William Faulkner drew the title for his 1932 novel from a comment his wife made while they were sitting on their porch, “There’s something different about the light in August.” That was in the depths of the Great Depression. Here we are, more than seventy years later, still pondering how that light can fall so differently on different minds and hearts–i.e. on local and national responses to personal and national debt.
In the novel, the heat of good and evil–specifically sexuality, racism and the Lord’s dictates–goad characters into action. There could not be three more potent areas of human thought and action than these three–with the addition of the environmental imperative. With a rhetoric rich (and occasionally loggy) with repetition of abstractions–indomitable, impregnable, outraged–Faulkner shows us Lena Grove walking from Alabama to Mississippi, heavy with pregnancy. She is of two minds, comments the author, about the man who made her so: she knows he’s a scoundrel, yet she believes that the Lord will bring together a man and a woman at the birth of their child. She believes she cannot help but find this man she calls Lucas.
Off in the woods on the outskirts of Jefferson, Mississippi, Joe Christmas mutually ravages and sinks into depravity with a white woman, Joanna Burden, who’s carrying on her parents’ Yankee efforts to aid “the Negro.” Joe, orphaned, ground into hatred and mental malaise by a God-fearing adoptive father, believes he himself is part “Negro.” When he slices Joanna’s throat, it’s because she has started to pray over him.
Finally the forces for good in Jefferson are represented by two men: a failed minister, Reverend Hightower, and a working man Byron Bunch, who has fallen in love with Lena and her burden over one slow afternoon at the mill. Byron and Hightower periodically discuss Lena, her insistent hope of discovering the scoundrel who impregnated her, and Byron’s growing desire to shield her from the town, coming unraveled by the hunt for Joe Christmas and his moonshine-making partner, the drunk who’s Lena’s lover hiding under an assumed name.
In Byron and Hightower’s conversations, Faulkner takes us deep into the difficulty of doing what is right. Their recognition of evil, of double and complicated minds, and of the necessity of protecting the vulnerable–all call up our political debates from this summer, the Minnesota and national argument about how to manage the public debt. Whereas Lena operates from two opposed but fixed ideas, and Christmas is set in motion by impulse and canny intelligence, Byron and Hightower examine Lena’s situation with caution, probing for good, and aware of limitations. At one point Faulkner comments that men who habitually lie become skilled in fooling themselves that they’re telling the truth–that would be Lucas–though they rarely fool anyone else. But a man who consistently tells the truth, i.e. Byron, can occasionally lie with the effect of being generally believed.
What do I make of these complicated and engrossing stories that Faulkner displays in the steamy and hazy August light? First, that the good is almost always created in relation to others; it is difficult to create and sustain alone. Second, that weighing what is possible within any given set of heart demands and head limitations remains difficult, necessary, and ultimately fruitful. Byron wants to remove Lena from a boarding house so that she can give birth away from the constant wear and tear of scandal, yet in her compromised situation, pregnant and alone, his very attentions might cause both of them to suffer.
In our summer of political conflict about how to lower the national debt, competing plans have been put forward by those who claim divine guidance, those who speak for the vulnerable among us, and those who urge draconian actions. In our conflict, divine guidance in this conflict is almost always claimed by “Tea Party” Republicans who admit that they owe allegiance to their churches before anyone or anything else, Claims to represent the vulnerable usually come from liberal (also often intransigent) Democrats who refuse to accept any changes in “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare. I find myself impressed ultimately by neither camp, just as in Faulkner’s dense and complicated fiction, I recognize the shewed beliefs and dangerous behavior of both Joe Christmas/Joanna Burden and the indomitable (couldn’t help myself) Lena Grove.
Despite her unwavering trust in the Lord, Lena must be protected by those who recognize the limitations of public life and sentiment. On the other hand, Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, in their hatred and isolation, cannot ultimately make a difference. They collapse into a black hole of nonbeing. They cannot function. It is clear to me that we as a state and a nation must step around the rigid, God-fearing appeals which cannot work in the real world. Yet we must keep the needs of the vulnerable in mind but find workable ways to help them without bankrupting the public treasury. There is no knight in shining armor to save Lena. Only slow, careful consideration and a willingness to extend ourselves can make a difference.