Lilith in Mississippi: Reading Mythic Desire in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

By Swinburne, Sandra | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Lilith in Mississippi: Reading Mythic Desire in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem


Swinburne, Sandra, The Mississippi Quarterly


WILLIAM FAULKNER WARNED AGAINST WRITING "OF THE GLANDS" IN HIS Nobel Prize address and made grand claims about the supremacy of love as he played the role of celebrity writer. But perhaps the gentleman protested too much, considering that the men and women who inhabit his fiction attest to his enduring fascination with lust. Time and again, Faulkner's work explores a sexually repressed man's desire for a sexually daring woman and, time and again, her carnality proves to be a destructive, mythic force that throttles sentimental notions of love. The Romantic seductress type that Mario Praz calls "the Fatal Woman," that "flame which attracts and burns" (206), influenced Faulkner's characterization of desirable women. And the sexy, sadistic females he encountered in Algernon Swinburne's Poems surely harrow his various tableaux of pleasure and pain in the American South. But when Faulkner's admiration for the old stories and his interest in sensual, defiant women cause him to raise mythical Lilith in his narratives, she quickens the rub of eroticism and despair between the sexes and shows that what happened then is still happening now. Lilith suits Faulkner's musings on arousal and ruin amidst patriarchal laws and puritanical values because men want and fear her while women secretly want the power that comes with being her. Yet perhaps the best explanation for the appearance of Lilith in Faulkner's work is that he seems to have enjoyed the anguished thrum of desire that accompanies her. After all, "The good and shining angel ain't very interesting" (FU2).

Desire arrives with many faces in Faulkner's imagined world. Caddy Compson and the nighttime Joanna Burden exhibit aspects of Lilith's nature when, in spite of the terrible consequences, they choose sexual experience over society's version of virtue and respectability. Eula Varner's passive refusal to alter how she inhabits her body, even though her audience of desiring males can scarcely control the fantasies and fears triggered by her voluptuous flesh, demonstrates Lilith's will for self-determination. And as she summons logging camp laborers to the heat of her tumultuous bed, the woman who becomes Mink Snopes's wife mirrors Lilith's consorting with demons. But ultimately, it is Charlotte Rittenmeyer in "The Wild Palms" who brings the depths of mythical Lilith to the page when she flees Eden to live in a sexual relationship of her own design and floods the patriarchal script with feminine desire. With Charlotte, Faulkner probes the timeless troubles of desire--in literature and in life--as he imagines breaking the rules with a woman who is unafraid of society, sex, or death.

Faulkner proffers specific Lilith lore in The Town when Gavin Stevens thinks of Eula Varner as "that damned incredible woman, that Frenchman's Bend Helen, Semiramis--No: not Helen nor Semiramis: Lilith: the one before Eve herself whom earth's Creator had perforce in desperate and amazed alarm in person to efface, remove, obliterate, that Adam might create a progeny to populate it" (39). Then, caught up in society's insistence on classifying the female as Madonna or whore, Gavin blames Eula's sexual activities on the bad influence of Manfred de Spain, who "thought he was just bedding another loose-girdled bucolic Lilith" (280), rather than on her own passion. With these allusions, the repressed and ever-suffering Gavin demonstrates Faulkner's awareness of a story in which Adam cannot control his desirable and disobedient first partner, so he tattles to God. This particular version of the troublesome first woman comes from Hebrew myth, a tradition that uses Lilith narratives as part cultural rhetoric and part mystical interpretation to express patriarchal dread of the self-determining, sexual female. And as Gavin makes evident, such a woman can cause a man to feel powerless--and wracked with desire.

Faulkner surely found Lilith in several pieces of secular literature (such as Goethe's Faust land Joyce's Ulysses) and he may have researched her mythical past.

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