As ancient literature is generally characterized by its Father-heaviness and much medieval literature by its Spirit-heaviness, the great bulk of modern literature is characterized by a Son-heaviness. That is, it is driven not by an overarching idea or an inevitable fate, as is ancient literature, nor by the action of the story itself, as in much medieval literature, but, instead, it is driven by its characters. Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the human condition is a useful descriptive of the state of the characters of modern literature: “We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” These characters are not driven by and often have no reference to an overarching idea nor, often, as in Sartre’s own play No Exit, is there is any action, in the usual sense of the word, to speak of. Instead, what confronts the reader is a character or cast of characters thrust into a world they do not understand, acting (or not acting) according to their own whims, impulses, and quirks, which also they do not understand, and, finally, responsible (to whom?) for their own failings (by what standard?).
While the examples of this Son-heaviness in modern literature are multitudinous, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one of the finest examples. Nearly the entirety of the short novelette is consumed by the story of the elderly fisherman, Santiago, being pulled along in his boat by a large marlin in an attempt to capture the fish. He subjects himself to the suffering which ensues, including a terrible cut on his own hand, exhaustion, and dehydration, because he “was born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.” He must follow the law of his own nature, though he does not understand it or how it came to be, nor is there anything finally redemptive within it.
Notably, Santiago is alone for the whole of his struggle with the fish, interacting only with himself and his personified marlin of his imagination. There is, so to speak, no one to witness his crucifixion and record his story. In the end, a group of tourists sees the remains of the marlin, after most of its body had been stolen away by sharks, lying on the beach and asks a waiter what it is. The waiter, unsure himself, responds by telling them, falsely, that it is “Eshark.”
Meanwhile, Santiago and his young boy assistant, Manolin, have returned to their usual course of living on scraps and trying in, often in vain, to catch the fish they feel compelled to chase after. Because there is only the drive of the characters, there is no final idea, logos, or Father-figure, which can make sense of all of this in the end and no Spirit, ethos, or activity, to enlighten the world about its meaning and its importance. There is a crucifixion with no redemption and no gospel. There is only a return to the norm, to a prolonged and enduring suffering.
William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a remarkable example of modern literature because it simultaneously keeps its feet firmly planted within this paradigm while stepping outside of it and returning to an earlier order in which the three elements were brought together in more equal measures. The novel is divided into four parts, each of the first three under the direction of one of the elements and the final bringing them together into a near-perfect mixture.
The first part of the novel is told by Benjy, an intellectually disabled man whose narrative of events is often confusing in its nonlinear and ungrammatical structure. It is entirely pathos, or Spirit, driven. Benjy is something of a prophetic figure in that he possesses insights into future events which others lack. His narrative is filled with foreshadowing of the fates of the various members of his family. He vividly remembers seeing his sister, Caddy, who will eventually become a promiscuous young lady pregnant at her own wedding with the child of another man, with “muddy … drawers” while climbing a tree. So much does this event inform his perception of his sister that he continually identifies her with the smell of trees. Similarly, in Benjy’s olfactory-linked premonitions, his brother Quentin, who will later commit suicide by drowning himself, “smelled like rain.”
The tragedy of Benjy, however, is that he his mental handicap is so severe that he is nonverbal. Due to his inability to communicate, Benjy is unable to convey the content of his premonitions through any means but crying, which the others around him regard as a nuisance with no discernable meaning. The Spirit-driven nature of Benjy’s narrative allows him to possess special insights through apparent prophecy and discernment, but renders him incapable of communicating or even understanding his own gifts. With only pathos freed entirely of ethos and logos, there is no means of conveying the message and no grand narrative to place it into and give it meaning.
The second section of The Sound and the Fury is told from the perspective of Quentin, one of Benjy’s two brothers. Quentin’s narrative is ethos, or Son, driven, as Benjy’s is Spirit-driven. Early in his narrative, Quentin conveys much the same idea as Sartre concerning the aloneness of the individual in a world beyond his comprehension and control, saying, “it’s not when you realise that nothing can help you – religion, pride, anything – it’s when you realise that you dont need any aid.” Quentin’s narrative adheres the closest of the four narratives to the framework of modern literature in its Son-driven nature, including the obsessions with freedom and guilt, which manifest in Quentin as obsessions with perception and time.
Both themes are introduced early in Quentin’s narrative. The theme of time is the first introduced, only a few sentences into Quentin’s narrative, as he remembers his father’s admonition to “forget [time] now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Shortly after, there is a veiled reference to Quentin as a Christ-figure in the modern sense of the term, as he remembers another statement of his father “that Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” Quentin, like Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea, will not be subject to a horrifying but brief and glorious crucifixion; instead, he will, like Santiago, be worn away by the inevitability of time, by his own listless and unsatisfactory freedom.
The theme of perception is most insightfully introduced through Quentin’s meditation on his observations of blacks in the North and how they differed from those whom he had grown up around in the South. He realizes that the blacks he encountered during his upbringing in the South had learned to behave in certain stereotyped ways in order to act in accordance with the preconceptions of the Southern whites with whom they interacted. “That was when I realised that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior;” he says, “a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.” His conclusion is that perception is reality. And what he desires to be in reality is a terrible sinner; therefore others must perceive him as such. To this end, Quentin continually attempts to convince others that he is far more sinful than he is in actuality. He confesses to his priest that he has engaged in incest, a crime of which he is not guilty, he lies to his sister about his sexual exploits, and finds joy in being falsely arrested for attempting to kidnap a young girl.
These two themes, time and perception, coalesce into Quentin’s obsessive desire to protect the virtue of his sister. Faulkner’s own commentary on Quentin in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury are particularly illuminating. Faulkner points out there that Quentin clung to “some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead as a miniature replica of all the whole vast globy earth may be poised on the nose of a trained seal.” Driven by this antiquated notion of honor, Quentin desired to become a great sinner that “he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires.” Quentin, then, is a man out of his own time. He clings to ideals of martyrdom and chivalry whose day had long sense passed. As a result, he clings to them in a way that dislocates them chronologically and reorients them focally. Whereas martyrdom and chivalry had had God and the Christian ideal at their center within their respective historical contexts, Quentin’s martyrdom and chivalrousness instead have only an unidentifiable and unconquerable drive which results in the will to self-destruction. Because the Father/logos and Spirit/pathos have been stripped from his perspective, Quentin is left with only the Son/ethos, he has the desire to do what is right, but without the guidance, meaning, or means only imbued by the Father and the Spirit.
The third narrative in The Sound and the Fury is that of Jason, the final of the three Compson brothers. Jason’s narrative exemplifies the third element, the Father, or logos, in literature. Jason’s Father-driven nature presents itself in his obsession with fulfilling his duties and his constant insistence that others fulfill theirs. Jason’s narrative hearkens back to the literature of the ancient world in its preoccupation with fate and destiny. As Aeneas, driven by his fate and his need to fulfill his duty, leaves the sorrowful and suicidal Dido in his wake in Virgil’s Aeneid, Jason’s drive to fulfill his duty leads to the further destruction of his family, as his young niece, Quentin, is driven from the family home and his brother, Benjy, is sent away to an insane asylum. Without the Son or the Spirit, the Father becomes a tyrant in Jason’s narrative as in ancient literature.
After presenting each of these three characters, each driven along by a single element of the three, Faulkner completes his quartet of narratives, apparently presented as a foursome in imitation of the four biblical evangelists, with a final section in which the narrative proceeds from the objective perspective of a disinterested observer who brings the three elements into harmony. This imitation of Shakespeare, however, is too late to prevent the destruction of the Compson family. Instead, the separation of the three elements that has predominated the narrative has resulted in a family that has self-destructed due to its imbalance.
The one source of hope presented throughout the novel is the black house servant Dilsey, referred to in the final sentence of the Appendix with the mysterious phrase “they endured.” Throughout the entire course of the decline and fall of the Compson family, it is only Dilsey who consistently bears suffering patiently and greets every situation, no matter how terrible, with a calm and self-sacrificing love. It is this Christ-like love which shines as the only point of potential redemption in the narratives which make up The Sound and the Fury. Though she remains on the margins throughout the novel, ignored by the members of the Compson family except insofar as she can be of use to their varied ends, it is Dilsey may be the greatest character in the novel. In her are combined in perfect harmony the Trinitarian admixture of Father/logos, Son/ethos, and Spirit/pathos, with a fourth element which binds the three together: self-sacrificing love.
Although I finished reading this book almost two weeks ago, I have delayed in writing a review for it because I was not sure that I could find the right words to describe it. Today, a beautiful rainy day at my home in Savannah, Georgia, brought those words to me. The most concise way in which I can describe the story this book tells is to say that it is like a series of baptisms which just won’t take and hold.
Again and again the central protagonist is soaked through by the water but again and again he is unable to find redemption and a renewal of life. Even the most powerful baptism event in the book, his triple immersion in the river, is unable to affect a true regeneration. Although the event leads to a transformation, as the protagonist sheds his military uniform and heads to Switzerland for a new life, he wonders, just after the baptism, where the priest is, indicating that even this baptism is in some sense incomplete and incapable of bringing about a total transformation. Finally, the new life he escapes to proves to be of the same sort as the old, pervaded by suffering and culminating in a meaningless death.
Hemingway has written what may be the perfect nihilist novel. In this, it is the perfect novel of World War I and the standard for all of us who, a hundred years later, still live in the wake of that world-shattering event. Perhaps, however, there is, within its perfection of nihilism, a glimmer of hope offered, a transcending of nihilism of which we catch just a glimpse. It is nihilism made beautiful.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This wonderful, succinct little book is merely the story of an old man who caught a big fish. Beyond the surface, though, lies a wealth of symbolism, a depth of meaning, and a plethora of items for contemplation. Santiago, the “old man” of the title, is viewed as especially unlucky due to his frequent and very long streaks without catching a fish. When he goes out alone one day, however, he able to catch a shockingly large marlin. He spend the next day and more struggling with the fish, coming to grips with himself through his struggle with the fish.
In the story, Hemingway gives clear indications that Santiago is a Christ-figure, a hero who suffers. What makes Hemingway’s telling unique, however, is that there is no resurrection and there is no gospel. Rather than a return from death or unluck, Santiago instead experiences his “crucifixion” only to prepare for yet another. In addition, because he was alone during his struggle, there is no one to accurately tell his story, to sing his epic or spread his gospel. There is only more silent suffering.