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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Violence and Tragedy in Literature

When I hadn't yet finished Light in August, I had a conversation with some of my choir friends. They saw what I'd been reading and asked, "Do you actually like Faulkner?" Well, yes. I think so. I don't know. Should I? Well, hm.

One friend noted that the explicit nature of some of the happenings in Faulkner's stories, often described in very communicative detail, presents our minds with an occasion to be soaked in something unhealthy and possibly harmful. My response was that those less than pleasant elements of his novels are not gratuitous; good literature is truthful, is an accurate representation of our world, and not everything in life is shiny and rosy.

I've previously made mention of the Hemingway/Woolf phase that I went through in college, and I'm still not really out of the Fitzgerald phase. Granted, there is a difference in tone among these three novelists, but they're all part of that Lost Generation. Ultimately, as my much loved and wonderful mother worriedly assured nineteen-year-old me, they're lacking something. Their novels are not the answer. These authors are not called "Lost" for no reason. They don't realize that, all things told, the story of the universe is essentially one of comedy, not tragedy. Nevertheless, I maintain my position that there is a place for such novels; there is a place for such darkness.

If you object, I have a few things to say to you: King Lear. Hamlet. Sophocles. Dido. The Book of Job. "Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful death." We will all of us meet our wicked sisters, our blinded fathers, our conniving Uncles, our own damning Hubris, our physical and spiritual trials, and, many of us, a death of love that makes us want to kill ourselves. As The Thin Man has it, "The theme of Oedipus Rex is: Life's the pits, and then, you die." Of course, experience is in many cases the best teacher. But it doesn't hurt to have some vicarious experience and knowledge of the depths before you fall into them yourselves. In the good and the bad, this, I think, is a summary of the value of literature. It teaches us enormous truths in human terms, and so teaches us how to cope with our day to day human lives. Christ taught in parables, not syllogisms; He was, He is, a storyteller. And, if you recall, there was death and damnation in some of His stories.

All of that being said, we all know that virtue lies in moderation and balance, not in extremes. I am quite thankful that I had the foresight to do my senior thesis on Willa Cather rather than Hemingway, as I had first thought that I would. Too much dwelling in darkness isn't a good thing. It's easy to forget about the light if we never read comedies. However, the experience of life as a solitary vale of tears is only compounded if a soul never has the cathartic purging of living tragedy in art. Misery loves company is not a jesting and trivial phrase. It is deeply profound, deeply human, and speaks to the nature of man being a social animal and needing to know that there is someone, anyone, who understands and can help him through the dark night in which he finds himself. Even if that help is only in the form of companionship, even if it can't give all the answers, that standing together is necessary for survival. This is, at least in part, why tragedies are necessary.


Back to my friends' question on Faulkner. In thinking over it more since finishing the book, I wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Not in theory, but in the particular instance of this book, perhaps the darkness was too explicit. Balance is difficult to achieve (Yes, that is my profound statement of the century. Duh.), and it is possible that art that is in many ways excellent can be over-the-top in others. This is how I feel about Bruckner's Christus Factus Est, which I sang with one of my choirs a few times this Lent. Just chill, buddy. And then there is some art, there are some stories, that I think can never be justified. Movies about demonic possession, for example, are incredibly foolish. Not in the, "This is dumb," sense. No; Because such things are far more real than most people want to acknowledge, voluntarily dwelling on Satanic powers is unnecessarily putting oneself in real danger. To a less immediate degree, dwelling intensely on any sort of wickedness or darkness for extended periods of time is a danger. When the enemy is smarter than you, stay away from him.

When I discovered that both my mother and my older brother had stopped reading Light in August partway through, citing the intensely immoral parts of it as one of their roadblocks, I naturally began to question my previous position that it was not gratuitously, well, messy. I had defended the inhumanity of some of the characters to my questioning friends by saying that part of Faulkner's purpose is to highlight the grace and beauty that still can exist, in characters like Lena and Byron, in a society that has been conquered and is fallen. I still think that this is true, but I do wonder if he needed to focus on the fallen part of that world as much as he did. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Even if you haven't read this particular novel, where do you come down on this question?

In the meantime, I've moved on to the much lighter and thoroughly enjoyable E.M. Forster novel, A Room With A View. Excerpts to follow.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Birds of Omen

Yes, it's true. I've spent a lot of time over the last two days watching Smoke Cam, hoping to hear news of our new pope. I've also signed up for PopeAlarm; I will get a text message as soon as white smoke is seen. I've even been assigned an elector to pray for through Adopt a Cardinal. Guess what? He used to be a literature teacher. Random assignation? I think not. This is what we call divine intervention, people. Doesn't Ennio Antonelli look like a sweetie? I'm glad I got him:

 
Over the last hour, as we've been waiting to hear results of the fifth round of voting, the biggest news has been about two seagulls who decided to perch on the Sistine Chapel signal chimney. First there was just one bird, but then another came along, the first flew off, and was neatly replaced. Coincidence? Again, I think not! (Papal elections provide adequate exception to my no-exclamation-points rule.) Clearly, these are birds rife with meaning, weighty seagulls, privileged birds who apparently are the only living creatures in on what's happening behind those doors (down that chimney). I've never wished to be a seagull before, but there's a first time for everything. Given that we're dealing with Roman birds, one interpreter of signs has much to say on the issue. Take a gander here.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Faulkner: Poetry is Restorative

I'm near the end of Light in August and have finally almost come to the conclusion that I have absolutely no excuse for favoring Joe Christmas in anyway. I don't want to say anymore than that as I do of course want you to go and read it yourself.

One of the side characters of the novel is an old man, Hightower, who used to be a preacher. As a result of an embarrassing series of events involving, among other things, the suicide of his wife, he has for many years lived in chosen seclusion as a regular fixture of the town. The only visitor he ever sees is Byron Bunch (who, yes, still seems to be just as wonderful as I suspected). The following passage begins as Byron is leaving Hightower's home, having just talked out his intentions towards Lena.
From the window again Hightower watches him pass and go on up the street toward the edge of town and his two mile walk, carrying his paperwrapped packages of food. He passes from sight walking erect and at a good gait; such a gait as an old man already gone to flesh and short wind, an old man who has already spent too much time sitting down, could not have kept up with. And Hightower leans there in the window, in the August heat, oblivious of the odor in which he lives -- that smell of people who no longer live in life: that odor of overplump desiccation and stale linen as though a precursor of the tomb -- listening to the feet which he seems to hear still long after he knows that he cannot, thinking, 'God bless him. God help him'; thinking    To be young. To be young. There is nothing else like it: there is nothing else in the world    He is thinking quietly: 'I should not have got out of the habit of prayer.' . . . 'Yes,' he thinks. 'I should never have let myself get out of the habit of prayer.' He turns from the window. One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand. (Vintage, 1987, 348-350).

 
The next time we see Hightower, he is wearing, for the first since we've met him, a clean, white shirt.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Excerpt: Light in August

Kaye Gibbons' Southern voice got me in a such a mood that, earlier this week, I felt emboldened to tackle a Faulkner novel. Light in August has been silently reproaching me for its having sat unread so long on my shelf, so I finally gave in and started it. It's remarkably, well, readable. Funny, right? Faulkner isn't supposed to be readable. Seriously, though, this is not Go Down, Moses or The Sound and the Fury. It has a fairly straightforward narrative thread, more along the lines of The Unvanquished in that regard than his notorious (yes, I said it) other novels.

Now, lest you cry, "Blasphemous wretch," I should say that I did enjoy The Sound and the Fury. Although, I'm not sure that "enjoy" is the right word. "Like" isn't either. And neither is, "Thought it was great," the right phrase. Because, let's face, Faulkner is pretty depressing. He writes in a world of fallen grace, stubborn grace surrounded and often engulfed by squalor. And I don't mean grace in a theological sense, although I don't necessarily exclude it either. I mean it as the sort of grace that comes with true nobility of a refined and sincere aristocracy. That image of the grandmother from The Unvanquished driving the wagon with a parasol in one arm and a rifle over the other is, I think, a brilliant instance of Faulkner's spirit of the South. She demonstrates proud beauty, fine resiliency, and attention to detail and elegance which, far from being a gratuitous superfluity, is a reminder of the dignity of the human person, even and most especially when set against a dirty, broken, and socially defeated world. So yes, "enjoy" and "like" aren't the right words. I suppose I should say that I think that I understood The Sound and the Fury in the right direction and appreciated what I did understand. There. Does that suffice?

But, of course, this is about Light in August. While I would like to tell you all about who my favorite characters are, since I'm not yet even half way through it I think I should probably wait a bit. Once the bad guys do something so heinous that my currently hesitantly-bestowed admiration, stemming from their confounding and intriguing peculiarities of character, is forcefully expelled, I'll be justified in actually setting out some opinions on them. For now, I'll just say that I suspect I shall be as fond of Lena as I am of Sonya in Crime and Punishment, and that Byron Bunch is a manly man. Now, for that excerpt. Enter Joe Christmas:
Byron Bunch knows this: It was one Friday morning three years ago. And the group of men at work in the planer shed looked up, and saw the stranger standing there, watching them. They did not know how long he had been there. He looked like a tramp, yet not like a tramp either. His shoes were dusty and his trousers were soiled too. But they were of decent serge, sharply creased, and his shirt was soiled but it was a white shirt, and he wore a tie and a stiffbrim straw hat that was quite new, cocked at an angle arrogant and baleful above his still face. He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. And that he carried this knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, and almost proud. "As if," as the men said later, "he was just down on his luck for a time, and that he didn't intend to stay down on it and didn't give a damn much how he rose up." He was young. And Byron watched him standing there and looking at the men in sweatstained overalls, with cigarette in one side of his mouth and his face darkly and contemptuously still, drawn down a little on one side because of the smoke. After a while he spat the cigarette without touching his hand to it and turned and went on to the mill office while the men in faded and worksoiled overalls looked at his back with a sort of baffled outrage. "We ought to run him through the planer," the foreman said. "Maybe that will take that look off his face." (Vintage Books, 1987, 33-34)
Why do I always like the bad guy?