Everyday Semiotics

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sound + fury = nothing

Now that I'm three years out of college, I've gotten around to reading the types of books you'd find on E.D. Hirsch's reading list ... with a wary eye on the future possibility of grad school. Recently: Wuthering Heights and Dante's Comedia. This week, it's The Sound and the Fury. A few observations:

I find the movement and dislocation of perspectives intriguing but troubling. Parts one through three are in first person, part four is in third person. Part one is almost not first person, as it is from the perspective of Benjy, the idiot, for whom his own actions are usually externalized, unnoticed until someone else comments on them. Part four takes the third person without any free-indirect discourse but plenty of editorial commentary. This chapter focuses most on the blackfolk of the Compson household, yet it does not assume any of their perspectives, even momentarily.
The gown fell gauntly from her shoulders, across her fallen breasts, then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments which she would remove layer by layer as the spring accomplished and warmed the days, in color regal and moribund. She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child's astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.
[...]
"All right," Dilsey said. "All right, here I is. I'll fill hit soon ez I git some hot water." She gathered up her skirts and mounted the stairs, wholly blotting the gray light. "Put hit down dar en g'awn back to bed." (266-7)
The first three chapters, the ones preceding the one in which the above passage is found, knocked my socks off. Chapters two and three have the exquisitely overdetermined -- i.e., not reduced, not stereotypically bigoted -- ruminations of Quentin and Jason on blacks and women. This one, from Quentin, took my breath away:
that blending of childlike and ready incompetence and paradoxical reliability that tends and protects them it loves out of all reason and robs them steadily and evades responsibility and obligations by means too barefaced to be called subterfuge even and is taken in theft or evasions with only that frank and spontaneous admiration for the victor which a gentleman feels for anyone who beats him in a fair contest, and withal a fond and unflagging tolerance for whitefolk's vagaries like that of a grandparent for unpredictable and troublesome children (87-8)
Meanwhile, the conceit of chapter one is charming as it is challenging, with the train of Benjy's thoughts not simply unfolding an internal monologue but effectively jerking the reader from one spot to another along the timeline without warning. A lot like the analepses in Gravity's Rainbow (see below).

It's by way of GR, partially, that I read the depictions of blackfolk in The Sound, and respond, particularly, to chapter four. Both novels give blackfolk startlingly similar cant. In GR, Katje is "completely unprepared," or words to the effect, for the blackness of the Schwartzkommando. They are the radical Other; and their otherness, through one of Pynchon's peculiar and problematic conceits, slips into a sort of pageant informed by the Sambo mythos, Amos and Andy, minstrel shows -- the whole shebang.
Hyperthyroidal African eyes, their irises besieged as early cornflowers by the crowding fields of white ... Ooga-booga! Gwine jump on dis drum hyah! Tell de res' ob de trahb back in de village, yowzah!
So, DUMdumdumdum, DUMdumdumdum... (656)
In The Sound -- and I haven't yet consulted the wizards of modernist criticism to see what they have to say about it -- it seems almost as if this same unpreparedness and othering is enacted through the shift from first to third person in the novel's last chapter. Thankfully, perhaps, we don't have an interior monologue rendered in Faulkner's version of blackspeak. (Would this be tolerable?) Instead we have a very button-down third person external narrative packed with quasi-philosophical observations about Dilsey's body and Benjy's moaning. Dilsey and Luster are foregrounded, yet the reader is never as intimate with them as with Benjy or Quentin or Jason.

It's a not unremarkable narrative move for Faulkner to make. I began chapter four expecting first-person narrative, and didn't realize it was otherwise until halfway down the second page (what gave it away was the way Dilsey was being described in the first passage quoted above: diachronically, I would say, as opposed to synchronically or right-there-and-then-that-moment; up to this point it's ambiguous who's narrating). I frankly don't care if the sudden transition in narrative mode, the distancing from blackfolk and their inner worlds, tells us anything about whether Faulkner was racist. But it of course plays into systems of racism and representations, systems I think Pynchon confronted, exploded, and ultimately never overcame, by going for broke and making a farce of it all.

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