Untimely Loss: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury
Anna J. Street
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner spoke of "defeats in which nobody loses anything of value." In Absalom, Absalom!, he wrote of making "that scratch, that undying mark on the blank face of the oblivion to which we are all doomed..." (102) and of finding "that there was nothing to save; who had hoped to save her . . . came . . . to save what did not need the saving, and lost instead yourself' (114). Modern literature in general displays a certain fascination with loss. The loss of values in a post-structuralist era, if the trend is to endure, leads to and demands a greater relinquishment: even its own negation. As long as the standard for loss remains as a watermark of value, no loss fully occurs as genuine loss. Faulkner, as a defining author of the modernist period, understands and involves the dynamics of loss prominently in his writings. His novels explore and seek to achieve a conception of existence that relies on no illusions of preservation, no sustentation from any one cause to its supposed effect. Faulkner's novels occur in a world existing parataxically, events standing in proximity without connection. Human actions are adjacent, but not contingent. Faulkner's masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, is a story about loss in its starkest form. It tells "the tragedy of a girl and her daughter" (Interview 232), a girl who has "nothing worth being lost that she can lose" (qtd. in Minter 212).
In an introduction he later wrote for The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner notes, "It's fine to think that you will leave something behind you when you die, but it's better to have made something you can die with. Much better the muddy bottom of a little doomed girl climbing a blooming pear tree in April to look in the window at the funeral" (232). Coupled with the predominance of loss and substitution as continual motifs in The Sound and the Fury, it may indicate that perhaps Faulkner is trying to contrast the endurance of time-honored traditional values with the temporal necessity of making "something you can die with."
According to Faulkner, victories and defeats-what it means to endure and prevail-require radical and irretrievable loss: victories must leave scars. Without loss, writing is "not of the heart but of the glands" (Nobel Prize Address). Part of becoming, of forging an identity, requires the awareness and acknowledgment of the world as other. As Gail Mortimer notes in her introduction to Faulkner's Rhetoric of Loss, the psychoanalytic development theory of object relations believes that "the newborn baby experiences existence as something of a continuation of the holistic harmony of the womb and that only gradually does the child come to give up this illusion" (2). While most of Faulkner's characters are beyond the stage of infantile perception (but not all), the interplay of subject and object remains the basic concern of identity. In fact, Faulkner's preoccupation with time can be explained as an integral part of the fundamental struggle to determine distinctions. The object relations theory further proposes that the child's experience of a delay between need and fulfillment brings the first awareness of the passage of time, which subsequently reinforces consciousness of separation between the "I" and the external world (Mortimer 2). However, we often seek lo assuage the delays of wish and fulfillment by adopting a form of surrogate immediacy which functions as a "transitional object" (Mortimer 3). This act of substitution Mortimer describes as the moment "when we become symbol-making creatures in our need to cope with disappointment" (2).
Time equated with loss. Dissolution into past. Only what can be remembered, Faulkner reminds us, can be lost. With the gift of the grandfather pocket watch came the challenges: "I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it" (93). Time is the conquering champion that needs not even fight: "Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion" (93). The "reducto absurdum of all human experience" that comprises what we describe as each individual's life never surpasses anything more than the tedious and insignificant ticking of segmented sameness. It happens inseparably from that force called time which reduces everything to an equality equal with itself, rendering meaning meaningless. No one event rises in significance above any other event; they are all relegated and regulated to reduction: "It's always the idle habits you will regret. Father said that. That Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels" (94). Mortimer concurs with her explanation of deferment, the period of delay between self and other. The empty space that separates us from being anyone else, that delays our scramble to consume and appropriate, is what forms our experience of loss: "Absence enters the world, and our consciousness, at precisely the moment we become aware of the passage of time" (Mortimer 8).
What Quentin in particular cannot accept is this reduction by time. He develops a fixation with "mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial" (94). Death, as the end of time (at least for the individual), holds the only condition by which meaninglessness can end. Virginity, as a point of distinction between what was and what is, as a mark on the dial that does not disappear with the movement of clock hands, is like death, but a state in which, instead of you leaving, the others are left (96). It matters to the others, not to you. To you, the moment of irrevocation is as past-tense as the state it annulled. Only from the abstract perspective of someone else's objective outside view, where time is not continuously altering and reducing all moments, is in fact not functioning at all, can something seem truly lost. When involved in a personal, concrete view of life, the subject instinctively understands that loss, as well as victory, is "an illusion of philosophers and fools" (93). So when Quentin objects, resists against the idea that his sister's virginity does not matter, his father replies, "That's what's so sad about anything: not only virginity, and I said, Why couldn't it have been me and not her who is unvirgin and he said, That's why that's sad too; nothing is even worth the changing of it" (96).
Quentin's unrelenting question, "Did you ever have a sister? Did you? Did you?" reflects his refusal to accept, not his own life or life in general, but the life in particular that he loves and chooses to concern himself with, but cannot accept because it is neither his life nor life in the generic. Being infinitely concerned with the face of another particular person inescapably involves confronting time without actually being in time. This is what cannot be borne. This is what drove Quentin to wishfully admit incest, as if speaking it could call it into existence, could propel him into the same movement of time that could then erase-or rather render erasure immaterial-that act whose separation from time meant loss.
Yet had Quentin succeeded in committing incest with his sister, it would not have accomplished anything; it would have faded merely into the same stream of hopelessly reduced experience on which unvirginity floated indifferently along. Even our worst conceivable acts cannot make any impression. The father figure, functioning as an omnipresent force of devaluation, frequently erupts Quentin's attempts at definition: "If we could have just done something so dreadful and Father said That's sad too, people cannot do anything that dreadful they cannot do anything very dreadful at all they cannot even remember tomorrow what seems dreadful today" (98). No one can help unless they enter time with you, at which point aid becomes utterly unnecessary. Herein lies the real loneliness: "It's not when you realize that nothing can help-religion, pride, anything-it's when you realize that you don't need any aid" (98). Needing aid would imply a loss awaiting redemption, and yet the loss is so profound that it retains not even a sense of its own presence. Here, in his deafening absence, loss arises and falls to its own negation.
Proudly calling The Sound and the Fury his "best failure," Faulkner also strangely insists that it is "a tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter" ( Interview 232). Literary critic Warwick Wadlington describes the traditional standard of tragedy as that story which "contains the logic of its own failure" (358), yet Faulkner subverts such a definition by claiming that "tragedy is second-hand" (143). Like the presence of loss only within the absence of a standard for loss, Faulkner turns tragedy also on its head, writing a tragedy whose greatest outrage is the absence of anything tragic at all. "Rather, in Faulkner," Wadlington writes, "the binary logic that produces in the first instance the tragic heroic crisis must also eventuate in devastating everydayness: tomorrow and tomorrow . . . . Faulkner's title echoes the most famous protest against a life without climax" (361). Even Quentin's tragedy does not belong to him, was never his, however desperately he longed for it. John Matthews notes as significant that "Quentin's suicide, the murders of Charles Bon and Joanna Burden, Temple Drake's rape-all central moments in their narratives-function more as absences in the stories that surround them" (373). Yet even what the narrative does tell us of Quentin's final act precludes its tragic proportions. Quentin muses:
The strange thing is that man who is conceived by accident and whose every breath is a fresh cast with dice already loaded against him will not face that final main . . . until someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card no man ever does that under the first fury of despair or remorse or bereavement he does it only when he has realized that even the despair or remorse or bereavement is not particularly important to the dark diceman . . . (220-221).
Quentin's grand finale escalates into an anti-climax, promoted by the utter lack of what it is supposed to represent: "despair or remorse or bereavement."
In the Jason narrative, Faulkner provides an aptly symbolic scene of his use of loss in The Sound and the Fury. Jason and his mother, having burnt 15 years of weekly checks from Caddy, stand before the fire holding one more arrived check, contemplating its relinquishment. Jason reasons, "If you keep on doing it [burning the checks], you have lost nothing, but if you'd begin to take them now, you'll have lost fifty thousand dollars" (273). Again, if there is no standard for loss, nothing against which to measure the lack, "you have lost nothing."
Since Benjy cannot remember the past, is incapable of noticing the movements between presence and absence that are provoked by the "minute clicking of little wheels," he also cannot experience loss: "Who lost none of them because he could not remember his sister but only the loss of her . . . Committed to the state Asylum, Jackson 1933. Lost nothing then either because, as with his sister, he remembered not the pasture but only its loss" (213). And so Faulkner chooses as his title for the novel a phrase that signifies the utter impossibility of loss, ringing with the outrage of the human spirit denied its own tragedy:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time
...It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth 124)
Religious subversions infiltrate Faulkner's novel, in consistency with the novel's denial that there is anything worth being lost that anyone can lose, much less anything lost that can be redeemed: "Father was teaching us that all men are just accumulations dolls stuffed with sawdust swept up from the trash heaps where all previous dolls had been thrown away the sawdust flowing from what wound in what side that not for me died not" (218).
Humanity's highest redemption, belief in salvation, the eternal balancing act that cancels out all evil with an equal amount of good, is not discarded, but re-presented by Faulkner as also humanity's profoundest despair. Faulkner does not so much proclaim that there is no grand meaning, but that the meaning there is incorporates everything-failure, depravity, death-into its own schematic balancing act that will absorb every life eventually, no matter how that life is lived. The indifference is precisely the salvation. Yet this salvation is nothing more than the absence of loss. Without a standard against which salvation can reveal itself, without condemnation, there can be no salvation, and there is no condemnation. There is not even loss. Or, rather, loss loses itself, preventing itself by its own augmentation. "Make something you can die with," Faulkner advocates; you will leave nothing behind.
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----. The Sound and the Fury. Ed. by David Minter. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1994.
----. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, Inc., 1929.
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----. Interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel. The Sound and the Fury. Ed. by David Minter. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1994. 232-234.
----. Nobel Prize Award Address. Stockholm, Sweden: December 10, 1950.
----. The Wild Palms. Modern Library Edition. New York: Random House, Inc., 1984.
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