on July 16, 2006
Richard Marius (1933-1999) was the author of four novels: The Coming of Rain (1969), Bound for the Promised Land (1976), After the War (1992), and An Affair of Honor, published posthumously. He also wrote two works of non-fiction: Thomas More: A Biography (1984) and Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (1999).
Reading Faulkner is a collection of delightful lectures delivered by Marius at Harvard Univ. in 1996 and 1997. These lectures are introductions to Faulkner's first 13 novels: Soldier's Pay, Mosquitoes, Flags in the Dust, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, Pylon, Absalom, Absalom!, The Unvanquished, The Wild Palms, The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses.
What a remarkable period of creativity Faulkner enjoyed, stretching from his first novel, Soldier's Pay (1926) to the last of his great novels, Go Down, Moses (1942). "In 1942," Marius comments, "[Faulkner] could look back on sixteen years of the most productive greatness in American literary history."
Faulkner grew up in Oxford, Miss. (one can visit there his beloved home, Rowan Oak), which was the prototype of the town of Jefferson, in mythical Yoknapatawpha County. It was a narrow, circumscribed world, full of various passions and prejudices, a world of conflicting issues of sex, class, and race. But out of this particular time and place Faulkner created a body of literature that has universal relevance and timeless appeal. The characters created by his fertile imagination reveal the human condition and, as Shakespeare put it, throws up the mirror of nature to ourselves. His work reveals "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself."
"[I] discovered," wrote Faulkner, "that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own."
Marius points out various influences on the development of Faulkner's dark and tragic art: Greek and Roman mythology, especially as chronicled in Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough;the plays of Shakespeare (whom he loved); and the writings of depth psychologists.
According to Marius, however, the two greatest influences on Faulkner were the poetry of T. S. Eliot ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Hollow Men," "The Waste Land" and so forth) and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.
"I think a strong case can be made," writes Marius, "for Faulkner as someone deeply interested in the implications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwinism is inherently pessimistic. Darwin did not believe in God and did not believe in any ultimate purpose to the life of the individual, the nation, or the human race."
In another place, Marius writes, "Darwin held that human beings are a higher form of animal--higher only in that our brains give us a superior capacity to survive. I believe it is demonstrable from the text that Faulkner was enormously influenced by the teaching of Charles Darwin, that human beings evolved from lower forms of life, and that the most important feature of any species is that it adapt itself sufficiently to its environment to survive....I see a Darwinian impulse that I find constant in Faulkner from the beginning."
Faulkner is often difficult to "read," that is, to understand. Like James Joyce's Ulysses, many of his works exhibit a stream-of-consciousness dislocation of time. Marius: "Faulkner plays with time, happy to break up, indeed to shatter the traditional idea of chronology in the novel, a tradition where we have a linear progression of plot with occasional clearly marked flashbacks." There is a curious interplay of consciousness and memory in Faulkner that often disorients and confuses the reader.
Like Shakespeare, Faulkner features characters who are puzzling mixtures of good and evil, light and darkness. Nor does Faulkner give us much help in understanding his characters. Again like Shakespeare, he maintains a distance or detachment from them, letting their deeds speak for them and putting the burden of interpretation of the readers.
A persistent theme in Faulkner's novels is the hypocrisy of those who attempt, at all costs, to keep up appearances, which to them is more important than reality. So long as a code or custom is ostensibly upheld and honored, the true state of affairs is relatively unimportant. Thus, incest may be winked at while miscegenation may become a capital offense (often by lynching). One doubts that such an obsession with appearances is peculiar to the South, but Faulkner certainly seems to think that such hypocrisy is an endemic Southern problem.
Faulkner's world is a tragic world, and his art is a tragic art. Death is the end of life, and life is filled with pride, prejudice, lust, greed, deceit, hypocrisy, and violence. One begins to wonder if Darwin is correct in saying that human beings are higher than the other animals. Perhaps labeling some human act as "bestial" is a vile and vicious slander of the beasts.
Reading Faulkner is so rewarding that one despairs of doing it justice in a review. It inspires one to reread Faulkner's novels and short stories, for such a rereading, using Marius' excellent literary compass will doubtless help one see things missed on first reading.