Sunday, August 10, 2008

Essays on Faulkner's "Light In August"

I just finished reading a collection of critical essays on William Faulkner's Light In August. It's still my favourite novel. Some scattered comments on a few points from a plethora of authors.

The essayistic lynchpin is probably Cleanth Brooks' "The Community and the Pariah" which posits a contrast of outcast vs community norms. Brooks' critical approach is one I'm partial to: a subjective one that sets up its own contrasting views to ones overlooked or dismissed by a previous consensus, challenging that consensus, and doing so with conviction. And his argument itself is interesting.

I had read several essays previously on Faulkner's seventh novel, but hadn't encountered this line of reasoning before. Brooks argues for a Faulknerian support of community standards, which at first glance shocked me. How could the author -- who allowed the entire town to part like the Red Sea for the chillingly prophetic Storm Trooper creation (the book was published in 1932) of Percy Grimm -- side with communal solidarity over individual rights and creativity, flexibility? But as I thought more about the examples from the text itself -- the Armstids' unquestioning generosity towards Lena; the sheriff's bending of the rules in allowing Lena a space to give birth; the townspeople's setting of food baskets at the disgraced Hightower's doorstep -- it brought to mind the complexity of Faulkner's characters, and of his thought. Even though the town becomes inflamed in their collective pursuit of Joe Christmas, it's Grimm's unequivocal, evil, machinelike energy that spurs them on. The crowd is seen as weak rather than evil, weak because of the all-too-common human failing of unquestioning adherence to belief systems (Calvinism and racial stereotyping, in the novel) and which acts not out of passivity, but out of reflex.

Ironically, the most harmonious character in Light in August is the unthinking yet accepting and positive Lena. She, like the deathward Hightower, Burden, and Christmas, is an outsider, but her aura (ha, I can use that word since Faulkner uses "lambent" and "luminous") is one of transparent goodness. It's her contrasting affect that brings out the corresponding goodness in the community, just as Hines' and MacEachern's destructive rigidities affect Christmas, which in turn affect many other people. The community may be the necessary "anchor", but they await transformation by individuals, for good or evil. Lena or Grimm.

And I feel there's also a support, a metaliterature one here, for the seminal influence of individual creativity over the stagnations and complacencies of the community. Brooks looks at the obverse of communal morals, but I wish he fleshed it out a bit more.

And then we have the hysterics (if an academic essay can be imagined as hysterical in tone) of Leslie A. Fiedler. I assumed, after reading the essay, that the author was a (pre) deconstructionist feminist female, since it jumps through all the simplistic Faulkner-bashing hoops of "misogynist", "disrespectful", and the like. (The note at back lets us know Fiedler is a man.) You have to hand it to him. He helped engender an industry. I'll just respond to a few quotes of his:

"Not content with merely projecting images of the anti-virgin, he insists upon editorializing against the woman he travesties in character and situation." -- Leslie Fielding

Ah, no. As I like to retort to people who accuse Irving Layton of being a misogynist: he was a misanthrope. An equal-opportunity "hater". Isn't this, ironically, what feminism is all about: levelling the playing field? (Satirical mode is on for the benefit of the terminally obtuse.)

Faulkner depicts specific women as predatory, promiscuous, hysterical, pale, sexless, corrupted ..... because many women ARE. The argument is then made: "well, why doesn't he equal things out more by depicting a wholesome woman?" Three answers: he does (Lena in Light In August, just to take the most prominent example in the book under study); secondly, the narrator's voice isn't necessarily his (and his characters certainly don't all adhere to his views); but more importantly, it isn't the duty of an author to weigh, in a fussy nod to political correctness, the good with the bad in equal measure. Faulkner wrote about human failings. His men, collectively, are damned far more than are his women characters. And his minor characters are filled with goodness, too many to list here, and many of them are strong, no-nonsense women, filled with compassion and wisdom. But to rework the phrase of Tolstoy: normal people (women, in this case) don't have stories. Or, to rework it further, happy people don't make for great fiction, since (with them) there's a lack of drama, conflict, resolution, striking spiritual development or regression, and self-realization.

"He reminds us (again and again!) that men are helpless in the hands of their mothers, wives, and sisters." -- Leslie Fielding

And the point is .....? This would confer upon women a power which Fielding doesn't grant to Faulkner's depiction of them. Rather, the above is a condemnation on the weaknesses of some or many MEN. (Faulkner, like Shakespeare, particularizes and never generalizes, but you can't build a reputation in university circles without a thematic angle.)

"[Faulkner's women] are unforgiving and without charity to other members of their own sex." --Leslie Fielding

Nonsense. One wonders how closely he's read Faulkner's novels. There are numerous examples to the contrary in Light In August. Even in Sanctuary, Faulkner's darkest novel, and one which particularly incenses Fielding, many women are shown helping, through no direct expectation of reciprocal benefit, other women, including the understandably undeserving Temple Drake.

No time to write more fully about Hightower, Bunch, Burch, Burden, Christmas, Grimm, Grove and others. So many individual scenes of remarkable depth and complexity in Light In August.

1 comment:

Toast said...

That's cute, setting a little trap by writing Fielding instead of Fiedler. You'll have to get up earlier in the morning than that, Brain. And what's this about not generalizing? Is that a little rhetorical snare too? I can't think of a bigger generalization than "happy people don't make for great fiction, since (with them) there's a lack of drama, conflict, resolution, striking spiritual development or regression, and self-realization." Really, what is it makes you think you have any business offering such blustering judgments when you lack the basic skills to distinguish one idea from another and the literacy to express what you consider to be your own ideas?