Be attentive: Mr. Feaster is emerging from his bath. There he has spent some fifteen minutes soaking, the warm gray water high as his collar. He has been considering what the heat of his tub has done to his sperm, for he has read that such heat kills, penetrating even the soft protective sacking of the scrotum; and he has been pondering, consequently, the possibilities lost, the thousand or moreso lives unrealized, the risks untaken, sparks unstruck, the deaths for which he cannot be held accountable—not by the state, or even by the papacy.
We must be attentive because everything we now observe will pass: the water of his bath will disappear as easily as Mr. Feaster’s breath. It will untub with a sound too common to comment on. The ring which remains is silent. Planes’ at O’Hare aren’t heard either. The multitude is always moaning. They would bloat our bellies like soaked beans if we’d let them—crowd our thoughts—though unlike food and water, consciousness, itself, fills nothing up.
We must be attentive because Mr. Feaster’s not on camera; his moves have not been registered; the angles his elbows have assumed do not remain like played cards; and his thoughts…as for them, they do not fluster the air so much as an arm wave. Feaster cannot complain. Presently he will forget all this. What is most of his life, even to himself, but background noise?
Many millions of men exist for no purpose now, and to no effect whatever. Their presence shall not be missed; their passing neither mourned nor noted. We have more than we need even to support our economies. Perhaps snaps of their bodies—victims of flood, murder, earthquake, war, famine, suicide, disease—will occasionally appear on our screens, in our papers and magazines, where we shall see them clogging roads or rivers; and certainly centuries of nameless mortals have gone before us; the whole earth is simply a grave; yet we do not have to put them behind us as we each must our parents; they have never been a part of us, noticeably loved or harmed us; they have never been human; they have merely been foreigners, poor men, madmen, Persians, Protestants, huns—faceless hordes, census numbers—and it is only their corpses which still cause us any concern, since consciousness, as I’ve already observed, is nothing…no thing; because one gunny sack full of Polish teeth takes up more room in the world than all the agony of their extraction.
History, as it has been generally composed by our historians, has regarded the multitude, as Mr. Feaster does his freckles or his unspent sperm, with an occasional odd curiosity. The closing lines of Middlemarch:
…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
…they are a novelist’s curtain speech, and are rather more optimistic than might be, for the increasing illness of the world, indeed the history of the world for good or ill in a measure heretofore unrecognized, may depend on unhistoric acts; though if, in any way, it does so, we may properly wonder why they are so unhistoric. Is it because, and only because, the lives of which these acts comprise the greater part are hidden? and why do they pass so unremarked?
Ah, but Feaster, if a sudden frost were to fix you as firmly as it’s all been described in Orlando, or the ash of a burning mountain poison yet preserve you for a thousand years, then the future would marvel at these tiles and taps, these vials and soaps, rough rags and soft papers. It would mount in a museum your high school ring, wonder at your watch, your St. Christopher medal; and then your body, from dental crown and crew cut to appendix scar and circumcision, would become, as all enduring human matter does, abstract and general; you would not be a member any longer, but a species, a measure like the meter bar in Paris.
Yet what a price the rest of us would have to pay to get Feaster and his bathing house into history. We should have to hope for, then suffer, a cataclysm. As it is, the steamed mirror only faintly reflects him; his plump feet track the mat; he dampens a body-long rough Italian towel with his furry red chest, and, inconveniently, he sneezes. Exit the soul. God bless.
Joseph Blotner’s massive Egyptian work is not so much a monument to a supremely gifted writer as it is the great man’s grave itself down which the biographer’s piously gathered data drops like sheltering dirt, and if there is a resurrection of any kind it consists of the re-emergence of William Faulkner in the featureless form of Henry Feaster.
Faulkner and Feaster—well, they’re both private men, men who prefer that no notice be taken of them…
About the biography. Don’t tell the bastards anything. It cant matter to them. Tell them I was born of an alligator and a nigger slave at the Geneva Conference two years ago. Or whatever you want to tell them.
…who live between the cracks of great events and cultivate their solitude as others do glads or redolent begonias, yet they differ in one rather critical respect: Feaster’s life is like Feaster, unhistoric, the rest of the world would have to recede and leave him before we should pay any heed to his comically waterworn presence, while the singular events which Faulkner lived through so quietly, the way a palm stings between claps, were of his own devising, and we cannot consequently say that he did not wish the world to know him. He insisted it was to know him, however, on his own terms, in his myths: as the pilot with the limp, the reserved and mysterious poet who drank to discourage the pain he said came from a silver plate in his head, the bedraggled and barefoot bohemian, the courtly gent, or eventually and more honestly as the distinguished author of his books, thus never in the weakness and secrecy of bed or binge, or anywhere he did not seem as solid and imposing as his grandfather’s cemetery statue, its stone head.
…lifted a little in that gesture of haughty pride which repeated itself generation after generation with a fateful fidelity, his back to the world and his carven eyes gazing out across the valley where his railroad ran, and the blue changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.
Still, Feaster remains in motion. His arms meet on his belly as indifferently as tweezers. Is this a hug, this ambiguous gesture, or does Feaster feel a chill as the bathroom fan sucks the moisture from his freckles? Those freckles—alas—he’s scarcely seen them. They live beneath the hairy leafage of his breast unnoticed as aborigines. We can’t be too attentive. Feaster is saying bye-bye to his bath. Shall we allow his head to have a sad wag? Down the drain, so to speak, he muses. Glug-a-lug. Yes. Inconceivable—the prodigality of Nature. Incalculable—the costs of History.
And anyone who ever saw Faulkner in the street, sat beside him in the classroom, sometimes had a conversation or a drink, is dutifully reported here, is cited, is described: little Myrtle Ramey, for example, who had a delicate throat, and who remembers how well Billy Faulkner folded paper into cubes—she couldn’t—or Ralph S. Muckenfuss
…a stocky, bright-looking, blue-eyed boy, whose hair was parted precisely in the middle…
with whom Billy jumped to victory in a three-legged race, and who observed that Faulkner drew a lot of pictures during class: “one of a cowboy being bucked over a corral fence by his horse.” Thus Faulkner becomes a figure in the autobiographies of a thousand Feasters. Their histories overlap, darken, finally obliterate his. To find Faulkner a Feaster among Feasters is a bitter irony because his fiction constitutes, in part, as Proust’s does, a vast rescue operation:
All that I really desired was…[to] try by main strength to recreate between the covers of a book the world as I was already preparing to lose and regret, feeling, with the morbidity of the young, that I was not only on the verge of decrepitude, but that growing old was to be an experience peculiar to myself alone out of all the teeming world, and desiring, if not the capture of that world and the feeling of it as you’d preserve a kernel or a leaf to indicate the lost forest, at least to keep the evocative skeleton of the desiccated leaf.
Nothing was too mean for his imagination because he did not believe there was any insignificance on earth. A dirt road was worthy of the most elevated consciousness. An old woman or an old mule: he found in them the forms and forces of History itself. To build a house, found a family, lay rails across a state: these were acts an Alexander might have been engaged in. The Civil War was War, high water along the river was The Flood, the death of a dog was Sorrow. He managed to give even the mute heart speech, and invest a humble, private, oft-times red-necked life with those epic rhythms and rich sounds which were formerly the hired pomp and commissioned music of emperors and kings.
A terrible turn-around. Nevertheless passages of his prose bubble up in Blotner to frighten and amaze us, as if there were a still-breathing figure beneath this wash of uncircumstantiality and tireless cliché.the sonorous opening chords of Absalom, Absalom!, for instance, with their impressive adjectival orchestration, the careful fastening of consciousness to its object, and Faulkner’s characteristically increasing rhetorical beat, a precise local observation blown through a metaphor like a herald announcing…what? always…the palpable appearance of Time.
From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.
It is as if remembered things themselves had memories, as if matter were memory. The muscles that hoed the garden remember the moves they made. To see into—for Faulkner—is to think back.
If the question were put to him, I imagine Mr. Feaster would suppose he had a history, and that he even remembered parts of it; but if Feaster were, like Thucydides, to say: “I shall merely set down what my life’s been like, for I have suffered it myself, and have seen others suffering similarly through theirs,” or if he were interviewed by our modern journalist’s mesh-faced mike as though he were the scarred survivor of some terrible bath-boom, not everything he might report would be remembered in the same way because remembering is not a single, straightforwardly simple, thing: recalling how to swim, speak French, or tie a knot; suddenly realizing you have left the water running, or that it is your wedding anniversary; knowing that twice seven is fourteen or that Washington was our first president; recollecting rather generally that the house of your birth had but three rooms, and then bringing fully and vividly back to mind the way your mother moistened the hankie she tidied your face with when you were a child, a bubble of spit on the tip of her tongue like a white berry—these are not all acts or objects of the same sort, and the reliability, or even the relative importance, the actual reality, of such different “memories” cannot be determined by a single method.
The autobiographer, even if he stays unusually close to home, records a good deal more than events he has “seen with his own eyes.” People remember the date of their birth the way they remember the date of the Declaration of Independence; that is, they remember what they have been told. It’s unlikely they remember when they were told, or how it was to learn it. Moreover, we can only remember what it’s possible to forget; for example, it is possible for a man to overlook his birthday, or even to forget his birth date, but it isn’t possible for him to forget he was born. This is not an idle distinction. It crosses Being like a crack in a plate.
Similarly, we can “lose track of time,” but we can scarcely forget it; we can forget how far it is to Phoenix, but we cannot forget blue, sour, speed, space. “Ah,” we can say, “I’d forgotten what it feels like to ride a roller coaster,” but what does it mean if I claim, re-riding now, that I am “remembering” the good old days? There is also rhetorical remembering: how can you forget what happened to Napoleon? or, who does not remember Rudolf Valentino? and exhortational remembering: the Maine! Pearl Harbor! the Alamo! me! A good deal of history and biography, I’m afraid, consists of “memories” of these latter kinds.
And Mr. Blotner has those artful literary memoirs to manage, with their forms and falsehoods, the fiction itself, with its disguised and elusive truths, newspaper interviews and stories, by nature narrow and publicly pointed, telegrams self-conscious of their cost, letters full of the pleading self, business accounts and contracts with their standardized phrasing and ruled lines, magazine articles enlivened by inaccuracy, opportune criticisms, reviews (reviews! my god, by every Clifton Fadiman who ever lifted a book), as well as all the material Blotner has created himself, the tapes he’s taken, the letters he’s solicited, “facts” which would never have reached the world, which would have passed to oblivion like the sperm which Mr. Feaster fears he’s overheated, if Mr. Blotner had not been discreet, polite, obliged, and so on, quietly persistent, dogged where necessary, etcetera, eager to cite, to give credit where credit, and to due its due, and so forth, careful never to ask the wrong kinds of question or appear otherwise than reverent, or whatever was necessary and seemed right; yet one will rarely find a narrative so extensive, so obviously bent on totality, which is, at the same time, so unaware of the mechanics of its kind, the physics of its own unfolding.
Each piece of information—check stub, clipping, tape length, letter—brings its symbol system with it, and some of these systems are so ontologically incompatible that their presence in the same paragraph or sentence is as sensible as those other incongruities, disproportions, and imbalances of time, importance, and casual connection, which biographers, like blocks and babies, create in happy innocence of any fall or failure…the narrative leap, jig, and stumble of which this is a minutely exaggerated example:
Feaster put on his old-school tie to go to jail. There he languished for nearly thirty years. The Warden was named Feaster too. He had white hair and a Harvard degree. On Feaster’s release, Feaster went to his mother’s room to finish polishing his shoes, although his mother had already died.
Every biographer must measure out three quantities—space in the text, data in the dossier, and time in the life—and these should not continuously and outrageously contradict one another, as is so often the case. Blotner fills pages with the founding of New Orleans, but when, shortly after their wedding, Estelle Faulkner gets drunk and, in a gorgeous silk dress, tries to drown herself in the Gulf of Mexico, he sails peacefully past in a paragraph and won’t even throw her a ring.
It is perhaps one of the more characteristic marks of consciousness that it can be without difficulty contain radically heterogeneous contents. It seems to be that long-sought universal solvent. Here, and here only, can things past and present meet and mingle; here alone can thought, emotion, pleasure and perception, ideas of every order, dreams and square roots, actually interact. Whether biography ought to imitate, at least to heedlessly, the rich incongruities of human consciousness, or pretend to be a kind of memory without first finding out which kind, or remain innocent of the perplexities of point of view and every other technique of rendering, are questions so rarely put we almost all deserve the easy rhetorical answer I’ve just suggested for them.
Blotner has tried to write a biography of Faulkner’s books, too. He has literally tried to supply us with the knowledge Faulkner drew on when he imagined them, and that is surely a laudable enterprise; but this is not Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, because Blotner is not in the least interested in the creative result, and his long descriptions of the plots of every Faulkner novel, story, project, poem (and we are spared none of the poems), each in terms of the most degenerate theory of fiction conceivable, are models of the “missed point.”
Faulkner’s life was nothing until it found its way into Faulkner’s language. Faulkner’s language was largely unintrigued by Faulkner’s life.
Feaster’s thoughts are lengths of language, too, of course, but rarely does he put his experience into words: like a sports announcer or reporter at a wedding; consequently they pass to oblivion comparatively unformed, since he has not decided, for instance, whether to call the water “tepid,” “luke,” or “safe,” when he tests it with his hand…he has not had to. He thinks, in effect: the water is now the right temperature so it’s okay to slope under. When Faulkner is Feaster, he’s in no different case.
We know that Feaster’s experience has been formed, too, because the relation, nature, and value of its objects has been culturally defined. It is a commonplace to observe that the contents of his medicine chest will comprise a kind of psychological inventory, and we can be certain that he never imagines that the water watches him turning its tap in order, then, to gush forth obediently. The mouthwash which is sitting on the floor in the corner, we can also be confident, is “out of place.” A crumpled kleenex is “waste.” He feels no life in his toothbrush despite its hum, while the vibrator with which he tickles his testicles has not even the humanness of his own hand.
Principally, the things around him will be seen as in or out of chests, drawers, or closets. Doors and windows will be either open or closed. Feaster himself will be either going or coming. Switches and machines will be either on or off, containers full or empty, people occupied or idle, and these simple alternations will no doubt dominate his day. Yet what conceivable importance are such matters to Mr. Feaster?—he serenely overlooks them—or to biography?—which will not observe them either.
They are dreary, insignificant details—yes—but repetitive like rites, and that is the key, for a steady drip can drive men mad; the feet of the faithful, the repeated steps of the common people, can slope a granite stair, and a cancer can begin in the corner of the mouth where for thirty years a pipe’s been gripped. Indeed, it’s the daily diet—angers, fears, humiliations—Dr. Johnson’s tea, Balzac’s coffee, Freud’s cigars—which lead the liver to overlabor, stomach to puncture, heart to fail, the quiet worker to go berserk and ghetto to erupt, though it’s only the seizure, stroke, or strike which reaches the papers.
Our present biographers love to accumulate details until their books are longer than the lives their subjects led (look at the booklines of our literary aces which have been drawn out lately: Lewis, Dreiser, Hemingway, Strachey, Hart Crane, Woolf, Cocteau, Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Ford, Frost, Faulkner now, Browning, Joyce, and James), and in most cases these details are held together with the biographer’s sweat like wet sand.
They are extraordinary details, the details which fill these books. They are not unicorns, for unicorns are quite particular departures from reality. Neither private sensation nor public fact, an event of the moment nor a general law, neither Hume’s impressions nor Plato’s Ideas, they fall into that soggy never-never land of biographical summary, yet the philosophical difference between “I just saw a cow,” and “I lived in Hollywood for three weeks,” seems never to be felt.
So here are records of visits paid, dinners attended, grades reached, bottles drunk, birds shot, letters written, remarks made, when what we want to know is whether the Great Man ground his teeth; we need the feel of the normal and everyday; we don’t desire merely a list of Our Hero’s laundry, but we covet the pattern there may be concealed in the way he dirtied it; that Feaster, for instance, likes to plug the drain with his big toe is only of passing interest, but that he holds his hand over his nose, bites his breath, lets coins sift slowly through his fist, and would stop time with talk if he could—each is, together, a clue to the shapes his consciousness assumes.
What we want to know, then, is the difference between the structure of Feaster’s consciousness, a consciousness of no account like all the rest of everyday awareness and soon to go goooooog as a fast drain does…(thank god, can you imagine consciousness piling itself up in basins, tubs, and pots, and needing to be garbaged off, or consciousness simply emptied like a lung into the available air the way peasants pee against walls?)…no, what we need to know is the distance and difference between the life of Feaster and a sentence of Faulkner, because Feasters, alas (and by assumption here), are a dime-a-dozen, while Faulkner wrote sentences—who cares?—which had never been seen before, felt before, sentences with feverish impatient bodies, sentences which enclosed whole paragraphs, rising through their clauses like stairs, and which sometimes folded back upon themselves, came suddenly open and were suddenly shut in the same way the book they were a part of opened in the reader’s hands, anywhere the reader was, and shut like the amusing mouth of a paper dragon or eyelids in an illness, as Clytie folds the following sentence over, neat as a note you prefer remain private:
She passed the rest of that week in the one remaining room in the house whose bed had linen sheets, passed it in bed, in the new lace and silk and satin negligees subdued to the mauve and lilac of mourning—that room airless and shuttered, impregnated behind the sagging closed blinds with the heavy fainting odor of her flesh, her days, her hours, her garments, of eau-de-cologne from the cloth upon her temples, of the crystal phial which the negress alternated with the fan as she sat beside the bed between trips to the door to receive the trays which Clytie carried up the stairs—Clytie, who did that fetching and carrying as Judith made her, who must have perceived whether Judith told her or not that it was another negro whom she served, yet who served the negress just as she would quit the kitchen from time to time and search the rooms downstairs until she found that little strange lonely boy sitting quietly on a straight hard chair in the dim and shadowy library or parlor, with his four names and his sixteenth-part black blood and his expensive esoteric Fauntleroy clothing who regarded with an aghast fatalistic terror the grim coffee-colored woman who would come on bare feet to the door and look in at him, who gave him not teacakes but the coarsest cornbread spread with as coarse molasses (this surreptitiously, not that the mother or the duenna might object, but because the household did not have food for eating between meals), gave it to him, thrust it at him with restrained savageness, and who found him one afternoon playing with a negro boy about his own size in the road outside the gates and cursed the negro child out of sight with level and deadly violence and sent him, the other, back to the house in a voice from which the very absence of vituperation or rage made it seem just that much more deadly and cold.
Yet he had to write for the Post, to pile up pages as you might heap potatoes, to dicker with editors and agents, write drivelly and usually useless scripts for Howard Hawkes movies, cut his gift with sugar for the street. He drank continuously, intermittently, moderately, heavily, in bursts and bouts, in long languid arcs, not at all, or murderously. He could be terribly silent. He would tell wonderful stories about the Snopes family. He was polite, even courtly, rude. He would spiff up, lose his shoes, collapse in the street.
Faulkner always needed money, but he and his wife both drank, he supported two households, servants, had two cars, flew a plane, and Fox paid him nearly 20,000 dollars in 1936. In the same year an ad in the Memphis Commercial Appeal announced that William Faulkner would not be responsible for his wife’s debts. Later he bought a farm, a boat, at considerable sacrifice to himself lent money to his friend, Phil Stone, and in letter after letter bitched beautifully about the whole business of writing for a living and being hemmed in by henfolk as well as other kinds, kithes, and kin.
He was rarely among people who understood his achievement, not that this might have lifted his loneliness very much (solitude was the space of more than his imagination), and the needs, sensations, and feelings—the pity, the pure fury—which one time had created those incredible lengths of language, those new and powerful forms, became themselves rhetorical habits, last rites, passionless gestures of passion like the bouncing bottoms in porno films, and of mainly monetary significance, too: that empty extended hat in Feaster’s hand, for instance, or, for all that, the hat he holds over his heart at the sound and hearing of the band, since we all die Feasters. It is written. Becoming and remaining one—a Feaster—may be the first step in life, but it is also, and unequally, the last step toward the dust and disappearance and the silence of History.
June 27, 1974