And next came Absalom, Absalom! After I got through reading The Sound and the Fury, for about a week I was reading parts of Petrarch’s medieval poetry work La Canzionere as a literary pallet-cleanser when I decided to go ahead with the other William Faulkner novel on my New Year’s Resolution list. Would I have the mental energy to devour another of The Dixie Limited’s novels, this one reputed to be even more difficult and mind-boggling than The Sound and the Fury, while I am teaching next school year? Probably not. Let’s get it done now. So on a Wednesday in mid-June, I put my kids in my little white Echo and we braved the heat between home and the Juliette Hampton Morgan branch of the public library. After finding them another round of summer reading books in the kids’ area, I herded my little ones across the hall to the adult fiction section, found F FAU, took Absalom, Absalom! off the shelf— and with a sigh went up front to the checkout counter, thinking, Why do I do these things to myself? Couldn’t I just find some enjoyable books and relax this summer . . . ? While a lot of people I know are chattering in veiled terms about those Fifty Shades of Gray housewife-porn novels or expressing an intention to read that Henrietta Lacks book, my reading self would remain in self-imposed exile in Yoknapatawpha County, probably to return to the world somewhere around the 4th of July.
Now, having read Absalom, Absalom! I want to go ahead and assert that William Faulkner was a Freudian basket case. From these two novels, I have gathered that he is obsessed with virginity, near-incestuous passion between siblings, and severely convoluted parent-child relationships— the Compsons and the Sutpens have some wild stuff going on. I had some personal qualms in dealing with Quentin Compson shouting out to his father, in The Sound and the Fury, that he had committed incest with his sister Caddy, but Faulkner went into far more psychological detail in Absalom, Absalom! explaining how Henry Sutpen was using Charles Bon as a proxy lover for his sister Judith: if you know can’t be that lover yourself, you can take on the task of choosing who gets to be. Really? I’ve never had a sister, maybe some people have these thoughts, I don’t know. And why doesn’t Papa Sutpen want Charles Bon to marry Judith? Because he’s her half-brother! And Charles Bon knows this and still wants to marry her anyway! Really? I’m here in Alabama in the year 2012, reading this, with my daughter and son playing around the house, and I don’t want to think about that kind of stuff!
Yet, I will tip my hat to William Faulkner for writing a modern-classical masterpiece, the stuff of which makes these stuck-in-the-past canonical critics genuinely applaud for its being connected to the greatest traditions of world literature. I went to my shelves and pulled Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, to see what the great defender of great literature would have to say about Faulkner, and strangely, at least to me, Bloom only mentions William Faulkner’s greatness three times briefly . . . but didn’t devote any real attention to him, didn’t give him his own chapter. WTF, Bloom? In these novels, the classical themes and subjects are readily apparent: excessive personal ambition resulting in dire human consequences, death through disease and murder and war, wayward sons and fratricide, broken families with long-standing grudges, mighty characters committing acts of Herculean fortitude, men who ride off to war and women who wait for them to return . . . in a word, tragedy— pure classical tragedy. Although the plots and setting may not be similar, I would put the epic scale of the themes up next to those of Sophocles and Shakespeare. C’mon, Harold Bloom, what gives!
However, as anti-Bloom as I can be, a modern politically conscious reader with multiculturalist leanings, I have some reservations about the content these two novels. As a critic and a teacher, I often ask myself: if we have to have notions of acceptability, should we judge works from other cultures based on their standards, or should we judge them based on our standards? To re-phrase the question: Do we owe it to past cultures to learn more about who they were and accept them as such, or do we gain more by reading their works to relate those works to our own lives and times? I raise these questions here because both of these Faulkner novels are rife with political incorrectness: demeaning portrayals of passive women, bleak images of defunct household order and the damage caused by über-patriarchal family structures, totally demeaning portrayals of African-Americans, and the constant use of racial slurs. I have lived in the Deep South my entire life, and am someone who made the conscious decision to reject the racism I was raised around, so what do I do with Faulkner’s historical realities? I mean, the truth is that white men of the pre-World War II South were largely misogynistic and racist. But I don’t know what to do with these portrayals, reading as a someone who rejects misogyny and racism as morally wrong . . . I found myself fighting back the urge to judge these characters (and maybe Faulkner, too) while mentally screaming, just as Quentin Compson did that the end of the novel: “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
With so very few redeeming portrayals here, a real lack of admirable characters— I also have to ask: was Southern life really this dark and tragic? Here is Thomas Sutpen, the Appalachian-born runaway who rejects a sharecropping life to go out into the world to make his own way, who mysteriously arrives much later in Mississippi in 1833, only a decade after statehood, with no past he cares to tell about – with only the Compson patriarch knowing the truth – to procure an estate from Native Americans, to bring in “wild negroes,” to clear the wilderness, to build a house and later bring in furnishings, and eventually to procure a wife, Ellen Coldfield. Called a “demon” over and over again in the novel, Thomas Sutpen’s ambition and obsession with his legacy created much the pain and sorrow, even within Civil War-era Mississippi where pain and sorrow were already plentiful.
Thomas Sutpen is not the sophisticated and admirable Southern gentlemen that neo-Confederates and other Old South advocates want to glorify. He is a brute, a drunken fighter, but one with an odd sense of morals, too. His wife submits to him but basically hates him, and his much younger sister-in-law first ignores him then learns to hate him after he proposes, after Ellen is dead, that he impregnate her and marry her if she has a boy. His longest-standing and most faithful companion is his illegitimate half-black daughter Clytie, named for Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, but who Faulkner tells us at one point should have been named Cassandra, after the prophetic daughter of the Trojan king Priam. The wildly faithful Clytie remains there at Sutpen’s Hundred until the very, very end to burn down that hand-built shell of a home to save prodigal son Henry Sutpen from what she regards as an attempt to arrest him for the forty-three-year-old murder of the half-brother who wanted to marry their sister. The only legacy that Thomas Sutpen leaves is a desperately sullen mulatto great grandson who howls in the woods of his massive acreage.
So Sutpen created this whole mess, but when we learn his back-story, our image of him changes from a mysterious and potentially horrible threat to community into a man who minds his own (very ambitious) business and expects others to do the same. He grew up the worst kind of dirt-poor in Appalachia, in a society of free-roaming, mountain-dwelling immigrants, and his father uprooted the family to take them to the South – to the Tidewater area of Virginia – where Sutpen first encounters the archetypal 19th-century Southern gentleman planter, who lays in a hammock all day, with his shoes kicked off, doing absolutely nothing, rich as hell and seemingly worthless. The young Thomas doesn’t know what to think about this new place or this kind of person:
. . . where he has never even heard of, never imagined, a place, a land divided neatly up and actually owned by men who did nothing but ride over it on fine horses or sit in fine clothes on the galleries of big houses while other people worked for them; he did not even imagine then that there was any such way to live or to want to live, or that there existed all the objects to be wanted which there were, or that the ones who owned the objects not only could look down on the ones that didn’t, but could be supported in the down-looking not only by the others who owned the objects too but the by the very ones that were looked down on that didn’t own objects and knew they never would. (220 – 221)
In this portion of the novel, when Thomas Sutpen is explaining where he came from to Quentin Compson’s grandfather, young Sutpen’s sense of egalitarianism is startling, considering the record of the man’s behavior to that point in the novel. Yet, despite his brutality – the forced fights between his slaves, for instance – when he returns from the Civil War, Sutpen also refuses to join the mob that we assume to be the Ku Klux Klan:
“I remember how one night a deputation called, rode out through the mud of early March and put him to the point of definite yes or no, with them or against them, friend or enemy: and he refused, declined, offered them (with no change of gaunt ruthless face nor level voice) defiance if it was defiance they wanted, telling them that if every man in the South would do as he himself was doing, would see to the restoration of his own land, the general land and South would save itself: and ushered from the room and from the house and stood plain in the doorway holding the lamp above his head while their spokesman delivered his ultimatum: ‘This may be war, Sutpen’ and answered, ‘I am used to it.'” (161)
Thomas Sutpen was as multifaceted and confusing of a character as any in literature; at once a “demon” to many people around him, he is also champion of each man’s right to have what he could work hard and earn. The only sensitivity we see in him comes at that Virginia plantation, when he is told by the black slave who answers the front door of the main house that he must go around to the back door— Sutpen can handle seeing black slaves live in better conditions than poor white sharecroppers, but being told by a black slave (as the mouthpiece for the social-class arrogance of the lazy upper-class landowner) that he is not good enough to come with his business to the front door of the house. This, my friends, he will not tolerate. You think you’re better than me . . .? Yet, problematically in assessing Sutpen, near the end of the novel, he sees no problem with similar behaviors in himself, such as his elitism and arrogance towards Milly, whom he regards openly as being less than a horse, which leads to her grandfather, his squatter, Wash killing him with a scythe. It was the very behavior he deplored in others that got him killed.
Enough about the content, what about the style . . . my good Lord in Heaven, the style. Most people I know have never read either of these novels, and were having trouble figuring out A) why I was reading them if they were driving me crazy, and B) why the novels were driving me crazy. My best explanation centered on Faulkner’s beginning each of these two novels with the most difficult, most ephemeral narration, dancing around the facts and plot of the actual story, seemingly refusing to just come out and say it, until about midway through the novel when keys pieces begin to be put in place, yielding those aha! moments when the reader feels like he is getting somewhere . . . but then there are still more than a hundred pages to go. Granted, by the end of each of these novels, the reader will basically understand the totally fucked up nature of the situation, sort of.
And goodness, did that man love the words like effluvium! A noun meaning something being given off, like an emanation or an aura, or more tangibly like an odor or secretion. How could a reader not be tripped up by a phrase like “that Presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.” C’mon, man, give us a break! I didn’t look up every little thing, but I have a strong suspicion that Faulkner might have been making up words . . . take this passage for instance: “the fragile pandora’s box of scrawled paper which had filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons this smug monastic coign, this dreamy and heatless alcove of what we call the best of thought” (258). Either he was making up words, or he was working with a serious thesaurus!
Structurally, I do admire Faulkner’s work very much. Where that stylistic feature of non-linear, multi-narrator storytelling I mentioned earlier can be frustrating, as a storyteller Faulkner does manage to keep the reader on multiple planes at once, includes both external narrative and internal thoughts, and brings back scenarios that the reader had been led away from earlier. For instance, in Absalom, Absalom! we get the narration of the embittered Rosa Coldfield juxtaposed against the narration of Jason Compson – Quentin’s father, not his brother – to create two very different summative views of the Sutpen saga, and then we get to merge that with the discussion (and speculation) between Quentin and Shreve, as Quentin recounts the two narratives he has been told and they try to fill in the empty spaces. We never actually hear directly from Thomas Sutpen, Ellen Coldfield Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon, Charles Etienne Bon, Clytie . . . none of them, except in secondhand accounts. Finally, the novel ends with Quentin’s Compson’s psychological ordeal of whether or not he abhors the South, which carries the novel’s finality all the way to Harvard, a place far from Jefferson and Sutpen’s Hundred— and to questions of how and why all this has happened, punctuated by a Southerner who cannot answer them.
Speaking of that final exchange, the reader sees that it is Shreve, who is Canadian and who has no connection at all to the Sutpens or the South, setting up for Faulkner’s emminent coup de grace for Quentin Compson; Shreve says,
“. . . I just want to understand it if I can and I dont know how to say it better. Because it’s something my people haven’t got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We dont live among defeated grandfathers and free slaves (or have I got it backward and was it your folks that are free and the niggers are lost?) and bullets in the dining room table and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? something you live and breath in like air? . . .” (361)
and Shreve goes on like that for a moment, very poetically, until he makes a mistake, which Quentin corrects, about Pickett’s charge being at Gettysburg, not Manassas; with a great degree of plausible mystery, Quentin Compson levels with Shreve – and possibly with all non-Southerners – when he retorts, “You can’t understand it. You would have to be born there” (361).
Since I read these two novels right together, and had them both in my mind at the same time, I really wanted to connect the troubled characters of Henry Sutpen to Quentin Compson into some kind of comparison-contrast model. Faulkner gave both of them real issues, including an unnaturally close attachment to their sisters. I also wanted to connect the two of them to either of the disgruntled brothers in As I Lay Dying: Jewel or Darl Bundren, probably Darl. But then again Darl might compare more solidly with Jason Compson, the brother, not the father. These brothers/sons in these novels are going through some deep, psychological stuff; like I said Faulkner was a Freudian basket case.
To end here, I have to back up to The Sound and the Fury again and say, about Faulkner, that if pulling your novel’s title from the most famous speech in “the Scottish play” by that English playwright – the one Harold Bloom says is the greatest writer ever – shows that William Faulkner had major cajones, then titling another one in a way that conjures up images of King David’s rebellious son who went to war with his own father . . . and lost— you have a writer who isn’t afraid to put himself right up there with the big boys, the heavy hitters: Shakespeare, the Bible, et al. Of course, beyond those two titles, we’ve got other examples, like the heavily allusive title Go Down, Moses, too. I admire his cajones, and his skills, frankly— even though I’m glad to have these novel behind me.
Now, I can go enjoy my summer . . .