I’m taking a literature class this semester, Methods of Literary Study. In it, students are to learn various types of literary criticism, and my class is starting the semester with reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I’ve got thoughts that I don’t think are that relevant to the class, but that I wish to record, if only for myself (and maybe to torture my husband, who reads this blog).
Nerdy Deconstruction Theory Metaphor
When the class began to discuss deconstruction, I thought of what is, in my mind, a great and mostly useless metaphor for it. I write “mostly useless” because it is a nerdy kind of metaphor that I would not get unless it were directly related to my work, and I doubt most English majors are familiar enough with SQL to make it worth bringing up.
To whit, when writing a select statement for SQL using multiple tables, key values need to be joined between them. If the key values are not joined, then the result is a Cartesian product – an excess of result rows, many of which are repeats. In deconstruction, we must become aware that the meanings of words are not constant or consistent, that is, that the meaning of a word to me may not match that meaning to anyone else (the key values cannot be equated). Once we agree that the meaning of the words do not align, then the number of possible meanings for a text is multiplied (Cartesian product), and, in effect, infinite. Since texts are composed of myriad words, each of which could be considered to be a key value, the theoretical Cartesian product would also be large enough to call ‘infinite.’
Faulkner and Mythology
When I read the Quentin section in The Sound and the Fury for the third time, I began to get a sense of an Odyssey within it. Not an exact parallel, but a broken one. As if Odysseus knew that Penelope (Caddy) was gone, and that the child she bore was not his. The Eddy is like Scylla and Charybdis, but he watches the boys choose between them rather than venture himself, because Quentin has no agency. The little Italian girl is like Circe – she transforms him into a criminal by bewitching him. Gerald Bland, et al. are the lotophagoi, trying to lull him into complacency with wine and company.
When I read the Jason section for the third time, I saw him as the Minotaur, trapped in a maze of his own rage. He goes blind with rage, and sees red. The bull metaphor is strengthened by his inability to not chase the red tie, to not attack the red lips that so flaunt his rules. The rage that he has against Caddy and Quentin (both of them) is so strong that it has become a prison without which Jason cannot exist. Jason is also a name from mythology, though not directly related to the Minotaur.
I took heed to the instructor’s words on the first class and determined to read through this book over the Labor day weekend. Despite it being significantly heavier than the paperback I had planned to take, I lugged the Norton Critical edition on my solo trip and got through a little over half of the book by Sunday. I finished it by Monday. We have been reading a section each week for class. I have been re-reading the assigned section during the week, and then spending a good amount of time on Saturdays re-reading again and taking notes.
That first reading over Labor day was awful. Reading Benjy and Quentin’s minds was so difficult that I had pretty much given up by the time I got to Jason and then the last section, both of which are certainly easier to read, if not to comprehend. The second reading of Benjy’s section seemed little better than the first, although at least I had an idea of what was going on. It was only at the third reading that I felt I was beginning to gain some comprehension.
Even knowing that the linear plot of events has little to do with the book as literature, I still was one of those who tried to make a timeline and pin down when things were happening when I took notes on the Benjy section. It may not be helpful from a critical standpoint, but it helped me put the pieces together in my head and feel like I had something to hold onto, rather than attempting to understand the formless meanderings of Benjy’s thoughts before I was ready. That third reading made a lot more sense, as I parsed out when Quentin was his brother and when his niece; when he was Maury and when he was Benjamin; when the action was in the present as opposed to the past.
I did the same thing with Quentin’s section, labeling and narrowing and parsing it into something that I felt comfortable approaching and discussing. I feel like I’ve been dividing it into pieces small enough to chew, taking that one bite of the elephant at a time. But it has gotten easier as I’ve devoted more time and energy into making it that way. So much so that by the time I re-read Jason’s section it was too easy to read and I found myself struggling to find the deeper meanings – my eyes wanted to skim over the words that I knew well how to comprehend.
That’s not the frustrating part though. I know how to struggle with a text. What frustrates me is that I want to write, and this book is put forth as great literature, that makes little sense unless and until it is struggled with – and yet, what advice for writing do I read at every turn? Make things easy for the reader; hook the reader into your story; tell a good story! This may simply illustrate the difference between commercial and literary fiction, but I think there is more to it than that for me.
I know how to write – see, I’m writing right now! Yet, the stories that I have written are not acceptable to the markets to which they have been submitted. I can’t help feeling that there is something that I’m missing, and that is truly frustrating to me. As if what I write is simply not good (enough) writing, but this book, this frustrating and difficult book, is not just good, but great writing. You, Faulkner!
I know, I know. Keep practicing. Strive to get better. Figure it out.
I’m working on it.
In the Norton Critical edition of The Sound and the Fury, there is a critical essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner.” Sartre introduces the idea that in order for someone to approach the meaning of a writer’s work, they must first apprehend the author’s metaphysics. He concludes his essay by claiming to like Faulkner’s art while disagreeing with his metaphysics. Sartre writes, “The loss of all hope, for example, does not deprive the human reality of its possibilities; it is simply a way of being toward these same possibilities.”
In this way, Sartre disagrees with his perceptions of Faulkner’s use of time as a closed system in The Sound and the Fury. Having read, perhaps a few too many times, Sartre’s play No Exit, I found myself wondering if Sartre’s essay was written before or after that play. It seemed to me that either his essay had informed his own creative work, or the creative work had informed his essay. While the essay certainly allowed me to view the Faulkner in a new way, I believed that it was far more informative about Sartre’s creative work than Faulkner’s. As if Faulkner’s writing were a mirror into which Sartre could gaze and find what reflected his own aesthetic within.
Part of the homework assignment for this week is to write a two to three page critical response to yet another criticism of The Sound and the Fury, this one by Olga Vickery. There is also an option to write a compare and contrast essay of two critical works, but I am leaning away from that particular option. Since the Vickery essay cites the Sartre criticism, I don’t find that I am interested in comparing and contrasting them. Though, technically, only compare is needed, since the definition of compare includes both similarities and dissimilarities.
Working on it, thus far, has not been as easy as I had anticipated. Though it is fair to write that I also foresaw that I would have procrastination issues with this, because it is the first of this type of essay that I have had to write in quite some time. Until now, my homework at Boise State has consisted in writing reading responses, fiction, and technical writing. This critical response essay is a different beast, of a sort I had not ridden since high school, to take the metaphor a shade too far.
I know that I will get it done by the time it is due, but the process is irritatingly slow at this point. And, to add insult to injury, in exchange for writing this critical response, there is to be no class meeting this Tuesday – exactly one week before the hockey season starts with the Chicago Blackhawks raising their latest Stanley Cup banner. Why, oh why, couldn’t we have not had class on October 1st? It is torture to me to have missed by only a week the opportunity to watch that game without ditching class. Not that I’m planning on ditching class, although the thought had crossed my mind. I savored it for a moment, the idea of skipping a class to watch a hockey game, in a bar by necessity since I don’t have cable, and then I let it go. Not worth it. Darn my rule-following nature!