Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Abject Light

Today I just have a few stray comments about a few stray passages from Light in August, but I’ll end with the quotation that imbued most of my thinking about the second half of the book.
Overhead the slow constellations wheeled, the stars of which he had been aware for thirty years and not one of which had any name to him or meant anything at all by shape or brightness or position.
Of course we each move through our days surrounded by things we never notice or inquire about. But Joe Christmas is particularly cut adrift from the meaning of life, and it seems to me that Faulkner picks the perfect example of persistent yet impactless phenomena to demonstrate his alienation. The stars come out at night, a time with which the lecherous Joe surely has much acquaintance. And one might suppose that a man who has wandered the country on foot for fifteen years might at least have learned about the North Star. The example also has religious overtones: Joe’s ignorance places him in clear contrast with the One Who knows all the stars by name, and it shows contempt for the Baby whose birth, celebrated on the holiday that gives Joe his very name, was heralded by a blazing light in the heavens.
He became aware of complete silence beyond it, a silence which he at eighteen knew that it would take more than one person to make.
What an insightful observation with which to show that we percieve each moment in the context of our habits and expectations!
It was as if the very initial outrage of the murder carried in its wake and made of all subsequent actions something monstrous and paradoxical and wrong, in themselves against both reason and nature.
Am I the only one who noticed that taking a shower or eating lunch on September 12, 2001, felt out of place with the universe?

The subjection of the present to the past pervades Light in August. Some characters believe in fate. Some believe in predestination. The influence of the customs, bequests, and graves of the dead comes up often. The disgraced Rev. Hightower, for example, thinks obsessively about a violent Civil War incident in which his ancestor played a role.
A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. but it’s the dead folks that do him the damage.
The direction laid out by fate and ancestry in Light in August seems never to lead to anywhere comfortable. The word “abject” makes astonishingly frequent appearances, because everything in the world of the book is degraded. The light in August is a dying light. The following hypothesis is given to explain why character A didn’t kill character B in revenge for killing character C:
He was French, half of him. Enough French to respect anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and to understand that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act. I think that was it.
So the land rears its sons and daughters and determines their abject characters. Did Faulkner mean to indict the land of Mississippi alone in this judgment, or all the earth in general? The standard answer is to say that Faulkner wrote about the South that he knew, and I have neither reason nor standing to argue against the experts on this point. So as I read the latter portion of the novel, I kept wondering what I would have been like had I grown up in Mississippi. Would my character have been established by my surroundings? Was it truly impossible, for instance, for anyone in that place and time to see skin color as irrelevant to any lasting values? Faulkner certainly says enough about fate and predestination to suggest that his answer is, yes: it was impossible.

And yet how did Faulkner himself come out of the South that he depicts? If the land guides the course of a person’s life so strongly that someone might even be excused from the guilt of murder because of his patria, then how did Faulkner learn to see the fact and critique it? Where did he get his sensitivity, his skill with language? I’m not ready to blame Mississippi for anything.

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