"Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers": Teaching Faulkner and Memory Studies

Lisa Hinrichsen, University of Arkansas

Though he claimed to have never read Freud, Faulkner’s work is acutely attuned to the role that memory plays in structuring individual and communal consciousness. Reading Faulkner’s renderings of the working of memory within and against what has come to be called “memory studies” forms a provocative and productive locus for exploring multiple and interrelated issues in his work: the role of time; the relationship between identity, memory, and embodiment; the relationship between historical circumstance and identity formation; and the interaction between public and private forms of memory.

While memory has long been a subject of scholarly study and philosophical speculation Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes all dwelt on the subject it has now become one of the keywords of contemporary literary theory and historiography. Since the 1980s there has been a marked rise of interest in oral histories, autobiography, and commemorative rituals and monuments, and a corresponding surge of publications on specific social, national, familial, and individual memories. Anthologies such as Theories of Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 2007), as well as the emergence of journals such as Memory Studies and History and Memory, have highlighted scholarly interest in the subject of memory, but have also exposed it as a startlingly dispersed field that draws on disciplines as diverse as history, literature, sociology, art, media studies, philosophy, theology, psychology and the neurosciences. While the theoretical complexity of memory studies poses intricate problems for advanced scholarship, the range of discourses, topics, and interdisciplinary connections awakened by the subject of memory can be a provocative catalyst for discussion in the undergraduate classroom.

My work in teaching Faulkner’s fiction in conjunction with memory theory always begins with the close reading of Faulkner’s own language, circumventing at least initially some of the theoretical slipperiness I have just described, and then builds outward to draw on and reckon with the work of both classical and contemporary theorists. In this essay, however, I want to move from describing the broad scaffolding of my courses to briefly explicating how I frame As I Lay Dying. (An inclusive study of memory’s presence in Faulkner’s texts would approach the universal.) I draw here on two courses that I have taught at the University of Arkansas: a graduate seminar on “History and Memory in American Literature,” which situated Faulkner alongside Dorothy Allison, Stephen Crane, Harry Crews, Lillian Smith, E.L. Doctorow, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Leslie Silko, and Lan Cao, among others; and secondly, an advanced undergraduate criticism and theory course focused on memory and trauma theory, which reprised many of the same texts, but also included Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006).

In both courses, I began the semester with a set of broad theoretical questions that served to frame the course as a whole: What is the relationship between history and memory? Does memory constitute history? What is social or collective memory? How does literature (and, more generally, language itself) complicate the question of what it means to remember? What kinds of ideological or political work do different forms of memory perform? How can the literature of memory help narrate histories that otherwise resist representation? How do particular literary modes of representing history and memory serve to construct or deconstruct national and communal allegiances and identifications? How might literature function as unofficial or unauthorized history? In other words, how might literature address issues and events that are marginalized or ignored by the rules of history?

As the courses progress, I consciously but organically set up keywords that will resonate throughout the course; in this way, we start to build a sense of the specific ways in which language is mobilized in a psychoanalytic framework: trauma, transference, melancholia, mourning, nostalgia, working through, witnessing, testimony, repetition compulsion, fetish, fantasy, disavowal, hysteria, communal or cultural memory, and screen memory are some of the key terms I accentuate. Jean Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis’s The Language of Psychoanalysis (1974) is a useful text to place on reference throughout the semester. We spend time as the course progresses drawing on the individual etymology of words in order to think about how theories of the mind and memory are shaped by socio-historical and scientific changes: the word trauma, for example, comes from Greek and originally referred to a wound physically inflicted upon the body; since then, trauma has come to take on mental as well as physical meanings and refer to both individual and collective processes. We come to see that historicizing and contextualizing “memory” means recognizing the fissures within the concept itself.

We also look at Raymond Williams’ Keywords in both of its incarnations: the original 1976 edition and the revised edition of 2005 (published by Blackwell Press and edited by Tony Bennett). These books are cultural rather than etymological dictionaries, and they trace words that are familiar but which have surprisingly complex meanings; I emphasize the way in which texts like these form a repository of cultural values. Through examining the entries for “Memory” (not included in the 1976 edition) and “History” (significantly revised for the 2005 edition) we see how the critical relationship between the two terms has shifted and evolved, both in terms of the elevation and proliferation of memory as a critical concept and in terms of the growth of a widespread sense of skepticism about history’s infallibility: the 2005 edition identifies history as a set of  “past events which are professedly true, based (reputedly) on what really happened” (156).  We start to see here that the supposed ideological divide between memory (as personal, idiosyncratic, selective) and history (as official, hegemonic, correct, collective) starts to blur, and we begin to question this too easy binary as do Faulkner’s texts themselves.

Reading As I Lay Dying allows us to grapple with some introductory psychological concepts vis-à-vis Faulkner’s highly aestheticized language. As I Lay Dying also allows us to think about the development of identity within the family structure, and how memory functions as the scaffolding that binds together family, region, and nation something that Faulkner’s fiction repeatedly underscores. We examine how private and public memory intersect in Faulkner’s multivocal text, and identify through close readings of selected passages how Faulkner shifts temporal frameworks, dramatizing how present perceptions meld with past experience as well as with the fantasies that shape our inner worlds. In our study of As I Lay Dying we thus come to see how personal and social stories are, as Marc Augé notes in his brief but evocative work Oblivion (2004), “always the fruit of memory and oblivion, of a work of composition and recomposition that translates the tension exerted by the expectation of the future upon the interpretation of the past” (39).

Style is the first aspect of As I Lay Dying that students note and comment on, and we accordingly focus on how the stream of consciousness style Faulkner writes in emphasizes the strengths and the limits of each character’s inner awareness. We examine how Faulkner’s style underscores the distinction between outer event and inner comprehension, between sense and sensibility. As students come to note how each voice uniquely moves between past and present, consciousness and the unconscious, I often assign Freud’s brief essay “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’” (and bring in an example of a “mystic writing pad” a wax-covered card with a two-layered plastic overlay attached at the top edge that I found at a children’s toy store). In this essay, Freud meditates on how the writing pad illustrates the way in which traumatic knowledge can bypass the plastic overlay of perceptual consciousness and etch itself directly on the wax tablet of the unconscious. The essay raises important questions about the links between perception and memory, and helps students think critically about the relationship between writing, memory and forgetting. 

As we begin the novel, we also consider how As I Lay Dying immediately starts to complicate the relationship between individual memory (What is an individual? What do we mean when we say “I”? What does it mean “to be”?) and communal or shared consciousness. I stress that the text is in many ways a prolonged mediation on “to be” and its transformation through time, in all its eccentric and irregular conjugations (a paramount example of this type of meditation is Darl’s speech on sleep: “In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you...” [80-81]).  Throughout the text we note how Darl violates our sense of the boundaries of self through his acute perceptions of private thoughts, his way of knowing “without the words” (27) both Dewey Dell’s pregnancy and Jewel’s illegitimacy. Darl is thus a character that prompts us to think about the relationship between individual and intersubjective (or collective) memory as does the text as a whole. Here we might read brief selections from Maurice Halbwachs’ The Collective Memory or Paul Connerton’s excellent How Societies Remember.

Whereas Darl intuitively “knows,” Vardaman struggles with meaning, language, and memory. We think about how the multiple, shifting voices of this text accentuate and underscore the problem of representing consciousness in language (Darl’s “heart too full for words” [25], Addie’s claim that “words are no good” [171]). Vardaman’s statement “My mother is a fish” (84) allows us think about the associative character of memory, and his frequently evasive language “When they get it finished they are going to put her in it and then for a long time I couldn’t say it” (65) allows us to examine the particular aesthetic modes by which Faulkner dramatizes how memory becomes either incorporated or refused and repressed via technologies of denial, disavowal, forgetting, fetishism, negation and repression. Dewey Dell’s stylized and heavily italicized mediation midway through the novel on the approach of the signboard that declares “New Hope. 3 mi.” (120-122), for example, becomes a moment when we pause and examine how Faulkner dramatizes the slippage between consciousness and unconsciousness, and the play between fantasy and censorship. Statements such as  “I rose and took the knife from the streaming fish still hissing and I killed Darl” articulate desires fantasized and then immediately repressed (121).

In addition to analyzing the relationship between between personal memory and communal or collective memory, we also investigate the relationship between embodiment and memory, and the intimate relationship between grief and memory. Here we note how memory is intimately bound up with the concept of trauma, and how radical grief the loss of a mother can function to decenter subjectivity (and thus eradicate a coherent sense of personal history and memory). In examining trauma, we draw upon Mieke Bal’s distinction of three types of individual memory: habitual, narrative and traumatic.  Habitual memory is unreflective body memory carried through gestures and routine movements, and present in muscles, bodily marks (such as scars) or pains, and expression. Faulkner repeatedly underscores this type of memory from the first page of the text onward, and we examine how the opening lines of As I Lay Dying underscore the unconscious power of what Henri Bergson, in Matter and Memory (1896), terms “habit memory.”  The path “worn so by feet in fading precision” (3) nods to the power of habit and underscores how memory takes root in the concrete in the spaces, gestures, images, and objects that Faulkner carefully repeats throughout the novel. Narrative memory comes from individual contemplation of the past, communicated through language and storytelling. Traumatic memory is marked by the failure to be able to contemplate the past in narrative form. Instead, traumatic experience painfully and repeatedly resurfaces and resists integration into coherent memory, as critics such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dominick La Capra have noted in their evocative work on the relationship between literature and trauma. 

As we examine trauma, forgetting, repression, and denial within As I Lay Dying, we also focus on how Faulkner portrays the ways the mind intercedes to deal with or deny grief. Sigmund Freud’s essays “Mourning and Melancholia” and “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” are helpful here. We examine Cash’s numbered list (82-83) as a form of memorialization, a means of containing and managing loss, and critically note the variety of ways in which the family grieves or blocks and represses their grief. We contemplate Addie as a figure by which Faulkner explores the transcendence of memory despite the death of the body; as we parse out the individual members of the Bundren family through their distinct voices, we reveal her lingering imprint on each of their psyches.

As the course continues, we continue to explore how individual and group forms of traumatic memory interact, how psychological and material recovery are intertwined, and how mourning practices inflect these processes of memory and recovery. We think about the differing functions of temporal and spatial memorials (narrative, ritual, history, monuments); the political and cultural uses of mourning; the effects of absence and amnesia; and contemplate how Faulkner utilizes oral histories, family mythmaking and collective history in his narratives.  Students leave the course with a rich sense not only of the intricacies of Faulkner’s language but with a knowledge of a growing field that will continue to be an important topic in literary studies, historical scholarship, and public debate.

Resources for Further Study and Teaching

Michael Rossington and Anne Whitehead’s edited collection Theories of Memory: A Reader (Johns Hopkins UP, 2008) provides a comprehensive and historically grounded overview of memory studies for undergraduate and graduate students and can easily serve as the solitary critical text for a semester long undergraduate course. Anne Whitehead’s Memory, part of Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series, can also serve as a key primer for beginning students. Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner’s edited collection Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma and the Modern Age, 1870-1930  (2001), and Mark S. Micale and Roy Porter, eds., Discovering the History of Psychiatry (2000) provide solid historical backgrounds in the evolution of psychiatry and theories of memory and mind. Kerwin Lee Klein’s “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse” (Representations 69 [Winter 2000]: 127-150) provides a broad overview of the rise of contemporary memory theory and is suitable for the beginning of a graduate course. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an easily accessible overview on the philosophy of memory, including an excellent bibliography, at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/memory/. Other key supplementary texts are listed below.

Selected Bibliography
Alexander, Jeffrey C. et al.  Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2004. 

Antze, Paul, and Michael Lambek, eds. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and
Memory. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Augé, Marc. Oblivion, transl. Marjolijn de Jager, foreword James Young, University of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2004.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York:
Zone Books, 1991.

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh, ed. Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and
Southern Identity. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,

-----. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
UP, 1996.

Cohn, Deborah N.  History and Memory in the Two Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish
American Fiction.  Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999. 

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 1989.

Donaldson, Susan. “Introduction: Faulkner, Memory, History.”  Faulkner Journal. Fall
2004/Spring 2005 Vol. 20. 3-20.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub, M.D. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature,
Psychoanalysis, and History.  New York: Routledge, 1992. 

Fennell, Lee Anne. “Unquiet Ghosts: Memory and Determinism in Faulkner.” The
  Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring, 1999), 35-49.

Freud, Sigmund. “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’”. In On
Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 11 of The Penguin Freud Library. Trans. By  James Strachey, ed. By Angela Richards, Penguin, 19991. pp. 429-34.

---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Trans. James Strachey.  New York: Norton, 1961. 

-. “Mourning and Melancholia.” In General Psychological Theory: Papers on
Metapsychology.  Ed. Philip Rieff.  New York: Touchstone, 1963. 

-.  Moses and Monotheism.  Trans.  Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage, 1939. 

-. “Negation.” In General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology.  Ed.
 Philip Rieff.  New York: Touchstone, 1963. 

-. “Recollecting, Repeating, and Working Through (Further Recommendations on the
Technique of Psycho-Analysis II).” In vol. 12 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. by James Strachey, 145-56. London: Hogarth, 1957. Essay first published in 1914.
Forter, Greg. “Freud, Faulkner, Caruth: Trauma and the Politics of Literary Form.”
Narrative, Volume 15, Number 3, October 2007, pp. 259-285 (Article)

Gray, Richard. The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South.
  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977. 

Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Trans. Francis J. Ditter, Jr. and Vida Yazdi
Ditter. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Hartman, Geoffrey.  “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies” New Literary
History.  26.3 (1995).

Hinrichsen, Lisa. “A History That Has No Place: Trauma and Temple Drake in
Faulkner’s Sanctuary.” in Etudes Faulknériennes. Volume 4: Misrecognition, Race and the Real in Faulkner’s Fiction.  Ed. Michael Zeitlin, André Bleikasten, Nicole Moulinoux. Presses Universitaires de Rennes. 2004. 127-141.

Klein, Kerwin Lee.  “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse.”
Representations 69 (Winter 2000): 127-150. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
UP, 2001. 

Laplanche, J. and J.B. Pontalis.  The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Donald
Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.

Micale, Mark S., ed.  The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural
Arts in Europe and America, 1880-1940.  Stanford, Stanford UP, 2004.

Rossington, Michael and Anne Whitehead, eds. Theories of Memory: A Reader.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008.

Stringer, Dorothy. “Not Even Past”: Race, Historical Trauma, and Subjectivity in
Faulkner, Larsen, and Van Vechten. New York: Fordham UP, 2010.

Whitehead, Anne. Memory (The New Critical Idiom). New York: Routledge, 2008