The Past Is Never Dead

It’s been a while since my last post not because I have writer’s block but because I have so many things occupying my mind, I don’t know where to begin. It’s almost as bad as writer’s block. I would liken it to writer’s static. Lots of noise but not enough coherent thoughts to form a discussion. The only way I can even begin to comb things out is by jumping in with both feet. I usually prefer to keep things well organized but this is a blog and blogs are for writing. Let’s start with the first contributor to my hopeless case of writer’s static. William Cuthbert Faulkner. He’s most relevant to me now because I was accepted as a presenter at the Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. I will be there at the end of July, reading my paper to an audience, rubbing elbows with scholars of southern American texts, and hopefully enjoying iced mint juleps on a white rocking chair. I can only hope. The paper I submitted was on The Sound and the Fury, a book I am hopelessly attached to and consider to be Faulkner’s flagship masterpiece. There are a lot of those. Many people ascribe that honor to As I Lay Dying, but I insist on the former. Now here is somewhere I fully did not expect to be two semesters ago.

I expected to hate Faulkner. My reasoning? A lot of people hate Faulkner. I registered for a graduate section of a course fully dedicated to the life and work of William Faulkner anyway. I like to live dangerously. At the time, I was fully absorbed in British Literature, namely that which falls in the Early Modern era. The Early Modern era is not “modern” at all, so don’t get a crazy idea like that based on the naming convention alone. Early Modern is fancy literature-speak for “basically around the Renaissance-ish.” Well, I had been picking Shakespeare apart long enough, and it was time to step outside my comfort zone. After all, if I was going to pursue graduate school, I really needed to get a taste of other types of literature before settling on something for fucking life. That’s a little melodramatic but not a terrible exaggeration when it comes to academia. Sure, there’s always room to play around in another sandbox. At some point in your graduate career, though, you can’t be too loosey-goosey about what you plan to study. Graduate application review boards don’t care for free spirits and worldly nomads. You have to decide on a focus. Then you marry that focus, have lots of publication babies with that focus, and die holding its tender hand. I digress.

I chose Faulkner because I had little to no experience studying his work and I needed to see for myself what all the fuss is about. A graduate-level course is a great opportunity to do so under the watchful eye of an experienced professor who can guide me through all the muck. It started as I expected it to start. With a great deal of frustration. I defy anyone who can pick up a Faulkner novel for the first time, perhaps with the exception of Sanctuary, read it just once, and fully understand what the hell is going on in those pages. Over time, however, I formed an unlikely attachment to Faulkner. I gave him a solid chance and damn it, it was worth it. I concluded that a lot of people hate Faulkner, indeed they do, but for all the wrong reasons. You simply cannot read a Faulkner novel casually…unless of course, you’re already an avid reader of Faulkner. It’s not exactly To Kill a Mockingbird. Not that Harper Lee isn’t great, but at least her novels can be followed by just about anyone. Faulkner’s writing style is too eccentric, too disjointed, too dense with information and yet lacking in information altogether. I’ll use The Sound and the Fury as an example. Not only is it my favorite, but it’s also pretty well-known and I think most people have read it, attempted to read it, or come upon it at some point in their student career. The first time I picked up The Sound and the Fury and read part one, I was instantly taken.  If you’ve read The Sound and the Fury, you’ll know this as “Benjy’s section.” The whole novel is a cycling first person narrative told from the point of view of the Compson children, but this particular narrator is commonly referred to as “the idiot,” namely Benjamin Compson. It’s a pun, you see. It starts with Shakespeare and ends with the title of the book. The Sound and the Fury. Harken back to a famous monologue in Scene V. of Macbeth, if you will: “…it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” There you have it. A tale told by an idiot. But Benjy is not an idiot. Benjy is nonverbal. Benjy has intense anxiety. Benjy cannot control his moods. Benjy’s many social deficits manifest in infantile behavior. But I insist Benjy is not an idiot. You’re confusing mental retardation with autism spectrum disorder. I suspect Faulkner is no stranger to that fact. I suspect Faulkner employed the crude term “idiot” because society in the 1920s was not terribly sympathetic to the complex nature of mental health and tended to group handicapped individuals into one category. I like to think he knew the difference between an “idiot” and a cognizant nonverbal autistic, and that really shines through in his writing.

But hell, it’s Faulkner’s character! Who am I to diagnose Benjy? That’s not the point, is it? Autism spectrum wasn’t even a twinkle in Hans Asperger’s eye in 1929. The first man to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome was diagnosed in 1938 and the experts were still a long way away from understanding the nuances of such a condition. How the hell would Faulkner know the difference between low IQ and a social deficit? Why does it even matter? Well, it matters to me because it’s just one reason Faulkner is a god damn genius. Now, before I get carried away, let it go on record that I did not write my paper on Benjamin Compson or formally examine his condition. I wrote my paper on Dilsey and I made several arguments regarding the effect her race, gender, and maternal personality had on Faulkner’s writing. I’m focusing on Benjamin Compson in this casual blog post because I’m painting you a picture of my introductory experience with Faulkner’s novels. I’m trying to show you how his curious writing style stole my heart. So, this is not necessarily formal, arguable claim here, but it is open for argument to anybody. A diagnosis of Benjy’s mental condition based on his thoughts would likely make a terrible thesis anyway. Onward.

From the narration of the first few pages alone, it’s obvious that Benjy is developmentally deficient in some way. The narration is unreliable. Broken. Simple. He’s the youngest son of the family, but he’s in his thirties in the present time. Yet he doesn’t sound thirty. People don’t treat him like he’s thirty. By the way, don’t get too attached to the present because time does all sorts of somersaults in this narrative. Its one of the reasons I think people get so frustrated with this book. Benjy has a hard time differentiating past and present, so everything runs together. Small triggers send him to events in the past and he stays there, the narrative swimming between the past and present with absolutely nothing to help you, as a reader, keep that shit organized. So, Benjy doesn’t do much except wander around his family’s stately home with his negro servant buddy, Luster (Dilsey’s son). Dilsey is the family mammy. It was Mississippi. It was 1929. Things weren’t so politically correct back then. Anyway, Benjy is listening to the golfers yelling for their “caddies.” This is where things get interesting. Benjy hears “caddie” and he associates it with his long lost sister Caddy. You can’t blame him. They sound exactly the same. He’s not stupid. He’s drawing connections, if confusing ones. So, hearing the golfers yelling “caddie” sends Benjy into a throwback time warp again and again. Caddy was the only maternal figure in his life (besides Dilsey, who was busy enough damn it) so upon remembering her name, he tumbles into the past and thinks about all the times that life was great and Caddy was there to provide stability, love, and understanding. Repetition. Linguistic confusion. Obsessive compulsive behavior. It’s like Faulkner was peering into the future of psychology. Like he was reading straight from the DSM-5 entry for autism spectrum disorder. Is it just my imagination? Did he understand more about autism than most men of his time? I like to think he did.

When you consider the pun on Macbeth, it makes even more sense. A tale told by an idiot. Who’s the idiot here? Interestingly, with the exception of Dilsey’s section (which is told in the third person, unlike the other sectionsanother rabbit hole of literary exploration), Benjy’s section is the most reliable narrative of the same story. Or maybe it’s the least unreliable narrative. All three of the Compson children that narrate a part of the story (which is really just the story of how Caddy falls from grace and the whole family goes to shit) dictate the events from their own uniquely biased, disjointed, first person perspective. You have to root through a lot of bitterness to get to the bare bones story. When you do, you realize that Benjy lacks the mental intricacies required to actually feel bitterness. He can’t really be resentful because he can barely express his simplest thoughts in words, much less a feeling as complicated as social bias towards his sister, the only source of familial love he ever received. Benjy tells it like it is, albeit in a nonverbal way. Faulkner has to go into his mind and write it as a stream of consciousness. Observe:

“I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes.” (1.700)

That was a lot to wade through, wasn’t it? It’s supposed to be. Benjy can’t communicate his thoughts because they’re all tossing around in his mind like clothes in the dryer. He wants to say something to explain himself to the girls at the gate but he can’t. It’s not coming out and he gets frustrated and suffers a panic attack. He isn’t oblivious. He’s painfully aware of his condition and he desperately wants to overcome it, to fight it. It comes off as an assault on the girls because he’s just the “crazy man” at the Compson house. How, I ask you, did Faulkner manage to document the innermost thoughts of an autistic person so damn accurately at a time when “autism” wasn’t even a word in the dictionary? Let me tell you about Eugene Hoskins. Eugene was an autistic savant and a black man living in Oxford, Mississippi in the 1920s. A professor at the University of Mississippi named Hiram Byrd took interest in Eugene’s eccentric behavior and wrote a brief report on him. Another resident of Oxford, Mississippi that Eugene likely had more than one brief encounter with is our very own William C. Faulkner. While there isn’t enough scholarly evidence to suggest Eugene had any effect on Benjamin Compson’s character (I’ve looked, but perhaps not hard enough) it’s hard to believe that it’s all just a coincidence and Faulkner just happens to be really good at writing autism. This ambiguity is what makes Faulkner so special to me. You never know just what’s going through his mind, but something seems to twinkle between the lines of his writing. Deep in the text, it’s almost as if there resides a remarkably progressive man that was much smarter and much more aware of the human condition than we give him credit for. Readers of Faulkner still argue to this day: Was he racist? Was he sympathetic to the plight of Negros in 1920? Did he secretly resent the Southern tradition or did he strive to immortalize it? What kind of man was he, really? Biographies tell us he was a misfit. He was obscure. He didn’t much like to talk about himself or explain his work. He dabbled in alcoholism, like any respectable author. He’s an enigma. I love that about him. I continue to see sparks of genius in all his work, not just The Sound and the Fury. He was the guy who wasn’t afraid to go there. Unlike George R. R. Martin, another guy unafraid to go there, Faulkner was a little more discreet. His work peels like an onion. And sometimes you read a particular incestuous paragraph from Quentin Compson’s section in The Sound and the Fury and wonder, did he just do that? Did he go there? Oh yeah, he went there. But he did it with style.

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

-William Faulkner, 1950 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Endure, my man. Can’t wait to meet you for a shot of Jameson in your final resting place.

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