New Book (Cover): Wild Palms/Old Man (or If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem), by William Faulkner

This isn’t really a new book; we started reading it in book group in September and just discussed it a few nights ago.

However, there were some things that I didn’t have the energy or proper articulation to discuss. Here are my notes and thoughts:

First, it seems that the title was changed (with the 1990 printing of the “corrected text”) to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. That Faulkner didn’t originally title the dual novels using this resonant title tells me that reading the new title within the context of the novel’s goals may not offer a meritorious reading if one does so while considering the author’s intents. However, the new title still bears consideration within the greater meaning of the two intertwined stories. The title is taken from Psalms 137:5. The passage intimates at forgetting the song of Jerusalem, and the punishment for forgetting is becoming out of sync with God’s song and being cast out of Jerusalem itself. This notion carries over to the two stories in that both protagonists, Harry and the inmate, cannot carry the tune that would offer them admission into their world’s Kingdom, or the Jamesonian notion of “social order.”

Putting the notion of social order and the two protagonists place in it aside for a moment, one can also consider the dialogic aspects of the two stories. Each speaks to the other and mirrors each other in various ways. Here’s how I see the two elements intertwining and speaking to each other:

The first sections can be seen as points of departure for each protagonist; they are both roused from their slumber. Harry, an inexperienced, passive young man cannot meet his desired effectiveness as he sees it in the context of the world (of the ordinary). Likewise, the inmate is also inexperienced which the reader can see in his unsuccessful attempt to live out his “effectiveness”: he uses pulp novel stories guide his failed bank heist.

The second sections can be seen as an upheaval for both men. In each the protagonists are jolted from their existences via catalysts from the (ordinary) world. For Harry, this comes in the form of Charlotte Rittenmeyer and all she has to offer (56). For the inmate, this comes in the literal form of his chains being unlocked and removed.

The third section brings up the issue of normativity and how it affects each protagonist. In the case of Harry, normativity signals the decline in his and Charlotte’s hyperbolic relationship. The reader can find this normativity when the couple relaxes into the complacent, quotidian life of “normal” people who eat at normal hours, and who make a livable wage (74, 78). The respectability that they earn makes their relationship something that’s acceptable, which their plan to “vacation” in Minnesota shows to be a bane. For the inmate, normativity is disrupted when he must learn to navigate the skiff around the tumultuous waters of the flood. His normativity is then redefined again for him as he faces it head-on: he helps the pregnant woman have her baby.  From this point forward, he becomes the pseudo father in the group as he cares for their safety and procures food for them.

The fourth section in each protagonist’s story shows a shift in each of their roles. They must become more resourceful for each of their charges. Becoming more resourceful means that they must let go of their sense of self in exchange for the greater good of “the family.” The inmate acclimates more smoothly to this role, while Harry does not.

And then my notes skip to the last sections where I see a marked contrast in how Faulkner portrays the two men. Harry, during his incarceration, receives food, coffee, and the police officer stands over him passively (218). In contrast, the inmate is treated as an item on a ledger. The prison books are off, and either he must disappear or go back to prison, regardless of the fact that he turned himself in. This contrast presents an overt picture of the social order each faces, and their reactions to this force are telling.

At this point, my notes peter out. However, I find a number of key issues to consider and take away from the novel.

*Hapless submission does not necessarily equal self-preservation. For the initially (and eventually) submissive protagonists, their ability to preserve anything in their lives comes into question.

*Reading the novel as parallel and contingent stories. Doing so raises the question of reading the novel to discover the relationship between independent values and societal values about freedom and order.

*Issues of gender. Upon conception (and birth) comes the moment of cuckolding for each man. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, the couple’s incendiary love dies immediately because, as Charlotte notes, if they had loved hard enough, the baby would have been burned out of her. When the pregnant woman gives birth, the inmate is immediately removed as the object of affection in place of her baby.

*Issues of choice. The novel creates moments in which the protagonists must make choices, whether it’s Harry’s choosing to take up with Charlotte, or the inmate’s choice to continue down the river or turn himself in. These choices call into question the finite and infinite laws of “life” (culture) versus the potential for vitality the two men may be searching to find.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Faulkner, Gender, Jameson, Literature, New Book.

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