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As the number zero was the start of mathematics and the vacuum the foundation of physics, so silence became the standard measure of civilization. Yet, all three of these ‘scientific’ standards spring from human imagination and are only applicable by general agreement, but remain in principle fictional.

Few compositions have caused such a division of opinion as John Cage’s ‘4.33’ from 1952, one of his own favourites. A well-dressed pianist entered the stage, sat down behind the grand piano, opened it, turned a page of the score in front of him every now and then and after about four and a half minutes he got up, made a bow and left the stage. Cage got the idea for this composition after a visit to a soundproof room and only wanted to show there is no such thing as absolute silence. This manifests itself on a recording of the piece that still exists. In it, a world of small tiny sounds opens up. Chairs squeak, uncomfortable coughing, the humming of the air-conditioning, some far-away sounds of traffic, the rustling of the pages of a program. Above all one can hear, just like the original audience back in 1952, the rushing of one’s own blood in one’s ears, one’s heartbeat, swallowing and rumbling stomach. Through this, the audience becomes the performing artist of ‘4.33’, and because one goes to a concert to listen, the uproarious silence had never been heard as well as just there. Does silence exist at all, one wonders, or is it like a hole in the ground, only observed because of the earth that surrounds it? After all silence is an arbitrary name for the absence of sound.

Each piece of writing can be considered a composition as well; a composition in words and these are in essence silent. This void is filled as soon as the reader starts interacting with the author’s words and his imagination attributes numerous voices and sounds to the essential silent text. This is the intention of reading and only natural since Mother Nature hates emptiness – horror vacui – and fills it promptly. In music, as shown with the help of John Cage, one may well justify the use of markedly contradictory words, like the oxymoronic title of this paper. Some say that Faulkner likes to force readers to absorb many contradictory feelings all at once. His use of oxymorons helps to create a feeling of unresolved conflict.

The author, like a filmmaker, has another trick up his sleeve. They are both able to turn off the sound at will. It is not very hard to picture this (talking about sound) and the effect it has can make a spectacular difference. The watching of a horror movie without sound often results in an audience responding at first uneasily and in the end with laughter, missing the culminating effect of music with image in heightening the tension. Now the author only manages to create a silent mode by either omitting all references directly relating to sound and by emphasizing the visual effect, or by the absence of dialogue when there seems to be every need for coherent speech but speech fails as a means of communication. As Addie Bundren observed in As I Lay Dying, (172) a word is ‘just a shape to fill a lack’. Faulkner, wittingly or intuitively, quite often uses a lack to create a new shape, one which is silently able to reverse the expected situation and give it a totally different charge.

The old clich� that sometimes silence speaks louder than words still holds true. Silence has gradually become the social distinction between civilization and barbarism since the introduction of book printing. Knowledge and wisdom were gathered from books instead of by orating. One should not ever disturb a reader. The signs in the library demand silence. As in a silent movie, Faulkner manages to weave into his work scenes that seem to be stripped of sound, where nature and human life go into a silent mode, and the only option left is to watch it unfold before your eyes. In these scenes particularly, he succeeds in mixing the tragic and comic tones in such a way that contemplation of the view is the result. Whether one should classify Faulkner’s work as being more tragi-comedy than comi-tragedy is a difficult and debatable matter. The consensus seems to lean towards it being predominantly tragic with varying degrees of comic relief. The outcome of that discussion, however, is less interesting to me than to try to demonstrate the powerful effect that mixing these two tones has. I will pay special attention Faulkner’s descriptions of motion and sound, in which we seem to be presented with a slide show of consecutive still images, more specifically in scenes from Pantaloon in Black, a story in Go Down, Moses, and from Light In August.

“Pantaloon in Black”

From Go Down, Moses

Where romantic comedy says: these aggressions can be transcended, and realistic comedy says: these aggressions will be punished, tragic-comedy… says these aggressions can “neither be transcended nor brought to heel, they are human nature and they are life” (342). Eric Bentley points out, in these few words, the power, the purpose, and the effect of mixing tones in literature. Comedy alone, he argues, creates an unreal world. Tragedy, he continues, excludes most of men’s experiences because of its emphasis on “Beauty, Heroism, Nobility and Higher Truth”(338). Any author writing about the complexities of modern man should consider this, as William Faulkner does in “Pantaloon in Black”. In this story, the reader is presented with the immense tragedy of Rider, the protagonist, and because of this, most readers miss the story’s comic moments.

A plot summary most likely will only emphasize the tragic elements. Rider mourns the death of his wife Mannie. He buries her, single-handedly, in an almost violent way. After all, she has caused him to change, to become a better man. After refusing to go home with his aunt and uncle, his surrogate parents, he returns home only to see her ghost and then to the sawmill where he works like a mad man, throwing an enormous log in a daring display of physical skill – one showing his desire to die – for without her he doesn’t want to live anymore. After that he desperately tries to drink himself to death with moonshine he fought over and got from a bootlegger. A rush to a dice game follows, after another confrontation with his aunt, where he tangles with Birdsong, a crooked white man, whom he kills with a razor. Captured by the law, Rider’s story, as seen through his eyes, ends. The deputy sheriff, a myopic prejudiced man, tells the rest of Rider’s story to his extremely bored wife. Though he did not attempt to escape, Rider tears his cell apart, only to be beaten by members of a black chain gang – all for naught – for the next day, the deputy tells us, persons unknown take him from the jail and lynch him.

However, it hardly captures the essence of the story, for the comic undertones make all the difference. The first hint the reader gets is in the title. Pantaloon (or pantalone) is a stock character in the Italian commedia del arte1 and here juxtaposes with black, the color of death, tragedy and the deprived race in Go Down, Moses. It is Faulkner’s first notice of absurdity. Rider represents this absurdity, and faced with it in the end, all he can do is laugh. Life has cheated him of the woman who made all the difference; such a situation seems a cruel joke. In the opening scene he flings dirt on to her coffin, using an implement which ‘resembled the toy shovel a child plays with at the shore, its half cubic foot of flung dirt no more than the light gout of sand the child’s shovel would have flung’ (131). If one thinks of the wasted energy of the mad swings with the little dirt, one cannot help but laugh at this silent scene.

When one sees that the grave lies in a barren garbage heap, full of ‘shards of pottery and broken bottles and other objects insignificant to sight…’ (132), one cannot fail to appreciate the irony; a woman, who meant so much to her husband, tragically buried in a trash heap. When Rider arrives at the sawmill, he needs food. One cannot write home about his table manners but humorous mime again underlies the tragedy. When he eats, he is ‘cramming the food into his mouth with his hands, wolfing it – pease again, also gelid and cold, a fragment of yesterday’s Sunday fried chicken, a few rough chunks of this morning’s fried sidemeat, a biscuit the size of a child’s cap – indiscriminate, tasteless’ (139). This gentle grief-stricken giant eats what looks like garbage, like an animal. After his display of brutal strength his aunt’s husband was waiting for him with a peach pie which he immediately starts, ‘holding the pie with both hands, wolfing at…’ He was ‘blinking rapidly as he chewed, the whites of his eyes covered a little more by the creeping red’. (140)

Again, to the casual observer he, comically, eats like a hungry wolf. Nevertheless, the picture Faulkner paints tragically shows a man whose eyes betray, through the blinking and the red that is creeping in, his sincere sorrow and depth of feeling. The apparent absurdity of the dice game, in spite of its violent outcome, is highlighted by the fact that throughout this entire scene Rider is smiling like a fool (147-149). The black men participating in the game are losing their money like fools. Though the story does not describe their actions, and they never talk, we are aware of their actions. They are present through the ‘soiled and palm-worn money’ (148) in front of Birdsong, the cheating white man with the comic name, who is eventually unmasked and killed by a fool. Rider, the traditional character of pantaloon who has ranted and raved throughout the story, true to his role, has adapted to the absurdity of life itself. Life is a crooked crapshoot; the odds are mostly against you.

The deputy cannot grasp the contradictory attitude of someone who willingly confesses to murder but does not want to be locked up. ‘Ah done it. Jest dont lock me up’, Rider is reported to have said (152). Because of his enormous strength he tears his cell apart and rips the door out of the wall. Like in a cartoon he is then subdued by a road gang of black convicts: ‘… a big mass of nigger heads and arms and legs boiling around on the floor and even then Ketcham says every now and then a nigger would come flying out and through the air across the room, spraddled out like a flying Squirrel and with his eyes sticking out like car headlights…’ (154). This fight is one of those silent scenes, the absence of sound emphasizing the ridiculousness of the visual image. When Rider realizes the silliness of man’s struggle to survive, he can do nothing else but laugh and cry, the perfect blend of comi-tragedy. Readers feel deeply about him, through his silent laughter and tears, because we see him as an absurd hero, especially compared to the insensitive racist deputy. The end of the story is all the more powerful by its mixture of comic and tragic tones.

Light In August

In this thematically multi-layered novel by Faulkner, the story of Lena Groves is structurally juxtaposed with the stories of Joe Christmas and Gail Hightower. The book starts and ends with Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman looking for the father of her unborn child who he walked out on her. In the end, we learn that she was not so much looking for him as traveling just to travel, living in the present, in touch with nature and confident it would eventually bring her to her purpose and destination. Joe’s tragic story starts in the third chapter and ends in the third-to-last. Hightower’s story begins in the third and ends in the next-to-last. These three stories do not proceed chronologically but are felt, by most readers, to fuse into one unified novel. Some readers have argued that the novel’s unity comes from other elements than the structure; thematically the main characters embody such themes as racism, the heritage of the past, Christianity, community, male-female relations and personal identity.

With the addition of Joanna Burden and Byron Bunch, the five central characters encompass subsidiary themes as the contrasting attitudes of the different characters to time, the issue of man and nature (as in Go Down, Moses) and fate and martyrdom. Others say that the coincidence of them all being in the same town between the two climactic events of Joanna Burden’s murder and Joe Christmas’s death provides enough unity, though their tales are separate and distinct. Still others argue that Faulkner’s stream of life presentation would have suffered under a less loose and open construction. By contrast, to Lena, Joe Christmas does not know who he is; his uncertain racial identity affects every aspect of his life. When the ‘uncertain’ trace of black ancestry, for he is also called ‘the mulatto’ (Cowley, 51), is known, it provokes very different responses. Yet, his claim that he belongs to the black race is ambivalent since he uses it to rebel against both black and white. He roams the country, like Lena, but without purpose, never settling or entering a long-lasting human relationship.

His fate seems to inevitably push his life’s story to an inescapable and violent death. The reverend Gail Hightower, the preacher who is punished for not conforming to his congregation’s idea of practicing religion and because he was unable to keep his wife from behaving sinfully, seems rooted in the past, obsessed with the heroic past of his forebears. His story ends when he realizes that his detachment from life does not prevent him from being concerned with the events of the present. Like him, Joanna Burden compares badly to both her grandfather and father and is a victim of her stern religious upbringing, which Joe suffers from as well. Her abolitionist family moved down from the North and was never fully accepted. She leads a lonely life in an isolated mansion out of town. Joanna becomes involved with Joe, in a destructive and unequal relationship that fatefully foreshadows her demise, and is eventually murdered by him. Byron Bunch, another solitary character, falls in love with Lena the moment he sees her, pregnant and all. After realizing that there is no alternative, for he worships her, he blindly follows her, wherever it may take him. This insultingly short rendering of such a comprehensive novel merely attempts to illustrate the predominantly tragic tone of the book.

Nevertheless, as in ‘Pantaloon in Black’, there are numerous instances of mixing tones and what is more the ‘silent mode’ is elaborated upon by another of Faulkner’s techniques. Like Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Faulkner compares the wagons Lena has ridden in to figures carved on an urn:

“… backrolling now behind her a long monotonous succession of peaceful and undeviating changes from day to dark and dark to day again, through which she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons as though through a succession of crackwheeled and limpeared avatars, like something moving forever and without progress across an urn.”(7)

A paragraph later, she actually sits waiting by the side of the road for the next one, but this cart’s progress seems to stop, for “it seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever” (8). Yet, Lena “thinks of herself as already moving, riding again…” Faulkner uses frozen motion, the absence of sound combined with the still picture, frequently. It also features in his descriptions of often chaotic and violent events. Readers and scholars argue about the interpretation: some say that, again like Keats, the nature of art is to freeze the captured motion in order to give us the chance to contemplate the scene from different points of view. However, one could also argue fatalistically that the characters’ destinies are as certain and their goals as unattainable as the urn’s ancient carvings. I will describe and analyse a scene with each of the five main characters in which frozen motion is used, showing that it does contribute to the greatness of this novel.

Apart from showing the absurdity of man’s existence, the effect of the tragic deaths of Joe and Joanna, and Hightower’s new insight means next to nothing to the characters who inhabit the last chapter of Light In August. Contrary to the wife of the deputy in “Pantaloon in black”, who was not listening and not even interested, the wife of the furniture dealer is listening and intrigued. Her husband tells her of his meeting with Lena and Byron and their seemingly absurd interaction, for he only slowly starts to realize they are not man and wife, which we already know. When he comes to the part, which in every man’s eyes must be the ultimate rejection, where Byron tries to lay with Lena in the back of the truck, there is a brief instant of frozen motion which is hilarious when we see and feel through his eyes that ‘lay with’ can be seen as ‘force upon’.

Byron is seen through the eyes of the dealer: “I watched him climb slow and easy in the truck and disappear and then didn’t anything happen for about while you could count maybe fifteen slow…” Than motion slows down and comes to a ridiculous and also to him unexpected stop at that moment “he comes out the back door of the truck. Not fast, and not climbing down on his own legs at all.” For a moment, Byron is suspended there in mid-air, picked up and set outside by the strong Lena. The furniture dealer was half expecting rape, but this silent nonsensical picture evokes the sought after comic relief he needed and provokes a smile from the reader. Byron is then placed on the ground and spoken to with calm assurance: ” ‘… get some sleep. We got another fur piece to go tomorrow'”(503 my italics). The dealer is not sure but Lena is, Byron will be there again, wild horses cannot drag him away.

When Hightower, in a futile attempt to save Joe Christmas, tries to provide him with an alibi for the murder of Joanna Burden, there is another violent moment of some consecutive stills. Just before that, the “raised and armed and manacled hands” (463) of Joe had struck him down, causing the old man some facial injuries. The pursuers of Joe help him on his feet with his “big pale face streaked with blood”(464) to learn from him where Joe is hiding. When Hightower delivers his testimony as to Joe’s innocence, instead of giving the required response, he is literally flung aside. On the one hand, this demonstrates the ruthlessness of the white militia pursuers in finding and killing the now pronounced black Joe and reveals an extra layer of racial tension. On the other hand, it accentuates the insignificance of Hightower’s attempt to return to the present, a huge step in the life of a man who has lived in the past for more than 20 years, by being flung aside by the same hands that picked him up. The whole tragic scene shifts to ridicule.

Joe provokes people of both races into non-acceptance. He is violent by nature and deeply frustrated. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that instances of frozen motion occur a lot around him. After his adoption by the probably Scottish Presbyterian McEacherns, the little Joe is about to receive his third consecutive beating with a strap, ten strokes after each hour, for he has failed to learn the catechism:

“Again on the dot of the hour McEachern looked up from the watch. ‘Have you learned it?’ he said. The boy did not answer, did not move. When McEachern approached, he saw that the boy was not looking at the page at all, that his eyes were quite fixed and blank. When he put his hand on the book he found that the boy was clinging to it as if it were a rope or a post. When McEachern took the book forcibly from his hands, the boy fell at full length to the floor and did not move again”. (151)

One is aware that the tension between the two is enormous, the beating is administered without anger (which I find most scary), but both cling to the book, the older man for the content he tries to force onto the boy, the boy rejecting that but using its tangible presence for physical support. The moment that support is taken away from him, one can visualize series of stills in which the body does not yet realize the lack of support that kept it in balance for as long as it did, after which it collapses and the boy falls.

There are also moments when Joe is the instigator of violence, for instance against Brown, the man who impregnated Lena, in the beginning of chapter five. These men are condemned to each other in an unequal relationship in which secrecy, dominance and the illegitimate selling of moonshine prevail. Joe is the more dominant of the two. “Brown began to sing… ‘Shut it,’ Christmas said. He did not move and his voice was not raised. Yet Brown ceased at once” (102). The silent threat is imminent and almost tangible. When Brown after an interval stumbles and falls and begins to laugh because he is drunk, Joe irritatedly “hauled him out from beneath the cot and raised Brown’s head and began to strike him with his flat hand, short, vicious, and hard, until Brown ceased laughing.”

Christmas then proceeds, when Brown again starts laughing, to curse him in a level voice, all very controlled, and when that does not give the desired effect, Joe “put his hand flat upon Brown’s mouth and nose, shutting his jaw with his left hand while with the right he struck Brown again with those hard, slow, measured blows, as if he were meting them out by count. Brown had stopped laughing” (103). This resembles the way in which McEachern administered his beatings to Joe, without heat, pragmatically ensuring the desired effect, showing his upbringing. The sound of slapping must be there but seems to come slow, if at all, and seems to hang suspended over the whole scene. The drunken laughter, the calm silent threats and the ridiculous power one man has over the other makes this scene a whirlwind of conflicting emotions in which bewilderment struggles with the tragicality of the situation which is undermined by the comic.

Howe2 says that from a dramatic point of view it is only appropriate that characters break out of their obscurity, collide, cause pain and then part. Faulkner once said that the writers he admired most were those who had tried to accomplish so much that they inevitably had to fail. It has been said that his great admiration for grand but doomed efforts shows in his novels too. Maybe Byron Bunch’s assault on Brown is one of these doomed yet courageous actions as well as an appropriate dramatic breaking out for one of the two characters involved. “It lasted less than two minutes.” The small Bunch has the advantage of surprise and of a silent approach over the sitting but much taller Brown.

In this soundless scene he wants to punish him for throwing “away twice inside nine months what I aint had in thirtyfive years” (which is Lena). “It does not last long.” Faulkner warns us twice and he foreshadows Byron’s defeat: “‘You’re bigger than me,’ Byron thought.” Brown reverses the advantage because he cannot “believe that any man, catching his enemy sitting, would give him a chance to get on his feet…” that “…was worse than an insult: it was ridicule” (439). No sound in the few instances the man intending to do the beating gets beat and “was lying quietly… bleeding quietly about the face.” (my italics) The complete earnest of Byron’s seemingly futile attempt, although it releases him from the past and firmly puts him in the present, is tragic but the person picking a fight and losing it accordingly mostly deserves a wry compassionate smile.


I think it was Bouwe Postmus3 who once said that one should never write about a work or an author one admires. I now see his point but it can not be avoided when one is just introduced to such a writer in the course of a term. Even by confining myself to what I thought to be a limited subject as comic-relief by means of the audio-visual modes of silence and still, the amount of perspectives is incredible. The shifting point of view and the distance and detachment with which the human enterprise is seen provides a response that transcends the individual’s tragic encounter with the reality about him.

I think I have shown that the mix of comical and tragical tones gives Faulkner’s work an extra dimension by which life’s duality is truly represented. Faulkner’s use of style figures, like an oxymoron, helps to deepen the contradictory human aspects that are present in his characters. One cannot be forced to see the portrayed events in this paper in the same way that I do. It does not prevent them from being seen for what they are: images that give a defeaning sound in the surrounding silence.



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