:: Article

Reading Faulkner’s The Hamlet in 2020 USA: Part III

By Genese Grill and Greg Gerke.

The following is the third part of a three-part exchange. Part I can be found here, and Part II here:

PART III

Dear Greg,

Thank you for your words. I just want to briefly say, in response to your last sentences, that the beauty Faulkner gives us is so very riven with dread and fear, with bitten (a word I stole from him) regret and frustration, as so many of these characters are driven to act in ways that they know will only bring them suffering, despite their attempts to resist. While there is lyrical beauty, especially in the pastoral love scenes between Ike and the blond cow, most of the book is shot through with a different kind of beauty—a dreadful, painful beauty, that beauty that suspends and saves us because it knows the abyss so very, very well. So mayhap it is no contradiction that we read it amidst these times or that Faulkner wrote it in his own very fraught era. Even children, they say, like the dark parts of fairy tales. We need these bitter portraits, these dusty, hot, regret-eaten afternoons and these sleepless nights on hard widowers’ cots, with no one but ghosts lying beside us in the waning moonlight. These visions of Mink’s wife packing up her things, little more than “the cracked hand-glass, the wooden comb, the handleless brush”; Mink himself eating nothing but uncooked grain, wiping a few crumbs off his beard, drinking only hot water, sweetened with sugar, listening to the howling dog around the corpse of the man he has killed, watching, warily, the vultures circling; we need these descriptions  as touchstones of all the ways in which human beings have always somehow scraped by on such paltry portions of love, sweetness, and hope, not to mention food—only then to be so filled, so miraculously filled with Faulkner’s language, its melody and richness, as if to say: there is always, no matter what, so very much more to feed on, if one only knows where to look.

And maybe there is something important here: the characters cannot see any way out of their misery, despite desperate schemes and rare intermittent moments of stolen pleasure or respite, but the writer gives us readers glimpses on every page of something transcendent (paradoxically transcendent through the material), some strands to catch on to escape the habitual squalor and resentment, strands  usually in the form of an art that frames and shows us the beauty of nature. While the townspeople are meandering around the wild ponies brought back to town by Flem Snopes and his Texan sidekick, tempted to spend their last pennies on a probable scam, almost drooling, though temporarily holding themselves back from their inevitable gambling with fate, the narrator gives us this: “Only Ratliff and Quick sat in chairs, so that to them the others were black silhouettes against the dreaming lambence of the moonlight beyond the veranda. The pear tree across the road opposite was now in full and frosty bloom, the twigs and branches springing not outward from the limbs but standing motionless and perpendicular above the horizontal boughs like the separate and upstreaming hair of a drowned woman sleeping upon the uppermost floor of the windless and tideless sea”. No one sees this woman-tree. Or maybe Ratliff sees her. It is not a benign image. No, not at all. Is dark and foreboding…a bit like the mockingbird (perhaps a symbol for Ratliff’s mocking of their foolishness), that they do notice. The bird precipitates a decidedly prosaic discussion of birds and trees among the men, but the moonlit pear tree as drowned woman with streaming blossoms of hair is an image from a very different world than the dusty, hot trading grounds. The tree returns later in the chapter (and, it turns out, once more again) along with Ratliff himself and his mockingbird totem, the moon, and another reference to drowning: “The pear tree before Mrs. Littlejohn’s was like drowned silver now in the moon. The mockingbird of last night, or another one, was already singing in it…”. These are small slivers, droplets of silver light, few and far between, but she who sees them, reads them, ingests them, is infused with an elixir that makes all the rest bearable. And, as you say, makes us grateful to be alive, despite everything.

Genese

 

Dear Genese,

I think you’ve summed up Faulkner better than anyone, when you wrote, “…a dreadful, painful beauty, that beauty that suspends and saves us because it knows the abyss so very, very well.” I wrote this  about Gass, but Faulkner could just as easily have been inserted: “This is the difference with Gass—the prose, no matter the format, is alive, vivid, hypnotic. Raymond Carver sits on the page, kind of waiting for a bus, that is plot, to come along. There is less to say about someone who knows what to leave out—a maneuver I’m not sure is always a good thing. But then, why would something aching to be realized want to be left out? In Gass, as in James Joyce, Patrick White, and William Gaddis, there is a replete feeling. One gets to the heart of the sensation, whether awe-inspiring or foul, not by winks and nudges but by full orchestration—the Sistine ceiling, not a postage stamp size .gif on the internet.”

Your lasering in on those sentences detailing the pear tree are very illuminating (a twentieth century word that seems to have lost too much of its luster in our time). I’d like to give it a double-Paterianly spin—if we read iconographically, as you do, this image is like the paintings of the old masters—Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa according to Pater: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her…” Earth and objects haunt our lives. The men who spend their lives on the porch are looking at that tree every day of their lives, and though the narrator animates the tree, that tree seems to stand as something beyond reckoning, as Faulkner knew people have to deify something, even if they might only seize on it once or twice in their lives. And if Pater is right in saying, “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake,” then these small moments build up to create something beautiful, meditative, and ennobling about art as a tonic/elixir for life. We think of certain trees or spaces outside or in our house growing up that were so important to us; they were beyond us, but they were always there—they taught us what living was like.

I just finished the book today. It’s always a strange experience to finish a novel for me; I wonder what it’s like for you. It’s bizarre in how I seem to focus my attention much more acutely in the final pages, though I hardly read for story—except that Faulkner’s plots do have something of the “boilerplate” about them, an astonishing key. I didn’t want it to end, but there are a plethora of other Faulkner fictions I can steep myself in. Also, in the past years, when I read something as gripping as Faulkner, I often float over to the extra-literary materials on the writer and today I found out about André Bleikasten, the main French Faulkner scholar. I nipped and tucked about the usual haunts: Google Books, JSTOR, Project Muse, and read some very impressive thoughts, all the more wonderful because they were translated. I will post a screenshot from his piece, “Faulkner in the Singular”:

This could be a marker on the monument of Literature.

 

Dear Greg,

It is mid-morning here in rural Vermont and just beginning to get hot. The birds and the bees are raising a racket, chirping and buzzing. Hot enough that I see with my own eyes the dust (so frequently pictured in Faulkner) coming up from the dirt road outside my house and covering everything in a fine blanket of grey. The trees and the flowers are growing and so are the weeds. I just finished the book. In the real world, Black men are being found lynched around the country, our president just had a rally in Tulsa, where in 1921 there was an infamous attack on a prosperous black community, where homes were burned, children shot, few survivors. The coronavirus, though relatively (temporarily?) conquered here, still is threatening, still is keeping us from hugging each other, sharing food together, traveling. We still have no idea what the long-term repercussions will be, whether we will soon be living in another Great Depression, whether that will lead to a new age of Totalitarianism? While some people say that we are going back to normal, acting as if everything is fine, I think it is more true that we are all moving through our everydays with a deep-seated sense of anxiety, sorrow, fear, and pain. I know, anyway, that I am. I feel sick, scared, sorry; despairing even of a solution.

I don’t want to say anything too bad about the idealism of young people—which can be a saving grace, but there is something that does need to be said about finding a way to live with the persistent pain, cognitive dissonance of the world; finding a way to move forward, without ignoring the injustices and the horrors of life (I mean, not only the horrors perpetrated by humans, but the absolutely unchangeable horrors of nature, fate; the things we can’t change that are heartbreaking; death itself), not ignoring these realities, but somehow living with them, in them, while doing the work (in whatever way seems best to each of us) to make things better where we can. Without resorting to the kind of simple-minded, black and white reduction of everything to moral and immoral. Something in the Faulkner, something perhaps in all great literature, that takes stock of all the pain that has ever been in the world. There is pain caused by nature, by the cruelty of others, by accident, by systems (created by people), pain caused to some in order to spare others pain, inevitable and avoidable pain. Pain caused to oneself and others by one’s own foolishness, by that old tragic standby, hybris, and there is pain caused by people thinking they are doing good without fully imagining the dangerous consequences of their actions.

Literature shows us, through stories, the arc of a person’s life, his or her dreams and disappointments, characteristic temptations and faults, strengths and weaknesses. We often learn how an individual himself or herself is responsible for downfall or happy ending, as if a person’s fate is as inherent as the development of a work of art, which grows out of itself, like leaves on a particular sort of tree, inevitably fitting, right, strange in their very own particular way. Faulkner’s characters are like this, but the place where they live, Yoknapatawpha County is itself a character, which seems to doom the people who live there to certain ways of seeing the world.

But perhaps Yoknapatawpha County is more than just a cipher for a real place; perhaps it is a picture of life, all of life; and all of humans in conflict with necessity, reality, impossibility. And, thus, as your discovery, the French Faulkner scholar, Bleikasten, suggests, Faulkner is much more than just a Southern author writing about the Southern milieu. He is a writer. With European (as Bleikasten stresses) roots; and American roots, to be sure. But ultimately his is a universal voice, a human voice, singing the perennial human song.  This reminds me of something Musil said about the difference between traditional novels and modern ones: “…the tragic conflict between the individual and the law must now be replaced by an avowed conflict with the laws of earthly existence—a conflict that is often unresolvable, but always bearable. Therein lies the difference between the Enlightenment times, which believed in the autonomy of the moral laws and reason, and the time of empiricism, which recognized an infinite task with only partial progresses”.  Which makes it all the more paradoxical that today’s young people seem intent on finding total solutions to the world’s problems, attempting to eliminate all uncleanness, all “problematic” writers, all difference, all nuance—a puritanical tendency that leads to dystopian totalitarianism, not to a modernist pluralism that learns to live civilly with uncertainty. A tendency that is antithetical to the irreducible nature of art, Shakespeare’s famous “negative capability” as illuminated by Keats. Antithetical, indeed, to human nature in all its beautiful and terrible complexity.

That pear tree I mentioned in my last letter: it came back. And this time someone did see it. While the villagers are “tramping their shadows into the road’s mild dust, blotting the shadows of the burgeoning trees which soared, trunk branch and twig against the pale sky, delicate and finely thinned. They passed the dark store. Then the pear tree came in sight. It rose in mazed and silver immobility like exploding snow; the mocking bird still sang in it.” Then a bridge is laid between the narrative description and the people being described, as Will Varner sees what we, the readers, have been given to see, and he points it out to the men, tramping along on their way to see about the injured Armstid: “‘Look at that tree,’ Varner said. ‘It ought to make this year, sho’”. The tree in this context, is for making, producing pears, certainly not for beauty. The tree that the villagers see is different than the tree that the reader sees. But the conversation soon turns to moonlight, and, surprisingly, to folk magic, as Varner tells the men about how his pregnant wife “laid every night with the moon on her nekid belly, until it fulled and after,” in order to make sure the baby was a girl. And this was Eula. One of the forces of wildness, the mysterious power of nature, infused by the rays of the moon! She, the force of irreducible beauty, infusing the whole utilitarian, half-civilized desperate dull dreariness with a drop of that something else, that poetry which threatens to unravel the whole.

Like the wild ponies, with their colored circus streamers, which can’t be resisted. They are like phantoms out of a fairy tale really, like fairy phantoms, driving mortal men crazy, who give up all their savings and chase for them over fields and streams night after night in vain. In Irish fairy tales, people who follow such phantoms sometimes never come back. Or they follow a strain of music, or a beautiful woman, or they foolishly or recklessly eat of the fairy food. The bridge between fairy and the real world, especially a world as real and hard-scrabble as Yoknapatawpha County, is very precarious, almost non-existent. But the longing for the magic is all the more desperate. Thus, the mad gambit for the buried treasure in Old Frenchman’s place, which drives even Ratliff to stake his security and wealth on its unlikely discovery, which lets him be tricked by Flem with fools’ gold and suggestion, which literally drives Armstid over the edge into full insanity, as the book ends. He, symbolically digging his own grave with his twice broken leg trailing behind him, hoping against hope, against all reason, that he will strike gold. A figure out of a twisted fairy tale, truly under the spell of some evil sorcerer (Flem, Greed, Fate itself?), condemned to do nothing for the rest of his life but dig and dig (maybe stopping to eat a bite from the pail of supper brought by his poor wife in her perennial grey dress, her hands gathered in an eternal wringing at her aproned belly). He digs on, day and night, even as the fairy tale prince and princess, Flem and Eula, ride by in their Cinderella carriage, their surrey, on their way to another life. The saga will continue into three more novels of the Snopes family. But I don’t suppose it will end happily ever after even for them.

Thank you for inviting me on this adventure. Looking forward to reading your concluding words.

Fondly,
Genese

P.S. The scenes with Ratliff, Armstid, and Bookwright, camping out in the Old Frenchman’s place, on threadbare cots, eating cold tasteless food underneath the skeleton of the chandelier, so they can dig for the gold, are breathtaking. As if they had woken up after dreaming of a fairytale Ball, to find themselves in the ruins of aristocratic elegance and old Europe, hoping they might shovel their way back, find the lost Grail again, return to the splendor, following the fading wisp of some elusive perfume. We are brought back thus to the beginning of the novel: the old mansion, which has sat there in the background for years, which Will Varner, then Flem Snopes sat and gazed at; the old mansion, which has barely been mentioned for the whole rest of the book, returns in full force, as the mysterious source of a legend, the strand of a rumor (this must be why, Ratliff concludes, Varner held on to it!), pulled on, followed up, eventually believed in by even the most skeptical rumormonger of all, Ratliff himself. A legend, an ideal, an impossible dream, the only thing, ultimately, beautiful enough to risk one’s dreary life for.

 

Dear Genese,

I’ve printed out your response and walked over to Prospect Park to sit on a bend and read it as one would a letter in the olden days. Maybe the last true letter I wrote was thirteen years ago—unimaginable. People are all about here—volleyball nets are up and children run and laugh and cry. Someone I know said how abstract this time of virus is, as during the Middle Age plagues one would see people dying on the streets, probably during the Spanish Flu as well. Today it is nearly always behind closed doors, with poorly framed social mediaed pictures as evidence—though, as a homeless outreach worker for years, I can tell you a number of homeless were dead on the street as people passed by them. I’m also jolted by the news every time I open the laptop. The pain is heavy and every move by President Tweetledum is one that is easy to see coming. I think it’s important to stress the capitalist component of all this pain—corporations which rule the world, are marshaled mostly by men who have no relation to their souls and certainly not the world soul. Their concern is money, publicity, productivity, and what is good for business—and the high pedigree of their hypocrisy in “now” supporting Black Lives Matter simply because it is good for business, is the most vile and repugnant display in a sea of them. How can I rest with that odor in the world? Well—art.

Yoknapatawpha County “doom[ing] the people who live there to certain ways of seeing the world.” Yes, yes, yes. Aren’t there so many Yoknapatawpha Counties not only in our country, but all over the world? Maybe this jigsaws back to the crux of human history—different tribes engaging in small or large wars over resources? What Flem Snopes does to Frenchman’s Bend occurs in so many places—a man comes along and sees a way to make more money, which leads to displacing people, which leads to spiritual and economic ruptures. I think of Robert Moses, building multiple expressways and destroying traditional New York neighborhoods—his highway in Buffalo, that defaces the most beautiful part of the city with large parks and museums, is also disgusting. But back to Flem, who’s most cruel gesture is when he pretends the horses are not his and he will not give back money to the poor woman, who saved her five dollars over years, but instead gets her a small bag of candy from the store and goes back to his whittling. I feel we’ve all grown up under the spell of men like Flem Snopes and now today’s businessmen, whether Trump, Bloomberg, Bezos, or Zuckerburg are more or less interchangeable. I’ve read that Faulkner meant The Hamlet to be a comedy—a comedy of errors I would say—but the dramatic components are there, I noticed the doubling in the scenes of people lining up to see I.O. and the cow and then Armstid digging at the end—you pay money for the first, but to watch someone go crazy is free.

Before I said I look to extra literary sources—I mostly do this because I’m interested to study how they wrote, apart from themes or plotting. I don’t know if you’ve read Cormac McCarthy, but in reading The Hamlet, I’ve found all of the former’s book represented—the lush descriptions are the stuff of McCarthy’s Appalachian novels and the short simple action sentences, like the men eating after digging, are indicative of The Border Trilogy. I won’t pursue this more, except to say, It teaches me about stealing, about taking from the greats and making something one’s own. Faulkner said:

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Genese Grill is a the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House,  2012); translator of a collection of Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (2015), of Musil’s Unions (2018), and Musil’s Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama (forthcoming November 2020), all with Contra Mundum Press.  Her literary essays, translator introductions, and scholarly writing have appeared in The Georgia ReviewFiction MagazineNumero Cinq, Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, The Missouri Review, The Rupture, and elsewhere.

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and, Especially the Bad Things, stories were both published by Splice in the Autumn of 2019. Zerogram Press will release a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 16th, 2020.