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William Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity

Jay Watson


Oxford: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xv+396 p. ISBN 978-0198849742. £65


Reviewed by Frédérique Spill

Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)



Jay Watson’s William Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity is by all means an impressive and original addition to the numerous monographs, collections of essays and journal articles on the work of William Faulkner that still go to print, year after year, nearly sixty years after the writer’s death. The book is split into four main sections, which in turn divide up into two chapters (one for the last), each of which highlights different aspects of Faulkner’s approach to modernity through a variety of analytical tools. Part one is devoted to “Rural Modernization,” Part two to “Technology and the Media,” Part three to “Racial Modernities” and Part four to “Biopolitical Modernity.” As highlighted by the choice of these titles, Watson emphasizes diverse facets of the concept of the modern—a notion that keeps evolving and taking on new significations within the various contexts it is envisioned.

The book opens with an extensive introduction entitled “Modernization, Modernity, Modernism,” at the start of which Watson proclaims that “[i]t is the aim of this book to broaden and deepen an understanding of William Faulkner’s oeuvre by following some of the guiding questions and insights of new modernism studies scholarship into understudied aspects of his literary modernism and his cultural modernity” [2]. In keeping with the announced program, the introduction establishes enlightening distinctions between the three contiguous notions that are at the center of attention. In the process, Watson suggests that to feel modern is “to live under the sign of rupture, with its resulting emphasis on both the promise and the danger of the new” [2]. He defines modernization as encompassing the “‘world-historical processes’ shaping the social, economic, and cultural life of subjects” [2]. Finally, he envisions modernity as “what the modernization process specifically feels like to those caught in its exhilarating, terrifying ‘maelstrom’” [2]. Watson then proceeds to mapping the variety of approaches adopted by modernist studies in general, then by modernist studies on Faulkner in particular. He starts weaving his own argument in the second part of the introduction, entitled “A Great War Modernist,” on the shared assumption that Faulkner considered dealing with the Great War his initial obligation as a fiction writer. In the way he composed his book, Watson seems to suggest that dealing with the Great War would also turn out to be one of Faulkner’s final obligations towards fiction. Watson examines Faulkner’s multiple evocations of the Great War through his novels and short stories, highlighting the writer’s plural treatment of the war’s paradoxical “horrifying, seductive modernity” [9]. He distinguishes between plots sprouting from the creative force generated by the soldier and plots focusing on veterans lost in a state of limbo, “a nonexistence caught between wartime death and postwar living” [11]. Watson’s argument is that World War One produced the notion of “new death” (a concept articulated by Pearl James), which in turn entailed “new modes of loss” [15] extensively explored by Faulkner. Among the most striking analyses proposed by Watson in this introduction is the suggestion that Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, “represents a thought experiment along even more radically modernist lines than Sartoris: what if new death walked among us in animate human form?” [18]. Embodying “the outrageous body damage of the modern corpse disfigured by industrial warfare,” he contends that the character of Donald Mahon “destabilizes many of the constitutive conceptual boundaries that inform home-front existence; presence / absence, life / death, present / past. Not so unlike the War itself” [19]. This introduction is also the occasion for Watson to define the method at work in this book, which consists in following “Faulkner’s myriad modernities from the modernization processes in which they are grounded through to the expressive strategies and artifacts in which he gave imaginative attention and shape to them” [29].

Rus in Urbe: Faulkner’s Rural Modernizers,” the first chapter of Part one, starts with a “curious, even counterintuitive” observation pointed out by Fredric Jameson about twentieth-century theories of modernism, which have “tended to emerge from the peripheral regions of modernity, its colonial or global hinterlands” [41]. The purpose of this chapter is therefore to demonstrate that Faulkner “was well aware of the agrarian roots of modernization and that his fictions include numerous suggestive examples of modernizing elements and energies that move from rural to urban space rather than, as a more conventional notion of the social geography of Yoknapatawpha County would have it, the other way round” [43-44]. This is shown through comprehensive readings of two short stories, first “Mule in the Yard” (1934), then “Barn Burning” (1939). Watson interprets the mule of the first story as an effective synecdoche of “the ‘rural worlds lost’ to modernization in the region” [47], “a nostalgic signifier of a bygone time and order” [49], a role the mule also plays in The Hamlet for instance. Watson shows how in the second story the character of Abner Snopes operates as an agent of modernization, a representative of the migrants “propelled inexorably along modernity’s circuits and flows” [53]. Watson’s somewhat mischievous conclusion to his examination of both stories is that bringing death to mules and burning barns can be interpreted as hallmarks of modernity, which leads him to a first noteworthy development on As I Lay Dying in the last part of this first chapter. Considering “the Bundrens as modernizers in their own right, reversing the polarity of city-centric models of modernity by releasing strange new intensities and effects along Yoknapatawpha’s road network and into its urban hub” [63], Watson’s analysis of the novel revolves around remarkable comments on Faulkner’s textual landscapes, with a particularly striking emphasis on its characteristic gaseousness, which he reads as a motif of transition.

Chapter 2, “The Philosophy of Furniture, or Light in August and the Material Unconscious of Mississippi Modernity,” is entirely devoted to the aforementioned novel, which, Watson argues, is characterized by “its dense, realistic presentations of the north Mississippi landscape and object world” [75]. Through arresting examinations of the economies of wood, of how “wood and wooden objects are constantly working their way into the language and imagery of the text” [75], Watson highlights the novel’s material unconscious. The argument centers on the representations of the lumber industry in Light in August and its various characters’ relation to it, both practically and symbolically. Watson arrestingly contends that part of the novel’s singularity derives from “the production of the ordinary, the everyday, the unremarkable—that sense of the uneventful that is so crucial to the felt experience of small-town social life, and that took on even greater urgency amidst the upheavals and other transformations brought by modernization” [84]. This chapter contains particularly illuminating observations on the effects of the novel’s “surplus materiality” [78] and a memorable reading of the function of the table at Hightower’s in the scene of Joe Christmas’s death. Likewise, Watson offers an outstanding interpretation of the role of the furniture dealer whose vision wraps that remarkable novel up in “the regime of the unremarkable” [95].

Part two, “Technology and the Media,” starts with “Faulkner on Speed,” a chapter that sharply contrasts with the preceding one, as it offers to explore Faulkner’s representations of “the social, economic, technological, and physiological forms of acceleration associated with modernity” [99]. The purpose of this chapter is, indeed, to reframe Faulkner’s modernism in “the technological context of twentieth-century machine and media cultures” [145], similarly characterized by an increase in speed. The first part of the chapter mostly deals with Sanctuary, which Watson considers an exemplary modern speed fable, though it paradoxically starts in the unlikeliest way, “with perhaps the slowest scene in all of Faulkner” [102]. The novel’s representation of traffic, the car crash that constitutes one of its key moments and considerations about gentlemanly self-control lie at the core of Watson’s argument, which is pursued within the frame of the detective novel. His insights into Temple Drake’s singular fastness and Horace Benbow’s “anachronism and plodding tempo” [113] are especially appealing. Shifting his emphasis from crashed cars to crashing planes in the second part of the chapter, Watson notes that the short story entitled “Death Drag” (1932) and Faulkner’s aviation novel, Pylon (1935), similarly picture the automobile “as an eclipsed speed machine that points up by contrast the unprecedented velocities of modern aircraft” [129]. As speed extends to characters—some of which are prey to spasmodic behaviors; all of which experience “the living breath of news” headlines—, Watson argues that plane crashes “should also be understood as industrial accidents” [134], demonstrating that “Pylon traces the speed accident’s paradigmatic status as modern news event to two distinct but mutually reinforcing sources: its unparalleled intensity and its subtext of social injustice” [137]. Watson shows how Faulkner intertwines the motifs of aviation, speed and the modern information technology in order to display the public thirst for thrilling sensations. In the meantime, he compellingly interprets Faulkner’s coinages as “verbal crashes, delivering hundreds of small lexical shocks as the reading experience unfolds” [142]. In his conclusion, he argues that “never again […] do we find Faulkner’s writings quite so responsive to the promise, thrill and menace of speed as in that brief, brilliant period from Sanctuary to Pylon” [145].

The purpose of Chapter 4, “The Unsynchable William Faulkner,” is to feature the influence of another major invention upon Faulkner’s writing, sound film. Focusing on Faulkner’s most cinematic novels, Watson’s demonstration centers on the representations of sound and its corollary, silence. The chapter starts with an enlightening reflection on “synchronization and its discontents” [149] or “the separability of sound and image” [150], which lies at the core of the technical revolution of sound film. Watson then proceeds to presenting the creation of Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury as Faulkner’s “single most avant-garde move of his entire career” insofar as Benjy’s “interior life, [his] consciousness and perceptual apparatus, mimics sound-film technology to an uncanny degree” [153]. While offering perceptive “granular” readings of Faulkner’s 1929 novel and its representations of spoken speech, Watson also indulges in very convincing appraisals of ground-breaking films, like Alan Crosland’s 1927 The Jazz Singer or Fritz Lang’s 1931 M.

In Watson’s own words, part three, “Racial Modernities,” “proceeds from machine-age technologies to explore the modernizing work of racial ones” [170]. It starts with a chapter entitled “Genealogies of White Deviance,” devoted to “Eugenic Modernity and William Faulkner,” from 1926 to 1932. This chapter aims at demonstrating how genealogy, which, in the Southern planter’s world, was considered an instrument of hegemony, can ironically display the authority of the planter as illegitimate. In the process, Watson argues, “the master’s tool can dismantle the master’s house” [173]. He first explores the history of eugenics and its reception in the United States; then he analyzes its impact on several Faulknerian characters, including Father Abraham, Flem and Byron Snopes, as well as the Sartorises, who display a “special talent for living fast and dying young” [181]. Shifting from single individuals to genealogies, Watson then provokingly wonders whether the Compsons are “America’s worst family” [195]. This reflection is prompted by the fact that “[t]he Compson parents sometimes indulge—in the presence of their children—in a kind of eugenic accounting or scorekeeping, alternately claiming and disclaiming specific traits for the paternal Compson and maternal Bascomb lineages” [190]. Watson continues his inventory of dysfunctional families in Faulkner with the Bundrens, who, according to him, display “a copious inventory of dysgenic traits exhibiting the differently gendered criteria of deviance” [191]; the Goodwins, envisioned as a bunch of “crimps and spungs and feebs” [195], stand next in line. Watson finally turns his attention to Faulkner’s “toxic grandfathers” [200], who happen to be particularly overwhelming in Light in August. This thorough inventory of the most singular traits of Faulkner’s main fictional families operates “as a window,” Watson concludes, “onto particularly virulent legacies of Progressive-era US racial modernity” [207].

Chapter 6, entitled “Slavery, Modernity, and the Turn towards Death in the Black Atlantic World of Yoknapatawpha County” [208], is the most substantial chapter in the book. Its admitted purpose is to emphasize that modernity in Faulkner’s oeuvre also has “an African American face,” though “it would not be unthinkable to come away from a reading of Faulkner with the impression that his African American southerners—poor, rural, subjected to the oppressive racial regimes of antebellum slavery and postbellum Jim Crow segregation—are largely on the outside of modernity looking in” [208]. Resting on Paul Gilroy’s concept of the black Atlantic, “a transnational network of expression, performance and affect,” Watson’s aim at this stage is to demonstrate that “Faulkner’s turn to enslaved subjects, slave experiences, and in certain pivotal instances to slave interiority and consciousness—the inner life of property—gave him creative access to a [form of] countermodernity” [211]. In the first part of this chapter, Watson defines what is identified as “the turn toward death,” “a form of resistant, even revolutionary, agency” [206] through intertwined readings of Hegel, Kojève, Gilroy and the master and slave dialectics. He then applies his findings to the story entitled “Red Leaves” (1930), to Sutpen’s imagination and trajectory in Absalom, Absalom! and, most notably since his forty-page long demonstration rests on two lines from Go Down, Moses [244], to the character of Eunice, whom he regards as a “historical matrix” [282], “carrying forward a legacy of negation” [277].

Part four of William Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity is entitled “Biopolitical Modernity;” it consists of a single final chapter devoted to Faulkner’s 1954 novel, A Fable. This final part and chapter also functions as the book’s conclusion. “Faulkner’s Biopolitical Fable of Modernity” starts with Watson wondering what it might “have meant for Faulkner to return to the Great War from the height of his post-Nobel Prize literary celebrity and the depths of global nuclear anxiety” [289]. Watson makes it clear that the Foucauldian concept of biopolitics, which is now at the center of attention, accounts for “key transformations in the organization and orientation of state power under modernity” [291]. Watson emphasizes how Faulkner shifted from “a vision of the artillery bombardment as a remote aesthetic spectacle” in “his first phase of Great War modernism,” which is evoked in the book’s introduction, to the depiction of “a senseless frenzied attack on earth, in flagrant disregard of the soil’s role as matrix of life” [302-303]. Watson’s examination of war sceneries in A Fable certainly constitutes a challenging invitation for further ecopoetic readings of Faulkner’s wars.

William Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity is an ambitious book that covers the whole Faulknerian oeuvre through a succession of perspectives that, in turn, display a remarkable modernity in the thoroughly refreshing way they combine literature and history, fiction and facts, words and statistics, text and image. It is also a tremendously rich and generous book, which reveals its author’s extensive culture in an exceptional variety of fields. Indeed, through the book’s seven chapters, the reader comes across Aristotle and Plato, Hegel and Marx, Simmel, Habermas or W. Benjamin, Foucault, Bataille and Agamben or W.E.B. Du Bois. The latter are invited to interact, not only with Faulkner’s text, which is constantly brought to the fore, but also with Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Roland Barthes’s “The Reality Effect,” excerpts from Mississippi Highways, and, of course, with Poe, Baudelaire, Frederick Douglass, Fitzgerald or Hurston, among many others. In the meantime, while being offered constantly challenging insights into Faulkner’s novels and short stories, readers are inconspicuously reminded of Napoleon marching on Jena or of the origins of the Haitian Revolution. In every case, secondary references contribute to contextualizing the chapter’s ongoing argument, while allowing Watson to sharpen his own analytical tools. Last but not least, throughout the book, the Faulkner critique, both old and new, is challenged at the same time as it is paid homage to, as Kartiganer (to whom the book is dedicated), Kazin, Glissant, Zender, Matthews, Lurie, Zeitlin, Parrish, McDowell, Weinstein and Limon, just to name a few, are invited into a very stimulating conversation, which is indisputably enhanced by Watson’s remarkable way with words, as we hope the quotes from his book have shown.



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