Ink of Melancholy re-examines and re-evaluates William Faulkner's work from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, one of his most creative periods. Rather than approach Faulkner's fiction through a prefabricated grid, André Bleikasten concentrates on the texts themselveson the motivations and circumstances of their composition, on the rich array of their themes, structures, textures, points of emphasis and repetition, as well as their rifts and gapswhile drawing on the resources of philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology. Brilliant in its thought and argument, Ink of Melancholy is one of the most insightful and stimulating studies of Faulkner's work.
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About the Author
André Bleikasten (1933-2009) was Professor of American Literature at the University of Strasbourg, France, and a prominent Faulkner scholar. He is the author of William Faulkner: A Life through Novels. He is also known for his studies of Philip Roth, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor.
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The Ink of Melancholy
Faulkner's Novels from The Sound and the Fury to Light in August
By André Bleikasten
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1990 Andre Bleikasten
All rights reserved.
THE QUEST FOR EURYDICE
Regarder Eurydice, sans souci du chant, dans
l'impatience et l'imprudence du désir qui
oublie la loi, c'est cela même, l'inspiration.
A pregnant emptiness. Object-loss, world-loss,
is the precondition for all creation. Creation is
in or out of the voice; ex nihilo.
Norman O. Brown
"The most splendid failure"
With The Sound and the Fury something happened to Faulkner that had never happened before and would never happen again. For us, his readers, this novel is the first of his major works, a quantum leap in achievement; for the writer, however, it was much more than a book: a sudden release of creative energies, a turning point in his career, a unique experience in his life. On what the experience meant to him we are fortunate to have his own retrospective comment in the two versions of the introduction he wrote during the summer of 1933 for a new edition of the novel that was to be published by Random House. Of his many statements on The Sound and the Fury, none provides fuller insight into the book's genesis, and, what is more, none gives us as sharp a sense of the emotional climate in which it was conceived and written.
After The Sound and The Fury and without heeding to open another book and in a series of delayed repercussions like summer thunder, I discovered the Flauberts and Dostoievskys and Conrads whose books I had read ten years ago. With The Sound and The Fury I learned to read and quit reading, since I have read nothing since.
It is with these startling reflections that Faulkner's introduction begins. If The Sound and the Fury was a revelation, it was first of all the revelation of Literature, through the sudden (re)discovery of all the major novelists with whom Faulkner had just joined company. True, he had read them before, but if we are to believe his testimony, his first reading had been nothing but consumption without "digestion." His second reading, on the contrary, was a process of assimilation carried to its furthest limits, that is, to the point where reading becomes writing. What Faulkner implicitly acknowledges here is that the relationship between reading and writing is one of reversibility: reading is always a virtual writing, and writing always a way of reading. In working on his fourth novel, he rediscovers the texts of his predecessors in the production of his own and becomes aware of how they interact in the chemistry of his own writing. Not that his novel simply derives from others: the process at work is one of radical transformation, a way of displacing and, eventually, replacing its models. The Sound and the Fury, then, may be considered a rereading of Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Conrad — a reading at once attentive and forgetful, fascinated and treacherous, and, by virtue of its very infidelity, creative. The gesture of appropriation is also a gesture of dismissal. From now on, Faulkner can dispense with reading others. It will be enough for him to be his own reader.
The Sound and the Fury marks Faulkner's decisive encounter with Literature, his final entry into its infinite text, a space in which novels are endlessly born out of novels. With Flags in the Dust he had discovered that his experience as a southerner could be used for literary purposes; with The Sound and the Fury he came to realize that, far from being the mere expression or reflection of prior experience, writing could be in itself an experience in the fullest sense.
What Faulkner then experienced was the pure adventure of writing, free of any preestablished design. "When I began it," he notes, "I had no plan at all. I wasn't even writing a book." And he felt free too from any external pressure or constraint; he did not even care about getting published. The commercial failure of his previous books became an encouragement to disregard the demands of the publishers as well as the expectations of his potential public. The Sound and the Fury would be a strictly private affair: "One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers' addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write."
Having cleared the ground, Faulkner discovered in himself the heretofore unsuspected power to write freely — not just for superficial "fun" but for his deepest pleasure: "Now," the text goes on, "I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim slowly away with kissing it." The Sound and the Fury thus became the occasion for a doubly significant experience: through the reversal from "reading" into writing, Faulkner was at last able to appropriate his literary legacy and to transmute it into a creation irreducibly his own; yet this breakthrough to mastery was not simply a matter of artistic maturation, and it would not have been possible, perhaps, without the onrush of emotion he experienced during the composition of the novel. What made the writing of The Sound and the Fury such an extraordinary experience was probably more than anything else its being quickened by the dark energies of desire.
The work of art has been defined in psychoanalytic terms as a transnarcissistic object, meant to establish a connection between the narcissism of its producer and that of its consumer. But with The Sound and the Fury the creative impulse, at least in its earlier phase, seems to have been rather intranarcissistic. The object to be shaped was to serve no other purpose than self-gratification. Giver and receiver were to be identical. As to the object itself, its narcissistic nature and function are emphasized through the image of the Tyrrhenian vase kept by the old Roman at his bedside and whose rim is slowly worn away by his kisses. Another reminder of the urn of Keats's ode, the vase is of course a paradigm of the beautiful and potentially timeless artifacts produced by art. But the point here is that the aesthetic is made one with the erotic. The kissed vase is clearly a libidinal object, a fetish, standing instead of something else, the mark and mask of an absence. It functions as a surrogate or supplement — an assumption fully confirmed by the last sentence of Faulkner's text: "So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl."
Through the detour of a fiction, Faulkner thus attempted to make up for a lack. And the impatience and impetus of his desire were such that he felt irresistibly carried away, propelled beyond himself by what he was to call an "ecstasy":
that other quality which The Sound and The Fury had given me ...: that emotion definite and physical and yet nebulous to describe: that ecstasy, that eager and joyous faith and anticipation of surprise which the yet unmarred sheet beneath my hand held inviolate and unfailing, waiting for release.
According to Faulkner's account of his creative experience, none of his novels sprang up more miraculously. The Sound and the Fury, it would seem, was an unexpected grace, a gift of the gods, and this mediumlike sense of being written through, of calling something into being he did not know he contained, was never to return. When he wrote his next book, Sanctuary, "there was something missing; something which The Sound and The Fury gave me and Sanctuary did not." When he began As I Lay Dying, he knew "that it would be also missing in this case because this would be a deliberate book." And with Light in August it had become clear to him that this "something" would elude him forever and that "whatever novels [he would] write in the future would be written without reluctance, but also without anticipation or joy."
This quasi-trancelike condition was radically different from "the cold satisfaction" he would derive from his later works; nor can it be compared to the lighthearted ludic approach asssociated with his earlier novels. Are we to assume, therefore, that this experience was unmitigated creative euphoria, sweet surrender to afflatus, and that The Sound and the Fury was written under the spell of an irrepressible and infallible inspiration? In his introduction of 1933 Faulkner emphasizes that "this is the only one of the seven novels [he] wrote without any accompanying feeling of drive or effort, or any following feeling of exhaustion or relief or distaste." This assertion is flatly contradicted, however, by some of his later statements on the novel. Thus, in one of the class conferences he held at the University of Virginia in 1957, he declared: "It was the one that I anguished the most over, that I worked the hardest at, that even when I knew I couldn't bring it off, I still worked at it." To wonder when Faulkner told the truth is not the right question to ask, for the whole truth lies precisely in the contradiction: The Sound and the Fury was the child of care as well as of inspiration, of agony as well as of ecstasy.
Something of the same seeming contradiction may be detected in Faulkner's evaluation of the novel. In October 1928, after typing its final version, he proudly told his friend and literary agent Ben Wasson: "Read this, Bud. It's a real sonofabitch." Yet whenever he was questioned about The Sound and the Fury, he referred to it in terms of "failure." True, he considered it "the most gallant, the most magnificent failure," but a failure it was all the same. There had been others before; with this book, however, Faulkner met failure in a deeper, more inescapable sense — failure as the very destiny of all artistic endeavor. What then became evident to him was the sobering truth that, as Samuel Beckett put it, "to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail," and that "failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion." Had Faulkner remained a writer of talent only, he would never have reached that awareness. Less paradoxically than it might seem, it was when the powers of language appeared to be within his grasp as never before that he came to recognize the necessity of failure.
Faulkner's description of the novel's genesis reads like a record of abortive attempts:
That began as a short story, it was a story without plot, of some children being sent away from the house during the grandmother's funeral. They were too young to be told what was going on and they saw things only incidentally to the childish games they were playing, which was the lugubrious matter of removing the corpse from the house, etc., and then the idea struck me to see how much more I could have got out of the idea of the blind self-centeredness of innocence typified by children, if one of those children had been truly innocent, that is, an idiot. So the idiot was born and then I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world that he was in but would never be able to cope with and just where could he get the tenderness, the help, to shield him in his innocence. I mean "innocence" in the sense that God had stricken him blind at birth, that is, mindless at birth, there was nothing he could ever do about it. And so the character of his sister began to emerge, then the brother, who, that Jason (who to me represented complete evil. He's the most vicious character in my opinion I ever thought of), then he appeared. Then it needs the protagonist, someone to tell the story, so Quentin appeared. By that time I found out I couldn't possibly tell that in a short story. And so I told the idiot's experience of that day, and that was incomprehensible, even I could not have told what was going on then, so I had to write another chapter. Then I decided to let Quentin tell his version of that same day, or that same occasion, so he told it. Then there had to be the counterpoint, which was the other brother, Jason. By that time it was completely confusing. I knew that it was not anywhere near finished and then I had to write another section from the outside with an outsider, which was the writer, to tell what had happened on that particular day. And that's how that book grew. That is, I wrote that same story four times. None of them were right, but I had anguished so much that I could not throw any of it away and start over, so I printed it in the four sections. That was not a deliberate tour de force at all, the book just grew that way. That I was still trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed, but I had put so much anguish into it that I couldn't throw it away, like the mother that had four bad children, that she would have been better off if they had all been eliminated, but she couldn't relinquish any of them. And that's the reason I have the most tenderness for that book, because it failed four times.
Like many great modern novels — Ulysses and The Magic Mountain come at once to mind — The Sound and the Fury began by taking the form of a short story in the mind of its creator. The novel form was almost resorted to as a pis oiler, and the entire book may thus be seen as the outgrowth of an initial failure: Faulkner's incapacity to complete the narrative within the limits of the short story, which he considered "the most demanding form after poetry." What is more, failure informs the very pattern of the novel, since its four sections represent so many vain attempts at getting the story told. Most readers will of course dismiss this confession of impotence as an excess of modesty. Yet Faulkner's insistence on his failure was no pose. Experience had already taught him that "being a writer is having the worst vocation ... a lonely frustrating work which is never as good as you want it to be."
The Sound and the Fury had first been the sudden opening up of a boundless field of possibilities, the happy vertigo of a creation still unaware of its limitations, whose movement bore Faulkner along in quick elation, as if he were the entranced beholder of his own inventions. But once the wonder of this privileged first moment was dispelled and the book was no longer the bright mirage of desire but a work in progress, doubt and anxiety took over. And when Faulkner looked back on what he had accomplished, he knew that his work was "still not finished," that the story he so wanted to tell, the only one really worth the telling, was still to be told.
The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner's first great creative adventure. It assured him at once a major place in what has been, since Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, the great tradition of failure in American literature. Like his American ancestors and like other modern writers from Flaubert and Mallarmé through Joyce, Kafka, Musil, and Beckett, it led him to the experience of the impossible. According to Faulkner himself, failure was the common fate of all writers of his generation: "All of us failed to match our dream of perfection." Whether the blame falls on the artist or on his medium, language, everything happens as though writing could only be the gauging of a lack. Creation then ceases to be a triumphant gesture of assertion; it resigns itself to be the record of its errors, trials, and defeats, the chronicle of its successive miscarriages, the inscription of the very impossibility from which it springs.
Hence novels tend to turn into extended metaphors for the hazardous game of their writing. Novelists no longer seek to give life a semblance of order by relying on well-rounded characters and well-made plots. Instead of following a logical sequential pattern, events are subordinated to the process of the fictitious discourse itself as it takes shape or fails to do so — unfolding, in-folding, progressing, regressing, turning in on itself in a never-completed quest for form and meaning. What is told then is not only a story but the venture of its telling: the novel tends to become the narrative of an impossible narrative. Commenting upon The Man without Qualities, Musil once observed that "what the story of this novel amounts to is that the story which it should tell is not told." Faulkner might have said as much of The Sound and the Fury. The fragments of his narrative flout our expectations of continuity, order, and significance, and we have to accept them as such, in all their random brokenness and final provisionality. Faulkner's text is as much the locus as the product of its gestation.
Excerpted from The Ink of Melancholy by André Bleikasten. Copyright © 1990 Andre Bleikasten. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
PrefaceAcknowledgementsEditions Cited and AbbreviatedIntroduction:Masks and Mirrors
Part 1: The Struggle with the Angel1. The Quest for Eurydice 2. The Agony of Dispossession3. The Young Man, Desire, and Death4. Of Time and the Unreal5. The Poison of Resentment6. An Easter without Resurrection?
Part 2: Requiem for a Mother7. A "Tour de Force"8. A Dying Life, A Living Death9. Turns of Madness10. The Real and Its Representations
Part 3: The Blackness of Darkness11. "The Most Horrific Tale"12. Terror and Transgression13. The Madness of Bodies14. The Infernal Nursery
Part 4: Versions of the Sun15. In Praise of Helen16. The Cracked Urns17. The Perils of Purity18. The Fathers19 Circles
Epilogue: Under the Sign of SaturnNotesIndex