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Critical Essay by Emily Miller Budick
SOURCE: "The Mother Tongue," in Engendering Romance: Women Writers and the Hawthorne Tradition, 1850–1990. Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 143-61.
In the following essay Budick discusses how different characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter strive to develop both verbal and sexual intercourse with others.
Like her predecessors in the romance tradition, Carson McCullers, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, renders a portrait of reality more suggestive than mimetic. As with The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables (and the tradition of sentimental fiction to which these texts are related), its subject is the truth of the human heart, and its fundamental message has to do with what the text specifies as "one word—love." At the end of Wharton's House of Mirth, Lily is trying to remember this single word, and Selden in on his way to Lily to say it. The word is never stated in Wharton's novel, but it is spoken in McCullers's. A central concern in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (as in the Letter) is what it means to risk speaking the word love, which is to say what it means to risk not speaking it. Through her female protagonists Mick Kelly and Portia—and through the bisexual Biff Brannon—McCullers discovers a language of the heart that, like Faulkner's antiphallocentric discourse, transcends the limitations of symbolic, representational, ideological discourse. But because she is as much invested in the word love as in love itself, her text does not, like the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century, dissolve into pure emotionality, beyond language; nor does it, like Faulkner's fiction, resist the material, maternal, symbolic universe.
Stanley Cavell has written of the reader-writer relationship that "the reader's position [is] that of the stranger. To write to him is to acknowledge that he is outside the words, at a bent arm's length, and alone with the book; that his presence to these words is perfectly contingent, and the choice to stay with them continuously his own; that they are his points of departure and origin. The conditions of meeting upon the word are that we—writer and reader—learn how to depart from them, leave them where they are; and then return to them, finding ourselves there again." In McCullers's novel, speaking requires the same autonomy of speaker and listener, the same necessity for what Cavell elsewhere imagines as letting words go and finding them again. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter has to do with the requirements of both verbal and sexual intercourse, as well as with taking responsibility for what such intercourse produces.
In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter four lonely characters seek to escape isolation and open intercourse with the world through their conversation with a deaf person who cannot hear them and refuses to speak to them. This pattern of nonconversation, in which the individual chooses as the recipient of communication a person who cannot or will not respond, is poignantly reinforced by John Singer's own choice of dialogic partner: the deaf and dumb, mentally retarded Spiros Antonapoulos. There is no mistaking McCullers's sympathy for her isolated individuals—no ignoring, either, the complaint about lonely hearts who ruthlessly hunt companionship, only to use the other as a sounding board for the self. As if anticipating the poststructuralist accusation against new formalist criticism—that it reads out texts as mirrors of the designs that the reader places on them—the characters of McCullers's novel seem to speak only to hear their own voices. They convert each other into self-reflections, allegorical mirrors of the self, which permit them to engage in endlessly self-referential monologues. "Each man described the mute as he wished him to be" writes McCullers. The monologic structure of Faulkner's Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying stands close behind McCullers's montage of voices, in which the many consciousnesses in the book remain painfully stranded outside the community of human exchange.
Causing this failure to establish intercourse is the individuals' self-absorption, which prompts them to choose as the object of their communication someone who cannot or will not hear or respond. McCullers suggests, however, that the silent listener is as much victimizer as victim. The silent Singer seduces the other characters into choosing him as their listener, their god. From the beginning of the book McCullers leaves us in no doubt that Singer chooses to remain voiceless; he is not innately mute. Might we not think of Singer—who, when he does communicate, does so through written words, engraved symbols, and signs—as being like a text, which, in its unresponsive, nonconversational mode of transcription, leaves the interpreter free to imagine everything and anything? The problem that Singer, both as character and as text, raises is, What does it mean not to say or not to say clearly? What are the consequences to others of a refusal to enter into the two-way process of conversation? What does it mean in a human relationship to be made the interpreter of a static, silent object (person or text) as opposed to a partner in the mutual (and mutually responsible) production of meaning?
For McCullers the alternative to the silent text is not political discourse. The book explicitly rejects the language employed by Benedict Mady Copeland, the black doctor and activist, and Jake Blount, the radical labor organizer. "Talk—talk—talk" is the way Biff describes Blount. Like the other major figures in the story, Blount, according to Singer, is "always talking." Nor is this talk—talk—talk idle or innocent. It is focused obsessively on the idea of an exclusive unitary "truth"—a "true purpose" in the case of Copeland—which the individual is convinced he or she can articulate. Like Anderson's greedy grotesques (and Flannery O'Connor's), Carson McCullers's "freaks" want to possess the beautiful, multiple truths of the world. In possessing them, they distort the truths and themselves alike. They render the truth false and themselves grotesque. The consequences of this obsession with truth and with the ideological speech through which one imagines one can express truth are devastating, as in Winesburg, Ohio, both for family and for community. Copeland loses his wife and alienates his children, while Blount roams aimlessly throughout the country, (not) husband and (not) father (to formulate the problem in the terms of another of McCullers's important precursors, William Faulkner).
The painfulness of conversation turned ideological argument is stunningly portrayed in the quarrel between Blount and Copeland, which occurs toward the end of the novel. The confrontation—not unlike that in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (published a few years later)—is between an American white political activist and an American black. It exposes the limitations of white political thought about African Americans along the lines of Ellison's and Richard Wright's conclusions concerning the exploitation of the race problem by the Communist party. The conversation begins as a discussion between two like-minded and socially engaged individuals but quickly degenerates into childish accusations and name-calling: "Oh, the Hell with it!… Balls!" "Blasphemer!… Foul blasphemer!" "Short-sighted bigot!" "White … Fiend!" By the end of the novel, Blount, beaten down and running for his life, realizes that what separates him from Copeland is only words. "On some points they might be able to work together … if they didn't talk too much." As in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, ideological discourse replicates the problem of the silent text: it repels and attracts, in effect silencing itself, regardless of all its apparent wordiness and noise. Sitting in the presence of his family, Copeland finally falls "dumb": "If he could not speak the whole long truth no other word would come to him," not even the word "farewell" as he leaves the family gathering and goes out the door. By the time Blount reaches Copeland, it is too late for both of them.
For all her concern with issues of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and economic exploitation, McCullers, like her predecessors in the romance tradition, refuses to write a directly political text. Copeland and Blount are both given their say in this book. But for McCullers morality is more a way of seeing the world than a set of political objectives. For this reason, perhaps, she has Copeland articulate a political philosophy that directly misstates the romance politics of Thoreau and Emerson. "If I could just find ten Negroes," he says to Portia, "—ten of my own people—with spine and brains and courage … only four Negroes." Here is the text from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" (itself a gloss on an Old Testament passage) that Copeland misunderstands: "I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name—if ten honest men only—ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America." The difference between Copeland's formulation and Thoreau's is that Copeland has bred, raised, and groomed (even named) four specific individuals (his own children) for this particular task of saving the black people, whereas Thoreau has no one man in particular but any man, and therefore potentially every man, coming to this moral perception on his own. Thoreau's idea carries forward the biblical idea that it inherits. When Abraham pleads for Sodom on the basis of the ten honest men, he has no ten in particular in mind but any and therefore potentially all who might exist within the city. Portia's response to her father that "Willie and Highboy and me have backbone. This here is a hard world and it seem to me us three struggles along pretty well" understands what Thoreau understands: that moral courage is not political and public so much as individual and private.
But if McCullers sides with Emerson and Thoreau against Copeland and Blount, she does so fully aware of the dangers of Emerson's and Thoreau's way of turning aside from direct confrontation with sociopolitical issues. McCullers is tortured by the possibility that writers, artists, and musicians, in avoiding politics, do little to correct either social problems or the problem of ideology itself. The language of the writer, she realizes, may even intensify tendencies in language to express human egocentricity, producing a text that becomes everyone else's mirror of self. Not surprisingly, this self is also an embodiment of a transcendent perfection. Singer's dream midway through the novel, which foreshadows the painful denouement of the book, is a virtual diagram of a hierarchical transcendentalization of reality. The pyramid of world order, in which the self celebrates itself, depends on the silence of the god or text or idea at the pinnacle—a silence that allows the self to endow itself with divine qualities.
Out of the blackness of sleep a dream formed. There were dull yellow lanterns lighting up a dark flight of stone steps. Antonapoulos kneeled at the top of these steps. He was naked and he fumbled with something that he held above his head and gazed at it as though in prayer. He himself knelt half-way down the steps. He was naked and cold and he could not take his eyes from Antonapoulos and the thing he held above him. Behind him on the ground he felt the one with the moustache and the girl and the black man and the last one. They knelt naked and he felt their eyes on him. And behind them there were uncounted crowds of kneeling people in the darkness. His own hands were huge windmills and he stared fascinated at the unknown thing that Antonapoulos held. The yellow lanterns swayed to and fro in the darkness and all else was motionless. Then suddenly there was a ferment. In the upheaval the steps collapsed and he felt himself falling downwards. He awoke with a jerk. The early light whitened the window. He felt afraid.
The central figure in the scene is the something, the thing, the unknown thing, that Antonapoulos holds in his hands. Singer refuses to identify it, even though it is as naked and in view as the crowds of kneeling people who compose the scene. Nor will Singer—his hands like windmills incapable of signing and therefore incapable of speech—name the one with the moustache and the girl and the black man and the last one or count the uncounted but not countless crowds. There are two ways of understanding Singer's unwillingness, or inability, to articulate what is represented in his dream. Insofar as the thing represents something mysterious, not easily given over to a name, his silence can be understood as an appropriate restraint from the excesses of verbalization. Certain details—the cathedral-like setting of the dream, with all of the characters kneeling, and that the one object Antonapoulos possesses is a crucifix and that in the very next scene he is represented as majestic and godlike—suggest that the thing is a cross. What is a cross, the text implies, to be so lightly named? What does the name tell us about what a crucifix is or means? Singer's silence, then, might seem a prudent response to the dangers of mindless talk—talk—talk.
But the interpretation is not so simple. Although one of the few ways in which Antonapoulos uses his hands is to sign the words "'Holy Jesus,' or 'God,' or 'Darling Mary,'" another is to indulge in his "solitary secret pleasure," masturbation. Awaking with a jerk, Singer might well feel afraid of what he has witnessed in his dream of raw and naked desire. He may have very good reasons for refusing to say what thing he has seen.
Is the thing a cross—or a penis? Does it stand for the divine or the purely human? the purely human as divine? McCullers's text owes something here to Melville's Moby Dick. Like the great white whale for Ahab, the thing (whatever it is) is, for Singer, a transcendent object of worship. Deification of the unknown and mysterious thing (which may be no more than a figure for one's own sexual desire) extends down through the pyramid of worshipers. For Singer, Antonapoulos is God. Singer himself is God for Biff, Blount, Copeland, and Mick. McCullers's text illuminates a tendency within human beings to construct a universe of divine meanings, in which discovering the divine in someone or something else is both a cover for confronting the physical and the sexual within oneself and a way of converting the merely biological and human into the transcendent and spiritual. But insofar as the author refuses to write what the thing in Antonapoulos's hand is, she conspires in this process of deification. She makes the text into the seductive god who commands the worship of the reader.
The failure to specify what the thing is mimetically reproduces the silence of dreams: the text replicates an aspect of the everyday experience of the world in which language-as-clarification is naturally withheld. Dreams do not represent reality in a transparent symbolic script. As often as not, they withhold the terms of identification through which the dreamer might interpret the dream. One might say that Singer never achieves self-knowledge of his tragic attachment to Antonapoulos because he is a poor interpreter of dreams. But he is a poor interpreter of dreams (that is, of himself) because dreams do not say what they mean. They are dreams and they exist because they say without saying. Dreams are an expression of human resistance to self-clarification. They remind us that there are things we simply do not want to know about ourselves. And there are things that we do not want others to know about us. In many ways, Singer, who speaks with silent signs and symbols, embodies the language of dreams. By speaking with and to him, Mick, Biff, Blount, and Copeland confront a dreamlike language that they can choose not to understand.
But Singer does not refuse the role that he plays for the other characters. Like a god, Singer speaks in the language of dreams—through signs and symbols; he speaks in silence, and he speaks in order not to be understood. McCullers's text, like perhaps all literary texts, similarly threatens self-deification and mystification. But the consequences of leaving the world uninterpreted, the text makes clear, are terrifying. Naked and cold and gradually metamorphosing into a monster with windmills for hands, Singer is understandably frightened by his dream. Later, when Antonapoulos's fumbling for his cross makes Singer recall the dream and he tries and once again cannot sign the dream, Singer falls prey to impulses that he can neither understand nor control. Singer cannot convert the dream into speech. As the bitter climax of the novel approaches, Singer "surrender[s] himself wholly to thoughts of his friend…. Behind each waking moment there had always been his friend. And this submerged communion with Antonapoulos had grown and changed as though they were together in the flesh. Sometimes he thought of Antonapoulos with awe and self-abasement, sometimes with pride—always with love unchecked by criticism, freed of will. When he dreamed at night the face of his friend was always before him, massive and wise and gentle. And in his waking thoughts they were eternally united." The failure to interpret is a fantasy of union, in which self and other respect no distance and exist outside the differentiations and disintegrations of language. Its consequence is the collapse into nothingness that the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe vividly records.
Singer's suicide is one of many figures in the book for the identification of unity with death. To achieve total union with the other is to kill off the other. No sooner has the author articulated Singer's feelings of oneness with Antonapoulos than we discover that Antonapoulos is dead. In this book even thinking about unity can be murderous. And this brings the text to another aspect of totalizing desire: to achieve union with the other and hence with oneself is to destroy the other and oneself. With the death of Antonapoulos, Singer commits suicide, and with Singer's suicide the whole chain of human community breaks apart: Blount is routed out of town after the murderous riot at the fair; Copeland, sick and defeated, is taken to the farm of his father-in-law to die; Mick takes a job at Woolworth's, which puts to an end her artistic ambitions; and Biff is left alone tending the shop. Were it not for a certain prospect for the future that the author deftly constructs (to which I shall return in a moment), the novel would end, as do the fictions of Faulkner and Anderson, Melville and Poe, with a sterility and deathliness, signaling the end of family, community, and history—the end of literature itself.
According to McCullers's novel, the cause of suicidal-murderous sterility is the tendency toward transcendental, symbolic thought. As I have already suggested, the thing that Antonapoulos holds in his hand is not only the crucifix (which figures the Law of the Father) but (by implication) his penis, which is the Law of the Father in its biological form. What makes Singer voiceless in the first place and what keeps him voiceless until the end is his fear of being exposed as merely human, a biological and sexual creature, neither divine nor transcendent.
There was one particular fact that he remembered [about his childhood], but it was not at all important to him. Singer recalled that, although he had been deaf since he was an infant, he had not always been a real mute. He was left an orphan very young and placed in an institution for the deaf. He had learned to talk with his hands and to read. Before he was nine years old he could talk with one hand in the American way—and also could employ both of his hands after the method of Europeans. He had learned to follow the movements of people's lips and to understand what they said. Then finally he had been taught to speak…. But he could never become used to speaking with his lips. It was not natural to him, and his tongue felt like a whale in his mouth. From the blank expression on people's faces to whom he talked in this way he felt that his voice must be like the sound of some animal or that there was something disgusting in his speech. It was painful for him to try to talk with his mouth, but his hands were always ready to try to shape the words he wished to say. When he was twenty-two he had come South to this town from Chicago and he met Antonapoulos immediately. Since that time he had never spoken with his mouth again, because with his friend there was no need for this.
Singer's silence is foremost a response to his particular handicap, which is deafness. But his response carries with it the force of a more general and pervasive human response to the problematics of speaking. Immediately after Singer's discovery of Antonapoulos's death, a strange thing happens that suggests that Singer's flight from speech may not be from the possibility of not being understood or being thought of as less than human. On the contrary, it might represent a flight from the possibility that he may well be understood, not as a brilliant, multilingual student but as a mere mortal, who gropes for and stumbles over words that may not only express what he wants to say but that may expose all his human frailty.
Singer meets "three mutes … talking with their hands together. All three of them were coatless. They wore bowler hats and bright ties. Each of them held a glass of beer in his left hand. There was a certain brotherly resemblance between them…. He was clapped on the shoulder. A cold drink was ordered. They surrounded him and the fingers of their hands shot out like pistons as they questioned him." After a few awkward efforts to communicate with them, Singer abandons communication for the last time, "his hands dangling loose … his head … inclined to one side and his glance … oblique." Singer's choice not to communicate with these friendly, brotherly mute people, who—unlike everyone else in the novel, including Antonapoulos—couldunderstand him, suggests that Singer cannot face the possibility that he is like other human beings, absurdly, comically identical with them (as they are identical with each other), that speech reduces him, not to the animalistic or subhuman, but to the human. Singer will not seek out his brothers for to do so would be to discover he is one of them.
That his tongue in his mouth feels like a whale prompts us to think of Melville's novel. So does Biff's denial of his sexuality. Like Ahab, Biff and Singer prefer to imagine themselves as not limited by biology. In McCullers's novel, speaking silently (which is to say speaking not to be understood) is associated with a withdrawal from sexual relations. Phallocentricism, the author suggests, does not necessarily place the penis in the position of power. Rather, in denying that the penis is potent sexual agent, it may be substituting a feeble and ineffectual law of abstract, intellectually derived symbols of the world for the procreative, phallicly reproduced biohistorical world itself. McCullers's male characters (excluding Biff) are not feminized males or androgynous human beings, realizing the fusion of male and female principles. They are self-castrated men, who relinquish male potency and deny procreative power.
The relation between the assertion of phallocentric law and the denial of phallic biology in self-canceling males characterizes another important precursor of McCullers's art. Like Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, the men who populate the world of McCullers's text desire to be Platonic conceptions of self. The case of Gatsby is instructive, both for McCullers's novel and for Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. Not only does Gatsby (in true Freudian romance fashion) disown his parents ("his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all"), but he rejects reconciliation with the biological terms of human birth altogether: "He was the son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end." Gatsby's Platonic conception of himself rejects the biological woman: "He knew women early, and … he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorption he took for granted." When he falls in love with Daisy he knows that "when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God…. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete." Gatsby's desire, moments earlier, to mount to a "secret place above the trees" where "he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder" is fulfilled only in the birth of self that his relationship to Daisy produces.
Gatsby culminates in a uterine birthing motion (as opposed to a phallic thrust) reminiscent of Moby Dick. But this birthing can only be endured; it cannot itself give birth: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaseless into the past." Male "brooding" produces only Platonic conception and incarnation. It does not bear life. Fitzgerald's novel reveals what emerges as a problem in Faulkner's and Anderson's writings as well: that male imaginings of the female, for all their generosity and goodwill, may not be able to move beyond gestation (brooding) to birth. Because Gatsby will not be a man ready to assume the responsibilities of the phallus, he dies, stillborn after his self-inseminated virgin birth. McCullers's silent Singer, orphan and bachelor, embodies similar problems.
Much has been made in recent feminist criticism of the multivocalism, authorial decenteredness, and indeterminate open-endedness of novels by women. All are understood to be antiphallocentric strategies. All to some degree characterize McCullers's novel, as they also characterize the fiction of McCullers's two major literary predecessors, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter flows uninterruptedly from consciousness to consciousness, weaving together the community that does not exist within the world of the novel. But like Anderson's and Faulkner's strategies of antiphallocentricism, McCullers's threaten to produce a non-progenerative and perhaps antifemale sterility. Not only are Blount and Singer confirmed bachelors but Biff and Copeland are widowers (Biff's wife dies of a tumor as big as a baby). Portia, the strongest female presence in the book, is childless. At the close of the novel only Mick, on the verge of adulthood, remains to create a future. Mick's position at the end of the novel and her nurturing nature throughout are important for McCullers's idea of family. The figure who will enable her mothering is Portia.
Early in the novel McCullers presents an extended conversation between Portia and her father that pits Portia's female, African American discourse against her father's white-in-spired intellectual ideology, his language of law against her language of the biological and reproductive: "All his life he had told and explained and exhorted…. It is not more children we need but more chances for the ones already on the earth." Not only does Copeland's statement appear (indecorously) in the center of a conversation with his own daughter, but his thinking on this matter proceeds directly from a painful and equally blind conversation with Portia on her childlessness: "So you and your husband and your brother have your own cooperative plan," he says to her. "Do you intend to plan for children?" The text continues: "Portia did not look at her father. Angrily she sloshed the water from the pan of collards. 'There be some things,' she said, 'that seem to me to depend entirely upon God.'"
Copeland cannot understand—either about his daughter's communal living arrangements or about the many children produced by the black community—the positive and creative nature of these affirmations of life. For all his concern with the "Negro people" (as his interjections into Blount's Marxist discourse remind us), Copeland adopts a political philosophy as white as that of Blount. Copeland's rejection of Christianity might have constituted a part of a necessary turn away from white institutions to African American culture. It represents instead Copeland's decidedly masculinist rejection of the unknowable and the uncertain in human experience—his rejection both of women and of the African past of black Americans. "I am not interested in subterfuges," he says. "I am interested only in real truths." These real truths contain no space for "hell and heaven" or for the "ghosts" and "haunted places" of African legend. Therefore, Copelandturns to Marx for his politics, Spinoza for his philosophy, and Shakespeare for his literature. In resisting what he calls his wife Daisy's stubborn meekness—her insistence on teaching her children both Christianity and African Americanism—he resists as well his wife's sexuality.
The question that McCullers's novel raises, both in the conversation between Dr. Copeland and Portia and in the story as a whole, is, What does it mean to know by heart? McCullers writes: "Eugenic Parenthood for the Negro Race was what he would exhort them to. He would tell them in simple words, always the same way, and with the years it came to be a sort of angry poem which he had always known by heart." The question is inseparable from the issue of parenthood. To know by heart certainly does not mean what Copeland means: to memorize by rote and recite in anger, unwilling to wait for a reply, unyielding to the demands of conversation. To know by heart is something else entirely. "Hamilton or Buddy or Willie or me—none of us ever cares to talk like you," explains Portia. "Us talk like our own Mama and her peoples and their peoples before them. You think out everything in your brain. While us rather talk from something in our hearts that has been there for a long time."
The mother tongue that Portia speaks, when, for example, she tells her father about the amputation of Willie's feet, is the "low song" of "grief" (specifically African American grief) to which her father is "deaf." Copeland cannot hear and understand what Portia says any better than he could Daisy. "The sounds were distinct in his ear, but they had no shape or meaning." Like Mick, listening to the music of Beethoven, Copeland must discover the relation, not between words and meanings (he understands that well enough), but between words and feelings. Jake Blount's response to Willie's pain ("the terrible misery down in my toes … where my feets should be if they were on my l-l-legs") is political. So is his father's. But the response to loss cannot simply be an imagination of recovery and restitution. It must involve the pain that loss occasions. When the "black, terrible anger" does not come, the "feeling of a song" within Copeland finally takes shape and expresses itself:
He spoke no word and let them do with him as they would. He waited for the terrible anger and felt it arise in him. Rage made him weak, so that he stumbled…. It was only when they had entered the jail that the strength of his rage came to him…. A glorious strength was in him and he heard himself laughing aloud as he fought. He sobbed and laughed…. They dragged him foot by foot through the hall of the jail…. He fell to his knees on the floor…. [He] swayed to and fro…. He swayed,… and from his throat there came a singing moan. He could not think of William. Nor could he even cogitate upon the strong, true purpose and draw strength from that. He could only feel the misery in him. Then the tide of his fever turned. A warmth spread through him. He lay back, and it seemed he sank down into a place warm and red full of comfort.
By giving up on words, Copeland experiences his son's pain, even losing the use of his legs as he is dragged into the prison. And by experiencing that pain, he regains the language of misery, which expresses itself, not in words but in the almost maternal rocking and warmth of his body. The language of misery is the mother tongue, which his daughter and his wife have always spoken (or, sung) to him but which he cannot hear and speak until he experiences loss and misery bodily. For Copeland, however, it is too late to be husband, father, or community leader. He will not be able to convert feeling back into words, even the single word—love.
It is not, however, too late for Mick Kelly.
The mother tongue that Portia speaks is no less verbal, no less rational and conceptual, than the father tongue that her father inherits from Shakespeare and Marx. But in it words have less to do with exchanging information than with establishing relationship and mutuality. This language is affective rather than discursive; it nurtures, expresses, and evokes feelings and produces family, community, nation. "A person can't pick up they children and just squeeze them to which-a-way they wants them to be," Portia says to her father. "Whether it hurt them or not. Whether it right or wrong. You done tried that hard as any man could try. And now I the only one of us that would come in this here house and sit with you like this." Portia is able to accept people as they are. Childless, she can envision herself the mother of racially, culturally, sexually different others. "Them three little children is just like some of my own kinfolks," she says of Mick, Bubber, and the baby. "I feel like I done really raised Bubber and the baby. And although Mick and me is always getting into some kind of quarrel together, I haves a real close fondness for her too…. Mick now … she a real case. Not a soul know how to manage that child. She just as biggity and headstrong as she can be…. Mick puzzles me sometimes. But still I really fond of her."
Like the commune that she builds with her husband and brother, Portia's extended family reconceptualizes the idea of kinship. (We might recall Blount's claims to be Negro, Jew, and Indian and the continuing refrain that Singer is a Jew.) Mick benefits directly from the mothering that Portia provides. As in many of the novels discussed in Marianne Hirsch's Mother/Daughter Plot, the mother in Carson McCullers's novel is strangely silent, as are Mick's two older sisters, Hazel and Etta. It is as if Mick can become a strongly motivated, artistic, and imaginative female only by silencing the women who precede and create her. Like Frankie Addams in McCullers's other novel about a female adolescent, The Member of the Wedding, Mick is a self-declared tomboy, who, on more than one occasion, expresses her preference for maleness; the names Mick and Frankie capture this feature of the girls' personalities. But Mick is not motherless, either literally or figuratively. Like Frankie and (we might add) like Caddy in Faulkner's Sound and the Fury, Mick enjoys the mothering of a loving and wise black woman.
In the Lacanian model language not only responds to the loss and absence of objects in the world but occasions loss and absence. In McCullers's novel, language, in responding to the primary painfulness of loss, keeps feeling (especially the feeling of maternal love) alive. Portia does not educate Mick in the Law of the Father—in language as a substitute for and repetition of loss (language, in other words, as symbolic consciousness). Rather, she instructs her in the affect of the mother: language as the expression of and reproduction of pain, the pain of the separation from and loss of the mother. As a surrogate mother, Portia is both mother and not-mother. She reconstructs the mother in a lost relationship and in an uninterrupted and unmitigated love, which does not cease simply because the mother-child bond has moved from its initial phase of total interdependence. She also suggests a relationship between mother and child that does not depend on the biological link between them. Herself motherless, Portia continues to feel the influence of her mother's love, which she incorporates into everything from her mode of being to her way of speaking. Childless, she transmits that love to genetically and racially different others.
In almost everybody's reading of the novel, Mick is the primary figure of the artist. "Empty" and confused, not a "feeling or thought in her," Mick seeks more than an idea in her art, whether an idea of God or even (as in the case of Singer) an idea of love: she searches for feeling. She pursues the language that transcribes feeling, that renders feeling an instrument of human relatedness. The following scene provides the countermoment to Singer's transcendental vision. Both scenes proceed through dream to mystical, religious vision; and both are violent. But whereas Singer's dream culminates in an aphasic collapse into suicide and death, Mick's initiates her into the responsibilities of living, speaking, and loving in a human world.
The music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat. How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God, strutting in the night…. It didn't have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the day-time and by herself at night…. This music was her—the real plain her…. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen…. She put her fingers in her ears. The music left only this bad hurt in her and a blankness…. Suddenly Mick began hitting her thigh with her fists. She pounded the same muscle with all her strength until the tears came down her face. But she could not feel this hard enough. The rocks under the bush were sharp. She grabbed a handful of them and began scraping them up and down on the same spot until her hand was bloody…. With the fiery hurt in her leg she felt better. She was limp on the wet grass, and after a while her breath came slow and easy again…. The night was quiet…. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her…. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.
Now she felt good.
Blending the sexual and the religious, the passage initially suggests a displacement of meaning along a transcendental pyramid reminiscent of Singer's dream. Art almost transports Mick beyond language, where one need not specify what a thing is. But beyond language is unconsciousness. To regain life, Mick must regain language. Only when the sounds come back to her as material shapes, formed letters, does she feel good. Unlike Singer, who cannot convert the dream back into signs, Mick is restored to language. She is returned to family, to her parents, whom she knows must by this time be worried. Whereas Mick's brother Bill is always poring over words in a book, her own "pictures [are] full of people." The shapes of the musical notes, like the shapes of words and the drawings of people, preserve for Mick the materiality of art, with which the men in the novel (including Bill and Singer and Blount and Copeland) are willing to dispense. McCullers thus deftly picks up the threads of Hester's lawless embroidery and weaves them into a new musical and pictorial speaking of the mother tongue. By weaving together Mick and Singer, McCullers reminds us of what we tend to forget about the written or engraved word: its essentially material form. Through the relationship between Mick and Portia, McCullers remembers that language originates in the mother, not the father. That Singer is an orphan may have some bearing on his never having learned how to speak. Learning to speak has to do with more than the acquisition of a vocabulary of words.
The book ends with a vision of historical continuity and procreative possibility. What stands between the silence that divests us of world and self, and the images or words that are only the imposition of self on the world is "one word—love."
The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valour. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labour and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away … he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.
Throughout the novel Biff has presented a unique image of male-female gender distinction. Sexually inadequate, perhaps even impotent (like Singer, Antonapoulos, Copeland, and even Blount), Biff is not a sexual male. But unlike these other characters (and like Mick's more adolescent self), Biff's androgyny does not stand opposed either to women or to procreation.
His eyes closed he began to sing in a doleful voice:I went to the animal fair,
The birds and the beasts were there,
And the old baboon by the light of the moon
Was combing his auburn hair.
He finished with a chord from the strings and the last sounds shivered to silence in the cold air.
To adopt a couple of little children. A boy and a girl. About three or four years old so they would always feel like he was their own father. Their Dad. Our Father. The little girl like Mick (or Baby?) at that age. Round cheeks and grey eyes and flaxen hair. And the clothes he would make for her…. The boy was dark and black-haired. The little boy walked behind him and copied the things he did…. And then they would bloom as he grew old. Our Father. And they would come to him with questions and he would answer them.
Biff dreams of the nurturing, self-sacrificing, interactive responsibilities, not of fathering as opposed to mothering, but of parenting. Nor is parenting necessarily biological. Biff will adopt these children, not produce them biologically, and he will perform for them the function of mother and father both. Like Portia, Biff is not restricted by convention. He has a similarly expansive vision of procreative possibility, which is what his final vision represents. He speaks the language of rhyme and limerick, the language of the nursery.
Love in McCullers's novel is thus both creative and procreative. It is word. But it is also a quickening and a labor. Like Hawthorne and Melville, McCullers creates a neutral ground between the imaginary and the real, between radiance and darkness and irony and faith, where anyone may well end up alone, shut away from private hopes and expectations (like Mick at Woolworth's), staring into one's own face. The maternal function, so prevalent in the nineteenth-century women's tradition, is nonetheless here brought to bear with powerful force. For one can, like Biff, choose to turn away from despair and to compose oneself, not merely submitting to the condition of the human but responding to and perpetuating that condition. Just as Biff pulls himself together (in an almost Thoreauvian fashion) to meet the morning sun, so Mick is also at the end poised on the path to a future of responsibility and human commitment. The love of family that sends her out of the private room of her fantasies of artistic self-fulfillment (a self-fulfillment associated throughout the book with a withdrawal from family and society) is the promise of a future.
To say this is not to deny Mick's anger and frustration at the end of the book, any more than it is to deny Biff's definite pain. Taking responsibility for the remaining payments on Singer's radio, Mick knows both that "it was good to have something that had belonged to him" and that it is only a remote possibility that "maybe one of these days she might be able to set aside a little for a second-hand piano."
Maybe it would be true about the piano and turn out O.K. Maybe she would get a chance soon. Else what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It has to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was too and it was too. It was some good.
The lines are ambiguous. There is no saying with certainty how to read the final "Some good." Every realistic assessment tells us that Mick will suffer the same disappointments that everyone else in the world of the novel has suffered. Yet the text is not realistic. The word good resounding through the passage sets up a condition of affirmation that is not so easily ignored. Set as it is against the argument in the novel about the problems of political and literary discourse, the phrase "some good" represents the only kind of affirmation that matters: affirmation in the face of doubt, in the midst of pain, affirmation of life in the midst of living and producing life.
This is the affirmation that Biff achieves at the end of the novel. The optimism of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter derives finally from a faith in words wedded to feeling and to the desire, which such language embodies, to communicate with love. In spite of the sharp criticism of words—words—words, the book gives us all of those words, quoted and unexpurgated. And in spite of its equivalent distrust of the dissolution of literary language into silence, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a work of literature. But it is a female romance, in which the direction of human creativity is the direction of procreation as well. Its direction, in other words, is toward family and community, reconstructed and redefined. Like Biff, the author chooses to turn away not only from any one language but from the impasse to which the competition between languages can take us and which would yield silence in one form or another. It composes itself as a multiphonic, many-voiced text, representing not an indeterminate or decentered text but a multifaceted consciousness. The novel is committed to speaking. It enters into a community of voices. In this community every voice, like every person, is equally entitled and permitted and finally encouraged to speak. Speaking even one word becomes the source of community. To speak is, for McCullers, to be willing to make oneself understood and, understood, to be willing to understand what somebody else is saying; equally important, to speak is to be willing to feel and, feeling, to enter into the lives of others and to produce other lives. The human condition is to exist between impossible alternatives. What mediates between them, what makes them bearable, and what is itself a figure for the torment that is also salvation is the single word—love.
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