Not that all of this is either explicitly religious or — any of it — kitschy; it’s just what there is to write about today, while I wait for the next person to send in some oddity or other.
The Five- and Six-Year-Olds (who get read aloud to together): Secret Water by Arthur Ransome, part of the terrific Swallows and Amazons series.
The Eleven-Year-Old: Illustrated Basic Carpentry by Graham Blackburn. He has also just reread all seven Harry Potter books, in the space of about a week and a half.
The Teenager: Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska’s Divine Mercy in My Soul, and Northanger Abbey.
The Visiting Graduate Student: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer, plus The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.
The Husband: Just received a box of sixty books, in connection with his participation in an upcoming conference. Not sure which of these he’s currently reading. Meanwhile, at the top of his bedside-table stack is Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
The Me: I’ve been rereading William Faulkner. People respond to The Sound and the Fury, I believe, in much the same way that they respond to James Joyce’s Ulysses. I hated S&F in college. Now, having reread it last week, I can’t say that it will ever be my favorite novel of all time, but I couldn’t put it down. Trying to find a story — an actual, free-standing, objective-reality-type story — amid the swirling mists of unreliable narrative was a more interesting project than I would have thought. It was irritating, actually, to arrive at the end and discover that Mr. Faulkner had provided an appendix sorting it all out. I’d rather not have had it sorted. It seems to me that real life does not ever provide us with such a concrete clarity of hindsight, revealing to us not what should have happened, which is what hindsight generally does reveal, but what did happen, beyond the shadow of a doubt; and if art is going to murkify itself in an attempt to replicate real life, including the real life of the fallen human mind — well, you can’t really have it both ways, can you? Or can you?
Following The Sound and the Fury, I reread The Unvanquished, Faulkner’s tenth novel, which began as a serialized magazine feature, chronicling the material and moral chaos wrought by the advance of Sherman’s army through rural Mississipi. There is a maddening moment close to the end, in which a beautiful, half-insane female character opens her mouth and allows a long paragraph of pure Faulkner, complete with throwaway parenthetical asides, to issue forth and hang on the air like a kind of rhetorical inversion smog. But otherwise it’s a tremendous, not to mention a far more accessible novel than the notorious ones, and maybe the underrated novel about the South.
Meanwhile, some weeks ago I checked Peter Kreeft’s 1986 Making Sense Out of Suffering out of our church library, and I’ve got to finish it and give it back. I’ve been blogging about it a little as I’ve read, here and here.
Funnily enough, it was reading Peter Kreeft which prompted me to go back and read Faulkner. In a chapter discussing easy, ie inadequate, theo-philosophical answers to the problem of suffering, Kreeft writes,
Atheism cheapens the world, cheapens us, and cheapens life. To see this, just compare atheist fiction with theistic fiction. Belief in God does not squash man; it raises man to a divine image. Heroism grows only in the light of a divine sun. Squash the ceilings down low and we stoop. In classical Greek drama, in the Bible, in Shakespeare, man is great because he breathes the air of the absolute. In Faulkner, Gide, Sartre, Camus, Beckett, and nine out of ten lesser twentieth century writers, man is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” because he is a cosmic orphan . . . Life in that world is a meaningless flicker of a candle for a few years between the cold and barren darkness of two eternal nights.
Well. I had to test this assertion, and there were the works — some of the works, not all of them — of Faulkner, waiting on my shelf. Like my home science experiments, my home literary experiments tend towards the scattershot: let’s just say that I haven’t spent that much time thinking about William Faulkner in the last twenty years, and I can’t find my notes from the Southern literature class I took at Vanderbilt from Dr. T.D. Young, who had studied with the Agrarians themselves and spent a lot of time talking to us about death, which he pronounced “deallllllfth.” I’m sure that my friend Steve, who took the same class, will turn up to correct my rendering of this pronunciation, but that’s approximately how I remember it.
At any rate, thinking about all this out of more or less thin air, I’d guess that Faulkner might agree that the Civil War was a theological crisis (I haven’t read Noll’s book yet, but it looks as though I’m going to have to, having started down this road). What Faulkner would say, actually, I think, is that the Civil War was tantamount to the Fall. All the action of The Unvanquished amounts to a long epilogue after the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, in which the world unravels and then unravels some more, on its way to a climax — really a moral nadir — in which thugs shoot dead the protagonist’s grandmother, resulting in much rhetoric about the depravity of shooting old women, even though the upright old woman in question has been stealing mules from Yankee regiments and turning a profit by selling them back to, mostly, different Yankee regiments. At her burial, all the preacher can say is, “Well, y’all all know where she is now,” — not that he’s pointing in any particular direction — “so I won’t keep a bunch of women and children out in the rain.”
The universe of this novel, at any rate, doesn’t strike me as absolutely godless so much as it reminds me of moments in the Psalms, in which the psalmist laments that God has forgotten him: in Faulkner’s universe, the psalmist begins, “O God, you have cast us off and broken us —” and stops, and this is the precipice over which the story throws itself.
So . . . is Kreeft right about somebody like Faulkner? I’m still not sure. It’s a meaningless-seeming universe, yet people go on doing heroic things out of habit, because they don’t know what else to do, or how else to be. The mule-stealing Granny — who has been stealing and re-selling mules in order to feed a flock of other people’s “abolished” slaves — shrugs off premonitions of disaster and walks alone into a building full of armed men, to her death. How much her actions constitute heroism, and how much they’re the function of mere expediency and up-against-a-wall-ness, is I guess open for discussion. And there’s a sort of tree-falling-in-the-forest question at work here, too: is it possible to be heroic in a world which has lost its understanding of notions like heroism and honor, in which it can no longer be assumed that real men don’t shoot old women?
I have also been reading The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan and comparing, rather despairingly, my pecan-shaded and vinca-overrun backyard with the orderly garden/orchard/chicken-yard designs sketched out at the beginning of the book for a quarter-acre plot. Still, there are three dozen tomato plants flourishing in the bits of sun I do have, plus some squash and peppers and pumpkins and herbs, so I don’t feel all that despairing. Actually, I feel kind of self-congratulatory.
Meanwhile, out on the highway today I passed the best church sign I’ve seen in ages, in front of a Baptist church near Gastonia, NC. I didn’t have my camera with me, but what the sign said was this:
I was garbage, but Jesus recycled me.
Please, somebody, send me some weirdness, so I don’t have to keep banging on about Faulkner and gardening and church signs. I can be reached at sthomas at firstthings dot com, an address which I’ll write myself a note to remember to check.
And while you’re at it, go book shopping.