ex nihilo nihil fit: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

Flannery O’Connor famously compared Faulkner to a freight train that would run down any writer who attempts an inferior imitation of him. Certainly some of Faulkner’s novels can leave readers as well as writers feeling as if a freight train has barreled over them.

As I Lay Dying, one of Faulkner’s most highly regarded novels, pummels readers mercilessly—at least it pummels me every time I open it, but not because of the difficulty of Faulkner’s prose. In fact, the cadence and diction of As I Lay Dying—even with its heavy use of stream of consciousness—make the novel a smooth read for the most part, particularly if one contrasts it with Absalom, Absalom! What really hurts about As I Lay Dying is the relentlessness with which it assaults the ontological status of the human person and challenges what common sense tells us we know about our lives. From beginning to end, As I Lay Dying creates one epistemological crisis after another. By the last chapter, when the character who has the strongest claim to being the protagonist has been sent to an insane asylum, the reader has suffered. Here Faulkner offers no grace and no viable replacement for traditional sources of meaning that seem to crumble one after the other in his rural Mississippi.

Yet for all its darkness, I find the novel helpful for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important of which is the way in which it exposes to light the consequences that certain ideas have for the human condition. This is one of the most important functions of literature: to recreate the world in such a way that our ideas about it become real, so real that they have practical rather than simply theoretical effects. We need to have our philosophical approaches to life embodied in tangible reality. Without such grounding for our ideas, we run the danger of creating pretty hedges to surround our ideas and conceal their often far-reaching outcomes

In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner allows us no such comforting hedges. Many of the ideas of philosophical materialism come crashing into the lives of the Bundrens in catastrophic ways.

The story follows the absurd and heartbreaking journey of Anse Bundren and his children—Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman—to bury his deceased wife Addie in her hometown of Jefferson. Most of the characters have their own secret motivations for making the journey: Anse really wants to go to Jefferson to get a new set of false teeth; Dewey Dell wants to procure a medicine that will kill her illegitimate unborn child; and even Addie, although she says that she wants to be buried with her family, has asked Anse to bury her in Jefferson as a kind final punishment to him from the grave. They encounter one obstacle after another until after several days they reach Jefferson with Addie’s reeking corpse.
Nietzsche’s presence seems palpable throughout the novel, particularly when Darl looks into the muddy water of a flooded river that the Bundrens have to cross with Addie’s body:

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again. (141)

It is perhaps fitting that Darl, the most thoughtful of the Bundren children, gazes into the depths of the river and suspects that it is gazing back at him. Alternately a nihilist and a moralist, Darl sees early on the absurdity and outrage of dragging Addie’s body all over the county when they could have easily buried her in a local cemetery, and yet he also suspects that everything, finally, is absurd. The futility of their journey becomes for him a symbol of the futility of human life itself. Having grappled with life’s tenuousness, Darl ends up reasoning that because his mother does not exist, he himself cannot exist, either.

The two youngest Bundrens also experience existential crises as a result of their mother’s death. Vardaman, having chopped up a fish that he caught, realizes that when living organisms die, their bodies disintegrate and cease to be the things that they were before:

I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not blood on my hands and overalls. . . . If I jump off the porch I will be where the fish was, and it all cut up into not-fish now. (53)

Concluding that human beings are not more than the sums of their parts, Vardaman is deeply disturbed by the knowledge that his mother is now a rotting body in a coffin. Refusing to admit the ontological problems created by this conclusion, however, he repeatedly reminds himself—and the reader—of the obvious, commonsensical facts around him: “Darl is my brother”; “Cash is my brother.” He also conflates his mother with the fish he caught and chopped into little pieces of “not-fish,” because, indeed, if we are not more than the sums of our parts, mothers and fish really are interchangeable.

Dewey Dell similarly decides that people are simply collections of organs and the substances from which those organs are made, an opinion that contributes to her pursuit of an abortion and, perhaps, to her betrayal of Darl. Thinking that Dr. Peabody could help her abort her baby if he knew of her situation, she settles on an anthropological position not unlike Vardaman’s:

It’s like everything in the world for me is inside a tub full of guts, so that you wonder how there can be any room in it for anything else very important. He [Peabody] is a big tub of guts and I am a little tub of guts and if there is not any room for anything else important in a big tub of guts, how can it be room in a little tub of guts. (58)

Where Vardaman desperately (and perhaps unsuccessfully) holds onto his mother and his relationship to his family in spite of his understanding that humans are nothing more than the parts that compose them, Dewey Dell is helpless to the tremendous consequences of her realization that human’s are merely “tubs of guts.” She is the most gullible and least free of all the characters in As I Lay Dying: in the end, she finds herself duped into exchanging sex for a drug that will not do what she hopes that it will do.

There is no redemption and very little light in As I Lay Dying, but this is as it should be. The novel is a rich and skillful meditation on the fragmented and spiritually dead universe.

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