AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

Lecture 14

 - Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Part II


Professor Wai Chee Dimock traces Faulkner’s appropriation of the epic genre through two conventions: the blurring of boundaries between humans and non-humans and the resurrection of the dead. She first reads Faulkner’s minor character Tull and his relation to both mules and buzzards to draw out the “nature of manhood in poor whites.” From Tull, she shifts focus to Jewel and suggests that his kinship with the snake and the horse foregrounds the narrative secrecy of Jewel’s genealogy. As Addie Bundren’s monologue reveals, Jewel’s illegitimate father, the Reverend Whitfield, is similarly identified with both the horse, as the animal he rides, and the snake, whose Edenic behavior he parallels in his affair with Addie. 

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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

AMST 246 - Lecture 14 - Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Part II

Chapter 1: Humans and Non-Humans [00:00:00]

Professor Wai Chee Dimock:   Just want to go back very briefly to the title of As I Lay Dying. As you guys know, the title is taken from The Odyssey, Book XI. And Odysseus has gone to the underworld, and he’s talking to Agamemnon, who’s telling him about the circumstances of his death and his murder by his wife, Clytemnestra – “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eye would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”

In many ways, this is the original inspiration for Faulkner.  Today I’d like to talk a little more about this – about modernism and the epic tradition.  Obviously, we’ve read enough of As I Lay Dying to know that this is in many ways an epic journey.  It is a journey, heroic or mock-heroic, to bury Addie.  It has all the trappings of the epic.  It’s an epic journey on a small scale.

And it’s also taking advantage of two epic conventions. We’ve seen just now that we hear the voice of the dead, and that’s a very important epic convention, used both in Homer and in Dante. As we’ll see, it is also a very important convention in As I Lay Dying as well, that Faulkner is making very liberal use of.

The other interesting epic convention that I think is being invoked in As I Lay Dying is the uncertain boundaries between the human and the non-human.  We have already seen a little bit of that.  I just wanted to refresh your memory with something that we discussed last time in terms of two kinds of speech.  Last week, we talked about the social dialect on one hand, and on the other hand the words with secrets.

And this is one instance of words with secrets coming from Vardaman. So this is Vardaman talking about something in the barn after he has beaten Peabody’s horses and broken the stick.

“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 coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, drenched and secret and familiar, an is different from my is.”

Most likely, Vardaman is talking about the horse, but as we can see, especially as we get closer to the end of that passage, this being that is “drenched and secret and familiar, an is different from my is” – Vardaman really seems to be talking more about his brother, Jewel, than about Jewel’s horse. And it’s really hard to say when the human ends and when the animal begins in that particular passage.  This is something that we see both in a small moment like this in As I Lay Dying but also in a very dramatized moment when Vardaman says, “My mother is a fish,” where obviously a strong analogy is being established between human and non-human.

Chapter 2: The Epic Tradition and Homer’s Cyclops [00:03:50]

We’ll come back to that statement on Thursday, but today I’d like just to go back a little bit and give you a sense of this very long epic tradition behind As I Lay Dying by going back to Homer and Dante.  In Homer, I want to talk about two instances: the Cyclops, obviously, we don’t know if he’s fully human; and an even more famous episode is Circe turning humans into animals. And then Dante following through with that convention in the Inferno when humans are turned into animals as punishment.

First, Homer in Book IX of The Odyssey.  Odysseus and his men are trapped inside a cage by the cyclops, and the way that they try to escape is by blinding the Cyclops, Polyphemus. And so this is a moment that is reproduced by just about all the painters who paint that scene, that episode in The Odyssey, is the blinding of the eye. And we know that the Cyclops only has one eyes, so it’s relatively easy. You only have to do it once.

Here’s Odysseus blinding the eye of the Cyclops. And we can see that the Cyclops seems bigger. The main difference seems to be in size and also the amount of hair on him. But otherwise, he has a human form. But we also know that he’s different, if only because he has one eye in the center of his forehead.  He’s not quite human, but he’s close enough, and that is a condition that is especially fascinating to epic authors. Just give you a couple more images of the cyclops. Basically, it’s the same kind of idea. He’s much larger, has a lot more hair, but otherwise has a recognizable human form. All the men trying to use that spike to blind the cyclops.  Here is one more image.

There seems to be pretty much a consensus in thinking about the cyclops that he really basically is like us. But what is also interesting is that after his eye has been blinded, the cyclops wants to make sure that when his sheep leave the cage that there wouldn’t be humans hiding or going along with them. So he’s counting all his sheep as they go out, as they leave his cave, even though he can’t really see them. And he’s surprised that his favorite sheep is the last to go, and he’s the last to go because Odysseus is clinging to him.

But this is what cyclops says to his sheep. “Sweet cousin ram, why lag behind the rest in the night cave? You never linger so but graze before them all, and go afar to crop sweet grass, and take your stately way leading along the streams, until at evening you come to be the first one in the fold. Why, now, so far behind? Can you be grieving over your Master’s eye?”

Not only is there a sense of kinship between the Cyclops and his sheep, but this is one of the earliest moments of cross-species identification; that the Cyclops obviously is mourning the loss of his eye, and he’s imagining, he’s projecting that grief onto his sheep and recreating kinship on a different level. Not just on a physical level there’s a connection between humans and animals, but also on the psychic level, on an emotional level, there is that kind of kinship. The Odyssey, I would say, is one of the earliest moments of a really interesting cross-species imagination, at least in this one moment.

Chapter 3: Cross-Species Kinship in Circe’s Magic and Dante’s Inferno [00:07:56]

The better known moment – though I would argue it’s less subtle than this – is the transformation of humans by Circe.  Here’s Odysseus going after her because she has transformed one of his men into this animal.

We see many instances of this. And this is an amazing image, this vessel with all the animals in Circe’s house. And I think that we recognize that actually there’s a strong Egyptian influence. These images look very Egyptian, and there is in fact constant traffic between ancientGreeceandEgypt.  It’s part of the impetus for thinking about humans and non-humans as coming fromEgyptas well.

And just to complete our discussion of the epic tradition, Dante’s doing the same thing. And I just wanted to alert you that the snake is very important. The connection between the human and the non-human in the Inferno is that Dante’s basic punitive philosophy is that humans get punished by being changed into something that resembles the crime.  Thieves, because they’re sneaky and they snake their way into other people’s dwellings and take what belongs to them, that thieves are turned into snakes in the Inferno.  Lots of snakes in the Inferno.

And one more dramatic representation. All of these are by William Blake, so we have a really interesting conjunction of a nineteenth-century author going back to Dante and reproducing these very emblematic moments. So we have on record a nineteenth-century author, William Blake, being inspired by the epic tradition.

Chapter 4:  Affinities with Animals in As I Lay Dying [00:09:50]

I think Faulkner is a twentieth-century instance of a similar kind of inspiration. But as with Faulkner, he adds another layer of complexity to the epic tradition. And I would say that this is actually one of the most important innovations in As I Lay Dying, in many ways more interesting than the epic journey itself, is that humans are rarely identified with just one kind of animal. More often, they are pulled between two ends of a spectrum. They are sometimes identified with one and sometimes identified with the other. And sometimes it’s a mixture of the two. So the two characters that I would like to talk about in that context is first of all Tull and then Jewel. Tull is a minor character, but in many ways he’s a really good example to concentrate on to try to get a sense of the basic narrative strategies in Faulkner.

I would just like to stop here for a moment and talk about possible paper topics when you think of the upcoming long paper is to focus on minor characters. It is counterintuitive to use minor characters as the main subject of your papers, but actually I promise you, especially in the case of Faulkner, you can get wonderful papers by focusing on someone like Tull or even someone like Cora, a very unobvious entry point. But because they are unobvious entry points, you can actually end up writing really interesting and surprising and compelling papers.

I’ll try to give you a demonstration today of what could be done by focusing on a minor character like Tull and then obviously moving on to a more central character, Jewel.  I would like to argue that Tull is basically identified with two opposing kinds of animal. One is the mule, the indispensable animal among poor whites, the mule rather than the horse, and then a creature that also makes a routine appearance in Faulkner, the buzzard.

First of all, the mule and Tull as mule-like. “When I looked back at my mule, it was like he was one of these spy-glasses, and I could look at him standing there and see all the broad land and my house sweated out of it like it was the more the sweat, the broader the land. The more the sweat, the tighter the house. Because it would take a tight house for Cora, to hold Cora like a jar of milk in the spring. You’ve got to have a tight jar, or you need a power spring. So if you have a big spring, why then, you have the incentive to have tight, well-made jars. Because it is your milk, sour or not. Because you would rather have milk that will sour than to have milk that won’t, because you are a man.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. This is really– I think maybe it’s just the sound of it that Faulkner wants us to get the flavor of thoughts that might have been coursing through Tull’s head. It’s just a wonderful moment talking about manhood among poor whites, people who don’t have a lot to prove their manhood with, no flask, no cars, no iPhones, nothing.  Very meager equipment with which to prove your manhood.

The only thing that Tull can see in front of him is his mule.  He’s looking at his mule. And by looking at his mule, somehow his thoughts meander to the most important person in his life, his wife, Cora.   That is his claim to Cora. So I won’t be able to tell you the exact logic behind this little bit of reasoning, which is really more emotional reasoning than cerebral reasoning. But it seems that Tull is saying that his claim to Cora, the way that he can keep her, keep her in a tight house, both in the physical house but also in a tight place in his heart and in her heart, is by being a very good laborer, by sweating and cultivating the land and making sure that the more the sweat, the tighter the house.

This is the logic, that this is the nature of manhood among poor whites – it is by the sweat of your brow that you can win the woman’s heart. It’s nothing fancy, nothing complicated, very simple logic. But of course, it doesn’t come out in a simple way in Faulkner. And that really is the defining nature of existence of very poor, rural people is that basically you only have one thing to prove yourself. And we can see that why on this one thing Anse is such an inadequate specimen of masculinity. He’s just not a very good workman.

Tull is by contrast someone who is fully adequate, fully competent, fully impressive specimen of manhood in that particular environment. And he’s proud. This is a very joyful moment. This is one of the great scenes about marriage. And on Thursday, we’ll talk about a contrasting scene of a very bad marriage, contrasting with this very happy scene of a married couple in Faulkner.

Chapter 5:  Mules, epic and tragic  [00:16:19]

But as with Faulkner, mules don’t stay happy forever, or humans that are like mules don’t stay happy forever. So we are turning to a different meaning of the mules when the journey takes both an epic but also a tragic turn when they try to cross the river when the bridge is gone. And the mules are supposed to pull the cart across the river, which they know they cannot do, so they’re just looking at this impending disaster.

And once again, the mules as emblematic of people who know that something terrible is going to happen but with absolutely no power to stop that from happening. “The mules stand, their forequarters already sloped a little, their rumps high. They too are breathing now with a deep groaning sound. Looking back once, their gaze sweeps across us, within their eyes a wild, sad, profound, and despairing quality, as though they had already seen in the thick water the shape of the disaster which they could not speak and we could not see.”

The epic convention –in fact, the entire ancient Greek tradition – is invoked in two ways, both in the mules as in many ways emblematic of humans but also in the function of a tragic chorus. We know that this is a structural feature in Greek tragedy, a chorus looking on knowing that a catastrophe is about to hit but with absolutely no ability to prevent its coming.

That’s what the mules are doing here. That’s the function, that’s the epic function within As I Lay Dying, very much associated with a resigned but resilient attitude that we’ve seen in Tull, but in this case, the resignation and the personal bravery, that those two qualities aren’t really adequate to stopping the arrival of a catastrophe.

In the next moment, we see what happens to the mules. And this is in many ways simply a logical conclusion of what they have already been aware of. This is a completely unsurprising ending to this sequence begun by the mules as the tragic chorus. “Between two hills, I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended, as when they had lost contact with the earth.”

A backward gesture to that earlier happy moment when the mules are fully contented and fully capable of doing what they can do within their own environment. Mules are creatures with feet of clay. That’s what’s clear in this kind of sequence is that because they are creatures with feet of clay, they can only survive when they are on solid earth. And when they’re on solid earth, they are very good in making that earth productive and reproductive.

This is what Tull is talking about. He’s a productive farmer. He’s also reproductively happy with Cora. That is the nature but also the limits of a mule-like existence is that there’s certain lines that mules cannot cross. They cannot transcend their own condition. As creatures with feet of clay, they can only be OK–and it really is no more than that–they can be OK only within one setting.

At this other moment, when they left the customary setting and they are stuck trying to negotiate with a swollen river, we know that the mules will not survive in that kind of transformed setting. In many ways – a perfect analogy for the poor whites, that they can do relatively well when they’re left to their own devices, when they’re allowed simply to stick to their environment. But once they’re taken out of their environment, then we know that terrible things are going to happen to them.

In this particular sequence, Tull being associated with the mules, he’s basically defenseless. He wants just to be allowed to live life according to his own fashion. That really is the basic requirement of the mules is to be let alone and to be allowed just to survive as they know how to do. That is a very innocuous and in many ways a very sad portrait of the poor whites but basically innocuous.

Chapter 6: Poor Whites as Buzzards [00:21:56]

But Faulkner also has a somewhat different image of what the poor white community might amount to.  He’s not just going to give us an image of poor whites as defenseless but basically non-aggressive. Mules are completely non-aggressive. Faulkner does think that there actually is an element of aggression in a very close-knit community, especially a close-knit community such as the poor white community. And we see that in the next image of the poor whites coming not surprisingly from Jewel. This is how Jewel thinks about his neighbors. “And now them others, sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves, every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her.”

We’ve talked about hatred as a very important emotion, as a kind of emotional bond within the family. And we now see that hatred is also a very important emotional bond within a small, isolated community. Not only does Jewel hate someone like Tull, because they’re always sitting there watching your every move, not only does Jewel hate Tull, but he also imagines that there is an element of aggression, something that is not quite benign coming from the neighbors. And that is really why he’s so suspicious of them and so ill-disposed towards them on his part.

And the buzzards actually will appear over and over again. We’ve already seen them in The Sound and the Fury, the buzzards collecting around the body of the dog,Nancy, in the ditch and buzzards that Benjy imagines would go and undress his dead grandmother.  Buzzards have already appeared in Faulkner.

But in As I Lay Dying, buzzards as a physical presence will be quite important. And also as a metaphoric presence to talk about what your neighbors might really be like in their hearts– not in their outward behavior, but in their hearts, they might be just like buzzards. And here’s an image of buzzards to explain why Jewel might think that the neighbors are like them.

Tull, as I said, is obviously not the main protagonist in As I Lay Dying. But he is an important clue to what Faulkner is trying to do. Because the way Faulkner portrays Jewel, a very important character, is almost exactly analogous to the way he portrays Tull, except that what in Tull is dispersed and sequenced– Tull is sometimes identified with the mule and sometimes identified with the buzzard. We don’t actually see him being simultaneously identified with both.

Chapter 7: Jewel as Snake and Horse [00:25:13]

What is sequenced and spaced out in Tull would quite often be collapsed together as one in Faulkner’s portrayal of Jewel.  In this moment, we actually see Jewel being likened to two animals, not just one, not just his horse, which is obviously the main creature that he’s affiliated with, not just the horse, but something else.

“ ‘Come here, sir,’ Jewel says. He moves. Moving that quick, his coat, bunching, tongue swirling like so many flames. With tossing mane and tall and rolling eye, the horse makes another short curvetting rush and stops again, feet bunched, watching Jewel. Jewel walks steadily toward him, his hands at his sides. Save for Jewel’s legs, they are like figures carved for a tableau savage in the sun.”

“When Jewel can almost touch him, the horse stands on its hind legs and slashes maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings. Among them, beneath the upreared chest, he moves with the flashing limberness of a snake. For an instant, before the jerk comes into his arms, he sees his whole body, earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber, until he finds the horse’s nostrils and touches earth again.”

Many things to say about this moment. The first–and we’ve referenced back to the mules and the fact that they are creatures of clay–is that Faulkner is basically making a very deep, metaphoric distinction between two kinds of animals. There are animals like the mules, who can’t swim and can only survive when they are on solid earth, and then there are other creatures, the horse being the main example, who actually can leave the earth for a nontrivial length of time and be able to survive when they’re not touching the earth.

Right here, we know that Jewel is a very different kind of person from Tull. Yes, he is in a poor white community. His parents appear to be poor whites. But for some reason, there is something else about Jewel that makes him different. He’s more horse-like than mule-like. So this is a backward reference to another important animal in As I Lay Dying.

But within the compass of this particular passage, what is really interesting is the simultaneous co-presence of the horse and the snake. And for most of us, the two of them actually really are not that alike. It’s hard to think of any kind of kinship, really, between the horse and the snake. They look different, and they have very different connotations in our common understanding of those two animals.

Chapter 8: The Horse, the Snake, and Scattered Representation [00:28:24]

Let’s try to see what it is that enables Faulkner to bring those two animals together. Well, we know that the horse is a winged horse, so this is going back to the epic tradition. It’s an illusion of wings. This is not just a horse that is an earthly creature, but seemingly one of the winged horses of Greek mythology. And certainly the horse is acting like a mythic horse, in that the motion is almost beyond just the physical capability of any earthly creature.  It is the body in motion, but not being registered as body at all, but simply as bodily parts coming into view, when suddenly you are seeing that bodily part, but not really the entire horse.

And that actually was the way that Vardaman was thinking of the horse as well. We’ll go back to that moment. In Vardaman’s account of the horse in the barn, “It was as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity into an unrelated scattering of components–snuffings and stampings, smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair,” and so on.

So Vardaman has exactly the same kind of scattered representation. The horse is moving so fast that we’re not actually seeing the horse as a single, integrated being, but simply as different bodily parts coming into view through the motion.  It’s less about the body, less about the horse’s body, than about a very fast, almost transcendent kind of motion. And that is really how Jewel’s horse is represented to us. We don’t see him as a horse. We simply see him as something that is in constant motion.

But more than that, it is the very ambiguous relation between Jewel and the horse. Obviously, Jewel loves his horse. He’s done a lot of work to get the horse. It is very much his horse. But it is not exactly an affectionate relation. It is a battle between two creatures very important to each other. The horse probably is the most important creature to Jewel, but there’s no affection there. What is the feeling? What is the emotional bond between these two things if it is not common affection, which is the most ordinary and easily recognizable and recognized human bond? It’s not there. What is this other emotion that is there?

And it seems that what Faulkner is suggesting is that instead of the common human affection, it is a snake-like quality that is binding Jewel to his horse. We don’t know what emotions snakes have. They’re not usually credited with having emotions (other than sneakiness), which isn’t really an emotion. So we don’t actually know what kind of emotional bonds can come from snakes, but it would seem to have at least some degree of hatred. It’s not a benign feeling, that’s for sure.

For now, let’s just say that we don’t completely understand what is going on here or why the snake is a very important supplement to the relation between Jewel and the horse. We’re back, once again, to what we’ve been talking about earlier, which is the narrative as a secret-bearing narrative. This is not social dialect. This is words with secrets. That’s what we’re seeing right here.

And just to highlight how unusual this description of Jewel and the horse is, I just want to go back very briefly to a contrasting moment in Hemingway, when once again we see a human paired with an animal that is very important to him in In Our Time. This is the matador killing the bull.

“When he started to kill it, it was all in the same rush. The bull looking at him straight in front, hating. The bull charged and Villalta charged and just for a moment they became one. Villalta became one with the bull and then it was over.”

In this passage in Hemingway, actually, the emotion of hatred is quite important as well. So in an odd way, just like Faulkner, Hemingway is also interested in hatred as a powerful emotional bond. And that really is what enables the bullfight to go on. But it is hatred so clear and so transparent and so ritualistic and so ceremonious that it is also transformed by that ritual into a kind of love, really.  In Hemingway, it is very, very clear. It’s the clarity of the sentiment that is in the foreground. There’s really nothing more to say. The bull and the matador have become one. Hemingway keeps repeating that. Everything is completely clear, and there is no secret whatsoever.

Chapter 9: The Secretive Narrative of Jewel’s Horse [00:34:24]

By contrast, this is a secretive narrative that flaunts its secret in our face. We don’t really understand what’s going on. And that is the purpose of this kind of narration.  Just to refresh your memory, we’re drawing inspiration from Frank Kermode’s classic, Genesis of Secrecy. And the moment when Faulkner is highlighting, dramatizing the existence of a secret is by way of Jewel’s horse. And this time it is a fully dramatized moment, in the sense that not only is the horse there and not only is Jewel there, but everyone else is there.  There’s the entire tragic chorus–or maybe in this case not completely tragic either–but the entire chorus is there witnessing this dramatic exchange. And it is no longer an exchange between Jewel and the horse, but someone else.

“ ‘Jewel,’ ma said, looking at him. ‘I’ll give–I’ll give–give.’ Then she began to cry. She cried hard, not hiding her face, standing there in her faded wrapper, looking at him and him on the horse looking down at her, his face growing cold and a little sick-looking until he looked away quick, and Cash came and touched her. ‘You go on to the house,’ Cash said. ‘This here ground is too wet for you. You go on, now.’

“That night, I found ma sitting beside the bed where he was sleeping in the dark. She cried hard, maybe because she had to cry so quiet, maybe because she felt the same way about tears as she did about deceit, hating herself for doing it, hating him because she had to. And then I knew that I knew. I knew that as plain as on the day I knew about Dewey Dell.”

This is the moment when the secret is exposed. And it is exposed of course without Faulkner ever coming close to the very simple nature of that secret. It is completely by way of this detour around Jewel’s horse. The way we know that there is a secret is that Addie’s response to the horse is nothing like what would have been a normal response to a horse.

Her son disappears night after night. People don’t know where he goes. And then all of a sudden, he comes back with this horse, an unheard of possession among poor whites. Mules would be the standard animals to have for poor whites. A horse is not at all the thing to have or that anyone could have. So this is a possession that is inappropriate for poor whites.

And Vardaman’s response is what would’ve been an ordinary, completely understandable response is, let me ride the horse.  Vardaman is reacting as anyone would react. Addie’s response is by crying, which I guess could still have been normal, except that the response then from Jewel is that his face is growing cold. And then he’s looking at her, and the more he looks at her, the more sick-looking he becomes.

That is not in the script at all. If the horse had been anything but a good event, if the horse had simply been a joyous acquisition, none of this would have happened. So what is it that transforms a joyous acquisition into something that people can either cry about or be very uneasy about or something that requires some degree of comforting, which is what Cash seems to be doing?

Here is this proud mother. And Addie ought to be a proud mother. And instead, Cash is talking to her as if something terrible had happened to her. “Go on back to the house. Go on, now. The ground is too wet for you.” The solicitude coming from Cash is also inexplicable.

We can say that from every single person–the overreaction of Addie, the crying, the sick-looking expression on Jewel’s face, the over-solicitude coming from Cash–all of those things are things that should not be in the script but surprisingly are in the script. And then we know that there really is something that could be named, that could be identified and named. And even though Darl is not going to name it for us, he comes as close as he can to saying that word.

The way he tells us is this: “I knew that as plain on that day as I knew about Dewey Dell.” So right here, we see a backward reproduction in terms of Faulkner’s characterization. We know about Dewey Dell’s pregnancy out of wedlock first, and this is the thing that Darl knows about, this transparent secret. It is Dewey Dell’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy that is being reproduced in her mother.

This is the interesting backward reproduction, like mother, like daughter. And in this case, we know about the daughter’s condition first. And it’s because Darl has exactly the same reaction now and exactly the same degree of knowledge now that we know that in fact what Dewey Dell is doing now has been done once before in the family by her mother.

A lot of things are coming together, the fact that Jewel has a very different height, that can’t be explained. The fact that Jewel can acquire a horse when nobody else in a poor white community, that can’t be explained as well. A lot of things are falling into place with a suspicion that’s just sneaking up on us.

This is really why the snake is so important to Faulkner is that a discovery is sneaking up on us. It is sneaking up on everyone else. This is a snake that is not like the snake in Dante, a snake that takes the possession of someone else–although there’s an element of this as well–but a snake that insinuates itself into our consciousness and imparts to us a degree of knowledge or a kind of knowledge that maybe we would prefer not to have.  This is the very early snake, the snake that is the bearer of knowledge coming to Adam and Eve that is being invoked here.

Chapter 10: The Epic Convention of Raising the Dead [00:42:13]

Just to clinch the case, just to make everything very, very clear, Faulkner now resorts to another convention, bringing Addie back to life so that she actually gets to say something. And there is no other explanation other than the poetic license afforded by the epic form that would allow for a completely non-realistic representation of the voice of a dead person in an otherwise realistic novel. But that is the poetic license that Faulkner is taking.

In a strange moment, basically at the very heart of As I Lay Dying, we see the voice of Addie addressing us and talking about a past moment in her life.

“I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary, because he was he and I was I. The sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin to sanctify that sin he had created. While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him because he saw me before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin. He the more beautiful, since the garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified.”

It’s a confession, I guess, as close to a confession as we can get about the paternity of Jewel. But that confession about the paternity of Jewel is characteristically couched in terms of a strange kind of satisfaction that Addie gets from this particular kind of affair, which is that the garment that her partner in sin has exchanged for that sin is actually all the more beautiful because it is sanctified by God.  This tells us who the father is. And Faulkner is being tongue-in-cheek here. The father, we figure out, is probably Whitfield. He’s the only likely candidate. There’s really no one else in that small community who could be the father. So there could only be one.

But it turns out that Faulkner actually has taken his name from a historic figure, a very influential preacher, eighteenth-century preacher. Benjamin Franklin said that when he would go to hear Whitfield, he would make sure that he would have very little money on his person, because he just knew that he would empty out his pockets when Whitfield goes around and asks for donations.

And sure enough, even though he takes very little money with him, he always walks away with empty pockets after Whitfield is done. So that’s a very powerful, one of the most famous preachers of the 18th century. And Faulkner has recreated this preacher, but with a twist, in As I Lay Dying. This is his Whitfield.

“It was His hand that bore me safely above the flood, that fended me from the dangers of the waters. My horse was frightened, and my own heart failed me as the logs and the uprooted trees bore down upon my littleness. But not my soul. I knew then that forgiveness was mine. The flood, the danger, behind, and as I rode on across the firm earth–”

The Bundrens aren’t able to cross the swollen river. The mules drown in the river. One person is able to cross the river, because his horse is able to cross the river.  This is the genealogy of the horse, both as a horse but obviously also a snake as well. The full spectrum of meanings of the creature snake are revealed to us in pieces. And that’s really the nature of the narrative, that we don’t actually get the whole creature all at once. We see different bodily parts come into view with the motion of this creature.

And with this established, finally established kinship between Jewel’s horse and Whitfield’s horse, in this case, a very well-behaved horse, not at all like the wild horse of Jewel, which also explains why Whitfield is a minister, whereas Jewel is nothing like that.  It’s the wildness in the offspring that actually backward reproduces the mostly law-abiding but not completely law-abiding identity of the father.

And just to add to that, here is Darl observing everything. And this is the clearest indication that the animal for Whitfield is also the horse. “On the horse he rode up to Armstid’s and came back on the horse.”

It’s almost too heavy-handed to emphasize this detail over and over again, and it would have been completely uncalled for, except for the fact that we really need to have a narrative genealogy for Jewel. And it is a narrative genealogy that is told actually not only through a human story, not only through the monologue of Addie in this epic convention of the dead speaking, but is also told a parallel epic convention of a human story threaded through a non-human creature.

On Thursday, we’ll come back once again to that affair between Addie and Whitfield, but contextualizing them in a different way.

[end of transcript]

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