Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"Aghast and Uplifted": William Faulkner and the Absence of History

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"Aghast and Uplifted": William Faulkner and the Absence of History

Article excerpt

Few moments in William Faulkner's fiction reveal the simultaneous burden and attraction of ideological history more concisely than Quentin Compson's incursion into the ruins of Sutpen's Hundred at the climax of Absalom, Absalom! Confronting Henry Sutpen's "wasted yellow face" and "wasted hands crossed on the breast as if he were already a corpse" (298), Quentin actually sees and speaks with the elusive subject that has been at the heart of the multilayered tellings and retellings that have so defined his community's memory and his sense of himself as a Southerner. For a brief moment, the stories become true because something remains to be found and interpreted; the mere fact of Henry Sutpen's presence reaffirms the spirit, if not the literal truth, of Quentin's and his father's and Miss Rosa's and Shreve's relentless storytelling. He gains, in other words, what William Faulkner's work so often seeks when it turns to an identifiable moment in history such as the Civil War: a physical connection with the remembered and misremembered past that legitimizes the act of modern utterance and demands more. For Quentin, however, locating the truth behind the story provides no escape from the endless questions of self and regional identity that the mythic past has pushed into the modern present. In fact, this final meeting between the storytellers (Rosa and Quentin) and the subject of their tellings does less to legitimize their identity through narrative than to frustrate such a search for authority, since the reality that they discover is not material enough (it is merely "wasted") to carry the ideological and cultural weight of the stories in which they have invested themselves. Henry Sutpen testifies to the continuing necessity to tell such stories but does not substantiate anyone's particular version of the past or provide any new information to revitalize the tradition. He has come home, as so many similar figures have done before him, but home is merely death.

The end of Absalom, Absalom!, then, dramatizes the problematic relationship in Faulkner's work between narrating the cultural trauma of the Southern Civil War past and locating the source of that trauma. The novel as a whole is not so much about the war itself, or even a communal memory of the war itself, as it is about the more abstract process of narrating absence and inventing a means to represent that absence textually. For Faulkner, even more than for Quentin, the Civil War and whatever particular meaning it might have articulated about the South and its people are forever beyond reach. Though other writers in this tradition, such as Ellen Glasgow and Stark Young, lived and worked too late to have experienced the war firsthand, no one but Faulkner made this absence the subject of his work. Only Faulkner established his style not upon the possibility of gaining limited access to the lost past but to the impossibility of gaining any access and then writing anyway.

So the Civil War remains in Faulkner: in the phantom cavalry of Light in August, in the winsome memories of Pickett's Charge in Intruder in the Dust, and, most powerfully, in the intersection of avoidance and compulsive confrontation with wartime ideology that marks the simultaneous writing of Absalom, Absalom! and The Unvanquished in the 1930s. Too many readers have regarded these books as either artistic or commercial opposites, suggesting that one's success can be seen most clearly in the corresponding failure of the other. Though both books are usually considered to be "about" the Civil War, they are not so labeled for the same reasons, and this distinction tells us much about how the war is treated as a subject in twentieth-century literary scholarship. The war itself does not very clearly appear in Absalom, Absalom!, but its rhetoric-its appeal in abstract language and as the cause of a decades-long bitterness-colors much of the novel's discourse, particularly in those sections narrated (or imagined to have been narrated) by Miss Rosa. …

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