On Faulkner and Me
On Faulkner and Me
Editors' note: Jamie Perros, a senior at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, studied Faulkner's works in Professor Michael Strelow's seminar and wrote this essay as a meditation piece for Professor Scott Nadelson's Non-Fiction class. She plans to continue her Faulkner studies in graduate school.
When I wrote my senior thesis on The Sound and the Fury, I drew out the process for as long as I could. I wanted to be finished with the paper, of course, but not with the experience. I was not ready to conclude my research on Faulkner’s life, or on reading his novels and literary criticism, or on laughing at his interviews and letters. In short, I was not ready to stop spending time with him. Even after submitting my thesis, I’d return to it unconsciously. Phrases like “the fury and the passion are enough” and “the human heart in conflict with itself” and even “splendid and timeless beauty” would drift into my head early in the morning or while brushing my teeth at night. Desperately I’d tear through my old notes until I found the references to these immemorial words. Sometimes I still find myself cogitating at a poster in my room that announces “Contextual Readings of The Sound and the Fury with Professor Robert Hamblin, March 15th 2006.” The blue and yellow Norton Critical Edition still resides at my bedside table like a bible, or an urn.
The writing process for William Faulkner was quite similar to my reluctance to finish my thesis. He avoided submitting his final revision of The Sound and the Fury for as long as he could. He justified to himself every use of italics, every omission of punctuation, and every reoccurrence of honeysuckles within the text. After finally submitting it, literary critic David Minter explains that Faulkner “contrived for himself an interface of silence and pain. Happening by his flat one evening, Jim Devine and Leon Scales found him alone, unconscious, huddled on the floor, empty bottles scattered around him.” Imagine how deprived of his passion he must have felt. Even after its first publication in 1929, Faulkner went back to his creation and wrote two different introductions. Sixteen years later, he also added an appendix entitled “Compson 1699-1945.” He just kept revisiting and revisiting it.
One reason I too write is to revisit moments. It is a way to not only capture a moment in literary eternity, but to relive it again and again. I am also notorious for listening to songs over and over again, to the point where my little brother will refuse to get in my car until I change the CD. My fascination with the suspension of moments comes from growing up onstage. Someone asked me once how I don’t get tired of playing the same role night after night, scene after scene. “Because every night I discover something new about my character.” Maybe that’s how it was for Faulkner; every time he revisited Caddy or Quentin or Benjy, he understood them a little more. By spending time with your characters, you also come to understand yourself a little more. Given a certain situation within the context of a play, I can assess how I would act, and then compare that to how my character might act in the same situation. It’s like having an intimate relationship between yourself and a muse, each of you evolving with each other through shared experiences, whether imagined or real.
For Faulkner, writing The Sound and the Fury was a private affair, a relationship between himself and his art. He admits that he hadn’t really planned on submitting it to a publisher but that he gave in when an editor he knew asked if he could just read over it. In a letter to Alfred Harcourt of Harcourt Brace & Company, he wrote:
About the Sound & Fury ms. That is all right. I did not believe that anyone would publish it; I had no definite plan to submit it to anyone. I told Hal about it once and he dared me to bring it to him. And so it really was to him that I submitted it, more as a curiosity than aught else. I am sorry it did not go over with you all, but I will not say I did not expect that result.
This reluctance to show his novel to anyone else, however, is contradicted by his eagerness to share it. One morning he greeted his editor Ben Wasson with the manuscript in an envelope and said, “Read this one, Bud. It’s a real son of a bitch.” I don’t think it was out of fear of rejection that he didn’t want to show it to a publisher; I think it was out of a reluctance to expose the rawest part of himself. See, his identity was inextricably tied to his characters, his stories, very his art. About his relationship to his works, his brother John commented:
I have never known anyone who identified himself with his writings more than Bill did…Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which, which one Bill was, himself or the one in the story. And yet you knew somehow that the two of them were the same, they were one and inseparable.
Like Faulkner, my identity is inextricably tied to my work. I put so much of myself into the act of writing; the ink bleeds with personal agonies and triumphs. I debate with myself over the use of “the” versus “a” and how that difference might alter the entire meaning of a piece. Everything I writeᾰfrom poems to term papersᾰis an extension of my soul. My thesis, for example, was more a triumphant declaration of the immortality of art than a work of literary criticism. Sure it had textual evidence and an extensive bibliography, but I used Faulkner’s texts and aesthetic on writing to affirm my own personal beliefs about the way in which I want to live. Submitting my thesis was like handing over my throbbing heart. Part of me feared potential criticisms not just of my writing but of my very ideas, while the other half of me triumphantly declared that it was “a real son of a bitch.” It is my proudest creation, namely because it was so excruciatingly personal.
There are some pieces, however, that I simply cannot sever from myself. I hoard away drafts, short stories, poems. The very idea of publishing is revolting to me. It’s exploitation. It’s profiting off of a writer’s personal pain and passion. The more you’ve suffered, the better your writing. The better your writing, the more your work sells. As an artist, I believe that real success comes from maintaining integrity in face of the masses, not from selling out by giving people what they want to hear or see. The aim is not about fame or money; it’s about cultivating an honest relationship between yourself and your art. Despite the internal conflict of keeping art private or public, there exists a universal need to share it. Rather than balking at the impulse to share, I recall Faulkner’s view of the artist, someone who is inured to the outside world. He preached that “being an artist is going to be hard on you as a member of the human race. You must expect scorn and horror and misunderstanding from the rest of the world who are not cursed with the necessity to make things new and passionate; no artist escapes it.”
I envy Faulkner’s audacity to be unconventional. Every time I read the Quentin section in The Sound and the Fury, I marvel at its liberation from grammatical rules. The deterioration of the grammar mirrors the deterioration of the character’s mental faculty. The section begins with exact precision, with perfect sentences. As it continues, more and more commas and periods absent themselves from the text. The writing style is slowly reduced and reduced until only the I’s are capitalized. More radically, for the Benjy section Faulkner explained to Wasson how he wanted to use different colored ink to signify thought transferences:
If I could only get it printed the way it ought to be with different color types for the different times in Benjy’s section recording the flow of events for him, it would make it simpler, probably. I don’t reckon, though, it’ll ever be printed that way, and this’ll have to be the best, with the italics indicating the changes of events.
What artistic vision. Faulkner’s contrary, nonconformist style enthralls me. It is how I want to live. I long to be freed from the artificial constraints of time and society the way Faulkner is free from grammatical rules. I want to write a short story because I am inspired to, not because the final draft is due on Friday. I want to choose what to study not because it’s ‘practical’ but because I believe in it. I don’t want to answer questions on what I am going to do with my English major. All I know is that I want to be there, in the South, researching Faulkner. I believe that if I just allow myself to be led by my intuition, not by what society says I ‘should’ do, then I will end up exactly where I am meant to be. But to be one’s own is no simple feat. I may end up sacrificing relationships with family, friends, or society to remain loyal to my own vision. But that is a risk I am willing to take. Integrity is, after all, the single principle I will and do fight to uphold.
There is a myth about how writers in the South used to take pistols to publishing firms to defend their manuscripts. I hope they still do. Artistic integrity is not just some shining, to-thine-ownself-be-true principle; it needs to be protected, fought for. Artists need to allow for feedback and improvement, yet they should never lose sight of their own vision. Faulkner knew this. He defended his style with shameless temerity. Scathing letter after scathing letter, he remained loyal to his vision. About the Benjy section, he wrote to Wasson: “Anyway, change all the italics. You overlooked one of them. Also, parts written in italics will all have to be punctuated again. You’d better see to that, since you’re all for coherence. And dont make any more additions to the script, bud. I know you mean well, but so do I. I effaced the 2 or 3 you made.” Such loyalty applies to personal integrity as well. Living as truthfully and freely as you can requires great strength. To withstand the scrutiny of friends, family, parents, and society is analogous to the artist withstanding the scrutiny of editors and critics. Yet there is such reward in remaining true to yourself, just as there is such reward in creating a masterpiece unlike any other.
To me, life is better in art: people sound more intelligent, appear more beautiful, move more gracefully across stage-lit floors. Art transcends the artificial confines of mundane life and enters the eternal realm of forms. It is one perfect urn. That’s what I wrote my thesis about: the immortality of art as seen in The Sound and the Fury. “I write to say no to death,” Faulkner told a graduating class at West Point. I understand what he meant by that monumental statement. Without creatingᾰwhether it be on stage or on paperᾰwe die. Without it, perspective is lost; I have no sense of what is truly important in life. When not preparing a dance piece or rehearsing for an audition, I stop taking care of myself. When not working on a short story or a paper, I lose purpose. I literallyᾰand literarilyᾰthrive on those fleeting moments when the soul connects with something greater than the self, when it is elevated above the driveling of the idiot, the anxieties of the academic, and the vindictiveness of the jealous one. Moreover, art helps me to understand that every experience, whether painful of pleasurable, is worth it. One of my acting coaches once told me to experience everythingᾰheartbreak, loss, love, envyᾰbecause it broadens your breadth as an actor. It increases your humanness, your ability to empathize. It justifies the agony and the frustration. It makes every tear that’s pierced my cheek and every ideal that’s lost its hue worth it. No time is wasted, no choice is a mistake; every moment the artist experiences is an unpolished gem.
Faulkner had what it took to be an artist. He had the conviction, the integrity, and the vision. He had the audacity to say: “I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it.” Most importantly, he had the courage to be unconventional, to set his own rules, and to be loyal to his own style regardless of what other people thought of him. I recognize that Faulkner’s success at being unconventional was conveniently in sync with the Modernist literary movement and its rejection of traditional narrative, but I bet that Faulkner would’ve written the way he wanted to regardless of contemporary trends. Why? Because he believed in his vision, and he believed in honoring it to the best of his abilities. External recognition is secondary to the triumph in affirming one’s integrity. In advising an aspiring writer, he said to her: “Never be afraid. Never give one Goddamn about what anybody says about the work, if you know you have done it as honestly and bravely and truly as you could.” These are the words taped to my bedside table. These are the words I read every night. Faulkner gives me the inspiration to live as freely as I can. He gives me the courage to go my own way.