Printer Friendly

Absence Absolute: The Recurring Pattern of Faulknerian Tragedy.

Between the conception and the creation Between the emotion and the response Falls the Shadow Life is very long(1)

At the heart of Faulknerian tragedy lies the Shadow, the absolute absence of any other and complete alienation from the communion through which life and love flourish. In many Faulknerian tragedies, a character, at times a seemingly marginalized character, lies at the center of an abnegation of humanity so widespread that this corrupting condition defines the Void as the heart of tragedy. This corruption, through which all positive values are perverted, abrogates the capacity for and importance of any positive community-oriented values and results in its victims' inability to live lives that are other than those of the walking wounded or burnt-out zombies. The presence of the corrupt character who pervades the lives of the other characters and leaves them in a dystopic world, where nothing works as it should and decent people are few and far between, is crucial to the pattern which informs Faulkner's tragic novels.

Several concepts borrowed from anthropology will help clarify the nature of this crucial narrative pattern. As Elizabeth Pomeroy notes, "Seeking more encompassing modes of interpretation we turn to anthropology, with its concepts of culture, and to literary criticism, with its inquiry into signs, communication and genre."(2) Clifford Geertz defines culture itself through semiotics: "Believing ... that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be these webs, and the analysis of it.... [to be] an interpretive one in search of meaning."(3) Faulkner, the word weaver, the spinner of tales, fits well into a construct of culture as self-spun webs of significance. Most relevant here, Pomeroy discusses the concept of the aesthetic locus as defined in Jacques Maquet's Introduction to Aesthetic Archaeology. Maquet notes that no society "maintains an equally intense aesthetic interest in all things within its borders. There are certain privileged fields where awareness and performance are higher, where expectations and awareness converge. The class or classes of objects that are localized in these areas of heightened aesthetic consciousness constitute the aesthetic locus of a culture" (qtd. in Pomeroy, pp. 2-3). At first glance, the idea of an aesthetic locus, as it functions in Pomeroy's Reading the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with works by Faulkner. But Faulkner is often discussed in terms of culture, and the interpretation of signs is part of the basic literary toolbox for the dissection of texts.

If the concept of an aesthetic locus can be discussed in terms of "heightened aesthetic consciousness," which is the part of culture defined as "self-spun webs of significance," then the pattern I identify in the following novels reflects an identifiable aesthetic locus, in which the objects linked with the relevant characters serve to stimulate our "awareness" of Faulkner's tragic world. Faulkner consistently calls the reader's attention to a class of objects which heighten the significance of the characters responsible for the abnegation of humanity and the subsequent inability to live life other than in terms of Eliot's Void. I will argue that Faulkner's linkage of the objects associated with these seemingly peripheral characters serves to focus and heighten the reader's awareness of the tragic world of Faulkner's texts. The aesthetic loci used all invoke the heavily freighted signifiers of the culture of the Southland and thereby focus the reader's attention on the specific tragic pattern of the outsider, the marginalized character creating and driving the tragedy. The statue of Colonel Sartoris, the ancestral watch, the coffin, the garden, the shrimp, the greenbacks, the walking stick, the brogans, and the letters which serve to invoke the demons of the past are all emblematic of Faulkner's South.(4)

In Flags in the Dust (1929), the Void emanates, quite literally, from the dead in the graveyard, from the statue of Colonel John Sartoris, the novel's aesthetic locus. Colonel John Sartoris, though reduced to a piece of statuary, is a presence yet vital enough to dictate his descendants' point of view towards life as a Void. For the Sartorises, life is defined as time killed in a journey to the graveyard:
 Freed as he was of time, he was a far more definite presence in the room
 than the two of them cemented by deafness to a dead time and drawn thin by
 the slow attenuation of days. He seemed to stand above them, all around
 them, with his bearded, hawk-like face and the bold glamor of his dream.(5)


Death "showed on his brow, the dark shadow of fatality and doom" (p. 6), a cogent representation of the Void.

When Colonel John Sartoris cannot singlehandedly hold back the changes in his society, he chooses death. As Old Man Falls points out, when retailing Sartoris's killing of two carpetbaggers, "`When a feller has to start killin' folks, he `most always has to keep on killin' 'em. And when he does, he's already dead hisself'" (p. 6). Even though Sartoris has been elected to the legislature and owns a successful railroad, he is a walking dead man who cannot escape the past which is so strongly linked to the destructive myth of the South. Nor can his descendants. The sense of nullity created by this dysfunction inexorably sucks both Old and Young Bayard into the shadow of the graveyard, of the ever beckoning dead. Certainly the statue of Colonel Sartoris dominates the valley and serves to heighten our awareness of the Colonel's role in the novel. The death of Old Bayard at the hands of his son and Young Bayard's subsequent rush to self-destruction are inevitable from the moment that male Sartorises are defined by the "fateful fidelity" due the graveyard and the brooding presence which dominates their lives. It is impossible, reading Flags in the Dust, to disregard the overwhelming presence of this monument to Death; it is this statue that focuses the reader's attention on the Sartorises' inevitable doom.
 He [Colonel John Sartoris] stood on a stone pedestal, in his frock coat and
 bareheaded, one leg slightly advanced and one hand resting lightly on the
 stone pylon beside him. His head was lifted a little in that gesture of
 haughty arrogance which repeated itself generation after generation with a
 fateful fidelity, his back to the world and his carven eyes gazing out
 across the valley where his railroad ran and beyond it to the blue
 changeless hills, and beyond that. (pp. 365)


In sharp contrast to the reactionary male Sartorises, Aunt Jenny both participates in and reconstructs the mythology of the War Against Northern Aggression and The Glorious Cause, but she is well aware that the tattered banners, yet another set of aesthetic loci, have long since drooped and trailed in the dust. Aunt Jenny knows that the long dead Colonel John Sartoris, embodied and potently present in his statue, is the signifier and signified for the Sartoris family. Though she would like to believe in the possibility of change, she knows that the graveyard is the logical end for Sartoris males. As she says to Narcissa, Young Bayard's widow and mother of his posthumous son, "`Do you think ... that because his name is Benbow, he'll be any less a Sartoris and a scoundrel and a fool?'" (p. 370).

Flags in the Dust offers an early example of a central yet marginal character who exudes corruption, and even in this early work forebodings about the value of life figure centrally. The novel lacks tragic vision only because it concludes with a subversion of both tragedy and comedy. The posthumous birth of Young Bayard's son simultaneously subverts both the comedic and the tragic, rather like the birth of Oedipus to Jocasta and Laertes. On the one hand a child is born, not only a comedic motif but a reason for genuine rejoicing. On the other hand, he is doomed and cursed just as his father is doomed and cursed. We hardly know whether to laugh or weep. But with the statue of Colonel Sartoris lurking in the background, a heightened sense of doom prevails against which the talismanic naming outside of the tradition will be ultimately fruitless. What reason is there to believe that Benbow, reared within the same tradition as the other Sartorises, reared within the same shadow of the graveyard, will be other than a Sartoris? Against the powerful pull of the statue in the graveyard, the change in his first name signifies nothing.

In The Sound and the Fury (1929), Faulkner establishes more clearly the pattern of a marginal yet dominant character who is responsible for the corruption of life into death, and here the aesthetic locus is the watch. The watch, symbol of bound time, which cannot be effectively halted and which inexorably and remorselessly ticks away life, is Mr. Compson's favorite metaphor. In Maquet's terms, the watch is part of "a privileged field ... where expectations and efforts converge" (Pomeroy, p. 2). As with the statue, all the webs of significance which define the world view of the novel emanate from this one small, commonplace object, one that brings the characters and Faulkner's readers face to face with mortality.

It is no accident that Quentin opens his section of The Sound and the Fury with a comment on Time which not only defines his life in terms of an aesthetic locus, but also identifies the object, the ancestral watch, with the person:
 ... and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's
 and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope
 and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain
 the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual
 needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not
 that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a
 moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no
 battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only
 reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of
 philosophers and fools.(6)


The watch, said to be General Compson's, has the same connotations of death as the statue of Colonel Sartoris in Flags in the Dust. Both are reminders that death is the paramount web of significance in Faulkner, a web self-spun, which inexorably destroys the ability to live life on any positive communal terms. The watch as a ticking mausoleum aptly focuses attention on Mr. Compson's view of life as despair, and it is this metaphor, so closely linked with Compson, which drives Quentin to literal death.

In The Sound and the Fury, Mr. Compson poisons everyone with whom he interacts. So baneful is his very presence that he shrivels his entire family, all victims of his absence absolute. Many are the critics who have exhausted reams of paper analyzing Caroline Compson's blighting role in the novel. Cleanth Brooks, for example, considers her the sole and unmitigated source of the disaster which overtakes the Compson family and the cause of all the nullity in their lives:
 The basic cause of the breakup of the Compson family ... is the cold and
 self centered mother who is sensitive about the social status of her own
 family, who feels the birth of an idiot son as a personal affront, who
 spoils and corrupts her favorite son and who withholds any real love and
 affection from her other children and her husband. Caroline Compson is not
 so much an actively wicked and evil person as a cold weight of negativity
 which paralyzes the normal family relationships.... She is certainly at the
 root of Quentin's lack of confidence in himself and his inverted pride. She
 is at least the immediate cause of her husband's breakdown into alcoholic
 cynicism and doubtless she is ultimately responsible for Caddy's
 promiscuity. (Brooks, p. 131)


But behind Caroline lurks Mr. Compson. Although we lack a complete and contemporaneous Compson history, it is entirely possible that Caroline's mopes and megrims and incapacities too numerous to catalogue are the result of her marriage to Mr. Compson rather than the immediate cause of her family's blight. We do not know, after all, what Caroline was like before she came into the life-denying, love-denying, death-desiring orbit of Mr. Compson. Perhaps, due to his negative influence, she does believe that she has been cursed for her lack of family bloodlines by bearing Benjy. It is only relatively recently, after all, that Bettelheim's theory of maternal rejection as the cause of autism has been rethought and discarded. It is far from impossible that the cultural biases, of which she is a victim, in conjunction with Mr. Compson, have indeed laden her with a heavy burden of guilt which she must deny to herself. Perhaps, sucked into the maelstrom of Mr. Compson's negation of being, she has lost much of her ability to cope with life. Caroline, after all, sees Time as a future in which she lacks a claim; "I'll be gone soon" is a constant dirge (e.g., pp. 12, 60, 62, 103). A weak character? Yes. An intentionally destructive character? Perhaps. Or perhaps simply a woman who is incapable of giving more than a very small amount of aid or comfort to anyone because that ability to empathize, never large, has dwindled to almost nothing in the void created by Mr. Compson.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be as easily hypothesized about Mr. Compson. He is expert at offering the people in his family stones instead of bread. Perhaps he can do no better: to continue the analogy, one cannot offer bread unless there is a loaf in the house. Perhaps Mr. Compson has also had the ability to confront life leached out of him, but he is more active than Caroline in depriving his family of much needed coping mechanisms. When, for example, Caddy is attempting to "`slit his [.Jason's] gizzle,'" the only attempt that Mr. Compson can make at restoring order is to say, "`Stop that ... Do you want to make Mother sick in her room'" (p. 65). This attitude denies his responsibility and places the onus for good behavior on Caroline: "your mother's illness" is a weak ploy by a weak man. Thus Caroline's room-bound presence, another aesthetic locus in the novel's social network, seems to dominate the novel and control everyone's reactions. But behind Caroline lurks Mr. Compson.

However confused, perverted, and death-entangled Quentin's attitude towards Caddy may ultimately be, it at least partakes of an attempt at communion, a reaction against the Void postulated by Mr. Compson. Incest, however distasteful, is an attempt at living. Caddy's wanton promiscuity, however distasteful, is an attempt at living. Quentin's futile attempt to deny the expectations of his culture by destroying the watch is an attempt at living. Regrettably, both Caddy and Quentin see sex, a life-giving force, as linked to death and also, inevitably, to Time. As Caddy says, "When they touched me I died" (p. 149). Quentin cannot deal with his sister's loss of virginity except by killing her. Simultaneously, he sees himself as redeeming Caddy: "Only you and me then amid the pointing and the horror walled by the clean flame" (p. 117). This attitude both rejects and endorses the value of that community which Brooks sees as pivotal in Faulkner, and surely the "wall of flame" indicates enough of a separation from the norms of the community to constitute a tragedy.

Neither Quentin nor Caddy has received a code of values or conduct which might help them to grapple with their problems. When Quentin tries to articulate his dilemma, all that Mr. Compson can say is that "Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It's nature is hurting you not Caddy." Quentin's reply, "That's just words," and his father's ineffectual response, "So is virginity" (p. 116), sharply capture Mr. Compson's inability to provide his children with the wherewithal to confront life. Telling a seventeen-year-old that Life is a second-hand tragedy is not precisely helpful, as few seventeen-year-olds have had enough experience to recognize this sorry truth. In his interior monologue, Quentin recapitulates his father's words, and they are the very apotheosis of stones falling into hungry hands:
 Father said it's like death: only a state in which the others are left and
 I said, But to believe it doesn't matter and he said, That's what's so sad
 about anything: not only virginity and I said, Why couldn't it have been me
 and not her who is unvirgin and he said, That's why that's sad too; nothing
 is even worth the changing of it. (p. 78)


When the boys ask Quentin why he doesn't know the time, he answers, "`I broke it [his watch] this morning.'" When they ask what a watch like that costs, the answer, buried in the commonplace words, "`It was a present ... My father gave it to me when I graduated from high school'" (p. 119), is, of course, everything he might have been and had as well as a ticking mausoleum. Geertz's notion of "thick description," the process of "`disturbing' the piled up structures of inference and implication" (p. 7), works extremely well in The Sound and The Fury. Breaking the watch cannot break the bonds of culture represented by the watch. Quentin can only break these bonds, the self-spun threads in the web, through suicide, which ironically both rejects and affirms those very bonds.

Mr. Compson's retreat to a bourbon bottle is finally weaker than Caroline's response to their common problems. Caroline, for all her interminable whining and complaining and re-reconstructing of events, is at least an example of the mechanism of survival. One may question its worth--survival at the price of being Caroline may not be worth it--but she does not completely surrender to the Void. However catastrophic the results of her actions, however festooned with the trappings of woe and travail, however much we see "[a] face reproachful an odor of camphor and of tears a voice weeping steadily and softly," Caroline is the one "[b] ringing empty trunks down the attic stairs" (p. 95), the one taking action. That this action is cataclysmic is not the primary point. Faced with a crisis she makes an attempt to cope. She also does hold to certain beliefs, and the holding of those beliefs, however simplistic, does signify some type of engagement: "I was taught that there is no halfway ground that a woman is either a lady or not" (p. 103). Whether this simplistic world view is at all useful is, again, beside the point; it is, however lacking, an avowal of certain values. Mr. Compson's view that "a man is the sum of his misfortunes," that "time is your misfortune" (p. 104), that "all men are just accumulations dolls stuffed with sawdust swept up from the trash heaps" (p. 175), does not give his wife or children any reason to face life. The best a Compson can do, it seems, is to offer a code of abnegation and alienation. I am strongly reminded of Ezra Pound's parody, Mr. Housman's Message.
 Oh, woe, woe People are born and die We shall also be dead pretty soon
 Therefore let us act as if we were dead already.(7)


Humorous though this parody is, it exactly expresses Mr. Compson's complete alienation from life and his complete abdication from his roles as husband and father. Thus, while Caroline seems to be the destructive force in the novel, this perception is governed by Mr. Compson's complete abdication from his proper role. Behind these doomed people stands Mr. Compson, with his denial of the life-affirming values of community and his linked denial of the worth of living at all. Aptly and ironically, life for Mr. Compson and his family is a process of sound and fury which ultimately signifies nothing. Like the statue in Flags, the watch is a marker for death, which rivets the reader's attention on the essential worthlessness of life and community. And it is Mr. Compson who gives the watch to Quentin.

There is little need to search for an ,esthetic locus in Faulkner's next novel, As I Lay Dying (1930). The object which produces the heightened awareness and disturbs the piled layers of implication and inference through which the reader in search of meaning patiently sifts is the coffin which Cash Bundren so painstakingly assembles, sorting through the piles of lumber and assembling an object of significance for his mother. This coffin is the novel's central image, its most important single object: as such, I would argue, it inevitably creates the webs of significance in As I Lay Dying. Whatever culture the Bundrens have, whatever holds them together, centers on the boards and nails with which Cash embodies his mother. In an absurdly simple application of semiotics, the coffin signifies Addie, who is both signifier and signified. As Addie's attention is riveted on the coffin, which she can see being constructed through her window, so is the reader's attention heightened by the images of death and the coffin. How, the reader may wonder, can Cash make the coffin while she watches him? And how can she watch him? Like Colonel Sartoris and Mr. Compson, Addie is an embodiment of death, and the coffin, like the statue and the watch, is the inevitable end of life, the raison d'etre for waiting out a lifetime. It is the concrete embodiment of life as a journey to the boneyard.

It is Addie, in her morbid desire for intensity of meaning, in her warped and pathological need for communion, who is the poisoned well from which the Bundren clan draws their daily sustenance. The novel's tragic force derives from Addie's impossible expectations (impossible because no one can ever measure up to her expectations just as no one can ever measure up to her baking), from her refusal to compromise, coupled with her inability to see any situation in terms other than inky black or pearly white. Addie's father taught her the lesson well: "the reason for living," he used to say, "was to get ready to stay dead a long time."(8) Addie has, of course, started to die long before the ten days during which her body actually putrefies. The Addie Bundren we encounter is vitiated by the Shadow, which indeed has fallen between Addie and common humanity.

Addie says that Anse is dead and readers often accept Anse's "death" as truth. But whose truth--that of a woman who finds communion through flogging and bloodletting? Anse is dead in Addie's eyes because he cannot perform according to Addie's impossibly high standards. Although many readers view Addie as doing all in her power to escape the Void, in effect she embraces the Void because her refusal to compromise, to see any common ground between herself and the common run of humanity, leaves no possibility of meaningful communion. And any character who rejects communion so totally that a coffin serves as the metaphor for her life ipso facto embraces the Void. For what else is the Void but a refusal of communion? What community will Addie accept other than the graveyard in Jefferson?

The black widow, an arachnid very prevalent in the South, is an apt metaphor for Addie, especially when one considers the concept of webs of self-spun significance. So she "took Anse" (p. 170): so she sucked him dry: so she discarded him. Forever on the hunt for new victims to fill the unfillable Void, to slake her unappeasable need, she preys upon her own children, who are in turn sucked dry and released to cope as best they can in a loveless world. Even Cash, the child with whom she felt both violated and completed, can only commune with her by making her coffin and making it well. I would argue that Cash has side-stepped the Void by transmuting Addie's impossible expectations into those of precise accuracy in the everyday world. Embedded in his comment that he once fell "twenty-eight feet, four and a half inches" (p. 90) is his attempt, far from comic, to construct a bulwark of precision between himself and Addie. What he can do for her will be done and done well, but he understands that he cannot fulfill Addie. His comment that bad materials are no excuse for bad work implicitly recognizes boundaries. The locus he constructs for his mother will, indeed, be as aesthetic as he can possibly make it. There is nothing else he can do for a woman who sees life as a dress rehearsal for death.

Thus, like Mr. Compson, who functions as the corruption at the center of the Compsons, Addie is the agent of destruction for her family. Both she and Mr. Compson, in their embrace of the Void, where life is defined as nothing more than the antechamber to the worms, and in their subsequent and inexorable denial of the value of struggling with life, are the main cause of the dysfunction and ensuing destruction of various members of their respective families. Thus, though Addie and Mr. Compson may seem to exist at opposite ends of the human spectrum, one desiring communion at any price and the other shunning it as though it were leprous, there is no real difference in their ultimate rejection of such intimacy, as may be clearly seen in their effect on their families. Caddie and Dewey Dell turn to promiscuity, Quentin and Darl to self-destructive actions, and Jason and Jewel to material objects, while Vardaman and Benjy can only function on another plane of being. Only Cash is somewhat exempt from this destructive paradigm, but then Cash originally filled the Void in Addie before her essential bitterness engulfed her. It is this dysfunction, this sense of total abnegation, which fuels and defines the tragic vision in As I Lay Dying.

In Sanctuary (1931), corruption runs so rampantly that locating the character responsible for it is an Augean task. Virtually every character is corrupt or inept. To further complicate matters, there are several characters who fit the pattern of a marginal character who spreads the corruption, however far from the center of the novel. Popeye's absent father fits well within the mold. He is not only absent but syphilitic. Were his father not both diseased and irresponsible, Popeye might have become a different person. Certainly, if Popeye had not been corrupted by his diseased father, he might have been able to function in a normal manner sexually; consequently, he might not have compensated for this inability by sublimating sex into rape and voyeurism. As Temple Drake points out "`you had to bring a real man in to--And you hanging over the bed, moaning and slobbering like a--You couldn't fool me but once, could you? No wonder I bled and bluh--'".(9) Much of the evil might then have been avoided, for much of the action in this novel stems from Popeye's twisted and warped sexuality. Another possibility is that archetype of "good women," Narcissa Benbow Sartoris. Her corruption is in some ways worse than that of Popeye's father, because it is sheathed in impenetrable righteousness and proper social attitudes. Her betrayal of her brother Horace for her own sanctimonious ends and her outright loathing of Mrs. Goodwin--"to bring a street-walker, a murderess, into the house where I was born" (p. 114)--betray an inability to recognize those elements most basic to human beings. Narcissa's refusal to extend even the barest charity to Mrs. Goodwin and her half-dead baby and the behind-the-scenes maneuvers to make sure no one else does so either are infinitely more inhuman than streetwalking or even outright murder. Narcissa, living as she does within herself and the Sartoris house, constrained by the boundaries of the garden, her aesthetic locus, is an exemplar of indifference, of the absence of any other. But it is finally Judge Drake who functions as a being so corrupt that we, who have already understood there is physical corruption and social corruption, now understand that the entire body politic is corrupted. It is not just the syphilitic father, the outraged "good woman," but the entire system. In a society as totally corrupt as the one defined by Drake, who has clearly orchestrated the trial, how could any basic human values survive? Characters like the Snopeses with their color-blind banknotes draw corruption as fresh cowpies draw flies, but when there is no single aesthetic locus by which we can measure justice, then the corruption is complete. The corruption finally leaches away any vague semblances to humanity, leaving the sullen and discontented Temple Drake in the Luxembourg Gardens, gazing into her self-referential compact, "vanquished in the embrace of the season of rain and death" (p. 309), and Horace Benbow hauling boxes of leaking shrimp back to the wife to whom he is an absence, a non-entity. Both these self-referential objects function to heighten our awareness of the culture within which both characters are trapped. Horace Benbow is no less in the embrace of the Void than is Temple Drake; the only difference is that he understands his Void.

In Light in August (1932), the aesthetic loci which define the culture are Old Doc Hines's walking stick, with which he beats Joe Christmas, and Christmas's various belongings, through which we see how he defines himself and changes identity within his culture. Hines's walking stick is an especially privileged symbol. Only the upper class, after all, can carry a walking stick and use it to beat "niggers" with impunity. Doc Hines may live in a Negro shanty and be fed by these same people for whom he has such contempt, but the walking stick is still privileged. When Christmas wishes to define himself as black, to change his identity, he exchanges two significant objects. After he murders Joanna Burden with a razor (and not with the gun, the white man's weapon), he discards the privileged weapon, the weapon which she would have used on him, and also exchanges his shoes for brogans. These brogans are especially significant. Joe not only throws the dogs off, if such is his intention; he throws off his white identity as well.
 [Joe Christmas] paused there [at the cotton house] only long enough to lace
 up the brogans: the black shoes, the shoes smelling of negro.... Looking
 down at the harsh, crude, clumsy shapelessness of them... It seemed to him
 that he could see himself being hunted by white men at last into the black
 abyss which had been waiting, trying, for thirty years to drown him and
 into which now and at last he had actually entered, bearing now upon his
 ankles the definite and ineradicable gauge....(10)


Quite obviously, the brogans are the signifiers of slavery: Joe Christmas could not be more openly fettered if he indeed bore a ball and chain upon his ankles. And he puts them on his feet himself.

If we approach Light in August through these cultural artifacts, we see that Faulkner moves even farther away--light years away, in fact--from the normal human capacity for compassion when he creates Old Doe Hines, a character who, more than Mr. Compson, Addie, or any of the characters in Sanctuary, is at the center of corruption. Hines is evil absolute, the heart of darkness, in this work. We do not know what drives Hines, any more than we can always understand what drives Faulkner's other characters, but nowhere else do we see the unremitting level of inhumanity absolute which characterizes Hines. Joe Christmas may or may not be responsible for the evil he carries out; Hines, however, is depicted from the very beginning as remorselessly and completely corrupted and corrupting. Joe Christmas has approximately as much control over his ultimate actions as a wind-up doll headed for the edge of the table, for Hines has wound him up and set him loose and eagerly awaits the crash. Indeed, by means of his "street corner preachin'," he actively promotes the crash. It is this intentionality--and our ability to perceive it--which sets Hines apart from Faulkner's other characters. We may pity Mr. Compson, or Addie, or Temple Drake, or even Popeye, but Old Doc Hines stands outside the human condition. We can only loathe him and pity his victims. From his deliberate murder of his daughter, and possibly his daughter's lover, to his deliberate intervention to define Joe as black, to his refusal to mitigate his wife's concerns and his deliberate attempts to get his own grandson lynched, we see no mitigating circumstances to his corruption, no reading that will soften his corrosive hatred. "'Bitchery and abomination! Abomination and bitchery!'" (p. 361) are the watchwords by which he defines the world. This set, irrational, and unrelenting hatred of everyone except white Southern males like himself inevitably contaminates the entire world of the novel. Nor, aside from his unbalanced and unproven conviction that Joe Christmas has black blood, is there anything resembling a motivation for his actions. "'Aint I made evil to get up and walk God's world? A walking pollution in God's own face I made it.... This is the sign, wrote again in woman-sinning and bitchery'" (p. 128). Such a character is not only a creature of the Void, of' absence absolute, but also a malevolent force within the novel, who can do nothing but destroy. Not only does Hines actively participate in the abnegation of humanity: in his total corruption he foments and encourages this abnegation of humanity. And from his singleminded and fanatical insistence on Joe Christmas's black blood and blacker sin comes the tragedy of Light in August. When Joe Christmas identifies himself as Negro, he is actually doing nothing more than acquiescing to old Doc Hines's machinations. The walking stick, symbolic of a vanished and vanquished aristocratic class, speaks as loudly as the razor and brogans as the ultimate significations of identity. Like a slave owner of old, Hines does indeed beat and kill his grandson with impunity.

Finally, in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), the corrupting influence is a more central character, Thomas Sutpen, "a man who so far as anyone (including the father who was to give him a daughter in marriage) knew either had no past at all or did not dare reveal it--a man who rode into town out of nowhere."(11) Sutpen's essential corruption, his inability to understand that the past can neither be buried nor invented, that one cannot have a "receipt" for common decency in lieu of the thing itself, informs Absalom, Absalom!
 "... it was that innocence again [Sutpen's], that innocence which believed
 that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie or cake
 and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put
 them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could
 come out....`You see, I had a design in my mind." (p. 211-212)


Sutpen intends to realize this design built on a class of people who are never more than objects to him, and this is one of the aesthetic loci by which we are intended to realize Sutpen's corrupting influence. As he says to General Compson in his long, self-exculpatory monologue: "'I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family--incidentally of course, a wife'" (p. 212; emphasis added). And when this new design does not work out to his specifications, he "merely explained how this new fact [his wife's putative black blood] rendered it impossible that this woman and child be incorporated in my design" (p. 212).

Sutpen probably has no idea even what General Compson means when he hollers, "'Conscience? Conscience?'" (p. 213). His inability to see people as anything other than blocks for his design causes all the grief and tragedy in Absalom, Absalom!. His comment on Millie, which results in his untimely scything, is merely the last time he treats people as objects. The aesthetic loci by which tragedy is further defined in Absalom are the novel's letters. These pathetic remnants from a time of hope weave a web of significance throughout Absalom. The words "I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those who are doomed to live" (p. 105) echoes throughout. This idea of being "doomed to live," with all its attendant and pathetic irony, resonates throughout Absalom, because Quentin, who leaves letters to the living, cannot stand the very idea of being thus doomed. Quentin's strange and reluctant absorption in trying to make sense of Sutpen's highly ambiguous life story, his unavailing attempts to reweave those webs of significance which impose meaning on life, and his ultimate failure are what drive him to suicide. He sees the design, the South, reaching out its sticky tendrils to weave him within it, and finally this is not to be borne. Thus it is not too much to say that Sutpen's final victim is a seventeen-year-old born long after Sutpen's very bones have mouldered in the graveyard, which, as so often in Faulkner, forms yet another locus for the action. Surely it would be no surprise if Quentin's grave, and Addie's grave, and Joe's grave, and Charles Bon's grave, and Sutpen's grave, etc., were overlooked by the statue of Colonel John Sartoris, so endemic are death, waste, and destruction in Faulkner's fictional world.

Thus, Faulkner's novels challenge and widen the traditional view of tragedy. In many of his works, action accomplishes nothing: no action solves a problem or changes anything. In the cultural view Faulkner espouses, tragedy exists because none of the characters who people his novels can make any essential difference to the community. But this lack of resolution, this sense of character after character stumbling into the Abyss, is precisely what makes for Faulknerian tragedy. The stasis so unacceptable to the Greeks works to define a modern cultural view that is no less tragic than Antigone's premature burial or Oedipus's dramatic blinding. Such heroic choices are no longer valid in this culture, but this lack of heroic action, of the binary "either-or," does not preclude tragedy. It is equally tragic to struggle helplessly against forces that are so enervating and so consuming that one has, in the end, nothing to fall back on save the uncaring community and the unendurable knowledge that nothing one does is ultimately worth doing.

Recognition of the aesthetic loci, however subliminal and unaware and unarticulated, works to draw the reader into Faulkner's world, which both mediates and forces a response. The concrete object, with its freighting of signs, signifiers and signifieds, and its connections to the webs of significance which Faulkner spins, focuses the reader on how these self-spun webs, which embrace the individuals and their culture, work as well to delineate the tragic pattern. Although readers may no longer be able to engage absolutely with the early-twentieth-century Southern culture which Faulkner recreates in his dystopic world, we can yet recognize those characters as our kin and their world as ours. Thus the importance of the aesthetic loci which consistently work to direct the reader's attention to the manner in which the outcast or the pariah opposes or challenges society, and is frequently destroyed by the encounter. Tragedy is Bayard coming home and marrying to keep the line going, while his true being is given to the dead; tragedy is Quentin fighting helplessly, essentially unarmed, against a culture which will inevitably consume and destroy him; tragedy is Doc Hines manipulating the strings while Joe Christmas thinks he is making viable choices. Not the individual characters themselves, but the mass effect of character after character falling into Eliot's eloquent Void creates Faulknerian tragedy, a form to which Faulkner returned again and again as he sought to do justice to his darkest insights.

(1) T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, in ?he Complete Poems of T. S. Eliot (New York: Harcourt, 1971), p. 56.

(2) Elizabeth W. Pomeroy, Reading the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (Hamden: Archon Books, 1989), pp. 2-3.

(3) Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 5.

(4) Cleanth Brooks's view of Faulkner's works has something in common with the notion of the marginalized character driving and defining the action, which I argue is crucial to a reading of Faulkner as tragic. The tragic pattern Brooks initially discusses is that of the outsider, the pariah, who, like Milton's Lucifer, knows it is "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven," a willful exile from the concept of community. For Brooks, Faulkner's works are informed by the impossibility of "reintegration," by the lack of gut knowledge of one's identity within the community, and by the attendant peril to the outsider who challenges the norms of the community. Despite this, however, Brooks sees much of Faulkner's work as essentially comedic. He argues that the long and detached view which Faulkner tends to take inevitably undermines tragedy; he further notes that the idea of man enduring all and surviving defines the works as comedic: "Tragedy always concerns itself with the individual, his values, his tragic encounter with the reality around him and the waste which he suffers in his defeat. Comedy involves, on the other hand, the author's basic alignment with society and with the community" (The Yoknapatawpha Country [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963], p. 131). Ironically, Brooks points to the tragedy in much of Faulkner's work. Using Brooks's definitions, I would argue that these works are tragic with some savagely comic elements rather than comic with tragic elements. In "Faulknerian Tragedy: The Example of As I Lay Dying," Mississippi Quarterly, 47 (Summer 1994), 403418, Robert Merrill also notes that As I Lay Dying is often misconstrued as a comic text, when in fact it is one of the most tragic of Faulkner's novels.

There have been several other attempts to capture the essence of Faulknerian tragedy. In Reading Faulknerian Tragedy (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), Warwick Wadlington argues that Faulkner cannot be read through the previously accepted view that pathos precludes tragedy. Wadlington sees tragedy and pathos as occurring simultaneously in Faulkner's works, and further disagrees with the idea that absolute, binary opposition is central to tragedy. Aristotelian tragedy is an either-or, for-or-against structure, which necessarily allows no room for compromise or passivity, whereas modern tragedy such as Faulkner's is rooted in more complicated assumptions. Wadlington further argues that the reader, by an active, polyphonic reading, constructs the tragedy. It is this partnership, this immersion of the reader in the text, that allows catharsis to take place. The tragic pattern I will identify and discuss helps to focus the reader on the tragic qualities of the characters.

John H. Duvall's Faulkner's Marginal Couple: Invisible, Outlaw and Unspeakable Communities (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990) also proposes that the concept of polyphony is necessary to an understanding of Faulknerian tragedy. Duvall argues that, semiotically speaking, a community consists of two people and an utterance, a view which substantially widens the definition of a community. This wider definition and these marginal communities speak to the reader about the existence within the Void, at the margins and peripheries of the community. Duvall contends that Faulkner's "alternative communities" contradict Brooks's argument that Faulkner favors the sanctity of the conventional family and the community. Accepting Duvall's argument that these "alternative communities" exist to call into sharp question not only the "Southern Agrarian" ideals but also the perceived cohesiveness of community, we should not be surprised that these alternative communities invariably end tragically. Neither Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden's relationship nor Lee Goodwin and Ruby Lamar's relationship can exist without challenging the communal mores so severely that death and the dissolution of the bond are the only possible alternatives. Temple Drake's relationships with Red and Popeye are so clearly beyond the social pale that, once again, death is the only possible solvent. Judith and Charles Bon can be sundered by nothing less than a bullet, and the metonymic scythe wielded by Wash Jones puts paid to Sutpen. It is the voices of the outlaws and outcasts, those voices on the margins of the community as well as the objects associated with them, which define the tragedy in the texts. My reading emphasizes the role of the aesthetic loci and the characters who employ these objects of heightened significance to emphasize Faulkner's tragic vision.

(5) William Faulkner, Flags in the Dust (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 5.

(6) William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Vintage International, 1990), p. 76.

(7) Ezra Pound, Mr. Housman's Message, in The Riverside Anthology of Literature, 2nd ed., ed. Douglas Hunt (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), p. 630.

(8) William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (New York: Vintage International, 1990), p. 169.

(9) William Faulkner, Sanctuary (New York: Vintage International, 1993), p. 231.

(10) William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: Vintage International, 1990), p. 331.

(11) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1990), p. 10.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:HOLLAND-TOLL, LINDA J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1998
Words:7514
Previous Article:William Spratling, William Faulkner and Other Famous Creoles(*).
Next Article:Jim Bond's America: Denaturalizing the Logic of Slavery in Absalom, Absalom!
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters