Four years after the publication of the first edition of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Wallace Stevens described a modern aesthetic form which necessarily acted against its own status as a (fixed) form1. "What will [temporarily] suffice" in "Modern Poetry" would replace, as the mind's object, what is--or, perhaps more faithfully to the modernist vision, what used to be. The poem of the motion of the mind in time would replace the poem of permanent meaning.
The fundamental difference between present and past, the breakdown of static forms, and the necessity of temporal flow all inform Stevens' aesthetic, which works towards a dynamic experience in time, as a substitute for the communication of truth independent of time. I think an understanding of this (self-subverting) form has some important and complicated implications for a reading of Absalom, Absalom!, especially in terms of the relationship of historicity to orality in the novel, and of its distinctive and relatively homogeneous prose style. Ultimately to be found in these themes are the novel's fantasies of its form and of its reader.
The new aesthetic defines itself in relationship to an implied old one which, because of some historical break ("Then the theatre was changed/to something else"), no longer works. If Absalom, Absalom!, formally and thematically, offers a substitute for a now-inadequate "souvenir," it may be necessary to begin its exploration with the souvenir itself: namely the communication of positive historical truth in fixed form.
Many critical interpretations of Absalom, Absalom! move towards the common conclusion that the way narrative works in the novel makes impossible the passing of meaning from one subject (teller or author) to another (listener or reader)2. According to these readings, the novel becomes the demonstration of the inadequacy of its own (linguistic) medium. James Guetti finds in the various narratives the final indication "that the gap between experience and meaning in this novel must remain unbridgeable, and that the narrative is only, after all, words" (81). Of principal interest to Guetti's reading is the distance, in space and especially in time, between the facts (what he calls the "meaning") of the Sutpen history, and its various narrators. The intensity with which the tellers construct their narratives reflects the desperation of their frustrated reaches for historical truth.
I would suggest that the conclusions of Guetti and others are not so much conclusions as points of origin: that the final uncknowability and untellability of the truth of the Sutpen history may be the conditions for the possibility of the way narrative works in Absalom, Absalom! When Guetti says that "each attempt to understand, each vision, arises out of a moment of failure" (80), he points to uncertainty as a motivation for the construction of narratives. Guetti's insight is that uncertainty here means that narrative is necessarily, at least to a...