Commentary Magazine


William Faulkner and the Problem of War:
His Fable of Faith

In William Faulkner’s latest novel, A Fable (Random House, 437 pp., $4.75), Norman Podhoretz finds a demonstration of the gap which separates America’s foremost living novelist from the real problems of our day.

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A fable may not be William Faulkner’s worst book; one would have to re-read Pylon to make a definitive judgment, and I personally could not face the ordeal. But whether or not it is his worst, this new novel is for the most part so dull, so tortured, above all so pretentious, that it forced me back to Red Leaves and Spotted Horses, Light in August and The Sound and the Fury, for reassurance. Perhaps Faulkner was always as bad as this; perhaps some obsolete piety prevented us from seeing him truly. But the reassurance was there: those earlier works are wonderful, they are masterpieces. Nevertheless they struck me as the consummation of a minor, not, as I once thought, a major talent. I found them narrower than I remembered, and what was more surprising, not in the least complex. Faulkner’s prose style, perhaps, fooled us into attributing complexity to his mind. It now seems obvious, however, that he really is what he always claims to be: a simple man. His warmest admirers have usually refused to take him at his word, insisting that the pettish autobiographical remarks he has made to interviewers were a pose, the great artist’s secret revenge on the impertinent intruders who came south to pester him. Yet how much more impressive, after all, and how fitting, that if should be this way!

The narrowness I am speaking of is a narrowness of range. I am not suggesting that Faulkner’s work exhibits just one mode of feeling or a single quality (it is often forgotten how funny this most solemn of writers can be), but rather that he deals best with only one kind of person acting in one kind of situation. Think of his greatest achievements; the transcription of how Issetibbeha’s condemned Negro slave ran from his pursuers, never resting and finally eating a nest of ants to keep himself alive; or Lena Grove walking across two states with the patience of the stupid and the saintly, expecting to find the father of her unborn child; or the picture of Quentin Comp-son, crazed with a sense of honor so powerful that it drives him to suicide, buying a dirty little girl soggy cakes, only to be arrested for molesting her, and laughing when he is arrested; or the description of Lion, the great yellow hunting dog hurling himself time after time after time against a door he can never crash through and that he knows he can never crash through. These marvellous images share one overriding conception: a sense of all living things as possessed, fated, doomed—and the possessed are the simplest of creatures. They do and feel only as they must, and if they do what they must with dignity, beauty, and submission, Faulkner finds glory in their lives. “Come,” his captors tell Issetibbeha’s slave, “you ran well. Do not be ashamed.” But the glory Faulkner attributes to the man is no different from the glory he sees in the dog—which tells us something about his view of reality.

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Think also what is missing from his books. Perhaps it can be summed up by saying that as far as Yoknapatawpha is concerned, the Enlightenment might just as well have never been. The qualities of reasonableness, moderation, compromise, tolerance, sober choice—in short, the anti-apocalyptic style of life brought into the modern world by the middle class—no more exists for Faulkner than plain ordinary folks do (everyone is at least a demigod to him). To a whimsical observer, his work might almost seem a gigantic fantasy fulfilling the wish that the middle class had never been brought forth onto this earth. He doesn’t even hate it accurately, as those great haters Flaubert and D. H. Lawrence did. In the very act of damning industrial, urban, middle-class man, he reveals nothing more than an abstract conception of what the type is like. Jason Compson, for example, is one of Faulkner’s supreme triumphs, but he hardly represents the corrosive effects of the business ethos on a man’s soul. For Jason is really another variety of the possessed creature Faulkner always writes about. There is nothing mean or diminutive—or middling, for that matter-in him, except perhaps his objectives. He has the same overwhelming compulsiveness, the same superhuman drive exhibited by his characteristic adversary, Quentin Compson—whereas the truth is that the middle class, if it stands for anything at all, supports the immediate exorcising of all known demons. Its great cultural triumph is precisely that it brought obsession into disrepute.

The view that takes Faulkner as a chronicler of the war between pre-industrial civilization and the new world of the middle class seems to me unfounded. I cannot discover a genuine sense of history in the Yoknapatawpha series; unlike Stendhal, say, who saw a new kind of personality emerging from major historical changes and understood the drama and significance of its clash with a moribund type, Faulkner has always taken refuge from historical change in a vague sense of doom. We can speak without exaggeration of Julien Sorel’s struggle with the de Moles as the 19th century versus the 18th—two different worlds quite literally meet in The Red and the Black, two different temperaments, two different attitudes toward the self. Jason Compson, on the other hand, is merely Quentin Compson gone wrong. And who can blame him?

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Faulkner’s narrowness, then, has always stemmed partly from an unwillingness or an inability either to love or to hate the world of the 20th century enough to understand it. But it isn’t contemporary reality alone that Faulkner has shied away from. The very effort to explain, to understand any living thing, seems to him sheer blasphemy. Moreover, he is utterly indifferent to subtlety and qualification. When he qualifies—and often he will do so at tiresome length—it is not with the Jamesian intent of suggesting how much the naked eye never sees. Nor does he wish to refine the gross perception and focus it on a delicate point. The fine points are a swarm of motes irritating to Faulkner’s eyes; occasionally he can descend to a crude, surly tone in dismissing them as irrelevant:

But tell me why—No, I know why. I know the reason. I know it’s true: I just want to hear you say it, hear both of us say it so I’ll know it’s real”—already—or still—speaking, even through the other’s single vicious obscene contemptuous epithet: “You could have surrendered the horse at any time and it could have stayed alive, but that was not it: not just to keep it alive, any more than for the few thousands or the few hundred thousands that people will always be convinced you won on it”—stopping then and even waiting, at anyway watching, exultant and calm while the prisoner cursed, nor toward him nor even just at him, but him, the ex-deputy, steadily and for perhaps a full minute, with harsh and obscene unimagination, then the ex-deputy speaking again, rapid and peaceful and soothing: “All right, all right. The reason was so that it could run, keep on losing races at least, finish races at least even if it did have to run them on three legs because it was a giant and didn’t need even three legs to run them on but only one with a hoof at the end to qualify as a horse.

Is it fanciful to suggest that Faulkner’s, sympathies are with the obscene prisoner who thinks that the young man in quest of reasons is a fool and a monster? Faulkner frequently takes a kind of mischievous delight in tantalizing us with long passages which pretend to be explanations, but whose point is that no explanations are possible. These passages almost always consist of crude metaphysical assertions written with an ineptitude even translations of Hegel rarely match. He hurls his convoluted rhetoric and clumsy thought into the air like an educated version of his own prisoner cursing those of us who ask for a reason or two now and then. In any case, the notion that nothing can be explained is a half-truth which, in my opinion, has limited Faulkner’s creative range. For let us be bold and admit it: a lack of ideas is no virtue in a novelist. I do not believe that Faulkner ever had ideas. Convictions, yes, and a terrifying energy behind them, but not ideas, not the wish to understand the world, only the wish to feel deeply and to transcribe what he felt and saw. (Compare him to Dostoyevsky and the difference between a demonic writer with ideas and one who has none becomes clear.) Heaven knows that what Faulkner did have was enough to make him one of the two or three first-rate writers in modern American literature. But it was not enough to make him a truly great writer.

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It was also not enough to sustain his creative energy. For the paradox is that after a while the imagination of a novelist who has maintained merely an equivocal flirtation with ideas begins to flounder. At the very point when he needs more than his original enthusiasm about a subject to keep him going, he finds himself without resources. He may feel his subject as intensely as ever, but the convictions which once were enough to make him certain that it was a significant subject no longer appear self-evident. Eventually this loss of confidence will also affect his capacity to distinguish between emotion which refers to something outside and feeling which is created by the will to feel. (The rhetorical mode of A Fable seems to me evidence of Faulkner’s present inability to recognize a self-generated paroxysm when he works his nerves into one.) And finally, it will betray the novelist into choosing subjects that he has no business dealing with.

The more explicitly Faulkner declares his “values”—as he has been doing lately— the more we suspect that he is terribly unsure of himself these days, unsure of the relevance of his way of looking at things. For what has the Glory celebrated in Yoknapatawpha got to do with the Korean War, that tiresome, drab, plodding, inconclusive war, from which not a single national hero emerged, a war uninspiring, nay meaningless, to the Yoknapatawpha mind, and thrilling only to children of the Enlightenment who understand its moral sublimity? What has become of Faulkner—or of us—when a speech like his Nobel Prize address affirming the nobility of man and his power to endure and to prevail despite atom bombs, falls on our ears with a sound dangerously like irrelevant cant? We do have our own kind of glory and our own kind of miraculousness, but Faulkner’s vocabulary is somehow inadequate to describe them. And I think A Fable proves that he knows it and is trying to do something about it.

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As everyone must have heard by now, the book is Faulkner’s version of the Passion of Jesus Christ. It is difficult not to see in it also his attempt to bring Yoknapatawpha up to date. The allegory is superimposed upon the story of a false armistice which takes place toward the end of World War I. Faulkner portrays the war as an endless, frustrating affair which seems meaningless to those caught in it, a war so devastating to the spirit that it doesn’t even provide ambitious young men with their chance for glory: a war, in fact, rather like the one we have all been living through since 1948. Into this atmosphere, Faulkner introduces his extremely shadowy Christ figure, an illiterate corporal serving in the French army who inspires a whole regiment to mutiny. The mutiny frightens all the top brass of both sides so thoroughly that they suspend hostilities long enough to hold a conference for the purpose of forming a united front against this revolutionary move. People must never learn that they can end a war as simply as all that. But at least one man does learn. He is a former officer who has intentionally had himself degraded to the ranks and become a runner. When he hears of the mutiny, he experiences what can only be called a conversion, and though he has never met the corporal, he dedicates himself to spreading (among the “Gentiles”) the new gospel, the secret that can transform the whole world:

Don’t you see? If all of us, the whole battalion, at least one battalion, one unit out of the whole line to start it, to lead the way—leave the rifles and grenades and all behind us in the trench: simply climb barehanded out over the parapet and through the wire and then just walk on barehanded, not with our hands up for surrender but just open to show that we had nothing to hurt, harm anyone; not running, stumbling: just walking forward like free men—just one of us, one man; suppose just one man, then multiply him by a battalion; suppose a whole battalion of us, who want nothing except just to go home and get themselves into clean clothes and work and drink a little beer in the evening and talk and then lie down and sleep and not be afraid. And maybe, just maybe that many Germans who don’t want anything more too, to put his or their rifles and grenades down and climb out too with their hands empty too not for surrender but just so every man could see there is nothing in them to hurt or harm either—

That William Faulkner should be able to take such stuff not seriously but reverently, that he should see the trench mutiny as anything but a touchingly pathetic gesture of desperation! What are we to make of it?

Well, it is all done for the sake of an affirmation. Two years ago, in his Nobel Prize address, Faulkner “declined to accept the end of man.” The passage in which he insisted most intensely on his faith is in A Fable also, spoken by the corporal’s father, the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in France, who acknowledges his (illegitimate) son in the act of condemning him to death:

I don’t fear man. I do better: I respect and admire him. And pride: I am ten times prouder of that immortality which he does possess than ever he of that heavenly one of his delusion. Because man and his folly will endure. They will do more. They will prevail.

Heavenly immortality, then, is a “delusion”; man’s true immortality lies in his glorious career on earth. There may or may not be a God (if the corporal is Christ, are we to take the Marshal of France as God the Father?), and he may or may not have actually given his son to save the world. For all we can tell from A Fable, it does not matter to Faulkner. Though Faulkner is a very religious writer, his work surely constitutes a paean to Man, not to God. He has turned to the Gospels as the source of his affirmation, not because he has suddenly discovered traditional Christianity but because he rightly sees in the Gospels the greatest tribute to Man ever conceived: they tell how God became man and man became God for a brief moment, and it therefore presumably lies in man’s power to become “God” again. Even today.

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Yet, as far as this novel is concerned, the affirmation is empty. A Fable is just another one of those proofs that an artist must either accept the religious view of the universe as a literal truth or leave its myths alone. The Gospel According to Matthew is a literary masterpiece because the author saw no contradiction in the idea of a man-God. He was not disturbed by qualities in the Messiah which many modern Christians would consider a blasphemy to attribute to the Son of God. The character of Jesus, as it appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is not in the least monolithic: his Godliness is conveyed mostly through his ideas, thus never deteriorating into insipid virtue, while the plentiful evidences of his humanity are unabashedly displayed: we get glimpses of his arrogance, his impatience, his playfulness, his capacity to suffer. As for Faulkner’s corporal, the trouble with him is not just that he is monolithic; he simply doesn’t exist. Nor does the Olympian marshal. Nor do any of the characters who take part in the religious allegory. How could they exist when Faulkner doesn’t seem to believe that they ever did? Under these conditions not all the Biblical parallels in all the testaments ever compiled could give them life.

And there are parallels aplenty in A Fable. The corporal brings a complete biblical retinue along with him. Of the twelve men in his squad, one betrays him; he is “engaged” to a whore from Marseilles who he has said was really “a good girl”; he even has a virgin mother of sorts (his real mother had died in childbirth after having been cast off by her husband for committing adultery, so the corporal was raised by his sister who, being nine years old at his birth, could only be called his mother in a spiritual sense: I suppose). Many other analogies come to mind, including the traditional chronology of the Passion. The corporal is captured on a Wednesday, executed on a Friday, and “resurrected” on a Sunday. He is killed (at the age of 33) together with two other criminals, and though he is executed by means of a firing squad, Faulkner still contrives to have him die with a crown of “thorns” around his head:

The corporal’s post may have been flawed or even rotten because . . . the plunge of the post had jammed it and its burden too into a tangled mass of old barbed wire, a strand of which had looped up and around the top of the post and the man’s head as though to assoil them both in one unbroken continuation of the fall, into the anonymity of the earth.

Before he dies, however, he performs miracles. The miracle at Cana is given a particularly “modern” naturalistic interpretation, where either Faulkner’s sense of humor or his lack of reverence has got the better of his judgment. It seems that the corporal met a young American soldier who wanted to marry an orphan girl. Neither of them had any money and consequently could not prepare a wedding feast. To help them out of their predicament, the corporal walks into a crap game and calmly picks up the money lying on the floor, explaining to the soldiers (who are on the point of dealing with him as we might expect) that he needs it for one of their buddies. Miraculously, the soldiers experience a burst of sentimental enthusiasm and “adopt” the wedding, buying up all the wine in town, thus, I assume, turning water into wine. This sort of thing, embarrassingly silly as it is, can almost be compared to some of the details in D. H. Lawrence’s version of Jesus’ resurrection (The Man Who Died) which, in the monstrous reaches of its bad taste, strikes even an unbeliever as a blasphemy.

It would be dishonest to pretend that the occasional spurts of life in A Fable redeem the book. The story which Faulkner worked into the allegory about the wretched Cockney groom and the Negro preacher who steal a crippled race horse was written nine years ago, and though it is a good story, it certainly falls short of his best work on animals and men (for example, The Bear). As for the character of General Gragnon, the commander of the mutinied regiment who wants to execute all three thousand men, and would be prepared to execute a whole army for the sake of his reputation, he is Yoknapatawpha itself dressed in a French uniform. But Gragnon is buried in the allegoric mess; Faulkner never gives him the chance he deserves.

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A Fable, then, is one of those disembodied, religiose affirmations that we have learned to regard as the typical literary symptom of a failure of nerve in difficult times. It can be read as a fantasy in quest of some optimistic statement on our present predicament. Faulkner offers us a “pure,” primitivistic Christianity that we are meant to feel is nobler, more beautiful, somehow more effective than our worldly politics. For he can see nothing but silliness in the machinations of the political mind; his satiric chapter on the conference of the generals seems to me astonishingly simple-minded, a worthy foil to his conception of the Christian lesson for our time. We are confronted here with Faulkner’s impulse to escape the complexity of a world he has no patience with, a world he cannot understand. He is saying to us: “I am tired and bored and bewildered by the way you go about things; I am sick of your conferences and your bickerings. They don’t matter, they ate little childish games. What matters is Love and Faith and Hope.” Love of what? Faith in what? Faulkner never tells us. How could he, when he cannot realize that today as perhaps never before the question of man-and-his-destiny is inseparable from the hard, dull, wearisome details of EDC’s and NATO’s and Austrian Peace Treaties? Indeed, it is even possible that the committees and conferences and legalistic bickerings are the very question itself. The fact that this possibility is inconceivable to Faulkner may indicate that A Fable is something more than the usual product of social unrest.

I think this book marks conclusively, and as it were officially, the end of an era. The “modern” world of which Faulkner, Hemingway, and Dos Passos were the most penetrating interpreters, the world of the 20’s and 30’s whose articulate consciousness they were, froze to death in 1948. As I have suggested, Faulkner’s point of view—and the same might be said of both Hemingway and Dos Passos—already has taken on that ever so slightly stilted, archaic look; the tint of brown begins to stain the photograph, the poses seem a little awkward and artificial. Even the best works of these writers, re-read today, induce nostalgia rather than the exhilaration of discovery. We are living now in a limbo that is neither war nor peace, yet it has given rise to a generation not “lost” but patient, acquiescent, careful rather than reckless, submissive rather than rebellious. We will recognize fully what a new world this is only When it finds a voice of its own. Meanwhile, however, the extent to which Faulkner has lost touch with contemporary experience—the way he has been bamboozled by irrelevant religiosity, while blinding himself to the real drama of salvation being played out before his very eyes—is enough to bring home the gap between his reality and ours. In the end, A Fable leaves us wondering whether the time will ever come again when a writer will be able to dismiss politics in favor of the Large Considerations without sounding like a chill echo from a dead world.

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About the Author

Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 56 years.




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