Idiocy and Object-Attentive Reading in The Sound and the Fury
This essay reconsiders the representation of cognitive disability in literature, suggesting a new mode of reading in which the disabled character is viewed as a dynamic figure with an identity, and corresponding set of formal implications, that the reader comes to know over the progression of the story. Focusing on Benjy’s section in The Sound and the Fury, I examine the specific disabled modality by which Faulkner’s narrator organizes the world: object attention. Benjy uses objects to constellate his experiences, and a latent pattern of object deployment undergirds the narrative. As Benjy “tries to say” his story, he crafts a narrative that generates from his object attachments, allowing readers to make sense of his experience in a novel form—if we only try to see it. My analysis suggests that the appeal of fiction about cognitive disability lies not in confronting some fundamental inaccessibility of the disabled subject or the world he inhabits, but in wrestling with the strictures of a text’s accessibility so that the subject or world might come to be known.
Sound and the Fury, Benjy Compson, object attention, narrative theory, disability studies
During the late nineteenth century, a fixation with objects signaled a serious flaw within the inner workings of the mind. For most, greed or self-indulgence was likely at the root of a strong attachment to material things, but resting in the palm of the “idiot,” a coveted object seemed like a node to which mental energy was shunted in a more fundamental way. Current that might have been directed to work, learning, or human interaction flowed instead toward the mundane. A problematic faculty, the disabled subject’s strong volition was thought to generate and maintain attentional misdirection. In On Idiocy and Imbecility (1877), William W. Ireland tells a “not uncommon” story of a young girl’s “astonishing strength of will”:
If denied a thing she wants within her sight, she will rush at it with the most extreme eagerness in her countenance; the tears start to her eyes; she struggles, pulls, and kicks, but without ever saying a word, for she is mute. She is very fond of pencils and an attempt being made to deprive her of one is resisted with her usual determination. Once, when I had occasion to give her chloroform, on her becoming unconscious I took away her pencil, which she had still clasped in her hand; but she noticed the want of it immediately on returning to consciousness, and looked round about her in search of it, with a distressed and anxious expression.1
Because of their stimulus, the subject’s emotional signs—her tears, grasps, and kicks—emerge as perverse iterations of typical juvenile behaviors. The narrator perceives no communicative intent behind these actions. They are mechanical reflexes spurred by the girl’s isolated drive to possess the thing that she covets. Her fixation sucks language out of [End Page 368] the room, and the narrator quietly watches a single-minded pursuit that he cannot understand.
Hardly just an odd pathological marker, an unusual fascination with objects has garnered significant attention from writers outside of and adjacent to psychology. When applied to literary history, Ireland’s anecdote encourages critics to consider what things authors have put at the forefront of their disabled characters’ consciousnesses. One might recall Stevie from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), who spends his “spare time . . . by drawing circles with compass and pencil on a piece of paper” as his sister stares at him from across the house “with maternal vigilance.”2 The narrative tension that objects prompt is obvious: why does the cognitively disabled subject so passionately dedicate himself to things, often seeming to favor them over the people who care for him?
Other authors have drawn on this passion to connect cognitively different parties. Lennie explains his behavioral quirk to Curley’s wife in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), noting “I like to pet nice things with my fingers, sof’ things.” As he describes a piece of velvet his Aunt Clara once gave him, Curley’s wife admits, “a person can see kinda what you mean. When I’m doin’ my hair sometimes I jus’ set an’ stroke it ‘cause it’s so soft.”3 This connection is soon checked. Curley’s wife invites Lennie to feel her hair. He grabs it enthusiastically, and she tries to pull away. Not wanting to lose his grip, Lennie kills her unwittingly. As the ranch workers give chase to him, the last object the reader sees is Curley’s gun. George use it to kill Lennie, only to fixate on the object and his connection to it. He “shivered and looked at the gun, and then threw it from him” after the act. When Curley asks if he wrestled the gun from Lennie, he lies that he did in “almost a whisper . . . look[ing] steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.”4 Some cold luster from the metal sticks to him, and it can’t be rubbed off.5
Writers who live with disability are often more overtly generous when describing object attachment, drawing readers’ attention to it so that they might imagine alternative modalities of human experience. In The Child Who Never Grew, Pearl S. Buck frames the behavior as one of several “compensations” of living with disability, a phenomenon that, if recognized, could confer value to the disabled subject. She points to a boy “who gets great creative pleasure from his collection of brightly colored rags. He sorts them over and over again, rejoicing in their hues and textures.” The Nobel winner takes this creativity seriously in her memoir, and the boy’s treatment of his coveted objects comes [End Page 369] into view as an evocative act of arranging the world. “Quantitatively, of course, there is a difference between the bright rags and a box of paints that an artist uses. But qualitatively the two are the same to the boy and the artist. Both find the same spiritual satisfaction.”6
In this sampling, writers describe object attachment in terms difficult to reconcile. Mechanical and human, compulsive and creative, the trait spools overlapping threads around itself that might be woven into a range of narrative and representational fabrics. Criticism has been slow to track this dynamism. A literary character’s attention to objects often makes possible his or her quick diagnosis. Stuart Murray cites the circles Conrad’s Stevie draws as the “most noteworthy” evidence of his autism.7 In Murray’s reading, the reader is prohibited from engaging these shapes on Stevie’s terms. The narrator glosses over whatever enjoyment might be had from drawing them in careful succession. Instead, Murray argues that “the circles cannot be left alone” and “become metaphor,” as their description shifts from their shape to the “cosmic chaos” the narrator perceives them to body forth.8 This descriptive shift suggests “the manner in which Stevie will be treated in the fiction as a whole” as well as his eventual senseless death.9 Lennie’s object attachment has been read in light of its storytelling utility too. Sonya Freeman Loftis argues that Lennie’s “sensory difference leads to the novella’s climactic conflict.”10 Fashioning a binary that upstages any concessions Curley’s wife might make, Loftis contends that the need for tactile stimming “emphasizes Lennie’s fundamental Otherness: neurotypical readers are not likely to share Lennie’s intense sensory responses.”11
In these diagnostic readings, attentional idiosyncrasy lends a level of closure that is both semantic and narratological. It marks the idiot as an Other. It installs grand metaphors. Or it moves along the plot. But in using object attention as a springboard for diagnosis, critics leap past the ways in which an author might deploy the behavior to represent the world in an expressive way, to frame a narrative’s constituent events, and to cultivate spaces in which the reader can meaningfully engage with a disabled character’s social and phenomenological experiences. In short, they elide how authors harness the creativity that, in the eyes of writers like Buck, might underpin the behavior. Redressing this oversight, I aim to advance what Essaka Joshua has termed a “contrapuntal reading” of object attention. Joshua writes that “contrapuntal readings of disability . . . offer possibilities for exploring the interconnectedness of disability and non-disability in ways that have the potential for conceiving of disability as not only [End Page 370] negative, but also positive or neutral.”12 Though I focus on a trait of cognitive disability, I work to open up a way of reading in which critics can align themselves with the disabled character by attending to the world in the way he or she does. In this instance, when do objects come into focus in a story? What meaning do they accrue over the course of a narrative? What storytelling alternatives do they afford the narrator and author? Once the reader adopts this object-attentive frame, the disabled character or narrator ceases to be a tinny site of chaos or wonder, instead becoming a partner with whom the reader must work to discover truth about the world.
Object attention yields its storytelling potential most clearly in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, serving as a representational index for the novel’s first narrator, Benjy Compson. Benjy, long regarded as the most famous “idiot” in American literature, covets particular objects—flowers, his sister’s slipper, his mother’s cushion, the family fire, and the bedroom mirror—and he uses these things to constellate his experiences. Like Stevie and Lennie, Benjy perceives the world through his objects. Also like Stevie and Lennie, this tendency has opened him up to diagnosis. Patrick Samway and Gentry Silver cite Benjy’s “obsessive attachment to objects” as one of eight pathological reasons to consider Benjy autistic.13 Though this interpretation may make Benjy easier to understand for contemporary readers, it tells scholars little about how Faulkner draws on Benjy’s object attention to generate the formal innovations for which the novel is celebrated: his rapid associative memory that recalls poignant moments in Compson history; the way in which the reader sees his nourished or neglected familial relationships; and his challenging point of view that relies on markers in the material world to establish his subjective experience.
Focusing on just one of Benjy’s disabled traits is a notably different way to read a character who has been framed as the poster child for various disability labels. Before Benjy could be called an “autist,” early critics took a cue from Faulkner himself, referring to the youngest Compson as an “idiot.”14 Medical humanists have rejected both labels.15 Disability studies scholars have also eschewed labeling, opting instead to consider the formal and aesthetic potentials that Benjy’s disability opens up—whatever that disability might be. James Berger argues that “the language of Benjy’s section is not at all some supposed inner language of a cognitively impaired person. It is the language of literary modernism.”16 Alice Hall contends that the act of imagining a disabled point of view allows Faulkner not only to “explore alternative narrative paces and forms of sensory perception in [End Page 371] his fiction but also to explore what literary techniques can achieve.”17 Berger and Hall are right to acknowledge that modernists capitalize on the unknowability of the cognitively disabled perspective. However, their readings neglect the fact that while ontologically fuzzy, idiocy has been defined by bundles of specific qualities throughout its history. If critics are not careful, cognitive disability seems like a literary wild card. Authors seem to take advantage of the disabled subject’s unknowability, creating new modes of consciousness, time, and perception as they see fit. The formal appeal of cognitive disability, then, lies in its vacuity, which allows the author to do whatever she would like. I do not dispute that literature takes advantage of cognitive disability’s murky ontological make-up, but I contend that authors just as often seize on particular ideas about what cognitive disability entails: in this case, the particular quality is an unusual attention to objects.
To recognize the narrative implications of Benjy’s object attention, readers must actively consider the possible meanings that material markers might convey. I am not the first to articulate the role of the active reader in Faulkner’s novel.18 Taylor Hagood argues that Faulkner “forces his readers to be the sleuths.”19 Adopting this identity becomes imperative if readers are to embrace “the possibility that Benjy has his own motives” and works “within his own secret machinery of textuality in a way that runs counter to the dynamics and assumptions of Faulkner’s using him as a puppet.”20 Readers can begin to develop schematics for such machinery by considering when, how, and why Benjy focalizes the objects he covets. Drawing on Ato Quayson’s theorization of aesthetic nervousness, I argue that Faulkner challenges the reader to become conversant with the functions and values of Benjy’s coveted objects. Quayson argues that the “reader’s status” derives from “the identification with the vicissitudes of the life of the particular character . . . or the necessary reformulations of the reader’s perspective enjoined by the modulations of various plot elements and so on.”21 Objects are not only the modulative instrument of plot, but also of characterization, time, and representation. The reader can understand the different experiences in Benjy’s life by attending to the things that he holds. These objects, which may seem strange or commonplace when first introduced, assume new valences as the reader becomes more familiar with the point of view of his cognitive disability.
My reading of Benjy’s object attention demonstrates how pathological history might be used to enrich critical understanding of what Michael Bérubé calls the “narrative deployment of disability.” Such [End Page 372] deployments “do not confine themselves to representation. They can also be narrative strategies, devices for exploring vast domains of human thought, experience, and action.”22 I aim to elaborate the way in which cognitive disability, as Bérubé notes, “sets the terms for the reader’s engagement” with a given text.23 Bérubé argues that in The Sound and the Fury, “cognitive disability operates as a productive and illuminating derangement of ordinary protocols of narrative temporality.”24 Whether one can say for sure that Benjy is an idiot or autist matters less than the formal potentials of this identity. While Bérubé’s work helps disability studies move beyond issues of representation, his explanation of temporal derangement leaves open the exploration of how a specific disabled modality like object attachment, in contrast to more general categories of intellectual disability, can create unique narrative effects. In taking this approach, I want to show how the critic can make sense of a narrative by honoring this disabled modality in their own reading practice, an act that works to overturn ideologies of ability that might subtly linger in critical analysis.25
At stake in this shift is how scholars identify the value of the disabled narrator. To legitimize Benjy as a storyteller who narrates with intention, Bérubé highlights a connection between scenes that cannot be explained by phenomenological association. In the first scene, Benjy pulls at Caddy’s dress in the hall, suggesting that he recognizes that she has lost her virginity. In the scene that follows, Versh retells a family fable in which Benjy’s grandfather changes the name of a slave, who in turn becomes a preacher and a “bluegum.”26 After his transition, every pregnant woman he looks at gives birth to a bluegum child. One day, he fails to come home, only to be discovered “et clean” by the bluegum children.27 Bérubé argues that the connective tissue between these scenes is more substantial than usual: Benjy mitigates a significant loss with future implications (Caddy may soon leave the household) by turning to a memory of a story that engages a more remote loss in past. This connection provides the best window into Benjy as a narrator. “Putting pressure on the bluegum passage . . . allows us to entertain the possibility that Benjy has some kind of shifting and sorting mechanism that explains his temporal leaps as involving something more than mere sensory associations.”28
I want to suggest that there is there is far more to “mere sensory associations” than Bérubé presumes, and that as a “shifting and sorting mechanism,” object attention allows Benjy to order his social experience and to make sense of the Compson family drama in a compelling way. Faulkner transforms object attention into a mode [End Page 373] of storytelling. A latent pattern of object deployment undergirds the narrative, and my analysis of this pattern suggests that the appeal of fiction about cognitive disability lies not in confronting some fundamental inaccessibility of the disabled subject or the world he inhabits, but in wrestling with the strictures of a text’s accessibility so that the subject or world might come to be known. As Benjy “tries to say” his story, he crafts a narrative that generates from his object attachments, allowing readers to make sense of complex loss in a novel form—if we only try to see it.
Objects, Narrative, and Disability Studies
David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder argue that “imaginative literature takes up its narrative project as a counter to scientific and truth-telling discourses. It is productively parasitic upon other disciplinary systems that define disability in more deterministic ways.”29 To make sense of this project, then, I first trace the roots of object attentiveness in the history of psychology. It seems likely that Faulkner extracts one small behavior from scientific discourse, a pathological thread that stitches together Benjy’s story. In the 1913 edition of Mental Defectives: Their History, Treatment, and Training, Martin Barr positions objects as the primary stimulus for the development of intelligence. “The senses are the immediate agents of notions, the intelligence the immediate agent of ideas, the process being from external objects by the medium of sensations to notions, and from notions by the medium of the intelligence to ideas.”30 In light of this system of knowledge formation, psychologists were to use objects as professional tools.31 Barr advises professionals to structure the training of “lower forms of mental defect” around “the gradual awakening of the senses by the presentation of objects that attract.”32
Barr’s prescription for teachers derives from Édouard Séguin’s theory of physiological treatment. Séguin believed that to expect the “idiot” to develop language and ideas through traditional education was a naïve aspiration. Ideation proceeded from sensory stimulation. As his book Idiocy and Its Treatments by the Physiological Method (1866) opens, Séguin defines idiocy in bodily terms: “idiots” have particular craniometrics; their cognitive differences result from causes ranging from malnourishment to trauma; the neurological material of the different brain is (paradoxically) “softer generally, or partially harder.”33 After reviewing the body, Séguin turns to the disabled subject’s perception, [End Page 374] detailing each of the five senses. The “idiot” would seem a wholly diminished figure, one to whom the reader could hardly connect, if not for the coda Seguin affixes:
In this wreck of powers, one human, irresistible tendency or impulse is left him; for as low as we find him, lower than the brute in regard to activity and intelligence, he has, as the great, the lowly, the privileged, the millions, his hobby or amulet that no animal has: the external thing toward which his human, centrifugal power gravitates; if it be only a broken piece of china, a thread, a rag, an unseizable ray of the sun, he shall spend his life in admiring, kissing, catching, polishing, sucking it, according to what it may be. Till we take away that amulet, as Moses took it from his people, we must have something to substitute for it. This worship or occupation shows that if the idiot can form, of himself, no other connexion with the world, he is ready to do so if we only know how to help him.34
The “idiot’s” attachment to the object separates him from the animal. He does not lack some quality that others possess; rather, “his human, centrifigual power,” however overlooked, is signaled by the way in which it is directed towards the inanimate. Seguin esteems this object, an outlet for distinctly human drives, urging his fellow professionals to see it as a bridge by which the idiot can access realities from which they presume him to be divorced.
To understand Benjy’s “connexion with the world,” one must indulge in his object attention. In doing so, one does no more than what characters like Dilsey and Caddy do. Consider this particularly challenging—and affective—moment of focalization, which occurs on Benjy’s birthday. He has been fascinated by a kitchen fire, which is cyclically revealed and concealed throughout the scene.35 In the background Dilsey scolds Luster for eating Benjy’s birthday cake. Then Benjy observes: “The long wire came across my shoulder, and the fire went away. I began to cry. Dilsey and Luster fought.”36 The reader knows that something important has happened, but what? What has caused Benjy to cry and how does this affect the way one reads him?
As the scene proceeds, what the reader actually sees is a demonstration of what it means to understand and sympathize with Benjy’s object attention. His emotional reaction proceeds from the fire’s disappearance. After Benjy reaches for it and burns his hand, Dilsey, thinking quickly in a way that readers understand, pours soda water on [End Page 375] his wound. Addressing the burn is only the first stage of treatment. To get Benjy to hush, she snaps his focus towards the object. “Hush now . . . . Here, look at the fire” (38). Benjy complies. “I looked at the fire, but my hand didn’t stop and I didn’t stop” (38). Then she redirects Benjy’s focus to another object. “She gave me the slipper, and I hushed” (39). Dilsey follows up this success with a prescription. She commands Luster to take Benjy to the library. The central object in the kitchen, the fire, gives the library its subsequent form. “The fire came behind me and I went to the fire and sat on the floor, holding the slipper. The fire went higher. It went onto the cushion on Mother’s chair” (39). The fire illuminates a new “here” for Benjy’s field of attention. Dilsey’s long-term prescription, in this way, is for Benjy to heal in a protected space anchored by objects with social significance. She hands Benjy his sister’s old slipper and tells Luster to take him to the familiar family fireside.
Dilsey is able to see the world as Benjy does. She understands the role that objects play in his phenomenological and social experience in a way that others do not. Her ability to do so exemplifies what Lennard Davis calls a “dismodern” orientation to disability. Dismodernism, Davis argues, signals a universalism that “react[s] to the localization of identity” and ushers in disability as “the identity that links with other identities.”37 The recognition and adoption of disability’s modes of perception binds Benjy with others. As much as other characters (and readers) might stereotype Benjy as isolated—“the solitary,” as Barr calls the “idiot” in Mental Defectives—Luster, Dilsey, Quentin, and Caddy work to recognize and honor, with varying degrees of effort and efficacy, how Benjy organizes his experience.38 This “dismodern mode” results in “a new category [of character] based on the partial incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence, but dependency and interdependence.”39 Object attention, a disabled mode of cognition, is a language that the reader might learn and depend on, one that provides fundamental clues, to extend Hagood’s detective metaphor, in discovering truth in Benjy’s world. The task put before readers is not—can they inhabit the mind of the idiot? can they follow the rapid temporal jumps?—but rather can they attend to, respect, and follow Benjy’s object-attentive way of storytelling well enough to find meaning? [End Page 376]
“Here”: Locating Benjy’s Objects in His Narrative
Back to Benjy’s “here.” What enters his attentional field, and how do readers come to see the world from this space? In a scene that follows the burn scene, Caddy pulls Benjy away from the fireside and comfortingly remarks, “Here. Here’s your cushion. See” (41). The deictic marker “here” arrests the attention of Benjy and the reader. For Benjy, Caddy’s “here” redirects his attention away from the absence of the fire to the presence of the cushion, another one of his coveted objects. In this way, “here” stops Benjy’s bellowing. While Caddy’s “here” provides stability for Benjy, it creates instability for the reader. A lag between Benjy’s perspective and the reader’s understanding emerges after Caddy’s redirection. In this bit of dialogue, the first “here” points to an object that the reader cannot see. The second explains what this referenced object is. The imperative “see” has no grammatical object that might clarify what exactly Benjy is seeing. The period that concludes Caddy’s dialogue divorces Benjy’s vision from the reader’s, leaving key questions: Why does Caddy call attention to a cushion? Is the cushion really all there is to see?
As much as Caddy keys in on Benjy’s object attention, her mother resists it. “Dont, Candace,” Mrs. Compson scolds her daughter (41). The question of how much the family should appeal to Benjy’s idiosyncrasy lies at the center of the dispute. Caddy replies, “Let him look at it and he’ll be quiet. . . . Hold up just a minute while I slip it out. There, Benjy. Look.” In this passage, Caddy makes two appeals. The first is to her mother’s reason and is an argument of cause and effect. If Benjy is permitted to look at the cushion, then his bellowing will stop. The second addresses Benjy’s object attention and begins with the deictic marker “there.” Caddy’s syntax condenses as she transitions to this object-oriented appeal. The appeal succeeds, and Benjy notes, “I looked at it and I hushed.” These juxtaposed appeals illustrate how Caddy works both within and outside of typical cognition.
Mrs. Compson lacks Caddy’s rhetorical flexibility. She tries to uproot Benjy from the ontological terrain in which he grounds himself. Mrs. Compson chides Caddy: “you humor him too much” (41). She commands Benjy to look away from the cushion, grabs his face, and turns it to hers. Caddy undermines her mother’s attempt to get Benjy to attend to the seemingly appropriate things in the world, and she holds the cushion in Benjy’s new line of sight. This subversion frustrates Mrs. Compson’s effort to eradicate the cushion from Benjy’s experience, but more than this, the object becomes the focus of her [End Page 377] own dialogue. “‘Take that cushion away, like I told you.’ Mother said. ‘He must learn to mind.’” As the narrative snaps out of dialogue and into Benjy’s perspective, the reader learns that Mrs. Compson’s imperative fails to take root in Benjy’s consciousness. “The cushion went away,” Benjy notes (41).
Mrs. Compson ramps up her efforts, and Benjy begins to cry. Yet his object attention wins out in this conflict. “I didn’t stop and mother caught me in her arms and began to cry, and I cried. Then the cushion came back and Caddy held it above mothers head. She drew Mother back in the chair and Mother lay crying against the red and yellow cushion” (41). Three long compound sentences compose this passage, contrasting the concise sentences that represented Benjy’s consciousness earlier. The conflict produces a syntactically developed point of view. The cushion becomes interwoven with the fabric of relationships in the Compson family. Caddy holds it, and Mrs. Compson’s figure emerges against its red and yellow surface. Though Mrs. Compson views the cushion as an impediment to proper socialization, the object operates as the field through which Benjy sees his mother. For the reader, the cushion becomes the aesthetic means by which Benjy makes clear his relationship with her. In contrast to the ambiguity produced by Caddy’s initial deictic pointing, an imagistic clarity is at work in the passage, one that fully renders the pained connection between mother and son. An exhausted sadness marks their relationship and only becomes clear when the reclining Mrs. Compson weeps on the cushion.
This scene illustrates in miniature the narrative, phenomenological, and social functions that the cushion performs. Narratively, it drives Benjy’s bellowing and sparks the resultant conflict between Mrs. Compson and Caddy. Phenomenologically, it exists as the primary object that commands Benjy’s focus. Socially, it is the background against which the Compson family members, and their relationships with one another, emerge. But in addition to these, the scene reveals much about the politics of “minding” throughout the novel. Who minds whom becomes a central dilemma early in Benjy’s section after Mr. Compson suggests that the Compson boys mind their sister for the night. “‘Let them mind me, Father.’ ‘I wont.’ Jason said. ‘I wont mind you.’ ‘Hush.’ Father said. ‘You all mind Caddy, then’” (16). In my reading, the cushion scene tells the story of learning to mind Benjy.
Hagood writes that Benjy’s section is “steeped in modes of cognition, the smells, the sounds, the images that also define his being, understanding, and narrating. Faulkner mobilizes these many details to convey Benjy’s ontology through his epistemology.”40 Davis’s “dismodern [End Page 378] mode” of reading invites us to extend Hagood’s insight beyond Benjy: in fact, we come to see the other characters’ ontologies take shape precisely through their individuated processes of coming to know Benjy. The scene also provides a moment for readers to reflect on their own engagement of with Benjy—have they, like Caddy, recognized and embraced the objects and symbols that enrapture him? Or have they been frustrated by them? In simplest terms, have they minded him? Are they annoyed, tolerant, or actively trying to adopt Benjy’s unique epistemology in order to learn more about the ontology of his world?
While Caddy points to “here,” critics might consider “where else?” In the instance discussed above, the cushion structures the scene. But objects structure the narrative throughout Benjy’s section. As the novel’s first section drives to a climax, Benjy increasingly relies on object-centered scenes to shape his story, both in terms of the internal construction of these scenes and their overarching narrative arrangement. The chart below catalogues the total number of times Benjy’s objects are mentioned in his section.41
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Benjy’s objects make a noticeable, though relatively restrained, entrance into the novel. The first pronounced arc in the chart represents early instances of the fire and the flower. In a basic sense, Benjy’s ordering is conventional. He establishes objects that are important to him early on. After this establishment, objects are mentioned less. Yet as the section draws to a close, objects take hold of Benjy’s narrative most tightly. A sharp spike in the graph announces an oncoming flurry of objects. In this final attentional storm, the reader sees Benjy at his most human and dehumanized moments. He looks Caddy and Quentin straight in the eyes and sees the fire burning. He sits alone outside under the night sky clutching his sister’s slipper. Locating Benjy’s objects allows his focus to be represented in the graph above, and this representation suggests larger narrative movements.
To illustrate exactly what interpretations this graph makes possible, I want to explore two lines of inquiry. The first relates to the portion of Benjy’s narrative that leads up to and includes the sharp spike on page 35. Examining Benjy’s interaction with flowers, I consider how his object-centered phenomenology affects plot and character. By contrasting Benjy’s inner cognition with external dialogue, Faulkner transplants modes of aberrant cognition onto normalcy. My second line of inquiry situates itself after the object flurry is already underway. I consider how objects aestheticize and thus communicate Benjy’s social relationships to the reader in a way that reworks the pathology of cognitive disability. Both sections are part of Faulkner’s larger formal project to redefine the reader’s understanding of and relationship to mental difference.
Flower Phenomenology and Plots of Fixation
Benjy’s object-oriented phenomenology disrupts conventional imagery, and the payoff of this disruption, as many critics have noted, is a unique aesthetic mode.42 Critics have yet to consider how his phenomenology works to advance the plot of the novel. It creates ambiguity for readers, frustration for other characters, and, paradoxically, perspectival advantages within the text. The novel immediately raises the issue of how Benjy perceives the world. The first line reads, “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting” (3). Hagood has argued that this line suggests that as a narrator, Benjy “is capable of presenting a somewhat sophisticatedly modified lexical unit” and that the “the curling flower spaces” [End Page 380] is a “strikingly visual” and “beautifully poetic” image.43 However, this line does not simply fulfill an aesthetic function—it also reveals important operations that guide Benjy’s attentional field. He uses the noun “flower” as an adjective in order to color in the blankness of “spaces,” the noun that functions as the actual object of the preposition “through.” At this introductory moment, when the reader does not yet know anything about Benjy, let alone the importance of his objects, the phrase “flower spaces” is odd, but it hints at how Benjy’s world takes shape.
This unique style creates a distinct voice that initially distances Benjy from his reader, a distance the reader progressively bridges. In the opening lines of their own sections, the other Compson brothers also create a distance between themselves and the reader. Quentin plays with the normal expression “to be on time” and concludes his opening line by noting “. . . then I was in time again, hearing the watch” (48). Jason’s voice appears as one steeped in bigotry and egotism. “Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say” (113). For each character, Faulkner uses the first moment of voice to thrust the reader into a position of speculation. What exactly is this narrator thinking? The reader scarcely knows what a “flower space” is. Benjy’s opening sentence builds on the ambiguity that “flower spaces” introduces. The main clause, “I could see them hitting,” contains a transitive verb that lacks an object. The reader is left to wonder, “hitting what?” The possibilities are endless—are they hitting each other, someone else?—and the reality, that they are hitting golf balls, comes as a surprise. Within this first sentence, the visual field through which action is perceived takes precedence over the action itself. The “curling flower spaces,” while ambiguous, is a significantly more developed image than the action Benjy sees, the “hitting.” When Benjy’s voice makes its entrance, the reader can grasp only an object-centered image—a field of flowers curling behind the fence.44
As the narrative progresses, the flower often motivates Benjy’s bellows, and these cries produce drama as his companions misread and ignore his object fixation. After the opening scene, Benjy flashes back to the moment just before he, his mother, and Dilsey depart for Damuddy’s funeral. Benjy begins to structure the scene like a normal narrator would. He identifies his mother as she enters. “Mother came out, pulling her veil down” (6). After this identification, Benjy veers off the predictable course of conventional narration. He instantaneously notices one of his favorite objects. “She had some flowers” (6). His focus snaps from his mother to what his mother is holding. This effect [End Page 381] may seem banal by itself, but it evidences a common pattern: when a coveted object is present, the narrative snaps to it. Benjy proceeds to catalogue the dialogue between Dilsey and his mother. Mrs. Compson is anxious about T. P. driving instead of Roskus. Dilsey tries to pacify Mrs. Compson. During their exchange, an ongoing unarticulated action is generated by the flower. The reader finally learns of this action’s outline when his mother remarks, “Stop Benjamin.” Yet what Benjy is doing remains unknown. Benjy’s narrative hints at key plot elements that would be more clearly articulated by traditional narrators. Seasoned readers recognize that Mrs. Compson’s various “stops” that pepper the novel often have a clear impetus. Benjy’s bellows prompt the command. Yet the cause of his bellowing, especially in this scene, is unclear. The reader knows that Benjy is fussing, but they don’t know why.
After Benjy introduces the flower, dialogue composes the bulk of the scene. Excising the dialogue illuminates the cause of Benjy’s fussing:
She had some flowers. . . .Dilsey went up the steps. . . .She reached her hand in. . . .She gave me a flower and her hand went away.(6)
Benjy’s perspective exclusively centers on the given object, with three of the four sentences focused on the flower. Of the four sentences, the third reminds readers of the problem they face when they first heard Benjy’s voice: key constituents of his reality are ambiguous or missing entirely. Here, Benjy does not specify what Dilsey reaches into. Instead, the narrative assumes that the reader will know the only possible destination for her hand: the bouquet of flowers. This assumption reveals how central objects are to Benjy and his narrative. For Benjy, the flower is always there, even if he fails to mention it to the reader.
Later in the narrative, when the object flurry begins, Benjy’s flower fixation comes into conflict with Luster’s obsessive hunt for his lost quarter—an object that will pay for his admission to the show that has stopped in town. Benjy’s focus returns to the sequence of present-day events that begins with the opening “flower space” scene. As fiercely as Luster hunts for the quarter, Benjy ignores it, chronicling the presence and absence of the flower instead. Benjy drops his flower during the hunt, and Luster chastises him, remarking “whyn’t you hold onto that weed” (35). Benjy heeds Luster’s warning. He runs to a place where the flower can be kept safe. “Our shadows were on the grass. They got to the trees before we did. Mine got there first. Then we got there, [End Page 382] and then the shadows were gone. There was a flower in the bottle. I put the other flower in it” (35). Benjy’s phenomenology stresses the order in which things appear. The shadows reach the trees first. Benjy’s shadow reaches the tree before Luster’s. The emergence of objects in the narrator’s field of view follows an equally clear syntactic order. In the first sentence, the existential “there was” clause relies on an empty grammatical subject that serves to magnify the presence of the grammatical object, the flower. After Benjy transitions to the second sentence, “the bottle” is effaced by the pronoun “it” in the second sentence. The resulting sentence restricts the reader’s focus to “I” and the “flower.” A conflict over holding the flower leads Benjy to move, and movement ends in a stabilization of himself and his object. In this way, flower scenes conform to the historical pathology of cognitive disability. Benjy strongly fixates on the given object, and extreme fixation leads to his isolation.
Unlike the habits of the conventionally pathologized subject, however, Benjy’s idiosyncrasy has an important social effect. Luster’s dialogue illustrates the predominance of Benjy’s objects in various conflicts throughout the novel. Benjy’s seemingly bizarre ritual causes Luster to lose his patience. “Aint you a grown man, now. . . . Playing with two weeds in a bottle” (35). Parroting the popular sentiments about cognitive disability of the day, Luster berates Benjy. “They going to send you to Jackson where you belong. Mr. Jason say so. Where you can hold the bars all day long with the rest of the looneys and slobber. How you like that” (35). Luster’s comment about institutionalization brings to mind a larger eugenic worldview that sought to separate the feebleminded from the normal (an effort that Jason takes part in with his decision to “geld” Benjy by the end of the novel). By minimizing Benjy’s attentional idiosyncrasy and indiscriminately grouping him with “the rest of the looneys,” Luster realizes, in dialogue, a primary eugenic goal.45
In Cultural Locations of Disability, Snyder and Mitchell examine the roots of the twentieth-century eugenics movement and its desire to catalogue the seemingly innumerable intellectual disabilities thought to exist. Ireland’s book, excerpted in the beginning of the essay, recorded ten types of idiocy. This number would multiply as twentieth-century eugenicists introduced and popularized concepts of “feeblemindedness,” “moronhood,” and “moral imbecility,” each of which led to further subdivisions; still, the strength of the eugenic project was its development of a “singular etiology” that “grouped all forms of mental deviancy beneath one medicalized banner.”46 Despite their variety, [End Page 383] the disabled were still homogenized. As Snyder and Mitchell write, eugenicists “installed a binary coding system into which all human beings could be slotted: ‘normal’ and ‘defective.’”47
After Luster double-downs on this attitude, the scene culminates in a moment of ontological unslotting, in which the normal caretaker must shape and respect the world as his disabled counterpart sees it. Luster, an avatar in this scene for the codes of normalcy, begins by trumpeting a new world in which disability is erased only to restore the reality that disability covets by the scene’s end:
Luster knocked the flowers over with his hand. “That’s what they’ll do to you at Jackson when you start bellering.”
I tried to pick up the flowers. Luster picked them up and they went away. I began to cry.
“Beller.” Luster said. “Beller. You want something to beller about. All right then. Caddy.” he whispered. “Caddy. Beller now. Caddy.”
“Luster.” Dilsey said from the kitchen.
The flowers came back.
“Hush.” Luster said “Here they is. Look. It’s fixed back just like it was at first. Hush, now.”(35)
Benjy’s “defective” perspective triumphs over the eugenic rhetoric that would seek to contain it. This triumph happens on several levels. Though excoriated for being bizarre, object attention motivates Luster’s command since it is the impetus of the imperative “beller.” Initially, Benjy “bellers” because Luster, intentionally dismissive of the value of objects, has knocked over his flowers.48 Luster then aims to draw Benjy’s attention to an absence for which his cries, in Luster’s estimation, would be justified: Caddy’s. At this point in chronological time, Caddy has left the Compson household, and Luster aims to magnify this profound social absence by disturbing Benjy’s material world. Luster’s actions backfire when Dilsey catches wind of Benjy’s cries. Luster reverses his critique and appeals to Benjy’s object attention, “fixing” the flower bottle “just like it was at first.” When Luster’s dialogue is removed from this passage, almost all of the remaining sentences relate to the flower, just as in the carriage scene. “Luster knocked the flowers over with his hand. . . . I tried to pick up the flowers. Luster picked them up and they went away. I began to cry. . . . The flowers came back.” Stripped of dialogue, this section of narrative follows the movement of the flower. The visual presence and absence of the flower composes a phenomenological plot that produces the tension [End Page 384] between Luster and Benjy. Benjy’s bellows prompt an object-centered phenomenology to infiltrate Luster’s dialogue during his last-ditch appeal, undoing the broad political sentiment he earlier expressed.
Interwoven with this smaller plot is the larger meaning of Caddy’s absence. Attention to the material world reveals the tragic loss of family coherence. Luster’s ability to fix the disturbed flower bottle highlights Benjy’s inability to recover Caddy’s missing presence on April 7, 1928. Thus Faulkner inverts the pathology of cognitive disability: the “defective” fixation of the “idiot” produces change outside of himself and can be technically drawn on to illustrate the joy, pain, and loss that exist within his world, a domain not solitary but sociable. The flower bottle serves as a conduit for material and interpersonal experience, and Faulkner clears a path for the compassionate reader to recognize this representational register.
This reading of the flower bottle scene modifies Berger’s understanding of the ethic of care that runs through Benjy’s section. He writes that “through her care for Benjy, Caddy combats the entire modernist trope of the radical, symbolically inaccessible other that grounds so much of the narrative working in the very novel she is in.”49 The flower bottle scene actually functions to more fully expose the fallacy of the inaccessible cognitive other. While Luster might insist that Benjy be separated from humanity and locked in an institution, the scene reveals that even he understands how Benjy perceives the world. Benjy is quite knowable after all. The scene emphasizes that Caddy’s ability to care for and understand Benjy is a natural, simple response to mental difference. It takes far more effort to do as Luster does and overlay this caring response with eugenic arguments for institutionalization. As pressure mounts on Luster, eugenic sentiment is stripped away, revealing the foundation of understanding beneath.50
Social Relationships Cast in Firelight
Caddy lies at the center of Benjy’s object-oriented consciousness. Flashing back to her wedding day, Benjy notes, “Then I saw Caddy, with flowers in her hair, and a long veil like shining wind. Caddy Caddy” (25). Caddy’s figure emerges in light of Benjy’s objects and the images they produce—a fact reinforced by Benjy’s repetition of her name after his highly stylized description. The object is Benjy’s primary means of experiencing and remembering human relationships. The entire quarter hunt plot can be read as Benjy’s quest to [End Page 385] recover Caddy by pursuing the markers of her identity that pop up in his phenomenological experience—from the golfer’s audible cries for their “caddies” to the physical and visual presence of his flowers. Thus, Benjy’s objects do not only motivate interaction and conflict, they characterize, in sophisticated aesthetic ways, the members of the Compson household. This aesthetic of sociality is best illustrated by the respective scenes in which the fire characterizes Mrs. Compson, Quentin, and Caddy. The three scenes take place in the middle of Benjy’s object flurry, and they occur over the span of just six pages.
The first scene occurs when Benjy enters his mother’s bedroom when she is at the height of her sickness: “Versh set me down and we went into Mother’s room. There was a fire. It was rising and falling on the walls. There was another fire in the mirror. I could smell the sickness. It was on a cloth folded on Mother’s head. Her hair was on the pillow. The fire didn’t reach it, but it shone on her hand where her rings were jumping” (40). Object attention governs the passage, creating the feeling of “poetic immediacy” Berger has noted.51 The fire frames the scene. When Benjy enters the room, he immediately notices the fire and the light it casts on the walls. As the pronoun “it” signifies, the fire’s light is an ontological extension of itself, allowing Benjy’s coveted object to move up and down the wall. Wherever Benjy looks, the fire spreads. Benjy notices its reflection in the mirror, and his perspective comes to tightly circumscribe his mother and him by bracketing the pair within the mobile object. A terse olfactory detail wedges itself between flurries of visual description. “I could smell the sickness. It was on a cloth on Mother’s head.” In this way, Benjy’s object attention—a manifestation of his “defective” cognition—highlights the sickness that signals his mother’s decline. As much as the passage illuminates Mrs. Compson’s sickness, her figure remains darkened. The fire never reaches her hair, and this lack of connection widens the distance between her and her son. Her material connection with the fire is tenuous. It shines only on her rings. In a bright room where fire burns on all sides, still no light reaches her face.
Mrs. Compson’s tenuous relationship with the fire contrasts her granddaughter Quentin’s strong relationship with it. The reader witnesses this difference when Luster asks Jason for a new quarter. As the scene opens, Quentin and Jason fixate on particular objects. Jason attends to the newspaper, and Quentin, the fire. Unlike Mrs. Compson, the fire spills into and onto Quentin. “Quentin looked at the fire. The fire was in her eyes and on her mouth. Her mouth was red” (43). Benjy’s description of the fire in Quentin’s eyes marks the only [End Page 386] clear moment of eye contact in the scene. Staring at the fire, Quentin bears a remarkable resemblance to her uncle Benjy. This surface-level similarity reflects a deeper similarity between Quentin and Benjy: both are subject to the will of Jason, the abusive man of the house. At this point in Benjy’s life, Quentin, however much she might dislike her “idiot” uncle, shares not only a common circumstance with him, but a shared response to this circumstance: staring at the fire.
For Quentin and Jason, objects offer an escape from social relationships. When Jason threatens Quentin for “hanging out with that show fellow,” she responds by staring at the fire. Object attention becomes a defense against Jason’s imposition. This defense frustrates Jason. “‘Did you hear me.’ Jason said.” He exchanges quips back and forth with his niece before finally using object fixation as a means to avoid her defiance. “Jason read the paper again” (43). Object attention tethers the de facto patriarch to Benjy and Quentin.52 By noticing the fire in Quentin’s eyes, Benjy not only relies on object attention to communicate social connection, but also establishes himself in this scene as the only Compson able to look family members in the eyes. Here, he realizes his mother’s wish for eye contact as she expresses it in the cushion scene, but he does so through object attention, the behavior that Mrs. Compson viewed earlier as a blockade to normal human connection.
Unsurprisingly, of all of Benjy’s family members, Caddy is most illuminated by the fire. Benjy recalls a scene where he sits by the fireside with Caddy, Jason, and Mr. Compson. As the scene begins, his coveted objects converge in his line of focus. “Caddy gave me the cushion, and I could look at the cushion and the mirror and the fire” (46). Mr. Compson’s dialogue reveals that Jason is further from the fire than his family. “‘What are you doing Jason.’ ‘Nothing.’ Jason said. ‘Suppose you come over here and do it, then.’ Father said.” Jason’s figure emerges “out of the corner,” and he throws some paper he was chewing into the fire. “Jason threw into the fire. It hissed, uncurled, turning black. Then it was gray. Then it was gone” (46). The fire produces ugliness when Jason interacts with it. The black uncurled paper evokes “the curling flower spaces,” the beautiful object-centered image that began the novel (3).
Jason’s black object contrasts with Caddy’s illuminated figure: “Caddy and Father and Jason were in Mother’s chair. Jason’s eyes were puffed shut and his mouth moved like tasting. Caddy’s head was on Father’s shoulder. Her hair was like fire, and little points of fire were in her eyes, and I went and Father lifted me into the chair [End Page 387] too, and Caddy held me” (46). Caddy is identified with the fire, just as her daughter is earlier. However, Caddy’s identification is much stronger. Looking at Quentin, Benjy notes that “the fire was in her eyes and on her mouth” (43). Some readers might disagree that any notable differences exist between Caddy’s and Quentin’s characterizations. Such a reading ignores Benjy’s more “limited” syntax, in which seemingly slight alterations of diction hold great significance. In the fire scenes, different prepositions signal three levels of association between person and object. The first level, signaled by “on,” depicts the other person as a body distinct from the fire. The fire is “on” Quentin’s mouth and Mrs. Compson’s hand. The second level signals a permeability between the person and the fire. The fire moves into Quentin’s and Caddy’s eyes. Benjy’s description of each inward movement clues the reader into the difference between the extent of his connection with each character. For Quentin, “the fire was in her eyes.” Benjy’s description is more detailed for Caddy. Benjy develops the fire image, noting how it emerges in “little points.” The third level of association applies exclusively to Caddy and posits a sameness of identity between person and coveted object. Benjy formulates a simile, noting that Caddy’s “hair was like fire.” Person and object are no longer discrete. Benjy aestheticizes Caddy in light of the fire in order to communicate the unparalleled bond he has with his sister. Object attention ceases to isolate the cognitively disabled subject and opens up a formal dynamic that allows social relationships to come into clear view for the reader.
As April 7th, 1928 draws to a close, Benjy sits in the library and notes “I squatted there, holding the slipper. I couldn’t see it, but my hands saw it, and I could hear it getting night, and my hands saw the slipper but I couldn’t see myself, but my hands could see the slipper and I squatted there, hearing it getting dark” (46). In chronological time, this moment follows young Quentin’s dinner table confrontation with Jason. She attempts to throw a glass at him, but Dilsey intervenes, allowing her to get out only two quick “Goddamn you”s before leaving the room. Benjy can only reconcile this familial split by clinging to a thing tethered to a long history of love and compassion. The object contains and creates human experience.
What feelings do these lines provoke within readers? If one were to read the passage with an allegiance to certain pathological [End Page 388] understandings of disability, these words would seem like sound and fury. The misdirected and insistent attention of the “idiot” is on full display. He fixates on the object, invoking the slipper by name three times and by pronoun twice. An affirmation of the self is intertwined with this moment of attentional dedication. In two sentences, “I” is the subject of five clauses. The mind seems to be short-circuiting, caught in a loop between the self and the object it holds. The reader struggles to follow the current. But Faulkner’s novel is best seen as belonging to a family of texts that Mitchell and Snyder have referred to as “literary efforts to expose prosthesis as an artificial and thus resignifiable relation.”53 For Mitchell and Snyder, prosthesis refers to disability’s frequent deployment as a device that can mobilize stories toward crude but necessary ends: it might signal an internal character defect, it might provide intrigue for readers, or it might emerge as a problem that inaugurates a plot that seeks to resolves it. But Faulkner’s use of object attention helps critics think more deeply about the resignification of disability in literature. For Faulkner, the resignification of object attention comes not in a flash, but in the flickers, like firelight. By this point in the narrative, the reader understands object attention as a way of organizing the world. The object-attentive reader knows that the slipper means something, or if that seems too generous a verb, it does something for Benjy. Should readers choose to hold fast to it as they work to make sense of Benjy’s story, the object does something for them too.
The Sound and the Fury thus illuminates how authors cultivate particular ethical orientations to disability. The reader’s relationship with the disabled character changes over the course of the story, though these changes might vary for particular readers. The impatient reader will struggle to follow Benjy’s cues and miss the meaningful structures in the work to which these cues point. Frustration, or perhaps a commitment to Benjy’s status as a divine or mechanical “idiot,” a modernist contraption, or an unrecognized autist, might grow. But for those who sympathize with and learn from Benjy, a field of formal intricacies and affective moments blossom with each turn of the page, constantly overhauling the reader’s understanding of just who Faulkner’s famous “idiot” is and how he thinks. The disabled character is not a known quantity, but a figure coming to be known whose identity is tied to the progress of the story and the development of the reader.
This demonstration of object-attentive reading reminds critics to consider the writerly choices that authors make as they draw from popular and scientific discourses of disability. Faulkner does not represent [End Page 389] the science of disability: he seizes on a small part of it to create a novel way of storytelling that demands a novel way of reading. Other works may not attend to the same disabled trait, but the questions that have guided me here will still be of use to the critic elsewhere: how can I read the story in a way that aligns with how the disabled character perceives, organizes, and makes sense of the world? And how will the world look to me after my attempt?
Evan Chaloupka teaches literature and directs the writing program at Franklin-Urbana University. His research examines how narratives of and rhetorics for cognitive disability circulate between literature and scientific discourse. His work has been published in the Journal of Narrative Theory, Disability and Society, and The CEA Critic. He is currently completing a monograph entitled Engaging Minds: Cognitive Disability and American Storytelling, 1877–1960.
5. Object attachment would persist in literature as a way to develop characters and to prompt events worth telling stories about. For the high-functioning, cognitively disabled Morgan from Anne Chamberlain’s novel The Darkest Bough (1958), a stable world depends on well-organized objects: “All that was given to him he kept, with a tender monitorship, knowing precisely in what box or drawer or on which shelf each belonged” (43). Later in the novel, Morgan’s new detachment from his treasured things signals his development. The narrator notes that Angelo, his promising if somewhat suspicious caretaker, “had wooed him away from his room, his faded Christmas cards, the tarnished trinkets from the mail-order houses.” Angelo directs Morgan’s attention to more developmentally appropriate experiences, taking him “to baseball games and movies, on long country walks, on morning fishing trips, on bird hunts and picnics in places the boy had never seen” (70).
9. Murray, Representing Autism, 78. Stevie quickly becomes a vessel for absurdity in the story. His brother-in-law, Verloc, is pressured by an unspecified foreign agency to carry out a false flag operation in which the Greenwich Observatory would be bombed and local anarchists would appear culpable. Verloc, much to his distress, is given the bomb and asked to carry out the attack. He decides to task Stevie with placing the bomb instead. On the way to the location, Stevie stumbles against a tree in a nearby park, accidently setting off the bomb and killing himself.
11. Loftis, Imagining Autism, 66. Melanie Yergeau defines “stimming” as “complex and often repetitive, embodied movements that are again deemed antisocial, such as hand flapping or femininely flexing an elbow” (Authoring Autism, 98). Yergeau identifies stimming as one of several “inventional sites” that suggest “ways of being, thinking, and making meaning that are not in and of themselves lesser—and may at times be advantageous” (34).
12. Joshua, “Introduction to ‘Dis/enabling Narratives,’” 312.
13. Samway and Silver, “In The Sound and the Fury,” 12. Anticipating the counterargument that their approach might be too anachronistic, they argue that Faulkner “steps forward not as literary author but as historical guide whose own knowledge of the actual world about him provides valuable commentary” (3). They note that Faulkner lived a few blocks away from Edwin Chandler, a man with an unidentified cognitive disability. See Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography. Samway and Silver’s diagnosis is not without precedent. In 1987, Sara McLaughlin argued that Faulkner “unknowingly presented one of the earliest pictures in American literature of the devastating effects autism can have on a human being” (“Faulkner’s Faux Pas,” 38). It is fair to ask how much is gained by characterizing Benjy as “suffering” from “devastating” autism.
14. A long tradition of literary scholarship shows that relying too heavily on the “idiot” label engenders misreadings of Benjy. In his 1970 bibliography of “mentally retarded” characters in American fiction, Frances King plucked Benjy out from his fictional counterparts, highlighting The Sound and the Fury as “the most powerful representation of the idiot mind” (“Treatment of the Mentally Retarded,” 109). For many critics, a mystical quality inheres in this representation. James M. Mellard contends that Benjy lives in a timeless world composed of vivid imagery, existing as a “chthonic figure” tied to the earth who seeks “to fulfill certain primitive, child-like desires” (“Caliban as Prospero,” 245). This mysticism inadvertently ushers in a range of cultural stereotypes: Benjy is a transparent window into reality; he is an ancestral connection between man and animal; he is an eternal child; his world is disorganized chaos; he is free from the oppressive meaning-making systems of rationality. Jaqui Griffiths collapses two of these tropes by arguing that “he is at once canine, infant, and adult, with each of these categories bleeding into the others” (“Almost Human,” 171).
15. Maria Truchan-Tataryn censures the “unquestioning acceptance of [Benjy] as a successful representation of intellectual disability,” pointing out that the trend “reveals an underlying ableism in the literary critical endeavor and an academic acquiescence to the dated socio-cultural constructions of disability” (“Textual Abuse,” 160). Ted Roggenbuck argues that by taking Faulkner’s “idiot” description at face value, critics obscure the distinctly human features of Benjy’s narrative. “Comparing Benjy’s mind to a phonograph on which he possesses the ability to play the record of his life without the ability to choose, discriminate, or interpret diminishes the tragedy of what he has lost and the relative emptiness of his current existence” (“Way He Looked,” 586). Stacy Burton argues that “critical commonplaces seriously distort both the nature of Benjy’s discourse and its significance to the text” (“Benjy, Narrativity,” 208). Refusing to frame Benjy’s narrative as the outré perspective of an “idiot,” she contends that the Compson brothers collectively “shape their languages, chronotopes, and histories in constant interaction with each other’s voices” (218).
18. My approach grows out of a tradition that extends for nearly sixty years. In “‘Each in Its Ordered Place’: Structure and Narrative in ‘Benjy’s Section’ of The Sound and the Fury” (1958), George R. Stewart and Joseph M. Backus work to remix the pieces of Benjy’s narrative in a chronologically linear fashion. They argue that “even the most careful reader, however, is unable to make all these connections [between scenes] by any process of mere reading.” Their article, “in the interest of an eventual better understanding of the book, attempts to identify and arrange these fragments” (440).
22. Bérubé, Secret Life of Stories, 2. For his part, Bérubé is critical of diagnostic approaches to literature. He argues that “the realization that character X has Y disability” often “stands in place of the more productive realization that character X does Y because of Z” (21).
25. Tobin Siebers defines “ideology of ability” as “the preference for able-bodiedness. At its most radical, it defines the baseline by which humanness is determined, setting the measure of the body and mind that gives or denies human status to individual persons” (Disability Theory, 8); see Disability Theory. In my analysis, I am interested in how Benjy might be reread to challenge whatever baseline the reader might bring to the text.
26. Samway and Silver note that “bluegum,” deployed in this family fable, functions as a “metaphorical” device referring to a black person “whose blue gums give them strange characteristics” (“In The Sound and the Fury,” 14).
27. Faulkner, Sound and the Fury, 44. “Et clean” suggests that the preacher’s flesh was consumed by the children, much like Nancy, a family horse, who Caddy recalls was “undressed” by buzzards after she died (22). Further references to this novel are cited parenthetically in the text.
31. Barr describes one such way of stirring the senses in order to awaken the mind. “In a series of sense-impressions, beginning with sight, one seeks to engage the wandering gaze or to attract the apathetic, with contrasts of color in combination with alternate motion and repose; such as by swinging balls of bright and neutral tints, alternating and well spaced, suspended from a bar, or by laying colored blocks on the table” (Mental Defectives, 136).
35. Fires emerge as objects of fascination throughout the object attention’s pathological history. In The Mind Unveiled (1858), Isaac Kerlin tells the story of one patient’s “enchantment with fire.” For the community, the story becomes a touch-stone with biblical significance: “Ab, one dark night, escaped from his attendant, and after wandering along the stream, he came in view of the bright light of a brick-kiln, situated some distance back from the opposite shore: the poor, infatuated boy, delighted with the glare that sprang from the blackness beyond, crawled down the bank, waded through the cold waters, and clambered the opposite hill. He then eagerly pushed forward for the dazzling light; nearing it, he was suddenly precipitated into a deep ditch; his screams of terror, brought to his assistance two night-laborers from the yard, and their timely succor saved the child from drowning in the ditch. Frightened, and almost dead with cold, he was returned to his anxious parents; and to this day, Ab’s adventure of ‘crossing the Jordan,’ is narrated by the villagers” (43).
41. Chart created by the author. Pagination reflects the 2nd Norton Critical edition, edited by Donald Gray.
42. I am aware of a resemblance between “object-oriented phenomenology” and “object-oriented ontology” (OOO). While the latter is not a core constituent of my analysis, interested readers should consult Erin Manning and Brian Massumi’s Thought in the Act for an elaborated discussion of OOO and cognitive disability. Manning and Massumi summarize what it means for people with autism to attend to everything “the same way.” This attentional attitude is similar to Benjy’s, though one might say that Benjy pays special, not equal, attention to unlikely things. “To attend to everything ‘the same way’ is not an inattention to life. It is to pay equal attention to life’s texturing complexity, with an entranced and unhierarchized commitment to the way in which the organic and inorganic, color, smell, sound, and rhythm, perception and emotion, intensely interweave with the ‘aroundness’ of a textured world” (4).
44. This reading exemplifies, in extreme, narratological theorizations of space. In Narratology, Mieke Bal writes, “the filling in of a space is determined by the objects that can be found in that space. Objects have spatial status. They determine the spatial effect of the room by their shape, measurements, and colours” (95). The objects Benjy covets entirely determine the spatial effect of the library and Mrs. Compson’s sickroom, discussed earlier, and the field, discussed here.
45. Berger has commented on the way in which the novel impugns eugenic thought. He writes that “anxieties over degeneracy, in both genetic and cultural senses, nevertheless are central to The Sound and the Fury.” These anxieties reveal the limitations of the “ostensible solution[s]” of the eugenics movement (Disarticulate, 82).
48. This scene recalls Faulkner’s earlier short story “A Kingdom of God.” The narrator of the story describes the cognitively disabled brother of the protagonist as the story begins: “always in his slobbering, vacuous face were his two eyes of a heart-shaking blue, and gripped tightly in one fist was a narcissus” (55). When the protagonist is arrested and the brother’s narcissus snaps, the community collaboratively restores the object. The police officer commands the brother to “fix” the flower. “The idiot still clutched his broken narcissus, weeping bitterly; and while the officer held his wrist the brother hunted about and found a small sliver of wood. String was volunteered by a spectator, who fetched it from a nearby shop; and under the interested eyes of the two policemen and the gathering crowd, the flower stalk was splinted” (60).
50. This reading marks an important departure from even the most recent disability studies criticism that lock Benjy into a subordinate role. For instance, Sonya Freeman Loftis argues that “because Faulkner presents Benjy as a being without feeling, all that can matter about Benjy is what he represents for other people, as they project their own meanings and interpretations onto him” (Imagining Autism, 105). My reading illustrates instead how Benjy’s idiosyncratic system of meaning is projected and understood by characters thought to be in purely dominate caretaking positions.
52. In the earlier cushion scene, as Caddy points to the cushion, Mrs. Compson chides Caddy. “You humor him too much. . . . Damuddy spoiled Jason that way and it took him two years to outgrow it” (41).