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Go Down Moses
"No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don't cry for retribution! he thought. The people who destroyed it will accomplish its revenge" (GDM 364). This quote seems to be the embodiment of paradox represented in the wilderness in Yoknapatawpha, and in the Big Woods that occupy the northwestern part of his apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. It should be noted that Faulkner always depicts the "Big Woods" with regards to it's relationship with mankind. This interaction with the American frontier, here-so defined as "Big Woods", is seen in several of Faulkner's novels, most notably in
Go Down, Moses
. Primarily through the male characters in these novels, this relationship is explored within a series of paradoxes. For Faulkner, the wilderness is both the victim and the vindicator; it is radically pure and divine, but cursed; it is owned by some, everyone and by no one at all.
The woods are seen to be the antithesis of civilization, but, Faulkner makes it clear that civilization would not exist without
; without wilderness. The paradox in nature reflects the division between the natural man and the social man, both extant together within modern man (Volpe 243). Faulkner's characters (Isaac McCaslin in particular), ascribe to the wilderness a sense of purity and divinity, second only to God himself. With this religious quality present, Faulkner seeks to have his characters chip away at the paradox that defines the relationship between the woods and humanity, as well as "The Bear" in
Go Down, Moses:
"If the wilderness is God's work, what is the meaning of man's destruction of it in the name of civilization and culture?" (Wheeler 127). When viewed through a Nietzschian perspective, the question changes, however, and the paradoxes produced become easier to understand. The notion of God should be discarded here, as it only serves to produce questions with no answers. Instead, if the question is looked at with man as the product of wilderness, the paradox of destruction by its very progeny as part of a fatalistic script present in Isaac McCaslin's mind can be seen as a means to a greater end: to reconcile the divided man and further the progression of humanity; to what Nietzsche refers to as the ubermensch.
However, the notion of a Christian God is heavily present in Faulkner's works, as is the concept of Original Sin. This is because his characters are a product of Southern culture during the 19th century, and they (his characters) are burdened by the combination of two Original Sins: the alienation of land into salable property and the process of slavery, which subsequently lead to
and (in some cases)
. It can be safely said, then, that the characters in
Go Down, Moses
do not subscribe to Nietzsche's theory that God has died and that man is "a rope between animal and the ubermensch" (Nietzsche 22). This is why these characters are not able to progress and are still defined by the actions of the past. The idea the "Big Woods" expounds through its multiple paradoxical roles is a fatalistic message that the characters have misinterpreted: the virtues and verities present in the wilderness are meant to be learned and used by man to effectively, but respectfully, use the land to survive, subsist and eventually progress to the next stage of mankind.
The wilderness in Faulkner's work is characterized by its intense and radical purity. The woods seem to be a locus for all empirical truth and moral verity, especially in
Go Down, Moses
. Faulkner describes the "Big Woods", where the story "The Bear" takes place as having an "unforgettable sense… not a quality dangerous or particularly inimical but profound, sentient, dynamic and brooding" (GDM 175). This "profound" and "sentient" quality that the wilderness assumes is something that the characters who take part in the annual hunting trip with Isaac McCaslin and Sam Fathers all understand and have great respect for. "Men are ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter" (GDM 184). To these men, the wilderness is an authority figure; though for them (and Ike in particular) the woods are just a manifestation of God's will on Earth. This is evidenced in "Delta Autumn", when, as an old man he, explains his position on human nature and God, stating that he believes that God created the woods because he would have wanted to be in them himself. Therefore, the desecration of such a place would have severe consequences, mainly that of depriving man of the ability to progress.
To fully appreciate and be allowed to access the knowledge provided within the wilderness, one must be completely stripped of societal features. Edmond Volpe writes in
A Reader's Guide to Faulkner
that "These virtues of the heart are only knowable when the artificialities imposed by society are peeled away and the essential man is bared" (Volpe 243). To access the natural man which has the societal man superimposed over it, a literal displacement of society from the body must take place. Ike experiences this when he realizes he must leave behind his watch and compass before being able to be found by Old Ben. "He was still tainted" (GDM 191). Faulkner writes that only Sam Fathers, Lion and Old Ben are the only untainted ones (Dabney 139) and thus are identified most strongly with the woods. Old Ben is a pure manifestation of wilderness incarnate: "Old Ben obviously represents the wilderness itself, nature, against which man must pit his strength. Nature is awesome, powerful, terrible, and yet must be respected and finally loved" (Brooks 269-70). The fatality of Old Ben, and the woods in general, is present in the early parts of "The Bear" and foreshadows the encroachment of modernity on the wilderness in Yoknapatawpha County. Sam Fathers tells Isaac that "'Somebody is going to [kill Old Ben] some day'…'I know it' the boy said. 'That's why it must be one of us. So it won't be until the last day. When even he don't want it to last any longer'" (GDM 203-4) The notion that it must be one of them that kills Old Ben speaks to the purity of the wilderness and its initiates. The woods would not allow the death of Old Ben to come at the hands of someone who did not strip away all aspects of society and embrace the unspoken reverence of nature that is present in their hunting group. It is Lion who ends up actually starting the process that would eventually kill Old Ben and it is fitting since he is the only other untainted being besides Old Ben and Sam Fathers.
However, the purity of the land is contradicted in the fourth section of "The Bear" when Isaac is repudiating his birthright to his cousin McCaslin Edmonds. Isaac says,
"He [God] saw the land already accursed…already tainted even before any white man owned it by what Grandfather and his kind,
his fathers, had brought into the new land which He had vouchsafed them out of pity and sufferance, on condition of pity and
humility and sufferance and endurance…when He used the blood which had brought in the evil to destroy the evil… poison to
slay poison" (GDM 248).
The land that had been ascribed purity and absoluteness throughout the story is now revealed to have been tainted from the beginning. It is not the work of man upon the wilderness that tainted it, but instead a sin that took place generations before he was born. Lewis Dabney, in
The Indians of Yoknapatawpha,
elaborates that the land was tainted "by the Indian's acquisition of the white man's slaves" (Dabney 139). This notion that the land was tainted and it is his job to restore it through God's divine will is completely misguided. It is precisely this insistence of the South to place a strangle-hold on the past and to not let go that Faulkner is commenting on. Here Ike's false claim that the land is tainted, which is situated on the premise of an Original Sin committed by his forefathers (white Anglo-Saxons), is meant to show that the South, and man, cannot progress while defining themselves by the past.
The other Original Sin committed in this novel is the alienation of property into salable land. The division of land to individual property owners is seen in
Go Down, Moses
as a total fallacy and an enabling moment that gives man the idea that if he wants something to be his, and calls something his, then he can and will possess it. However, as Volpe states, "Social man's initial error is to think that he can own the land" (Volpe 248). Obviously, though, land is transacted in this book by numerous parties. It has been stated more than enough times that Faulkner draws on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's comments about property ownership in the "Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men".
Rousseau writes that
"The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say "This is mine", and
found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes… wars…murders…would that
man have saved the human species…should he have cried to his fellows: "Be sure not to listen to this imposter: you are all lost, if
you forget the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!" (Rousseau 141-2).
Rousseau is able to point out that the division of land is social construction and that this is a step in the wrong direction for man. This type of society is referenced in
Thus Spake Zarathustra
as well, in the form of the 'last men' who are complacent, and who divide the Earth into smaller and smaller portions.
This passage by Rousseau is actually directly referenced by Faulkner in
During Quentin's re-telling of Sutpen's early life to Shreve, he states "Because where he [Sutpen] lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody and so the man who would go to the trouble and work to fence off a piece of it and say 'This is mine' was crazy…" (AA 179). The similarities between the two are evident enough. Faulkner here is trying to impress upon the reader some of the virtues of a country without such societal restrictions and constructs.
This notion of possession of land is also dealt with in the fourth section of "The Bear" and "Delta Autumn". Boon is presented at the very end of "The Bear" as this tragic yet comical figure who is distraught, at the bottom of a giant tree filled with squirrels, yelling that they are his. This jarring image is meant to illustrate the fact that it is impossible to possess anything in nature. Volpe writes that "Boon's illusion of possession is the illusion of mankind…His illusion that he can possess things [in nature] culminates in his attempt to possess human beings." (Volpe 248). This assessment indicates that the societal constructions of possession are a negative thing and that man is trending backwards in terms of the proper use of the land by attempting to control and possess something it has no business controlling or possessing. Cleanth Brooks writes that "possessing" the wilderness can only occur by respecting and loving it, not by legal titles and deeds (Brooks 270).
Isaac deals with the alienation of land as well, although he considers it a burden upon him and feels the need to repudiate his claim to his ancestral lands based on the combined sins of the sale of land from Ikkemotubbe as well as the practice of slavery in the New World. He also feels that it is his duty to make these sins right. He gives the land to his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, who accepts it reluctantly, but ends up receiving money each month from him for the transfer of this land anyway. The money given to Isaac negates the premise of the repudiation in the first place, even though as it is later seen in "Delta Autumn", he wanted to live the virtues described by Rousseau and Sam Fathers; that egalitarian and sufficiently non-Anglo-Saxon notion of communal land. "Because it was his land, though he had never owned a foot of it. He never wanted to…because it belonged to no man. It belonged to all; they had only to use it well, humbly and with pride" (GDM 337). Ike here is indicating that he considers the land to be for everyone but with the stipulation that the land is treated with the reverence and respect it deserves. Ike expects there to be no abuses suffered on behalf of the land, based on his teachings from Sam Fathers as his guide and the "Big Woods" as his mentor.
One of the roles that the "Big Woods" plays in
Go Down, Moses
is that of the mentor, nurturer and restorer of virtues, morals and ethics. A brief list of the virtues that Isaac is exposed to and learned to embrace through his time in the wilderness includes love, pity for all, honor, pride, courage and justice (Volpe 249). These virtues are extolled by Isaac throughout the novel and are indicative of virtues of the heart and spirit, related to the natural man and not the civilized man. However, as Brooks points out in
The Yoknapatawpha Country
"When Ike tries to live in society by the code he learns in the woods, his attempt founders on the very complexity it should have simplified" (Brooks 244). This paradox shows how Ike is never able to fully close the gap between the inner natural man and the exterior social man. The two aspects of his personality are in constant asynchrony. This discrepancy exemplifies the other extreme of behavior in relation to the wilderness. As opposed to the rapacious treatment of the land on the other extreme, this utilization of the lessons and virtues learned from the wilderness in normal society exemplifies the paradoxical nature of the role of the wilderness as a mentor. The virtues are applicable in one sense, but in another they isolate Isaac from the social world.
Isaac did however learn some valuable lessons regarding his relationship to nature from the death of Old Ben. Brooks writes that Isaac learned that "…when man loses his awe of nature through a purely efficient utilization of it, or when he ceases to love it and to carry on his contention with it in terms of some sort of code, then he not only risks destroying nature but risks bestializing his own nature" (Brooks 270) This is similar to the assessment that nature will provide its own revenge. The awe of nature, and of Old Ben, was crucial to the adherence of his code, which was developed by retrieving those qualities that had been "tamed out of his blood" (Volpe 243) with the help of Sam Fathers who was able to re-awaken the humility, pity, endurance and reverence for the woods within him. His code taught an acceptance of natural conditions with "pity and love but not weakness or regret" (Volpe 243).
The "Big Woods" also functions as a refuge for spiritual renewal, both in "The Old People" and in
. Sam Fathers is seen in "The Old People" permanently moving out to the hunting camp after seeking guidance following the death of Jobaker. In
, a young Thomas describes going into the woods to think: "He went into the woods. He says he did not tell himself where to go: that his body, his feet, just went there…He said he crawled back into the cave and sat with his back against the upturn roots, and thought" (AA 188). This is indicative of the relationship that Sutpen had with the land prior to his departure to Haiti, and the connection that he seemed to understand coming from a place that was outside of contemporary society.
All of the lessons that the woods provide do not come easy though. Brooks assesses that Faulkner in fact expects man to struggle in his relations to nature and the wilderness. Brooks writes that "Nature is the necessary theater of man's activity, the realm in which man must prove himself" (Brooks 37). The proving comes in the form of facing the brutal facts of the existence in nature. Brooks writes that the truth is fearful and to accept it takes courage. Similarly, Sam Fathers instructs Isaac to "Be scared…but not afraid." Brooks writes that "Fear induces respect for the truth and initiates the process of developing skills and virtues necessary for survival." Civilized man turns away from the struggle for survival and inevitable death- a fatalistic message that is embodied by the nature man but shunned by the social man, as well as the "last men" referenced in
Thus Spake Zarathustra
. These "last men" are contrasted with the ubermensch and represent the a low form of human existence, but whom declare they are happy over and over again because of the lack of struggle in their lives.
If nature is the forum in which man enterprises, it must be so that the forum suffers on behalf of man at some point or another. The role of the victim is another paradoxical space that the "Big Woods" occupies. The obvious depiction of the role of the victim comes at the end of "The Bear" when Isaac realizes the prevalence of the logging companies and the rapacity with which the land is being abused. In his other works, The Reivers and Big Woods, "…Faulkner tells us that the locations of Sutpen's one-hundred-square-mile plantation and the wilderness where young Ike McCaslin, Boon Hogganbeck, and Lion hunted the bear, Old Ben, have disappeared beneath the waters of a lake, "thirty feet below the surface of a government-built flood-control reservoir whose bottom[is] rising gradually and inexorably each year on another layer of beer cans and bottle tops and lost bass plugs" (Aiken 331). Likewise, Volpe also refers to this "meaningless litter of civilization" (Volpe 31) left behind in the wake of man's "progress". The physical perpetration of the "Big Woods" is a paradoxical element in relation to the development of man and the moral verities and virtues considered important in
Go Down, Moses
. The lack of restraint and discipline shown in preserving the "Big Woods" avenges itself by creating a moral lack in society. Ike states in "Delta Autumn" that "The woods and fields he ravages and the game he devastates will be the consequence and signature of his crime and guilt, and his punishment" (GDM 332). This is most evident in the character of Roth Edmonds, who is shown to be devious, immoral and undisciplined. He compounds the miscegenation and incest that Ike tried to expiate with his repudiation by fathering a son on his cousin who had some black blood. This moral perpetration is further seen by the killing of the doe, symbolizing the exploitation of the remaining wilderness. Roth Edmonds exemplifies the personality of someone who did not grow up with the wilderness and never learned proper respect for it due to the shrinking areas and lack of initiation and mentorship. As it has been mentioned previously,
Go Down, Moses
carries with it a fatalistic message: men are bound to take from nature but the way in which nature is used can either be loving and necessary or exploitative and ruthless. If this holds to be true, Faulkner suggests that without initiation to the wilderness, the white, Anglo-Saxon man is doomed to be a race of amoral perpetrators, a vengeance exacted by the victim of the necessary deed done in a disrespectful fashion.
People of mixed heritage have a different relationship to the woods than white people in
Go Down, Moses
. Volpe writes that "In the woods, Ike learned…blood does not matter" (Volpe 249). He continues on to write about how a class system exists within a hunting party but it is based on merit, not race. For the most part, it appears as if people with mixed heritage have a better natural understanding of the wilderness. Isaac even states that "…he [blacks] is close to his sources in the Earth." Sam Fathers, the son of Ikkemotubbe, is described as having blood that "knew things that had been tamed out of our blood so long ago…" (GDM 161). This reference to qualities "tamed out of blood" is picked up again later in "The Bear" and these qualities mentioned are humility, pity, endurance and reverence. These qualities give characters who exhibit them a pre-disposed affinity with the wilderness. Similarly, Ike credits the black race for their "endurance" and extolls it as one of their key virtues as a people. Even though Dabney writes that "…in the woods, however, the hunters are of the society they leave behind" (Dabney 139), the importance of skill and courage as the preeminent deciders for rank in the hunting camp cannot be overstated. Sam Fathers, who lived in the Negro cabin, was the leader due to his undisputed prowess in the wilderness. Ash, a black helper, was not at the bottom because of his race but because he failed to prove himself to Sam on a hunt. Boon, who has Chickasaw blood (albeit not of a chief like Sam), is only fit to be a lackey for Sam, even though he is fiercely loyal and dedicated.
Chief Ikkemotubbe is an interesting figure in relation to the wilderness, because even though we do not see him in the present, he is directly related to the catalyst of the two Original Sins. Dabney writes that "Faulkner…was disillusioned to find out how readily red men in his part of the country had succumbed to what he saw as fatal evils of his own culture" (Dabney 139). These fatalistic deeds foreshadow the decline of the wilderness. The story relates how Ikkemotubbe took to calling himself "Doom"(it is unclear if he was calling himself this before he met the Frenchman and the Frenchman screwed up the pronunciation, or if it was by way of bastardizing the French pronunciation of "Du Homme" or "The Man"). He picked this up after he returned from New Orleans with a Frenchman who styled himself the "Chevalier Soeur-Blonde de Vitry" and promptly sold his quadroon companion who he had impregnated to his new white neighbor, in addition to selling land to Thomas Sutpen in 1833. His impact on the wilderness can be seen as indirect but prominent. His two compounded sins which Ike feels are the reason why he must repudiate his land even though the perpetrators of the wilderness were of other races as well.
William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1949 was notable for having a surprisingly optimistic outlook on the future of man. Faulkner states that he believes mankind will "not only endure but prevail" and that the young writers must get back to writing about the affairs of the heart. These are two subjects that are dealt with in his treatment of the "Big Woods" in
Go Down, Moses
and it seems applicable he should address them given the rather bleak outlook for man the reader was left with at the end of "Delta Autumn". His Nobel Prize speech calls for a re-reading of the ending of that story. The reader was left with the expectation that humanity would continue into a downward spiral of lasciviousness, moral impediment and general disarray until it became an entire population of Roth Edmonds. This "prophecy of decline" referenced in Otis Wheeler's Faulkner's Wilderness simply does not look at the whole picture. For Faulkner to assume that man will survive and prevail, it stands to reason that the disappearance of the woods and the ever-growing reaches of technology did not result in the complete degradation of man. How then, does he expect to prevail? The transition of mankind away from God-centric viewpoints, as described in
Thus Spake Zarathustra
and towards a responsible usage of the land. For this interaction with the wilderness is not the most integral part here: if man can stop defining himself by the past and learn the virtues of endurance, humility, love, pity then the source does not matter. The progress of man will have been made and the past original sins forgotten.
William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country.
Yale University Press. New Haven and
London. 1963. pp 34, 244, 269-70
Dabney, Lewis M.
The Indians of Yoknapatawpha: A Study in Literature and History.
University Press. Baton Rouge. 1974. pp. 139.
. Vintage International, New York. 1990.
Faulkner, William. "The Old People," "The Bear," "Delta Autumn,"
Go Down, Moses
. First Vintage
International, New York, 1990.
Thus Spake Zarathustra,
ed. Jim Manis. Trans. Thomas Common. Pennsylvania State
University Electronic Classics Series Publication. 1999.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of inequality Among
The First and Second Discourses
, ed. Roger O. Masters New York, 1964, 141-142.
Volpe, Edmond L.
A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 1964. pp. 31,
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