"The Past Isn't Dead. It Isn't Even Past"



A reader writes about Obama's invocation of Faulkner:

That Obama was signalling - "The past isn't dead.  It isn't even past" - that his speech - and his candidacy - are about confronting history from a Faulknerian standpoint was, to me, the bravest thing he did. It signalled to me that he feels this discussion is more important than electoral success, and I can't help but admire that. Although I didn't know which words he was going to use in the second half of the speech, from that point, I knew the sense of most everything he was going to say.

Faulkner is too easily pigeonholed as being about race. Or about "The Fall of the Old South."  (You have never truly felt the urge to stab someone with a pen until you're the only southerner in a room full of upper-midwestern accents insisting upon fitting everything in Faulkner neatly into the latter.)  But both of those miss the point -- Faulkner is about the past, and the struggle to both accept it as a part of oneself and continue into the future.

Gavin Stevens, who said the line Obama quoted, got that; he was simply too afraid, in my opinion, to do much about it, especially after he tries and fails once.  But the relevant passage to Faulkner, and to Obama, is from "Delta Autumn" (from Go Down, Moses).  Ike McCaslin (in his 80s now) is in bed on a hunting trip, and the lover of his nephew comes in with their child, revealing herself.  She's also a cousin of the McCaslins, from the illegitimate line caused by an affair with a slave.  So it's inter-racial and incestuous.  It goes (Ike speaking, emphasis mine):

"That's right.  Go back North.  Marry: a man in your own race.  That's the only salvation for you--for a while yet, maybe a long while yet.  We will have to wait.  Marry a black man.  You are young, handsome, almost white; you could find a black man who would see in you what it was you saw in him, who would ask nothing of you and expect less and get even still less than that, if it's revenge you want.  Then you will forget all this, forget it ever happened, that he ever existed--" until he could stop it at last and did, sitting there in his huddle of blankets during the instant  when, without moving at all, she blazed silently  down at him.  Then that was gone too.  She stood in the gleaming and still dripping slicker, looking quietly down at him from under the sodden hat.

"Old man," she said, "have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you dont remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?"

So they're talking about love, yes (as Faulkner wrote elsewhere they "had to talk about something"), but it's her rebuttal to "We will have to wait" that's important.  Ike is a good person, less racist than almost anyone else of his generation, but the struggle with the past is too much for him.  He says wait.  The younger woman tells him unequivocally that he is wrong.

That's what Obama was doing.  His speech was accepts Faulkner's opinion of the past -- that it is a part of us, and we must live with it -- but rejects the fear most of his characters have of confronting it.  Our national heritage contains some of the brightest moments in human history, but also a number of moral failures.  I'm not proud of the latter, but as an American, they are a part of me, and if we are to become a stronger nation, we must learn to understand them, accept them as our past, and move beyond them.  What Obama said this morning is that we no longer have to wait for a while yet, maybe a long while yet.  The time is now, the place here, the people us.

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