Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Faulkner's "The Bear"

Faulkner's "The Bear"

This not-so-short story contains the major players, history, longing and roots of the American South: slavery with its corruption of slaveholders; war and its aftermaths; the Indian lineage which predated and outlasted slavery and yet vanished into the maw of modernity; and wilderness itself, shrunk and compromised by greed and settlement yet still potent, still the strongest of all forces and entities.

Isaac (Ike) McCaslin links these worlds, straddles them all. As a boy his spirit father is the solitary Indian Sam Fathers, obtained as a slave yet never answering to anyone except at will, who teaches him wood-lore then releases him into wilderness where his understanding surpasses all other white men's and black men's, matched only by Sam Fathers himself.

The bear itself is a totem, predator and prey, of wilderness. The men hunt it because conquest is in their nature. The bear eludes them because it is wild, and wildness is stronger than civilization. As a boy Ike encounters it only after he leaves his rifle back at the hunting camp, then finally abandons his compass and watch too - they meet only on the bear's terms.

As a man he argues the history of the South with his cousin McCaslin (Cass) Edmonds, his father in the ways of his white race though not his equal in understanding the guilt they bear toward those once enslaved. Even after 1865, that burden of bondage and debt owns the generations and governs their acts. The blood between races, both in spilling and begetting, holds them in tense inseparability, as does their labor: "...cotton - the two threads frail as truth and impalpable as equators yet cable-strong to bind for life them who made the cotton to the land their sweat fell on..." (p 279, Go Down, Moses; Vintage Books c 1942).

He spins in generality the upsurgence of the KKK to preserve "the Southern way of life"; in specifics he gives us Ike's white uncle who held for safekeeping the boy's inheritance till he'd turn 21, at which point Ike unwraps the silver cup filled with gold pieces to discover a snowfall of IOU's and a shiny tin coffeepot holding a few coppers, his fortune eroded by the old man's vices. The black son of this constellation refuses to touch the money left to him instead of paternity; the white son receives his - except that it's been squandered. Sam Fathers too, with his slave mother, has been betrayed by his father, to Carothers McCaslin (the white patriarch): "for both of whom he had swapped an underbred trotting gelding to old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief from whom he had likewise bought the land..." (p. 249, ibid.). Belief in the greater value of money has trammeled the old deep patrimony of the land itself, the pride and dignity of those who toil (greater than those who reap the fruits), and the lineage that in Faulkner's world is one's true strength (and lacking it, fatal weakness).

The story completes its arc, back to the wilderness, burial site of Sam Fathers and Lion, the dog finally capable of cornering the patriarch of bears, the one so fearsome that only the foolishly brave fyce (terrier) and the huge impassive blue dog would hunt it to confrontation. Ike finds traces of the dog's burial but not Sam Fathers': ..."the knoll... was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again..." (p. 312, ibid.). This, not the works of man, is Faulkner's bedrock of faith.

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