12 June 2006

Faulkner's games play games

As Dan Green notes, "Faulkner at his best is full of game-playing." But the linguistic games get nasty sometimes, too.

Looking back at some old writing I did on As I Lay Dying, I see Faulkner up to his old tricks in the character of Addie, who bends words back on themselves. In her solitary section, she proclaims the futility of language: "[W]ords are no good [...] words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at." She goes on to discuss her husband Anse:
He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than pride or fear.
Taking this even further, she coins words of negation, denying the inherent being of language. She confesses that the one thing her husband could have given her was "not-Anse." By surrendering to the fact that this would not happen, she fulfills her "duty" to him:
I would be I; I would let him be the shape and echo of his word. That was more than he asked, because he could not have asked for that and been Anse, using himself so with a word.
This negation of language extends into her rejection of conventional spirituality, according to Cleanth Brooks (in William Faulkner: First Encounters):
One might call her basic philosophy a kind of transcendental materialism, for she has simply inverted the Christian doctrine. Since the soul is nothing, the body itself must be everything, and so, transcendentally important, for only the tangible is truly real.
With this perspective, she channels her remaining affection into her illegitimate son, Jewel. By placing sole importance on physical reality, Addie sees her salvation (or vindication) as a corporeal thing: "Addie tells Cora that 'he' will save her from the fire and the flood. The conventionally pious Cora thinks at first that Addie is referring to Christ," yet she soon "realizes that Addie is referring to her son Jewel, who in the course of the journey actually does save her decomposing body from both perils" (Brooks 83). Addie’s identity and selfhood impinge upon those of her entire family, particularly Darl and Jewel, directly affecting their individual fates. By effectually giving being to Jewel (through her love), and denying it to Darl (through unreasonable withdrawal), Addie dictates the being and non-being of each son...with words.

Not only does Faulkner play games with words, his own characters do as well, creating a fascinating tension between the words that comprise (or create) each character and the words they themselves use to undo (unmake) each other. I think this is one reason why Dan Green can emphasize how Faulkner's "fiction always forces awareness of the way these images are produced, and it's hard to believe he didn't know this. Such self-awareness makes him a quintesstial modernist."

(Still more on this soon.)

1 comment:

KGT said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking piece...it is interesting that so many of us do this, less brilliantly, less consciously, but perhaps with greater consequence.