I have been doing tutorials for years now—the basic framework is a small number of students, Great Books, and lots of wandering discussions. Putting together the book lists is fun; I think of a few books I really want to read, combine them into some theme, and then off we go. Sometimes the fake theme actually makes sense and reading the particular set of books really does result in something bigger than the sum of its parts. Most of the time, it’s just a set of really Great Books.
This semester’s theme was the American South. Three books in, it has turned into one of the most cohesive tutorials I’ve ever had.
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner turns out to be a remarkable follow-up to I’ll Take My Stand. The latter book argued the South was being killed by Northern industrialization. Faulkner’s book is a document on exactly what that means. I didn’t make that connection at all the first time I read this book (about 20 years ago). But, this time, all I could think about was the death of the aristocratic South in the face of an industrialized age. The result—misery all around.
Even the characters took on an eerie aura. The only character in the novel who would actually fit into the modern world is Jason, who is the least appealing character in the book. And if you don’t want be like him, your choice is—Quentin (the male one) who is so tortured by the past, he kills himself (after a year at Harvard which did not do him much good at all (think about that before sending your kid off to college)) or Benjy, who cannot process anything at all, and so thinks in a stream of consciousness which has no linearity or coherence. (He’s mentally retarded, seriously mentally retarded.) I suppose you could also be Caddy or the younger (female) Quentin, both of whom are what would have once been called loose women. There are also the servants—Dilsey being the most important of them—who, as Faulkner notes in the biographical sketches in the appendix, the most which can be said of them is “They endured.” So, no real option here—we are all Jason now.
It’s an amazing book—four chapters, four different perspectives (though the last chapter is an omniscient narrator). The first chapter is Benjy’s thoughts, and so it literally makes no sense on a first reading. The second is Quentin’s—also stream of consciousness—I don’t know if it would ever make complete sense. Then suddenly we get Jason’s section and lo and behold it is easy reading, and we begin to figure to what is happening in the novel. The book is thus one part crossword puzzle—who did what to whom when? If you haven’t read things like the previous paragraph before you read the book, there is a wealth of discovery awaiting the first time reader. Unfortunately, there is no way to even begin to talk about this book without tipping off surprises.
One of the students in the tutorial asked a really interesting discussion question about our obsession with time and the linearity of time. We are obsessed with marking off the day. Not only do I wear a watch, I habitually and unconsciously check it constantly. My entire life has the mechanical order of a giant machine, marking off the time by moving from one part of the machine that is my life to the next all on a rigid schedule. I’ll go home at 6:00 tonight. Why? Because that is what time I will go home tonight. And how will I know I am done for the day and that it is time to relocate to my house? My watch will tell me so. And suddenly I realize I may not be Jason after all, I may be Benjy, who needs everything to happen in a precise and predefined order simply to make it through his day. The novel ends with the driver of a coach in which Benjy sits, going left around a monument that Benjy normally passes on the right. Benjy loses all control in a paroxysm of horror.
Quentin (the older one) also shows up as a narrator in Absalom, Absalom!, which I may reread over the break. I really enjoyed that novel too when I read it years ago, though it is the starkest case of the title of a novel giving away the whole plot I have ever seen.