a lens (276). “Images of Native Americans transformed from national ancestor to obstacle to residue…,” writes Shanley (276). She adds later that “When it comes to identity, American Indians are stuck between the rock of the law and the hard place of the lived reality of being something called American Indian, Native American…or whatever term seems the least contested and the most expressive of that reality” (289). What has become in mainstream society is something Shanley says is a declaration of “the absence of Indianness” and “declarations about how ‘Indian’ others are” (289).  Many, Shanley writes, are willing to “devour Things Indian,” although this is no more than cultural misappropriation of sacred traditions for the purpose of entertainment (289). It is easy, then, to understand the utter lack of nonnative comprehension of Native culture, and the frustration from the Native culture towards those nonnatives. The liaison of literature is indeed important.

As important as the connection literature might make for nonnatives is, it is imperative to remember as Robin Riley Fast reminds us in “Outside Looking In: Nonnatives and American Indian Literature,” that “Native lit isn’t just about consciousness raising for white kids” (63). To be sure, Native lit can serve that purpose, and often times does, however, we must be careful not to make this into “our thing”. It is not about us or our questions, as stated by Fast (63). Rather, the study of Native literature must remain the study of cultures fighting against all odds to remain intact. If we do indeed garner understanding from the literature, that is wonderful—there is no misstep in pedagogy there. However, in learning, we must leave the culture whole. We cannot make it something we twist and create for ourselves. Doing so would defeat the purpose of learning about the culture, and thus break down the connection between cultures. Although it is impossible to read a piece of work without having some personal feelings concerning that work, we have to remember if we are not Native, we have not lived the Native experience, and therefore can only let the work inform us rather than writing more into the work than is there. This becomes important in all activism, whether through literature or some other form. One may not speak with the voice of the oppressed, but only reiterate what they have been told. To let the story tell itself is vital as preservation of cultural identity is part of Native activism.

With the written word, part of this cultural identity fades with necessity as it moves away from the spoken word. Arnold Krupat writes in “Postcoloniality and Native American Literature” that hearing the spoken word is a different form of interactive exchange between author (orator) and listener (168). He tells us that during spoken storytelling, visual acts and different intonations engage with the listener/watcher, bringing, perhaps, more meaning to the story being told than what ink provides on a page (168). Translating from oral traditions to written is difficult enough, but adding the translation from languages largely not understood in the United States to English further skews our understanding of Native literatures (168). It is this misunderstanding of the Native experience and culture that leads us to categorize Native literature as something “postcolonial,” a misstep according to Krupat.

Krupat states about Native literature “…it is not, and cannot now be considered a postcolonial literature for the simple reason that there is not yet a “post” to its colonial status (169). What Natives are still experiencing, according to Krupat, is “ongoing domestic imperialism” (169). Because of this ongoing cultural robbery occurring, we might then begin to understand the importance of activism within the Native community, for if we could attach the prefix “post” to the “colonial,” there would be no need for activism. Having already been colonized, there would be some aspect, perhaps understanding of, having already assimilated. We do not see that within Native literature. Even if the oral traditions have sometimes become westernized by print; even if the languages of the tribes are translated to English, the voice of struggle continues to punctuate each line. Native works also, as noted by Krupat, are not homogenous compared to other American literatures and histories (169). Krupat also makes the point that, while calling Native lit is to incorrectly categorize as it really is not “post”, they do showcase the “tension with imperial power,” therefore making it “postcolonial” by way of working definition (170). What Krupat adds to his argument is “that any tensions and differences from the ‘imperial center’ in these texts may usefully be theorized as acts of anti-imperial translation” (170). He goes on to add that “it seems useful to reappropriate the concept of translation for not merely postcolonial, but, as I want to insist, anticolonial purposes, and thus to speak of contemporary Native American literature as engaged in the specific practice of anti-imperial translation” (170). Returning to Jimmie Durham, we can look to his poetry as an example of “anti-imperial translation”.

In his poem “Justiniana Lamé has been killed,” Durham delves deeply into the archives of Native American history, connecting not only what Indigenous people of the United States have experienced, but also those in South America. Within this poem, Durham uses both English and Spanish, making a connection between cultures. He relates the death of many Native Americans from the United States to those in South America, which is important to foster an understanding that being “Native American” is not an experience limited to those indigenous people living in the United States. Also of importance, we must note that before the tragedy of the genocides against people in the United States, genocidal acts were already in active in South and Central America by way of Christopher Columbus et al.

Durham speak of Lamé’s dictum “Viva la unidad de todos los explotados,” meaning long live the unity of all the exploited (133). A powerful statement, to be sure, but simultaneously unifying within the cultural group and resistant to colonizers. What Durham effectively does here is to use language to show that Native people will band together to fight further imperialistic efforts and genocide. By changing the language from English to Spanish then back to English again, Durham showcases the “anti-imperialistism” of which Krupat speaks, because Durham is able to show that no matter what language might be forced upon them through imperialism, Native people will fight for their freedoms and indigenous rights.

Of course, it is only fair to say that being nonnative, all this explication is that of an outsider. It is impossible to know the Native experience without having ever lived that experience. The tool of this writer is only a looking glass through which to see the message written by Durham and other Native writers. It would be inherently wrong to appropriate the meanings of the writings as a personal experience with which it is impossible for me to have lived. Rather, the purpose here is to show how through Native Americans’ use of the English language, resistance and activism flows from their pages more so than if I were trying to translate from their language.

What Jimmie Durham and countless other Native Americans have done is take a tool from their colonizer, and use it smartly to combat cultural genocide. It is, perhaps, the greatest form of activism when one can use from within the enemy’s own toolbox in order to protect themselves and ensure their own culture lives on. Some might argue that language and words are hardly the most deadly of weapons. However, we must remember and recognize how far reaching a word can be. After all, it was first words that helped foster support for colonization—the Manifest Destiny mentality, if you will, was fueled through words such as “savage” or “heathen”. It was words such as those that caused many to believe Native Americans to be subalterns and less than human. So, for Native Americans to turn those words in the direction of the colonizer—not words that lose meaning in translation, but words well understood by those reading them, is to turn around an ideal, a mentality, and end the war that has never ended against Native peoples worldwide.

Looking again to Durham, he writes “La mejor manera de recorder los compañeros caïdos/En la lucha, es fortalciendo nuestra organización,/Para enfrentar la repression, conquistar nuestras tierras/ Y todos nuestras derechos./ The best way to honor our comrades who have fallen/ In the struggle is to strengthen our organization,/To confront the repression, regain our land and all/ Our rights” (133). Durham, in fact, does work to strengthen the organization to fight for the rights of Native peoples through his writing. A side benefit of his work is that people who do not understand Native culture can begin to investigate the lives and strife of those who have struggled as Durham speaks “during the long season of Indians being killed” (132).

The gift we receive from Native writers’ ability to take the English language and make it something beneficial rather than only a part of the cultural genocide thrust upon them is the lesson of the sorrowful effects of imperialism on Indigenous people worldwide. We nonnatives will never understand fully what it means to be “Native”. However, we can get closer to understanding the importance of preservation of cultures once in danger of extinction without forceful efforts of preservation. We can learn what it means to appreciate through the written word a culture that would remain foreign to us without the wonderful writers, authors, poets, and storytellers working as liaisons between cultures, inviting us to their world so we can all live peacefully.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula. “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature.” College Composition

and Communication.24:3. 267-270. 1973. PDF.

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            Native American Poetry. Ed. Duane Niatum. Harper and Row San Francisco. 1988. Print.

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            Criticism. 7.1 171-180. 1994. Print.

Riley Fast, Robin. “Nonnatives and American Indian Literature.” American Quarterly.

46:1. 62-76.1994.PDF.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. “Ritualizing Ritual’s Rituals.” Art Journal. 51:3.51-58. 1992. PDF.

Winoa Shanley, Kathryn. “The Paradox of Native American Intellectualism and Literature.”

Melus. 29:3/4.273-292. 2004. American Indian Quarterly. 24:2. 165-181. 2000. PDF.

(Cover image via:

Treatment and Legislation: The Machine VS. McMurphy


Treatment and Legislation: The Machine VS. McMurphy

            Without much legislation during the early days of reform in the care of psychiatric patients, many patients were left to suffer inhumane forms of care, most of which were punitive rather than true form of rehabilitation. Reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, we are able to see the way this system of care ‘treated’ some patients, most notably R. P. McMurphy. Life within the institution for McMurphy became a game he could never win—it was a game between a system built to reform at any cost versus one rebellious patient.

History of changing mental health treatments

As difficult as it is to believe with mental health problems still carrying a great stigma, during the middle 20th century, finding adequate mental healthcare was even more daunting, leaving many at the mercy of a system wrought with growing pains and legal legislation. In fact, what was even considered treatment for psychological and emotional disorders was blurred.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “treatment” might be defined as “management in the application of remedies; medical or surgical application or service”. Looking for medical definition of “treatment, we find many definitions broken down by the types of treatment such as “casual,” “active,” and more specific such as “electroshock treatment,” or “narcotic treatment” (MediLexicon). We can see, then, that even now that definition is ambiguous, but was even more so during the 1960s and 70s.

In  his 1974 paper entitled “The Right to Effective Mental Treatment “ Ralph Kirkland Schwitzgebel outlines for us that our court system did not become involved in deciding which “treatments” were deemed appropriate in a patient’s treatment plan (Schwitzgebel). Therefore, the former definition of “treatment” remains ambiguous.  According to the Yale Law Journal in an article entitled “Civil Restraint, Mental Illness and The Right to Treatment,” it might include any treatment found within the medical definition, left solely to the discretion of treatment providers, as the judicial system believed themselves inadequately educated in such matters as to decide what was best for a patient (Yale ). We, then, can conclude that many medical professionals were left with a great deal of freedom in deciding what “treatment” was.

During the 19th century, caring for the mentally ill was built around a theory called “Moral Treatment” (Luchins). Moral treatment included keeping patients from their families, involvement in Christian based study, and recreational and occupational therapy (Luchins). This theory was born from the post-Civil War belief that good Christians carried good character, and were therefore the most mentally fit (Luchins). However, there was a shift in the discourse, leading to adaptations of more modern scientific approaches.

The 20th century brought us new treatments such as electroshock and insulin therapies, psychotropic drugs, and the adaptation of psychoanalysis in the treatment of the mentally ill (Luchins). Not all facilities and medical professionals could agree that these therapies alone were effective, and so there came to be a hybrid system that still embraced the moral treatments of prior decades mixed with the more scientific therapies of the early 20th century (Luchins). Some hospitals participated in that hybrid system, while others adapted to one more than the other (Luchins). State owned facilities tended to fall into the hybrid category such as in Salem State Hospital in Oregon (Luchins). What eventually became clear was that one form of contemporary treatment, the lobotomy, was ineffective, and that, even for all the laud it had received in the early days of research, the research had been tainted with “misrepresentation” and “sensationalized reporting”( Diefenbach, et al. ). Thus, the by the mid-twentieth century, the lobotomy was on its way out of the normal practice of most treating psychiatric physicians (Diefenbach, et al.). According to legislation, though, it could still be used if considered applicable “treatment” for the mentally ill. “Treatment” became a hot topic buzzword in the mid-twentieth century as well when speaking of those who might be considered criminally ill.

For those who might plead guilty, yet insane, in a court of law, they would be incarcerated in a state hospital for some length of time until the state deemed them safe to live in free society. Problematic for the states, though, was the fact some mentally ill patients were only receiving punitive treatment while committed, which was no more effective than mainstream incarceration ( Yale ). So, the courts legislated that in the 1966 case Rouse v. Cameron that any person who was found to be guilty, yet insane, while in custody of a treatment facility must then receive adequate treatment to rehabilitate them towards an end of being able to function in society ( Schwitzgebel ). There was never a guarantee of freedom outside the institution as some people were considered to be “chronically mentally ill” and risks to the safety of society, but that was nonetheless the goal to work towards ( Schwitzgebel ). Without just “treatment,” patients of mental facilities could bring suit against the facility in which they were housed citing “unconstitutional treatment,” and could be, if not released, transferred ( Yale ). This became, no doubt, a sticking point with institutions around the nation that did not want to taint their reputations, and ultimately their bottom lines. Patients had the constitutional right to adequate rehabilitative treatment, beginning in 1966. No matter what their criminal charges, mental health providers had to give them “treatment” or face civil lawsuits.

Life in the “Cuckoo’s Nest”

            All this history of change in the mental health system convenes in the Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The novel, originally published in 1962, was published during the heart of the changes seen by those involved in the psychiatric care system. Kesey’s characters represent all aspects of those who found themselves involved with mental health care.

There is Nurse Ratched, the one most responsible for patients’ care besides the doctors. We have voluntarily, even if coerced, admitted patients such as Billy Bibbet. Chronic patients grace the pages alongside their counterparts, the Acutes. Then we have what would have been considered a “criminally ill” patient, R.P McMurphy. McMurphy, who faked mental illness because he thought it might be easier than serving out his time on a prison work detail, challenges seemingly every system and routine within his new found home (Kesey). All this challenging of authority is a game to him (Kesey). What he never dreamed could happen is that it was a game he could never win. Unlike his games of poker, the clinical deck was stacked against him by a system set out to ensure his “treatment”. This system was, in part, controlled by one Nurse Ratched. We see early on in the story just how the system functions as we are informed by Chief Bromden.

Giving us our first peek at Nurse Ratched, Chief tells a story of a woman whose basket does not contain “woman stuff,” but instead “parts she aims to use” such as “wheels and gears,” “forceps,” and “pliers” (4). Chief Bromden paints a picture of woman who is in charge of a machine, a “combine” that is used to control the minds of the patients (3-8). His story is punctuated, however, by the line “…it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” (8). So, while this is obviously a fictional account of the goings on behind the walls built by an author, one might be led to believe that somewhere in the United States, something like this was happening. As well, Bromden’s characterization of Nurse Ratched set the mood for us readers to understand her as a part of a system that controlled the aspects of treatment for its patients.

One patient, McMurphy makes it clear upon arrival he will not be part of Ratched’s system. He immediately refuses to shower (11). He goes on to comment to the Acutes that he “…came to this establishmet….to bring you birds fun an’ entertainment” (11). Fun and entertainment might be considered a positive thing, but for the members of the ward, all of whom are part of a regimented system of treatment set forth by the powers that be, their idea of fun does not necessarily align with the ideas of McMurphy. The Acutes, who even find delight in being part of the system by tattling on one another, are initially wary of the “leadership” offered to them by McMurphy (14-24). Another nurse even questions “what on earth would make a man want to do something like disrupt the ward…” to which Nurse Ratched plainly answers “You seem to forget, Miss Flinn,  that this is an institution for the insane” (25). Despite McMurphy’s admitting that he was in this place only because he had grown bored with the work farm, Nurse Ratched still recognized him as “insane” (11, 25). McMurphy does admit that “a couple hassles” at the prison caused the court to rule him a “psychopath,” but it is still fairly obvious McMurphy is playing the system (13). Nonetheless, Nurse Ratched will see to it that McMurphy receives treatment as the court has so ordered.

Nurse Ratched recognizes McMurphy as a “manipulator,” but nonetheless does not address that issue with him or his counselor (24). Instead, she treats him as any other patient, only with a more guarded knowledge that he would love nothing more than to “take over” (24). Perhaps, this is representative of a system bound by the law to “treat” those the court found to be criminally ill. What it no doubt represents is Ratched’s disdain for the change in mental health policy, from the “moral treatment” of the past to the new policies of psychoanalysis and drugs.

As she speaks to Miss Flinn, Ratched outlines the case history of Mr. Taber while simultaneously filling a syringe that will be his medication for the day (25). Nurse Ratched says to Miss Flinn that the “present permissive philosophy in mental hospitals” has allowed manipulative patients to “take over” (25). With changing policies, she can strike back using the very “treatments” meant to help patients, and with the laws as they were, she can hide her own manipulation and retaliation under the umbrella of helping and treating patients.

Chief Bromden describes the ward as a machine, a “combine” (25). He believes Nurse Ratched to be part of this machine—the center of it, in fact (25-26). She sits, as Bromden describes, “in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot” who knows “which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants” (25-26). With this image, we are led to believe that Nurse Ratched is not following orders or protocol, but rather developing her own methods with which to run the ward. She knows how to get results. More importantly, she is allowed to decide what “treatment” is and which treatments will be used. This becomes most obvious during the end of the story when McMurphy is given a lobotomy as “treatment”.

After several of McMurphy’s attempts at bringing his form of “entertainment” to the ward, paired with failed attempts to administer electroshock therapy to McMurphy, it is finally ordered that he receive a lobotomy. The lobotomy was not the result of an informed medical decision from a medical professional, but rather a reactionary violent attack on a patient who had infuriated and humiliated the one who sat at the center of a spider’s web control panel. Nurse Ratched had caused the death of Billy Bibbit by humiliating him, causing him to commit suicide (273-274). In reaction to his friend’s senseless death, McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched, exposing her breasts (275). The nurse, of course, found no wrong in humiliating a grown man for engaging in sexual activity, “treating him” so to speak, but was indignant that she, herself, was humiliated. Although she was injured physically in the confrontation, we are given a sense that her psyche was damaged as much, if not more, than her physical being, for when she returned to the ward and the men approached her “she jumped back two steps” (276). She had already accomplished what she set out to do with McMurphy, however.

McMurphy returns to the ward on a gurney with a chart attached that read “LOBOTOMY” (277). Was this a necessary case for an outmoded, ineffective, overly-sensationalized treatment? One could argue that prior treatments given to McMurphy were ineffective, leaving Nurse Ratched with no choice following her assault. We must, though, look to the fact Ratched knew McMurphy was manipulating the system from the time he stepped foot onto the ward. How can we explain such an extreme procedure on a man who was no more than lazy, trying to escape a few blisters and a sore back on a work farm?

Looking back to her prior treatment of patients, we might see that she allowed them to be abused and molested by people who were no more than orderlies—men who were to simply usher these patients from place to place in the facility are allowed to utilize Vaseline to “take temperatures” of patients, even though the connotation is that they were raping these men (9).

She humiliated Billy Bibbit by reminding him his she knew his mother, a woman he undoubtedly feared, and whom Ratched was sure to tell about Billy’s sexual escapades (272). Not only was Billy embarrassed “he cut his throat” (274). This was not just a conversation between patient and caregiver, this was a conversation intended to humiliate, as it was carried out in front of his peers. The only conduct that should have been discussed was the breaking of a rule, but rather Nurse Ratched decided to invoke “moral treatment” reminding Billy that he was a horrible human for doing things which not only she, but his mother would not approve (272). Her goal was to break his spirit, and break it she did, never mind the cost.

Nurse Ratched also found a way to break the spirit of Cheswick. By not allowing Cheswick the autonomy to choose when and how many cigarettes to smoke, she kept him feeling as though he was a helpless child (144-151). Cheswick, who was relying on McMurphy to help him fight the battle for this small amount of freedom, was broken when he learned McMurphy was not voluntarily commited, and even though he understood why McMurphy could not make more of a fuss over the cigarettes, he also knew he no longer had a partner, and so he drowned himself (150-151). His spirit, just as Bibbit’s was broken. In fact, there is only one patient who she could not break.

Chief Bromden, rather than become weaker during the story, seemingly gained strength. He had already planned to leave the ward before McMurphy returned following his lobotomy, but he said “I didn’t want to leave just yet” (277). He was waiting to see what else would happen on the ward, and that something else was McMurphy’s return as a vegetable (277). Seeing his friend, an otherwise healthy human being, come into the ward as someone who would be a chronic, seemingly gave Bromden the last dose of strength he needed to break free, and after he killed McMurphy, he did, in fact, leave the ward (277-278). So while she busied herself breaking men with her self-imposed “treatments,” Bromden refused to fall into her trap. He, too, had been a manipulator of the system—something Ratched had seemingly missed, and he was able to completely break her system rather than the reverse.

Seeing that Nurse Ratched had treated these men in any way she saw fit, misusing her power to keep her ward running the way she wanted it, we can then understand that McMurphy was a threat to her authority. He was out to break her spirit, to take a gamble on making Ratched so out of sorts that she lost control (66). He was not mentally ill, though. By her own admission he was manipulating her, the prison, and the rest of the residents on the ward—“He is what we call a ‘manipulator’, Miss Flinn, a man who will use everyone and everything to his own ends” (24). This woman with this knowledge and all her power does not try to deescalate the situation, but rather allows McMurphy to carry on, and then administers “treatment” for his behavior.

What we see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a representation of a changing, but still broken system of mental health care where the war was still ongoing between patients and caregivers for fair and adequate treatment without abuse. McMurphy was never going to win his game with Nurse Ratched, because the machine (the judicial system) had ensured his treatment. McMurphy was simply a man caught in an unjust system, a machine, with only the goals of ensuring its own well-being above and beyond that of the human beings who needed its care.

Works Cited

Diefenbach, Gretchen. Et al. “Portrayal of Lobotomy in the Popular Press; 1935-1960.

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 8:1.60-69. 1999. PDF.

Kesey. Ken. “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Penguin Classics. New York. 2003. Print.

Luchins, Abraham. “Moral Treatment in Asylums and General Hospitals in 19th Century

America.” The Journal of Psychology. 123: 6. 585-607. 1974.PDF.

MediLexicon. “Treatment”. 2014. Web.

Schwitzgebel, Ralph Kirkland. “The Right to Effective Mental Treatment.” California Law

Review, Inc. 62:3.936-956. 1974.PDF.

The Yale Law Journal. “Civil Restraint, Mental Illness, and the Right to Treatment.” The Yale

Law Journal Company. 77:1. 87-116. 1967. PDF

Mann’s Homoeroticism in Venice


Mann’s Homoeroticism in Venice

            Reading “Death in Venice,” one might conclude any number of themes to be central to the story. One theme carried throughout the novel, homoeroticism, is nearly undeniable, even as it is somewhat masked and sanitized for the reader. Mann’s own private affinity for young males comes to life in the character of Aschenbach, although the blunt edges of homoeroticism are dulled for his, then, unaccepting audience.

Through his diaries written after he penned “Death in Venice,” Thomas Mann disclosed many private thoughts concerning not only his writing, but his private life as a gay man. In an essay written for the Germanic Review entitled, “Thomas Mann and Homoeroticism”, Ignace Feuerlicht reviews several diary entries of Thomas Mann describing his feelings about several young men, and what he believed to be the true definition of “homosexual” (92). While one might believe the definition of “homosexual” to be fairly finite, for Mann homosexuality “had very little to do with nature, and much more to do with intellect” (92). Feuerlicht goes on to explain that Mann believed that an older man being attracted to the beauty of a young man, there is “nothing unnatural, but rather a great deal educational meaning and lofty humanity” (92). This might explain, in part, why Aschenbach falls under the spell of the young Tazdio. Most of society, even today, would be taken aback by an older man lusting after an underage boy, but Thomas Mann found nothing appalling in the pairing (91). He was most likely knowledgeable of the fact homosexuality, even without the aspect of pedophilia, would be harshly criticized. So, Mann was guarded in the way he used homoerotic themes.

Feuerlicht writes in his essay that while Mann speaks poetically of homoerotic love for a young man is his diaries, homoeroticism is “conspicuously presented as depraved, absurd, sick, impish, demonic, and tragic…” (93). Mann had himself met a young man  for whom he had more than warm feelings, and “Death in Venice” was meant to be an ode to this fellow; however, as he knew he could not possibly publish such a work, it became a “moral fable” (93).

Not only does Mann symbolically show homoeroticism to be evil, he also misleads his audience into believing this “perversion” was happening “in a time and place where ‘such things’ were ‘beautiful’ and ‘in’’ (93). Mann achieves this shift in setting by utilizing the images of Greek mythology, based on the historical fact that the great philosophers partook openly in homosexual activity (93). Mann, then, frees himself from ownership of his own homosexual preferences, and attributes those to a mythical place in time. Feuerlict suggests that using Greek mythology as a point of reference within the story not only furthers the plot,  but more so assists  Mann as “a help and refuge…as the one who had that experience in real life, and as the author who had to think of the public’s reaction to that experience” ( 94).

Mann undoubtedly had a need to be aware of his audience’s reaction in prewar Germany, as all authors must remain astutely aware of the reaction to their work. While this might seem somewhat misaligned to the entire feel of the Modernist movement—a movement we often describe as “avant-garde,” and “unapologetic” to the delicate sensitivities of an establishment, the fact remained that the powers that be could have limited his ability to publish a work of art that was blatantly homoerotic. Thomas Mann’s artistic expression was then slightly limited, but he was able to smartly bypass those limiting factors and write about something he loved to describe, according to Feuerlicht, “the beauty of a boy just before puberty” (91).

Our first glimpse of Tadzio comes as Aschenbach settles into his first evening in Venice. Tadzio stands out from the group of other young men as godlike, statuesque, and beautiful to Aschenbach (312).  As an onlooker, Aschenbach “felt he had never encountered such a perfection in nature or the arts” as he looked upon the boy with “honey-colored curls,” a “straight nose,” and a “graceful reserve” (312). Even the boy’s mother had recognized how special he was, and ruled him with “softness and tenderness” (313).

That particular observation of a mother’s difference in treatment with her children speaks rather loudly as to Aschenbach’s, and therefore Mann’s, own feeling toward Tadzio. The sisters of Tadzio required strict teaching and structure, while the boy was something special (313). Tadzio was then uplifted from a status he should have shared with other children his own age, the tender age Mann preferred, to ultimately become something the Greeks might have immortalized in stone.

Although Mann creates an image of a man taken by the beauty of a young boy while simultaneously grounding the scene in Greek symbolism, this scene in and of itself does not speak of lust. We are simply given a man who observes three young children, albeit the daughters are not spoken of in the same terms as the son. The narrator does not yet reveal to us the passion Aschenbach feels for Tadzio. That passion is developed later in the story.

The following morning, Aschenbach sees Tadzio once more at breakfast. The narrator describes Tadzio’s attire, pointing out the red tie, which stood out against his blue and white suit (316). This tie, as argued by Frank Bernhard, is a phallic symbol (100). The red tie is mentioned once more as Aschenbach observed Tadzio on the beach with “the red knot on his chest” apparently calling Aschenbach’s attention (319). As Aschenbach carefully watches the scene before him and Tadzio was embraced and kissed by a youth named Yashu, Aschenbach bites into “large, fully ripened strawberries,” which, according to Bernhard, are symbolic of testicles, and Aschenbach’s growing passion for Tadzio (100).

Passion becomes more noticeable as Aschenbach watches Tadzio swim. Tadzio is described as a “sweet and acrid adolescent on the verge of masculinity” (320-321). “Acric, as described in the Oxford English Dictionary, is: “bitterly pungent to the organs of taste or smell” (OED). Pairing “sweet” and “acrid” we are reminded of the very ripe strawberries in which Aschenbach had indulged. The taste of overripe fruit would, indeed, be sweet, but maybe so much so to cause one to be sick. We, then, are led to view Tadzio as an overly ripe adolescent who, while still retaining his beauty, is on the verge of losing it to the rot Mann associated with adulthood. Tadzio’s sweetness is the pungent taste that is building in, and also sickening, Aschenbach, creating an attachment to Tadzio, if only in Aschenbach’s mind.

Even as Aschenbach tried to leave Venice, he was delighted when his luggage was misdirected, allowing him to stay (326-328). It is then that Aschenbach admits he is more than slightly enamored with the youth as we are told upon his return to the Hotel des Bains, “…he realized it was Tadzio who had made it so difficult for him to leave” (328). The reader is not left to ruminate on the image of Aschenbach’s passion too long, as we are soon swept from growing desire to a Grecian scene far removed, yet similar.

Just as Mann seems to reach some pinnacle of desire in describing the intellectual/sensual connection and “…beauty…making us burn with pain and hope,” we seemingly jump from an oceanic scene of Tadzio and Aschenbach to one in Athens (333). It is the place where “Socrates taught Pahidros about desire and virtue” (334). Here we are taken to Mann’s safe haven. This is the place that allows Mann to explain that this story is an allegory, of sorts—a study of morality, rather than having connection with his own life, as the aforementioned article of Feuerlicht argued. For it is here that Mann projects Aschenbach, and thereby himself, as no more than an artist inspired by the beauty of a young boy, and he also recognizes that it is “a good thing that the world knows only the beautiful opus but not its origins…for if the people knew the sources…that knowledge would often confuse them, alarm them, and thereby destroy the effects of excellence” (335). By referencing the acceptability in Greece of what would in Mann’s time be forbidden love, Mann can then assert that he realizes this type of situation breaks cultural mores, but is only being used here for the sake of artistry. Mann further speaks of a knowledge of homoerotic love being “wrong” when he speaks of Aschenbach putting away his writing for the evening. Aschenbach is “exhausted, even shattered, and he felt his conscience lamenting as if after a debauchery” (335).  Mann’s noticeably homoerotic tale is caught between two worlds. One of a man in in love with a young boy, and another of a man society will not allow the same love enjoyed by the ancients. This double consciousness seems to mirror Mann’s own personal life, as he was a man caught between his authentic self, and the persona he was forced to present to the public.

Thomas Mann purportedly had many love affairs with young men, according to Feuerlicht (89-92). Mann could not have ever been an openly gay male in his society, and so in order to cover his homosexuality, he married a woman named Katia Mann (91). With Katia, Mann fathered six children, but never felt as satisfied as he did when he was much older and had “a chance acquaintance with a teenaged boy” (91).

During 1927 and 1928, Mann reportedly had an affair with a boy who was possibly sixteen or seventeen years old whilst on an island vacation (91).His relationship with the boy, named Klaus Heuser, is described by Mann in his diaries as “the happiest passion in his life” (91). It is worth noting, however, that Mann did not find his relationships with adult males nearly as endearing, and also once believed he was “falling in love” with his own son (91). This certainly brings one to question if Mann was only homosexual, or if he was also a pedophile. Nonetheless, he did not live openly in either case per se, as Feuerlicht notes, Mann was married to a woman, and was also much more open in his diaries than he ever was in his fiction writing (89-92). Mann, while hiding his innermost desires completely, opens the curtain for us to peek into as he poetically describes his predilection for young male beauty through the window of Aschenbach’s increasingly obsessive fascination with Tadzio.

Gustav Von Aschenbach braves even deadly disease to pursue his young love interest (341). He is “no longer content to rely on daily routine or chance to see or be near the beauty,” and so he begins to follow him (343). Aschenbach is described as being one who would “lay in wait,” being guided by a “demon,” and as a man who was “fettered by passion” (344). Not only does this describe the intensity of his fascination with Tadzio, Mann also sets the backdrop of this forbidden passion as something evil, something, perhaps, animalistic and wrong. In this way, Mann’s authorial intent would not be called into question. If he, himself, recognized Aschenbach’s actions as works of the devil, then he could not possibly be accused of having those same desires. Mann continues to disguise his own life as a fictional story of the evils of forbidden passion as we read on.

Once more we find ourselves voyeurs of a voyeur as Aschenbach watches Tadzio from the balustrade (348-349). There has been a shift in the mood as Tadzio is now not only aware of Aschenbach, but glancing at him (349). Fully aware if noticed trouble would surely be visited upon him, Aschenbach carefully avoides direct eye contact with the boy (349). As Aschenbach is irritated that Tadzio is so closely guarded, he notices the singer who is serenading the crowd (349-350). The description of the musician is interesting when contrasted with that of Tadzio.

The musician is described as having had too much exposure to the sun, which had apparently aged him (350). The narrator goes on to say the singer has a “scraggy neck” with eyebrows that might not match the rest of his features (350). He also carried with him a “powerful stench of carbolic acid” (350). When compared to the loving description of beauty ascribed to Tadzio, one of “innate and inevitable grace,” one might wonder if the musician was truly that offensive, or if it was the fact the musician had matured beyond the age of attraction for Aschenbach (349).  That Aschenbach is so acutely offended by the odor of the musician is curious because, as the narrator tells us, “no one else seemed concerned” (351). Was it the smell of disinfectant, or was it age that caused the disdain of the love-sick man?

Seeing that Tadzio “is sickly” and “probably won’t grow old,” Aschenbach, rather than be worried only for the health of the young man, feels “reckless satisfaction” (353). The young object of his affection will never reach the putrid age that causes an offensive air to surround Aschenbach. Even if Tadzio passed away, Aschenbach’s memory of him would always be of a young man.

Falling into a dream state, Aschenbach envisions a pagan ritual rife with sexual symbols (358). “Cavorting creatures” danced naked as desire called to him with “enticing flute music” (358). Another phallic symbol is hinted at as only an “obscene symbol, gigantic, wooden,” and Aschenbach, in his dream, had joined them, partaking in “the frenzy and fornication of doom” (359). Of course, Aschenbach’s fall into what might be described as a coven of witches speaks to what might become of one who participates in lurid behavior. Worthy of discussion is that Aschenbach did not partake in sexual activity with the females, but only entered the scene as the large, phallic symbol is brought forth (359). In this way, Mann calls attention specifically to homosexual activity rather than only to sexual activity. Aschenbach joins the scene, regardless of consequence, seemingly helpless and “powerless in the demon’s grip” upon waking (359). While only a dreamlike shrug of authority, Mann does seem to question one’s ability to stave off desire simply because the repercussions might be costly, but nonetheless shows the “evils” of sexual promiscuity, specifically homosexual activity.

Even before this scene, Mann seems to call into question governing bodies who impose rules, while also aligning himself with them. As he pursued Tadzio he questions himself “What am I doing,” he asks, remembering his “ancestry” and their opinions of his behavior (346).  He could not think of his ancestors being caught in the same situation as he because of their “rigorous self-control” (346). Aschenbach considered himself not unlike his “bourgeois forefathers” because he considered his art not unlike war (346). Moreover, one might conclude Aschenbach also fought a war to be accepted in a world so quick to denounce him if they were to know the truth, yet another nod to the struggle of Mann’s own life.

Mann wisely constructs a metaphor for all of this story in the tale of a city on the brink of disaster. He speaks of Venice being “the cajoling and dubious beauty” wherein “art had once voluptuously run riot in the putrid air and which gave musicians sounds that lull and lollop lasciviously….he also recalled that the city was ill, but concealing its illness out of greed” (345). Mann’s life was not unlike Venice. He was an artist full of beauty and talent, who gave gifts of the written word to the masses. Yet, he was “sick” by societal standards. Mann then was forced to conceal his own “illness,” homosexuality, and possibly pedophilia, in order to continue to be a successful writer, just as the cholera in Venice had to be concealed. Mann concealed his supposed illness not with putrid chemicals, but in a character named, Gustav Von Aschenbach, who finds his death at the end of a forbidden romance amongst the waterways of Italy.

Works Cited

Bernhard, Frank. “Mann’s Death in Venice.” Explicator. 45.1. 31-32.

Heldref Publications: New York, New York. 1986. PDF.

Feuerlicht, Ignace. “Thomas Mann and Homoeroticism.” The Germanic Review.

89-97. 2002. PDF.

Mann, Thomas. “Death in Venice.” Death in Venice and Other Tales. 285-366.

Penguin Books: New York. New York. 1999. Print.

OED.Com. Oxford English Dictionary Online.