AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

Lecture 13

 - Faulkner's As I Lay Dying


Professor Wai Chee Dimock begins her discussion of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying by orienting the novel to the Great Depression in the South, as focalized through such famous texts as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Once this macro history is established, she reads the narrative techniques of As I Lay Dying through two analytic lenses. First, she draws on Bakhtin’s notion of social dialects to underscore the language that indexes poor whites as a Southern type. Second, she marshals Frank Kermode’s idea of narrative secrecy to show how two secrets in As I Lay Dying–Dewey Dell’s illegitimate pregnancy and Jewel’s illegitimate birth–are gradually revealed to the reader through Faulkner’s multiple narrators, each a speaker of a socially codified dialect, and each a practitioner of narrative secrecy in his or her own right.  

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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

AMST 246 - Lecture 13 - Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

Chapter 1: The Odyssey and As I Lay Dying [00:00:00]

Professor Wai Chee Dimock: OK.  We’re going to get started on As I Lay Dying and, as with The Sound and the Fury, there’s a very long genealogy behind the title of the novel. Once again, there’s a classical illusion behind the title.  It doesn’t go back to Macbeth this time. It actually goes back farther – to The Odyssey.

And you guys might remember– in Book 11 of The Odyssey – Odysseus goes down to the underworld and he sees his mother, but he also sees all the illustrious dead from the Trojan War. And among the dead that he talks to is Agamemnon.  We know that Agamemnon was killed when he got back from the Trojan War. And so, Odysseus wants to find out the circumstances of his death.

And Agamemnon says – obviously in translation – “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.” There’s a very good record within the epic, it is also picked up in various Greek tragedies, because that’s one of the central tragedies in classical world, is the killing of Agamemnon by his wife’s lover. But there’s a long story behind that, the reason that Clytemnestra–and I went to remember that name, because Clytemnestra will come up again in Light in August.  No, actually. Sorry. She doesn’t come up in Light in August, she comes up in another novel, in Absalom, Absalom!    But it’s a name that is very important to Faulkner.

Within the confines of As I Lay Dying, Clytemnestra actually didn’t just want to kill her husband to have affair with Aegisthus, she was actually seeking revenge for the killing of their daughter, Iphigenia. When the Greek ships were not able to sail because there was a dead calm, Iphigenia was sacrificed by Agamemnon in order to get them going.  She nursed that grievance for 10 years.  When Agamemnon comes home – and he was with Cassandra, brought  fromTroy – he was killed by Aegisthus with Clytemnestra egging him on.

In many ways, this the defining tragic moment in the classical world.   There are numerous representations of that, of Aegisthus killing Agamemnon with Clytemnestra looking on.  This is a really handy identification illustration for all the names given to us.  Clytemnestra is there, Aegisthus is the one who actually does the killing, Agamemnon being killed. Electra is his daughter, and she will bring her brother back, Orestes, to kill Aegisthus.  It really is back and forth killing across many generations. And Cassandra will, in time–well, actually right there–be killed by Clytemnestra.  Lots of violence, lots of hatred.

This is the defining future of the house of Atreus.  It’s very important for Faulkner to be referring back to this ancient epic moment, because he’s obviously talking about a family with very complicated emotional relationships, right? It’s a family that is not entirely defined by love. We would like families to be defined by love, but usually most families are a little bit more complicated than this. And in this case, the house of the Bundrens, the family is infinitely more complicated than just being defined by love, even though it’s on the other end of the social spectrum.

Chapter 2: The Chronology of As I Lay Dying [00:04:36]

Let’s keep that epic tradition in mind. But I also want to highlight the immediate chronology for the writing of As I Lay Dying.  It’s a packed chronology.   Basically, for six months, from the summer of 1929 to January,1930–less than six months, really– a lot of things happen.  June 20, Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. And that was only two months after her divorce from her husband, Cornell Franklin. When something like that happens, you just wonder what the aftermath would be, or what led up to it.

Anyway, two months–it was a very hasty marriage, in many ways, unseemly marriage. And Estelle brought to the marriage two children with Cornell Franklin, Malcolm and Victoria. Then October 7, 1929, The Sound and the Fury was published. And two weeks after that was the stock market crash that in many ways was anticipated by the Jason section in The Sound and the Fury.

And a day after that–I mean, that was still going on, because the 24th was a Thursday–so Friday was actually the official day of the stock market crash. On that very day, Faulkner started writing As I Lay Dying. So we can’t think of a better novel occasioned by the Great Depression. To Have and Have Not, as title analysis, is very much a Great Depression novel.  As I Lay Dying is as well.  We have to keep that in mind. And it was finished really fast, in just a few weeks. January 12, 1930, As I Lay Dying was finished.

And Faulkner talks about it, he makes a very emphatic point about how fast this was done.  In an interview with Marshall Smith, 1931, he said “Got a job rolling coal in a power plant. Found the sound of the dynamo very conducive to literature. Wrote As I Lay Dying in a coal bunker beside the dynamo between working spells on the night shift. Finished it in six weeks. Never changed a word. If I I ever got rich, I am going to buy a dynamo and put it in my house. I think that would make writing easier.”

Tongue in cheek, as always.   You know, you should never trust a word that Faulkner says. But I think that there are also some things that are not to be disputed and not to be fabricated.  There was the fact that he was working in a power plant, working night shifts.  This is very different from the Faulkner that we might have imagined just by looking at his house.   I’m going to show you a picture of his house.

It looks like a very stately house. But actually, when Faulkner first bought the house, it was decrepit and was deemed unfit for human habitation. So he really was someone, a writer, who was writing his great novels when he was working at a power plant, doing night shifts. And that’s the world that he knew very well.  His circumstances were actually not that far removed from the circumstances of the Bundren family–poor whites, obviously.

This is a picture of the house 25 years after he bought it.  We can see that it actually still looks a little decrepit. It’s a very stately shape. Used to be very grand house, but it’s unpainted. And –even 25 years after he started owning the house – it was still not repaired.  Basically, he spent the rest of his life trying to fix up that house. What we also see there is his wife, Estelle. And it turned out it was a very good marriage, in spite of the hasty beginning, it lasted for the rest of his life.  Here’s a picture of the two of them side by side.  It’s an unexpected trajectory for that unseemly marriage back in 1929.

That’s the family situation. And his probably very complicated relation to his two stepchildren, probably wasn’t exactly what constitutes a family. Those questions would have been front and center for Faulkner in 1929 when he was writing this novel about families in general, about a generic poor white family.

Chapter 3: The Great Depression and Poor Whites [00:09:52]

Since the depression was right there in the middle of August, I thought that I would show you a very iconic picture by Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” 1936. This is an image that’s reproduced over and over again. It’s the defining image of the Great Depression. And it actually is quite different from the spirit in which As I Lay Dying was written.  This represents one way to think about the Great Depression.

The way that Faulkner thinks about the Great Depression, I’d say, is closer to another classic work about the rural south, James Agee and Walker Evans’s collaboration is a text with lots of photographs. It’s a collaboration between the two of them called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I’ll just show you a few pictures, Walker Evans’ pictures of how it feels to be a poor white in also the same year as the Dorothea Lange picture, 1936.

This is a little later, after Faulkner had already finished As I Lay Dying. But this is what the house of a sharecropper would have looked like. And I think the common estimate was that 80%, maybe more than 80%, of farm laborers in the south were sharecroppers. The didn’t own the land.  This is the interior of the house of the poor whites. And another interior bedroom. And I love this picture. It’s Allie Mae. Beautiful face. Very proud and very sad and very resigned, but not giving up.  That’s exactly my image of Addie as a poor white.

Anyway, that is the background to As I Lay Dying. I think that we just need to read about two pages, two or three pages into the novel to say this is another highly experimental novel, experimenting in different points of views, and this is really a dazzling array of narrators. So in the first 18 chapters, these are the narrators.  We don’t have to keep track of all of them, just pick the ones that you can remember. But they also tend to have very distinctive voices. They actually are very easily recognizable. So don’t worry.  In fact, there’s no danger that you’ll get them mixed up.

Chapter 4: Bakhtin and the Social Dialects of the Novel [00:12:37]

In order to talk about this very rich assembly of points of views, styles of speaking, and speaking voices, I thought that I would introduce two other critics.  Or theorists about the novel – about narrative in general, actually, not just about the novel, because narrative goes much further back than the novel.  First, the epic, The Odyssey, would be one kind of ancient narrative. Although Bahktin, a celebrated Russian theorist of the novel, doesn’t like the epic all that much. He celebrates the novel as the genre replacing the epic.

In any case, that’s what he says about the novel. And what makes the novel so great is that, even though there’s this illusion when we just see words on the page, then everything seems unified, that the novel is actually a highly diversified genre with lots of internal fractures. And what generates those internal fractures is that there are multiple languages in the novel. That’s what he says. The novel is made of “social dialects, characteristic group behavior professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions…serving to express authorial intentions, but in a refractive way.”

We all know that novels actually do register passing fashions quite well.   A novel about a valley girl would have the word “like.”  The word “like” would be repeated constantly. It wouldn’t be realistic if it weren’t.  That is the nature of the novel, is to mimic current speech. And so, Bakhtin is very accurate in his description of the currency, and the way that the novel is always up to date on the language that people are using, actual living people are using. Although novels can also choose to be historic novels, in which case, they would be trying to mimic the language of the eighteenth century, or whatever, as Pynchon sometimes does, and is a master at doing that.

Bakhtin is great in terms of talking about the social dimension of language.  I don’t think that you guys need to be reminded that this is directly related to a discussion of social types – going back to Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.  Basically, this is the social dialects of various labelable social groups.

Chapter 5: Kermode and the Genesis of Secrets in As I Lay Dying [00:15:41]

But, as we read As I Lay Dying, we can also see that there’s something else going on other than social dialects, that Bahktin’s theory actually is inadequate to describing the spectrum of linguistic phenomena in As I Lay Dying. So to supplement Bakhtin, I would like to introduce one other critic, distinguished British critic who died in 2010, Frank Kermode. And this is from a book that he wrote earlier, quite early in his career, called The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative.

And Bakhtin’s theory is that, yes, we tend to interpret narratives.  When we’re given a narrative, most of us tended to make some sense of it. But his argument is also that narratives themselves are interpretations of reality. So when we actually try to interpret a narrative, we’re actually doing a kind of meta-interpretation, in the sense that the narrative itself is already an interpretation of reality. And not only that, but that secrecy, secrets emerge in the course of that interpretation. Which is a fascinating notion of how secrets are generated, not when we’re trying to hide something from other people, but when we go about interpreting reality, that is when secrets become a recognizable reality.  Not fully disclosed, but they become registered as a dimension of reality.

An interesting idea. And Kermode, basically, is interested in the Bible as his reading of the Gospel of St. Mark. But he’s also interested in narrative in general.  Let’s think about how his idea could be incorporated or combined with Bakhtin’s theory of social dialects to think about the basic linguistic paradigm in As I Lay Dying.

What I’d like to suggest is that we can very schematically classify speech in As I Lay Dying under two headings. One is the social dialect, and it has to do with functionally coded speech. When you are within a particular group, generic group, because there’s so much commonality among that group, quite often you would just use a shorthand.  For Liberals, Sarah Palin would be one such shorthand. You don’t need to say anything more. Just reference Sara Palin, and that’s enough.

That’s one example of a currently functionally coded speech. It, obviously, is a dialect subgroup, it’s not representative of the entire population. And because it is so intimately formative of that subgroup, the very use of language can function as a socioeconomic and psychological portrait of that subset as a population. All those concepts are very important to Bakhtin, that a population is made up of various subsets and there are lines of division among those subsets based on the linguistic usage.

This is the social dimension.  Obviously we need to keep in mind how poor whites would use the English language. But almost from the very beginning, we also see that the English language is used in a different way in As I Lay Dying. So those are the words with secrets, and it’s very hard not to read As I Lay Dying without sensing that those words are pregnant with meaning. Quite often we’re denied access to those meanings. They sort of taunt us with meaning that is not available to us. And that’s part of the attraction and power of those words.

I like to talk more about those words with secrets – along two lines. One is relatively short term, and relatively transparent in the sense that we can get to them sooner or later. And the other would be long running words with secrets that are very resistant to our investigation. Words that hold on to the secrets for a long time, and maybe never giving up the secret. Never yielding anything to the reader.

Chapter 6: The Speaking Voice and Moralism of Poor Whites [00:20:28]

Let’s start with an easier part of the spectrum, which is the very recognizable speech. And I’m taking both of those examples from Cora, who is, I think it’s fair to say, is a very good example of a poor white. “So I saved out the eggs and baked yesterday. The cakes turned out real well. We depend a lot on our chickens. They’re good layers, what few we have left after the possums and such. Snakes, too, in the summer. I had to be more careful than ever, because it was on my final say-so we took them. We could have stocked cheaper chickens, but I gave my promise. And as Miss Lawington said when she advised me to get a good breed, because Mr. Tull himself admits that a good breed of cows or hogs pays in the long run. So when we lost so many of them, we couldn’t afford to use the eggs ourselves, because I could not have had Mr. Tull chide me when it was on my say-so we took them.”

A very proud woman, but obviously, under very difficult circumstances. These are the people who cannot afford to eat the eggs laid by their own chickens. And it is because they lose so many chickens just from the possums and the snakes, and because those chickens are so expensive, losing one means a lot to them.  All that would Cora claims to be her own responsibility.  This is Faulkner’s basic portrait of the poor whites. Very proud people in spite of the poverty, with lots of moral rectitude, in the sense that they’re willing to take all responsibility upon themselves – without recognizing that, actually, someone else should also be held responsible, the person who advises them to buy all these expensive chickens, which turns out to be very bad advice.  But not a word of complaint from Cora.

What we can say about this world is that this is a world in which moral responsibility is tightly encapsulated within the compass of the speaking voice. That there’s a basic coincidence between the boundaries of the self and the circumference of accountability. So that you are completely responsible, accountable, answerable, to anything that happens to you. It is truly unfortunate that your chickens get taken by the possums and the snakes, but it is your responsibility.

Miss Lawington is mentioned, is alluded to, but no blame is attached to her. And I would say this is really the defining feature, according to Faulkner, of the mentality of the poor whites. And we can see one other instance of that. “So I baked carefully”, Cora has been told by Miss Lawington again to do something.

“So I baked carefully, more careful than ever I baked in my life, And. The cakes turned out right well. But when we got the town this morning, Miss Lawington told me the lady had changed her mind and was not going to have the party after all. ‘She ought to have taken those cakes anyway,’ Kate said. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I reckon she never had no use for them now.’ ‘She ought to taken them,’ Kate says. ‘But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can’t.’ Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart. ‘Maybe I can tell them at the bazaar Saturday,’ I say. They turned out real well.”

Once again, the same mentality that we saw in the earlier passage. The full encapsulation of responsibility within the compass of a single person. And that coupled with a certain kind of psychologically redeeming piety that, even though something unfortunate is befalling me right now, that God is the ultimate judge of everything. And once again, the deep reluctance to extend the blame to anyone else, either Miss Lawington, or the rich town lady who changes her mind about the cakes.

This is, I would say, very sympathetic, though necessarily also critical.  Both sympathetic and critical portrait of the poor white.  That’s the baseline–that is the given. linguistic given, psychological given, social given in the world of As I Lay Dying. And just about everything else that we see in the rest of the novel is a departure, is a deviation from that given.  Cora is the starting point and everyone else moves away a bit from that starting point.  We can measure the degree of deviation, or maybe a degree of deviance. Because As I Lay Dying is also about deviance and the consequences of deviance of any novel that we see. But this is a very important starting point for Faulkner.

Let’s look at the various points of departure from that linguistic baseline – we’ll move on now to talk about the various kinds of words with secrets. One is very short term, and I think that you guys know what I’m talking about, Dewey Dell’s secret. And then the long running secret in the Bundren family coming to us from Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell. And actually, I’ve added one other, Vardaman.

Chapter 7: Dewey Dell’s Short Term Secret [00:30:01]

Let’s look at the short term secret, Dewey Dell.  She’s picking cotton with Lafe.  And she’s decided in her own mind that if her bag is full then she will do something.  This decision is hinging strictly on whether or not the bag is full. And it turns out that Lafe has been picking into her bag.

“So it was full when we came to end of the row and I could not help it. And so it was I could not help it. It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words, like he told me that ma is going to die without words. And I knew he knew because if he said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us. But he said he did know and I said, ‘Are you going to tell pa, are you going to kill him?’ Without the words I said it, and he said ‘Why?’ without the words. And that’s why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows.”

This is the first indication that the Bundren family might have something in common with the house of Atreus – the importance of the word “hate” in that family. And it seems that hatreds can come about because someone knows something about you. All of this very intense exchange is conducted without words.  Faulkner, obviously, is not responding directly to Bakhtin, he couldn’t have been thinking about Bakhtin, but he could be seen as responding indirectly.

He’s obviously thinking of a dimension of language that is not covered, that is not encompassed by social dialect. And that is not encompassed by actually spoken words – even though, in order to tell us that those emotions are going through Dewey Dell, Faulkner has to use words to convey that experience to us. So Faulkner’s using words, but Dewey Dell is not just using words, and Darl is not just using words either. And we know exactly what it is that Darl knows, that Dewey Dell is going to town because she’s in such a condition that she desperately needs to do something about herself.  It all comes from Lafe picking the cotton into her bag, and what happens when her bag is full.

It really is a pretty transparent secret. And I think that all of us are in the know almost right there. There are not that many secrets that a young girl in her circumstances could have.  This is almost the only secret that she could have and she does have it.  That in itself is not surprising, that she would get pregnant out of wedlock, that’s not surprising.  It is surprising that she would hate Darl so much because of that.

Chapter 7: Darl, Jewel, and Dewey Dell’s Deep Rooted Secret [00:30:16]

Let’s turn now to the more deep seeded, deep rooted kind of secret that is not always disclosed to us as the words are spoken. Maybe not disclosed to us as the narrative unfolds. And maybe never disclosed to us, ever.

Darl, it turns out, is that way –as soon as the novel opens.  This is the opening paragraph of As I Lay Dying. Right there in this very neutral looking statement from Darl there’s a little secret. “Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.”

It seems a kind of odd kind of emphasis on the spatial orientation of the Bundren house, the cottonhouse, and what anyone in the cottonhouse would be able to see, and the difference in height between Darl and Jewel.  Difference in height is probably not the most significant thing in the world for most people, but within the family, difference in height actually is kind of interesting and potentially significant.  Let’s just keep that in mind, what seems to be a kind of a telling difference in height between Darl and Jewel. And just leave that secret right there, because Darl is not–maybe Darl doesn’t even know himself. But he’s certainly the carrier of a secret that is sort of given to us, or flung at us that we are just meant to receive this thing that we don’t fully understand at this moment.

But this passage is, in many ways, deceptive, in the sense that there’s not any complicated language and there’s nothing that we obviously don’t understand about it.  I would still classify this as being relatively close to the Dewey Dell kind of secret. It is long running, relatively long running. But it potentially could have the same kind of transparency as Dewey Dell’s secret.

But, let’s look at another passage where the language itself becomes very different. This is coming from Jewel himself, and I really don’t actually think I can read this very well. So I will try. But Faulkner certainly is not making it easy for anyone who tries to read this.

“If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been meet when Pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at the faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill at faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going one lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.”

I truly don’t know what to say about this passage, other than that there’s a lot of hatred in there, just like Dewey Dell’s passage.  It seems that, for some reason, hatred is the most powerful bond in this family. And Jewel seems–at least one conjecture that we could have about this passage – is that he wants to throw stones down the hill at someone. And it appears that he wants to throw stones at the rest of his family. And we have no reason to understand, it’s not just that we are not good enough readers that we don’t understand. We actually have no reason to understand what’s going on here, because Faulkner does not want us to understand at this point.

All we know is that Jewel is furious about something.  He is furious that Cash is making a coffin for Addie for some reason. And he can’t stand that adze going one lick less. That is the sound that he can’t stand. As well as the fact that Addie is on this full display for the entire neighborhood to come and look at her when Cash is trying to get that coffin ready.  These are the immediate circumstances that he really hates, that she is in disgrace, because everyone, every bastard in the country can come in and look at her when she’s waiting for her coffin. And that Cash seems to be taking his time making the coffin, but not maliciously, we would think. Because he’s a very good carpenter and he wants to be thorough in making a very good coffin.

But for some reason, Jewel’s hatred also extends to his father.  If that load of wood had fallen on him, that would have been good.  It’s very peculiar. We don’t know the long history, the long, emotional history behind all those people. They obviously are a very close-knit family, because there are so few people around, that there’s just not enough distance separating them. They’re really basically all stuck in the same place. And that creates kind of the ideal condition to maximize any kind of hostility among the family members. That seems to be one of the consequences of poor whites in a very small town with very few neighbors.

It seems, at the very least, that Jewel, as he imagines himself, or as he experiences himself in relation to the rest of his family, that he sees himself very much as an outsider. So Jewel sees himself as an outsider, that he would like to do something, he would like to throw stones at the rest of this family. And combine that with the fact that Darl seems to be really fixated on that otherwise innocent fact that Jewel is a whole head taller than he is – these two details seem linked in some fashion. There’s a very deep seeded and violent and always explosive kind of hatred coming from Jewel. And a neutral observation from Darl, that those two, they are pieces of some kind of jigsaw puzzle that we have to figure out in the course of As I Lay Dying.

Let me just give one more addition to that kind of configuration based on what seems to be unmotivated or unaccounted-for hatred. The hatred is unmistakable. The violence is unmistakable.   It’s just that we’re not able to read them very well.  So Frank Kermode is actually right that this is a narrative that, in the course of making us, compelling us to come up with interpretations, it’s also generating secrets in that very act. That the fact that we have to interpret the words that are given to us also generates secrets about the Bundren family.

Chapter 8: Dewey Dell’s Portrait of Her Brothers [00:38:10]

Here is Dewey Dell, back again. And we know the she’s already been the carrier of one kind of secret about herself. That seems pretty transparent. But now there seems to be a secret of a somewhat different order. “And Jewel don’t care about anything he is not kin to us in caring, not care-kin. And Cash like sawing the long hot yellow days up into planks and nailing them to something. And I did not think that Darl would, that sits at the supper table with his eyes gone further than the food and the lamp, full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land.”

I think this is actually Faulkner’s belated attempt to write what he doesn’t write in The Sound and the Fury, which is the portrait of three brothers told from the standpoint of the sister. Dewey Dell is nothing like Caddy, but it’s almost as if Faulkner is showing us that, yes, he can certainly capture a young girl’s point of view, and maybe this is what comes out.  Not exactly flattering – it’s a very intimate portrait of the three brothers – but it’s not one that they would especially like to see or hear about.

Something about Jewel seems to be emerging, just in the course of what Darl is saying, what Jewel himself is say, and what Dewey Dell is saying. It’s a common pattern. That Jewel is not kin to us, he’s not care-kin, he doesn’t care for the rest of us.  His concerns seem to lie somewhere else.

That fact is fairly straightforward. The little bit of observation about Cash is interesting. We know that Cash is a good carpenter. And Faulkner really wanted to highlight that fact. But basically he’s the one who brings in money to the family. He’s the one who’s always hired by other people. He’s the only one who’s capable of bringing in real income into the family. And he really wants to make a good coffin for Addie.  All that is not in dispute.

But the way in which Dewey Dell looks at Darl, that he’s sawing up the long hot sad yellow days into planks, suggests that maybe there’s some kinds of metaphoric and psychological dimension to carpentry as well. That even though Darl is a very skilled laborer, there’s also something–very skilled workman. He’s more than just a laborer. Actually, he’s an artisan. He’s a very skilled artisan. There is something about that act of very methodically sawing the wood, that says something about the mindset of Cash.  That is what Dewey Dell is noticing. That as if, even though, now matter how good an artisan he is, there’s something maybe just a little disturbing or worrisome about the fact that he’s so much into carpentry.

And then, the portrait of Darl –truly, I don’t know what to make of that. It is very surprising coming from Dewey Dell, who, so far, has not been a very deep thinker, or someone with very deep emotions, actually. She’s worried about something very immediate and very simple, really. But this portrait of Darl that his eyes have “gone further than the food and the lamp.” He’s obviously not just registering the food and the lamp. There’s a different degree of depth between what his eyes register and the quite surface phenomenon of the food and the lamp. There’s a difference in just the radius of perception between what Darl is registering and the most immediate physical world of food and lamp.

And I think that it is because of that difference in the radius of perception, that the whole land seems to be embedded in his skull, or dug out of the skull, and then their holes filled with distance, that in some sense, both the vastness of the land, the enormous distance, but also the holes, the gaps in that distance, all of those are packed into Darl’s skull. I mean, I’m just paraphrasing Faulkner, not really elucidating that passage. And I think that that’s all we can do at this moment. That there’s something special about Darl. That he’s not so easily describable in everyday language. So this is almost a direct refutation of Bakhtin that social dialect quite often cannot capture the psychological reality, even of what appears to be the most simple, deprived person–disadvantaged person.

Chapter 9: Vardaman and the Speech of Children [00:43:29]

I want to give you one more example of “linguistic specimen.”  And specimen isn’t really the right word. Specimen would have been the right word for Hemingway, would have been right word for Fitzgerald in the short stories, but it’s not completely adequate here.   But – I’m using that word in that way.  This is one instance of language that is also completely incomprehensible to us, coming from a child, from Vardaman.

“It is dark. I can hear wood, silence: I know them. But not living sounds, not even him. It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components–snuffings and stamping; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a co-ordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret familiar, an is different from my is. I see him dissolve–legs, a rolling eye, a gaudy splotching like cold flames and float upon the dark in fading solution; All one, yet neither; all either yet none. I can see hearing coil toward him, caressing, shaping his hard shape–fetlock, hip, shoulder, and head; smell and sound. I am not afraid.”

This comes right after two very dramatic moments. The chapter before the Vardaman chapter is when we know that Addie is dead, that Addie Bundren is dead. That is announced to us at the very end of that chapter. And then the chapter that is Vardaman’s chapter, right after that, is when he actually goes into Peabody’s barn, the barn of the neighbor, and uses a stake to beat on the horses so that they all run away. And most of that chapter is devoted to Vardaman beating on the horses and saying that they–not even that they, but that you killed my mom.

That in itself is kind of, you know, sort of understandable.   But strange in that – unlike Cora, who would pin the responsibility on herself – Vardaman pins the responsibility for killing Addie, it appears, onPeabody. And that’s why he’s beating onPeabody’s horses, and in fact, just destroying the whole team, since the horses run away.  Then, afterPeabody’s horses run away, Vardaman seems to be preoccupied with something else. And this is a moment where Faulkner really is having a great time with his pronouns. Who is this “he?” OK. I think there are at least two candidates. I think it possibly is Jewel’s horse, this horse that doesn’t run away. And there’s something about the snuffings and stampings, and the splotched hide that suggest that it is the horse that Vardaman is talking about. This is the one thing that’s remaining, this horse that doesn’t run away.

But there’s also a possibility that–and is different from my–is just because of the syntactical construction of this sentence, suggests that it might not be an animal but a human being. A human being who is different from Vardaman, is, in which case, that human being could only be Jewel.   I think that this passage is meant to be deliberately mysterious, in the sense that we can’t tell exactly where Jewel ends and where his horse begins. The boundaries between the human being and the horse are not so clear-cut. And in fact, the identities of the two seem to be interfused.

And that is one of the great innovations in As, I Lay Dying, those very ambiguous and uncertain boundaries between the human and the non-human, which actually is also one of the great defining attributes of the classical epic tradition. So we’ll come back to this and talk about the uncertain boundaries between human and non-human both by going back to Homer and Dante and so on, but talking about the implications in As I Lay Dying.

[end of transcript]

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