“Hightower sits again in the attitude of the eastern idol, between his parallel arms on the armrests of the chair. ‘Go away, Byron. Go away. Now. At once. Leave this place forever, this terrible place, this terrible, terrible place’….”
Reading Faulkner feels like thunder. Writing a review of Light in August feels a bit like reviewing the fallout from a thunderstorm. I felt that I was most impressed by the feeling of destiny that ran through the novel. It wasn’t the same feeling of destiny that one senses in archetypal mythology, where the hero and the villain are moving toward a climactic moment where each fall on the other side of the moral battle with good ultimately triumphing over evil. Rather, the characters in Light in August are living out a destiny of desperation, the destiny of broken psyches and unfulfilled lives.
There is the Reverend Hightower, the displaced minister who is psychologically stuck in the glory of Civil War battlefields, unable to ever truly forge a connection with others or with himself. There is Byron Bunch, who misplaces his love. Then there is Joe Christmas, the man who was beaten as a boy by his legalistic Christian who adopted him. Joe is half white and half black in the post-Civil War South, a world where there is no space for gray.
Outsiders. They drift and search. I was fascinated by how they carved out spaces for meaning and feeling in irregular and abnormal places. Hightower finds solace and escape every evening as he watches the sunset, transported back in time, he rides with his Grandfather. Joe Christmas finds a home, of sorts, and something that resembles love. Byron firmly believes that he has found love. In each escape, in each space, the characters do find a meaningful grounds for hope, but eventually life descends upon them and forces them to confront the reality of their displacement and the source of their despair. Faulkner, of course, brings this all to a head at the same time, at the end of the novel, a perfect storm.
Naturally, I was also intrigued by the religious and racial commentary. I felt that Faulkner’s post-Civil War South was, itself, a macro version of displacement, a violent displacement, a displacement resolved in and through violence. The South, itself, now displaced, displaces others. The characters of the dominant culture insist that their problems are with race or religion. So there is Mr. McEachern, the abusive father to Joe, fighting Satan in the name of righteousness, battling against the Satan in Joe, or the Devil who is Joe. Then there is Joe’s lover, Joanna Burden, who must engage the curse that she believes the negro race has brought upon the white. As a young girl, she is haunted by ferocious visions of white babies with black crosses, cursed by the black race.
So it is with the whole of society. They exorcise their own inner demons by naming them in the forms of others. Once named, they can destroy. Yet the violence does not purge, it only forces the living to reckon with the ghosts of the past. Says Byron, “A fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him, that he can’t escape from.”