“He Squatted Among the Soft Womansmelling Garments” — A Strange Sex Scene from Faulkner

A strange, gross sex scene from William Faulkner’s  novel Light in August. As a child, the book’s anti-hero,Joe Christmas, an orphan of unclear parentage, sneaks off to suck sweet toothpaste from a tube. There, he surreptitiously witnesses a clandestine meeting between the orphanage’s dietitian and another worker:

In the quiet and empty corridor, during the quiet hour of early afternoon, he was like a shadow, small even for five years, sober and quiet as a shadow. Another in the corridor could not have said just when and where he vanished, into what door, what room. But there was no one else in the corridor at this hour. He knew that. He had been doing this for almost a year, ever since the day when he discovered by accident the toothpaste which the dietitian used.

Once in the room, he went directly on his bare and silent feet to the washstand and found the tube. He was watching the pink worm coil smooth and cool and slow onto his parchmentcolored finger when he heard footsteps in the corridor and then voices just beyond the door. Perhaps he recognised the dietitian’s voice. Anyway, he did not wait to see if they were going to pass the door or not. With the tube in his hand and still silent as a shadow on his bare feet he crossed the room and slipped beneath a cloth curtain which screened off one corner of the room. Here he squatted, among delicate shoes and suspended soft womangarments. Crouching, he heard the dietitian and her companion enter the room.

The dietitian was nothing to him yet, save a mechanical adjunct to eating, food, the diningroom, the ceremony of eating at the wooden forms, coming now and then into his vision without impacting at all except as something of pleasing association and pleasing in herself to look at—young, a little fullbodied, smooth, pink-and-white, making his mind think of the diningroom, making his mouth think of something sweet and sticky to eat, and also pink-colored and surreptitious. On that first day when he discovered the toothpaste in her room he had gone directly there, who had never heard of toothpaste either; as if he already knew that she would possess something of that nature and he would find it. He knew the voice of her companion also: It was that of a young interne from the county hospital who was assistant to the parochial doctor, he too a familiar figure about the house and also not yet an enemy.

He was safe now, behind the curtain. When they went away, he would replace the toothpaste and also leave. So he squatted behind the curtain, hearing without listening to it the woman’s tense whispering voice: “No! No! Not here. Not now. They’ll catch us. Somebody will—No, Charley! Please!” The man’s words he could not understand at all. The voice was lowered too. It had a ruthless sound, as the voices of all men did to him yet, since he was too young yet to escape from the world of women for that brief respite before he escaped back into it to remain until the hour of his death. He heard other sounds which he did know: a scuffing as of feet, the turn, of the key in the door. “No, Charley! Charley, please! Please, Charley!” the woman’s whisper said. He heard other sounds, rustlings, whisperings, not voices. He was not listening; he was just waiting, thinking without particular interest or attention that it was a strange hour to be going to bed. Again the woman’s fainting whisper came through the thin curtain: “I’m scared! Hurry! Hurry!”

He squatted among the soft womansmelling garments and the shoes. He saw by feel alone now the ruined, once cylindrical tube. By taste and not seeing he contemplated the cool invisible worm as it coiled onto his finger and smeared sharp, automatonlike and sweet, into his mouth. By ordinary he would have taken a single mouthful and then replaced the tube and left the room. Even at five, he knew that he must not take more than that. Perhaps it was the animal warning him that more would make him sick; perhaps the human being warning him that if he took more than that, she would miss it. This was the first time he had taken more. By now, hiding and waiting, he had taken a good deal more. By feel he could see the diminishing tube. He began to sweat. Then he found that he had been sweating for some time, that for some time now he had been doing nothing else but sweating. He was not hearing anything at all now. Very likely he would not have heard a gunshot beyond the curtain. He seemed to be turned in upon himself, watching himself sweating, watching himself smear another worm of paste into his mouth which his stomach did not want. Sure enough, it refused to go down. Motionless now, utterly contemplative, he seemed to stoop above himself like a chemist in his laboratory, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. At once the paste which he had already swallowed lifted inside him, trying to get back out, into the air where it was cool. It was no longer sweet. In the rife, pinkwomansmelling, obscurity behind the curtain he squatted, pinkfoamed, listening to his insides, waiting with astonished fatalism for what was about to happen to him. Then it happened. He said to himself with complete and passive surrender: ‘Well, here I am.’

When the curtain fled back he did not look up. When hands dragged him violently out of his vomit he did not resist. He hung from the hands, limp, looking with slackjawed and glassy idiocy into a face no longer smooth pink-and-white, surrounded now by wild and dishevelled hair whose smooth bands once made him think of candy. “You little rat!” the thin, furious voice hissed; “you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!”

Light in August — William Faulkner

I can’t unpack William Faulkner’s novel Light in August here. There’s too much in it. It’s too thick. Faulkner piles on his sentences in a gelatinous mass, smearing words on top of words into a deep swamp of meaning, motif, and symbol. The novel is archaeological, a deep dig into the South’s abject wounds. It is the most Faulkneresque Faulkner novel I have read, a heady strange brew that tries to suss out racism, misogyny, fear of paternity, the scars of the plantation system, the fallout of the Civil War, the cold comfort of religion, and so much more. Like any good modern text, you could say it’s about a quest for identity, and how the quester must come into conflict with the codes and terms of the dominant social order to find that solid identity. But in Faulkner there is no stable identity, and Light in August dramatizes this problem, even as it points to a possible inherent payoff.

A book review should give some sense of what happens in the book, but as in much of Faulkner’s work, explaining “what happens” in a Light in August would spoil the puzzle, the synthesis, the game, the shock of it all. But some outlines should suffice. The novel is set in the Jim Crow South, mostly in Jefferson, seat of Yoknapatawpha County, the Faulknerverse. It opens with Lena Grove walking “all the way from Alabama” into Mississippi; she’s in her third trimester of pregnancy and still has no ring on her finger, a sign that every Southerner knows how to read. Lena is looking for the father’s child, Lucas Burch; she hears tell that a Burch might work at the planing mill. It’s not Burch though, but Byron Bunch, who falls for Lena right away, plays Joseph to her Mary. Meanwhile, Lucas Burch is around—only the rascal’s taken up the false name Joe Brown. He’s also taken up with the novel’s tragic anti-hero, Joe Christmas, helping that strange man bootleg whiskey out of old servant quarters adjoining a decaying plantation house. Joe Christmas, an abandoned orphan, may have black blood in him. In Jim Crow Mississippi this makes him black, even worse than black—an unknown, unknowable something. Christmas (is there a more overdetermined name in fiction?) is accused of killing the woman who lives the old plantation house, a woman the community of Jefferson shunned for her family’s abolitionist, carpetbaggin’ past, yet now the community must exact the only kind of justice suitable for a black man accused of killing a white woman in Mississippi in the 1920s. JC, always estranged, must now keep on the run to avoid being lynched.

In any other novel, the two protagonists would have to meet, but Faulkner never allows a scene between Christmas and Lena. Yet they are undeniably tied together: somehow he is both the metaphysical father of her child and the child itself, Faulkner’s answer to the inescapable violent fatalism that curses the South. There is no exit from the wounded past, but there might be new possibilities, and we might find them in Lena’s baby. Lena provides a feminine antidote to Christmas’s abject fear of women, his utterly Faulknerian despair of genitalia and menstruation; at the same time, Christmas becomes the sacrificial lamb for the South’s sins, the totem whose ritualistic dismemberment will at once reaffirm the dominant social patriarchal order of the plantation system at the very same time it reveals that system’s deep hypocrisy and radical instability.

In Light in August, Faulkner shows us a world where social codes are rigid, inflexible, immutable, unspoken, and bear absolutely no relation to the concrete reality of the phenomenal, external world they pretend to govern. It’s the primal sin of the plantation system, which paradoxically separated and joined blacks and whites; which said that miscegenation was abomination yet created the optimal circumstances for racial mixing; which proscribed the very concept of a multiracial family while enforcing the Darwinian circumstances that would necessitate such a collective. It is a world where nothing fits together, nothing connects, yet Faulkner finds a place for his misfits, although he must find it by mixing up the system.

Here’s Lena talking to Hightower, the defrocked minister and ersatz medicine man (I will not even begin to discuss Hightower). Lena’s concern is over Christmas’s grandmother, who through a bizarre series of events is present at the baby’s birth—-

“She keeps on talking about—–She is mixed up someway. And sometimes I get mixed up too, listening, having to . . . . . . .” Her eyes, her words, grope, fumble.

“Mixed up?”

“She keeps on talking about him like his pa was that—–that one in jail, that Mr Christmas. She keeps on, and the I get mixed up and it’s like sometimes I can’t——like I am mixed up too and I think that his pa is that Mr—–Mr Christmas too—–” She watches him; it is as though she makes a tremendous effort of some kind. “But I know that aint so. I know that’s foolish. It’s because she keeps on saying it and saying it, and maybe I ain’t strong good yet, and I get mixed up too. But I am afraid . . . . . . .”

“Of what?”

“I don’t like to get mixed up. And I am afraid she might get me mixed up, like they say how you might cross your eyes and then you can’t uncross . . . . . . .”

But the eyes and the I’s (both are ways of seeing, of course) do get crossed in Light. Faulkner mixes up the system, crosses the wires as a way out of the ugly circuit, even as he paradoxically reconfirms the circuit’s contours. This is not a writer who flinches from history and all its despair, even as he tries to find a metaphysical answer outside of religious doctrine and conventional morality.

I feel like I’ve made, at best, some very broad, superficial scratches into the surface of a very dense, thick book; even worse, I’ve barely provided even a hint of Faulkner’s astounding prose. Mea culpa. I’ll take a second, more specific shot at Light in August in an upcoming post. For now: Very highly recommended.