[by Noah Yasskin]
Prepared to contribute our personal reading to the group’s shared conversation, seven of us arrived for week one of the William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez Delve Readers Seminar. Our first meeting was devoted to the first half of As I Lay Dying (1930). In fifty-nine unnumbered segments, Faulkner’s tragicomic tour-de-force is told from fifteen individual perspectives. Each chapter has a Bundren family member—or a neighbor they encounter—narrate the ill-fated procession to bury Addie, the matriarch of this poor white Mississippi clan. Rooted to an unforgiving landscape, the Bundrens subsist without hope, isolated physically and emotionally, loveless in life, their humanity largely lost within animal selves. Their misadventure gets off to a bad start with a flood, and goes downhill from there.
Our Delve group’s journey in the imaginary worlds of Faulkner and García Márquez, led by our Guide Kelly Austin, however, started without any waterworks. Kelly professionally framed our seminar as an investigation into a “creative transformation,” an “encounter” between two writers, the modernist Southern master Faulkner and the postmodernist South American master apprentice García Márquez. I suggested that perhaps great literary relationships might be more like death struggles, agonistic fights for immortality. Undaunted, Kelly held out that our seminar would challenge any Romantic notion that privileged individual authors. We would come to see how nothing truly new happens in literature—we are always remaking and refashioning existing story elements. It sounded to me like we were taking a trip down a postmodern kaleidoscope.
Our guide also helpfully reminded the uninitiated, which included me, that in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner introduces his particular fictional world: Yoknapatawpha County, a place based on his native Lafayette County, Mississippi, and the setting for his best-known works. I was reassured that somebody knew where we were and could pronounce the name! And, inspired by Faulkner’s creation, but based on his childhood in Colombia, García Márquez invented his own fictional home: Macondo, the setting for Leaf Storm, his first novella, and our next book.
Still, I wondered if opening myself up to the new worlds revealed by these great books would lead my life further astray or put me straight. After feeling alienated amidst the fictional Bundrens, I was grateful to be with solid company. Our Guide is propitiously well travelled in these texts, and all but two of the cheerful participants had already been to apocalyptic Yoknapatawpha and magical realist Macondo, returning alive and seemingly intact.
Faulkner’s poetic prose defeated me as a teenager but this time I finished him—his novel that is. As I Lay Dying was a difficult pleasure. Without our Guide Kelly Austin and the insights of my fellow Delve Seminar travellers, I would neither have understood my trip so well nor gotten back on course where I wandered off. Faulkner repays his readers—and our discussion helped me better appreciate the genius of his prose style.
One of the Delve Seminar members aptly described the experience of Faulkner’s storytelling: “The author puts you to work—you reconstruct it.” He asks you to fill in the gaps. The narrative is often ambiguous because it has multiple unreliable narrators and jumps back and forth in time. Disoriented by the death of his mother, the Vardaman pitifully exclaims: “My mother is a fish.” It is easy to feel equally lost.
Our Seminar conversation helped orient us by answering some basic questions about the plot: Did Darl burn the barn? What happened to Dewey Dell in the basement of the pharmacy? It came as news to me that Addie and Anse were orphans. Oops! I missed that crucial fact.
I did pick up that Faulkner’s narrative style broke from nineteenth-century realism and the omniscient narrator, but what I really wanted to understand was why. Why did Faulkner make us work so hard? As I crassly threw out to the group: “Yes, it’s hard! But why? What is the payoff? It’s not a nicely packaged commodity—it’s art. Perhaps the book is meant to challenge our mass culture of instant consumption?”
Responding to my question, with Kelly’s help, the Seminar members pulled together some insights and a valuable lesson. Our discussion clarified that the novel’s deliberate ambiguity mirrors an increasing skepticism about our ability to know ourselves and the world with certainty. We came to see that Faulkner enters into more of a partnership with us. As Kelly suggested, he cedes some of his power over us—the author gives up the illusion of being an omniscient authority. In fact, over the course of the story, we come to see the dangers of authority in religion, society, and family. Faulkner’s fractured narrative reveals these traditional sources of power to us as partial, rather than impartial. Our own group’s imperfect effort to comprehend Faulkner’s lessons though conversation—with a guide rather than a guru—was a case in point, I concluded.
Out of words, he crafts a world. As in English, the word ‘leaf’ means both the leaves of a tree and the sheets of paper in a book, so in Spanish, the word ‘hojarasca’ signifies both nature and text: it means dead foliage and useless or meaningless words and promises. As first revealed by Gabriel García Márquez in Leaf Storm (Hojarasca in Spanish), the magical realist world of Macondo—in particular the role of nature and religion in the story—was the subject of this week’s Delve Seminar discussion.
After battening down the dual meaning of the title, our discussion circled around Leaf Storm’s characters. Because they evoke contrasting poles of South American life, two in particular demanded our attention: the Colonel and the doctor.
We discussed how the Colonel, a veteran of the war, embodies the old feudal society, establishment Catholicism, public order, community, family, Christian duty, honor, and conscience. In an anthropomorphic moment, the Colonel naively describes God as being an ethereal version of himself: a genteel and hospitable man “without dimensions” walking alone at night through his plantation (p. 66).
By contrast, we concluded, that the doctor (who is possibly French) embodies the Enlightenment values of science and skepticism, the threat of atheism and the absence of familial ties. He’s a rootless “citizen of nowhere” (p. 80). His libertine and heretic life, materialistic and full of sexual loneliness, despair, and isolation, ends in suicide. The doctor’s individualistic trajectory demonstrates how modernity—the natural theological disaster whose metaphor is the Leaf Storm—threatens to wrench us loose from religious, ethnic, and family ties.
But, we wondered, does García Márquez stand with the Colonel or the doctor? Which character best articulates the author’s view of religion? To answer the question, we turned to the text. I brought up the funny anecdote where the village priest nicknamed ‘Pup’ reads to the congregation from the Bristol Almanac rather than the Gospels. “He’s got a preoccupation with storms that’s almost theological,” the Colonel notes (p. 69). One of the Seminar participants pointed to García Márquez’s Marxist sympathies as evidence that, as in the example of the sermons, he was clearly mocking Catholicism—religion as both the opiate of the masses and the laughing gas of the intellectuals.
I replied that though there’s definitely an element of humor, García Márquez’s secular ear is more sensitive to the resonances of Christianity in everyday life than Marxists, who are ideologically tone deaf to the sound of the sacred. Throughout Leaf Storm, for instance, García Márquez creates magical parallels to Biblical miracles. The town has a virgin birth of sorts: the barber’s daughter conceives, allegedly, without intercourse. Read as “the greatest story ever told,” The Bible—perhaps the greatest of all magical realist tales—is full of wonders. The Pup’s sermon about storms is, I suggested, natural theology, since he divines the sacred meaning of events without any appeal to revelation. Likewise, Leaf Storm is García Márquez’s demonstration that moral truths are present in everyday experiences.
By the end of our seminar discussion, with the help of the participants and guide, I left reassured that García Márquez could not be an ideological Marxist or dogmatic Catholic. He reveals the single-sidedness of either narrative. His fictional world of Macondo, as revealed in Leaf Storm, is full of storytellers and therefore has multiple meanings and many points of view—it is, like our own real factious world, inherently pluralist and full of natural wonder.
In a cool mood, as if we were academic scholars of intertextualism, we began our fourth and final meeting. Our guide Kelly posed several detached theoretical questions: What had García Márquez’s conversation with Faulkner taught us about the way that writers borrow and respond to each other? What preconceptions, conventions, and expectations do we bring to fictional narratives? What are the differences between literature and history? What allows us to read fiction as though it were true?
When our abstract discussion came to ground in the novels we found some answers. In As I Lay Dying, the character Darl is the closest thing we get to a narrator. He uses the phrase “as though” to recount his story. Our analysis led us to see that more than a simple simile, “as though” is both a comparison and a negation. “As though” or “as if it were true” is the way we read fiction!
Kelly also drew our attention to a passage in Leaf Storm that could be read as a treatise on literature and storytelling. It begins with a fairytale gesture: “Those were precisely the days…” An Indian woman speaks: “as if there was a lot of incredible legend in what she was recalling but also as if she was recalling in good faith and even with the conviction that the passage of time had changed legend into reality that was remote but hard to forget” (my emphasis, p. 24). Her storytelling is a metamorphosis that transforms the marvelous past into a realistic present—it also aptly describes García Márquez’s own aesthetic strategy of magical realism. The fantastic events in the novel are narrated as if they were everyday events.
Analyzing the mini treatise aided our attempt to gain greater theoretical clarity about the suspension of disbelief that goes on in storytelling—“the double-mindedness of literature,” as Kelly nicely phrased it. With our patient textual criticism, we gleaned some valuable theoretical knowledge about the nature of literature.
Throughout the seminar, however, I had an idea that these novels could also teach us something practical about how to live. Perhaps literature could be a kind of therapy, a bibliotherapy. I treated reading as a life raft, a secular and not-altogether-safe way to discover life lessons.
And at the end of the seminar when we reflected on our overall experience, it was not disinterested knowledge we were thankful for, but something warmer and closer to wisdom. Participants described the Delve seminar as “a wonderful adventure,” “life giving,” “enlightening”—an experience that brought us to “a place of humility.” I agreed. I too picked up some theoretical knowledge in Macondo and Yoknapatawpha but was ultimately grateful for what the seminar contributed to my quest for sagacity.
One lesson I learned was that my own reading practice should be more kind. I should have followed our guide’s example by having greater empathy for unlikeable characters. Like the town in Macondo, I was too quick to ostracize the already isolated doctor in Leaf Storm; and, like the snobbish townspeople of Mottson and Jackson, too quick to dislike the already downtrodden Bundren family in As I Lay Dying. I discovered something like a Golden Rule for literature: understand characters as charitably as you would have others understand you.
From Faulkner, though, I was also made aware of an exception to my Golden Rule. The matriarch Addie demonstrates that empathy isn’t always positive. She says, “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!” (p. 170). In such sadism, greater empathy as the goal of literature meets a limit.
I also better understood why traditional Christianity does not meet the spiritual needs of moderns, especially women. Faulkner is deeply suspicious of the pious moralizing of religious authorities. As I Lay Dying reveals the formal emptiness of traditional Christian theology. The preacher is an adulterer and hypocrite. The “respectable druggist” Moseley, a church member and family man, is cold-hearted and cruel to Dewey Dell, an unmarried pregnant teenager in desperate need of an abortion. He tells her, “You go on back to Lafe and you and him take that ten dollars and get married with it” (p. 203). His doctrinaire solution is not a compassionate option. Moseley demonstrates that his traditional religious stricture—the Mosaic Law—fails to meet Dell’s inner needs.
Likewise, García Márquez shows that otherworldly Christian theology is an inadequate guide for modern embodied lives. In Leaf Storm, the Priest (the ‘Pup’) is better at quelling civil unrest than ministering to the townspeople. More a natural philosopher than a theologian, his holy powers do nothing to help an unwed mother suffering from physical abuse. “The efforts of the Pup, with a stroke of his stole, the complex therapy of holy water, sacred relics, and psalms administered with dramatic solicitude, were useless” (p. 56). And the moralizing of the townspeople about the unwed mother is vicious gossip rather than an expression of community concern.
García Márquez and Faulkner are better at pointing out problems with Christianity than they are at providing solutions. If, as they both say, established religion is no solution, what should we do? If not the preacher or the priest, then to whom should we turn to give meaning and direction to our lives?
Neither author pretends to have the definitive response to the collapse of traditional religion. Read as wisdom literature, however, I wound up concluding that each book does provide some guidance. As I Lay Dying and Leaf Storm can aid our existential search for meaning. In pace of the Christian ideal of a life lived in service to God, both authors offer a new ideal. Faulkner and García Márquez point to a new type of person that is capable of making meaning.
After the seminar was over, I wound up concluding that García Márquez replaces the priest with a postmodern storyteller.
First, the postmodern part. I read him as fabulist and Leaf Storm as a postmodern fable. In true postmodernism fashion, suspicious of one overarching truth, it undermines dogmatic certainty by celebrating multiple perspectives. And like a fable, it lies to get at moral truths. Lest one object that there are no talking animals in the fable, the doctor is a grass-eating ‘ruminant’.
Responding to the threat of a silent universe, García Márquez, the postmodern fabulist, re-enchants the word by rescuing talking animals, wondrous legends, and religious archetypes. I suspect a large part of the charm of Leaf Storm (and magical realism in general) is this re-enchantment of everyday life. Modernity, in Max Weber’s formulation, disenchants the world: increasing rationalization removes a sense of the sacred. García Márquez reverses this process. Magic survives by being recast as reportage, and miracles are reinvented as meteorology. The Leaf Storm is not a meaningless natural phenomenon in an indifferent universe—it is a moral message. Like an Old Testament plague, the Leaf Storm is natural theological punishment for the modern sins of colonialism, exploitation, and human indifference.
Second, the storyteller part. García Márquez does not just rescue fables. He offers us greater self-consciousness about what it means to be a story-telling being. His postmodern narrative play creates an ironic distance from literal truth. Narrative strategies even become a way of life and an imperative: live life as if it were a story! Invent your story and you invent your self. At best, living life as a postmodern storyteller helps us craft a better character. At worst, it replaces authenticity with acting.
Faulkner’s world gives us a different answer to the existential question. As I Lay Dying is a greater and darker artistic accomplishment than Leaf Storm. It is a modern vision of hell on earth to rival the medieval nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch. Faulkner’s irony turns humans into animals, tragedy into comedy, heroes into fools, and empathy into sadism. Neither nature, nor tradition, nor family, nor love offer solace. Even greater self-knowledge leads the visionary storyteller Darl to insanity—or at least to being declared insane by propertied society and its rational calculative way of thinking. The only positive virtue on offer seems to be an ability to laugh at our needless suffering. Yoknapatawpha is a hopeless world. Its nihilistic flood nearly knocked me off my life raft. Yet, by the end of the seminar I began to see a way through its terrible beauty.
Like his character Darl, Faulkner is a visionary and a knower. As Dewey Dell describes his uncanny powers, “It’s like he had got into the inside of you, someway. Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doings outen his eyes” (p. 125) Unlike Darl, Faulkner has a way out—literature. The artistic powers that send Darl to the asylum deliver Faulkner a nobel prize. And reading his novel seems to offers us a path forward too.
Faulkner offers us the poet as a meaning maker. To help us make sense out of our modern inferno, Faulkner turns to the artist. In a world abandoned by God, he seems to be saying that art alone is capable of making meaning out of muck. As reality Yoknapatawpha would crush us; as art it can save us. In an act of literary transubstantiation, Faulkner turns misery and poverty into story and poetry. As art, the suffering of the Bundren family is no longer pointless.
As I Lay Dying teaches us to be more like a poet—to see the world anew. As I learned in the seminar, Faulkner makes us work. The kind of work he asks us to do is poetic. Faulkner invites us to participate in the sacramental art of poiesis. As we read, we practice the art of poiesis, an artistic way of thinking that seeks to disclose—to open up—the meaningful, even sacred, moments of life. Unlike scientific or technological thinking, poiesis does not seek to impose moral laws or dominate technologically. By the end of the Delve Seminar, I could see that the reader works with the author to find a deeper meaning in what at first appears to be a pointless funeral procession.