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Faulkner’s Self-Characters

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980
Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography. By Judith Bryant Wittenberg. Nebraska. $17. 50.

A John Steinbeck gallivanted around Europe in search of the historical Malory, he became convinced that La Morte d’ Arthur was a novel, and that Malory had unconsciously figured himself in it:

A novel may be said to be the man who writes it. Now it is nearly always true that a novelist, perhaps unconsciously, identifies himself with the one chief or central character in his novel. Into this character he puts not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be. We can call this spokesman the self-character. You will find one in every one of my books and in the novels of everyone I can remember. It is most simple and near the surface in Hemingway’s novels. The soldier, romantic, always maimed in some sense, hand—testicles. These are the symbols of his limitations. I suppose my own symbol character has my dream wish of wisdom and acceptance.

If this insight—that novel-writing is inescapably autobiographical—has become the point of departure for a new wave of critical speculation, it is because we have finally embraced the “fallacies” that the New Critics once denounced. Attention and intention are the experiences we now subject to interpretation, and what it feels like to be a reader or an author has become a legitimate subject of critical concern. Few authors have been as intent as William Faulkner, as he himself claimed, “to blue pencil everything which even intimates that something breathing and moving sat behind the typewriter which produced the books.” And yet few authors have produced work, as Judith Wittenberg argues, so “capable of being read in its chronological totality as an autobiographical document.” In Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography, she gives the Faulkner industry what it has been waiting for— a coherent account of the career as a sustained act of selfjudgment and self-forgiveness.

This developmental study claims that Faulkner “learned to render the conflicting currents of his own mental life in pairs or even trios of close but contrasted and often warring characters.” Rather than reducing Faulkner’s self-projections into a Quentin or a Bayard, Wittenberg proliferates the author’s possible avatars into a disarmingly encompassing list. As the book proceeds, it becomes apparent that the characters who cannot be assimilated into these pairs and trios prove the exception rather than the rule. A few stand in for Estelle (Cecily Saunders), or Dean (young John Sartoris), or for John W. T. (Old Bayard), but the large majority reveal themselves as the multiple vehicles of a single tenor—Faulkner himself. We are not surprised when it is argued that “Faulkner was occasionally plagued by a sense of the effeteness of art and this attitude is manifested in his portrait of Horace Benbow.” We are surprised and illuminated when the discussion of The Wild Palms not only reads the book as an ambivalent record of the affair with Meta Carpenter but argues that Faulkner “threw himself into the affair like Harry Wilbourne, then escaped like the tall convict.” But we are a bit taken aback when it is claimed that Benjy “has a great deal of psychologically symbolic importance as a mirror of Quentin, and hence, in exaggerated fashion, of Faulkner himself.” And we may be flabbergasted when Flem Snopes receives the nod as that character who figures forth his author’s late ambivalence about sponsorship of relatives and his growing acquisitiveness. What we encounter here is a multipicity verging upon anonymity. If Faulkner is truly this mercurial in objectifying himself in character, he may be less the obsessed artist than the free-floating one, the Shakespeare spoken of by Borges:

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one.

Such a man, “proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one” is entitled not to what we normally call biography, but, as Borges puts it, to the title of “Everything and Nothing.”

Of course Wittenberg does not believe that Faulkner shares Shakespeare’s negative capability, however much her method may seem to commit him to a histrionic rather than a selfhaunted imagination. Work here is seen as a function of the life, and it is experience which is privileged over imagination by virtue of its priority and uniqueness. Life not only happens first, it happens once, and thus has some power to restrain the mind’s prodigal instinct toward transfiguration. Childhood is naturally raised by such assumptions to a determining position. The trouble with Faulkner’s childhood, however, is that we are yet to find in the historical record of it an objective correlative for Faulkner’s bleak portrayals of human beginnings. His imaginative response to childhood is in excess of the facts as they appear. Wittenberg is careful in her claims about the record: “Faulkner’s childhood was superficially stable but fraught with minor disruptions and underlying tensions that deeply disturbed the sensitive boy who experienced them.” She cites two early years as pivotal. In 1902, young William had to endure transplantation from Ripley to Oxford, the incursion of Lelia Butler, and the addition to the family of the loving but unpredictable Caroline Barr. In 1907, his two grandmothers died, the family remained peripatetic, and Dean, whose temporary cradle cap and permanent charm would monopolize his mother’s attention, was born. These are facts (and Wittenberg cites others) but not particularly earthshaking ones. They certainly do not predict an imagination drawn to the agonies of a Benjy Compson. Wittenberg cautions that the early years should not be depicted as an “endless emotional maelstrom.” Yet her subsequent argument depends upon the assumption that Faulkner’s mature self-characters express his strong sense of early trauma.

One simply cannot make a strong case for Faulkner’s “unhappy childhood” on the facts. The mature fiction provides the best evidence for such a possibility, but in assuming it, we should not forget that we are reasoning from symptom to cause. Wittenberg may not allow sufficient room for the notion that Faulkner’s works fantasize a possible biography rather than transfigure an actual one. In her discussion of the parallels between Mrs. Compson’s treatment of Quentin and Maud Faulkner’s treatment of William, she states that “the one psychoanalyst to whom Faulkner ever consented to talk concluded that the author felt his mother had given him all too little emotional sustenance (B, p. 1454).” Blotner is cited as source here, but this is the passage from Blotner: “Wortis felt that Faulkner might not have received enough love from his mother, but when he tried to touch on this area the patient refused even to talk about it.” This refusal scarcely constitutes sufficient evidence for the diagnosis. What is pure surmise on the part of the psychoanalyst is presented by Wittenberg, via Blotner, as if it were a scientific conclusion. Few Faulkner scholars may doubt the validity of the surmise, but they may question Wittenberg’s strategy of trying to authenticate an unhappy childhood as cause of Faulkner’s later view of the family.

Wittenberg is most compelling when she documents the transfigurations of adult experiences which very likely occurred. Her most daring chapter is reserved for Sanctuary. The novel proves a “Bleak Epithalamion” for Faulkner’s marriage. “It is not utterly clear” that even after waiting ten years, Wittenberg suggests, “Faulkner truly wanted to marry Estelle.” Horace Benbow expresses Faulkner’s sense of belatedness when he muses that “when you marry somebody else’s wife, you start off maybe ten years behind, from somebody else’s scratch and scratching.” And Popeye carries Faulkner’s fear of physical inadequacy: “It is possible that the author himself was struggling either with actual impotence or fears thereof which he attempted to exorcise by creating and then annihilating his frightening gangster figure. Popeye has a curiously striking physical resemblance to Faulkner. He is short, carries his body stiffly, has dark eyes, “little doll-like hands,” a nose that is “aquiline,” and almost “no chin at all” (2)—terms that would all be used to describe the author.” Wittenberg admires the courage it took to write the book out of “the psychic nadir Faulkner had reached as he confronted his own situation.” Fair enough. The question remains whether this particular self-characterization achieves coherence for its audience as well as catharsis for its author. Given Wittenberg’s further claim that “It is as though Faulkner’s worries had become so intense that he had lost the ability to diagnose and to attribute,” it might have been better for his art for Faulkner to have kept silent.

This book is as capacious in sympathy as it is streamlined in form. It is imaginative about everything except Faulkner’s language. The typology of character may leave little room for rhetorical analysis, but any full-length study of Faulkner’s development would necessarily seem hinged to an understanding of the ways in which psychic stances each appropriate their own style. Surely each advance in the journey demands a new battery of defenses, of tropes and rhythms. Wittenberg ventures one sentence on the technique of Pylon and Absalom, Absalom!: “ In each Faulkner uses a poetic style in which the theme of the elusiveness of truth is underscored by submersive language and rich imagery so that everything is suggested, nothing defined.” This is fine as far as it goes, but Wittenberg never inducts us through a passage so as to show that the reader achieves his sense of Faulkner’s self-characters through a linguistic medium. Faulkner’s ideal critic would be one willing to speculate on psychological themes and to apply the tools of affective stylistics. When Wittenberg claims that in Absalom “ the reader is virtually sucked into the narrative and surrounded by the taletellers,” she acknowledges that reading is the process during which any grasp of character can be said to emerge. But her comment is a metaphoric invocation, not an analytical description. If style alone is immortal, we get no sense here of why Faulkner’s work has lived on.

In reading Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography, we discover its author’s psychic stance (as a biographical critic) to be that of a late comer, her defense against this a receptive introjection, and her recurring rhetorical strategy a proleptic substitution of a later version of the life story for earlier ones. “I am happy to acknowledge a large indebtedness, both general and specific, to those who have written about Faulkner’s life, whether in personal or in formally biographical terms. Chief among them is Joseph Blotner, whose Faulkner: A Biography has been an indispensable resource.” These are Wittenberg’s first words. Blotner’s 1, 846 pages are rapidly becoming a text indistinguishable in their inevitability from the Faulkner canon. Many of us have been critical of Blotner’s methods and sense of proportion: too critical, perhaps, to acknowledge the debt we owe him. So let me acknowledge here what I did not find a way to say in my formal discussion of Blotner: his biography has the utter trustworthiness of raw material. It constitutes a vast preserve for future scholarship, without in any way limiting, so grand is its shapelessness, the directions that work might take. In reading the biography we are free to refigure it into our own novel, and so to make of Faulkner whatever “self-character” we hope to be. Blotner’s book may be the most inadvertently “speculative” reading of all, so conscious are we, when we gaze into it, of a mirror which reflects simply ourselves.


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