William Faulkner (1897–1962)
As I Lay Dying (1930)
[Boy, this has been sitting here forever! I read this book something like a year ago, and I wrote most of this six months ago. But it has very much needed editing so I have delayed posting it. And now you’re about to find out just how badly it’s needed editing, because I’m finally fed up and am posting it after all, more or less as it’s been.]
After hot-dog-eating-contest-ing my way through Chernyshevsky, reading Faulkner was like sipping tea. (That was an attempt to use “hot-dog-eating-contest” as a verb. Your cooperation is appreciated.) I know Faulkner isn’t supposed to be like sipping tea; he’s supposed to be a heavy duty guy, one of the classic “difficult” writers. But people tend to overemphasize the challenge posed by “difficult” writing, and underemphasize the challenge posed by old writing, or bad writing. Compared to the messy, many-dimensional problems posed by the passage of centuries and huge shifts in cultural standards, difficulties in figuring out which character is talking (or whatever) are just like slight clouds in your tea. As I Lay Dying was pie — pie, I say — compared to a trudge like What is to be Done, because it was a book by a more-or-less modern American writer for more-or-less modern American readers like myself. He’s at home and I’m at home; neither of us is squinting at a phrasebook.
Which is more difficult: doing the crossword puzzle in today’s paper, or understanding any part of a paper from 1780?
Okay, obviously I’m exaggerating; this book was harder than cloudy tea. In fact, halfway through, feeling quite confused, I thought perhaps I’d better delete the above, which was jotted down in my early post-Chernyshevsky enthusiasm. But having reached the end and reflected on my experience, I’m comfortable letting it stand. The book might have been a three-star crossword puzzle, but it was still just a crossword puzzle.
And, puzzle-lover though I may be, I’m not sure that’s to its credit.
This being my first Faulkner novel — a momentous occasion, after all these years of hype! — I felt it prudent to ask around and see what a few Faulkner-lovers of my acquaintance had to say about As I Lay Dying. The average response was, I daresay, rather cool. Some admiration was tentatively expressed, but no actual affection. Generally they wanted to tell me which other Faulkner novel they actually recommended (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, Light in August). The most enthusiastic comment about As I Lay Dying that I was able to get out of any of the approximately three people to whom I spoke was: “it’s astonishing, isn’t it?” Which under the circumstances sounds a tad evasive. A snake eating a mouse is astonishing.
When these Faulknerians asked me what I had thought of it, I said the same thing to each of them, and now I say it to you, the infinite readership: I know what experience it gave, but I don’t know why that experience was on offer.
Just now I was watching the original ballet of Appalachian Spring — another stylized, modernist crunch on the spiritual concept of “America.” The ballet’s image of twitchy, angular purity and grace has an obvious appeal and an obvious purpose. It delivers something that feels useful to the soul, something worth carrying around. Something for the heart to take into account when choosing the palette for its own, inward American landscape. As I Lay Dying seemed to want to deliver something similar but for me it did not. What sort of inward use could its particular vision possibly serve? Wherefore this gnarled, driftwood gargoyle?
It wasn’t false enough to relish like a haunted house — it was nobody’s nightmare — but neither was it true enough to appreciate as a slice of any real world. It was an “expressionist” skew on the rural south, but I was never sufficiently convinced that it had been skewed in a good faith effort to express anything felt, rather than just as a device to superficially art-ify. Where, in this world he was describing, were Mr. Faulkner’s sympathies?, I wanted to know. With his own skill, seemed rather obviously to be the answer. But that was an unproductive answer, so I made great effort to set it aside and wait for another one to present itself. And others did, eventually, but in retrospect none half as convincing as that first one.
Does passion for technique and dispassion for characters necessarily mean that an artist is a jerk, or that he has his priorities wrong? I say “definitely not” — it annoys me when people level this complaint against, say, the Coen Brothers. But that’s because in Coen Brothers movies I always have a clear sense that the dispassionate storytelling has an emotional objective. Being at a dispassionate distance is itself a real and rather melancholy human experience; generally I think they’re interested in that melancholy, rather than disinterested in their characters. It is with the camera’s own godlike externality that we are meant to identify.
The text of As I Lay Dying, on the other hand, is entirely in the mouths and brains of its characters — the device is that it jumps from character to character at each new chapter. Scattered thus among its various characters, the book averages to having an external point of view, but it’s a point of view we are never actually offered, an unvoiced perspective. So the melancholy of externality cannot be a part of the equation. But that underlying lack of sympathy is there nonetheless, and we smell it, and we know it’s Faulkner behind it. He’s a lurker in his own book, and as such he feels insufficiently committed. So when he veers toward the grotesque, it seems divorced from any emotional impulse — modernist stylings for their own sake.
While we’re on the subject: is American Gothic making fun of those two people, or what? I tend to think that one’s more Coen brothers style; our sympathies are meant to be with the frame. I think Grant Wood is probably asking his audience “you know how sometimes you see something that’s not supposed to be strange, but it’s actually very strange, both unsettling and comical?” Faulkner showed me similar stuff but he never winked and never asked me anything.
Let me make clear that I did understand what I was reading! The “point” of the book, to some degree, is that all life and all meaning is subjective. Thus the idiosyncratic form. And thus also Faulkner’s refusal to declare any boundary between deadpan and sincere, grotesque and noble. I can see that he probably wanted each first-person narrative to strike an untippable balance between foreign otherness and some kind of essential truth-for-that-person, the glowing inner reality that is the ultimate object of sympathy because we all share it: the mystery of being existent. I feel like the strangeness came off, but the glowing innerness didn’t, because it’s dependent on the poetry, and, ultimately — and this is really the bottom line of my response — I wasn’t convinced by the poetry. It all comes down to the text.
Faulkner’s prose style here is highly conspicuous, constructed, idiosyncratic, fanciful, thorny. To these one might add affected, ostentatious, pretentious, self-indulgent and so on. One might add these words. Then again one might rather add poetic, rich, evocative, spectacular, virtuoso and the like. While reading, I spent a lot of mental energy on steering toward the latter sort of thing. Fighting against rather strong currents, I’m afraid.
I see that the work was an effort to transcend, but my experience wasn’t of transcendence, so I was left with the solid part only, which made the book feel unkind, false. And I’m not so sure that what he was attempting is even possible. Ulysses achieves exactly this kind of “sympathy-beyond-mere-sympathy” for Bloom, but that’s because Joyce, for all his artificing, realizes that poetry is the least of it; the real thing is to show that Bloom is more than merely fodder for Joyce’s pen. It’s in his very ordinariness that Bloom is allowed to transcend Joyce. Faulkner’s people are too busy being American Gothic hieroglyphs to possibly transcend Faulkner himself, so there’s nothing there to believe in.
In fact, the more I talk about it, the more embarrassingly overreaching the whole project seems. And the effort to leaven it by actually putting philosophical windings into the brains of each character is also embarrassing, for its shamelessness. (Though those were the most interesting passages to read, because they were the most communicative of the author’s actual intentions. If only he’d been able to write a book about those things instead of just “about” them… )
The book, I think, is one of those “great works of art” that is admired for what it indicates its intention to be, rather than for what it is.
And yes, the difficulty. I suppose his formal technique is archetypically modernist, in that it intends to reduce the materials to a scientific array, scatter the particles of the narrative, stack and arrange the sentences like blocks, like some kind of Gertrude Stein objects. In such works the “point of view” is that of the God of science, which is to say no God (unlike the film camera, mentioned earlier, which is a real and omnipotent god). But when Joyce has that chapter at the end of Ulysses all in questions and answers, he uses it to revel in the infinite possibilities of raw information, the endless glories of truth. The truth goes into a desk drawer, under the table, out into distant space, down to a microscopic detail, back and forth through time, into the mind, the body — everything. That chapter is a joyous, whimsical celebration of the modern potential to explode a moment, a story, art. Faulkner’s book, on the other hand, is “exploded” and yet its worldview remains provincial; it seems to be explosion as obfuscation rather than illumination.
As-yet-unrevealed things were referred to obliquely in earlier chapters only to be retroactively explained in later chapters. In Ulysses this device also occurs, but there it’s in keeping with the concept of the city as four-dimensional microcosm; that the book contains more stories than just the one that reads from front to back is part of the aesthetic point. Here it just felt like puzzles and confusion thrown in the reader’s path for complexity’s sake.
I guess I’ve worked my way around to my problem with much of post-WWI art — the techniques of modernism are so easily misunderstood, and were, and were converted into mere fashions rather than ideas. This was like secondhand cubism.
I felt like his descriptive language was perpetually dense and rich simply because he had resolved to keep his descriptive language dense and rich, rather than because some greater vision necessitated it. He would give me a heavily-worked morsel of prose-poetry about the ripples on a river, and I would think, “I see that you obviously strove to pour the full force of your art into this phrase… but why are you telling me about these ripples at all? They really don’t have anything to do with the substance of the scene, so the phrase doesn’t belong here, no matter how original and chewy.”
(Ding ding, train of thought is about to switch tracks, ding ding. Keep arms and legs inside.)
During the time I was reading this book, I happened also to be thinking about how my baseline experience of perceiving the world has changed over the years; how the flavor of it fluctuates and transforms over time. Things seem to me sometimes to be duller or more distant than they once were; or rather the sense that things are dull or distant settles over me more frequently and with greater inertia. My sense of the present, in space and time, has become less acute, softened by habit — the habit of being. I don’t know whether this is the nature of aging or a kind of depression, but it is of course something I would like to resist and improve; perceiving the world is pretty much my raison d’etre as a conscious being, after all, so it seems like a pretty high priority.
Earlier today on the street in Manhattan, I saw a very little boy in a stroller and could see in his eyes that his attention to the sidewalk passing under him was full and intense. I felt shamed by it. What do I think I know about sidewalks already, that I needn’t look? Why is my attention so withered and weak? You must change your life.
Once last year when I was in the shower, I happened to look at the wall tiles from only inches away, and saw them in their voluminous detail, and felt suddenly aware of the acute reality of the present, and was overjoyed. Of course the sensation was unreproducible, and here I am talking about it a year later because it has become so rare. For that boy in the stroller — and for me too once, I think — it was the only way of being.
The point of this extremely personal digression is this: perhaps an abundance of detail needs no justification to a reader whose mind perceives the abundance of the world. Detail is a first principle, not a stylistic choice. Why describe the ripples on the water? The question would not even occur to someone for whom the ripples were already and necessarily present; they would ask, “what is art but to describe ripples?”
Perhaps the better I understand art — the more I see the layers of its createdness, its intentionality, its personness — the further I fall from being able to see reality, the unpeopled truth. Sometimes I have the distressing feeling that I am surrounded by art in the world, swallowed up by the wills and minds of men rather than things as they are.
Medieval monks believed that reality was correspondences and symbols, that there was mind and message burning in everything, a world aflame. We tend to think of them as being the victims of chronological misfortune, doomed to live before the era of real knowledge and real comfort, doomed to make everything up from scratch while rats gnawed them in their beds. We imply that they saw art in place of reality as a way to alleviate their suffering, like the end of Brazil.
But I think that’s presumptuous. We need no such excuse to be seduced into believing that meaning is the underlying principle in the world; the impulse to see meaning is inborn.
Perhaps my problem is that I see the poetry so much more clearly than I see the ripples. The ripples, I think numbly, can take care of themselves; I just need to concern myself with the book. It seems likely to me that I read the book in this worthless, sterile spirit. Perhaps it was full of life and heart that I missed.
Ah well. Maybe some day I’ll pass this way again, but not right now.
Honestly, I prefer to write them this way. What really was I going to say about William Faulkner when there are so many Faulkner scholars, Faulkner journals, Faulkner societies and Faulkner conferences, all hard at work at the expansive task of finally getting Faulkner’s work good and responded to? Even as I read, I felt distressingly aware that not only had millions trampled this ground before me, but that they might be quite nearby still — that if I dared do an internet search to read up on the book, I would be thrust into a world with its own traditions and expectations and protocol, where all the good picnic spots had been claimed bright and early by the locals.
(The very concept of the “newbie” is a rather hateful one, isn’t it?)
Anyway, with this thoroughly kvetchy, self-pitying posting I’ve certainly shown them, haven’t I! Take that, Faulkner establishment. And take that, literary establishment at large that fairly unanimously considers this one of the great works of the 20th century.
And take that, people who read my site. And take that, me.
Next time I promise I will try to post quickly, before they fester, as this one so obviously has.
[A recap of the above:
First I say that the book was easy. Then I say that it actually was hard. Then I say that I don’t know why he wrote it because it seemed pointless to me. Then I say that the author must have been full of himself to write such a fancy-boy type book. Then I swear that I totally understood it, but that it just was a failure. Then out of nowhere I start making a big stink about how ooh, I’ve read Ulysses, ooh, look at me. Then I randomly start saying that I’m sad and lost in life or some shit like that, and then say that maybe that’s why, okay fine, maybe I didn’t understand the book, but that I don’t care. Then basically I say that people who like this guy’s books are stuck-up snobs. Then I immediately kind of disclaim the whole essay. And then this, which goes and pisses all over the whole thing.
All in all, not a proud performance.]
But, you know, the show must go on.
Oh, oops! I’m supposed to include a passage for you to sample and consider. Here you go.
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.
How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.
Pretty in its way, and artful in its way, and somewhere near to the profound, in its way… and yet at the same time, irritatingly contrived, and transparent, and condescending, and pretentious, no? Well, that’s my take.