Timing William Faulkner:
The Mystery of Southern Time

P. Timothy Ervin

I. Introduction

     William Faulkner's "little postage stamp of native soil" is unique in various ways as is every locale, but it is also frozen in time as no other place on earth. For the outsider, it might appear that the South is unchanged and unaffected by the progress of time: the people move more slowly; they talk with long, drawn-out drawls; they live as if captured in a story world. This lifestyle is a mystery in the fast changing world even of Faulkner's day. This does not mean to suggest that the people of Yoknapatawpha County are feeble-witted to the outside world, but they do see the world in a way that is unique to their way of life. Faulkner's work captures this essence of Southern time in a remarkable way, and we should take notice of this as we read his work. His use of time is tightly bound by his Southern upbringing. 
     Much of the critical work dealing with Faulkner's use of time, as in Cleanth Brooks' perceptive commentary, concentrates on the most probable debt to Henri Bergson, who stated that humans view time as a continuous stream of past, present, and future, all realized in the present moment. Brooks summarizes this interpretation of Faulkner's concept of time by stating, "we experience the pastness of the past and experience an impending future only in a present moment of consciousness" (253). Brooks goes further by separating Faulkner's use of time from the philosophical interpretation offered by Bergson by accurately asserting, "I think that what Faulkner got from Bergson was essentially a confirmation, from a respected philosopher, of something that he already knew" (255). 
     We can easily attribute Faulkner's use of time to its philosophical element, but I want to take a slightly different approach by pointing out Faulkner's detective-like style of writing and how he uses it to show the Southern concept of time. In particular, I want to point briefly to Faulkner's presentation of material, his use of neologisms, and finally, his masterful use of the progressive aspect as a means of controlling time: past, present, and future. I am not suggesting a new interpretation of Faulkner's work, but rather a means to understand the distinctively Southern swing of his pendulum.

II. Detective Time

     Conrad Aiken points out that Faulkner methodically withholds information, like a detective story writer, in order to organize the major parts of the complex puzzle of Yoknapatawpha County. He often conceals many of the key pieces until the very end. The "whole elaborate method of deliberately withheld meaning," Aiken says of Faulkner's style is:

...a persistent offering of obstacles, a calculated system of screens and obtrusions, of confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays, with one express purpose; and that purpose is simply to keep the form-and the idea-fluid and unfinished, still in motion, as it were, and unknown, until the dropping into place of the very last syllable (138).

     Faulkner is intentionally playing with the clock of dramatic events in his work in order to show the unique passage of Southern time. Time in the South, we need to note as we read Faulkner's work, moves to a different beat. Sometimes we see him spinning events counterclockwise to look at previous material; sometimes he is fast-forwarding the hands in order to speed up future events; and sometimes, like Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, he can even be seen twisting the hands from the face of the clock in an attempt to obliterate time all together. Violent actions are not necessarily a part of typical Southern behavior, but they do provide a visible means of showing how many Southerners think of the passage of time in their slow moving world. 
     Faulkner clearly uses traditional literary techniques as any writer might use them. The flashback is fundamental to all of Faulkner's work, but the most extensive use may be found in Light in August. In this work, Faulkner supplies extended flashbacks to show the beginnings of Joe Christmas' orphaned life, the background of Reverend Gail Hightower's galloping horses, and the fanatical history of Doc Hines. These flashbacks are given in separate, lengthy chapters, which bisect the straight forward chronology of Lena Grove's journey. These are obviously standard uses of the flashback, and they also give us a different lens through which to see Lena Grove's Southern world. 
     Again, in traditional manner, turning the clock forward is commonly found throughout Faulkner's work. Absalom, Absalom! is full of such foreshadowing. The first two paragraphs of the novel, for example, essentially give us the entire Sutpen story, all foreshadowed in such expressions as "twice-bloomed wisteria," "savage quiet September sun," and "quiet thunderclap." The remainder of the novel recapitulates the same oxymoronic story of Sutpen's empire: first, in Gothic proportions, is Miss Rosa Caldfield's "grim haggard amazed voice," then Mr. Compson's tale of classical tragedy, and finally Quentin's and Shreve's romantic reenaction of the events they are reconstructing one late, cold January night in Massachusetts. 
     Joe Brown's (Lucas Burch's) facial scar in Light in August, mentioned six times during the story, may also be considered another type of symmetrical foreshadowing: "He had an alert, weakly handsome face with a small white scar beside the mouth that looked as if it had been contemplated a great deal in the mirror" (29); "Has he got a little white scar right here by his mouth?" (44); "Did he have a little white scar right here by his mouth?" (62); "And Brown setting there in the midst of them, with his lips snarled back and that little scar by his mouth white as a popcorn." (76); "Beside his mouth there was a narrow scar as white as a thread of spittle." (205); "I never said any more, after she asked about that little white scar by his mouth...." (226) Each of these references points forward to Joe Brown's well-contemplated existence-one of greed, disgust, treachery-and to his second and final flight from Lena Grove. 
     Symbolically twisting the hands off the clock entirely is linked easily with The Sound and the Fury where the timed images in the book are pointing in all directions at once. The game of hitting on the first page of the novel can only fully be understood much later in the book, in parts which are chronologically earlier in the story. When Luster picks up a shiny object and gives it to Benjy to quiet his bellowing, the only comment is, "It was bright" (61). Later a young man with a red tie takes it and says, "Agnes Mabel Becky." We casually learn of a tree outside of Caddy's (and later, her daughter Quentin's) window. Luster continues his day-long search for a lost quarter. These various, seemingly unrelated images are only brought together much later in the novel. 
     Playing in the cellar, putting a bottle in the sideboard, the smell of camphor and trees and cold, keys on a chain, the river, and the ever foreboding shadow; all these images are scattered throughout The Sound and the Fury. Some point to previous events, others to subsequent events, and still others are pointing in both directions at once. All pieces from the same puzzle. But Faulkner is keeping the time piece, the central motif piece, for himself until the very end. Only when the saga is read completely will the entire picture become whole, only then will the whole of Southern time be realized. We find that the puzzle pieces, placed "each in its ordered place" (SF 401), have a definite relationship with all the other pieces, and that relationship only becomes clear on the completion of the entire puzzle.

III. Word Time

     We should not see these uses of flashback and foreshadow, however, only in their technical aspects, nor merely as an attempt to undo time, but as a typically Southern way of understanding the world. This is one way in which Faulkner demonstrates this Southern concept of time. There are others. Any reader of Faulkner will note that he makes extensive use of neologisms throughout his work. These words serve several purposes. First, it may be assumed that Faulkner believes these neologisms fulfill a need in the language; like Adam, he is naming the unnamed. A practical Faulknerian expression like 'frictionsmooth,' for example, could easily be added to the English lexicon. The word very adequately describes an object that has been smoothed from repeated use, not by manufacture. More typical Faulknerian neologisms like 'manvoice,' 'womenvoices,' and 'girlvoices' could also be used in our language. When fulfilling an express need, a neologism has the important purport of keeping the language alive. 
     The second reason that Faulkner uses neologisms is related to the main theme of this paper: time. Time should be regarded as having two parts, what Bergson labeled "durée" or duration, and "moment." The passage of time, or motion, can also be seen as a collection of situations, a group of individual pictures. Faulkner said in an interview once, "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that 100 years later when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life." (Lion 253). He is speaking here as an artist; nevertheless, we should also see this as his way of expressing Southern time. We may visualize this explanation by suggesting that time is a reel of motion picture film. Viewed by hand, each individual frame, or picture, marks an arrested moment in the movie. Rolled through a projector, these frames produce the illusion of movement on a screen. This is identical to Gertrude Stein's roses: each rose is a single picture frame, depicting the rose at a given moment; viewed together they produce a motion picture, not totally unlike, but significantly different from the individual picture frames. This movement demonstrates the passage of time. It also demonstrates the Southerner's view of the world: while most of the world might enjoy watching the movies, the Southerner is content with looking at the frames. 
      Faulkner's blending of words, often as oxymoroa, brings together multiple frames into a single projected image. Most of the characters' references to women reflect this style. They are trying to combine their concept of 'woman' with another attribute; unfortunately, the addition is not always a flattering one, but we must agree it is one which the characters have fused together in their minds. Words like 'womanevil,' 'womangarments,' 'womanshenegro,' and 'womanpinksmelling' are such examples. Many of the man-words are similar: 'manoder,' 'man-talking,' 'manstale,' and 'mansmelling.' These words are in effect the combined frames in a motion picture. Taken apart, we see common words; projected together onto the screen they produce new, combined, lifelike images. 
     Of even greater interest to this study of Faulkner's use of Southern time is the number of such neologisms that suggest an incomplete situation or action. Time and motion are cut short, frozen still in movement, like the flash of a camera freezing motion, and much like a Southerner might view the world around them. The number of compound words throughout the novels that are formed with 'half' or 'mid,' for example, is staggering. Across several works, we find 'midnight,' 'midlight,' 'halflight,' and 'halfdarkness.' Each describing an incomplete quality of light: common English in isolation but obviously Faulknerian in combination. There is also 'midchewing,' 'midsnore,' 'halfreclining,' and 'half-raised.' Again, all these words suggest action that is prematurely suspended, or frozen in motion. 
     The third and most important reason that Faulkner employs neologisms takes us back once again to the Gertrude Stein line of poetry about the rose. Like Stein, Faulkner wants us to stop and carefully examine the pictures that these words are describing so that we see as a Southerner might see. He wants us to notice that the 'rose' may not be exactly the same as we first imagined it; in fact, that rose may not even be red. Faulkner used literally hundreds of neologisms in his stories and, clearly, their main purpose is to force us into a careful examination of the moment. Like Stein's rose, Faulkner's color words, for example, should make us stop and think: 'jonquilcolored,' 'pinkcolored,' 'parchmentcolored,' and 'twilightcolored.' This is true not only for color, but for all the compound words. 'Bread-hunger,' 'scarce-broken,' 'dreamrecovering,' and even 'unvirgin' should each stop us short in our reading.

IV. Already Time

     I want to stress again that Faulkner's use of time is not always pinned to the same clock face we might be accustomed to reading. He uses a variety of ways to present the progression and regression of time; he has also used a variety of ways to force the reader into reconsidering preconceived expectations. I want to suggest a final method that checks Faulkner's Southern chronometer (I use this word here because it brings to mind Herman Melville's Pierre. "Chronometricals and Horologicals" is a pamphlet for a lecture concerning chronometers and how they vary depending on how long they have been away from Greenwich Time, and by extension, how our lives may vary separated from a governing standard. The lecture may have little direct bearing on reading Faulkner, except that Faulknerian time is often considerably different than standard time, though not impossible to understand if we keep the entire Yoknapatawpha story in mind as a 'chronometrical' reference). 
     Early in A Fable, the division commander says, "I'm already saying was; not am: was" (40). This is surprisingly similar to, though obviously juxtaposed on the surface with one of Faulkner's own statements about time, "There is no such thing as was-only is." (Lion 255). This juxtaposition is even more vivid when we note that the original version of A Fable prints this line as: "I'm already saying was; not is: was (28)." However, we're not interested here only in Faulkner's nutshell concept of time, but rather in his use of the adverb 'already.' Reading through Faulkner's work, one cannot avoid to note the extraordinarily high frequency of this common word. Like crumbs on a path, Faulkner uses this word in a normal dictionary sense; in a regionally specific sense; and, even more importantly, he is also using it in another highly distinguishing sense, one that helps us see as a Southerner might see. 
      Let us dispose of the first two usages right away. Webster's Third International Dictionary defines 'already' as "prior to a specified or implied past, present, or future time; by this time; previously." In Go Down, Moses, for example, once Sam Fathers has taught Ike McCaslin-referred to as ''the boy" throughout the story-about hunting, he is considered a knowledgeable hunter. Sam later verifies this assessment with a comment he makes about the boy as they are leaving to go into the woods, "he already knows all about hunting in this settled country" (174). Though slightly awkward out of context, this is standard usage for the word. The knowledge the boy now possesses was learned previous to Sam's comment. In a colloquial sense, on the other hand, the word 'already' is also used as an intensifier. In As I Lay Dying, Lucius Peabody is brought in to examine the dying Addie Bundren. As Anse is preparing to pull the portly doctor up the mountain with a rope, Peabody says, "You hold it tight...I done already wrote this visit onto my books, so I'm going to charge you just the same, whether I get there or not" (38). Here, used colloquially and in typical Faulkner humor, 'already,' or more precisely, 'done already,' intensifies the completed action of recording this visit into his medical records. 
     Faulkner's most striking use of 'already,' however, is slightly different from either the standard dictionary use or the regional meaning, and occurs over and over in sentences of sudden, yet obviously continuous action. In book after book, Faulkner attempts to combine past, present, and future into a single moment, without admitting to the use of tense in any sentence; what Richard Adams says of "Twilight," "he has frozen into one timeless moment of contemplation all that his characters have found important or significant in the history, legend, and myth of their civilization" (199). Consider, for example, Lena Grove's steady journey from Alabama. She embodies the essence of Faulkner's Southern concept of time. She is in a constant state of movement whether she is physically moving or not: "She begun telling me almost before I got inside the cabin, like it was a speech. Like she had done got used to telling it, done got into the habit" (LIA 311). At the very beginning of the novel, as Lena watches an approaching wagon, which "seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress" (LIA 6), her journey of almost four weeks stretches before her, "a peaceful corridor paved with unflagging and tranquil faith and peopled with kind and nameless faces and voices" (LIA 5). She is not stagnantly waiting, nor is there any real notion of beginning in her mind-the essential qualities of Southern time:

She thinks of herself as already moving, riding, thinking then it will be as if I were riding for a half mile before I even got into the wagon, before the wagon even got to where I was waiting, and that when the wagon is empty of me again it will go on for a half mile with me still in it (LIA 6).

The sentence pattern Faulkner uses here strongly suggests that the action starts, progresses, and even ends, before it ever really begins; in fact, it becomes a tenseless example of time in the South. The pace of life in the South is so different that people do not perceive of any tense in their actions. In Faulkner's South, there is no tense: only already. In Go Down, Moses, the boy's first encounter with a deer in "The Old People," and also later with the bear, are similarly worded-note also that the original title of this story is "Almost," similar to the word under discussion (Gresset 61 and Ono 23-53). Faulkner is attempting to put all the pieces of his Yoknapatawpha puzzle but one into order, and then, he slips in the last piece; already in motion, already timed:

At first there was nothing...[then] the buck was there. He did not come into sight; he was just there... already running, seen first as you always see the deer, in that split second after he has already seen you, already slanting away.... (163, emphasis added.)

     In Absalom, Absalom!, the same puzzle image is used to describe this feeling of imminent, or continuous movement, a second by second progression that will lead to the final moment of total understanding (and presumably, death). At the very moment Bon is brought just short of learning that Sutpen is his father, he is described as,

almost touching the answer, aware of the jig-saw puzzle picture integers of it waiting, almost lurking, just beyond his reach, inextricable, jumbled, and unrecognizable yet on the point of falling into pattern which would reveal to him at once, like a flash of light, the meaning of his whole life, past....(342).

     The most striking example of Faulkner's use of this technique, however, is his description of characters running. We discover few inchoative verbs (eg. begin to run), they are always "already running." Action is always seen in medias res. From Light in August: "Then the other two [boys] seemed to explode upward out of the earth, the duskfilled shed, already running. Joe struck at them as soon as he was free, but they were already clear" (148); "He sprang to the ground already running" (371); "It was like she came awake already running to the cot where he had been" (386); and, "a man appears as though by magic at the rear of [the cabin], already running, in the act of running out from the rear of the cabin" (402). From The Wild Palms: "He was already running back up the stairs" (14); "already running" (196); or, a little slower, "already moving away, beginning to run suddenly" (280). A Fable is full of such motion: "He jumped down to the tarmac, already running" (87); "already running, back up the vacant aerodrome" (91); "already running again" (92); "They turned as one, already running, clotting and jostling a little" (425), or just plain motion, "already passed and vanished before recognition became a fact" (14); "already moving toward the door" (91); "already moving toward the corridor door...already reaching...the handcuff key" (175); "already in motion before he stopped" (185); and, "already in motion as the runner struck the guard between the ear" (315, emphasis added in all examples). 
     All of the novels have some form of action, often running, which Faulkner wants to show as being 'already' in progress, so he uses the present tense and past progressive aspect. His addition of the common adverbial 'already' in this manner, to indicate prior and continuous action, allows Faulkner to manipulate the character's "horological" timepiece in his novels. He wants to preclude past and future by forcing them both into a single present moment, yet without any loss of the implied past/future meaning. The thrift that this one word provides to the prose is remarkable: a tribute to Faulkner's masterful use of Southern time. In order to achieve a similar scope of meaning without its use, a much longer narrative would be required. Faulkner occasionally includes this longer explanation, but he could not afford to do so every time; therefore, Faulkner resorts to using the adverb with the progressive aspect to economize on the difficult Bergson concept of continuous present time. Here, for comparison, is an example from Light in August of the required narration that a fuller description would require:

Then he was running. He did not remember starting to run. He thought for a while that he ran because of and toward some destination that the running had suddenly remembered and hence his mind did not need to bother to remember why he was running, since the running was not difficult. It was quite easy, in fact. He felt quite light, weightless. Even in full stride his feet seemed to stray slowly and lightly and at deliberate random across an earth without solidity, until he fell (314).

     Up to this point, I have concentrated on physical movement in the novels because it seemed closely related to the movement of time. There are, however, numerous other examples of Faulkner's use of 'already' in non-motion situations. Nevertheless, the implied meaning of combined past, present, and future is the same as those in the verbs of motion. A humorous, yet applicable example is found in Requiem for a Nun. The men are talking about the naming of their town after Thomas Jefferson Pettigrew, the mail rider: "'He's already getting what he wants,' Compson said, and cursed again. 'Confusion. Just damned confusion'" (25). 
     Confusion is not necessarily required, however, to work out an understanding of Faulkner's use of time and to see the world as the Southerner would see it. As I have shown, he is simply pouring all the conventional English tenses into an idiosyncratic pattern, hoping that its meaning will be clear and alive to last for generations of readers. His goal is simple. Faulkner wants the action to be as alive then (now) as it is (was) to him now (then). Already.

V. Conclusions

     In an important study of Faulkner's rhetoric, Walter J. Slatoff suggests that Faulkner deliberately left his works in a state of suspension and irresolution. Slatoff concludes that this suspension is reflected stylistically in Faulkner's use of paradox, oxymoron, and the juxtaposition of mutually exclusive conditions such as sound and silence, stillness and frantic motion, and similar antitheses. We should also conclude that Faulkner's use of the simple word 'already' shows a similar antithesis: the reluctance to place events in his works on a conventional time line. As Quentin Compson is looking into the jeweler's shop window at the dozens of contradicting watches, he remembers these words: "Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life" (SF 105). This is exactly the same feeling that Faulkner is demonstrating in his use of Southern time. If events are placed upon a conventional time line of past, present, and future, they lose all life to the Southerner, and Faulkner felt strongly about literature having a life of its own. Faulkner spoke on numerous occasions of his belief of "no such thing as such thing as will be...time is in a way the sum of the combined..." (FAU 139). To quote again from that important interview conducted by Jean Stein vanden Heuvel for The Paris Review:

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that 100 years later when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist's way of scribbling "Kilroy was here" on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass (Lion 253).
     Faulkner said in one of his discussions in Japan, "[I] tried to crowd and cram everything, all nuance of the moment's experience, of all the recaptured light rays, into each paragraph" (Nagano 37). It remains for us readers then to investigate and discern the individual moments that Faulkner has worked into each paragraph, sentence, and word. Faulkner's use of time should not be considered a mystery; careful detective work-close reading-will reveal the intended meanings that are planted there. I believe that if we are reading Faulkner correctly, we will be seeing the world as Southerners. Time in the South is slower, more drawn out, and full of great moments to remember. We have to learn to read Faulkner as a Southerner lives their life, or we miss an important element of his Southern fiction.


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Copywright (C) 1999  P. Timothy Ervin