I was raised in a tradition that placed a high value on blood, so perhaps it is no surprise that I have come to revere Faulkner the way I do. As a child I sang and heard stories about the blood of Jesus Christ; as a young man I was washed in the blood of the Lamb, that which was spilt by God’s only Son and said to bring life to those who would stoop by the banks of that inexhaustible flow.
Faulkner’s entire work can be said to be about blood: that which separates the races, that which flows into the ground and stakes out a land as its own. Blood also enacts a chemical bond that connects family across the generations; it represents and gives substance to the link each one of us has to the past. It is blood that ties us irrevocably to the sins and victories of our forebears, and to the fortunes of our living kin. Above all, blood is a spiritual connection: even when, biologically, we become disconnected, blood readmits us into communion with one another.
Faulkner was a high school dropout. He was a white boy raised by a black woman in the Deep South, and he was brought up in a constant flow of old stories about war and race and the struggle between the sexes. He was a D student in English, but a major player in the Southern Renaissance of literature. His attention to cadence and diction became larger than life. He was a dedicated perpetrator of the stream of consciousness narrative style.
It was through that last approach that I first found the man. The first Faulkner novel I ever read was The Sound and the Fury– an Oprah’s Pick edition, to my dismay. Sorry, Oprah fans- it just seemed so unlikely a winner to me. But I had heard Faulkner mentioned in connection with other great names of the twentieth century, and just had to give it a venture.
I was floored, from the first page to the last. Four narrative voices take turns in expressing their own perspectives, and each is entirely distinct. The first quarter is narrated by Benjy, eldest son in the Compson family, severely mentally disabled. In modern terms, he is a non-functional autistic. The narration here is impressionistic and emotional, dependent on immediate sense perception and a distorted or minimal understanding of events.
The second quarter is presented to us by the youngest Compson brother, Quentin. This narrator is deeply idealistic, and becomes equally despondent as he watches the fragmentation of his family unit, and in particular the disintegration of his sister’s moral and emotional wellbeing. Severe depression leads to the narrator’s suicide at the end of his section.
Third on our lineup is Jason, middle brother of the Compson family. His cynicism and pragmatic approach make this quarter the easiest to read- but also the most horrifying, for me. It mostly consists of Jason’s ongoing quest to make a dollar, and to control his household.
The last quarter is led by Dilsey, high priestess- so to speak- of the black family servants. Her role as matriarch over her small community also makes her chief caregiver to the Compsons; her perspective is high and wide. Divided from the white folk she serves by the color of her skin, she is even so the one individual who does the most to care for them through their final days as a family, administrating their wellbeing in spite of their self-obliteration.
Keep in mind that the sections overlap. Each character’s perspective builds on the limited scope of the previous. The result is rich, full and very powerful. Can you see why I was so impressed? What I was reading was the story of a home shattering outward, a family with a great Southern history that had finally come to an inglorious end. What I was reading was so layered, so textured; each new quarter brought home a new level of understanding in the tragedy of a doomed bloodline. And, strangely, it was the woman whose blood separated her furthest from the story- it was this woman who was able to provide the most balanced and sympathetic account.
Quite different, but equally important in its own respect to my experience of Faulkner was his Go Down, Moses. Composed of seven novellas, or short stories, it conveys a moving portrait of a collection of racially diverse family units over the course of a hundred years- especially focusing, as is typical with Faulkner, on one white family: the McCaslins.
The Old People- one of the short stories- deals very directly with the title subject of this post. Isaac McCaslin, child of the Southern woods, is initiated into the hunt by the son of a native chief. While accompanying his predecessors and elders on his first real hunting trip, Isaac kills a buck; Sam, the chief’s son, anoints him with its blood.
A second buck- a grandfather among the deer- is spotted by a member of the hunting party, and the group disperses in order to locate and kill it. Isaac finds himself alone with the beast and his mentor, Sam; he does not shoot it.
There follows one of the most powerful- and dense- monologues I have ever read. I’d like to share a portion of it here:
Think of all that has happened here, on this earth. All that blood hot and strong for living, pleasuring, that has soaked back into it. For grieving and suffering too, of course, but still getting something out of it for all that, getting a lot out of it, because after all you don’t have to continue to bear what you believe is suffering; you can always choose to stop that, put an end to that. And even suffering and grieving is better than nothing; there is only one thing worse than not being alive, and that’s shame. But you can’t be alive forever, and you always wear out life long before you have exhausted the possibilities of living.
The blood of the hunted falls to earth and becomes part of it. The blood rises up in life again, and is once again subject to the hunt. Leaves fall and decompose; their decay becomes part of the living forest, and once again the leaves fall. Just as flora and fauna follow on themselves in this seemingly eternal exchange of energy, so man passes on his blood, his traditions, his values- and the passage continues down through time. Isaac’s bloody anointment pulls the paradigm tightly into focus.
In The Bear, we experience the brutal demise of a bear whose power is adequate not only to preserve him against traps and bullets, but to bring death to the dog that finally brings him down- and the very legend of the bear seems to be enough to bring about the demise of the man who trained that dog. The struggle in which all this takes place is climactic and, of course, bloody.
Isaac, who was involved in the hunt for Old Ben, renounces his claim on the family plantation. He finds himself burdened with guilt over what he calls the curse of God’s Earth: man’s efforts to own the land itself, his presumption is trying to own men of a different color than himself, and both the spiritual and physical destruction of what was the South. Returning to the site of the hunt for Old Ben, Isaac finds that it has become a venue for logging.
These two stories stand very tall, for me, among anything else Faulkner has written. The seeping, engulfing tide of which he writes- and his contempt of resistance to it- fill me with a sense of fear and splendor. Blood is inescapable in Faulkner, and irresistible in our world: good or bad, we are bound together as a species, as a lineage, as a great story.
When I was living in Okotoks, Alberta, on the ranch with my boss Jim, I learned of an idiosyncrasy he had. Jim loved to hunt with a crossbow. He would go out among the underbrush on his land and stalk the elk that populated those low, close hills; he would move as silently as he could, gaining ground and finding a thrill in proximity. But Jim never cocked his weapon, nor did he ever fire it; Jim never intended to kill or maim. For Jim, there was no blood.
I do not hunt. But for me, there is blood; there will always be blood (yes, I liked the movie, too). Faulkner is my literary hero, because he recognises this fundamental element in existence, and because he expresses it so eloquently. I’m going to include links, now, to a few of the novels I’ve read of his- who knows, you might come to love him too.
As I Lay Dying. A strange, convoluted narrative- compelling characters and vivid, sluggish prose. A lot of flesh and blood in proportionately little movement. A mini Odyssey; a tiny and demented Grapes of Wrath.
Light in August. Beautiful, hazy prose- horrible and somehow very real lives wrapped in layers of Southern perception. The Southern mind and the meaning of blood explored and molded as deftly as could ever be accomplished with words only- injections of deep and nearly imperceptible humor delineate the characters in their small, saturated existences.
Pylon. Best feature is its narrative approach to the passing of time- weaker is the dialogue, not the dark and fragrant stuff of other Faulkner. A compelling presentation of an interesting time in history.
Sanctuary & Requiem for a Nun. Dark, evocative passages from Sanctuary stand in contrast wit the sometimes awkward playwriting of Requiem. Long and winding pathways- flavored slowly, carefully with Faulkner’s typical attention to everything living and not living.