James G. Watson
William Faulkner: Self-Presentation and Performance

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. xvi+255pp.


    As an editor of Faulkner's early letters, Thinking of Home: William Faulkner's Letters to His Mother and Father, 1918-1925 (1992), James G. Watson seems to have hit on an intriguing theme of the relation between the novelist's letters and his fiction. In the previous book, William Faulkner: Letters and Fiction (1987), Watson explored an untrodden field of the meaning and function of letters in Faulkner's novels, where his focus was apparently less on how Faulker treated letters in his works than how the novelist's own letters were rendered in them. Preoccupation with letters and the other biographical elements of Faulkner's novels is also obvious in Watson's most recent book. All through the six chapters of this book, drawing on not only the novelist's early letters but also his various mementos of youth such as photographs, drawings and poetical works, Watson demonstrates what these items show in common, how they are adapted into the novels, even into the later ones, and how Faulkner converts his life into his works.
    It is in fact for their showiness and adaptation rather than their themes or subjects that Watson finds these sources biographically significant. He claims that Faulkner's art is the art of "self-presentation" and the presentation is conducted through the most deliberate and elaborate "performance" in its literal sense. The close relationship between the life and the works of the novelist is no news in Faulkner criticism. We already have, as Watson himself alludes to, Judith Wittenberg's Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography, in which, discussing Faulkner's works as the extension of his life, the author develops the idea of "fictional self-presentation." Nor are the studies in Faulkner's graphic or visual works unfamiliar to us. If one wants to do a fully innovative job, then he/she must have an original view on biographical criticism as well as discover a vital link between the life and the works, or the self and its presentation, and that's the very point Watson makes in this book. Watson's ingenious argument is that Faulkner's novels are to be read biographically not only because they are based on the facts and sources but also because the novelist is constantly and self-consciously constructing both self and fiction. Deriving from Richard Poirier's "Performing self," Watson brings the concept of "performance" into his biographical mapping of Faulkner's world.
    In the introductory chapter Watson defines "self-presentation" and "performance" respectively in somewhat formalistic terms of narration and writing: that is, self-representation in fiction is a narrative strategy, including the performative experience, while performance is a heightened mode of written expression. "If self-presentation is a record of a life and time, performance is the act of its recording"(5). The ranges of these ideas, however, are far greater than mere "writing." To elucidate Faulkner's "performing self" Watson capitalizes almost all the available biographical materials of the novelist and examines his ways of handling them, when the materials are often "visual" and their rendering "dramatic." These resources serve as the evidence of performativity of his life and works, illustrating how Faulkner's life, quite performative in itself, is projected onto and adapted into his works, all through his unique performance.
    According to Watson, Faulkner's performance is not so much carrying out mere acts as the literally dramatic performance. The examples of such performance in the novelist's life are posing and disguising for photographs, verse plays with illustrations, and Hollywood films. And those in the novels, the dialogues between two young men in Absalom, Absalom!, the airplane show in Pylon, and the dramatic part in Requiem for a Nun. Watson believes that Faulkner's performed self-presentation is most prominent in his early "works" such as his posed or self-designed photogenic portraits or the illustrated verse play, The Marrionettes, and it is with these early cases that Watson's argument is most powerful and persuasive. Having retired from the RAF without any flying experience, young Faulkner had his picture taken in the officer's uniform. In The Marrionettes, the failed relationship with Estelle Oldham was dramatized and pictorially represented in the script and illustrations of the play. From these materials, Watson creates the portrait of a self-conscious young man full of desire for putting himself forward, obsessed with the ideas of display, disguise, and performance. It is no wonder that this young man grows to perform his life in his art, appropriating the ideas and the scenes of performance.
    The distinctive feature of this book is not only to bring forward the powerful combination of self-presentation and performance but also to illustrate how these factors are intimately intertwined with each other throughout Faulkner's life and works. This policy is so comprehensive and undiscriminating that different aspects in Faulkner's life and works are explained all in a pair of magic words, "self-presentation" and "performance." As a result the list includes all the different levels: the elements of performance such as the novelist's early letters, photos, and drawings, the tailoring of his self through appropriation of these elements to his novels in the form of self-presentation, the self-presentational performance of characters of the novels, the use of these performative tools like letters and photos in the novel as the means of self-presentation, and the novelist's pursuing such performative genres as plays or films in his career.
    In this framework is highlighted the most remarkable character of the relationship between the life and the works of Faulkner. It is a figure of the novelist who most self-knowingly constructed his self through his dramatic performance, also forming his corpus with such dramatic elements as scripts, players, a stage, sets, scenes, and action. It is dazzling to witness how those particularly visual factors repeatedly emerge in his works, varied and arranged--an actual media of drawings, shows and spectacles, his favorite devices of disguise, masks, and role-playing. The relatively minor works like verse plays and film scripts are given a new meaning not so much for their ladies' connection as for their evident performativity.
    The most powerfully argued and most exciting to read in this book, however, is Watson's favorite, the reading of early letters and photographs in Chapter II. Watson scrutinizes Faulkner's well-known "fabricated" portrait of a war veteran -- undoubtedly one of the earliest examples of "Faulkner's lifelong habit of role-playing"(21). Comparing it with other "posed" or non-posed pictures in his youth, and also close-reading the letters Faulkner wrote then, Watson develops an argument of the novelist's self-presentation and performance in incipiency. With an ironic insight into the truth of the portrait that, in his photographs in uniform, "Faulkner is both self-seeing and self-seen"(35), Watson successfully demonstrates Faulkner (life and works) as the one-man play.
    Although Watson's clear definition in the introduction suggests that self-presentation and performance are different ideas, their implications are modified or changed as the book proceeds. These ideas are so intricately combined, almost amalgamated in Watson's mind, they become more and more difficult to be distinguished. "[T]he emphasis increasingly is on strategies of self-presentation. . . and on performance"(16), "Each image also is a purposively posed self-presentation, a performance that Quentin acts..."(51), "Significantly for the self-presentations and performances of the novel. . . ."(120), "Faulkner's oblique self-presentation in Chapters 6 and 7 of Absalom, Absalom! was part of a different kind of performance. . ."(149). In all these cases, self-presentation and performance are regarded as one or interchangeable. This ambiguous nature of the ideas culminates in this sentence: "Faulkner's literary self-presentations and performances took the overtly dramatic form in Requiem for a Nun. . ."(200).
    As these two ideas become inseparable and interchangeable, Watson's unique and distinct concept of "performance" sacrifices intelligibility. It is without doubt that, vis-a-vis literary works, writing is performance as in "[a] passage of pure performance in a letter"(59) or in writing as "a self-validating performance"(124), but in Watson's argument performance is definitely more visual or spectacular than linguistic. The question is: what does performance mean? The show itself? The act of self-showing? A will to show? Or art of showing? In fact it seems that every possible opportunity or form of "showing" is regarded as self-presentation and performance. Thus photograph is regarded as performance not only for its essential showiness but also for its various modes of display in the novels: mere use of a picture in the story, making use of the self-presenting feature of photograph, adaptation of the author's own pictures into the story, and performativity detected in the modification of these pictures. The mirror nature of a self-portrait further complicates the relationship between the author and his work.
    The picture may look ambiguous and confusing, but it is this harlequin-like variegation and reciprocation that Watson believes represents the world of Faulkner. An iconic image of self-presentation and performance is given in its all complexity by Watson's description of Faulkner's illustration to The Marrionettes, which is complicated in its own right: "In the drawing where Pierrot confronts himself, life and art are twice doubled: the dreamer/playwright Pierrot/Faulkner looks back into the dream/play from beyond its text at the image he has created and presented as himself"(41). The problem is that this remarkable proposition is not always fully supported by evidence. Often the hold of Watson's method is not strong enough to elicit it. The biographical exploration of Faulkner's personal library, which is also pursued in terms of the concept of self-presentation and performance, results in nothing but a mere source search. Moreover not all novels of Faulkner are explicated through the same concept, and such later works as The Unvanquished, Knight's Gambit, A Fable and The Reivers are little discussed. Indeed, Faulkner's world is much greater than what is covered by the concept of self-presentation and performance. Many of his traits, therefore, are left out of Watson's argument. The before-mentioned linguistic aspect of performance--rhetoric, oratory or narrative devices--is just one of them.
    All these, however, are what always happen when you hoist a banner in just one color. As a whole Watson's book succeeds in developing a new horizon of biographical criticism. It is as if it has not only divulged a so far unknown portrait of Faulkner, in which he is disguised as Pierrot, but demonstrated how the picture fits in every one of his novels. The book is original, provocative, and intelligent.

Copyright (c)2001 Tokizane Sanae