01 Jul 2013

“There Are Only So Many Times One Can Dry Out in a Clinic and Fall Drunk Off a Horse”

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William Faulkner

Tim Parks, in the Bedwetters’ Review of Books, tries connecting some writers’ careers and characteristic themes with the manner and occasion of their deaths.

I expect it would have been too easy to discuss poor old Papa Hemingway and his 12 gauge Boss, but he did offer an amusing take on old Bill Faulkner.

[L]et’s consider William Faulkner.

Throughout his life, when asked for biographical details Faulkner would begin by saying he was the great grandson of the Old Colonel, a man renowned for his courage, temper, energy, and vision. And a writer to boot. In contrast Faulkner saw his own father as a nobody and a loser, an opinion he seemed to share with his mother, to whom he remained close throughout his life, having coffee with her most afternoons and never missing a family Christmas if he could help it. From his earliest days he was eager to present himself as bold and courageous, inventing in 1918 a bizarre story of having crashed a warplane while celebrating the end of the war. For years he affected a limp supposedly resulting from the crash, though at the time he had never piloted a plane at all. His brother was actually wounded in the war. Faulkner’s first novel focuses on a soldier returning home a hero, but so badly wounded that he dies.

Like Thomas Hardy, Faulkner eventually invented a fictional territory of his own where his novels could all take place in relation to each other. Acts of courage in Yoknapatawpha County—usually a very physical, manly courage, but also the courage to claim the woman you really desire—end up, as in Hardy’s novels, in wounds, disaster, and death. Like Hardy, Faulkner married a woman he was eager to betray but never able to walk out on. Community in the South is presented as a tremendous insuperable burden that one can neither escape nor overcome. The only freedom available is the freedom, the courage, to live slightly apart, not to engage, with the world or women, like Ike McCaslin, hero of The Bear.

Over the years Faulkner’s writing became both a solution to and a representation of the conflicting impulses that tormented him. His stylistic experimentalism became an act of courage in itself, allowing him to criticize the genuinely war-wounded and mythically courageous Hemingway for lacking the fortitude to write courageously, or to risk failure. Yet Faulkner’s experimentation is never liberating: his prose gives us the impression of a wild, would-be heroic energy pushing through an impossibly dense medium, shoving aside negative after negative to reach the brief respite of a positive verb, losing itself in a heavy slime of ancestors and ancient wrongs. It is not a world in which one could hope to become the courageous man Faulkner wished to be. From the black community, Faulkner told a friend, we can learn “resignation.”

One major difference between the patterns that guide Hardy’s and Faulkner’s writing is the latter’s relationship with alcohol, which, more than a mere disinhibitor making courage possible, becomes a sort of courage in itself. However adventurous and ferociously provocative, his writing was not enough to satisfy Faulkner’s need to feel courageous. Throughout his life he drank epically, heroically. In the hunting camp that is the setting of The Bear we hear that

    the bottle was always present, so that after a while it seemed to him that those fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they had spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base hope of acquiring the virtues of cunning and strength and speed, but in salute to them.

Whisky and writing intertwine throughout Faulkner’s life, feeding each other, blocking each other, never allowing him to achieve any stability, always acting out a salute to other men he feared he could not resemble. By the time he was fifty the end seemed inevitable. There are only so many times one can dry out in a clinic and fall drunk off a horse. It was actually something of a miracle that Faulkner outlived his dear mother for a year before one more courageous binge, one more salute to the truly brave, as he saw it, did him in, aged sixty-five.

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