- The Compsons Were Here:Indexicality, the Actuality, and the Crisis of Meaning in The Sound and the Fury
"The ontological scatter that is accessible to an intensively scattered perception bespeaks a crisis of the object, a crisis of meaning."—Howard Eiland, "Reception in Distraction"1
"'Is you all seen anything of a quarter down here.' Luster said.
'The one I had here this morning.' Luster said. 'I lost it somewhere. It fell through this here hole in my pocket.'"2 The Sound and the Fury (1929) is propelled onto the page by an unpredictable and trivial occurrence. As the dialogue indicates, Luster loses a coin through a hole in his pocket and thus begins both the search for the money and our initiation into the Compson family history. What if the quarter had not fallen through Luster's pocket? Would the novel read differently if Benjy and Luster had not needed to pass by the golf course in search of the quarter and hear the golfer cry "caddie," the misinterpretation of which spins Benjy into reverie? Benjy then catches on the fence as he tries to pass through, which reminds him of an anterior moment when he was similarly caught, this time with Caddy. If he had not gotten caught on the fence, the section would have progressed in some other way. The novel begins by chance and Benjy's section proceeds according to chance occurrences. A similar sense of chance and unpredictability colors a response Faulkner gave to Jean Stein vanden Heuvel's question in an interview for the Paris Review (1956). She asks, "Does the narcissus given to Benjy have some significance?" Faulkner replied that it "was simply a flower which happened to be handy on the fifth of April. It was not deliberate."3 This article will explore the implications of chance—contingency—on the formal aspect of section one of The Sound and the Fury and reveal the manner in which the rest of the novel responds to the conditions that Benjy provides for a contingent world bereft of coherent meaning.4 While Benjy's section of The Sound and the Fury liberates the novel from the formal strictures of realist narration, any assumption of the unavailability of storied meaning elicits palpable anxiety in his brothers, who attempt to restore narrative sense in tormented, even violent ways.
In the late nineteenth century, contingency was anathema to an increasingly rationalized notion of time—based on efficiency, speed, and regularity, capitalist values that permeated a modern culture of mechanized mass reproduction, the novel's historical context. As Mary Ann Doane has argued, though contingency—the unpredictable, the deviant, the inessential—had the "lure" of "resistance to rationalization," it was "potentially threatening" because of its "alliance with meaninglessness, even nonsense."5 Contingency held the promise of absolute freedom from structure, but Baudelaire feared that such freedom would mean "anarchy," that a meaningless "riot of details" would drown modern humanity (quoted in Doane, Emergence of Cinematic Time, 11). What if that unmooring from meaning, as Baudelaire and Siegfried Kracauer proposed, was the definitive characteristic of modernity? Film, according to Doane, was in a formally privileged position to structure and aestheticize the opposing forces of rationalization and contingency. The actuality, the earliest genre of film made popular by the Lumière Brothers, recorded un-narrativized visual data. The advent of the event allayed the anxiety these non-narrative films induced, by attempting to structure and confer significance on otherwise anarchically meaningless occurrences. Though Faulkner would not begin his stint in Hollywood until the 1930s, my investigation is predicated on the premise, shared by a number of Faulkner critics, that the novel evinces an early awareness of and attraction to the formal and thematic possibilities inherent in the art of cinema.6 Through a comparison between Benjy's section, which, I propose, amounts to filmic coverage as opposed to narration, Quentin's fraught search for a central, governing event, and Jason's paranoid narrativizations, I will argue that the novel's critical engagement with early cinematic form determines the perceptual strategies of the three Compson brothers.
The transition from what Tom Gunning has called the "cinema of...