Taking Measurements

For a long time I was sure that if there was a question at the heart of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it was one of those sweeping humanist questions so common to American literature of the interwar period. Something to do with dignity, something to do with honour. Something along the lines of “What is the value of a single human life?” Now, though, I’m not so sure that the novel is animated by a question as abstract as that one. As I Lay Dying strikes me these days as a novel with little patience for abstractions. In fact, it strikes me as a novel that generates dramatic conflict through each character’s impatience with the abstractions in which the people who surround them have invested their energy. If there’s a question that animates it at all, it must be a question of less certainty with regard to the notion that human life has any fixed value at all: something like “How can we possibly determine the value of a human life?” or, better, “Within what frame of reference can we, do we, and should we, assign value to a life?” Continue reading

Faulkner’s Structural Imagery

Returning to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for last week’s reading group, I was struck by this passage in Darl’s eighth monologue (page 89 in the Vintage Classics edition) which appears just as Anse, Cash, Jewel, and Darl first attempt to raise and bear Addie Bundren’s coffin:

We lower it carefully down the steps. We move, balancing it as though it were something infinitely precious, our faces averted, breathing through our teeth to keep our nostrils closed. We go down the path, toward the slope.

“We better wait,” Cash says. “I tell you it ain’t balanced now. We’ll need another hand on that hill.”

“Then turn loose,” Jewel says. He will not stop. Cash begins to fall behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.

Although Faulkner claimed to have hammered out As I Lay Dying in a single six-week burst of creativity, examinations of the original manuscript have since put the lie to that story. In our group discussion, then, one of the questions raised was whether the novel as published also undermines Faulkner’s claim insofar as its evident complexities and nuances make a six-week creation implausible. I pointed to the above passage as one nuance that seems to me to show enough self-reflexivity on Faulkner’s part — enough consciousness of what his novel was doing as he went about piecing it together — for the novel to then display some self-awareness, via imagery, of its own structure. Continue reading

Fumbling for Exactitude

He expected people to make fun of, ridicule him. He expected people nowhere near his equal in stature or accomplishment or wit or anything else, to be capable of making him appear ridiculous. That was why he worked so laboriously and tediously and indefatigably at everything he wrote. It was as if he said to himself: ‘This anyway will, shall, must be invulnerable.’ It was as though he wrote not even out of the consuming unsleeping appeaseless thirst for glory for which any normal artist would destroy his aged mother, but for what to him was more important and urgent: not even for mere truth, but for purity, the exactitude of purity. … His was that fumbling for exactitude, the exact word and phrase within the limited scope of a vocabulary controlled and even repressed by what was in him almost a fetish of simplicity, to milk them both dry, to seek always to penetrate to thought’s uttermost end.

William Faulkner
on Sherwood Anderson