Et tu, Faulkner, was my first reaction to the new title of the series from the twenty-sixth Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. We do read Faulkner for pleasure as our contemporary, but being up-to-date is a tall order in the twenty-first century.
Postmodernism has become such an unwieldy concept that any discussion on the topic has to begin with some kind of a tortuous definition, a re-reading of its history, and a self-reflexive disclaimer.
On a different plane, congnitive science suggests that the brain can not be anything but "postmodern" in its performance. What human imagination produces can never relate directly to the outer world. It is innately ambiguous and modular. The whole process is not driven by a definable ghostly entity that used to be called the consciousness or the self.
Then, there is the changed world we live in. On the one hand, we have technologies that make some of the basic Faulknerian themes non-problems. All one has to do to make a highly probable and informed guess at one's forebears is to take a DNA test, and cloning may prove to be an ideal technology for patrilineage.
On the other hand, Darwinism tells us that the brain cannot have evolved too much in the short time since the novel began as a genre. So the function of a good story, an enabling fiction, cannot have changed very much throughout its history.
So how does this multifaceted context affect the contemporary reader of Faulkner's works? It makes him more aware of the human condition, of course, with an enhanced ability to "multipy his questions," more so than Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland were able to do in From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature.
The format of Faulkner and Postmodernism itself invites this speculative approach. It begins with a paper by Ihab Hassan, one of the scholars who has been observing and participating in the postmodern movement, and ends with a short piece by John Barth, who grew up in a shifting tidewater environment, blundered into the movement, and has chosen to live with the grouping of authors, if not the naming.
The papers themselves also touch on this openly speculative approach. Hassan calls his presentation "Ten Meditations," Philip Weinstein "Musing on Invisibility," and Philip Cohen also mentions "musings" (167).
The papers are organized in three groups in the "Introduction" by John N. Duvall: (1) those that use Faulkner's modernism as a way to measure the postmodern difference, (2) those that see postmodern tendencies in Faulknerian textuality, and (3) those that read Faulkner through the lens of postmodern theory's contemporary legacy, cultural studies.
To begin at the beginning, Hassan, in "The Privations of Postmodernism: Faulkner as Exemplar (A Meditation in Ten Parts)," is at once more personal and mellow. He begins by confessing that he knows less about postmodernism than he did 30 yeas ago. (1) His vision encompasses the genocidal postmodernity, without minimizing its impact, and his question becomes how can Faulkner "help us redress, redeem even, our spiritual privations?" (5). His answer, or at least the final section of his meditations, together with his allusion to Saul Bellow's ideas about distractions and human essences, is a little too Orphic for me. From Hassan, one hopes to hear something more tangible to live by in Yoknapatawpha and the post-9.11 world.
John N. Duvall, in "Postmodern Yoknapatawpha: William Faulkner as Usable Past," cites Kathy Acker's In Memoriam to Identity and Toni Morrison's Jazz in his analysis of the importance of parody or pastiche in definig postmodernism. Unfortunately, the fact that in his own "Introduction," he misremembers the title and mentions Beloved as one of the two novels he uses, sends a strange message to a reader of contemporary fiction, despite all the informative data he presents.
The question of parody or pastiche is reviewed from another angle, in terms of what is called an "alternate version" in Molly Hite's essay, "Modernist Design, Postmodernist Paranoia: Reading Absalom, Absalom! with Gravity's Rainbow". Her anti-paranoiac point that Sutpen's story can be read as radical contingency, and that Henry Sutpen might easily have failed to kill Charles Bon, may be an everyday probability, but even with supportive circumstantial evidence from Gravity's Rainbow, she fails to convince me that it was Faulkner's point.
Doreen Fowler's paper in the second group, "Revising The Sound and the Fury: Absalom, Absalom! and Faulkner's Postmodern Turn" touches on what Molly Hite calles the "magic of missed connections" (77). I do not presume to offer an alternative reading to her strong thesis as a whole, but her idea of human nature as expressed in Faulkner's fiction, sounds almost archaic to me. To Hite's idea of multiple possibilities in missed connections, Fowler posits the "moment of origin" (99). Her idea of the brain as a "blank slate" ignores all the findings on genetically determined perception. Obviously, not everybody leads Thomas Sutpen's life after an encounter with a balloon face.
The papers in the third group were all interesting and informative, but how exactly they connect to the question of "Faulkner and Postmodernism," except that they shed light on contemporary cultural conditions, evades me.
The book poses a wealth of questions, some more interesting than others, and some concerning the overall management of the conference. The topic, or topicality of the title is rather unfortunately highlighted by the publication of Faulkner in the Twenty-First Century, in which there is very little mention of postmodernism.
As with most of the conferences, and publications thereof, I cannot help wishing for a new "version" of the book, after the participants themselves have gone over the whole book, not in order to arrive at a unified conclusion, but to better deal with the complex postmodern context. Wouldn't it be exciting and edifying if the Faulknerians had the time and inclination to do their extra-curricular homework on the topic, brush up on relevant literature, both scientific and literary, put all of it "under their belts, but not on their backs," and proceeded to give us "the best next thing," as Barth would put it, in the twenty-first century Faulkner studies?
Copyright (c)2005 NARASAKI Hiroshi