Recently, with the on-going January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection hearings underway, I’ve been thinking about William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, a young man who committed suicide on June 2, 1910. The protagonist of Sound and the Fury (1929), the 20-year old lives out his last day of life, as some could say, a victim of his belief. A belief that haunts him and makes him purchase two six flat irons to hide under the bridge at the Charles River, in Boston.
Quentin is in that city as a Southerner from Mississippi, a student, enrolled at Harvard University. And while he believes himself to be the inheritor of racial privilege, as an honored member of the Southern patriarchy and wealthy class, his family barely has any land. They are virtually penniless. He walks about the streets of Boston on June 2nd hearing the voices of his family members warning him of the truth of his and their predicament. “Going to Harvard. We have sold Benjy’s… We have sold Benjy’s pasture so that Quentin may go to Harvard a brother to you. Your little brother.” But as Colonel Nathan Jessup, in A Few Good Men, informs the JAG prosecutor, “‘You can’t handle the truth,’” Quentin has shut his eyes and sealed his ears to the truth. Quentin, for the life of him, can’t handle it!
On the other hand, Jason Compson, Sr., Quentin’s father, is all too aware of his oldest son’s problem, for it represents a microcosm of the problem facing the region as a whole. The South can’t accept its Defeat and the resulting dismantling of a myth that rests on the foundational belief in white superiority. Quentin is just one son among many who, angry and bitter, refuses change.
The young Faulkner might have been Quentin Compson before he was able to come to terms with the Defeat and start life anew in a new world. As a stand-in for a mature Faulkner, Mr. Compson questioned the “legends” he heard as a young man, once the South was confronted with the ruins of its beliefs. He would have recognized the myth of Southern glory as a dead relic, “signifying nothing.” Whatever it was meant to represent, died when the Blacks were freed from bondage. What validity did the myth of white supremacy have, other than actors willing to play out unbecoming roles in a tragedy?
The Sound and the Fury is Faulkner’s summation that all the adherents to white supremacy engaged in delusional thinking which made the whole region as well as the country wrongheaded. But Faulkner, like his surrogate, Mr. Compson, fears a good many sons of the South, like Quentin, won’t manage to escape the hold this way of thinking has on him and will perish with the dying myth. And, for a while, it’s all Quentin has to cling to.
You are trapped in a “‘mausoleum of all hope and desire.’” But it’s no longer. No longer real, if it ever was. Quentin recalls his father handing him the watch Colonel Compson (Quentin’s grandfather) wore, saying, “‘[I]t’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experiences which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s.’” On June 2, 1910, Quentin wakes up in his dorm room and hears those words and sees, again, his father handing him the watch. Noticing the “shadow of the sash” as it appears on the curtains, he hears his father continue to warn: Try not to conquer time; try to forget it. “‘No battle is ever won.’” The field only reveals “‘folly and despair.’” Remember, “‘victory is an illusion.’”
Yet, for Quentin, the watch worn in the Old South, worn during the Civil War, still ticks. And if it still ticks, he will live in its time, his, Quentin’s, preferred time! Quentin, at 20-years old, decides to live in the shadow of all the Old South stood for. So he will be haunted and controlled by what is only a figment of the collective imagination. But for Quentin, the Old South is America’s past, present, and future.
Quentin continues to hear the watch ticking as he recalls hearing his voice reading the announcement, “‘Mr and Mrs Jason Richmond Compson announce the marriage of…’” He walks, thinking, “‘No sister no sister had no sister,’” and then Quentin recalls telling his father that he, Quentin, slept with Caddy, his sister. He committed incest. And his father, weary of the increasingly delusional son, tells the young man that he can’t control time. Or women’s minds and bodies… “‘[M]en invented virginity not women,’” his father tells him. “‘They lie about it.’” Society, that is. “‘But to believe it doesn’t matter and he [his father], tells him, That’s what’s so sad about anything: not only virginity…’”
Maybe Harvard will snap him out of it!
Quentin arrives in Boston, but his mind is filled with images of the “blackguards” his sister slept with and the one she will marry. He recalls trying to make her a believer, too. A Southern Lady, despite the “blackguards.” How many, he asked her. How many! Omit the truth about the “blackguards.” Had his father and his father’s father betrayed him? Had patriarchy failed him so that, in the end, he fails to protect his sister from the “blackguards?”
All forward progress is beyond Quentin’s reach now. Only honor matters now. As the shadow closes in on him, he thinks about the two six flat irons under the bridge. He sees deep into the water, thinking, “And maybe when He says Rise the eyes will come floating up too, out of the deep quiet and the sleep, to look on glory…” He is almost in ascendant, in rapture, until he looks down and recognizes something reminding him of “home.”
Looking out a train car window, Quentin’s eyes spots Deacon.
He remembers the last time he saw the older Black man. Deacon, dressed in a Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) uniform, was marching in the middle of the Decoration Day parade. Quentin’s roommate, Shreve, stood nearby and offered a comment in reference to the older Black man. “‘Just look at what your grandpa did to that poor old n-----.’” And Quentin recalls his response, “‘Yes… Now he can spend day after day marching in parades. If it hadn’t been for my grandfather, he’d have to work like whitefolks.’”
Here is Deacon in Quentin’s sights again. He recalls all the Black men he used to know. All in servitude. The crack in the myth is revealing a “free” Deacon! A Deacon “away” from the southern plantation! But for Quentin, Deacon is still Black and it’s his being a Black that makes him different enough to present Quentin with a familiar sight: “‘a n----- on a mule in the middle of the stiff ruts, waiting for the train to move.’” And Quentin thinks, It was “‘like a sign put there saying You are home again.’”
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That’s the power of blackness, Melville would say!
It is so ordered by Divine Providence, some Americans would say. And yet Quentin, actually is forced to use his brain to think. Briefly. “‘I used to think that a Southerner had to be always conscious of n-----s. I thought that Northerners would expect him to… You’ve got to remember to think of them as colored people not n------….I realized that a n----- is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.’”
But the thought is too painful to last. Quentin is uncomfortable by the innuendo that there might be another crack in the myth. Common sense won’t prevail here.
Quentin raises the window and looks down at Deacon. “‘Hey, Uncle,’” he calls out, and pointing to the blanket in Deacon’s possession, he asks if it were a “Christmas gift.” And Deacon responds, in kind, “‘Sho comin, boss. You done caught me, aint you?’” And Quentin, ever the Southern Gentleman, pulls a quarter from his pants pocket to throw down to the caricature, the “shadow.”
“‘Buy yourself some Santy Claus.’”
“‘Yes, suh… Thanky, young marster. Thanky.’”
The shadow is closing in on the zealot. The radical believer in all things haunting. Again, in his mind’s eye, he sees the two six flat irons… Quentin has been there in the waters all along, hasn’t he? White supremacy, there in the ever present shadow, his “companion,” to use Toni Morrison’s word in Playing in the Dark, since the fall of the South, at least, has him long submerged in the waters. Quentin Compson has become a legacy, a “shadow,” himself of “a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American Literature with fear and longing.”
And the cover up invented to justify the perpetual use of violence has been nothing short of tyrannical!
Even while I worked on The Sound and the Fury in my dissertation on Faulkner’s major works, I never thought Quentin Compson an obstructionist, an anti-Black promoter, an anti-democratic rebel. What kind of intervention would have freed Quentin of his demons? So determined was he to have the South in his image and likeness. The hell with those who would suffer the ideology he was willing to die for.
Quentin could have shouted from the roof top the truth; but instead, he becomes angry, rants and lies. Finally, Quentin remembers his two six flat irons and accepts silence. Forever. Such a belief in what kills wherever it invades makes hard-core killers of life. Who wants to read the letters Quentin mailed on June 2, 1910, to his father and to Shreve?
In Boston, on July 5, 2022, one hundred members of the white nationalist group, the Patriot Front, marched in military-style attire with covered faces. According to reports, the marchers displayed flags with Nazi symbols, in honor of the National Fascist Front. And Mussolini. Thirteen stars in a circle on an upside down “American” flag was also carried by believers in fascism.
I suspect the zombies were very much “at home” while they attacked local artist and activist, Charles Murrell. A Black American, protesting for democracy!
But democracy as an idea isn’t finished either!