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Existential-Phenomenological Readings on Faulkner.

The very title of William J. Sowder's gives one pause. Why "existential-phenomenological" when the former is a contrast between momentary existence and a more permanent essence (often delusory) and the second is about the way we see - that is, either a philosophy or a psychology based on perception and (secondarily) conception (which involves interpretation)? Sowder begins by giving the usual tribute to "the modern school of phenomenology" founded by Husserl, but then displaces him, occasionally with Merleau-Ponty (who is much more useful to stylistic criticism, and to understanding Faulkner) and, most often, Sartre. But there are also a number of other philosophers scattered about the book, in no ascertainable order and to no incremental or persuasive effect. What we are told, tucked within all this window dressing, this parade of Stars, is that Faulkner and "existential-phenomenologists" - whoever and whatever they are - share the same fundamental concern: to describe "the human being in the act of being-the act of intending" (p. xiv).

Well, maybe and maybe not. Benjy, who is the subject of the first chapter, is described as someone who "could not bring figure and ground together" (p. 5), who perceives but does not conceive. Neither, of course, is intention; both figure and ground, in fact, cannot exist as such until conceived. But "Benjy's body was phenomenologically deaf to all but the simplest sounds; his body could provide words with neither physiological nor conceptual significance" (p. 7) so that it would seem intention is beyond him, or, if he has intention, it is coterminous with instinct. But as the chapter goes on, we learn that his perceptions latch onto Caddy's dress, and he cried when he perceived Charlie fondling it; or that the red flag on the neighboring golf course reminded Benjy of the red tie of Miss Quentin's "lover." These, of course, are not intentions - but they are also not perceptions; they are examples of associational reaction which is, at heart, interpretive and conceptual. Benjy's molestation of the neighbor girl, the example given at some length on p. 16, is another instance, as the chapter gives us throughout, of such conceptualizations.

The second chapter, "Flem and His Ilk," discusses Flem, I.O., and Saint Elmo Snopes as persons who are characterized, and who in turn characterize others, as mere functions: they are automatons, machines, whose dynamic performance is predictable, habitual, and utilitarian. This may be true, but the observation is made essential, not existential, and if it is phenomenology, it is so in a strange way.

Joe Christmas offers Sowder considerably more room for interpretation. With Joe, he writes, Faulkner "gives us a classic existential-phenomenological view of a man struggling unsuccessfully to come to terms with other men and, important for this study, his struggle makes clear the original ground where all such struggles take place: pride, shame, and fear" (p. 41). Beyond the surprising reductionism of this notion, one might think that Joe struggles far more with himself than with others and that the others, in any case, from Bobbie onwards, are women and not men. Yet the triad of pride-shame-fear, lifted untouched and misunderstood from Being and Nothingness, is "the compositional center of the novel" (p. 42). The argument is perhaps well illustrated in Sowder's treatment of the first of these: "Pride offers us protection from others, and whatever its ultimate manifestation - intellectual, moral, religious - it is first of all a body phenomenon" (pp. 42-43).

Sowder's study is organized around characters in order, he says, to sense Faulkner's development, a rather strange principle since the early and late (Caddy, Temple, Charlotte) can be combined as one in a single chapter, the Bundrens follow Lucas and Ike, and the book concludes with a chapter on the main characters in A Fable. Sowder is helpful when he discusses Mink Snopes as one who dismisses the real world - perceptually or conceptually - to replace it with a magical world of his own making, but I find it difficult to agree that Thomas Sutpen is merely "baffled" and "reflective"; I would have thought him, rather, obsessed. Sutpen, moreover, is considered rational, as in his choice of Ellen Coldfield as a person of his means and kind (p. 81). As for A Fable, we are told (impenetrably to me) that "Existential-phenomenological myth at the religious level is man's way of being at once human and divine" (p. 190).

There are other matters that disturb me. Besides the slippery use of terminology and the reductive sense of characterization, there is a distasteful sexism (women in Faulkner "are aware of [the] lack they must fill, and if Faulkner and Sartre are correct, there is only one sure way to fill it" [p. 106]) and a kind of equally insouciant racism: Lucas "fought the county to a standstill, he whipped it, and he whipped it with the most powerful weapon in the existential arsenal, the Existential Look" (p. 121). Chapters almost invariably begin by citing critics who are all wrong, moving to a catchy quotation (often from Sartre) and then applying that quotation directly to one or more Faulknerian characters - there is no sense of change, no sense of complexity, no sense of history, no sense of play or irony or wit.

In fact, all of the critics that are cited are those published in 1967 or earlier - so that Faulkner's interviews, Blotner's biography, Flags in the Dust, for example, are not available to Mr. Sowder. It is a shame; had he read those, and a host of critics beginning with John Irwin, he might have seen more possibilities in Faulkner's works, and allowed us to see some more of them too.
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Author:Kinney, Arthur F.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Previous Article:Faulkner and the Thoroughly Modern Novel.
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