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Faulkner and Religion: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha 1989.

The Title of this Collection of Essays indicates its breadth of coverage. The word "religion" denotes a world of sacred belief and practice. Religion in William Faulkner's work, as researched by the ten scholars represented in this volume, spans Greek mythology, Platonic philosophy, traditional Judeo-Christian doctrine, cultural anthropology, and post-Modern theology.

In the first three essays Alfred Kazin, Charles Reagan Wilson, and Giles Gunn consider Faulkner's cultural heritage and its impact on his religious perspective. Kazin and Wilson focus on Faulkner as a Southerner who attempted to compose a text for the inarticulate hum of Civil War defeat. Kazin perceives in Faulkner a resulting emphasis on the "second chance" (p. 20), an opportunity to try again after devastating failure. Kazin links this "second chance" with an author who believes in a compassionate God and knows the need for a sympathetic humanity. Wilson similarly suggests that "[r]eligion in Faulkner's world, at its best and worst, has contributed through tenacity and strength to the survival of these people" (p. 30).

Beyond survival Faulkner's characters search for meaning, often through identification with, or rejection of, family. The commandment to "honor thy father and mother" (Exodus 20:12) echoed throughout the Southern religious ethos of Faulkner's era. Although neither Wilson nor Gunn quotes the commandment, both indirectly allude to it. Wilson raises the question of the Southern propensity for "ancestor worship" (p. 33). Gunn notes the inherent conflicts between "idealization of the family" and "some of the central values of Christianity" (p. 48), conflicts so apparent in Faulkner's fiction, from the Compsons to the McCaslins. "The idealization of women, the sanctity of motherhood, the veneration of moral innocence, the defense of sexual purity" collide with "the ethical practices of mutual support, of sympathetic understanding, of loving forbearance, and of truthful candor" (p. 49).

The dichotomy between ideal and real also informs Richard H. King's article on "World Rejection in Faulkner's Fiction." King tracks the hoped-for-love of four "doomed couples" (p. 72) in Faulkner's fiction and the obstacles they encounter in trying to realize their ideal relationships. Faulkner embodied this Platonic striving for perfection in some of his characters, yet, as King points out, did not present world rejection without some modification: "In each of the four texts where doomed lovers reject the world, their revulsion against the world ... is bracketed or contained or counterbalanced by a story of acceptance of the world, or something approaching affirmation or at last willingness to come to terms with it" (p. 79). Both Gunn's and King's essays seem to credit Faulkner with an effort to find something workable for a human being in this world, something between total self-abnegation on one hand, and complete self-absorption on the other.

The next three essays in Faulkner and Religion shift toward narratological comparisons between two novels (Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August) and related Biblical texts. William D. Lindsey employs the Biblical creation stories in his analysis of the structure of Absalom, adeptly bringing out Faulkner's concern for the relationship between humanity and nature and the thin line between human dominion and inappropriate human domination of the rest of the created order. Creating, making order out of chaos, belongs not just to the God of the Judeo-Christian stories, but also to the writer, and to each of his characters. Lindsey explicates Faulkner's Sutpen, demonstrating how Sutpen oversteps his bounds and thereby creates chaos rather than order.

In a fascinating, detailed account, Glenn Meeter relates Quentin Compson (Absalom, Absalom!) to the Biblical redactors who edited and compiled oral and written tradition to form the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Quentin "receives," "recounts," "gathers," and "forms" (p. 118) narrative, using multiple sources of experience: Quentin's own perspective, his father's, and Rosa Coldfield's. It might prove worthwhile to sit down with this essay, the Biblical texts about King David (especially the cycle of violence which begins with David's sending Uriah to tris death in battle and ends with David's grief for Absalom, 11 Samuel 11-19), and Faulkner's novel, studying the three works together.

As counterpoint to Meeter's Old Testament analogy, Virginia V. Hlavsa offers a point-for-point parallelism between chapters nineteen in Faulkner's Light in August and the Gospel of John. The essayist plays on the literal and symbolic meanings of the word "post," which pervade both texts. (Hlavsa provides a delightful, OED-like perusal of "post" on p. 130). The individual linguistic elements in each text add up to a common theme for both: "our tragically persistent yearning for a scapegoat" (p. 138), whether he be Joe Christmas or Jesus Christ.

Study of narrative resemblances also governs Doreen Fowler's reflection on Eleusinian mysteries and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Fowler finds in the novel multiple suggestions of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Those mythic allusions serve, in the novel, to underscore the "conflict between transcendent and immanent divinity, between individual and collective meaning, between patriarchal religions and older fertility rites" (p. 151). The essayist's comment that the tension between these pairs "may help to explain the often observed misogyny in Faulkner's fiction" intrigued me and left me wondering if it deserved an expanded investigation.

The final two pieces in this volume delve more into the influence of creed on the novelist's process of creating, than into any specific Faulknerian opus. Evans Harrington perceives a Bergsonian influence on Faulkner, citing evidence that the novelist knew the philosopher's Creative Evolution, and borrowed the idea that "the origin of life was ... a vital impulse initiated by God" (p. 164) and that humanity "was the means of continuing God's initial creation by responding to the vital impulse and creating new works of their own" (p. 163). In the last essay Alexander J. Marshall III defines creation as a process of suggestion (p. 180). The intrinsic inadequacy of language fully to signify a particular object/subject to which it points frustrated Faulkner. In The Sound and the Fury Faulkner wrestled with "signifying nothing" versus signifying something. Marshall analyzes Reverend Shegog's sermon in the novel and concludes that the "entire movement of the sermon has been toward this silence, the effective death of the Word. It is Faulkner's religious paradox: only through its apparent death can the finite signifier hope to transcend its limitations; the death of Word is precondition of its resurrection" (p. 187). The process of writing itself then becomes a "leap of faith" (p. 191), a statement of the novelist's religious belief.

Faulkner and Religion opens with a question: "Does a coherent system of religious values and thought inform Faulkner's novels?" (p.ix). While the collection of essays offers several possible organizing religious principles, it does not yield a single, coherent system of theological thought. It does provide many useful and insightful observations about various works, observations contributed by an impressive array of competent scholars (theologian, sociologist, and literary critics). The book serves as a necessary checkpoint for scholars researching Faulkner's Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom!. Go Down, Moses receives virtually no attention in these essays. Given its title (one of two with names of Biblical characters), its numerous scriptural allusions, and its characters, Uncles Buddy and Buck ("Amodeus" and "Theophilus" both mean "love of God"), why was Go Down, Moses omitted?
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Author:Daniel, Perky
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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