Thursday, August 23, 2007

Faulkner's "Light in August"

Faulkner is a terribly depressing read. The fatalism that permeates the novel is sometimes described as supernatural: the characters are so many chess pieces moved by a Player with some unknowable plan. But all the time it is clear that the characters are fated by their own characters to live, die, kill, love. So even Lena Grove's optimistic persistence in searching for the father of her child has its fatalistic aspect: she cannot help herself; she has as much power to stop searching as the father Lucas Burch has to stop running away. Byron Bunch's love for Lena is instantaneous and overwhelming, and he acts thereafter according to the dictates of this love. Hightower, a disgraced clergyman who has withdrawn from life, intervenes to save the life of Joe Christmas, but his intervention has as much effect as the wooden table hiding Christmas from the vigilante's gun.

This fatalism has a sonic accompaniment, a musical motif. Throughout the novel we hear the hooves of horses. Hightower is obsessed by the dream of his Confederate grandfather shot while riding into a henhouse. Old Doc Hines rides after his daughter, and kills her lover, who is some part black. Byron Bunch gallops on his mule (an echo of Christ) to get a doctor for Lena. The characters may think they are pursuing their own course of action, but rearing over them are the apocalyptic horses of the last judgment.

How is Faulkner different in this from Hardy? Faulkner couples his fatalism with grotesquerie. The savagery is usually unnecessary, and that is precisely its point. Grimm who shot Christmas has to carve away the genitals of the dying man: 'Now you'll let white women alone, even in hell.' And the savagery is linked to religion. Christmas' adopted father whips him over and over again for not memorizing the catechism, whips him without rage or sorrow, but with the implacable intent of teaching the boy the right ways.

And man's only possible response to this savage providence that is not providence is endurance. Riding his mule, Byron leaves Jefferson, and Lena, behind, and rides up a hill:
'Well, I can bear a hill,' he thinks, 'I can bear a hill, a man can.' It is peaceful and still, familiar with seven years. 'It seems like a man can just about bear anything. He can even bear what he never done. He can even bear the thinking how some things is just more than he can bear. He can even bear it that if he could just give down and cry, he wouldn't do it. He can even bear it to not look back, even when he knows that looking back or not looking back wont do him any good.'

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In a humorless book, there are a very few moments of mocking fun. Like the description of Tennyson's poetry, which Hightower resorts to for consolation:
One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wnats. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless tress and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand.

After delivering Lena's baby, when Hightower is released from his paralysis, is suffused by a sense of agency and hope, he turns to Shakespeare instead:
He goes to the study. He moves like a man with a purpose now, who for twentyfive years has been doing nothing at all between the time to wake and the time to sleep again. Neither is the book which he now chooses the Tennyson: this time also he chooses food for a man. It is Henry IV and he goes out into the back yard and lies down in the sagging deck chair beneath the mulbery tree, plumping solidly and heavily into it. 'But I shant be able to sleep,' he thinks, 'because Byron will be in soon to wake me. But to learn just what else he can think of to want me to do, will be almost worth the waking.'

Poor Tennyson. But perhaps the Victorian poet laureate can draw comfort from the fact that he is being compared to Shakespeare, against whose love of the world our lusts must seem dehydrated.

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