Light in August

Wow… it’s been a while since I read a book this good, with this high of a “wow” factor (“War & Peace” was good, to be fair, just… long). This is the kind of book that you put down again and again saying “whooa,” feeling slightly breathless after you have basically just underlined an entire paragraph and scrawled huge asterixes all over the page next to passage after beautifully and amazingly written sentences. Yup, that Faulkner sure could write like a MF.

Faulker and I go way back. The first book of his I read was As I Lay Dying in AP English class. It was a great experience because it was one of the earliest times I can remember becoming aware of what language was capable of, of how evocative fiction could be, of the effect that great writing could have. I’ll never forget Mr. R reading aloud Addie’s monologue in class, the beauty of the sentences:

“We had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching” (160)

“I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terrible doing goes along the earth, clinging to it” (162)

“My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead. I knew at last what he meant and that he could not have known what he meant himself, because a man cannot know anything about cleaning up the house afterward. And so I have cleaned my house.” (164)

I’ve never found a better way to explain these concepts (the separation between words and action and so on) to myself outside of these passages. It was so thrilling and exhilirating at the time, hearing these ideas being presented to me via fiction. Later I would hear them again, in my college literary theory classes. Maybe what I felt at the time was vaguely reminiscent of what all those Latin American authors felt, reading Faulkner back in the ’40s and ’50s: like a giant door was opening.

It’s a funny thing, me being a “Faulkner fan” or whatever, because I actually know very little about the man himself. I wonder if I’ve even avoided seeking out more biographical knowledge about him on purpose. Like, maybe if I found out he was actually an asshole (he was definitely a drunk, for sure; the character based on him in the film Barton Fink attests to that), or a misogynist, or a racist, that would really make it difficult for me to enjoy his fiction, you know? I know you need to keep the author separated from the work, but still.

One thing I do feel like I definitively know about Faulkner is that he very much believes and is a champion of the Writer as Artist. His Nobel Prize speech is probably the most quoted, laudatory example of his view of the important role that artists and poets and writers play in society. It’s a very Cary Tennis-like view to me, one that becoming increasingly valuable to me as the year goes on.

I already said that I wanted my New Year’s Resolution to be “make more art”, so lately I’ve been trying to make teeny, tiny steps to hold true to that. I bought this self-help book (oh how I love self-help books and their wisdom and encouraging language!) called Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, that I’ve been recommending left and right to anyone that will listen. It has a lot of useful prompts and stuff for breaking writer’s block, but more than that I’m just in love with the nurturing, you-can-do-it tone that the book offers, especially via the Five Essential Affirmations:

  1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
  2. Everyone is born with creative genius.
  3. Writing is an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.
  4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem.
  5. A writer is someone who writes.

How cool is that? Art belongs to the people, dude, not the ivory tower. Anyone CAN do it, and should. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich and successful and praised and loved and acclaimed. You should just do it because you can, and because it is good for you, considering that it is your voice, Yours. It is good for the soul, and having people who are good to their souls is good for society. (On a similar note, this Stephen Elliot essay, “Why I Write,” also makes excellent, moving arguments.) It’s a funny thing, thinking about “your voice”: it makes me think of the Little Mermaid, how she lost it but then got it back, and of Tori’s “Silent All These Years,” which I’ve listening to over and over and over again this year.

Also in keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, last night I went to my first creative expressions workshop, based on the Amherst Writers and Artists method (the one founded by Pat Schneider, as discussed in her book). It was SO MUCH FUN! The last time I was in this kind of formal writing, creating environment was in college creative writing classes, but this one was so, so different. It really  made me feel like my horoscope for this week is right on the bomb.

Then I came home and re-watched the movie “I’m Not There,” and thought a lot about reading “Chronicles” earlier in the year and how it was like I suddenly decided that it was OK to think that art was important again, that it was OK to have art play an important role in your life instead of something, I dunno, more grandiose-sounding or whatever. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I spent a couple of years focusing on other things… like I said earlier, maybe you have to lie fallow for a couple of years in order to flourish later on. I still don’t really know if I want to make art and writing and literature the center of my life via a career, or if I prefer to keep it the way it is now, something personal and small and on the side (and yet still fufilling). Sometimes I wonder that I’m worried if I make it the focus of a career (like via a Ph.D or whatever), that that will somehow ruin it for me, that it will turn literature and writing into POLITICS and SUCCESS and MONEY and CAREER ASCENSION and PRESTIGE… yuck, all of these other gross and horrible things that I REALLY don’t want to have associated with literature and writing, because I love both so much! Whatever. I will just continue fertilzing the garden (to continue with the gardening metaphors, ha), and see what comes up.

Anyway, it’s good to read books like “Light in August” from time to time and feel like “wow… literature is really capable of conveying the craziest things!” I honestly feel like this is one of Faulkner’s best books, ranking up there with As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! The Wikipedia article has a lot on the symbolism and themes that appear throughout: existentialism, Christianity, racism, and all that other good-for-great-literature stuff. The section that claims that Light in August is based on the Gospel of St. John is pretty interesting (both works have 21 chapters and follow a main character called Christ/Christmas), although who knows if it was intentional or not on Faulkner’s part.

On my part, I found that there was an intriguing number of passages throughout the book concerned with reading and writing, and with the power and effect of words. In the first chapter, one of the main characters, Lena, travels from her dinky rural hometown to the Big City in search of her BF who abandoned her while pregnant. Throughout the chapter she keeps insisting on the importance of his “word,” how he promised that he would send for her when he was ready for her to come after finding work. This is pretty interesting if you consider that the first phrase of the Gospel of John is “In the Beginning was the Word.”  So I feel like right off the bat, Light in August is establishing itself as a story very much concerned with words and how they are used, and that weird conflict in which words can seem as though they stand for something true and fixed and definite, when in reality they are just empty. (Wow, I just reread the GOJ online and it has a bunch of stuff about “light” in it too. Crazy! It is really interesting to think about light in the context of the book as illumination and understanding, as truth and wisdom…)

 Apparently Faulkner originally intended the title to be The Dark House but changed it to Light in August at the last minute. Light and darkness are definitely two very important themes throughout the book, and not just because the main character, Joe Christmas, is of mixed black/white ancestry. (The precise ratio of race is never made clear: he can pass as a white person with ease while looking vaguely “like a foreigner,” so who knows what he would mark on the U.S. census). I think “the dark house” from the original title is based on the home of Reverend Gail Hightower, a fallen-from-grace priest who is tormented by visions of his Confederate horsemen ancestors. Here’s one paragraph that plays with light-dark imagery, concerning Hightower:

[He thinks about how] when he was young, a youth, he loved darkness, of walking or sitting among the trees at night… He was afraid of it. He feared; he loved in being afraid. Then one day at the seminary he realised that he was no longer afraid. It was as if a door had shut somewhere. He was no longer afraid of darkness. He just hated it; he would flee from it, to walls, to artificial light. ‘Yes,’ he thinks, I should never have let myself get out of the habit of prayer.'”

This makes me think of all the Tori Amos New Age-y quotes about how important it is to “know your darkness” or whatever, to not deny that part of yourself that is capable of killing and murdering and thinking horrible thoughts. This seems to sum up Joe Christmas’ problem: he’s a divided self (both racially and personally), and he ends up committing a horrible act because he doesn’t know how to come to terms with this “dark self” that’s inside of him.There’s no use in pretending that side doesn’t exist in all of us, because it does. So we might as well come to terms with it and try to have a healthy, balanced relationship with it, instead of trying to squash it down and pretend it doesn’t exist. As Tori says in the video clip below, “you gotta fight for your right to have a monster!”

In the same passage, Hightower ends up turning to his bookshelf, where he pulls a “dogeared” copy of Tennyson that he’s owned since the seminary from the shelves: “He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to understand.” (318) This reading-as-praying image is pretty interesting. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s definitely intriguing.

Faulkner asks a lot of good questions in this book. There’s a lot of questions about freedom throughout the book, about when or how you can consider yourself truly free. There’s a great flashback (paraphrased here) in which someone tells their freed slave “You’re free, now,” and she replies, “Free? What’s freedom ever done other than get my husband killed? Free? Don’t talk to me about freedom.” Hightower says that “all that any man can hope for is to be permitted to live quietly among his fellows,” and yet this seems exceedingly impossible for any of the characters to achieve (especially Christmas, who keeps getting cast out again and again on account of his mixed ancestry). Even Lena, the most peaceful and centered of the characters, is still roaming endlessly by the novel’s end, hitching ride after ride with strangers on wagons, searching for something that can never be found. At one point, Hightower says “it is any man’s privilege to destroy himself, so long as he does not injure anyone else, so long as he lives to and of himself,” (490) which sounds like a good definition of freedom to me. Throughout this book, Faulkner seems to be saying that there are forces beyond us in life like society and modernity that prevent men from having this freedom, that prevent men from having what they want and trying to live happily and quietfully and peacefully without bothering anyone. Instead all these other forces get in the way, like racism, or “the churches of the world“, which Hightower sees “like a rampart, like one of those barricades of the middleages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against the peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man.” (487) Maybe writing and fiction and reading exist as a place to escape from these forces, to subvert them.

I’m reading this other book right now called 1491, about Native Americans in the Americas, and it has an interesting section about early writing systems: “Iroquis pictographs could convey sophisticated ideas, but functioned more as a mnemonic aid than a true writing system. The symbols were not conventionalized–that is, one person could not easily read a document composed by another.” (373) It’s interesting to think about writing at its most basic and essential: a series of conventionalized symbols that can be easily understood. Thus the fundamental quality of writing is inherently tied to the question of understanding, of conveying ideas and truths that you want to communicate to other people in a way they can comprehend. OMG, no wonder it’s such a mind-blowing conflict to us all when words turn out to be EMPTY and NOT MEAN ANYTHING, like when someone says “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I love you.”

I think this conflict of words vs. meaning and truth is a huge, huge theme in Light in August, as in As I Lay Dying. At first Hightower turns to the Church, to the written word of the Bible, in search of truth: “He believed with a calm joy, that if ever truth could walk naked and without shame and fear, it would be in the seminary.”  (478)  But of course he eventually learns “how false the most profound book turns out to be when applied to life… ‘Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,’ he thought quietly. ‘Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.'” (481)

 This conflict of words. vs. truth in turn poises a lot of questions about identity for some of the characters. Who are you, if you’re not who you say you are? Identity crisis is another humungo theme throughout the book, especially for poor Christmas. I think I will leave it for another day, maybe.

I  just want to share this one last passage about a character called Percy Grimm, who ends up killing one of the main characters, shortly after he starts a civilian army:

It was as though he not only could see no path ahead of him, he knew that there was none. Then suddenly his life opened definite and clear. The wasted years in which he had shown no ability in school, in which he had been known as lazy, recalcitrant, without ambition, were behind him, forgotten. He could now see his life opening before him, uncomplex and inescapable as a barn corridor, completely freed now of ever having to think or decide, the burden which he now assumed and carried [was]: a sublime and implicit faith in physical courage and blind obedience, and a belief that the white race is superior to any and all other races and that the American is superior to all other white races and that the American uniform is superior to all men, and all that would ever be required of him in payment for this belief, this privilege, would be his own life.” (451)

This passage reminds me of all those doomed, violence-addicted soldiers in The Hurt Locker. It reminds me of those teens I met at my old job, who had never spoken to a college counselor, but had met all the military recruiters in the area. It just about breaks my heart, I tell ya. The legacy of violence and hate and racism is a cruel one. Thank god for art, and its capacity to fart in the face of capitalism and neoliberalism and the military industrial complex . I don’t think it’s the role of art to make these things “pretty” (which is a very Bolaño-esque question), but to make sure that our voices in face of these giant, scary, overwhelming freedom-squashing things are heard. As Schneider says in Writing Alone and With Others, “the issue is not whether our writing will be political. If we are silent, our silence is political. If we write, our writing is political… the privilege of voice carries with it a responsibility to speak for social justice.”

Here’s to rediscovering that privilege and trying to learn how to write, again……………………..

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Filed under art, books, civil war, experience, truth

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