"No Such Thing as Was": The Fetishized Corpse, Modernism, and as I Lay Dying

By Slankard, Tamara | The Faulkner Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"No Such Thing as Was": The Fetishized Corpse, Modernism, and as I Lay Dying


Slankard, Tamara, The Faulkner Journal


The literary corpse marks a key site of entry into a discussion of the shifting definitions of modernism. Certainly the piling-up of real bodies throughout the twentieth century impacted the form and content of fiction, and in many ways modern funeral and embalming practices both contain and reflect modernity as Americans begin to move toward "an increased concern for appearances in a consumer culture" after the Civil War (Farrell 7). Yet previous criticism has relied too heavily on literal readings of literary corpses, focusing almost exclusively on the ways in which bodies reflect how and why we deal with death in modernity.1 Corpses tell us more than this. Specifically, corpses that are overvalued, corpses that stand in symbolically or metonymically for other objects, other concepts, other narratives, other ideologies - fetishized corpses - force us to rethink notions of modernism and modernity because they reveal characteristics of regional modernism distinctly and explicitly at odds with old and new attempts at definition.

It is the too-easy eliding of the avant-garde with conceptions of modernity and the insistence upon "making it new" that still pervades even progressive, interrogative definitions of modernism with which I wish to take issue.2 Such discussions still privilege texts - modernist and postmodernist, if we may still use that descriptor - that "rebel" against "precursors," and this limited description inherently still privileges the same bourgeois high modernist works and writers whose hegemony current critics claim to be dismantling. Regional modernist writers like William Faulkner - and later, Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison - reject such easy elision precisely through their relationships with literary and historical pasts.

My purpose here is not to contribute to the established presupposition that Faulkner is an anomaly, a blip on the radar in Southern fiction and the one "true" American example of high modernism after Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Nor do I wish to add another voice to the already full choir of those celebrating later authors like McCarthy and Morrison for their "Faulknerian" styles. Rather, I hope to reconceptualize readings of Faulkner's fiction in light of changing ideas about modernism and, in a broader sense, to suggest that by tracing the treatment of the fetishized corpse in works by Faulkner, McCarthy, and Morrison - works that span multiple temporalities as well as spatialities, even as they share important modalities - critics might continue to question the reliability of "definitions" of modernism that continue to insist on the a priori assumption of "making it new." Each author's treatment of the literary corpse at least necessitates a dismantling of (still) elitist prioritizing of high modernist works and at most insists upon a complete reconfiguration of the relationship between literary modernism and history.

Southern literature in general and Faulkner's work in particular have had precarious - strained - relationships to modernism. For at least the past two generations of literary scholars, Faulkner's "modernist" style has been understood as placing him squarely and unquestionably in the conversation alongside Joyce, Eliot, and Pound. But that was not always the case.3 Early critics often failed to see the value in unpacking a complex narrative structure that they believed represented only the particular experience of provincial life; a common judgment lambasted Faulkner for what was perceived as his simplistic fixation on violence and the grotesque.4 Faulkner's public image has often been that of an outsider to a literary movement he helped to create: Hugh Kenner suggests that "no other major twentieth-century writer was so isolated from his peers" (182), and Joseph Blotner's biography describes what is perhaps the most symbolic image of Faulkner's relationship to high modernism: Faulkner in the Left Bank in 1925, sitting at a café known to be frequented by James Joyce just so that he could get a look at the man without ever having to speak to him (159). …

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