The Desire for Worlds to Persist in “The Known World”

In her book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant argues that we become most aware of being in the present when the things we believe should fundamentally persist in the world stop doing so. Edward P. Jones’ The Known World offers that sense of being caught in a world in transition, with multiple characters scrabbling to hold onto their “known world” despite (or because of) signs that suggest what about it is unknown, or coming to be so.

You can see this in the novel’s opening sentence: “The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.” (1) One way of reading this sentence is that it casts the master’s death as a non-event: the slave system trundles on regardless. But another reading is that, in light of the disturbance caused in Moses’ “known world” by his master’s death, he repeats his overseer routine as a means of maintaining his orientation to a world in which the master’s death threatens to become a world-changing event (but might not). See also Skiffington’s refusal of a “bigger, better” map/world to replace the one he knows, however distorted it might be.

4 thoughts on “The Desire for Worlds to Persist in “The Known World”

  1. Because I haven’t read Cruel Optimism, I’m wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on the phrase “things we believe should fundamentally persist in the world”. It seems as though what you’re talking about with regards to Moses could also be applied to what was said in class today about this book’s seeming to imply that not very much changed for these people once slavery was abolished (Fern’s slave and best friend, Zeus, becomes her salaried best friend, for example).

    According to that quote, it seems like maybe the persistence of pre-Civil War attitudes post-Civil War implied by the book’s style and structure implies that the characters who retain these attitudes are deliberately avoiding awareness of their “being in the present”. Also, this is just an idea, but it seems as though her idea could be applied to the reader’s awareness when confronted with this particular fictional world as well — a work that challenges the assumptions that “fundamentally persist[ed]” in the mythologized narrative of slavery.

    • Sure. Another way of thinking about “things we believe should fundamentally persist in the world” is to think about what kinds of things we expect to be there when a new day dawns: our house, our school enrolment, our friends, our bank account, our computer, our hard drive contents, and so forth–things that would demand a rather difficult recalibration of how we habitually live if they were to suddenly not be there. Cruel Optimism focuses more specifically on the expectations that people living in the neoliberal present have begun to see disappear: job security, employment for degree-holders, etc.

      This definitely applies to the case of abolition in The Known World. I’m a bit more cautious about making the same claim for readers of The Known World and their mental maps of slavery history, if partly because (as was touched on in class) I worry that the novel remains assimilable into sentimental genres of “moral porn” about tragic subjects/worlds. The “people down there just talked that way … they didn’t mean any harm by it” (382) that nearly ends the novel could well apply to liberal readers of (neo-)slave narratives, even if each aesthetic case that enters the genre has the potential to open a gap that doesn’t merely confirm for readers what they knew all along about slavery.

  2. This could also be a motivation for the magical realism elements in TKN. If the features of the world the reader is experiencing are twisted and made to be bizarre, we are made to pay more attention to the book’s present, i.e. the moral absurdity of slavery.

  3. Pingback: The Comic Supplement in the Shadow of No Towers | New and Emerging Genres

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