Post-reflections from a book club session: Symbolism in Faulkner and Eliot
The interesting thing about joining a book club is that, at the beginning of the session, you can never forecast what will eventually come out of it. Discussions, considerations, different points of view: they all contribute to further readings and thoughts. This first session on classic American literature, organized by Ciriaco, was dedicated to William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (published in 1929) and it started with the reading of a poem from Thomas Stearns Eliot, ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’. This, in fact, was a surprise to me. The poem seemed, at first, quite unintelligible and unrelated to the subject we were dealing with. But it was a means to introduce Eliot’s and – in particular – Faulkner’s inventive and complex way of writing.
Once I got back home, being Eliot my favourite poet, I felt the need to read his work again, exploring its concealed implications. It was intriguing for me to find connections between Eliot’s poem and Faulkner’s novel, mainly in terms of symbolism, and I would like to share my personal reflections with you.
Very briefly, Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ analyzes the moral decadence of the Compson family through the accounts of four different voices, during two timeframes: 1910 and 1928. The Compson’s decline is a consequence of the economical and social blow brought by the Civil War and following Reconstruction. Like many Southern families, the Compsons lost touch with their core values and reality, and lapsed into self-absorption.
The first voice, in 1928, is Benjamin’s, the mentally incapacitated son, who sees the world in terms of order and chaos and in one only dimension, the present. Therefore, his accounts are difficult to decipher, as past and present are mixed in his mind. They develop through his stream of thoughts and without any chronological order, and Faulkner’s ability lays exactly in reporting them in a way that will eventually enable us to reconstruct the ‘plot’ of the story. The second voice, back to 1910, belongs to his brother Quentin, on the day he decides to commit suicide. Unable to accept his sister’s (Caddy) disinhibited sexual behavior, he tries to cling on to the old Southern values of virtue, faith and honour that nobody in his house professes anymore, even less his father. Disillusion and failure, and a very complicated obsession with time (in particular with an idyllic past of joy and purity) will lead him to sacrifice himself for the family’s sake. The third speaker is Jason, the other brother: evil, selfish, manipulative and attached to money. He just blames Caddy for a job he was promised and he could not get, due to the failure of her marriage. His anger is then addressed to Caddy’s illegitimate, cunning and promiscuous daughter who, in the end, will be able to get back all the money he stole her over the years ( sent to her by her mother Caddy, estranged by the family after giving birth to her illegitimate daughter ), by stealing it in return. Unable to put his goal into action, Jason spends his time in self-pity, accusing other people of his failures, and he does not succeed in leading the family as he is supposed to do, being now the only man in charge. The fourth voice is the omniscient narrator. In this chapter, set on Easter Day, the theme is that of resurrection, and it follows Mr. Compson’s death, Quentin’s death and Caddy’s loss of virginity, recounted on Good Friday (Christ’s crucifixion). The only character who still embodies the Southern values is the black servant, Dilsey, who unconditionally loves Benjamin (taking him to church with her, despite people’s comments), takes pride in her work and continues to serve the family without judging any of their actions whatsoever. She has seen the beginning, and now she will see the end, as she points out. The Compson’s destiny and unity can only reside in her industrious hands and in her selfless actions, able to save the family from an unavoidable and agonizing decline.
Eliot’s poem, ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’, was composed in 1920. In it, Eliot reflects upon the meaning of Christianity in modern society. In his view, it has lost its power of propagation and the relevance it used to have. Here below the first stanzas of the poem:
Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service
Look, look, master, here comes two religious caterpillars.
Jew of Malta.
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the window-panes.
In the beginning was the Word.
In the beginning was the Word.
Superfetation of ‘tò ev’,
And at the mensual turn of time
Produced enervate Origen.
‘Polyphiloprogenitive’ means ‘prolific of offspring’. The word ‘philoprogenitive ‘ is also found in Faulkner’s novel, precisely in Quentin’s blurred thoughts (‘Say it to father will you I will am my fathers Progenitive I invented him created I him Say it to him it will not be for he will say I was not and then you and I since philoprogenitive’) while ‘enervate Origen’ is referring to the theme of sterility. Origen of Alexandria was an important father of the ancient church, who castrated himself so that he could not be tempted by the flesh. But in this way, Origen weakens the Christian faith because he cannot pass it on to his progeny.
Back to Faulkner, all the males of the Compson family are unable to procreate: Benjamin has been castrated, Quentin commits suicide and Jason hates women and he is too self-centered. Benjamin’s castration has a strong symbolic meaning, as it is an omen for the family’s destiny and for its inability to procreate and carry on the Compson lineage. Notably, the theme of sterility is found in Eliott’s ‘The Waste Land’ as well.
We have then a beautiful depiction of Christ’s baptism, probably the masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, ‘Baptism’:
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned
But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.
But the vision of the painting is that of an object to be viewed at a temporal distance. In the same way, the Christian faith has lost its immediacy for the worshippers during church service. In Faulkner, the decline of the southern ideals of courage, moral strength and chivalry for men as well as purity, grace and virginity for women are also due to a decline of the faith in God and consequent inability to preserve the family’s reputation. A swim in the water by Caddy, does not bring her purification, but only soiled underwear, another strong symbol of contamination of purity, that makes Benjamin cry, as his sense of order leaves room to chaos.
The sable presbyters approach
The avenue of penitence;
The young are red and pustular
Clutching piaculative pence.
Under the penitential gates
Sustained by staring Seraphim
Where the souls of the devout
Burn invisible and dim.
The presbyters are approaching the avenue of penitence, but it is not really confirmed if they will ever reach it. Also, the young generation may never achieve redemption or renewal, as the word ‘piaculative pence’ refers to those who obtain forgiveness by the Church through money offerings, but without any true pardon. Again, it is the Compson’s new generation that is unable to carry on with the true, ethical values – including the religious ones – that were so relevant to previous generations. Benjamin is 33 years old, the age of Christ at crucifixion, and represents the impotence of Christ in the modern world.
Along the garden-wall the bees
With hairy bellies pass between
The staminate and pistilate,
Blest office of the epicene.
There is a sudden change, as the ‘bees’ appear and fertilize the flowers in the garden, reminding us of the importance of propagation in the cycle of life. Again, the theme of procreation is here juxtaposed to sterility and inaction.
Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
Sweeney is a character that appears in four poems by Eliot, including ‘The Waste Land’, and later in ‘Sweenie Agonistes’, and he represents the anti-hero. In contrast with the bees, he just shifts from ham to ham, in a self-indulgent motion, in water (not definitely seen here as source of life or regeneration). He is unable to look forward and to act, as much as Faulkner’s Jason is. And even if the masters know better, they may also lack the understanding – just as the whole society does – of the regenerative power that should characterize the Christian faith. In Faulkner, as I said, the only character who truly sticks to the old values of Christian faith and compassion, and who would bring regeneration, is Delsey.
Faulkner and Eliot’s works date back to the Twenties, and at that time they represented Modernism, not only for expressing desire of rebirth and rejuvenation after destruction and crisis, but also due to their innovative use of language and their often fragmented form. Their themes are still so tangible and universal today though: in particular, the inability of their characters to connect (think also of Eliot’s Alfred Prufrock) still denotes the ultimate challenge for human beings.