Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Faulkner's Poetics of Heat: Summer's Curse

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Faulkner's Poetics of Heat: Summer's Curse

Article excerpt

But the first fact of the day, aside from that final fact of a death which has so diminished us, is the heat, and it is a heat which is like a small mean death itself, as if one were being smothered to extinction in a damp woolen overcoat. Even the newspapers in Memphis, 60 miles to the north, have commented on the ferocious weather. Oxford lies drowned in heat, and the feeling around the courthouse square on this Saturday forenoon is of a hot, sweaty languor bordering on desperation. Parked slantwise against the curb, Fords and Chevrolets and pickup trucks bake in merciless sunlight. People in Mississippi have learned to move gradually, almost timidly, in this climate.... It is a monumental heat, heat so desolating to the body and spirit as to have the quality of a half-remembered bad dream, until one realizes that it has, indeed, been encountered before, in all those novels and stories of Faulkner through which this unholy weather-and other weather more benign-moves with almost touchable reality. William Styron

OF ALL THE REGIONAL ASPECTS of Faulkner's fiction, none is more noticeable, or has such an impact on the experience of reading Faulkner, than Mississippi's hot climate. This article will explore Faulkner's handling of heat as a vector of the unsaid that figures the violence at the foundation of the South. The treatment of heat suggests how poetics and history intersect. The types of violence indicated by heat are twofold: psychological and physical, and involve different strategies of representation.

Faulkner's representation of heat plays on an oscillation between the metonymical (objective reality of a climatic phenomenon) and the metaphorical that produces a doubling at the level of meaning. Heat should thus be considered along two axes. Along the syntagmatic axis of the metonymic, literal level, heat is first experienced as a climatic factor, desiccating and oppressive. On the paradigmatic axis, heat shifts from reality to metaphor, becoming a marker of psychological tensions or a narrative device functioning as a token of the unsaid. By relocating the violence in terms of the weather, Faulkner displaces social tensions, in particular, racial tensions. I will consider specific examples drawn from The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, "Dry September," and "That Evening Sun."

Heat is the element evoking Faulkner's relation to the native place, both the "real" and the "apocryphal." I use "element" as Gaston Bachelard does, when he describes the four elements as vectors of the creativity of our minds rather than as mere sensorial perceptions of the world. The four elements organize images that are "generators of being" ("donatrice[s] d'etre") and precede thought: "Because of its novelty and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism of its own, it is referable to a direct ontology. This ontology is what I plan to study," writes Bachelard in Poetics of Space (XII). Bachelard captures the image's creative aspects originating in the dynamism of our imagination. Bachelard's goal is thus to found a metaphysics of the imagination because every image corresponds with a type of "happy world" ("un type de bonheur") as he explains in The Poetics of Reverie. Bachelard defines the imagination as a capacity to animate reality: "To imagine, then, is to heighten the tone of reality" (Air and Dreams 81). He distinguishes four "temperaments poetiques" depending on the element privileged by a writer.

Alongside Bachelard's tetravalence of elements, I propose to consider heat, whose polyvalence-in its origins (sun, fire, body) and manifestations (desiccation, decomposition)-provides a particularly rich source of associations. Heat, as an element, represents an intermediary step between death and life (destruction and nourishment), between the realms of the material and spiritual, as in reality it partakes both of the physical and the ethereal (it is felt in matter and in air). …

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