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Reviewed by
Candace Waid. The Signifying Eye: Seeing Faulkner’s Art. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2013. xvi + 384 pp.

William Faulkner’s lifelong interest in visual culture is well known and has been well studied. Understandably, given his years as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, his multiple engagements with cinema have drawn the most sustained critical attention, but the youthful experiments in illustration have not gone unnoticed. The pen-and-ink drawings of The Marionettes (Faulkner’s hand-lettered, self-published one-act play of 1920) and the watercolor fantasies of Mayday (also a hand-crafted volume, created in 1926) have been examined both for the light they shed on Faulkner’s preliminary explorations of the subjects and themes that would come to the fore in his later fiction (sexuality, race, and gender, in particular) and for their insight into his methodical search for a medium and method best suited to his own particular artistic voice and vision. Then, too, Faulkner’s earliest fictions—from the abandoned Elmer to his second novel, Mosquitoes, apprentice work that includes the writings gathered in New Orleans Sketches and The Uncollected Stories—offer numerous, often self-deprecatingly comic portraits of the (verbal, visual) artist that present art-making in sexualized, gendered, and racialized terms, an aspect of Faulkner’s aesthetic that has been ably explored by many scholars over the past thirty or so years.

The Signifying Eye enters this investigation into the roles visuality and the visual arts play in Faulkner’s literary art in a manner obviously meant to raise the discourse to a whole new level. A book that illustrates its argument not only with drawings from The Marionettes and samples of the Aubrey Beardsley pictures that inspired them (de rigueur in this area of Faulkner studies) but also with full-color plates of canvases by James McNeill Whistler, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning isn’t messing around. There is a great deal to admire in Waid’s ambition to bring Faulkner’s verbal art into sustained conversation with the work of his peers in the visual arts—not only Whistler, Gorky, and de Kooning but also George E. Ohr; Walter Anderson; and, via a two-and-a-half page footnote at the end of her study, Marcel Duchamp. She is right to follow through on her hunch that, just as Faulkner aimed to create in words some approximation of the material sensuality of painting and sculpture (not to mention their ability to arrest time), so artists like de Kooning and Gorky were eager to translate Faulkner’s abstract handling of narrative and figure into their own seemingly nonnarrative and nonfigural approaches to painting.

The Signifying Eye bristles with fresh insight; hardly a page passes that isn’t marked by some provocative reading or claim, many [End Page 174] of them felicitous (some even delightful in a manner all too rare in literary scholarship). The book is not without its longueurs, though—places where the underlying argument disappears beneath a flurry of observations that, strikingly original as they are, don’t quite add up to a cohesive set of claims serving a clear function in the study’s interpretive machinery. Waid’s book throws off a lot of sparks, but the illumination generated by all these points of light is inconsistent and some readers may find the individual merits of the study’s parts greater than the cumulative effect of the whole.

To be sure, many of those parts are quite fine. Early in the book Waid offers a concise yet wonderfully wide-ranging overview of the many artistic influences and historical circumstances that went into the making of the Southern Renascence, an overview that beautifully encompasses the Fugitive Poets, the blues, and the extraordinarily skilled vernacular-cum-modernist work of the Mississippi Delta and Carolina Piedmont. The paintings that constitute what she rightly terms de Kooning’s “Faulkner Trilogy” (Light in August, Black Friday, and Black Untitled, created between 1946 and 1948) are far too little known (let alone studied) among Faulkner scholars, and they deserve the considerable care and attention Waid lavishes on them in her remarkably detailed close readings.

The reading practice itself, however, may give some readers pause. Waid’s often ingenious formulations are recognizably feminist in their allegiances and loosely historicist in their orientation, but there seems to be no method to their generation beyond her own formidable powers of association. The pleasures of the unexpected are here in abundance, but a reliance on free association and related techniques of rhetorical wizardry has its limitations. One could wish, for instance, for a more clearly empirical basis for Waid’s claims about the influence the novels of Willa Cather and Edith Wharton had on Faulkner’s own developing sense of himself as an artist. In particular, her linking of Ethan Frome, The Professor’s House, and As I Lay Dying to a shared problematics of “the gendered drama between a regional culture and a national aesthetic” (58) is intriguing, but it is made without any evidence to indicate the exact nature and degree of Faulkner’s engagement with what we are clearly meant to see as generative precursor texts. A little of this kind of speculation goes a long way, and some readers may feel Waid overdoes it—as when she later writes that “Wharton’s rabid and fast-paced critique of a mongrel Manhattan and a sex-crazed Hollywood in Twilight Sleep must have been riveting to the pre-Warner Brothers Faulkner” (203) while offering no proof that Faulkner actually read the book. This pursuit of novel assertions and unexpected connections can pay off, but it also runs the risk of alienating those readers who expect some kind [End Page 175] of evidentiary backing for interpretive claims. Her assertion that the language describing the death of Joe Christmas “in diction and theme alludes directly” to Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket (213) is another such claim, and readers may balk at being asked to take so many assertions on faith.

The question of evidence comes up in a different way with Waid’s extraordinarily detailed and imaginative readings of the de Kooning paintings, particularly Light in August. The Signifying Eye offers two quite different reproductions of this good-sized (roughly 4½′ × 3½′) canvas, which hangs in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Are Waid’s readings a product of sustained observation of the work itself (the standard for art analysis) or of study of these same reproductions (which, given the painting’s location, seems more likely)? At issue here is less the need to experience an artwork’s aura (though there is that, and it mattered to the Abstract Expressionists) than issues of accurate apprehension. Slides, while absolutely necessary in the art history classroom, are not appropriate texts for high-level analysis; they cannot capture effects of scale and surface, and they tend to distort color. Given the many hazards of basing an interpretation of an artwork on a reproduction, readers deserve to know what, exactly, Waid was looking at as she drew her conclusions about the relationship between de Kooning’s art and Faulkner’s. This is not to say that her readings are unfounded, just that readers should know the conditions in which those readings took shape and the supporting evidence that led to their formulation.

Catherine Gunther Kodat
Lewis & Clark College