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Coming to Terms with Time in Faulkner
William Vesterman
"So they got you here, too, did they?"

"That depends on who you mean by 'they' and what you mean by 'here.'"

Mothershed made a savage, sweeping gesture with one arm. "Here, by God! The preachers. The Jesus shouters."

"Ah," the Judge said. "Well, if I am where I am beginning to think I am, I don't know whether I am here or not. But you are not here at all, are you?"

Six pages into the story, this strange conversation typifies the strangeness of "Beyond" (1933) for both the main character and his reader. After many years presiding over a Mississippi Federal Court, Judge Allison is professionally well trained to demand evidence for assertions and unambiguous definitions for equivocal terms. Yet from the first his consciousness and his language have functioned empirically and analytically only in part; both his state of mind and his mode of expression are better and more fully characterized in the words that later describe the manner of a sobbing yet still curious child: "detached, suspended, as though it were living two distinct and separate lives at one time."

The Judge is a man of emotion as well as a man of intellect, and he has naturally been surprised to find his friend Mothershed "here," because he knows that Mothershed is dead. But the Judge is only somewhat taken aback, both because his Emersonian double-consciousness has by now rather easily accommodated other oddities in his recent experience and also because he feels so very much alive—to himself and to his reader. We are given precise and piquant evidence from all five senses in the story's first sentence, and the narrator continues to describe the Judge's physical sensations with lively particularity throughout the story. That story begins when the Judge—outraged that his doctor and his servants persist in ignoring his orders—angrily jumps from his bed and runs outside into a world he finds more attentive to his wishes:

At once he realized that he was still in his pajamas, so he buttoned his overcoat. It was of broadcloth, black brushed, of an outmoded elegance, with a sable collar. "At least they didn't have time to hide this from me," he thought in fretted rage. "Now, if I just had my..." He looked down at his feet. "Ah, I seem to have..." He looked at his shoes. "That's fortunate, too." Then the momentary surprise faded too, now that outrage had space in which to disseminate itself. He touched his hat, then put his hand to his lapel. The jasmine was there.

The emotion of outrage leaves the Judge as soon as his situation is enlarged and rendered familiar, and the word itself (repeated seven times in the first seven pages) leaves the story for good after the encounter with Morthershed quoted above. Outrage is very thickly seeded throughout the fields of Faulkner's fiction because like astonishment (another favorite word) it marks occasions when a character's personal identity becomes highly concentrated and clarified (at least to the individual) after having been evoked and focused by external opposition. The experience of loss performs the same essentializing function for the identities of those people Faulkner's characters have loved and lost. And because "Beyond" is a metaphysical tale about both outrage and loss dramatized as functions of time, the story itself explicitly brings the largest possible terms of understanding to themes that stimulate Faulkner's artistic imagination over and over again throughout his more realistic, earthbound fiction, beginning in his early major work.

Once outside and dressed as he would wish to be—the word "so" in "so he buttoned his overcoat" expresses early in the story the function of desire as causation—the Judge next moves through a crowded "entrance." He finds the experience "definitely unpleasant," because he detests crowds and their "concussion of life-quick flesh with his own." On the other side he meets a young man in a morning coat. The Judge speaks to him sociably of the crowds at the entrance in a tone of "quizzical bemusement," "not yet tinctured with surprised speculation, not yet puzzled, not yet wary." These more troubling emotions begin when the young man indicates that he has been killed on the way to his wedding and has been waiting and watching at the entrance for his wife-to-be ever since. The Judge laughs and says "Nonsense," but he still keeps up the conversation, admitting that if he himself were looking for anyone it would be for his son who died at only ten years of age while riding his beloved pony. "He would be about your age." Though urged by the young man to "look for him here," the Judge takes a polite but noncommittal leave: "Thank you," the Judge answered. "I may avail myself of your advice later."

His urbane composure is quickly shattered when he next meets Mothershed and the attendant need to test the expressive limits of ordinary language, as we have seen:

"Ah," the Judge said. "Well, if I am where I am beginning to think I am, I don't know whether I am here or not. But you are not here at all, are you?"

In the realm of Beyond, common conceptions of space and time—especially the here and the now—take on extraordinary but still intelligible meanings that the Judge strains to express because he seems to be “living two distinct and separate lives at one time.” His implications may be sketched out as follows:

  1. I don't know whether I am here or not because:
    • I am beginning to think I might be in a hereafter; if so, I am here.
    • But I may be only dreaming of a hereafter; if so, this place is only an illusion, and I am therefore not "here," but in my bed.
  2. In either case you, Mothershed are not really here at all because:
    • If this place is a hereafter, I surely have the right to say with jovial irony words to the effect: "You must logically admit that you can't be in a place that doesn't exit, mustn't you, my atheistic friend?"
    • If this place is only a dream of a hereafter, you are only an illusion and are therefore not "here" at all.

Mothershed responds to the judge at first only with curses, but soon goes on to explain that he has found little comfort in or clarity about the meaning of their current situation from the talks he has had with famous skeptics like Voltaire and Thomas Paine. He adds that very nearby may be found another of their common heroes, Robert Ingersoll, the highly popular writer and orator, champion of Agnosticism in late nineteenth century America. The Judge goes to "the man Mothershed said was Ingersoll" and begs him for assurance in a long speech that concludes:

"There is hope or there is nothing...Give me your word now. Say either of these to me. I will believe."
The other looked at the Judge for a time. Then he said, "Why? Believe why?"

The Judge begins to doubt that the gloomy and laconic figure is really that of the ebullient and witty Robert Ingersoll of the books, lectures, and newspaper controversies. Nevertheless he persists and tells "the man Mothershed said was Ingersoll" about his feelings for his son, showing him a picture of the boy on his pony: "He rode practically all the time. Even to church." Finally, the Judge repeats his plea:

"And you can give me your word. I will believe."

"Go seek your son," the other said. "Go seek him."

Now the Judge did not move at all. Holding the picture and the dissolving cigarette, he sat in complete immobility. He seemed to sit in a kind of terrible and unbreathing suspension. "And find him? And find him?" The other did not answer. The Judge turned and looked at him, and then the cigarette dropped quietly into dissolution as the tobacco rained down on his neat gleaming shoe. "Is that your word? I will believe, I tell you." The other sat, shapeless, gray, sedentary, almost nondescript looking down. "Come. You cannot stop with that. You cannot."

The Judge becomes more and more angry, but "the man Mothershed said was Ingersoll" only tells him to look in the face of a woman who has just passed carrying a child. After talking with the young mother about her little boy who sobs over some damaged toy soldiers that he has tired of playing with, the Judge shows her the picture of his own son.

"Why, it's Howard. Why, we see him every day. He rides past here every day. Sometimes he stops and lets us ride too. I walk beside to hold him on," she added, glancing up. She showed the picture to the child. "Look! See Howard on his pony? See?"

The Judge responds only with "Ah" and his characteristic mirthless smile. After establishing that the young boy still rides a young pony, the Judge takes his leave: "On the pony, the same pony. You see, by that token the pony would have to be thirty years old. That pony died at eighteen, six years unridden, in my lot. That was twelve years ago. So I had better get on."

The word "so" now makes a logical rather than an emotional conjunction, and the Judge returns back through the entrance, having to force his way against the surging crowd inch by inch: "But at least I know where I am going." He goes first to his son's tombstone with the inscription, "Auf Wiedersehen, Little Boy," next to his own newly dug grave. Though the words on the boy's tombstone speak of "until seeing again," the Judge has of course just refused what may seem a chance to do so. He continues on back to his house, changes into his grave clothes, and enters his coffin in the middle of his funeral service, still ignored, but still smelling the trapped odor of his funereal flowers and hearing the shuffling of feet after the lid of his coffin is closed. The story ends:

He said quietly aloud, quizzical, humorous, peaceful, as he did each night in his bed in his lonely and peaceful room when a last full exhalation had emptied his body of waking and he seemed for less than an instant to look about him from the portal of sleep, "Gentlemen of the Jury, you may proceed."

How shall we proceed with the Judge's case? Let us examine the evidence judiciously in the light of natural laws and distinguish between its appeals to reason and emotion. First of all, the emotions he exhibits in the world of Beyond begin and end in outrage. The story starts when he shouts at his servants and his doctor who don't seem to be listening—the cook wailing, the yard man staring enigmatically at the bed, the doctor putting his stethoscope back in its case. Yet the Judge later keeps his temper with the young woman who says she sees Howard every day. The Judge's outrage at that point is directed not at her, but at the nature of Beyond with its trivializations of time as change and change as loss. Because he wants no part in sentimentalizing his son's identity, he comes to terms with time and returns home to make friends with death, having reaffirmed his sense of his own identity. As he says to the young woman in explaining his departure: "Anyway, there is a certain integral consistency which, whether it be right or wrong, a man must cherish because it alone will ever permit him to die."

The Judge refuses the chance to see "Howard" because if Howard could be riding "the same pony," "by that token" he could not be the same Howard—that is to say, the son he loved and still loves. Howard and the pony were both young when the boy died, but the ten-year-old rider in Beyond is described as always mounted on a young pony, though Howard's animal died at eighteen. When could such a pony have come through the entrance? It could not have done so with Howard, but it is obviously not eighteen either, let alone thirty. If the pony is a phantom, Howard is unreal too.

Still, "the man Mothershed said was Ingersoll" was right when he says: "Why? Believe why?" The Judge rediscovers and confirms that his love for his son is not a matter of belief, but a matter of fact—empirical and emotional fact. Belief expresses confidence in a future, but the future of Judge Allison's love is surely beyond the alternatives of belief and doubt. His love no longer needs any damaged toys like those the young woman's son weeps over, tokens that no longer stimulate and sustain his imagination. In Wallace Stevens' words, the Judge wants "not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself." His initial quest for belief is like the hand-made cigarette he keeps rolling and re-rolling throughout the story because no one in Beyond can come up with a light to enable a cigarette to do what a cigarette can do.

Having been told to "seek your son" is also advice that now makes sense, and the Judge seeks Howard in his heart where he always has really existed anyway and in fact will exist until the end of time, however that may come to be defined. A boy on a pony makes a pretty picture. But the Judge loves the son he has lost, not a representation of one not lost, an image however "realistic." Artistic artifacts may themselves be outside time, but life itself is not, and only a false esthetics could ever render and represent life as if it were. For example: whom would the man in the morning coat greet after all his waiting? His bride-to-be as (say) a twenty-year-old girl or his bride-to-be as (say) an eighty-year-old woman twice widowed? And for whom might she herself now wish to wait? To deny that identity is a function of time is to trivialize the glory of the individual personality, the object of earthly love. That is to say, again with Wallace Stevens, death is the mother of beauty. In the Judge's own words to the young mother:

"You see, if I could believe that I shall see and touch him again, I shall not have lost him. And if I have not lost him, I shall never have had a son. Because I am I through bereavement and because of it. I do not know what I was nor what I shall be. But because of death, I know that I am. And this is all the immortality of which intellect is capable and flesh should desire."

Faulkner worked on versions of "Beyond" throughout almost all of the enormously innovative breakthrough years that mark the real beginning of his career as a writer until he finally published the story in Harpers in 1933. This great creative period—bounded by the appearance of The Sound and the Fury in 1929 and his first stay in Hollywood in 1933—includes As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), These 13 (1931), and Light in August (1932). Apparently Faulkner could not bring "Beyond" to a conclusion because his engagement with its thematic concerns kept stimulating his artistic performance in his larger venues. He mined the story over and over again, but still kept discovering new veins of rich ore.

In his first two great novels the drama of "distinct and separate lives"—held in suspension and led simultaneously by the Judge who has lost his son—is a drama distributed (as it were) within two families. The identities of some family members are evoked and focused by different forms of outrage—at the loss of a sister, in the case of The Sound and the Fury, and the loss of a mother in As I Lay Dying. For others in the same books like Benjy Compson and Darl Bundren, an initially surprising apparent absence of outrage at the loss performs the same function. For everyone in each novel emotion is dramatized as a function of time when loss defines a new here and now, opening and closing possibilities for imagined futures.

In The Sound and the Fury different relations to time are also distributed among the major characters beginning with the Compson brothers. For Benjy time does not exist and his sister Caddy is not lost, but always potentially present in space and always present in his thoughts. For Quentin Compson, time is all too abundant. He feels Time the Healer beginning to soothe the psychic wounds of outrage at his sister's dishonor, and because honor defines the integrity of his identity, he can only stop the progressive disintegration of that identity by drowning himself in the river of time and thereby stopping its flow through him. For Jason Compson, time is money, but there is never enough of either exchangeable commodity to buy any peace at any price for this first of Faulkner's great comic monsters. Only Dilsey finds herself able to come to terms with time and so to find "de comfort en de unburdenin." She alone is finally able to comprehend the defining events of the Compsons' history by reconfiguring them as a narrative where (in Paul Ricoeur's terms for what a narrative can do for time) "this after that" becomes "this because of that." "Ive seed de first en de last...I seed de beginning, en now I sees de endin."

In As I Lay Dying Darl Bundren yearns for the opposite of Dilsey's apprehension of meaning through a reconfiguration of time into a coherent narrative of the Bundren family's life. He comes to wish he could lose his own tortured identity as a compulsive observer of meaning in other lives:

If you could just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time.

Quentin wants to maintain his integrity by stopping time; Darl wants to end his suffering not by an attempt to "knit up the raveled sleeve of care," but by letting it become fully unknit and so without any existence at all. At the end of the novel Darl who has always been the most "objective" of Bundren narrators anyway, finally comes to lead fully "two distinct and separate lives at one time." In the initial words of his final chapter he now speaks of himself in both the first and third person:

Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed. "What are you laughing at?" I said.
"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes."

In Light in August Faulkner embodies "separate and suspended lives" in the possibilities of racial identity for Joe Christmas whose outrage at the loss of any clear knowledge of his parentage causes his willful vacillation in the public claims he makes for who he is. For Joe Christmas personal identity is inseparable from biological identity, and that equation manifests itself in early twentieth-century Mississippi not as a matter of "genotypes" and "phenotypes," but as "one touch of the tar brush." Because he cannot know his past with any certainty, and because his present and his future therefore make one continuing agony, he like Quentin can come to terms with time only by ending it. He does so with a melodramatic violence springing from an impotence of personal knowledge that resembles in its intensity the violence stemming from an impotence of sexual knowledge that brings Popeye to divide Temple Drakes's past from her future once and for all in Sanctuary.

After his first Hollywood interlude as a screenwriter, and after something of a thematic interlude as a novelist with Pylon (1935), Faulkner returned in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) to themes of outraged identities defined by honor, virginity, impotence, and miscegenation—themes that would fill his stories and novels for the rest of his career. These concerns are all still dramatized as functions of time but now expanded in scope, because Faulkner no longer limited his ambitions for his art to the history of individuals and individual families. Rather now he explicitly sought to represent the larger history of the South. Yet only at the end of his life—a century after the Civil War—was the history of the South itself beginning to come to terms with time. Instead of continuing detached and suspended from the life of the nation as a whole—"as though it were living two distinct and separate lives at one time"—the beginning of an integration of its races had begun to define a new meaning for its old story.

Contributor's Note

William Vesterman teaches English at Rutgers. He is the author of The Stylistic Life of Samuel Johnson and essays on British and American literature. At present he is at work on a book about literary time called All What While? Some Versions of Time in Twentieth-Century Fiction.

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