by Owen Elmore
Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?” –Job 38:8
After reconstructing his own self-deconstruction in Absalom, Absalom! by resurrecting Quentin Compson and putting him to work re-telling the South’s tangled past, William Faulkner set out to accomplish the same regeneration with one of the American South’s specific and divided selves: the rationalized walls built between society and the Feminine ethic; without an open border or at least a fertile limen between the base pair out of which all human community radiates, the community stagnates and falls into barrenness – social Waste Land, so to speak. In the book that resulted fromFaulkner’s goal, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a representative of the Thin Male Line,Harry Wilbourne, must be subverted and brought into the service of Woman, much as Mithra had to wield the knife and Pilate pass the sentence; without these acts, their aimscould not be achieved. Charlotte Rittenmeyer is the subverter here, an artist of the grotesque on the margins of society in every way: a Modernist Hester Prynne. She drawsHarry out to her across the demarcation, inundating his already unstable socialization. Together they are spun from the Garden of Respectability by reverse whirlpool where they whirl “in sin,” unmarried and in orbit of the Center at the margins and unable to escape the negative gravity. But something is brought back to Center to destabilize that gravity: a space for Woman will be cut out of it.
Think of the Arabic tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights. At the outset of the Arabian Nights, the king has lost his mind; he is marrying a woman every night and then killing her in the morning, certain each would betray him if allowed the slightest opportunity. Obviously, this is no future-viable community. The King perhaps representative of the people as kings so often are in medieval stories, has become stuck in a nonsensical cycle that nonetheless makes sense to him, since his one care has become the prevention of the operation of feminine cunning. Luckily, this community has a woman whose cunning can evade even this king’s detection, and her name is Shahrazad. Shahrazad, not even chosen, places herself at the head of the list for marriage, and that night she tells the king a story. There’s a cliffhanger to the story and so the king lets her live an additional day so he can hear the conclusion to the story, but if Shahrazad can come up with one cliffhanger … and thus the 1001 nights. Presumably on the one-thousandth and first night (the tales have no ending, meant to expand and contract as they weaved themselves throughout community after community during the Middle East), the community is saved and Shahrazad, storyteller par excellence, survives to tell another day. The king has been cured, but how? When you read the stories (not Sir Richard Burton’s versions but the near-originals translated by Hussain Haddawy), you will notice how the same theme has been embedded by Shahrazad within each night’s story. That theme is this: “women can be rotten, yes, but most are decent, and anyhow the ratio of bad to good is the same as for men, if not slightly better.” Simple, yes, but imagine the patience and subtle skill it would take to bring a mass murderer like the king to it? Faulkner’s skill in attempting to rescue the South from its own self-immolation had to be as good.