A Tale Told By an Idiot and the Challenge of Not Knowing.

A look at my undergraduate transcript will reveal early on—during my first year and a half—I took several 300 and 500-level courses. Typically classes in those ranges are reserved for juniors, seniors, and graduate students (500 and above). I’m unsure today students can swing the kind of chicanery I pulled to make my way into such upper-level classes; online enrollment prevents it.

But when I was an undergrad, the university was transitioning from older to newer enrollment processes, which left open a small window to game the system. Second semester of my freshman year I enrolled in History 340: World War II. First semester of my sophomore year I took History 615: The Third Reich***. I have analog copies of papers I wrote from those classes, and they’re a riot—also, they’re embarrassing. The paper for World War II, however, was published by my professor in a collection of student essays about family members who lived through the war. I’m glad I had that paper, too, because it was about my grandmother joining the workforce while her husband shipped to Italy. We used much of that paper to design a eulogy when she passed. It’s the only eulogy I’ve heard that earned uproarious laughter and concluding applause.

I digress.

My junior year first semester I enrolled in English 570: Topics in American Literature. I look back now and see I was out of my league taking this class when I did, but I talked my way through a closed-class-opener process for admittance. We studied Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cather, Ellison, Joyce, Woolf, Rhys, Hurston, Wharton, and even Doctorow. Probably classes like this don’t exist today because these texts are considered Western Canon, and Western Canon has been called into question as the field of literary study widens. Nevertheless, they were great writers who wrote incredible works that made powerful contributions to what it meant to be American at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Which brings me to Bill Faulkner.

By Source, Fair use, Link

In class, our professor, a man who I admired, assigned William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I’d read Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in high school, so I knew Faulkner would present a challenge. He assigned it on a Tuesday and asked us to read it by Thursday. I went home and got to it. As I read I was frustrated to find I understood little.

A note to you non-English majors: While things like Cliff’s Notes and later Spark Notes and now Wikipedia offer insight into the great literature of the world, English majors refuse to turn to them for help. Or at least I didn’t. I might also add that in graduate school our professors had us review several entries on these sights to find them shockingly narrow-minded; inaccurate. How disappointing for the world! Part of the challenge when reading literary fiction is to come to an understanding on your own by pulling together your systems of belief and asking how they compare to what you’re reading. When they don’t match, you ask why. When they do, you ask why. And then there’s the artful craft of exegesis, or taking apart sentences or paragraphs or themes to determine how their parts contribute to the whole, and how their whole throws light onto their parts. I could go on. I won’t. I did not turn to these crutches; I struggled through, word by word, sentence by sentence (and you know what I mean about Faulkner and sentences), page by page, and chapter by chapter.

When I finished, I had the slightest understanding of what I’d read. I felt defeated.

In class on Thursday our professor stood at the front of the classroom and asked, “So, what’s this book about?” Silence fell on the room. Upper-level English’s classes run tight—students compete with each other for understanding, and no one wants to admit they lack an overall understanding of a topic.

The professor stood there for what seemed like hours. It was probably seconds.

I raised my hand to ask, “Are there two Quentins, and is one female and the other male?” The professor started laughing; I was horrified. He then explained that he does this every time he teaches the book: First he assigns and then he asks and waits for students to explain it. Rarely had he encountered students who could break down the novel. We spent the following hours discussing the Sound and its intricacies. The professor reassigned it—”Reread it before next Tuesday, and we’ll discuss the novel again.”

After the class’s discussion, The Sound and the Fury came together. We had a terribly fun second class with the novel, and I’ve read it a few times since.

(Yes, there are two Quentins: one male, the other female.)

I’m unsure today, with access to information at the ready, students will face this kind of dilemma. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I find this disappointing. There’s something special about being presented with a problem for which you cannot answer. There’s something extraordinary when someone else presents that answer. It’s humbling. And exhilarating. To parse through a work, to struggle with its complexity, to admit you don’t know—these things prepare students for life in uncountable ways. I’m grateful for the experience. Since then I cannot remember a time when I’ve been superbly disappointed for not understanding something complicated. Instead, I do what I did in class: I ask questions. Sometimes my questions meet ridicule; but I rarely care. Secretly I wonder if those who mock understand The Sound and the Fury.

Let us not forgot Faulkner’s borrowing of Shakespeare’s Scottish play for his title:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.” (MacBeth, Act V, scene V.****)

***Author’s Note: I took history classes that correspond to periods of literature that interested me. I thought by understanding the times in which the novels where written I would better understand the novels themselves. I learned later this is a theory of literature known as Historicism, something advocated by Hegel. In graduate school I would oscillate between Historicism and New Historicism, a theory which evaluates cultures as texts (ex: bodies of law, clippings from newspapers—these are as relevant and open for interpretation as literary texts). I fell away from New Historicism for a variety of reasons, although I still subscribe to the belief that everything is a text worthy of interpretation. And I remain a Historicist.

****Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

Parker McConachieComment