"I Am Now like the Gambler": Erotic Triangles and Game Theory in William Faulkner's Pylon and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

By Cagle, Jeremey | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

"I Am Now like the Gambler": Erotic Triangles and Game Theory in William Faulkner's Pylon and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem


Cagle, Jeremey, The Southern Literary Journal


Shortly after beginning his tenure as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in 1957, Faulkner was asked where he had learned psychology. The question, posed by a student in the psychiatry department, was a logical one considering Faulkner had just finished describing what he felt constituted irrational human behavior. The answer was the sort of playful prevarication one comes to expect with Faulkner: he said that he learned everything he needed to know about psychology by the characters he wrote and by playing poker (Faulkner in the University 268). Although Faulkner's answer seems evasive, as does his point of mentioning his unfamiliarity with Freud during the same response, Faulkner's suggestion that poker was useful in the creation of his art--art in which one finds strata of complex human social behavior and diversity--is perhaps more truthful than initially suspected. In this essay, I would like to augment existing scholarship on Faulkner's more neglected, non-Yoknapatawpha novels, Pylon (1935) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939), by demonstrating that both novels not only exemplify typical erotic triangulations, but also employ elements of informal and evolutionary game theory such as perfect information and adaptive phenotypic diversity. Elements and strategies of game theory, I will argue, valuable in outwitting opponents in games such as poker or chess (or in fertilizing female eggs), are employed by Faulkner in a different sort of contest--one in which lovers maneuver and jockey for positions of power and sexual control.

"Game theory," however, is something of a misnomer, according to Andrew M. Colman, author of Game Theory and Its Applications in the Social and Biological Sciences. "In spite of its name, game theory is not specifically concerned with recreations and pastimes," Colman writes (3). A more accurate name, or at least "a less misleading name for it would have been the theory of interdependent decision making" (3). Game theory, simply put, is the study of particular types of social interaction. According to Colman, there are three conditions to be met if an interaction is to be considered a game:

(a) there are two or more decision makers, called players;

(b) each player has a choice of two or more ways of acting, called strategies, such that the outcome of the interaction depends on the strategy choices of all players; and

(c) the players have well-defined preferences among the possible outcomes, so that numerical payoffs reflecting these preferences can be assigned to all players for all outcomes. (3)

In formal game theory all of this is entirely a mathematical abstraction: "a purely imaginary idealization of a social interaction" (6). In informal game theory, nonmathematical applications undergo empirical testing, are analyzed, and have, in many cases, proven to provide "deep and illuminating insights" for the biological and social sciences: "Certain important features of individual and collective rationality, cooperation and competition, trust and suspicion, threats and commitments cannot even be clearly described, let alone explained without the framework of game theory" (4). Game theory, then, becomes a way to understand behavior that would otherwise be unintelligible; and poker, as the paradigmatic game, becomes Faulkner's hermeneutic for complex psychological examination.

This is certainly true in Faulkner's fiction, where a competitive "game playing" with sexuality is employed, often manifested as a sexual control-driven game involving a third participant. Noel Polk has found these triangular arrangements to be a common occurrence in Faulkner's work; more common, he writes, than what many perceive to be a central theme in Faulkner: race. Polk argues that issues of gender are the more ardent themes in Faulkner's work, as race constitutes the central theme of only four of Faulkner's novels (Light in August; Absalom, Absalom!; Go Down, Moses; and Intruder in the Dust) and three short stories ("Sunset," "That Evening Sun," and "Dry September"), while the list of works embedded with the theme of erotic triangulation is much longer, including Pylon and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem in addition to many short stories such as "Artist at Home," "A Courtship," "Mistral," "Idyll in the Desert," "The Brooch," "Fox Hunt," "A Dangerous Man," "Honor," "Hair," "Divorce in Naples," and "A Justice" (143-151).

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