Friday, November 11, 2011

If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939)

Title: IF I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
Author: William Faulkner
Publisher: Vintage International
Price: Full (Barnes & Noble)
LCC: PS351.A86 W5   

William Faulkner's If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem consists of two thematically-linked stories that are told in alternating chapters. The first of these short stories, "Wild Palms," documents a torrid love affair between Harry, a lonely medical student, and Charlotte, a woman so devoted to the idea of love that she abandons both her husband and her children to be with Harry. The second story, entitled "The Old Man," focuses on an unnamed convict who is impressed into saving a pregnant woman during the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi.

Given the lack of continuity between the stories, some publishers have released them as separate novels. During the Pulp Age, these editions often appeared with hilariously lurid covers. While it certainly is possible to enjoy the two stories separately, Faulkner did not intend his readers to do so. In an interview for Paris Review, Faulkner spoke about how he came to write two stories within the same novel:

When I reached the end of what is now the first section of The Wild Palms, I realized suddenly that something was missing, it needed emphasis, something to lift it like counterpoint in music. So I wrote on the Old Man story at what is now its first section, and took up The Wild Palms story until it began to sag. Then I raised it to pitch again with another section of its antithesis, which is the story of a man who got his love and spent the rest of the book fleeing from it.
In making this statement, Faulkner nearly guaranteed that the critic's task would be to determine the exact relationship between the two stories.

Faulkner, himself, says that the relationship between the two stories has to do with the different types of love they depict. Harry and Charlotte are bound by a passion that seems out of control. Both are willing to sacrifice the comforts of middle class life to be with one another. Indeed, they convince themselves that if they are going to be truly devoted to one another, they must sacrifice everything. Thus, they enter into a picaresque romance where they travel around the South and the Midwest, moving from job to job, trying not to put down roots. Their affair, governed solely by Eros, however cannot last. Charlotte gives up her life to the idea of love. Harry, his freedom. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, she becomes convinced that if they have a child they will be forced to live a bourgeois lifestyle. Harry is willing to let this happen, but Charlotte convinces him to perform an abortion, a procedure he bundles. Devastated by his lover's death, Harry willingly goes to prison. (I'm not spoiling much here; so much of what I have just said is revealed in the opening chapter).

In contrast, the convict of "Old Man" has given up on even the concept of the desire. Long ago, before he was imprisoned, the convict had been inspired to rob a train after reading one to many pulp story. The convict had a girlfriend at the time, and she would go down to the prison to visit him, but after awhile she abandoned him to marry someone else. Now, the convict has no use for women. The sight of the pregnant woman only makes him think of "female flesh" and disgusts him. The convict is certainly without Eros in the Freudian sense of the term. However, we might also say that the convict is also without Eros in the way that Hannah Arendt means it. In her essay "Thinking and Moral Concerns," Arendt follows Socrates when she states that Eros is the love for what we do not know. Although he travels up and down the Mississippi--a traditional site of romantic adventure in American literature--the convict longs for the solitude of the prison he has, quite against his own will, escaped. Rather than encounter the world, the convict embraces life in the prison barracks.

While this psychological reading of the novel provides an ample understanding of how the two parts work together, I want to suggest tentatively that the novel functions as a parable to Faulkner's relationship with mass culture. At the same time that Faulkner was working on his modernist classics, he was also co-writing screenplays for MGM and Warner Bros. and churning out short stories for the slicks. I haven't figured how this parable works in its entirety yet, so what follows is a rough sketch of something that I may, some day, want to say in a more formal context. Here goes: I have a feeling that the bifurcated nature of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem provides some insight into the bifurcated nature of Faulkner's divided career. "Wild Palms" seems at home with the conventions of such "low" genres as romance or film noir. The two heroes are amoral for love and they suffer the consequences, but not before readers have been able to indulge in the sensationalism of their story.  In contrast, "Old Man" seems more like a traditionally modernist text. Much like the modernist work of art, the convict shuns the world at large. He is closed off--almost mute in his answers. He does not indulge popular taste. When his fellow convicts suggest that he may have been intimate with the pregnant woman, the convict refuses to embellish the story for their sake. He has also, much like the modernist artist, been hurt by mass culture and has rejected it.

Next week: Michelle Latiolais's new collection of stories Widow (2011).

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