Blog Post

White People in Pictures: Forgetting Histories and Kazuo Ishiguro’s "The Buried Giant"

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Since the release of The Buried Giant (2015), several friends have asked me what I think of the novel. That’s because I’m a medievalist. Without skipping a beat, I’ve replied that I love the novel. But that’s not because I’m a medievalist. Or, as I’ve explained, my reasons for being challenged and enthralled by the loosely Arthurian narrative are not due to its explicit engagements with the period I study. And, though I smirked when an aged Sir Gawain made his appearance, and though I thought it clever that Arthur’s finest knight maintained an affectionate bond with his elderly horse (called Homer in this quest narrative), for me these details simply revealed Ishiguro’s participation in a long literary tradition of representing heroic masculinity. As it turns out, though, and in a way that I could only realize since the novel’s 2015 release, heroic masculinity’s historical trajectory connects points of my past to other pasts in ways that I’ve never before acknowledged.

All along, my enthusiasm for the novel derived from issues that have long made me an Ishiguro fan: the tangled imbrication of history, memory, and identity remains a characteristic concern in a work that many reviewers have treated as a radical departure.[1] Like he does in his earlier novels, Ishiguro continues to think through the effects of scale on the stories we tell: how do local histories get articulated in relation to more extended sequences of events? How do our memories of particular experiences get resignified when they are viewed in a broader historical context? And, finally, how do our ideas about difference change when they are moved from the personal to the national domain? In ways I had not fully admitted to myself, this last question, the relationship between alterity, collectivity, and intimacy, does indeed relate to my area of study, and in ways that make studying and teaching the Middle Ages—in all its fictionalized instantiations—even more crucial in this fraught cultural moment.

Late in the story, when the warrior Wistan asks the young Edmund to “hate the Briton” (242;243; 301), he throws into question the entire history of the novel itself.[2] Since this is a novel that features an aged pair of protagonists who struggle to remember anything about their past, it is an understatement to say that this history is hard-won. If the recollective wanderings of Axl and Beatrice have taught us anything (and this is a novel one must learn to read), it is that the lives we hope we are leading sometimes slip away from us, and that one of our most terrifying challenges is to confront the gap that frequently emerges between the lives we wanted and the lives we lived. Beatrice and Axl wanted to live a life of love, of fidelity, of promises kept.

Their final reckoning, which the novel presents as the most important of their lives, is personal. In every way that counts, they are able to remember their past in a way that remains faithful to the love they believe they’ve shared. This is despite the specter of personal betrayal: memories of infidelity haunt Beatrice, making her dread what she will recall when the mist of forgetfulness lifts and she recovers a full account of their marriage. Through the tenderness of their sustained care for one another, however, Ishiguro’s novel suggests that a continued bond of intimacy will protect the love between Beatrice and Axl, notwithstanding the individual failings that have emerged over time.

Axl, too, is dogged by the past, but the events that return to him almost as waking dreams pose an even greater threat to the love he has shared with Beatrice. When he recalls his experience in Arthur’s court, wherein he served as an ambassador who forwarded a plan for peace between the Britons and Saxons, it is a history of horrific betrayal. Axl assured the leaders of Saxon villages that there would be peace, yet his very identity is upended when he understands that Arthur’s knights have used the cease in hostilities to gain a tactical advantage, and that the king he serves has authorized the slaughter of “their women, children, and elderly, left unprotected after our solemn agreement not to harm them…even the smallest babes” in order, Gawain avers, “for peace to prevail” (212;213). The dragon and the mist she produces is part of Merlin’s design to impose a permanent peace, since, if no one remembers the bloodshed, no one can plot to avenge past wrongs.

It is only in this larger historical context that Wistan’s advice to Edmund makes the slightest bit of sense. Otherwise, how could he instruct the young warrior to be unkind to Britons if the two principal Britons Edmund knows are Beatrice and Axl? The old couple has been unfailingly generous, and they are certainly fonder of him than the villagers who would have seen Edmund killed or exiled on account of the strange bite he bears. They are definitely less treacherous than the scheming monks who seek to murder Edwin and Wistan after taking in the party of beleaguered travelers. If they don’t know that Edmund bears a dragon’s bite, they nevertheless treat his drive to find Merlin’s creature as part of a quest they are willing to join.

The warrior’s instructions to Edwin, however, insist that the kindly old Britons’ participation in history is less than benign. Even if Axl was an agent of good in Arthur’s court, he and Beatrice are complicit in a program of violence that has ensconced their cultural privilege as Britons. If lasting peace benefitted Saxons, as Gawain claims, it did not do so equally, or so Wistan’s desire to kill the dragon indicates. With Wistan’s quest to kill the dragon, along with his program to train Edwin as an agent of vengeance who will revisit recovered wrongs, Ishiguro evokes a larger and more difficult history of racialized oppression, one that is more uncomfortable because it cannot be dismissed as part of Britain’s medieval past.

It might seem obvious that the dragon must be slain, since robbing entire peoples of their collective memories is patently unjust. Beatrice and Axl show, too, the personal stakes of this larger injustice. Yet the violence that the dragon’s death promises to unleash is a complicating aspect of Ishiguro’s medievalized rendering of memory, identity, and history. Wouldn’t it be better, the story asks, for certain aspects of the past to be forgotten? Even if Arthur broke the treaty between peoples, using magic to obscure the slaughter that he and his men undertook against the Saxons, the renewal of common hatred will bring yet more suffering to this fantasized territory. Fears over what we might uncover when we reckon with the past are central to Ishiguro’s novel. These fears, I want to suggest, are not part of a simplified medievalism that Ishiguro uses to obscure his engagement with racialized violence of more recent vintage.[3] In fact, as someone for whom racial violence is part of a recent family history, I can say that Ishiguro’s novel raises terrifying questions about how and when we bring such wrongs to light.

I remember looking through the photos my grandmother kept in a former cake tin, discovering, when I was old enough to notice, a part of my family’s history that is always present and ever hidden: it was a sepia picture of a black man, hanging from a tree by a noose, with a crowd of Sunday-dressed white people fanning out around the murder scene. When I went to my mother, she explained that the photo was of a lynching, and that my teenaged grandfather was somewhere in that crowd. I don’t remember how she presented this story to me, but I do recall how it filled me with shame. I’ve tried to process this part of my family’s history ever since, and, after talking about this episode with a friend, she sent me to the haunting story by James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man.”[4]

Baldwin describes the torture and murder of a black man by a white lynch mob in graphic detail, showing the ways that white supremacy and patriarchal privilege converge: the narrator is sexually empowered by the degrading violence he remembers witnessing as a boy. In that instance, the white townspeople dress as if they are going to church, and the narrator recalls that his mother “was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange. He began to feel a joy he had never felt before” (1760). The young boy, who witnesses this gruesome enactment of white supremacy, knows that the disgusting murder he watches is part of his initiation into a circle of love. The boy is part of a community, one where he experiences love because he assumes a mantle of hatred. As he concludes, “At that moment [the narrator] loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever” (1760-1).[5]

I’m certain my mother offered me a similar invitation when she explained the photo I showed her. Were I to take on the version of whiteness that this photo endorsed, I would be part of “our family,” included in a terrible history held together in violence, secrecy, shame, and affection. Though I struggle to remember her account in this instance, there have been other such invitations, which I’ve sardonically labeled, “Welcome to Whiteness” moments, and I know I’m not alone in being told, often through difficult, traumatic stories of the past, how racial difference works, and how I am supposed to align myself given certain historical divides. In his memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist (2013), Tim Parrish movingly describes his white-supremacism as a teenager as part of pressure to fulfill certain expectations for masculinity prized by his father, grandfather, and other male relatives in south Louisiana.[6] It was only as he grew older that he understood how his love had been coopted to promote a racial hatred he knew he had to abandon.

At the level of personal, family history, my first impulse is to see Wistan’s instructions to Edwin in this light: when the warrior elicits a promise from Edwin, he pressures the young man to perpetuate old hatred in exchange for, and as a sign of, affection: “We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman, and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again” (242). To live up to the warrior ideal that Wistan instills, furthermore, is to take on certain enmities, even those with which Edwin has no experience, and for which he supposedly has no cause. Edwin puzzles over Wistan’s instructions, “Must I hate a Briton who shares with me his bread?” (242), seemingly confirming their misplaced, outmoded violence. Heroic masculinity passes on a legacy of hatred and violence that continues, perhaps entrenches, old injustices.

Yet Edwin’s personal history suggests another reading as well: the voice of the young man’s “mother,” which the dragon uses to draw Edwin to her over the course of the novel, recounts a disturbing, haunting story of violation that makes Wistan’s instructions personally relevant. Through the dragon’s prompting, “Find the strength and come rescue me,” we learn that Edwin’s mother was taken by a band of men (87, et passim). The voice Edwin hears urges him to rescue her, but, through Wistan’s questioning, it becomes clear she is beyond recovery: “It was Britons took your mother and mine” (242). She was taken by passing Briton men in the same fashion as Wistan’s mother. That these two warriors share this experience as a common point in their personal histories is not coincidental; rather, it suggests a sustained practice, a naturalization of systemic violence—the plunder of bodies viewed as disposable on account of a racialized history of difference—that the Saxons remain subjected to even in this period of “peace” with Britons.

This history of systemic, habitual violation—which in this story is so marginalized that it is never fully articulated—should, I propose, connect The Buried Giant to more recent responses to racial injustice. In a moving address to his son, which, in its form, eloquence, and passion is a tribute to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Ta-Nehisi Coates protests “the plunder of black life” that has distinguished white privilege in the U.S (111). Between the World and Me (2015) details the casual, quotidian violence that African-Americans continue to experience, but Coates also identifies the ways that “those Americans who believe that they are white” stake their supremacy on an assumption that no one sees the degradations they perpetrate as meaningful violence (6, et passim), or the kind of violation that might warrant retribution, or at least restitution.[7]

Unlike Wistan, Coates never suggests that the hatred visited upon African-American men be returned in kind; rather, with the defining question that he poses to his son, “how one should live within a black body” (12), he bolsters the profound case he makes for reparations as a belated acknowledgment of slavery as plunder of a fundamentally material kind.[8] With his cautionary advice to his son, “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are” (99), Coates details the systemic damage that violence against individual bodies perpetrates against an entire people. Importantly, Coates uncovers a structural connection between individual acts of violence and national histories of oppression. This is an idea Coates and Ishiguro share, I want to suggest. If we think it is inapposite or inappropriate to connect an Arthurian tale of legendary betrayal to the lived history of chattel slavery, a return to Edwin’s experiences in Ishiguro’s novel demonstrates why certain histories cannot be suppressed, even in the name of broader peace. The story I’ve presented, above, of a photograph that reveals my family’s history of racial violence, is not really our history at all.

Or, rather, it is not simply or only my family’s history. As Daina Ramey Berry has observed, the fetish objects of white terror are actually artefacts of other family histories, most of which are now lost: the restoration of the skull of Nat Turner to his family comes after “[t]he skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years.” It is only because Nat Turner is known to history that, as Berry remarks, “Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest.”[9] The photo my family kept attests to the perpetuation of white supremacy through familial histories, but, and I’ve come to see this as more important on account of The Buried Giant, that photo is also the last evidence of what happened to someone’s father, brother, or son. This photo really—or at least equally—should have belonged to someone else, the family of a man whose individual identity is lost to a broader history of racial oppression. 

I don’t know who the man in that picture is, and, even if I could find the photo (my grandmother’s belongings were scattered when her house fell to pieces after her health’s demise—more on that little tidbit of the past in a future post), I don’t know how to find the man’s family. Not coincidentally, I think, Ishiguro deals with this confusion: much of the novel involves Axl and Beatrice’s search for their son, as well as their inability to recall the intimate details that might lead them back to the narrative thread of the life they shared together. Loss, even the most personal loss, happens in the shadow of broader historical events, and Ishiguro’s novel explores an equally important dimension of personal memory and its attendant losses that I don’t even touch in this post.

But again, as I want to suggest, The Buried Giant shows that destruction of families happens as a consequence of broader violence, and it is a larger history of racial oppression in the American south that prevents my complete reckoning with this past. This is because the county where my grandfather grew up—Kemper County, Mississippi—had the second highest rate of documented lynchings in the state between 1877 and 1950.[10] Murders like the one featured in this photo were not unknown, and not uncommon, in this area. The only thing I have come to understand, and again, one might say in an unlikely fashion, is that the white people in pictures from this era should not remain anonymous, lost to the collective haze of cultural memory featured in Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. Covering over such histories might keep the peace, but losing these memories also perpetuates violation.

Wistan urges Edwin to vengeance because the violence against the Saxons has never ceased. When Axl remembers what the Britons did, he knows that war will return to this martial landscape. This is a grim conclusion, but it is one that follows from the systemic, calculated campaign of oppression that the Britons have instituted and maintained across this novel’s history. That Axl recognizes and understands the consequences of this campaign is the most hopeful aspect of this ending. Therefore, by identifying the injustice that extends from Arthur to Merlin to Gawain to the dragon herself, Axl suggests that histories of oppression might be recollected and redressed. Doing so might involve pain—perhaps it will even warrant vengeance—but the violation can stop with a reckoning that refuses to bury difficult elements of a shared past.

Following the election of Donald J. Trump as president, “crunkadelic” at the Crunk Feminist Collective urged white readers to “Get your people.”[11] After the white supremacist march and murder in Charlottesville, people of color have expressed further frustration that the labor—emotional as well as physical—required to change racist attitudes and practices in this country falls on those who continue to be victimized by these very forms of violence. As Sa’iyda Shabazz remarked in a moment of exasperation, “White folks, this is your mess to clean up. Y’all created it. Y’all need to fix it.[12] I suggest that this gathering, this reckoning, requires a longer view, one that addresses how systemic oppression gets mystified—and then forgotten—by those it benefits.

The task of white allies is not, as Shannon Sullivan makes clear in her sharp analysis, Good White People (2014), “to let white people off the racist hook that they’ve hung themselves on” (10). It is, as Sullivan argues, to change whiteness through what she characterizes as a “loving” reassessment and reinscription.[13] This is not to treat whiteness as a source only of benighted shame; instead, it is to acknowledge the painful injustices entailed by whiteness so that these cannot be appropriated by a new generation of white supremacists. In something of an irony, it is to claim those racist histories so that they cannot be redeployed by those seeking to perpetuate the violence and plunder that has characterized whiteness in this country.

Facing up to my family’s perpetuation of racist violence does not excuse me from that history of violence. This is not a redemptive reckoning: white woman gets real about her racist relatives. Rather, it is to say that I’m recalling this past to fight for a new history, one that, as Noel Ignatiev has long argued, might amount to abolishing what we have heretofore thought of as whiteness.[14] Yet, here again, medieval studies is instructive: medievalists—especially those who study “medievalism,” or the reinvention of the Middle Ages for later periods—are fighting the good fight to make sure that white supremacists remain unable to appropriate the field.[15] When white supremacists seek to ground their hatred in the Middle Ages, or use symbols and stories from that era to galvanize their violence, historians, religious studies scholars, and literary critics have all worked to demystify these moves, by calling them out as a practice of racist violence that is deliberately unfaithful to the medieval past.

As a medievalist, and as someone whose relatives are the white people in pictures from our nation’s racist past, I suggest that white allies need to do the same. Not by forgetting, and not by using the mists of myth to obscure the violence entailed by a particular, personal history of violence. In her urgent call to action, “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” Dorothy Kim rightly remarks, “Neutrality is not optional.”[16] As The Buried Giant reveals, to conclude with a return to my personally inflected response to Ishiguro’s latest novel, forgetting, mystifying, or covering history in familial or regional myth only serves to perpetuate racialized violence and erase its victims.


[1] For examples, see Neil Gaiman, “Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant,’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html); Tom Holland, “The Buried Giant review – Kazuo Ishiguro ventures into Tolkien territory,” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/the-buried-giant-review-kazuo-ishiguro-tolkien-britain-mythical-past); and James Wood, “The Uses of Oblivion: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant.” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/the-uses-of-oblivion).

[2] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (New York: Knopf, 2015). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[3] In an extremely helpful post, David Matthews, “Exhuming the Giant” (http://newchaucersociety.org/blog/entry/exhuming-the-giant), sets Ishiguro’s novel in a context of earlier medievalisms and the genre of the novel, concluding, “What critics have missed about The Buried Giant is that we are now far beyond the comforting nostalgia in which so much medievalist narrative was characteristically invested.”

[4] Thanks to Gretchen Woertendyke for helping me make this connection.

[5] James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man,” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Ed., Ed. Henry Louis Gates, et. Al. (New York: Norton, 2004). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[6] Tim Parrish, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A Memoir (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2013).

[7]Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[10] Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. SUPPLEMENT: Lynchings by County, Second Edition (Equal Justice Initiative, 122 Commerce Street,

Montgomery, Alabama 36104. www.eji.org). [p. 5].

[13] Shannon Sullivan, Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press 2014).

 

Holly Crocker's picture
Holly Crocker is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She has published widely on gender, politics, and philosophy in medieval and early modern British literatures. She is currently completing a book entitled "The Matter of Virtue: Women's Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare."