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Title: The Wounded King: Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh" and Marginalized Male Subjectivity.
Authors: Bentley, Greg
Source: Southern Literary Journal. Fall2004, Vol. 37 Issue 1, p144-161. 18p.
Document Type: Literary Criticism
MASON, Bobbie Ann, 1940-
HUMAN sexuality in literature
PSYCHOANALYTIC interpretation
CHARACTERS & characteristics
Abstract: This article examines the central element in the writings of Bobbie Ann Mason. Use of psychoanalytic semiotics in understanding the characters in the writings of Mason; Significance of the absence of sexual difference to psychoanalytic semiotics; Representation of normative male identity in the novels of Mason.
Full Text Word Count: 7599
ISSN: 0038-4291
Accession Number: 15418214 Persistent link to this record (Permalink): Cut and Paste: The Wounded King: Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh" and Marginalized Male Subjectivity. Database: Humanities International Complete
Several of Bobbie Ann Mason's works have been approached from the perspective of myth-ritual criticism--especially the Grail motif--with mixed results.(n1) Perhaps the most central element of the Grail motif is the king's wound, which is clearly sexual in nature, and critics who approach Mason's work from this perspective have pointed out how she develops central characters, most notably Emmett in In Country and Leroy in "Shiloh," who seem to play analogous roles to that of the wounded king in Grail legend. However, if we approach these characters--and most particularly their wounds--from the perspective of psychoanalytic semiotics rather than myth-ritual criticism, we arrive at some very different observations about them, observations which produce some strikingly different conclusions about their identities and the texts they inhabit. In this essay, for example, I argue that Leroy's wound, although it incapacitates him physically, is not synonymous with sexual impotence. Instead, Leroy's wound functions as a psychic symptom, an externalization and a representation of his figurative castration within the family structure and his psychic emasculation within the symbolic order. That is, Leroy's wound signifies his lack, a lack that, in turn, generates his desire.

One of the fundamental principles of psychoanalytic semiotics is the absence of sexual difference. Psychically, there is no sexual difference between men and women. Nevertheless, psychoanalytic semiotics acknowledges that

our present dominant fiction is above all else the representational system through which the subject is accommodated to the Name-of-the-Father. Its most central signifier of unity is the (paternal) family, and its primary signifier of privilege the phallus. 'Male' and 'Female' constitute our dominant fiction's most fundamental binary opposition. (Silverman 34-35)

More specifically, the dominant fiction's representation of normative male identity "depends [not only] upon a kind of collective make-believe in the commensurability of penis and phallus, but this ideological 'reality' [also] solicits our faith above all else in the unity of the family, and the adequacy of the male subject" (Silverman 15-16). Clearly, Leroy Moffitt has been sexually and economically captated by the dominant fiction. As Mason illustrates, Leroy equates his subjectivity with his sexual prowess and his economic position. Because of his wound, though, he has been forced to give up his job as a long-haul trucker, and, thus, he loses his role in the family as the principal means of production. He is no longer the primary "breadwinner." Because his sense of identity depends so completely on his occupation, on his sense of production, the loss of the latter signifies a loss of the former. Feeling economically marginalized and emasculated, Leroy questions his sexuality. As the narrator informs us, he "is reasonably certain [Norma Jean] has been faithful to him, but he wishes she would celebrate his permanent homecoming more happily" (98). Similarly, when Norma Jean tells Leroy that his name means "the king," he again questions his sexual prowess and position, for he asks his wife: "Am I still king around here?" (111). Conscious of the sexual subtext of Leroy's utterance, Norma Jean reassures him by commenting: "'I'm not fooling around with anybody, if that's what you mean'" (111). Ironically, however, Mason prefaces Norma Jean's speech act with a physical act that calls it into question. Before verbally stroking Leroy's insecure self, "Norma Jean flexes her biceps and feels them for hardness" (111). On a surface level, Mason simply suggests that Norma Jean, who has enrolled in a body-building course (108) and who exercises constantly, is simply toning her body. In contrast, because of his wound, Leroy spends most of his time lying on the couch smoking dope and getting flabby. On a subtextual level, though, Mason clearly implies that while Norma Jean's sense of self is getting firmer and stronger, Leroy's sense of self is becoming more and more flaccid. If he is not sexually impotent, he is psychically so, for he has been figuratively castrated.

Leroy's accident affects him emotionally and physically. As the narrator tells us, "his leg is almost healed, but the accident frightened him and he does not want to drive any more long hauls" (97). Perhaps more telling than the emotional distress Leroy's injury causes him is the type and location of his wound. He twisted "his left leg in its socket. He has a steel pin in his hip" (97). Since he "will probably not be able to drive his rig again," and since Leroy's rig represents his occupation, his self, and his manhood, he has apparently been permanently emasculated. Indeed, Mason suggests as much in a simile immediately following the line just quoted. Leroy's rig "sits in the backyard, like a gigantic bird that has flown home to roost" (97). Ironically, though, Leroy is neither "cock of the walk," nor is he "king of the roost." Symbolically, he is a capon in a house of dominant hens, and the only thing firm and hard about Leroy's masculinity or his self is an artificial rod, a steel pin inserted into his hip.

Mason continues the bird imagery to again emphasize Leroy's symbolic castration within the family. Because his accident compels him to stay home, "[h]e sees things about Norma Jean that he has never realized before" (104). He notices how she chops onions, how she puts on her slippers almost precisely at 9:00 every evening, and how she then tucks her jogging shoes under the couch. But most importantly he notices that "[s]he saves bread heels for the birds" (104). While watching the birds at the feeder, Leroy

notices the peculiar way goldfinches fly past the window. They close their wings, then fall, then spread their wings to catch and lift themselves. He wonders if they close their eyes when they fall. Norma Jean closes her eyes when they are in bed. She wants the lights turned out. Even then, he is sure she closes her eyes. (104)

By closing her eyes while she and Leroy have sex, Norma Jean physically blocks him out; more importantly, by closing her eyes during sex, Norma Jean figuratively emasculates and even annihilates Leroy. As Mason suggests, the bedroom, and more specifically the bed, functions as the locus of libidinal politics within the family. As a spontaneous gift to her daughter and son-in-law, for example, Mabel gives them an "off-white dust ruffle she made for the bed" (102). While Norma Jean matter-of-factly comments that "[i]t's real pretty," Leroy announces, "Now we can hide things under the bed" (102). Ironically, that is exactly what he has been doing all along. Like the goldfinches, Leroy has been figuratively closing his eyes while his marriage and his self have been falling apart. He has been symbolically hiding from himself in an attempt to disavow his lack.

Leroy's symbolic castration began years earlier, however, with the death of his son Randy. When he and Norma Jean take the dead baby to the hospital, "Leroy remembers Norma Jean standing catatonically beside him in the hospital and himself thinking: who is this strange girl? He had forgotten who she was" (101). By thinking of Norma Jean as a stranger, Leroy not only implicitly blames her for Randy's death, but, more importantly with regard to his psychic economy, he implicitly blames her for dislodging him from his positionality within the family structure. In this sense, Leroy succumbs to the conventional masculine meconnaissance necessary to maintain phallic identification. Lacan calls this misrecognition a "failure to recognize," and, as Silverman observes, this failure "can take two forms, depending upon its object; it can pertain either to the self or the other. The subject classically refuses to recognize an unwanted feature of the self by projecting it onto the other, i.e. by relocating it. He or she refuses to recognize an unpleasurable or anxiety-inducing aspect of the other by disavowing it, a process which sometimes requires the support of a fetish" (45). Leroy is so completely defined by the roles he plays--truck driver, father, husband--that in their absence he possesses no subjectivity, so he projects his lack--his sense of alienation --onto Norma Jean. Rather than forget who Norma Jean is, however, Leroy has "forgotten" his self. He is the "stranger," the estranged.

Mason indicates Leroy's lack of subjectivity in the activities he takes up following his accident. He has been home for three months, his leg is almost healed, but he does not know what to do next. "In the meantime," Mason writes, "he makes things from craft kits. He started by building a miniature log cabin from notched Popsicle sticks. He varnished it and placed it on the TV set, where it remains. It reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene" (97). Of course, the miniature log cabin foreshadows the real log cabin Leroy intends to build for Norma Jean, but, more importantly, its analogy to the Nativity scene suggests how Leroy's ritual projects try to imbue his existence, his life and marriage, with meaning, with a value that it never possessed. Following the miniature log cabin, Leroy builds a succession of such projects: "Then he tried string art (sailing ships on black velvet), a macrame owl kit, a snap-together B-17 Flying Fortress, and a lamp made out of a model truck, with a light fixture screwed in the top of the cab" (97-98). In addition to exemplifying Leroy's lack of aesthetics, his projects reveal his lack of imagination, his inability to think for himself. Rather than actually build anything--that is, rather than create anything from his own design --Leroy relies on pre-fabricated kits, on someone else's plans and paradigms. Even more importantly, Leroy's reliance on models and prefabricated ideas suggests his self-annihilation. As Mason writes, "At first the kits were diversions, something to kill time, but now he is thinking about building a full-scale log house from a kit" (98). By using the kits "to kill time," Leroy, in effect, annihilates himself. Because time is synonymous with self--the self develops or declines in and over time--Leroy is committing psychic suicide. As "diversions," the kits not only represent Leroy's subjectivity--they stand in for his absent identity--but, more importantly, they enable him to divert his psychic and emotional energy away from his most important project: the re-construction of his subjectivity and the renewal of his positionality within the family structure. That is, Leroy again commits a conventional masculine meconnaissance. He presupposes that he can build a life and a marriage by following a culturally or ideologically pre-ordained plan--as if the self and marriage came in kits. He presupposes that by building a "full-scale log house from a kit" he will simultaneously be building a substantive, meaningful self and marriage. But Leroy's ritual projects clearly reveal his lack, and his "kits" represent his adherence to traditional and conventional cultural modes of being. Because Leroy's identity so completely corresponds to his social, public roles--truck driver, father, husband --when those roles disintegrate, he tries to regain his self and his marriage in one-dimensional, simplistic models that he thinks he can just "snap-together."(n2)

Indeed, Leroy's self has fossilized. His identity is clearly predicated on a sense of power, privilege, and wholeness--the qualities of conventional masculinity. He has remained unchanged while most everything around him has been growing and developing. Leroy's confusion about his son's death focuses on change--and Leroy's disavowal of it. "Now scientists are saying that crib death is caused by a virus. Nobody knows anything, Leroy thinks. The answers are always changing" (101). Even Leroy's environment is changing. Now that he has "come home to stay, he notices how much the town has changed" (100). Subdivisions are growing up, the town's population has increased, and the farmers who used to sit in the courthouse square have left. But Leroy has been immune to change. As the narrator says, "It has been years since Leroy has thought about the farmers, and they have disappeared without his noticing" (100). Leroy lacks self-awareness; he is largely unreflective. To him, life is, or ought to be, self-evident. The answers ought to be permanent, immutable.

Like many people in contemporary culture, Leroy hides from himself and the world by constantly moving. That is, he tries to cover over his psychic lack by filling his existence with isolated phenomenological activity. After his accident forces him to stay home, "he has begun to realize all the years he was on the road he never took time to examine anything. He was always flying past scenery" (98). Rather than really examining things, however, Leroy tries to overcome his symbolic castration by empowering himself with another artificial form of his "rig." To occupy his time and to distract himself from his empty existence, Leroy

goes for long drives around town. He tends to drive a car rather carelessly. Power steering and an automatic shift make a car feel so small and inconsequential that his body is hardly involved in the driving process. His injured leg stretches out comfortably. Once or twice, he has almost hit something, but even the prospect of an accident seems minor in a car. (104-05)

Like many men, Leroy tries to empower himself through his automobile. It becomes the literal and figurative vehicle of his subjectivity. It stands in for the loss of his masculinity, and it becomes another externalization of his wound. When he goes driving in his car, moreover, Leroy "cruises the new subdivisions, feeling like a criminal rehearsing for a robbery" (105). In effect, Leroy is figuratively trying to steal back the identity, the sense of manhood, he has lost. He is ironically trying to steal back the self he never actually possessed.

Leroy's encounters with other male figures, whether actual or imaginary, also suggest his psychic emasculation. When he meets Stevie Hamilton to buy marijuana, Leroy, even though he is thirty-four, behaves like a teenager, while Stevie, who is a teenager, takes on the role of an adult, specifically a crafty, street-wise drug dealer. When Leroy asks Stevie about his supplier--"Where do you get this stuff . . . from your pappy?"--he tries discursively to emphasize their age difference and his chronological superiority by employing the slang "pappy" (100). Ironically, however, the word puts them on an equal footing, for both seem to be teenagers rebelling against the authority of their fathers--the literal man and his embodiment as Name-of-the-Father. Even here, however, Leroy is figuratively emasculated, for Stevie responds to Leroy's question about his supplier by saying, "That's for me to know and you to find out"(100). While Stevie's response is puerile on one level--reminiscent of the adolescent with hurt feelings who shouts, "it takes one to know one"--his statement simultaneously establishes his power and authority over Leroy, for it keeps Leroy ignorant, a form of intellectual castration. In addition, Mason suggests Leroy's emasculation in this episode because he interacts with Stevie Hamilton rather than with Stevie's father who "was two years ahead of Leroy in high school" (101). While Leroy and Stevie's father are approximately the same age, Stevie's father has accomplished what Leroy only dreams about, for Mr. Hamilton "is a prominent doctor who lives in one of the expensive subdivisions in a new white-columned brick house that looks like a funeral parlor" (100). As Mason makes unequivocally clear here and later in the story--"the cemetery, a green slope dotted with white markers, looks like a subdivision site" (113)--owning a house in a subdivision is the equivalent of being psychically dead. Thus, like his present life, Leroy's dream of building a log cabin in a subdivision in order to rejuvenate himself and his marriage to Norma Jean is a sterile fantasy, for it is based upon the classic model of male subjectivity that equates the penis with the phallus. In fact, in this episode, Leroy becomes the embodiment of his dead son. As Mason notes, Randy, "would be about Stevie's age now" (101). In effect, Leroy becomes figuratively stunted and imaginatively impotent.

Similarly, Leroy is imaginatively castrated by his former friend and chronological contemporary, Virgil Mathis, "a boastful policeman Leroy used to shoot pool with" (105-06). While Norma Jean bangs away at her keyboard--a thinly disguised substitute for sexual intercourse--Leroy lies on the couch smoking a joint. He recalls Virgil's recent drug bust, a raid on the local bowling alley in which he seized ten thousand dollars worth of marijuana. Leroy can still see the newspaper picture of Virgil, grinning and holding up the bags of dope, and "Leroy can imagine Virgil breaking down the door and arresting him with a lungful of smoke" (106). Leroy imagines that Virgil will be alerted to his marijuana smoking by "all the racket Norma Jean is making," but he doesn't mind because he thinks "Norma Jean is terrific" (106). However, as Mason suggests, this episode represents Leroy's double castration by Virgil Mathis and by Norma Jean. As the narrator says, "when [Norma Jean] switches to a Latin-rhythm version of 'Sunshine Superman,' Leroy hums along. Norma Jean's foot goes up and down, up and down" (72). Norma Jean, the figurative Superman, is on top, pounding her instrument into the passive and supine Leroy.

However, the most emasculating figure in Leroy's life is his mother-in-law, Mabel, who embodies the worst form of patriarchal dominance. In fact, Mabel became the "man" of the house long before the story's action begins. As the narrator states, "her husband died of a perforated ulcer when Norma Jean was ten" (103). While Mabel may have had to take on the burden of being both father and mother to Norma Jean, one can't help but wonder, because of the nature of her husband's illness and death, that perhaps she had begun practicing her domineering and castrating behavior in her own marriage as well, which resulted not only in Jet's figurative castration and annihilation, but which also may have contributed to his literal death.

Earlier in the text, Leroy had been subjected to such "male" dominance. Because of his wound, he begins to violate conventional masculine norms. On one of her visits, Mabel "catches" Leroy making a needlepoint Star Trek pillow cover. Shocked by Leroy's "effeminate" behavior, Mabel exclaims: "That's what a woman would do . . . Great day in the morning!" (102). When Leroy tries to defend himself by claiming that "[a]ll the big football players on TV do it," Mabel rebukes him again, concluding in disgust "Sewing!" (102).

Mabel's most serious annihilation of Leroy's sense of self and manhood results from a seemingly innocuous gesture, but one, I argue, that, even if it is unconscious, is subconsciously calculated. On one of Mabel's ritualized Saturday visits, Norma Jean is cleaning house while Leroy sits at the kitchen table studying the plans for the log cabin he wants to build. As Mason writes, "[w]hile Norma Jean runs the vacuum, Mabel drinks coffee. She sets her coffee cup on a blueprint" (107). By setting her coffee cup on Leroy's plans, Mabel indicates her indifference to his desires and values. Indeed, since Leroy has invested so much of his manhood and his identity into the concept of building a log cabin for Norma Jean--and by extension in the process of re-building his self and his marriage--Mabel figuratively, but effectually, castrates him again. By setting her coffee cup on top of Leroy's blueprints, Mabel not only asserts her presence as the authority in the house, but she also simultaneously annihilates Leroy's power and authority by figuratively treating him like a place mat, like an object upon which she can assert her dominance and an object through which she can fulfill her own desires and fantasy. Indeed, Mason registers Leroy's dehumanization at the end of Mabel's tale about the "datsun" dog. Trying to protect Norma Jean's feelings, Leroy cautions Mabel: "you better watch out what you're saying, Mabel," to which Mabel matter-of-factly replies: "Well, facts is facts." Mabel's utterance, like her previous actions, discursively castrates Leroy (107). Unable to speak or move, "Leroy looks out the window at his rig. It is like a huge piece of furniture gathering dust in the backyard. Pretty soon it will be an antique" (107). Figuratively, Leroy has become an object, a useless and therefore dust-covered object within the family structure. Because of his figurative castration, he has also psychically become an inanimate object to himself and to others.

While Leroy gets figuratively castrated from the top down, as it were, he also gets metaphorically emasculated from the bottom up, for he is effectively sandwiched between Mabel and Norma Jean. When Mabel catches Norma Jean smoking, for example, and Leroy tries to console his wife, Norma Jean assumes the role of patriarchal authority and figuratively castrates her husband. When Leroy says to her, "Think of it this way. . . . What if she caught me with a joint?," Norma Jean adamantly and imperialistically commands: "You better not let her! . . . I'm warning you Leroy Moffitt!" (105). In terms of the family structure, Leroy resides at the bottom of the pecking order. Similarly, when Mabel catches Leroy doing needlepoint and questions his masculinity, Leroy tries to defend himself by claiming that he's going to build a log cabin for Norma Jean and himself, but Norma Jean, rather than support her husband against his mother-in-law's ideological tyranny, joins forces with her and verbally emasculates him herself by exclaiming, "Like heck you are'" (102). Norma Jean simultaneously performs a physical act that figuratively, but unequivocally, castrates her husband: "She takes Leroy's needlepoint and shoves it into a drawer" (102). By hiding Leroy's needlepoint, Norma Jean disavows Leroy's subjectivity; her gesture is reminiscent of her closing her eyes during sex with Leroy. Immediately, too, Mabel again assumes control by adjusting her figurative "armor"--"Mabel straightens her girdle" (103)--and by shifting the subject of conversation away from needlepoint and log cabins to Shiloh.

As thoroughly as Leroy is castrated within the family structure, he is even more thoroughly emasculated by his insufficiency in relation to the phallus. As psychoanalytic semiotics makes clear, subjectivity is synonymous with discursive being. Extrapolating not only from Althusser's idea that the Law of Language represents "the absolute precondition for the existence and intelligibility of the unconscious," but also elaborating on Lacan's now famous aphorism "Your meaning or your life," Silverman postulates the idea that everyone experiences an unavoidable castration upon entering the order of language and signification, and this experience marks the subject's "inauguration into the regime of lack. This castration or lack entails both the loss of being, and the subject's subordination to a discursive order which pre-exists, exceeds, and substantially 'speaks' it" (35). Mason clearly foregrounds Leroy's discourse to mark his lack, not only his subordination and loss of being, but also his insufficiency within the symbolic order. As Mason writes:

Leroy used to tell hitchhikers his whole life story--about his travels, his hometown, the baby. He would end with a question: 'Well, what do you think?' It was just a rhetorical question. In time, he had the feeling that he'd been telling the same story over and over to the same hitchhikers. He quit talking to hitchhikers when he realized how his voice sounded--whining and self-pitying, like some teenage-tragedy song. (106)

At first, Leroy thinks that he is deploying discourse to narrate his subjectivity into being, but he finally realizes that he employs it to mask or cover over his lack. Rather than engage his hitchhikers in legitimate conversation, Leroy talks at them. His monologues hide his fear of his lack, for if the hitchhikers told him what they really think of his "story," his life, Leroy would undoubtedly have to confront his emptiness. Thus, even though he is chronologically an adult, Leroy still behaves and speaks like an adolescent. Just as he has been figuratively castrated within the Law of Kinship, his repetitious and self-pitying discourse signals his figurative castration within the Law of Language.

Even when Leroy tries to initiate a substantive conversation with Norma Jean, he succeeds only in revealing his discursive impotence. As Norma Jean plays her keyboard to help them relax--to calm them down after Norma Jean tells Leroy how Mabel caught her smoking and about the possibility of her catching Leroy smoking a joint--Leroy, while Norma Jean pauses to look for some new music, asks: "Well, what do you think?," and Norma Jean replies, "What do I think about what?" (106). Since Leroy has had so little experience at authentic dialogue, he is at a loss as how to respond. As Mason says, "his mind has gone blank." In the presence of his absence, Leroy tries to cover over his lack by once again turning to his masculine roles. He replies: "I'll sell my rig and build us a house." Immediately, the narrator reveals how Leroy is unable to function within the Law of Language and thus unable to penetrate the symbolic order: "That wasn't what he wanted to say. He wanted to know what she thought--what she really thought--about them" (106). As Mason implies here, entrance into the symbolic order via the Law of Language takes time, practice, and consciousness. At the point of trying to speak his subjectivity into being, Leroy fails. His loss of words reveals his ontological lack. Indeed, as Norma Jean's response to his utterance reveals, he is already absent to her: "Don't start in on that again," she says, and she begins to play "Who'll Be the Next in Line?" (106). Norma Jean's verbal response discursively castrates Leroy, but her choice of songs functions as a speech act that completes her emasculation of him. She is already subconsciously searching for his replacement.

Above all else, the log cabin functions as the locus of Leroy's psychic and discursive castration. It is mentioned thirteen times in an approximately eighteen-page story. Its value as object and as sign for Leroy is unmistakable. In fact, the log cabin simultaneously functions as the locus of Leroy's fantasy. That is, as Freud suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams, the center of subjectivity lies in the unconscious, not consciousness. Freud considers consciousness as a repository for external stimuli, which then become psychically processed. Consequently, "reality," rather than being formed within the domain of consciousness, becomes established within the unconscious, the psychic space closed off from consciousness by repression. Thus, Freud illustrates not only how psychic reality rarely corresponds to "objective fact," but he also indicates how the subject attributes "reality" to representation. For the psyche, fantasy possesses all the power and truth-value of actuality (Silverman 18). If fantasy is "reality" for the subject, then "that is because it articulates the particular libidinal scenario or tableau through which each of us lives those aspects of the double Oedipus complex which are decisive for us--because it articulates, in short, our symbolic positionality, and the mise-en-scene of our desire" (Silverman 18). Because he has lost his positionality within the dominant fiction and because he has lost his sense of wholeness, Leroy psychically becomes nothing and lives nowhere, but since every subject lives its desire from someplace, and it articulates its position by means of fantasy, the scene within which desire is staged concerns itself with the placement of the subject. In order to overcome his lack, Leroy desires to build the log house. By building it, he thinks that he can reaffirm his masculinity; he thinks he can repossess his power, privilege, and wholeness. When Mabel mocks him for doing needlepoint, claiming "that's what a woman would do," LeRoy defensively replies: "I'm aiming to build us a log house . . . [s]oon as my plans come" (102). Significantly, Leroy desires to build not just a house, but a "log house." Unconsciously for Leroy, building the structure represents the whole tradition of American masculinity. It signifies the pioneering spirit, rugged individualism, and the idea of pulling one's self up by one's own bootstraps. Clearly, the log cabin represents Leroy's deepest psychic longings, his desire to embody classical male subjectivity. At the same time, it clearly stands in for his lack, the absence of subjectivity once that traditional model has been violated.

In addition, Leroy's insistence on building the log house and the steps he takes in pursuit of that goal suggest how thoroughly he is captated by his fantasy.(n3) Agreeing with Laplanche and Pontalis, Silverman contends that "fantasy is less about the visualization and imaginary appropriation of the other than about the articulation of the subjective locus--that it is 'not an object that the subject imagines and aims at [. . .] but rather at sequence in which the subject has his own part to play" (6). For Leroy, this sequence of events begins quite early. As Mason says, "Ever since they were married, he has promised Norma Jean he would build her a new home one day. They have always rented, and the house they live in is small and nondescript. It does not even feel like a home, Leroy realizes now" (98). Thus, the sequence of events that have produced the disintegration not only of Leroy's concept of his conventional masculinity but also his positionality within the normative family compels him to construct a fantasy life, a fantasy family, and a fantasy structure to house it all. In short, by articulating himself as the subjective locus of his fantasy, Leroy thinks he can restore his sense of power, privilege, and wholeness.

Before his accident, Leroy and Norma Jean's marriage--and their relationship as individuals--was marked by separation and isolation. Now that he is home, Leroy attempts to secure the unity and wholeness of an ideologically conventional marriage--no matter how tenuous or farfetched the connection may be. As Mason writes:

Norma Jean works at the Rexall drugstore, and she has acquired an amazing amount of information about cosmetics. When she explains to Leroy the three stages of complexion care, involving creams, tones, and moisturizers, he thinks happily of other petroleum products--axle grease, diesel fuel. This is a connection between him and Norma Jean. Since he has been home, he has felt unusually tender about his wife and guilty over his long absences. (98)

Leroy's association of moisturizers and diesel fuel is, of course, comical, but it is also comically poignant, for it signifies the depth of his guilt and his desire to cover over his lack, to disavow the painful memories of the past and the painful conditions of the present.

Indeed, Mason emphasizes how the log cabin represents not only Leroy's guilt about his literal absence but also about his psychic absence, particularly his insecurity about his marginalized masculinity. In order to give himself a sense of empowerment, Leroy drives his car carelessly through the town's subdivisions, but after one such trip, he realizes how "Norma Jean is probably right about the log house being inappropriate here in the new subdivisions. All the houses look grand and complicated. They depress him" (105). Similarly, even though Leroy continues to pursue the idea of building the log cabin, actually fulfilling the fantasy makes him extremely nervous. As he and Norma Jean sit at the kitchen table one afternoon, Norma Jean works on outlines for her composition class while Leroy "practices building his log cabin with a set of Lincoln Logs. The thought of getting a truckload of notched, numbered logs scares him, and he wants to be prepared" (109). Leroy's act signifies the disparity between his fantasy and "reality." He works under the illusion that stacking miniature logs from a model "kit" will prepare him for building an actual house that will require skill at and knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, and electricity--among many, many other things.

In terms of Leroy's fantasy, however, the log house becomes much more than just a simple element within the sequence of events that he constructs in his attempt to cover over his loss. It simultaneously functions as his Leroy's fetish, his objet petit a. Describing the close connection between fantasy and fetishism, Silverman writes: "[f ]antasy passes for reality at the level of the unconscious because it is propelled by desire for the foreclosed real. Although this desire, which is born with language, is fundamentally 'a desire for nothing,' fantasy defines it as desire for something. It posits a given object as that which is capable of restoring lost wholeness to the subject" (20). In addition, about the concept of a fetish itself, Silverman correctly contends:

whereas the Freudian account of that psychic mechanism explicitly posits it as a male defense against female lack, [Freud's essay] "Fetishism" implicitly shows it to be a defense against what is in the final analysis male lack. Since woman's anatomical "wound" is the product of an externalizing displacement of masculine insufficiency, which is then biologically naturalized, the castration against which the male subject protects himself through disavowal and fetishism must be primarily his own. (46)

Thus, when Leroy makes Norma Jean responsible for Randy's death, he not only denies his participation in the event, but he also projects the loss, which represents the loss of his masculinity, his power, privilege, and wholeness, onto her. And just as he employed the strategies of disavowal and projection with regard to that loss, Leroy uses his fetish, the log cabin, to cover over his lack again. For example, when Leroy and Norma Jean are in the kitchen one afternoon, Norma Jean, in an attempt to get Leroy back on his feet, reads to him from a list she has made of things he could do. Leroy, however, rejects all her suggestions by claiming: "I can't do something where I'd have to stand up all day" (103). During this dialogue, Norma Jean stands at the kitchen counter, "raising her knees one at a time as she talks. She is wearing two-pound ankle weights." When Norma Jean becomes unavoidably pragmatic, suggesting that Leroy can truck calves to slaughter, he takes refuge in his fantasy/fetish once again:

"I'm going to build this house," says Leroy. "I want to make you a real home."

"I don't want to live in a log cabin."

"It's not a cabin. It's a house."

"I don't care. It looks like a cabin."

"You and me together could lift those logs. It's just like lifting weights." (104)

While Norma Jean literally take steps--"Now she is marching through the kitchen"--to develop her self, Leroy disavows his insufficiency by hiding within his fantasy/fetish, desperately trying to find his own psychic power and wholeness by imagining another tenuous connection between him and his wife.(n4)

Finally, however, even while he tries to sustain the fantasy, Leroy realizes its futility. One afternoon he and Norma Jean sit at the kitchen table. She is "concentrating on her [composition] outlines, while [he] plays with his log house plans, practicing on a set of Lincoln Logs" (109). In contrast to Norma Jean's serious business of composing essays, Leroy only "plays" with toys. In this image, Mason suggests how Leroy is psychically still a little boy who fantasizes about becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. Nevertheless, Leroy does obtain a degree of consciousness, for "[a]s he and Norma Jean work together at the kitchen table, Leroy has the hopeful thought that they are sharing something, but he knows he is a fool to think this. Norma Jean is miles away. He knows he is going to lose her. Like Mabel, he is just waiting for time to pass" (109). As Mason suggests, physical proximity often only masks psychic distance. When Norma Jean and Leroy sit together at the kitchen table, they are trying to cover over the psychic isolation they experience, alienation from each other and from themselves. Most important, though, as Mason suggests, Leroy is psychically dead; he is just "waiting for time to pass." As the paradigms of conventional male identity--father, provider, husband--gradually disintegrate, Leroy lacks any "plans" with which to build a new ontological model. Thus, the ephemeral log house stands in as the "solid" embodiment of Leroy's lost masculinity and his absent subjectivity.

Leroy also reveals how the log cabin represents his fantasy/fetish--his power, privilege, and wholeness--by repeatedly disavowing any denial of it, especially Norma Jean's rejection of it. When Leroy first tells Norma Jean about his desire to build the log house, she states: "They won't let you build a log cabin in any of the new subdivisions," and he replies: "They will if I tell them it's for you" (98). Similarly, when Mabel catches Leroy doing needlepoint and questions his masculinity, Leroy defends his identity by telling her that he is going to build a log house for Norma Jean, but before Mabel can respond, Norma Jean declares adamantly, "Like heck you are" (102). Norma Jean's rejection of his idea, however, fails to pierce Leroy's fantasy, for a few minutes later when Norma Jean is reading her list of things that Leroy could do to get himself "working" again, Leroy rejects all of her ideas and tries to incorporate Norma Jean into his fantasy by telling her that he wants to build her the log house, that he wants to make her a "real home." To this offer, Norma Jean responds even more directly and categorically, telling him: "I don't want to live in any log cabin" (104). Nevertheless, the next time we see Leroy sitting at the kitchen table, he "is studying the plans of his log house, which have finally come in the mail" (107). Leroy's affective and psychic cathexis with the log cabin is so powerful that it withstands any penetration. It becomes such a powerful fetish because it becomes the repository of his masculinity and subjectivity, both of which clearly encompass Norma Jean. Ironically, he can sustain his fantasy only by denying her otherness: her desires, her autonomy, her subjectivity.

Indeed, Leroy is so captated by his fetish that it resists even his own uttered reservations about manifesting it. In the episode between Leroy and Stevie Hamilton, Leroy tries to assert his power and privilege by telling Stevie: "I'm aiming to build me a log house, soon as I get time." Without pausing, Leroy adds: "My wife, though, I don't think she likes the idea" (101). Even though Leroy verbally acknowledges Norma Jean's denial of his desire in his latter comment, his earlier statement reveals his unconscious desire, for as he said, "I'm aiming to build me a log house [emphasis added]." The personal pronoun functions diagetically, pointing to the log cabin as the manifestation of his lack. That he remains largely unconscious of the value of the log cabin to himself becomes evident late in the story. When he and Mabel sit at the kitchen table talking, the conversation turns to Norma Jean's "unusual" behavior, and Leroy tells Mabel: "I want to make her this beautiful home, . . . indicating the Lincoln Logs." Again, without pausing, he adds: "I don't think she even wants it" (109). Like the personal pronoun in the earlier episode, Leroy's adjective here is telling. To him the log house is "beautiful," but his sense of aesthetics, which is inextricably linked to his fantasy, is one-dimensional and unilateral. By rejecting the log cabin, Norma Jean, in Leroy's psychic economy, rejects him, and by rejecting the log cabin, Norma Jean rejects Leroy's sense of beauty, which entails his sense of his own masculinity and subjectivity.

The nature and function of the log cabin as Leroy's fantasy/fetish become most pronounced in contrast to the real log cabin at Shiloh, the most prominent feature of which is the numerous bullet holes in it--the visible, material marks of the battle between the Union and Confederate soldiers. In contrast, Leroy's wounds, except for his bad leg, are invisible; they are emotional and psychic wounds. Moreover, the bullet--riddled cabin at Shiloh marks the facticity and significance of an historical event, of history itself. In the shadow of this artifact, LeRoy closes his eyes and reminisces about Shiloh and his life. He imagines the Confederate army being defeated by Grant, and he compares the battle to a board game with plastic soldiers. He then recalls Virgil Mathis's raid on the bowling alley, Mabel and Jet Beasly's marriage at Corinth, Norma Jean's conception at Shiloh, his marriage to Norma Jean, Randy's birth and his death. At the end of this reverie, however, the narrator comments:

Leroy knows he is leaving out a lot. He is leaving out the insides of history. History was always just names and dates to him. It occurs to him that building a house out of logs is similarly empty--too simple. And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him. Now he sees that building a log house is the dumbest idea he could have had. It was clumsy of him to think Norma Jean would want a log house. It was a crazy idea. (114)

As Leroy realizes here, trying to salvage his marriage, his connection to Norma Jean, by building a log house is excessively simplistic. At the same time, though, he fails to realize that the log house represents his subjectivity. On one level, it signifies his future, the self he will build when he purportedly has time. But this future is a fantasy, too. Simultaneously, the log cabin represents Leroy's history, his personal past, which is marked by names, dates, and places, but they, too, are empty and too simple, for they lack value and meaning. Caught between a fantasy future and an empty past, Leroy once again hurries through the present; he is just flying past scenery; he is just killing time. In this sense, the log cabin, like Leroy's wounded leg, signifies his lack, and his desire to cover over that insufficiency. Leroy's solution is to "wad the blueprints [of the log cabin] into tight balls and fling them into the lake. Then he'll get moving again" (114). Ironically, Leroy discards the most meaningful plan he has ever had, for his blueprints potentially inscribe the balance between an already established model and the freedom of individual creativity. Instead, Leroy opts for simple activity again. Rather than enter the symbolic order, he remains trapped in the meaningless field of isolated phenomenon.

Leroy's abandonment of his plan to build a log house that concludes the story clearly recalls Mason's first mention of it at the beginning of the tale. Physically wounded, Leroy kills time by making things from "craft kits." "He started by building a miniature log cabin from notched Popsicle sticks. He varnished it and placed it on the TV set, where it remains. It reminds him of a rustic Nativity scene" (97). Each element of this image is significant and riddled with irony. The Popsicle sticks that Leroy uses to build the log cabin suggest childhood. Even as an adult, Leroy continues to feed on childhood treats. That he varnishes the log cabin suggests its encasement; it is trapped in--or, more accurately, outside --of time. That he places it on the TV set suggest how the log cabin represents its own specularity. It is to be looked at rather than lived or experienced. Finally, that it reminds Leroy of a rustic Nativity scene is the most profoundly ironic element, for his life and marriage lack any substance--they lack any meaning or value. Similarly, rather than signify his birth into the symbolic order, the log house represents the sterility and death of his subjectivity. Rather than finally embody the symbolic meaning and value of the wounded king, Leroy simply remains the king of bodily and psychic wounds, for, as Norma Jean walks away from him, "Leroy gets up to follow his wife, but his good leg is asleep and his bad leg hurts him" (114)

Leroy's figurative castration, then, results not from the inversion of gender roles. In fact, those acts suggest his potential for developing a healthy subjectivity: the incorporation of traditionally positive feminine acts and attitudes into his concept of masculinity. Instead, his emasculation results not only from his insistence on an identity based on sexual difference, but also on his sense that male subjectivity must absolutely and immutably embody power, privilege, and wholeness. That is, Leroy's subjectivity is rooted in the conventional masculine meconnaissance--the belief in the "commensurability of the penis and the phallus."

(n1.) See especially David Booth's "Sam's Quest, Emmet's Wound: Grail Motifs in Bobbie Ann Mason's Portrait of America after Vietnam," Southern Literary Journal (1991): 98-109; Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet's "The Ambiguous Grail Quest in 'Shiloh'," Studies in Short Fiction (1995): 223-226; and Albert E. Wilhelm's "Private Rituals: Coping with Change in the Fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason," Midwest Quarterly (1986-87): 271-282.

(n2.) Although Booth correctly asserts that by building the craft kits, Leroy is "seeking craft in its root sense of power and strength" (277), he fails to elaborate on the psychic significance of Leroy's desire in this regard.

(n3.) I adopt the term captate from Kaja Silverman, who coins it in Male Subjectivity at the Margins.

Rather than simply be "captured," which comes from the Latin capere meaning "to seize physically," "captated," by focusing more directly on the Latin caput, or head, indicates more immediately how one can be psychically bound, absolutely and unconditionally, by a fantasy or an ideology.

(n4.) In this regard, even though Norma Jean attempts to dismantle ideologies of conventional masculinity in its reliance on the concept of the commensurability of the penis and the phallus and its identification with absolute power, privilege, and wholeness, she simultaneously props up that ideology by encouraging Leroy to function within its conventional parameters.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. "Shiloh." Midnight Magic: Selected Stories of Bobbie Ann Mason. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1999.

------. In Country. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. London: Routledge, 1992.


By Greg Bentley

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