On Faulkner

Here’s the beginning of an exchange between me and an old friend on historical consciousness in Faulkner.  I don’t deny its presence, this consciousness, I wonder about its form and content–that is, its results.

The response to my post:

But isn’t Faulkner himself the one with historical consciousness in A, A –first for demonstrating it, then for confirming it as “historical” by dramatizing it in the sense of revealing (to those who can see) how he achieves it & what it means for him. He’s nothing if not historical through & through, especially when he says the past isn’t even (yet) past. Think of Fitzgerald having Gatsby say, “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can” (rough recollection of the words). Both F’s understood the difference between being “in” history and “thinking” history — it’s the former that matters for them, the latter being the mode whereby people deceive themselves (or allow themselves to be deceived) that freedom lies “outside” of history or breaking the chains of history — what Marx called the “illusion”(or delusion) of freedom — his trope, if I get this right, is something like transforming the chains into flowers — is that familiar?

My reply:

Yeah, I think the distinction you make between being “in” history and “thinking” history is the key here.

Any good writer of fiction will make you feel the immediacy of the situation, even when the preterite is deployed.  In that sense, knowing as a reader that you’re witness to a completed action is a condition of your reading–even if the completed action is the impending end of a story told in the present tense.  You already know a story is being told: unless you’re sitting around a camp fire, you’re an observer, not a participant.  If you’re not removed from the tale, you’re the teller.

Faulkner plays with “immediacy” in this sense, I think, by trying desperately to elongate the moment of the telling, making it seem that the teller of then and of now could have said the same thing, used the same words, felt the same urgency.  Yes, he is the one with historical consciousness, but of a very specific kind–the antiquarian, if Nietzsche’s categories are at all useful in this case.  In that mode, you learn about the past, but not from it.

Still, the way you frame the the acknowledgment of the past as the intellectual condition of serious thinking about (freedom in) the present makes me wonder.  We can’t escape the past.  That’s not the point.  Gatsby is right, though, when he says we can repeat it–dwell in it, reproduce it as a facsimile of an earlier experience.  Of course we can do that. The question is, do we want to repeat it, do we have to repeat it?

Both Fitzgerald and Faulkner say yes and no, we want to, but we’re not doomed to . . .  Faulkner, however, is much less confident about the prospect of extricating himself and his characters from this repetition compulsion.  In fact, I would say that his historical consciousness is the kind that imprisons him, and us, in an endless cycle of recrimination, as if time doesn’t pass.  Or as if the past is the only template, blueprint, or model we can roll out when thinking about how we might want to live now, or how to change ourselves so that we might inhabit a future that won’t resemble the past.

How to reconcile previous truth and novel fact?  Faulkner has no answer to that question; it never even occurs to him.  But it’s the question that produces modern historical consciousness.  Also modern subjectivity and its attendant attributes, including individuality and the broken compass we used to call a conscience.  Whole centuries of moral progress, or call it possibility if you like, are obliterated in his weary conspectus, as if original sins can never be requited, as if they’re not ever even past.

A usable past is the kind that permits, in fact requires, a passage beyond its limits.  Faulkner’s past blocks any such passage.  In his hands, in his words, we’re not just boats against the current, borne back against our will into a rushing stream of memory but still equipped with the oars that could get us ashore, no, we’re just the flotsam in this river, moving quickly, unconsciously toward the falls.




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