Dispossessed Sons and Displaced Meaning in Faulkner's Modern Cosmos
Allen, Sharon Lubkemann, The Mississippi Quarterly
According to the Old Testament, Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, his first and bastard son, born of a humanly sensible compromise with fate, and Isaac, the son of divine promise born long after the hope that Abraham might bear a legitimate inheritor echoed hollowly in Sarah's laughter. Ishmael, son of his disbelief, Abraham dispossessed, sending him with Hagar, his mother, with provisions, and without a father's name, into the wilderness. Conversely, Abraham raised Isaac at his side and endowed Isaac with his name and his whole inheritance. Yet neither son nor their sons after them could ever achieve Abraham's undivided vision. Through two acts of dispossession Abraham invoked a perennial conflict between his sons: first, by his faltering belief he dispossessed his sons of the unmitigated blessing proposed in the sacred covenant between him and his God; subsequently, in hope of restoring the covenant blessing, he disinherited his bastard son and thereby dispossessed both his sons of brotherhood. In the Old Testament, restoration lay only in the promise of a sacrificial conciliatory Word.
It is the story of Abraham and his sons, of David and his sons, of Agamemnon and Orestes, of Odysseus and Telemachus, of fathers enthroned in glory and promise and of their dispossessed and striving sons, that William Faulkner revisits in modernity. As he reconsiders the Old South in the mythic genealogies of Yoknapatawpha County, he decries modem tragedy: the apparent glory of fathers reluctantly but inevitably denuded by the knowledge of their sons--sons who lose not only their fathers' God and glory but who struggle even to apprehend the meaning of their fathers' honor and designs. At the center of Faulkner's fictional investigation of experience is a tension inherent in and exposed by multivocal language and narrative. As Richard Gray points out, Faulkner's fiction acts as a point of linguistic intersection for distinct social and historical values.(1) Thus, Faulkner retells an epic tale of initiation and inheritance in a fallen human world, particularly modern insofar as its greatest loss pertains not to material things or even social position but rather to values upheld by language whose unveiled mechanisms and conventions strip away its authority. The dispossession of these modem sons reflects a loss of position defined by an inability to understand the world in the monological tones with which their fathers described it. It stems from their experience of what Bakhtin has described in terms of polyphonic carnival, a convergence and juxtaposition of voices that destroy dominant univocal paradigms.(2) In keeping with this carnivalistic impulse, Faulkner's tales suggest not only the lost glory and despair of modernity but also its redemption. The sons of Faulkner's fiction recover not the vainglory of their heroic fathers but a renewed and broader vision that is responsive to the present as well as to the past. In Faulkner's vision of modernity, sons dispossessed, even while they seem to abandon old divinities, recover a sacred and reintegrated oikos(3) and logos(4) wherein their inheritance can be reconciled with meaning.
Yet if Faulkner's vision of the relationship between fathers and sons is finally comic, it emerges through the dark insights of an irony that reveals and reconciles disparate meanings through a multiplicity of visions and voices, both within individual stories and at their intersections. These voices within Faulkner's novels resound from comers as distant as the unself-conscious past is to the utterly self-conscious present mediated by madness and poetry. Thus, Faulkner's inquiry into human existence is unremittingly critical even as it appears to reflect unapologetically the glory of a past that is already shattered for the reader. Faulkner's portrayal of fathers appeals to the monological conventions of ancient epic, a warrior ideal and the values of classical stoicism (which implicititly admits alienation but tries to transcend it with silence or exclusion of the ambivalence of reality). …