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William Faulkner: An Aesthetics of Transgression. A Study in Excess, Identity and Exchange (Amazon, 2014). Extract.








Why read Faulkner today? What can today's reader gain from a Southern 'regionalist' writing before the advent of the civil-rights movement? How can today's reader be expected to make sense of a willfully obscure style enjoined to the obscurantist prejudices of a lost social order? So it is that a double difficulty faces the reader bemused by the fact that what is generally regarded as the best of Faulkner is apparently also the most difficult to read. Yet, William Faulkner is generally acknowledged to be responsible for some of the most powerful novels to have come out of America. Uninhibited, hard-hitting, and surprisingly topical, the problems of relations between the races, the sexes, and the generations, are explored in all their potential for tragedy and for comedy. Furthermore his literary legacy (of experimentation in form and inclusion in content) has inspired generations of young writers across the world.

          Why the emphasis on transgression in a literature rich in complexity and range of reference?  A closer look reveals that the reach of transgression in Faulkner is indeed far; in many ways his legacy may be definied by it. On the level of form and narrative it can be found in the structuring of the plot, from reordering the telling of the story and withholding key information to difficulty of style, mode of telling, point of view and relative occlusion of material presented. On the level of content and theme, the depiction of transgressive material ranges from the choice of topic or event to the kindling of (often uncomfortable or unwanted) emotional responses in the reader. All the foregoing involve the reader in recognising and being influenced by some kind of transgression (otherwise called ‘difficulty’, ‘defamiliarisation’, or ‘estrangement’ in the realm of form, or the ‘means of expression’, or just plain good old fashioned ‘shock’ in the realm of the ‘content of expression’).

In fact transgression may be said to constitute Faulkner's main literary device, one which he uses to great effect in the very best of his work. And it is in the very best of his work that it is used to greatest effect. Shock and excess, incest, rape, and murder, hidden secrets, the surprise discovery, and the indrawn breath of revulsion, these are the means that drive Faulkner's prose.  If the means of expression, the form, was part of a lagacy from the European high art experimental tradition that America was in the course of making her own, then the content of that expression was melodrama pure and simple; a debt the popular and its love affair with violence, voyeurism and scurrility. What the ultimate ends may be... this is a matter for the interpretation of the reader. It may be that the meaning of Faulkner's work is found in relating the novels to the time and place of their setting (the Old and New South); but this is to reduce literature to a history lesson. As a living literary work with the ability to involve its current readers, Faulkner's writings must be read with a eye on today's problems of everyday life. At its simplest this means that there will always be a place for Faulkner in a multi-racial society in which all hierarchies, not least amongst them, those occasioned by gender, are under continual revision and renegotiation.

Yet, again and again, we come across the apparent paradox: the best of Faulkner has survived despite being also the most difficult Faulkner to read (J. M. Coetzee, himself no stranger to transgression in form or in content, and in style the South African writer closest to Faulkner, prefers the ‘Snopes’ novels of the ‘30s on - perhaps in this odd choice showing some ‘anxiety of influence’…). [1] Clearly a special relation between pleasure and pain, or, to be less dramatic, between entertainment and difficulty, is involved here. The reader is made to seek; but the rewards are many. Indeed, much of the pleasure lies in the seeking, and rightly so, as often, as in Light in August or Absalom, Absalom!, the hidden answer to the mystery is never fully revealed. We are left facing an undecidable, an aporia. However the ‘ideal’ Faulkner reader does not seek a happy ending, or even a full revelation of 'the Truth' - let alone yet another hitherto 'hidden' truth about the nature of humanity. He or she is happy to be treated as an adult reader, to be left to make up his or her own mind, to construct his or her own moral response to the shock and outrage depicted in the world of the text. The exchange or reward for difficulty and transgression (and, as we shall see, for difficulty as transgression) is not the simple closure and easy prescriptions pedalled by certain kinds of fiction (and, alas, by certain kinds of critic), but the working out and application of a difficult morality in complex situations. In this sense Faulkner's problems (and Faulkner's very best novels are all 'problem novels') are also adult problems, these are our problems too, insofar as we inhabit a plural universe governed by complexity and not the realm of the fairytale or the fundamentalist. The, often competing, certainly multiple, claims of partisanship and justice show no sign of abating as we proceed into the new millenium.

            The present reader will find two strategies of assimilation available when faced with Faulknerian excess. These strategies represent past and present manifestations of transgression. The present route will feature those parts of late twentieth century art and culture which offer excess as a means of entertainment, education, edification, and, to these ends, of continued aesthetic experimentation. The step (back) from Quentin Tarrantino, Cindy Sherman, Brett Easton Ellis, or Cormac McCarthy to William Faulkner is, on this account, a short one. Yet it is important that we do not allow the pre-eminence of transgression in art and culture at end of the last century (also found playing a key role in Post-conceptual art, ‘our’ first international and now fully globalised art movement) to overshadow its prior manifestations.[2]

The past is represented in Faulkner -as in much of our current cultural consumption- by a continuation of past genres, and not just any genres, the favoured means of framing the telling of the past by the use of the evergreen literary genres, the Gothic and Picaresque, together with the family history or family saga. These genres, or plot-types, are familiar to most readers as part of our living heritage: stories of the uncanny, horror, and terror, and stories of comic adventure in the company of less-than-perfect heros and heroines – heros and heroines whose travels are not just geographic in range, but social and cultural. And then the there is the family history, from Poe’s uncanny appropriations to the melodrama, the soaps and tv dramas of today’s popular culture. The Gothic and the Picaresque, together with their genre influence on today’s mass popular culture, are made up of transgressive hiatuses, problems in search of a solution: in the former case, structurally, as a mark of popular superstition, of the popular sublime (the ‘urban legend’); in the latter case as the transgression of social boundaries and the geographies associated with them. Melodrama, of course, thrives on shock tactics. The matter of excess in the these genres is also a matter inherited from the past; the content transgression that fills the bottle of genre is part of American history; the heritage of slavery and its impact of race relations in America, most notably, in the novels in question, that of the American South.

            In approaching transgression some definitions may be of use. The lexical meaning, or dictionary definition, offers the overstepping of a limit, which, in a legal frame, becomes the breaking of a law.[3] Further, in sacred, and -often unwritten- moral terms, transgression may involve the breaking of a custom or a taboo. Alternatively, transgression may be defined by reception, by its effect on the viewer or reader, as an offence or shock to audiences or public opinion. If much late-twentieth century art appears to operate by the definition of transgression according to reception, usually by means of the overstepping of a limit, this should not conceal the role of law, custom and taboo. At times the existing law may be broken. This often occurs along with the breaking of an aesthetic 'taboo' (a classic example would be the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe); in other cases, however, what is represented is actually the contravention of a taboo with sacred overtones, as in the case of incest, profanity and blasphemy, or acts of sacrilege (the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano may come to mind). In these cases transgression is measured against a religious belief system closely connected to a society's deeply felt, if unwritten, system of customs and mores (a complex for which I will use the upper case 'Law' in contrast to the every day legal connotations of the lower case, 'law'). It is the powerful shock felt in cases of such a taboo-break that is often the end of transgression in representation. This use of transgressive means for aesthetic ends is also an oblique way of conjuring up the sacred, albeit in negative form. Taboo intensifies the nature of the transgression and so rachets up the degree of aesthetic (in this case, literary) shock whilst simultaneously calling upon a given religion or upon more amorphous, but still affectively powerful, notions of the sacred. It is this latter, complex or combined, concept of transgression, with its Janus-headed critical valencies, facing at once the sacred and the profane, desire and law, identity and difference, which will inform this reading of Faulkner.

        A further refinement to the lexical, legal, and reception-based definitions given above, would look to semantics and logic to reveal the full degree of complexity and contradiction to be found in the concept of transgression. An essential part of any semantic definition of the verb, 'to transgress', is 'to act wrongly', to have commited an action which is 'bad' in the ethical sense; transgression is felt, intuitively and affectively, to have opposed what is both sacred and good (perhaps inciting the phrase, 'is nothing sacred'?).  This link between transgression, ethics, and the sacred is most clear in the case of the taboos upon incest and cannibalism.[4] Given a difference of opinion with law or morality as currently constituted, transgression may appear to have potential as a subversive or radical force. However, things look rather different when we turn our attention to transgression as a logical relation (and to ‘actually-existing ‘ transgression as documented by anthropology and history).[5]

            The logical definition of transgression must emphasise the pre-implication of law to transgression - there can be no transgression without law. It is law that is prior, and every transgression enacts a reminder of this, its condition of possibility. The net effect, therefore, is one of conservation, where the operation of a closed system ensures that transgression serves to point up the very norm transgressed. The positive case is reinforced with a negative example (until a new law or norm takes its place).  This closed system particularly applies to the transgressive use of incest; whether in (literary) representation such as Norman Mailer's An American Dream, or in life itself, as in the incestuous marriages of the royal families of the ancient Egyptians. This aspect of transgression is used to maintain or symbolise the aspiration of those participating in the transgressive activity to putative elite or 'supernatural' status; being above the taboo means being above the laws of nature. This conservational aspect is especially true of the form of sacrificial affirmation that requires a scapegoat; the transgressive ritual is what binds together a community into a collective identity.

            So it is that in Light in August, where the sacrifice of Joe Christmas underpins the sensus communis of the white community, readers who do not read with irony in mind, may find themselves participating in the cathartic aspects of the sacrifice, so becoming complicit with a murder which is also a symbolic ritual. Cleanth Brookes' communitarian evaluation of this novel, where Christmas' blood is read as the sacrament which is the cement of public order and collective identity, falls precisely into this trap.[6] 'Community' is effectively cemented by murder – the history of the pogrom demonstrates no different an effect. The acceptance of the positive result implies acceptance of the negative origin; the effect taints the participant with the cause.[7]

            However, the notion of sacrificial exchange is but one form of exchange, albeit one clearly linked to transgression and the sacred. Any examination of exchange in Faulkner will include the many transactions that join or separate, not only the I/we, and the us/them, but also relations between the races, sexes, classes, and generations. As well as the sacrifice of 'the other', the reader will encounter 'gift-giving' aimed at procuring a good self-image or absolution, such as charity - a sacrifice of the self. There will be exchanges where self-image, apparently more important even than the act of physical possession, is increased by the act of taking, whether by force or covert theft, or by an act of destruction. Then, more familiarly, there are the exchanges performed for a more mundane form of return, an economic, as opposed to a spiritual, identitarian, or recognition–based, form of profit.[8]

Of crucial importance to these novels here about to be put to the question, but also to our understanding of other literature, other fiction, other genres of culture (not least the oppositional ‘agitprop’ drama, the drama of the ‘sixties, ‘seventies and ‘eighties), is the relationship between such exchanges as they take place in the text (as part of the story, as part of ‘the world of the text’ that unfolds ‘before’ us as we read) and the exchange that takes place between the readership and the text at the time of reading. The relationship is that between the sacrificial, identity exchanges that we witness in the text and the, no less sacrificial, identity exchange that takes place between reader and text; it is this latter relationship that turns us into participants (precisely as if taking part in a ritual; indeed the force of literature, on this argument, lies in its resemblance to ritual).[9] For the witnessing, be it read or watched (in the case of a play or film) does not happen ‘before’ us, but, rather, inside us: whence the suture that turns us into participants (willing or unwilling). Participants that must take a side. Or adopt an identity that the text’s ritual exchanges have assigned for us; offering pre-established slots that the implied audience may unthinkingly accept, intuitively adopt: or the actual audience critically reject.[10] This latter set of conceptual relations describes the tool that underwrites much of this study’s analyses (for example, showing that the relationship between Law and transgression, on which Faulkner’s effects depend, is a ritual one). If society is best described (and understood) as being made up of exchanges, then so is our culture and its priviledged manifestation, literature.


The step from the intimacy of personal interiority to global concerns may be a small one – even when bridged, as they often are, by regional concerns. The well of interiority and its ever-shifting contents, the waters of emotion, must find their expression in the clothing of an enfolding culture, in the ‘cut’ of received forms and their contents; narratives and their ‘shaping’. If the lyric encapsulates feelings at their most intimate, then the novel captures the social agon that configures collective feeling and collective identity at a given time -  the degree to which both then maintain their cogency beyond their original historical pretext is what qualifies them as survivors in the race to be definied as an integral part of ‘art culture’. So it is that we find, in Faulkner's best writings, in the attempt to describe the conflict between the elements that make up his interior world, a tension between the influence of international movements in the arts (at that time of the Western, pre-globalised, world) in which American literary culture played a key innovative role (Ezra Pound, Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and Faulkner himself), and the local setting, a fictional Southern county, centering on the town of 'Jefferson'. The latter has a history that begins some time before the Civil War and finishes at around the time of writing of the given novel (in the examples discussed here, generally, the 'thirties and 'forties).

This tension between the international and the regional is also that between Modernism and that part of America known as ‘the South’ (also as the ’Old South’ and ‘New South’, marking the accesion of the slave-states into their post Civil War form). Together these offer the two prime sources of Faulkner's transgressive muse; transgressions that occur on the planes of form and of content. The formal, or stylistic transgression of the modernist avant-garde is paralleled by content transgressions which have their origin in the South (such as 'miscegenation'), and in the traditions of American literature (the incest theme).  The formal transgressions include the typical modernist techniques of changing viewpoint and disordered presentation of time as well as distortions of language and confusing literary figures. A disturbed, elliptic, or over-elaborate and winding, syntax is peppered with such 'nonsense' figures as paradox and oxymoron, and augmented by such semantic transgressions as offering too much, or too little, information, and an ornate latinate lexical register.[11]  The content transgressions are inherited from the tradition of American Gothic (see especially Sherwood Anderson and Robinson Jeffers), from the plantation genre, and from the related literary theme of 'passing' or the 'tragic mulatto'.[12] The theme of courtly love is also present (in its distinctive Southern version), as are incest, 'miscegenation' (the pseudo-scientific, racist term for sex between the races), and the tensions of race relations in the South in general.[13] 

             Form and content come together in the way formal transgression is used to hide some manner of content transgression, and in the figural forms that enact or perform the theme or problem that is the topic of a given passage or even of the novel as a whole.  The reader is made to work to discover the hidden incestuous event in the former case: in the latter the text's key thematic problems appear as repeated rhetorical configurations. These key configurations, or codified exchanges of meaning, shape the problematic at issue and its expression, shape, therefore, our emotional response, as well as our rational understanding. I find that two broad types of rhetorical figure accomplish this work, two broad forms of meaning-shaping, calling-up and dealing with two broad foms of indirect lexical cohesion; one dealing with ‘community’ and the other with ‘history’. So if the examination that follows has recourse to such strange-sounding terms as 'negative synecdoche' and 'inverse metalepsis', this means nothing more that, in the former, the problems of part and whole, in a 'community' divided by race, are often expressed in figures of meaning which are based upon the relationship of part to whole (and vice versa). Do terms like community and Law speak for all or only for a part of the population? At the time of these texts' writing, the white part of the community exercised its dominance through its control of the law, its institutions, definitions and field of appliations, sacralised - in a further synecdoche - as Law. This definies the field of ‘negative synechdoche’; a ‘whole’ which is not ‘one’.

            The second term, 'inverse metalepsis', links history, or a temporally distant cause, with a current assessment of a given situation, or it may suggest the reassessment of the past in such a way that it is interpreted as pre-figuring the present (prophesy, soteriology).  This term is formed from the rhetorical figure, 'metalepsis', that yokes together distant cause and present effect, a figure which effectively describes the relation between two distant moments ('here I cry and far away lies the grave of my beloved', or, in a purely temporal version (as metalepsis is often read as the key figure of temporality): 'here I cry and long ago died my beloved'). However, the questionability of this relation, the fact that the interpretative causality actually begins in the character's present, in the needs of the present or of the self (character), is signalled by the addition of 'inverse'. The metaleptic relation and its inversion together ironise or put into question the reading where the myth or image of the Old South, or a memory apparently from childhood, is read as the distant cause (of the present effect) of a character's predicament or beliefs. The connection is found to be false or ideological’ (in the ‘bad’ sense), a sleight of hand designed to avoid the responsibility, and so volition, owing to the present (the question of debt, so important to Ike McCaslin in Go Down Moses). Along with a variety of exchange relations, it is the many forms and combinations of temporality (often contrasted to linear ‘clock’ time) that provide a key to the subjectivities created in these novels.

The vexed relations of parts of communities to each other, of different identities of a given society to one another, taken together with their supporting (but often mutually conflicting) histories, suggest that such identities are always already political. Identity is inconceivable without recognition, its ‘proof’ and outer manifestation; community made visible with its inclusions and exclusions, debts and demonifications. Political community and recognition were made the basis of the understanding (or theorisation) of human society, the origins and structuration of which they seek to explain, in the political philosophies of Hobbes and Hegel (liberal thinkers have created no such comparable model, however, Hegel, it now appears, was after all a closet liberal - according to the publication of his private letters; like Leibnitz before him, maintaining an offical philosophy whilst keeping his private beliefs out of the public sphere). Society is the outcome of such struggles for recognition. Insofar as literature is made from the depiction of such struggles (and all great literature is the depiction of the agon, of the contested and divided identities occasioned by the problems of its period) then the characters of Faulkner’s best writing are micro-cosms of the social whole - their divided loyalties expressing the key social divisions of the day, just as Greek Comedy and the nineteenth century novel of adultery did in theirs. Throughout this book, but most especially in the chapter on Light in August, this aspect of the self as both written by, and writing, the realm of the political, as itself the effect of the divisions that, in every sense, ‘make up’ society, will be brought to the fore. A ‘make up’ that is as fictional as it is formed by, ‘makes up’, the agony of the period in question.

            The previous discussion in many ways already answers the question: why the inclusion of these particular texts here chosen (and not the ones written later)? The high Modernist, experimental aesthetic produced inspired writing from Faulkner, by comparison to which, the later works are poorer in invention, grosser in symbolism, with characters that slide into caricatures or two-dimensional types. If the comic, realist forms favoured by Faulkner in his later work (‘realist’ in the sense of Dickens rather than Tolstoy) do not measure up to their predecessors, it is not that these forms are incapable of producing exciting literature, it is that Faulkner is not at his best in them (his early work too, featured these genres). Less intense in style, content and invention, less transgressive in purely aesthetic terms, and much less expressive of tortured subjectivity, the later works so often appear as a going through the motions by one who has already said, and said well, what he has to say.[14] 

            I have chosen, therefore, to concentrate upon the main novels of Faulkner's high Modernist period, approximately, 1929-1942, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go, Down, Moses, all get a chapter to themselves, whilst, Sanctuary, and its sequel, Requiem for a Nun, share one between them. The omission of As I Lay Dying, Wild Palms, and the slightly later Intruder in the Dust, from extended analysis, can only be excused by lack of space; their inclusion would have transgressed the proper length of this kind of study. I have, in general, taken the persistent use of the rhetoric of transgression as my final guide to inclusion. Three of the novels discussed include the incest theme, a perennial in American literature - another novel hints at it; 'miscegenation', 'passing', and some form of racial violence are present in most. Chapter two had its origin in questions addressed to the feminine in Faulkner; Sanctuary was regarded in its time as the most shocking of Faulkner's novels, in many ways its sequel is hardly less so.

            In chapter one, the chapter divisions of The Sound and the Fury, their inter-relations, and their temporal movements are shown as the sources of some the text's key aesthetic effects and meanings. The kind of movement, or rhythm of oscillation, between the present of the narrator and the remembered past will be found to be constitutive of a kind, of a number of kinds, of subjectivity. In the temporal relations within the chapters, Benjy's ego-less leaps of association are contrasted to Quentin's obsessive guilty circling, and both of these to Jason's cynical, justificatory dips into the past. Moving from the temporal colours of the self to a temporal self of colour, Dilsey alone is shown to have a relation to the future which is not negative - the later being exemplified by absence, (Benjy), death (Quentin), or theft (Jason's gambling with stocks). The detailed examination of Quentin's chapter, will offer a new interpretation of his transgressive relationship to this sister, his motivation during the river-bank episode, and, central to these, his problematic relation with his father. This reading will based upon a particular relation of repetition to transgression as a failed attempt to escape fate (an attempt ritualised in the text, and for the reader who is dragged spell-bound along with the attempt), and upon the uses of the personal past, with its links to a given cultural heritage. The concept of the sacred makes a double appearance: negatively, as part of the courtly love theme attached to Quentin's obsession with his sister; positively in Dilsey's religious experience which informs her care for the Compson family.

            Chapter two will deal with the representation of the feminine in Faulkner as represented in the connected stories of Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun. The literary uses of exchange, guilt and female sexuality, will be explored, and a narrative voyeurism located that belongs to an old style masculinity, and which still insists on the division of women into the cultural stereotypes of virgin and whore (with their moral correlates of always already ‘innocent‘ and ‘guilty’). The links between the feminine and time in Faulkner will continue to be investigated; Temple Drake's first night at the brothel is shown to combine a number of types of time in a way which questions the place of gender in a variety of temporal modes. If the question -what does a woman want?- is asked by both stories, then the answer is found to be so threatening as to call for sacrificial control. The ritual destruction of bodies, in a process depicted in both stories, is shown to be required to maintain the social body. Death, by lynching, or by state execution, is shown to be the collective answer to what is depicted as unlicensed or uncontrolled female desire.

            Chapter three, on Light in August, notes that in this chapter, religion, the use of the past, and the inter-relations of gift, taking, and charity are all part of the making(-up) of individual identity, not least in its relation to the tensions of race and community identity. The 'tragic mulatto' who can 'pass' is shown to be transgressive in race, sex, and mortality, in a depiction which enacts and exposes the fears of the white imaginary. The reading of lynching as sacrificial ritual and collective suture, begun in chapter two, is expanded. However, exchange, in this novel, also takes the form of qualitatively contrasted relations between the sexes. This chapter also suggests that the figures of thought that recur in Faulkner's high modernist period, general figures which unite rhetoric and theme, are based upon the problematicised part/whole relations of 'negative synecdoche', and upon dubious, even mythic, remembrances of the past, which appear as 'inverse metalepses'. This chapter also takes the opportunity to examine naming, calling, and classification as types of figure which can, on utterance, used in or as a sentence, sentence the one so-named into a secure position in the community or to a living hell as its eternal other or scapegoat. The ethical position of the reader implied by genre and genre mixing (here of tragedy and comedy) and so for an aesthetics of reception and its relation to judgement and critique are also explored in this chapter.

            Chapter four, finds Absalom, Absalom! to continue and further expand the exploration of sacrificial exchange in Faulkner's modernist writing. The reappearance of Quentin as narrator is examined for the approach which he brings to the story and so any linkage to the themes of The Sound and the Fury which may be found to occur. The text's unresolved dilemmas, its mysteries or sought-for secrets, are explored through its manipulation of narrative voice(s), especially through the notion of indicative and subjunctive narrative moods (the distinction, often disguised in the text, between what happened and what the narrative voice wanted to happen). Unlike other readings, which have focused upon his criminality, Sutpen's grand design is shown to have a dependant relation to the sacralised Law; a law that in its purest ideal form is shown to demand the sacrifice of children, and of generations. Also examined is the persistent theme of reproduction; of society, of its significant divisions, of the family, of individuals and their identity, and of ideals... and of the price to be paid, their sacrificial or symbolic exchange value.

            Chapter five, which deals with the stories collected in Go Down, Moses, is read as a continuation of the themes of the previous chapters, but with the focus firmly upon an attempt at restitution and its omissions. This continuity will necessitate examining the central three stories in the collection in detail whilst passing-over the others in undeserving haste. In Ike's story of restitution, Nature is found to be opposed to property; personal ethical identity is opposed to the inheritance of the past. This is a sacrifice of self, of one's own property, in exchange for one's own propriety. Sacrifice still supports identity, but this time it is one's identity as a proper person, even if one cut of from certain aspects of community life (like heroes and heroines of the medieval Saint’s Life, on which his own is, in so many ways, modelled, Ike must also renounce raising a family). Faulkner has moved on to explore the act of sacrifice as restitution (but only on the part of an individual, not as a collective act made by the community, the latter usually being symbolised by a statement made by its political leaders). The originary transgression revealed in 'The Bear' demands ritual atonement from succeeding generations. The novel is read as demanding the return to Law, that is, a law fully sacralised, transcendent, and eternal, a Law above the custom and law of worldly contingency. Yet the question remains: will this be a vengeful, partial Law, sacrificial of the Other, or will it be a Law that all sections of the community can respect?


What is the place of William Faulkner and of literary transgression in American literature? How does the evolution of literary transgression fit into the paradigms drawn by commentators on American literature and culture? Most American critical appraisals of transgression take a route through psychoanalysis. Leslie Fiedler, pairs lack of oedipal maturity and the history of American Gothic in Love and Death in the American Novel, (1960). Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition, (1958), finds that American literature 'pictures human life in the context of unresolved contradiction' through 'the aesthetic possibilities of radical forms of alienation, contradiction, and disorder'. Transgression is the key signifier of 'disorder' and 'contradiction'. For R.W.B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint (1960) is a fallen version of the literary hero of The American Adam (1955), where late romanticism and modernism signify a fall from hope into a concern with sin. Chase's extremism and Lewis' fall share ground with Trilling's 'The Fate of Pleasure', in Beyond Culture (1965), which turns to psychoanalysis to find a kind of experimental writing where 'negative transcendence' is a pure (pleasureless) volition; where creative will becomes sin beyond the pleasure principle, and Freud's death instinct is used to explain 'the perverse and morbid idealism of the modern writer'. As will become apparent, this particular study prefers anthroplogy, political philosophy and critical theory to psychoanalysis for its theoretical inspiration.[15]

Why does the world of Modernist literature and American modernism in particular (and not forgetting Postmodernism) offer a canon which so glaringly features incest as a defining feature?  Perhaps a canon as defined by its reliance upon transgression - with incest as its priviledged indicator or symptom or… catalyst (inherited from Romantic art culture and the popular novel to be sure). It is worth noting that this literary genealogy finally arrives at child sexual abuse as the post-modern version of incest as a literary function as well as referentially ‘reflecting’ the discovery or retranslation of this taboo in the late twentieth century (a rediscovery pre-figured in the incestuous abuse of children in Faulkner and others). If modernist transgression is found to signify the (myth of the) fall from social unity and (equally fictional) unanimity, through literary affective experimentation, as a continuation of Romantic exclusivity - with incest as the trangressive core of the ritual effect (repulsion as key to norm-giving); then with Postmodernism, the relative absence of, or qualitatively different forms of experimentation, signify play, exploration and contradiction with inclusiveness - with incest shading into child sexual abuse under the twin pressures of cultural revelation (historical reference) and the drive for novelty (transgression).[16] Both ‘-isms’ (along with the rest of literary history) evincing the play of plaire et instruire. If there were no ‘pleasure of the text’ there would only be… propaganda. We may read all secular culture as marked by ritual, perhaps featuring art culture as special case, with elite culture as evincing most ritual effects (retaining the sacred, even if in negative form with transgression as margin, frame or shadow that produces the foreground of Law) identifiable as offering a sublime frisson; which has largely evaporated from popular culture or remains vestigial (ghost or horror stories), a means to obtain a passing frisson (a ‘cheap thrill’) or to be hit over the head by digital special effects. Perhaps both finally boil down to a shock offering; unwanted (but wanted) as a gift, telling us what we humans really are (capable of). If there is no ‘we’, then we simply have a species of the demonification of the other (as before the ‘eighties doxa believed that incest/child abuse was limited to rural, usually poverty-stricken, communities). In the case of sublime effects (defined as a response of fear, awe or belittlement allied to the sense of a metaphysical ‘outside’ or supernatural reference point) art culture is found to offer the abstinent influence of absence and irony, abjection and existential terror: whilst popular culture offers a heady brew of the Gothic (the ‘outside’ inside) and the supernatural as popular superstition (and, again, those ‘shock and awe’ digital effects).[17] 

Is there a sense of ‘the big picture’ in all this? Anthropologically speaking, we are offered an echo of the sacred via the survival of ritual (through exchanges that appear to be hard-wired into the construction of identity). Such a survival may often be found to take the form of a kind of ‘negative sublime’ (whence the importance of transgression, which in this, as in other , traditional, ritual contexts is profundly conservative in its function – in marked contrast to its ‘authenticist’, or ‘liberationist’ reading which foregrounds generational difference and reactive cultural formations reading them as the key to a restricted, normative, human essence). This is the sublime (effect) in literature without the positive (in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, for example, the symbolism, taken from the medieval Saint’s Life, points ‘elsewhere’ to a sacralisation supported by tradition and the exteriority which is the deixis of the sublime: ‘heaven’ or some residue of religion – as we can also see in Lars von Trier’s film, Breaking the Waves). The negative denies the normative sense of the Good as guaranteed by Nature or the Heavens - a combination found in Classical and Romantic thought and which is a feature of classical Chinese thought (critically observed by the philosopher, Xunzi) – in favour of a fallen world, akin to that of the Cathars, or in Zoastrianism, where the order of things is no longer conducive to the Good, leaning rather towards its opposite, Evil. When further combined with an ironic attitude, the result offers a world-weary pragmatic plateau, where ideals are only possible ‘under erasure’. If the former is an aspect of secular society, moving towards the rule of reason and the commodity (usually called ‘modernism’ as a crisis moment in the arts - or Modernity as a general post-feudal evolution of human culture); then the latter is a key part of the arrival of mass society and a ‘post-experimental’ attitude (often called ‘postmodernism’ - or ‘Postmodernity’, when the idea of the objective veracity of a single unifying narrative or metaphysics is put into question).

Sociologically and economically speaking we have the reign of Reason and the Commodity. Otherwise writ: the relationship of intitutions to discourse (including art) and the relationship between art (discourse) and supply and demand - in short, the State and the Market. The relations of political and economic power and their influence on the production and evolution of culture (Weber, the Frankfurt School, Bourdieu and Foucault). A combined model might suggest; the survival into modern institutions and market exchange relations of older modes of art cultural practice and exchange relations (gift/identity exchange ‘normally’ carried by some form of rituality). If the field of existence governed by the commodity is happy with transgression together with incest, its privileged sign (this felicity is guarantied by the marriage of the commodity with desire, in both its key manifestations, material and spiritual, for objects and bodies as for recognition), then that putatively govened by reason is less sanguine; in this realm of human existence transgression calls out for governance and legal restriction (interestingly, nothing is new here, we find exactly the same conservative role as that played by ritual transgression in prior social forms). All of which further suggests that modern institutions and exchange relations do not quite operate on the tabula rasa we thought was (or might have wanted to be) the case (so offering a constructionism with some persistant, if hard to pin down, hard wiring…).[18] 


I want now to turn to the key issue of interpretation: more particularly to the most vexed, and still vexing question in Faulkner criticism and interpretation.  What to do with the rhetoric of race, with the issue of race and rhetoric, the rhetorical use of ‘race’ in the work of William Faulkner? For the depiction of the colour line, may be read as depicting such as biological, genetic, with racial difference motivating culture, the behaviour of the characters (see especially the description of Christmas in Light in August): or, conversely, as just a depiction, as an appropriation, so not biological, genetic, but cultural, as a depiction, and a self-confessedly fiction one at that, structured by a rhetoric… and by a vision (the transgression of which is also form of rhetoric) in short, a form of persuasion - but of whom and of what… to what end… that is quite a question. Does Faulkner use his depiction of race deliberately, as a strategy; does it express the (real) feelings of the (real) author (as well as those of the implied author, an imaginary entity implied by the evidence of the text in the mind of the reader in the pragmatic moment of actual realisation of the art work)? Or is it all unconscious; a symptom of his predicament and indictor of his prejudices? Furthermore is the conscious use of ‘race’ as a form of rhetoric (about race) a racist or anti-racist strategy (confirming prejudice or questioning it)? These are perhaps finally questions undecidable; since anything in the text may be read as if ‘placed’ there; but to second-guess the ‘real’ feelings of the real author is illegal speculation (for this the apposite genres are biography and history, not literature). This study strongly suggests that the rhetoric of race is so pervasive and all encompassing that it must be read as a key to the implied author’s psychic structure and (more importantly) our response to these cues. For the real author’s views on this, the interested reader may consult the relevant biographies or historical studies.[19] If the real author may have been and may have employed a racist rhetoric, the real and implied reader (we may collapse them) may find that the implied author was nevertheless exposing the structures that formed him and prevailed as a social reality at the time of writing.

            For if Gennette’s reduction of textual ‘persons’ to two, the voice of the narrator and that of a given character (with various admixtures possible, as in their equal weighting in ‘free indirect discourse’), if this reduction performs a remarkable tidying operation, a kind of ‘Ocam’s razor’ applied to the poetics of narrative, then the twentieth century’s key insight, the ‘last word’ on meaning-making offered by pragmatic linguistics (and echoed by philosophers of language from C. S. Peirce to the ‘later’ Wittgenstein to Rorty and Derrida) is that it is the reader (speaker, user, performer, viewer and witness) who makes meaning, is also not to be ignored.[20] To do so would be to regard the text only as an object, without a perceiving, receiving subject. The notion of an ‘implied reader’ (Iser) offers an interesting compromise – but one finally that relies on the notion that the ideal reader of the given text is its original one (Jauss’s ‘horizon of expectations’ as that of the general or implied reader at the time of publication).[21]. An approach that does not prioritise, or at the very least allow-in, today’s reader (whenever ‘today’ may fall) leaves us only with literary history, and not with literature (a ‘historical’ text and not a ‘literary’ one). I repeat the point made above : a ‘literary’ text is one that is ‘literature’ now (one that is read as such now, is subject as much to the play of the reader’s emotional faculties as it is to his or her cognitive faculties). In one sense any reader’s (any real, particular, ‘actually-existing’ reader’s) reading is a ‘true’ reading (it is a reading, the product of an interaction between a real person and a real text). However if other readers find that this particular reading does not match up with their reading, with their experience of the text, then this is where the debate begins (a debate which largely, but not exclusively, involves critics and academics, generally a smaller set than the text’s actual readership). Pointing to evidence is the only way to solve the problem. Finally then we must return to the text – the study that follows will do just this: point… Point out, that is, those moments in the text where the exchange relation with the reader, the ‘ritual exchange’ between reader and text, is at its most effective, which is also its most affective… most conducive to producing stong responses, strong emotions, so producing identification or repulsion. Either way a response that will be coloured strongly by emotion (with the implication being that without such emotional identifications and the self-divisions they may occasion the text remains ‘meaningless’).

So if, in one sense, we cannot make ‘windows into men’s souls’ then it is precisely literature (and even more so poetry) that come closest to doing so. In fact, in epochs that lack much history we look to literary survivals for guidance on ‘structures of feeling’ or mentalitie (a pre-eminent example would be the one and a half thousand year history of the Saint’s Life, the ‘novel of the Middle Ages’). And it is not only in factually-bereft epochs that we look to the survivals of literary culture for clues to the habits of thought of the past, but in others also: finally it is literature (as opposed to dates of battles and political successions) that gives us the feel of an epoch or culture (or the emotional obsessions of the literate class of that culture, or the ‘listenership’ of a culture of restricted literacy), from which we must subtract the conventions of the form (the formulas of genre) as well as the predelictions of our own epoch (insofar as this is possible). Whether we read the ritual elements of a given (literary) text as an artifical convention or as prime revelation (the ‘royal road’ to the emotional life of a period) is a matter for our (implied) general theory of literature; what ‘it’ is, what, or who, it represents, and how it ‘fits’ into the culture of which it is (or was) a pre-eminent part.  The deifications and demonifications, transcendences and abjections, axioms and transgressions, we are about to discuss, were not Faulkner’s alone.




Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2013

[1] J. M. Coetzee, Inner Workings. Literary Essays : 2000-2005 (London: Penguin, 2008); ‘As a historian of the modern South, Faulkner’s abiding achievement is the Snopes trilogy…’ p. 199. In fact in prefering the novels of class to those of race, Coetzee doubly elides his own interests…

[2] Peter Nesteruk, ‘The Transgressive Turn: American Writing of the late 1980s and early 1990s’, Borderlines: Studies in American Culture, 2. 4 (1995) pp. 331-350.

[3] Collins Concise English Dictionary, (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1992) Third Edition.

[4] For an illuminating discussion of the connection between these areas, see W. Arens, Original Sin: Incest and its Meaning, (Oxford: OUP, 1986).

[5] Several decades in the second half of the last century saw a fashion for the concept transgression taken in a political light; as in the case of Bakhtin (or his followers) in his concept of ‘carnival’ (this latter based entirely upon literary readings and having no basis in history or anthropology) and in the utopian reading of the writings of Bataille to Baudrillard, who dream of a metaphysical (read ‘religious’) break-through to the otherside (to quote ‘The Doors’). Both readings fly in the face of recorded fact.

[6]  See Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: First Encounters, (London: Yale UP, 1983).

[7] See Robert Holton, Jarring Witnesses: Modern Fiction and the Representation of History, (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994) for a recent examination of concept of sensus communis  and history in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, and other twentieth century literature.

[8]  The anthropological tradition which underpins my use of sacrifice, and especially my key category of 'identity exchange', is that of Durkheim and Mauss, their followers in the 1930's in the Collège de Sociologie, and the influence of the latter on post-structuralist and (in America) critical anthropological thought. See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (New York: Free Press, 1965), Trans. Joseph Ward Swain; Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, (London: Routledge, 1990), and with Henri Hubert, Sacrifice its Nature and Function (1898), (London; Cohen & West, 1964), Trans. W.D. Hall; Georges Bataille, L'experience Intérieure, (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), and The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, (New York: Zone, 1991), see esp. on 'sovereignty'   (pp. 198-200); Roger Caillois, L'homme et le Sacré, (Paris: Gallimard, 1950), see esp, on la Fête (pp. 130-142); and Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, (London: Fontana, 1993). Geertz notes of the anthropological tradition of Durkheim, that it, 'emphasizes the manner in which belief and particularly ritual reinforce the traditional social ties between individuals; it stresses the way in which the social structure of a group is strengthened and perpetuated through the ritualistic or mythic symbolisation of the underlying social values upon which it rests' (p. 142). See also Anthony Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community, (Chichester: Ellis Horwood, 1985), for definition of communities by exclusion and inclusion. For a discussion of 'primitivism' in twentieth century western cultures, see Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive (Chicago, 1990), and I. M. Lewis, Social Anthropology in Perspective, Second Edition (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), esp. pp. 207-210.

[9] See Peter Nesteruk, ‘Ritual, Sacrifice & Identity in Recent Political Drama’, Journal of Dramatic Theory & Criticism, XV. 1 (2000) pp. 21-42; ‘Ritual & Identity in Twentieth Century American Drama’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism Vol.XIX.2 (2005) pp. 43-69. Also see my essay on Sherwood Anderson’s ‘I want to know why’ in The Story of the Egg (update coming). For more on the key relationship between a sacrificial event or exchange within the text and a sacrificial exchange (a significant meaning-making exchange relation) between the audience and the text (a part of the reception of the performance or reading of a given play or text by the text’s implied or target audience(s)).

[10] Indeed, the African-American experimental playright, Amiri Baraka, experiments with this division of affect and association in his plays regarding the question of race. See also Nesteruk, ‘Ritual & Identity in Twentieth Century American Drama’.

[11] In rhetorical terms, hyperbaton, the figure of the disturbance of syntax, is also known as transgressio. See Walter J. Slatoff, The Quest for Failure (1960), (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1972), for the use of antithesis and oxymoron (pp. 79-132). My preference would be to convert paradox (logical opposition) and oxymoron (semantic opposition) into a double reference (whose referents can be found in the context), representing either two contrasting, two complementary aspects, or two different views of the same thing. Antithesis leads to an antiphrasis exposed; irony results. See chapter three for applications.

[12]   For examples of the plantation genre see the novels of John Esten Cooke and Thomas Nelson Page, and more particularly, George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes (1980) and Kate Chopin's short stories in Bayou Folk (1894).  For the attendant theme of 'passing' or the dilemmas of those of mixed race, like the 'tragic mulatto', who is 'white but not quite', a theme often linked to 'miscegenation', see Dion Boucicault's play, The Octroon (1859) based upon Mayne Reid's novel, see also Nella Larsen, Passing (1929).

[13] If the Southern version of Protestant asceticism takes a Gnostic or Manichean turn, rejecting the world as evil, then it is no surprise to find it in the company of a Southern version of the Courtly Love theme (the renunciation of sex for the ideal worship of a good woman as spiritually uplifting);  both trace their origins to early (Roman) Christianity. See Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride, (London: Harvard UP, 1996), for the background to these developments and the answer to Denis de Rougemont's 'orientalist' thesis, in Passion and Society (1939), (London, Faber, 1956), also known as, Love in the Western World, which offers the oriental and Cathar (late medieval) origins of the Courtly Love theme as a perversion of Christian Love, an idea followed by Lionel Trilling, amongst others. For a theory of transgression based upon these belief-systems, see Richard H. King, 'World Rejection in Faulkner's Fiction', in Doreen Fowler & Anne J. Abadie (eds.) Faulkner and Religion: Faulkner and Yoknopatawpha, 1989, (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991) pp. 65-84, where disgust, hatred, excess and transgression are viewed as part of a 'nihilistic register', aspects of a Gnostic theme of word rejection in Faulkner's writing (p. 66).

[14] However, see Irving Howe, William Faulkner, 1951, (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975) for 'wanton excess' in Faulkner's later works  (p. 158).

[15] So the role of transgression in literature, is, in effect, one of ritual effect in literature - and in culture in general (as a theoretical abstraction). In American culture in particular we find it conjoined with questions of violence and identity, inclusion and exclusion. We might look to the use of ritual relations in drama theory (comprising of sacrificial events in the story and sacrificial exchange relations between the audience and the performance or reading; see Nesteruk, ‘Ritual & Identity in Twentieth Century American Drama’). These relations largely centre on the type of ‘the sacrifice of the self’, or the sacrifice of the Same (a feature of the Jewish-christian tradition, and of martyrs in Islam also). This rhetoric casts the negative (and so claiming the moral high ground) by featuring a sacrifice of ones own community of identification; effectively claiming victimhood and projecting guilt. A feature of political drama in America - especially its radical wing. So the role of sacrificial transgression in American drama taken together with its literary manifestations (culminating in aesthetic value and shock value in the writings of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy but present in much other regional literature) indicates that all American culture does this. A special feature… a cultural ‘accent’ ?

[16] See Peter Nesteruk, Referentiality and Transgression: Representations of Incest in Twentieth Century American Literature. (Ph.D thesis: Nottingham University, 1994); ‘The Incest Theme in American Writing', and, ‘The Transgressive Turn: American Writing of the late 1980s and early 1990s’; for a more resolutely Foucauldian perspective, see Gillian Harkins, ‘Southern Realism and the Labour of Incest’, Southern Literary Journal, 40, 1, Fall 2007 (pp. 114-139); Everyones Family Romance: Reading Incest in Neo-Liberal America (Uni. of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[17] Jay Bernstein, The Fate of Art (Oxford: Polity, 1992) and Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[18] ‘Hard wiring’ is often found read culturally as optional; as ‘archaism’ or as ‘tradition’, by rationalists and conservatives respectively. Yet what is ‘tradition’ as opposed to real ‘hard wiring’? The latter always obtains, always returns in differing social formations (the gift relation in commodity society as identity via consumerism, etc); the former, tradition, reconstructs and maintains institutions (cultural and political) and when these are damaged or ‘overthrown’, they ‘return’ as the extremes of the centralised state or failed state (just as gender, class and generational roles reappear in their most basic forms and functions after their dissruption or ‘abolition’).

[19] Key and recent offerings include: Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (1974) two volumes, and in one volume (New York: Random House, 1984); Frederick R. Karl, William Faulkner: American Writer, (London: Faber, 1989); Joel Williamson, Faulkner and Southern History (Oxford: OUP, 1993); and the intelligent review of this by Richard H. King, in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XLVI (Summer 1992, No. 3); Jay Parini, One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

[20] Gérard Gennette, Narrative Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP. ****) ; Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction (London: Methuen, 1983).


[21] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader (London: John Hopkins, 1974); Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Brighton: The Harvester Press Limited, 1982).