Volume Five, December 2004

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In what follows I intend to show that Faulkner’s generic, technical and linguistic experimentation in As I Lay Dying stands in evidence of his innate scepticism of all systems of signification, verbal and non-verbal, and of what he perceived as a radical crisis of communication. The modernist crisis of representation, although all-pervasive in his work, acquires a distinct emplotment in this novel. I contend that in the multiple instantiations of the category of voice that it orchestrates, the novel foregrounds a radical epistemological doubt, prefiguring in method some of the key tenets of deconstruction. My reading of As I Lay Dying, although informed by Barthes’ proposition that the author is and must be dead to all critical/readerly purposes, as well as by Derrida’s seminal discussions of logocentrism and trace, is not a consistent ‘application’ of either. Rather, in my analysis, the text both offers itself for deconstructive reading and lays bare its own meaning-producing devices. Moreover, whenever Faulkner as either a psycho-social subject or the writer of the text is brought into discussion, my proceedings are not to be regarded as a lapse into the intentional fallacy. Instead, I submit that Faulkner’s biography and authorial statements are to be read as one possible site of the reading of the novel. Thus, by staging a dialogue between the several narrative intelligences or centres of consciousness that the novel projects (i.e., Faulkner’s dramatis personae and Faulkner’s authorial statements), I propose in fact a reading of the text against itself. The main purport of this analysis is to reveal the text at work, uncover its points of rupture and place its concatenations under erasure.
I must specify from the outset that the same distrust of language that I contend Faulkner’s auctorial protocol exhibits is shared by the author of the present essay, as words demonstrate their fluctuating referentiality at every step. Thus, I will refer to the ‘narrators’ of Faulkner’s story in the same loose sense in which they are designated in the titles of the chapters, although my work is premised on the assumption that these are not actual narrators in any conventional sense of the word, in that they neither tell nor write the story. Rather, their minds register it in the form of perceptions, reactions, half-formed thoughts, which become the substance of the text through an act of transcription whose agent(s)/originator(s) remain(s) a provisional mystery. The text insists on presenting the human mind in its immediacy and takes its cue from current theories of the mind’s functioning. We will, therefore, provisionally place signs such as ‘narrator,’ ‘writer,’ ‘reality,’ ‘origin,’ ‘identity’ between inverted commas so as to suggest the tenuousness of their connection to the signifieds conventionally assigned to them, but will continue to use them in recognition of their methodological value.
Secondly, since the word ‘deconstruction,’ according to Derrida, cannot be allotted any of the usual equivalents (theory, method, technique, criticism etc.), it follows that deconstruction cannot in any common sense be ‘applied’ to a text. One cannot ‘deconstruct’ a text, but merely show the way in which the text deconstructs itself, expose the fact that it contains the germs of its own ‘undoing’ (i.e., of its provisional readings and interpretations). A text as tightly crafted as As I Lay Dying, whose language and technique are so obviously foregrounded, in conforming to the conventional requirements of narration, plot and character, inevitably betrays the tensions inherent in its own functioning.
The novel As I Lay Dying walks the tightrope between the comic and the tragic modes, high above an undistinguished conglomeration of literary genres that include the epic, the heroic, the mock-heroic, the grotesque, the gothic, the picaresque, the romance, the farce, parody and pastiche, yet preserves the precarious balance of its own individuality and generic uniqueness. Such a novel invites a deconstructive perspective as it begs the question of its strenuously clung to originality. One of the most seminal deconstructive principles is the distrust of hierarchies. The very act of naming is a hierarchizing one, as it automatically assigns a position within an already existing discursive system. Yet neither is resistance to names and categories an entirely innocent, non-programmatic undertaking: the misfit has his/her/its own (op)position within the same discourse, try as he/she/it may to define him/her/itself as against or outside of it. Origins and originality are such instances of resistance to names, and the investigation below will suggest that they are a function of language in ways that are not dissimilar to the biblical fiat.
Olga Vickery perceived as early as 1964 that As I Lay Dying takes up as its main theme the divorce between words and deeds and sets out to demonstrate the inadequacy of the former and the violent marking power of the latter (50-66). As Faulkner well knew, such an undertaking was fraught with perils, the most immediate of which being the incomprehension with which the novel was met upon its publication. Yet that bewilderment was precisely the needed verification of the novelist’s scepticism regarding language. A different understanding of Faulkner’s theme and narrative strategy, however, was to come only in the early 1980s, when the European awareness of the capriciousness and ambiguity of language was allowed full play in American criticism. With the advent of deconstruction, an enhanced comprehension of, and empathy with, Faulkner’s anxious experimentalism was made possible, and a new light could be shed on the working of style in As I Lay Dying.
Nor is this book a singular instance of Faulkner’s distrust of representation. As Eric Sundquist points out, The Sound and the Fury is not about the characters’ mind, nor about the South’s, but about “the psychology of the novel as a form of containing consciousness” (9). Absalom, Absalom!, too, is a novel whose technique becomes its main theme. Faulkner seems to feel the compulsive need to retell the same stories again and again in order not so much to demonstrate their reliability as Southern historiography, nor their relevance as mythic avatars of the South’s mentality and psychology, but to test the validity and vitality of the medium that conveys them from generation to generation, from the American South to the world. His stories are not so much about people and events as about the telling of stories: they are encrypted metatexts. His despair with the representational valences of language has become anecdotal (John Faulkner tells how his brother Bill wished he could invent a new English dictionary, all the old ones having proved inadequate), and his obsession with qualifiers is sufficient proof of his striving to turn words into le mot juste almost against their will, as it were, and definitely (we now know) against their nature. Yet nowhere else does he dramatize language’s resistance to meaning as pertinently and potently as in As I Lay Dying, nowhere else is the inadequacy of its function as the vehicle of ideas, feelings, relations, more vehemently and effectively exposed. At the same time, nowhere else is the enterprise more impersonally undertaken. Frederick R. Karl shows how Faulkner was sublimating much of his private life, especially in the writing of this book, which he undertook at a particularly traumatic time in his life. Nonetheless, no autobiographical detail is in evidence in the finite product: at the end of the day the book stands alone, offering itself as a supreme instance of the death of the author, the text released from the ties of personal involvement and opened up to the reader. Faulkner’s authorial death is the more effective here for his relegation of the narratorial function to the participants in the plot – or rather to their consciousnesses. But as the author covers the traces of his retreat, the multiplicity and instability of the narrative perspectives demand that they be all traced back to their orchestrator, the plot to the plotter. The reader’s task is precisely to unravel the subtle threads that connect the text to the meanings and origins it tantalizingly obscures.
Addie Bundren and her second son Darl are, by critical/readerly consent, the two main catalysts of the novel: the former as the prompter of the journey that constitutes the plot, the latter as the most lucid and perceptive, as well as articulate – and therefore privileged – narrative voice. Such designations, while useful in a structuralist analysis of plot and characters within the boundaries of socio-historical contextualization and generic ascription, are both simplifying and irrelevant from the point of view of language dynamics. The heteroglossia of the book is remarkably limited in spite of the large number of narrators and of their relatively varied social background (an ex-teacher, a doctor, a minister, a store owner, pharmacists, peasants, an aesthete etc.). All their respective social speech types are equated not only in being contaminated with the bigoted rhetoric of white Protestant supremacy, but especially in rendering the flow of thought rather than the rhythms and structure of actual speech. Thus critics have explained the vague echoes from Shakespeare that can be heard throughout the book as remnants from the King James Bible and the peculiar obsolescence of the Calvinist liturgical style that is typical of the religion of the South and has infused its idiom. Hence the inescapable sense of the discrepancy between people’s level of education and intellectual sophistication, and the often pompous language in which their thoughts are transcribed. Moreover, the interior monologues do not purport to render speech: this is a novel in which the first person narrative is never in the ‘actual’ voice of the narrator, but in the ‘voice’ of the mind, which does not necessarily articulate all the perceptions and reactions it registers, but reflects them in complex synaesthetic thought-contents, although it preserves a certain degree of linguistic and intellectual individuality for each character-narrator.
The result is the perplexing articulateness of all the ‘narrators,’ what Martin Green called Faulkner’s in vacuo rhetoric, which points to the absent author who records them, while at the same time creating so large a gap between language and writer as to leave the latter ‘alienated’ from the former (cited in Sundquist 29). Yet it does so in no straightforward manner, as there can be no question of an avatar of the traditional omniscient author who has privileged access to the minds of his creations. Rather, as Sundquist notes, it is precisely such notions of the “supposed union between the author and his language” that “the novel explicitly discards and disavows” (29). Language here is “alien in the sense of being disembodied, traumatically cut off from the conscious identity” of both character and author. This rupture has “thematic significance insofar as the book is obsessively concerned with problems of disembodiment, with disjunctive relationships between character and narration or between bodily self and conscious identity” (ibid.). The epitome of this thematic-stylistic coincidence is the “intimate analogy between the absence of the omniscient narrator, a controlling point of view, and the central event of the book: the death of Addie Bundren, with respect to which each character defines his own identity” (ibid.).
A deconstructive approach will reveal the text’s enactment of the death of the author, who is here twice removed: not only does he purport to have relinquished control of the narrative and to have granted freeplay to the minds of the characters, and thus to be now as ‘dead’ as the titular character; but he is also dead in Roland Barthes’ sense of the phrase, in that his personal participation in the writing of the book has been critically placed under erasure in favour of that of the reader. Yet at the same time he is residually implicated, as writer, in the very existence of the text, which could not have been written by any of its multiple semi-literate narrators. Analogously, all the members of the cast define themselves in relation to Addie and to her death. Indeed, it might be said that they owe their coming into existence (as both narrators and agents-spectators) to the event of her death which triggers the story-telling. Thus, neither Addie nor Faulkner is truly ‘dead.’
Faulkner relinquishes agency in the writing of his book much in the same way as Vardaman denies his agency in crying: “I vomit the crying. …and then I can cry, the crying can.… The crying makes a lot of noise. I wish it would not make so much noise” (36). Expulsion followed by objectification of and total disassociation from his own product: the initial agent has become the mere vehicle of his action’s agency. The next step is cessation of his existence altogether: “I am not crying now. I am not anything” (38). His very being is rendered impossible when the agency of crying ceases to work through him in order to affirm the tremendous facts of death, destitution and bereavement. The confused synaesthesia of Vardaman’s childish perceptions, his sense that he “is cried” rather than crying are indicative of the entire text’s scepticism of agency and distinctions.
An extreme case of plurality and fragmentariness of being set against normative individuality is Darl, Addie’s second son. Throughout the book he is haunted by the sense that he is not is but are (65), that he is inhabited by the others. Darl is de trop, a consciousness in excess, not, as Calvin Bedient claims, because he is “pitilessly empowered to trespass upon the privacy of the others” (in Brodhead 143). On the contrary, as the same critic states earlier on, Darl is de trop because he “is invaded by others as the mystic is inundated by God and the novelist possessed by his characters” (142). What Bedient intuits at first but then goes on to regard as an inclusive consciousness, is a condition similar to the one discussed above in connection with Vardaman: the protagonist experiences not so much a split existence as the awareness of being acted through, of being a vehicle, that is, a mere function or medium through which language speaks. His incapacity to be one results in the erosion of his sense of identity that culminates in his addressing himself in the third person singular in his last soliloquy. However, it is precisely in this chapter that he attains the coveted being: when he is acted upon and assigned the identity of a madman, his reality becomes undeniable even to himself, he is, and can now take his place within the family: “Darl is our brother, our brother Darl” (172), he keeps repeating. This affirmation of his belonging to the family echoes one of his belabored syllogisms regarding his own existence: “Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be” (52). In a typically cyclical thrust, being is traced back to its originator, the mother: Darl’s strained logic asserts the dialectical ontological confirmation of/by the creation at the moment of the most traumatic doubt of its own integrity, and of/by the creator as the only stable reference point.
We are thus back to the question of origins, originality, individuality, and centres of consciousness with which we have started this interpretation of Faulkner’s novel. Sundquist rightly insists that the central theme of the book is disembodiment and disjunction; I would argue that it is so to an even greater extent than he claims. Not only is the text about dissociation and disintegration – insofar as it is about Addie’s death, her physical (and moral) corruption, and the dissolution of her family – but the characters constantly define themselves and each other in similar terms. Thus, for instance, dr. Peabody thinks about Addie as the subordinate fraction of a marital continuum: “She has been dead these ten days. I suppose it’s having been a part of Anse for so long that she cannot even make the change, if change it be” (Faulkner 29). The doctor horrifiedly imagines the stolid solidity of the husband as having rubbed off on the wife and her incapacity of dying as an instance of metonymic aphasia. Conversely, Addie resents her husband Anse’s failure to become a part of her: “I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel… 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, I couldn’t remember Anse” (116-17). She thus objectifies Anse into a part of her that has become a lack, like the disappearance of the hymen, but also into a shape that has the hollowness of a name and cannot fill that lack in her where he should have impressed himself on her body and mind. Her first two sons, on the other hand, have all the solidity and concreteness of fragments of her being, of her ontological integrity. Thus, as Judith Butler points out in a different context, identity and origin are particularly tenuous categories, in that they are always defined in terms of what is derived from them. Individuality can only be defined against an Other, but the Other was originally a part of the self that has been abjected or torn away (the wife repudiating the husband whom she belongs to in name only, the son born from the mother, the mother taken away by death, etc.) (see “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 722-6). According to Derrida, too, the fallacy of identity that represents the foundation of the whole Western philosophical tradition has been made possible through a sleight-of-hand that obscures the initial expulsion of the Other from the One (see, for instance, “Plato’s Pharmacy” 431-47).
More importantly, the text performs disintegration through its language by constantly laying bare the contradictions and tensions that are inherent in the very nature of language. As people define themselves in relation to each other, so do words/texts. Olga Vickery pointed out that As I Lay Dying is about the distinction between words and deeds, and indeed there is much in the book that shows that the latter are preferred. Addie explicitly repudiates words when she comprehends their tendency to displace and replace reality: “When he [her first-born son Cash] 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. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride” (115). Words are not only superfluous but also supplementary to reality (whether it be called feelings, relationships, beliefs, presences): meanings are superimposed on signs beyond the latter’s capacity of signification. Moreover, signifiers have the tendency to replace their referents, until both reality and the names given to it cease to mean anything: “because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too” (119), and Anse dies to all practical purposes when he ceases to be anything else but a name/word to Addie:

And then he died. He did not know he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of God’s love and His beauty and His sin; hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just gaps in people’s lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights…” (117)
Against such a fate Addie rebels fiercely: “I would be I; I would let him be the shape and echo of his word” (ibid.). The entire book posits the moral split between the pragmatism and hypocrisy represented by Anse and the dramatic rebelliousness against all things practical or hypocritical that Addie strives for and sets an example of.
Anse’s “death” as far as Addie was concerned, while paralleling Addie’s death before she actually dies (see dr. Peabody’s thoughts quoted above), places the whole matter of words into a new perspective: if words have come to replace the real, they have also acquired the power to displace it, to create a parallel subjective ‘reality,’ a system of personal beliefs that functions provisionally as 'convincingly' and 'effectively' as any other system. This is the same life-death, being-non-being dialectics that we have seen at work in Vardaman’s, Darl’s and Faulkner’s rejection of agency, and which represents the primum mobile of the entire text: Addie’s physical demise is the stimulus of the journey; the death of the author is the life of the text. Moreover, Addie’s decease is the beginning of a new life and a new self-definition for the other characters; the death of the author is the birth of the reader. And the function of the reader is precisely to take the words of the ‘original’ text and to create with them an ‘other’ text with its own provisional meaning, a new tissue around the old texture, waiting for its turn to be unravelled.


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Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” (1991). Literary Theory: An Anthology. Rev.ed. Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998. 722-730.
Derrida, Jacques. "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (1983). A Derrida Reader. Ed. by P. Kamuf. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 269-76.
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---. “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1972). Literary Theory: An Anthology. Rev.ed. Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998. 429-450.
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Vickery, Olga. The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation. Rev. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U.P., 196

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