Thursday, February 22, 2007
Does Anse Bundren Love His Wife?
I have the good fortune of teaching Faulkner this semester, which means I get to re-read a lot of wonderful and puzzling books. To my mind, As I Lay Dying has always been the most mysterious of the lot. The Sound and the Fury may be the more evidently virtuoso performance, Absalom, Absalom! may possess more grandeur. Sanctuary is flat out creepy weird. But I feel like I’ve got more or less of a handle on what’s basically at issue in those books and in the other major works. AILD, on the other hand, has always seemed to me pretty enigmatic. Judging by the critical record, moreover, I’m not alone. Unless my impression is mistaken, the Bundren saga has produced less in the way of consensus, and in fact less devoted attention overall, than any other work from Faulkner’s great period.
On this last read, I was particularly struck by a passage on which strangely I don’t think I’ve previously lingered.
Nor do I remember it receiving much discussion elsewhere. It comes at the end of Darl’s 4th interior monologue, when, describing a scene he could not have witnessed, he draws on his telepathic powers to recount the moment when his father Anse approaches his mother Addie’s deathbed. Everyone remembers the hilarious, final line. This time around, though, I was more struck by what precedes it:
Pa stands over the bed, dangle-armed, humped, motionless. He raises his hand to his head, scouring his hair, listening to the saw. He comes nearer and rubs his hand, palm and back, on his thigh and lays it on her face and then on the hump of quilt where her hands are. He touches the quilt as he saw Dewey Dell do, trying to smoothe it up to the chin, but disarranging it instead. He tries to smoothe it again, clumsily, his hand awkward as a claw, smoothing at the wrinkles which he made and which continue to emerge beneath his hand with perverse ubiquity, so that at last he desists, his hand falling to his side and striking itself again, palm and back, on his thigh. The sound of the saw snores steadily into the room. Pa breathes with a quiet rasping sound, mouthing the snuff against his gums. “God’s will be done,” he says. “Now I can get them teeth.”
Just how are we supposed to understand this scene? The noticeable thing, of course, apart from the killer punch line, is Anse’s comically ineffectual gestures. No surprise there. Anse can’t do anything without making a hash of it. But, then, why does he make the gestures in the first place? No one is in the room with him, and he can’t know that Darl is fixing him with the eye in the sky. There’s no doubt that Anse knows how to perform for an audience, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of a guy who would feel the need to act the correct part when no one’s there to watch him. So, why is it that he lays his hand on his dead wife’s face? Is it just possible that he actually loved her?
Could be. Anse is, after all, full of surprises. Among my favorite moments is the scene when he leaps up on Jewel’s horse (an untameable descendent of Flem Snopes’s wild, spotted horses) and rides off to trade it back to Flem’s nephew—apparently managing to strike a good bargain with a Snopes to boot. You think, “wait! Anse can ride? that horse?!” If, lazy and incompetent as he seems, he can pull that off, maybe he’s capable of other unexpected possibilities.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine that any man who fulfills his wife’s dying wish by taking nine summer days to deliver her corpse forty miles for burial—and manages to get himself a new wife and a new set of teeth in the bargain--could have been much of a lover. Nor, as it happens, does Addie seem like the most lovable person. (“I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell, I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me!”)
The more prominent impression of Anse, in fact, is one nicely captured by Addie’s memory of her first impression of him: “he was beginning to hump—a tall man and young—so that he looked already like a tall bird hunched in the cold weather, on the wagon seat.” He’s a buzzard! And presumably he’s been feeding off Addie for the length of their marriage, just as he does with everyone who comes near him.
But perhaps for Faulkner there’s no great inconsistency between these two possibilities—between loving someone, in other words, and feeding on them. Addie, I think we can be confident, neither loves nor feeds on anyone. She’s too utterly committed to an ideal of absolute personal integrity for that. But Anse and his children look interestingly different. The point that’s always made about AILD, after all, is that almost everyone who undergoes the journey to Jefferson is looking to get something out of it: teeth, a train set, an abortion, a “graphophone.” Anse, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Cash all honor, sort of, Addie’s vindictive last wishes—undergoing pretty severe trials in the effort--while also managing to turn the demand to their own account. And yet their adaptability doesn’t in the least seem to interfere with the fact that most of Addie’s children are genuinely bereaved by their mother’s death. They loved her and they’re not going to waste a trip to Jefferson.
Jewel and Darl, of course, are different. (Notably, Addie says that Anse has “three children that are his and not mine”—which doesn’t seem like an accurate accounting unless you assume that, with her apparent ability to foretell the future, Addie is already aware that Darl will be shipped off to Jackson and, perhaps, that he has long since ceased to be a full member of the family.) Jewel’s different in the plain sense that, while he loves his mother intensely, he’s not adaptable in the slightest. He’s rigidly dedicated to Addie’s memory and to fulfilling her last request. Unlike his siblings, he stands to gain nothing from the trip because, like Faulkner’s most honor-bound characters, he proves his nobility by his utter indifference to personal gratification of any kind.
Darl, I think we’re meant to see, is the other end of the spectrum. He has nothing to gain from the journey (and, in complete contrast to Jewel, he’s utterly useless in pursuing it). But that’s not because he’s particularly dedicated to his mother. (We know he doesn’t care that much about Addie because Cora, who’s wrong about absolutely everything, thinks he does.) Nor is it because he worries over his amour propre. Quite the contrary, it’s because he doesn’t care about anything very much at all. The difference between Darl and his siblings, in other words, is not just that he’s more poetic or prophetic than they are, but that he doesn’t actually have any personal desires—and, in fact, doesn’t have much of a sense of self at all.
If I’m reading Faulkner right, he sees Darl’s condition as a kind of awful dehumanization. In a good book on Faulkner and the Great Depression, Ted Atkinson points out that in a number of respects Darl can be usefully compared to Tom Joad. (Before their stories begin, they’ve both been separated from their families by the state; neither is selfish; they both take a poetic, long view of things and see beyond their families’ personal concerns; and ultimately they both move past the constraints of ordinary personhood—Darl by becoming a schizophrenic and Tom by becoming everyone.) But Faulkner appears to suggest that there’s something literally and unfortunately de-personalizing about the kind of transcendence Steinbeck envisions with Tom Joad. (“I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.”). It’s not just that such selflessness is sentimental or implausible, in other words, but that someone like Darl who surpasses any individual needs and desires has ceased to be a person who can interact with and count for his family.
If that’s true, then Anse might be meant to look like not just a lazy, and very clever, sod, but, more importantly, like a version of your typical human being. I.e., he’s someone for whom at the end of the day there’s no fundamental incompatibility between loving another person and wanting to get something from them—and, perhaps, for whom, unless you actually want something from a person, it’s not really possible to love them at all. Being a lover and being a buzzard may not be such different conditions in Yoknapatwpha County.
(A final, side note on the tense in the title of this post: Looking at the novel from this perspective is, I think, consistent with the possible implications of the novel’s title-- drawn, according to Faulkner, from Book X of The Odyssey where Odysseus encounters Agamemmnon in the underworld and hears of Clytemnestra’s perfidy--and from a way of looking at the book’s famous last line [“Meet Mrs. Bundren”] that’s been rattling around in my head ever since I heard Louis Menand suggest it in a grad school seminar many aeons ago. Is there any reason we shouldn’t think that the Mrs. Bundren who appears in the novel’s final line isn’t actually Addie Bundren herself? From this angle, AILD might be giving us something like an especially perverse Groundhog Day--i.e., a story where Addie wants desperately to stay dead, as she puts it, so that she can finally achieve the inviolate sense of privacy she seeks, but also one where the greedy and clever desires of a man like Anse just won’t let her go.)
Considering the possibility of reading both Joad and Darl as Christ figures, the gist of this excellent reflection reminded me of Freud’s critique of the universal Christian ethic of love. According to Freud, universal love was a pathological deformation of a normal hierarchy of care—loosely tied to practical concerns—that leads to the formation of the family.
The process is one of re-valuing and valorizing normalcy, over and above an inhuman selflessness that leaches away familiarity, even if that familiarity should turn out to be founded on habits of exchange.
Hey Sean, it’s good to see you posting again.
Unfortunately I haven’t read AILD. But the association of need and love reminded me of a rather different Southern writer, James Branch Cabell. In one of his books, he goes on about his admiration for the medieval ideal of courtly love, and mentions some supposedly true story about a man who heard stories about a particular woman in a far country, fell in love long distance, travelled a long way to see her and expired two minutes after meeting her, overcome with his own emotion. Affected by this in turn, she left her husband (for she was married at the time) and became a nun. But Cabell doesn’t dwell on this romantic (and ridiculous, by modern standards) apotheosis, he goes into how this experience must have been for her husband, who quickly remarried, and who, he says, must have been rather inconvenienced by the whole episode. His ideal may be some kind of inhuman romanticism, but his sympathy is with the guy who wonders why this 2-minute intrusion has to spoil some confortable enough domestic arrangements. And of course it’s clear that the romantic lovers in the story can literally know almost nothing about each other; the true relationship is between the people who never figured so dramatically as empty symbols to each other—who have their teeth into each other, so to speak.
(Hopefully this is not double posted).
Welcome back, Sean!
Regarding your last paragraph:
That’s not my interpretation (I think it has more to do with the fragile nature of public identity), but it might help explain why in Cash’s earlier section he referred to this woman as “Mrs. Bundren” before this climactic line.
Thanks, guys! Yep, that’s exactly what I was trying to talk about, Joseph and Rich.
Joe, I’ve got to admit that you’re way of looking at the last line (which Faulkner claimed he already knew would end the book when he began the novel) is the much more plausible one. But, yeah, the two times Cash refers to Mrs. B’s house before we actually meet the second Mrs. B have influenced my tendency to think it’s just Addie all over again--as have a few other details. There’s the nicely ambiguous way Anse introduces the kids ("It’s Cash, etc."), and, of course, the pretty confusing plot of the book overall and the several places where various characters (Dewey Dell, Peabody, etc.) imagine the line between life and death as highly vague. (In fact, I think Peabody’s meditation might be significant. For him, death is not a biological condition, but a state of mind--and a state in the minds of the bereaved in particular, so that perhaps if you refused to believe your wife or mother was dead, she might actually not be.) Why after all have Addie’s narration occur after her corpse has crossed the river, and why stress her ability to predict the future (he will save me from the fire and flood, etc.) if you didn’t want to do something like create an atmosphere where the dead might seem able to come to life?
Thanks for the great post, Sean; for me that’s a new and persuasive way of looking at Anse. But I have to admit I don’t get the point of Menand’s suggestion; if the duck-shaped woman is Addie returned, why would Cash use the formal “Mrs. Bundren” to refer to her? I always thought that Cash could identify her house simply because he gives his last two monologues retrospectively, from a point some time after the Bundrens have returned home - he mentions gramophone records coming in the mail and so forth. Death and life are certainly blurry in the book, and there’s a way in which Addie lives on privately for characters like Vardaman; but the book has such a strong private-public distinction that I can’t imagine it trying to pull off a resurrection in the public world.
Fair enough, Paul. I can’t say I’ve got a deeply thought out commitment to the idea--and I’m not sure Menand mentioned it except as a useful provocation. But, to the extent the idea is suggestive, I think it would be for the way Faulkner seems so interested in people having identities independent of their bodies. Put it this way, I’m not sure what the point of the vagueness between life and death is for, or why the book has the title it does.