01-05-2007 - Traces, n. 5

Hope after Hope

by Joseph Toth

William Faulkner is obsessed with hope–that uniquely American virtue with which every writer, like Jacob, must wrestle. No other nation’s literature is so singularly dedicated to the theme of hope: Fitzgerald, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Morrison, O’Connor, and Hemingway all write extensively on the theme of hope in their stories, to the extent that it becomes a sort of permanent backdrop to all of American literature. Is hope possible? Why? What is the basis of such hope? What is there to be hopeful about in a country with no past, only a future? This is even more evident with the lesser writers. Kerouac and Salinger, for instance, deal almost exclusively with the theme of hope and disillusionment in their books–Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise drive a 1947 Lincoln and listen to jazz, unsure of whether their restlessness is immaturity or points toward something deeper, while Holden Caufield becomes embittered because nothing in life corresponds to the hope that he invests in it. For all of its faults and self-indulgence, American literature has never shied away from the theme of hope.
Faulkner is unique among them. Like every great writer, he approaches the universal through the particular. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to find a more provincial place than the fictional Mississippi County where Faulkner sets all of his stories. The atmosphere in which the characters exist is static, stultifying. The still, sweltering Delta air–heavy and motionless–bears the weight of the oppressive Calvinism and the entrenched racial and class structures that paralyze the culture. Make no mistake about it, this is the “Old South”–elegiac, romantic, aristocratic, and yet haunted by its past–frozen in time, like the carved figures on Keats’ Grecian Urn. This is the land (and it might be said that no other novelist gives more attention to the color and texture of soil) where the blues found its birth–cries of the human spirit against a suffocating fatalism.
In Light in August, each of the characters lives in revolt against the stasis. They are at once paralyzed and fixated by motion. Reverend Hightower (note the names) breaks out of his Calvinist prison, more stoic than Christian, by delivering a child; Lena Grove traverses the red roads of the deep south in search of the father of her child; Joe Christmas travels “a thousand savage and lonely roads” pursuing a desire that he cannot account for. The culture is soaked in a severe Calvinism that makes no room for reason, and the result is that the characters are divorced from their own experience. Christianity is moralistic, abstracted, unaffected by human experience, as if the incarnation never actually occurred. The characters are haunted by the question of their salvation, believing it a matter determined before their birth in which they have no say. They have no idea what they are searching for, or why they search for it so relentlessly. Ultimately, the hope that the characters manifest is atavistic, unknowing, instinctual–they are hopeful in spite of themselves, in spite of their culture–because it is one of the most basic human needs and can never be extinguished.
It all sounds very dour and brutal. But look deeper: the story is about “Light” in August. It is about the encounter with the transcendent among a group of people who had ceased to believe in the possibility of such an encounter. Like Christ healing the paralyzed man in John’s Gospel, the transcendence is a pure gift, a mystery, an azure late summer backlight that illuminates the story and breaks through the self-induced darkness in which the characters have imprisoned themselves.
Intense and unsentimental, Light in August is a profound meditation on the nature of hope and the limitations that humans place upon the transcendent. The hope that Faulkner realizes is something that will always prevail even in the face of extreme efforts to reduce the mystery. Because hope and beauty are so fundamental to the human person–indeed, they are constitutive of the human person–they can never be extinguished, even in the face of chaos and violence.