Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Faulkner's humane masterpiece

At least, that's how Faulkner saw it, believing that The Sound and Fury, the first in his sequence of novels that took him far beyond what he'd previously achieved, was his greatest work. It's possible. Absalom! Absalom! is more dense and far-reaching, dredging even deeper pools of Southern misery; As I Lay Dying is the more sustained (albeit briefer) performance, the breathless work that has you in a chokehold from start to finish.

The Sound and the Fury, if it is stronger, is so because it's more humane. Much as I love As I Lay Dying, it's populated by grotesqueries, with only a few folks passed along the way emerging as humans we might care to know. Though Benjamin is "an idiot," Faulkner gives him a voice that's sensitive to human activity, and when we see him from the outside, the drooling child hunched at the table, we hardly recognize in his outward form the being we've come to know from within. Quentin's journey to suicide is broken up by scenes of foolishness, humor, decency, and confusion. Faulkner doesn't simply let darkness claim Quentin; rather, we see him choose his path, despite the liveliness of the world around him, a world in which he, to the last, participates. Jason is greedy and selfish, but Faulkner lets us see how difficult such a life is for Jason. He's never at peace, but constantly at odds with everyone; his vices give him no pleasure, leading him, I think, to mistake them for virtues. Lastly, there's Dilsey, who, though the focus of the final section, is never given a point of view position, and is even allowed to step offstage while the narrator waits for her to, say, retrieve an umbrella. It's clear that there's something of Faulkner's "race problem" in this: he can't get into the head of this character. His awareness of this, though, also makes him protective of her, moving him to elevate her. In the character descriptions in the appendix, written years later, she alone is given no textual comment. (I believe the sentence "They endured" does not refer to Dilsey but to all of the black characters—or, possibly, all of the characters. Dilsey is not a "they," and the way the text is set, below her name rather than beside it, indicates further that the descriptor is not meant for her alone. Why have no commentators mentioned this?)

The story's very end (prior to the appendix) felt a bit flat; something more needed to happen there, especially given how gloriously the prose takes off in Quentin's section. Otherwise, this is an astonishing work. I failed to read it in high school and had looked at sections of it over the years, but I'd never fully attempted it. Teaching Faulkner—and successfully taking on Absalom! Absalom! last summer—prepared me, so that I didn't find the novel difficult at all. (My one confusion, straightened out by a glance at a discussion of the novel, involved the presence of two characters named Quentin. I'm not sure Faulkner needed to do that.)


S. E. Johnson said...

As ever, I've posted links to this on FB (and reposted via Twitter), and it's generated a few further reposts and comments from friends and former grad-school-mates. The conversation between Shreve and Quentin, with the famous "I don't hate the South" lines (which = my favorite quote ever), has been cited frequently, which leads me to post this here:

Hugs and salutes, man.

William Preston said...

Hey, guy. Thanks for that link. Is the South really just a representation of the larger country? Isn't it more like, say, Madagascar or some other island on which evolution takes a different course, one that seems, in comparison to the mainland, wilder and exaggerated? O'Connor insisted that, though she used grotesques for her characters, she also depicted things she'd actually observed. Why is it that we Northerners (well, I was born in Maryland, but spent every year after my fifth north of the Mason-Dixon Line) share, with the South, that sense of its unique conditions?

I do think that the South more starkly demonstrates what I tell my students about the United States: that we've never dealt with our racial issues, nor with our most traumatizing events. If you look at other countries that have successfully navigated the time after trauma--South Africa, Cambodia, Germany--any of the places that have set up commissions to understand what they went through, you'll see results that assign some blame and accept moral judgment. We didn't do that. We ended 350 years of slavery with a devastating war, an ill-conceived aftermath, a persistent denial of blame and cause—followed, arguably, by a second imposition on the South in the form of Brown v Board of Ed. Rather than the South—or the nation as a whole—having the conversation that recognizes responsibility and shame, you get violence and litigation from without. As such, the South, but not only the South (and obviously not all Southerners), evinces the distortion that comes from being, like Faulkner's characters, unable to extricate itself from its history or even to face it. (Quentin's path in both novels is the unveiling of the past until, in both cases, he can't bear what he's seen.)