As I lay dying

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Dr. William H. Marling

The Visual Sources of Modernism
Maybe I will end up in some kind of self-communion -- a silence -- faced with the certainty that I can no longer be understood. The artist must create his own language. This is not only his right but his duty. ----------- William Faulkner
Virginia Woolf observes that "painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common. The novelist after all wants to make us to see" (22). Indeed, many movements in the visual arts during the first half of the twentieth century had a close relationship with literature. High Modernist writers, such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, have been preoccupied with the visual arts. As John Tytell claims, in his "Epiphany in Chaos: Fragmentation in Modernism," one of the most prominent characteristics of modernism has been "the unusual reciprocity of artistic influence -- Apollinaire wrote the first intelligent book on cubism, Gertrude Stein wrote about cubist painters and collected their works" (8).
During the past three decades, several critics have recognized correspondences between Faulkner's writing and the visual arts. Ilse Dusoir Lind has examined the influence of painting on Faulkner's work. Such critics as Watson Branch and Panthea Reid Broughton have explored the influence of cubism on Faulkner. And more recently, Mary Rohrberger has noted the surrealistic qualities in Faulkner's text. But, what has not been considered is the intricate relationship between Faulkner's reliance on the visual and his skeptical view of language. Although some critics tend to emphasize Faulkner's early creativity in cartoons and illustrations, it does not seem to provide a satisfying explanation for the pervasive presence of the visual in his text. After discussing the cubist and surrealist images and techniques in As I Lay Dying, I intend to examine Faulkner's use of the visual within the broader context of the modernist perception of language.
Faulkner's acquaintance with cubism is well documented by his biographers. According to Joseph Blotner, Faulkner went to Paris in 1925 and stayed near the Luxembourg museum. During the stay Faulkner saw many contemporary paintings of Manet, Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne. Faulkner's admiration of Cezanne is well expressed in his letter to his mother: "And Cezanne! That man dipped his brush in light like Tobe Caruthers [an Oxford Negro of many talents] would dip his in red lead to paint a lamp- post" (Blotner 160). As several critics have noted, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying shows a number of similarities to cubist art. In her essay "Faulkner's Cubist Novels," Broughton claims that As I Lay Dying is the "quintessential cubist novel" (93). Broughton observes: "Repeating geometric designs -- lines and circles, verticals and horizontals -- Faulkner actually facets, like a cubist painting, the design of this book. That is why it is so difficult to speak of theme in As I Lay Dying. Here we have a work of fiction that comes remarkably close to being an exercise in pure design, a true tour de force, a cubist novel" (93).
Faulkner's text clearly manifests various cubist techniques -- collage, flattening, multiple perspectives, fragmentation, and passage of planes. Cubist painters, such as Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, abandoning the traditional single point of view, often presented a number of different perspectives of the same object or person on a flat plane. Cezanne's early cubist painting Still Life: Basket of Apples (1890-94) is a good example of multiple points of view. Faulkner's use of fifteen narrators in As I Lay Dying is the most significant instance of his use of cubist multiple points of view. We can find another instance in the very first pages of the story. Although Jewel is behind him, Darl describes Jewel as if he can see him:

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. . . . The cotton house is of rough logs. . . . When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides. (1-2)

Structurally, As I Lay Dying is a literary collage of fifty-nine fragmented chapters. Faulkner's other uses of the technique of collage are obvious in Darl's narrative sections: Darl describes Vardaman's face as "fading into the dusk like a piece of paper pasted on a failing wall" (49), compares Jewel's horse to "a patchwork quilt hung on a line" (162), and depicts Jewel's eyes as looking "like spots of white paper pasted on a high small football" (213). Faulkner's direct reference to cubism occurs in Darl's barn burning section: "The front, the conical facade with the square orifice of doorway broken only by the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses like a cubist bug, comes into relief" (219). This description, Watson Branch claims, "creates a cubist painting by reducing the three-dimensional barn to geometric shapes -- conical and square -- flattened to the two dimensional surface of the facade with the coffin and sawhorses brought up to the plane of the empty doorway" (117).
In her essay "Faulkner as Surrealist: The Persistence of Memory in Light in August," Eileen T. Bender speculates that Faulkner, "who was a gifted amateur watercolorist and illustrator himself, may well have been aware of the controversy surrounding the first American exhibition of surrealist art in Hartford, and the gift of Salvador Dali's famous painting" (5). Although there is no biographical evidence which shows his familiarity with surrealism or Andre Breton, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying nevertheless shows a number of surrealist verbal and visual touches. Like other artistic movements at that time, surrealism's intention was to find new ways of expression. In his first "Manifesto of Surrealism" (1924), Andre Breton, the acknowledged leader of surrealism, levels a serious charge against realism. He considers the "realistic attitude" to be "hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement" (6). Breton then continues: "I loathe it [realism], for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes" (6).
Breton, influenced by Freud's theories, privileges automatic writing and the dream. According to Breton, it was a dreamed or imagined scene, or a visual hallucination, of "a man cut in two by the window" that inspired his subsequent exploration of the relation between poetic production and unconscious thought. Breton relates: "Beyond the slightest shadow of doubt, what I saw was the simple reconstruction in space of a man leaning out a window. But . . . I realized that I was dealing with an image of a fairly rare sort, and all I could think of was to incorporate it into my material for poetic construction. No sooner had I granted it this capacity than it was in fact succeeded by a whole series of phrases" (22). The surrealists' goal was to release the unconscious from the constraints and limitations of conscious reason and logic. Breton defines surrealism in these words in his first manifesto:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

Breton continues:

Surrealism is base on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. (26)

Breton lent a new importance to hitherto neglected dimensions of life like dreams, fantasies, fixations, mental disorders, and hallucinations. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as I shall attempt to show, manifests many typical features of surrealism which emphasizes the role of the unconscious and the forces of desire. In the text we find that several characters' unaccountable actions and fantasies are the results of their unconscious desires. As some critics have noted, Addie Bundren is the emotional and psychological center of the novel. In "Spatial Form in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying," Betty Alldredge claims that "the presentation of Addie is not directly related to the action taking place in the narrative. . . . However, it is Addie who is at the root of the psychological problems in her children, and it is her death which is the catalyst for the action of the narrative" (6). Similarly, in "'Meet Mrs. Bundren': As I Lay Dying -- Gentility, Tact, and Psychoanalysis," T.H. Adamowski argues that Faulkner's text is "intensely concerned with the matter of closeness and separation in the relationship of mother and child" (216). Jewel's strange relationship with his horse clearly shows that the horse is the displaced object of his unconscious desire for his mother. Darl sees Jewel "caressing, cursing the horse with obscene ferocity" (12). According to Andre Bleikasten, Jewel's obsessive fixation on his horse is "incestuous": "He cherishes it as his prize possession; he never leaves it, even sleeps with it, and permits no one except himself to take care of it. . . . Darl does not fail to identify the treasured animal as a mother surrogate. . . . This strange transference . . . is obviously a defense mechanism indicative of the incestuous nature of Jewel's love for his mother" (92-3). Jewel's unconscious desire for Addie is made far more explicit in his Oedipal fantasy. His fantasy of sole possession of mother is represented in vivid visual images. Darl pictures:

It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill 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. (15)

Olga Vickery, in The Novels of William Faulkner, claims that "He [Darl] imagines the two of them defiantly and violently isolated from the world and its interference. Most of Jewel's subsequent actions are, in effect, attempts to make this fantasy a reality and so to claim exclusive possession of Addie" (60). Vardaman's boring holes into the coffin can also be seen as a symbolic act of sexual penetration. All these images and scenes reveal the characters' unconscious sexual or Oedipal desires in a displaced way.
Faulkner's text abounds with dreamlike images and resembles a confused dream itself. For instance, Addie's monologue section, which is often regarded as her posthumous reminiscence or postmortem autobiography, is written as if she were still alive, but placed after her death. This section disrupts the novel's chronological order. Darl's narrative sections are marked by a dreamlike quality too. In the opening chapter, he views himself from above. And later, when he is on the train to Jackson, he describes himself in the third person: "Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed" (253). Darl's extra-sensory vision and perception allow him to penetrate the minds of other people. He knows that Jewel is not Anse's son and that his sister Dewey Dell is pregnant. Vernon Tull says: "He [Darl] is looking at me. . . . It's like he had got into the inside of you, someway. Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doing outen his eyes" (125). Darl even describes events and scenes which he has not witnessed. For example, he depicts Addie's death scene which takes place in his absence. Darl's language also has the dreamlike texture. In the barn burning scene, he says that Jewel and Gillespie "are like two figures in a Greek frieze, isolated out of all reality by the red glare" (221). Such passages in Darl's sections contribute to render the novel its dreamlike quality; as Bleikasten notes,

Almost every time Darl starts speaking, reality is transmuted: space begins to waver, the scenery takes on a disturbing life of its own, and everything stands out against an indistinct and shifting background with the strange clear-cut quality and fierce colors of a bad dream. (61)

The surrealist, nightmarish imageries also appear at several points in the text. The Bundrens, for instance, attempt to ease Cash's pain by encasing his broken leg in cement. Later, Vardaman talks about Cash's decaying leg: "Cash's leg and foot turned black. We held the lamp and looked at Cash's foot and leg where it was black. 'Your foot looks like a nigger's foot, Cash,' I said" (224). The Bundrens are blind to the reality of the smelling, rotting corpse and continue their funeral journey to Jefferson with the coffin in a wagon, followed by a number of buzzards. The most horrible, bizarre scene occurs when Vardaman drills holes in his mother's coffin (and inadvertently into her face), so that she might breathe. Like those of surrealist paintings, such images or scenes are irrational and grotesque.

We can also find in the text the surrealist or Dali-esque double images. Each of Dali's representative double image paintings, such as "The Great Paranoiac" (1936), "Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on Beach" (1938), and "The Hallucinogenic Torreador" (1969-70), shows an ambiguous picture which represents several different images at the same time. In As I Lay Dying, Addie is portrayed in various images. In the novel's shortest chapter, Vardaman states "My mother is a fish" (84). Later, Darl makes a similar statement that "Jewel's mother is a horse" (101). Darl and Vardaman express their inner realities through these vivid pictorial images. Like a figure in Dali's double or simultaneous painting, Addie is a woman and, at the same time, a fish and a horse. As in surrealist works of art, the world of the Bundrens is an absurdly disturbing world which blurs and breaks down the boundaries between realty and dream, life and death, human and animal, comedy and tragedy, sanity and insanity, and natural and supernatural.

Faulkner and other High Modernist writers such as Joyce, Stein, Eliot and Woolf experimented with narrative techniques -- stream of consciousness, interior monologue, montage, and collage presentation. In addition to these technical innovations, the modernist writers also deliberately questioned and challenged the traditional notion of language as a transparent representational medium. Incidentally, at about the same time as High Modernisms the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who is known as the founder of modern linguistics and structuralism, was formulating a theory which would consolidate the modernists' new perception of language. Saussure's influential Cours de linguistique generale (1916), the transcription by his students of lectures he offered at the university of Geneva between 1906 and 1911, is one of the most important texts representing the new attitude toward language. Saussure's basic principle is that language is a system and the fundamental unit of this language system is the sign. Saussure's definition of the sign runs as follows:

The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses. The sound-image is sensory, and if I happen to call it 'material,' it is only in that sense, and by way of opposing it to the other term of the association, the concept, which is generally more abstract. (66)

After defining language as a system of signs, Saussure emphasizes that the relation between the two components of the linguistic sign -- the "signifier" (acoustic image or speech sound) and the "signified" (the mental concept corresponding to the verbal sound) -- is, in principle, utterly arbitrary. For example, there is no intrinsically necessary connection between the sound image "tree" and our concept of "tree." What is revolutionary about Saussure's idea of arbitrariness of the link between signifier and signified is that it suggests that linguistic meanings, which are "unmotivated" rather than "natural," are always slipping away and can never be pinned down.
With modernism the problematic function of language as a verbal medium become a common theme of writers. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is also concerned with the problem of an inadequate language. Faulkner's own attitude toward language is apparent in Addie's famous indictment of words:

And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned words are not good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. (171; my italics)

As Wesley Morris argues in "The Irrepressible Real: Jacques Lacan and Poststructuralism," Addie is a character who "manifests a firm understanding of Saussure's concept of the 'arbitrary' relationship between signifiers and signifieds" (116). For Addie, language is only a "shape to fill a lack" (172). Language cannot convey accurately the meanings of her own experiences such as love, sexuality, marriage, and motherhood. Addie claims that words are always ineffectual:

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. (173-4)

Addie's skeptical view about the representational function of language is further emphasized by the use of the blank space in the following passage: "I would think: The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a ________ and I couldn't think Anse, couldn't remember Anse" (173). The empty space as a visual signifier represents Addie's unspeakable experience. Faulkner's own awareness of the limitations of language is clearly represented in Addie's monologue section.
Faulkner also expands Addie's distrust of words in several other characters' sections. In Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner, Deborah Clarke points out that the novel "frequently documents the characters' reluctance to employ verbal discourse. Darl and Dewey Dell communicate without words; Addie realizes that 'words are not good'; Vardaman finds he 'couldn't say it' when he understands that his mother is about to be placed in coffin; Whitfield 'frames' rather than speaks his confession" (36- 7). Although Darl's nineteen monologue sections account for roughly one third of the novel, other narrators often describe Darl as hardly speaking. Cora describes him at Addie's bedside: "'What you want, Darl?' Dewey Dell said, not stopping the fan, speaking up quick, keeping even him from her. He didn't answer. He just stood and looked at his dying mother, his heart too full for words" (25). Tull also says "He is looking at me. He dont say nothing; just looking at me with them queer eyes of hisn that makes folks talk" (125). In the case of Vardaman, his incoherent language is impotent to represent meaning. Bleikasten finds in Vardaman's monologues a breakdown of language of which the most obvious signs are irregularities in spelling ('darl' for 'Darl'), the absence of punctuation . . . and the dislocation of syntax. A riot of words dash and crash into each other, disappear and appear; sentences are started and lost, repeated and mixed up, unable find to their rightful place of order. (63)
Faulkner's skeptical attitude towards language is well reflected in the characters' uneasy relationship with language. In "What Does Addie Bundren Mean, and How Does She Mean It?" Paul S. Nielsen notes that "the language of the novel in general and Addie's language in particular express deep suspicion and frustration with the referentiality of all language" (34). Faulkner's dissatisfaction with language is often expressed in his work. In his early novel Mosquitoes, he proclaimed that "Talk, talk, talk; the utter and heart-breaking stupidity of words" (130). As James M. Mellard has pointed out, in "Something New and Hard and Bright: Faulkner, Ideology, and the Construction of Modernism," Faulkner's view of language "runs totally counter to that of traditional realism, which in its innocence regarded words as either substantive or adequately representative or even resonantly symbolic" (476). Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as I have discussed, is primarily a visual text. The novel is full of cubist and surrealist visual images and scenes. His characters rely heavily on vivid visual or pictorial images to express their complex inner logic and perceptions of reality. For example, as we can find in Vardaman's statement "My mother is a fish," Faulkner's verbal discourse often corresponds to the concrete, immediate visual image. In addition to his textual experiments with italics, punctuation, and capitalization, Faulkner's use of the coffin pictogram and the blank space are also indicative of his efforts to overcome the inadequacy of language. These visual signifiers attempt to express inexpressible ideas and experiences. Faulkner's extensive use of the visual as a privileged mode of expression is closely related to his recognition of the limitations of language. By employing various images and techniques borrowed from the visual arts, Faulkner attempts to fill the gaps between reality and verbal representation.

Questions you don’t need to “do” but may want to be able to answer.

  1. S.A.T. Question: Define “reciprocity”. Then explain what its role is in modernism according to the first paragraph.

  1. Explain the way in which Faulkner’s novel is using an aspect of cubism.

  1. What does AILD share with the surrealist movement in the way it considers the unconscious mind?

  1. How is Addie used to express the modernists’ skeptical view of language?

  1. Explain this statement in your own words:

Faulkner's extensive use of the visual as a privileged mode of expression is closely related to his recognition of the limitations of language. By employing various images and techniques borrowed from the visual arts, Faulkner attempts to fill the gaps between reality and verbal representation

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