The first thing to stress is that although the orientation of the grave implies a point of view somewhere to its left, the attenuation of illusion in the rendering of the grave makes that implication anything but conspicuous. Consequently, a beholder who approaches the Burial by centering himself before it (our natural impulse before an easel painting, and the Burial, for all its size, is simply that), and in so doing exposes himself to the full force of its solicitations toward merger (still more on those in a moment), will very likely not even notice that the grave is skewed relative to the picture plane (if it has been noticed, it hasn’t been deemed worth mentioning). Furthermore, the fact that the point of view posited by the orientation of the grave lies opposite the most active and, at first glance, the most confusion portion of the composition also serves to forestall an awareness that such a point of view may be held to exist.
Here it is useful to compare the finished painting with the preliminary drawing. In the latter the grave is at the far left; a single procession, to be joined by the pallbearers, makes its way across the sheet; and two figures, the crucifix-bearer and the hatless man at the center (and perhaps a third figure as well, the officiant in a conical hat slightly to the right of the crucifix-bearer), appear to gaze out of the drawing as if at a spectator centered before it. In the finished painting, on the other hand, various processional units are shown converging precisely there; and yet not only does no outward gaze place the beholder directly before the grave, it appears that a deliberate effort has been made to keep the center of the composition blank, as if to install at the ostensible heart of the painting a formal/ontological equivalent to the unemphatic emptiness lying open below it. Thus both the gravedigger and (an inspired touch) the dog turn their heads away from the vicinity of the grave; the mourner to the right of the gravedigger weeps facelessly into a handkerchief; and a barely modulated expanse of black pigment looms like a great blind spot (“Je travaille à l’aveuglette”) between the gravedigger and the two veterans of ’93. It is as though the Burial’s curiously indeterminate affective atmosphere (Clark comments aptly on its “peculiar, frozen fixity of expression” and uses terms like “distraction,” “inattention,” and “blankness” to characterize both the states of mind of the mourners and the overall mood of the image) comes to a head in this portion of the canvas, which as we have seen bears the principal burden of facilitating the merger of painting and beholder.47 And of course the avoidance of overt address to the beholder that such a strategy implies also helps to reduce the risk of conflict between the generally centering character of the composition as a whole and the slant orientation of the grave.
47. Clark, Image of the People, p.81.
Perhaps only Tar Baby is as enigmatic and compelling a figure from Afro-American mythic discourse as is that oxymoron, the Signifying Monkey.3 The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey—he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language—is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed, is our trope of chiasmus itself, repeating and simultaneously reversing in one deft, discursive act. If Vico and Burke, or Nietzsche, Paul de Man, and Harold Bloom, are correct in identifying “master tropes,” then we might think of these as the “master’s tropes,” and of signifying as the slave’s trope, the trope of tropes, as Bloom characterizes metalepsis, “a trope-reversing trope, a figure of a figure.” Signifying is a trope that subsumes other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the “master” tropes), and also hyberbole, litotes, and metalepsis (Bloom’s supplement to Burke). To this list, we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catachresis, all of which are used in the ritual of signifying.
The black tradition has its own subdivisions of signifying, which we could readily identify with the typology of figures received from classical and medieval rhetoric, as Bloom has done with his “maps of misprision.” In black discourse “signifying” means modes of figuration itself. When one signifies, as Kimberly W. Benston puns, one “tropes-a-dope.” The black rhetorical tropes subsumed under signifying would include “marking,” “loud-talking,” “specifying,” “testifying,” “calling out” (of one’s name), “sounding,” “rapping,” and “playing the dozens.”4
3. On Tar Baby, see Ralph Ellison, “Hidden Man and Complex Fate: A Writer’s Experience in the United States,” Shadow and Act (New York, 1964), p. 147, and Toni Morrison, Tar Baby (New York, 1981). On the black as quasi-simian, see Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, trans. Beatrice Reynolds (1945; New York, 1966), p. 105; Aristotle Historia Animalium 606b; Thomas Herbert, Some Years Travels (London, 1677), pp. 16-17; and John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 8th ed., 2 vols. (London, 1721), 2:53.
4. Geneva Smitherman defines these and other black tropes and then traces their use in several black texts. Smitherman’s work, like that of Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and Abrahams, is especially significant for literary theory. See Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (Boston, 1977), pp. 101-66. See also nn. 13 and 14 below.