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GEORGE THOMAS University of California, Davis Telling Time: Faulkner’s Temporal Turn Alas for the seed of men. What measure shall I give these generations That breathe on the void and are void And exist and do not exist? —Sophocles, Oedipus Rex ACCOUNTS OF WHAT WE NOW CALL “TEMPORALITY” IN THE WORK OF William Faulkner span several critical generations. In the first generation, midcentury critics such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Pouillon, and Karl E. Zink highlight the importance of time in Faulkner’s fiction, noting the vital tension between stasis and movement and reading Faulkner’s characters as trapped by an inescapable destiny.1 In the second generation, formalist critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren see in Faulkner’s work a distinctive southern literary temporality that stands against modernity. In the third generation, critics of the 1970s and 1980s bring theory to bear on Faulknerian time; emblematic of this approach are Darrel Abel’s analysis of Bergsonian duration, Carolyn Porter’s work on Lukacsian historicity, and John T. Irwin’s investigation of Freudian repetition. As a fourth (and perhaps fifth) generation of critics have found in Yoknapatawpha themes of race, class, gender, sexuality, postcolonialism, and ecology, some sense of a distinctively Faulknerian temporality remains a common denominator among many approaches.2 Yet such accounts risk oversimplifying Faulkner’s temporality by reading it as singular and consistent. Critics have been so anxious to understand (and use) what Faulkner says about time that they have not noted that what he says itself changes with time. My thesis, then, is 1 See also Messerli for an indispensable catalogue of early critical interpretations of time in Faulkner. 2 See Sundquist; Godden, Fictions of Labor. and William Faulkner.; Clarke; Fowler, Faulkner.; Glissant; Saldívar and Goldberg. 278 George Thomas simple: during the writing of Light in August, Faulkner underwent a temporal turn. His view of time in the novels up to and including As I Lay Dying is defined by what Frank Kermode calls kairos—the plotting of chronological time around narrativized moments in order to make it mean: to escape, transcend, or redeem time. And yet Light in August reads like a relentless deconstruction of the very idea of the transcendent moment, and in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, we see Faulkner’s fullest attempts to represent in fiction the strange way that time already has meaning prior to representation. These later novels, which I call Faulkner’s “temporal novels,” move away from kairos and towards a sustained attempt to depict what Henri Bergson calls the “qualitative multiplicity” of durational time (105). I want to read these novels, drawing on the work of the Dutch historical theorist Eelco Runia, through the formal figure of a temporality of presence, a time always before and after the moments we call words. Faulkner paradoxically tries to represent the way the past remains present outside of representation. Re-presentation In order to understand this figure of temporal presence, we must return to a familiar place. Students of time in Faulkner are essentially obliged to invoke a particular line from his rarely-read 1952 play-novel Requiem for a Nun, usually as a gnomic epigraph: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (535). This is surely one of the most quoted lines from modern American literature: Barack Obama uses it in his famous 2008 speech on race relations, “A More Perfect Union,” and Woody Allen takes it quite literally in the time-travel film Midnight in Paris (2011). It is as if our ceaseless repetitions of the aphorism are themselves ritual invocations of the persistence it describes. But what does Faulkner’s most famous one-liner about time actually mean? The words are Gavin Stevens’s. He says them to his niece-in-law Temple Drake Stevens, as part of his effort to convince her to tell the truth about her complicated past and the death of her child, to stop trying to escape from a past which she wrongly insists is “dead” (535). The play is a sort of forced confessional about how Temple Drake must “own up” to what she has done, and Stevens’s actual view of the...


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