Saturday, September 08, 2007

Discussing Faulkner

Last week while I was reading William Faulkner, Steve was making jokes about the sentences being how many pages long. He hates Faulkner. Steve has been a good writing coach to me, getting me to write shorter sentences. I used to write quite a bit like Faulkner, but not as well of course. The book I read actually didn't have so many of those long complex sentences: The Unvanquished. As I defended my liking of Faulkner to Steve, I said, "The point isn't so much to get to the end of the sentence, it's to get inside the sentence."

It was a little tough reading Faulkner. My brain is a bit rusty for that kind of reading. I've been reading so many teen books lately, and other fluff, that something so densely packed left me wading through the prose not really sure what lay in the deeper water. I couldn't always understand the plot, much less the symbolism. This is not to say that Faulkner was inept.

Why tax my brain so, you ask? Today my alumni chapter had a seminar on the book, and the alumni association brought in a tutor for our seminar. I hadn't had Frank Pagano for a tutor when I was in college, but I knew of him. I took the day off so I could go. Before reading the novel, I read this speech by President Lincoln, as well as this his second inaugural address, at the visiting tutor's suggestion.

As is the custom at my alma mater, Mr. Pagano opened the seminar with a question. (Sadly, there were less than 10 people there, I wish there had been more.) It had to do with the lost cause. Something like, "Why pursue a lost cause?" A deceptively simple question. He pointed us to Granny's prayer near the end of part 3 of the section Riposte in Teritio:

"I have sinned. I have stolen and I have borne false witness against my neighbor, though that neighbor was an enemy of my country. And more than that, I have caused these children to sin. I hereby take their sin upon my conscience." It was one of those bright, soft days. It was cool in the church, the floor was cold to my knees. There was a hickory branch just outside the window, turning yellow; when the sun touched it, the leaves looked like gold. "But I did not sin for gain or for greed," Granny said, "I did not sin for revenge; I defy You or anyone to say I did. I sinned first for justice. And after that first time, I sinned for more than justice: I sinned for the sake of food and clothes for Your own creatures who could not help themselves; for children who had given their fathers, for wives who had given their husbands, for old people who had given their sons, to a holy cause, even though You have seen fit to make it a lost cause. What I gained, I shared with them. It is true that I kept some of it back, but I am the best judge of that because I, too, have dependents who may be orphans, too, at this moment for all I know. And if this be sin in Your sight, I take this on my conscience too. Amen."
She rose up. She got up easy, like she had no weight to herself.
One of our tasks was to figure out just what that lost cause was. Was it the antebellum south? Was it a case of rule of law versus individual honor? Just how did the Yankees and the Southerners view property, and how was that connected to the law and to codes of honor?

On one level, Granny's son John Sartoris was the leader of an irregular regiment that stole horses from the Yankees for the Rebels. Granny herself became a horse and mule thief due initially to an amusing language difference. After the official loss of the war, the rebels became what eventually were the Ku Klux Klan. On another level this family was trying to preserve a code of conduct that included the whole community, a code that meant a man must face a duel and a woman must marry a man if she spent significant time alone with him, but also meant they took care of the least of the community. On an even deeper level, there is the difference between depraved irregulars, irregulars with honor like John Sartoris, and a noble sinner like Granny, willing to sacrifice her own salvation, possibly her own life, so that others may live.

While it is intertwined with the question of property and of honor, there is also the question of the freed slaves, and the boyhood friendship and rivalry between the black boy Ringo and the white boy and narrator, Bayard. Maybe I'll say more on that another day, maybe not.

Mr. Pagano said he thought Faulkner was the greatest American writer of the 20th century. He especially thought Absalom, Absalom! showed Faulkner's insight into what America would become, and the type of politicians our country would produce. It was obvious he meant not in a good way. He also said Absalom, Absalom! was full of those labyrinthine sentences my husband so hated. Well, he didn't say labyrinthine, I did, but that's what they are.

I'm not sure I got a complete handle on the difference between the Yankees and the Southerners of the novel. On the one hand there is Lincoln's rule of law, remonstrating against mob rule, lynchings. In the rule by government, there is a public code, the law, and individuals are held to that law and receive individual punishments. Property is private, and the law protects the property of the individual. In the rule by code of honor, judgment is public, and property is somewhat communal. Sin is declared publicly (but conscience is private) and individuals take care of the community. Individuals must show courage and must fulfill the code, such as wreaking vengeance or be deemed a coward.

I was pleased that our conversation helped me to understand the confusing actions of Drusilla at the end. (I couldn't help but think of Drusilla of Buffy fame, surely that is not just a coincidence.) Drusilla, Bayard's cousin, joined John's regiment and fought like a man, a fine soldier. After the war, the ladies forced the two to get married. In their world, when a woman and a man spent such time together, of course her virtue was compromised. In the end, Drusilla became almost a caricature of that code, pushing Bayard into a face off over his father's death. Mr. Pagano deemed her one of the most tragic characters in the book, along with Ringo, the smart black boy who would forever be a "boy."

Mr. Pagano spent his sabbatical reading Faulkner, he told us. (I believe that's a full year off.) What a great opportunity this was. I'm glad I took the day off.

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