Eliot D’Silva

Fact and Affect in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury


First-edition cover of The Sound and the Fury

To provide a working definition of idiocy, in 1910 the American Association of Mental Retardation offered the following index:

Level of retardation    IQ
ProfoundBelow 20
Borderline functioning70-84

The drawbacks of this model are significant, since it measures only the patient’s behavior as seen from the outside. From this perspective, behaviour can only be scientifically described. Functions of the mind are categorized in the name of objectivity without regard to the value that inheres in us as agents. I like the opening of William Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury simply for the alternative to such objectifying thinking that his work provides. But his prose also makes various contributions to our appreciation of the kinds of gestures and cadences necessary for a ‘retarded’ person to make sense of his life.

In my view, Faulkner’s decision to use the autistic young man and the black servant as the book’s key narrators is part of a broader effort to render the subtle dynamics by which a family disintegrates and unites. While there are clear grounds for sympathy with Benjy, if we are sucked into the extremities of his outlook then we risk giving up on objectivity completely in exchange for something close to madness. By contrast, in the novel’s final section Faulkner’s language approaches omniscience, opening up a wider space that allows for unity and reflection. The question, then, has two formulations: can we achieve facticity within the Compson family’s world? And should this be possible, would it be our best affective option?

What is at stake in these questions of identification can be glimpsed in the first pages of the novel, when Benjy’s motives are interpreted by his sister Caddy. Caddy is the only figure aware of what truly counts for her brother, and she absorbs his psychological needs in this manner:

‘Did you come to meet Caddy.’ she said, rubbing my hands. ‘What is it. What are you trying to tell Caddy.’ Caddy smelled like trees and like when we are asleep.

What are you moaning about, Luster said. You can watch them again when we get to the branch. Here. Here’s your jimson weed. He gave me the flower.

It is the reader’s challenge, and Caddy’s talent here, to see Benjy accurately and explain why he is tied to the space of the school gates from which she emerges. And yet this feat of hermeneutic friendship only sharpens the sense of weakness, as he retreats into pure sensation rather than articulating anything about what underlies their relationship. There is a manifest failure to discriminate between “trees” and “flower” as keepsakes of her presence, and, more radically, to notice the difference between races as the dialogue moves from the white sister into the company of the black servant.

As the novel’s first phase, April Seventh 1928 takes place the day after Caddy’s excommunication from the family. She has been banished from their life following the discovery that the child she had during wedlock was not in fact her husband’s. But in Benjy’s remembrances of her actions we see that Caddy’s susceptibility to temptation was also a source of energy and presence. Nowhere is this tension better displayed than in an image that laid the foundation for the text. Describing the groundwork for The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner told Jean Stein in 1956:

It began with a mental picture. I didn’t realise it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below.

How to strain something “symbolical” from the rough-hewn, feisty effluence of this scene? When he fleshes out the vision, Faulkner shows how Caddy’s peculiar eroticism enables her to climb the tree and gain a new sense of perspective: she makes herself knowledgeable of facts about death that adults prefer to keep to themselves, telling Jason “I don’t care whether they see or not.” This drive towards new knowledge and adventure lead ultimately to Caddy’s transgression and her exile from the Compson family, leaving her brothers to live in a place from which the only person capable of true affirmation has been removed. Without Caddy nothing can happen by dint of impulse or desire and so the self must switch into a sense of dread like that voiced by Lady Compson when she says of Benjy, “He’ll wake up at daybreak, and I simply cannot bear another day like today.” The day in question has been engulfed by Benjy’s lamenting Caddy, which takes the form of loud and constant “moaning” perceived by Luster in the passage cited above and not, tellingly, reported by the narrator, Benjy himself, because these outbursts are now so integral to his being that they have become natural features of consciousness rather than salient phenomena.

A lesser novelist would play on the existential melodrama of this screaming, but Faulkner’s writing evinces a genuinely exploratory drive: he endows Benjy with various tones to delineate the multiplicity of his experience. There is no sense in the text of a theatrical struggle with self; instead, Faulkner employs a more variegated style into which voices slip, almost parenthetically, as a means of registering our private lives and desires. Thus, in chromatic prose lyric, Faulkner ends the first section:

Father went to the door and looked at us again. Then the dark came back, and he stood black in the door, and then the door turned black again. Caddy held me and I could hear us all, and the darkness, and something I could smell. And then I could see the windows, where the trees were buzzing. Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep.

Through style we find our imaginations entranced by this moment when all the trauma can melt into intimacy and an incipient peacefulness that grows within the lilting parataxis of each sentence. Prose of this tenor is perhaps what opened Faulkner up to the charge of verbal stupidity: Alfred Kazin described his prose as “the most intermittently incoherent and ungrammatical rhetoric in all American writing.” But for Benjy the passage allows speech to become as fluid and evanescent as those “smooth, bright shapes,” and it also allows the reader to engage with his past life. We have gone a long way from Benjy’s pursuit of schoolgirls who resemble Caddy, a botched chase that occasions the calcified phrasing of “I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say.” His memory can instead reiterate that verb in the softer key of “says that I have been asleep,” the final clause acting as a notation about the pleasure of ceding linguistic control to Caddy and inhabiting the future-perfect tense she sets against his more intuitive sense of reality.

Nevertheless, these closing moments retain an ambiguous quality, since they are faintly shaded by the father. In that perspective, sleep in the passage can be seen as prefiguring the darkness of Quentin’s suicide in the next section. Living at Harvard, Quentin is haunted by Father Compson’s careworn abstractions, which are handed down as readily as the watch he inherits:

I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools…Like Father said down the long and lonely light-rays you might see Jesus Christ walking, like. And the good St Francis that said Little Sister Death, that never had a sister.

The anxiety stemming from his past prevents the idealistic Quentin from gaining enough intellectual distance to assess the claims made upon his existence. He is restricted to wrestling with subjectivity in his father’s terms, which unfold with a smothering regularity made audible in the alliterative march “down the long and lonely light-rays.” Even if spirituality seems available in the tableau of Christ and St. Francis—presenting an image for analysis—any hope of extracting meaning from this sculpted form is frustrated when experience is made into a negative with “that never.” This negativity is activated by the father, whose role is to ruin the experiments of youth in the novel and block Quentin’s bids to find new values in Boston that might substitute for traditional Southern postures. Indeed, as the connection between fields and “philosophers and fools” suggests, there can be no romantic American fusion of self with landscape in The Sound and the Fury. Rather than the vividness associated with the South in countercultural beat narratives of the 1950s, Faulkner’s descriptions colour the region with a distinctly darker palette.

In the original scroll of Kerouac’s On the Road, nature’s radiance is still pullulating as Jack and Neal cross the Gulf of Mexico into a land where they can evade their respective marriages and set limits that are organic: “‘We’re in the South! We’ve left the winter!’ Faint daybreak illuminated green shoots by the side of road.” Yet in Quentin’s narrative the South does not provide escape but generates despair, centering upon his psyche whilst remaining outside of his full control:

I’ve got to marry somebody Versh told me about a man mutilated himself. He went into the woods and did it with a razor, sitting in a ditch…But that’s not it. It’s not not having them. It’s never to have had them then I could say O That That’s Chinese I don’t know Chinese. And father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you don’t know. You can’t know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand.

Where the shadow of the bridge fell I could see down for a long way, but not as far as the bottom.

Part of the terror here resides in how Quentin’s discomfort with doctrine prevents him from seeing anything as commonly true; instead, everything is particularised by his own sexual failure and distress. While Father Compson relates to the tragedy of Caddy’s pregnancy with a restrained, Emersonian sense that the “only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is,” this inability to know her life causes Quentin to posit suicide as the only action he can dictate motives for and own authentically. Faulkner’s prose strives to make suicide intelligible amongst the misapprehensions of “Chinese” and of the bridge, which, with the paragraph break, seems like a guide to reading until its long shadow redirects the reader to Southern opacity.

The final section of The Sound and the Fury dwells on the difficulty of assimilating the family’s doom to a larger ethical system, and this move is marked by the introduction of Dilsey as a person worthy of the mode of literary attention that omniscient narration brings. Significantly, the omniscient perspective does not constitute some kind of universal humanism capable of framing the entire story, but simply voices the truth of what Dilsey sees and the wisdom she carries. When, after a brittle exchange with Lady Compson, she steps out of her role as servant, she can portentously offer a more abstract view of the family’s plight:

‘One o’clock,’ she said aloud. ‘Jason ain’t coming home. Ise seed de first en de last,’ she said, looking at the cold stove.’ I seed de first en de last.’

While the imperative for Quentin was “not to spend your breath trying to conquer” each moment, Dilsey’s ability to see the first and the last indicates how redemptive Faulkner is in his notion that durational time—an overall sense of history—is finally able to heal the fissure in clock time. This broader sense of time is reinforced by the relics (such as the old village show that subtends the narrative) which people the text, acting as things which refuse to stay dead. To judge from her first visual entrance in the novel, Dilsey also seems like something of a relic or “ruin”:

She had been a big woman once but now her indomitable skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed only until the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment.

This is sublimely mature writing, particularly in its matching of physical and philosophical properties. In another Southern novel that stays close to the grotesque genre, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, the child narrator, Enoch, describes his foster parent, whose “hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull.” For O’Connor here, as for Faulkner, the body is not one coherent substance but an object that embodies our corporeal otherness and challenges liminality. The image of hair trickling over the skull is useful because it points towards the alterity central to the passage above where Dilsey gives “the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh” and is pictured earlier exuding sweat that “precipitated not so much a moisture but the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil.” Despite their pronounced ugliness, these details act as strong proof of tangibility. And in Dilsey’s case bones protrude from skin just as this character outlasts the cycle of pain wrapped around the Compson world. Rhythmically, the omniscient voice can make this victory possible by its shift from the initial monosyllables into a “rising” polysyllabic rhetoric that evokes her relationship with fate and virtue. It is as if the omniscient voice itself manages to see the first and the last of Dilsey’s existence, to honestly render the heroism within the bare, animal nature of her body.

Just as the omniscient voice lends linguistic force and realism to Dilsey, Reverend Shegog’s sermon transforms her body into an affective spectacle. Faulkner was interested by the potential for physical semblance to be dissolved and reconstituted through the spoken word, which is the effect of religious discourse when:

The congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures.

Any sense of ego becomes powerfully dispersed in the sacraments of song; Benjy and Dilsey are bonded in a way that, unlike his possessive love for Caddy, is not founded on the demand for favour and appreciation from others. What emerges instead is an awesome unity of being, and with her hand on his knee Dilsey lets this show: “Two tears slid down her fallen cheeks, in and out of the myriad coruscations of immolation and abnegation and time.” Even amongst the elaborate feminine rhymes, those two teardrops are central in this moving portrait of a belief that does not assume a dominant role by claiming to heal the idiot but simply creates a setting where he can fall silent and attune to something beyond the facts of his existence. Tears become the most responsible form of communication in the novel, and as images they indicate a facet of the text produced through but not bounded by the omniscient voice. Later in the visit to church we see Dilsey drying “her eyes on the hem of her topmost robe”: this is a tactile, important detail with which to conclude, reminding me of the second stanza from Tennyson’s poem “Marianna” (1830):

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
        Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
        Either at morn or eventide.

The persona’s tears are balanced with the natural ambience of evening, appearing less as parts of a psychological event than raw material moored to landscape. Through Dilsey, Faulkner finds a way of withstanding self-consciousness and its complexities, the forces that drive Benjy insane. He understands that any attempt to control one’s emotional environment, like Benjy’s insistence on keeping Caddy present, will shut out our most sincere vulnerabilities and diminish our lives. Revelation can happen only when our bodies are open and responsive to change, and when our minds are trained not on what we can know but on what we might hope to feel and see.

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