Faulkner's sounds and furies



Faulkner's sounds and furies

Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare: `Macbeth'

A CLASSIC novel doesn't tell just a story; essentially, it is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images. But the philosophy is never expressed explicitly; it need only to spill over into the characters for it to stick out like a sore thumb, the plot to lose its authenticity and the novel its life. The philosophy has to be concealed in metaphors, pauses and silences. All the same, a work that has to endure cannot do without profound ideas. And this secret fusion of experience and thought, of life and reflections on its meaning is what makes a great novelist like William Faulkner, especially in The Sound and the Fury.

Faulkner was the great novelist of the stained, incestuous, corrupted world of the American South who broke lose from the form of historical fiction in the novel to try a complex experiment with three great literary themes: history, time and language. The book contains four stories and several time schemes; part of the story is indeed a tale of sound and fury told by an "idiot" but so are all the brothers of the Compson family around whom the novel is centred, who, in varying ways, are also telling tales of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Sound and the Fury is the story of the Compson house, the collapse of a landed provincial aristocracy in a final debacle of insanity, recklessness and psychological perversion. It records then the fall of a house and the death of a society. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this remarkable novel is that its rich sense of history comes from a story rigidly confined to a single family, a story almost claustrophobic in its concentration on a narrow sequence of events. We come to accept Yoknapatawpha as an emblem of a larger world beyond, and its moral death as an acting-out of the chaos of our times. It is a lament for the passing of a world, not merely the world of Yoknapatawpha and not merely the American south.

It is divided into four parts or "books" and it is the manner of its presentation that is unique in the sense it brings into focus the major themes — time or history in which the text changes from roman to italic type whenever there is a change in time, from the past to the present (and vice-versa) because "the past is never quite past."

In the Paris Review interview in early 1956 in which he explained his methodology, Faulkner said that "the fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully... proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was — only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow." It is time dramatised more specifically in the varying reactions of the Compson children to their individual and overlapping pasts — pasts that are made to look like a lost paradise in the remembering than in what was actually experienced.

Book One is a statement of the tragedy as seen through the eyes of a 33-year-old idiot son of the house, Benjy. Benjy is beautiful, as beautiful as the angels and more so because of his stupid earthiness, devoid of any sophistication. He is a better idiot than Dostoevsky's, in the sense that Dostoevsky's was somehow wise in his innocence; Benjy has a basic animal simplicity without consciousness or calculation.

In fact, he hasn't quite advanced beyond boyhood. He has no sense of time: his only thought processes are associative; the event of the day triggers off his memory into the past: the whole of his 33 years is one streamless continuum where the present and the past (indicated by roman and italic types) merge and then separate into different streams. It is a stream of consciousness where Benjy remembers events not in a chronological order but as free association brings them to his mind. At first reading these swift changes in time and events may be disconcerting and there is a temptation to disentangle them, bring some order into what appears as chaos. But there is no need to do so; the rigmarole is strangely fascinating because the human mind in any case swings back and forth from one extreme to another like a pendulum. You begin to see the world through the eyes of an idiot which, as the novel develops, isn't as stupid as it sounds at first.

Benjy lives by sheer instinct, through his senses. His life is presented to us through the uncritical perception of his sister whom he adores, "she smells to him like leaves." He traces her broken marriage, leaving her unloved home, her "return" in the form of her illegitimate daughter, Quentin who for Benjy takes her mother's place. In a sense, Book One is a novel about lovelessness — "only an idiot has no grief; only a fool would forget it. What else is there in this world sharp enough to stick to your guts?" It is a book about intense passionate family relationships wherein there is no love, only self-centredness. Simply, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way.

Book Two is simpler to figure out. The narrator is a distant figure, a brother of Quentin, who committed suicide in Harvard in 1910. Faulkner describes with a sense of ironical tragedy and the ironical farce the thoughts that go through his last day alive. Quentin is oversensitive, introvert, pathologically devoted to his sister, and his determination to commit suicide is his protest against her disgrace. What kind of thoughts would go through a mind at the end of its tether — memories, the past and the present mixed up in one mad whirl, regrets with no kind of sequence, almost Joycean like the three Dubliners wandering around the city. There is a battery of technical devices — stream of consciousness, parody, abstracted musical dialogue. But these techniques are not there to replace realism, but to enhance it. In a sense it is the most universal and the most particular of novels; it lets you know a time and a place and some people better than almost any other but in doing so it tells you of a world that was passing away into history.

Book 3 is more madness. It sees the world through the petty, sadistic lunacy of Jason, the last son of the family, the dropout stuck as a clerk in a country store because no Harvard education was provided to him. Jason is the pits but he is the devil with whom you have the deepest sympathy. Youngest of the brothers, he has been left out from the family stakes and takes to petty thievery. But he is going mad and he knows it — not intellectually because he is not given to reflection and self-investigation but he knows it in his gut feeling, "his own howls." Madness for Jason is a blank, immediate state of the soul that he feels creeping in on him but is helpless to do anything about it.

But is Jason, the young South, scornful of all tradition really gone "bonkers?" Is "seeing things as they are," just a load of "bunk?" What is the value of radios and cars except as ends for existence? Where there is no proof in dollars and cents or what they can buy, there is nothing. You have got "to show Jason" because he is a completely rational being. But isn't there something "exquisitely stupid" in believing that what cannot be established by observation and experiment is "romantic rubbish?" Jason is gong amok because he reduces everything to an absurdity and thus annihilates himself, even his vanity.

The author tells the last book in the third person. What do the relative worlds of success and failure really add up to? There is Dilsey, the old coloured woman, who provides the beauty of coherence against a background of a continuous struggle. She isn't the lost soul in search of God; she is the soul. She is the conscious woman who accepts her lot, the iron boundaries of her circumstances and still, to the best of her ability, remains contended. The others, refusing to accept the forces of historical change, flounder and go under. So, what is the "moral" of The Sound and the Fury? That there is a failure in success too? The novel is too full of metaphors and symbols to provide pat answers. All that can be said is that "it is a whole textbook on the craft of fiction in itself " and the single story of the collapse of the family and a Southern aristocracy is not the only one.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner, Verso paperback, first published, 1931, �3.95.

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