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A History of Arrests

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979
Faulkner’s Career: An Internal Literary History. By Gary Lee Stonum. Cornell. $12.50.

Criticism, like the imagination, is always at the end of an era; it perpetually casts about for strategies to renew its reasons for being. We have exhausted the criticism of works and structures; it is time to turn to careers. Attention to the unfolding shape of an author’s development in time strikes more and more critics as a way of recycling even the most familiar texts. David Kalstone’s theory of “refiguration” grounds our sense of the poet less in his key images than in the history of his revisions of them. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance scholarship presents the understanding of any finished work of art as conditional on the ongoing artwork of a life. Stephen Railton translates Cooper’s apparently fragmented literary output into an integrated emotional career. Writing about careers affords its special pleasures. There is the chance to dignify, because of its new-found location in the authorial curve, the heretofore “minor” work. The demarcation of “turning points” between books or poems provides all the drama once generated by locating climaxes within them. The specification of beginnings, middles, and ends can satisfy the critic’s nostalgia for narrative. And the belief that literary production ought to be aligned with all those extrinsic forces which operate upon it can more readily be put to the test in a project which traces a motion through time.

Gary Stonum has written a strong and intelligent book about the need to read Faulkner as an artist who develops. The history of Faulkner studies does not suggest that this is so Stonum identifies two critical approaches which have dominated the Faulkner industry. “Exegetical criticism,” the most popular, “pursues a coherence of form and meaning at the level of the individual text.” Stonum sees Olga Vickery as the most distinguished practitioner of this approach. Opposite her achievement stand the many varieties of “theoretical poetics. These pursue structural coherences at the level of some transindividual unit such as genre, tradition, or literature in general.” Stonum might conceive of his work as a contrast to John Irwin’s recent success in this mode. We have had the revenge against time; now we get the descent into time. Irwin reads Faulkner’s works as arrayed in space. Their final meaning emerges from their simultaneous juxtaposition; the patterns the works describe are repetitive, even obsessive, and these thematic doublings matter more than any variation in them from book to book. Neither Irwin’s nor Vickery’s approach gives much thought to the fact that Faulkner’s works also describe a temporal sequence. Stonum now proposes that the study of the “coherence possible in a career” will confer a new kind of authority on Faulkner’s achievement.

What sort of career is it? Not one that proceeds as a linear development or in a gradual evolution. “Rather it develops by expressly questioning the assumptions on which the earlier work depends.” Stonum focuses upon “the discontinuities that signal a change” in Faulkner’s program. The discipline of the writer can be measured in the “orderliness of this process of challenging the earlier work.” This disciplined commitment to self-critical change is the particular virtue Stonum means to celebrate, but, having set up his model of Faulkner’s self-consuming mode of advance, he must then produce some “important continuity” in the career against which to measure its rate and quality of change. Stonum’s nomination for the constant in the differential calculus of the career proves a very familiar one: “the enabling principles of texts written at different moments in Faulkner’s career present specific, detailed versions of the general understanding of art as arrested motion.” The frozen moment! Suddenly a host of predecessors on the critical trail leap to mind—Aiken, Sartre, Penn Warren, Zink, Adams. What else does the best Faulkner criticism comprise but a history of arrests? Stonum’s “enabling principle” is certainly not original; what is new is his attempt to see this notion of time working in time.

Stonum’s book unfolds as a series of five essays on the early poetry, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, and the Snopes Trilogy. These projects mark out the five distinct moments in the career.

Faulkner’s poetry comprises an inquest into the fate of metaphysical desire. This deliberately conventional poetry isolates a “poetic” landscape which leaves behind the tawdry world of particularity. Since Faulkner defines his subject as the absolute, and since this “lies beyond any finite object of desire and even beyond anything the poet can envision concretely,” his aspiration proves impossible to represent. The poet’s final recompense is despair, oblivion, or silence. Faulkner comes to recognize the longing for a visionary art as a longing for death. While he never entirely renounces this early wish to arrest beauty at its most transcendental, he acknowledges that for writing to proceed at all, such aspirations must necessarily fail.

The “art of the visionary poet” and the “art of the realistic novel” confront each other in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s commitment in this second stage of his career is to the novel as such, “to its most basic and even most obvious characteristics, such as a story involving some form of human conflict.” He resolves to get his hands dirty. The interest now is less in static transcendence than in motion as “the very source of significance,” a motion which the writer seeks to arrest. Narration is conceived precisely as the chronicle of the “dynamic interaction of an arresting consciousness and a fluid, phenomenal environment.” Benjy’s rage for order, Quentin’s revenges against time, Jason’s perpetual hurry—all find themselves poised against Dilsy’s acceptance of the “materiality of the world” and her vision of beginnings and ends.

If The Sound and the Fury inaugurates Faulkner’s search for a narrative method, As I Lay Dying proves the exemplary novel of the “referential phase” of Faulkner’s career. By “referential” Stonum means “a representational art in which the act of representation does not itself come explicitly into question.” Stonum reads this novel as nearly transparent, truest to the nature of the world as motion. He finds it perhaps easier to process than have most readers. We are not drawn into the relentless flux which catches up the Bundrens. Faulkner wrote the novel cooly, and so we read it: “The written text, the compositional activity necessary to have produced it, and apparently also the interpretative activity necessary to read it must remain outside the fictional world and invulnerable to the fluidity that governs it.” Faulkner now invents the figure of the outsider, the Samson or the Armstid who can, like author and reader, stand aside from the flow to muse upon it. And Cash, as the one narrator at once part of the odyssey and possessed of rhetorical distance from it, may begin to mediate the novel’s painful tension between immediate knowledge and reflective consciousness.

With Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner finds himself “to be a part of the motion he writes about.” The book becomes a “sustained meditation on the activity of arresting.” The fate of design in this world is to be undermined by the recalcitrance of the material it would shape. The difficulty is not knowing the world (as it so often is conceived to be) but living in a particular place. Stonum sees the novel’s celebrated epistemological anxieties as founded upon regional ones. Faulkner here attempts for the first time to establish a relationship with “the local.” “The central problem of design in Absalom, Absalom! is the relationship between a designer and an inherited body of material.” As Faulkner’s theme becomes the difficulty of inheriting the land or the past, his style changes. “The use of long sentences and complex, suspended constructions . . . . is explicitly a means of taking possession of the past.” However much Faulkner, like his Sutpen, continues to hope for freedom from the “anonymous earth” and its legacies, he will never again be able to project a design which sublimates its “massy materiality.”

“The final and longest-lasting episode in Faulkner’s career begins with the publication of The Hamlet in 1940.” The Snopes Trilogy completes Faulkner’s descent into history and place. Having come to accept his and his characters’ rootedness in a world of ritual and custom, Faulkner begins to question the fate and value of these bonds. His responsibility becomes “to represent the process” by which the forms and institutions at issue in the community are “transformed and transmitted.” He founds this project on three acts of return: to his Snopes manuscripts and stories of the 20’s and 30’s; to the pre-history of his fictional region; and to a mixture of genres, including Southwestern humor and Chivalric romance. These acts of recovery ground the basic assumption in the trilogy that the “life of the community is . . . not only the events that happen within it but the preservation or transformation of them in stories and the narrative transmission of the town’s values to the next generation.” Out of the interplay between inherited forms and inevitable change, Faulkner generates a theory of fictions in which what matters is “the ongoing effort of individuals continually involved in the work of transforming relationships and values.” The unlikely hero here is Mink Snopes, that anachronism who despite all dislocations in time and space insists upon a “fundamental recognition of mutual selfhood between persons.” He kills Flem, but not before eliciting a saving spark of human acknowledgement. Mink refuses to change and bows to change, and so the proper farewell to him and to Faulkner’s career in fiction is the trilogy’s closing elegy, the mode which “celebrates the existence of arrest and motion as constant forces that can never be brought together in a single, final, and total structure.”

In his first chapter Stonum concludes that “the significant patterns in Faulkner’s career arise from formal and aesthetic issues of a kind familiar to what is so often called intrinsic criticism. Such issues appear to be strikingly independent of other matters one might expect to be pertinent.” Independent especially of the circumstances of the author’s personal life. Biography does not figure in Stonum’s account, literary tradition (“Genius”) only in the chapter on the poetry, and locality (genius loci) scarcely at all. When such matters are discussed, they remain themes in the work, not contingencies shown to be operating upon it. Yes, Faulkner discovers that one must come to terms with the local, but his locality, with its many burdens (great-grandfather’s railroad, father’s failed career, the incursions of a merchandising class, the loss of the Delta, life with Estelle, exile in Hollywood), never impinges on Stonum’s narrative. He has certainly not promised that it would. But he has, in limiting his book to an “internal” history of the career, perhaps limited our sense of what a full treatment of a career might be. Faulkner’s works, in their self-reflexive wrestlings with arrest and motion, remain as hermetically sealed here from extrinsic concerns as they would in the hands of a New Critic. Faulkner was a writer especially concerned to insulate his work from such concerns: “I would have preferred nothing at all prior to the instant I began to write, as though Faulkner and Typewriter were concomitant, coadjutant and without past on that moment they first faced each other at the suitable (nameless) table.” This is just the sort of ambition upon which a critic could found a much different version of the career. Stonum has given us a highly controlled model of the works’ effect on the work. It is time now to begin the far messier task of gauging the pressure they receive from and bring to bear upon the life. We might start by asking why Faulkner changed his name.


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