November 8, 2004

1. Faulkner

Our book group recently read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. At first, I regretted the choice because it seemed so difficult, so obscure, but eventually I grew to like it, other people in the group liked it, and I was glad I chose it. It was the first Faulkner novel I’ve ever read. In the past, I tried several times to read The Sound and the Fury, but I never made it through the first page. Now I realize that if one makes an effort, and reads some commentary, it’s a fine novel. After I finished it, I went back to page 1, and read the beginning again — something I haven’t done with any of the other 60 books we’ve read in our group. Now I understand why this novel had a special place in Faulkner’s heart, why Faulkner was in ecstasy while writing the first section — an ecstasy that he never experienced again in his literary career.

The characters are more alive than living people, the scenes more vivid than reality. One rarely finds a novel that has so much energy, so much life. The first two chapters require patience, especially on a first reading, but the last two chapters are delightful. I strongly recommend reading this novel in the Norton Critical Edition, which contains many interesting essays. But even these essays don’t give a first-time reader as much help as he needs, hence I also recommend Volpe’s Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner, which holds your hand, and takes you through each page, each scene. I suggest that you alternate between text and commentary; keep going back and forth until you get the rhythm of the book, until you know the characters and the story. Use the web, too; click here to visit an excellent Faulkner website.

One of Faulkner’s strengths is his ability to re-create the speech, the accent, of his characters; he catches the flavor of southern black language, the cynical tone of the cold-hearted Jason Compson, etc. Though Faulkner is sometimes described as a great humorist, equal to Mark Twain, this novel contains only a few flashes of humor. It’s tragic rather than comic.

Surely The Sound and the Fury is one of Faulkner’s best works. Also among his best works are Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August. The only one of Faulkner’s novels that was a bestseller and a money-maker was Sanctuary, which he intended to be popular. Malcolm Cowley put together a book called The Portable Faulkner, which arranges sections of Faulkner’s novels in chronological sequence; The Portable Faulkner made Faulkner’s work more accessible, and played a key role in launching Faulkner’s reputation. Faulkner’s early work and his late work is considered inferior to the works that he wrote in his thirties. In 1949, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize, and the speech that he delivered on that occasion was considered one of the best speeches ever delivered at a Nobel ceremony:

Our tragedy today [Faulkner said] is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing.... Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man....

The Sound and the Fury is often read in high school English classes. Is it a good choice? Yes and no. Yes, insofar as it’s one of the classics of American literature, and deservedly so. No, insofar as students can’t learn to write good prose by reading slang. Yes, insofar as students would find it a difficult book to read on their own. No, insofar as it may give students the impression that classic literature is a struggle, not a pleasure.

In his Art of the Novel, Kundera says that Flaubert discovered everyday life. If this is true, then Faulkner may be said to be working in the tradition of Flaubert, because Faulkner depicts the everyday, depicts the minute details that make up everyday life, depicts very ordinary people doing very ordinary things. If you want discussions of the existence of God, the future of civilization, or the symphonies of Beethoven, you won’t find them here. The pettiness, the absurdity that one finds in The Sound and the Fury reminds one of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Faulkner’s characters are often at odds with each other, and sometimes at each other’s throats; like all great writers, Faulkner shows us the dark side of human nature, the evil that dwells in the human heart. But Faulkner balances this with scenes of tenderness, fidelity, and virtue. In short, Faulkner explores the heights and depths of human nature. He also shows us how character has its roots in upbringing, how the children are molded by the parents.

Faulkner’s heroes, Caddy and Dilsey, do good but don’t talk about goodness. Caddy’s mother, on the other hand, talks about virtue but doesn’t practice it. Perhaps Faulkner is telling us something about the nature of morality, about the nature of moral preaching. Perhaps Faulkner is saying that real virtue is action, not lofty phrases. One critic said, “Dilsey becomes through her actions alone the embodiment of the truth of the heart which is synonymous with morality.”1 Perhaps the only moral comment that we hear from Dilsey is, “I does de bes I kin [I do the best I can].”2 At the end of my chapter on psychology, I asked, “Can we define evil as turning against life, and allying oneself with death and destruction? Can we define good as accepting life, embracing life?” The negative characters in Sound and Fury turn against life, while Dilsey accepts it:

Dilsey accepts whatever time brings [wrote one critic]. She alone never suffers that moment of rejection which is equated with death.... Dilsey’s attitude, as she lives it, is formed by her instinctive feeling that whatever happens must be met with courage and dignity in which there is no room for passivity or pessimism.

One might describe Dilsey’s virtue as Zennish. While other characters are obsessed with the past, Dilsey is characterized by a “patient preoccupation with the present.”3 She doesn’t succumb to bitter feelings, and she doesn’t succumb to the evil around her: “Her endurance has strength to suffer without rancor as well as to resist, to accept as well as to protest.”4

Mrs. Compson, on the other hand, preaches morality but doesn’t practice it. She succumbs to passivity and pessimism, and rarely leaves her bed. Instead of accepting life as it is, she commits partial suicide, lazy suicide. She often accuses people of selfishness, of lacking consideration for others; she says of Caddy, “never since she opened her eyes has she given me one unselfish thought.”5 She says that Caddy and Quentin have “that streak of Compson selfishness.”6 When Quentin commits suicide, Mrs. Compson says, “I didn’t believe that he would have been so selfish as to...”7

Mrs. Compson’s morality might be described as the morality of unselfishness. Is this the typical Protestant morality? My own experience, growing up in a Protestant family, would suggest that the morality of unselfishness is indeed the typical Protestant morality. Faulkner seems to believe that this is a false and unhealthy kind of morality. Faulkner prefers the morality of acting to the morality of talking; he admires those who accept life as it is, who try to do the best they can, who focus on the present. He prefers a Zennish morality to a Protestant morality.

Quentin, one of Mrs. Compson’s sons, also loses touch with present realities, and also turns against life. Quentin is preoccupied with honor, with pride, with “fine, dead sounds,”8 with “an ethical order based on words.”9 Quentin’s ethical order separates him from reality; as one critic wrote, “the constant references to the shadows and the mirror emphasize the barrier between Quentin and reality.”10 Quentin eventually commits suicide. Clearly, Faulkner isn’t holding up Quentin as a model. Like Nietzsche, Faulkner takes a dim view of moral phrases, moral concepts.

Borrowing a phrase from Kierkegaard, one can describe Quentin as a “knight of infinity”; his lofty thoughts take him away from everyday reality. Quentin has outgrown what Kierkegaard called “immediacy,” but he hasn’t become a “knight of faith,” he hasn’t achieved “immediacy after reflection.” Children and animals have immediacy; they focus on their immediate environment. Immediacy isn’t, in Kierkegaard’s view, the highest stage. The highest stage is “immediacy after reflection.” Dilsey doesn’t quite achieve “immediacy after reflection”; she says that she has seen ‘the beginning and the end’ but one doubts that she has passed through reflection/consciousness.11 Some critics argue that Faulkner’s novel is pessimistic because all the characters, even Dilsey, fall short of the ideal.12 Does Dilsey fall short? Or does Kierkegaard’s theory fall short? However this may be, Kierkegaard’s theory seems to fit Quentin well; Quentin is the “knight of infinity” who thinks lofty thoughts, but loses contact with reality.

Faulkner grew up in Mississippi, and he writes about Mississippi. He’s considered part of the “Southern Renaissance.” He was born in 1897, three years before the North Carolina writer, Thomas Wolfe, who is also considered part of the Southern Renaissance. Faulkner praised Wolfe for his daring and originality. On the other hand, Faulkner criticized Hemingway for his lack of daring, for his restraint and clarity. Faulkner said Hemingway “has no courage, has never climbed out on a limb... has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary”; Hemingway didn’t have the courage to risk “bad taste, over-writing, dullness, etc.”13

My own taste is the opposite of Faulkner’s: I loathe obscurity, I love E. M. Forster because he’s clear, because he’s devoid of “bad taste, over-writing, dullness.” I love clarity, simplicity, the grand style. But if a writer has great talent, as Faulkner does, then I enjoy his work, even though he sometimes irritates me, even if his taste isn’t mine. I suppose I would enjoy Thomas Wolfe, if I read him, though I prefer chiseled prose to the opulent prose that Wolfe is known for. I also suppose I would enjoy Hemingway, whom I haven’t read for many years; Hemingway’s clarity is “my cup of tea.”

Perhaps one reason for Faulkner’s obscurity is that the most famous writer in the English-speaking world during Faulkner’s formative years (James Joyce) was known for his obscurity. Faulkner admired Joyce, and when Faulkner was living in Paris, he frequented the café that Joyce frequented, but didn’t muster the nerve to speak to Joyce. The young writers who grew up in Joyce’s shadow (such as Faulkner) came to believe that, if a writer wanted to be taken seriously, he couldn’t be lucid, he couldn’t use a conventional technique. Faulkner used the stream-of-consciousness technique that Joyce had pioneered, and some passages of The Sound and the Fury resemble Ulysses. For example, this passage: “the swing the cedars the secret surges the breathing locked drinking the wild breath the yes Yes Yes yes.”14

Faulkner equates obscurity with “courage”; Faulkner seems fond of obscurity. In this respect, he stands in sharp contrast with Forster. Faulkner’s attitude toward culture also contrasts with Forster’s. Faulkner says that he read little after age 30; he seems to have little interest in the world of culture, and he didn’t write essays or criticism. Forster, on the other hand, was so fond of reading that he lost interest in writing; in his later years, Forster wrote mostly essays and criticism. Perhaps Faulkner has more creative energy than Forster, but Forster was more successful at making life itself into an artwork.

While Forster’s work contains a hopeful philosophy, Faulkner’s Sound and Fury is often viewed as despairing, nihilistic. Faulkner was respected by Sartre, and by many French intellectuals, but Sartre noted that Faulkner always looked back, he couldn’t face the future:

Faulkner’s heroes [Sartre writes] never look ahead. They face backwards as the car carries them along. The coming suicide which casts its shadow over Quentin’s last day is not a human possibility; not for a second does Quentin envisage the possibility of not killing himself. This suicide is an immobile wall, a thing which he approaches backwards, and which he neither wants to nor can conceive.15

In Faulkner’s work, says Sartre, “the past takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable. The present, nameless and fleeting, is helpless before it.... In The Sound and the Fury everything has already happened. It is this that enables us to understand that strange remark by one of the heroes, ‘Fui. Non sum. [I was. I am not.]’”16

Sartre notes that, for Faulkner’s characters, the past isn’t in chronological order; rather, it’s arranged in “emotional constellations.... The order of the past is the order of the heart.”17 In Benjy’s mind, for example, a memory of Caddy from twenty years ago may loom larger than the events of yesterday.

Sartre argues that Faulkner’s attitude toward time is similar to Proust’s. “Proust’s heroes never undertake anything. They do, of course, make plans, but their plans remain stuck to them and cannot be projected like a bridge beyond the present. They are day-dreams that are put to flight by reality.”18

Sartre combines Faulkner and Proust, and speaks of a “very general literary phenomenon” — namely, the distortion of time in modern literature. This distortion is a product of the modern worldview, the modern situation, which Sartre describes as “despair”:

For [Faulkner], as for all of us, the future is closed. Everything we see and experience impels us to say, “This can’t last.” And yet change is not even conceivable, except in the form of a cataclysm. We are living in a time of impossible revolutions, and Faulkner uses his extraordinary art to describe our suffocation and a world dying of old age.19

Sartre describes Faulkner as “a lost man.”20 Gertrude Stein once said to Hemingway, “you are all a lost generation” (Hemingway used this remark as the epigraph of The Sun Also Rises). Hemingway was born in 1899, two years after Faulkner, and one year before Thomas Wolfe. Was this a “lost generation”? This generation lived during a time of world war and genocide; religious and moral systems were tottering, and no replacements were at hand. Thus, it isn’t surprising that this generation couldn’t face the future, that their worldview was one of despair. A discussion of despair in modern fiction would be incomplete without mentioning Kafka, the most pessimistic and despairing of all modern writers. Surely there’s much to be said for the view that Faulkner is “lost”, that Faulkner’s generation is a “lost generation”, that despair is the dominant note of modern literature. It will be interesting to see if the writers of our time are able to overcome despair.

In addition to despair, and an inability to face the future, Faulkner has something else in common with Proust: they’re both writing about a vanishing world, they’re both “backward glance” writers. Faulkner writes about the vanishing world of the South, and the Southern aristocracy, Proust writes about the vanishing world of the French aristocracy. (Another member of the “backward glance” school is Conrad, who wrote about the vanishing world of the sailing ship.) Faulkner himself said that the South was “dead, killed by the Civil War.”21 The South was affected not only by the Civil War, but also by World War I, which left it (according to Robert Penn Warren) in “the classic situation of a world stung and stirred, by cultural shock, to create an art, in order to objectify and grasp the nature of its own inner drama.”22 The “backward glance” theory was developed by Allen Tate, who argued that the Southern Renaissance was “the product of the creative tension between the Southern past and the pressures of the modern world.”23

Sartre is keenly aware of how writers face the future, because the main thrust of Sartre’s philosophy is facing the future. Influenced by Heidegger, Sartre believed that man is always looking ahead, that man’s thoughts and actions are molded by the future:

The nature of consciousness implies... that it project itself into the future. We can understand what it is only through what it will be. It is determined in its present being by its own possibilities. This is what Heidegger calls ‘the silent force of the possible.’”24

The philosophy of Sartre and Heidegger seems to clash with Zen, with Zen’s emphasis on the present. Sartre seems to take a dim view not only of Zen, but of mysticism in general: “One escapes from the temporal world only through mystic ecstasies. A mystic is always a man who wishes to forget something, his self or, more often, language or objective representations.”25 In my view, mysticism isn’t about forgetting anything, it’s about being aware of the world around us, aware of the present moment. I admit, however, that there is some truth to what Sartre is saying — our thoughts about the future do have considerable influence over our present.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. See Norton Critical Edition, p. 281 back
2. ibid, p. 197 back
3. ibid, p. 288 back
4. ibid, p. 287 back
5. ibid, p. 65 back
6. ibid back
7. ibid, p. 163 back
8. ibid, quoted on p. 284 back
9. ibid, p. 284 back
10. ibid, p. 285 back
11. “‘I’ve seed de first en de last.... I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.’”(p. 185) back
12. see pp. 309, 323 back
13. Faulkner made these remarks in question-and-answer sessions with English classes at the University of Mississippi, April, 1947 back
14. See Norton Critical Edition, p. 94 back
15. ibid, p. 269. One wonders how Sartre (and other French intellectuals) read Faulkner. If he read Faulkner in translation, much would be lost, since Faulkner’s slang is difficult to translate. If he read Faulkner in the original, it must have been a challenge for Sartre (or for any non-English-speaker) to understand. back
16. ibid, p. 267 back
17. ibid, p. 268. In a book called The Feeling Function, James Hillman wrote, “Feeling time is organized in clusters, more like an organic growth, so that today has its roots perhaps in a day last summer (and not yesterday which belonged to a wholly different branch). Thus we do pick up old relationships again where we left off.” (ch. 7, p. 174) back
18. ibid, p. 269 back
19. ibid, p. 269, 271 back
20. ibid, p. 269 back
21. ibid, p. 229 back
22. ibid, p. 244 back
23. ibid, p. 247 back
24. ibid, pp. 270, 271 back
25. ibid, p. 268 back