“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Hardly a day goes by without Google Alerts informing me that someone has appropriated that statement—usually prefaced with “Faulkner said.” Well, he never said it. Gavin Stevens does, in Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, and like every statement of a fictional character, this aphorism cannot simply be attributed to the author. “The past is never dead” pursued to its logical conclusion is an absurdity, obliterating both present and future.
This idea of Faulkner as fixated on the past has a long pedigree, perhaps beginning with “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner,” a much-read 1939 essay by Jean-Paul Sartre. “In Faulkner’s work,” Sartre contends, “there is never any progression, never anything which comes from the future.” But what he describes in his quotations from the novel are Quentin Compson’s ruminations about time, not Faulkner’s. Sartre says that “Faulkner’s vision of the world can be compared to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backwards.” But Sartre does not consider that in order for that vision to travel backwards the car has to move forward, and in that progress is change, which Warren Beck characterized as “man in motion” in his classic 1961 study, so titled, of the Snopes trilogy. Sartre—not the first philosopher to pursue an idea that overwhelms and distorts reality—argues that the past “takes on a sort of super-reality, its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable.” Tell that to any close reader of the 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!, in which the past changes virtually moment by moment depending on who is talking.
Sartre asserts that Faulkner’s characters “never look ahead.” That would come as a surprise to Lena Grove in Light in August (1932), whose road trip is nothing but looking ahead, or to Bayard Sartoris in The Unvanquished (1938), who refuses to perpetuate his father’s cycle of violence, not to mention Linda Snopes in The Mansion (1959), who puts an end to Flem Snopes’s patriarchal fascism. Characters like Ike McCaslin in Go Down, Moses (1942) are doomed because they cannot relinquish their fealty to the past. In Faulkner’s greatest novel, Absalom, Absalom!, a Canadian, Shreve McCannon, announces to his Harvard roommate, the diehard Southerner Quentin Compson, “In a few thousand years, I who regard you will also have sprung from the loins of African kings.” This astonishing prediction comes after Shreve and Quentin have spent hours and hours putting together the fraught trajectory of Thomas Sutpen and his progeny: the fable of a father who rejects his mixed-blood son, of a white brother who murders his black brother, with racial division at the heart of this family tragedy occurring during the Civil War. Nearly forty-five years after that war, Shreve tries to wrench Quentin out of his fixation with the past by asking, “Why do you hate the South?” Quentin’s last words are also the novel’s conclusion: “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” Quentin is stalemated because he cannot move beyond the past.
Shreve’s point is that ultimately what the past means is what the future makes of it. And the future in Faulkner, notwithstanding Sartre’s conclusion, is not “closed.” Shreve believes that the story of the Sutpens that he has helped Quentin to construct will take on a transformative meaning in later ages. The Sutpens’ story is that Thomas Sutpen rejected his black son Charles Bon, Thomas’s child by his first wife, after Charles came calling at Sutpen’s Hundred to secure some sort of acknowledgment from his white father even as he courted his half-sister Judith and seduced his half-brother Henry, who would eventually murder Bon rather than accept him as a member of the family. In Shreve’s expansive view, miscegenation will become a meaningless concept. Naturally, this is an easier tack for Shreve than for Quentin, who is at Harvard precisely because he is the Sutpen scion, expected to carry on the family line. Although Quentin never makes a racist comment about Charles, he obviously cannot get beyond the barriers between the races that have brought to the South, and to Quentin personally, an unbearable grief that results in Quentin’s suicide.