Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of the Blues: Philosophy and History in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of the Blues: Philosophy and History in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

Article excerpt

Philosophers understand things until they happen. Anonymous

IN IF I FORGET THEE, JERUSALEM, Faulkner links philosophical reflection to concrete historical detail. Through explicit allusions and obvious paraphrases, borrowed metaphors and parallel themes, the novel engages the ideas about tragedy that Nietzsche developed from Schopenhauer. For these two nineteenth-century German philosophers, the tragedy of human suffering refers to a timeless drama of order, chaos, and the human will. In Faulkner, these philosophical ideas bear historical meaning. Published in 1939, The Wild Palms [If i Forget Thee, Jerusalem] engages the suffering of people living through the collapse of social order during the Depression.1

The link between Faulkner's novel and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, once identified, is hard to deny. Faulkner indicates these connections directly through textual reference to "sweet Jesus Schopenhauer" (568; 99), 2 as well as through obvious paraphrases of Nietzsche. In a book-length study of the novel, Thomas McHaney presents further scholarship attesting to Faulkner's conscious evocation of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in If / Forget Thee, Jerusalem, including biographical evidence about Faulkner's philosophical interests and reading.3 But perhaps the best evidence of Faulkner's philosophical engagement is thematic. Indeed, the basic metaphor that connects the novel's two distinct but alternating narratives, thus forming the basis for reading the novel as a unified work of art, echoes almost exactly a passage from Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation that Nietzsche cites in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music: "Even as on an immense raging sea, as-sailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little row boat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it" (qtd. in Birth 22). Nietzsche cites Schopenhauer to focus on what they conceive as the tragic human condition in which individuals seek order in a world that is fundamentally chaotic. Faulkner takes this metaphor at the center of Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's philosophies of tragedy and uses it literally as the plot line of "Old Man." In it, a convict finds himself torn from the safety and security of the highly regimented prison and stranded, like the figure in the passage Nietzsche cites from Schopenhauer, in a small boat in the middle of a raging flood. The same metaphor is at work more symbolically in the other narrative, 'Wild Palms." Here, a man leaves his well-ordered life for the chaotic world of love and sexuality, which he experiences as "an untried and unsupportive space where no shore is visible" (530; 54). For Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Faulkner, the terms of tragedy are the same, individuals engaging the conflict of order and chaos. In each case, however, the significance of the tragic experience is markedly different.

In Schopenhauer's view, the principle of the individual is an illusion. An individual's sense of autonomy and control provides a false perception of order and thus a measure of comfort and security, but it hides what is most vital and dangerous and primary in life. Like the veil of Maya in Eastern philosophy, the harmonious order which the individual creates is an illusion, which life inevitably pulls back to reveal its more essential chaos and pain and struggle for survival. For Schopenhauer, "seeing through" the Mayan veil of innocence and illusion is terrifying but fruitful, as it reveals the stark truth that "life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and [that] the two are in fact its ultimate constituents" (312). Life is a painful struggle to survive, which Schopenhauer conceives as an exercise of human will in the face of the immense destructiveness of nature. But survival leads to a stale and stagnant existence. Individuals succeed in the struggle to survive by eliminating the need to struggle, thus also eliminating any need for a triumphant and consequently useless will, until nature's challenge to survive reasserts itself in all its terror and necessity and pain. …

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