My favorite symbolic scene in 12 YEARS A SLAVE is when Solomon Northup plays his fiddle at a white dance party in the South. It calls to memory his earlier having done so as a free black in the North. Whereas the northern party was an open, coy, and perfectly natural linking of erotic interest with respectful formality, precisely the sort of community event Jane Austen championed, the southern party is a masquerade. And given what the film has shown us by this time, it is hard to miss the symbolism: we are now in the land of masks.
The slave system has forced all the whites, especially the mistresses and masters, into adopting certain roles. The better masters cannot let their moral sentiment and virtue show too much from behind the mask, lest they risk upsetting the whole system. They have little choice but to employ some overseers who convincingly threaten brutality and heartlessness. As for the worse masters, slavery gives them the means to let their inner demons come out to play, and nearly in the broad daylight; but insofar as this occurs erotically, so that a master’s sexual desire becomes fixated on any particular slave-woman, his jealous wife can use other aspects of the slave-system to fight back. Under the mask of keeping discipline, she can punish her husband through punishing his favorite, or better, by making him do so.
For the master is not a fully-armed tyrant who can say, in the face of the system: “this is my harem” or “she shall be my new wife,” or “I shall have more than one wife,” or “I shall free my slave-concubine,” or even, “I shall free my mulatto child.” In one of its more surprising and initially confusing scenes, 12 YEARS even shows us how a bachelor master has set up his favorite concubine as a kind of substitute or “pantomime” wife, clad in fine clothes inside the manor house, but we realize she could never be anything more than that, even if the two did love one another, and, we are made to see that at least she is pantomiming whatever attraction exists between them.
Because of course, as Shelby Steele or any good southern writer could tell you, and as 12 YEARS shows again and again, all the slaves are forced to adopt various masks to protect themselves, and she is no exception.
The masking extends beyond the interaction of the whites with the blacks, but continues on into the manor houses and family relations for the whites, and into the slave quarters for the blacks.
No-one is relatively open, sincere, and thus a touch naïve the way Solomon Northup, prior to his being betrayed into the hands of kidnappers by two apparently-friendly white men, once was. For him, the North is the lost land of freedom, but also, of such openness and trust among mankind.
And so those masquerade masks look all the more grotesque, and the memory of the simple Northern dance becomes all the more painfully cherished. Indeed, the director Steve McQueen has featured some of the same extras in both scenes, the better to make us connect and compare them.
From my scanning of the book, this symbolic juxtaposition is entirely McQueen’s and screenwriter John Ridely’s doing—in the book, no masquerade is mentioned, and when Northup does play for Southern whites at their parties, this usually brings him into contact with masters and mistresses who appear notably kinder than his. Indeed, the very sight of him off-plantation with his fiddle becomes a happy sign to local whites that a dance-party must be afoot.
So the message McQueen and Ridley mean to send by the way they arranged this scene seems clear enough: due to slavery, Southern society, even at its most apparently attractive, is a society of masks incapable of honest relations.
This message applies to sex and love in particular. The reason one of the first scenes in the film is of a sexual encounter between Northup and another slave found nowhere in the book, is it allows the film-makers to then cut to a shot representing Solomon’s memory of being with his wife. The first scene begins as one of those scenarios, as in the Stalingrad movie ENEMY AT THE GATES, where a handsome man and a fetching woman are part of a group of persons forced by circumstances to sleep all in one chamber, in that film due to their all being part of an exhausted soldier-unit, and in this one due to their all being part of an exhausted slave labor-gang.
You know the scenario. Ah… …amid all the sleepers on the floor, we see that only they two are awake. He turns over. She is looking right at him! …and she makes the move, and the silent lovemaking commences. But in 12 YEARS, we have not seen the man and woman engaged in any previous talk or flirtation—they are strangers. As for the lovemaking, it is merely masturbatory. She takes and uses his hand for her purposes (sorry, FT readers, but this is the way McQueen and Ridley want it), and while he offers no resistance and some assistance, the important point is that once she’s climaxed, she turns away, and seems distraught. This is low pleasure amid despair; there is zero human connection, despite the longing for it. We immediately cut to Northup’s memory of being in his clean bed with his wife, with both of them staring deeply into each other’s eyes.
Again, the North is the place of openness, of natural human relations, and of mutual respect between the sexes. The South is the place where lust eclipses love, where the sexes are at war, and where the countenance is masked or turned away.
But what if the masked South had as much a claim to be the most natural human state as the un-masked North? Solomon Northup is a very good man that we admire from the first and learn to do more so, but is it not also the case that the film suggests he had been made too trusting? The innocence and openness of the North, where apparently many whites have been good to him, and where his musical talent allowed him to partake of their most joyous occasions, made him easier prey for the friendly white gentlemen who facilitate his kidnapping. Do Ridley and McQueen want to suggest that the deeper reality about the human things, or at least the equally-valid side of them, is encountered in the pitiless realm of slavery? Could they want to imply that something about Yankee freedom, with its loving marriages, its degree of interracial amity, and its trusting hopeful young folks like Solomon Northup or those unmasked dancers, is simply unrealistic and unsustainable?
Let’s shift gears to 1965, and really unsettle things by way of some Walker Percy:
It was unsettling, too, coming among a people whose radars were as sensitive as his own. He had got used to good steady wistful post-Protestant Yankees (they were his meat, ex-Protestants, post-Protestants, para-Protestants, the wistful ones who wanted they knew not what; he was just the one to dance for them) and here all at once he found himself among as light-footed and as hawk-eyed and God-fearing a crew as one could imagine. Everyone went to church and was funny and clever and sensitive in the bargain. Oh, they were formidable, born winners (how did they lose?). Yet his radar was remarkable, even for the South. After standing around two or three days, as queer and nervous as a Hoosier, he quickly got the hang of it. Soon he was able to listen to funny stories and tell a few himself.
…The South he came home to was different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic, and Republican.
…He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, had got used to living among them…
These passages are from Percy’s The Last Gentleman. I suppose you can’t really appreciate it unless you’ve also appreciated the book’s earlier portrayal of dumbly earnest Yankee Counter-Culture types circa 1965, including a rich send-up of the author of Black Like Me.
Here’s some examples—note that the “engineer” from the South is the main character:
“I like to know what a man’s philosophy is and I want to tell you mine.”
Uh-oh, thought the engineer gloomily. After five years of New York and Central Park and the Y.M.C.A., he had learned to be wary of philosophers.
They say plenty of dumbly earnest things, and especially about you-know-what:
Worse luck though, sleep deserted him… …there was nothing to but read Love. He read it straight through, finishing at three o’ clock.
Love was about orgasms, good and bad, some forty-six. But it ended, as Forney had said, on a religious note. “And so I humbly ask of life,” said the hero to his last partner with whose assistance he had managed to coincide with his best expectations, “that it grant us the only salvation, that of one human being discovering himself through another, and through the miracle of love.”
This northern mid-60s love talk has even infected the engineer’s love-interest:
“Do you know what matters most of all?”
“Love is everything.”
“Rita asked me what I believed in. I said I believed in love.”
Here we really need some music, preferably by Jefferson Airplane, or Joan Baez.
Later, the engineer’s love interest also offers us this:
“Rita says that anything two people do is beautiful if the people themselves are beautiful and reverent and unselfconscious in what they do. Like the ancient Greeks who lived in the childhood of the race.”
Of course, we eventually figure out that Rita is herself interested in loving this young woman whom she’s taught to spout such love-talk.
The openness of the North has gone wrong by 1965, and for Percy has made the habits of masking taught the Southerners by slavery/segregation, white and black, seem comparatively wise and sane. Not that he, nor his “engineer” character, can quite get with the program:
He baffled the negroes and they him. The Vaught servants were buffaloed by the engineer and steered clear of him. Imagine their feeling. They of course lived with their radars too. It was their special talent and it was how they got along: tuning in on the assorted signals about them and responding with a skill two-hundred years in the learning. And not merely responding. Not merely answering the signals but providing home and sustenance to the transmitter, giving him, the transmitter, to believe that he dwelled in loving and familiar territory. He must be made to make sense, must the transmitter; must be answered with sense and good easy laughter: sho now, we understand each other. But here came this strange young man who transmitted no signal at all but who rather, like them, was all ears and eyes and antennae. He actually looked at them. A Southerner looks at a Negro twice: once when he is a child and sees his nurse for the first time; second, when he is dying and there is a Negro with him to change his bedclothes. But he does not look at him during the sixty years in between. And so he knows as little about Negroes as he does about Martians, less, because he knows that he does not know about Martians.
Well, one should supplement that with other passages from Percy’s novels, especially some from The Thanatos Syndrome, as the entire theme of Southern communication and miscommunication, especially between blacks and whites, is a rich, complex, and I would guess central one for Percy.
I think I know how to interpret Ridley and McQueen’s juxtapositions, but I’m not exactly sure what to do with mine!
Let me know what you make of it (Colin?), but here’s what I can say initially.
The Old South was really bad, as 12 YEARS will show you, if a bit too thoroughly, but something went amiss with the North, the land of the Puritans, townships, and then of John and Abigail, William Lloyd Garrison, and Solomon Northup playing fiddle at a charmingly democratic dance, somehow becoming the land of Emerson, Whitman, and eventually that of San Francisco, Merry Pranksters, and ridiculous (and conveniently exploitable) ideas about Love set to religious-like music from para-post-protestant proto-hippies like Joan Baez.
For Percy, however, if the road to sanity has to escape the sadly idiotic North, and thus go to and through the aggressively-happy-and-at-home but still mask-trained South (and, eventually, also through the pornographic-philosophic ruminations of the Sutter character, one whom Steve McQueen might well be fascinated by), it cannot remain there, but must wind up at Christ’s feet, and in a Catholic place. Without saying more about The Last Gentleman, or whether its ending really works, I think I’ve said enough to suggest why it’s one of the more interesting documents of the shifts going on in 60s America, and why, if the black, British, and sex-focused director Steve McQueen really wants to get at America’s “race relations,” at American freedom, and how these relate to the problem of love in modern times, he needs to read his Percy. And if a Percy novel can be brought to film (I truly doubt it—the only remotely plausible candidate would be Love in the Ruins), perhaps he’s the man to do it.