Transcendent Faulkner

/ Chat / Favorites / Art / Literature / Family Read-Aloud /

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

That’s Faulkner.

Is that transcendent prose, or what? That’s Light in August, Chapter 6, the first two lines.
What the hell does it mean? Does it mean anything? (One way humans enslave themselves and each other to encanted bullshit is to assume that sentences constructed according to familiar grammar necessarily correspond with reality.) (But we got a mix there: one sentence, one non-sentence.)
If you haven’t read a lot of Faulkner you’re not likely to make much of it. If you have read Faulkner, and it doesn’t, keep reading: it will. (Everything turns away from, and turns back to, the Civil War.)

This Faulkner transcends sense.
(Or: see that it’s the post-war south returning to its own vomit: the ante-bellum south.)

The past isn’t dead: it’s isn’t even past.


I’m just reading Light in August to Jan. I’d read it only once previously, summer of 1970. It’s my impression that she hadn’t read much Faulkner. Last night, for comparison, I read her the first couple of paragraphs of The Sound and the Fury.
I wept, I was so moved.

(Once upon a time I read aloud to Hilary: giant novels, Victorian novels! Bleak House!) (And Jan and I are currently watching a BBC DVD of Bleak House!)

The Sound and the Fury was the first Faulkner I ever read. 1950s. I remember going Huh? at the first paragraph. I was more jealous than impressed: I wanted to have written that first: but I was several decades behind: quarter of a century.

Faulkner Full Strength

Yeah, grad school: 1970. I’d been rehired by Colby, then fired at Colby: eleven out of twenty-one teachers purged from the English Department: all untenured, clean sweep. Or is that a dirty sweep? since all eleven had protested the war? My lawyer buddy happened to be in Waterville before Hilary and I fled back to the Apple. We spoke to the dean. The dean saw this Boston law shark and shit a brick. He asked me what I wanted. I said the Chair fired me after the fellowship ap window closed: give me the best fellowship I missed applying for. And they did: $3,500. $3.5M would have been better, but the dean wouldn’t have been able to approve that without consulting beyond his office.
Anyway: I’m back in NY, I have to take a course to maintain my matriculation. Hey, why not Faulkner?

I’m a slow reader: I write fast, but I read slow. The summer course would run for a couple of weeks: I predicted that the course would assign a novel a day: correctly. I told Hilary that I’d like to borrow her Catskills cottage for a week: assign myself a Faulkner novel a day: get a week ahead in the reading.
And so it went, unforgettable: you try reading a Faulkner novel a day for a whole week. I read a half dozen major Faulkner novels in order of publication:

The Sound and the Fury
As I Lay Dying
The Hamlet
Light in August
Absalom, Absalom!

May, oh, man. The first one took me all day and a night: I finished the last word of the last sentence on the last page at 5 AM. I had a stiff scotch. I took my fly rod, waded the trout stream behind the house, froze in the predawn white mountain water, but managed to catch a little brown trout on my first cast. I gutted it, melted butter in the pan, and sauteed it. Another scotch kept me company as I closed my eyes to the dawn.
Twenty four hours later I was two full novels into it. After that I tried to manage a half a novel a day. I finished the course again behind in the reading, but did start with a leg or two up.
What a moron the professor was I tell elsewhere.

I’ve never had another literary immersion like it: wonderful, unforgettable. But: I seem to have forgotten wide swaths of the novels themselves. Here, in Light in August, I am currently recognizing little.

I recommend both kinds of reading: quick survey and slow total immersion.

PS The course launched with one chronologically ahead of Fury: Sartoris.

2014 06 02 Jan and I read August Chapter Seven last night (a couple of annoying misprints on the Kindle). Faulkner is giving us a view of Joe Christmas’s memories, his sense of self. At five he’s been adopted by McEachern. Christmas disdains to learn MaEachern’s Presbyterian catechism. He takes MaEachern’s blows with the belt in lots of ten till he faints. Mrs. MaEachern tries to comfort him (she probably knows MaEachern’s belt well herself). Joe reveals his irresistible trump to Mrs. MaEachern: MaEachern growls that Christmas not learning his Presbyterian catechism, not bowing to MaEachern’s imposition of his religion (and himself as God-AllMighty) proves that MaEachern has been nursing a blasphemer in his bosom; Christmas trumps all of God-AllMighty MaEachern’s accusation with the ultimate sin: what MaEachern has been ignorantly nursing in his bosom is the worst of all possible things: he’s been nursing a n-! (Bowdlerizing K. 2016 07 31)

Joe Christmas is an orphan. He’s also an oddball. The other orphans taunt him with being a “n-“. Christmas accepts the taunt, throughout his life torments his tormenters with that uttered as a confession. We may believe that he believes it is true. Still, all that is nothing compared to this: Faulkner’s public, Faulkner’s south, Faulkner’s fellow Christian Americans … routinely believed (and still largely believe) (like Nazis believed) that they could tell spiritual quality by a mystical knowledge they had called race. What if the Jew is a Jew? Does that make the Jew what the Nazi thinks a Jew is? What if Christmas is “black”: OK, it got him beat up, mocked … finally murdered, castrated … how does that make the lynchers right about anything?

A favorite detail of mine from my original reading in 1970: Christmas goes to a whore, a “white” whore, northern. He fucks her. Then … now he’ll really punish her for the sins of Eve: he tells her …

He rose from the bed and told the woman that he was a negro. “You are?” she said. “I thought maybe you were just another wop or something.” She looked at him, without particular interest; then she evidently saw something in his face: she said, “What about it? You look all right. You ought to seen the shine I turned out just before your turn came.” She was looking at him. She was quite still now. “Say, what do you think this dump is, anyhow? The Ritz hotel?” Then she quit talking. She was watching his face and she began to move backward slowly before him, staring at him, her face draining, her mouth open to scream. Then she did scream. It took two policemen to subdue him.

Chapter 10

Wonderful novel, I’m so glad to be reading it again, experiencing it with Jan.

Is it any wonder that this world is peopled principally by the dead?

Joe Christmas punishing his society by himself repeating their slanders about him, saying “I’m a n-“, reminds me of Miles Davis’ great album Jack Johnson. Miles & company had actor Brock Peters with his great booming bass voice say, in the character of Johnson, “I’m black, they never let me forget it, I’m black alright: I’ll never let them forget it!”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to that album, tears streaming down my face, but even I bail out at the very end so I don’t have to listen to those stupid words anymore.
And I’m reminded of the joke, the French whore is raped by the Nazi, he says “In nine months you will give birth to a strapping ayran, Heil Hitler!” and she says, “In nine days you’ll show the first symptoms of syphilis, Vive la France“.

Thus bigotry and clairvoyance were practically one, only the bigotry was a little slow …

Free at last of honor and law

I repeat: I am so glad to be rereading this great novel: as Jan is to be discovering it.

2014 06 15 We’re now about half-way through, meeting Miz Burden, and her ancestors. Wow.
This time we’re reading with all the leisure in the world. I’m recognizing a detail here and there, but most of it is a blank: I gulped (was forced by the school to gulp) way too fast.

I’ll beat the loving God into the four of you as long as I can raise my arm.

Then Calvin rose; he gave a long, booming shout. “Well,” Nathaniel said; “here we are.”
Calvin was not speaking sentences at all. He was just yelling, cursing. “I’m going to frail the tar out of you!” he roared. “Girls! Vangie! Beck! Sarah!” The sisters had already emerged. They seemed to boil through the door in their full skirts like balloons on a torrent, with shrill cries, above which the father’s voice boomed and roared. His coat—the frockcoat of Sunday or the wealthy or the retired—was open now and he was tugging at something near his waist with the same gesture and attitude with which he might be drawing the pistol. But he was merely dragging from about his waist with his single hand a leather strap, and flourishing it he now thrust and shoved through the shrill and birdlike hovering of the women. “I’ll learn you yet!” he roared. “I’ll learn you to run away!” The strap fell twice across Nathaniel’s shoulders. It fell twice before the two men locked.
It was in play, in a sense: a kind of deadly play and smiling seriousness: the play of two lions that might or might not leave marks. They locked, the strap arrested: face to face and breast to breast they stood: the old man with his gaunt, grizzled face and his pale New England eyes, and the young one who bore no resemblance to him at all, with his beaked nose and his white teeth smiling. “Stop it,” Nathaniel said. “Don’t you see who’s watching yonder in the buckboard?”

Kids meet grampaw

I had to stop and tell Jan one of Gregory Bateson’s boundless wisdoms: to sum: dogs play. The play of the males uses the same set of behaviors as does fighting. Sometimes the mock fight becomes an all-out rip at the throat: mock fighting is suddenly real fighting. The only detail that’s changed is the combatants’ attitude toward what they’re doing.

He seems to see the churches of the world like a rampart, like one of those barricades of the middleages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against that peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man.

pk adds: The other day I was sharing a joke with my landlord, as I often do. This time though I punctuated the punch line with a punch on his upper arm, by the shoulder. Gosh, I hit him harder than I meant too, I hadn’t meant to hit him at all, it just came out. Tomorrow, a month from now, next year, next decade, I could find myself evicted.
For the dogs it’s over in a moment, probably forgotten almost as soon, unless there are wounds. Human poisons (and jokes) come in an infinity of lapsing time capsules.

Latter I had an additional thought: My buddy was insulted by a class mate (his girl was insulted). My buddy punched the insulter hard, in the belly. Doubled up, breathless, the jerk said, “I was just kidding!” My buddy said, “Oh! I was just kidding too!”

People talk at a party. One guy suddenly gets loud, attacks someone perceived as weak. All is about to turn to blood, other weaklings are about to butcher the loud one. Suddenly the loud one grimaces with a pretense at mirth: “I was kidding! Ha, ha, ha”, very forced, very unfunny.

… thinking how ingenuity was apparently given man in order that he may supply himself in crises with shapes and sounds with which to guard himself from truth.

Last week Jan and I watched a marvelous film (Twins) encompassing 30s Berlin. Nazis are singing, drunkenly, with glee, about the Jew under their knife. Ha, ha. At what point would other weaklings, fed up, ganging against them, refuse to shrug WWII away as a joke?
(In Hinduism the joke can be infinite; but not in the West.)

that patient and voluptuous ego of the martyr

(The real lesson is: Bateson is the original anthropologist, he looks at us the way you’d look through a microscope (or a telescope … or a mythology …) Come to think of it, so too does Faulkner.)

2014 07 07 Jan and I have now read 96% into the novel. She’s going away for a few days, I may finish by myself, then refinish when she’s back. Though it’s clear she doesn’t love it the way I do: I get hints she dislikes it! So: I love her all the more for letting me share the whole damn thing with her! line by line, phrase by phrase.
And I adore how key the quote I opened this post with proves to be. The Civil War haunted that and other generations: as had every other age, war, revolution … So I bet there were CroMagnon Faulkners however invisible they are to us.

I’m invisible to my contemporaries. Could there come a time when I become visible?
I wouldn’t trade either way: I love being Gulliver to everyone else’s Lilliputian.

Percy Grimm

2014 07 24 Gee, I’d completely forgotten: Faulkner dealt world literature its first imagined Nazi in this novel. 1932. Hell, it wasn’t until 1933 or ’34 that Ambassador Dodd was reporting Nazi behavior to Roosevelt’s White House and getting ignored, denied … by the White House, the Times, the Tribune … We didn’t know because we didn’t want to know, can’t be told until we’re willing to listen: and then we want the credit! the anti-Semites want to be thought liberal: once they can no longer get away with being anti-Semites: the racists the racists. In time the Christ killers say that they’re the Christians, have always been the Christians, have never not been the Christians.

I would be on record for being (among) the first this and thats: if records, accurate records, had been permitted regarding me. As is, not even my testimony is regarded. But Faulkner! he slipped it right past us: the first Nazi! and he was an American! Percy Grimm, from Mississippi! in 1932! A one-man castrating lynch mob.
(Then again, realize, the KKK had faded, folded: till DW Griffith boosted their numbers right back up, with Birth of a Nation. They were boosted by 1932, coming back.) (Dark House was Faulkner’s original title.)

A word on the title: Light in August:
This reading I paid close attention to images of light in relation to references to calendar, season, dates …

In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about to fully come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo.

I’m still not satisfied I see it fully (and I’ve looked at Faulkner both drunk and sober): but there’s something off kilter about it: just as “Joe” is off kilter from Jesus, Christmas off kilter from Christ … all the NT parallels are not identities: they’re contrasts as well as reminders … But, in the passage just quoted, toward the end, the light of August is about to be gone: replaced by deep night.

Faulkner thoughts precede and continue:

Faulkner Class
Sustainable Sin
Transcendent Faulkner


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s