Thursday, 25 September 2014

On different kinds of Sound and Fury

A couple of notable anniversaries today: the birthday of William Faulkner (b. 1897) and the death of Edward Said (2003).

I sometimes think of Faulkner as an American DH Lawrence: all heightened emotions and volcanic passion within supposedly repressed cultures. The difference for me, personally, is that I can no longer read Lawrence's novels with much enjoyment, though the stories and poems still do it for me. Faulkner's novels have never lost their fascination for me: I'd recommend Absalom, Absalom as a good starting point. Recurrent themes are the torrid American South's racial conflicts and complexities (Faulkner was partly educated by a black woman), memories of the Civil War, the poisoned but proud remnants of the Confederacy's plantation aristocracy. His work is a branch of Southern Gothic on its own, yet highly modernist. Claustrophobic stuff.

Here's the opening to the 1959 adaptation of The Sound and the Fury:

Faulkner also wrote a lot of amazing film scripts, such as The Big Sleep: here's a great scene – and it's Bogart and Bacall.

The other anniversary is Edward Said, critic, theorist and excavator of imperialism, racism and in particular scholar of Western narratives of the Orient, informed by his Palestinian origins. For me, Orientalism was my introduction to non-chronological literary and cultural history and criticism. Without it, I probably wouldn't be an academic, despite none of my work being directly related to Said's.

I do have one awful anecdote about Said's work to share. I went to my first conference in 2000, at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. It specialised in literature and culture between the world wars (my paper was shamefully bad). The conference itself was wonderful: meeting and chatting to people whose work I'd almost memorised, sharing ideas and starting to feel like a contributor to knowledge rather than a spectator (jet-lag may have affected my perception – I'd never flown before). So I was having a great time until the last session of the conference. A young American post-graduate was giving a presentation on something fairly uncontroversial, and most of the very eminent speakers were there. As an aside to a key point, he mentioned something Said had written that he thought was relevant.

Sharp intake of breath.

A few minutes later, he finished and questions from the floor were invited. If you've ever met an academic, you'll know that this is how it usually works:

Not this time. It didn't matter that this poor chap had cited Said in pursuit of a harmless discussion of literary characteristics. He had cited a man known to have Palestinian sympathies. The great and the good – with some exceptions – launched into a vicious critique that had nothing to do with Said's ideas and everything to do with his politics (which to us European lefties don't seem particularly controversial) and his nationality. I watched with horror as a future academic was ripped to shreds on spurious grounds because he'd done what I assumed was the right thing and concentrated on ideas rather than imposed an intellectual no-go zone. So much for the Republic of Letters… 

Here's Said talking about Orientalism. Don't worry, it won't make you strap on a suicide vest or bomb Tel Aviv. But if you've ever wondered why the non-English bad guys in Hollywood are Arab-looking, here are some of the answers. If only our political leaders had read it.

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