may 10, 1997
proust joyce faulkner
philip m. weinstein
a "text" nowadays can start pretty much however it like. through a dream sequence device or something else of the sort, any compromising locale can transform itself into a comfortable space for upper middle class narrative. moreover, any language has become accepted; onomatopoeia, mumbling, otherwise incomprehensible strings of coded letters; could turn out to be a dialog with a mute pet, if things turn out at all. characters become other characters, characters become objects, characters obsess over their private parts - in some sense the literary pants are down, and we watch the author performing his or her freeform autocultural enema.
This freedom and fluidity has seem to come at a price: perhaps popular aspersion; Time magazine says "who needs to wade through an imaginary verbal construct when the content is available in more accessible forms?" (from "Fiction's New Fab Four," by RZ Sheppard, Time Magazine, April 14, 1997). Authors can say anything, and it means mostly nothing, or slightly something, mostly referent, or contextual. Back in the day, people made clear points with their fiction, and the novel form reflected that: handsome, strong, righteous narrators spoke, and were sure of themselves.
Proust and Faulkner call the reader-writer-truth relationship into question. Modern, they are not quite Postmodern because while they masterfully command alternate structure, they still wrestle with race sized issues; Faulkner's doomed Southern whites and blacks, and Proust who seemed to have a race-worth of material in his head, reworking his (inter)personal machinations. Perhaps they would not see the Postmodern pluralist pastiche as excitingly permissive, because it would sting too sharply as an implicitly failed reanimation of Modern meaning. These men were still presiding over the death of truth. Decades before our cultural drowning in irony and kitsch they projected textual self awareness, and a flawed/altered nostalgia, now the stock and trade of popular Postmodernism.
But rather than flesh out hackneyed academic taxons, let's track those moments where the novel cites its own construction; explicit, inexplicit; what is constructed, with what connotations.
The narrative structure of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! takes place as a young man gathers and guesses at the history of some ancestral family friends. None of the major movers and shakers are alive or accessible, except one, and she's clearly not telling the whole story.
The dissolution of the Sutpen family unfolds nonlinearly, and by the middle of the book we believe that we understand the sequence-span of events. But we are quickly corrected by the continuous circling of the family around the drain, curling into a muddier and muddier downward spiral. The micro motivations mud thickens, if the macro plot does not. There is a boy, Quentin, talking to an old lady. He's talking to his dad, then to his college roommate. That's one layer of action, where those responsible for relating the history move furthur and further from the actual events, from primary to secondary to tertiary witnesses. The next layer down, the birth/death/estrangement of the characters recalled, is fairly firmed up in the first five or six of nine chapters. What sullies the story beyond that point is the origins, or motives of these pathological Southerners. By the end these are the subject of pure conjecture, acknowledged as such by the characters, or the narration; Shreve, Quentin's college roommate, who's not even American, let alone Southern, speaks for most all of chapter eight, spinning a scenario for one of the historical dead: "since it did not matter ... which one of them had been doing the talking" (page 267). When he finishes his telling, he rather disjointedly asks, "- does that suit you?" (page 258); not the kind of question we expect an author to ask after an enthralling tale of misceginous incest in wartime.
Faulkner insists on breaking through the story spell; the house which looms as a discarded centerpiece appears to Quentin as if it "...were of one dimension, painted on a canvas curtain in which there was a tear" (page 293) making the book's primary backdrop appear as a Hollywood stage set (approriate since Faulkner spent some time writing in Burbank). There's a certain magic expected in the casting of a story: "the four of them sat in that drawing room of baroque and fusty magnificence which Shreve had invented and which was probably true enough" (page 268). This is a story observing its concoction.
Even the recalled characters refer to themselves, Judith saying we are no more than puppets, with our strings interconnected, jerking each other around, and even rock carvings fade; there is no way to leave a lasting impression (100-101). On one hand, the musings of despondent humanity, but for this paper a moment of irony: this character - being written about, composed, studied, by other characters, by us, three layers of puppets intertwined, over a period of some 120 years - can be seen as exploring that relationship.
This textual flexing, the rhizomal structure allows Faulkner some room to play, allows for some transference hijinks - Shreve and Quentin conjuring at Harvard became identified with characters from their retelling, Charles and Henry: "so that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark... four of them and then just two - Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry," (page 267). And as our rereaders exert their desire on the narrative, they act, as we called it in class, apparently "enriching spiritually impoverished narrative." The best example is when Shreve creates for Charles a moment of heightened humanizing action, where Charles tries to free his sister/fiance/miscegenatee from grievance (page 287).
These are the interpretive actions of a reader, as in this rich portion of chapter eight, when the boys are in full swing constructing history from hearsay: "...and in the hearing and sifting and discarding the false and conserving what seemed true, or fit the preconceived..." (page 253). That sounds like an articulate description of the reading, or analyzing process; as Philip Weinstein said the first day of this class, "reading is one of the least innocent activities we participate in." I read Faulkner's books with an eye towards pointed construction, how Faulkner skewers and saves his characters and their course through the narrative; a Southerner might read his texts looking for where he has captured or cannibalized the character of the land of Dixie.
We are asked to question the text, but Faulkner is not proposing parallel or alternative narrative; he presents us one, just in a most clearly crafted way, revealing both the writing and the reading process. The indefinity of truth does not deny its compellation, "just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs." (page 80) Certainly by the end we know that horrible and bloody message; the fluctuating form emphasizes the persistent underpinings. Truth emerges, strangely familiar - it is as though we have watched a mystery story where the hunt is on for narrative continuity, and we take our stabs at it alongside the detective, and evaluate the alternatives, until it finally ends like Agatha Christie - no matter how much you were sure the estranged wife did it, the son was responsible; the story incriminating him is far too conclusive, the pieces fit far too well, the author has crafted the world to lead to these conclusions, and besides, we are glad to finally have something to understand, to try to match wits with. Does the model work? Faulkner rewards us richly; we are granted that satisfying click of confirmation as each sickening Sutpen piece slides properly into place, and we are seeing something whole and sense-making take shape.
Because try as he will to destroy our reliances and expectations, Faulkner still has very much a story to share. Despite their disruption of the narrative/authority, Quentin and Shreve are relentless, and mesmerizing, in their pursuit and fabrication of their truth.
Proust is too mesmerizing and relentless in pursuit of his truth, but in an even more astonishing manner. His Remembrance of Things Past opens as the narrator, snacking in bed, commences a fit of rememory. One thing leads to another, the spirit of whimsical happenstance pervades a work that appears longer than most congressional budget reports. While we can be sure that Marcel had plenty to say on his feelings about his mother, that he got started by tasting cookie seems absurdly posed, or poised; that something so insignificant and accessible as a baked good might begin an enormous literary undertaking. Where's the striding sense of purpose? The destiny manifesto? The clearly stated dramatic defining moments of character? Instead we meet someone taking their time, literarily chewing, fletcherizing (see end notes) their memories, respecting the reader's attention in such a different way - at once deferring, daily, humble: see only the trappings of my life, they are as yours, insignificant. But suddenly, four, five, ten hundred pages later, and there is such a load of confidence being shared, like someone determined to share their story, now staggering, you, under the weight of it's precious details. And they are astonishing. And they are so well commentated, even celebrated.
His denotation of a range of mundanities makes him a likely literary founding forefather of kitsch, except that his focus is not so much on the items surrounding him, nor on those folks that populate his memory, but rather how those elements inform his attempt to frame paradises in his past. We might then see him similar to films of the early nineties, where cameras follow scruffy teens about the malls and parking lots they frequent in middle America; deftly, seemingly letting them portray themselves by the microactions and mundane materials of daily life. But, like Proust, no one actually portrays themselves; guided, they act a caricature, like the absurdly petty and comedic Verdurins - they have nowhere near the narrative reflection and complex motivation that Marcel, and the few people he admires, have. Yet their actions are reproduced in writing on such a dense scale, Madame Verdurin's laugh (see figure 1), her stride, her habits, conversational tics; endless pages of endless nights in her parlour, and we emerge with only enough of her to fashion a silly French marionette. In this way the project, while it may be bold in form, seems an attempt at rewriting the social codes that constrained or spited Marcel: "He turned other people from his judges into fellow sufferers, and thus succeeded in creating the taste by which he judged himself." (Rorty, page 103) Instead of socialites critiquing Swann, the jew, we see Swann under attack by a host of vain holy bores. They are petty, and he plays petty with them.
...she would take a spirited part in the conversation of the "faithful," and would revel in all their "drollery;" but, since the accident to her jaw, she had abandoned the effort involved in wholehearted laughter, and had substituted a kind of a symbolical dumb-show which signified, without endangering or fatiguing her in any way, that she was "splitting her sides." At the least witticism aimed by a member of the circle against a "bore," ... she would utter a shrill cry, shut tight her little bird-like eyes, which were already beginning to be clouded over by a cataract, and quickly, as though she had only just time to avoid some indecent sight or to parry a mortal blow, burying her face in her hands, which completely engulfed and hid it from view, would appear to be struggling to suppress, to annihilate, a laugh which, had she succumbed to it, must inevitably have left her inanimate. So, stupified with the gaiety of the "faithful," drunk with good-fellowship, scandal and asseveration, Mme Vedurin, perched on her high seat like a cage-bird whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine, would sit aloft and sob with affability. - I, 223-224
Figure 1 -
But ultimately, for him these relentlessly articulated familiars act primarily as shadows around, or at most a moving crew for, the spiritually possessed sensations, often concentrated in an object or an image. As Proust says, "I was obliged to block my ears to the conversations which were proceeding between the masked figures all round me, for in order to get nearer to the sound of the bell and to hear it better it was into my own depths that I had to re-descend." (III, 1105). Exploring his own depths is the mission of the book to be sure. That he shuts out or shifts to the background the supporting cast marks Marcel as no kind of social scientist, or journalist for that matter; he is a sensuary solipsist. But his work is not without poignancy, or relevance; actually, Remembrance of Things Past reeks of it. Here is the narrator, less a character than an authority, that is apparent as the explanator. Nothing is real but him, him who leaves himself vulnerable to analysis or at least amazement for the pathological personalizing for so many pages. He has tried so hard. "He managed te debunk authority without setting himself up as authority... The result of all the finitization was to make Proust unashamed of his own finetude" (Rorty, page 103); he brings his life to us, by trying to make everything so clear, and as a result, so clearly made.
Proust's work is an allurming (see end notes) hybrid, the fictional autobiography. The book begins with the narrator (is it the author?) recollecting his past. When the narrator and the author share the same given name, and events are told in the past-present time, we readers likely expect a factual transportation - if it is a pleasant ride, I will forego a sense of temporal disunity to share with you a prior moment recounted as yours. But the more appropriately translated title, In Search of Lost Time exposes his course: time lost, to be found, must be somewhat restored or reconstructed.
What we see in Proust is a definite project - he wants to reclaim lost moments. The daily dribblings, that smell that reminds you of another place is your cue to pursue the framing, and thus reclaiming of distanced time, and in so doing, he is clearly concocting a sort of memorial ideal; "But let a noise or a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract..." (III, page 906) So much energy is therein expended that one cannot help but see themselves in his enormous reflecting pool ("Certainly, what I had felt in my hours of love is what all men feel" (III, page 933)).
So Proust speaks from his own, cavernous consciouness, while Faulkner renders the condition of the South. Both are remembering, a perfect metaphor for reconstructed story, and a precursor to the postmodern emphasis on nostalgia. One might not think at first of Faulkner's characters as being nostalgic, in any pleasant sense, as they are revisiting an unpleasant past, but nostalgia is that backwards glance for meaning. Proust's entire exercise is nostalgia, that in those past times we can frame ourselves anew, in an ideal.
But it is a constant reframing. These authors are self-aware, thay are making stories, and they don't claim to state facts. New structures are their means of constructing truth, they have clearly not abandoned that altogether.
Why do these authors poke holes in their process? Pragmatically, they speak to an audience aware of itself. By simulating the reading process they hold two mirrors up to us - one reader reflectional/relational, the other textual participant. We are accompanied by the author in his story. They relate to us not only based on our lived experience and course of study, but in that current reading moment of textual traveling, he is there taking more control, showing mastery, more presence. He attempts, or begins to break some of the otherwise two dimensional quality of words.
|Figure 2 - 2D - author sees story||
||Figure 3 - 3D - author sees text and reader|
"The truth is that as soon as the reasoning intelligence takes upon itself to judge works of art, nothing is any longer fixed or certain: you can prove anything you wish to prove." (III, page 929)
end notesI used the Vintage International version of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, published in 1990.
The Proust's Remembrance of Things Past I used was the Vintage Books edition from 1982.
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, published by Cambridge University, 1989.
I propose "allurming" as a synthesis of alarming and alluring. I would let it speak for itself, but this is a term paper.
I invoke "fletcherize;" after the teachings af a Victorian health guru Fletcher, and his Fletcherism, this meant to chew your food so thoroughly that all pieces passed straight into your stomach without any washing down or swallowing. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says, "to masticate thoroughly."
I would like to thank Duke Ellington. His Far East Suite kept the blood flowing to my extremities.