Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"Anguish for the Sake of Anguish"-Faulkner and His Dostoevskian Allusion

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

"Anguish for the Sake of Anguish"-Faulkner and His Dostoevskian Allusion

Article excerpt

William Faulkner frequently talked of his special respect for Russian novelists.1 In particular, Faulkner often singled out Dostoevsky, placing him among the great writers who inspired him not only to "match" their achievements but to outdo them. Many scholars have justifiably concluded that while many Russian writers may have had an impact on Faulkner, "[i]t was Dostoevsky with whom Faulkner felt the greatest affinity and who had the most profound influence on his writing" (Inge 37). Nonetheless, it is also true that references to Dostoevsky, his novels, or his characters in Faulkner's fiction are almost entirely absent, with the exception of a single oblique allusion in a short passage found in Requiem for a Nun (1951). This particular passage in Requiem was first identified as a reference to Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov by the Belgian scholar Jean Weisgerber in his seminal study of Faulkner's relationship to Dostoevsky, Faulkner et Dostoiëevski; Confluences et influences (1968). Although Weisgerber's book was widely criticised by both Russian and American Faulkner scholars for overemphasizing the Dostoevsky connection,2 his identification of the Requiem passage as a specific allusion to Brothers Karamazov has never been challenged. Furthermore, neither Weisgerber nor the scholars who acknowledged the Dostoevskian reference subsequently have examined the questions that are raised by its form, its immediate context in Requiem, and its position in Faulkner's body of work.

Several things must be acknowledged before the Requiem passage can be meaningfully analysed. First of all, the absence of direct references to Dostoevsky in Faulkner's mammoth literary output appears highly unusual, considering that Faulkner readily acknowledged his admiration for Dostoevsky and that references to other writers whom Faulkner admired abound in his fiction, undermining Weisgerber's theory that a lack of Dostoevskian references is due to Faulkner's "réticence bien anglo-saxonne" in displays of erudition (xii). Secondly, Requiem itself occupies an unusual place in Faulkner's life and canon, quite aside from its uniqueness as Faulkner's only fictional text to contain an allusion to Dostoevsky.

Despite Requiem's innocent-sounding title, it is, of course, the sequel to Sanctuary (1931), which made Faulkner "a scandal in Mississippi" (Baker 62) and "defined [him] in the public mind as a writer of violent, semi-pornographic novels" (Arnold and Trouard xiv). Faulkner's return to the events of his early novel in Requiem, after always insisting that Sanctuary was a sensationalist potboiler, "a cheap idea . . . deliberately conceived to make money" (Faulkner, Introduction v), and after almost two decades of trying to live down the unenviable title of "the corncob man" is puzzling, to say the least. Even more perplexing is the fact that he embarked on the sequel to this scandalous text in February of 1950, when he was already a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a respected and respectable author on the verge of international literary stardom. There is a possibility, of course, that Faulkner was merely demonstrating his independence from the literary establishment, as he had done countless times before. On the other hand, there is every indication that Faulkner himself regarded Requiem as an important project. He rewrote sections of Requiem at length and even planned a visit to Jackson, Mississippi, where one of the acts of Requiem takes place, in order "to absorb some atmosphere" ("To Joan Williams," 30).

The Dostoevskian allusion itself is introduced into the text of Requiem through Temple Drake, the grown-up debutante of Sanctuary. Temple comes to the Governor of the State to plead for the life of the woman who killed Temple's baby and announces:

What we came here and waked you up at two oclock in the morning for is just to give Temple Drake a good fair honest chance to suffer-you know: just anguish for the sake of anguish, like that Russian or somebody who wrote a whole book about suffering, not suffering for or about anything, just suffering, like somebody unconscious not really breathing for anything but just breathing. …

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