“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.
In this day of public demonstrations against injustice, I’ve noticed even more allusions to Faulkner’s famous words. But those who quote him don’t seem to understand that he is not simply saying we live with the past, that it is some kind of fixed fact. On the contrary, Faulkner believed that depending on what we do now, in this moment, will change what the past means. He was no determinist and did not believe we could not alter the conditions of the past. Quite the contrary, he was a futurist.
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 Compson scion, expected to carry on the family line. Although Quentin never makes a racist comment about Charles Bon, 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.
But what is it, exactly, that propels Shreve into the future that Quentin cannot bear to contemplate? How do we get from the suave Charles Bon, an irresistible figure to all who meet him, to Charles Etienne, his angry son by an octoroon mistress, to his slack-jawed, howling grandson, Jim Bond, and finally to African kings and a lineage that will outlast Quentin’s? Some first readers of Absalom, Absalom! supposed that in the figure of Jim Bond, Faulkner was deploring the degenerate results of race mixing. But how can that be when Shreve asserts that his typical descendant a few millennia hence will have “sprung from the loins of African kings”? How can that be when Jim Bond is outnumbered in Faulkner’s fiction by white idiots like Benjy Compson and Ike Snopes? Jim Bond, unaware of his troubled heritage, seems to Shreve a harbinger not of a degenerate future but of a time when race will not matter. There will be no Miss Rosa, who tells her part of the Sutpen saga to Quentin, and calls Jim Bond a “nigger.”
Race, it seems to Shreve, is a construct that in some distant epoch will be dispositive of nothing—neither intelligence, character, nor conviction. It is the individual who will be sovereign, and not his color, since Jim Bond and his kind, Shreve predicts, will “conquer the western hemisphere,” their skin bleached out, the better to blend in. At the end of the novel, Jim Bond disappears and his whereabouts remain unknown. He fades into humanity, as will the story of Thomas Sutpen and his brood.
And isn’t this the import of Charles Bon’s actions? This sophisticated New Orleans denizen, the product of a multicultural society, refuses to act like a black man. He is an ironic figure in the provincial society of northern Mississippi, with a nonchalant air coupled with a quiet determination to assert his rights. To the town of Jefferson he is an attractive yet suspect stranger, welcomed, at first, into the Sutpen home. His exotic entrance into this society is met with a fascination verging on idolatry and loathing, the latter because he cannot be neatly categorized.
The advent of Charles Bon is like that of no other character in the American literature leading up to Faulkner’s work. Bon is a herald of the future, of an America that would elect a biracial president who blithely and without any apparent embarrassment called himself a “mongrel”—in one confident statement overturning more than a century of malarkey about tragic mulattos who could not reconcile themselves to their mixed blood. Barack Obama went further, saying on ABC’s The View in 2010, “We are sort of a mongrel people…. I mean we’re all kinds of mixed up…. That’s actually true of white people as well, but we just know more about it.” He was so right, Faulkner might have said. For Charles Bon has no qualms about race mixing—whether in his marriage to an octoroon or his courting of his white half-sister Judith.
Mixing and matching—which is what Quentin and Shreve are doing in composing the story of Charles Bon—has implications that Shreve accepts and Quentin evades. The fascist idea of blood and soil that Thomas Sutpen adopts is utterly irrelevant to Bon—and to Faulkner, who parodied racist language in his sendup of the educated Gavin Stevens’s pontifications (in Light in August) about what the conflicted Joe Christmas’s white and black blood made him do.
Charles Bon’s expansive sense of time and place is the equivalent of Faulkner’s, as Bon demonstrates in his letter to Judith Sutpen, written while he is fighting in the Civil War: “if I were a philosopher I should deduce and derive a curious and apt commentary on the times and augur of the future from this letter which you now hold in your hands—a sheet of notepaper with, as you can see, the best of French watermarks dated seventy years ago, salvaged (stolen if you will) from the gutted mansion of a ruined aristocrat; and written upon in the best of stove polish manufactured not twelve months ago in a New England factory.” The past, present, and future exist all at once in the old paper and new ink “because within this sheet of paper you now hold the best of the old South which is dead, and the words you read were written upon it with the best (each box said, the very best) of the new North which has conquered and which therefore, whether it likes it or not, will have to survive, I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those who are doomed to live.” Bon is not right about his own survival, although in this letter he lives with a vision of the future that emerges from Absalom, Absalom! in the question Shreve puts to Quentin as the novel ends.
For Faulkner, all of time existed as a moment, during which all could be changed: past, present, and future. He said as much to a French interviewer, acknowledging the importance of Henri Bergson’s view of “lived” time (as opposed to “mechanistic” time). Nothing Faulkner ever did, nothing his characters ever did, was irremediable. His own novels he subjected to revision, telling his editor that the discrepancies in the Snopes trilogy proved that he now knew more about his characters than when he first put them on the page. In short, he resisted the idea of making the last two volumes of the Snopes trilogy conform to the first. The past held no sway over the present or what Faulkner might yet write. He was not bound by his own books.
In Hollywood, Faulkner reworked a World War I memoir, War Birds, into a screenplay, introducing the Sartoris brothers, Bayard and John, and in the process making Bayard—so reckless and self-destructive in the posthumously published Flags in the Dust—into the steady, reliable Sartoris. He dramatizes this transformation by having Bayard bring home the German pilot who shot down John’s plane, as well as the French woman who remains loyal to her lost beloved. If the film had been produced, the canon of Faulkner’s work would have been shifted ever so slightly—just as it would have been if his screen adaptation of Absalom, Absalom! (titled Revolt in the Earth) had been filmed. In that script he explored the future of Clytie and Judith, Sutpens of a Manichaean bent who are fixated on the past but are also, especially in Judith’s case, struggling to create a future free from her father’s racism. Judith lives abroad, in England, seeking the new perspective that Quentin cannot achieve, just as Linda Snopes in The Mansion forsakes Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner’s mythical county, for the hazards of fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but returns home to agitate on behalf of civil rights and other social-justice causes.
Judith and Linda and all of Faulkner’s characters have to contend with the pull of the past, but they are not doomed by it, unless, like Quentin, they can measure the present only by the past. Faulkner, too, was susceptible to such backward thinking—at one moment of extremity saying he would fight another civil war to preserve his Southern heritage. But he quickly repudiated this lapse, which, as he acknowledged, had been prompted by drink. He understood the tendency to wallow in the past, but that wallowing was itself a sign of defeat that he could not abide.
Traveling the world during the 1950s as an ambassador of American culture and values, Faulkner came to believe even more strongly that the South and the rest of the nation would have to change, above all by abolishing the racial divisions that his greatest novel so palpably portrays. He knew that, like Shreve, who will not let Quentin sulk unchallenged, the world would not wait for the South to change, and his characters and his fellow Southerners had better get a move on. The future awaited them. The past is never dead because its meaning is forever changing.