“Something Which Did Not Exist Before”:
What Faulkner Gave Himself

Noel Polk
For Joseph Blotner

In the opening pages of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia Jim Burden describes his “interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America” (3). He travels with a cowboy chaperone, Jake Marpole, who gives him a “Life of Jesse James,” which writing even so many years removed from that experience Jim remembers as “one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read” (4)—a curious and revealing confession from a lawyer, classically trained to the extraordinary achievement of Virgil, whom he hopes to emulate in his own writing; like Virgil, Jim famously wants to “be the first . . . to bring the Muse into [his own] country” (256). Getting closer to his destination, he does not “remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day’s journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.” Arriving at Black Hawk, Jim stumbles from his sleep and from the train down into a world without form, and void, a “place where men were running about with lanterns. I could n’t see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by utter darkness.” Out of the “red glow of the [train’s] fire-box” (5) emerge the Shimerda family, the emigrants from Bohemia whom the conductor had told him about, and Antonia herself, who will become the beloved bête noir of his book—and of his entire life, as My Ántonia proves. She emerges out of a darkness, a chaos, penetrated only by the red glow of the essence of the modern, of a new-found national mobility, the trains that even then were already writing a national history across the Nebraska plains.
     As he and Jake and Otto drive to his grandfather’s ranch, Jim tries to sleep but cannot because of the jolting; he gets up on his knees and looks out “over the side of the wagon”:

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the fait starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there as not a familiar mountain ridge against it. but this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be. (7-8)

Later, after a couple of days on his grandparents’ farm, he finds very little interest in the landscape:

I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther off into them there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass. (16)

Outside the contours of the familiar; outside, that is, the particulars of time and place which make us who we are, Jim Burden feels “erased,” non-existent, undefined, and if he is not actually terrified, which most of us would be under similar conditions, he at least recognizes his contingency in the new space as yet undefined by history and, by not saying his prayers, recognizes the helplessness even of God, the author of purpose, in this land free of the secure and comforting confines of causes and effects with which he had grown up, and which defined the world, and his self, for him.
     Antonia is herself part of this new world, though she is an emigrant to it too, like Jim. The conductor of the train they have traveled on has talked to Jim about the Shimerdas. He is a man “experienced and worldly . . . who had been almost everywhere.” As he begins to tell about the Shimerdas, Jim notes that his “cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk” (4). He thus juxtaposes Antonia with those ancient hieroglyphs, whose meanings he cannot possibly understand. And when the conductor, teasing, asks whether he doesn’t think that Antonia has “the pretty brown eyes” (4), Jim gets bashful, buries himself comfortably in his “Life of Jesse James” and escapes into Jake’s suggestion that “you were likely to get diseases from foreigners” (5).
     Antonia thus first appears to Jim framed between two written texts, two narrative possibilities for Jim, the writer-to-be, to explore and perhaps exploit: the esoteric, mysterious, and incomprehensible hieroglyphs of the ancient world, and the completely known, clichéd, tawdry, romanticized, sentimentalized, and no doubt completely manufactured world that he knows so well doubtless from having read other such potboilers. We notice this the more because Cather’s fictional introduction establishes her novel as Jim’s written memoir of Antonia and because, as just noted, several times in the text Jim declares his youthful desire to emulate Virgil by being the first to write about the country in which he was to grow up. Since he and Antonia have arrived on the same train, and since the conductor has in effect turned her over to Jim’s care, Jim may indeed be said to have brought the “Muse”—his Antonia—to this country. Further, Cather literally hands him a land completely free of a history that would shape the way he could understand it, a landscape that had never been described in books that taught him what to see and how to see it, and a character, a heroine, completely outside the range of his previous knowledge: a marvelous character he might have been able to see for what she is instead of what he needed her to be, instead of what the language of his understanding would let her be. What an astonishing gift to give a writer: a land almost completely free of previous eyes; a world completely free of previous commentary: a world, that is, completely free of previous and therefore defining representation and signification. Cather gives Jim the chance literally to start over: to see something new and write about what he gets to see through his own eyes, something not filtered through the writings or paintings of others. What Jim does with that astonishing gift is the subject of another paper; it is enough here for us simply to wonder at and admire the ingenuity and the audacity with which Cather plunks her narrator down in to a brand new world and a brand new character and says, “Here’s your golden chance, big boy: now write. Let’s see what you can do!”
     Of course Nebraska has a history, as Jim Burden learns in school when he studies about Coronada’s venture to the area immediately around Black Hawk. But it doesn’t have what Eudora Welty called the “middle distance” of history: that history of the immediately previous generations, perhaps the previous century, whose multiple intersecting and conflicting causes have engendered and continue to impose upon the present day the thousand-times multiplied effects of those causes.
     Faulkner of course inherited this middle distance in spades, a rich history of war and Reconstruction, a landscape alive with rich resonant names — Bull Run, Manassas, Gettysburg, Vicksburg — and a galaxy of heroes with names equally resonant and powerful: Lee, Stonewall, Jeb Stuar t— a powerful flood of history bearing down on him from long before his birth to overdetermine him into a particular time and space and to set him astraddle a fiery historical comet which he was to ride until the end of his days. He had no such chance as Jim Burden had to start over; his muse had already been used — perhaps, he might well have thought, used up. Faulkner, like Quentin Compson, had “grown up with that [history]; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts” (9) of historical personages running riot, who had written their own stories across that landscape in heated blood and left it indelibly, inerasably, always already narrated by and for their hapless descendants. And if that narrative was pre-written for Faulkner, how much more was the Southern landscape itself an established (or even corrected) text after Faulkner put his own imprimatur on it? No wonder Cormac McCarthy headed to the vast presumably uncharted deserts of Mexico and Southwest Texas; no wonder Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and other Southerners headed to the un-narrated Rocky Mountains of Montana and Idaho: precisely, I would bet, to escape the always already narrated South.
     But I do not believe that the Acceptance Speech’s description of his career as a lifelong quest to “create . . . something which did not exist before” is simply a metaphor to describe what he had already done; it is rather a recurring thematic throughout his career. He understood, of course, that there is no blank page, no starting over. He knew that even “the materials of the human spirit were shaped by the same historical forces that sets one in a particular time and place. He spent a good deal of his fiction not so much trying to give himself the blank page that Willa Cather gave Jim Burden but rather deflecting to his characters, pushing ever backward into their lives toward their own imaginary blank pages, toward an originary moment where things begin innocent of the influence of the already is. Joe Christmas’s narrative in Light in August begins in a patently Freudian trauma buried deep in his unconscious—in a place where “memory believes before knowing remembers” (LinA 487)—in that orphanage and specifically in that bathroom behind that curtain where he eats toothpaste while hearing Charley and the dietician have sex . But Joe’s past is buried in a memory which he doesn’t even have to remember consciously for it to affect him: it begins not in time lost because nothing escapes the unconscious, according to Freud, but it begins in time unknown but knowable—time recoverable with the right psychotherapist! Faulkner already knows that he’s after bigger game than the unconscious: he wants to go all the way back to the un-narrated places, those originary moments, as he puts it later in Light in August, hidden in the “old fetid caves where knowing began” (611). He’s fond of characters so powerful and significant, so outside what we know as normal cause and effect, as to seem to have been before there was even a blank page. Some even seem to have created themselves: Old Ben, our favorite bear, is “so long unwifed and childless as to have become its own ungendered progenitor” (154 GDM). Roth Edmonds thinks as he looks at Lucas Beauchamp: “I am not only looking at a face older than mine and which has seen and winnowed more, but at a man most of whose blood was pure ten thousand years when my own anonymous beginnings became mixed enough to produce me” (55 GDM). “He is both heir and prototype”— i.e., the originator and the beneficiary —“simultaneously of all the geography and climate and biology which sired old Carothers and all the rest of us and our kind, myriad, countless, faceless, even nameless now except himself who fathered himself, intact and complete, contemptuous, as old Carothers must have been, of all blood black white yellow or red, including his own” (GDM91). In Requiem Faulkner speaks of “maiden progenitresses” (256) and in The Sound and the Fury Quentin so famously claims he could be his own father’s progenitor if he could just do something so horrible that would remove him from time: “Say it to Father will you I will am my fathers Progenitive I invented him created I him Say it to him it will not be for he will say I was not and then you and I since philoprogenitive” (122).
     Thomas Sutpen is not the first settler in north Mississippi, at least according to Absalom, but he and those settlers had a common idea, as we learn in Requiem: they are all here to escape their own history, to begin over in this north Mississippi Eden. Faulkner couldn’t be more specific. Those who precede Sutpen to North Mississippi watch Sutpen create his Hundred: “they would sit in a curious quiet clump as though for mutual protection and watch his mansion rise, carried plank by plank and brick by brick out of the swamp where the clay and timber waited — the bearded white man and the twenty black ones and all stark naked beneath the croaching and pervading mud” (AA30). As Rosa Coldfield would have it, Sutpen creates his plantation by saying, “Be Sutpen’s Hundred, like the oldentime Be Light” (6), drags his mansion and even himself up naked out of the “absolute mud” that he and his Negro workers plaster all over themselves to keep the mosquitoes away from their skin. But even that’s not far enough back: Faulkner pushes Sutpen’s origins way back beyond time and space. When Quentin tries to tell Shreve that Sutpen was born in West Virginia, Shreve, the Canadian, who apparently knows more about Southern history than Quentin does, interrupts him to note that there was no West Virginia before the Civil War because West Virginia had seceded from Virginia over the issue of secession in the early 1860s. And the mountaintop world he was born into is virtually, as Quentin describes it, without form, and void: “ . . . what few other people he knew lived in log cabins boiling with children like the one he was born in—men and grown boys who hunted or lay before the fire on the floor while the women and older girls stepped back and forth across them to reach the fire to cook . . . where he had never even heard of, never imagined, a place, a land divided neatly up and actually owned by men who did nothing but ride over it on fine horses or sit in fine clothes on the galleries of big houses. . . . Because where he lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody and so the man who would go to the trouble and work to fence off a piece of it and say ‘This is mine’ was crazy. . . . So he didn’t even know there was a country all divided and fixed and neat” (183-84). When he and his family, with their drunken father, come down off the mountain, they slide “back down out of the mountains and [skate] like a useless collection of flotsam on a flooded river moving by some perverse automotivation such as inanimate objects sometimes show. . .” (184-85). As they descend from that mountaintop of disorder, Sutpen discovers land “all divided and fixed and neat with a people living on it all divided and fixed and neat because of what color their skins happened to be and what they happened to own” (183). As I have argued before, it is precisely the chaotic nature of his background and his family life that proposes to him his “design.” That “design,” I think, has less to do with building a dynasty and owning lots of land and slaves than to impose order on all that chaos which was his by birth: to control the future and, by controlling the future to control the past, to render it incapable of further harm.
     Other important characters want to escape their time and place in history and start over: Quentin simply wants to go to hell and start over there, apparently. Sutpen desperately wants precisely that which Isaac McCaslin just as desperately wants to give up. Flem Snopes calmly determines to be a city boy, and even Eula Varner, as Lorie Fulton has convincingly demonstrated, uses Hoake McCarron and Flem Snopes to get herself out of Frenchman’s Bend into Jefferson. And Temple Drake makes herself into Mrs. Gowan Stevens to announce her own starting over after the disasters of Sanctuary.
    Of course Willa Cather was presenting Jim Burden with a complicated metaphor—the absolutely blank, completely unsullied page — to work with, and we know that there is no such thing as a blank page. We know that we can’t start over, no matter how ineluctable the idea of the American dream is for us or how many Horatio Alger novels we read. In a parenthesis here may I also take a few moments to wonder how and why literary traditions become conventions become intractable givens: I’d like to know why it does not seem possible for a modern writer to write about a whale without inevitable comparisons to Moby-Dick. Are all bears in post-1942 fiction descendants of Old Ben? Likewise, are all characters named Adam and Eve descendants of you know who? Are all suicides after 1929 . . . well, you get my question. Supposing it possible for an American to grow up to write fiction without ever having read or heard of Moby-Dick, it is possible for us to read that fiction with inevitable comparisons? And to what purpose are the comparisons except to reify the very traditions that the good writers are trying to change if not destroy? Can there be only one whale, one bear, one suicide in fiction? What of the writer who wants that blank page, that absolutely unused landscape or that bare cave wall? How can any writer neuter or at least neutralize that tradition except by denying it — I never read Ulysses — and thus making Harold Bloom happy, or by using it for all it’s worth — and thus making T. S. Eliot happy? How be new, how, in the face of all that has gone before, create something which did not exist before? The larger question is, of course, historical and ontological: how be somebody other than who we are by virtue of the overdetermining powers of the thousands of individual strands of cause and effect that came together to create us, in a particular time and place?
     Faulkner of course knew as well as we do that you cannot really wipe your own slate completely clean — you can not start over from nothing — and he really made no pretense of erasing Freud, Einstein, James, the Old South, or Reconstruction or anything else he found useful from his tablet. He understood, as we good historians do, that we, things, are always and inevitably descendants of what precedes or rather of something that precedes — but not of everything that does; what he did with that knowledge, however, was to question how that is true and in his fictions, to resist accepting the present moment as a logical and inevitable end result of a single if complicated stream of causes and effects, as Isaac McCaslin perceives his own life, his act of renunciation, as the single point toward which all of human history has been headed from the beginning. That’s perhaps why his novels are narratives that do not narrate, that stop and spin and go back and fill in, begin again; they live in and by Faulkner’s denial of sequentiality: they exist to deny logic and cohesion, from the fairly simple stream-of-consciousness disruptions of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary, to the more ornate and convoluted anti-chronologies of Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, and to the more pronounced, formalized, achronologies of A Fable. In all of these, Faulkner simply mistrusts the logic of sequence: and in some very important ways his work is an outright attack on sequence—history—as a source of truth or even cognition. What is Absalom, anyway, but an elaborate attempt by several narrators to put in logical sequence a past that will not yield to logic? More particularly, consider the family genealogies, family histories, that appear to connect one generation with another but hardly ever draw a clear and complete picture of a family’s development:—the missing father of Joe Christmas who may or may not have been black or Mexican; the gaps in Charles Bon’s story: we never know for certain where he is born, who is father is, how he winds up in that unknown rural university in North Mississippi, where he meets Henry, and then his sister, who may or may be his own half-siblings, and then Sutpen, who may or may not be his father;—the tangled overlappings and fractures of the history of the McCaslin family, black and white;—the simple number of illegitimate or possibly illegitimate children throughout the oeuvre who may never know their own origins. We should even note the number of characters who reappear in successive books and stories, but never reappear precisely as they appeared before, the effect of which is to keep us, and probably himself, from “knowing” them—to keep us from being certain of what we know. It is worth noting that Faulkner simply refused to re-read his own works, even when writing a sequel: he frequently couldn’t remember scenes, names, characters: he knew them in their current moment, not their past ones.
     We may extend these generalizations just a bit to think of this as a different kind of context for the constant disruptions of chronology not just in his individual works but in the work taken as a whole, which constitute a disruption and obviously deliberate frustration of readers’ expectations. His on-going relentless attempts to redefine the novel is a monumental project also to re-negotiate with his readers the terms under which we read fiction and life. If new readers encounter a Faulkner novel and find themselves adrift and frustrated because cut off from their own expectations of novelistic knowing, they are exactly where he wants them to be not just so they can re-learn what a novel is and to operate independently of the novelistic tradition, but also and mainly so that they can learn by analogy to distrust the easy cultural bromides that make history — the way things are — such a politically powerful weapon in the hands of those whom Faulkner, for very good reasons, called “the lucky.”
     For his purposes, Faulkner, then, wants the world always to “signify nothing,” as his fourth novel so famously puts it: the blank page he seeks is precisely the world before it signified, but since he can’t get there, he settles for a world of readers who can at very least make the effort to experience a world — his world, their own — as if for the first time: to see a whale or even a minnow in a fiction after 1851 as not necessarily a direct descendant of Herman Melville’s epic. These sorts of connections are the very stuff of our cognitive processes, the stuff from which we create our individual and collective meanings. They are also — again witness Cormac McCarthy in Mexico, Hannah and Ford in the Great Northwest — ropes that can strangle an artist looking for that blank page. Alas, as rich as they can be and often are, they can often strangle readers, too, those who do not understand how those connections, in life as in books, work to keep us from knowing that those connections strangle precisely because they provide cohesion — and therefore security — to our narratives, our fictions and our histories. Faulkner works to destroy the generational connections that work to connect everything with what precedes and so create a logic and order in our lives that our lives themselves simply resist. Faulkner constantly attacks the cohesion that chronology and genealogy supply, by simply showing us, if we will see, how fragile they are, how susceptible to manipulation and misinterpretation, and so how tenuously they supply us with the historical certainty, the stable world, that we cling to.
     Faulkner’s genealogies in fact problematize the very idea of inheritance by disconnecting one generation from another, by unsequencing sequence and laying inheritance itself open to question: genealogies are culturally and historically and economically and most of all legally essential instruments by which we document the passing of blood and of blood’s corollary, property: recall this and we can understand how Faulkner’s challenges to genealogy are challenges to the received order of things: challenges to arbitrary structures of power and privilege that order our lives, that place us individually and collectively in one or another combination of time and place, and among the lucky or the unlucky.
     Perhaps Faulkner’s most-often quoted lines are in Gavin Stevens’s powerful and appealing declaration to Temple Drake in Requiem for a Nun that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” These pithy lines clearly have the ring of oracular truth, as generations of quoters have accepted the lines as a straightforward and accurate descripton of how the past works on the present in Faulkner and in the South in general, of the past’s formidable solidity and its inescapability. Yet the past in Faulkner is never solid, never substantial. It is always evanescent, fragmentary, “shadowy, paradoxical” and most often available only in traces. Thus history exists only in its telling. And in its telling, of course, lies the rub; the rub is the use to which the past is put. History thus always has a political purpose, and it seems clear, to me at least, that one of Requiem’s purposes is precisely to question the truth content of Stevens’s statement.
     The prologues to the three acts of Requiem are a powerful flood of the history of Jefferson, Jackson, and Yoknapatawpha, which proceeds from the chance involvement of the Jefferson’s original settlers with a band of more or less drunken bandits who had strayed from the Natchez Trace into what the settlers had hoped would be an Edenic cocoon and involved the settlers in history. It is a history told forward, a construct of overlapping scenes on a stage, the last Indians disappearing from their brief time on stage,

like a float or a piece of stage property dragged rapidly into the wings across the very backdrop and amid the very bustle of the property-men setting up for the next scene and act before the curtains had even had time to fall; there was no time; the next act and scene itself cleaving its own stage without waiting for property-men; or rather, not even bothering to clear the stage but commencing the new act and scene right in the midst of the phantoms, the fading wraiths of that old time which had been exhausted, used up, to be no more and never return. . . .(622, my emphasis)

It is a virtually seamless history which records how each successive stage of history gives way to the next one, yielding to it then fading under the obliterating successive waves of each succeeding new. In Requiem’s prologues, the past is not pregnant with the future, not a cause: the future is an actual aggression not so much upon the past as upon the previous. Nor does the past stand there solidly, resisting the aggression. Nor is it really past, but merely a series of present moments punily giving way to the successive waves not of the future either but of a succession of other present moments. One of Faulkner’s images for this succession is footprints:

the fitted shoes which Doctor Habersham and Louis Grenier had brought from the Atlantic seaboard, the cavalry boots in which Alec Holston had ridden behind Francis Marion, and . . . the moccasins, the deerhide sandals of the forest, worn not by the Indians but by white men, the pioneers, the long hunters, as though they had not only vanquished the wilderness but had even stepped into the very footgear of them they dispossessed….; the red men and white and black—the pioneers, the hunters, the forest men with rifles, who made the same light rapid soundless toed-in almost heel-less prints as the red men they dispossessed and who in fact dispossessed the red men for that reason: not because of the grooved barrel but because they could entered the red man’s milieu and make the same footprints that he made; the husbandman printing deep the hard heels of his brogans because of the weight he bore on his shoulders: axe and saw and plow-stock, who dispossessed the forest man for the obverse reason: because with his saw and axe he simply removed, obliterated, the milieu in which alone the forest man could exist; . . . and now indeed the last moccasin print vanished from that dusty widening, the last toed-in heel-less light soft quick long-striding print pointing west for an instant, then trodden from the sight and memory of man by a heavy leather heel engaged not in the traffic of endurance and hardihood and survival, but in money. . . . (619-20)

Vanquished. Dispossessed. Obliterated. The operative word throughout these historical prologues is “then,” not “because”: as E. M. Forster suggests, it’s not a plot if the queen dies and then the king dies; it’s a plot if the king dies because the queen dies.
     Of course there are traces of this history, reminders of these successive moments, as archaeology demonstrates, but what is left of all this obliteration are fragments---memories, shards of pottery, arrowheads, the leftover and incidental---that may or may not be related temporally to each other, and which therefore can at best give us only a partial, incomplete and still photograph of any present moment, much less a comprehensive motion picture video which would link any of the shards to any kind of narrative cause and effect relationship. Recovered, these shards and fragments are like thousands of separate pixels which if you back away from them may indeed seem to form a complete picture.
     Overseeing all this flux is the Jefferson courthouse and jailhouse, in one sense the still point of Faulkner’s chaotic turning world, but it too subject to modification by chance, by the incidental and the irrational, by bandits, war, successive layers of whitewash and even by successive layers of Gavin Stevens’s hogwash:

   And so, being older than all, it had seen all: the mutation and the change: and, in that sense, had recorded them (indeed, as Gavin Stevens, the town lawyer and the county amateur Cincinnatus, was wont to say, if you would peruse in unbroken—ay, overlapping—continuity the history of a community, look not in the church registers and the courthouse records, but beneath the successive layers of calsomine and creosote and whitewash on the walls of the jail, since onl in that forcible carceration does man find the idleness in which to compose, in the gross and simple terms of his gross and simple lusts and yearnings, the gross and simple recapitulations of his gross and simple heart); invisible and impacted, not only beneath the annual inside creosote-and-whitewash of bullpen and cell, but on the blind outside walls too, first the simple mud-chinked log ones and then the symmetric brick, not only the scrawled illiterate repetitive unimaginative doggerel and the perspectiveless almost prehistoric sexual picture-writing, but the images, the panorama not only of the town but of its days and years until a century and better had been accomplished, filled not only with its mutation and change from a halting-place: to a community: to a settlement: to a village: to a town, but with the shapes and motions, the gestures of passion and hope and travail and endurance, of the men and women and children in their successive overlapping generations long after the subject which had reflected the images were vanished and replaced and again replaced, as when you stand say alone in a dim and empty room and believe, hypnotized beneath of the vast weight of man’s incredible and enduring Was, that perhaps by turning your head aside you will see from the corner of your eye the turn of a moving limb—a gleam of crinoline, a laced wrist, perhaps even a Cavalier plume—who knows? Provided there is will enough, perhaps even the face itself three hundred years after it was dust—the eyes, two jellied tears filled with arrogance and pride and satiety and knowledge of anguish and foreknowledge of death, saying no to death across twelve generations, asking still the old same unanswerable question three centuries after that which reflected them had learned that the answer didn’t matter, or—better still—had forgotten the asking of it—in the shadowy fathomless dreamlike depths of an old mirror which has looked at too much too long; (616-17)

     I’ve read this passage for nearly 40 years now, always with an increasing sense of awe at its beauty and its power and its persuasiveness. But it is a passage at odds with the rest of the prologues. It appears, in fact, as a rhetorical construct of Gavin Stevens, Temple Drake’s bète noir in the dramatic portions. A romantic and a sentimentalist, Stevens anchors history in a single reality, a single cause which produces all the effects — human folly — the wickedness caused by mankind’s “gross and simple” appetites. History is for him an “unbrokenz — ay, overlapping — continuity,” a single stream — filled of course with “mutation and change”— but still an “unbroken” stream that he traces all the way back to the cave dwellers: the “scrawled illiterate repetitive unimaginative doggerel and the perspectiveless almost prehistoric sexual picture-writings”. No doubt there were and still are plenty of graffiti of this sort in jails everywhere — and schools and churches too —, but Stevens’s image is an insult to those cave dwelling artists of Dordogne and other sites where the cave-dwellers’ work is preserved, a patronizing, even contemptuous, reduction of the achievements of those who covered their blank pages with magnificent, even stunning representations of the life of their own time. From his vantage of privilege — he would be one of the “lucky” ones — Stevens smugly reduces nearly all of human life to a single, low, common denominator. He has his reasons.
     The jail/courthouse complex in Jefferson represents for Stevens his low opinion of most human beings; romanticize it though he might, it is also a sort of still point of a turning world that he does not like to see turn, a point of certainty that he clings to. Requiem’s dramatic portions, which Stevens dominates, take place largely in government buildings—the courthouse, the state capitol, the jail — synonymous with because existing in the service of the law. The law for Stevens, and perhaps for Faulkner, is nothing if not the minutely-detailed record in volume after volume of cause and effect written and explained in precise, well-documentd terms that demonstrate how one legal decision, how one law or case engenders another, all the way back to Blackstone and Coke Upon Littleton. Law is the concretized record of inheritance, the graven tablets of order and cohesion. It is therefore the comfort and sustenance of privilege, of the established order.
     Stevens believes that the tragedy in his own family, the scandal that Temple Drake represents and Nancy Mannigoe’s murder of Temple’s baby, has a single cause rooted in Temple’s character, her wickedness; he insists that though she has tried to whitewash her life by superficialities like a husband and a new name and a home on the right street, she is still the same Temple Drake who got off the train in Taylor and caused all the problem. He thus writes Temple Drake’s history backward, or rather forces her to write her history backward, to force her to admit that the past is never dead, that that historical Temple Drake, the one that had spent the time in the brothel in Memphis and had caused the death of an innocent man, was the Temple Drake who had caused Nancy Mannigoe to kill her baby. He forces her to construct a single Temple Drake from present to past, so as to make her baby’s death a logical, predictable outcome of her evil actions when she was so young. While Temple, resisting him, tries to testify that there were plenty of contingencies in her story, lots of causes with no direct effect, and that nothing she had done then or recently had directly caused Nancy to murder her baby. She tells the governor: “I’m trying to tell you about one Temple Drake, and our Uncle Gavin is showing you another one. So already you’ve got two different people begging for the same clemency; if everybody concerned keeps on splitting up into two people, you won’t even know who to pardon, will you?” (578), while Stevens calmly insists: “It was as though she realised for the first time that you — everyone — must, or anyway, may have to, pay for your past; that past is something like a promissory note with a trick clause in it which, as long as nothing goes wrong, can be manumitted in an orderly manner, but which fate or luck or chance, can foreclose on you without warning” (582). There is no blank page for Stevens, never was. For him, in this a very good Puritan, history was always already written upon the human heart.
     Jim Burden botches his chance to draw Antonia as she is, as he experiences her. Given a blank page, and even offered two possible rhetorical modes to use to write about it—the ancient hieroglyphics and the popular language of his “Life of Jesse James”—he yet chooses a third, a language which during his childhood with Antonia he does not even know he knows. He chooses the language of the patriarch of all patriarchs, Virgil:

Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade---that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer. . . . She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. . . . She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races. (MA 226-27)

In order to contain Antonia, he must hold her in a series of gestures: a woodcut, an “immemorial human attitude” an “image in the mind that does not fade. Jim has to see, to locate, to impose “meaning in common things”— that is, a common, a received meaning already at work in the culture, not a brand new one worthy of her. He offers up Antonia’s hand on the crab tree and her look up at the apple, as making him “feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last—things that he moved to the city to keep from having to do. No, he’s lying, to himself and to us: he doesn’t feel Ántonia’s goodness except as a literary conceit and as a constructed memory: he certainly didn’t feel that way when he was living as her friend in Nebraska. That planting and tending and harvesting had made her, by his own admission, a ‘battered woman,” had de-feminized her in fact, but not de-sexed her. Or rather, what Jim does, seeing her so un-feminine at the end of his book, as he begins his peroration, is to impose a classical western conceit on her: she aint beautiful or busty but by God she has got what it takes to be a woman: just look at those kids. . . . She was, he concludes, “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.” Oh yeah? Which ones? Aeneus? Jim is in excess here, an excess Gavin Stevens might have liked, to make of Antonia an icon, a literary sign that creates an Antonia different from the one he had to abandon but now can safely reclaim and, by making her universal, he can divest her of her sexual nature (even while admiring her for her children: a rich mine of life indeed), and can atone for his own terrifying and almost certainly Oedipal attraction to her.
     What did Faulkner give himself, how did he start over, not having Jim Burden’s blank page? Well, perhaps in one real sense he did have a blank page in that he inherited from Freud and Einstein and deSaussure among many others a world in which all previous epistemologies and all assumptions about language had been swept away, leaving him free to do what Jim Burden could not do: to see the world with his own eyes and to de-signify is to that it could re-signify. He allowed himself to know differently than the world his predecessors had thought they knew, and so to know a different world.
That different world might have indeed been a blank landscape, but, thanks to Einstein and Freud, he saw it as a page not blank at all but even full and overfull, absolutely teeming with possibility, and exploited that fullness with an extraordinary language that strained to push farther and father beyond the margins. He gave himself not at all a static page that allows us to read laterally from one word to the next and so accumulate information, but a dynamic page that forces us to hold several different suspended narratives and meanings in our heads, to register simultaneously multiple layers of consciousness, to read around behind above below the word, even to read the gaps: to read all the text doesn’t tell us as well as with multiple versions of what it does tell us. He gave himself pages over-full with multiple layers upon layers of signification, pages virtually three-dimensional, concave and convex, language so alive and new and responsive it practically jumps off the page at us, no matter how many times we read it — as though he tumbled all of everything he knew and wanted to say onto the printed line: he frequently said he wanted to put it all between one cap and one period — and it got pretty crowded in there.
     One other thing he gave himself was the present moment. I do not mean a stable inflexible moment which we can call now because of course by the time we say now we are already talking about a now subsequent to the one we were trying to name and so capture. The present moment he gave himself is precisely a moment perpetually in motion, never fixed and stable. Unlike other novelists concerned with history, he gave himself that shifting present moment whatever era he was writing about. In any era, the present moment is shifting and so potentially volatile and so does not allow for a past that is fixed and permanent either, never a past that proceeds from a single cause to a single effect: never a past that allows itself to be completely recovered and known; never past that can be truly inherited.
     Finally, Faulkner gave himself courage, no small thing: the courage to fail, as he often put it, the courage to befuddle and confuse and alienate readers and publishers, the courage to risk excess, to enter a zone where contra Hemingway less is not more and where even more is barely enough; and he gave himself the sheer dumb stubborn discipline to keep at it day after day even which is books hardly sold at all, because on in the constant act of writing could he force himself toward his own necessary originary moment, that founding moment when he could drag his pages, one by one, “out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific,” creating himself and his world, “the Be Yoknaptawpha like the oldentime Be light” (Absalom, Absalom!, 4?)

Works Cited
Cather, Willa, My Ántonia. 1918. Ed. Charles Mignon with Kari Ronning. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Faulkner, William. Light in August (1932). William Faulkner: Novels 1930-1935. Ed. Joseph L. Blotner and Noel Polk. New York: Library of America, 1985. 399-774.
——. Absalom, Absalom! (1936). William Faulkner: Novels 1936-1940. Ed. Joseph L. Blotner and Noel Polk. New York: Library of America, 1990. 1-315.

I began thinking about these questions actually in some of the papers I’ve given here over the years, primarily as a response to my regular and doubtless mind-numbing defense of Faulkner’s work after the Nobel Prize. That is, think of it: after the Nobel Prize certified him immortal, where could he go? What do? After that prize he not only had Shakespeare and John Donne and Hemingway to compete with, but also Faulkner: and how compete with the man who had written The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!? How rev up the miraculous one or two or three more times? How continue to “create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before”, as he put it in the opening paragraph of the Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech? I do not of course want to argue that this problem caused his depression of the first lustrum of the fifties---the serious drinking, the terrible unhappiness, perhaps the electro-shock therapy---since he had had these symptoms long before the Nobel Prize; but it is worth noting that in “A Note on Sherwood Anderson” and “Mr. Acarius,” two patently autobiographical pieces of 1953/54, he indirectly admitted to a fear of what he called in Sherwood Anderson’s case “giantism”---a fear of becoming too big for the human race: “Mr Acarius,” you’ll remember, checks himself into a special hospital where he can throw himself into the biggest drunk of his life so that he can wallow in the gutters with “humanity.” You’ll also doubtless remember that the runner in A Fable gives up an officer’s commission to become a runner precisely because he does not want to have the contempt for ordinary soldiers that being an officer obliges him to have: he wants to live with the common man, in the muck and misery of the trenches. Perhaps, indeed, certified immortality was hard for Faulkner to handle.

Copyright (c)2007 Noel Polk