- Faulkner: Masks and Metaphors
William Faulkner was a great fabricator, both of stories for his novels and of stories for his life. More so than most publicly acclaimed authors, Faulkner lied about himself. Virtually all of his photographs, interviews, and letters contain deliberately posed versions of himself that are more or less—usually more—at odds with “truth” or with the “real” Faulkner. He posed as a heroic World War I flying ace with a steel plate in his head; he denied reading Ulysses when he clearly had; he portrayed himself as just a countryman, not a literary man, as if he came home at night from the muddy fields to pursue a hobby of writing. This proclivity for fabrication has long been well known to Faulkner aficionados, though it has been a source of anxiety only to biographers trying to document Faulkner’s life accurately or to illuminate the psychological depths of his creativity. In Faulkner: Masks and Metaphors, Lothar Hönnighausen takes Faulkner’s lying seriously in a different way, by treating it as a core element of Faulkner’s literary method, as fundamental to his genius.
The logic of Hönnighausen’s argument proceeds from masks to metaphors. In the first half of the book he examines the masks Faulkner donned whenever he presented himself to the world, in photos, [End Page 487] interviews, and letters. Hönnighausen has special fun with the photos, for his own overriding metaphoric impulse is visual in his interpretations of the poses and stances Faulkner assumed, such as the dandy R. A. F. lieutenant or the scruffy artiste roaming the streets of Paris. Hönnighausen then explores the artist figures in various works, finding a duality in the artist as “visionary” and as “craftsman,” perhaps most clearly seen in the two male characters of “Artist at Home.” More interesting is the discussion of the artist as “human failure,” seen in characters (usually men) who are ineffective, effeminate, and ephemeral figures, like Horace Benbow in Flags in the Dust or Gavin Stevens in The Town.
Although he warns us to differentiate between the impact of Faulkner’s real-life role-playing and that of his artist persona in his fiction, it is also the case that Hönnighausen wants us to see and feel the connections. Biography is what matters in the way he reads the fiction, notwithstanding his invocation of Nietzsche’s “view of language as a mask,” Derrida’s theories of différance, or New Historicism’s “sociocultural” construction of a life story. What’s really at stake for Hönnighausen is that we approach the literature through the man; his ultimate goal is to understand the man. At moments he even goes so far as to interpret, in effect, Faulkner’s personal poses through reference to the fiction: “That the same man who flirts with being the [. . .] plantation aristocrat also says of himself [that he is] ‘a vagabond and a tramp’ ceases to be contradictory when one remembers [. . .] the plantation heir Bayard Sartoris[‘s . . .] odyssey leading him to his suicidal death as test pilot.” But except for occasional, logically suspect moments like this, Hönnighausen helps us see the fictionally constructed Faulkner much more clearly and much more interestingly.
The second half of the book turns to the ways metaphor informs Faulkner’s discourse. He treats the relation between time shifts and metaphor—or rather he suggests that the time shifts are metaphors—in The Sound and the Fury. He delineates the relation between metaphor and narrative structure in Absalom, Absalom!, arguing that metaphor and narration are related not only because the novel’s style is rich in metaphors but, more so, because the “hypothetical or conjectural nature of the narrative” bears “an essential affinity [. . .] to the structure of metaphor.” And he explores Faulkner’s regionalism and its contrast with modernism in The Hamlet, nicely tracking some ways in [End Page 488] which modernist metaphors are put to regionalist uses in the novel. Hönnighausen does underestimate the attention “other critics” (whom he anonymously sets up as straw opponents...