Not Even Past : Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten

Dorothy Stringer

Not Even Past highlights references to 19th-century US slavery and anti-black racism in literary and photographic projects begun during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, including novels by William Faulkner and Nella Larsen, and portraits by Carl Van Vechten. These texts share a representational crisis, in which distinctions between present, quotidian racism and a massive, fully racialized historical trauma disappear. All identify persistent historical traumatization with intense subjective states (including madness, religious ecstasy, narcissism, and fetishistic enjoyment), and each explores the conservative, even coercive social character of such links between psyche and history. When the past of enslavement is ‘not even past,’ narration freezes, black and white women lose their capacity to question or resist social and domestic violence, and racial politics fail.

Anticipating contemporary trauma studies by decades, these disparate modernists’ works constitute not an expounded or avowed, but an interstitial trauma theory, finding its shape in the spaces left by conventional public discourse. Their works parallel psychoanalytic thinkers of the same era, including Joan Riviere, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein and Walter Benjamin, and their joint explication of relationships among psyche, history, and race, offers important resources for psychoanalytic approaches to racial difference today.

Despite their analytic acuity, however, Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten also themselves carry the traumatic past forward into the future. Such figurations of a returning 19th century as the two novelists’ tragic depictions of a triumphant color line, and the photographer’s insistence on an idiom of black primitivism, also lent support to white supremacy in the 20th. Yet, in their very failure, these three US modernists’ works tell us is that it is not enough simply to exercise critical acuity on the marks of past violence. Reading, however masterful, cannot interrupt a history in the midst of repeating itself; it can only itself reiterate the disaster.