They say Freud found one of his principal metaphors about neurosis from the newly invented hydraulic jack, in which a chamber is filled with fluid and is then pumped with additional fluid to lift a weight. Seals hold the fluid from leaking, but if too much weight is put on the jack, the seals will burst. That explains how when too much tension is put on a person already tormented by unresolved crises, the brain bursts its seals and allows itself to scatter logic and sense in all directions.
The hydraulic jack I am now thinking has burst is the one set on the ground at the end of the Civil War, in which a resentful, embittered, troubled South was made to surrender its illegitimate sovereignty, give up its planation society, its cherished aristocratic pretenses, and watch as carpet baggers, opportunists, northern industrial tycoons moved in and took all the spoils of war. No one could get the South up on a Freudian couch with its famous rug and start the talking cure. The South was derided, humiliated, tortured as a backward, ignorant, failed society while the rest of the country rose up around it as the victorious side.
Henry James told the story of the post-Civil War era, in which the chest-beating bravura of the North was carefully dissected only to find timid, overly-cultivated men who had slavishly appropriated English manners and customs and proved to be cowards when presented with even the mild challenge of asserting oneself as a lover. Take Spencer Brydon, for example, in the story “The Jolly Corner,” who comes back to NewYork after a thirty-three year sojourn in England stirring his tea and nibbling crumpets in the company of English dowagers, and who finds the city overpowering in its masculinity and aggression. He imagines an alter ego stayed behind and faced the ordeals of growing up in the fiery center of the new capitalism, and when he opens a door and confronts this gnarled, disfigured but altogether imposing figure he might have been, he faints and awakens on the lap of an older woman who strokes his cheek and mothers him. It’s clear he will never face a challenge again; behind the North’s overweening self-confidence was an unformed ego, not quite ready for the mantle of victor.
But that also left the South festering in its own fears of inadequacy, and to tell its story was the burden of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Both writers found a crippled culture, unprepared for the upheavals that came after the war, and torn between nostalgia and a paralyzing dread of any further change. Here in a few novels of the mid 1930s and half a dozen plays in the 1950s is that broken hydraulic jack laid bare for all to see. Take Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” in which Emily Grierson is found to have slept with the corpse of the northerner who jilted her some forty or fifty years before. She can’t wake from the past, and her inability to adapt to the times is the wreckage of a mind gone berserk.
Faulkner saw the dead South everywhere he looked; he understood its traumas, its fixations, the nightmare from which it did not wish to awake. Even though the plantations were now eyesores, and the ruins of old cotton fields were the burnt out remains of a foolish attempt to reconstruct the Middle Ages in America. Tennessee Williams also saw the same grief and breakdown in Blanche Dubois in the play, A Streetcar Named Desire, whose memories of “Belle Reve” plantation are all that’s left of her desire to live. The fallen-down remains of “the beautiful dream” are struck a final blow by Stanley Kowalksi, the northerner who stakes his claims on the bankrupt South. Poor Blanche is packed off to an asylum, but not without the overt sympathies of Williams, who saw in her the poetry, the idealism, the delicacy of manners he could only associate with this failed culture.
What Faulkner and Williams never imagined were the terrible consequences of neurosis that would follow at the turn of the 21st century, when a black man from Chicago, half-white, half-Kenyan, would ascend to the presidency and rule for eight years. The collective silent scream of a neurotic region caught in many southerners’ throats, and nothing could prevent this region from retreating into near madness politically and culturally. Suddenly no truth was valid merely because some reference books or some body of scientists said it was. Everything was up for denial, negation, dismissal as more of the North’s godless and unfeeling positivism. Any push forward by the forces of progressivism meant a further assault upon an already disenfranchised group of states. Therefore, in the fashion of true madness, it was inevitable that every act or gesture to point the nation to the future, no matter the cause or the seemingly righteous logic that inspired it, was deemed unacceptable. And there were men and women eager to represent this convulsive rejection of a federal government driven to remove all further hindrances to the freedom of women, people of color, and to those who had found their sexual identities misunderstood or condemned.
The South read every act of the White House, every movement in the Congress as a strategy to deny the region its remaining identity. Nothing escaped the scrutiny of disgruntled lawmakers brought in by Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution, or the 2010 sweep of both houses by the Tea Party rebellion. And because madness knows no limit to its anger or desire for retribution, it was only a matter of time before officers of the law were tainted with the sense of outrage against those who stood to prosper under federal rule, further shaking the foundations of the old southern hierarchy. Hence, the rash of shootings of unarmed black youths, and the closing of abortion clinics throughout the region; textbooks put God back into science, and versions of the Civil War were revamped to shift the causes of war away from slavery and more toward tariff disputes and unfair taxation by the North.
The broken jack leaked fluid in all directions. The government was shut down, a war against entitlements began anew, a newly elected Congressman could cry “Liar!” during Obama’s State of the Union speech. Nothing was sacred if it meant bowing to the will of a ruling elite set against the fractured mind of the region. The damaged nerves of post-war southern life had no anodynes, no cure, no couch on which to confess its sense of disillusionment. Instead, many are now turning to the new demagogues running for president, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who denounce the country’s character and direction openly. Southerners are even finding common cause with Bernie Sanders, if only because he finds fault with federal tax law for creating a super-rich ruling elite, whose own values have nothing to do with Christian virtues or the rights of white people to maintain their own privileges.
Both Faulkner and Williams understood the damaged soul of a region and could say with authority how the mental derangement would destroy the remaining structures of southern life. What they couldn’t imagine is that the further evolution of this derangement would threaten the integrity, even the authority of the government to rule over the nation. The erosion of faith in democratic institutions poses the most serious threat to the future of this country, and unless a new Freud can be found to help the South to articulate its grief and disorientation, to plumb the depth of its tortured soul, more and more will come to believe that turning one’s back on federal authority is the only recourse to perceived injustice. Remember, for fifty odd years Emily Grierson paid no property tax; she didn’t vote; she didn’t go out in public. She had turned away from reality altogether and slept with a skeleton of the emotional past, incapable of grasping her situation. The South is backward; its schools are generally a mess, disguising segregation under phony voucher and religious school shadow systems. Its people are underemployed, its food is corrupt, its morality is shattered by grief and evangelical hysteria. It drinks too much, and ignores everything but a tiny radius of “safe” ideas and habits, even while it founders in despair and hopelessness.
Meanwhile, climate change threatens to kill off vast numbers of our wild life, and to destroy farmlands, blow away our towns in mega-hurricanes and tornados. Our future is no longer predictable or certain, while the South mulls over its wounds and insults and throws wrenches into every possible solution government can offer in this age of muddle and destruction.