English Literature Professor Philip Weinstein Reflects on Faulkner's Baffling Nature

Bradenton (Fla.) Herald: The 'sound and fury' of great literature

By Philip Weinstein, Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature at Swarthmore College

William Faulkner's best novels show what it is like to live through baffling experience - experience that you can't sort out while it is crashing into you. They do more than "show" this, they enact it on the page. Attending to him responsively creates in you a kindred experience of bafflement - then of bafflement brought to order. But not brought to order before it registers on you, longer than you like, as bafflement.

You might reply: "Why should I spend time being baffled? I have enough of that in my life already, and I go to novels for coherence, not confusion." Yet our lives are marked, more than we ever admit, by looming questions, uncertain choices, hurdles we hadn't predicted and that won't wait for us to figure them out before taking them on. We spend a lot of time denying this reality, and we are especially good at telling others (and ourselves) - later - what that confusion was really all about.

Later is the key: We make sense later of the confusion that occurs in our present moment whenever it escapes habit or predictability - when the present moment heats up, becomes too stressful, more than we can handle. The bread and butter of novels is to represent this confusion in such a way that, though we're not sure how things will come out, we enjoy the suspense and await the resolution. In other words, confusion domesticated, tamed: configured as we like it - in novels.

Kierkegaard recognized, over 150 years ago, that we live life forward but we understand it backward. He was speaking about our being immersed in time itself: The simple truth that we live our present moments in a sort of confusion continuously being clarified by the retrospective understanding that comes later. Most novelists work to soften this opposition between now and later, to blur its sharpness. Most novelists are fun to read because they tidy up experience, give it a recognizable developing shape. They make experience fitting, and we feel smart as we take in the gracefulness of what is taking shape.

Faulkner's best novels refuse such tidiness. In its place they give us "sound and fury" - the sound and fury of experience unmastered, not yet graced by retrospective understanding. Faulkner grasped that we are born into a family and into a culture that hardly waited for our entry to bristle with motives and complications of every sort. We are born innocent, but the surrounding world into which we are born is never innocent. Nor, we discover later - because we live ineluctably in that surrounding world's blind spots and complicities - are we. We spend much of our lives figuring out what was actually happening to us and around us, but that we never grasped at the time.

Why do we need to be reminded, even today, of this unwanted truth about our lives in time? My answer is that - given the technological gadgetry that modulates our current behavior and connects us in nanoseconds with anyone anywhere on the globe - we need more than ever to realize that the world is not our oyster, not a manipulable extension of our desires.

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Faulkner's great work reawakens in us, tonically and frustratingly, the sheer recalcitrance of the world - its resistance, its difference from our desires. His work does this most powerfully by immersing us, as readers, in narratives of experience whose key we do not possess, whose contours we do not at first recognize: narrative worlds it takes a lot of time to make familiar, more time than we like. To be in time, such work reminds us, is to be not-expert, not-wise, not yet.

To be in time is to be, when things go bad, in a darkness that we trust will become light again. Faulkner's best novels take us into this darkness, not out of cruelty, and with no intent of leaving us there. When the light finally comes, and in his great work it always does come, we realize all the more powerfully how precious the light is. 50 years after his death and 75 years after his greatest novels, that is why Faulkner is more than ever worth reading.

Weinstein, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 1971, teaches seminars in modern comparative literature, as well as courses in American and British fiction. The recipient of several NEH Fellowships, his comparative interests - centered on Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner - are most fully explored in his Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction (2005). But Faulkner is his abiding focus and he is the author of three works that center on him: Faulkner's Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns (1992), What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison (1996), and Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner (2011), which received the 2011 C. Hugh Holman Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Society for Study of Southern Literature.