Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Being Myriad, One": Melville and the Ecological Sublime in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Being Myriad, One": Melville and the Ecological Sublime in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses

Article excerpt

Since the 1970s, environmental ethicists and deep ecologists have devoted increasing attention to the relationship between ethics, ontology, and the environment. However, these examinations are by no means new; many of the ideas that are now being bandied about in the fields of environmental philosophy and ethics have roots in an ecocentric metaphysics that burgeoned during (but also predates) British and American Romanticism. Herman Melville and William Faulkner are inheritors of these traditions, and through their extensive ruminations upon the natural world and their employment of sublime encounters in Moby-Dick (1851) and Go Down, Moses (1942), both Melville and Faulkner ask a simple but pressing question: What, if anything, can we learn about ethics from our interactions with the environment?

The connections between Moby-Dick and Go Down, Moses are not the product of mere speculation. In 1927, Faulkner told the book editor of the Chicago Tribune, "I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought T wish I had written that' is Moby Dick" ("To the Book Editor" 197). Additionally, Faulkner has said in interviews that he read Moby-Dick every four or five years and that he was reading it to his daughter Jill while writing and revising Go Down, Moses (Lion in the Garden 48, 110). Rick Wallach suggests that Moby-Dick is the-"parent text" to "The Bear" and, more broadly, Go Down, Moses, and as such critics should consider the intertextual dialogue between the two works (43). Reprising Joseph Campbell's theorization of archetypes and Harold Bloom's notion of influence and daemonization, Wallach argues that Faulkner purposefully draws upon and ultimately surpasses the literary and mythic power of Moby-Dick. Given the similarities between Moby-Dick and Go Down, Moses as well as Faulkner's repeated praise of Melville, it seems worthwhile to extend considerations of the sublime, especially as conceived by Melville, for an analysis of Go Down, Moses. The fact that Faulkner may not have read all of the foundational figures, such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, who developed sublime theory, is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. We know that Melville read these figures and that Faulkner read Melville frequently and perhaps even obsessively. Therefore, through Melville, Faulkner is heir to a sublime tradition that flowered during the period of American Romanticism, and, regardless of whether he was fully aware of his position within this lineage, Faulkner employs and extends this particular iteration of the sublime in Go Down, Moses.

Several ecocritical scholars, including Bart H. Welling, Louise Westling, William Howarth, and Lawrence Buell, have recently discussed Go Down, Moses relative to environmental ethics, but no one has provided an extended analysis of Faulkner's use of the sublime and its significance for this conception of ethics. While Susan V. Donaldson argues that Faulkner "generally resorted to the vocabulary of the romantic sublime when he talked about the ideals that shaped his role as an artist" (359), she does not utilize sublime theory to examine Go Down, Moses. Neglecting to study sublime theory alongside Faulkner's fiction, particularly Go Down, Moses, represents a critical gap in the recent greening of Faulkner studies; (1) this gap is particularly significant given Faulkner's investment in a Romantic tradition that relied heavily upon sublime theory when investigating the connections between human and nonhuman systems. Therefore, examining Faulkner's relationship to the sublime is imperative for our critical understanding of Go Down, Moses, in which instances of the sublime, especially Melville's reconfigurations of the sublime, are pervasive. For Ishmael and Isaac McCaslin, (2) the confrontation with the sublime results in an egalitarian vision wherein they imagine the interconnectedness and interdependency of all people and all earthly materiality. This trajectory of the sublime experience has been criticized for engendering a highly idealized, and even utopian, vision of humans' interactions with the environment. …

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