Fourth Faulkner Lecture

The main topic of today's class was The Sound and the Fury as an exemplary Modernist text -- & how it epitomizes the ambiguous achievement of Modernism. As a work of art it seems to me to be brilliant, complex, almost inexhaustible in its interpretive possibilities. It also seems elitist, racist, reactionary.

I started with the very end of the novel, with the episode of Benjy's being driven the wrong way around the Confederate monument, plunged into chaos & horror, then "saved" when the carriage is turned around and the shapes flow past "each in its ordered place." This ending gestures toward at least three different points of reference. (1) traditional literature: "in its ordered place" is the conventional comedic ending (think of Shakespeare's comedies, for example). By ending on this note WF is doing much the same thing Hemingway does by ending with Jake saying it's "pretty to think" he & Brett could have lived happily-ever-after -- WF is evoking and re-voking traditional way to give story meaning. (2) reality as empty "order," i.e. spiritual chaos, since there's no moral or social significance to the order Benjy "recovers"; just shapes in the places where he expects to see them. but also (3) The Sound and the Fury as a work of art, where all the symbols, images, details, ironies, etc., are in their ordered place. From here I went back to the novel's first paragraph, which does two things brilliantly at the same time -- thoroughly confuses the first-time reader, makes that reader viscerally feel the idea of reality as chaos, and also allows readers slowly to appreciate, through re-reading and re-re-reading, etc., how the author's intelligence is everywhere behind the "chaos" of the opening paragraph, so that in fact all its details are incredibly (textually) significant -- honeysuckle, missing quarter (i.e. fourth Compson, i.e. Caddy), lost money (cf Jason in last section), Benjy looking for something that isn't really there (i.e. "caddie"), etc. etc. Opening, like whole novel, establishes two things simultaneously: reality is the sound and the fury, full of noise & loss & confusion; The Sound and the Fury is structured, full of meaning, even over-determined as work of art.

Thus the artist -- invisible but everywhere in control -- is the novel's true "hero." I tried to contrast the story's central characters (who have to cope with reality) and WF as the artist (who can create his own textual reality through art). The Compsons are all at the mercy of the symbols that have chosen them -- schoolgirls, job in bank, virginity, clocks, etc. The Compsons's various attempts to use such symbols to replace losses always lead to further losses. At one point or another all the Compsons are reduced by their anguish to some form of Benjy's inarticulate wailing & moaning (cf. for example, Quentin on p. 140 or Caddy on pp. 209-10). The Modernist artist, though, is in control of the web of symbols, and (as we noted by looking at his style, voice, ability to make meaning and connections through metaphors, etc., when the third-person narrator emerges in fourth section -- cf. p. 265), knows how to make music from a saw, can use the failure of life as the occasion to display, in the virtuoso terms that are the recognizable characteristics of the Modernist masterpiece, the triumph of art. God dies, but the artist replaces him. Reality is uncreated & meaningless, but art creates order & meaning. That led to me, my job, the role Modernist art creates of the trained class of interpreters -- the critic/professor as priest, interpreting the word of Faulkner (or Joyce or Hemingway or Eliot, etc.) to you, the congregation that needs to have works like The Waste Land or The Sound and the Fury interpreted. Art can't change the world, but as an end in itself it can provide a refuge from the onslaught of modernity.

I didn't want to leave the premises of Modernism unchallenged, though. The Sound and the Fury also reveals the racial & caste presumptions of such a project. Dilsey's family exists in the book mainly as the Spanish peasants exist in The Sun Also Rises, as markers to indicate what the Compsons have lost (especially faith) -- but there's something politically & even morally very wrong with treating the plight of the dispossessed plantation aristocracy while suggesting that blacks in Mississippi in the 1920s are somehow to be envied, the Dilsey somehow is privileged while Quentin is tragically doomed by history. We talked about the book's failure to give Dilsey any kind of parity with the white consciousnesses WF organizes the book around, & about the kind of impermeable barrier that race creates in the novel's economy -- how, for example, Dilsey (though stereotypical as the "mammy" who loves the white children she brings up even more than her own kids) cannot provide Benjy with the love he keeps seeking, only Caddy can. From Dilsey we went to the other major black character -- Deacon, whom Quentin talks to in his section (cf. pp. 97-99). That Deacon wears uniforms & marches in parades & has a future ahead of him is not, for Q or for the novel, a sign of the progress of democracy, but an example of how destructive modernity is of the world that meant something (where Q's grandfather wore the officer's uniform, etc.). Politically, Modernism identifies with the displacement of a traditional aristocracy.

As a final point, I connected that up with the aesthetic of Modernism, which requires a very select reader -- educated, with enough leisure to read and re-read, and able to "afford my salary" (i.e. study Modernist texts under a trained professoriate). As opposed to Whitman's belief that the American author should try to reach the widest audience, Modernism deliberately carried serious literature away from the mass audience. It wasn't just an intricate order as an antidote to chaos, or a complexly meaningful aesthetic work as a refuge from meaninglessness, but also the attempt to create through art a new kind of aristocracy as a defense against what the novel treats as a loss -- the rise of non-patrician classes, non-white races, etc. Modernism has had a definitive role in shaping 20th century American lit, but if you think of equality or democracy as central American values, there's something very unAmerican about Modernism.

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