One of my favorite sections of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which I’m reading right now with my literature survey class) is towards the end of the novel.
It’s springtime in the country. Addie Bundren has been dead and hauled up and down the Mississippi countryside in her coffin for eight days and is really starting to show it. (She made her husband promise to take her forty miles away, to Jefferson, to be buried with her kinfolk.) The holes that her youngest son Vardaman drilled into the lid (and her face) have allowed her putrefaction to be not only smelled but (by a later point in the novel) heard by everyone nearby. (No small irony indeed that Vardaman’s effort to save her from suffocation is stealing the air from everyone who must ride near the coffin!) The number of buzzards is constantly increasing overhead.
In the family’s attempt to ford a flooded river, she is nearly swept away. Her oldest son Cash has his leg broken by a waterborne log. (Oh, he’d just broken the same leg the spring before, by the way, falling off of the roof of a church he was repairing.) He has to ride on top of his mother’s coffin (the coffin that he built himself) because there’s no room anywhere else in the wagon. (By the way, Cash is a major Christ figure in the novel.)
Anse Bundren, patriarch and self-anointed Job of the clan (and oh-how-ironic THAT is), won’t be “beholden” to any man—he doesn’t even want to trouble someone to borrow a bucket and some water. (Of course, everyone ends up doing everything for Anse, he’s so utterly and stupidly helpless. Go look up the word “anserous.”)
What do these people get to set Cash’s leg in a cast? Cement. That’s right. Cement. Ten cents’ worth, to be exact. (When you’re that poor, you don’t buy a whole sack.) That bucket and water that Anse needed and wouldn’t borrow? To mix the cement to cast his son’s twice-broken leg.
Darl Bundren is Cash’s younger brother, is probably in his early twenties, has a special kind of “second sight,” and is the dominant narrative perspective in the novel. He gives us the scene (Dewey Dell, by the way, is the only girl in the family, she’s got her own set of issues, but they’re not important to this scene):
“Here’s a place,” pa says. He pulls the team up and sits looking at the house. “We could get some water over yonder.”
“All right,” I say. “You’ll have to borrow a bucket from them, Dewey Dell.”
“God knows,” pa says. “I wouldn’t be beholden, God knows.”
“If you see a good-sized can, you might bring it,” I say. Dewey Dell gets down from the wagon, carrying the package. “You had more trouble than you expected, selling those cakes in Mottson,” I say. How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls. Cash broke his leg and now the sawdust is running out. He is bleeding to death is Cash.
“I wouldn’t be beholden,” pa says. “God knows.”
“Then make some water yourself,” I say. “We can use Cash’s hat.”
It is at this moment, I think, that Darl—who has spent most of the novel in existential wordplay with Vardaman and existential harassment with half-brother Jewel—has his great epiphany. It’s an epiphany that moves him from questioning his existence to trying to do something about that existence. His epiphany? I think he fully recognizes the utter grotesqueness and absurdity of his situation, and it’s been personified in his father. Anse, who claims to be the chosen one of God and a great promise-fulfiller, really just wants to get to Jefferson to get some teeth. He claims to not want to rely on any other man, but does so incessantly.
At this moment, Darl comes to an epiphany that life is absurd: that there is no meaning (ravel out, wearily recapitulant, echoes of old compulsions), no future (no-wind, no-sound), no God (no-hand on no-strings). That we are like Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” “leaning together / headpiece filled with straw.”
Today, I was teaching a section of my writing class and came to a similar epiphany about the absurdity of my situation. In an exercise in “attention to detail,” one of our activities in class today had to do with the differences between MLA documentation style and APA documentation style. Today, I realized that I had spent much of my day (three sections of the same course) teaching a room full of eighteen- to twenty-one year olds how to notice the difference between an uppercase letter and a lowercase letter. Not a single person picked it up on their own, without me calling specific attention to it. I teach composition in college, and it’s come down to showing people that they need to notice the difference between “A” and “a.”
In class today, I thought of Darl Bundren, who eventually cracks up completely (the novel ends with him in a straight jacket on a train to the funny farm, having been committed by his family). Darl Bundren, who tries to end the outrage of his family’s horrific pilgrimage by burning down the barn Addie’s coffin is placed in one night on the road. (A burning barn from which she is saved, of course by her illegitimate son Jewel.)
I thought of Darl Bundren at the moment that he recognizes the full absurdity of his situation personified in his father. What does his tell his pa?
“Go piss in a hat.”