Thursday, June 1, 2017

Faulkner & Chłopski Rozum

Personal experience is a terrible burden on the conscience when it runs so contrary to what passes for gritty realism in modern literature. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying no doubt invites us to consider the relation between poverty and morality insofar as the Bundren family are concerned. In theory, it seems a logical presumption that poverty is related to a lack of education, which in turn makes moral invalids of people - yet in practice, this is simply not true.

The Bundrens are not victims of poverty as such, but rather of what Tocqueville called the influence of democracy on kindred and summarized thus: "Democracy loosens social ties, but it draws the ties of nature more tight;it brings kindred more closely together, whilst it places the various members of the community more widely apart."*

The Bundrens are certainly drawn more tightly due to their bonds being natural, but as such they are likewise a far more savage family precisely because they are - as members of the community - drawn apart from their fellows. Community life does not weaken natural family bonds, it sanctifies and strengthens them through the institutions of the Church and the City. The Bundrens benefit from neither.

This is not merely a theoretical point. Unfortunately for Faulkner, my point of reference for practice is not the United States, but is still a human point of reference. I am not the first to have romanticized the poverty of the Polish countryside, nor will I be the last. To say that no family like the Bundrens can be found on Polish soil is as ridiculous as the claim that American democracy produces only Bundrens.

That said, it cannot escape my mind that in my experience of Polish material poverty, which still persists today, I have always failed to detect anything of the poverty of the spirit that seems to be the lot of the Bundrens. I wonder to myself whether Faulkner was attempting to craft an American sort of Smerdyakov, or whether this was an intentional and realistic imagination of American southern poverty?

In any event, it is clear that spiritual poverty goes hand in hand with material poverty in As I lay Dying; almost to the extent of vindicating the former by reference to the latter. Are we expected to pity or empathize with the Bundrens on account of their material poverty? Is this material poverty to excuse their moral poverty?

I cannot help but refuse to accept this. To accept this would be to blot out the knowledge of the moral riches of the Polish "chłopski rozum" - the Polish "farmer's sense." The "farmer's sense" is Catholic because whether the village had a school or not, it always had a Church and the Church was the rock upon which common sense in the village was built. The drama of Fallen Man played itself out, but part and parcel of that drama was confession, penance and redemption. Not only for oneself, but for the nation itself. A man who would act as the head of the Bundren household acts would not simply be considered a bad man; he would be a traitor to Poland.

This on account of the fact that deprived for over a century of their statehood, deprived of the right to exist as a nation, Poles recognized that the responsibility for the perpetuation of Poland rested with them alone - as individuals, families and Catholic communities. These historical circumstances breed a fundamental pressure from the lowest circles of society to live up to the best ideals of Poland. Poles recognize that all that kept them from annihilation was their personal behavior and moral character.

Smerdyakov could exist in Russia because of самодержавие. The fate of the Russian state was not dependent on the character of its peasants. The Poles; whether Magnate or peasant, all knew that Poland itself lived or died on the basis of the content of their character. This culture bred the extreme vice that comes with thinking that the entire state depends on the individual (liberum veto), but it also bred a kind of commnunal spirit that acts as a check on the vices Tocqueville noted in American democracy.

Of course there is also an ideal of Agrarian Republicanism in the United States, not to mention the rugged individualism of the Western pioneer. Much has been written to undermine both of these myths as lies or worse. Still, even under the best of circumstances, the vices of democratic life reared their ugly heads. Do the characters of Faulkner's drama represent these vices? Perhaps - but if so, then we should not associate their vice with their poverty, but with their democratic habits. 

* Book III, Chapter 8, Democracy in America

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