“The South lost the Civil War and we’ve never recovered as a nation from that. There’s this angry white guy mentality that’s never gone away. They’re bitter and they want white people to rule the world.” – Eric Andre
“I would sell my mother into slavery to see a movie called V for Vendetta Part II. Okay guys, people took over. What would they have done a day later? How would they re-organize the power? The same state, how would they restructure the power?” – Slavoj Žižek
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo drops the One Ring into the fires of Mordor and ends the threat of Sauron and his army; Middle Earth enters a new era and, in the film version in particular, there is a sense of peace, love and friendship which permeates the lives of every character. At the end of The Matrix: Revolutions, the humans and machines—after centuries of fighting with each other—reach a truce and develop, we understand, a respect for one another—celebrated by Michael Popper enthusiastically screaming out to a group of terrified humans, “the war is over!” Not to dismiss the multitude of layers which can be found in each of these works of fiction, this is a trope we’re familiar with: the story wraps up, the conflict is resolved, the musical score reaches a crescendo and everything is right in the world. Similarly, in 2005’s film adaptation of V for Vendetta, V accomplishes his goals, blows up parliament and an endless crowd of masked supporters of the cause to overthrow the tyrannical government signal to the viewer that change is coming, and for the better. The victory narrative continues—but as Slavoj Žižek once asked regarding the ending of this film: “What would they have done a day later?”
Perhaps William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished provides an answer for this, and it’s not one that would necessarily fill seats in a theater—or at least wouldn’t allow anyone to feel good after leaving the movie. Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Confederate troops in the Civil War, the reality, as Faulkner illustrates in “Skirmish at Sartoris” is that the Confederacy doesn’t necessarily die. The Emancipation is not the destruction of the One True Ring, the end of the Civil War doesn’t bring about a change of heart for those who saw Black people as inferior—it only shifts the legal structures and when Ringo says that Blacks aren’t “n——, in Jefferson nor nowhere else” the answer to Žižek’s question emerges: the war doesn’t end—what happens next is the realization that the war “just started good” (Faulkner 199).
Legally, the war ends. This is what is meant Eric Andre says that the “South lost the Civil War.” But the reality is, as Faulkner’s narrative portrays, that Andre’s “angry white guy mentality” remains, and this is the true law, the law which placed Black people into bondage in the first place (Darville). The Civil War doesn’t erase the desire to see “white people rule the world,” because that desire cannot be distilled into some simple binary opposition of the kind that we typically see in war films, both of the fantasy and realistic variety. It is not a magical object to be burnt and removed from the world, it is not a villain who can be vanquished and written out of the script moving forward. Faulkner tells us this in “Skirmish at Sartoris” in the most cynical of ways by placing a wedding in the midst of a racist seizure of an election, preventing Blacks from voting. In this moment, the delusion of the Right to naturalize oppression, to bake it into its legal structure, is signaled through a wedding, a swearing-in of sorts, a celebration of bride and groom with the “Yaaaaay, Druisilla! […] Yaaaaaay, John Sartoris! Yaaaaaaay!” (Faulkner 210). Andre’s “angry white guy mentality” lives on through the wedding as a symbol of a return to a natural way of things for the Confederacy, and in this way they don’t so much as lose, as they make an attempt to defy, to rebel (Darville). It is a Ring that refuses to melt, a tyrannical overlord who refuses to vanish from the page, two sides of a war who refuse to agree even after the bullets stop flying. Faulkner gets us asking the kinds of questions Žižek asks at the end of V for Vendetta, and it provides an answer: What happens next is that the losing side refuses to lose.
Through The Unvanquished we can, perhaps, alter our conversation about the Civil War and speak with greater nuance about the cultural and ideological actions which take place after weapons are laid down (or at least the weapons aimed between white people, not the weapons still aimed at Blacks and minorities). Perhaps it becomes more effective to say that Civil War never truly “ended,” as some have chosen to do when speaking of nuclear disarmament in the context of the Cold War. Perhaps we need to be more clear about what ends after events such as the Civil War: Legal institutions may shift, but the underlying ideological impulse remains, and until we address that and its origins, we may end stuck with an eternal legacy of racism which no mere illusion of a “fellowship” can dissolve.
Faulkner, William. The Unvanquished. Vintage International, 1991.
Darville, Jordan. “Eric Andre Is Insanely Honest Because Who Else Is Going To Be?” The FADER, The FADER, 8 Nov. 2017, www.thefader.com/2016/10/26/eric-andre-interview.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek: Why There Are No Viable Political Alternatives to Unbridled Capitalism.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Nov. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7JgfB8PaAk.