Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Perception and the Destruction of Being in as I Lay Dying

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Perception and the Destruction of Being in as I Lay Dying

Article excerpt

When the artist goes so far as to discard resemblances, to rule out any similitude between image and reality other than a fortuitous one, meaning is set free by the disintegration of representation and begins to exert a negative influence. Meaning is the product of the forces of destruction. It flashes out across dissemblances, lacunae, approximations, deliberate indeterminations. Invisible, it blinds because it dissolves the figures in its inimitable presence.

Such also are the meanings that haunt our world.

Jean-Paul Sartre

As I Lay Dying in its narrative style mirrors modernist epistemological concerns with perception. Faulkner makes us aware of the correspondence between the visual and the verbal by paradoxically including empty space in the text, omissions, divisions, and interstices. Dividing the novel into sections each headed by a character's name imposes frames within the narrative structure; and events are told through a series of frames by means of private, idiosyncratic language, visions, images, and remembrances. Throughout the novel metaphorical frames-coffin, window, door, coin, spyglass, womb, grave-represent the characters' desires to contain and to control contradictory meanings of their worlds. Dominating As I Lay Dying are Darl's desires to reconcile perceptions with existence, specifically his frustrated attempts to construct his world, while simultaneously destroying Addie's influence over him. Darl figuratively places Addie with metaphors of confinement, frames that serve as sites of death. As much as Darl wishes to ground his existence upon his perceptions, invariably the disintegration of representation-the disparity between word and world-negates not Addie's haunting presence, but his own being. Darl's madness, then, is due to an inability to recognize his own perceptions as a network of symbols that do not convey reality, but displace it and negate it. Darl's modernist tragedy of being is also the dark, destructive comedy of representation and language.

Faulkner's interest in modernist perceptual theories began in the early 1920s. From Paris, during August of 1925, Faulkner sent a letter to his mother expressing his appreciation for modernist artists, especially "futurist and vorticist" (SL 13). Another letter to his mother, written one month later, concludes with Faulkner's comic approval of modern artists, particularly Cézanne: "And Cezanne! That man dipped his brush in light like Tobe Caruthers would dip his in red lead to paint a lamp-post" (SL 24). It hardly requires a great leap to see how Faulkner could create a Mississippi hill-country man, Darl Bundren, who often waxes modernistically poetic. Of course, Faulkner was predisposed to Cézanne and modernists through his association with Phil Stone and his suggestion that Faulkner read Willard Huntington Wright's The Creative Will (1916), as well as modernist concepts in currency from Sheldon Cheney's A Primer of Modern Art (1924) and H. L. Mencken's praises of James Gibbons Huneker's "Paul Cézanne" in his edition of those seminal American essays on modern art (1929). Moreover, Faulkner was fascinated by the chaotic perspectivism of Cubists and sensual dynamics of Futurists, in particular, the Cubists' obsession with multiple modes of seeing and the Futurists' seeing and memory.1 Cubism liberated artists from realistic perspective, undid classical assumptions of reality, and turned reality on its head by concentrating upon juxtaposition and relation, so that, as Joseph Riddel explains, "particularity and difference, not an expected syntax of relations-this defines the 'field' lifted out of the ordinary" (67). Faulkner's fascination with modernist perceptual experimentation is evident in As I Lay Dying's stylistic debts to Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. The novel's fragmented, multiple narratives recall the fragmented perspectives of Braque and Picasso; its characters' penchants for simultaneously arresting and propelling movement resemble the obsessions with motion of Severini and Balla; its employment of physical descriptions colored by evocative emotions calls to mind the landscapes of desire created by Cézanne and Van Gogh. …

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