A Reverse Panopticon. Considerations of unexplained behavior by Lomax in Stoner by John Williams
Ambiguity and divergence is at the heart of novels
Just why does Lomax Protect Walker? Just why does he kiss Edith?
Williams never quite digs into the rationales of the main individuals in the novel Stoner so we don’t fully know. This isn’t a critique it’s an appreciation.
I’m tired of everything made obvious and compartmentalized like a TV dinner.
The philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy says, “Perhaps I have aged out of the phase where one is too busy playing his part in humanity’s great orchestra to be able to actually hear the sound he is making.”
In Stoner we follow the players, each to their own instruments. However, we lack the score. We lack the overview of motivations that link the entirety of the novel to the particular characters.
Maybe the better part of valor is discretion. I appreciate the ambiguity in not knowing.
Williams’ experiment may be captured by this quote by Jean Baudrillard with my comments in italics.
“There no longer exists an avant-garde, by 1965 modernism was already under severe interrogation, political, sexual or artistic, we had minimalism and conceptual art, Woodstock was on the horizon, embodying a capacity for anticipation; hence the possibility of any radical critique — , the civil unrest of Paris and the Sorbonne was on the horizon, of desire, the era of counterculture and free love, of revolution, thousands of people march against the Vietnam war in Berkeley, or of the liberation of forms — no longer exists. As Yeats said, ‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.’ Challenges were now normative. The days of that revolutionary movement are gone. Barthes (1956): ‘À l’avant-garde de quel théâtre?’ Fiedler (1964): ‘The Death of Avant-Garde Literature.’ The glorious march of modernity has not led to the transformation of all values, Marx called it first, as we once dreamed it would, the university stayed much the same, for example, but instead to a dispersal and involution of value, it took a good 30 years after the challenges of the 1965 (the date of Stoner) before we recognized this postmodern, post-truth attitude, whose upshot for us is total confusion — the impossibility of apprehending any determining principle, whether of an aesthetic, a sexual or a political kind.”
This is nothing new to us now. It was not new earlier. “I protest against any absolute conclusion” wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch. Stoner was metafictional 1965ish literature.
This is the obvious fact many people who examiner Stoner overlook: Williams was an experimental novelist, proven by purposeful lack of articulated motivations.
That said, we must assume character actions are normative in the sense they are relational claims that involve situations (facts) and characters (actions).
Involvement 1: Disfiguration Identification
Lomax is introduced when he enters a faculty meeting. “He was a man barely over five feet in height, and his body was grotesquely misshapen. A small hump raised his left shoulder to his neck, and his left arm hung laxly at his side.”
We first meet Walker who knocks and enters. “A figure shuffled out of the darkness of the hall….The young man’s left arm hung stiffly at his side, and his left foot dragged as he walked.”
The two figures, Lomax and Walker, are parallel beings, both with left arms that hang at their sides.
Walker, the 2nd year candidate then mentions Lomax a couple of pages later, “Dr. Lomax said he thought I would surely be able to do the work in the seminar.”
Walker is a liar and pseudo-intellectual who clearly does not do the work. Holly Lomax is an avenger. Both are described as having a physical disability.
Lomax: “He looked directly at Stoner and said with cheerful malevolence, ‘As you may have noticed, he is a cripple.’”
Birds of a feather flock together. Is it a form of psychological community building? Mutual empathy?
Soon after: “Suddenly Lomax’s voice was tight and trembling with suppressed anger. ‘You will find him to be a superior student. I assure you, you will find him to be an excellent student.’”
One may read the sentence to emphasize as follows ‘you will find,’ but I suggest we can read it as an imperative, ‘you will find.’
Walker has said he will focus on Prometheus Unbound: “I intend to trace Shelley’s first rejection of Godwinian necessitarianism for a more or less Platonic ideal, in the ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,’ through the mature use of that ideal, in Prometheus Unbound….”
Stoner is at first awed by the performance, and of course he response to Shelley’s strange power that floats unseen among us, much like his unaccounted for passion for literature and teaching, this power, or spirit, beauty and truth, that steels him against the onslaught of life and labor.
Stoner soon sees the ruse. Walker has memorized or has been well prompted.
But to push a bit farther on the issue. Prometheus Unbound asks us to recall Victor who has recently been introduced to Volney’s Ruins of Empires and sees the agency man can have over himself and the world.
The monster begins to question his own self finding “Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”
Later the monster wants a partner: “I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.” (Frankenstein, Chapter 16)
Lomax either wants or wants to protect the other being who shares a disability.
Shakespeare describes Richard III as having a limp and an immobilized arm, the general interpretation of the time being: a bad body equates with bad actions.
Richard describes himself as “rudely stamped” (1.1.16) and states, “I halt” (1.23). (1)
Machiavelli-like Lomax. Collective empowerment. Mirror characters in literature. Lacan’s mirror stage comes to mind.
Involvement 2: Queer Desire
We must look for clues, again. Everybody is looking in, nobody is looking out. The windows of the tower are painted black.
After the first seminar where Walker demonstrates his general ignorance of the subject, Stoner complains to Lomax. During this interaction “Lomax placed the tips of his fingers together and contemplated them as he nodded…”
Contemplation expressed by the physical touch.
Lomax then says, “A good student. A superior student, I might say.”
We cannot but help be reminded of another, similar interjection from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy!’”
When Lomax arrives at the meeting, in addition to describing his visible disability, there are other details: “his highly polished shoes and the sharp crease of his black trousers. Then he lifted his head and shot his right arm out, exposing a stiff white length of cuff with gold links; there was a cigarette in his long pale fingers. He took a deep drag, inhaled, and expelled the smoke in a thin stream. And then they could see his face.
“It was the face of a matinee idol. Long and thin and mobile, it was nevertheless strongly featured; his forehead was high and narrow, with heavy veins, and his thick waving hair, the color of ripe wheat, swept back from it in a somewhat theatrical pompadour. He dropped his cigarette on the floor, ground it beneath his sole, and spoke.”
Lomax is presented as different that the run of the mill professor. He is polished in a way that draws attention.
Later on the same page we learn, “During the next few weeks it became evident that Lomax did not intend to fit himself into the social, cultural, and academic routine of Columbia, Missouri….It was known that he occasionally invited groups of students to his rooms, where he entertained them with conversation and recordings of string quartets.”
Lomax does not fit into the same social milieu as do other academics. We get to pause and question. He fits stereotypical images of the gay man.
Counsel questioning Oscar Wilde: “Have you ever adored a man madly?” Wilde, “I have never given adoration to anyone except myself.”
The evidence for speculation is like dust, hardly visibile.
“The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.” Franz Kafak, The Trial
But possibly this is why the kiss of “several moments” causes no concern for anyone at the part. Read on.
Involvement 3: An Affair
A third alternative: it’s part of the overarching Machiavellian scheme of Lomax.
“Per il che si ha a notare che li uomini si debbono o vezzeggiare o spegnere; perché si vendicano della leggieri offese, delle gravi non possono; sí che l’offesa che si fa all’uomo debbe essere in modo che la non tema la vendetta.” Machiavelli, Chapter III, The Prince
Stoner invites Lomax to a housewarming party and Lomax accepts. By ten o’clock he is quite drunk and he speaks of his childhood in Ohio, the isolation that his deformity had forced upon him, his loneliness and the freedom he found in books.
Now, after four in the morning an odd event occurs. Lomax shakes Stoner’s hand, askes him about his book, and wishes him success with it. Next, “he walked over to Edith, who was sitting erect on a straight chair, and took her hand; he thanked her for the party. Then, as if on a quiet impulse, he bent a little and touched his lips to hers; Edith’s hand came lightly up to his hair, and they remained so for several moments while the others looked on. It was the chastest kiss Stoner had ever seen, and it seemed perfectly natural.”
Why did Edith who rarely had sex with Stoner accept this so easily? Why did she caress his hair?
Stoner lives in a different realm. He rarely sees maliciousness. So we must ignore his response.
If everyone understands that Lomax is gay, then the kiss between a gay man and someone’s wife is perceived as chaste.
Or is it possible that Lomax and Edith were having an affair?
To answer this we first must look at the time between Lomax arriving on campus and the party. Nothing much happens, Lomax holds salons in his rooms.
Edith and Grace spend less than a week in St. Louis. She returns and searches for a house, they find one, and plans for the party.
It seems we lack evidence in proving an existent affair.
Instead of looking at the kiss as an end point, we would have to see it as predictive.
Lomax penalizes Stoner by assigning him three classes of freshman composition and one sophomore survey, the schedule of a beginning instructor.
His schedule is arranged so that he taught at odd, widely spaced hours, six days a week.
We may focus on the argument here and state that one of the reasons Lomax did this was to provide time to meet Edith.
Edith grew up rich, liking sophistication, refinement. Lomax has these qualities. In other words, she has motivation.
When Stoner proposes, Edith says she didn’t know he loved her, and she responds, “‘My trip to Europe.’ she said faintly.” Material benefits are foremost in her mind.
As a result of Stoner’s revised schedule, he considers moving and suggests that it might be necessary. Edith strongly rebels, then there are a couple of clues we might center upon.
Stoner has not told her about the issue with Lomax but she knows all about it. It’s worth quoting at length: “it quickly became evident that she knew all about it.”
Then, “her anger was oddly distracted…. ‘Oh, I know all about your trouble. I’ve never interfered with your work — but really, you’re very stubborn. I mean, Grace and I are involved in this.’”
Clearly Edith obtains her information from somewhere; there is an opinion on her part that indicates some awareness of his ongoing actions. Grace and she are involved with Stoner. But would they be involved in the move? Sort of. A move would impact the affair, would cause involvement with Grace at a custody level.
They continue talking. “‘But it’s for you and Grace, partly, at least, that I’m thinking about it. It isn’t likely that I’ll — go much farther in the department if I stay here.’
‘Oh,’ Edith said distantly, summoning bitterness to her voice. ‘That isn’t important. We’ve been poor so far; there’s no reason we can’t go on like this. You should have thought of this before, of what it might lead to. A cripple.’ Suddenly her voice changed, and she laughed indulgently, almost fondly. ‘Honestly, things are so important to you. What difference could it make?’”
The phrase, “What it might lead to” is answered directly by “A cripple.” As though she states, his actions drove her to Lomax.
And Edith’s voice changes. If Williams didn’t put hints into everyone’s unarticulated rationales we might ignore this. But Williams is sly. Williams is a very subtle elliptical writer.
Things important to Stoner may not be important to Edith. All along she has lived in a self-serving manner. Only her choices hold importance; as to the rest she is cold and indifferent. Consider her wedding night, or the day she decides she wants a baby, or her reaction to anything he wants even before she becomes purposeful in her meanness.
It does not quite seem she is vindictive for any reason beyond her own conniving; it seems unlikely that she destroys his office to quash his ability to write as a means to help ensure his failure at the college. He can still work at is office.
The semester continues, Stoner has a sour office interaction with Lomax. He tries to spend more time at home but his schedule makes this difficult.
When he was at home “he discovered (not to his surprise) that his regular presence was so upsetting to his wife that she became nervous and silent and sometimes physically ill.” (p. 178). Yet Stoner still felt there remained a closeness between him and Edith. She cannot bear to be around him, but here again the evidence can go either way. She has always been silent and sickly.
She cannot bear Stoner but she wasn’t against Lomax kissing her publicly.
The next section begins with Stoner’s affair with Katherine Driscoll followed by what Stoner sees as a noticeable change in his wife. They begin to have a “curious friendliness” and she begins to do a few fix-ups of the sun room where he has been banished to. There are times when Edith is away for lengths of the day. Eventually Edith admits that she knows of the affair, “Oh, I know all about these things. A man of your age and all. It’s natural, I suppose. At least they say it is.”
“For a moment he was silent. Then reluctantly he said, ‘Edith, if you want to talk about this — “
“‘No!’ she said; there was an edge of fear in her voice. ‘There’s nothing to talk about. Nothing at all.’”
Why does Edith say affairs are normal? Her view comes from somewhere.
When he asks to talk of it, after she has clearly said she is never leaving Columbia, she exhibits an edge of fear. It’s doubtful she fears a divorce, her father has died; we hear nothing of any inheritance but it’s clear she can live with a relative if need be.
So where does Edith’s fear come from? It might be that she has her own secrets and to speak of them would cause her to lose some degree of control, or self-control, the latter which has alway seemed somewhat iffy.
Edith is a mercurial woman, at times extracting herself from society at other times inserting herself within communities.
At all times she seems to have inside information, and we never learn exactly how. The speculation is that since most of this information concern’s the private affairs and conversations of Stoner that she has a connection to the university, which would most likely be Lomax.
At best, the evidence, if any is shaky. We don’t know her dating history or mindset. For example, she doesn’t wish to marry in St. Louis for an unexplained reason, did she have a history there? Resultantly, we don’t know her predisposition for having an affair.
Switching back to Lomax, the protection of Walker by Lomax might be seen would be a correlative malicious act along with the affair both designed to wound Stoner.
In a reverse panopticon everyone looks in at the person. We see each of the main characters in Stoner at the center of the hub. But the distance disallows gaining rationales. Strangely, after the protectionist scenes Walker disappears from the novel, just as Katherine disappears.
Whether this is abandoning of main characters is a weakness on the part of Williams, or whether it’s part of a design that’s mostly hidden is beyond the scope of this consideration.
Again Bernard Henri-Lévy, “And, instead of passively allowing themselves to be watched, the lowly eyes take the initiative; they start watching too, turning the imperative to see all back on those who conceived and promoted it; they turn their leaders into objects of insatiable and unforgiving curiosity; with the result that the watchers come to be watched.”
“One lesson that I have long insisted we should all have learned from the so-called classical pragmatists…is that fallibilism does not entail skeptcism.” Hilary Putnam, The Epistemology of Unjust War
William’s strength, that we who question, finding little to nothing, as questioners are raised up for questioning. I’ll leave it to readers to fill in the details.
(1) More on this subject may be found in a fascinating essay by Katherine Schaap Williams (Richard III and the staging of disability, March 15, 2016, found on the British Library website https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/richard-iii-and-the-staging-of-disability)