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The Revenge Against Time

ISSUE:  Spring 1976
Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge. A speculative Reading of Faulkner. By John T. Irwin. Johns Hopkins. $8.95.

What Mr. Faulkner is after, in a sense, is a continuum. He wants a medium without stops or pauses, a medium which is always of the moment, and of which the passage from moment to moment is as fluid and undetectable, as in the life itself which he is purporting to give.

                    —Conrad Aiken, 1939

FAULKNER’S best critics have always been compelled by the problem of time. Aikens’s original insight has generated a distinguished progeny. Sartre captures Faulkner’s “metaphysic of time” (1947) in an unforgettable metaphor; “Faulkner always shows us events when they are already completed. In The Sound and the Fury, everything occurs in the wings; nothing happens, everything has happened. . . . Faulkner’s vision of the world can be compared to that of a man sitting in a convertible looking back.” Why this “particular absurdity”? “We must look for the reason,” Sartre answers, “in the social conditions of our present life.” Karl Zink diagrams Faulkner’s anesthetic of time in which form constantly threatens to dissipate into “flux” (1956) or stay itselt in a “frozen moment.” Why this anxious dialectic? Faulkner writes out of a “deep sense that reality is described fully only in the paralleling of the external flow of event and the internal flow of consciousness.” Carolyn Porter discovers in Faulkner a phenomenology of time where “our problems derive not from the failure to escape time, but from our inability to penetrate it” (1975). Why this longing for immersion in duration? “Faulkner’s affinity to Bergson is greater than we have realized.” The interest in these studies lies in their descriptive power; their limitation has been an inability to explain convincingly the presence of the patterns they describe. In Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge, John T. Irwin redeems these critical efforts. His book is truly prophetic: its promise of future understanding compels by reviving authoritative voices from the past. He has finally given us a definitive psychology of Faulknerian time,

The approach which makes this possible is a psychoanalytic one. It is difficult to separate the insights discovered by this way of reading from those it naturally imposes, Irwin departs from a basic premise and a simple impression: that Faulkner’s “novels are parts of a single continuing story,” and that reading them is characterized by “the sense of the meaningful as the always deferred.” This again returns to Aiken, who sees Faulkner as trying to “tell us everything . . .in one terrifically concentrated effort: each sentence to be, as it were, a microcosm,” while at the same time progressing by an “elaborate method of deliberately withheld meaning.” But it is a return with a difference, for Irwin has immersed himself in a vision which takes these facts as the premises of analysis itself. Freud’s willingness to read every psychic and linguistic event as synecdoche, coupled with his reluctance to come to what Irwin calls “intermediate conclusions,” constrains a disciple into asking just the right questions while suspending belief in pre-emptive answers. The challenge here is not to keep the hermeneutic circle oscillating but rather how to climb aboard. Which first question must we ask in order to penetrate “the fruitful in-between space that exists among Faulkner’s novels”? If Faulkner’s works tell, while deferring the meaning of, one story, whose story do they tell?

Quentin Compson’s. As Irwin concedes, the question has been asked and answered this way before. But the question usually takes a more naive form: “To what extent. . .does the story that Quentin tells in Absalom resemble his own life story in The Sound and the Fury?” Irwin’s intermediate answer is to build a case for a resemblance so complex, an interest so fated, as to leave no room to doubt its obsessive appeal to Quentin. “Quentin projects onto the characters of Bon and Henry opposing elements in his own personality— Bon represents Quentin’s unconsciously motivated desire for his sister Candace, while Henry represents the conscious repression or punishment of that desire.” Quentin feels compelled to tell this story, then, because it expresses the failed desire for incest which destroys sons in the Compson (and Sutpen) family. But what is the origin of this desire? “The desire to return to the womb is the desire for incest.” But what experience can account for this regressive quest, this inability to grow forward into otherness and time? Irwin brings this question momentarily to rest before the figure of Quentin’s father, who “has psychologically castrated his son.” Yet a further interpretation of Quentin’s impotence suggests itself: the problem of simply being a son. “For Quentin, the psychological problem that has made him impotent (the castration complex whose origin is generation) becomes merged with the problem of whether man, in relation to the flow of time, can ever be anything but helpless, passive, and impotent, and to solve the former problem he must solve the latter.” But this latter problem cannot be “solved.” It can only be met with a host of defenses. Quentin’s most adaptive defense in the “struggle with the father” is to “prove that he is a better man by being a better narrator.” Re-telling the story of Charles and Henry becomes his attempt to convert a sense of psychic belatedness into one of imaginative priority. As his cynical father took revenge upon him, so he will take revenge upon a substitute—his audience. Yet the very act of telling precipitates Quentin’s final doom, for through it he discovers himself as the fated repetition of those earlier events his narration had hoped to master. His struggle to take a “revenge against time” by fathering the true story of the Sutpens leads him inevitably back into those obsessions which he can only escape, as he does, through death.

Irwin finds versions of Quentin’s predicament in Sutpen’s rage to found a dynasty in which he can issue rather than suffer rebukes, in Ike McCaslin’s renunciation of his place in “an endless cycle of guilt and retribution,” in Darl’s “displacement of his love for his mother” onto Dewey Dell, in High tower’s feeling that “the actions of a grandparent pre-empt the life of a grandchild,” in the corporal in A Fable, who sacrifices himself, Christ-like, to the wrath of the father. Where then are Faulkner’s adaptive characters? Irwin does not try to define them, but one thinks of the mute Lena, the ironic Ratliff. The truly adaptive hero here is, of course, Faulkner himself. Only he successfully confronts the “Question of whether narration itself constitutes a space in which one can be original, whether an “author” possesses “authority,” whether that repetition which in life Quentin has experienced as a compulsive fate can be transformed in narration, though an act of will, into a power, a mastery of time.” Faulkner’s courage is to confront what Quentin knows and to go on telling. While always aspiring toward the Grecian urn vision of art as an arrest of time, Faulkner also acknowledges that only through time time is conquered. Language is mediation, and the ambition to attain utter priority and originality through it is always shadowed by the ironic knowledge that what writing really achieves is a substitute for, not an actual recovery of, virgin land.

Irwins’ book is the cry of its occasion. His method embodies his theme. One continuous essay which successfully defers any summary meaning, this “speculative” reading strives to re-present the “effects” rather than the “structure of Faulkner’s novels.” He avoids the imitative fallacy by trying to recreate our response to Faulkner’s form, not the form itself. Yet he does describe his project as “a kind of multidimensional imaginative space in which there existed the possibility of simultaneously placing every element side by side with every other element.” This expresses the very ambition to transcend temporal limitation which Irwin finds doomed to tragic frustration in Faulkner. Perhaps Irwin’s most authentic response to his subject is to engage the same dilemma: how “to present a holistic, simultaneous structure in the temporal, successive medium of written discourse.” The nature of discourse triumphs here over more arresting ambitions; we experience Irwin’s narrative, no less than Faulkner’s, in time rather than space. And it is finally through the suspenseful ordering by which Irwin reveals—or defers— his meanings that he most powerfully suggests the origins of Faulkner’s obsession with time.

Irwin ends where he very likely began, with the unpublished Introduction to The Sound and the Fury. This is the central Faulknerian document. Irwin reads it as a statement about the artist’s relationship to the art: “What Faulkner describes here is the author’s sense of the loss of the original virgin space . . .and his mature acceptance of repetition.” By this time we have moved in Irwin’s essay from discussion of character in psychological dilemmas to analysis of an author in creative difficulties. The perhaps unintended effect of this progression is to make Quentin’s psychic condition seem a function of Faulkner’s aesthetic problems. Irwin makes no reference to the strictly autobiographical dimension of the Introduction. He convincingly proves that the decision to write inevitably led Faulkner deeper into the conflicts writing was meant to resolve. But writing about anything would have precipitated a confrontation with the anxiety of influence. Every strong writer struggles to reclaim as virginal the imaginative space violated by his literary fathers. It is not enough to say that “the structure that we have found in the interplay between Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury is central to Faulkner’s novels precisely because it is, for Faulkner, central to the art of writing novels.” This generalizes Faulkner’s predicament into one so prevalent as to be uninteresting. This “structure” must be central “for Faulkner” because of what happened to Faulkner. Irwin ends as he proceeds, by deferring the most tantalizing meaning of all—the meaning of Faulkner’s life for this art. But he leaves us in a position—one afforded by no other critic—to hear, perhaps for the first time, the full resonance behind Faulkner’s most poignant expression of his reasons (as a brother and a father) for writing:

So I who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl.


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