In our series Drei Sätze, we ask literary scholars to write about a specific passage they keep coming back to.
„It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.“
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)
„For an instant Ben sat in an utter hiatus. Then he bellowed. Bellow on bellow, his voice mounted, with scarce interval for breath. There was more than astonishment in it, it was horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound […]“
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
With these words, William Faulkner moves to the conclusion of The Sound and the Fury (1929), which describes the downfall of the Compson family in the southern United States through four chapters.
The novel deals with trauma and repetition—personal and social—and, like much of Faulkner’s other work, questions the ways in which the next generation pays for the sins of the previous. It explores questions of inheritance, of what comes down to us. In this way, it addresses the arbitrariness of life (we have no control over where we are born and to whom, for example) and the arbitrariness of constructed social discourses and codes, which are often used to establish hierarchies or forms of social dominance.
The novel ends with Lester, one of the family’s servants, turning right when he should have turned left. As a result of this arbitrary decision that departed from the normal expectation, Benjy, the younger brother of the family who is mentally challenged, howls because they have turned left instead of right.
Benjy’s howling (“just sound”) is an allusion to the “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” in Macbeth. Benjy is howling not because it really matters whether they turn right or left, but simply because he is accustomed to this arbitrary decision repeated so often to become a habit, a pattern, an expectation. In this novel, the arbitrary hierarchies of racism and sexism are particularly prominent, and Benjy’s howling is a damning condemnation on the South and, more broadly, any arbitrary social code that serves only to enforce hierarchy without any real meaning aside from that act of distinction.
Signifying nothing. But the howling remains.
I saw Macbeth for the first time when I was an undergraduate university student studying abroad at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University. My best friend Amy Marshall, who was then studying abroad in France, and I had bought last-minute tickets to the play in London, and because we’d taken the bus down from Oxford, we hadn’t had time to eat. We were so hungry that we were eating sugar packets to tide ourselves over until the play was finished, and we were in the nosebleed seats where you really had to strain to see.
At the end of the performance, Malcolm slammed down his sword on the stage, and thus ended the play: with the sound of a sword hitting, of the conclusion of one regime and the beginning of the next, as a reminder of violence and yet regeneration. I got chills, akin to what Aristotle describes in The Poetics as the value of catharsis: that you as a spectator have lived through something, and in the end you feel somehow cleaner, better, purged.
I can very distinctly remember finishing The Sound and the Fury. I was in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, reading for my tutorial on the Modern American Novel with Dan O’Hara. I finished the book, and the allusion to Macbeth awakened my memory of the feeling of sitting in the theater and hearing that sword hit the stage, and it awakened my memory of all of the other lines of Macbeth on the power of the imagination that I knew and loved and which were also fresh in my memory because I had read the book for my Shakespeare tutorial a few weeks earlier, which was amazing because my tutor sat there listening to me deliver my paper while slowly rolling a cigarette. His face remained neutral, so I had no idea if what I was saying was brilliant or nonsense, and that was part of what helped me learn to develop my own thoughts. After I finished giving my paper, he would then ask me these questions that blew my mind, so I left feeling energized both by the text and also his questions.
Reading those last lines of The Sound and the Fury felt like a moment of simultaneous download — where sensory information was coming to me from multiple directions and I felt everything at once in my body. All of the layers of the meanings of Macbeth were there; all of the layers of history were there; all of my associations with the play were there; and the integration of this allusion, at precisely the right moment, took the text and my understanding of it to a new place entirely.
Not all allusions do this; in fact, I think it is very rare, and if a book is too laden with allusions, as are other modernist works such as The Cantos, The Waste Land, Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake, they lose their value and become over the top — excessive, baroque —, and the reading experience becomes about reference-hunting in order to understand, not about the way in which a single allusion sheds new light on the whole work. A well-placed allusion is a pop of color on a white canvas.
A question that I would love to pursue (or would love someone else to pursue) would be a comparative cognitive study of how refrains, transitions, and allusions function differently in music and literature. I feel riffs or allusions more directly in music. When Garth Brooks, for example, talks about the influence of James Taylor on him, and he plays a riff, I can feel Taylor immediately; when Rihanna riffs on “Please Don’t Stop the Music” and draws on Michael Jackson, or when her style is slightly reminiscent of the early Whitney Houston, I feel a similar ecstasy; that everything is coming together.
If I had to say something about what The Sound and the Fury via Macbeth means to me, it is that we are deeply associative creatures, and this is perhaps what — to me — is most interesting and invigorating about literature: that something can remind us of something else, and that this memory or connection through words does something to how we think, feel, move, breathe, live, go about the world.
That poets and authors can use words that draw up entire connotations and associations: this is what Empson will describe as the structure of complex words, or what George Eliot will describe in Middlemarch as seeing the world in a blade of grass: how one small change, one small choice—whether this is vocabulary (Empson) or an allusion (Faulkner) or a way of seeing (Eliot) can change things.
Of course these connotations are often subjective — and this is where I think literary studies needs to take their power back and acknowledge that the beauty of literature is that it is subjective — that my associations when I read The Sound and the Fury will be different than yours or my best friend’s or anyone’s based on each individual’s life experiences or ranges of reading and where we were in 2003 or 1972 or 1935 and if we had had someone rolling a cigarette or not while we delivered a paper on Macbeth.
How we construct our categories and values, what is arbitrary, what is learned, what is habit, what is not, what we can change, what we can’t, what is inherited, what we have to work with, what we can bring into the forefront through attention or our focus, how we can change energy and reality through thoughts, how concepts can transform — these are the questions I love, and this is why that moment of reading Faulkner was so important for me.
In many ways, these are questions for philosophers or sociologists, but literature provides an incredible opportunity to work through these questions from an individual or subjective perspective though the words we use to create our worlds; if we think seriously with literature, we can use it to confront our own prejudices and how we participate in various world constructions.
When I think about what I want for the future, I dream of new ways of understanding and holding multiple ideas together in suspension without judging, a space of allowances. Where the arbitrary can be arbitrary without being ranked or judged. I dream of this. I think literature can help us get there.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Bonapfel is a Research Associate at the Peter Szondi-Institute for Comparative Literature at Freie Universität Berlin with a DFG research project about the evolution of punctuation in modern English literature.
Header image: Manuscript for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons, © wikimedia commons