Whirlwind in the Dust Jacket

One of my most memorable experiences as the nonremunerated, lazy, undisciplined and unpublished writer that I still am was typing an email reply to a friend 1.7 thousand miles to my west while also facing in that direction one frigid winter morning in a coffeeshop along the south side of Loring Park in Minneapolis, which I never once technically i.e. monetarily patronized despite visiting often over the course of a year for wireless internet access. I’d felt before a bit of the confidence, the power and the intensity of concentrating thoughts and images into words – an activity much more unpredictably transformative than the sort of cerebral amanuensis-dictation concept one tends to harbor about writing – but never that I can recall now had I noticed my emotions altering as much as they did when I was beginning this letter.

Before, as a child, I had written sentences mainly to convey information, without thought of style or affect and how that might impact the emotional reception of the words. When reading this friend’s emails, though, I felt something much more lively, immediate, playful, engaging, human, more than human – because human means too frequently banal and regular instead of striving and jiving and pushing and pulsating – all of which set his letters far apart from anyone else’s, especially my own. Others expressed relatable sentiments too, and revealed themselves intimately too, and yet the terms and syntaxes and humors in which they couched their descriptions never really permeated the skin or rent the skull or rocketed blazingly across the brain’s grey universe the way his writing did. Without formulating this awareness or even fully recognizing it I understood finally that day through the act of replying that everything had to be poured into writing, every scrap of emotion and nuance of personality, whether real or imagined. With a freak bout of agitated frustration as propellant, the first sentence of the email grew very long, running on, divulging diverse personal details and diverging into parenthetical commentaries and hyphen-cordoned observations, gradually developing its own consciousness of what was happening to itself and myself as I wrote it – for the first time while writing, then, I began to tremble, inside and outside, and, as if my innards were going through a juicer, sweat started to ooze from my armpits as my head spun and switched on somehow with tremendous fear and excitement and confusion and elation, as though emotion were actually a tangled undifferentiable mass rather than a clear succession of cleanly discrete categories.

This same friend has since told me, quoting his dad, that how it feels to write something is of no real significance to that writing’s true quality. He would later read and be deflatingly underwhelmed by a travel diary I wrote within the next few months whose creation similarly brought out many of those same excited-ecstatic feelings – undeniably some of the best feelings for which I can take any responsibility (perhaps because I took responsibility), regardless of the quality of the product. Pushing sentences to bulge and flood mycelially into the mind’s thick pungent humus – by which is meant not the garbanzo dip, although that would function just as well as a succulent metaphor, but the brown earthy growing medium – with sprawling thought, or maybe rather allowing for them to do this of their own accord: I took this to mesh with what few mentions I’d heard of so-called “stream of consciousness” technique, from the mention of which Faulkner’s name is rarely far, though I would not read a single line of his prose until several years later. Having kept three of his novels in a slowly-progressing bookshelf queue for over a year, I finally fast-tracked his novel Intruder in the Dust so as to read it before seeing a film adaptation of it at a local repertory movie palace.

In what is either extreme megalomania or its total antithesis or a fusion and transcendence of two abstracted polar-polemic falsities, reading certain voices of the past expounding unique ideas or telling stories in idiosyncratic ways often feels more like self-discovery than other-discovery: those words which have never been read before are uncannily the unvoiced interior of one’s own mind. As Karl Marx would have it, not to mention numerous spiritual mystics in albeit slightly different terms, the epiphany of this weird recognition is really just the result of temporarily liberating oneself from the individualist estrangement fostered by a modern way of life that benefits and ballyhoos personal achievements over collective welfare and hence reconsidering oneself as a species-being (a strange but readily understandable compound word coined for English translations of Marx’s German). One would have to extrapolate from this concept to convoke universal consciousness to a discussion of social conscience, but not all that fantastically: the way the famous entity surnamed Faulkner had thoughts and concatenated and collided them can scarcely be so different from anyone who subsequently scans the result of his written interpretation of the process while enmeshed in largely the same cultural-aesthetic-philosophic-economic complex that he knew and lived in. It is because he hews so unwaveringly true to this peculiar way of recording reality that we are able to recognize so profoundly the innate authenticity of his style as capturing existence. Just as we can absorb new words by context – or by recourse to a dictionary which can describe them in terms we already know – so can we absorb new syntaxes (for which there exists no dictionary, though perhaps literary critics and academics can assist), and absorption in each case is more clarification or indication than institution.

What Faulkner clarifies and indicates is the ethereal of the everyday – another pair of abstracted polar-polemic falsities to transcend. It is almost inherently revolting for philosophical personalities to abide by familiar explicit dogmas about what is traditionally important and worthy of exaltation because wisdom-lovers like art-lovers seek a deeply personal and expansive communion with their objects whose breadth and force is made impossible by one-size-fits-all medicine-show proselytizing. Every moment – not just the officially recognized Special Moments® that advertisers like to depict with uplifting music before directing you at the finale to associate these Moments® with their products – in Faulkner is a nexus for meandering memory and moral opinion and intimate spirituality. Attributing the (learned, reinforced) tendency to covet certain manufactured and often-repeated images of happiness and success as the cause of widespread hatred, angst and malaise in the world as we know it would be overreaching in the sense that we barely know what really causes anything, but it’s a simple enough realization to observe that imagining something and somewhere else as better basically guarantees that the here and now is being devalued. The psychic economy in analog to its financial counterpart craves constant expansion and engages in grossly inflated and unregulated speculation in pursuit of the promise of wealth and/or glory, and crashes (and requires bailing out, from hourslong phone call friend-recipients, etc.) in the same way. Faulkner suggests that chasing that paper is unnecessary since his paper pages right in front of you (and free on loan from your public library) show that you are swimming in wealth at all times.

Six paragraphs into a typically unfocused “review” feels instinctively a little late and beside the point to follow convention and offer some summary of the plot, but it’s worth commenting on. The basic premise is that a young child in a small, rural town in a Deep South gulf state with a male lawyer role model in the family grows up quickly as the lawyer attempts to exonerate a black man accused of murdering a white person under suspicious circumstances. This overly vague reduction is not intended for maximal concision but rather deliberately constructed to invoke obvious parallels between this book and the high-school-curricular standby To Kill a Mockingbird, a book published twelve years later which operates with the much simpler characters and sentence structures deemed palatable for children but consequently lacks the elaborate swirling majesty and mystery that might possibly entrance and inspirit youthful souls instead of (as I remember) enervating them.

A major difference between the two works is that the young protagonist of Intruder, as well as his (a boy is the main character; a minor difference) lawyer role model (uncle, in this case), is almost as morally compromised as the more villainous characters in the book. Early on in the novel he recalls committing an extremely condescending and humiliating act against Lucas Beauchamp (the eventual accused) and his family that perpetrates the same racism as that fostered by the less pleasant figures in the county. Even if he is not fully conscious of his juvenile behaviors, he is immediately shorn at the start of the false ethical purity we tend to assign to children – when they are of course formatively susceptible to the most awful prejudices of the society on the whole – which rings truer because more dolefully. The uncle too, even though he seems to be the fairest and most reasonable man around, is no Atticus Finch: he is obstinate (and far from radical or even liberal) in what he knows and believes and even as a lawyer is quick to make judgments – racist ones included – without knowing all the facts.

Whereas Harper Lee and most other bestselling authors are so unambiguous – and somewhat facile – with their judgments and meanings, and tend to nudge readers repeatedly in the ribs and solar plexus with high-heel-shoehorned and red-carpeted-and-fanfared Symbols of Significance (are the metaphors employed here unmixable? A little imagination and a swift kick easily puts stilettos themselves into the chest, at a movie premier even, a movie premier with a band of trumpets), this book meanders with poetry into overgrown forest paths and crepuscular gravel roads in thrall to every looming object of interest and invading rumination along the way. Because of this Faulkner can cast aside whatever rules readers and writers might have nodded their heads to previously about capturing different personalities through distinct speech: all dialogues here, to the contrary, are of a rambling, uncontainable piece with the third-person omnisicient verselike plot-and-progress structure, whether they are spoken by uncles or mothers or vigilantes or sheriffs. Of course it is not realistic, but if by such a criticism one implies a preference for the litany of texts eagerly replicating the most quotidian and unedifying backs-and-forths of television shows and forced workplace role repartees, one forgets that both of the latter soak in rank falsity themselves: even if not speaking of fantasies or fictions (as is the case most of the time), the mere adoption of standard discursive limits serves as false constraint upon the blistering boiling potential inherent in all men and women. The comfort felt in talking about the game or the stocks is only a comfort of connection and sharing, which we prize so greatly that we overlook the nature of the furnishing and foisting of the particular content. Faulknerspeak comforts and yet sounds true because it repackages each character’s lifetime of wisdom and knowledge and sentiment into a dialogic expression that is more appropriate than what the characters can necessarily generate themselves, as not all people in life share the same facility and faculty with wordcraft even though they too can impress as powerfully as if they did possess such abilities.

When even the supposed villains are allowed their redeeming qualities – the most backwater lynch-mob populators and casual-murderer relatives of Yoknapatawpha County’s Beat Four have a certain dignity at times and at least some vestiges of a respect for propriety – more of the real world outside the novel is called into question, insofar as that world is replete with outward shows of dignity and propriety which undoubtedly mask horrors to which we have no access. Many readers and many in university literature departments in particular perhaps possess a bit of a dour, fearful and contemptful perspective of the South – I’ve been in rural Louisiana with long hair and suburban-boy clothes and have never been so acutely aware of feeling like an unwanted outsider to another group of people, even one as loosely associated as those inhabiting a gas station – but human complexity lives even there and will defy any easy caricature employed to wall oneself away. Though I’ve never lived anywhere in the US south of San Francisco, the grandparent who furnished my childhood with the most warmth and playfulness was (and still is; he’s also the longest-living) a grandfather born in Arkansas, and the only person with whom I’ve ever been in love grew up in Texas. American film has Deliverance – perhaps the touchstone storehouse of popular fears and stereotypes of the South, where teratoidal halfwit banjo boys only precede filthily prurient mountain men who want you to “squeal like a pig” – but it also has Slacker, where philosophically-minded garrulous drifters only precede quiet men who listen politely to enthusiastically raving goateed affirmers of climate change; the region has its rapists and inbreds but also its artists and rebels, which is as true there as it has been throughout history in the most supposedly culturally unimpeachable echelons of European monarchy and aristocracy.

I don’t know if I have succeeded at pouring enough of myself into this act of writing, which as per my nonremunerated, lazy, undisciplined and unpublished status has actually comprised far too many separate acts with far too little and infrequent pouring. In other words, the entire introductory premise from which it unfolded may be a great self-deception trotted out like some well-groomed but metastatically cancerous showhorse to convince myself of a feeling of progress somewhat equivalent with that sense given to the contemplator of a masterful artwork. However, if this line of speculation were correct, it itself would be subject to the same scrutiny, in which apparently humbling concessions of writerly dishonesty would be understood as a means to disclaim the author somewhat from feared potential shortcomings while deceiving himself in exactly the same manner of pretending to realize through this act of writing that everything had to be poured into it, and so on, and selfishly removing his friend from the understanding in the process. The aim is to try to spread as much honesty and quality as can be shared in spite of those unconscious deceptions, by adhering to a view that has the valor and vigor and color to stand at least a bit apart from the comfortable and typical, a view which will then have a way to express itself without being wholly sacrificed to the concerns of mere survival and fleeting luxury. This is something known and vital even to nonwriters like the protagonist of the book whose exploration I’ve used as an excuse for fingertip handicraft, and you certainly did not read it here first.

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