Faulkner as Surrealist: The Persistence of Memory in Light in August

Article excerpt

Surrealism will usher you into death, which is a secret society. It will glove your hand, burying there the profound M with which the word Memory begins. (1)

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing ever wonders. (2)

After more than fifty years, we have no simple way to account for the haunting effect of William Faulkner's Light in August. It seems clear that we deform the novel when we attempt the procrustean task of fitting it into categories of naturalism or regionalism; when we respond to it as a literal and figurative crisis in black and white; when we work with it as a Calvinist or more broadly-Christian parable; or when we fit it into a Yoknapatawpha mythic saga. The text resists univocal attempts at demystification. Yet, however baffled by Faulkner's design, few readers are content to adopt the attitude of Lena Grove, who moves through and beyond the paradoxical realm of the novel always "waiting to be surprised" (p. 480).

One of Faulkner's earliest readers, Irving Howe, described the interpretative problem Light in August poses. Like all subsequent observers, Howe was struck by the novel's powerful "scenic" substance, "more than mere pleasant landscape or inert backdrop." (3) Yet, he was troubled by the absence of a perceptive hero, a character able to come to terms with that scene through the powers of observation and intelligence. Howe thus complains of Faulkner's "failure to work into Christmas' mind ... to the point of providing the `flash-in' that we are led to desire." (4) He was even less satisfied with "the good unruffled vegetable Lena" as reference point for the novel. Ultimately, Howe is left with a tentative but suggestive vision of Light in August. He points to the novel's texture rather than its text, as a product of a painterly eye, "a series of brilliant tableaux" (5) rather than a succession of narrative events. Light in August presents Howe with visual rather than verbal incongruities, as in a scene by Breughel:

   The arrangement of the book ... resembles an early Renaissance painting--in
   the foreground a bleeding martyr, far to the rear a scene of bucolic
   peacefulness with women quietly working in the fields. (6)

In a more contemporary reading, Albert Guerard describes Faulkner's gift for "illuminating distortion" and suggests that the novel derives its peculiar energy from "the interpenetration of the fantastic and the substantial," the evocation of images that may be startling but are also "altogether fleshly `real'." (7) Guerard could as easily be describing a surrealist painting: a work situated on the precarious border between dream and conscious perception. Light in August, with its surprising loops of time, its structure of coincidence and uncanny juxtaposition, and its exploitation of the powerful play of association, might best be viewed, from our vantage point, as Faulkner's surrealistic canvas. What Howe found a disappointing absence--Faulkner's refusal to represent the consciousness of his problematic hero--may instead signal a different presence: the liminal, the partially-concealed subconscious life, given shape through a kind of pictorial sensibility, rendered in an array of signs and symbols.

There are many reasons to consider surrealism--both as ideology and art form--as intertext for Light in August. The timing is right: Tzara, Eluard, De Chirico, Magritte, Dali, Breton, Ernst, and other poets, artists and film-makers were issuing manifestoes, seemingly bent on sabotaging the censoring power of rationality and opening passageways to the unconscious: exploiting what Breton called "divine disorder." The "movement" was not confined to Europe; as film-maker Luis Bunuel recalls, "More than anything else, surrealism was a kind of call heard by certain people everywhere"; (8) it signalled an artistic and political revolt.

Faulkner, who was a gifted amateur watercolorist and illustrator himself, may well have been aware of the controversy surrounding the first American exhibition of surrealist art in Hartford, and the gift of Salvador Dali's famous surrealistic painting, "The Persistence of Memory," to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1931. …