Sunday, 14 October 2007

Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner

Today I want to discuss some issues relevant to my American Fiction university module and to the magnificent, epic novel Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage, 1936) by William Faulkner. To start I want to reproduce a passage from p127-8 of the novel, to give you an idea of the scope of the work, and its great interest in the relation of one human life to history and eternity. I hope you enjoy it:

Context of the passage: Judith, of little emotion, gives a letter she has received from her betrothed to a stranger from the town.

She says “Read it or dont read it if you like. [She does it apparently for the following reason:] Because you make so little impression, you see. You get born and you try this and you don’t know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they dont know why either except that the strings are all in one another’s way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it cant matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better, and yet it must matter because you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over and all you have left is a block of stone with scratches on it provided there was someone to remember to have the marble scratched and set up or had time to, and it rains on it and the sun shines on it and after a while they don’t even remember the name and what the scratches were trying to tell, and it doesn’t matter. And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something-a scrap of paper- something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only in passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that was once for the reason that it can die someday, while the block of stone cant be is because it never can become was because it cant ever die or perish …”

Things to think about:

How does the image that we all tied up together, affecting each other, make you feel?
Why do we often view freedom as simply getting away from other people?? Would this make us “free”?
What do you think we are all trying to achieve in life? What are your aims for life? How would they affect other people?

Who do you think are the “Ones” who set up the loom for people to make a rug with? (Maybe think about how we learn how to gain a reputation in the eyes of society.)

Even though Faulkner says the “loom” seems to be set up in an awkward way, do you hope that there is a larger pattern working behind the things we try to do in our day-to-day lives? Is there a big purpose to life?

What often happens when we each try to “weave our own pattern” in life, trying to bring everything in line with our own desires? Is it possible to do this?
Why do we need each other?
Why do we cause each other to suffer?
Are people good at sharing their resources? What is the reason for this?

What is Judith’s attitude to dying in this passage? Why is she afraid her gravestone will be forgotten – and will it matter?
What is Judith trying to do in giving this “scrap of paper” to someone in the world she has otherwise had little contact with?
Why do people hope for something of them to last after death?
Where does that inner desire come from?

To me this quote is great at summing up the frustrations of living life, with all its uncertainties and impossible situations, living with people and living with yourself. How can we live without purpose, or hope that something will last? This small gesture is beautiful because in it the fierce young woman Judith is reaching out to someone, to find meaning – but I think it is ultimately fruitless too. Her hope for this gesture to last is futile, and without a hope of an afterlife, a wonderful eternity with God, it seems she is doomed to be dead and forgotten. That is why this quotation is also so devastatingly tragic – Without God, our lives will achieve nothing that will last.

About the novel

John Pilkington can write that Absalom, Absalom! is generally agreed to be a book which is a “study of the process of arriving at historical truth and, perhaps, the meaning of history itself. Faulkner realised that if life is to have any profound meaning for the individual, that meaning is reached through history.” (The heart of Yoknapatawpha, University Press of Mississippi, 1981, p.169). But this history, that provides meaning, is transformed in the novel by each different character involved, in such a way that it is clear that each character must be working on the basis of different assumptions about what is meaningful, some for instance placing greater emphasis on sexual or deep emotional or psychological urges, while others appear to be convinced about the immutability of a person’s character or assume a common materialistic greed in all men. Each narrator emphasises different events in the course of the family history they trace as being the most important, as they see it in their perspective.

Furthermore, the points at which different narrative viewpoints seem to reach consensus about history are, as the novel continues, undermined by the students Shreve and Quentin’s re-writing of history, as if the past is somehow malleable, and indeed the characters’ own widely different moral viewpoints lead them to interpret the present differently: Old Rosa Coldfield, who still feels strongly connected to the past, is gleeful at the destruction of Supten’s Hundred and glories in it, while young Quentin seeks release from the cycle of death and age-old, inevitable tragedy that surrounds the figures Charles Bon, Henry and Judith in the historical narrative. The meaning reached through history is overwhelming to Quentin, who, instead of surviving in grim expectation of the downfall of the Sutpen family like Rosa Coldfield, finally destroys himself (in the connected novel The Sound and the Fury). He seeks escape from his present situation, which to him must end in destruction as surely as Charles Bon was murdered by Henry in history, because he considers his own confused feelings for his sister to be as forbidden as the (suggested) incestuous love of Bon for Judith. So the effect of history is a burden to Quentin and even helps to destroy him, whereas others understand it differently (I think Shreve sees it as pure entertainment). In these ways the novel highlights the problems with understanding the past and determining its meaning for us today.

William Faulkner has meticulously designed a book in which there are, as one student at Virginia University put it in a question to the author, “thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird with none of them right”. Faulkner replied, “I think no one individual can look at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and you see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it. But taken all together, the truth is in what they saw though nobody saw the truth intact.” (Pilkington, p.168) From this we can see that actually true statements seem to be ruined for Faulkner. They are surrounded by a veil of inaccessibility, and one can only make partially-right statements. The main mystery character in the novel, Thomas Sutpen, “was himself a little too big for people no greater than Quentin and Miss Rosa and Mr Compson [characters whose perspectives are included in the novel] to see all at once.” We sense from these words that there never can be, in Faulkner’s worldview, a person “wiser or more tolerant or more sensitive or more thoughtful” who is able to see the full Sutpen – in other words a perfect and omniscient person. Instead Faulkner makes a leap in which he describes the reader’s forced creation of their own Sutpen as the new “truth” when it is in fact still conjecture: “The truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird, which I would like to think is the truth.” In saying this Faulkner has renounced all authority over the matter – as John Pilkington puts it, “the burden of understanding and interpretation is placed squarely upon the reader” (p.169). The new “truth” is the only truth we are likely to get from the book – and so the critics debate and debate, ad infinitum.

In fact, describing a complex but central passage in the novel (p.261-2), Pilkington says “What Faulkner seems to be saying is that the present flows out of the ripples of the past” but the passage goes even further than this. There is an “old ineradicable rhythm” to the past and present, which mingle indefinitely: “Maybe it took Father and me both to make Shreve or Shreve and me both to make Father”. Time becomes a soup which mixes consequences with events in a permanently accumulating process. So “the individual who perceives the event likewise enters into it [is shaped by its effect on them] as he orders it in his own consciousness and it becomes a part of his experience.” (Pilkington, p.170). While there is truth in the value of experience shaping us in many ways, there are bizarre consequences of this assumption that we are merely a product of our circumstances. And the (now-common) distrust of the unknowable accuracy of the “consciousness” itself, combined with the assumed improbability of shared subjective experiences, mean that the postmodern sees history as unknowable in any solid sense – it will be too differently reported through too many people to be understood. More than that, according to this view of our connection with the past, history is necessarily only understood when reworked. Our experience is all that can teach us. We live in a closed system, without much possibility of correct communication.

I would like to challenge the above assumptions about history and say that, despite difficulties, there is much we can know, and question, and discover, about people who lived in the past. I see the main difficulty of “Absalom, Absalom!”, which is that we can not get at another man’s thoughts or motivations – these remain inaccessible to us. But even here we can make progress and attempt to work together to answer the question “What would he be likely to mean/intend by doing or writing that?”, by reading what they have written, and finding out what they have said and by careful study of their behaviour as recorded in a variety of ways. We can not call our findings absolute truth, but can discover something which is true – and then those reading our findings, if we are careful, should not be looking at a completely different blackbird, but one which matches in many ways with the first one: There is no new blackbird which, out of despair for the impossibility of knowing the old one, is called truth.

Further thoughts from other modern American fiction:

In “Things out of words: Towards a Poetics of Short Fiction” the author, Clare Hanson, has a basic thesis, as set out in brief here: The difference in short fiction is a greater sense of mystery – “there is no space for cross reference or repetition of the kind we are familiar with in the novel” (p.23). But this is close to the very reason for writing, Hanson suggests. She says this insecurity about final meaning is highly desirable – “it is why we write, as I see it, that we may arrive at this moment and yet- it is stepping into the air to yield it – to a kind of anguish and rapture” (Hanson quoting Katherine Mansfield, p.22). Indeed “we start from scratch and words don’t; which is the thing that matters – matters over and over again, for though we grow up in the language, when we begin using words to make a piece of fiction, that is of course as different from using the same words to say hello on the telephone as putting paint on canvas is. This very leap in the dark is what writers write fiction in order to try” (quotation from Eudora Welty, p.24.) Fiction, according to this group of thinkers, is intended as a leap to find power and meaning, an escape from the restriction of normal meaning.

Is this what we do when we write? Do we try to create an insecurity about words, to make the description primarily only suggestive, and not actual? Why would we aspire to do this? Don’t we seek to communicate, to share ideas about character, theme, the world, society and the individual, our own consciousness and experiences and those of others? What is the agenda or worldview behind the criticism and fiction which decides to be suggestive in sometimes contradictory directions? Why is modern fiction like it is?

My idea is that it is to do with Francis Shaeffer’s theory of the modern author/artist’s despair about knowing rationally about significant things. The emphasis has been shifted to one’s own subjective reception of words and how they are constructed to be sentimental or powerful in the receiving mind. I agree that this process has to happen – we have to interpret the information/words given and formulate it in a way it makes best sense to us – but I don’t want to lose the emphasis some authors place on desiring to communicate through words. And I want to say that the possibility that our reformulated ideas about a text can overlap with what the author intended to communicate is not remote. The difficulties do not render our understanding about a text static, in the area of discovering author’s intentions.

Modern writers seem to revel in ambiguity. Take this quotation from Stephen Matterson (The Great Gatsby: An introduction to the variety of criticism, Macmillan Education Limited, 1990, p.17-18):

"In part, the point is that the kind of symbols in The Great Gatsby are suggestive rather than definite, and that their power accordingly lies in their suggestiveness.
The eyes of Dr T.J. Eckleburg – a general critical consensus seems to be that they suggest the modern world’s loss of God, or a spiritual dimension. … no definite, absolute meaning can be ascribed to them, keeping their possible meanings alive for the reader. With such a technique, Fitzgerald had fulfilled the prescription of Conrad that he so admired; that the writer should aim for 'the light of magic suggestiveness … brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words.'"

The power of the imagery in The Great Gatsby is to my mind in what they suggest rather than the idea of their infinite mystery. The unreachable lights; the mutlicoloured symphony of people; the stark watching eyes of the doctor on the advertisement billboard, which to the deperate and bereaved Wilson as he searches for justice, appear as the eyes of the all-seeing god of justice - these ideas, this content behind the images, are their power, and it is their meaning that is worth discussing, not their meaninglessness, which just implies that we do not care why they are there, or think the author did not put them there for a purpose. Indeed carefully balanced meaning brings writing, and history, truly alive - whereas accepting that we can't know what images mean and tentatively accepting all the suggestions that could work, doesn't advance the understanding of the novel, and doesn't master critisicm well at all. There needs to be distinction between good suggestions and bad ones, so we can work towards probable meanings.

I don't want to end here with a traditional conclusion, but I want to challenge those involved in criticism to approach the task of understanding the author behind the work with more confidence. The wealth of work that has been done on this in the past, the great discoveries of great critical minds, can help us here - let's not reject all this in our arrogant assumption that the is no progress to be made, embracing a new subjective "blackbird" experience of a text, rather than doing the hard work of research! Let's instead reject bad research and find accurate work, which works hard at the text, to understand its constructions and structure, and to match the words of the text with language at the time and the author's public and private concerns. And let us write to be clear and to be understood well, leading the way in communicating important and creative ideas. In other words, let's be absolutely clear that absolute truth matters in all areas, including in how we approach reading, writing and all our communication. It is God's image we are bearing, and despite difficulties, he created us so we could be understood.

© 2007 Richard Townrow.

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