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ROBERT VAUGHAN Clayton State University Eclipsed by the Mad Moon: The Aesthetic Ideal in William Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem and The Marble Faun IN A 1954 INTERVIEW PUBLISHED IN THE PARIS REVIEW, WILLIAM Faulkner concisely summarized an aesthetic concern that long preoccupied him: “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life” (54). He repeatedly returns to this idea in the novels through references and allusions to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and the desire to hold time at bay long enough to make reality conform to an idealistic or artistic vision motivates a variety of characters struggling either to overcome a Platonic reluctance to be sullied by the world of experience or to flee that realm entirely, obsessed by an unattainable ideal. In his 1978 work WilliamFaulkner:TowardYoknapatawphaandBeyond,CleanthBrooks cites If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem as an example of this preoccupation. In a chapter titled “A Tale of Two Innocents,” Brooks defines the innocence of Harry Wilbourne of “The Wild Palms” and the tall convict of “Old Man” as “a quality of stubborn idealism and ingrained romanticism that continues to leave its human possessor puzzled, shocked, or even ‘outraged’ (to use one of Faulkner’s favorite words) with the recalcitrancy of reality” (208). He mentions a number of characters who fit the description—most notably Horace Benbow, Gavin Stevens, Thomas Sutpen, and Quentin Compson—and suggests that “Harry Wilbourne and the Tall Convict obviously belong to this not inconsiderable company” (208). Brooks does not consider Charlotte Rittenmeyer an “innocent,” however, and it seems likely that her role as feminine aggressor in the ill-fated affair made it difficult for Brooks and other critics of his era to think of her as such, even though her own idealistic romanticism tends to surpass that of her male counterparts. Faulkner’s early poetic work The Marble Faun casts a revealing light on the relative “innocence” of each of these later characters, and it imagines 430 Robert Vaughan a significant precursor who is driven by the same impulse as Charlotte, one far removed from “innocence,” though perhaps in ways quite different from those examined by Brooks and critics of his generation. Faulkner’s vision of the artist as one who seeks to “arrest motion . . . by artificial means” has been thoroughly elucidated by Richard Adams in Faulkner: Myth and Motion. According to Adams, Faulkner’s most effective narratives “concentrate the energy of a large amount of motion on a single, artificially fixed and isolated moment. When it succeeds, this technique may have the effect of compressing a lifetime into a single event. . . . Motion is lost, or stopped, and time is held still for esthetic contemplation” (7). Adams goes on to suggest that “The arrest of motion is accomplished most often and most directly in Faulkner’s work by imagery in which the dynamic quality of life is immediately and sharply opposed to artificial stasis” (11-12), and he offers The Marble Faun as an example of this theme. In The Signifying Eye: Seeing Faulkner’s Art, Candace Waid connects If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem to these same preoccupations, contending that it returns “like a bad dream to the scenes and themes of Faulkner’s early work . . . emerg[ing] as a culmination of [his] past obsessions” (129). The faun is a prototype of artist figures such as Gordon in Mosquitoes or Flags in the Dust.’s Horace Benbow, as well as the procession of impotent innocents identified by Brooks. All are “imprisoned” from the life around them, disconnected, sometimes tragically, from the natural cycle. TheMarbleFaun’sprologue,nineteeneclogues,andepiloguedescribe the title character’s yearning to become a part of the time-bound world of experience. Though he dreams of being “free” like the “quick keen snake” (Marble 12), an ironic reversal of the serpent’s usual archetypal connotation, he nevertheless does not mistake the implications of stepping out upon the “old earth” as a living creature. Truly experiencing “all the beauty in the world” would lead to an inevitable end “beneath the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 429-439
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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