On January 30, Susan Bridges of Whitespace Gallery invited William Faulkner scholar Tom McHaney to join Mimi Hart Silver in the gallery for a discussion of Territories/Kingdoms, Silver’s current show of painting and drawing. The Late Afternoon Salon, in the style of the old literary salon, was an enriching, educational and downright fun way to spend a cold winter afternoon. Winter light slanted through the glass doors of Bridges’ brick-floored gallery, warming those of us gathered there, some of whom were already warming from the bourbon she had offered for the occasion.
Silver’s exhibition, on view through this Saturday, February 13, provided the perfect setting for the gathering. Like Faulkner, Silver traditionally deals with issues of Southern identity and generational memory, and this body of work seemed a particular match for Faulkner’s themes. It examines, in Silver’s words, “the disconnection from memory caused by traumatic events, and how these distant memories become buried in the felt experience through generations.” She is interested in “the symbiotic relationship between the visceral and ephemeral, the continuum of life and death, and a search for meaning in human tragedy,” all of which conjures thematic antecedents to be found in Faulkner’s fiction.
After McHaney’s synopsis of the author’s life, which he conveyed with a storyteller’s flair and the intimacy of an old friend, he read from “The Bear,” the best-known chapter at the heart of William Faulkner’s masterpiece, Go Down, Moses, a dense and beautifully wrought novel that addresses the big questions of Faulkner’s life — inheritance, of land, for sure, but also of ancestral piety and the sins of our fathers. It is a novel about truth and what is knowable, about time and timelessness, and ultimately, about the complex relationship between the past and the present. Faulkner never shied from the darkness inherent in those questions, nor the mysteries therein. His sentences shimmer with a mystery and timelessness all their own.
Tom McHaney, Kenneth England Professor of Southern Literature emeritus at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has published six book-length works and dozens of essays on William Faulkner. He understands Faulkner’s mastery better than most, a familiarity that appears to have only enhanced his capacity to be moved by the beauty and emotion in Faulkner’s words. McHaney read to us from “The Bear” of the boy Ike McCaslin who finally gets his turn to join the men in the hunt for Old Ben, the legendary, eponymous bear who “ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it.” He read to us of the mystery with the slow cadence and sonorous voice of someone with the proper awe and reverence for the words, so that all present felt it, too. Before Ike could enter the true wilderness he had to first be willing to relinquish completely to it — to leave not only his gun behind, but his watch and his compass as well. Only then could he enter the mystery. Those of us under the spell of Faulkner’s words understood that abandonment of self as we surrendered to the sound of Tom McHaney’s voice.
It is telling that McHaney, who has read these very words innumerable times, was nevertheless as moved as his audience by their power. He occasionally held back tears as he read, seated beside Silver beneath Monarch, her sublime painting in which suspended shapes, some in the gorgeous orange that evokes the painting’s title, yield with closer inspection to shapes more disturbingly anthropomorphic than lepidopterous.
The colloquy at the heart of Go Down, Moses is a dialogue between two descendants of the patriarch Lucius Carothers — Isaac McCaslin, “man-made heir of Old Carothers,” and his cousin, McCaslin (Cass) Edmonds, “woman-made distaff.” Ike had relinquished his inheritance of the land in repudiation of a “ravaged patrimony,” the sins of his fathers and their fathers before them. His cousin Cass had not. Cass believed he couldn’t relinquish land any more than he could relinquish his own history — that your land, like your history, is yours no matter how it came to you. Ike had learned as a boy that land belongs to itself, understood that the land was never his to own in the first place. The wilderness, “bigger and older than any recorded document,” the one he had entered as a boy, in “his novitiate to the true wilderness,” had been controlled and ruined by the men who came before him and would be decimated by those who followed. Their hubris at the thought of their right own another human, their miscegenation and their denial of their own blood, their blindness to Nature — Ike believed he inherited it all if he took claim on this land.
There is something of that same repudiation at work in Silver’s explorations of her own past. In her statement on the Whitespace website, she describes her work as “largely drawn from her experience of being a Southerner, including … observations on both cultural and personal trauma.” She is descended from slave-owning North Carolina planters and that fact haunts her life and manifests in work that is deeply personal in origin and drawn from what she refers to as a history of patriarchy and unspecified abuse in her family.
Silver’s paintings often contain imagery derived from occasions when she accompanied her brother as he field-dressed the spoils of his hunting excursions. Like Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin, she was drawn to the ritual of the hunt and what she saw as sacred in the relationship of hunted and hunter, and made keenly aware of her own mortality in observing the mortality of an animal. That examination finds its way into her paintings and in the skin-like drawings on paper she stained and stitched together with black or red thread. Allusions to hide or even human skin are unavoidable; Silver refers to the drawings in her statement as “discomforting tapestries of flesh.” Indeed, but unlike the blood and exposed flesh of those gutted animals, Silver’s paintings, what she describes as “anti-religious abstractions,” are pristine and lit with the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio tableau. Her work is deeply personal in origin, drawn from a history of patriarchy and abuse in her family, yet, as with the best of intimately introspective work, it conveys a universal, collective trauma. There is something of the sublime in the painting, a terrible beauty that she feels and translates viscerally without having to fully understand, and with each one it seems that she reenters the mystery anew.
Faulkner believed in that kind of mystery. He believed in the fluidity of time, that time past is always present in the was of what is. Silver’s paintings carry the was in every stroke. Perhaps it is the presence of the was of the past in the is of today that identifies a “Southern writer” or a “Southern painter” and why the conversation between scholar and writer Tom McHaney and painter Mimi Hart Silver was so compelling.
Memory, both personal and collective, shapes our personal narratives and storytelling, our lives and our art-making. In a koan-like aphorism (from his novel Light in August) Faulkner draws a distinction between memory and knowing: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” If memory is a collection of experiences and knowing is our translation of them, the meeting of McHaney and Silver over the words and ideas in Faulkner’s writing reminded of the ways in which the creative act may be an effort to understand the past and ourselves — and, even when it hurts, to hold onto it.