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

By Genese Grill and Greg Gerke.

William Faulkner, 1954, photo by Carl Van Vechten

The following is the second part of a three-part exchange. The first part can be found here:

Part II

Dear Greg,

Getting deeper, plot thickening, weeds choking, fate creeping, entropy against will, dogged determination against something stronger. Some life force, sex, fate, fate, fate.  I had forgotten to think about Shakespeare. And I have neglected to take notes in the last two readings, enjoying too much. Or just lazy like Eula.

And of course, it is the language. Above all, the language. These wildly ambitious sentences (as you say, who would dare, who could aim to pull this off?), with clauses upon clauses, tumbling clauses, heaping on more and more weight, like wisteria vines pulling down the rotting house, its wood soft and infested, while the half-rancid smell of their luxurious flowers distracts the reader from any attempt to figure out what the hell is going on in terms of transactions, tit for tat, who is tricking and outsmarting whom, who is on top, who will be on the bottom in the next moment. We only know that there is nothing, no, nothing, that can save us.

From that first mention of Eula in Book One, we know she will be trouble. My mother pointed out that there were hardly any women in the first part, or if they were there, they were wooden or pictorial (that vignette at the well). But the womanly is a seeping threat, insidious, vining, a tiny drop of dangerous potion. And, well, here she comes.

Of course, one notes, from a twenty-first century perspective, that we only know about Eula from how she affects, infuriates, intoxicates the men who watch her. What does she think? Or does she not? But this is interesting too. For she is an object, but powerful in her object-hood. She subjects the men to her powers. And they, in objectifying her, become her objects?

The schoolmaster, Labove, reiterates, epitomizes the teeth-gritting, hard-scrabble determination. The grim fury it might take to rise out of one’s class and make something of one’s self. Against all odds. His lack of pleasure in even the learning, the books. Compared often to a monk. And of course, he is undone by the Pagan voluptuousness of Eula. The biological terms are shocking: uterus, womb. Inside, outside. Buttocks, thighs, brain, uterus. All jiggling and jumbling and disordering even nature’s usually less teeming, more manageable order? She is a force of irrational potency. A cynosure, a honey pot, around which everything buzzes (the other students like bees).

Of course, she seems destined to come up against the other strong irrational presence in the novel, Flem. It is not only that their two names are, respectively, the titles of each chapter, but that they both have that mystical presence and power that infuriates but captivates.

Which makes me realize that we only know Flem from how others observe him too. We have no idea what either Flem or Eula is thinking. Only what others think and feel about them.

[A few days later:]

BUT NO, Eula is not in control. She is not the agent here. She is demonized by Labove, in classic Priestly, monkish style, as the Evil Woman whose seductive nature is an affront and attack upon male piety. We see inside Labove’s head, though we don’t see into Eula’s or Flem’s yet. (We also, I realize, see inside Ratliff, whose inner monologues tell us a good deal about him as a person). The only Eula we know is the Eula constructed by Labove and by her furious brother. They see her body and sensuality as a demonic and even as a willed force of destabilization, to the extent that Labove wants to hurt her, disfigure her, and seems to think this desire is justified, as if he were expunging a Devil through violent exorcism. She gets the last word though, showing that she had paid attention to something, learned something in her three years of “schooling” after all, when she spurns him and calls him a headless Ichabod Crane!

Labove is the truly sick figure here. Sick like any monk who represses his desires so that they erupt in perverse ways. But that’s my opinion. How did Faulkner mean it?  In any case, Labove slinks away and the more wholesomely hot-blooded boys and men get their chance to circle round the honey. Who will get stung?

Admittedly, I have gotten a bit taken up with the plot and its possible meanings, even straying into the inevitable socio-political critique, forgetting to notice and appreciate the language. But let me share this astonishing half sentence: “—the long return through the night-time roads across the mooned or unmooned sleeping land, the mare’s feet like slow silk in the dust as a horse moves when the reins are wrapped about the upright whip in its dashboard socket, the fords into which the unguarded mare would step gingerly down and stop unchidden and drink, nuzzling and blowing among the broken reflections of stars, raising its dripping muzzle and maybe drinking again or maybe just blowing into the water as a thirst-quenched horse will”.

While this idyll is reverberating, expanding, presencing, as old Heidegger would say, Eula and her new swain are presumably in the wagon, unseen, but jealously sensed by her spurned admirers, who watch and wait in the bushes, to fight their rival. But the wagon does not allow entry, nor does it give a sign of what is going on inside, except that it has stopped moving:  “There would be no voice, no touch of the rein to make it move on; anyway, it would be standing there too long, too long, too long”. This pause, while the horses drink or don’t drink, stepping gingerly down, nuzzling and blowing, stops time in its slow, silky way, mooned and umooned, the upright whip in its dashboard socket (an obvious—too obvious?—sexual symbol), under the broken reflections of stars, thirsty, drunken, thirst-quenched—this pause holds a universe in abeyance.

There is a bloody battle, a fist fight, between her lover and the boys, where even Eula’s dress gets stained with blood and she is rumored to have wielded the whip herself against the intruders. And one might even miss the significance of the beautiful sentence fragment where the unguarded mare (Eula herself!) drinks so peacefully, but that she turns up pregnant a few pages later, after her lover and the rivalrous boys have all fled town.  This one sentence, we now understand, if we had missed it before, had been given to us in lieu of a love-making scene inside the wagon. A good sight better than a cinematic train going through a tunnel.

Yours,
Genese

 

Dear Genese,

It’s interesting how you say “…the smell of their luxurious flowers distracts the reader…”—the flowers being the parts of the sentence. I can’t help but think about Faulkner in relation to the most wildly promoted novelists of our day—Franzen, Cusk, and Lerner—all of whom fail to make my grade because their language is impoverished. When American fiction made that ignominious turn toward the Hemingway-infused short story of the 1970’s, care of Carver/Lish and the “dirty realists” in their wake, we began to lose some of the possibilities of our language and the strength of the imagination, in favor of a more elliptical style. The influence of Alice Munro’s plain style would also need to be pointed to. Who is still following Faulkner’s lead and using language to the nth degree of its possibilities in American fiction? Garielle Lutz, Christine Schutt, Alexander Theroux, Joshua Cohen—to mention a few.

Gass had a great line in that previously mentioned review on Faulkner’s style: “It is as if remembered things themselves had memories, as if matter were memory. The muscles that hoed the garden remember the moves they made.” In conjunction, Coetzee, in a review of another biography wrote that Faulkner “would weave Bergsonian time into the syntax of memory.” Proust is chiefly mentioned with Bergson, who I haven’t read, but Faulkner does something with psychology and consciousness that probably has been Bergson-influenced—you may know much more about this, Genese. From what I’ve read, he dabbled in Bergson and maybe took just a few things, whatever he needed, rather than be chained to it, rather like William Gaddis using The Golden Bough for The Recognitions, he stole things for his purposes.

What I’m trying to do is land this back into the current scene, with so much quotidian fiction (I just saw a sweet put-down by a non-novelist who said the only flaw her friend’s new novel has is that it could have been written by one-hundred other novelists) and I open at random to a passage from the most celebrated novel of the last twenty years in US fiction, Franzen’s The Corrections: “In a matter of seconds, like a market inundated by a wave of panic selling, he was plunged into shame and self-consciousness. He couldn’t bear to stay in bed a moment longer.” I should say I don’t quote from lesser works in order to be mean—I simply want people to make better art. There are at least four clichés of prose-making (“matter of seconds”, “inundated by a wave”, “plunged into shame”, and “couldn’t bear to stay…”) on display in these thirty-two words—in Faulkner there are never clichés, unless he originated them. When one reads Faulkner or James or Lutz, one knows one is in their world—there is no mistaking that someone else could have written those sentences. In too much of today’s most celebrated fiction there is mediocrity—fiction for the Sunday brunch crowd, not words that make one sweat the appearance of even more.

The “Labove” episode is one of the most powerfully sustained courses of narrative fiction (twenty-five pages) I’ve ever read—and I say this knowing the celebrated love affair between a character and a cow is coming up in our next reading section.  “He declined, not because he was a virgin and not because he did not have the money to spend that way but because up to the very last he still believed, still had his hill-man’s purely emotional and foundationless faith in education, the white magic of Latin degrees, which was an actual counterpart of the old monk’s faith in his wooden cross.” The “mythic” quality of the book gets more heightened with the appearance of Eula (“she would transform the very wooden desks…into a grove of Venus…”) and Labove’s relation to her, especially, “There would be times now when he did not even want to make love to her but wanted to hurt her, see blood spring and run, watch that serene face warp to the indelible mark of terror and agony beneath his own; to leave some indelible mark of himself on it and then watch it even cease to be a face,” which seems as close a description I have ever found of a man’s chaotic urge for violence against a woman he sexually desires. I didn’t pick up that surely she must have been learning all that time in school with the Ichabod Crane reference—nice.

Thank you for centering on that horse carriage passage and the sentence following. My attention had slipped a little there and his using the device of centering on that action and the “too long’s” of the next sentence, ices the impregnation. And Will Varner’s sudden clean-up of the situation—marrying her to Flem, while obvious in the scheme of things, is still beautifully played, reminding me of the sudden shift in the father in As I Lay Dying at the end, when he gets his new teeth and a new wife almost immediately after burying his dead one. And finally, a word to Faulkner’s humor, with Will Varner explaining to his frustrated son Jody about Eula’s getting pregnant, “What did you expect—that she would spend the rest of her life just running water through it?” It’s amazing to think of readers coming upon this line in 1942 and quaking from its suggestiveness, though there might be just as many today taking umbrage at something reflecting the world we live in.

Best,
Greg

 

Dear Greg,

Many days later, and our world up in flames, with fighting and fires in the streets, toppling of monuments of confederate war “heroes” and slave traders, calls to defund or abolish police, and to “decolonize” our libraries and minds. All of the old pain inflicted by our country’s slave holding and Jim Crow past and the persistence of racist violence in our allegedly color-blind society. There are searing mementos of the Southern wages of sin in this novel, none perhaps more disturbing than the aside, mentioned in a description of Eula’s lover, who paid a black man so he could whip him. Man’s inhumanity to man (and to woman). His cruelty and depraved sadistic need to be stronger than someone else. Many would like us to cleanse the world of such depictions, preserve our children from these markers of our past, erase the stain and replace it with something more monolithically correct. But Literature—it shouldn’t have to be said, but it does need to be said—teaches us about all of the ways that humans are, rather than just an idealized, cleaned-up version of how they are supposed to be. Great writing, like Faulkner’s, gives us the complexities and makes us more fully human. Great writing, like Faulkner’s, is not essentially dogmatic either, not essentially Moral, but is a lever to open up ethical channels, ways of feeling and thinking, through irreducible aesthetic experience. The more uncensored or un-self-censored the better.

That idea about MATTER BEING MEMORY is so important (you knew I would love that). The things as they are. The objects and their particularly-SEEN characteristics. The details of them. Their qualities and textures. Their differences and likenesses. Beauty and dullness and ugliness and fear and also tenderness. I don’t know too much about Bergson either, but for Proust, matter is a portal through which memories come alive. An object, especially in comparison with another object, can call up, transport, conjure. I might go so far as to say only an object, only the physical world, can do this. And so, the material, the physical, the man-made and the natural, not the Ideal, not the Intellection, are the Real—the real touchstones that carry us into deeper realms—. Words: nouns, adjectives, and even figurative verbs, conjure the material world which then become metaphors for ideas. But Rilke says it better: “We [writers] are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible”.

Faulkner’s language is made of such honey-rich Material, such palpably variegated textures, shadows, fluctuating lights and darks; these images, brought to us by his words, tell us all we need to know to see and feel his world. Compared to the spare, minimalist (usually shallow and idea-poor as well) prose of today’s novelists, it is a feast, a world teeming with complexity and heady sensations. Just want to add here that my father’s poetry teacher, when she heard he was reading Faulkner, said, “Oh, Faulkner—he uses too many words!” In answer, I say: the words are primary, not a decoration or an ornament; they are the thing. The more of them we have, the more we have. If most modern poetry and prose avoid the very medium they are made of, they give us less and less, and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that their authors actually don’t have that much to say, not that much to give us after all. And I return to my original discussion about the tension between the European and the American, the European as cipher for overabundance, luxury, ornament, and aesthetic experience, pitted against American minimalism, thriftiness, simplicity and piety. Faulkner is European in his prose, though American in his subject matter?

But there is something beyond these reductive national identities. Something primal, natural. And so we move into the love affair between Ike Snopes and the cow, set against the backdrop of  Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, which was all along teetering in the balance between nature and a sort of carefully-managed civilization or order, as the rank weeds grew and choked the passages and the rotting fences and collapsing European-inspired Old Frenchman’s place. Eula’s animalistic sexual force threatened to unmake and unman and topple the whole precariously teetering house of cards, but her fecundity and pregnancy were “handled” and the force of wild nature was pressed down once again, just below the surface. Except that there is another wild force. The Idiot boy (that’s the word we used to use; as improper as that other word that comes up, that N- word we also don’t use now), with his inarticulate moaning and his inexpressible love and longing. He seems to be, not the scape goat of the town, but, like a fool in Shakespeare, the herald of the irrepressible wildness. And as Faulkner describes the world through inside this head we are catapulted into an idyll of visionary poetry, a romantic, pastoral world where human has become animal once more, but also, paradoxically more human in many ways than many of the brutish people we have met already.  At first, I admit, I thought he was waiting for, longing, chasing after, reaching his hand out for Eula, not the blond cow.

And it is a glimpse of fire, of smoke, that sets him off, that breaks the spell of civilization which held him so loosely. He had been taught to do some human-like things, but he is only imperfectly trained. As he makes the beds in the hotel, folding the corners under so neatly and properly, he glimpses the smoke across the fields and knows his beloved is in danger, so, after putting the broom to bed under the covers, he hurtles madly down the frightening stairs, rushes through brambles and through water, which he barely knows is not going to hold his feet, and saves, I think, the cow and the horse from a fire (who set it? why?). It is all instinctual. As an animal. And when he later steals the cow away, eating with her out of the basket of feed he stole for her and drinking with her in the bowl of water he arranges in the muddy stream, we see the animal in man. We are told that he always, even before, ate many things, “which the weary long record of shibboleth and superstition had taught his upright kind to call filth, neither liking nor disliking the taste of any thing save that of certain kinds of soil and the lime in old plaster and the dissolving ink in chewed newspapers and the formic acid of stinging ants, making but one discrimination: he is herbivorous….”

And yet, his love induces him to become clever like a human, to begin to build a new civilization for the two of them. He learns to steal, to hang up the basket of feed to save some for later: “who is learning fast now, who has learned success and then precaution and secrecy and how to steal and even providence; who has only lust and greed and bloodthirst and a moral conscience to keep him awake at night yet to acquire”.  He has yet to acquire some of the more complicated qualities of civilization, those qualities that one might say are responsible for the things we are as a nation presently attempting to atone for, out of our moral conscience: our human lust and greed and bloodthirst; but he is learning some of the other important human traits. His love inspires him to direct the muddied water into a clean basin in which he and his bovine love “lean and interrupt the green reflections and with their own drinking faces break each mirroring, each face to its own shattering image wedded and annealed”. And this is all so beautiful and so tender. More beautiful and tender than anything in the book so far, or, anything in the book that has included humans.

He actually brings the cow armloads of flowers, that are not only for eating, but for garlanding, a lover’s gift, an offering of beauty and utility united. No one else in the book has done anything like this before. Not for Eula, not for anybody. For the animals and the landscape alone have been, I now realize, painted with just this gentleness all along—as the lovely drinking horses gingerly stepping into the water, while the brutal, shallow humans are fornicating in the wagon. Nature is where the poetry still resides. Behold: “The air is still loud with birds, but the cries are no longer the mystery’s choral strophe and antistrophe rising vertical among the leafed altars, but are earth parallel, streaking the lateral air in prosaic busy accompaniment to the prosaic business of feeding. They dart in ceaseless arrowings, tinted and electric, among the pines whose shaggy crests murmur dry and incessant in the high day wind”. And maybe the twice-appearing word “prosaic” is important here, as if to say: in the everyday there is poetry, if you numbskulls would just take a moment, open your callous hearts and utility-dulled eyes and look!  But a human mind, with a human’s words, Faulkner’s words, has seen it and described it.  And the boy and the cow are part of this poetic world: “They pace the ardent and unheeding sun, themselves unheeding and without ardor among the shadows of the soaring trunks which are the sun-geared ratchet spokes which wheel the axled earth, powerful and without haste, up out of the caverns of darkness, through dawn and morning and mid-morning, and on toward and at last into the slowing neap of noon, the flood, the slack of peak and crown of light garlanding all within one single coronet and the fallen and unregenerate seraphim”.

I know I needed this breath, this breadth of beauty and sweetness, amid all the horrors. I hope it brings you some respite as well,

Genese

 

Dear Genese,

Yes, the fringes of Frenchmen’s Bend contain many black people who are used by whites to curious ends—a disgusting practice seen most startlingly when Mink Snopes is in jail: “…he rose and went to it and looked through the bars into the common room where the negro victims of a thousand petty white man’s misdemeanors ate and slept together.” Faulkner writes outside of time, like all the masters, and his work, no matter any fulsome academic hectoring, is, in keeping, timeless. You write that he is, “…not essentially dogmatic, not essentially Moral, but is a lever to open up ethical channels, ways of feeling and thinking, through irreducible aesthetic experience.” This bears repeating, as just a few days ago, I contemplated the possibility that some bookstores might remove Faulkner from their shelves if enough bullying cancel-culture soldiers could tip the scales, simply because he had the perceived effrontery to reflect the world he lived in (and just this morning there is a literary article in The New Yorker with the title, “How racist was Flannery O’Connor?” So maybe our exchange is a sort of tribalism, Genese, because so many in the literary industry are calling for “cancellations”—a word that has grown more synthetic in connotation because it has come to represent economic interests or items, as in, cancel that check, cancel that subscription. The glorious and joyful world of art and literature has been very much counterfeited by ideologues, some of whom insist art has to be “political,” an icky edict that I know we don’t endorse.

No matter. The Hamlet has yielded a great amount of joy in our lives—ways of seeing, in the Rilkean sense, and in the awareness of these grand parables of our inhumanity. How do we learn? How do we question? The experience of this book (I’m about ¾ of the way through) is greater than any drug I’ve taken or could hope to take—for me, drugs are too temporary, art is nourishing, living inside us, watching us as we grow older. Who knew that when reading some sections that I would literally be run off my chair, swooning at the artistry, at the all-that-is-ness of Faulkner’s imagination.

You say “conjure.” I’m of a mind of animism as I read, remembering the things you’ve discussed in your essay book in a much more cogent way than I can adapt here. In speaking of Faulkner’s textures, you’ve also put me in the mind of Emerson, who had a few ideas about reading: “An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, then afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author,” from “The Poet.” And “…I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colors,” from “Nominalist and Realist.” Those rich colors I read for don’t necessarily have to be rich as in lyrical, but rich as in grounded. Penelope Fitzgerald isn’t so much lyrical as kind of roosting in history, at least in her last four novels, which seem drawn from a wealth of reading and research, especially The Blue Flower. I can’t imagine not being stimulated through tropes at first brush in fiction or poetry, even non-fiction, as the work “communicates before it is understood.” Sometimes, as Faulkner veers, it is not fully apparent what is going on, but is still entrancing, like the experience of some classical music, Coltrane, a Gerhardt Richter. The language is an incessant shower of modifiers, with leitmotifs like “anneal” and “iron,” and the word “incorrigible,” used for Mink Snopes at least four times in his main section of the book. The tactic of his writing, the not spelling things out too much, lengthens the pleasure in the reading—there is the seduction of the style, because the reader is doing the work for himself; one never has to tell Faulkner what one likes in bed, because he knows what is best.

The Hamlet is episodic but it feels seamless. Houston’s whole life is described in about thirty pages before he is killed and his killer, Mink Snopes, is imbricated in forty more, where it seems both hard-edged men showed many “incorrigible” attitudes—the doubling or ghosting of great art. Portrait after portrait of men who try to fool themselves, even when they know better—Mink Snopes: “ It’s one dollar, he thought, knowing it was not.” They are simply real people, far from caricatures, and Cleanth Brooks concurs: “Faulkner simply does not condescend to his characters, not even—to use a currently fashionable term—by feeling compassion for them. His interest in his characters goes far beyond all the modes of condescension.” Perhaps it is this lack of condescension that catches me up in the drama of these lives—I feel pity for both these men, which seems a feat for Mink because he is a killer, but the account of him falling in love with his wife in a convict labor camp (her father runs it and Mink is not a convict, he just joins it) is astonishing—she “tries” him out in her private room, as she has been trying out all the men:

He entered not the hot and quenchless bed of a barren and lecherous woman, but the fierce simple cave of a lioness—a tumescence which surrendered nothing and asked no quarter, and which made a monogamist of him forever, as opium and homicide do of those whom they once accept. That was early one afternoon, the hot sun of July falling through the shadeless and even curtainless windows open to all outdoors, upon a bed made by hand of six-inch unplaned timbers cross-braced with light steel cables, yet which nevertheless would advance in short steady skidding jerks across the floor like a light and ill-balanced rocking chair.

Check that second sentence—that is two people having sex, but far from the pomo “he fucked her,” no; it’s all bed, and the reader fills it up with bodies, and, probably, his or her history of sex—art as portal.

I see plain and clear what you mean by I.O. being a “herald of that wildness.” The majesty of nature contrasted with people running around trying to survive and, often, one-upping each other. I love the humorous endings to the longer sections like Eck Snopes naming his son “Wallstreet Panic”: “…if we named him Wallstreet Panic it might make him get rich like the folks that run that Wallstreet panic.” Then some Snopes’s decide to take I.O.’s cow that he’s fallen in love with and cook it up and serve it to him as a way of breaking the love spell—and this recommended by a minister, who saw once it succeed.

My hours of beauty with The Hamlet are contrasted by a belief that there is no place in the world that is safe, where someone can relax—and maybe that is a good thing. I am not speaking about one thing, but all the things lingering in many of our minds, at the same time. Though Faulkner finished The Hamlet at the end of 1939—one can only imagine the heat in people’s brains at such a time, where endless death and holocaust was just beginning. I don’t know where this leaves us, but, thankfully, we are alive right now.

Best,
Greg

 

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: Wednesday, July 15th, 2020.