Review: Apocalypse South: Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance in the Regional Imaginary
Anthony Dyer Hoefer. Apocalypse South: Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance in the Regional Imaginary. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. 208 pp. ISBN 978-0814212011.
Apocalypse South examines the various rhetorical applications of apocalypse in the works of William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Randall Kenan, and Dorothy Allison. By focusing on apocalyptic rhetoric, Hoefer recovers the concept of apocalypse as a prevalent yet often neglected southern idiom. Toward that end, the author brings a fresh perspective to works whose form and content we might not otherwise have considered apocalyptic.
While primarily literary criticism, the book will appeal to readers with a broader interest in southern cultural history. Throughout, Hoefer considers an array of extraliterary material and cultural artifacts that frequently invoke apocalypse, such as popular and folk music, sermons, and political speeches. He also explores various contextual passages, including the tragic legacy of lynching reflected in Light in August, the anti-nationalist views of Seventh-day Adventist millennialism that influenced Wright, the elusive histories of maroon colonies in Kennan’s fictional world, and the mobilizing gospel circuits of Bastard Out of Carolina. Notably, the epilogue shows how “the discourses of cataclysm and destruction, rebirth and renewal, judgment and justice have been indispensable in the rhetoric of postdiluvian New Orleans” (156).
Hoefer argues that the discourse of apocalypse offers alternative and subversive ways of speaking in a region and culture obsessed with the manners and rules of etiquette. Apocalypse, he writes, provides “a vocabulary of images and narrative structures ideally suited to articulate a variety of southern histories that threaten the stability of the prevailing discourses of southern community.” In contrast to these more liberating possibilities, however, “the rhetoric of God’s judgment” can also become “a powerful tool of marginalization when it is invoked to condemn those who might violate the prevailing social order” (3-4).
Light in August uses these opposing terms of apocalypse to interpret the story of Joe Christmas, whose ambiguous racial identity threatens the southern white community’s essentialist view that individuals are either black or white. Hoefer reads Christmas’ murder as a ritual sacrifice that rids the community of this challenge to its apparently stable racial boundaries. The narrative of sacrifice also reveals the inherent contradiction of apocalypse, as “the community’s insistence on an absolutely binary social and racial order, even when faced with evidence of the epistemological limitations of their bivalent worldview,” precipitates cataclysm (23-24).
Whereas Faulkner’s novel primarily invokes apocalypse as a means of condemnation and damnation, Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children suggests a more emancipatory application. According to Hoefer, this cycle of short stories demonstrates how an apocalyptic sense of time offers “the possibility of making sense of black suffering, at least provisionally, by locating these horrific experiences into a coherent historical narrative” (81). In developing this argument, Hoefer tries to amend a recurring problem in the extant criticism of Wright’s early fiction. “[T]he notion that Wright’s work rejects religion,” he writes, “is so commonplace that it continues to play a determinative role in the critical reception of his work” (62). Yet, Hoefer reminds us, both apocalyptic millennialism and Marxism project a scripted future in which the established order of the present is ruptured and subsequently restructured. These two distinct influences on Wright’s worldview merge, at moments, into a vision of resistance that is neither fully Marxist nor fully apocalyptic.
Part II of the book shifts focus to two late-century novels: Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits and Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Kenan’s novel is set in the fictional town of Tims Creek, a predominantly black community. But while its residents “have been relatively successful in their efforts to create a black-controlled space,” Hoefer explains, “that space is itself ultimately restrictive” (109). Through the shared experiences of suffering, a “collective identity” has emerged, but that communal sense of self is now maintained by apocalyptically-charged condemnations of internal dissent. Originally unified by resistance, the new community defaults to a patriarchal structure that undermines the development of a heterogeneous black community—a particularly devastating consequence for Horace, the central character whose homosexuality precludes his full participation in the fold. According to Hoefer, Kenan’s fiction suggests how apocalyptic discourse might be repurposed, “not in order to maintain a stable identity but rather in order to create a usable history that will guide these exchanges and that will be accessible to all who wish to claim it” (129).
Similar to Horace, Allison’s central character, Bones, is torn between a yearning for independence and community, as she “struggles between a claustrophobic desire to escape the marginal spaces inhabited by the Boatwrights (which results in alienation from the family) and a longing for a communion with them” (140). As with the other narratives, apocalypse here offers what the dominant discourse cannot, “function[ing] as the only narrative realm sufficient to articulate […] Bones’ suffering.” While such invocations seem little consolation in the absence of direct action, apocalypse nonetheless provides a viable alternative to the “discourses of discipline and punishment” which “have only worked to enact the abjection of the Boatwrights heretofore. Calling upon them now to mete out their retribution,” Hoefer concludes, “would ultimately reinforce their white trash identity.” Despite the apparent inefficacy of apocalyptic fantasy to incite real change, it does provide characters like Bones with “the spiritual and psychological sustenance” they need to endure oppression so that they might one day rise above it (152).
One final note: Apocalypse South comes as the first installment of Ohio State University Press’s critical series, “Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies.” One of the aims of this series is to investigate “the emerging identity of postsecular studies” (189). While Hoefer does not explicitly attempt to define this protean body of scholarship, he does implicitly engage with some of the concerns often attributed to it. Postsecular studies contend for alternative epistemologies, discourses, and cultural narratives whose meanings are never adequately perceived or represented by the empiricism and rationalism of Western secular thought. Apocalyptic discourse, as posed by Hoefer, points to just such a discursive space. It is a space “in which the unspeakable can be addressed indirectly and where contradiction is negotiated through deferral to a cosmological myth. Where [apocalypse] occurs,” he concludes, “something has been silenced” (127). While this type of critical “excavation” inevitably remains a secular exercise, it does demonstrate the possibility of postsecular studies as a more perceptive approach to understanding religious discourse without needing to reduce it to some external theoretical analogue. As this study attests, understanding the discourse of apocalypse demands a new theoretical vocabulary that is derived from, and not simply applied to, apocalyptic narratives.