- Designing Sutpen: Narrative and Its Relationship to Historical Consciousness in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! throws the literary process of narration into serious question; the four main narrators of the story, as well as the “nested” narrators who narrate from within the narratives of the primary narrators, present accounts of Thomas Sutpen’s life that often include contradictory sets of detail and contrasting descriptive styles. Consequently, it becomes impossible for a reader to know precisely what happens in Sutpen’s story or why and how it has attained any significance. This uncertainty can be read as a commentary on or a demonstration of the very process of creating and disseminating narratives. Joseph W. Reed, Jr. writes that “to begin to understand Absalom, Absalom! is to accept the book’s process, to move beyond what may seem to be the centers of the book—a hero, a story, a dream, a myth, a tragedy—into the process of narrative itself by which these apparent centers are revealed” (146). Much critical work on the novel, particularly later criticism, similarly emphasizes this process of narrative over the content of the narrative. For critics like Joseph Reed, Absalom, Absalom! does not constitute a narrative (in the traditional sense of the word) so much as it constitutes the substance of narrative (or, perhaps, a metanarrative), the historically and ideologically determined processes by which narratives are created and disseminated among cultures and people. [End Page 86]
Part of what allows Faulkner to develop this process is his approach to consciousness. New approaches to the exposition of human consciousness of course, generally tend to be associated with the major writers of the modernist canon. One of the accomplishments of Absalom, Absalom!, however, is the level to which it develops what I will call a “three-dimensional” model of consciousness. A novel like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which traces the mental activity of its protagonist, operates in a single, temporal “dimension” of consciousness, tracing this activity in real time. Novels such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or The Waves add a second, “social” dimension to this exposition by exploring the ways in which multiple consciousnesses interact with and determine each other. Absalom, Absalom! develops a third, “historical” dimension; the characters’ consciousnesses interact with each other in the social realm of real time, as well as across history. Of course, any novel that attempts to explicate consciousness will inherently be concerned with all three of these dimensions; what distinguishes Absalom, Absalom!, however, is the degree to which it develops these, particularly the historical dimension. Faulkner traces direct lines of causality between the conscious contents of different characters’ minds across historical eras; the inner workings of a character’s mind in a past era can have profound effects on the mind of a character in the present. In this way, Faulkner depicts consciousness as a historically and socially determined system of events and processes, not as the production of an individual mind or a set of individual minds.
Faulkner’s method of describing consciousness in Absalom, Absalom! is analogous to the way in which Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe what they call the “desiring-machines,” the systems of psychological movement that undergird all human (and perhaps non-human) life processes. For Deleuze and Guattari,
there is no such thing as relatively independent spheres or circuits: production is immediately consumption and a recording process . . . without any sort of mediation, and the recording process and consumption directly determine production, though they do so within the production process itself. Hence everything is production.(4)
By not simply ascribing agency in the novel to individual consciousness, Faulkner portrays a psychological landscape in which there are no such things as “relatively independent spheres or circuits,” or independent, individual conscious agents. The interplay of conscious agents is, rather, a constant flow of production, a production of ideas, feelings, and [End Page 87] political strategies, a movement through the “dimensions” of consciousness alluded to earlier: the consciousnesses of individuals, the social networks, and the historical relationships between consciousnesses that are removed from each other in historical time.