Literary Periods
Patriotic Melville?

Faulkner as Modernist

In his review of the Library of America's collection of early Faulkner novels, David Ulin suggests that in Faulkner's fiction

            The fixation with time is hardly a modernist sentiment. Rather, it's a classical perspective, in which everything matters and nothing is forgotten or forgiven or redeemed. Yet this is Faulkner's genius: the way he uses modernist strategies but is, in the end, not really a modernist — his ability to be of his time and timeless at once. Unlike Joyce or Pound, there is no orthodoxy in his writing; unlike Stein, he is not using language to play games. No, for Faulkner, stylistic innovation — the lack of punctuation, the run-on sentences, the blurring of chronology, of memory and action — becomes a matter of emotional impact, of the effort to re-create life as it is lived. That's an idea he had to learn how to inhabit, as he moved from the studied diffidence of "Soldiers' Pay" to an aesthetic more three-dimensional and profound. In "Novels 1926-1929," we see the arc of this development, the dramatic shift from artifice to art.

That Faulkner conveys a worldview incorporating "classical" qualities must certainly be true, but I don't see why this feature of his work makes it incompatible with modernism. Does this mean T.S. Eliot, a self-confessed classicist, was also no modernist? Has our definition of "modernist" evolved to the stage where it simply means "chaotic"? No work that moves through apparent disorder to achieve a different kind of order need apply to the "timeless" club? With modernists, nothing matters?

I'm pretty sure I don't at all understand what Ulin means to imply in asserting there is "orthodoxy" in the work of Joyce and Pound. That they are orthodox modernists? That they were thus too committed to the idea of originality, of "making it new"? This strikes me as a pretty bizarre notion. Is he suggesting that some other kind of political, cultural, or religious "orthodoxy" gets expressed in their work? That Pound had some thoroughly obnoxious political views is well known, but Joyce was surely one of the least ideological of writers. What Ulin is getting at remains to me mysterious, but at any rate his degree of orthodox whatever seems a pretty thin measure with which to separate William Faulkner from the other important modernists.

I have to say I find the claim that Faulkner "is not using language to play games" the most wildly mistaken assertion in this whole generally misleading summation. Faulkner at his best is full of game-playing. When Vardaman, the young illiterate Bundren in As I Lay Dying, narrates one of his sections of the book in hyper-fluent Faulknerese, most readers must find the device first of all hilariously funny and probably conclude it is an example, in part, of Faulkner indeed playing a game, having a little fun with the reader. (If this was not Faulkner's intent, it is certainly an effect of this section, one that only enhances the novel's appeal, at least for me.) Or to take The Sound and the Fury: Is not Benjy's chapter an example of verbal/rhetorical gamesmanship? We accept that it is an attempt to reproduce the thought process of a mentally handicapped character, but would Benjy's monologue really stand up to scrutiny as an accurate rendition of the way such a person thinks? I don't think so. It's a compelling illusion, created by Faulkner's skill with words.

The enabling assumption behind Ulin's effort to disentangle Faulkner from the modernist web seems to me to be expressed in the observation that his "stylistic innovation" is really just "a matter of emotional impact, of the effort to re-create life as it is lived." In other words, if you ignore "the blurring of chronology, of memory and action"—the textual features of Faulkner's books that are otherwise their most notable achievements—he's really a perfectly conventional novelist. To give Ulin more credit, he probably means to say that Faulkner's innovations have a purpose, that they are alternative methods of making "art" out of "life," the latter being the subject held in common by all great writers, conventional or experimental. But can't the same thing can be said of Joyce, Proust, or Kafka, of all the modernist poets? Isn't modernism all about finding new ways of portraying an enduring human reality? Ulin's prejudice seems to be for fiction that "re-create[s] life as it is lived," but no writer is in the business of "re-creation of life." A novel is a construction of words, "artifice" by nature. No "life" is to be found anywhere within it, only words, sentences, paragraphs. Some writers want to convince you that their words evoke images of the world as we think we know it, summon up "characters" we can accept as like real people; the best of these writers do produce powerful illusions of this kind, but they are illusions, the strategies involved as artificial as any of those dismissed as less "three-dimensional." Faulkner is at times a writer like this, but his fiction always forces awareness of the way these images are produced, and it's hard to believe he didn't know this. Such self-awareness makes him a quintessential modernist.

I have highlighted this passage from Ulin's review because it encourages a view of both modernism and postmodernism that distorts and devalues their aesthetic ambitions. This view makes precisely the distinction between "artifice" and "art" that Ulin thinks distinguishes Faulkner's lesser from his greater work. "Artifice" is about style or form, while "art" is about life. But how can any work of fiction or poetry be about anything but life? On what can a writer base his art other than his experience as a living human being? That some modernists/postmodernists are preoccupied with aesthetic questions is true enough, but why are these kinds of questions not considered properly "human"? Isn't the ability to formulate the concept of the aesthetic one of our defining features as a species? Presumably Ulin wants Faulkner's books to be sources of wisdom, while I want them to be sources of aesthetic delight. But I can see no reason why the former rather than the latter should be the deciding factor in judging a writer's work sufficiently "profound" to be art.


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