When William Faulkner arrived in Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize for literature he supposedly declared his occupation as “farmer.” (Inge p. 122) Which raises a question—what kind of farmer describes a road “heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanised dust … [standing] at perpendicular’s absolute in some old dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid” (Absalom, Absalom p. 143) ?
A farmer, I guess, who seeds his mind with much reading of literature and modern science and harvests a complex, allusive poetry—in this case informed by engineering, geometry, and paleobiology. The notion of an “oxygenless first principle of liquid” clearly refers to the scientific account of the origin of life, in which all was mineral, dead, and devoid of oxygen until several billion years ago, when the first algae-like organisms commenced photosynthesis, recombining carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. Though the King James Bible gave Faulkner his title Absalom, Absalom!, he called on the wonder of modern science to re-create the Bible’s sense of primeval magic.
For Faulkner, writing meant curiosity into human motives (Inge ed., p. 166). That is, he made a scientific study of human beings. But what is even more unique about Faulkner is that his poetical effects rely surreptitiously on scientific methods and ideas. Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying while working nights as a supervisor in the power plant of the University of Mississippi, the school where he’d ten years earlier done a brief stint at college. He told a newspaper in 1932, “I think the hum of the dynamo helped me.” (Inge ed., p. 28) Perhaps it was that “sound of science” that compelled Faulkner’s thoughts in a scientific direction.
Throughout As I Lay Dying, Faulkner seems to scrutinize familiar phenomena so minutely that the familiar becomes strange, as though he were looking into the familiar through a quantum microscope at a weird physics that we’d intuited but never fully understood. Inspired perhaps by modern physics, Faulkner re-sees reality and discovers in it new relationships and underlying properties.
Often he describes relativistic perceptual phenomena wherein motion imparts some new quality to a thing, much as motion influences observations according to both Galilean and Einsteinian relativity. Faulkner even words these descriptions a bit like a physicist witnessing some previously unknown influence in the physical universe.
Take this memorable example where Cash saws planks below his mother’s bedroom window to make her coffin:
He saws again, his elbow flashing slowly, a thin thread of fire running along the edge of the saw, lost and recovered at the top and bottom of each stroke in unbroken elongation, so that the saw appears to be six feet long…. As I Lay Dying, pp. 75-76.
By superimposing the saw’s various positions into one image irrespective of time, the saw elongates in the viewer’s imagination. If you’ve ever done any sawing, you may recognize the weird visual distortion Faulkner describes.
Later, Faulkner establishes the unsettling effect of buzzards by charting the uncanny effect of Galilean relativity on the perception of their motion:
Motionless, the tall buzzards hang in soaring circles, the clouds giving them an illusion of retrograde. p. 95
From Galilean relativity, he proceeds to an observation of a wagon’s motion that sounds blatantly Einsteinian in its linkage of time and space:
We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and [Jewel’s horse]. pp. 107-108
The Bundrens’ wagon soon passes a turn-off and the slow movement past the sign and the side road transfers motion to both:
a white signboard with faded lettering: New Hope Church. 3 mi. It wheels up like a motionless hand lifted above the profound desolation of the ocean; beyond it the red road lies like a spoke of which Addie Bundren is the rim. It wheels past, empty, unscarred, the white signboard turns away its fading and tranquil assertion. p. 108
All is still outside the wagon, yet through relativity the moving wagon imparts motion to the motionless signboard so that it turns. The wagon imparts motion to the side-road so that the side-road becomes a turning spoke in a wheel and is said to wheel past. Faulkner’s like an experimental physicist researching the relativity and associativity of perceptions.
He observes a similar perceptual relativity in the way that objects derive their shape from their surroundings: “Beyond the unlamped wall,” Darl says, “I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours….” (p. 80) Later, Faulkner describes the shape of the wagon according to the air around it, and suggests an influence that absent things exert over the place they previously occupied, a poetic physics: “[I]t begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.” (p. 98)
The two types of Faulknerian relativity—of motion and shape—appear together when Darl and Cash and Jewel try to pilot the wagon across the river. Darl looks at his father, sister, and little brother standing on the riverbank and says:
[it is] as though we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice. Yet they appear dwarfed. It is as though the space between us were time: an irrevocable quality. It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us…. [The mules] too are breathing now with a deep groaning sound; looking back once, their gaze sweeps across us with in their eyes a wild, sad, profound and despairing quality as though they had already seen in the thick water the shape of the disaster which they could not speak and we could not see. pp. 146-147
The doomed mules in the river are indisputably real and somehow emblematic of the human condition. As I think of them, I can hear the humming of Faulkner’s dynamo, the scientific-poetic genius apparatus that created them.