Recently, with the on-going January 6 th 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 2 nd 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 a s Colonel Nathan Jes s up, 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 i t 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 te rm s with the D ef eat and start life anew in a new world. A s a stand-in for a mature Faulkner, Mr. Compson question ed 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 a ll 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 as on him and will parish with the dying myth. And, for a while, it's all Quentin has to clings 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. 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.
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