Saturday, November 13, 2010
As I Lay Blogging
If he, the blogger, who had given himself the grandiose and paradoxical title of “the Bad Catholic,”wished to make a fool and a spectacle of himself, he could think of no better way than a pitiful and poor but yet still arrogant attempt to mimic the style and meter of the great prose stylist, the great novelist of the South whose feats with language and story were so unrivaled that he, the famous author, had had bestowed upon him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and who was now universally studied as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and perhaps of all times, and whose novel the blogger had, through many stops and starts, finally persevered in completing.
The book, which the great Southern author had named If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, was published in1939 under the name The Wild Palms, although that title was only the name of one half of the story, because the publishers had a lack of faith in the vision of the great Southern author, and thinking his (the author’s) biblical title was too artistic for the public and failing to understand the sublime and profound genius of the author’s effluent prose, had demanded that the name of the part be made the name of the whole.
The great Southern author’s technique in this book, counted by the critics to be among his lesser efforts, is to interpose in alternating chapters two different but related tales. The Wild Palms is the story of the illicit lovers Charlotte Rittenmeyer, who is bored in her upper middle class bourgeois marriage, and Harry Wilbourne, a medical student who is finishing his internship in a New Orleans hospital. Charlotte and Harry meet in a party in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and being the victims of love at first sight, resolve to abandon the prison of respectability and to ride the wild uncontrolled flood of their passion. The counter story is called The Old Man, referring to the great and wild body of water which Mr. Lincoln called “the Father of Waters” and whose unchecked power rolls relentlessly from its headwaters unvexed to the sea and which man has operated under the illusion of controlling by means of building levees and dredging channels. The Old Man is the story of the Tall Convict, who came to prison in his late teens for a failed train robbery and now has become so acclimated to the enforced monasticism of Parchman Farm, the infamous state prison of Mississippi, that he wishes nothing else than the security of working at hard labor all day and retreating to the contemplative cloister of the prison barracks at night. The stability and peace of the Tall Convict is breached by the great Mississippi flood of 1927, when the Tall Convict is taken with other inmates to work on shoring up the levee and is sent with another inmate in a small boat to rescue a stranded woman and man on the roof of cotton house. The boat over turns and the Tall Convict is thought to be drowned and the boat lost, but the Tall Convict recovers, finds the boat and finds the pregnant woman who has been stranded by the flood.
The lovers of The Wild Palms wish to abandon all the fetters of respectable society to live life on the edge. Charlotte abandons her husband and her two daughters to run off with her poverty stricken lover who has originally financed their amorous flight by the happenstance finding of a wallet containing a considerable sum of money. The lovers go to Chicago where they eventually settle down to a stable situation. But a stable and respectable situation is exactly what they have fled and viewed as a prison. In order to feed the fire of their irresponsible and irrepressible passion they feel that they must live life on the edge. The lovers, whose fire filled passion is just as wild and uncontrollable as the flooding Mississippi River, go to a dead end job in a bankrupt mine in Utah. After Charlotte becomes pregnant, and fearing the enforced conformity to the bounds of social order which raising a child would entail, she persuades Wilbourne to perform an illegal abortion. Wilbourne botches the abortion which eventually kills Charlotte after the lovers have returned to a fishing cabin on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Charlotte dies, and Wilbourne is arrested and sentenced to prison. So the lovers, who wanted to throw off all restraints and not be bound by any social or moral conventions, ultimately wind up with one lover in the ultimate prison of death and the other in a human prison to pay the price for the death of the object of his passionate love which was the only thing he had to live for.
On the other hand, the Tall Convict just wants to turn the pregnant woman over to a Sheriff and go back to the peace of the Penitentiary. Despite his best efforts, the Convict and the woman are swept uncontrollably down the flooding river. The woman delivers her baby herself and the convict hand makes an oar and wrestles alligators with his bare hands. After many adventures, during which the Convict remains chaste and pure and does not lay his hands upon the woman, but does make advances to a married man’s wife which forces him and the woman to flee, the Convict takes off the civilian clothes that he was wearing and puts back on his prison uniform and returns the woman and the boat to the first Deputy Sheriff he runs across. Embarrassed that they reported the Convict dead when he was just lost, the prison officials charge the Convict with escape and he is sentenced to another ten years which the Convict stoically accepts and happily returns to his life of quiet contemplation on the Mississippi chain gang.
The point of the great Southern author, Mr. William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, appears to be that all of us are bound one way or another in a prison, whether of shotguns and fetters and walls or of society or career or morality, and although we may for a while break the bounds of our prisons, whether through the means of wild nature or of wild and passionate love, we are all, in different ways confined for life by the limits of our human situation. It is possible, that like many of the sublime and powerful works of this paragon of literature, that the great Southern author’s book may be a masterpiece.