For the last several months I have been taking a class on William
Faulkner's book 'Absolom,Absolom'. Here is a paper that I gave on the last day.
Thomas Sutpen’s Ruthless Design
This is a Master’s Thesis by Kate Gamble at Columbia University. 2014
Thomas Sutpen is described as a mysterious, impenetrable and elusive character - an archetypal figure open to many interpretations some of which are:
-a mirror of the rise and fall of the southern plantation culture and the South itself
-a self absorbed plantation owner embedded in the historical and moral institution of slavery
-a Greek tragic hero whose monomania and hubris lead to self destruction
Gamble’s Thesis describes how Sutpen and Faulkner embody the condition of the artist figure that is ruthlessly compelled to create a design in order to be immortalized by what is produced.
Ruthlesss- having no pity or compassion for others
Gamble describes Faulkner as a Modernist writer with a meticulous focus on radical form, collapse of myth and structure , and a famously unhappy view of history.
To Gamble Sutpen is Faulkners’s vehicle for showing the power of the artist to transcend the futility and failure of everyday life through his life design.
Absolom deals with Sutpen’s Design. The various narratives detail how the characters in the novel were affected, both traumatized and enraptured by Sutpen and determined to understand what motivated him and why he ultimately failed.
Sutpen’s Character is initially described as mystical and almost demonic. He quite literally appeared out of thin air.
He is a force : He creates his plantation out of nothing: “Be Sutpen’s One Hundred”, like God creates light: “Be light.”
In the eyes of the early narrators he has no history. “He rode into town out of nowhere.” He is perceived as a man with quiet unflagging fury, conviction, endurance, rush and impenetrability.
The vehicles for Sutpen’s Design are House, Family, and Legacy which are based on Sutpen’s self-established identity and which are under his control.
Gamble indicates that the “mistake” in the Design is its requirement of racial purity for success. She notes how disproportionately casual the word ‘mistake’ is for what will eventually bring down Sutpen’s Design.
The motive for the Design is the force which compels artists and people and a character in a novel to create something that will outlast them:
All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life, never live with what all the men and women that had died to make him had left inside of him for him to pass on, with all the dead ones waiting and watching to see if he was going to do it right, fix things right so that he would be able to look in the face not only the old dead ones but all the living ones that would come after him when he would be one of the dead.
For Sutpen this moment is almost like a religious revelation, almost as if the design has been planted in him by some divine power. He is described as the “slave of his furious impatience,” Faulkner writes Sutpen into a state of ceaseless pursuit:
“galloping through avatars which marked the accumulation of years, time, to the fine climax where it galloped without weariness or progress, forever and forever immortal”.
Sutpen is placed in a condition of static galloping. Instead of Sutpen having the Design, the Design has Sutpen and primary to accomplishing the Design is ruthlessess.
In describing Sutpen as an artist figure Gamble tackles the Faulknerian Question: can man defy mortality by what he creates while living?
This is treated in Absolom as ”there is a might-have-been which is more true than the truth.” This describes the process by which Artists, Dreamers, and Designers produce something living beyond their deaths. According to Gamble Sutpens Design was like the Platonic pursuit of absolute flawlessness for his dynasty.
A theme in Faulkner’s works is the placing of unusual weight on individual objects that are passed down in order to preserve someone’s legacy – saying no to death through physical objects. Some examples in Faulkner include Benji’s slipper in The Sound and the Fury and in Absolom Bon’s letter and a scrap of paper.
These physical objects are treated as having the ability to contain and preserve truths of the past which can become alive in the present.
Faulkner in his famous Foreword to the Faulkner Reader claims that the basic drive for all writers is to “uplift man’s heart”. “This ‘uplifting’”, to Faulkner, is a transference of the writer and his spirit into the body of another living human. With an almost religious feeling, Faulkner believes that the writer is essentially resurrected when his work is read by another and thus “moves again.”
In Absolom Judith (or maybe Faulkner himself talking through Judith) addresses this:
and yet it must matter because you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over and all you have left is a block of stone with scratches on it provided there was someone to remember to have the marble scratched and set up or had time to, and it rains on it and the sun shines on it and after a while they don’t even remember the name and what the scratches were trying to tell, and it doesn’t matter. And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something—a scrap of paper—something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, to be remembered if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that was once for the reason that it can die someday, while the block of stone cant be is because it never can become was because it cant ever die or perish…
This preserved artifact, this scrap of paper that is physically passed on carries within it not just the words of its writer but also the sharing allows for
living human beings in the future to be moved by it
which according to Faulkner becomes his legacy.
Gamble indicates that Faulkner shows indisputable admiration for Sutpen’s indomitable perseverance. Sutpen loses control of his own narrative but is unfazed. As Wash says, “They kilt us but they h’ant whupped us yet.”
Sutpen’s downfall is complex, manifesting itself as a combination and subsequent collapse of the American dream of self-creation, the Southerner’s dream of owning a plantation and the artist’s dream of immortalizing himself. Gamble feels that Sutpen’s alleged failure is an example of the artist’s condition, in which “he creates his own narrative with an integrity that will accept no alternative or deviation.” Sutpen’s artistic integrity, idealistic purity, and adherence to his vision are the critical components of his failure, but also the ingredient’s for his achievement. Though flawed in its execution, Sutpen’s design is unparalleled in its ardor and conviction, and therefore, to Faulkner,(Gamble said) a true artistic feat.
GAMBLE quotes Faulkner as saying that his novels were intended to address the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
She claims indisputable links between Sutpen and Faulkner’s idealized vision of the artist figure: a fascination with immortality, a plaguing dissatisfaction with reality, a meticulous and visionary design, an unstoppable creative impulse, and the always present burden of time. Together, these components forge a true Faulknerian character.
WELL MAYBE NOT:
I don’t see Sutpen as an artist – rather as a forceful driven character whose ruthlessness and perseverance outdistances his own narrative. We may along with Faulkner marvel at Sutpen’s perseverance as a powerful character in a dramatic story but as readers we see that his flaws overshadow his actions. So what is missing?
As I was thinking about this an unsolicited quote arrived
on my computer from the ethernet :
A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist. -Louis Nizer, lawyer (6 Feb 1902-1994)
What’s missing in Sutpen is heart. Faulkner admired the visionary nature and endurance and ruthlessness that Sutpen committed to his design but we as readers see the resulting and inevitable doom which he himself sees later on.
Sutpen is hemmed in by time and the need to finish the design for HIS personal dynasty. His history has not allowed him to participate in life with compassion. He is merely hands and brain – ruthlessness does not allow for heart and humanity. During all phases of enacting his design, compassion and love are absent. This is why the reader sees his failure and his death as not unexpected. His death is an expected result in a character propelled into demanding perfection from a flawed design. In contradistinction to Gamble’s thesis I say that he is a designer and does not have the character to be an artist figure.
Gamble describes Faulkner in his own words as a ‘ruthless artist’. In describing his approach to writing he notes that he would do in his own mother if she got in the way of his artistic ability. As justification for this he says that Keat’s production of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is worth more than a few dead old ladies.
I would assert that Faulkner as a Ruthless Artist Figure differs markedly from Sutpen as a Ruthless Designer especially in terms of the end product, but that is another topic for discussion.
My view is that Sutpen joins Melville’s Ahab and Hemingway’s Old Fisherman as powerful mythological characters who are compelled by their destiny “to go out too far” to meet their ultimate fates.