- The Fact of Resonance:An Acoustics of Determination in Faulkner and Benjamin1
So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost travelling a half mile ahead of its own shape. “That far within my hearing before my seeing,” Lena thinks.—William Faulkner (1990a, 5-6)
The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity that weighs on the subject; its most subjective experience, its expression, is objectively conveyed.—Theodor Adorno (2004, 18-19)
In 1932, Walter Benjamin gave a radio address, one of hundreds, on the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The flood would continually resurge in William Faulkner’s world, often in displaced form, as grieving brothers confront a river that washed away the bridge, talking “up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad,” stealing away Addie’s coffin in As I Lay Dying (Faulkner 1985, 141).2 [End Page 171] The Mississippi, says Benjamin, “is continuously moving: not only its waters, flowing from source to mouth, but also its banks, which are forever changing” (2014, 176). The Mississippi is one way to re-imagine the “mouth to mouth” tales that would preoccupy him in “The Storyteller,” but also Faulkner’s way of writing that developed out of memories of listening in childhood. As Faulkner once said, “I put down what the voices say, and it’s right” (qtd. in Cowley 1966, 114).3
If the task of the novel as form for Faulkner was found to represent something of reality, it was a counter-factual history of listening. Faulkner’s propagative technique of working with voices and sonorities continually indicates the social and historical constraints of physical perception in the present, but also the possibility that perception, the forms of recognition and intimacy it admits, might become otherwise. Faulknerian listening demands that we expand the technical sense of recording to include the act of perception itself.
In a postscript to among his last letters to Adorno sent from his flat in Paris in 1940, Benjamin asks if he has read Faulkner whose Lumière d’août (Light in August ) Benjamin had lately been reading.4 This postscript gestures to the lost possibility of an essay on Faulkner never written, a reverberation. Benjamin would commit suicide at the border of Spain. One shudders at Quentin’s suicide in The Sound and the Fury (1929), his “fragile body” beneath an “unfamiliar sky,” phrases that begin Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” (1968, 83). Quentin will not live to see the First World War that shapes Benjamin’s critique of the age of information. Men return from the front shattered and mute, without experiences that can be translated into stories that are by nature for Benjamin “germinative.” In their ambiguity, stories release their affective potency after a long time. Information and the facts it transmits travel without “losing any time.”
By 1950 there was still no radio at Rowan Oak, and Faulkner would allow his daughter Jill to play the phonograph only when he was out. The owner of a local restaurant unplugged the jukebox when Faulkner dined. Yoknapatawpha would appear to be a reaction formation to his own music-saturated environs of Mississippi. Though Jill could not play her phonograph within his earshot, Faulkner wore out the grooves of “Rhapsody in Blue” while composing Sanctuary (1931), a novel underwritten by the mournful presence of gramophones and radios competing for attention. Faulkner once complained about a radio playing in a pharmacy: “it looks like all the people of this world must have a lot of noise around them to keep them [End Page 172] from thinking about things they should remember” (qtd. in Lester 2002, 163). There was an object he wished to hold at bay while also holding close. Cheryl Lester has argued that cultural concerns marked Faulkner’s perturbation by recorded music, a rapidly expanding industry based upon African American migration and the Lomax field recordings as they spread blues and oral forms beyond the...