The Importance of the Past in Faulkner’s Novels

The Present Submerged is the Past
In reading The Sound and the Fury, the first three chapters of which are interior monologues, we are immediately struck by the overlapping of present events and memories of past events. This is achieved in several unequally important ways.

Most commonly, the past is evoked by the present ; for example, Benjy remembers his sister Caddy when he hears golf caddies mentioned. The reader is startled only by the abruptly subjective nature of the past and by the fact that he knows nothing about the character’s life except what he learns from such evocations. Thus, through the persistence of past, impressions, especially childhood impressions, Faulkner shows that the present is submerged in the past, that what is lived in the present is what was lived in the past_ In this case, the past is not so much an evocation as it is a constant pressure upon the present, the pressure of what has been on what is.

The Reality of the Past
Consciousness, therefore, is mostly memory. But not the kind of memory which attaches the present to a past known as past and no longer’ existing. For memory is so much a part of what actually exists that it does not know itself as memory, does not know itself as anything but the sense of reality. Since, however, memory cannot possibly be anything but the sense of the past, we must conclude––and this lies at the core of Faulkner-that it is the past which is real.
An Illustration of the Above Principle
Quentin’s monologue in The Sound and the Fury would be a typical illustration of this principle : while Quentin is fighting with another student, we read about a first fight he had with his sister’s lover which took place several years previously, and that is what he is actually experiencing. In Light in August (which is not written as. an interior monologue and thus proves that this time the principle is not simply the result of a certain literary form) the chapter on Christmas’s infancy begins as follows : “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building…….”
The Co-Existence of the Past and the Present
The real, then, is the past, a past always there, always present. How is this to be understood ? It is not enough to repeat the old adages-a man is what his past has made him, or, a man’s actions today are determined by his actions yesterday. In these formulas the present does not lose its importance because of the past’s primacy, for without the present there is nothing left to, be determined. Before one thing can determine another, both must fully exist ; an intra-temporal necessity must bind equally real moments. This of course does not explain Faulkner’s works where the past co-exists with the present. It is a kind of lump in the present, which must not be chronologically unravelled, for then we would have a succession of relative pasts and presents. Faulknerian past is extra-temporal. The fact that an event slips into the past does not mean that it becomes pure memory labelled with a date, but that it sheds temporality, inasmuch as time is change and dispersion.
The Hero’s Feeling of Being Bound to the Past
These ideas are difficult to express and not at all explicit in Faulkner: The past is not a temporal past, that which no longer is and can only be remembered. It is something here and now, present in the proper sense of the word. Inserted into time, the past was and is therefore past but inasmuch as it subsists, it is present. That is why we can say that it is extra-temporal-not, however, that it resides in a superior realm, because a timeless past accompanies each chronological present. It receives its significance from the present and at the same time incorporates the present into itself (the present becomes past, as Temple becomes the girt already raped whom we had just seen being raped). All this is certainly not supposed to constitute a theory on Faulkner. It only applies to his characters’ manner of living, since time is nothing outside someone’s consciousness of time. So when we say that present means past, that the past recaptures the present, we are speaking of the hero himself who feels bound to a past he cannot dismiss. This is when fate appears.
The Part Played By the Future
Having thus established the relationship between past and present, we have still to find out what part the future plays in Faulkner. The future does not seem to enter into a novel like Light, in August or Sanctuary. In Light in August the end of the story ,the murder, is already indicated at the beginning, so that the entire novel is only an exploration of the past. In Sanctuary there is indeed a progression of events, a very normal one in fact, and yet we are never given the impression that the various characters really have a future. They advance, but backward. They are not lured by a feat or fascinated by a certain type of behaviour into which they madly throw themselves. Joe Christmas has no concept of his future. Even though he vaguely knows that he will kill, this murder is simply an advent of the past to which he adds nothing. He feels the meaninglessness of his performance even before he acts The future can be compared to tree present : we cannot say that it is determined by the past since there is no reason why such and such a thing must happen. Anything might happen. But whatever does happen, the event immediately assumes the colours of the past without changing them in the slightest, just as each one of Reverend Hightower’s sermons reflects his grandfather’s function. The idea remains the same the past is not so much what determines the present and the future as it is the sole reality. Being, the past it cannot be touched ; and that is why it is also destiny.
The Past, as the Unfolding of Destiny
The past, therefore, not only was but is and will be ; it is the unfolding of destiny. However, it is to be noted that this development is not rendered either necessary or imperious. It little matters what happens, since Faulknerian destiny does not begin on the realization of a particular contingent event. The course which destiny chooses is in a sense superfluous, for we are not dealing with the kind of fatality which manifests itself in a dramatis progression of events, from which we cannot add or subtract a single one without changing its entire passage, because to do so would be like saying that some one has not fulfilled his destiny because of a premature death. In this case destiny is recognized as life’s term, whereas in Faulkner destiny is at the source of lire, or it is always the past, the irremediable past.
The Destruction of Chronology in Faulkner’s Novels
Faulkner’s characters are real only in their pasts. They do not re-think their pasts, they simply live them, because if the past is to be re-thought it has to be distinct from a perfectly real present. For Faulkner, chronology is nothing and the past is constantly present. Since Faulkner refuses chronological time, subjective reality in his novels absorbs everything and becomes fate, intensified by the annihilation of all opposition. Destruction of chronology is the most obvious result of Faulkner’s depreciation of present and future to the benefit of the past. Without warning the reader, Faulkner places one moment into another and shuffles all habitual order because, according to him, lives are not lived chronologically. This is what the interior monologues try to make us understand.
How Chronological Order Would Ruin the Past
Chronological order would ruin the past for two reasons. ‘First of all, there would be but a succession of mutually exclusive “nows”, valid in themeselves alone and not in their identification with the past. The trees in Light in August seem to be telling this to Byron Bunch : “You are just the one that call yourself Byron Bunch today, now, this minute……” Secondly, chronology would cut the past into fictitious pasts, presents, and futures. The past which Faulkner’s heroes feel weighing upon them is a detemporalized unit. Whereas the present is fragmented, dispersed, and really experienced, the past forms an undecomposable whole. The entire novel is but an attempt to make this known, but not, however, through some sort of administrative report. We reach this past through a succession of plunges. The order of the plunges is determined by the appearance of those characters who know a certain past of a person from the exterior or from hearsay and are thus able to relate it. In Light in August we learn of the circumstances of Joe Christmas’s birth only when Doe Hines and his wife step on to the scene. In Sanctuary we hear explicitly of Popeye’s impotence and of Red’s role when Miss Reba receives her friends after the funeral. It is not only Faulkner’s concept of time that compels him to narrate in this fashion, but also his vision of people and events.
A Consequence of Faulkner’s Concept of Time
An obvious consequence of Faulkner’s concept of time is his use of the past tense throughout the narration. Sometimes, however, we hear the actors and observers converse, we see them move. But these are, so to speak, only the preliminaries. As soon as the essential part of the scene approaches, the part which will be absorbed into the character’s omnipresent past–as the rape with a corn-cob in Sanctuary–rather than the unimportant remainder which will dissolve and be forever forgotten-at this point, then, there is a kind of jump ahead of the crucial moment, because this moment is never known except as past. Chapter XIII of Sanctuary offers a typical example of this procedure-a device perhaps, but more than that too, because the characters do not truly live their present until it has taken form in the past.

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