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Why read Faulkner?

By Philip Weinstein

William Faulkner’s best novels show what it is like to live through baffling experience — experience that you can’t sort out while it is happening to you (crashing into you). They do more than “show” this; they enact it on the page. Attending to him responsively creates a kindred experience of bafflement, then of bafflement brought to order. But not brought to order before it registers on you, longer than you like.

Our lives are marked by looming questions, uncertain choices, and hurdles we hadn’t predicted and that won’t wait for us to figure them out before taking them on. We spend a lot of time denying this reality, and we are especially good at telling others (and ourselves) what that confusion was really all about.

Later, we make sense of the confusion that occurs in our present moment, whenever it escapes habit or predictability, when the present moment heats up, becomes too stressful, more than we can handle. The bread and butter of novels is to represent this confusion in such a way that, though we’re not sure how it will come out, we enjoy the suspense and await the denoument. In other words, confusion is domesticated, tamed, and configured as we like it in novels.

Kierkegaard said that we live life forward but we understand it backwards. He was speaking about being immersed in time itself: the simple truth that we live our present moments in a sort of confusion continuously erased by retrospective understanding. Most novelists before and after Kierkegaard work hard to soften this opposition between now and later, to blur its sharpness. Most novelists are fun to read because they tidy up experience, give it shape.

Faulkner’s best novels refuse such tidiness. In its place they give us “sound and fury” of experience unmastered, not yet graced by retrospective understanding. Faulkner grasped that we are born into a family and a culture that hardly waited for our entry to bristle with motives and complications of every sort. We are born innocent, but our surrounding world is never innocent. We spend so much of our lives figuring out what is actually going on around us, but we never grasp it at the time.

To be in time is to be, when things go bad, in a darkness that we trust will become light again. Faulkner’s best novels take us into this darkness, not out of cruelty and with no intent of leaving us there. When the light finally comes, and in his great work it always does come, we realize all the more powerfully how precious the light is. That is why Faulkner is worth reading.

Philip Weinstein is Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English at Swarthmore College and author of Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner, winner of the Society for Study of Southern Literature’s C. Hugh Holman Award.

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