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BERNHARD RADLOFF The Fate of Demonism in William Faulkner The spirit of revenge, my friends, has so far been the subject of man's best reflection; and wherever there was suffering, there punishment was also wanted. —Nietzsche In Absalom, Absalom! the calculative and vindictive mentality which characterizes Sutpen in his devotion to a "design" constitutes the archetype of demonism definitive of the novel and the entire tradition of design in Faulkner's work. In a literal sense, Sutpen's "design" is simply his determination to transcend the meanness ofhis poor-white roots and to found a dynasty. Yet the meaning of his design far outweighs this simple story. The design is defined by the semantics, the rhetoric, of a historical tradition. This rhetoric weaves Sutpen's moral blindness, what he calls his "innocence," and his will to transcend the animality of his brute existence into one coherent structure.1 Because the design originates in Sutpen's desire to "vindicate the boy" he was from brute existence it signifies the will to transcend animality (274): the design is the project by which Sutpen's descendants will be "riven forever free from brutehood" (261). Therefore the import of the design is not restricted to mere dynasty building, nor can Sutpen's fitst marriage satisfy the demands of the design. The fraction of black blood Sutpen's Haitian wife supposedly carries links her being to that of the slave, and the slave is the purest essence of that exploited animality Sutpen sees in his own sisters (235—36). In consequence, because the Arizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 1, Spring 1990 Copyright © 1 990 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 004-1610 28Bernhard Radioff Haitian marriage would have "voided and frustrated without his knowing it the central motivation of his entire design" (262-63), Sutpen pays off his first wife and renders himself "innocent" of her, of his son, and of his own guilt.2 Sutpen's innocence emerges out of the desolate realization that he is merely a working animal in the Tidewater world. The "severe shape of his intact innocence" becomes the basis of his projected transcendence (238). Innocence originates in the oscillation of the will between the brute animality of existence and the transcendence of existence: it is the present internalization of not-having-fallen, of not-being-guilty (past), and the flight from death inherent in transcendence (future). The design signifies the revenge of the will upon having-been-brute; the innocence of the designing will is a willful innocence of guilt and mortality. Innocence wills to perpetuate itself in innocence. The design signifies the revenge of the will upon time: it intimates the fixation of the will upon the anticipated "transcendence" of its own brute being in the world; and thus, in the deceived eye ofWash Jones (the poor-white tenant farmer who serves as Sutpen's double and nemesis in the novel) Sutpen appears in the avatar of divinity (282). The threefold, unitary structure of vengefulness, transcendence, and willful innocence determines the nature of design. It also constitutes the archetype of demonism in Faulkner's work. In Absalom, Absalom! it is Rosa who evokes the "demon" who "came out of nowhere and without warning" to "overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the Soundless Nothing" (9, 8). While her story is literally unreal to modern sensibilities (we no longer take talk of "demons" seriously) , the use of the word "demon" in Rosa's narrative serves the important function of a surplus value term for an "inexplicable excess of meaning" which cannot be grasped directly.3 The primary import of the rhetoric of demonism is to reveal the semantic design of the oral tradition from which Sutpen emerges; its purpose as a psychological characterization of Rosa is secondary. The romance conventions typical of Rosa's narrative do indeed annul our everyday logic of cause and effect;4 but this only makes it more fully commensurate with the sense of the design as the revenge of the will against time. In consequence , while the rhetoric of demonism cannot give us a realistic description of Thomas Sutpen, it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 27-50
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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