Friday, May 26, 2017

As I Read Faulkner

Image result for faulkner as i lay dying book"Both books are autocommentaries on the subject of death. In the former I found the fear of death, a fear manifested by the constant nonchalant provocation of death. The latter book features the acceptance of death as the fundamental fate of the human person. I prefer the latter comportment. Reminding ourselves of death is always useful, even if doing so does not always lead to salvation. The recollection of death restores the correct hierarchy between things in order of importance. It invites pondering life from the proper perspective. It makes banal truths fresh again."
-Henryk Krzeczkowski On 2 unnamed books by Hemingway & Faulkner

A part of me resents books written by well educated men which feature a cast of uneducated characters. The artist does not exist to cast light on what we can see all too often, only on what we should see. This is not romanticism in the pejorative sense. Just as the exhibition of any reality (no matter how low) is not realism, I likewise have little patience for stream of consciousness. Therefore I approach Faulkner with a pathos of distance and not the best prejudices.

That said I think death is the Great Equalizer. Educated or not, we meet it just the same and with the same level of assurance and understanding, which is to say: none. In this sense, Faulkner's cast is unsympathetic because they remind us that no matter how far more elevated we may be, our comportment to death is likely not going to be any better than theirs, nor do we have any answers to the problems we would like to think that they face because they are poor and ignorant rather than because they are human.

In this sense Faulkner is a genius because he does what any good modern writer must do. He writes for his times, about his times in a way that is inspired by the timeless and thus elevates his times without speaking down to them. After all, if there is one thing worse than irreverent literary nihilism, it is the pathos of Meaning, God and Truth rendered, zombie like, as an attempt to prolong the life of something long dead. Think "thou" and "thee" in the first American translation of Quo Vadis. If Sienkiewicz' s book had really been written like that, it would be worthy of the scorn it sometimes receives.

Faulkner knew better, likely because he knew Sienkiewicz and told us quite openly towards the end of his life that, following Sienkiewicz, Faulkner realized that the duty of literature was to "uplift the hearts." It is important to zero in on this Faulknerian credo when reading As I Lay Dying which, given its subject matter, seems to do just the opposite.

Not only is there nothing uplifting in the sorrow of death, but its attendant margins bristle all the more with the banality and pettiness of the human heart. For all along as Addie lays dying, the world around her goes on no less profound than its imminent end, just all the more pathetic. The mundane discussions over cakes, groceries, money, the interpersonal quibbling and quabbling - none of it halted even for a moment on account of the Gothic reminder of our universal fate lying and awaiting death. Only the noise made by Cash as he works on the coffin tends to burden the characters with fear of death.

Faulkner's Stockholm Address refutes my fears and doubts. So why does his book bring them to the fore so powerfully? Perhaps it is the old Thomistic school of thesis, antithesis. Perhaps erudition is my own personal demon? I cannot help but commit the indiscretion of aesthetic perspectivism towards death. I understand the yearning for exhibiting what Faulkner called compassion, sacrifice and perseverance. Yet I have too much of Sienkiewicz's Petronius in me. Petronius allowed himself to question everything, but never the aesthetic sense of good and bad. Truth and Wisdom are well armed, but Beauty is the most difficult of philosophical positions to defend. Petronius made of beauty a piety even unto death.


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