Saturday, September 17, 2011
Douglas Messerli | A Battle with Both Sides Using the Same Tactics (on Welty's Losing Battles)
A BATTLE WITH BOTH SIDES USING THE SAME TACTICS
by Douglas Messerli
Eudora Welty Losing Battles (New York: Random House, 1970)
In Losing Battles Eudora Welty expresses an aspect of the phenomenon of time which she has hinted at in her other works but has not fully developed, namely the relationship of time to language. One could say that Welty has always been concerned with how human perceptions of time are expressed in narrative language, but in Losing Battles she is just as deeply interested in exploring how language is used to create or support a specific perspective of time. Indeed, in this novel of family tales and yarns, language is the message itself: she not only conveys her themes through language, but makes language her theme. Narrative language is more important here than in any previous Welty work because the novel is primarily oral—it is primarily written dialogue—and in this oral form Welty attempts not only to say something through language, but to say something about language. Losing Battles goes to the very heart of Welty’s art, asking not only such questions as “how is time represented in narrative language?” and “what do different narratives tell the reader or listener about the way the narrator views the world” but “what is narrative language’s relationship to time?” and “how is language causal to the creation of a world order and a particular perspective of time?
These issues emanate from Welty’s presentation in Losing Battles of a large Mississippi back hills family holding its annual reunion at the Refro farm, where Granny Vaughn, grandmother to the visiting Beechams and to Beulah Beecham Renfro, celebrates her ninetieth birthday and where the elder Beechams and Renfros, joyously coming together after a year apart, sit back and perpetually talk. As Louis Rubin notes, “They do not talk to, they talk at” each other. They chatter “away the time…never entirely revealing themselves or saying what they think.” “Part of the reason [they talk so],” Rubin observes, “is to dissemble, to mask, to hide” (Louis Rubin, “Everything Brought Out In the Open: Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles,” Hollins Critic, 7 [June 1970], 2). However, it soon becomes clear that the family is not hiding something as much as it is hiding from something. And, if one becomes sensitive to the way in which this seemingly meaningless chatter is expressed, what the family is hiding is quickly revealed.
Despite its dissimulation—perhaps one should say because of it—the Beecham-Renfro family is one that cannot accept time in flux; the family members so desperately fear the passage of time and the change it brings to pass that they do little but sit and tell long tales (otherwise only arriving, eating and departing), like James Murrell of Welty’s story “A Still Moment,” going forward by going “backward with talk.” The family uses language as a shield to protect itself from time. Language that communicates or reveals the self is a threat, for any representation of self admits to man’s existence in time which flows toward death. As philosophers and psychologists have continually shown, death is the definer of an individual; it is only in death that an individual is made whole, is made itself (see for example the comments of Eugène Minkowski in Lived Time: Phenomenological and Psychopathological Studies [Evanston: Northwestern University Press]). Without selfhood or ego, the flux of time is obliterated and the family is left free (or perhaps one should say, the family is condemned) to live a life of presentism. Thus all of the Beecham-Renfro tales concern the family at large or tell of such individuals as Beulah’s son Jack, who acts for or out of commitment to the family. Any revelation of true individuality horrifies the uncles and aunts sitting and talking.
This horror of separateness is made more clear by their narratives. When Aunt Cleo, the aunt new to the reunion, asks to hear why Jack was sent to the state penitentiary, the barrage of voices commences, each voice avowing more strongly than the last the whole family’s battle against time and change. Even before Cleo arrives and asks the crucial question, Beulah “just somehow” knows Jack will return from Parchman prison in time for the reunion, even though it comes a day before he is due to be released. Miraculously, he does return, although he has had to escape to do it. No sooner is Jack welcomed home as hero, however, than he is told the awful news by a Renfro uncle arriving just behind him that in the car Jack has helped to pull from the ditch sits the very Judge Moody who sentenced Jack to Parchman in the first place. Jack has failed to recognize the man who put him in jail. The family demands that Jack seek revenge, that he “make a monkey” out of the judge, and swayed by them, he returns to the road to “shoo” the judge’s car back into the ditch Accompanied by his wife Gloria and baby daughter Lady May, Jack goes to nearby Banner Top to await the judge, who must eventually pass on the road below. Thus the family has directed Jack to commit an act for its sake very similar to the one which sent him to prison in the first place, when he stole a safe containing, supposedly, a ring belonging to his grandmother.
This time Jack’s action ends humorously. Lady May runs into the road with Gloria after her at the very moment the judge’s car comes along, so that the judge swerves and ends up with his car balanced atop the hill, its engine left running. Beholden to the judge for saving his wife and child, Jack has no choice but to invite the judge and his wife to the reunion. Clearly Jack’s act is potentially recriminating, and not very different from his earlier “crime.” Even though he was sentenced by the Judge as “a living example” to all those who perpetuate the ethic of family feuds, he and his family have not changed an iota; the family still demands the same revenge, the same sacrifices. Nothing has changed nor will change the family. As Brother Bethune, the acting family historian, observes of the Beechams who went to World War I: “they come back the same old Beecham boys they always was, and just the good old Beecham boys we still know ‘em to be. Like they’d never been gone” (p. 191).
Gloria recognizes the family’s refusal to accept change, and consequently devotes herself to weaning Jack away from the family. As she tells him at the novel’s end, she wants him all to herself with “nobody talking, nobody listening, nobody coming—nobody about to call you or walk in on us…nobody left but you and me, and nothing to be in our way” (p. 431). But the family’s presentism appears to be stronger than she is, and at least in the events of the first day of Jack’s return, it defeats her. Because she concentrates entirely upon the future, she fails to help Jack change in the present, and she fails to perceive how she and Jack may be affected by the past. “We’re going to live for the future” (p. 60); “all that counts in life is up ahead” (p. 135), she repeatedly announces. Even her trip with Jack to Banner Top in order to “save” him ends with the Moody car in a more precarious position than it had previously been, and Jack in even greater danger of reimprisonment.
Relying on untrustworthy memories, quick associations, and an old postcard from the dead brother Sam Dale, the family later upsets Gloria by claiming to have solved the secret of her parentage. (She has grown up in a nearby orphanage without knowing who her parents were.) The family declares that Rachel Sojourner, a woman who once sewed from them, is her mother, and that her father is none other than Sam Dale Beecham himself; the explanation makes Gloria first cousin to her husband and thus truly one of the family. When Gloria denies kinship, refusing to join the family circle, the aunts stuff her mouth with watermelon until she says the equivalent of “uncle”—“Beecham.” In short, although Gloria attempts to stand her ground throughout the fights she must endure for her love of Jack, she, wishing to see the future “unwinding” ahead of her, “smooth as a ribbon,” ends up unable to see anything “beyond the bright porch” (p. 320). Later she admits, “I don’t see our future Jack” (p. 390). True to the April first birthdate she claims, Gloria is made a fool by the family.
A more fit adversary of the family—although no more successful—is Gloria’s mentor, Miss Julia Mortimer, the long-time school teacher whom Gloria has replaced. She is the one Judge Moody has been on his way to visit, having received a letter from her begging him to come. But waylaid at the Renfros’ the judge hears of her death. Since Miss Julia has tried for decades to educate the family and to make them give up their ingrained patterns of thinking, she is the family’s arch-enemy, and the judge must hear all the stories about her that they can recall. A painful portrait is drawn, a story of a determined woman perpetually engaged in a losing battle against what she has labeled as their ignorance. Year after year she has attempted to give enough knowledge to children of the clan that would help them to come to terms with a world outside that of their parents’ destructive patterns of family behavior. But with the Beecham-Renfro family and families like it—the Broadwees, the Comforts—she has only failed. Gloria’s defection from school teacher to wife is the final blow. “Put out” of her own school because of age, the teacher is left in the hands of Lexie Renfro, a Beechman-Renfro aunt who cruelly “nurses” her by cutting her off entirely from the outside world, taunting her for having visitors, and finally tying her in bed while refusing to bring her books, mail her letters, give her paper, or even grant her the solitude in which to die. Lexie’s attendance at the reunion has given Miss Julia her only chance to escape to the mailbox, where she is discovered near death by a passing carpenter. Despite her death—or because of it—the family tells the stories of her defeat with laughter, but as Judge Moody observes, it “could make a stone cry” (p. 306).
Yet for all the cruelty of the family, the same kind of horrible acts have been perpetrated upon them as well. The family too has been cut off from the world, and not only by its own doing. As the judge’s wife observes of the Renfro place, “You sure are stranded here….Mercy, what a long way off from everything”; “this is the edge of nowhere.” Her metaphor says far more about the family’s condition than she or the reader first imagines. For despite their pretense of presentism, the Beecham-Renfro family are on the very verge of nowhere, of exactly what they try to stave off, of chaos, of death itself.
Although they have scraped together a bounteous feast for the reunion, one is continually reminded throughout their narrative that they are living through the Depression, a time of dust, crop failures and destitution. Brother Bethune says of their condition: “in all of our glorious state I can’t think of any county likelier to take the cake for being the poorest and generally the hardest-suffering than dear old Boone….Floods all spring and drought all summer. We stand some chance of getting about as close to starvation this winter as we come yet. The least crop around here it would be possible for any man to make, I believe Mr. Ralph Renfro is going to make it this year….No corn in our cribs, no meal in our barrel, no feed and no shoes and no clothing—tra la la la” (pp. 191-192). As Gloria admits when asked why she is still suckling a baby as old as Lady May, “What I’m seeing to is she doesn’t starve!” (p. 326). On the sign which Uncle Nathan in his traveling ministry has placed on Banner Top—the very object which keeps the Judge’s car from careening over the cliff—are words applicable to the family’s precarious predicament: “Destruction Is At Hand.”
The family’s position, accordingly, is not so different from Miss Julia’s, and in her letter to Judge Moody, who reads it to the reunion despite their protests, she recognizes that not understanding this has led to her defeat: “I’m alive as ever, on the brink of oblivion, and I caught myself once on the verge of disgrace. Things like this are put in your path to teach you. You can make use of them, they’ll bring you one stage, one milestone, further along your road. You can go crawling next along the edge, if that’s where you’ve come to. There’s a lesson in it. You can profit from knowing that you needn’t be ashamed to crawl—to keep on crawling, to be proud to crawl to where you can’t crawl any further. Then you can find yourself lying flat on your back—look what’s carried you another mile. From flat on your back you may not be able to lick the world, but at least you can keep the world from licking you. I haven’t spent a lifetime fighting my battle to give up now. I’m ready for all they send me. There’s a measure of enjoyment in it” (p. 299).
Before her death Miss Julia has come to the realization that the battles she and the family have fought have not been out of mere antipathy, but have emanated from the “survival instinct,” that her fight to bring them knowledge that would free them from their isolation has been matched by their battle to remain unknowing in order to protect their isolation in time and place. For it is their all-encompassing notion of the communal present that constrains them from swirling off into space, that saves them from the mad forward rush of death. Like the judge’s car, caught up in the words of doom, their language deceptively cocoons them against time and the world at large. The family uses language as a weapon against knowledge, while Miss Julia has fought for a language which—as Gloria describes it—demands direct and open communication: “Miss Julia Mortimer didn’t want anybody left in the dark, not about anything. She wanted everything brought out in the wide open, to see and be known. She wanted people to spread out their minds and their hearts to other people, so they coud be read like books” (p. 432).
Just before her death Miss Julia realizes her mistake, that she could not possible have won against so many using her available tools. “Oscar,” she writes to the Judge, “it’s only now, when I’ve come to lie flat on my back, that I’ve had it driven in on me—the reason I never could win for good is that both sides were using the same tactics” (p. 298). Both sides, she has come to understand, have used language as a tool to gain control over the situations, have used words to create perspectives of time in which they could survive.
For the Beecham-Renfro family language is ritualistic, a process rather than a mode of communication. At the very beginning of the novel one witnesses an aspect of that process which the family repeats throughout. Welty’s novel begins with six descriptive paragraphs of chronographia written in the past tense. The time is immediately established in this past tense (“When the rooster crowed, the moon had still not left the world”), but through the use of a conjunction (“but was going down on flushed cheek”) and conjunctive adverbs (“Then a house appeared on its ridge….Then a baby bolted naked out of the house” [emphasis added]), the time is immediately connected with active verbs manifesting process. The effect is to cast the subsequent events in the imaginative present. Of course, this is basically no different from what happens in most narrative fiction. Welty herself points out in “Some Notes on Time in Fiction” that the “novelist can never to otherwise than work with time, and nothing in his novel can escape it. The novel cannot begin without his starting of the clock.”
The involvement with time in the very nature of narrative fiction demonstrates my point, for it is because of the innate potential of narrative language to convert past into present that the family is so dependent upon storytelling. Uncle Percy proceeds to tell the tale, which Aunt Cleo has requested (like Clio, the muse of history, this aunt is generally the one to stimulate the family’s memories), in much the same manner in which Welty’s work begins. Percy’s tale is also told in past tense, and it too begins with the starting of a clock, with an indication of time: “Well, crops was laid by one more year. Time for the children to be swallowed up in school” (p. 22). But no sooner are the past tense and time established than the present, introduced by a conjunction, is interjected into the narrative: Aunt Nanny interrupts, “But it don’t take Ella Fay long” [emphasis added]. And by the very next line Uncle Percy makes the same linguistic conversion: “So when the new teacher looked the other way, she’s [Ella Fay] across the road and into the store after it.” Although the past tense is returned to in the following lines, the imaginative conversion to present has already occurred. Ella Fay is corrected and criticized in the present for her past actions as if there were no distinction.
The family is obviously not telling a novel but relating a family tale and is required therefore to carry the narrative no further than this conversion to presentism. A novel must proceed in time within the imaginative present that it has created, but the family’s tales, as Welty writes of children’s tales, are “not answerable to time” (The Eye of the Story, p. 164). The family’s stories are all without suspense; the events they describe have already occurred in time and are dead. The stories the family tells are all well known, have already been assimilated into its members’ lives. As the promptings and verbal embroiderings of the family imply, a magic lies in the repetition. Granny Vaughn admits, “I’ve heard this tale before,” and, as the first story rises to a climax, the aunts cry out in unison, “Here it comes!” In their cries they betray the fact that any communicative aspect of the narrative is lost; the news the narrative may once have threatened to impart has already been subsumed into the family’s world; it has lost its power to psychologically affect their lives. By converting events into narrative, the family renders them harmless.
Something close to the prototype of this process of assimilation can be observed at several points throughout the novel, for almost all of the events which happened during the day—and they occur significantly at some distance from the family—are immediately converted into stories, into language. By the end of the day, as the aunts and uncles ready themselves to leave, all the events have been transformed. As Uncle Noah Webster (whose name is surely connected with language) tells Gloria upon his leaving: “Gloria this has been a story on us all that never will be allowed to be forgotten….Long after you’re an old lady without much further stretch to go, sitting back in the same rocking chair Granny’s got for her little self in now, you’ll be hearing it told to Lady May and all her hovering brood. How we brought Jack Renfro back safe from the pen! How you contrived to send a court judge up Banner Top and caused him to sit at our table and pass a night with the family, wife along with him. The story of Jack making it home through thick and thin and into Granny’s arms” (p. 354).
The foregoing paragraph is the culmination of a process that goes beyond the family’s transformation of past action into the timelessness of a tale. In the introductory paragraphs to the novel, Welty uses a great many figurative devices, certainly the most numerous of which are adverbial and adjectival comparisons. There are at least sixteen such comparisons in the first six paragraphs, and dozens appear throughout the book. Indeed, whenever the family stops talking for a moment, Welty describes the world around it with similes and similitudes. She has chosen these devices, I suspect, to demonstrate how place is brought into the family’s conception of time. I suggested earlier that because of their physical location and deprivation the Beechams and Renfros are on the edge of nowhere. But if one considers the similes and similitudes, one sees that the family literally lives nowhere as well—literally, that is, in the sense that consciousness is reality. In their world of presentism the Beechams and Renfros can rarely accept visible phenomena which are not in motion, and they can never come to terms with visible phenomena outside the familiar. The world around them is thus brought into the perception, into their conspiracy against time. For example, the distant point of the ridge puts “its lick on the sky” “like the tongue of a calf”; Sunday light races over the farm “as fast as the chickens were flying” [emphasis added]. The ridge and light are seen to be in motion and are as quickly converted through similitude into the colloquial. Every simile demonstrates, or at least implies, the same process. The invisible is made visible (for example, heat is “solid as a hickory stick”) and all the visible is brought into action into a world which the family mentally knows and spiritually feels safe in. There is no hesitation whatsoever to convert the whole visible world into conceptualized motion. In fact, the family must make this conversion to preserve its perceptual shield against death. As any post-Bergsonian study of time makes clear, visible phenomena in space are dead. Only things in time, which is human consciousness, are living. Thus just as the family has transformed past, and therefore dead, events into the present, and brought them through language into the present—so must the reunion convert visible phenomena, always reminders of space and death, into time and the familiar, where through language, through repetition, they are rendered harmless.
Because they are part of the visible world, whole groups of people and individuals are subject to this same process. Men and women are never defined by the family according to invisible qualities, personality or values. The judge and Miss Julia are hated not because of their beliefs, but because of what they do. The concept of respect for authority, for which Judge Moody sentences Jack, is seen by the family as the judge’s “battle cry” (p. 56); Miss Julia’s conviction that knowledge frees minds is seen as having “designs” on everybody (p. 235). Of the stolen safe’s owner, Curly Stovall, Aunt Birdies asks Ella Fay to “tell what he’s like, quick.” “He’s great big and has little bitty eyes…Baseball cap and sideburns,” Ella Fay hurriedly answers. Aunt Nanny reacts, “She’s got it! Feel like I can see him coming right this minute” (p. 23). In other words, the physical description functions only as something which brings about conceptualized motion. And, of course, once people are set into motion they too are readily converted from the time of their actions, the time-in-flux, into the family’s presentism. People also become stories. Mr. Renfro says of the Bywy Indians who originally inhabited the location where the family has settled, “There ain’t too much of their story left lying around” (p. 335). Similarly, when Jack says he knows Miss Julia “hated to breathe her last,” and Gloria retorts, “You never laid eyes on her,” Jack answers, “I heard her story” (p. 361). Just as the family renders all acts nugatory, so does it make impotent all natural forces and individual values, personalities and characteristics through language.
Over and above this, the family believes the individuals, once they are converted into tales, are answerable to language. This idea is hinted at in Uncle Noah Webster’s statement to Gloria. His claim that the family brought Jack home is a brag which tacitly suggests that the aunts and uncles sitting and talking have had control over Jack’s movement in space. As outrageous as this sounds, he is speaking the truth. For if the family has converted all reality into the ideality of their presentism, then there is no space. They live in a world of language, not of location; they exist in a world where time stands against real time by excluding space. Human physicality is thus erased. Although the family laments that its members are physically spread out in space, all living near different towns with names like Banner, Morning Star, Peerless, and Alliance, any such lamentation is quite meaningless, for they live in intellectual synchronicity; in their intellectually constructed world they are inseparable.
One can observe in the family’s lament, moreover, yet another linguistic phenomenon that is closely related to the annihilation of space, that is their need to repeat locational names. Because it symbolically represents space, and because it also converts space into words, naming is seen to have magical powers very similar to the repetition of tales, which is a sacred process to the Beecham-Renfros. Just as tales reconstitute action, locational names, the only vestiges of space, reconstruct space according to the family’s requirements. The name alone allows the family to live in space because it permits them to control it. Of course, the same is again true of human beings. Since the family will suffer no act of individuality, the only vestiges left of physical beings are the names. And the name has magical powers because it allows a man to physically exist and yet permits the family to control and define him. In both these cases, however, the magic of the name lies not in the fact that the place or being resides in the name. Unlike primitive cultures wherein the name is the place or individual, to the family of Losing Battles the fact that the name is not the place or individual is what is important, for only through the separation of spatiality and nomination can one be converted into another (and, one might add, for that same reason naming was perhaps mankind’s first dissociation of time and space). Only thus can place and the individual become words, which as language can be put into conceptualized space—a space which is man-made rather than natural.
In Uncle Noah Webster’s statement one can observe both these linguistic transformations at work. Beulah need only repeat her son’s name, and the act she desires of him follows. She says, “Jack’s coming,” and, since there is no “true” space and Jack’s actions are controlled by language, the words are all powerful: Jack comes. The whole family participates in the same ritual calling by repeating Jack’s story, which is the same as Jack, and therefore reproduces him. In their linguistic presentism there is no better way for the Renfros and Beechams to bring Jack home than by “telling” him, retelling his story. Like Ora Stovall, who the next morning hurries out to Banner Top to get down the names and the story of the people involved in the retrieving of the Judge’s car for the readers of the local newspaper, The Vindicator, the family vindicates its reality by confounding people with names and stories.
Obviously, none of these linguistic processes is understood by the family in the way I have attempted to describe them. Nor do any of these processes actually stop the approach of death. The family merely acts instinctively in a way that makes them “appear” to be free from flux. Although the family refuses to recognize the full meaning of death, its tales area filled with admissions of defeat by death and confessions of pain which death has wrought: the Beecham-Renfro recollections of the simultaneous deaths of the father and mother and the death in the war of the brother, the family’s confrontations with the recent death of the grandfather, the immediate death of Miss Julia, and the imminent death of Granny Vaughn. These recollections link the family to the past, present and future, to the cycles of time that undercut their artificial presentism. The car is salvaged only after it has fallen; similarly, the family must accept its fall, its doom of death, before its members can be saved. As in all of Welty’s works, a transcendent vision which frees one from time-in-flux is possible only when the past is brought together with the future in present time.
Within the novel the family does not come to this awareness. The major problem of Losing Battles is, in fact, that it is difficult to point to a character who does come to terms with both the past and the future, and who represents, accordingly, a moral order within the work. Certainly one is tempted to see Judge Moody and, especially, Miss Julia as advocates of Welty’s view of morality and time. Both judge and school teacher consistently perceive the destructive results of the Beecham-Renfro’s presentism, and they dedicate their lives to countering its effects. But upon examination of their vision of time and their own linguistic patterns, it appears that their perception of time as a delimited and destructive as that of the family’s.
Miss Julia’s letter, for example, presents a world that, unlike the family, has a past, present and future. Her letter evaluates her present state (“I’m alive as ever, on the brink of oblivion”) in relation to her past (“I caught myself once on the verge of disgrace”) in connection with an implied future (“I’m ready for all they send me”). Nevertheless, while she combines the three modalities of time, no substantial evidence exists to show that she actually connects them. Rather, Miss Julia’s awareness of time is historical. Her historicism shows up in her metaphors: life for her is a “path,” a “road” which can be measured by “stages,” by “milestones.” Behind these metaphors lies the whole notion of time as progression. The adverbs “then” and “next” reveal her historical perspective. Events for her occur in series, not simultaneously. Whereas Welty used conjunctive adverbs to bring past events into an active and colloquial present, Miss Julia merely uses these adverbs as connectors between one modality and other. The past for her is always finished, the future something ahead, and the present only a momentary pause—never a time in which through memories the past can be brought together with a vision of a future that includes death. As she says, “Doubling back on my tracks has never been my principle. Even if I can’t see very far ahead of me now, that’s where I’m going” (p. 299).
With her historicism, her view of life as a journey through time, it is not surprising that she arrives at death’s door asking, “What was the trip for?” (p. 241). As her name suggests (“Mort” or death, and “time”), Miss Julia does not find any meaning in the end but death itself. She may recognize her mistakes—“the side that gets licked gets to the truth first”—but she has no personal revelation in those facts.
Both sides may be using the same tactics, accordingly, but they have been unable to communicate what they perceive. Miss Julia has tried and failed to indoctrinate the family in her historicism. Willy Trimble, who speaks the same language as the family, admits that although Miss Julia knew history well, she could not teach it to him (p. 233). Similarly, the family can only fail to make clear to Miss Julia their presentism. “She couldn’t beat time when she marches us. …She run ahead of us,” Aunt Birdie recalls (p. 293). In retrospect, one sees that the novel is based upon the antinomy of presentism and historicism. Gloria, like Miss Julia in her rush to the future, is thus set in position to the family. Judge Moody, like the other two, is in a hurry to get somewhere, and accordingly entering the terrain of the family finds that roads circle about, double upon one another and end up nowhere.
The three prefer reading and writing rather than speaking. All three put their experiences down on paper, and thus convert them into something in space, something dead. The family, as we have seen, live their experiences over and over simply by speaking them. Even if they cannot read “the handwriting on the wall” and, therefore, cannot foresee their own doom, at least they can bring their past back to life again; they can bring the past imaginatively into the present. Much to the family’s dismay, they cannot bring memory back to life; the Judge must read Miss Julia’s letter against the family’s protest whose view is reflected by Aunt Birdie: “I can’t understand it when he reads it to us. Can’t he just tell it?” Instead of actualizing the visit for which Miss Julia begged, Gloria writes a letter, remaining ignorant, accordingly, of her own past.
In their presentism, the family has the roots (like the concentric rings of the nearby tree trunk) to achieve a transcendent vision, but they lack just what they need to survive, what Miss Julia, Gloria and the Judge might have given them—a future. But for the family the future is terrible, and most horribly, it is silent. As Brother Bethune dramatically describes Judgment Day: “You’ll be left without words. Without words! Can you believe it? Think about that!” (p. 212). Perhaps, accordingly, we must look to those in the family who are not part of the ongoing cascade of language. Critic James Boatright has pointed to several characters within the family who most remain silent (“Speech and Silence in Losing Battles,” Shendandoah, 25 [Spring 1974], 3-14). He speaks of Granny Vaughn as the family’s sibyl or oracle, and mentions Nathan and Vaughn as others who keep silent while the family speaks. These characters all incorporate the past, present and future. Granny, perhaps, is the least transcendent of the three, but she intermingles past and future in a way no other living character does. Throughout the novel she confuses dead grandchildren with living ones—bringing death upon the living who refuse to accept it—and, simultaneously, she lives in some future time where she is one hundred instead of her real age of ninety. “Time’s a-wasting,” she constantly reminds those around her who refuse to recognize time (p. 40). This joining of the past and present with the future permits her a transcendent vision of sorts. She knows all the family secrets—she knows of the parents’ death, of Gloria’s birth—but she never tells all. For this reason she is recognized by the family—and the reader—as someone special.
Nathan, who participates in the family circle, also stands apart. He partakes of the Beecham-Renfro past made present, but in his silence is separated from them. And in his silence he is something of an oracle. He too has a secret: he has killed a man. That murder has cost him—he has lost a hand—and with the sacrifice he has been made to see things with a new awareness. “He surrendered to the Lord,” as Beulah says (p. 329), suggesting he has come to accept death. His sign, it should be remembered, saves the car from falling right over Banner Top into nothingness, and, similarly, it is Nathan’s signs that warn the family it must come to terms with its future by facing the questions of meaning and death.
Vaughn is another member of the family who comes to value the future. In one of the most lyrical scenes of the novel, Vaughn walks through the night to retrieve the Banner school bus from the ditch. He is relieved to escape all the voices “telling it—bragging, lying, singing, pretending, protesting, swearing everything into being, swearing everything away” (p. 363). He also keeps in his silence an important secret: he loves the language of silence; he loves to read and write. Despite the family’s attempts to destroy all portents of change, to ridicule the language of death that reading and writing symbolizes for the family, it has produced within its own ranks a child who will face the flux of time, who will learn of a world outside his own.
Two other characters within the family, however, represent an even greater hope for the family as a whole. Sam Dale is a figure of the past, but he has brought both the past and the future to bear upon the present. In the photography which Beulah shows the family, Sam Dale is caught twice in the eternal moment of presentness: “Evidently by racing the crank of the camera and running behind backs, Sam Dale had got in on both ends of the panorama, putting his face smack and smack again into the face of oblivion” (p. 328). Because he has faced oblivion, Sam Dale has achieved a truer immortality than the family can in all its present talk. He is, moreover, the family’s favorite; even in the silence of death he has still a shaping power over them.
Lady May, child of Jack’s presentism and Gloria’s future-orientation, is also silent. Throughout most of the novel she cannot yet speak, but she represents the hope that the family may grow in transcendent perceptions, and when she does speak, that hope is given new force. Lady May speaks not as part of the reunion, not as part of the family circle in its “soul-defying” speech, but alone and in secret. In the face of chaos itself, she confronts the approaching storm with her first words: “What you huntin’, man” (p. 368). Beulah’s immediate rush to snatch up the child “as if a life had been saved” suggests that the child will be condemned to the familial desire to blot out death. But she will also be blessed with love from her parents and a family with a tradition which, at least, will give her the potential for a vision which sees life in the richness and fullness of time.
In Losing Battles Welty shows the reader that the language of the visionary, the language which includes a vision of time in all its modalities, is a language of both process and reflection; it is a language that both brings meaning into being with speech and receives and reflects on meaning through the silence of reading and writing. Ultimately, what Welty shows us is that man has within him the capabilities of being both godly and sinful. Man can call things into being; through speech he can bring order into this universe. But he is also fallen; he is no god and must eventually submit to the order or chaos of the universe in death. Just before her death Miss Julia perceives this fact. She writes Judge Moody: “There’s been one thing I never did take into account…. Watch out for innocence. Could you be tempted by it, Oscar—to your own mortification—and conspire with the ignorant and the lawless and the foolish and even the wicked, to hold your tongue?” (p. 300).
Miss Julia has realized that man is a fallen being; she has recognized death. Her lesson has been that man must be ready to receive, to look around him and take in everything, above all to learn in his ignorance all there is to know. But she has forgotten that man also makes meaning, that man is driven in his innocence to make order of the universe, that in his pride, his foolishness, perhaps even in his wickedness, his nature requires that he struggle against his own fallen condition, that he try to regain his Eden.
College Park, Maryland, 1978
Reprinted from Peggy Prenshaw, ed., Eudora Welty: Critical Essays (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979).
Copyright (c)1978 by Douglas Messerli