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Ahmed Honeini, William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound

Solveig Dunkel
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Ahmed Honeini, William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound, New York: Routledge, 2021, 194 p., ISBN 978-0-36-750132-7, £121.

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1Ahmed Honeini’s William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound, is adapted from a PhD thesis defended in 2018 at Royal Holloway, University of London. The book opens with several extracts from interviews in which Faulkner emphasized the correlation between the ephemeral lifespan of men and the permanence of works of art. The main impulse for writing, Faulkner claimed, would stem from a “selfish” desire to “lift up man’s heart for his own benefit because in that way he can say No to death” (Faulkner, 2004 181). “Faulkner’s preoccupation with mortality,” Honeini then argues, “can be interpreted as his deliberate authorial attempt to evade and deny his own death by achieving immortality through the lasting creation of literary art” (1). The poet’s voice, therefore, acts both as a recorder and a monument of mankind, as Faulkner made explicit in a 1949 letter: “it is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died” (Faulkner, 1977 285). Achieving immortality by producing art participates in a long literary tradition that includes Shakespeare and Keats, two authors Faulkner greatly admired.

2The project of this volume is to counter the lasting critical consensus—supported by critics such as Robert W. Hamblin, Warwick Wadlington and Charles Reagan Wilson—according to which “Faulkner’s authorial intention and aesthetic endeavor” (11) was to look for ways to escape death and achieve a form of immortality. For instance, Faulkner’s claims on his desire to reach immortality led Robert W. Hamblin to state that “the key to Faulkner’s theory of fiction is to be found in his statement, repeated many times after 1951 but implicit in even his earliest work, that writing was his way of ‘saying No to death’” (4). In contrast, Honeini emphasizes the ardent longing for death, sometimes verging on death-positiveness, expressed by Faulkner’s marginalized characters through the experience of grief, mourning and violence. In his introduction, Honeini highlights how Faulkner’s narratives are obsessed with death, an obsession directed simultaneously towards “what the living have to say about the dead and with what the dead have to say about the living and the process of dying” (2). More specifically, Honeini denies the idea that Faulkner’s characters are marked by a fear of death and an impulse to “say No to death.” On the contrary, the ambivalent depiction of death actually exhibits a final acceptance to “say Yes to death” (2) on the part of his characters who find themselves on the boundary between life and death. As the title indicates, the book is also concerned with the connections between the treatment of death and literary voice, although Honeini notes that his ambition is not to provide a traditional narratological study of Faulkner’s texts.

3The book’s theoretical background is made explicit in the introduction. Honeini evokes the main factors which provoked a wave of death denial in the early twentieth century, namely the destruction and sense of irremediable loss caused by World War I. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” “outlined a transatlantic compulsion towards death denial that the western world and artists like Faulkner were profoundly affected by at that time” (8). A similar sense of loss, decay and death is experienced in Faulkner’s description of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Honeini intends to emulate scholars such as Diana Fuss, who argues, in Dying Modern: A Meditation Elegy, for the interconnection between literary voice and death in elegiac poetry. By showing how poets in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrote about death in new and creative ways, “Fuss […] rejects the notion that death is entirely devastating or corrupting” (12). Faulkner and Mortality similarly aims at demonstrating that in the texts under scrutiny, “human mortality does not necessarily result in irrevocable or irreversible silence” (12).

4This work is split into five chapters, each focusing on one or two specific texts, following the chronology of their publication. In addition, the first two chapters center on first-person speech, while the last three tackle external and communal narrative voices. The first chapter is entitled “‘A fine dead sound’: Quentin Compson’s suicide in The Sound and the Fury,” and explores Quentin’s first-person account of his final day before ultimately throwing himself in a river. Through compelling close-readings, Honeini demonstrates that every action Quentin undertakes at the beginning of his final day—shaving his face, organizing his belongings, smashing his watch—is comparable to ritualistic burial preparations: “Quentin does not seek to evade the experience of death,” Honeini writes. “Instead, he always faces and embraces his mortality” (24). The young man’s affectless tone and the mechanical preparations for his death put him in a state of limbo, on the threshold between life and death. Moreover, Honeini notes that Quentin’s seemingly affectless monologue is teeming with exterior voices, most notably his father’s, which seem to motivate his destructive tendencies. On numerous occasions, Quentin directly quotes his father. As a consequence, Mr. Compson’s “opinions and rhetoric regarding issues of sexuality and gender roles in the South adversely affect Quentin; they deepen his self-consciousness of and shame towards his virginity and, more importantly, his rampant incestuous feelings for Caddy,” his younger sister (25). The taboo of suicide becomes the response to the unfulfilled taboo of incest, even though Honeini acknowledges the difficulty and insignificance of finding a single factor for one’s suicide, especially a fictional one. Quentin appears more as an echo chamber than a human being, and Honeini interprets his suicide as the only way to vanquish the paternal voice—the one of his father, but also metaphorically the one of the patriarchal Southern society. Suicide appears as the leverage to fight against the voice of the father, even if it cannot be considered as a victory. Honeini brilliantly notes that a specific word appears to escape Quentin’s chapter, the word “suicide” itself: “with his death drawing near towards the end of the day,” Honeini writes, “Quentin declares that in ‘A quarter of an hour yet […] I’ll not be’, a statement which he finds to be ‘The peacefullest words’” (29). This impulse to erase the supposedly most important word of this chapter is significant, enabling the young man to counter the religious and social stigmatizing perception of suicide: “[Quentin] deliberately withholds his utterance of that word because he aims to completely redefine the act it signifies […], from a morally corrupt and stigmatising act of weakness into a gesture of utmost strength” (29). Yet, Quentin’s suicide is by no means glorified; Honeini displays the ambivalence of its representation by presenting it as the chosen outcome of a man who sees his past and his family as being overwhelmed by death: “despite the necessity of ‘saying Yes to death’ throughout Faulkner’s oeuvre, in Quentin’s case, the transformative bent he has attempted to bestow upon suicide falls short of his intentions and wishes. There is an underlying scepticism and ambivalence within The Sound and the Fury towards the solace that Quentin’s suicide will bring” (40). Ultimately, Honeini argues, there is no point in trying to understand Quentin’s motivations, or to determine whether or not it was the right choice. His suicide is, above all, a linguistic reflection on the power of voice, or lack thereof: “The very fact of his death proves that he was able to successfully alter the definition of ‘suicide’ to suit his own intentions. Quentin’s death ultimately goes beyond the limits of language and speech; it eradicates all voices, transcending the word ‘suicide’ and all the negative connotations that are associated with it” (42).

5The second chapter, “Living Was Terrible: Confrontations with Mortality in As I Lay Dying,” turns to one of Faulkner’s most emblematic characters, the deceased matriarch of the Bundren clan. Addie Bundren’s single monologue in the novel is explicitly posthumous, an undead voice reaching the readers from beyond the grave—or rather the coffin. This monologue is undoubtedly one of the passages that have received the greatest attention in the entire Faulknerian corpus. However, Honeini offers a fresh look at this passage. Emulating Brian Norman in Dead Women Talking (2015), Honeini argues that Addie’s posthumous voice “‘prompts a realignment of the narrative pieces’ of the novel ‘into a new composite picture, one able to account for a woman who is no longer the silent, suffering maternal figure holding’ the Bundren family together” (51). Addie’s single monologue becomes the space in which, in death, she is enabled to voice the socially unacceptable: “in her irreligiousness and defiance, Addie defends herself against a society which systematically attempts to mould her into obedience by repeatedly misappropriating God’s presence and words” (56). Honeini then moves on to analyze the different reactions of the Bundren family surrounding the loss of the mother. Each of the six remaining Bundren members displays a radically different attitude towards mourning, and even if some of their actions may appear as unrelated to Addie’s passing (Dewey Dell’s attempt to have an abortion, for instance), the author underlines how this death acts as the center of gravity of the entire novel. If the familial trip to bury Addie’s body to the neighboring city has affected physically and mentally the Bundren children, the only survivor is the family father, Anse: “although Addie ordered the journey to Jefferson as her revenge upon Anse, part of the novel’s ironic pattern is that Anse is the only member of the family to come out of the burial journey entirely unscathed” (76). Not only unscathed, but improved, as Anse manages to acquire a brand-new set of teeth in town.

6After two chapters devoted to first-person narratives, the third chapter, “Burying the Fallen Monument: The Death of the Old South in ‘A Rose for Emily,’” moves to the anonymous communal narrative voice at work in Faulkner’s most-studied short story. “A Rose for Emily” deals with the life and death of Miss Emily Grierson, a secluded spinster who lived and died in her family house in Jefferson. Within the community of the town, Emily is the “fallen monument,” the relic of a bygone past, and the unnamed narrator of the story “places himself in opposition to the definition of the South that Emily and her older, defunct social order adhere to, which refuses to adapt to the demands of modern, postbellum society” (81). Honeini refutes the idea that the pronoun “we” employed by the narrator, speaking in the name of the community as a whole, implies a neutral voice, never expressing personal feelings towards Emily, hence making the case that “the narrator’s rhetoric is deliberately primed towards dismantling and burying Emily and the Old South’s legacy” (81). In this section, Honeini examines the way the narrator attempts to “bury,” literally and symbolically, a woman perceived as the embodiment of the antebellum old South. Emily’s death is reported in the very first sentence of the story, which prevents her from opposing a counter-discourse to the narrative monopoly of the unreliable narrator: “Faulkner uses this anonymous and implicitly unreliable voice to urge readers to interrogate the claims about Emily,” Honeini remarks. “The story serves as a warning to readers to approach posthumous representations of the dead sceptically and critically, especially when those representations are influenced by the biased and socially prejudiced views of the living” (83). Even during her lifetime, Miss Emily was described as a corpse: “images of deathliness abound throughout this passage, which renders Emily’s performance of southern female gender roles as not only futile and tragic, but also monstrous and grotesque” (89). However, the ugliness the narrative voice delights in describing could also be interpreted as a sign of resistance: “Emily actively anticipates her own death and accepts the ravages of old age, and in doing so, she places herself beyond the realm of modern public reproach and legal prosecution” (97), as the town suspects her of having poisoned her lover. Even her death could be interpreted as a victory: she passed away in a secluded room of her home, away from the prying eyes of the community, and in this way she “does triumph over the community in the hour of her death by dying in a manner of her choosing. She is, finally, no longer subjected to their voyeuristic watching or whispering” (97). “As a whole,” Honeini summarizes, “‘A Rose for Emily’ can be read as the narrator’s patriarchal, prejudiced account of a woman who refuses to fulfil the role of ‘Southern Belle’ that is enforced upon her” (101).

7After death by suicide, age or disease, the fourth chapter of the book, “A Bloody Mischancing of Human Affairs: Murder and Violence in Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!”, diverts from death in the private sphere to turn to murder and violence, with a continued focus on communal voices. Specifically, Honeini puts in perspective Percy Grimm’s murder of Joe Christmas in Light in August and Wash Jones’s murder of Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!. Honeini emphasizes Joe’s life as a tragic plotline of social alienation and internalized racism, conditioning him to violence and death: “Joe oscillates between desperately clinging to life and remaining in search of a degree of relative stability on the one hand, while repeatedly and deliberately seeking to provoke his own death on the other” (114). In Joe’s murder of his lover Joanna, Honeini interprets a suicidal gesture to precipitate his own death, by “fulfilling his socially sanctioned role as a ‘nigger murderer’” (116). Joe’s gruesome death, committed at the hands of Percy Grimm in the name of white supremacy, is described in excruciating details, showing how “white supremacy, along with the physical and corporeal violence that is used to uphold white supremacist thought, is figured in this novel as a form of totalising chaos which repeatedly causes devastating losses of life” (121). Honeini then focuses on Thomas Sutpen’s murder in Absalom, Absalom!, at the hands of Wash Jones. “Sutpen is fated to die indecorously, and his fate is overtly established from the novel’s outset. Sutpen is doomed to his inevitable death—he cannot be allowed to ‘say No to death’ because the consequences of his actions bar him from issuing such an utterance” (122). However, as Honeini specifies, one should keep in mind that Thomas Sutpen’s story only exists through reported speech, as he is never present in the novel: “The entire novel […] functions as a work of speculation amongst the narrators […]. In consequence, Sutpen’s story is in a constant state of narrative revision and reshaping, and one’s understanding of his fate cannot be forced into a single frame of discourse. Instead, his story, along with the reasons given to explain and justify his murder, are multitudinous and subject to constant debate, speculation, and alteration” (124). The string of death and violence does not stop there. By killing Sutpen, Wash Jones dooms himself: “by murdering Sutpen, Wash is positioned, in circumstances similar to Quentin Compson and Joe Christmas, upon the borderline between life and death as he awaits the law’s arrival” (137), hence embracing mortality.

8Finally, the fifth and last chapter, “Ah’m Goan Home: Narration, Homegoing, and Whiteness in Go Down, Moses,” explores the use of a distanced third-person voice in two stories of the collection Go Down, Moses, “Pantaloon in Black” and the eponymous “Go Down, Moses.” This chapter “outlines the distance that Faulkner places between himself as a white, southern author, his implicitly white readership, and the African American protagonists in both stories who are unable to express feelings of mourning and bereavement in their own words” (144). Specifically, Honeini opposes the argument advanced by Michael North, for whom modernist writers were partaking into a form of “racial ventriloquism” in the fascination with black voices. On the contrary, Honeini argues that “both within these stories and throughout his career, Faulkner refuses his African American characters the opportunity to verbalise their bereavements, sentiments, and lived experiences to any meaningful extent” (144). Honeini sees these two stories as an illustration of the dismissal of African American grief by white figures of power: “in both ‘Pantaloon in Black’ and ‘Go Down, Moses,’ the sentiments of people like the deputy sheriff and [the lawyer] work to neutralise the validity of Rider’s mourning and Mollie Beauchamp’s grief, especially because such sentiments are entrenched in racial prejudice and hatred” (145). “However, the deputy, Stevens and, by extension, Faulkner, are each compelled to uphold the barriers that their social and racial positioning in the twentieth-century South necessitates. In consequence, they are prevented from ever fully identifying with African American experiences of mortality, bereavement, or mourning” (167).

9The book concludes by offering a summary of the arguments advanced throughout the chapters. Honeini reiterates the thesis at the heart of this work, that of a discrepancy between Faulkner’s personal impulse as an author to reach immortality through his art and the acceptance and longing towards death that many of his characters display.

10William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound provides in-depth readings of Faulkner’s canonic texts, and the many careful close readings that sustain the argument almost make one wish that they were even more numerous. This volume brings a valuable contribution to Faulknerian criticism, a noteworthy achievement for an author on whom so much has been written. Honeini’s prose is clear, and the arguments put forward are utterly convincing and perspicuous. This book demonstrates that the author has a thorough knowledge of Faulkner and his critics. However, some arguments would certainly have benefited from their extension to lesser known or less widely examined occurrences of death in Faulkner’s corpus, for instance Donald Mahon’s slow yet inexorable extinction in Soldiers’ Pay or Eula’s suicide in The Town. All in all, an in-depth study of the poetics of death and mortality in the Faulknerian corpus was sorely missing from criticism, and this book undoubtedly fills a critical gap. The close attention paid to the canonical texts constitutes an invitation to re-explore the representations of death in the early novels in particular. This work is a solid addition to Faulkner studies and death studies alike.

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Bibliographie

FAULKNER, William. Selected Letters of William Faulkner. London: Scholar Press, 1977.

FAULKNER, William. Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. New York: Modern Library, 2004.

FAULKNER, William. The Town. New York: Vintage International, 2011.

FAULKNER, William. Soldier’s Pay. London: Random House, 2014.

FUSS, Diana. Dying Modern: A Meditation Elegy. London: Duke University Press, 2013.

HAMBLIN, Robert W. “‘Saying No to Death’: Toward William Faulkner’s Theory of Fiction.” “A Cosmos of My Own”: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha 1980. Eds. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981, p. 3-35.

NORMAN, Bryan. Dead Women Talking: Figures of Injustice in American Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

NORTH, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

WADLINGTON, Warwick. Reading Faulknerian Tragedy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

WILSON, Charles Regan. “William Faulkner and the Southern Way of Death.” Fifty Years after Faulkner. Eds. Jay Watson and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, p. 268-278.

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Solveig Dunkel, « Ahmed Honeini, William Faulkner and Mortality: A Fine Dead Sound »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2021, consulté le 19 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/17622 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.17622

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Solveig Dunkel

Université de Picardie Jules Verne

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