You get born and you try this and you don’t know why only you keep trying and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others are all trying and they don’t know why either except that the strings are all in one another’s way like five or six people trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug.
William Faulkner (1897-1962). Absalom, Absalom! Modern Library edition, pages 130-131.
That was when I learned that words are no good, that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at… I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
William Faulkner. As I Lay Dying First Vintage Edition edition, pages 171 and then 173
These are two lengthy quotes so I’ll keep my commentary brief. In short, I consider these two passages the most powerful statements in American literature on living life and the limitations of language.
How often have writers heard the injunction: Show Not Tell, told that our narratives should speak for us somehow, because words alone can mean nothing? How often is a man told he should say “I love you” more and he defends himself, saying, I do with everything I do. Words can ‘go in one ear and out the other,’ as the cliché goes. What is a cliché but tired words in absentia of some wisdom? Cliché is weathered language, but the approximate relevance remains. We hope.
But what do we do when our actions, when our best intention goes awry, when it becomes misunderstood? We explain ourselves and we make matters worse. We are born and we endeavor, like the unfortunates in the first passage, and we realize, fail to realize, come to recognize, and then understand and forget again how our every action affects another. We are interdependent verbal creatures. In Moby-Dick, Melville alludes to this interdependence: “If your banker breaks, you snap. If your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die” (Chapter 72). Each of us is caught up in our own doing, in our trying to create our own unique pattern in the rug that we think is our own life but, in actuality, is a momentary trace upon the fabric of humanity.
Addie, the dead woman of the second passage, is alluding to motherhood when she says, “that was when” she learned that “words are no good.” Faulkner’s character is telling us language is slippery as a fish because it never achieves the meaning that it approximates; it, a word, is only “at.” The “at” is the whole point for her, and for writers.
I picked these two passages because for all the baroque navigation required in Faulkner’s prose his ideas, like the act of writing, are very, very physical, if not carnal. Communication of any kind is a form of intimacy, with inherent vulnerability, potentials for mishap, and danger. This is sometimes lost in the acts of e-mail, emoticons, text messaging, and other forms of social media. Language and content could become devalued, pulling on one tendril of the web in the world of words that we share with each other.
The writing that haunts us as readers is the writing that has touched us – and not always in places where we wanted to be touched. Look at Faulkner’s diction here: clinging, and straddle. His Addie tells us what is terrible is the active, the attempt: “doing.” Intimacy, whether between lovers or between reader and writer, is always invasive; and the surrender of one to the other, through the seduction of words, may involve confusion, resistance and rejection, and unexpected fears and joys. Faulkner presents the writer as the lover.
In feigning madness Hamlet says, “Words, words, words,” while Lear, in true madness upon hearing of Cordelia’s death, says, “Never, never, never, never, never!” as if he could deny or forestall the emotional finality of death. Faulkner responds that literature is like the dead Addie in her coffin, talking to us “in little trickling bursts of secret and murmurous bubbling.” The great writers continue to live, continue to speak from the dead in their careful cadence because they speak to the measure of life in relevant, eternal terms.
Read these two passages again and then read Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. For a man known for long sentences and crafted “stream of consciousness” where syntax disappears and nouns are not nouns and subjects and objects are delayed like Addie’s moving coffin to arrive at some destination somewhere else, the acceptance speech is a statement of why a writer writes.
He does it in less than 600 words.