Words and Images in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying
Maybe I will end up in some kind of self-communion -- a silence -- faced with the certainty that I can no longer be understood. The artist must create his own language. This is not only his right but his duty. ----------- William Faulkner
Virginia Woolf observes that "painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common. The novelist after all wants to make us to see" (22). Indeed, many movements in the visual arts during the first half of the twentieth century had a close relationship with literature. High Modernist writers, such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, have been preoccupied with the visual arts. As John Tytell claims, in his "Epiphany in Chaos: Fragmentation in Modernism," one of the most prominent characteristics of modernism has been "the unusual reciprocity of artistic influence -- Apollinaire wrote the first intelligent book on cubism, Gertrude Stein wrote about cubist painters and collected their works" (8).
During the past three decades, several critics have recognized correspondences between Faulkner's writing and the visual arts. Ilse Dusoir Lind has examined the influence of painting on Faulkner's work. Such critics as Watson Branch and Panthea Reid Broughton have explored the influence of cubism on Faulkner. And more recently, Mary Rohrberger has noted the surrealistic qualities in Faulkner's text. But, what has not been considered is the intricate relationship between Faulkner's reliance on the visual and his skeptical view of language. Although some critics tend to emphasize Faulkner's early creativity in cartoons and illustrations, it does not seem to provide a satisfying explanation for the pervasive presence of the visual in his text. After discussing the cubist and surrealist images and techniques in As I Lay Dying, I intend to examine Faulkner's use of the visual within the broader context of the modernist perception of language.
Faulkner's acquaintance with cubism is well documented by his biographers. According to Joseph Blotner, Faulkner went to Paris in 1925 and stayed near the Luxembourg museum. During the stay Faulkner saw many contemporary paintings of Manet, Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne. Faulkner's admiration of Cezanne is well expressed in his letter to his mother: "And Cezanne! That man dipped his brush in light like Tobe Caruthers [an Oxford Negro of many talents] would dip his in red lead to paint a lamp- post" (Blotner 160). As several critics have noted, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying shows a number of similarities to cubist art. In her essay "Faulkner's Cubist Novels," Broughton claims that As I Lay Dying is the "quintessential cubist novel" (93). Broughton observes: "Repeating geometric designs -- lines and circles, verticals and horizontals -- Faulkner actually facets, like a cubist painting, the design of this book. That is why it is so difficult to speak of theme in As I Lay Dying....