William Faulkner (1897-1962)
Many critics today consider William Faulkner the greatest American writer of fiction. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and had a prolific writing career that included 19 novels and 2 volumes of poetry. In search of what it meant to be a human being in his native South, Faulkner later broadened his inquiry attempting to see deeply into the human psyche itself. He fails at this as most artists do because he and the characters in his novels are blinded by the illusions associated with the unconsciousness common to humanity. Nevertheless, his storytelling is powerful and honest enough to sound the alarm that all is not well with the unfolding narrative of the global village.
The relatively new science of psychology influenced both James Joyce and Faulkner who write in a genre often described by critics as psychological realism. They both used a “stream of consciousness” writing style, showing how “reality” could change depending on which character’s perspective was being revealed and they both understood cause and effect in determining the fate of their characters.
In fact, cause and effect is seen as central to Faulkner’s writing. “The continuation of the past into the present, as a shaping influence that cannot be avoided, is the larger theme of Faulkner’s life work.” He was sensitive to human suffering, and there is a lot of horrendous human pain revealed in the characters of his novels, both as the consequence of the karma of his characters and that of their ancestors. In his own words: “There is no such thing as was; if was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.” This failure to understand the fundamental cause of human suffering by attributing it to the “fate” of one’s personal and ancestral past only added to the agony that characterized the life of the author and his characters which were projections of his own consciousness. Like most of the rest of humanity, the characters in Faulkner’s fiction refuse to take responsibility for their own behavior in the present moment.
In The Sound and the Fury (1929) Faulkner tells the story of the Compton’s, “a once-aristocratic Mississippi family whose decline into despair, tragedy and chaos Faulkner imbued with an array of broader cultural historical and philosophical resonances.”
Escapism is prevalent in the American South as Faulkner wrote about it and this makes his narratives dark and tragic. Indeed, dwelling in the past can evoke shame and guilt, and prevent the attainment of freedom from the illusion of the specters that dwell in one’s own imagination. The Compton family in The Sound and the Fury degenerates over four generations from a respectable and prosperous one to an impecunious dead end in 1928. The tendency in each character’s identity to self-destruct while seeking material gain, power or indulging the need for addictive sensations destroys the family in one generation. The “sound and fury” was experienced, not as a result of any past events or genetic inheritance but resulted from the failure of each character to listen to the inner wisdom that could have liberated any one of them from the imagined poisonous influence of the past.
For example, Candace Compton, the only daughter in the family, seeks escape from her dysfunctional family in the pleasure energy center of her false self. “So promiscuous is she, even urging her sensitive brother Quentin to abortive intercourse, that she does not really know the father of her child. As an adventuress she travels widely, and in the postlude to the novel appears as the consort of a Nazi officer in Paris.”
The Sound and the Fury is prophetic not only of the future of a guilt-ridden South, but of humanity as a whole which shares the universal human worldview based on the illusion of dualism. Seeing fellow human beings as the other whether as slaves, inferior ethnic groups, or as members of a threatening religion or nation is to create uncontrollable energies that inevitably lead to self-destruction by individuals or collectives.
One of Faulkner’s later works entitled A Fable (1954) is a religious allegory set in France in 1918 toward the end of World War I. Frank Magill reminds us that Faulkner’s A Fable “is not really about man’s relationship to God, or even to society, but to himself. And that man’s basic dualism [is] the major theme of Faulkner’s late fiction.” In the quarter century between the publication of The Sound and the Fury and A Fable Faulkner took on more universal themes including the deeper dilemmas of the human condition. Among these more profound aspects of human delusion are the distinctions between “the idealist versus the realist, [and] heart versus mind.”
The storyline in A Fable involves the mutiny of 3000 French troops in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I. The allegory involves juxtaposing the elements of the mutiny with the elements of the Passion of the Christ. There is also an obvious parallel between Faulkner’s story and that of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevski’s The Brother’s Karamazov. All three versions of the story reveal the struggle of an awakening person in an unconscious world. And Faulkner inadvertently reveals two of the energy centers of the false-self. The Inquisitor character “rejects the spiritual and creative side of man and accepts him only as a mundane, earthbound creature who needs security and control [emphasis added] rather than individual freedom and spiritual fulfillment.”
We can see Faulkner in the role of the Inquisitor because he affirms that the current paradigm containing humanity is unsustainable. He reveals his pessimism and struggle to intuit reality rather than succumb to the illusion of P-B. Faulkner had faith in the “sound and fury” of humankind, “after the last ding dong of doom has rung and died there will still be one sound more; his voice, planning still to build something higher and faster and louder. I don’t fear man, I do better: I respect and admire him. Because man and his folly—they will prevail.” Poor Faulkner, he sounds defeated and more than a little sarcastic. Being in the thrall of the very dark narrative of the old paradigm, who can blame him.
The mutiny in A Fable could be said to represent Faulkner’s struggle to grasp what action humanity must take to escape self-destruction. Or from the perspective of an awakened person, the necessary paradigm shift. Faulkner, however, fails to grasp what a paradigm shift would entail. “Faulkner postulates hope and faith as vital elements in man’s fulfillment, but they are presented as ends in themselves; it is unclear what man should have hope for or have faith in.”
As humanity continues to achieve higher and higher levels of awareness, we will come to understand that we can have faith in the principles of Love and Law. Or to be more specific we can not only hope but can be assured of a friendly Universe and our own ability to attain the identity of joy-filled, compassionate and creative human beings. As compelling and powerful as the novels of Faulkner are and as beautiful and masterfully written as they are—they are still the product of a worldview that severely limited the depth to which they could probe in seeking the nature of reality. For that we will need a new generation of Faulkner’s, some future literary Inquisitors who are contained in a much more glorious story.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.