“The wilderness’ concordant generality:” Faulkner, language and knowledge

by DRM

A Japanese poet once wrote that there is no utility in metaphor, that in the modern world the only valuable expression is of words that are specific to one thing.

This is language as the table of existential elements: when used precisely, words make an objective reality that we can use to breach the gaps between each of us.

A writer uses words as tools to define the components of existence, a catalog of physical, emotional and social definitions that organize what is considered to be the factual knowledge of what makes us and the world around us work.

The best writing, we hold, is economical and precise. Describe a thing in it’s particular in order to truly learn it and share it.

In our modern world, the particular constitutes myriad minuscule and related parts that have been defined by the science of genetics, neurobiology, evolution, sociology, anthropology, archeology…the list goes on and on.

To write about simple things well means leavening the complexity with vision and empathy for the human condition as it plays out among us every day.

When I first read Thomas Pynchon, I marveled at the breadth of knowledge. Here was a new way of telling story, by creating an interconnected entomology of events that supplied the context for the personal drama of the people. What makes them profoundly human — consciousness, the tension between gratification of the self and service to the group, the search for contentment in identity and purpose — remains the same regardless of the esoterica of physical phenomena.

The lure of scientific explanation makes it appear that man has finally achieved control of the mysteries of the self and existence. We can trace the dual arcs of belief and identity and posit the nature of God, the essence of man.

Yet our core is still concordant with nature and its inexplicable mystery.

I was reminded of this as I reread William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.

The collection of stories captures Faulkner’s themes of the nature of man set against the almost primal force of Nature in the deep South. The Bear is one of my favorite American stories, a New World counterpoint to Joyce’s The Dead.

Nature is a deeply spiritual force in this long story, spiritual in the way that it is a greater mystery than even their own existence, spiritual in the sense that it appears indomitable, inexorable, elemental. Deep in the woods, deep in the hunt, the men meet iconic forces, the big buck, the great bear.

Faulkner’s writing is naturalistic and impressionistic. He working to communicate an experience that is distinct from the elements that make up each of the men and the forces that have created the great forest. It doesn’t matter how the disparate organisms of the deep words have evolved. What matters is the overlap between the mystery of the deep and the capacity of the men to experience, and humble themselves, to that mystery.

To find that overlap, Faulkner wraps his words around and around. Here, in a passage from the last scene in the story, Faulkner turns to an incantatory melody to convey the impression that fills the cathedral-like depths of the woods.

…the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold those secret and sunless places with delicate fairy tracks, which, breathing and biding and immobile, watching him from beyond every twig and leaf until he moved, moving again, walking on; he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the know which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn and oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one…

The passage is so rich and sympathetic, with the ritual pacing of the phrase “not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth.”

The language is not excessive, but neither is it restrained and elegant. These are largely simple words that are strung together with a kind of earnest hysteria. As you read, you are lifted into the consciousness of the young man who is feeling his way through the events that have passed, the people he has lost, and the sudden presence of the forest all around.

The nature of the writer is captured in the last paragraph of the story, where Faulkner shows a man at once broken and obsessed, operating with his own intense purpose.

He couldn’t tell when he first began to hear the sound, because when he became aware of it, it seemed to him that he had been already hearing it for several seconds — a sound as though someone were hammering a gun-barrel against a piece of railroad iron, a sound loud and heavy and not rapid yet with something frenzied about it, as if the hammerer were not only a strong man and an earnest one but a little hysterical too. Yet it couldn’t be on the log line because, although the track lay in that direction, it was at least two miles from him and this sound was not three hundred yards away. But even as he thought that, he realized where the sound must be coming from: whoever the man was and whatever he was doing, he was somewhere new the edge of the clearing where the Gum Tree was and where he was to meet Boon. So far, he had been hunting as he advanced, moving slowly and quietly and watching the ground and the trees both. Now he went on, his gun unloaded and the barrel slanted up and back to facilitate his passage through brier and, approaching as it grew louder and louder that steady savage somehow queerly hysterical beating of metal on metal, emerging from the woods, into the old clearing, with the solitary gum tree directly before him. At first glance the tree seemed to be alive with frantic squirrels. There appeared to be forty or fifty of them leaping and darting from branch to branch until the whole tree had become one green maelstrom of mad leaves, while from time to time, singly or in twos or threes, squirrels would dart down the trunk then whirl without stopping and rush back up again as though sucked violently back by the vacuum of their fellow’s frenzied vortex. Then he saw Boon, sitting, his back against the trunk, his head bent, hammering furiously at something on his lap. What he hammered with was the barrel of his dismembered gun, what he hammered at was the breech if it. The rest of the gun lay scattered abut him in a half-dozen pieces. While he bent over the piece on his lap his scarlet and streaming walnut face, hammering the disjointed barrel against the gun breech with the frantic abandon of a madman. He didn’t even look up to see who it was. Still hammering, he merely shouted back at the boy in a hoarse strangled voice:

“Get out of here! Dont touch them! Dont touch a one of them! They’re mine!.

The power of the story and the efficacy of the language shine through decades later.

Reducing our existence to a set of ingredients and processes will not communicate the essence of a person.

The tools of the hunt will be different today — information, technology and people — but the mysteries of the soul that we encounter during the hunt, when we realize that there are forces around us that are greater than our understanding, are still the same.