I Quit Crying but I Couldn’t Stop: Wild William Faulkner in the Land of the Nominalists

William Faulkner

William Faulkner was a writer of extremes and abstractions who was ready to try just about anything to stretch the boundaries of literary convention. He strove to demolish existing paradigms which interfered with his project—to drag the entire world of fiction to a new place. Thus Faulkner would not be bridled by accepted rules of grammar, style, and syntax.

One striking and prevalent feature in The Sound and the Fury, Absolom, Absolom!, and Light in August is the use of paradox, the collision of apparent opposites. Paradox has two functions here: First, it transmogrifies the ordinary into the abstract, and then it obliterates the reader’s standard method of ordering reality. In this regard Faulkner has something in common with Expressionist painters who tried to create multiple perceptions of reality. When Faulkner is at his most successful, his writing is fresh and exciting and capable of taking its reader to new frontiers; however, when he fails, he fails spectacularly. At his worst Faulkner can be cryptic, convoluted, and painfully cumbersome.

Faulkner’s style has always been controversial. Even those who acknowledge his greatness are often annoyed by it:

No other contemporary American novelist of comparable stature has been as frequently or severely criticized for his style as William Faulkner. Yet he is a brilliantly original and versatile stylist. The condemnations of his way of writing have been in part just; all but the most idolatrous of Faulkner’s admirers must have wished he had blotted a thousand infelicities (Beck 142).

Warren Beck’s hyperbolic phrase “brilliantly original” is accurate because Faulkner’s diction is radical, particularly in contrast to what his contemporaries were writing. In some ways Faulkner reminds us of the long and winding prose of Henry James or the lurid and unrestrained world of Joseph Conrad, but even Conrad rarely approaches the extremes of Faulkner. Faulkner’s perfervid prose is less foreign to today’s readers because his various progeny, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Toni Morrison, has redefined the literary landscape in his favor.

Faulkner’s prolix fiction is in stark contrast to the muscular style utilized by many of his contemporaries, particularly Hemingway, Stevens, and Cummings. This lean approach which Panthea Reid Broughton labels nominalism was preferred by many of the hard-nosed post-WWI writers who rejected the abstract and flowery world of the nineteenth century novel. For many such writers, the bombast and idealism of earlier novels seemed insincere and incongruous with the carnage of Verdun. The harsh, ugly truth of human depravity demanded a meaner and leaner approach to literature. Prewar writers such as Henry James built elaborate edifices containing various layers of meaning in order to depict a complex and often abstract world where there were no simple truths.

The nominalists would have none of this: “Cummings and his entire generation seem to have developed an almost paranoid fear of the abstract phrase” (Broughton 12). This war-weary group of authors strove to depict the brutality of existence in a direct and unsentimental way. Instead of attempting to mimic their predecessors by creating new levels of understanding via innumerable and parallax depictions of distinct phenomena, the nominalists strove to simplify their art by peeling away all that was redundant and superfluous. According to Wallace Stevens, the idea was to describe, “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself” (Broughton 21). Hemingway argued that the goal was to “strip the language clean, lay it bare down to the bone” (Broughton 14).

Greater clarity can often be achieved with fewer words; however, nominalism not only “ignores the complexity of reality, the evasiveness of truth,” but it also leads to smaller and smaller portrayals and eventually succumbs to minimalism, which is ultimately a meditation on futility in search of nothingness (Broughton 16). Faulkner took the opposite approach: He tried to say more with more while his contemporaries were attempting to do more with less.

Precisely because words are so inadequate to capture reality, Faulkner attempted to pile words upon words in order to create a variety of images and ideas which might add up to a fragmented picture of reality, somewhat in the manner of cubism. While the nominalists eschewed the use of abstraction, Faulkner reveled in it. Because Faulkner’s “understanding of the existential and esthetic functions of abstraction is…more balanced, complex, and sophisticated than that of, say, Ernest Hemingway who thought that abstractions were obscene, their use in art immoral,” his writing achieves things unimaginable for anyone who would attempt to “strip language clean” (Broughton xii).

Faulkner certainly enjoyed the notion of himself as an artist who was swimming upstream against contemporary fashion. In their day, Hemingway not only sold more books than Faulkner, but he was generally more cordially received by critics. This must have galled Faulkner despite innumerable claims he would make to the contrary. The following backhanded (and paradoxical) complement which Faulkner gave Hemingway reveals not only his contempt for Hemingway as an artist, but also Faulkner’s true assessment of which one of the two writers was aspiring to create great works of fiction:

I thought that he found out early what he could do and he stayed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure….failure to me is the best to try something you can’t do, because it’s too much [to hope for) but still try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success (Meriwether 55;88).

Faulkner also says this about Hemingway: “He did it fine, but he didn’t try for the impossible” (Slatoff: 1960b;185).

So we can begin to understand the method in Faulkner’s madness by appreciating that he was merely trying to achieve the impossible. Although Faulkner did not write like a nominalist, he shared their ultimate goal, to depict truth with a capitol “T”. This is an extremely ambitious (indeed, Quixotic) undertaking. Faulkner was thus willing to experiment with language and the conventions of the novel in a variety of ways. This makes Faulkner a darling of the poststructuralists who are enthralled by Derrida’s concept of “free play.” John T. Matthews, deeply infected by postmodern jargon, sees Faulkner as an excellent example of someone whose “distinctive modernity involves an understanding of meaning as the infinite play of signifiers, and not as the attainment of an absolute signified, the ‘facts’ of the story itself” (118).

In other words, Faulkner was willing to break just about every rule of good writing in order to expand the possibilities of his medium. Faulkner willfully disregarded and obliterated convention because he was trying to achieve something new. In this Herculean endeavor he would omit much standard punctuation and create sentences which last for several pages. He coined many new words, often by means of adding unorthodox suffixes and prefixes (an unpainted house is “paintless”) and utilized existing words in unconventional ways (“he abrupted”). He also employed long streams, or “clusters” of verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. For example, Edwin R. Hunter has discovered a cluster in which thirteen adjectives modify a solitary noun (138). Many of these adjective and verb cluster are redundant, as though the author were sharing the writer’s process of grasping for meaning with the reader. This reflects Faulkner’s goal of accomplishing clarity by means of redundancy. But sometimes the clusters contain contradictory meanings:

Like Faulkner’s writing in general, the oxymoron involves sharp polarity, extreme tension, a high degree of conceptual stylistic antithesis, and the simultaneous suggestion of disparate or opposed elements. Moreover, the figure tends to hold these elements in suspension rather than fuse them (Slatoff 177).

Faulkner’s writing has the appearance of a slapdash project, something hastily conceived between frequent drinking binges. But the author (paradoxically) searches for clarity in a land of confusion: “his paradoxical descriptions are not pointless riddles but rather terse formulae to describe the subversion of resolved meaning, closed form, and to full representation by the language that aspires to those very achievements” (Matthews 22).

Like existence itself, Faulkner’s writing abounds in contradiction. Slatoff notes that “a remarkably frequent and persistent phenomenon in Faulkner’s writing is his presentation of opposed or contradictory suggestions” (174). While his contemporary John Dos Passos employed elements of journalism in order to create a photographic depiction of life, Faulkner assembled a much more vivid and complex picture of reality by suggesting that irresolvable contradictions are a fact of nature.

One of Faulkner’s most common types of oxymoron involves presenting paradoxes “which simultaneously contain elements of quiescence and turbulence” (Slatoff 175). From Absolom, Absolom! we have “furious inertness” and “blazing immobility” (182; 238); in Light in August we have “the terrific and aimless and restless idleness of men who work” and Grimm is “indefatigable, restrained yet forceful” later “he ran swiftly, yet there was no haste about him.” These paradoxes have a dizzying effect on the reader. Inert objects do not naturally suggest turbulence and fury. The sense of vertigo achieved by these oxymorons opens the reader’s mind to accept a world where the Newton’s laws of physics do not apply.

Another frequently utilized category of oxymoron in Faulkner’s writing involves the use of contradictory images of “sound and silence” which “are frequently seen as existing simultaneously” (Slatoff 1960:b 175). From Absolom, Absolom! we have “I could hear the Sabbath afternoon quiet of that house louder than thunder,”(19); in Light in August voices are heard to echo “somewhat as a meaningless sound in a church seems to come from everywhere at once.”(43-44); in The Sound and the Fury Benjy says “I quit crying but I couldn’t stop”(22). In Faulkner’s universe sound and silence do not represent opposite ends of a continuum. Instead, they are both facets of the same phenomenon and therefore inseparable.

Many of Faulkner’s paradoxes reflect his preoccupation with the fluidity and unreality of time. In Light in August Hightower has the misfortune of being “born about thirty years after the only day he seemed to have ever lived in” (66); Faulkner describes the dietitian’s dalliance which Joe Christmas witnesses at the orphanage as a “blind interval of fumbling and interminable haste” (144). Faulkner’s narrative defies all notions of linear existence. The author fractures time in order to create a universe where it seems like everything is happening at once and the past is always present. As Hightower “seemed ever to live in” the past, lines between past and present become blurred to the point where no such distinctions can be made. If sexual intercourse involves “interminable haste” it becomes a timeless phenomenon. (Hence the expression “making time”.)

Slatoff notes how “(S)ome of Faulkner’s oxymorons are brilliant and completely justified by their context; others seem mechanical or excessive.” (Slatoff: 1960a, 176). At his best, Faulkner achieved things that most other writers could only dream about. In The Sound and the Fury Jason Compson sees his mother’s face as “clairvoyant yet obtuse” and we witness how “in a quick swirl the trout lipped a fly beneath the surface with that sort of gigantic delicacy of an elephant picking up a peanut” (280 116-7); in Absolom, Absolom! Quentin contemplates the magnitude of a letter “whose bulk had raised itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation.”; in Light in August Joe Christmas watches the dietitian as “she became quite calmly and completely mad.”(138); as Joe Christmas is wondering why he is being prepared to leave the orphanage the narrator wryly notes that “five is still too young to have learned enough despair to hope” (156); Mr. Compson inverts our notions of the meaning of existence with the disturbing declaration that “(B)ad health is the primary reason for all life. Created by disease within putrefaction, into decay.”(22). All of these paradoxes achieve the narrative function of expanding the reader’s perceptions by challenging her expectations. In a world where telepathy is imperceptive, “delicacy” can be “gigantic”, “bulk” is “weightless” , “madness” is tranquil, “despair” teaches “hope” and “decay” defines existence, the reader is forced to question so many of her assumptions that she is able view reality in new and different ways.

But Faulkner, a writer who dealt in extremes, often went too far. Not all of his experiments in paradox are felicitous, and his failures are as spectacular as his successes. As Irving Howe observed, “(S)ometimes the writing breaks down in an excess of abstractions, as in the sentence which cannot be read but must be deciphered (Howe 230). If the reader is forced too frequently to lose the flow of a novel in order to stop and “decipher” it, she will eventually give up. Over the years Faulkner has certainly lost many readers who were unwilling or unable to unpack dense and convoluted passages such as this:

That blending of childlike and ready incompetence and paradoxical reliability that tends and protects them it loves out of all reason and robs steadily and evades responsibility and obligations by means too barefaced to be called subterfuge even and is taken in theft or evasion with only that frank and spontaneous admiration for the victor which a gentleman feel for anyone who beats him in a fair contest, and withal a fond and unflagging tolerance for whitefolks’ vagaries like that of a grandparent for unpredictable and troublesome children which I had forgotten. (The Sound and the Fury 77)

Rereading this passage only heightens the sense of confusion. The passage is so abstract and so full of mindless meandering clauses (signifying nothing, indeed) that it ceases to have any meaning at all and the reader is “doomed to fail” (Slatoff: 1960b, 261).

William Faulkner’s quixotic quest to achieve the impossible has exasperated innumerable critics, including one who lamented that the novelist “searches tirelessly yet vainly for a full expression of truth, for a complete rendering of experience” (Mathews 39). One critic even suggested that Faulkner had an innate fear of success which led him to covet failure:

It is as though he is determined to avoid clarifying or finishing his ideas, almost as though he feared to take hold of them, to give them shape or realization, as though in some ways he wished to fail so that he would be able to go on trying (Slatoff: 1960b, 260).

But Faulkner’s ridiculous protestations about “seeking failure” must always be taken with a grain of salt. Such assertions are a function of false modesty which should not be construed as serious self-assessment of Faulkner’s.

All three novels discussed here fit Irving Howe’s description of Absolom, Absolom!: “Wild, twisted and occasionally absurd, the novel has, nonetheless, the fearful impressiveness which comes when a writer has driven his vision to an extreme (232). When reading Faulkner, the reader has no choice but to take the good with the bad. Paradoxically, had the author attempted to exorcise himself of the demons which caused him to have such an extreme vision, he would have forfeited the very qualities which made him a genius.

Richard W. Bray

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