Time After Time: Postmodernism and the Role of Linguistic Manipulation in Carson McCullers’ A Clock Without Hands

May 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

Carson McCullers’ 1953 novel A Clock Without Hands exemplifies the postmodernist tradition by establishing a continuum of four central characters separated by their motives for manipulating language. The spectrum ranges from white to black, both literally and figuratively. The characters at each end, Judge Fox Clane and Sherman Pew, represent extreme racial conditions and diametrically opposed world views. The Judge espouses the white, conservative cause while Sherman moves toward the black, reformist position over the course of the novel. Appropriately, the Judge uses language to maintain social hierarchy, whereas Sherman employs specific words to break down this hierarchy. McCullers sets two additional men, J.T. Malone and Jester Clane, in a more nebulous region between the peripheries. Unlike the Judge and Sherman, who use language to sustain and destroy Southern hegemony, respectively, J.T. and Jester share more individualistic motivations. J.T. uses words to denounce his identity as a dying man; Jester uses words to construct his identity as a learned, cosmopolitan liberal in a racially contentious national climate. In 1979, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard articulated what he called the “postmodernist condition” to describe the trends in literature, art, and society itself in the years following World War II. Lyotard defines postmodernist thought as an acute disbelief of “metanarratives,” or broad, overarching theories based on a consensus understanding of the world. Contrary to modernism, postmodernist theory holds that each human being lives at the intersection of numerous micronarratives. Individuals create novel forms of language by selecting and assembling words, phrases, and texts that already exist in their culture. In this vein, communication functions more as a linguistic art form and less as an indicator of larger universal axioms. Thus, postmodernism presents a “principled skepticism about language, truth, causality, history and subjectivity” (Castle 145). McCullers’ characters align with postmodernist tradition in their use of what Lyotard refers to as “language games.” Lyotard employs this concept, borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein, to highlight the immense discrepancies in the meaning of language among communities. McCullers applies the notion of language as art through her central characters by incorporating repetition and cultural allusion into their linguistic choices. She also ascribes to each of them distinctive methods and motives for the art they create. John McGowan, a literary theorist from Johns Hopkins University, writes that language is “as central to the production of contemporary social order as economic or political processes, if not more central” (McGowan 2). Judge Fox Clane represents the personification of this argument in literary form in his manipulation of language as a means to uphold the hegemonic order of his revered Georgia. He consistently employs rhetoric to ensure his status in the ruling class, a status he justifies in light of the institutions and conventions of the traditional South. In the first few scenes of the novel, McCullers presents the Judge as exceedingly paranoid. Predicting the apocalypse of his preferred way of life, he warns J.T. of an imminent “vortex of revolution” that will rise and “destroy the very foundations on which the South was built” (McCullers 13). The Judge then asks J.T. to envision the horrors of a future devoid of such foundations: namely the poll tax, segregation, and wage discrimination. His argument aims to invoke fear in J.T., and more broadly, the larger demographic of middle class white males. Indeed, the Judge fears his own helplessness given the “vortex” of change gripping his culture. He never achieves any tangible remedies for the dissolution of the Southern hegemony, and his plan to “rectify an immense historical injustice”—the devaluation of Confederate currency after the Civil War—never goes beyond his exhaustive discussion of the topic (McCullers 35). When language describes a reality with which the Judge does not agree, he simply manipulates it to his own liking. Negative words are translated to euphemisms. He blames his son’s death on a “fit of melancholia,” a “fleeting depression” (McCullers 18). He assures the doctor that he does not overeat; in fact, he eats “just an ordinary amount” (McCullers 61). He derides labels of obesity by referring to himself “short and corpulent” (McCullers 49). He even brushes off his brush with death by describing a severe stroke as a “little attack,” a “little seizure,” and a “light case of polio” (McCullers 56). The Judge’s affinity for presentation becomes clearer when he explains to Sherman the crucial role of penmanship in letter writing. Calligraphy renders the text more visually appearing, yet it cannot alter the actual language of the message. The Judge relies on omission and redefinition when euphemism and fancy handwriting fail to properly enhance the appearance of his message. For example, he instructs Sherman to leave the “personal reflections” and “ruminations” out of his letters so that only the most conspicuous truths of the Judge’s words are recorded—not the deeper nuances of his language (McCullers 108-9). The Judge also dictates the nature of nearly all his discussions; he can effortlessly encourage some topics and eradicate others. If a specific word of phrase that affronts the Judge suddenly emerges in conversation, he tries to “twist the words to his own reason” (McCullers 29). At one point in the novel the Judge tells J.T. that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called him a “reactionary.” J.T. expresses regret, but his apology no longer applies. The Judge has redefined the word to make it more compatible with his own motives. A reactionary, he explains, is “a citizen who reacts when the age-long standards of the South are threatened” (McCullers 28). When Jester later implies that used to view his grandfather in a heroic light, the Judge ignores the past tense and beams with self-pride. In both situations the Judge transformed both messages from critical to laudatory simply by redefining the meaning and context of words. The Judge does not only manipulate language to fortify his own social standing, he also does so to suppress others around him who threaten his way of life. He maligns different perspectives by doling out slanderous and untruthful labels. When Jester first confronts the Judge with his liberal worldview, the Judge denigrates his “radical” beliefs by calling them “communist theories” (McCullers 31). Later, he attributes Jester’s socially liberal attitude to selfishness instead of admitting that his own grandson has denounced the very foundation of Southern conservatism. At times the Judge’s manipulation results in an out and out rejection of language. He decries the Kinsey Report as a morally vacuous text and chastises Jester for respecting such “tomfoolery and filth” (McCullers 91). Restricting his language, and thereby masking hypocrisy, the Judge does not admit that he too as read the book—though his own reading was much more clandestine (disguised by the jacket of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Clane’s suppression goes beyond the overt denouncements of conflicting opinions; the tone and subtexts of his language also buoy his socioeconomic clout. He often speaks in imperatives and incorporates authoritarian words such as “ought” and “must” to exert control in conversation. At one point he even addresses J.T. in a markedly bossy tone, “as if to a servant.” McCullers repeats the word “servant” twice in this scene to underscore the significance of the Judge belittling another white man (125). The Judge’s derogatory tactics reinforce the position of not only the white male, but more specifically, the white male aristocrat. Thus, the Judge must appear sophisticated and erudite, as well as powerful and authoritative, to meet the standards of his title. He achieves the former criteria by alluding to examples of scholarly language, despite clear limitations to his repertoire. The Judge mostly references a select few lines from Shakespeare and the only Latin phrase he knows, Mens sana in copore sano. He pays no mind that the phrases are mostly used out of context because the words function as props. They are merely part of his image. The Judges feigns intelligence to intimidate others, as knowledge almost always trumps ignorance in a power struggle. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard would contend that the Judge resides in the postmodern world because “the production of images and information, not the production of material goods, determines who holds power” (McGowan 2). This conclusion also explains why the Judge calls Sherman his “amanuensis” and quotes Shakespeare in the young man’s presence. The unfamiliar language jolts Sherman “out of his element” and effectively confines him to a subordinate social condition (McCullers 122). In a similar fashion, the Judge tries to prove his authority to Jester by regurgitating words written about him in the newspapers. The texts legitimize him as a “great statesman” and “one of the fixed stars” in Southern politics (McCullers 38). There was one occasion that invalidated the Judge’s authority, an incident that would haunt him for the rest of his life. As a young man Clane wrote an original story to the Saturday Evening Post and received a form letter rejecting the submission. From that point forward, he ridiculed the Post as a second-class publication and “never wrote another story” again (McCullers 39). Sherman Pew suffers a similar denial when he writes famed songstress Marian Anderson. He receives no letter in return, yet the dismissal is nothing new. As a young black man in Georgia during the 1950s, Sherman must fight for the dignity that was stolen at the moment of his birth. One of the ways Sherman tries to rupture the hegemonic order is by mimicking the language of those in power. Like the Judge and other social kingpins, he speaks with “authority” and “emphasis” (McCullers 69). Sherman takes his assertiveness one step further by employing an aggressive tone in conversation—something he must do because society has automatically rendered him in a defensive state. Sherman knows that he must earn respect, and he uses language as a means to achieve this end. When Sherman tells Jester about registering to vote, he legitimizes the struggle by affirming that he had first studied all of the presidents and memorized the Constitution. Since the Judge and other ruling individuals use superficial knowledge to suppress the subordinate classes, Sherman must learn all he can in order to thwart their menacing efforts. Thus, Sherman obsesses over seemingly useless facts so he can achieve fluency in the language of the hegemony. For this reason, he repeatedly internalizes the diction and tone of the Judge and Jester. In one scene Sherman records the word “polarities” because he wants to benefit from the Judge’s vocabulary, “if nothing else” (McCullers 161). To Sherman, a strong vocabulary is paramount because it both prevents oppression and demands respect. His quest in this regard proves useful but not infallible. When Sherman mispronounces “chic” as “chick,” Jester immediately corrects him and secures a dominant position (McCullers 141). Thus, Jester’s criticism of Sherman’s “limited vocabulary” deeply affects Sherman because the issue delves so much deeper than simply the meaning of words (McCullers 74). The interplay between Sherman and Jester on this subject implies the broader power struggle at work: those who own the language wield hegemonic control. Linguistic possession reigns supreme. Sherman tries to capture the vernacular of the white demographic by echoing select phrases from its particular lexicon. As an example, Sherman uses the word “fried” instead of “electrocuted” (McCullers 74). He also incorporates euphemisms to describe elements of his life in the language of the upper class. He favors “house guest” over roommate and talks at length about caviar and Lord Calvert’s champagne (McCullers 71). He even instructs Jester to describe himself as Caucasian: “[O]therwise you would refer to my race as colored or even Negro, while the proper name is Nigerian or Abyssinian” (McCullers 81). Here, Sherman verifies the derogatory capacity of language as well as his defensive position within society. When Sherman cannot mimic or euphemize his way out of a situation, he appeals to nonsensical or dishonest linguistic patterns. He repeatedly conjures the phrase, “Little Bo Peep told me so,” to dodge a question that could potentially unveil uncertainty or ignorance. When Jester describes Cinderella Mullins as a “nice-looking girl,” Sherman erupts into a fit of rage (McCullers 73-4). The frenetic outburst seems irrational, but might not be when received in the psyche of a blue-eyed black man vexed by whispers of miscegenation and rape. Sherman cannot articulate his emotions, however; he instead threatens to “fry” Jester if he ever speaks that way again. Sherman’s incommunicable struggles also force him to lie, so much so that the narrator refers to him as “one of the world’s worst liars” (McCullers 76). Yet his untruths and half-truths are, for the most part, understandable. For example, Sherman fabricates a plethora excuses to avoid eating in the kitchen with Verily when the Judge has white company over: “I never eat dinner,” or “I ate such a hearty breakfast that I’m not hungry,” he lies (McCullers 110). Sherman admits that he lies in these situations, offering language that “could be true” because the “real, the actual [is] either too dull or too hard to take” (McCullers 141). Dishonesty thus functions as a blockade against the oppressive language of the hegemonic class. Within the context of postmodernism, the Judge’s linguistic choices reflect his desire to uphold the predominant metanarrative of the South. Conversely, Sherman Pew uses language to subvert the metanarrative. But there is more to the story. Lyotold’s theory holds that human beings in a postmodernist age can no longer be confined by the rules of a single monolithic account of the world. Instead, he argues, people function within self-specific micronarratives. The Judge and Sherman, though both obsessed the large-scale hegemonic order, operate within personalized accounts of society. Similarly, J.T. Malone and Jester Clane utilize language that lends coherence to their own micronarratives. Unlike the Judge and Sherman, their motivations do not center on traditional establishments or grand institutions. J.T. and Jester instead manipulate language to censor and construct their identities, respectively. J.T. Malone has too many leukocytes and he is dying. The “Jew grind” doctor told him so, explained the leukemia and the inevitability of his death in cold, scientific terms, but J.T. still cannot identify with the person he has become (McCullers 7). He begins to “talk rapidly” to defend against the prognosis, telling the doctor he suspected he had a “touch of anemia.” The euphemistic language parallels that of the Judge, who he assures J.T. he has “some of the best blood in the state” (McCullers 15). J.T. continues to address the doctor, speaking volumes about his life insurance policy before trailing into a discussion about someday moving to Vermont with his wife. Then, exhausted by his own words, J.T. breaks down: “Suddenly, the screen of words collapsed and, unprotected before his fate, Malone wept. He covered his face with his broad acid-stained hands and fought to control his sobbing breath” (McCullers 6). From this moment forward, J.T. stifles his language and effectively silences himself. He limits dialogue to brief conversations with the Judge. He rarely speaks to his own wife. J.T. fears his new identity as a dying man will elicit false emotions from others. He “d[oes] not want to share anything intimate with his wife” because he believes that doing so will only feign the love they have lost over the years (McCullers 150). Thus, J.T.’s refusal to confide in her proves his immense efforts to deny the identity of a “man watching a clock without hands” (McCullers 25). Throughout the novel, J.T. fixates on the tragic loss of his former self. On a scientific level, the leukemia has drastically changed his white blood cell count. Theoretically, the disease has stripped J.T. of the man he used to be. He memorizes a selection from Sickness Unto Death because it articulates the internal struggles in ways he cannot: “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, than of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, is sure to be noticed” (McCullers 147). J.T. reduces speech to hide his new identity and make the transition less palpable. He alone copes with his dissolution of self, and therein lies the tragedy of the novel. Contrary to J.T., who strategically limits language to conceal his identity, Jester Clane uses language to construct an idealistic version of himself. His brazen belief that “everyone ought to be able to fly,” functions as a metaphor to larger social ideals (McCullers 22). Jester, a fledgling liberal, rebels against the social mores of the Southern hegemony—yet without much gusto. His verbalized ideals never translate into tangible actions. Instead, Jester’s initiatives remain stagnant in his own language. For example, he doubts the “noble standards” of the South and accuses his grandfather of “harping on segregation” (McCullers 28). Despite such strong language, Jester’s identity lingers in a state between liquid and solid. He has denounced the mold imposed by his birth and must now decide which shape his new identity will take. Regrettably, Jester’s naiveté hampers the project. In conversations with Sherman, Jester proves that even he, a staunch proponent of civil rights, cannot resist linguistic power struggles. He still shares Sherman’s preoccupation with intellectual façade. In fact, when Sherman goes away for a week, Jester feels relieved because he will not have to “mind his P’s and Q’s every instant” (McCullers 136). Jester’s former identity was largely based on entitlement. He was a child of privilege and flourished amid the resources and regality of his upbringing. The Judge conditioned Jester to respect the foremost values of the aristocratic class and educated his grandson in the power of language. Jester eschews the belief system of his birthright, but his revelation remains wholly immature. He spars with Sherman over vocabulary and knowledge, though not for the same reason as his grandfather. Jester forces intellectual augmentation to build his own identity; the Judge does so to propagate the influence of the hegemony. Jester is “struck” by the sound of words instead of their significance. Thus, he conflates the words “granite” and “granted”—two words that sound similar but have but grossly disparate meanings (McCullers 31). Jester even regurgitates Sherman’s slang phrases because he “admires” them. He uses “dig it” and “I wonder if you come from Mars” in conversation with his own grandfather (McCullers 137, 94). There are moments, however, when Jester awakens from his own superficiality. He asks himself questions that drive at the core of his being, questions that “haunt the adolescent heart” (McCullers 203). Jester resolves to pursue law, the vocation of his deceased father. Appropriately, his strategy for attaining this goal relies on knowledge, and thereby language. He vows to study harder in English and history, to read the Constitution and memorize “great speeches” (McCullers 204). Jester wants to believe that words directly correlate with the reality of the world—a position seemingly at odds with the Lyotard’s vision. Postmodernism refuses to support the direct relationship between language and reality because doing so would disregard an infinity of micronarratives. McCullers highlights this discrepancy between word and truth through the language of her four central characters. Thus, the Judge evokes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a rhetorical attack on integration, even though the words seem to contradict his stance. Sherman denounces the veracity of the Constitution by revealing the fraudulence of its promises in an era of discrimination and violence. J.T. avoids discussion of his illness, but cannot escape the inevitably of death. Jester exalts the ideals of the civil rights movement, but never translates his language into concrete action. These “postmodern artists” manipulate language uniquely, and with vastly different motivations, yet their individual accounts never attain the grandeur of truth (McGowan 3). Perhaps the Judge says it best when he tells Sherman that letter writing, and by extension language, is an “art in itself” (McCullers 107). True to the postmodernist condition, McCullers’ characters can only articulate limited micronarratives their own idealized views of the world. They cannot articulate reality. Works CitedCastle, Gregory. The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory. Blackwell Publishing: Boston, 2007, pp. 144-5.Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. xxiii-xxv.McCullers, Carson. A Clock Without Hands. Mariner Books: Boston, 1998. McGowan, John. “Post Modernism.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism: Second Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2005.

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