Saturday, November 05, 2011

# 98 The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

Caught with a snazzy tie.

Not cute enough for Frank.

Tufnel played a Collings.
Marv takes a seat.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The road to Ensenada, on the other hand, “is plenty wide and fast.”

The source of the former declaration is a beatified Frenchman, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: “This proverbial statement probably derives from a similar statement by St. Bernard of Clairvaux about 1150… ‘Hell is full of good intentions or wishes.’”

The latter observation derives from the venerable Lyle Lovett, whom the centathlete exalts and has seen in concert five times over two decades. In the title track of his 1996 album, “The Road to Ensenada,” we hear the Mexican town portrayed as a destination for American wantonness:

But down here among the unclean/
Your good just comes undone

During a taped session, Lovett related that the song was inspired by one of many motorcycle trips with his close friend, the eminent guitar builder Bill Collings, whose devotees include Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and the unequaled Nigel Tufnel. A comment to the video states: “this is Lyle’s first Collings dreadnought (East Indian rosewood / German spruce) from 1979 built out of Bill’s two-bedroom apartment on Bingle Rd in Houston.”

The same model guitar appears in this performance, a duet with John Hiatt of the exquisite heartbreaker, “Nobody Knows Me.” In this older track, which the singer has evidently labeled “a cheating song about Mexican food,” Lovett describes the ease of infidelity once you leave the country:

But it was a dream made to order/
South of the border/
And nobody knows me like my baby/
And she cried man how could you do it /
And I swore that there weren't nothing to it

Frank Chambers, protagonist of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, knew what Lovett was singing about. He tells us, “Ensenada is all Mex, and you feel like you left the U.S.A. a million miles away.” The remoteness brings perceived freedom from consequence, and Chamber cheats on his wife Cora when he visits the town with a brand new acquaintance. Through the swiftness and ease of his carnal error, Chambers affirms Chris Rock’s claim that “a man is as faithful as his options.”

Back in the U.S.A., when Cora finds out, she confronts Frank and cries. Rather than deny it outright, Frank, like Lovett’s sad cowboy, offers man’s only other excuse: “She didn’t mean anything to me.”

Frank’s appraisal of Ensenada adds to the distinct waft of racism that appeared earlier in the narrative. When a restaurant patron mistakes Cora for a Mexican, she says, “I’m just as white as you are.”

Frank overhears this retort and subsequently speculates about Cora’s availability despite her marriage to the older Nick Papadakis. He says, “It was being married to the Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.” Frank jabs with the epithet “the Greek” to denigrate and depersonalize the man he’s about to cuckold.

In fact, Cora wanted the patron to know that she’s superlatively white and American, as evidenced by her Iowa roots. This form of proof brings to mind Superman, who first appeared in 1938, and his extreme American-ness, as Michael Rizzotti noted:
“…Superman lands in a corn field in the Midwest. His adopted parents are white, Anglo-Saxon and in all likelihood protestant (WASP). The question is, why the Midwest? He could very well have landed in a native, Jewish, African, Arabic, Mexican, Italian, or Chinese neighborhood in any of the US’ [sic] thriving big cities. The reason is that during the period in which Superman was popular, to be American meant to be white Anglo-American.”
Frank and Cora’s Depression-era bigotry adds ugly honesty to the narrative. Cora’s remark is a small sign of her limited perspective and sensitivity about identity—and of her desperation and savagery that will surface later.

Previously, by marrying Nick Papadakis, Cora had escaped aimless, sordid poverty as an L.A. floozy, to end up as an Old World fairy tale heroine (lowly girl rescued from drudgery by prince). But the marriage proves unsatisfying because Cora, a modern woman with her own drive, wants more than a comfortable life at a wide spot in the road—she wants to achieve the American dream. Her Greek prince is too old and settled, and his princedom isn’t big enough.

Ironically, Cora, by choosing to cheat on and then cold-bloodedly murder her husband, not only fails to attain the 20th century American Dream, she becomes a latter-day, classical tragic heroine, following in the footsteps of Clytemnestra, who plotted with her lover Aegistius to kill her husband Agamemnon. Cora's last year is ultimately very Greek.

Hollywood, in the 1946 movie adaptation starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, whitewashed over race and ethnicity. “Nick Papadakis” became “Nick Smith” (in the book, Cora’s maiden name is Smith) and Nick’s roots were transplanted to northern Canada. Turner, with her bottle-blonde coiffure (Cora is dark-haired in the novel) does not have to explain to anyone that she isn’t Mexican.

Mexico as the land of temptation is marginalized as well. In the opening scene, Garfield as Chambers tells us he ended up in Twin Oaks while hitching from San Francisco to San Diego. In the book, he was coming from “Tia Juana” on a three-week bender.

(Tijuana is more Sin City than Las Vegas. Years ago, the centathlete visited one night with friends. The very first scene past the Border Crossing was a bust of some kind: ten or more locals were lined up against a wall. On nearly every corner, pharmacy signs promoted cheap medications and quick surgeries. Two blocks off the main drag it was dark and foreboding. And then there were the tequila bars.)

The movie focuses on the sex appeal of the doomed couple; with Garfield as the tough homunculus and Turner as the temptress of the diner. Turner looks overly made-up but fabulous in her white wardrobe. Director Tay Garnett explained:
“There was a problem getting a story with that much sex past the sensors. We figured that dressing Lana in white somehow made everything she did less sensuous. It was also attractive as hell… They didn't have ‘hot pants’ back then, but you couldn't tell it by looking at her.”
Garnett and company appear to have also thought about the choice of ties. The chubby Nick Smith wears a conspicuously short tie, which adds to his portrayal as a sexless clown. When Cora catches Frank cheating on her, the proof is the snazzy striped tie he left with the other woman.
While they were glamorous celebrities at the time of filming The Postman Always Rings Twice, Garfield and Turner were in reality not unacquainted with the tribulations of Frank and Cora. Garfield for a time ran with a gang in New York City. Turner was embroiled her whole life in eventful marriages and affairs. In 1958 she participated in a murder trial when her 14-year old daughter Cheryl was charged with fatally stabbing Turner’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, a gangster’s bodyguard. Cheryl was acquitted on account of self defense.

To write The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain drew on one of the most sensational trials of the 1920’s, the Snyder/Gray case. Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray, gripped in a torrid affair, killed Ruth’s husband, Albert Snyder, an editor of Motor Boating magazine, which even today “covers the passions, adventures and lifestyles of active, affluent boat owners while delivering authoritative reviews and how-to information.”

The lovers blamed each other for the murder, which took place on Long Island, one of the bastions of civilization and, of course, the cradle of the centathlete. David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace summarized some of the trial’s tawdry aspects:
"Although both later claimed the other was the dominant partner, Judd’s nickname of ‘Momma’ or ‘Mommie’ for Ruth would seem to indicate that she was the real leader in their relationship. Ruth wasn't a beauty, but she exuded animal magnetism. During her trial, she received 164 marriage proposals."
It was a circus trial, Troy Taylor writes:
“Celebrities attended in droves, including mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart; director D.W. Griffith; author Will Durant; evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson.”
Famous journalists such as Damon Runyan and Walter Lippmann attended as well. James M. Cain told The Paris Review that one comment stuck with him: “Walter said it seemed very odd to be inhaling the perfume...of a woman he knew was going to be electrocuted.”
Unsurprisingly, a charged olfactory sense appears in The Postman Always Rings Twice. “I could smell her,” Frank tells us when he first encounters Cora. Pheromones are in the air and lust is up his nostrils.

The scent of a woman impressed another noir hero, Marv of the 2005 film Sin City. The killer is smitten with Goldie and says, “She smells like angels ought to smell, the perfect woman…” The tender, prayerful adoration contrasts with the black deeds of an “unstably violent” giant.

Frank Chambers is no comic-book assassin with a heart of gold like Marv. His revelation about smell shows him to be primal and animal-like. What sort of animal?

“You look more like a hell cat,” Frank says to Cora, kicking off the Cat Motif in the story. There’s the dead pussycat at the base of the stepladder. Then, Frank hooks up with Madge Allen, who raises a lion, a tiger, jaguars and pumas, and the two take the road to Ensenada. They discuss tracking pumas in Nicaragua, though it’s never cleared up if they managed to leave their motel room to undertake this expedition.

As a token of their romance, Madge leaves a baby puma for Frank—but gives it to Cora, who hysterically chews out her cheating husband: “And the cat came back! …Ain’t that funny, how unlucky cats are for you?” The image evokes the black cat in The Matrix, a sign of déjà vu that demonstrates a glitch in the system.

Intriguingly, the swaddled feline becomes a surrogate baby for Frank and Cora, albeit for a night only. Frank exhibits no warmth toward a bundle we could presume to be adorable, as this video shows. Parenthood, like marriage, can’t fulfill him.

The National Center for Biomedical Information reports that the puma “occupies the most extensive range of any New World terrestrial mammal.” Astrologists tell us even more:
“…those who share the puma as their totem should be mindful of their tendency to lash out too quickly, or act out in haste. Call upon the patience and observation of the puma before taking action in order to avoid quick and unsavory consequences.”
If only Frank and Cora had known. Of course, hasty lashing out and unsavory consequences make for good noir. Cain himself did not use that label; he thought his narrative was distinctive because it showcased “…the lingo in the mouth of a hobo with good grammar, like they have in California.” He further told The Paris Review: “Let's talk about this so-called style. I don't know what they're talking about—‘tough,’ ‘hard-boiled.’ I tried to write as people talk.”

To us ultramoderns, noir speech doesn’t seem exactly natural—it sounds affectedly measured and menacing, or “razor-sharp and acerbic.” It’s an outdated posture that takes some work to assume. To wit, Mickey Rourke prepared unusually to become Marv, according to Sin City director Robert Rodriguez:
“Mickey had this one piece of music he would play on the set to get into the character of Marv… It was Johnny Cash’s version of The Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt. If you listen to that song that’s how he did Marv."
(In 1992 Johnny Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame. His presenter was Lyle Lovett.)
For his last stop on the road to Hell or somewhere else, but certainly not Ensenada, Marv gets the electric chair, just as Frank Chambers does in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And just as Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray did in 1928 in Sing Sing. A tabloid reporter snuck in a camera and shot Ruth right when the juice was turned on and, as Marv would say, they “got to it.” If you like noir, you’ll want to see the picture. It’s a doozy.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

# 93 The Magus – John Fowles

Anthony Quinn as Conchis
Picasso: saurian and simian?
Hannibal Lecter, classical musician

Dio: Devil's Horns

First off, the centathlete needed to confim the correct pronunciation of the title of The Magus, the 1965 novel by John Fowles, because he has never heard the word spoken. It’s “may-gus,” according to the OED and Anthony Quinn, who played the mysterious Conchis in the 1968 movie adaptation.

Most of us are familiar with the plural on account of the three wise men of the Gospel of Matthew. A British friend once uttered, puzzlingly, the word “magi” as “Maggie” (a name that brings to mind songs by The Beatles and Rod Stewart). Years later this was brought to attention of her father, who was also perplexed and, as an ex-pat, unsure of how most Englishmen today call their Biblical adorers. We Americans prefer the A long and the J soft, so we say “may-jeye.” Anyway, with the singular text now placed on the shelf, we have to keep repeating may-gus, may-gus, may-gus.

Playing the desktop etymologist, the centathlete found that both “magus” and “magic” share ancestors in ancient Greek and old Persian. A magus was a member of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism known for its development of “Eastern” and “non-Christian” wisdom, notably through the practice of astrology, the interpretation of dreams, and the ability “to foretell events of world importance,” according to William Davies and Dale Allison.

The seemingly related word “magister” may not be related at all: the OED sources the classical Latin title that we moderns have transformed into “master.” For several reasons, The Magus evoked an earlier novel by Hermann Hesse alternatively titled Magister Ludi and The Glass Bead Game. Hesse told the Nobel Prize Committee he spent 11 years writing the book; Fowles spent more than a decade writing The Magus—its draft title was The Godgame.

Both works present profound, enigmatic “games” that are existential, psychological and pan-cultural. The authors’ parallel motifs and themes were not lost on readers of the ‘60s, according to Bill Kruse, who wrote, “…those youngsters who had once carried battered copies of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Demian in the back pocket of their jeans now replaced them with a copy of The Magus."

The final image of Siddartha is of the “wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha.” Like Hesse, Fowles considers a certain kind of smile the representation of enlightenment. Throughout The Magus, the young protagonist Urfe is described as “grinning,” on occasions when he thinks he knows what is truly transpiring and why—to find out later that he does not. It’s the grin of immaturity and shallow presumption. In contrast, Conchis smiles cryptically and deeply. Paul Laurenz, in analyzing Urfe’s quest for self-discovery, writes, “Conchis’s new world demands the Heraclitean complement, the knowing smile of a buddha who is aware that he does not know.”

(Now, a quibble. Hesse and Fowles, these giants of fiction and philosophy, both uphold “the smile,” yet in their writing they are unable or unwilling to make the reader laugh. Just saying.)
While Hesse toiled over his masterpiece, the Dutch social philosopher Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens (in English The Playful Human) and argued for the fundamental cultural importance of play. In discussing Huizinga, Daniel Rigney wrote:
“There is something enchanting and captivating about playing games—something that draws us into their imaginary worlds and seals us off from the world outside… Games are at once both imaginary and vividly real to those who fall under their spell.”
This observation describes the process and the appeal of The Magus, in which Urfe is effectively isolated in a marvelous “domaine” on a remote Greek island, and forced to navigate the reality and illusion of Conchis’s godgame. In an interview, Fowles himself acknowledged the role of play in the mind of the writer: “I think literature is half imagination and half game. One’s feeling alter, sometimes very greatly, from one creation to the next.”

(Some will remember that an earlier detour in the centathlon took us through the recent ascendance of the rules of games as entertainment in themselves.)

As the arbiter and leader of the imaginative godgame, Conchis embodies the magus, or the magician, the powerfully resonant card (the very first trump) in the tarot deck, as Urfe reminds us. There are 78 cards in the traditional tarot deck and 78 chapters in The Magus, but “little correlation between the individual cards and chapters,” according to Barry Olshen as cited by Jens Pollheide, who pointed out that John Fowles “encourages” certain identifications, such as tarot iconography, in the reader and then “frustrates” them.

Carl Jung thought that tarot cards represented timeless archetypes that could help an individual on the road to transformation. Gerald Schueler noted, “In Jung’s analytical psychology, these archetypes comprise the major dynamical components of the unconscious which affect the human psyche in many different ways.”

Fowles relied on Jung for provocative fodder rather than for therapeutic dogma. He told Dianne Vipond, “Jung is infinitely more valuable [than Freud] for an artist. One of the Eranos yearbooks was important for The Magus.” So we readers have Urfe as The Fool, the archetypal youth on the journey to self-realization and the authentic life, and Conchis as The Magus, the wise trickster, and little other reason to consult in the tarot deck.

The centathlete, it must be revealed, endeavored to read tarot cards years ago. The Rider-Waite deck was acquired. Illustrated guides were studied. The exercise proved to be an entertaining novelty and one thing became immediately clear: many women want to have their cards read. The readings, this fortuneteller found, were “successful” when suggestive and interactive, rather than authoritative and one-sided. You should read the client at the same time you read the cards.

The most memorable reading illustrates this perception. At a party, the centathlete occupied a corner by the radiator of his Manhattan apartment and read for a few people. One young woman, whom he had never met before, sat down and requested advice concerning the theme of Love. As the cards were turned and interpreted, the centathlete found himself, by observing the woman’s reactions, suddenly referring to her object of desire as female rather than the male, intoning “she will be…” rather than “he will be…” Days later a mutual friend, who was at the party, expressed great surprise that this orientation could have been discovered in that setting—and she confirmed that it was in fact true. Despite this discovery, the centathlete shortly thereafter lost interest in tarot and discontinued the hobby in much the same way he briefly took up and dropped the games of chess and croquet.

Croquet: leisurely, brilliant July afternoons in the front quad of New College at Oxford University. During a study abroad summer program, the centathlete (who typically sported a cap for stale comic effect) and a few fellow students often shirked research and writing for a few games of croquet on the lawn. There was even a final tournament, which the centathlete did not win.

Only by stumbling through the centathlon, admiring Tom Wilson’s heartfelt blog post, do we learn that during the late ‘40s John Fowles attended New College. Other alumni include top 100 novelist, Virginia Woolf and the actor Hugh Grant. While there, we Americans were never told who may have once slept and scribbled in our rooms (most of them spacious, fusty singles)…

After Oxford, Fowles taught on the Greek island of Spetsai. His descriptions of the light, landscape and aura, so different from England, will impress anyone who has had the fortune to visit that mythmaking cradle of the world, as the centathlete has. The blues and whites of Santorini, the butterflies and buttresses of Rhodes, the neglected ruins on the roadside—they are unlike anything back home and they do engender a new mindset for the tourist.

The lord of a columned mansion on Spetsai where he conducts “metatheater,” Conchis personifies an intense classical sensibility at odds with the uptight, English Urfe, who writes, “[Conchis] had a bizarre family resemblance to Picasso; saurian as well as simian, decades of living in the sun, the quintessential Mediterranean man...” Before coming across this vivid comparison, the centathlete had a page earlier actually envisioned Anthony Hopkins as the painter in the south of France in the 1996 film Surviving Picasso. Watching the movie’s trailer today we see a manipulative, randy genius creating art and games in the sunshine—just like Conchis.

Now, Picasso isn’t Hopkins’s only role that comes to mind while reading The Magus. Hannibal Lecter (whom Hopkins played in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), Thomas Harris’s cannibal and serial killer, gives us a man who is an initiator of games and a connoisseur of art, a debauchee of utter erudition, who has plumbed the depths of horror and shines the lamplight of perverse insight.

Lecter is a magian caricature in the footsteps of Conchis and his one-time mentor, Count de Deukans (not to be confused with Count Dooku of the Star Wars saga). The Belgian count, according to Conchis, was “immensely rich” as well as “most abnormal, politest, most distant [and] most socially irresponsible.” He was not then unlike Conchis himself, and we can say he ably preceded Lecter.

Let’s get specific. Conchis played a Pleyel harpsichord and it was the key to his meeting Count de Deukans, who owned “five or six harpsichords, museum pieces” and played them himself. In Harris’s 1999 novel Hannibal, “Lecter plays the harpsichord and the theremin,” Gary Moore notes, while the 2001 movie adaptation shows him playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a clavier. Through this arcane musicianship, the characters seduce us as astute keepers of tradition and beauty.

Len Platt elaborates on the dangerous seduction, asserting that the character of Hannibal Lecter represents an elevated concern for the very state of Western society and culture. He writes:
“…[Lecter] epitomizes the taste, tradition, and distinction that have been all but dispatched by the leveling dynamic of mass society and mass culture. In this context, the key elements in Dr. Lecter’s make-up, his extraordinary intelligence and great refinement (see, for instance his taste for exotic food…for classic cars, the best perfumes and so on), these become culturally placed in unequivocal ways and deployed against Harris’s version of the awfulness of modern life.”
There comes a strong and clear warning when we consider the diabolical figures of de Deukans, Conchis and Lecter, the latter two personally acquainted with the horror and atrocity of World War II (Lecter’s traumatic childhood is detailed in the 2007 film Hannibal Rising). Sam Ford observes:
“…no matter how superior we become through education, through culture, and through refinement, the basest aspects of human nature—to dominate others, to be violent—will still prevail."
As he was years earlier indoctrinated into the excellence of human achievement by de Deukans, Conchis introduces Urfe to the finer things. He adds the harsher things as well, making Urfe despise his contemporary, bourgeois English life. This tearing down of common values is called out by the three quotations in French in The Magus from the old depraved shadow, the Marquis de Sade.

Fowles was not the only writer thinking of the marquis during the early ‘60s. The German Peter Weiss wrote the play Marat/Sade, which was first performed in 1964 in West Berlin, a year before The Magus was published. (Peter Brooks’s celebrated movie adaptation of Marat/Sade followed in 1967.) For the next decade it was de rigueur to film de Sade; the wave of soft-core was capped by the transgressive, scarring 1975 film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who hated fascists perhaps even more than did John Fowles.

Fowles, Weiss and Pasolini all weave de Sade’s rejection of virtue and behavioral boundaries into greater explorations of war, politics, history, and heightened individuality. What is freedom? How should one behave with power, or without it?

Fowles seems to have made use of the marquis in the manner he appropriated Jung for provocative imagery (and, for that matter, in the same way Picasso used the horned Minotaur in many paintings). In his interview with Dianne Vipond, he said, “I don't for instance have much time for texts like de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I'd rather say I am implicitly erotic!” A key to the sexiness of The Magus is Fowles’s tactic of serial suggestion and frustration, as noted in the earlier reference to Jens Pollheide.

At the end of Urfe’s stay in Spetsai, he is led to a trial that involves his own humiliation, despite the fact that he is placed as the judge rather than the defendant. The charged conflation of domination and subjection, as well as the binding and gagging, evoked the presentation of Trent Reznor in the Nine Inch Nails 1994 video of “Closer,” named the second sexiest song of all-time in one poll. The band’s mud-coated live performance at Woodstock in 1994 channels the lyrics into ecstatic mayhem.

Reznor, as the composer/performer, explored isolation, addiction and violent desperation. Mark Romanek, as the director, created one of the most popular videos ever (17th on MTV’s greatest videos), mainly by borrowing very heavily from the artwork of Francis Bacon and the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin. The photographer, called in “the reigning king of deviant imagery” and known for provocative nudes and crucifix masks, among other representations, actually considers himself a “Western Christian” artist, as he told Cindy Marler. Fowles, in contrast, tells us in his book’s foreword that he denies God and aims to portray “a series of human illusions about something that does not exist…”

In The Magus, at the trial of Urfe, there is a human illusion that brings to mind a second hard-rocking musician. The narrator describes, “…a huge left hand…with the forefinger and the little finger pointing up and the two middle fingers holding down the thumb.”

Consumers of heavy metal music wield this symbol en masse and call it “the Devil’s horns.” It was popularized by the late Ronnie James Dio, who learned it from his Italian grandmother. The gesture wards off “the evil eye” and, Dio added in an interview, “puts an exclamation point and a period to what you’re doing.”

Like Fowles, Dio knew a distinctive, timeless Mediterranean motif when he saw one, and he had the insight to employ it in memorable, contemporary fashion. This was a man—whom the centathlete saw in concert on August 15, 1984—who wrote or co-wrote songs entitled “Tarot Woman,” “Stargazer,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Voodoo,” and “The Bible Black.” Evidently, he too was a magus, one of many magi.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

# 54 Light in August – William Faulkner

At a convention years ago the centathlete met a bunch of folks from Mississippi, specifically Crystal Springs, once known as “Tomatopolis of the world.” Looking to connect via his Southern schooling, the centathlete informed one hot tomato he went to college in North Carolina. “Oh, that’s not the South,” she promptly said.

Today one wonders if her radius of Southern quintessence extended as far as the college town of Oxford, nearly 200 miles to the north. Known lately for both its southern lifestyle and “cosmopolitan flair,” Oxford was home to William Faulkner most of his life and it served as the model for Jefferson, MS, the setting for his 1932 novel, Light in August.

Most people outside of Crystal Springs consider Faulkner a representative, if not an apotheosis, of a “Southern writer,” as evidenced partly by his influence on contemporary artists such as the guitarist Doug Wamble, a native Tennessean. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Adam Levy:

Q. What dead artist…would you like to have collaborated with?

A. …For other arts (besides music), it'd be William Faulkner. I'd love to have found a way to work with him, because he's in my favorite subset of humanity — the Southern Intellectual.

Chamber Music America awarded Wamble a grant to explore, in his words, “the dichotomy of being an intellectual who is rooted in the down home elements of the South.”

In embracing and wrestling with the “dichotomy” between folksiness and erudition, Wamble created a “sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner.” Its track “Christmas’ Burden,” a superb bit of banjo blues seen in this live performance here, gives voice to Joe Christmas of Light in August. By playing on the notion of “the white man’s burden,” Wamble considers Joe’s mixed heritage and its impact on his body and soul. On the run, Christmas sings:

And I know that it’s true

something’s gonna happen to me

And I know God loves me too

What does happen is horrifying. His fate stems from Faulkner’s own scarring memory of the public justice enacted on a man named Nelse Patton, according to a website devoted to Faulkner Triva. In Faulkner’s County, the historian Don Doyle examines such atrocities, the concept of a collective “burden,” and the relationship between the legacy of Oxford’s Lafayette County and the lore of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha:

"[Faulkner] saw the southern past as a burden on his people, carrying with it sins so profound that the past constituted a curse that hung over the land, inherited by one generation after another."
As the past cursed Faulkner’s county, change plagued it. Let’s start with the very population of that “postage stamp.” Faulkner himself provided the following demographics:

Yoknapatawpha Population (ca. 1936): Whites, 6,298, Negroes, 9,313

This yields a proportion of 40% to 59%. The eminent historian and novelist Shelby Foote disputed the depiction as follows: “…[Faulkner] makes it about half black and half white. That’s absurd. No county in the hills here would be half black.” We presume Foote means that the black population is much too large and therefore the statistic is apocryphal when compared to Lafayette. Do we infer that Faulkner was placing his county in the old-line cotton-growing area, and accentuating the perceived threat of unrest to the whites of Yoknapatawpha?

As the population in Lafayette has almost tripled from the 1930’s, the demographics have more than flip-flopped from the Faulknerian portrayal. According to the 2009 census, in Lafayette County there were:

White persons 31,925, Black persons 10,817, 72.6% white, 24.6% black

We undertake such rudimentary analysis because race matters crucially in Light in August on a societal and individual level. Joe Christmas is tortured, perhaps cursed, by his mixed ancestry. With slavery a century and half behind Americans, we continue to inquire about, if not obsess over, this issue. “Ethnic background is important to many,” writes “Since so many of you have asked—here is what we know,” above its Multiracial Celebrities gallery.

Indeed, the identity of “Joe Christmas” evokes the character’s name source and evergreen argument over the race of Jesus Christ. Try a Google search to see the latest permutations of what Jesus might have looked like.

With a Christian namesake, a Madonna in the character of Lena Grove (played in this video by Mallisa Rainey), a reverend and two preachers, Light in August presents an abundance of religious fervor, inquiry and doubt. The troubled figures invite us on our own epistemological examination of identity and belief. In delving into Joe Christmas’s early childhood, the narrator tells us, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes…”

Richard Guilfoyle called this passage a koan, and wrote:

"As such, Light in August is an anamnetic text, the remembrance of things past and the recollection of the a priori and phenomenal known in the tradition of The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dante’s Vita Nuova, and Plato. Augustinian, Dantean, and Platonic contemplation of memory is a divine reuniting; it is the educing of the godlike, godly, and for some, even god. The quest is intensely personal, particular, pointed, wavelike, and revelatory of the universal."
Whoa, that's heavy lifting, Richard—but we’re not getting quizzed on it! Good ol’ Mark Twain broke down this process with more succinctness and cynicism:
“In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners…”
Hey, it was Twain, not the centathlete, who brought up Politics, the topic other than religion that has no place in polite discussion. With our Faulkner in hand, we see that in the 2008 presidential election, voters in Lafayette County were 56% for McCain and 43% for Obama, in line with the state of Mississippi.

An analysis of other Mississippi counties’ results argued for a correlation between the vote for Obama and the historical demographics of cotton-growing areas. Comparing and overlaying maps from three centuries, the blogger concluded, The electoral map indicates very clearly that there there is a strong national consciousness in the Black Belt that was expressed in the election of the first Black president.”

McCain won the other Southern states except Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, suggesting that the Crystal Springs tomato was on to something about who is Southern and who isn’t. Incidentally, the centathlete met her at a convention in Hawaii, the birthplace of President Obama, though that is disputed by the Birther Movement, which questions the president’s legitimacy without the production of the “vault copy of the long firm birth certificate.”

The “Mama Birther,” an interesting title, is Orly Taitz, who writes to President Obama on her website as follows: “…your white half is as corrupt as your black half. The issue is not in race, but in the massive Social Security and elections fraud, that you are perpetrating.” This invective refers in part to the branches of the Obama family tree.

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart mocked Taitz, whom he called “the lost Gabor sister,” as well as a Delaware woman who shouted that the president “…is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya.” Stewart’s segment was titled “The Born Identity,” punning on the Matt Damon cycle that the centathlete watches over and over again on cable, and again calling attention to the compelling issue of identity.

Another website more seriously rebutted the birthers’ allegation that President Obama’s certificate of live birth was a forgery. calls itself “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” The founders and primary fact-checkers, David and Barbara Mikkelson, were interviewed by David Pogue, a technology blogger for The New York Times.

David Pogue: Where does the name Snopes come from?

David Mikkelson: Snopes come from a family of characters who recur in the works of William Faulkner. He typically had different families that represented different strata of Southern society. And the Snopes were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But none of that has anything to do with the site. It just — I knew the name Snopes from having read William Faulkner. It was my nom de net. And then when we started the site, it turned out to be sort of fortuitous. Because it is so short and catchy and distinctive.

The Snopes clan does not appear in Light in August, but we like to bump into the novelist’s influence in a very contemporary platform. We kept reading:

David Pogue: Does it ever make you cynical about human nature? All this [misinformation], day in and day out?

David Mikkelson: Well sometimes. You know, it gets a little disheartening to see the same kinds of things going around time after time.

Take heart, David, those same things—legends, family histories, imperfect remembrances, avatars, apotheoses (loving the plural), sermons, war stories—will always keep going around. On Faulkner Time.