William Faulkner's "little postage stamp of
native soil" is unique in various ways as is every locale, but it is also
frozen in time as no other place on earth. For the outsider, it might appear
that the South is unchanged and unaffected by the progress of time: the
people move more slowly; they talk with long, drawn-out drawls; they live
as if captured in a story world. This lifestyle is a mystery in the fast
changing world even of Faulkner's day. This does not mean to suggest that
the people of Yoknapatawpha County are feeble-witted to the outside world,
but they do see the world in a way that is unique to their way of life.
Faulkner's work captures this essence of Southern time in a remarkable
way, and we should take notice of this as we read his work. His use of
time is tightly bound by his Southern upbringing.
Conrad Aiken points out that Faulkner methodically withholds information, like a detective story writer, in order to organize the major parts of the complex puzzle of Yoknapatawpha County. He often conceals many of the key pieces until the very end. The "whole elaborate method of deliberately withheld meaning," Aiken says of Faulkner's style is:
|...a persistent offering of obstacles, a calculated system of screens and obtrusions, of confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays, with one express purpose; and that purpose is simply to keep the form-and the idea-fluid and unfinished, still in motion, as it were, and unknown, until the dropping into place of the very last syllable (138).|
| Faulkner is intentionally playing with the
clock of dramatic events in his work in order to show the unique passage
of Southern time. Time in the South, we need to note as we read Faulkner's
work, moves to a different beat. Sometimes we see him spinning events counterclockwise
to look at previous material; sometimes he is fast-forwarding the hands
in order to speed up future events; and sometimes, like Quentin in The
Sound and the Fury, he can even be seen twisting the hands from the
face of the clock in an attempt to obliterate time all together. Violent
actions are not necessarily a part of typical Southern behavior, but they
do provide a visible means of showing how many Southerners think of the
passage of time in their slow moving world.
Faulkner clearly uses traditional literary techniques as any writer might use them. The flashback is fundamental to all of Faulkner's work, but the most extensive use may be found in Light in August. In this work, Faulkner supplies extended flashbacks to show the beginnings of Joe Christmas' orphaned life, the background of Reverend Gail Hightower's galloping horses, and the fanatical history of Doc Hines. These flashbacks are given in separate, lengthy chapters, which bisect the straight forward chronology of Lena Grove's journey. These are obviously standard uses of the flashback, and they also give us a different lens through which to see Lena Grove's Southern world.
Again, in traditional manner, turning the clock forward is commonly found throughout Faulkner's work. Absalom, Absalom! is full of such foreshadowing. The first two paragraphs of the novel, for example, essentially give us the entire Sutpen story, all foreshadowed in such expressions as "twice-bloomed wisteria," "savage quiet September sun," and "quiet thunderclap." The remainder of the novel recapitulates the same oxymoronic story of Sutpen's empire: first, in Gothic proportions, is Miss Rosa Caldfield's "grim haggard amazed voice," then Mr. Compson's tale of classical tragedy, and finally Quentin's and Shreve's romantic reenaction of the events they are reconstructing one late, cold January night in Massachusetts.
Joe Brown's (Lucas Burch's) facial scar in Light in August, mentioned six times during the story, may also be considered another type of symmetrical foreshadowing: "He had an alert, weakly handsome face with a small white scar beside the mouth that looked as if it had been contemplated a great deal in the mirror" (29); "Has he got a little white scar right here by his mouth?" (44); "Did he have a little white scar right here by his mouth?" (62); "And Brown setting there in the midst of them, with his lips snarled back and that little scar by his mouth white as a popcorn." (76); "Beside his mouth there was a narrow scar as white as a thread of spittle." (205); "I never said any more, after she asked about that little white scar by his mouth...." (226) Each of these references points forward to Joe Brown's well-contemplated existence-one of greed, disgust, treachery-and to his second and final flight from Lena Grove.
Symbolically twisting the hands off the clock entirely is linked easily with The Sound and the Fury where the timed images in the book are pointing in all directions at once. The game of hitting on the first page of the novel can only fully be understood much later in the book, in parts which are chronologically earlier in the story. When Luster picks up a shiny object and gives it to Benjy to quiet his bellowing, the only comment is, "It was bright" (61). Later a young man with a red tie takes it and says, "Agnes Mabel Becky." We casually learn of a tree outside of Caddy's (and later, her daughter Quentin's) window. Luster continues his day-long search for a lost quarter. These various, seemingly unrelated images are only brought together much later in the novel.
Playing in the cellar, putting a bottle in the sideboard, the smell of camphor and trees and cold, keys on a chain, the river, and the ever foreboding shadow; all these images are scattered throughout The Sound and the Fury. Some point to previous events, others to subsequent events, and still others are pointing in both directions at once. All pieces from the same puzzle. But Faulkner is keeping the time piece, the central motif piece, for himself until the very end. Only when the saga is read completely will the entire picture become whole, only then will the whole of Southern time be realized. We find that the puzzle pieces, placed "each in its ordered place" (SF 401), have a definite relationship with all the other pieces, and that relationship only becomes clear on the completion of the entire puzzle.
We should not see these uses of flashback and
foreshadow, however, only in their technical aspects, nor merely as an
attempt to undo time, but as a typically Southern way of understanding
the world. This is one way in which Faulkner demonstrates this Southern
concept of time. There are others. Any reader of Faulkner will note that
he makes extensive use of neologisms throughout his work. These words serve
several purposes. First, it may be assumed that Faulkner believes these
neologisms fulfill a need in the language; like Adam, he is naming the
unnamed. A practical Faulknerian expression like 'frictionsmooth,' for
example, could easily be added to the English lexicon. The word very adequately
describes an object that has been smoothed from repeated use, not by manufacture.
More typical Faulknerian neologisms like 'manvoice,' 'womenvoices,' and
'girlvoices' could also be used in our language. When fulfilling an express
need, a neologism has the important purport of keeping the language alive.
I want to stress again that Faulkner's use
of time is not always pinned to the same clock face we might be accustomed
to reading. He uses a variety of ways to present the progression and regression
of time; he has also used a variety of ways to force the reader into reconsidering
preconceived expectations. I want to suggest a final method that checks
Faulkner's Southern chronometer (I use this word here because it brings
to mind Herman Melville's Pierre. "Chronometricals and Horologicals"
is a pamphlet for a lecture concerning chronometers and how they vary depending
on how long they have been away from Greenwich Time, and by extension,
how our lives may vary separated from a governing standard. The lecture
may have little direct bearing on reading Faulkner, except that Faulknerian
time is often considerably different than standard time, though not impossible
to understand if we keep the entire Yoknapatawpha story in mind as a 'chronometrical'
|She thinks of herself as already moving, riding, thinking then it will be as if I were riding for a half mile before I even got into the wagon, before the wagon even got to where I was waiting, and that when the wagon is empty of me again it will go on for a half mile with me still in it (LIA 6).|
|The sentence pattern Faulkner uses here strongly suggests that the action starts, progresses, and even ends, before it ever really begins; in fact, it becomes a tenseless example of time in the South. The pace of life in the South is so different that people do not perceive of any tense in their actions. In Faulkner's South, there is no tense: only already. In Go Down, Moses, the boy's first encounter with a deer in "The Old People," and also later with the bear, are similarly worded-note also that the original title of this story is "Almost," similar to the word under discussion (Gresset 61 and Ono 23-53). Faulkner is attempting to put all the pieces of his Yoknapatawpha puzzle but one into order, and then, he slips in the last piece; already in motion, already timed:|
|At first there was nothing...[then] the buck was there. He did not come into sight; he was just there... already running, seen first as you always see the deer, in that split second after he has already seen you, already slanting away.... (163, emphasis added.)|
|In Absalom, Absalom!, the same puzzle image is used to describe this feeling of imminent, or continuous movement, a second by second progression that will lead to the final moment of total understanding (and presumably, death). At the very moment Bon is brought just short of learning that Sutpen is his father, he is described as,|
|almost touching the answer, aware of the jig-saw puzzle picture integers of it waiting, almost lurking, just beyond his reach, inextricable, jumbled, and unrecognizable yet on the point of falling into pattern which would reveal to him at once, like a flash of light, the meaning of his whole life, past....(342).|
| The most striking example of Faulkner's use
of this technique, however, is his description of characters running. We
discover few inchoative verbs (eg. begin to run), they are always "already
running." Action is always seen in medias res. From Light in August:
"Then the other two [boys] seemed to explode upward out of the earth, the
duskfilled shed, already running. Joe struck at them as soon as he was
free, but they were already clear" (148); "He sprang to the ground already
running" (371); "It was like she came awake already running to the cot
where he had been" (386); and, "a man appears as though by magic at the
rear of [the cabin], already running, in the act of running out from the
rear of the cabin" (402). From The Wild Palms: "He was already running
back up the stairs" (14); "already running" (196); or, a little slower,
"already moving away, beginning to run suddenly" (280). A Fable
is full of such motion: "He jumped down to the tarmac, already running"
(87); "already running, back up the vacant aerodrome" (91); "already running
again" (92); "They turned as one, already running, clotting and jostling
a little" (425), or just plain motion, "already passed and vanished before
recognition became a fact" (14); "already moving toward the door" (91);
"already moving toward the corridor door...already reaching...the handcuff
key" (175); "already in motion before he stopped" (185); and, "already
in motion as the runner struck the guard between the ear" (315, emphasis
added in all examples).
All of the novels have some form of action, often running, which Faulkner wants to show as being 'already' in progress, so he uses the present tense and past progressive aspect. His addition of the common adverbial 'already' in this manner, to indicate prior and continuous action, allows Faulkner to manipulate the character's "horological" timepiece in his novels. He wants to preclude past and future by forcing them both into a single present moment, yet without any loss of the implied past/future meaning. The thrift that this one word provides to the prose is remarkable: a tribute to Faulkner's masterful use of Southern time. In order to achieve a similar scope of meaning without its use, a much longer narrative would be required. Faulkner occasionally includes this longer explanation, but he could not afford to do so every time; therefore, Faulkner resorts to using the adverb with the progressive aspect to economize on the difficult Bergson concept of continuous present time. Here, for comparison, is an example from Light in August of the required narration that a fuller description would require:
|Then he was running. He did not remember starting to run. He thought for a while that he ran because of and toward some destination that the running had suddenly remembered and hence his mind did not need to bother to remember why he was running, since the running was not difficult. It was quite easy, in fact. He felt quite light, weightless. Even in full stride his feet seemed to stray slowly and lightly and at deliberate random across an earth without solidity, until he fell (314).|
| Up to this point, I have concentrated on physical
movement in the novels because it seemed closely related to the movement
of time. There are, however, numerous other examples of Faulkner's use
of 'already' in non-motion situations. Nevertheless, the implied meaning
of combined past, present, and future is the same as those in the verbs
of motion. A humorous, yet applicable example is found in Requiem for a
Nun. The men are talking about the naming of their town after Thomas Jefferson
Pettigrew, the mail rider: "'He's already getting what he wants,' Compson
said, and cursed again. 'Confusion. Just damned confusion'" (25).
Confusion is not necessarily required, however, to work out an understanding of Faulkner's use of time and to see the world as the Southerner would see it. As I have shown, he is simply pouring all the conventional English tenses into an idiosyncratic pattern, hoping that its meaning will be clear and alive to last for generations of readers. His goal is simple. Faulkner wants the action to be as alive then (now) as it is (was) to him now (then). Already.
In an important study of Faulkner's rhetoric, Walter J. Slatoff suggests that Faulkner deliberately left his works in a state of suspension and irresolution. Slatoff concludes that this suspension is reflected stylistically in Faulkner's use of paradox, oxymoron, and the juxtaposition of mutually exclusive conditions such as sound and silence, stillness and frantic motion, and similar antitheses. We should also conclude that Faulkner's use of the simple word 'already' shows a similar antithesis: the reluctance to place events in his works on a conventional time line. As Quentin Compson is looking into the jeweler's shop window at the dozens of contradicting watches, he remembers these words: "Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life" (SF 105). This is exactly the same feeling that Faulkner is demonstrating in his use of Southern time. If events are placed upon a conventional time line of past, present, and future, they lose all life to the Southerner, and Faulkner felt strongly about literature having a life of its own. Faulkner spoke on numerous occasions of his belief of "no such thing as was...no such thing as will be...time is in a way the sum of the combined..." (FAU 139). To quote again from that important interview conducted by Jean Stein vanden Heuvel for The Paris Review:
|The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that 100 years later when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist's way of scribbling "Kilroy was here" on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass (Lion 253).|
|Faulkner said in one of his discussions in Japan, "[I] tried to crowd and cram everything, all nuance of the moment's experience, of all the recaptured light rays, into each paragraph" (Nagano 37). It remains for us readers then to investigate and discern the individual moments that Faulkner has worked into each paragraph, sentence, and word. Faulkner's use of time should not be considered a mystery; careful detective work-close reading-will reveal the intended meanings that are planted there. I believe that if we are reading Faulkner correctly, we will be seeing the world as Southerners. Time in the South is slower, more drawn out, and full of great moments to remember. We have to learn to read Faulkner as a Southerner lives their life, or we miss an important element of his Southern fiction.|
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Copywright (C) 1999 P. Timothy Ervin