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Benjy’s Howl: From Symptom to Sinthome in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury



Cet article s’appuie sur le concept lacanien de sinthome pour analyser, dans The Sound and the Fury, les conséquences de l’utilisation expérimentale par William Faulkner de ce mode narratif bien particulier qu’est le « stream of consciousness ». Faulkner élimine de fait toute autorité narratoriale qui aurait pu servir d'intermédiaire et réévaluer les expériences des Compson depuis une place privilégiée. Au lieu de cela, l’ensemble de leurs expériences tient par autre chose – un symptôme. D’un point de vue psychanalytique, l'absence de narrateur fiable crée un espace décousu dépourvu d'autorité, qui n'est pas sans rappeler la réalité psychotique. Composée de voix multiples sur le mode narratif dit du « courant de conscience », la structure parallactique du récit de The Sound and the Fury suggère un arrière-plan de psychose dans lequel le hurlement inintelligible du personnage lourdement handicapé mental, Benjy Compson, agit comme un symptôme – ou plus précisément comme un sinthome : ce qui maintient la cohérence d’un texte sans véritable instance narratoriale pour contenir une forme de jouissance qui affleure. Ainsi, la narration dans The Sound and the Fury ne passe pas du Symbolique au Réel pour dévoiler ce qu’il en est du sens de l'énoncé cryptique de Benjy comme on pourrait s'y attendre dans un contexte de névrose. Plutôt, la narration prend forme à travers l'invention d’un sinthome.

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1William Faulkner and Jacques Lacan had both, on separate occasions, seen James Joyce, but only from afar. As Faulkner revealed to a group of students at the University of Virginia, he had spent time in Europe in 1923, and although he did not yet consider himself a writer, he went to some effort to visit the café where Joyce used to write, to get a glimpse of him (Blotner, 1959, 58). Two years earlier, at the age of twenty, when Lacan was rejecting Catholicism and the paternal figures he accused of having made his childhood a nightmare, he attended the first reading of the published translation of Ulysses at Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, where Joyce was also present (Roudinesco 371; Rabaté 261). Like Faulkner, Lacan also remained in the background, looking at the eccentric author from a distance without attempting to make contact. In the years 1975 and 1976, his admiration for and interest in Joyce served as the platform for his unpublished twenty-third seminar Le Sinthome. Lacan devoted this seminar to the final transformation of the concept of the symptom, based on a psychoanalytic analysis of Joyce’s life and literary works. Traces of Faulkner’s admiration for and interest in Joyce also resonate in some of his major works. With the publication of The Sound and the Fury (1929), several critics accused Faulkner of explicitly imitating Joyce. Mockingly, Faulkner always denied having read his work, but, on occasions, he would recite from memory Joyce’s “Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba” for his companions (Blotner, 2005, 287). Without ever having approached Joyce directly, Faulkner, like Lacan, also “came down with” the sinthome.

2As I intend to show in this article, Faulkner responded to the modernist suspicion toward narrative conventions at the turn of the twentieth century by inventing a textual symptom in The Sound and the Fury. His employment of the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode to tell the story of the dysfunctional Compson family effectively evacuates the authoritative narrator who may meditate, mediate, and re-envision the characters’ experiences from a privileged position. The narrative structure of The Sound and the Fury is not held together by an authoritative extra- or intra-diegetic narrator, but by a symptomatic construct. This textual organization may seem common to polyphonic novels in general, and even to some of Faulkner’s other novels such as As I Lay Dying (1930) and Absalom, Absalom (1938). However, The Sound and the Fury is an exception in that its multiple, occasionally contesting, voices are tied together by an incongruous sound – Benjy’s howl. This recurrent cry is not merely a novelistic leitmotif, referring to Benjy’s and his brothers’ menacing obsession with their sister Caddy. It is also an audio-textual configuration that frames the entire novel, replacing narratorial authority.

3In a highly telling and oft-quoted comment, Faulkner describes the circumstances under which he wrote The Sound and the Fury: "One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers' addresses and booklists. I said to myself, now I can write. Now I can just write” (Faulkner, “An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury,” 412). His earlier published novels – Soldier's Pay (1926), Mosquitoes (1927), and Sartoris (1929) – were commercial failures that may have driven him to find a way to write freely, without hope of becoming a successful author, completely disregarding his patrons' demands and regulations. Faulkner set out to explore the abyss that inspires artistic creation unfettered by the constraints of authority. His breakthrough in the writing of The Sound and the Fury is symbolic of this drastic break with publishers. In his rejection of authority, Faulkner was able to explore new spaces without regard for contemporary literary conventions, and as Michael Zeitlin aptly puts it, “he [Faulkner] came to know ‘too much’” (72). Faulkner's comment is revealing not only in terms of the circumstances of artistic creation per se, but it also reveals something about the work itself. The conditions in which Faulkner worked on The Sound and the Fury shaped the structure and form as well as the content of the novel.

4I will argue, basing my discussion on Jacques Lacan’s theories, that the narrative structure of The Sound and the Fury is not dissimilar to the structure of psychosis in the psychoanalytic context. Therefore, instead of merely highlighting Benjy’s howl as a metaphor for the Compson brothers’ incestuous obsession with their sister Caddy, I want to emphasize its formal function as a sinthome that organizes the excess of textual jouissance in the absence of a unifying, authoritative narrator. This is in no way to posit a separation between the thematic significance of Benjy’s howl and its stylistic function; on the contrary, they are substantively inseparable in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s personal rejection of authority pervades the novel on these two levels: the absence of the firm, Oedipal Father in the text and the absence of an authoritative narrator to unify the multiple perspectives into one relatively coherent narrative discourse. In Lacan’s theoretical framework, Faulkner’s rejection creates textual absences that exemplify the foreclosure of the Father – the main criterion defining psychosis to allow for jouissance to invade the text on both diegetic and extra-diegetic levels. That is, thematically, Benjy’s outcry refers to the supposed eruption of jouissance associated with the Compson brother’s incestuous obsession that should have been suppressed by paternal authority; stylistically, Benjy’s unintelligible reference to jouissance usurps narratorial authority as an organizing element in the text.

5My paper has a three-part structure. In the first part, I discuss the structure of The Sound and the Fury and how the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode complicates the novel’s straightforward narrative plot. Here, I will focus on Benjy’s howl in the novel’s first chapter and how it recurrently erupts in Quentin’s and Jason’s monologues in chapters two and three, as well as in the final chapter, transforming this primal outcry into textual jouissance. In the second section, I explain Lacan’s development of the concept of symptom. My discussion begins from his early definitions of the symptom in linguistic terms – a ciphered message to be interpreted – and continues into his later phase (1973-74) when Lacan began to formulate the symptom as a principle of organization situated beyond lingual interpretation. In the third section, my intention is to show how Benjy’s incongruous howl operates like a textual sinthome, creating a nonsensical narrative framework that envelops the other chapters of the novel. This unique structure gathers the novel’s multiple voices into a fragmented discourse that triggers the reader’s quest for meaning.

The Problem of Narrative Authority

6Customarily, the narrator’s rendering of the story and his commentary was expected to serve as an authoritative account of the fictional truth (Rimmon-Kenan 101). However, in modernist fiction, authorial control gives way to narrators who have limited knowledge of events or who are personally involved in the plot, and who, more importantly, lack the ability to unify the various characters’ thoughts and motives into one univocal discourse. This significant shift introduced serious problems into the issue of narration. The purpose of narration no longer seemed to be aimed at rationalizing, or at intentionally failing to rationalize human experience. Rather, as Faulkner demonstrated in The Sound and the Fury, it was to deliver a textual configuration of the chaos that undergirded the incoherence of modern life, and that allowed for new ways of producing meaning.

7The narrative structure of The Sound and the Fury is reasonably straightforward. The novel is divided into four chapters. The first three present distinct interior monologues of the Compson brothers and the final chapter follows three story-lines through the narration of an exterior voice. Chronologically, the second chapter, dated June 2, 1910, precedes the events presented in the other chapters of the novel. It follows Quentin, the eldest brother of the Compson family, as he goes through his final day at Harvard before drowning himself in the Charles River. Chapter Three follows Jason, the ill-tempered middle brother of the Compson family, eighteen years later, on Good Friday, April 6, 1928, as he bullies his niece and contrives an elaborate scheme to rob her money. Chapter One follows Benjy, the youngest and severely retarded brother of the Compsons, on April 7, the day before Easter. He wanders around the Compson property, following Luster, his teenaged black caretaker, who is looking for a lost quarter. And finally, Chapter Four begins on Easter morning, on April 8, 1928. It then follows Jason as he pursues his niece, Miss Quentin, who has retrieved the money he has stolen from her and her mother Caddy over fifteen years. It also follows Dilsey, the domineering servant of the Compson household, attending Easter service with Benjy.

8Despite the novel’s clear chronological structure, experimental narration turns this literary work into a complex affair. Presented in the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, the Compson brothers’ interactions with their surroundings reveal multiple layers of unsettled personal, familial and social crises. In chapters two, three and four, Quentin’s and Jason’s experiences reveal disturbing and dysfunctional relationships among the Compsons. Growing up with a cynical, alcoholic father and a self-absorbed, hypochondriac mother, both brothers develop a destructive obsession with their sister Caddy. Caddy’s promiscuity shatters Quentin emotionally and pushes him to commit suicide, and fills Jason with a life-long hatred toward women in general, leaving him sexually dysfunctional. In these chapters, Benjy is portrayed as a burden to his family even when he is silent, and a nuisance when he begins to howl. His family and successive caretakers constantly dismiss Benjy’s reactions and repeatedly attempt to silence him.

9However, the introduction of Benjy's perspective in the first chapter, ultimately one of Faulkner’s finest artistic achievements, already presents this unintelligible sound as a predominant, structural constituent of The Sound and the Fury. In Benjy, Faulkner did not create a measured impression of mental retardation. Rather, he invented the world and the language of an idiot. More specifically, he invented the conceptualizing space of an idiot – what André Bleikasten has aptly termed an "idio-lect" (61). An intense undercurrent of memories, unintelligible perceptions and emotions flow underneath the surface of what appears in the following chapters of the novel as Benjy's two-dimensional mode of expression that moves from silence to a penetrating howl and back to silence. Although Benjy does not comprehend his predicament, for fifteen years he has been ceremoniously engaged in the same routines to fill the incomprehensible void created by the absence of Caddy. Faulkner's way of focalizing Benjy’s memories, perceptions, and emotions through a peculiar "idio-lect" creates a narrative labyrinth that would lead us through the entire story if we could only comprehend it. As Arnold Weinstein explains, "We soon begin to gather that Benjy already knows all the things the novel is going to teach us and that Faulkner has put it in plain view for us to make of it what we can" (39). In Faulkner's own words, "the story is all there, in the first section as Benjy told it" (“An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury,” 1973, 414).

10More than any other occurrence in The Sound and the Fury, Benjy’s unfortunate incident with the Burgess girl in Chapter One metaphorically encapsulates Faulkner's attempt, expecting the reader’s cooperation, to organize textual jouissance. The mentally-retarded Compson brother spends his days wandering around inside the fences of the family's decaying mansion. He has only ever left the Compson property in the company of one of his caretakers — Versh, T. P., or Luster — or occasionally Dilsey. One day Benjy finds the gate open and he manages to escape his overprotected existence at the mansion. However, his sojourn outside immediately leads to disaster. Incapable of rationalizing or expressing his motives, Benjy assaults a group of schoolgirls:

They came on. I opened the gate and they stopped turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn't breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes. (The Sound and the Fury, 51)

11This scene epitomizes the underlying structural problem that Faulkner confronts in The Sound and the Fury. Benjy escapes the "safe" ground of the Compsons' property and catches the young schoolgirl while trying to utter something. Apparently, as Doreen Fowler suggests, Benjy's assault on the Burgess girl constitutes a primal outlet of his desire for Caddy (6). Metaphorically, Faulkner’s narrative experimentations are inspired by the consequences of escaping the "safe" premises provided by authority and about the failure "to say-" in confronting the prospects of an incomprehensible libidinal energy, or disruptive jouissance. It is this failure of not being able "to say-" outside the discursive spaces of convention that invades Faulkner’s fictional world through the characters’ stream of thoughts. Faulkner constantly destabilizes the relation of imaginary production to symbolic interpretation, so as to render any attempt at conceptualizing reality precarious – susceptible to disintegration. The tonal variety of the Compson brothers’ chapters – Benjy’s idio-lect, Quentin’s melancholy and Jason’s senseless ranting – hinders the establishment of a unified conceptual framework that would offer readers a safe platform from which they could salvage meaning.

12There are several ways to theorize what Benjy fails “to say-.” Peter Brooks’s notion of “textual desire” in Reading for the Plot (1984) is particularly relevant to such kind of criticism. Although Brooks claims to valorize Freud over Lacan and explicitly bases his critical theory of the libidinal economy in texts on Beyond the Pleasure Principle, I agree with James Mellard in that Brooks consistently expresses Lacanian premises in his argument (43). According to Brooks, the opening paragraph of most novels initiates intellectual arousal in the reader. It allows for a desire to take shape, beginning to seek its objects, beginning to develop a textual dynamics. Such desire initiates narrative, motivates and energizes its reading, and animates the production of meaning. Most importantly, it aims for the ultimate determinants of meaning at the end of narration. However, Brooks points out that, psychoanalytically, desire is a perpetual longing for a kind of satisfaction that cannot be attained in reality. Also, narrative desire will never arrive at its intended destination – a climactic point of ultimate meaning. The purpose of narrative is to prevent desire from attaining a point that would end textual movement (37-56).

13Brooks discusses a libidinal economy that can be understood in terms of Lacan’s theory of jouissance, a concept constantly refashioned throughout Lacan’s teaching. Diverging from earlier conceptions of jouissance as sexual enjoyment, in Seminar XX, Lacan reformulates jouissance as the substance of enjoyment (23) in a more pervasive way, as a kind of satisfaction made possible by the symptom as sinthome, a kind of satisfaction which is not regulated by the symbolic order. My point is that Benjy's unintelligible cry is a symptom of abjection through which Faulkner allows for jouissance to invade the text. It is there from the beginning, on the first page, and persists throughout the text. Why does Benjy howl? Relating it to Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, the howl “preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (10). Like his brothers, Benjy reacts obsessively to a sense of loss associated with his sister in a world and a text devoid of authority. Narration in The Sound and the Fury does not begin from the cryptic to gradually unveil the source of Benjy's unintelligible enunciation, as would have been expected in a neurotic context. Rather, Faulkner situates Benjy’s howl on the first page revealing its source from the beginning. Consequently, instead of arguing that Benjy’s howl sets textual desire in motion, directed at the ultimate determinants of meaning at the end of narration, I propose that it is a nonsensical configuration that not only fills a gap in Benjy’s mind and connects him to reality, but it also frames his “idio-lect” as well as the other chapters in general.

From Symptom to Sinthome

14Lacan continually searched for and offered new conceptions of the symptom during his nearly forty-five years of teaching. Before 1963, relying on his reading of Freud, he generally referred to the neurotic symptom as a formation of the unconscious. More importantly, transcending Freud’s formulations, in his Rome Discourse (1953), Lacan defined the symptom in linguistic terms in that it is a symbol of a “defunct” conflict with a double-meaning: “Freud insists on the minimum of overdetermination constituted by a double meaning… symptoms can be entirely resolved in an analysis of language, because a symptom is itself structured like a language” (Écrits, 222-23). In 1955, he presented the symptom as an index of signification: “the symptom is in itself, through and through, signification, that is to say, truth, truth taking shape” (Seminar II, 320). In “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” (1957), Lacan defined the metaphorical structure of the symptom:

Metaphor’s two-stage mechanism is the very mechanism by which symptoms, in the analytic sense, are determined. Between the enigmatic signifier of sexual trauma and the term it comes to replace in a current signifying chain, a spark flies that fixes in a symptom – a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element – the signification, that is inaccessible to the conscious subject, by which the symptom may be dissolved.” (Écrits, 431)

15At this stage, Lacan states that the symptom is literally in itself a metaphor that should be analyzed with the intention of dissolving it: “If the symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so, any more than it is to say that man’s desire is a metonymy. For the symptom is a metaphor, whether one likes to admit it or not, just as desire is a metonymy, even if man scoffs at the idea” (Écrits, 439). Like Freud, Lacan presented the symptom as a ciphered message of a latent deviation. However, unlike Freud, in employing various linguistic terms in the early years of his career, Lacan viewed the symptom as a construct of language.

16On January 23, 1963, in his unpublished tenth seminar, Lacan diverged from the notion of the symptom as a message that could be deciphered and began to formulate it as a modality beyond interpretation. He states that the symptom “in its nature is jouissance” (quoted in Hoens and Pluth, 6). It becomes a unique configuration of jouissance resistant to the censorship of the Symbolic. Lacan refrains from explicitly moving the content of the symptom into the register of the Real entirely, but he brings it close to the Real to highlight its “impasse in formalization” (Seminar XX, 93). This shift in Lacan’s theories of the symptom culminates in another unpublished seminar on February 18, 1975: “the symptom can only be defined as the way in which each subject enjoys [jouit] the unconscious, in so far as the unconscious determines him” (quoted in Evans, 189). Later, in the seminar titled Le Sinthome, Lacan revived the archaic French spelling, sinthome, in order to distinguish between the conventional Freudian interpretation of the symptom and its new function as a sublimation, organizing the excess of jouissance in the Symbolic order. He introduces the sinthome as a fourth ring in the Borromean knot of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary. Its basic purpose is to facilitate coherence in the human subject’s experience of reality in the absence of paternal authority. As a result, this new function of the symptom leads to different forms of analysis. Whereas in the case of neurosis, the analyst attempts to decipher the symptom by moving from the Symbolic to the Real, in the case of psychosis, the aim is to organize the excess of jouissance in the Symbolic by transferring the content of the symptom from the Real to the Symbolic. Hence, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the symptom not only refers to a hidden anomaly, deviation or constraint, but it also presents a solution. The symptom is a sublimation that fills the void of the Real, thus offering partial satisfaction (Gault 79).

17In Le Sinthome, Lacan argues that James Joyce avoided psychosis through creativity. Growing up with a radically dysfunctional father, his inventiveness added a fourth supplementary cord to the three-dimensional Borromean knot of subjectivity. Joyce’s art is an extended sinthome that is not psychotic in itself. Rather, it explores psychotic patterns for the purpose of liberation (Harari 46). Artistically, the construction of the sinthome is primarily a mode of exploration that served Joyce’s creativity. Shelly Brivic quotes Lacan to support the idea that the formation of Joyce’s sinthome originates from the pursuit of a chosen path:

It is a fact that Joyce chooses, in which he is like me, a heretic, for haeresis [Greek “ability to choose”] is exactly what defines the heretic. One must choose the path [“la voie”] by which to grasp the truth; although once the choice is made, there’s nothing to prevent one from subjecting it to confirmation… (Lacan qtd in Brivic 14).

18It is this encounter with the incomprehensible at the end of the sinthome that Lacan identifies as the Joycean epiphany. The sinthome deranges language, and thereof human subjectivity, to create new possibilities of existence. The ability to view the self as a fictional construct liberates subjects from old ways of self-conception and steers them toward unexplored paths (Brivic 14-15).

19Lacan’s final formulation of the symptom as a mode of treatment in psychosis also altered the purpose of analysis: rather than be the target of analysis, the symptom becomes the means whereby analysis proposes a solution for the excess of jouissance. As Colette Soler contends, an analysis that starts with the symptom will also end with the symptom, hopefully transformed (90). In the last decade of his teachings, Lacan saw this transformation occur through the analysand’s identification with the sinthome (Evans 90). He mentions this proposition only once, and only in the form a question, in the seminar held on November 16, 1976. Identification with the sinthome is based on a hypothetical possibility that the psychoanalytic process can generate an unprecedented bond between analysands and their symptoms (Solano-Suárez 95).

20That is, in the case of psychosis, the sinthome is a structural pillar. Conceptualizations of reality rely on images that are not organized by Symbolic quilting points (point de capiton) but by the sinthome. Sundry expressions of jouissance which, in a normal neurotic context, would have disrupted the production of meaning, serve as an organizing infrastructure in the absence of paternal authority. It is this failure to instate the paternal function in the Symbolic that alters the relation between the Imaginary and the Symbolic registers that characterizes the reality of "normal neurotic" individuals. Psychotics do not make a proper transition from the mirror-stage to the Symbolic order. The process of reorganizing the primal, chaotic perceptions, sensations, and feelings into visual images or auditory and olfactory experiences in the Imaginary and then into Symbolic relations dominated by ideals, authority figures, laws, and the sense of guilt does not occur in psychosis. There is no encompassing authority to organize the visual input in the Imaginary realm and guarantee a "safe" entry into the Symbolic. In psychosis, the Imaginary remains predominant. According to Fink, the Symbolic, to the extent that it is assimilated, is "imaginarized." It is not assimilated as a governing order but, rather, as a space for imitation (88-91).

21Faulkner’s employment of the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, in The Sound and the Fury, offers a textual configuration of such an "imaginarized" Symbolic realm. The mimetic narration of the characters’ psyches’ wanderings compromises the operation of Symbolic interpretation and the purpose of language is no longer to generate meaning. Rather, it serves to textually mimic authentic experiences through sounds and imagery. This structure is primarily based on Faulkner’s unwillingness to engage in the oedipal paradigm in the construction of the novel. The absence of an extra-diegetic narrator in a novel resembles the absence of paternal function in the Symbolic order in that it creates a space where human subjects are immersed in a linguistic Other that is not "phallically" organized. Characteristic of psychosis is the unmediated exposure to the Real, to the jouissance that remains despite symbolization. Faulkner presents the Compson brothers’ experiences on this level, fully exposed to jouissance, revealed to the reader in an “Imaginarized,” Symbolic narrative space – the realm of psychosis. In such a problematic textual environment, the symptom as sublimation becomes a reliable point of reference that replaces the governing authority of a narrator. Textually, Faulkner invents a sinthome in Benjy’s recurrent, unintelligible cry. It is a sinthome because it serves as a point of identification for the Compson brothers’ incestuous obsession with their sister Caddy and, as I shall explain shortly, for Faulkner’s discovery of the freedom in writing outside the realms of authority.

The Nonsensical Framework of Benjy’s Howl

22Faulkner’s narrative technique in The Sound and the Fury allows for the characters’ unconscious to surface in the Imaginary-Symbolic dimensions of the text. As Lacan made clear, the operation of foreclosure of paternal authority does not cancel the presence of the unconscious. On the contrary, "the unconscious is present but not functioning" (Seminar III, 208). In psychosis, the unconscious ceases. It is released out into the open vis à vis the Symbolic, as there is no regulatory barrier to enforce the division between consciousness and the unconscious. In the absence of narrative authority, Faulkner presents the characters' unconscious on the level of the diegetic Symbolic as the only point of access into their realities. Creating textual imitations of the—occasionally chaotic—workings of the human psyche, Faulkner generates a narrative space based on the textual realization of the idea of chaos which replaces the reassuring authority of the narrator to engage the reader's compulsive need for meaning. Faulkner presents enough pieces of the puzzle, expecting the reader to complete the picture. The thematic and stylistic absence of authority motivates the reader to take charge in the quest for meaning to ward off the possibility of nonsense. Faulkner directs the attentions of three diverse perspectives to a central female absence and connects them through a recurrent, unintelligible howl, well aware that the reader will be standing at the other end of the text, laboring to produce meaning.

23In Chapter One, Benjy observes a group playing golf near the Compson property. When he hears one of the players calling out for his caddie, he confuses the golfer's call with the name of his sister and as a result begins to howl. Benjy's tragedy, like his brothers', is that his relatively stable and secure life has always been threatened by Caddy's sexual maturation. Benjy either protests against incidents that remind him of his sister, or against those that in his mind distance Caddy from the safety of childhood and push her towards the incomprehensible realm of sexuality. It is this recurrent pattern that culminates in Benjy's howl. At fourteen, when Caddy begins to wear perfume, Benjy howls in anxiety at her loss of innocence, which has always been, and forever will be, associated in his mind with the smell of trees. Caddy acknowledges Benjy's agony and washes off the perfume to restore order into his world. Again, at fifteen, Caddy's sexual maturation shakes the foundations of her brother’s reality. Benjy senses the threat and begins to search for Caddy when she sits in the swing with Charlie. Finally, he finds her in the cedar grove and immediately begins to howl. To restore order again, Caddy washes her mouth with water. Edmond L. Volpe notes that water emerges as a redeeming force in Caddy's repeated attempts to restore order and security to Benjy's world. However, water loses its redeeming force when Caddy loses her virginity. Water can no longer wash off the stains of experience from Caddy – she will never smell like trees again (Volpe 103). Benjy, nonetheless, howls at every rediscovery of Caddy's loss of innocence, even long after she loses her virginity, and long after she leaves the Compsons' household. Benjy’s unintelligible outlet is a structural pillar in the story Faulkner intends to tell: “So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl” (“An Introduction for The Sound and the Fury,” 1972, 710). To deliberately misinterpret Faulkner’s words, in The Sound and the Fury, he created the absence of a “beautiful and tragic little girl” and the chaotic outcry through which he could identify with this absence.

24In the following chapters, although Benjy is occasionally told to hush, his howl surfaces repeatedly as the principal utterance of the chaos that has replaced paternal and narratorial authority. As in the first chapter, Benjy’s unintelligible outburst is also connected to the prospects of jouissance in the image of Caddy in the second chapter, framing Quentin’s lapses into the past. The first reference to Benjy’s howl in Quentin's monologue is connected with recollections of Caddy as a bride. Obsessed with every detail relating to Caddy – the marriage, the bridal dress, her elusive reflection in the mirror, and the smell of roses – Quentin’s recollections are distorted, preventing the reader from accessing the actual events at the wedding. Interestingly, in his obsession, Quentin’s memory of Caddy as a bride begins and ends with Benjy’s howl:

Only she [Caddy] was running already when I heard it [Benjy's bellowing]. In the mirror she was running before I knew what it was. That quick, her train caught up over her arm she ran out of the mirror like a cloud, her veil swirling in long glints her heels brittle and fast clutching her dress onto her shoulder with the other hand, running out of the mirror the smells roses roses the voice that breathed o’er Eden. (79)

25In Quentin’s disturbed mind, the image of Caddy running out of the mirror transforms into an image of Caddy running out of the bridal veils, and toward the sound of Benjy’s bellowing: “She ran out of her dress, clutching her bridal, running into the bellowing where T. P. in the dew Whooey Sassprilluh Benjy under the box bellowing” (79-80). Quentin’s memory of Caddy is confusing and fragmented, but the sound of Benjy’s howl enshrouds Quentin’s recollection, holding the image of Caddy’s disappearance together. In her absence, Benjy’s howl persistently remains.

26More virulently in Chapter Two, Caddy’s virginity is the major target of Quentin’s obsession. His conceptions of family, honor, and manhood delusively rely on her virginity. As Faulkner writes about Quentin in the appendix to the novel: “Who loved not his sister’s body but some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead” (638). Quentin futilely attempts to isolate Caddy within the context of patriarchal discourse. The aristocratic code and puritanical ethics of southern tradition is Quentin’s sole recourse from his father’s vision of inanity. However, like in his recollections of the wedding, Benjy’s howl replaces such authoritative contexts and frames Quentin’s memories of confronting Caddy’s pre-marital promiscuity. He repeatedly threatens to kill Caddy to defend the Compsons’ honor. He pressures her to reveal how she feels about her lover. Instead of answering Quentin, perhaps providing a sense of comfort to his already shattered worldview, Caddy is more concerned with not waking Benjy up. The reader may already anticipate Benjy’s howl if he does:

Ill kill you do you hear
lets go out to the swing theyll hear you here
Im not crying do you say Im crying
no hush now well wake Benjy up (156)

27A few pages later, Quentin forcefully attempts to prevent Caddy from meeting Dalton Ames. She overpowers him and although the narrative moves back to June 10th when Quentin has got himself into a fight with Gerald Bland, the reader already knows, from Chapter One, that it is Benjy’s howl that again envelops this past confrontation with Caddy. Returning to that evening when Caddy comes home, having lost her virginity, through Benjy’s “idio-lect,” his outcry demarcates Quentin’s failure at isolating Caddy:

Caddy came to the door and stood there, looking at Father and Mother. Her eyes flew at me and away. I began to cry. It went loud and I got up. Caddy came in and stood with her back to the wall, looking at me. I went toward her, crying, and she shrank against the wall and I saw her eyes and cried louder and pulled at her dress. She put her hands out but I pulled at her dress. Her eyes ran. (66)

28Benjy’s chaotic world, his agony, his entrapment in a world of "idio-lect," his menacing reaction to the rediscovery of absence by crying or howling, frame Quentin’s obsessions as well as the rest of the novel's chapters. It is a textual signal that organizes a jouissance associated with Caddy.

29In Chapter Three, Jason’s monologue, reflecting his deep embarrassment with Benjy, negates the structural effects of his retarded brother’s howl in the novel. It occurs only twice. First, at the beginning of the chapter, after a violent confrontation with his niece Quentin, Jason goes out to check if Luster has changed the tire on his car so that he can drive Quentin to school. When Luster explains that he had failed to do so because he was taking care of Benjy, to Jason’s embarrassment, Benjy starts to howl (185). Second, Caddy arrives at the hardware store where Jason works to ask to see her daughter. Jason refuses and, mad because she dared come back to town, he threatens to tell their mother about her if she does not leave. Unable to do anything, Caddy leaves. Jason then realises that Dilsey would probably let her in if she were to go to their house. He rushes home and understands from Benjy’s bellowing that she has already been there (206). Benjy’s howl does not delineate Jason’s relation to Caddy as it does Quentin’s. Whereas it frames Quentin’s memories of Caddy’s wedding and her promiscuity, for Jason, Benjy’s howl signals embarrassment and personal failure associated with Caddy’s betrayal. It is only at the end of Chapter Four when Benjy begins howling next to the monument to the Confederate Soldier, that the narrative significance of this audio-textual configuration in relation to Jason’s chapter, as well as to the other chapters in the novel, becomes clear. Jason violently silences Benjy but, as I argue below, his outcry exceeds textuality as it continues to echo long after the reader finishes reading the novel.

30In Chapter Four, although Faulkner presents the events of April 8th 1928 in a hetero-diegetic narrative, he refrains from establishing this framework as indisputably authoritative. As Bleikasten points out, through the excessive use of comparative-conditional clauses and expressions denoting uncertainty such as “as if,” “as though” or “seemed,” “appeared,” and “it might have been,” narration is rendered suggestive rather than assertive (125). The narrative voice is not monotonously factual like in Chapter One, nor is it invested with personal obsessions as in Chapters Two and Three. It is interpretive and therefore hardly reliable in the conventional sense. More importantly, in an attempt to present a relatively authoritative description of events on Easter Day, the chapter ends with Benjy’s momentary silence. However, he will howl again and continue to frame Quentin’s obsession, Jason’s relentless anger, and even Dilsey’s selfless attitude rooted in Christian faith.

31The Easter sermon, in Chapter Four, reveals something fundamental about the structural function of Benjy’s howl in the novel. The collective character of the ceremony poses a new discursive mode that contrasts with the totality of different inner voices presented in the earlier chapters. Whereas the monologues of the Compson brothers are constituted by unique individual syntactic structures, the sermon presents a discourse constituted by a single unit of synchronous voices:

With his [Reverend Shegog’s] body he seemed to feed the voice that, succubus like, has fleshed its teeth in him. And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words, so that when he came to rest against the reading desk, his monkey face lifted and his whole attitude that of a serene, tortured crucifix that transcended its shabbiness and insignificance and made it of no moment, a long moaning expulsion of breath rose from them, and a woman's single soprano: “Yes, Jesus!” (The Sound and the Fury, 294-295)

32In this short but significant section of the novel, Faulkner presents a collective framework that is organized by paternal authority. The multitude of voices unify in response to Reverend Shegog's sermon. It is not the Reverend who assumes the position of paternal authority since he himself is devoured by the voice. Rather, both the members of the congregation and the Reverend are subjected to the Christian gospel. The people of Israel escape from Egypt; the crucifixion of Christ along with the Second Coming lay the foundation of the eschatological doctrine of Christianity that promises salvation at the end of the road (Bleikasten 136). Nonetheless, the sermon does not mark the end-point of the novel. The Sound and the Fury does not conclude with a nostalgic call to embrace Christian doctrine. Instead, Faulkner positions the story of the Second Coming within a larger framework devoid of paternal authority and constituted by the discourse based on the sinthome as an organizational principle.

33Just as it may seem that the novel has reached a final point, presenting the earlier chapters as parts of a larger comprehensible whole, the narrative focuses on Benjy who has returned from the sermon with Dilsey, the Compson family’s majestic servant. On their way home, Dilsey reaches a horrific conclusion: "seed de first en de last,… I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin" (The Sound and the Fury, 298). After the mesmerizing sermon, she realizes that in a world that is constituted by the idea of salvation, there are still those who are condemned to eternal suffering such as the Compsons. However, the story does not end even here. On his way to the town cemetery with Luster after the sermon, Benjy's world is seemingly restored to tranquility — his “eyes serene and ineffable" (The Sound and the Fury, 319). It is as if Reverend Shegog's fiery sermon had left its mark on Benjy, as if Benjy's serenity were rooted in a Christian sense of redemption. Of course, he is not capable of comprehending anything remotely intellectual. Nonetheless, it seems as if the calm surrounding Benjy were grounded in the promises of salvation through the Christian God.

34Yet, arriving in the town square, next to the Confederate statue, Luster turns the horse to the left instead of right as he would customarily do. Benjy immediately breaks the calm and begins to howl in agony. The sinthome reasserts itself. Back from his futile, violent pursuit of his niece in Mottson, as if out of nowhere, Jason appears in all his fury to restore the order violated by Luster's "mistake." Jason lashes out at the old horse and then strikes Luster. He also hits Benjy, whose flower stalk breaks. Benjy regains his calm and order is again seemingly restored: “The broken flower drooped over Ben's fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place” (The Sound and the Fury, 321). The restoration of order is, however, not associated with Christianity. Benjy is, indeed, silent as he sits with the broken flower in his hand, but his silence is momentary. He will scream again and again at every minor change, at every sound, smell or touch that will remind him of Caddy, enveloping Quentin’s melancholy, Jason’s relentless fury, and the nihilistic narrative mode in Chapter Four. In Benjy’s cry, Faulkner has constructed a unique symptomatic configuration that organizes the flow of jouissance in the absence of paternal and narratorial authority in The Sound and the Fury.


35Psychoanalytically, the purpose of reading Benjy’s howl as a symptom in the context of psychosis is to refrain from seeking out the guilty party in the text – that is, the goal is not to see the symptom as a message that might be deciphered to reveal some final repressed truth, at which point, the symptom, or in the case of narrative, the reader’s desire, would dissolve through the process of revelation. Indeed, in the case of The Sound and the Fury, the origin of Benjy's symptomatic howl is revealed from the very beginning, as rooted in his perception of Caddy. Yet the howl does not disappear. On the contrary, despite the text’s acknowledgement of the source of the howl, the symptom continues to invade and permeate the text because it is a sinthome.

36To return to Soler’s definition of analysis, “an analysis that starts with the symptom will also end with the symptom, hopefully transformed.” Benjy’s cry reemerges at the end of the novel, somehow transformed, as an integral part of the fictional reality in The Sound and the Fury. It is a necessary textual constant, leading the reader through the narrative. Accompanying Quentin's preparations before he commits suicide in the second chapter, following Jason’s quixotic struggle against the world in the third chapter, and reflecting the world of the Compsons from an external perspective in the final chapter, Benjy's howl, as at the outset of the story, surfaces in response to every change relating to Caddy’s absence. Faulkner conceives his grim vision of the Compsons in a world devoid of a metaphorical dimension of authority that would organize narrative production. Instead, he presents the reality of the Compsons through a parallax structure directed at a point of jouissance, held together by a recurrent symptomatic configuration – an idiot’s howl.

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Maurice EBILEENI, « Benjy’s Howl: From Symptom to Sinthome in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.3949

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Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Academic Arab College for Education, Haifa, Israel.

Maurice Ebileeni is a Martin Buber postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a lecturer at the Academic Arab College for Education in the city of Haifa, Israel. He completed his doctoral studies in the English department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is the recipient of the American Conrad Society’s Bruce Harkness Young Conrad Scholar Award of 2009. Ebileeni is also the author of the forthcoming Conrad, Faulkner, and the Problem of Nonsense (2015) with Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly Continuum International Publishing Group).

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