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Much ado about nothing: language and desire in 'The Sound and the Fury.' (Special Issue: William Faulkner)

We can thus understand the inertia characteristic of the formations of the I, and

find there the most extensive definition of neurosis -- just as the captation of the

subject by the situation gives us the most general formula for madness, not only

the madness that lies behind the walls of the asylums, but also the madness that

deafens the world with its sound and fury.


In presenting Quentin with his grandfather's watch, Mr. Compson warns him not to try to conquer time "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."(2) Despite Mr. Compson's warning, not only Quentin but all three brothers are perpetually pursuing the unobtainable, and that which cannot be won, or bought, or stolen -- because it does not exist. Indeed, the quest for this "illusion" lies at the very heart of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. In order to illuminate this paradox in the novel, it is useful to turn to Jacques Lacan's theory of the import of the mirror stage in the formation of the speaking subject and the alienation inherent in the acquisition of language.

None of the three brothers in The Sound and the Fury is able to negotiate successfully the mirror stage in which the individual recognizes an external and fictive ego which then functions as the site of the speaking subject. This is the initial stage in the child's movement from the pre-lingual imaginary world of undifferentiated unity (referred to as "the imaginary") to the symbolic register, which encompasses, among other things, all of social structure, language, politics, economics, and the family structure (collectively referred to as "the symbolic"). Applying Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of linguistics (no positive terms, only difference) to Freudian psychoanalysis, Lacan analyzes ego formation as a process of differentiation which is based on an essential misrecognition of the Other. The infant, who does not yet have full mastery over his/her body, sees itself reflected in the mirror (or in the reactions of the mother, or another child). The child invests the image with a unity and mastery which at this point it does not have, and thereby creates an image with which he or she can identify. Identity, then, is always mediated through the Other. According to Lacan this meconnaissance which allows for the creation of the "I" is at the heart of the very alienation which allows the individual access to language and to the symbolic register. Although language can never bridge the lack (manque) which is at the heart of identity, it does have a compensatory dimension. We do operate in the symbolic as though language can confer fixed meanings and identity, and this illusion of stability is the basis of our common sense understanding of reality.

The mirror stage as transition between the imaginary and the symbolic is the "temporal dialectic that decisively projects the formation of the individual into history" (Lacan, p. 4). For Jason, Quentin, and Benjy the chinks in their "armour of an alienating identity" (Lacan, p. 4) are so many that they are not protected by the compensatory role of language in the symbolic register. The consequences are potentially troublesome. If the child is not able to pass through this stage and to accept the essential mediation of identity, s/he will attempt the impossible return to the imaginary sphere of undifferentiation and total unity by merging with the other.

Using Lacan's formulation, we can say that Benjy and Jason are most closely identified with the imaginary and the symbolic registers, respectively. Quentin, however, is the brother who is torn between the two registers. He is attempting desperately to use the values of the symbolic to achieve the unity and presence of the imaginary. He is painfully aware of the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified which is characteristic of the symbolic register, and this is the "truth" that he cannot bear. For Quentin the realization that words do not have inherent relevance threatens his very sense of self: "all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed thinking I was I was not who was not was not who" (pp. 194-195). Quentin, in his search to unify signifier and signified, turns to death as his ultimate answer.

The three sons' problematic relationship to language and the symbolic is made manifest through their relationship to Caddy, who attempts to substitute for both parents. In the mother's absence, Caddy takes on the maternal role, demanding that everyone "mind" her.(3) But as Quentin describes it, in their imaginary world of play Caddy assumes the ultimate paternal metaphor, the Name-of-the-Father/Law (nom-dupere): she "never was a queen or a fairy she was always a king or a giant or a general" (p. 198). And it is Caddy who attempts to bring Benjy into language to define words and to translate his desire into language.(4) In the pages that follow we would like to examine in some detail each brother's relationship to his sister as well as to the symbolic and imaginary registers. What is more, we will disclose how the quest of each brother points to the paradoxical abscence or nothingness which lies at the center of the novel.

II. Quentin

The emotional response elicited from Quentin by Caddy's sexual tryst with Dalton Ames indicates that he has been unable to manage successfully the transition from the imaginary to the symbolic. The obvious question to ask is why Caddy's sexuality has such a calamitous impact on him. For the answer we should look closely into the brother-sister relationship and his perception of it. The mother, Caroline Compson, describes it as follows:

It was always [Caddy] and Quentin. They were always conspiring against me. Against

you [Jason] too, though you were too young to realise it. They always looked on

you and me as outsiders, like they did your uncle Maury. I always told your father

that they were allowed too much freedom together, to be together too much. When

Quentin started to school we had to let her go the next year, so she could be with

him. (p. 302) Caroline's intention, of course, is to brand brother and sister as conspirators against the family, but the description also signals a real dependency brother and sister have on one another. It is not just that they have spent a lot of time together; they have been together too much. They have grown so close that Quentin deeply and violently resents the intrusion of Dalton Ames into the brother-sister unity. Quentin instantly understands that he is no longer the sole beneficiary of Caddy's attention; he must now share her with a stranger. In psychoanalytic terms, the mother-son dyad, artificially repeated in the brother-sister relationship, is again intruded upon. What is it, we may ask, that Quentin cherishes so much in the brother-sister relationship? He does not tell us directly, but his claim that he and Caddy have committed incest is revealing:

Because if it were just to hell; if that were all of it. Finished. If things just finished

themselves. Nobody else there but [Caddy) and me. If we could just have done something

so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us. I have committed incest

I said Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames (p. 90) The incest, we know, is not real.(5) What is real is the desire to be in absolute isolation with Caddy in an everlasting hell. No doubt the choice of hell is an implicit condemnation of his own incestuous desires and his assumption that Caddy is damned for her sin; but it has further significance. Notwithstanding the fact that hell and the pre-Oedipal sphere resemble each other very little, Quentin clearly uses the image of hell to recreate an "imaginary" unity with Caddy (which does resemble the intense mother-child unity of the pre-Oedipal stage). Like the imaginary, hell offers safety from other people; hence one's own identity is never in question. Quentin yearns for the return of this state of being; for him, hell constitutes an escape from the symbolic. Hell has no society, no ideology; in hell nothing ever changes.(6) There, he thinks, "Only you and me then amid the pointing and the horror [but] walled by a clean flame" (p. 134), in blazing isolation.

The discovery of Caddy's sexual encounter with Dalton Ames constitutes an unmitigated blow to Quentin's relationship with his sister as well as to his psychological development. Immediately following his discovery Quentin looks for ways to reclaim his sister, to take her back from Dalton Ames. He desires to kill Ames but rejects this option because it would only accomplish the opposite of his desired aim since then he and his sister would not be alone in hell (p. 90). Perhaps the most drastic measure for Quentin would be to act on his incestuous feelings toward Caddy, of which he is acutely aware. But again he declines to act because he is afraid that she might actually be willing to have sexual intercourse with him. Her willingness would condemn her even further in Quentin's eyes. Indirectly, Jane Gallup offers another, perhaps more penetrating, explanation:

If sexual relations are understood as some kind of contact with alterity (although

generally there is some ritual homogenization of that alterity), then the incest taboo

would constitute a prohibition against alterity with the family circle, a law ensuring

the "imaginary" closure of the cell.(7) According to this view, if Quentin has sex with Caddy, she will become even further removed from him because identity will take on yet another dimension not integral to the original brother-sister unity.

In any case, instead of pursuing a "practical" option to repossess Caddy, Quentin seeks to erase the sexual liaison that haunts him by graphically imagining another sexual encounter in which he assumes the body of Dalton Ames's mother while she is in the act of sexual intercourse:

Dalton Ames. If I could have been his mother lying with open body lifted laughing,

holding his father with my hand refraining, seeing, watching him die before he lived.

(p. 91) When the father is about to ejaculate, s/he prevents him from impregnating her/him by pushing his penis away, and then s/he watches the dying sperm that would have produced Dalton Ames. Quentin reveals the desire not only to end Dalton's life but to prevent it in the most passive manner: he "causes" a death by averting a birth: a double-non-act. The moment is ripe with meaning, but in the most fundamental sense it illustrates Quentin's desire (and the novel's search) for what is impossible--because it never was.

Quentin's obsession with qualities of the imaginary is equally urgent in the above passage. He wishes to deny Ames the experience of the very pre-Oedipal stage for which Quentin himself longs. In his sexual fantasy, the qualities of the imaginary -- pre-Oedipal and death -- are most clearly combined. Therefore, looking ahead, it comes as no surprise that Quentin, who desires to be in the imaginary but is forever cut off from it, finally eludes the symbolic in suicide.

Following a Freudian model, we would expect the child to turn to the father and identify with him in order to overcome the Oedipal entanglement, and accept his position in a patriarchal society. In his rereading of Freud, Lacan does not deny the role of the Oedipal complex, but he emphasizes the linguistic dimension. It is the Name-of-the-Father, the power of language (not necessarily the biological father), which invokes the Law-of-the-Father and intrudes upon the mother/child dyad. The phallus serves as the signifier, as the mark of alienation. According to Lacan the child moves from wanting to be the phallus (in order to be the object of the mother's desire) to identifying with the father in order to have the phallus, the symbol of social power. This marks the transition from the imaginary realm of fusion with the mother to the symbolic register in which the phallus serves as both the mark of difference, of separation (therefore of lack) and at the same time signifies in the symbolic register the power of the Law-of-the-Father.

The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos

is joined with the advent of desire. (But) it can only play its role when masked, that

is to say, as itself a sign of latency with which any signifiable is struck, when it is

raised to the function of the signifier. (Lacan, p. xx) The phallus, while it represents wholeness and power in the symbolic register, cannot fill the lack which is constitutive of the subject's ability to operate in the symbolic. Language plays a compensatory role in this process because it counterbalances the basic alienation of the symbolic register by creating the illusion of order and the stability of meaning and identity. And it is the Name-of-the-Father that invokes this illusion of order.

As Lacan explains, the Name-of-the-Father is the paternal metaphor, and can be invoked by any representative of the symbolic order. Lacan, however, goes on to present a situation in which the Law-of-the-Father is not able to separate the mother-child dyad:

The father is present only through his law, which is speech, and only in so far as

his Speech is recognized by the mother does it take on the value of the Law. If the

position of the father is questioned, then the child remains subjected to the mother.(8)

As we shall see, in the fictional world of The Sound and the Fury Faulkner created an even more complex problem, one which Lacan did not envision. In the dysfunctional Compson family, because neither parent is able to impart the Law-of-the-Father to the children, their "ordinary" psychological development is stalled. That is, neither parent succeeds in representing the Law adequately to Quentin. Mr. Compson is curiously absent from Quentin's descriptions of his childhood, and we learn that his father, sorely tested by the decline of his own family and the South in general, has resorted to nihilism and the bottle. More crucial, the skeptical Mr. Compson seems to recognize the fiction at the core of identity and refuses to recognize the role of the Law.(9) For him, everything including morality is purely relative.(10) Nonetheless, Quentin turns to him to confess his "sin." In the Oedipal scheme, the father represents the Law, the phallic, the symbol of authority. It is this authority Quentin depends on to have his values and identity confirmed. He fully expects, or at least hopes, that his father will condemn him, punish him, and thereby define and ground him in the clear and secure boundaries of an established morality. But instead of offering his son security through punishment, the disillusioned, hard-drinking father fails the son simply by not believing that he has committed incest. Indeed, Mr. Compson isn't able to grasp the crushing impact of incest -- real, potential, or imagined -- on Quentin's psyche.

In an increasingly complex mixture of memories, fantasies, and Quentin's interpretations of them, the son's version of the father's views emerges ever more clearly:

every man is the arbiter of his own virtues whether or not you consider it courageous

is of more importance than the act itself than any act otherwise you could

not be in earnest and i you dont believe i am serious and he i think you are too

serious to give me any cause for alarm you wouldnt have felt driven to the expedient

of telling me you had committed incest otherwise i i wasnt lying i wasnt lying

and he you wanted to sublimate a piece of natural human folly into a horror and

then exorcise it with truth and i it was to isolate her out of the loud world so that

it would have to flee us of necessity and then the sound of it would be as though

it had never been and he did you try to make her do it and i i was afraid to i was

afraid she might and then it wouldnt have done any good but if i could tell you

we did it would have been so and then the others wouldnt be so and then the world

would roar away ... (pp. 202-203) The passage is riddled with themes of unity and isolation we saw earlier, and Quentin's desire for them. We recognize the lie about the incest as an expression of the desire to return to the imaginary. It "was to isolate her out of the loud world," away from the symbolic. But the father's view -- or Quentin's understanding of that view -- is one of subjectivism. It is all he can offer his son. An act carries no inherent meaning; it means what you want it to mean. There is no stable unity in this world, no stable link between signifier and referent. In the world of the symbolic, meaning, to repeat de Saussure's edict, is a matter of difference.

The same view is in evidence elsewhere in the same conversation, this time in explicit connection with language. The father speaks first:

Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature.

It's nature is hurting you and not Caddy and I said That's just words and he

said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. (pp.

132-133) The father offers the naturalist interpretation of Caddy's sexuality. Sexuality is natural, and virginity is just a word, a meaning that has been attached to something that does not mean anything in and of itself. By undercutting the traditional meaning of virginity, the father (the representative of the Law) undermines one of the essential tenets of patriarchal society, the necessary control over female sexuality and reproduction. The father's assertion that "it was men invented virginity not women" (p. 89) cuts loose from reality the whole hierarchical structure of the South; it rips "the South" as a giant signifier from its supposed referent, and sends adrift similar concepts such as honor, nobility, and chivalry. The condition Quentin is asked to contemplate is that neither he nor anyone else has any direct access to reality. To borrow a sentence from Terry Eagleton, Quentin "has been banished from |full,' imaginary possession into the |empty' world of language."(11) Quentin's denial and the father's retraction (in the last sentence) only emphasize the apparent correctness of the father's claim.

Because the Name-of-the-Father is only a paternal metaphor, the Lacanian road into the Symbolic is not a narrow path. In Quentin's case, it might still be possible to see Mrs. Compson as recognizing the Name-of-the-Father writ large, and hence acknowledging the power of the patriarchal order despite Mr. Compson's indifference or outright refusal to do so. As Philip M. Weinstein posits, it is Mrs. Compson who is "possessed by the Symbolic order," and she "lives wholly encased in these notions."(12) It is Mrs. Compson who affirms the stability of language and morality: "when I was a girl I was unfortunate I was only a Bascomb I was taught that there is no halfway ground that a woman is either a lady or not" (p. 118). As she indicates, however, she has learned this as a young girl and a Bascomb, and it is precisely her gender and lack of status which prevent her from invoking the Name-of-the-Father.

A recurrent observation in the novel is that the Compson, not the Bascomb, name can boast of Governors and Generals, and is therefore literally associated with the Law and with the patriarchal heritage of the South. And the children, especially Quentin, emphatically look to the father, not the mother, to uphold the Law, speak the Law, articulate the Law, and fulfill the traditional role. Mrs. Compson's inability to invoke or to represent the Name-of-the-Father is reinforced by her abortive attempts to assume the patriarchal power of naming. When she names her son after her brother, a Bascomb, he turns out to be an idiot, a mockery of her own ineffectual brother. She also attempts to enforce proper Christian names, refusing the use of nicknames as vulgar; however, her lack of power is again conspicuous as no one abides by her demand. Hence, Mrs. Compson's compensatory efforts to speak for the Law are futile because she does so from a position of total powerlessness. She repeatedly states her own lack, her role as unproductive burden. She invokes the Law not as a symbolic force, but as an absence, a lack that the crumbing family cannot fill. Mr. Compson's refusal and Mrs. Compson's inadequacy create for Quentin a world in which the symbolic does not exist and thus cannot protect him from the chaos of the imaginary. In The Sound and the Fury language indeed signifies nothing.(13)

The accepted path to the symbolic register has been blocked for Quentin by a father who refuses to validate the symbolic power of language to create a world of order and meaning, and by a mother who attempts to speak for the Law-of-the-Father, but does not have the power to enforce her words. Quentin, therefore, throughout the novel searches for an impossible alternative; he attempts to invoke the Name-of-the-Mother. He does not appropriate the phallus as a transcendental signifier to overcome the lack. Nor does he attempt to be the phallus for the mother (to enter imaginary unity) or identify with the father in order to acquire the symbolic power of the phallus. In order to preserve Caddy's virginity and thereby create the stability of meaning and morality, Quentin attempts to assume the role of the mother, to achieve imaginary unity by inhabiting the maternal body (Mrs. Ames) in order to reject the power of the phallus and prevent the birth of Dalton Ames. He tries to use the logic of the imaginary, the unity with the mother, to fuse signifier and signified, to create a language without gaps. Thus he attempts to reverse de Saussure's formula of language (no positive terms, only difference) in order to erase lack (no negative terms, only stasis). What is more, Quentin also reverses the role of misrecognition in the mirror stage; rather than project his own identity onto the image of the mother, he becomes the father.

When he remembers his mother's conversation with Herbert Head, who takes Caddy out of his life forever, Quentin interjects: "If I could say Mother. Mother" (p. 108).(14) His use of the conditional and his desire to say "mother" betoken his wish that Mother could evoke the same power as the Name-of-the-Father. In this case, his desire to say "Mother" is not a desire for the mother, but the desire to be the mother, to speak from the position of the lack, to signify from the position of nothing. The double irony, of course, is that if Quentin could be Mrs. Ames, he still would not be unified with the Mother, because to prevent Dalton Ames's defloration of Caddy he would prevent Mrs. Ames from becoming a mother.

Quentin cannot accept the fact that the symbolic has no direct connection to the real, that language is mediated, and in his father's terms, relative. He demonstrates his understanding of that condition in his description of three boys with fishing poles on the bridge somewhere near Cambridge. The boys are fantasizing about what they will do with the money they will get for catching the legendary fish that had never been caught -- and never will be caught insofar as it represents an unobtainable desire.

Then they talked about what they would do with twenty-five dollars. They all talked

at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality

a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will do

when their desires become words. (p. 134) Quentin does not make the connection explicit but the situation clearly parallels his own. The three boys, like the three brothers, desire something outside of their reach. They too fantasize about it.

While the boys, however, seem content to reside in the pleasure of an unrealized fantasy, Quentin finally searches for his in the water when he commits suicide. The death which lies within the water presents the same escape from the loud and roaring world as does hell -- it is the escape into the imaginary.

Desire, Lacan tells us, first enters the child's experience when the father (as symbol of the Law) disrupts the mother-child unity. Desire thus depends on an absence, initially the absence of the mother. Furthermore, as we suggested earlier, the child begins to learn language on the basis of absence (of the referent). What this amounts to is that to enter language is to fall prey to desire. Language, in the words of Lacan, "hollows being into desire."(15) "Desires become words," Quentin remarks. In Quentin's terms, it also accurately describes his own predicament.

However, as noted earlier, the effects of difference are not limited to language and desire. They also profoundly shape an individual's identity. Indeed, Lacan's most famous assertion is that the unconscious is structured like a language. According to this view, unconsciousness is comprised of signifiers (as opposed to stable signs which would include their referents), something which is probably most conspicuous in our dreams. We encounter all these features in Quentin's tangled situation. He is not able to achieve a "reasonably unified, coherent" self owing to a cynical father and powerless mother in a world of discourses he does not understand very well. But the road back to the imaginary is forever blocked. And the desire for unity can only express itself in language. As far as Quentin can tell, his identity is forever in question. Again, it is Mr. Compson who drives the point home:

you cannot bear to think that someday [Caddy's intercourse with Dalton Ames] will

no longer hurt you like this now were getting at it you seem to regard it merely

as an experience that will whiten your hair overnight so to speak ... (p. 203) Quentin is both sad and shocked to think he has a self that cannot transpose the all-consuming thought of Caddy's sexuality into a real and everlasting horror. The most excruciating passion he has ever felt will one day matter little. This might be consoling insofar as it projects a state of diminished grief, but it is shocking in that it mercilessly unravels and finally negates Quentin's search for a unified and stable self because it posits the human self as a tenuous construct continuously remade by the discourses of a "roaring world."

Even on a most practical level, Quentin's gestures are futile, if not ridiculous. The chivalrous convictions with which he confronts his situation recall an ideological configuration no longer dominant in the South of 1910. In a society in which chivalry, honor, and aristocratic sensibility are but shadowy things of the past, Quentin finds himself pathetically struggling to uphold the role of the Southern gentleman. And, what is worse, he wholly lacks the personal strength to impose his values on others. "Ill give you until sundown to leave town" (p. 183), he threatens Dalton Ames, recalling a time when gentlemen fought duels to defend the honor of women.(16) Clearly, he is no match for Ames, who even lies on Quentin's behalf to cover up the fact that he "passed out like a girl" (p. 186). Later, at Harvard, when he picks a fight with Gerald, who reminds him of Ames, he gets his face bashed. "Did I hurt him any?" he asks Shreve, who answers: "You may have hit him. I may have looked away just then or blinked or something" (p. 188). His "chivalrous" attitude also plays a role in his "confession" to the sin of incest. Like a true gentleman, he will share the blame and sacrifice himself to be with his "fallen sister"; he will share his money, cancel his matriculation, and share the sin (p. 173). He does not fully grasp the emptiness of such gestures until his father performs his debunking role.

Quentin's loss is forever. The fullness and unity he has "lost" are not part of the economic/social/linguistic exchange system. His development is marked by a reluctance to enter society. The Oedipal moment has only resulted in an attempted retreat into the precarious recreation of an artificial imaginary in the union with Caddy. When his world is again disturbed, this time by Dalton Ames, Quentin tries to act and exist in the symbolic, but he finds that his understanding of society and its values are those of a past social epoch. The human self, he comes to realize, is in flux and reality stretches beyond his grasp. And this condition of being is "part of general truth the sequence of natural events and their causes which shadows every mans brow" (p. 203). Mr. Compson, the father, has surrendered to this condition, but desire rages in Quentin, and it can only find an outlet in an unending and roaring flow of words -- only to be silenced in death.

As Donald Kartiganer has pointed out, Quentin could be considered a neurotic, unlike his brothers who evoke a psychotic condition.(17) In Lacanian terms, neurosis is associated with repression; the repressed material has been banished to the unconscious, but it is not destroyed, so that it may return in different forms -- hence the return of the repressed. The neurotic has, nonetheless, entered the world of the symbolic register, and the repressed material was therefore understood at a link between the primal scene and the manifestation of its return. Quentin's problem is that he is too painfully aware of the symbolic. His desire is to return to a place outside of the symbolic, but this very wish marks the existence of the symbolic and the impossibility of escaping from it. Significantly, Quentin turns to the image of castration to explain his predicament:

Versh told me about a man who mutilated himself He went into the woods and

did it with a razor, sitting in a ditch. A broken razor flinging them backward over

his shoulder the same motion complete the jerked skein of blood backward not

looping. But that's not it. It's not not having them. It's never to have had them then I could say O That That's Chinese I dont know Chinese. (p. 132) In this passage, Quentin associates castration and language acquisition. Although it is the fear of castration and the acquisition of language which allow for the successful resolution of the Oedipal situation, castration itself does not cut the knot, because either to fear castration or to be actually castrated still implies a recognition of the power of the phallus in the register of the symbolic. To be outside of language (in Quentin's terms not to understand language) means never to have entered the symbolic, "never to have had them." Quentin's desire is not to repress the threat of castration, but never to have been subject to it. Such is the dilemma of the neurotic.

The psychotic, on the other hand, experiences what Lacan refers to as foreclosure, a process by which the experience is not repressed but wiped out. In the process of foreclosure the imaginary becomes real. S. Leclaire provides a metaphor to explain the difference between repression and foreclosure:

If we imagine experience to be a piece of material made up of criss-crossing threads,

we could say that repression would figure in it as a rent or a tear which can still

be repaired, whereas foreclosure would figure in it as a beance due to the weaving

itself, in short a primal hole which will never again be able to find its substance,

since it has never been anything other than the substance of a hole and can only

be filled, and even then imperfectly, but a patch.(18)

Benjy and Jason reflect different aspects of the psychotic personality, and ironically it is his psychosis which enables each one to survive in the inverted world of the Compson household. As our opening quotation from Lacan suggests, not all forms of madness are limited to the asylum; there is also the madness that "deafens the world with its sound and fury." As Lemaire explains, in the psychotic's relationship to language "either the signifier is privileged and is taken in the literal sense, outside of any operation referring it to its symbolic dimension, or the signified prevails" (p. 86). Benjy privileges the signifier as the real, devoid of any symbolic dimension, while Jason privileges the signified, imbuing it with his idiosyncratic yet absolute meaning, regardless of its symbolic dimension.

III. Benjy

Unlike Quentin, who cannot come to terms with Caddy's natural body, Benjy deals with his sister on a purely physical basis. Everything supports an assumption that Benjy operates in the imaginary realm of unity and presence. He recognizes neither time nor linguistic subtlety. In his experience, the "signifier is privileged and is taken in the literal sense." "Caddy" is a physical presence; she has no symbolic function. Contrary to Quentin, he does not understand the symbolic nature of language, and therefore he does not understand the symbolic significance of virginity. For Benjy any change in the body is a loss of "Caddy"; therefore her use of perfume is as profound a loss to him as is the loss of her virginity to Quentin. To Benjy it is a loss of the "Caddy" who smells like trees. Andre Bleikasten maintains that there is "no central I through whose agency [Benjy's] speech might be ordered and made meaningful; in like manner, there is no sense of identity to make his experience his ... there is no distinction between I and non-I, there can be no boundary between inner and outer space, and nothing to focalize what Benjy does, perceives or suffers" (Splendid Failure, p. 71).

But Benjy is not fully in the register of the imaginary. Like Alice through the looking glass, he has entered the mirror phase, but he has never come out of this transitionary dream world. At the first phase of the mirror stage,

The jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infant stage, still

sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in

an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial

form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other,

and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject. (Lacan,

p. 2) This is Benjy's universe. He does use the first person "I" in his narrative. As Lacan emphasizes, even this primordial form of the I "situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being (Le devenir) of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve as I his discordance with his own reality" (p. 2). Therefore even Benjy has been alienated by language, and he will never resolve this "discordance with his own reality." He cannot go back but he cannot go forward. Benjy is hopelessly stuck in the mirror phase. The "dialectic" which inaugurates the end of the mirror stage, and which "links" the I "to socially elaborated situations" never lifts him out of his strange solipsism, leaving him literally fixated on mirror images (Lacan, p. 5).

Ironically, then, before Benjy can be "castrated" into language, he is castrated physically. Benjy experiences the ultimate horror of the mirror phase, one which Lacan did not anticipate, and that is to look into the mirror and see an image which is no longer whole. Benjy has been alienated into language without the compensatory ability to use words to create symbolic presence. He is painfully aware of physical absence as total absence because words cannot comfort him.

Unlike the grandson in Freud's example of the fort \ da game that the grandson used to recognize and control absence through language, Benjy does not operate at the level of the symbolic (Splendid Failure, pp. 73-74). He also does not acknowledge that a signifier can have multiple signifieds. When the golfers yell "caddie," for Benjy there can be only one signified -- the physical manifestation of Caddy herself-- and therefore the signifier without its signified is not just an empty word: for Benjy it is a tragedy. Because Benjy cannot use language to control his world, naming Caddy does not create her through language; it only makes manifest her absence. Only physical objects associated with Caddy can pacify him.

IV. Jason

Critics tend to label Jason as the sane and logical brother despite his irrational and paranoid actions. This illusion of sanity is more accurately described as an "appearance of ordinary social existence" (Kartiganer, pp. 15-17). To put it in a Lacanian framework, Jason's form of insanity is more socially acceptable than the other brothers' because ostensibly he is the brother most clearly operating in the symbolic register. He is not interested in the static state of Caddy's virginity. She has no inherent value for Jason; for him her worth is based on her exchange value. Jason, who bears the father's name, attempts to enact the exchange of women among men: Caddy in exchange for a job at the bank. Moreover, by exchanging Caddy he will enter more firmly into the world based solely on exchange value -- banking. Jason's participation in the stock market, an arena of pure exchange, also indicates his ability to function in the world of the symbolic;

Although Quentin's use of language is more complex and therefore seems more sophisticated than Jason's hard-nosed cynicism, Jason is in some ways more versatile in his use of language. He appears to do what neither of his brothers can manage. He is neither limited in his use of language, as is Benjy, nor is he searching for a universal truth to serve as a constant signified, as is Quentin. Jason seems to acknowledge multiple signifiers, while he is also able to conceive of the signified as unchanging. However, upon closer inspection we see that underlying Jason's use of language is his total elevation of the signified based on his own imaginary system of symbols. His opening line "Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say" is an excellent example of Jason's use of language. Ostensibly, the statement betokens the consistency of the signifier, the essence of Quentin that is unchanging.(19) However, the statement not only indicates his belief in the unchanging nature of his niece, but also reflects his attitude toward Caddy. While for Benjy the physical presence of Caddy herself must accompany the word "Caddy," Jason can avenge himself as easily on Caddy through Quentin as he does on Caddy herself. The signifiers of "Caddy" versus "Quentin" are irrelevant. They are both the cause of his lost job, and nothing more. They are empty signifiers at the same time that they represent an unchanging essence.

In embracing his own private version of the symbolic, Jason goes beyond merely acting in the Name-of-the-Father. Jason, who of course has the name of his father, in characteristically egotistical manner assumes the name of the father as his own and the Law-of-the-Father as agent of his desire. Upon discovering that Quentin has left home with the money, Jason assumes that the sheriff "as a commissioned officer of the law" will immediately aid him in his search for Quentin. The sheriff responds, however, by asserting that without proof it is none of his business. For Jason, of course, his word is "proof." In his version of the symbolic he is the law. "|I'm Jason Compson. See if you can stop me. See if you can elect a man to office that can stop me,' he said, thinking of himself entering the courthouse with a file of soldiers and dragging the sheriff out" (pp. 353-354). Jason takes his father's relativistic conception of language as presented in Quentin's section -- "every man is the arbiter of his own virtues whether or not you consider it courageous is of more importance than any act" -- and puts the Jason-twist on it. He operates in the world of language as if he were the arbiter of every man's virtue. For Jason words only have the significance that he gives them. His tag phrase, "What I say," in his first line, "Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say," is not just a figure of speech. "What I say" is law for Jason.

Unlike Quentin, Jason does not find it difficult to discover ultimate meaning, because he sees himself as the arbiter of meaning. As the narrator explains in the fourth section, "Of his niece he did not think at all, nor of the arbitrary valuation of the money. Neither of them had had entity or individuality for him for ten years: together they merely symbolised the job in the bank of which he had been deprived before he ever got it" (p. 354). Clearly in this statement Jason recognizes the arbitrary nature of the relationship between signifier and signified. However, in the symbolic-according-to-Jason they do have meaning because Jason is able to create that meaning by his own fiat. Another example of Jason's striking egocentric view of language is his use of pronouns. In his chase after Quentin and the man in the red tie he asks an old man connected with the show "Where are they?" (p. 357). When the old man asks the logical question "Where's who?" Jason responds, "Dont lie to me." He so thoroughly relates the meaning of words to his own thoughts that it is not even necessary to provide antecedents to pronouns. "They" in Jason's mind are self-evident and therefore to ask "who" is merely dodging the question, lying.

In assuming the Name-of-the-Father, however, Jason is not able to assume the power and authority which it commands. The symbolic according to Jason is not privy to the power of the phallus as transcendental signifier. In all his attempts to enter the symbolic, Jason never quite gets it right. Language for him is not phallologocentric. Rather, he elevates the lack, as represented by women, to the realm of transcendental signifier. Ultimately it is Jason who is the idiot telling his tale "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." And in Renaissance fashion this nothing is precisely the female genitals. It is like Quentin's desire not to be castrated, but "never to have had them." In other words, in The Sound and the Fury woman is not a castrated man; she is nothing. The logic of the novel is predicated upon this nothing: that which is absent, not because it has been lost or cut off, but because it never existed. The novel points to a fear of women as nothing, which goes beyond the Freudian reading. For Freud the horror associated with female genitals is the fear of castration. The young boy realizes the punishment that could be invoked against his incestuous desire. Hence the role of the fetish is to create compensatory penis substitutes, something that can stand in place of the terrible nothing. The Sound and the Fury, however, points to another interpretation of the horror at the site of the female genitals.(20) If women never had anything then they can never be castrated; they cannot be controlled; they are always already beyond punishment.

The threat of castration is just that, a threat. Once the act has been committed the sword of Damocles no longer has any power. In bemoaning the loss of Caddy, the three brothers bemoan the lack, but it is the lack of control they are able to assert over women, over their sexuality, over their progeny -- nothing comes from nothing, as Miss Quentin comes from Caddy. Miss Quentin precisely underscores the inability of the male to name his child or control the sexuality of his woman.(21)

"Signifying nothing" becomes an end in itself for Jason. At the point of greatest action, as Jason invokes the sheriff to do his bidding in the name of the law, he is completely sidetracked from his plan by the force of his story, by his own invocation of loss, of impotence, of nothing. "Jason told him, his sense of injury and impotence feeding upon its own sound, so that after a time he forgot his haste in the violent culmination of his self justification and his outrage" (p. 350). Language has become the siren song of nothing which transfixes Jason. When the sheriff does not respond Jason "repeated his story, harshly recapitulant, seeming to get an actual pleasure out of his outrage and impotence. The sheriff did not appear to be listening at all" (p. 351). The sound of the story of impotence is compelling to Jason. It is the language of nothing that takes on greater significance than action, and the sheriff, who does act in the name of the law, does not seem to hear his story. He does not respond to it. It cannot invoke the law. When the sheriff asks Jason what he will do if he finds Quentin, he answers, "Nothing ... Not anything" (p. 351). Quentin, the symbolic representation of nothing, the job that he lost because it never existed, is beyond the law. There is no proof because how can one have evidence of nothing?

Even the phallic representations in the novel do not serve as transcendental signifier. As Doreen Fowler rightly notes, Jason, in his section, is confronted by numerous phallic images.(22) However, they are not aligned with the Name-of-the-Father; instead they serve nothing. The man with the red tie eludes Jason's futile pursuit while he aids Quentin in escaping with the money (the other symbol of lack). The one exception would seem to be the heavily Freudian scene in which Jason wrestles the keys from his mother's pocket. Here the son takes the phallus, the keys, from the mother. He assumes control and of course the very image of the key implies mastery, the phallic key as the key (crucial) implement to unlock the mystery, to penetrate the room/womb. The catch of course is that what Jason has attained is the key to nothing. For that is what he will find when he opens the door. Both the money and Quentin, like the female genitals, were already gone before he even attempted to get the key from his mother. His triumph was futile from the start. As Mr. Compson explains to Quentin in the quotation in our first paragraph: "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."

The logic of The Sound and the Fury, we have argued, is predicated upon the nothing which is the female genitalia: that which is absent because it never existed. Uncannily, comments made by Faulkner at the University of Virginia suggest that the authorial process that gave us The Sound and the Fury has at its center a powerful and evocative female absence: the unrepresentable Caddy, who cannot be controlled or reduced by the characters or the author. Faulkner says:

And I tried first to tell [the story] with one brother, and that wasn't enough. That

was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn't enough. That was

Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still too beautiful and

too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate

to see her through somebody else's eyes, I thought. And that failed and I

tried myself -- the fourth section -- to tell what happened, and I still failed . . .(23) The brothers' narrative (including Faulkner's "own" fourth) make up the failed linguistic effort to mediate between author and what is to the author still "too beautiful and too moving." In a very real sense, therefore, the Caddy we know from the novel is a mere shadow of the "real" Caddy; she is what language and desire chase endlessly but fruitlessly. No number of additional sections could have produced the real Caddy, could have made desire overcome absence, or could have made signifier become one with referent. (1) Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 7. We wish to thank Doreen Fowler, William Howarth, Don Kartiganer, and Michael Sprinker for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay. (2) William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 86. (3) For a brief discussion of Caddy as "mother" to her brothers, see John T. Matthews, The Play of Faulkner's Language (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 68-69, 80-81. (4) For a discussion of Caddy's attempts to bring Benjy into language, see Linda W. Wagner, "Language and Act: Caddy Compson," Southern Literary Journal, 14 (Spring 1982), 49-61. (5) For a discussion of Quentin's "indifference to reality," see Donald M. Kartiganer, who asserts that the incest is "purely imaginary" (The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner's Novels [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979], pp. 12-14). (6) Quentin and change, see Kartiganer, pp. 12-14. (7) Jane Gallup, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 145. (8) Lacan, p. 35, as cited in Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 83. (9) For a discussion of Mr. Compson's refusal to serve as lawgiver, see John T. Irwin, Doubling and Incest, Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 110-113, 120-122. For a Lacanian reading see Andre Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 113-115, and "Fathers in Faulkner," in The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text, ed. Robert Con Davis (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press), pp. 115-145. (10) We disagree here with Judith Lockyear, who maintains that Mr. Compson's posture is fundamentally paradoxical. "Mr. Compson's words," she writes, "are spoken in a way that shows his belief in the power of words" (Ordered by Words: Language and Narration in the Novels of William Faulkner [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991], p. 35). (11) Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 167. (12) Philip M. Weinstein, "|If I Could Say Mother: Construing the Unsayable about Faulknerian Maternity," in Faulkner's Discourse: An International Symposium, ed. Lothar Honnighausen (Tubingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1989), p. 5. (13) For an account in favor of the "efficacy of words," see Lockyear, pp. 30-71. (14) Weinstein analyzes these lines in terms of Mrs. Compson's abandonment of her role of mother (pp. 3-15). Quentin underscores this point when he recalls his mother saying, "let me have Jason and you keep the others they're not my flesh and blood" (p. 119). This interpretation is even more strongly supported when Quentin again repeats the idea just before his death: "if I'd just had a mother so I could say Mother. Mother" (p. 197). However, in light of our analysis of Quentin's desire to assume the body of Mrs. Ames, "If I could say Mother. Mother" takes on an additional significance. For a particularly ardent condemnation of Caroline Compson, see Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 334. (15) Quoted in Eagleton, pp. 167-168. (16) See Faulkner's Appendix to The Sound and the Fury (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 404. (17) See Kartiganer, pp. 15-16. (18) S. Leclaire, as quoted in Lemaire, p. 231. (19) For a discussion of Caddy and Miss Quentin as interchangeable see Doreen Fowler, "|Little Sister Death: The Sound and the Fury and the Denied Unconscious," in Faulkner and Psychology, ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), forthcoming. (20) Freud does of course make the observation that because women do not fear castration their super ego is not fully developed. But he interprets this as a form of diminished capacity rather than as a form of power. In other words, Freud views it as an explanation for why women need to be controlled, not why they are incapable of being controlled. (21) Even Jason, who is in a position to claim Miss Quentin as "his," knows this is not considered an honor. Indeed in light of her actions, continuing to claim her as his responsibility means even greater diminishment of what's left of Compson honor. (22) For a discussion of Jason's feeling of phallic lack see Doreen Fowler, "Little Sister Death.'" (23) Faulkner in the University, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959), p. 1.
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Author:Barker, Deborah E.; Kamps, Ivo
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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