Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Beyond Lexicon: Biblical "Allusion" in Faulkner

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Beyond Lexicon: Biblical "Allusion" in Faulkner

Article excerpt

THE MECHANICS OF "ALLUSION," AND ALSO OF INTERTEXTUALITY, THE broader category to which allusion belongs, are not well understood. As with the resemblances among human faces or human voices, we are likely to be able to sense far more than we can prove. Indeed, given Roland Barthes's statement on intertextuality as constitutive of all writing, we will always find its strands impossible to disentangle fully:

   Every text is an intertext; other texts are present in it, at variable
   levels, in more or less recognizable forms: the texts of the previous
   culture and those of the surrounding culture; every text is a fabric woven
   out of bygone quotations.... A prerequisite for any text, intertextuality
   cannot be reduced to a problem of sources and influences; it is a general
   field of anonymous formulas whose origin is seldom identifiable, of
   unconscious or automatic quotations given without quotation marks.(1)

The impossibility of a complete disentangling of intertextuality's web, however, should not keep us from attempting a partial one--though in the face of Barthes's definition of intertextuality as almost infinite we may prefer to use the word "allusion," implying as it does an intention of the author that is at least partially a conscious one.

In the matter of Faulkner's biblical intertextuality--or, to use an older phrase, his uses of the Bible--it is generally accepted that there is a good deal of it. In Francois Pitavy's words, "... the Bible so permeates Faulkner's fiction that its dissemination in it may very well provide the most profound --though not necessarily the most obvious--instance of intertextuality in his novels."(2) It is also generally accepted that the resonance of the biblical text within Faulkner's fiction goes far beyond what Pitavy calls its most obvious examples--the kind of verbal allusion in which the words of one text "retain their status of more or less recognizable quotations" within another (p. 114). We recognize, perhaps especially in Faulkner, that "allusion" may be a quite delicate matter. Stephen M. Ross speaks, for example, in an essay on the relationship between the Bible's story of King David and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, of Faulkner's "uncanny power to immerse us in a reading process appropriate to but not simply imitative of his sources."(3) And Pitavy's own essay on the resonance of Psalm 137:1-6 within The Wild Palms declares that the functioning of the Bible as intertext in that novel is "not to be found primarily in the vocabulary itself or even in some of the images." Instead, it is to be found in certain concepts and motifs, such as the motif of the Babylonian captivity and the concepts of "eschatological reflection" and "memory" that accompany it (pp. 115, (116).

Aside from this kind of thematic allusion, what other forms might such non-verbal or conceptual allusion take? Criticism has not been altogether daring in this regard, despite our lip service to the "dissemination" of the biblical intertext in Faulkner. We have recognized, indeed, that a kind of allusion may operate through such non-verbal concepts as the pattern of relationships among a novel's characters: thus Ross's comparison of the Tamar-Amnon-Absalom triangle in David's household to the Judith-Charles Henry triangle in Thomas Sutpen's, in Absalom, Absalom!. And we recognize the conceptual kind of allusion also in a novel's plot: critics for a long time have seen the trial and death of Christ echoed, in a number of elements, in the trial and death of Joe Christmas, in Light in August.(4)

Nevertheless, for all our belief in Faulkner's uncanny power to make us feel the presence of the Bible as an intertext without ever becoming "simply imitative of his sources," we still feel far more comfortable in exploring that intertextuality if it seems anchored in something strictly verbal. Pitavy remarks about the editorial changing of Faulkner's title from If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem to The Wild Palms that it was a fortunate change, whatever its motives might have been: fortunate because the disappearance of this "too visible marker of intertextuality" prevents us from looking primarily for specific biblical analogies and sets us "free" to trace a deeper intertextuality at work and eventually to see that Psalm 137 functions in the novel in an ironical way. …

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