Failure as a Test of Greatness
Faulkner’s novels do have certain kinds of unity and resolution, but in many ways they remain insoluble. In an interview in 1955 Faulkner is believed to have said that he judged authors by the way in which they “failed to match the dream of perfection”, and that his criterion of the greatness of a writer was “the magnificence of his failure”, and his attempt “to do the impossible within human experience”. In other words, Faulkner judged writers by their quest for pertection. Perhaps his own quest was also a quest for perfection and therefore for failure.
Faulkner’s Experiments With Form
Every one of Faulkner’s experiments with form and style was a movement away from order and coherence. These experiments include his rapidly shifting points of view ; his use of more or less incoherent narrators such as Benjy, Quentin, Darl, Rosa Coldfield, and Gavin Stevens ; his disordered time-sequences ; his juxtapositions of largely independent stories ; his very long sentences which do not observe the laws of syntax ; his whole method of deliberately withheld meaning, of progressive and partial and delayed disclosure. Every one of Faulkner’s novels involves one or more of these experiments, and in most of the novels we find all these experiments.
Less Sense of Pattern and Equilibrium
The effects of Faulkner’s fragmentation of material are usually quite different from those produced by others who have used similar techniques. In works like The Ring and the Book and the Japanese film Rashomon various perspectives are thrown upon the same central event. In Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses the seemingly unconnected experiences and events are occurring at the same time or on the same day. In other words, either the event, time, or point of view is held constant. But in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom none of these is constant. The various narrators in Faulkner’s novels touch upon a few of the same events, but the selection of events is determined essentially by the particular interests and obsessions of the narrator. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, neither Benjy’s nor Jason’s narration throws light on the theme of incest which dominates the section narrated by Quentin. Quentin, on the other hand, is dead before many of the events take place which are crucial in the lives of Benjy and Jason. In Absalom, Absalom, the various narrators emphasize different aspects and periods of Sutpen’s history. As a result, the reader feels less sense of pattern and equilibrium than in the other works named above, and is less able to group his thoughts and feelings about a common centre.
Inconclusiveness and Incoherence
Particularly indicative of Faulkner’s intentions is the fact that, when he does present explicit interpretations of events or analytic commentaries on them, he always takes pains to make them inconclusive or incoherent. On many occasions he narrates or describes an action in perfectly conventional and logical sequence, but his interpretative or philosophic passages are almost always disordered. In fact, the more explanatory or intellectual the content, the less is the coherence. The dominant characteristic of Faulkner’s intellectuals is their tendency to be incoherent. The most intellectual character in Faulkner’s novels, and probably Faulkner’s favourite commentator, is Gavin Stevens who holds a doctorate from the university of Heidelberg And, as has been generally recognized, it is his statements which are the most difficult to understand rationally.
The Unresolved Question
Probably the most crucial indication of Faulkner’s intentions is that the endings of all his novels fail to resolve many of the tensions and meanings provided in the novels, and in fact prevent such resolution. Moreover, the endings of his novels leave unresolved the question of the meaningfulness of the human efforts and suffering we have witnessed, whether the sound and the fury is part of some larger design or whether it has signified nothing in an essentially meaningless universe. To go through a novel by Faulkner is to struggle to integrate and resolve a bewildering number and variety of impressions and suggestions, and the struggle is endless.
Faulkner’s Irrationalistic Attitudes
It has generally been recognized that the novels of Faulkner are complex, and in many respects ambiguous and inconclusive. Faulkner’s ambiguity and irresolution seem to reflect two general intentions. The first of these is to achieve powerful emotional and perhaps even hypnotic effects. This intention becomes clear when we understand something of Faulkner’s generally irrationalistic attitudes. The purpose and effect of much of his presentation is to free the emotional life from the restraints of critical thinking so that, like the preacher in The Sound and the Fury, who is also in a sense a hypnotist, he might speak directly to the heart. Faulkner seems to have a great distrust of the head or the reasoning faculty. Jason, whom Faulkner considered the most vicious and detestable of his characters, is in a sense the most logical among them all. Faulkner described him as one of the sanest descendants of the Compson family, “logical”, and “rational”. Faulkner’s most sympathetically presented characters, on the other hand, tend to become almost incoherent or else, like Gavin Stevens, they speak with little regard for rational sequence or organization. And, of course, Faulkner’s own style suggests a desire to transcend the usual rational processes of comprehension. This style is marked by syntactical violations, psuedo syntax, shifting metaphors, and, oxymorons.
Faulkner’s Discontent With Language
Allied with his desire to transcend the usual rational processes is his obvious discontent with the ability of language to convey truth. This is evident not only in his stylistic straining at the limits of language, but in his various comments on the gulf between life and the printed word. Much of Faulkner’s presentation is designed to prevent his readers from substituting language for the-actual experiences he is trying to suggest. Perhaps this helps to explain why he uses so many words. His oxymorons, synesthetic images, mixed metaphors, pseudo syntax, non-coherent explanations and alternate and multiple suggestions, all prevent us from comfortably substituting language and logic for feelings. This same intention has much to do with the larger and more general ambiguities and irresolution that prevent us from integrating our responses to the novels as wholes.
The Use of the Flash-Back
One aspect of Faulkner’s irrationalism is his tendency to take – a somewhat Bergsonian view of both experience and comprehension. Like Bergson, he often views experience as a state of the whole being or of the self and to conceive of the self as an indivisible internal process which can only be perceived by one’s intuition and cannot really be defined either by analysis or images. Faulkner’s presentation often seems in accord also with Bergson’s view that every feeling contains within it the whole past and present of the person experiencing it. We find Faulkner again and again using the flash-back to add to a feeling or event the whole past of the person experiencing it. Again and again he interrupts an important experience not merely to describe one past event or a few associations called up by the present experience but to recapitulate much and sometimes all of a character’s essential past up to that point.
Our Total Response, One of Profound Tension
More significant, however, is Faulkner’s attempt to present this experiencing self-through images of motion and tension. What we learn about Faulkner’s characters is not their thoughts or specific emotions or even their likes and dislikes so much as their general state of calm or agitation, usually a state of tension. What we’ witness, then, in Faulkner’s works is in a large measure a vision of the dynamics of the human psyche or the process which some psychologists have called “primitive sensation”, a vision of the quiescences, turbulences, tensions and releases, writhings and strainings of man viewed not from without but from within the whole being. Our total response to Faulkner’s novels is to a large extent one of deep and profound tension. For, unless we possess an unusually high degree of negative capability, we are not content with complex unresolved suspensions and are deeply frustrated and” strained by our inability to integrate our thoughts and feelings.
The Complexity and Obscurity of Faulkner’s Meanings
However, to see a general sort of irrationalism as the governing principle behind Faulkner’s novels is not entirely satisfactory, for there is too much that is not explained by this principle Faulkner’s ambiguity and irresolution must also be understood as asserting and reflecting a somewhat more intellectual intention and view of life. It is difficult to define this view and almost impossible to draw a dividing-line between the view and. Faulkner’s temperament. The meanings which his novels unfold are complex, mysterious, obscure, and incomplete. There is no absolute and pure white radiance in his presentations, but rather the stain of many colours, refracted and shifting in kaleidoscopic suspension, about the centre of man’s enigmatic behaviour and fate, within the drastic orbit of mortality. Such being Faulkner’s view of life, his style is a corollary to it.
Life Depicted as Enigmatic and Complex
Certainly Faulkner’s work often embodies and suggests the view that life is enigmatic and indescribably complex. To a large extent his shifts in tone and point of view, his avoidance of resolution, and his various obstacles to rational understanding represent an effort to present human life and human experience in such a way that no simple interpretation of that presentation is possible. The meaning of the stories of Sutpen and Joe Christmas and others is largely ambiguous. Whether they are free agents or pawns, heroes or villains, is ambiguous, just as it is uncertain whether the tall convict is a hero or a fool, whether Darl Bundren is a seer or a madman, and whether the desperate struggles of the convict, the Bundrens, and others are tragic or comic, significant or futile. Whether or not there is a God, is also problematical and, if there is, whether He is to be thought of as Jehovah, Christ, Satan, Joker, Umpire, Chess-Player, or life-force. Even about the one certainty-that “man will endure”––we are to wonder whether he will endure by virtue of his soul or his folly and whether “enduring” means primarily to suffer or to transcend time. These alternative views, we must remember, are usually presented in such a way that we can neither choose between them nor combine them. Faulkner does not permit us to think of a character as part-hero and part-fool or of events as partly significant and partly futile.
Conflict, Tension, and Frustration
However, it is not enough to say that Faulkner presents life as enigmatic and indescribably complex. There is also the sense of life as conflict, tension, and frustration, which persistently informs Faulkner’s presentation. Above all, Faulkner’s attitude toward life and toward his own art shows contradictory feelings : “It can’t matter, you know that, and yet it must matter.” It cannot have meaning, and yet it must have meaning. The statement does not simply describe a dual perspective or an uncertainty or even a paradox. The simultaneous can’t and must suggest a desperately divided, and tormented perspective, a condition of mind which tries to move simultaneously toward both order and chaos.
‘The Consequences of the Division in View and Feeling
This division in view and feeling about the meaningfulness of life and effort explains Faulkner’s frequent explicit and implicit couplings of terms like “empty” and “profound”, “futile” and “tragic”. This division helps us also to understand Faulkner’s obsessive assertion and denial of immortality and to account for his often perceptive idiots and incoherent intellectuals. It accounts, in part, for his failure to pursue thoroughly many of the ideas and -meanings which he has suggested, for his ability to urge certain meanings intensely and then to ignore them or contradict them with equal intensity. It accounts also for his use of form both to illuminate and to obscure. It is a view and feeling which, in general, makes it necessary for him to try continuously to affirm and deny, to illuminate and obscure, the meaning of his own artistic creations and the significance of the lives and experiences he presents.