“Memory believes before knowing remembers”: Faulkner, Canetti and Survival

“Memory believes before knowing remembers”: Faulkner, Canetti and Survival

Folks, Jeffrey J

In his Nobel Prize acceptance address, William Faulkner, speaking of the “fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it” (“Address” 723), alluded to the instinctive fear of violence that threatens to reduce human existence to a barbaric world of threat and counterthreat. In this world, prejudice and mistrust are the controlling motives for human action, and society is ruled by mere force rather than by the power of reason or the rule of law. A world reduced to this level has no room for loyalty or selflessness, and in such a world it is always the weak who suffer the most. As Faulkner makes abundantly clear, the potential for such disorder is always present, yet he “refuses to accept” this vision of life. In asserting that “man will not merely endure: he will prevail,” Faulkner is pointing to the distinction between mere survival and a civilized conduct of life based on understanding and compassion and defended by courageous action. Mankind’s “immortality” is grounded not merely in the ability to survive physically but, more importantly, in the possession of “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (“Address” 724).

In transcending the instinctive level of fear, human beings reach toward a more enlightened state of forgiveness and hope, but in order to reach this condition of “prevailing,” they need to grasp the destructive potential of mistrust, egotism, and greed, instincts that are rooted in a deep-seated anxiety concerning survival and that too often control human relationships. In their place, mankind needs to develop a more courageous and selfless form of human interaction that will lead beyond mere survival toward a more benevolent and secure condition. As Faulkner developed the idea in his Nobel Prize speech, the writer exists to serve others through a fearless and self-sacrificing, if not exactly “selfless,” dedication to the telling of “the old universal truths.” Faulkner insists that man “is immortal . . . because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (724). Clearly, these sentiments must be tempered by Faulkner’s recognition that, in the words of Issac McCaslin, “man made a heap of his circumstances, him and his living neighbors between them” (“Delta Autumn” 646), yet Issac’s less than sanguine words are themselves contradicted by his final gesture of passing General Compson’s hunting horn, his most precious inheritance, along to the child of Roth Edmonds and the African American descendant of James Beauchamp. For once, Issac’s action is selfless and courageous.

It is this same vision of the development from the instinctive level of fear and violence to a humane concern for others that is of central importance in the writing of one of William Faulkner’s major contemporaries, Elias Canetti. Although there is no evidence of mutual influence, indeed no indication in their published works, letters, or public statements that Faulkner and Canetti were familiar with one another’s works, the two authors were affected by the same historical crises-two world wars, a global depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the holocaust-and the effect of these events on their writing is similar in many respects. In particular, the focus on the theme of survival is a central concern of both writers. Despite their different cultural and intellectual backgrounds, Faulkner and Canetti appear to have arrived at surprisingly similar conclusions concerning the innate propensity of human beings toward violence, and in response each writer forged a conception of art as, in some sense, a corrective to the destructive tendencies of human society.

Elias Canetti, born just eight years after William Faulkner, in 1905 in Ruschuk, Bulgaria, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, thirty-two years after Faulkner received the award. Canetti, however, was much more a literary contemporary of Faulkner than the dates of their Nobel Prizes would suggest, for Canetti’s only novel, Die Blendung (translated as Auto-da-Fe in 1946) was published in 1936, and two major dramatic works, Hochzeit (The Wedding) and Die Komodie der Eitelkeit (Comedy of Vanity) were composed in the early 1930s though, in part for political reasons, not published or produced until after World War II. Canetti’s crowd theory, itself only part of his wide-ranging research and creative activity, is elaborated in his monumental work, Masse und Macht (translated as Crowds and Power), published in 1960 but the product of over three decades of research begun amid the unfolding Nazi terror of the 1930s and 1940s. Canetti’s social theory, far more complex than that of his predecessor Gustave Le Bon,1 is grounded in his enormous reading in comparative anthropology, religion, myth, literature, and history. Far from being a universalizing theory, however, Crowds and Power is marked on every page by the author’s engagement with political events of his time, as well as by his temperamental affiliation with egalitarian and communal ideals. Canetti’s approach is a poetic and visionary creation, a loosely organized body of investigations of the nature of social existence.

Canetti’s theory of social interaction is devoted to a struggle against the spread of authoritarianism of the sort that is connected with a universal anxiety concerning survival that Canetti represents metaphorically simply as “Death” (Crowds 162).2 It is this figure that turns the peaceful political gathering into a murderous mob or that leads to the concentration of power in the hands of a few. It is also this figure that, for Canetti, explains the reduction of art and beauty to propaganda or that transforms healthy social contact into fear. In searching for the origin of the “death sentence” under which modern society feels itself to exist, Canetti undertakes a study of early human forms of social organization. The most significant part of this study is his examination of the “survivor”-the figure of authority who imagines himself or herself the “last survivor” of a crowd of dead subjects. Canetti analyzes the mechanisms of power involved in survivorship and how it functions through commands and symbolic discourse in relation to those ruled.

As Roger Kimball notes, Canetti was one of a number of twentieth-century intellectuals, including Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Hermann Broch, “fascinated by the spectacle of mass society-its expression in modern democracies and its perversion in totalitarianism” (27).3 Theodor Adorno’s dictum, “No poetry after Auschwitz,” suggests the kind of realism with which Walter Benjamin, George Steiner, Michel Foucault, and Elias Canetti, as different as these writers are in other ways, have interrogated the mechanisms of power, and while these Europeans may seem distant from the subject of American culture-not to speak of the regional culture of the American South-an attentive reading of Faulkner’s fiction reveals that the South has suffered its own horrific abuses of power. The psychological, and often literal, separation of human beings into distinct crowds is a common feature of southern society, and the instinctive response of fear that accompanies these social divisions is to be found all too frequently in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, and while there are significant historical differences, Faulkner’s tragic sense of history finds its parallel in Canetti’s consciousness of his past: as Sephardic Jews, his ancestors had been expelled from Spain, resettling in the Balkans and later in central Europe, from which they were again expelled during the Nazi period. The South’s experience of defeat, occupation, and racial violence are paralleled by the devastating history of subjugation and loss that was Canetti’s birthright.

At least three important elements of Canetti’s work are anticipated in Faulkner’s writing: the psychic imagining of crowds in relation to the self, the awareness of instinctive motives behind ostensibly “civilized” behavior, and the interest in the figure of “the survivor,” although each of these elements can be traced to a single source: the complex relation to power that exists in all human beings. As Canetti shows, from childhood all human beings live under the burden of authority, beginning with the control of parents but soon extending to that of teachers, colleagues, employers, and others. The effect of this authority is to produce a form of anxiety under which human beings accumulate “stings” resulting from the regime of order under which they live. All members of society feel themselves to be burdened with command, and all instinctively attempt to evade the burden of command or to “pass along” to others the stings that they accumulate. For some, however, this proves impossible, and for these unfortunate members of society the burden of command results in a condition of schizophrenia.

There are several examples of this condition in the novels of William Faulkner: the character of Darl Bundren in As I Lay Dying, Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury, and Gail Hightower and Joe Christmas in Light in August. At his window, ceaselessly memorializing the site of his grandfather’s death, Gail Hightower embodies Canetti’s condition of command, a “negativism” implied in the characteristic state of “a sentry standing motionless on guard for hours” (311). In this condition, Canetti writes, the sentry “suppresses in himself all the fleeting impulses to activity, such as desire, fear or restlessness, of which human life mainly consists; and he fights them best by not admitting them even to himself” (311-12). This catalog of “prohibitions” seems a remarkably accurate description of Hightower’s psychic condition, and it is, Canetti stresses, a condition that the schizophrenic comes to defend at all costs, for it is at once the basis of his identity and a defense against the threatening chaos of life. As Hightower realizes, thinking of the effect of his grandfather’s memory, “I am the instrument of someone outside myself” (Light 491).4

Nearly everyone in Yoknapatawpha is burdened by the past and often, more specifically, by what Canetti refers to as “the resentment of the dead” (262). As Byron Bunch notes, “A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage” (75). The fear of the dead, as Canetti points out, is a universal element in human religious belief. The simple fact that the living have survived the dead is reason enough for this fear: “It is the jealousy of the dead that the living fear most, and they try to propitiate them by flattery and by offerings of food” (262), a practice that has evolved into the intricate ritualistic observances within the ancestor cults of China and Japan. In these countries, the dangerous presence of spirits is felt to be offset to some extent by the continued worship of individual fathers and grandfathers among the dead. In these cultures the necessity of having a son is also tied to the need for a descendent who will worship one’s own memory.

Hightower, of course, participates in his own less efficacious form of ancestor worship. One of his earliest memories is the discovery, at age eight, of his grandfather’s frock coat worn in the Civil War: “the cloth itself had assumed the properties of those phantoms who loomed heroic and tremendous against a background of thunder and smoke and torn flags which now filled his waking and sleeping life” (469). Hightower’s grandfather is, in reality, hardly a heroic figure, a fact that his death as a member of Van Dorn’s cavalry, not in the raid on Grant’s stores itself but in the inglorious aftermath in a henhouse while stealing chickens, makes clear. As is evident in the mythological figure that his grandson creates, a reckless hero who inspires admiration by his disregard for his own safety as much as by his “valor” in combat, the grandfather is an ironic figure, a representative of the instinctive impulse toward command that Canetti connects with oppression and tyranny. In Canetti’s terms, what the hero actually seeks is not the sort of “glory” that might be earned from self-sacrifice in the defense of his people but “the ever-growing sense of invulnerability” (229) from death that can only be won by seeking out and killing one’s enemies. The “pleasure of survival” that the hero earns by killing can be addictive to the point where “the significance of his victories is measured by the number of the dead” (230).

The narrative of Gail Hightower, from his lonely childhood obsession with the memory of his grandfather’s “heroism” and continuing through his misbegotten marriage, fraudulent ministry, and long exile on the very street where his grandfather was killed, is in fact Faulkner’s parable of mankind’s enslavement to an instinctive psychology of violence and of its long expiation and ultimate transcendence. At the conclusion of Chapter 20, Hightower reflects on heaven, “filled with . . . all the living who ever lived” (492)-an apparent attempt to transcend his burdened condition-but, as we see in his obsessive return to the memory of his grandfather’s cavalry charge, Hightower never escapes the schizophrenic burden of command.

As a “successor” who will never experience the challenge of war or achieve the legendary status of his grandfather, Hightower feels despair in his own life and disdain for his father’s bleak fatalism. To understand Hightower’s obsession with his grandfather, it is necessary to consider his relationship to a father who is himself an unfortunate successor filled with a sense of worthlessness and uncertainty concerning his own right to exist. An intense anxiety about “time,” which may be understood as anxiety about survival itself, is part of the frontier inheritance of Hightower, McEachern, Doc Hines, and others in the novel. In Hightower’s case, his father, at age thirty “a man of spartan sobriety beyond his years” (473), was consumed by an obsessive focus on survival. The father’s sheer drive and narrow ambition are “some throwback to the austere and not dim times not so long passed, when a man in that country had little of himself to waste and little time to do it in” (473).

Hightower, then, is part of a larger community that still bears the scars of a brutal struggle for survival enacted on the frontier. This legacy is apparent in the community’s attitudes toward a whole range of activities that affect its survival: the relationships of ethnic and social groups and their relative degree of influence in public life; the appropriation of resources and access to privileges such as education and “culture”; the control of political and social institutions, especially the distribution of justice and the practice of religion; and the extent of personal freedom and expression of individual differences. Scapegoats such as Joe Christmas are the victims of this society’s compulsion to impose rigid patterns of order on social relationships in response to the overriding fear associated with survival, and it would seem that the task of imposing order is most often the prerogative of the father. The unstated relationship of all fathers and sons is defined by Canetti’s remark that “A son finds it natural that his father should die before him” (248). The advantage of the son is inherent in the mere fact of his presumed survival, and thus in his ability to do as he likes with the “inheritance” from his father, whatever form it may take. As a result, the relationship of father and son always involves a rivalry, usually unspoken and often unconscious. In Light in August the widespread hostility between fathers and sons is grounded in an underlying expectation of survival on the part of the son and a fear of extinction on that of the father. In extreme cases, there is every reason for the fierce antagonism between them to end in the son’s slaying the father.5

As Canetti writes, “All questioning is a forcible intrusion” (284), and it should be obvious that the relationship between Joe Christmas and McEachern is based on the exercise of such “force.” The nature of Joe Christmas’s proposed induction into the church, through the study of the Presbyterian catechism, is based on a ritual of question-and-answer in which the initiate offers himself up to the power of the church. Against the force of such interrogation, Canetti identifies several forms of defense: silence, evasion, or the “possession of a secret” (286), all of which defenses Joe Christmas attempts to utilize. The rules of civilized discourse prohibit certain questions and certain forms of questioning, especially among strangers, yet in the belief that he serves God’s wishes, McEachern violates all such codes of privacy.6 Characteristically, Joe Christmas responds with silence to threatening circumstances, such as his stepfather’s questioning, but, as Canetti shows, silence is a crude and ultimately ineffectual defense: “A man who will not speak can dissemble, but only in a rigid way. . . . The fluidity of transformation is denied him. . . . People become silent when they fear transformation” (294). Ultimately, silence is not an effective defense because it isolates the individual from others, and it inhibits the creative and ameliorating responses to power that Canetti terms “transformation.”

One of the main reasons for Joe Christmas’s isolation is his immense distrust of women. From infancy his experience has contributed to his sense of abandonment and betrayal. As a result, his suspicion of women separates him from the sort of emotional healing that a stable domestic relationship might afford, and Joanna Burden’s shifting emotional demands simply reinforce in Joe’s mind the strong suspicion of women that he already carries. Clearly, Joe’s mental life is dominated by a defensive resistance to all who would attempt to restore him to the bonds of society that originate, as Canetti points out, in the figure of the mother who “is the core and very heart of the institution of the family. The mother’s nourishment and protection is an “activity [that] continues in a less concentrated form throughout many years,” but such an apparently “selfless” form of behavior is more ambivalent than it might seem, for it masks the primitive role of “digestion as a central process of power”: “what has really happened is that [the mother] now has two stomachs instead of one, and keeps control of both” (221).

The linkage of food and power, so much connected with the relationship of Joe to women in Faulkner’s novel, is a concept that Canetti refers to as “the domestication of command” (307). In his distrust of others, and particularly of women, Joe uncovers this highly ambivalent aspect of family life, one that involves sources of command that are generally obscured within everyday social transactions. “Everything which is eaten is the food of power” (219), Canetti writes in a section of Crowds and Power entitled “On the Psychology of Eating.” The relationship of mother and infant involves more than nourishment and protection of the child, for in this role the mother’s complete control of food “gives rise to a feeling of superiority greater than that obtaining in any other habitual relationship between human beings” (221). Joe Christmas instinctively comprehends the element of power that underlies the control and apportioning of food. To be dependent to any extent on another for food, as he is on the dietician at the orphanage, on Mrs. McEachern, on Bobbie Allen, on Joanna Burden, and even on the unassuming Byron Bunch, who offers his lunch bucket to the newcomer at the planing mill, is a source of terror. This dependence is one of the reasons Joe Christmas believes that women such as Mrs. McEachern are “unreliable” (159) and manipulative in their kindness and why he prefers the “predictable” harshness of males. Both Canetti and Faulkner, it would seem, recognize that women participate in society as both victims and oppressors: in the case of Mrs. McEachern, the “screw of graying hair” (165), a feature that she shares with Mrs. Armstid, identifies her as a victim of life’s harsh injustice, “a patient, beaten creature” (165), but, like every human being, she in fact retains an instinctive need to assert control, if only over the feelings of a vulnerable eight-year-old orphan.

In addition to the underlying element of control in feeding, Canetti points to the ritualistic importance of the act of humans eating together, the “esteem for each other [that] is clearly evident in all who eat together” (220). Those who refuse to eat in the company of others, such as Joe Christmas, “renounce” the mutual esteem and power of belonging to the group that the ritual act of communion entails. As Canetti notes, “Anyone who eats alone renounces the prestige which the process would bring him in the eyes of others” (223) .Joe’s insistence on eating alone creates an uneasy, mistrustful relationship with the other men at the planing mill, just as his dining alone in the Burden house marks him as an outcast similar to Joanna Burden herself.

In the extraordinary language of Faulkner’s narrator, Joe Christmas’s decision to flee to Hightower’s house, where he is killed, fulfills his plan “to passively commit suicide” (443), a phrase that, intentionally or not, might well refer not only to his final act of flight but, more broadly, to his entire career of silence and isolation. It is not just the role of the conventional scapegoat that Joe Christmas enacts, however, but a peculiarly modern will-to-suicide that is connected with the novel’s “wheel” symbolism and with Faulkner’s awareness of the destructiveness of philosophical determinism. Canetti also understood that the act of scapegoating had been amplified in modern society, as suggested in his notebook at the end of 1947: “the victims keep falling, by the thousands, the millions; this life, whose holiness you want to feign, is sacred to no one and nothing” (Human Province 107).

In the regional culture that Faulkner records in Light in August and other novels, the church is the site where the townspeople engage in an impassioned enactment of survival. The central ritual of the Eucharist is a mythic dramatization of the relationship of the Christian community to a scapegoat figure whose sacrifice releases a powerful emotion of grief and at the same time anneals the collective burden associated with suffering and loss. It is fitting that Hightower, who more than anyone else has occupied the pulpit, should explicate the role of the church in the psychic drama of the town, as he does on the night before Joe Christmas’s death. As he listens to the music from the Sunday evening service, the secret message within this Protestant music, Hightower finds, is the sound of death, “the apotheosis of his own history”: “that people from which he sprang and among whom he lives who can never take either pleasure or catastrophe or escape from either, without brawling over it” (368).

Violence, the “crucifixion of themselves and one another” (368), is this people’s escape from the intolerable burden of their harsh lives-shaped as their lives have been by the brutal legacy of the frontier-and their churches are the primary site for its symbolic enactment. Christianity itself, as Canetti understood it, is a “religion of lament” that is compellingly attractive because through its ritual “the hunting or baiting pack expiates its guilt by becoming a lamenting pack” (145). Because this ritual frees men from the guilt attached to the actual or fantasized violence of their society, “religions of lament will continue to be indispensable to the psychic economy of men for as long as they remain unable to renounce pack killing” (145). Just so, the town’s collective participation, and satisfaction, in the killing of Joe Christmas produces a memory of violence and guilt that must be expiated, as Faulkner suggests in describing Joe Christmas’s death as “soaring into their memories forever and ever” (465).

Paradoxically, Joe Christmas’s killer, Percy Grimm, is another scapegoat figure who is a product of the same type of social determinism: burdened from having been born “too late” to gain glory in World War I, Grimm engages in a desperate quest to confirm his manhood through his role as a member of the national guard. The relationship of Percy Grimm to Joe Christmas is clarified by Canetti’s understanding that the executioner is, in fact, another victim of stings and one who is under the same state of command as the sentry. The difference lies in the fact that the executioner, by virtue of his dual relationship to power (as both victim and victimizer), has the ability to rid himself of the sting of command: “An executioner passes on exactly what has been imposed on him” (330).

As Canetti interprets it, “judgement is a disease”: “Man has a profound need to arrange and re-arrange in groups all the human beings he knows or can imagine; by dividing that loose, amorphous mass into two opposing groups he gives it a kind of density” (297). The need to impose this kind of “density” on everyday experience is felt especially by those like Doc Hines who seem to carry an intolerable burden of psychological slights and who, for various reasons, seem incapable of dealing with them. Motivated by a fanatical terror of racial disempowerment and of women’s reproductive capacity that seems to be grounded ultimately in his own fear of death, Doc Hines becomes a violently closed-minded tyrant who cannot see beyond his own racism and misogyny. Doc Hines’s murderous reaction to his daughter’s sexuality and to the supposed racially mixed parentage of his grandson needs to be understood as the response of a paranoiac to forms of vitality that appear to threaten his continued dominance. The violent defensiveness of the paranoiac is directed against all others who would challenge his power and, in extreme cases, against all who, merely by virtue of their existence, seem capable of outliving him. In an analysis that may help to explain Doc Hines’s irrational violence toward both his daughter and his grandson, Canetti writes that “the paranoiac type of ruler” strives “to keep danger away from his person” (231) by means of executions rather than by confronting it. Survival becomes the “prerogative” of the ruler, who is naturally hostile to survivors, including his successors. “The intensest feeling for power is that found in a ruler who wants no son” (245).

Canetti’s study of paranoia in the case of Daniel Paul Schreber is especially useful in understanding the character of Doc Hines. Schreber, who was institutionalized for seven years, recorded in great detail the “delusional system” of a paranoiac in his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). Most important in this system is that for the paranoiac “there is always an exalted position to defend and make secure” (436). Schreber imagines all of creation as an extension of his own body, to the degree that he “swallows” all creation so that all other creatures disappear and Schreber is “the only man left alive” (442, Canetti’s italics). The paranoiac is also an astute observer of crowds, and one for whom words take on the greatest importance, especially in the way that they point toward “causal relations” (452). As in Doc Hines’s conviction about his grandson’s racial identity, unmasking the “true” nature of relations becomes a mania for the paranoiac, who develops a preoccupation with “acts of recognition” (456). Schreber and Doc Hines also share a similar sense of divine mission-to the point where both end up quite mad. As “a vessel in which the divine essence slowly collects” (460), Schreber bizarrely wishes “to conserve his precious substance” by immobilizing himself, and he conceives of himself as a “national saint” (460). It is a hopeful sign, at least, that most in Yoknapatawpha do not share Doc Hines’s fanaticism. Underlying the fact that they view Doc and Mrs. Hines “as if they belonged to a different race, species” (341) is a common-sense resistance on the town’s part to a menacing psychological condition.

Faulkner and Canetti offer a realistic assessment of the large role that aggression and fear play in human relationships, but both writers also provide some reason for hope. The processes that Canetti refers to as “transformation,” the means by which human beings attempt to evade or alter the negative effects of command, include many varieties of ritualistic and narrative performance, as well as various psychological means of evasion. Tales of escape, attacks of mass hysteria, shamanistic rites of transformation, psychological states of melancholia, communion rituals, trickster narratives of dissimulation, ceremonies involving masks, and children’s games are all examples of such efforts at transformation, yet none of these efforts is entirely successful: only an enlightened self-understanding of the destructive nature of command and a conscious decision to respond to it will bring about fundamental change.

Faulkner refers to this transformative force as the “I-Am” of pride, hope, vanity, and fear-what we may understand as the creative effects of a healthy selfhood or ego. Even High tower acts in the service of this creative drive as, on the morning of Joe Christmas’s death, he delivers Lena’s child, but by far the most important male representative of this life force is Byron Bunch. As he saddles his mule to summon Hightower for Lena, Byron has a fantasy of having never met her. In this fantasy Byron imagines his eternal escape from the attachments and responsibilities that now circumscribe his existence, as if he could simply step out of what Canetti calls “the human province”-the “knowing” that all human beings accumulate in the course of their ordinary lives and the “memory” and burden of the past that they inherit at birth-and live, like Joe Christmas or Gail Hightower, in solitary “freedom.” As Byron tells himself, “I would have turned my back and rode the other way. Beyond the knowing and memory of man forever and ever” (400). Later, just as he is about to accomplish this sort of renunciation, or at least attempt it, by relinquishing Lena to her rightful husband-to-be, Lucas Burch, Byron looks back on the scene of his temptation, which he believes he is leaving forever. The importance of Byron Bunch’s backward gaze, painful though the gaze may be for Bryon, is that in opposition to the novel’s many examples of obsessive or fearful gazes, it is decidedly creative and even transformative, for the mental process that accompanies Byron’s backward glance is part of a rich imaginative inner life that rarely finds open expression-at the end of the novel he is still quietly “despairating” himself up to propose marriage to Lena-but that the narrative reveals through interior monologue. As Byron watches the train on which Burch is escaping, for example, he likens the “wall” of train to a dyke momentarily holding back “the world,” and with the aid of this imaginative construction he now realizes for the first time that he is destined to live forever in the world of “time” and “hope.” It is precisely this stubborn and often selfless commitment to the world of everyday experience that Faulkner’s heroes share with Canetti’s. Although he is not successful in apprehending Lucas Burch, Byron, through his recognition of the value of life, is capable of transforming fear and suffering into courage and compassion.

This transformative force is more generally found in Faulkner’s fiction than one might suppose. Both Faulkner and Canetti would undoubtedly have viewed the war against fascism as the foremost struggle of their time. In “Delta Autumn,” one recalls, Issac McCaslin, Will Legate, and Roth Edmonds slip into a discussion of the dangers posed by fascism. When Roth cynically suggests that fascism will prevail, not only in Europe under Hitler but under a home-grown form of political extremism in America, Issac-despite his limitations, Faulkner’s closest representative in Go Down Moses-replies that America is strong enough to “cope with one Austrian paper-hanger, no matter what he will be calling himself (“Delta Autumn” 638). Roth’s futility is answered by Issac’s faith that, if necessary, civilized human beings will fight “to protect does and fawns” (639). As Issac later insists, “most men are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be” (644).

Even Hightower, a character who has lived in his own “dark house” (Faulkner’s original title for the novel) of fatalism and defeat, is reawakened to a sense of “triumph and pride” (404) after delivering Lena’s baby: “Life comes to the old man yet, while they [Byron and the doctor] get there too late” (404). The birth summons up, for a moment at least, Hightower’s hopeful imagining of how Lena will repeople the earth from the very site of destruction and death, the aptly named Old Burden Place. As many critics have noted, Light in August begins and ends with the story of Lena Grove’s pilgrimage, first from Alabama to Mississippi in search of her promised husband, and then from Mississippi to Tennessee-perhaps “just travelling” (495) as Byron insists and as the anonymous furniture dealer who relates the events believes-in the company of Byron Bunch and her newborn child. While Lena’s movement may appear to be inconsequential, or at least inconclusive, its steady determination, supported by all whom Lena encounters, takes on a ritualistic quality that suggests a formal procession, in Canetti’s terms a symbolic enactment of order and permanence.

In the writing of Elias Canetti, which I began to explore twenty years ago, I discovered more than a social theorist or psychological critic: I found a model of what humane learning might be, a scholar whose thought transcends the boundaries of disciplines and the narrow fashions of critical schools. Canetti was a philosopher whose entire life was spent in a quest for understanding the mysteries of social existence and a humanist who was bewildered by the human potential for tyranny and violence. He was social philosopher but also a novelist, a playwright, and an essayist, and he understood the intricate workings of the artistic imagination in its efforts to respond to the horrific events of twentieth-century European history. The analysis that Elias Canetti brought to the study of crowds and power resulted in a greater knowledge of the instinctive bases of social behavior and, through this knowledge, a more determined effort to change human attitudes toward sharing the world and its material and cultural resources with others within “the human province.” Like Canetti, William Faulkner spent a lifetime engaged in an effort to uncover the hidden realities of power, instinct, and fear within human society, and to encourage humanity to transcend these destructive instincts through self-knowledge and acts of courage.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers” (119). Faulkner’s aphorism is clarified by Canetti’s study of mankind’s collective memory of the hidden instinct of fear grounded in a universal anxiety concerning survival. What all humans “believe” before “knowing,” just as Joe Christmas “believes” his own corruption or difference, is the potential of violence and persecution for those who cannot withstand the burden of command. What we believe before knowing involves an instinctive awareness of the means by which human beings assert dominance and power over others in response to their secret fears of extinction. Like Faulkner, Canetti spent much of his life attempting to understand the destructive impact of mankind’s ancient fears of violence and persecution, and, also like his older contemporary, he searched for ways of transforming social existence into a more enlightened and compassionate condition.

1In the first attempt at a scientific study of human crowds, Gustave Le Bon, a nineteenth-century French social scientist, developed a theory of crowd behavior that anticipated modern crowd theory. As Canetti would later do, Le Bon compared crowds to microbes, a social metaphor that, for nineteenth-century “scientific” theorists, implied a mysterious route of “contagion” as well as the phenomenal speed of crowd formation. Another important metaphor for crowd behavior was hypnosis. To Le Bon it seemed that the unconscious, irrational, and often violent actions of crowds could be explained by their members’ abdication of rational control to the hypnotic suggestion of a stronger will. Indeed, the nineteenth-century conception of “great men” of history underlies much of Le Bon’s theory, as he explicitly cites Napoleon as the “great man” capable of molding crowds to his will. Le Bon finds that the mental life of the crowd requires, in a sense creates, its demagogic leadership. The “morality” of the crowd tends toward self-sacrifice: the habit of “servitude” that Le Bon assumes to exist in the masses requires its master. Impressed by big events and imbued with a religious sentiment, the crowd seeks an “idol”-“a god before everything else” (Le Bon 85).

2Unless noted otherwise, all further citations of Canetti refer to Crowds and Power.

3In Canetti’s view, modern society preserves its instinctive motives beneath the veneer of “civilization.” The legal process of execution, for example, duplicates, in a less public forum, the death sentence carried out publicly in ancient societies. The electoral process, with its rituals of nominating conventions, parades, rallies, and celebrations, replicates tribal behavior in the selection and installation of chiefs. Modern warfare, despite its technological “advances,” preserves many of the instincts of command, morale, and crowd cohesion familiar in primitive war parties. It is impossible to eliminate such deeply embedded instincts as those associated with mass meetings or the fear of crowds of enemies, but it is possible to understand, and eventually to control, these instincts. Canetti, however, realizes that crowd behavior is not by any means always destructive. The identification with the crowd is a social instinct that involves pleasure, emotional release, and a sense of equality. In the physical contact and sense of solidarity with the mass, the individual finds relief from the burden of “stings” passed down through social authority. The egalitarian quality of the crowd relieves one to some extent of whatever illusions of superiority or inferiority separate one from others.

4Unless noted otherwise, all further citations of Faulkner refer to Light in August.

5 Although the tension between fathers and sons is ubiquitous in Light in August, biological fathers are absent from the action of the novel. Perhaps, one might speculate, one reason for the intensity of Oedipal conflicts in this novel is this very absence by virtue of which the mythic stature of the father-figure is only enlarged. Nonetheless, the father/son conflict is pervasive in Faulkner’s novels, certainly in those novels in which the father is present in the narrated action. In some cases the violence or potential for violence is directed from the son toward the father (Jewel and Anse Bundren in As I Lay Dying; Jason Compson IV and his father in The Sound and the Fury; Henry and Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!), while in other cases the destructive anger is redirected from the son onto himself or others (Darl, Vardaman, and perhaps Cash in As I Lay Dying, Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury). In all of these cases, Canetti’s analysis of a rivalry based on the son’s presumed survival of the father is pertinent and may be implied in Faulkner’s association of “time” imagery with the paternal relationship.

6McEachern’s Calvinism, of course, stresses the belief in predestination and human corruption, theological conceptions that we may associate with a deep-seated and universal anxiety concerning survival. Canetti distinguishes Calvinism and Islam as religions based on the conception of divine “force” rather than “power.” For believers of this kind, as Canetti writes, “The state of continuous expectation of command, to which, early in life, they surrender themselves for good and all, marks them deeply and also has a momentous effect on their attitude to other people. It creates a soldierly type of believer, men to whom battle is the truest representative of life . . .” (282).


Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1962.

_____. The Human Province. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978.

Faulkner, William. “Address upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.” The Portable Faulkner. Rev. ed., Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1967. 723-24.

_____. “Delta Autumn.” The Portable Faulkner. Rev. ed. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1967. 635-61.

_____. Light in August. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Kimball, Roger. “Becoming Elias Canetti.” The New Criterion Sept. 1986: 27.

Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. 4th Impression. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903.

JEFFREY J. FOLKS has taught at several universities in the United States, Europe, and Japan. His seven books on American literature include, most recently, From Richard Wright to Toni Morrison: Ethics in Modern and Postmodern American Narrative (2001), and In a Time of Disorder: Form and Meaning in Southern Fiction from Poe to O’Connor (2003).

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