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Faulkner: The Rhetoric and the Agony

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

When William Faulkner published a first novel in 1926 entitled “Soldiers’ Pay,” no one could possibly have known that the ghost of the Gothic novel had appeared to record a new and portentously macabre view of contemporary dissolution. Cheerfully slapdash in its structure and rather poignantly overwritten, “Soldiers’ Pay” was no more than what it appeared to be— a weary epilogue of the peace to the lost generation’s autobiography of the war; a turgid and roughly composed story of post-war disillusionment by a Southern gentleman who had an obvious taste for romantic rhetoric, who plainly betrayed a neatly inverted romantic view of life. What distinguished it from almost all the other lost generation novels, however, was the extraordinary verbal resources which its author exhibited with such pretentious and melancholy defiance. It was the work of a poet who was not sure that he wanted to write poetry and of a novelist whose use of the novel was at once irritably contemptuous and frantically bold. Yet the confused and opaque bitterness of the book also hinted mysteriously at a disillusionment that was somehow more elusive and profound than the fashionable arbitrary disgust with war standards and a war world, “Soldiers’ Pay” was the work of a writer who was so regional that he was almost parochial; and he had tasted the ultimate bitterness of the war at home, in that South which has always provided him with an image of existence and a concept of tragedy.

Unlike his international-minded contemporaries—Hemingway, Cummings, Dos Passos, Glenway Wescott—Faulkner was the creature of a tradition and completely, if restively, submissive to it. Born into a distinguished Mississippi family that had once played an important role in state politics, he had lived in Oxford—the seat of the state university—from early childhood, been educated at the university, and had returned to the town—the “Jefferson” of his future sagas—after his experiences in the Canadian and British Air Forces. He had worked in a bookstore in New York and written descriptive sketches for newspapers while living with Sherwood Anderson in New Orleans; but his life was in Oxford, where he wrote pastoral verse, recovered from a war wound, and worked at odd jobs as a carpenter, a roof-painter, and a postmaster at the university. He was a Southerner, but hardly a Southern university intellectual, and his associations and interests were not overtly esthetic. He might write novels, like his great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner, author of the popular romance, “The White Rose of Memphis”; he even published a book of his pastoral verse in 1924 and sold most of the copies to a local bookstore at ten cents each; but he was not a Writer in the sense that Hemingway, Cummings, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and so many writers of his generation were.

Superficially and publicly Faulkner did not, in those early days, appear to be consciously “literary.” He liked to write, as he liked to drink beer with the boys after an afternoon of painting roofs; but he wrote too fluently to think too much about it, and he practised his writing with the same apparent fatalism with which he worked at hard laboring jobs and was soon, when “Sanctuary” had been rejected by the New York publishers, to support himself by shoveling coal in a power plant. He was an impoverished Southern gentleman who had run away to war as a boy, been wounded and been matured in it, and had returned to seek his place in the only tradition he had ever known. The bitterness of being a Sartoris (the Southern aristocrat manque) in a Snopes world (the world of the small, mean traders and expropriators and ambitious poor whites) was very real, and became one of the foundations of his thought; but lie could project it idly, as it seemed, only because his disenchantment was a vague and expansive moodiness. Despite the terror-stricken atmosphere that was to fill his novels, and an almost ferocious misanthropy, Faulkner was essentially a boyish mind for all his complexity, a mind humorous in the broad country fashion, and given to lazy improvisations; and a certain slyness, an indirectly comic view of life, at once racy and tormented and ambiguous, appeared in his work from the first. His sophistication was secret and violent. He had returned from the war, as Warren Beck has commented, “with an enlarged perspective which discerned the decadence of his native region while still holding to his associations with it,” and this, along with the shock of his war experiences, was the source of the tension in his work which was ever after to show itself as nervous power. But his bitterness with the South was only one phase of a generally romantic and even self-complacent pessimism, one which life in the South, enclosing him on all sides, illustrated in dramatic and fertile symbolism.

It was long ago realized that Faulkner was anything but a “Southern realist,” that silly tag applicable to George W. Cable and Thomas Wolfe alike; but his relationship to the South, even his conception of that relationship in his novels, has never been understood. In any other age Faulkner would have been one of the world’s great romantic novelists, as in one sense he still is. But his ability to invest his every observation of Southern life and manners with epic opulence and profligate rhetoric and Poe-like terror concealed the fact that he had no primary and design-like conception of the South, that his admiration and acceptance and disgust operated together in his mind. He was at once an aristocrat fallen on bad times and a fantasist, a quasi-philosophical critic of the South’s degradation and a native son in whom its antics and institutions excited a lazily humorous disgust that was often indistinguishable from cynical acquiescence.

He admired the South, loathed it, wept for it, enjoyed it, lived in it; but he could not imagine an order of experience fundamentally different from it. If he thought of it as the jungle in “Sanctuary,” it could also become the gracious manor house in “Sartoris,” the seat of the gracious feudal mind in “The Unvanquished.” If it was a neighborhood full of racy farmers and sly village yokels in “The Hamlet,” it was also the cesspool of “As I Lay Dying”; the futile, corrupt, festering village world of “Soldiers’ Pay” and “The Sound and the Fury”; the maniacal traditionalism, epic in scale, of “Absalom, Absalom!” If the South was a repository of a great frustrated tradition and charming memories, it was also—as he proved almost too well to be convincing— a symbol of all the hatred and terror in the world. In Faulkner’s mind the association was instinctive and violent: life was the South, and what he saw and remembered or was told of it exhausted the imaginative range and depth of the human mind for him. Like a Homeric battlefield, it was not only the center of the world’s stage, the polar symbol, but the very periphery of existence, that barrier of the imagination beyond which life could not be said to exist at all.

It was because he was so completely bound up in this tradition and yet hardly subject to it that Faulkner’s extraordinary intensity, the superabundance of which has often seemed profligate and mechanical, was turned directly upon the South in a hot and confused fury. In one sense, of course, his love and hatred for his native region were so inextricably fused that his passion became the struggle of the will against itself, the interlocked anguish and complacence and joy with which a man may hate the earth he stands on, yet hate himself most for his enmity. But another expression of his undivided will, even the suspension of will which went so far to explain his luxurious incoherence and euphuism, his need of a facile magnificence in rhetoric, was a driving and really fantastic vitality of mind, a virtuosity and ready inventiveness unsurpassed in modern writing. As a thinker, as a participant in the communal myth of the South’s tradition and decline, Faulkner was curiously dull, furiously commonplace and often meaningless, suggesting some ambiguous irresponsibility and exasperated sullenness of mind, some distant atrophy or indifference. Technically he soon proved himself inordinately subtle and ambitious, the one modern American novelist whose devotion to form has earned him a place among the great experimentalists in the novel and even in poetry. Yet this remarkable imaginative energy, so lividly and almost painfully impressed upon all his work, did not spring from a conscious and procreative criticism of society or conduct or tradition, from some absolute knowledge; it was the expression of that psychic tension in Faulkner which Sherwood Anderson had observed, and which, as his almost monstrous overwriting proves, was a psychological tic, a need to invest everything he wrote with a wild, exhilarated, and disproportionate intensity—an intensity which was brilliant and devastatingly inclusive in its energy, but which seemed to come from nowhere.

The problem that faces every student of Faulkner’s writing is its lack of a center, the gap between his power and its source, that curious abstract magnificence (not only a magnificence of verbal resources alone), which holds his books together, yet seems to arise from debasement or perplexity or a calculating terror. It is the gap between the deliberation of his effects, the intensity of his every conception, and the besetting and depressing looseness, the almost sick passivity, of his basic meaning and purpose. No writer, least of all a novelist so remarkably inventive and robust of imagination, works in problems of pure technique alone; and though it is possible to see in his books, as Conrad Aiken has shown, the marks of a writer devoted to elaboration and wizardry of form, who has deliberately sought to delay and obscure his readers so that the work may have a final and devastating effect, Faulkner’s “persistent offering of obstacles, a calculated system of screens and obtrusions, of confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays,” seems to spring from an obscure and profligate confusion, a manifest absence of purpose, rather than from an elaborate, coherent aim.

For while Faulkner has brought back into the novel a density of perception and elaboration of means unparalleled since Henry James, his passion for form has not been, like James’s, the tortuous expression of an unusual and subtle point of view; it has been a register of too many points of view, and in its way a substitute for a point of view. It is precisely because his technical energy and what must be called a tonal suggestiveness are so profound, precisely because Faulkner’s rhetoric is so portentous, that it has been possible to read every point of view into his work and to prove them all. To a certain type of social or moralist critic, his work seems at once the product of some ineffable decadence and a reluctant commentary upon it; to certain sympathetic Southern readers, notably George M. O’Donnell, Faulkner, has even seemed a traditional moralist, not to say a belated neo-Humanist, devoted to the “Southern soeialeconomic-ethical tradition which [he] possessed naturally as part of his sensibility”; to many critics and graduate students (no novelist has ever been so rich in citations), he has even seemed a new and distinctive philosophical voice in the novel. For Faulkner’s fluency, even his astounding fecundity, has been such that it is almost impossible not to take his improvisations for social philosophy, his turgidity for complexity, and even his passivity for a wise and reflective detachment. It is not strange that he has appeared to be all things to all men, and often simultaneously—a leading exponent of the cult of violence and a subtle philosophical force in the novel; a calculating terrorist and (as in “Sartoris”) a slick-magazine sentimentalist of the gladiola South; the most meticulous and misanthropic historian of the South’s degeneration and a country-store humorist; an Edgar Allan Poe undecided whether to play Bret Harte or Oswald Spengler.

He has been all things to himself. Like Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, he has in one sense been a provincial fastening upon universality, a provincial whose roots are so deep that the very depth and intensity of his immersion have made for a submarine cosmopolitanism of the spirit; his imagination is of itself so extraordinarily rich and uncontrolled, his conscious conceptions so few and indifferent, that he has been able to create an irony of a higher order than he himself shares.

For his imagination is not merely creative in the familiar sense; it is devastatingly brilliant, and at the same time impure; it is a kind of higher ventriloquism, a capriciousness at once almost too self-conscious in its trickery and inventive-ness, yet not conscious enough, not even direct or responsible enough, in its scope and deliberation.

” ‘I want you to tell me just one thing more,’ ” the young Canadian, Shreve McCannon, says to Quentin Compson in “Absalom, Absalom!” ” ‘Why do you hate the South?’ ‘I dont hate it,’ Quentin said quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I dont hate it,’ he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” By identifying all life with the South, by giving himself so completely to it, Faulkner showed why he could see all things in it and at the same time draw no clear design from it. His absorption was too complete; it was almost a form of abnegation. Accepting the South, hating it, memorializing it, losing himself in it, Faulkner was forced into a series of improvisations; and his need for pyrotechnics and a swollen Elizabethanism of rhetoric, his delight in difficulty and random inventiveness, became the expression of his need to impose some external intensity, an almost synthetic unity, upon his novels. The nerve-jangled harshness and self-conscious grandeur of his work show only one elaboration of that inner confusion, that compulsion to brood always at polar extremes; more significant has been his need to present almost all his characters at the unwavering pitch of absolute desperation and damnation, to expand everything to a size larger than life and to make it ambiguously more tragic, to represent everything, every life, every thought, every action, as something unutterably lost and doomed.

There is a pillar of darkness that moves between the Faulkner characters and the world—blotting out the sun, blotting out our simple and confident knowledge of his qualities and relations to others, blotting out their normality. But if this darkness is in one sense the equivalent atmosphere of Faulkner’s misanthropy and bitterness, it is also a mechanism, a stage apparatus, that provides an artificial medium within which his people move and suggests some secret and harried compensation for his failure. For what one always feels in even Faulkner’s greatest moments is not a lack or falsity of achievement; it is a power almost grotesque in its lack of relation to the situation or characters; it is a greatness moving in a void. From this point of view the mechanical damnation of his characters is not a valid projection of some conception of damnation which must include everything that draws breath in the South; it is a simple lack of flexibility, some cardinal stiffness or agony of imagination. It is significant to note that while Faulkner’s ability to create character has always been remarkably fluent and rich, his characters are not so much a succession of individuals freshly, directly visualized and created, as moulds into which the same fantastic qualities have been poured. They live, they live copiously and brilliantly; but they live by the violence with which Faulkner sustains them, by the sullen, screaming intensity which he breathes into them (often with all of Faulkner’s own gestures, fury, and raging confusion of pronouns), by the atmospheric terror that encloses them. They live because they are incredibilities in action, because they have been scoured by death before they reach the grave, so that one sees them always in the posture of some fantastic relinquishment and irrevocable agony, the body taut and the soul quivering with death. And if they seem forever to be watching and waiting in their own stupor, to be accumulated sensations rather than people having sensations, to be the same extreme sensations (the doctor in “The Wild Palms,” Quentin Compson and old Mr. Coldfield in “Absalom, Absalom!,” young Bayard in “The Unvanquished,” the young teacher in “The Hamlet,” Joe Christmas and almost everyone else in “Light in August”), is it not because they are personifications rather than human beings, and is not their astounding capacity for unhappiness and perdition a suggestion of some final awkwardness in Faulkner, his need to write and think in monotones?

Nervously alive, his characters are fundamentally not alive at all, not acting out individual parts, but seeming rather to he pure fantastic aggregates. They are multiform qualities acting out, participating in, the general myth of Faulkner’s creation, the jungle South, and it is significant that the darkness in which they live, the darkness through which they must always be grasped and pieced together, makes them appear curiously distant, refractions of refractions. In the end we seem always to be reading the same story, following through the familiar formula of damnation, conscious of the same mysterious submission—extraordinarily abject—to perdition. Yet though the energy that drives them along is torrential, we do not see them intensely; we see everything under conditions of intensity. It is precisely because Faulkner’s characters are charged with a vitality not their own that he is able to do everything with them except make us believe instinctively and absolutely in them. And it is precisely because Faulkner does not know too much about them himself, does not believe in them with sufficient consciousness of purpose, that he is forced into those leaping improvisations of language and incident, that nervous magnificence, which invests everything with epic grandeur that is suspiciously grandiose, that plots and strains and leaves us all too often with the mere fact of tumultuous exaggeration.

“It is with fiction as with religion,” Herman Melville wrote in “The Confidence-Man”; “it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” Even at its best, as in the portrait of old Mr. Coldfield in “Absalom, Absalom!,” Faulkner’s extraordinary nervous achievement seems rooted in something purely arbitrary, not to say synthetic. Old Mr. Coldfield had barricaded himself against the Civil War, had locked himself up and stolidly starved to death because he disapproved of the idea of waste—”of wearing out and eating up and shooting away material in any cause whatsoever.” The scene, the image created, is magnificently original, but it is grotesque. Faulkner carries it off with his usual high exhilarated energy; but while it is “convincing” on its own terms, it is an improvisation of pure fantasy and is basically unreal. So with the lyrical record of the love of the idiot Snopes in “The Hamlet” for his neighbor’s cow. The long dithyramb is at once clever mimicry and wry, gleeful sentimentality, an idealization that is mostly parody; yet though the mood is sustained almost too well, it is a caricature that mocks itself, a tour de force so calculating that it is corrupt. So with the extraordinary last scene in “The Sound and the Fury,” the famous—and more than a little cheap—coffin scene in “As I Lay Dying,” the whole scheme of “Sanctuary” (admittedly a “shocker”), the flight of the Negro slaves in “The Unvanquished” when the Confederate Armies are broken, the flood scene in “The Wild Palms.” There is always in Faulkner some final obsessive exaggeration, some half-careless, half-cynical grotesquerie, that spoils. And even when he opens upon a scene of complete sincerity and power, as in “Light in August,” with its unforgettable image of Lena Grove, pregnant, walking from Alabama to Mississippi, shoes in her hand, looking for her lover, everything is soon engulfed in boiling rhetoric and the impossible plot. Yet though Faulkner’s over-writing is usually a striving for total effect, for a kind of over-all intensity that springs hum the abundance and confusion of his extraordinary resources, he can caricature his best efforts by some unwilling inflection, as in the scene in “The Hamlet” (admittedly a scene of high comedy) where Mrs. Varner, vexed with her errant daughter and puritanical son, rages: “I’ll fix him. I’ll fix both of them. Turning up pregnant and yelling and cursing here in the house when I am trying to take a nap!” Not always unwillingly, of course; the fantastic duel between Charles and Henry in “Absalom, Absalom!” at the most critical juncture of the Civil War (love conquers all!), like so much else in Faulkner, suggests an element of protruding bad taste, often mere carelessness or indifference extending itself into vulgarity; and it suggests what almost every reader of Faulkner must feel at one time or another: his inability to choose between Dostoevsky and Hollywood Boulevard.

In the end one must always return to Faulkner’s language and his conception of style, for his every character and observation are lost in the spool of his rhetoric, and no more than they can he ever wind himself free. That rhetoric—the most elaborate, intermittently incoherent and ungrammatical, thunderous, polyphonic rhetoric in all American writing—explains why he always plays as great a role in his novels as any of his characters, to the point of acting out their characters in himself; why he has so often appeared to be a Laocoon writhing in all the outrageous confusions of the ineffable; why he has been able, correlating the South with every imagined principle and criticism of existence, writing in many styles, to project every possible point of view, every shade or extremity of character, and to persuade us of none. In one sense, of course, Faulkner has sought to express the inexpressible, to attain that which is basically incoherent in the novel and analogous only in the most intense mysticism in poetry, where sensations contract and expand like tropical flowers. Yet his novels are not poetry or even “poetic”; they are linked together by a sensational lyricism, itself forever in extremis and gasping for breath that, as Yeats said of rhetoric, is “an attempt of the will to do the work of the imagination.” For what one sees always in Faulkner’s mountainous rhetoric, with its fantastic pseudo-classical epithets and invertebrate grandeur, its merely verbal intensity and inherent motor violence, is the effort of a writer to impose himself upon that which he cannot create simply and evocatingly. It is the articulation of confusion rather than an evasion of it, mere force passing for directed energy. With all its occasional felicity and stabbing appropriateness of phrase, Faulkner’s style is a discursive fog, and it is not strange—so clever and ready is his style the advantage taken over confusion—that his extremities should seem intimations of grandeur and the darkness within which his characters move an atmosphere of genuine tragedy.

”By April,” we read of the idiot Snopes’s infatuation with the cow in “The Hamlet,” “it was the actual thin depthless suspension of false dawn itself, in which he could already see and know himself to be an entity solid and cohered in visibility instead of the uncohered all-sentience of fluid and nerve-springing terror alone and terribly free in the primal sightless inimicality,” Or Varner’s trip to Ab Snopes’s farm: “When he passed beyond the house he saw it—the narrow high frame like an epicene gallows, two big absolutely static young women beside it, who even in that first glance postulated that immobile dreamy solidarity of statuary (this only emphasised by the fact that they both seemed to be talking at once and to some listener—or perhaps just circum-ambience—at a considerable distance and neither listening to the other at all) even though one of them had hold of the well-rope, her arms extended at full reach, her body bent for the down pull like a figure in a charade, a carved piece symbolising some terrific physical effort which had died with its inception, though a moment later the pulley began again its rusty plaint. . . .” The point made, the evocation sought, have passed into endless convoluted variations; and even the incredibility of the scene (who was it that saw “that immobile dreamy solidarity of statuary”—a mean backwoods trader like Jody Varner?) seems less fantastic than the mechanical elaboration of the image. Faulkner’s perpetual need for some verbal splendor, a merely illustrative richness, always suggests some self-fascinated energy, not the moving intensity of a writer who throws the weight of his body into each word; and it is not strange that his most magnificent effects should so often seem pointless. So in “The Sound and the Fury” Quentin Compson ruminates on a classmate sculling on the Charles river alone; “Gerald would be sort of grand too, pulling in lonely state across the noon, rowing himself right out of noon, up the long bright air like an apotheosis, mounting into a drowsing infinity where only he and the gull, the one terrifically motionless, the other in a steady and measured pull and recover that partook of inertia itself, the world punily beneath their shadows on the sun.” .Tody Varner, taking his sister Eula to school, “had a vision of himself transporting not only across the village’s horizon but across the embracing prosecenium of the entire inhabited world like the sun itself, a kaleidoscopic convolution of mammalian ellipses.”

Yet why must everything in Faulkner’s novels be raised to its tenth power? Why must the idiot Snopes’s love agony become “starspawn and hieroglyph, the fierce white dying rose, then gradual and invincible speeding up to and into slack-flood’s coronal of nympholept noon?” Why must Rosa Coldfield’s hatred of men become “that fond dear constant violation of privacy, that stultification of the burgeoning and incorrigible ‘I’ which is the meed and due of all mammalian meat, become not mistress, not beloved, but more than even love. I become all polymath love’s androgynous advocate?” Why is it that the Faulkner country must always appear as “a shadowy miasmic region,” “amoral evil’s undeviating absolute,” a “quicksand of nightmare,” “the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death”? For the same reason, as it must appear, that despite his extraordinary talents no writer has ever seemed at once so ambitious and so purposeless, so overwhelming in imaginative energy and so thwarted in his application of it. A fanatic, as Santayana once said, is a man who redoubles his effort when he has lost sight of his aim; and even if it be admitted that Faulkner’s effort has been to express the inexpressible, to write the history of the unconscious, to convey some final and terrifying conception of a South that seems always to exist below water, the impression one always carries away from his novels is of some fantastic and devastating exertion of will, of that exaggeration which springs from a need to raise everything in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to its tenth (or its hundredth) power because there is not sufficient belief, or power, or ease in his conception of Yoknapatawapha County, or the South, or human existence in general. It is not strange then that his scene should always be some swamp of the spirit, or that his subject should always be murder, rape, prostitution, incest, arson, idiocy (with an occasional interpolation of broad country humor almost as violent as his tragedies) ; or that the country of his mind should be a Mississippi county larger than life, but not visibly related to it. Faulkner’s obsession has been agony, as his art has been the voice of that agony—the agony of a culture, his culture; but it has been even more the agony of his relation to that culture, the tormenting disproportion between his immersion in the South and his flinging, tumultuous efforts to project it. It has been the agony inherent in any effort to transcend some basic confusion by force of will alone. Faulkner’s corn-fed, tobacco-drooling phantoms are not the constituents of a representative American epic, protagonists in a great modern tragedy; they are the tonal expression of Faulkner’s own torment, the walking phantasmagoria, sensation beating against sensation, of his perpetual tension. No writer ever made so much of his failure; in no writer of his stature is the suggestion of some cardinal failure at once so ambiguous and so penetrating.


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