Monday, January 18, 2016

Faulkner's Scientific-Poetic Dynamo

When William Faulkner arrived in Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize for literature he supposedly declared his occupation as “farmer.” (Inge p. 122) Which raises a question—what kind of farmer describes a road “heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanised dust … [standing] at perpendicular’s absolute in some old dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid” (Absalom, Absalom p. 143) ?

A farmer, I guess, who seeds his mind with much reading of literature and modern science and harvests a complex, allusive poetry—in this case informed by engineering, geometry, and paleobiology. The notion of an “oxygenless first principle of liquid” clearly refers to the scientific account of the origin of life, in which all was mineral, dead, and devoid of oxygen until several billion years ago, when the first algae-like organisms commenced photosynthesis, recombining carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. Though the King James Bible gave Faulkner his title Absalom, Absalom!, he called on the wonder of modern science to re-create the Bible’s sense of primeval magic.

For Faulkner, writing meant curiosity into human motives (Inge ed., p. 166). That is, he made a scientific study of human beings. But what is even more unique about Faulkner is that his poetical effects rely surreptitiously on scientific methods and ideas. Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying while working nights as a supervisor in the power plant of the University of Mississippi, the school where he’d ten years earlier done a brief stint at college. He told a newspaper in 1932, “I think the hum of the dynamo helped me.” (Inge ed., p. 28) Perhaps it was that “sound of science” that compelled Faulkner’s thoughts in a scientific direction.

Throughout As I Lay Dying, Faulkner seems to scrutinize familiar phenomena so minutely that the familiar becomes strange, as though he were looking into the familiar through a quantum microscope at a weird physics that we’d intuited but never fully understood. Inspired perhaps by modern physics, Faulkner re-sees reality and discovers in it new relationships and underlying properties.

Often he describes relativistic perceptual phenomena wherein motion imparts some new quality to a thing, much as motion influences observations according to both Galilean and Einsteinian relativity. Faulkner even words these descriptions a bit like a physicist witnessing some previously unknown influence in the physical universe.

Take this memorable example where Cash saws planks below his mother’s bedroom window to make her coffin:

He saws again, his elbow flashing slowly, a thin thread of fire running along the edge of the saw, lost and recovered at the top and bottom of each stroke in unbroken elongation, so that the saw appears to be six feet long…. As I Lay Dying, pp. 75-76.

By superimposing the saw’s various positions into one image irrespective of time, the saw elongates in the viewer’s imagination. If you’ve ever done any sawing, you may recognize the weird visual distortion Faulkner describes.

Later, Faulkner establishes the unsettling effect of buzzards by charting the uncanny effect of Galilean relativity on the perception of their motion:

Motionless, the tall buzzards hang in soaring circles, the clouds giving them an illusion of retrograde. p. 95

From Galilean relativity, he proceeds to an observation of a wagon’s motion that sounds blatantly Einsteinian in its linkage of time and space:

We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and [Jewel’s horse]. pp. 107-108

The Bundrens’ wagon soon passes a turn-off and the slow movement past the sign and the side road transfers motion to both:

a white signboard with faded lettering: New Hope Church. 3 mi. It wheels up like a motionless hand lifted above the profound desolation of the ocean; beyond it the red road lies like a spoke of which Addie Bundren is the rim. It wheels past, empty, unscarred, the white signboard turns away its fading and tranquil assertion. p. 108

All is still outside the wagon, yet through relativity the moving wagon imparts motion to the motionless signboard so that it turns. The wagon imparts motion to the road so that the road becomes a turning spoke in a wheel and is said to wheel past. Faulkner’s like an experimental physicist researching the relativity and associativity of perceptions.

He observes a similar perceptual relativity in the way that objects derive their shape from their surroundings: “Beyond the unlamped wall,” Darl says, “I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours….” (p. 80) Later, Faulkner describes the shape of the wagon according to the air around it, and suggests an influence that absent things exert over the place they previously occupied, a poetic physics: “[I]t begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.” (p. 98)

The two types of Faulknerian relativity—of motion and shape—appear together when Darl and Cash and Jewel try to pilot the wagon across the river. Darl looks at his father, sister, and little brother standing on the riverbank and says:

[it is] as though we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice. Yet they appear dwarfed. It is as though the space between us were time: an irrevocable quality. It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us…. [The mules] too are breathing now with a deep groaning sound; looking back once, their gaze sweeps across us with in their eyes a wild, sad, profound and despairing quality as though they had already seen in the thick water the shape of the disaster which they could not speak and we could not see. pp. 146-147

The doomed mules in the river are indisputably real and somehow emblematic of the human condition. As I think of them, I can hear the humming of Faulkner’s dynamo, the scientific-poetic genius apparatus that created them.

Monday, January 11, 2016


The great modernists did not share postmodernists’ suspicion of science. Leopold Bloom, for example, the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, has physics concepts banging around in his head that reflect Joyce’s genuine curiosity about new discoveries in astronomy and other fields. In the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, Bloom points out constellations in the night sky, a “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit,” and reflects on the startling revelation, new at the time, that all stars are in motion. He speaks of “the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.” (Ulysses, p. 573) Parallax is a word that appears repeatedly in Bloom’s thoughts throughout the day of June 16, 1904 as he himself wanders like a star around Dublin, and in Joyce’s hands parallax becomes a poetical trope—perhaps theorganizing trope in that novel.

Parallax means a perceived difference in the location or direction of an object depending on your particular vantage point. You can see an example of parallax just by holding up your finger and closing one eye and then the other—the finger appears to move relative to a more distant background. If you hold the finger really close to your face, you actually see different sides of the finger with each eye. Joyce employs a sort of literary parallax when he attempts to see a single event, place, or person through the eyes of one character and then through another; we see Stephen Dedalus’s introspective view of himself and Leopold Bloom’s view of him from without. The effect is a multidimensional kind of seeing, a simultaneous apprehension of multiple facets of one thing that reveals reality in more detail, just as the integration of the different viewpoints of our two eyes allows us to see reality more clearly, in three dimensions.
Since William Faulkner considered James Joyce “the father of modern literature” (Inge ed., p. 79), it seems likely Faulkner was following Joyce’s example in his poetical uses of parallax. But Faulkner goes even farther with it than Joyce. The Sound and the Furyretells the same events from three different perspectives and then from an omniscient authorial perspective. In As I Lay Dying, there are 15 different narrators who reflect on the same principal events and characters from their differing points of view. Furthermore, Faulkner sometimes likes to flip his lenses as quick as an optometrist. For example, Dewey Dell Bundren sees Vernon Tull as she rides by in a wagon:
We turn into Tull’s lane. We pass the barn and go on, the wheels whispering in the mud, passing the green rows of cotton in the wild earth, and Vernon little across the field behind the plow. He lifts his hand as we pass and stands there looking after us for a long while. As I Lay Dying, p. 122
And the next moment, in a literal parallax that comes just three sentences on, we see the wagon in which Dewey Dell sits from inside Vernon: “After they passed I taken the mule out and looped up the trace chains and followed. They was setting in the wagon at the end of the levee.” (As I Lay Dying, p. 123) A quick-fire parallax also occurs on pps. 248-250. In a chapter written from a druggist’s perspective, the druggist asks the young boy Vardaman, “You want something?” Then comes a chapter from Vardaman’s perspective; in it, the boy hears the exact same words: “You want something?” Notice that the effect of the literary parallax is not to call into question what was actually said, but to see different sides of one objective fact.
Vernon Tull never mentions parallax by name, nor ponders the latest astronomy, but like Leopold Bloom he takes a direct interest in the concept of parallax, thinking on it with a seriousness that’s partly obscured by his country speech. When he crosses the river with the Bundrens, leaving his mule on the other side, he imagines his former viewpoint, holding the two parallactic positions in mind together:
I looked back and saw the other bank and saw my mule standing there where I used to be…. When I looked back at my mule it was like he was one of these here spy-glasses and I could look at him standing there and see all the broad land and my house sweated outen it…. p. 138
It’s Darl Bundren, however, who’s the master of imagining other perspectives. He gets more chapters than any other character in As I Lay Dying; like an author, he describes vividly certain scenes at which he wasn’t present; and his interior monologue hews closely to that “labyrinthine-poetic” mode which is the hallmark of Faulkner’s style across all his books. Vernon Tull says that Darl looks at you “like he had got into the inside of you, someway. Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doings outen his eyes.” (p. 125)
Darl and William Faulkner, masters of parallax.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Critique of Pure Ignorance

On AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner
William Faulkner, the colossus of American modernism who often said he wrote “to depict the human heart in conflict with itself,” was not an overtly political writer, but I know what he would have made of our latest national demagogue, Donald Trump. Faulkner knew a redneck when he saw one and Trump is a redneck, even if he’s redder of cheek than neck and hails from Queens. Being a redneck is just a state of mind.

Faulkner’s friend Phil Stone encouraged him to address the troubling “rise of the redneck” in Mississippi in his fiction (Minter p. 27) and he eventually did, in his own refined way. Robert Cantwell, who interviewed Faulkner for Time magazine in 1938, commented on the historic opposition between the rednecks and the educated class in Mississippi, to which the Faulkners belonged:
The Faulkners moved to Oxford about 1900, at the beginning of the fight of the great demagogues, James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, against the old Bourbon aristocracy that had controlled Mississippi since Reconstruction days. The target of their attack was the traditional code and the standards of taste and intelligence that held the governing class together, and consequently they centered their fire on the institution that tried to sustain these standards, the University [of Mississippi]…. Inge ed. p. 37.
William and his brothers, meanwhile, attended Ole Miss. He, his father, and at least one brother held various jobs at the University. Those affiliations were enough to make them enemies of Vardaman and Bilbo, whose tactics, Cantwell says, “were such as to make one believe that their primary target was human reason” (Inge p. 38). To his point, Vardaman said lunatic things like this: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Vardaman was elected governor of Mississippi in 1903 and U.S. Senator in 1911, when William Faulkner was 14.
Vardaman and the illiterate rednecks made a definite impression on Faulkner. In 1947, Faulkner told undergrads at the University that “he was certain about what was going to happen in his make-believe county, Yoknapatawpha: the Snopeses [fictional rednecks] would drive out the aristocracy.” (Inge ed. p. 77) Faulkner’s odyssey As I Lay Dying refers even more directly to the Vardaman uprising. The redneck farmer Anse Bundren’s youngest son in that novel is named … Vardaman.
The young Vardaman Bundren of As I Lay Dying is no villain, however. Faulkner writes every character with compassion and delicate realism. The subtle element of outrage inAs I Lay Dying trains itself not against a group of people but against a troubling failure in a universal struggle within the human heart, just as Faulkner promised. As Cash Bundren says, “Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.” (As I Lay Dying, p. 233)
The human heart in conflict with itself: a rational part versus a part whose emotions distort the perception of reality and corrupt the thinking—a fearful, angry, and bigoted Trumpish part. Faulkner maps this intrapsychic conflict onto the Bundren family as they journey across rural Yoknapatawpha County to bury the family matriarch Addie Bundren. On one hand are the magical thinkers, like feckless widower Anse (who, after a case of heat stroke, believes he’ll die if he ever sweats) and his young child Vardaman Bundren (who is so ill-equipped to make rational sense of his mother’s death, he thinks she turned into a fish). On the other hand are two older, honorable Bundren sons: Darl, the poetic seer who looks deeply into the nature of things like Faulkner himself, and Cash, the “good carpenter” who possesses only one modest but progressive dream—to own a “graphophone” so he might listen to a little music.
Cash is as complex as any real person, but “the balance” of him is on the side of reason. A chapter from Cash’s point of view that justifies his use of beveling in the construction of his mother’s coffin is numbered like a scientific proof. Another brother, Jewel, is often described as having eyes like wood; his woodenness next to his brother’s carpentry (carpentry : wood :: thought : thing) seems to reinforce the dichotomy of a rational versus a concrete style of being. Cash tries to protect the family from Anse’s irrationality, but ultimately Anse’s cracked vision of the world drags them under like the flooded river drags under the Bundren family wagon.
There’s a sort of twisted slapstick comedy about Anse’s fumbling with Addie’s corpse, an almost Weekend at Bernie’s gallows humor to the injuries he inflicts on Cash and Darl on the journey to bury their mother. Anse is so determined to beat the buzzards to Jefferson with his wife’s rotting corpse that he rushes the family across a flooded river, drowns his mules, causes Cash to break his leg, then sets the broken leg in concrete instead of consulting a doctor (speaking of concrete thought). When Dr. Peabody finally treats the leg, which has been dangerously strangulated by the concrete splint, he’s furious at Anse and at Cash for listening to Anse:
“Concrete,” I said. “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to a sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family…….” p. 240
Dr. Peabody arrives from the world of science and reason to a scene of utter Mississippi redneck madness, like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet, too late to set things completely right, but not too late to give the madness a fine epitaph. If rednecks blamed their woes on the educated class, Faulkner associated the rednecks with the decay of the Old South, specifically a self-destructive decay in the faculties of reason and a backsliding against modernity and knowledge. It was his own capacity for close attention to reality that made Faulkner one of the great masters of modernist literature.