Bull-Necks & Chicken Heads:The Irreconcilability of the Ideal and the Real in Cane

Bull-Necks & Chicken Heads!
The Irreconcilability of the Ideal and the Real in Cane

Jean Toomer’s Cane is
the lyrical suicide note of modernist sensibility; a prescient epitaph for an
aesthetic doomed to be trapped between the binary poles of alienation and
“wholeness”. Part one of the book presents a lyrical portrait of the
American South, mainly by sacrificing the region’s inhabitants (particularly
its female inhabitants) and system of racial oppression upon the altar of
symbolism. The male protagonists of part two are less easily dissociated from
the narrator(s); the perspectives nearly converge at the point of Paul’s
isolation at the end of “Bona and Paul”–a mood which intensifies and
echoes through the nightmare first “act” of “Kabnis”. Acts
two to five of “Kabnis” manifest an unprecedented dispersal of
subjectivity, made possible by a new willingness (or ability), on the part of
the narrator, to scrutinize his own position and the symbolic order he has
constructed. In act six, this temporary rapprochement with “reality”
begins to disintegrate, as the “cast” of the drama thins out and the
conflict between solipsistic subjectivity (represented by Kabnis) and
otherworldly wisdom (represented by
Carrie and Father John) rises to a shrill crescendo.

Jean Toomer has been praised at various times (and for various
reasons) for his “accurate depiction of the black world welling up against
the white” (Benson and Dillard, 34) and his “ability to suggest
character lyrically, . . . [his skill in telling] a story intended merely to
help the reader perceive the individual” (Turner, 15). However, in recent
years, critics have generally accepted (or attacked) Cane‘s depiction of the South (and female individuals in
particular) as stylized and heavily symbolic. When scholars have treated Cane as a “black” text at all,
they have focused upon its fragmented narrative as an expression of a
marginalized self–a “representation of race or racial consciousness only
insofar as such representations are the words that Toomer wants to transform
into facts” (Webb, 209).

Jean Toomer voiced a deep sense of indebtedness to Sherwoood
Anderson and was very much committed to(although not unreflective upon) the
modernist aesthetic–an aesthetic which positively disdained sociological
analysis (nor did it aim, generally, to provide vivid characterizations). The
author of Cane might just as well
have been writing about his own work when he remarked that Waldo Frank’s Holiday

is first of
all a subjective design; it has utilized certain elements of the South because
these seemed most suited to its purposes. Hence whatever local or racial truth
or untruth the work may contain must be considered as a purely secondary factor
(Selected Essays, 7).

Part one of Cane is
dominated by six female characters–Karintha, Becky, Carma, Fern, Esther, and
Louisa–and the male narrator who objectifies them as muse-figures and, more
importantly, possible bridges between walled-in men of all racial backgrounds.
Fern, whose “face flowed into her eyes”, is perhaps the most purely
symbolic of the women. She possesses absolutely no subjectivity; she
“desired nothing that you could give her; there was no reason [her eyes]
should withhold”(14). The narrator posits a virtual democracy (or
“brotherhood”, since women appear to be excluded) of desire for Fern:
“anyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes” (15). Fern’s
desirability is largely due to her unattainability, or rather her emotional unavailability.
She functions perfectly as a symbol for the eternal
will-o’-the-wisp–“wholeness”–precisely because Toomer refuses to
flesh out her character. She is merely a pair of hypnotic eyes and a
heartbreaking voice. There is nothing for the narrator or the other men who “were
everlastingly bringing her their bodies” (14) to latch on to, and so he
and they persist in their fruitless quests without any conflict–even finding
the time to discuss the affliction with each other like the members of a
support group.

If Fern is a pure symbol for what the alienated modernist
narrator seeks–strange eyes that “seek nothing”, a connection to
centuries of folk wisdom through the “sorrow songs”–then Louisa, of
“Blood-burning Moon”, is a profane version of the same symbol. Unlike
those who pursue Fern, the men who bring their bodies to Louisa–Bob Stone and
Tom Burwell–actually believe that they “possess” her. The two men
are able to fool themselves by ignoring or pummeling neighbours who point out
the obvious, but also because Louisa, unlike Fern, manifests a modicum of
subjectivity herself. She does desire
something, and she allows each man to believe he can fulfill her, although she
clearly does not believe this herself:

[Tom’s] black
balanced, and pulled against, the white of Stone, when she thought of them. And
[Louisa’s] mind was vaguely upon them as she came over the crest of the hill,
coming from the white folks’ kitchen. As she sang softly at the evil face of
the full moon (28).

In fact, Louisa is closer to
the narrator than to the earlier female figures in part one. She, like the
narrator, uses the black and white people around her like puzzle-pieces in a
quest for meaning that transcends individual relationships; which is why, after
the lynching, she can sit and contemplate the moon and wonder if Tom Burwell
will respond to her song. It does not matter that Tom is dead, so long as
someone like him arrives–for Louisa
sees only black and white, and the patterns they create.

Louisa is a transitional figure, “othered” by a male
narrator who refers to her as “vague” and “indolent”, and
yet engaged in an identical symbol-making enterprise. The male protagonists in
part two are more fully embraced by the narrator(s). “Avey” is
narrated by a dramatized “I”, but this story too is transitional–it
is more about Avey (and what she symbolizes) than the narrator. “Box
Seat”, however, is more concerned with Dan Moore and the nature of his desire–his “impulse
to direct [Muriel]” (59)–than its object. Dan interacts with Muriel in a
way that is unprecedented in Cane. He
lectures her. In “Box
Seat”, the perceiving (or projecting), questing, “philosophical”
consciousness is privileged over the unattainable symbol of perfection. When
Muriel says that she has tried to make people happy, Dan replies:

Happy Muriel?
No, not happy. Your aim is wrong. There is no such thing as happiness. Life
bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one may isolate
them. No one should want to. Perfect joy, or perfect pain, with no contrasting
element to define them, would mean a monotony of consciousness, would mean
death. Not happy, Muriel. Say you have tried to make them create. Say you have
used your own capacity for life to cradle them. To start them upward flowing

No longer content simply to
project an image of perfection upon an unattainable object, the alienated
figure (Moore)
now sees fit to instruct the object (Muriel) upon how to bear up under the
pressure of this questionable “honour”. With the introduction of Dan
Moore, a note of shrill anger, as opposed to stoic resignation, invades the
consciousness which narrates Cane.

It cannot be coincidence that “Box Seat” is
immediately followed by “Prayer”, which radiates a serenity that is
the antithesis of Dan Moore’s position. The speaker of the poem avers that
“A closed lid is my soul’s flesh-eye./O Spirits of whom my soul is but a
little finger,/ Direct it to the lid of its flesh-eye” (68). In the
juxtaposition of these two pieces, the divided consciousness of Cane, and of the modernist sensibility
as a whole, is manifest. By fusing with Dan Moore’s subjective position, the
quietistic narrator of part one fades, and lyricism degenerates into an urban
burlesque. Thus “Prayer” arrives as a pantheistic corrective to the
extreme alienation which haunts “Box Seat”. However, pantheism is
merely existentialism blown up to fit the contours of the universe, and
“Prayer” sets the seal of solipsism upon Cane, confirming that the narrator has lost the ability to perceive
the “otherness” of “the other”.

“Bona and Paul”, the last story of part two, is a
counter-movement which makes use of a stylistic element introduced in “Box
Seat”–the internal monologue. In the earlier story, Muriel reflects upon
her confrontation with Dan, and her thoughts are presented thus: “Muriel:
Never see Dan again” (62). Later, Dan watches Muriel in the theatre:
“Dan: Old Stuff. Muriel–bored. Must be. But she’ll smile and she’ll clap.
Do what you’re bid, you she-slave. Look at her. Sweet, tame woman in a brass
box seat” (63). In chapter one of “Bona and Paul”, it is Bona
who thinks: “he is a candle that dances in a grove swung with pale
balloons” (70) and “he is a harvest moon. He is an autumn leaf. He is
a nigger. Bona!” (70) Later, Art wonders: “What in Hell’s eating
Paul? Moony ain’t the word for it” (75). Then Paul performs an internal
soliloquy, thinking (about Bona): “I’d like to know you whom I look at.
Know, not love. Not that knowing is a greater pleasure, but that I have just
found the joy of it” (76).

Paul seems to think that he must choose between
“knowledge” and “love”, and certainly, in Cane, this binary is pervasive. The
beloved objects (notably Fern) are always inscrutable, and that which is known
(perhaps only the self– which may be only a closed flesh-lid) is not lovable
or, at least, it is not enough. Unlike the centers of consciousness in the
earlier pieces, Paul refuses to play the symbol-making game; insisting instead
upon truly knowing Bona. In
“Bona and Paul”, it is actually Bona who projects an image of desire
upon a screen which (from the first) is not quite blank (white) enough for her.
The contrast between these two characters is nowhere clearer than in the scene
in which they are about to kiss, “in the slim shadow of a tree
trunk”, and Bona insists that Paul declare his love prematurely. When he
refuses, she says: “Ach, you never will. Youre cold. Cold” (74).

Ironically, if human “warmth” is measured by a genuine
desire to connect with others, then Paul is the warmest character in Cane. Throughout “Bona and
Paul”, he strives against the pervasive tendency of the book’s narrators
and protagonists to objectify other human subjects. Thus Paul’s isolation at
the end of the story is doubly tragic, because he is, or was, uniquely gifted
with the ability to perceive the reality of that loneliness. However, there are
signs that Paul had, mercifully, given up his quest for knowledge before Bona
deserted him. His “conversation” with the black doorman is
ridiculously one-sided (the doorman says only “Yassur”), and Paul’s
language marks a return to the lyrical style of the narrator of part one:

I came back to
tell you, to shake your hand, and tell you that you are wrong. That something
beautiful is going to happen. That the gardens are purple like a bed of roses
would be at dusk. That I came into the Gardens, into life in the Gardens with
one whom I did not know . . . That I am going out and know her whom I brought
here with me to these Gardens which are purple like a bed of roses would be at
dusk (78).

Though Paul continues to
speak of his quest to “know” Bona, he now describes her (just as
Louisa thinks of Bob and Tom) as merely an element of colour in a symbolic
pattern. Still, the final words of part two are “Bona was gone” (78),
and Paul does not have Louisa’s consoling song and moon.

Paul’s isolation is insignificant in comparison to the stark
loneliness experienced by the eponymous character in the first “act”
of “Kabnis.” The piece opens with a troubled man lying on a rickety
cot in a dacaying shack, trying to comfort himself with a book. He cannot
concentrate, as he is distracted by a haunting refrain “whispered” by
the night winds. He thinks to himself:

Ralph Kabnis
is a dream. And dreams are faces with large eyes and weak chins and broad brows
that get smashed by the fists of square faces. The body of the world is
bull-necked. A dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it (81).

Kabnis has a violent
confrontation with a hen, after screeching: “Hell of a mess I’ve got in:
even the poultry is hostile” (82). Then he utters a teary prayer:

Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away.
Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed niggers. . . There is a
radiant beauty in the night that touches and . . . tortures me . . . Come,
Ralph, old man, pull yourself together” (83).

He reflects upon his
intolerable position as an educated man in a world of ignorance, superstition,
and terror. He feels “cut off from everything” (83).

Trying to “pull himself together”, Ralph Kabnis
imagines the Sunday to come, expecting that he will:

see Halsey and
Layman, and getgood square meal. Thats
something. And Halsey’s a damn good feller. Cant talk to him though. Who in
Christ’s world can I talk to? A hen. God. Myelf… I’m going bats, no doubt of
that (85).

The “acts” which
follow this first one–at Halsey’s home, back at Kabnis’s shack, at Halsey’s
workshop, in Halsey’s cellar–have been treated by critics as a sort of hybrid
prose-play. However, there is every indication that everything which occurs in
these scenes actually takes place in Kabnis’s head. The key to this
interpretation is that none of the “dialogue” in acts 2 to 5 of
“Kabnis” is placed in between quotation marks. There are quotation marks in
“Kabnis”, but they only appear when Ralph is speaking to the hen, or
God, or himself. Perhaps Kabnis is correct when he muses that he cannot speak
to Halsey (or to any other human being, for that matter). Perhaps everything which
occurs after Kabnis talks himself to sleep is a dream, perhaps it is a mad
delusion; but one thing is certain–it cannot
be the realistic dialogue that most critics have taken it for, because the
punctuation attached to the words “spoken” by Layman, Halsey, Lewis,
Hanby, Carrie, Father John, and even Kabnis himself marks them as interior

It is my contention that acts two to five of “Kabnis”
represent the last-ditch attempt of a solipsistic sensibility to process an
increasingly threatening universe, before succumbing to either a completely
dissociative state or the mind-numbingly theistic trance of “Prayer”.
This reading makes a case for Jean Toomer as uncannily aware of the pitfalls
presented by the modernist aesthetic. The degree of respect granted to Toomer
as a self-aware artist has varied greatly from critic to critic. Charles
Scruggs lauds the author for transforming (by historicizing)

Anderson’s nightworld of human personality in Winesburg, Ohio into the nightmare of racial oppression in Cane . . . Anderson’s real influence on
Toomer’s Cane was not the
“spiritualization of the immediate,” but Kabnis’s realization that
“things are so immediate in Georgia, for Toomer realized that the South’s
“intangible oppression” reshaped the lonely grotesques of Winesburg into the anguished souls of
Halsey’s cellar (77-8).

On the other hand, Barbara
Foley asserts that

The text’s
conflation of social oppression with individual alienation in its movement
toward closure . . . reflects Toomer’s limitations in relating Kabnis’s
internal dilemmas to the larger social forces framing those dilemmas(194).

Perhaps more to the point is
Darwin Turner’s interpretation of Cane
as a study of

a waning way
of life . . . [but also] unconsciously [about] the death of an artist. Jean
Toomer the lyricist was dying; Jean Toomer the philosopher, psychologist,
reformer was coming into being (30).

Parts 2 to 5 of “Kabnis” represent Toomer’s bid to
place the “soft face” of the “real (idealized) Ralph
Kabnis” upon the “bull-neck” of the American South. Kabnis avers
that the “real Ralph Kabnis is a dream”, and perhaps this is the most
plausible reading of what follows the close of part one. After counting, or
not-counting, himself to sleep, Kabnis plunges into his “real self”,
which encompasses not merely the irritable schoolteacher who strangles the hen,
but also every human being on earth (for he is but a “finger” of the
“great soul”), particularly those that the earthly Kabnis has come
into physical contact with, even if he “cant talk to” them.

Part two of “Kabnis” opens in the parlor of Fred
Halsey’s home, which Ralph had been visualizing in his cot as he fell asleep.
He trails across the dreamscape, behind Layman and Halsey. He explains that
“this is my first time out–” (86), and perhaps this particular
excursion is an astral projection, not a real encounter. Certainly, the three
men are more comfortable together than the reader has any right to expect after
the paranoid ravings of part one; another indicator that this “fireside
drama” is occurring entirely within Ralph’s head. In order to “pull
himself together”, Kabnis has absorbed all of his neighbours into his
head. In this ideal environment, he has distributed subjectivity equally
amongst the characters–giving the alienated shard of selfhood known in the
first part as “Kabnis” a much-needed respite from solipsism.

The characters introduced in parts two to five of
“Kabnis” are different from those in the rest of Cane. They are inconsistent; they have discernible speech patterns;
they even express a certain amount of humour. Their dialogue is certainly
“real” enough (compared to the absurd, unrealistic lines given to
Paul, for example) to be enclosed in quotation marks–but it is not. This can
only mean that Kabnis, unlike all of the previous “centers of
consciousness” in Cane, has been
paying enough attention to his fellow men and women to be able to recreate them–as they really are, not as merely symbolic
figures–within the theatre of his own mind. He also demonstrates enough
self-awareness to portray the Kabnis character as a paranoid man given to
creating his own Hell. By taking modernist subjectivity to an absurd extreme,
Kabnis manages to (imaginatively) alienate himself from his own alienated self,
thus achieving a more global perspective upon his life and situation. Kabnis
realizes–at least for a while–Paul’s dream of “knowing” the world,
rather than “loving” it (by transforming it into a symbol of beauty).
Unlike most people, who “pull themselves together” by making a
decision and doing something to affect their physical surroundings; Kabnis
achieves “integration” by going to sleep and allowing his unconscious
mind to create links to his neighbours that he cannot forge in daily life. This
is what marks Kabnis as an artist.

However, like many artists, Kabnis has a morbid sensitivity to
hostile societal pressures. This is where Kabnis’s racial identity comes back
to haunt him. He knows that (as Layman “says”)

nigger’s a
nigger down this away Professor. An only two dividins: good an bad. An even
they aint permanent categories. They sometimes mixes um up when it comes t
lynchin. I’ve seen um do it (87).

The rock which shatters
Halsey’s window also shatters Kabnis’s concentration, and he sprints off,
shrieking (in quotation marks, to himself, or God, or the hen): “God
Almighty, theyre here. After me. On me. All along the road I saw their eyes
flaring from the cane . . . Why in Hell didn’t they catch me?” (91). The
voices outside Ralph’s door–searching for him–are also in quotation marks,
but once Halsey enters the shack, the familiar internal-monologue punctuation

The threat of lynching as an instrument of racial oppression,
ominous throughout Cane, continues to
dominate Kabnis’s thoughts, even after his “friends” placate him, and
the activist Lewis enters the drama within Ralph’s mind. He is described as
“what a stronger Kabnis might have been” (95). Lewis is often adopted
by critics as a representation of Toomer’s “inner race-man”. Webb
describes Lewis’s departure from the story at the end of part five as a
resurrection; evidence that he has become “not only Christ, but . . .
Father John, the symbol of the slave past who not only touches but lives in the
earth . . . the soil that would release Kabnis, and does release Lewis, is the
materiality of the symbol” (223-4). I do not see how Webb can argue that
Lewis has “merged with Father John” (224)–in the text we find that
the activist leaves because he “finds himself completely cut out” (110)
of the male-female pairing which occurs after the drinking is done. Clearly, if
parts two to five of “Kabnis” depict an internal drama which is more
“real” than the nominal reality of Ralph’s isolated existence in the
shack, then the presence of Lewis, as the representative of “social
awareness”, is essential in maintaining the balance. When Lewis is driven
away by the “intense pain [of the] . . . southern town” (Cane, 110), Kabnis’s connection to his
integrated dream-self slips away.

Thus, in part 6 of “Kabnis”, Ralph begins to act more
like his old paranoid self–barraging the old man withan assortment of epithets previously reserved
only for unruly chickens. The final act of the “play”–and of the
book–degenerates into a war between the two unreconcilable poles of the
modernist sensibility: radical subjectivity and complete immersion into
mysticism and/or “tradition”, as an antidote to the
“wasteland”. Toomer’s effort to place the dream face of Kabnis upon
the bull-necked world results in a horror-show hydrid of earthly vulgarity
running parallel to–but never touching–the beatific world within the
“soft circle” that haloes Carrie and Father John. In my reading, it
is an extremely ominous sign that the last words spoken aloud in
“Kabnis” (and the first spoken since Ralph’s delusional flight into
the woods) are “Jesus, come”. The return to quietism and religion,
heralded by the final (hackneyed) paragraph, is renunciatory–not ironic, nor
realistically hopeful–in tone. It also heralds the end of Kabnis’s artistic
sensibility, which is as dead as the coals in the bucket he carries. Toomer
himself soon abandoned the lyrical mode of Cane
in favour of pedestrian essays on Gurdjieff and Quakerism.

Webb argues that, “for Toomer, identity is not what you
think–it is who you are. But . . . identity is not exclusively a property of
the self” (212); thus, if lynch-mobs are just as likely to hang you as
anyone else who looks like you, the modernist dream of individuality is
continually under assault. Of course, this is true for every artist, but
Toomer’s position as a man labeled “Negro” in early-twentieth-century
made it harder for him to ignore the fact. Sherwood Anderson’s notoriously
hideous praise of Toomer as

the very first
artist of the race, who with all an artist’s passion and sympathy for life . .
. can write about the Negro without the surrender or compromise of the artist’s
vision . . . Cane is a book of gold
and bronze, of dusk and flame, of ecstasy and pain, and Jean Toomer is a bright
morning star of a new day of the race of literature (quoted in Turner, 2)

makes more sense if he is
interpreted as saying: Jean Toomer is the first modernist gifted–or
cursed–with “double consciousness”.

In Toomer’s case, the gift of “second sight” seems to
have been instrumental in goading him to dig beneath his lyrical vision of the
external world as a symbol for internal conflicts; however, the same
perspective, “granted” by a climate of extreme racial oppression,
seems to have kept Toomer from being able to maintain the tension between the
ideal and the real for more than twenty-six pages of Cane–and he would never again attain such a high level of

Works Cited and Consulted

Brian Joseph and Dillard, Mabel Mayle. Jean
. Boston:
Twayne, 1980.

David. “Looking Behind Cane.”
Southern Review 21:3 (1985): 682-94.

W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays
and Sketches
. Chicago:
A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903.

Barbara. “‘In the Land
of Cotton’: Economics and
Violence in Jean Toomer’s Cane.”
African-American Review 32:2 (1998):

Donald B. The Politics of Literary
Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers
. Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Frederick T. “‘Sorcery is Dialectical’: Plato and Jean Toomer in Charles
Johnson’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice.”
African American Review 30:4

George. “Jean Toomer and American Racial Discourse.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35:2
(1993): 226-46.

Robert B., ed. Jean Toomer: Selected
Essays and Literary Criticism
. Knoxville:
Universiy of Tennessee
Press, 1996.

Charles R. Invisible Darkness: Jean
Toomer and Nella Larsen
. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

Joel B. “Jean Toomer’s Cane:
Self as Montage and the Drive Toward Integration.” American Literature 72:2 (2000): 274-88.

Charles. “The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered for Winesburg, Ohio.”
Studies in American Fiction (Spring
2000): 77-97.

Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975.

Darwin T. In a Minor Chord: Three
Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity
. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois
University Press, 1971.

Webb, Jeff. “Literature and Lynching:
Identity in Jean Toomer’s Cane.”
ELH 67:1 (2000): 204-25.

Bye Friends!




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