Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Sourceless Sunlight: Faulkner's Sanctuary and the Sacrificial Crisis

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Sourceless Sunlight: Faulkner's Sanctuary and the Sacrificial Crisis

Article excerpt

This essay's close reading of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, situated in the theoretical context of Rene Girard's sacrificial crisis, examines ways in which Faulkner portrays a social structure so pervaded with violence that it assumes metaphysical proportions in the eyes of victims.

This essay examines how William Faulkner establishes the various stages of what Rene Girard calls a "sacrificial crisis" to portray a social structure so pervaded with violence that it assumes metaphysical proportions in the eyes of victims. I argue that Girard's sacrificial crisis and the concept of mimetic desire that undergirds it propose a conception of identity that illuminates an unresolved and striking tension in Faulkner's novel. Girard ultimately offers an explanation of how the self develops through social relation, instead of conceiving itself on its own ground. Sanctuary evokes a particular modernist tension in this regard, for the novel is unmistakably invested in the Idealist and Romantic sources of the self, while subjecting this ontology to myriad forms of violence that dismantle and appropriate its structure. The novel thus expresses, on the one hand, a longing for interiority and, on the other, an anxiety with its loss in the mimetic spreading of violence, one act variably repeating itself and achieving in the process an ostensible divinity in its ubiquity and power.

From the first responses to Sanctuary, tragedy offered a means of classifying and championing Faulkner's craft. "Sanctuary is the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story" (94), Andre Malraux concludes in his 1933 preface to the French edition of the novel. The tragic predicament, Malraux claims, is so strong in Faulkner that "a secret force, sometimes even an epic one, is released in him every time he succeeds in placing one of his characters face to face with the irreparable" (93). Beyond this sense of the irreparable, the tragic dimensions of Sanctuary remain somewhat unclear. In 1959, Hyatt H. Waggoner used the term tragedy to differentiate Faulkner's masterpieces from the simply "negative and despairing" (119), but refused to grant this novel such a distinction. Girard's conception of the sacrificial crisis helps elucidate the principal elements of classical tragedy in Faulkner's Sanctuary, addressing particularly the novel's emphasis upon violence too pervasive to be identified exclusively in any one perpetrator or act.

Girard's signature theory of mimetic desire is a core constituent of his larger theory of violence and thus requires some initial elaboration. "We must understand," Girard argues in Violence and the Sacred, "that desire itself is essentially mimetic." The desire of any individual is thereby based upon "a model" and, as a consequence, "two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash" (146). The "unchanneled mimetic impulse hurls itself blindly against the obstacle of a conflicting desire [and] invites its own rebuffs, and these rebuffs will in turn strengthen the mimetic inclination" (148). Recognizing the danger of this "self-perpetuating process, constantly increasing in simplicity and fervor," early societies imposed "all sorts of rules and regulations [to] prevent desire from floating free and attaching itself to the first model" (148-49). By "channeling its energies into ritual forms, [...] the cultural order prevents multiple desires from converging on the same object" (149). Sacrificial rites do this by redirecting these desires. As through a sleight of hand, these rituals transform violence into a participatory event that can strengthen the social bonds of a community.

Scholars have employed some version of scapegoating to explain how Lee Goodwin's lynching toward the narrative's close brings an end to violent conflict. (1) From this point of view, the arbitrary scapegoat contains the contagious nature of violence, appeasing the county's thirst for justice in an illusory form of reprisal. …

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