Sound and fury of language

The dexterous use of rhetoric lends vigour to Faulknerís prose, writes Darshan Singh Maini

For William Faulkner, language was power
For William Faulkner, language was power

What distinguishes man from animal is language; otherwise, the appetites, the emotions and the inclinations are virtually the same. Such critics like Leo Spitzer and other stylistic critics have written in detail about the power of language. Language can be seen as a syndrome of lexical, and syntactical choices, psychic pressures and drives, sociological urges and attitudes, metaphysical assumptions and positions. Such a response stipulates that language qua language be taken as an evolved totality within which visions of the human reality may be structured, so far as itís possible to do so, in terms of organic processes.

If we consider, then, the work of William Faulkner, itís the power of his language that makes his fiction so powerful. He would virtually be nothing if he had elected to express himself, let us say, in the clinical, rugged and sinewy style which Hemingway made so fashionable. Itís doubtful if he could have survived as a writer. He could be extremely spartan and bare and Biblical in his prose when he wished to achieve such effects but the characteristic mode of his address had to be rhetorical in the profoundest sense of the word.

Whichever way we may look at the rhetorical universe of Faulknerís fiction, reared out of reality as hard as carbon, and a dream as pure as poetry, we cannot but recognise the Shakespearian aspect of the problem, which is, of course, not to say that he is as great as Shakespeare, or that his language had that kind of inevitability which Shakespeareís language has, of necessity, even when his imagination is not roused to the pitch of tragic passion. Nevertheless, even those who are almost wholly out of sympathy with the kind of books Faulkner has written, have not been slow to realise the authentic nature of his genius, imperious and possessed, carrying everything before it, when in full tide, like a river in flood.

It may not be too Freudian to suggest then that the oceanic prose which breaks out in his later work may well be an aggrandisement of the poetic self, which piqued and baulked in infancy, went on to prove beyond doubt the nature of its sovereignty and authenticity. Here in his imperial rhetoric, we find a poetic vanity which is almost akin to the vanity of Faulkner as a soured genius. There is an unmistakable tone of arrogance, but itís an arrogance which we find in a crazed Lear when he affirms that he is "every inch a king". There is a touch of the nobility of pride when the dialogue is with the gods themselves.

It hasnít been sufficiently realised that his rhetoric is umbilically tied to his Southern ancestry. I am, of course, not referring to the presence of Southern oratory or even of Southern folklore and vernacular in his prose, important as they are in any reckoning of his style.

In his greatest book, Absalom, Absalom, Rosa Coldfield, that memorable monster of outraged morality, is seen going over the soured grief of her maiden dreams. What makes Miss Rosaís language so tortured, so hallucinated, and of course, so poetic, is the fact that itís a bitter old woman whose life was botched up as many by her own temperament as by the unbearable weight of her Calvinistic upbringing, the carpet-beggar Ďcomplexí. The rhetoric here is an aid, albeit limited, to light up the inner topography of Miss Rosaís grey landscape.

Gothic and bizarre, it is the sustained and relentless manner of her language which is really an aid to the understanding of her soured and deranged personality.

Faulknerís metaphysical assumptions regarding time, history and truth have also a great deal to do with his involved and circular rhetoric. Although poetic variations on those themes are to be found in all his major fiction in one form or another, these concerns assume a special significance in such novels as The Sound and Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom, in The Sound and the Fury, the first two sections in particular deal with the misery and tyranny of time, the incubus of the past, and the relativity of truth. The structure of Absalom, Absalom related to the mode of narration suggests powerfully the relativity of time and truth, and history as a series of visions and revisions.

The rhetoric here is struggling to encompass the mercurial, inexplicable reality, and even as, concrete, little details and snippets of dialogue etc, convey beautifully the poetry of felt life, the story of Sutpen comes to us refracted through varying glasses, coloured and caricatured, distended and distorted.

Finally, as I have hinted earlier, Faulknerís rhetoric may well be the ultimate weapon in his hands to question the validity of all imaginative structures. In which case, the rhetoric is employed to question rhetoric. Since the tragic reality keeps slipping out of our grasp, whichever way we may try to subdue it, since there is a limit beyond which even metaphor will not hold, we are left with the dilemma of the rhetoric of tragedy, and the tragedy of rhetoric.