Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Narrating the Sublime in Absalom, Absalom! and the Unvanquished

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Narrating the Sublime in Absalom, Absalom! and the Unvanquished

Article excerpt

. . . but is that true wisdom which can comprehend that there is a might-have-been which is more true than truth ... ?

- William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

"I don't know anything about rational and logical processes of thought," William Faulkner announced in an interview during his visit to Japan.1 Indeed, the author did little to cultivate for himself the image of a refined intellectual - an attitude nowhere more evident than in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), with its stark contrast between the irrational world of Yoknapatawpha County and (implicitly) the order-driven world of the Enlightenment. For some critics, a novel such as Absalom, Absalom! embodies the modernist sensibilities that encourage us to question the very idea of stability, even in language.2 Yet the novel's ambiguous prose and numerous inconsistencies invite a diversity of readings, some of which might paradoxically suggest that a deeper, less transparent form of "reason" is at work.

In one crucial passage, for instance, Mr. Compson refers to Sutpen's "old logic ... which had never failed to fail him" (224). Logic seems useless here, if not destructive; later in the same passage, however, Faulkner's narrator identifies the "minimum of logic" (225) behind Sutpen's worldview, suggesting that his reason lacks something that might render it productive. Walter Brylowski perhaps elucidates the matter by arguing that "Faulkner sought to construct a fictional world embracing the sum total of his vision, both the rational-empiric and the intuitive."3 After all, Miss Rosa's powerful though often irrational narratives are just as compelling and thematically forceful as Sutpen's calculated design.

The ambiguities of Absalom, Absalom! contrast with the straightforwardness of much of the public nonfiction that Faulkner wrote after receiving his Nobel Prize in 1949. Here he tackles a range of social and political issues - from segregation to the potential for nuclear holocaust - in an effort, as Noel Polk puts it, "to repatriate himself into a humanity from which his own giantism and despair had alienated him and to give that same humanity the capacity to face their individual lives without ideological illusion." Although we must not "read [Faulkner] backwards from the public statements into the fiction," Polk continues, Faulkner the artist, like Faulkner the Nobel laureate, concentrated his efforts on "the individual human being."4 Paradoxically, even the anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment, posture of novels such as Absalom, Absalom! erupts from the tradition of individualism harkening back to the Enlightenment principles on which the United States was founded.5

Faulkner's brand of American individualism finds an antecedent in the practical and aesthetic philosophy of Immanuel Kant (17241 804), whose understanding of the sublime entails both the productive exchange between imagination and reason as well as its attendant "crisis of representation."6 Even if Faulkner's life provides no evidence that he ever read Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Kant's legacy may well have reached him through the work of those who shaped modernist thought and informed contemporary debates over mimetic art.7 In Absalom, Absalom!, the inadequacy of representation appears most prominently in the efforts of Faulkner's character-narrators to define the enigmatic Sutpen, to understand Henry's murder of Bon, and to resolve the confusion surrounding Bon's identity. Similar challenges confront Bayard Sartoris in The Unvanquished (1938) as he searches for language adequate to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Bringing the American self into confrontation with abstract ideals of freedom, choice, and individuality, Faulkner's dramas of fear and courage, of individualism and community, refigure American and southern history in aesthetic terms, creating a world of might-have-beens whose lives become a novelistic quest for, and through, the unknown, leading not to universal truth, but rather to the individual moral awakening of those who recognize the sublime power of liberty. …

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