Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Problem of Time in the Sound and the Fury: A Critical Reassessment and Reinterpretation

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Problem of Time in the Sound and the Fury: A Critical Reassessment and Reinterpretation

Article excerpt

The phenomenon of time in Faulkner's novels, especially in The Sound and the Fury, has from the very beginning attracted critics who not only perceived its thematic relevance, but recognized its philosophical implications for twentieth century American literature. Thus, the problem of time in Faulkner has occasioned stimulating literary opposition. In an essay on Faulkner in her Time and Reality, Margaret Church implies that there have been two major critical approaches to time in Faulkner, the durational and the transcendent (i.e. individual time vs. mythical time), because, she maintains, that opposition exists in Faulkner's vision; Faulkner fails in the works in which he does not resolve this inconsistency. (1) Whether or not there is really in Faulkner an inconsistency does not yet concern me, but her implication of the critical contradistinctions is quite telling.

This is not to suggest that the polarities are clear-cut. For example, Sartre's influential 1939 essay stresses Faulkner's durational time. (2) Sartre sees in Faulkner an irrational and perpetually recurring present which, because it holds no future, is suspended in time, "diminished without progress" because it is continually eaten away by the past whose order is the order of the heart. "Faulkner wants to forget time," Sartre writes, because Faulkner has taken away time's future, deprived his characters of potentiality--"that is to say the dimension of free choice and act." Transcendence ("mystical ecstasies") is the only possibility. In other words, Sartre sees Faulkner's world as a world with a missing link: the lived future. Without the future the world is absurd, a world to be transcended, escaped from.

Critical essays such as Eusebio L. Rodrigues's "Time and Technique in The Sound and the Fury" (3) and Michael Maloney's "The Enigma of Time: Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner" (4) are essentially restatements of Sartre's argument. For Rodrigues also there is no future for Faulkner's characters; "... the protagonists of Faulkner are invariably nailed to the cross of the past." Maloney concludes, "The bleakness of Faulkner's time philosophy is inescapable. He cannot envision the possibility of man's mastery of time because the past being the only time which he accepts there is no room for indetermination. There is for him no present in which the past may be recaptured or from which an indefinite now may be spun."

But Jean Pouillon complicates this. (5) Pouillon begins with Sartre's idea that Faulkner's characters live in a present which has been eaten up by the past, but he comes to subtly different conclusions. Pouillon believes that for Faulkner's characters "the past is not a temporal past" but "extra-temporal," which is to say that the past, for someone like Quentin, exists in the present. "The past, therefore, not only was but is, and will be; it is the unfolding of destiny." Thus, according to Pouillon, it is wrong to suggest as does Maloney that Faulkner is a temporal determinist, for that presupposes a chronological succession. Faulkner's characters are not determined by their past; they are the past. And as such they are psychologically dominated by destiny.

These and other critics such as Jean-Jacques Mayoux and John V. Hagopian see Faulkner primarily as a nihilist, and his philosophy as a philosophy of despair. But still others have approached Faulkner's durational time from a different perspective. As Church suggests, "There is in Faulkner a very real sense of Bergson's duree." (6) This shift in perspective is extremely important, for in order for one to apply Bergson's concept of duration to Faulkner's time one must come to a very different interpretation of the novel from Sartre and Pouillon. But one must be careful here. Both Sartre and Pouillon's analyses assume the Bergsonian idea of time; it is, so to speak, the standard by which Faulkner is evaluated. Sartre interprets Faulkner to be an absurdist and Pouillon sees him as a novelist of destiny because they do not see in Faulkner the possibility of Bergson's "free act," which, of course, Sartre would insist is the existential act. …

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