Second Faulkner Lecture

We started with Quentin's section & the difficulties of following it. If Benjy's mind is driven by sensory stimuli, Q's works -- or dysfunctions -- by the process of thought itself, which reproduces a lot of ellipses & gaps. And it doesn't make it easier to follow that this is the last day of Quentin's life, that he's so distraught, that his mind is constantly dragging his thoughts toward memories & ideas he doesn't want to think about, so he's always trying to head off his own mind before it gets to the end of a "sentence." Nor does it help that unlike Benjy (who only remembers what actually happened, who in his own anti-omniscient way is very reliable as source of the story), Q has a hyperactive fantasy life, can remember things that never happened except in his mind (like incest & shooting Herbert Head). Q's section is the hardest to understand, but as you read in you can count on his compulsions. The number of things he thinks about on June 2, 1910, is obsessively small. Chiefly--

  • what "father said"; Mr. Compson's incredible cynicism, or nihilism, about the ultimate meaninglessness of everything;

  • time, & how to escape it (I suggested that he might be spending this last day in a kind of experiment to see if "for a moment" he can transcend or escape time, in which case he might not have to die to get out of it, but if so, then all through his section he keeps realizing how omnipresent time is -- shadows, whistles, clock chimes, hunger at noon, etc);

  • Caddy's virginity & the man (Dalton Ames Dalton Ames Dalton Ames) who took it;

  • Q's own disgusted & fascinated horror about sexuality, including his own (Natalie, honeysuckle, etc.);

  • his inescapable sense of his own failure to be the "eldest son/older brother" his place in a great Southern family requires him to be (cf. Gerald Bland as Fortinbras to Q's Hamlet, etc.);

  • his desperate but futile "rage for order" (quoting Stevens), for some kind of meaning & stability in the midst of what Eliot called "the vast panoroma of anarchy & futility" that is modern history, what WF means by "the sound and the fury" -- see the passage at the top of p. 170.
  • Q is "in time" (first sentence of his section) and belated, too late, "is it that late?" are his first spoken words. His father can hand him his grandfather's watch, symbol of tradition & family greatness & continuity, but at same time passes on to Q the idea that time itself is simply "the mausoleum of all hope & desire" (p. 76).

    The novel wants us to see Q's plight, & that of the other Compson kids growing up (or failing to) with the twentieth century, as determined by historical losses. History as a destructive force has happened to them. Mr. C's nihilism, for example, can probably be attributed to the South's loss of the Civil War (no battle is ever won, he tells Q when giving him the watch). But I spent most of the class suggesting how in The Sound and the Fury what the novel foregrounds isn't abstract history but the personal past, not modernity so much as the absolute shaping influence of the Compson children's childhood.

    The class Q cuts at the beginning of his day isn't History, but Psychology. The main point of the episode, of course, is that you should never cut class. But it's also a detail that points toward the novel's emphases. The novel is a brilliant dramatization of what Freud called "the family romance." WF said he never read Freud, which may be true, but of course few Naturalists read Darwin, and in the 1920s you didn't have to read Freud to hear a lot about his ideas. Freud's theories of the unconscious and so on became popular in America in the Twenties for a lot of reasons, but an important one was that he suggested a way for the generation that thought of itself as lost to analytically lay the blame for all that on the older generation, on their parents. Family & childhood are, in The Sound and the Fury, what the city is in Sister Carrie, the environment that determines an individual's identity, that defines the individual's story. I tried to demonstrate this by looking closely at the passage on pp. 17-19, where Benjy remembers playing in the creek the day Damuddy died. It's the earliest scene depicted anywhere in the novel (Benjy is still Maury, & is only 3 -- Q is only 8), but everything that will happen to the children is already latent in their actions & anxieties here, in earliest childhood. To WF, with his "Freudian" concept of identity, characters' lives are determined for them before they're old enough to understand, much less resist the way the family conditions them.

    That's a consequence of WF's use of the stream-of-consciousness technique: it makes memory, the personal past, an omnipresent force in the lives of Benjy, Q, and even Jason. I spent a while trying to show how even Jason, who looks like the one Compson brother who gets past childhood (where Benjy's memory is stuck) or adolescence (where Q's anguish and horror mainly comes from) into adulthood, even Jason (whose mind is never, as B's & Q's are, overwhelmed by a memory), even Jason is not in control of his life, but rather keeps acting out rituals that were laid down for him in his past -- especially chasing girl Quentin around (as his mother had once set him to following Caddy), & most especially stealing that money from girl Q, to hoard it, lock it up, go home often to count it, etc. In that "business" Jason is compulsively trying to "keep" the job in the bank that he was promised as a kid, but that he lost before he ever had it. That's a great symbol for where the Compson kids are stuck -- unable to escape the past, feeling the anguished loss of something that never really existed in the first place.

    I ran out of time before talking in any detail about how the other Compson children's lives are shaped by their childhoods and their parents. I'll start with this briefly on Wednesday. It's also a great paper topic -- to take one of the children and look hard at how the novel defines his or her life as a product of childhood past/parents' influence.

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