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I remember the first time I really heard classical music. As long as I can remember I have loved music, but growing up, no matter how many times my parents dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the symphony, or my piano teacher tried to teach me a Mozart piano sonata, I was overcome with boredom. Nothing about this collection of instruments, or notes, no matter how intricate, how subtle, how stirring a piece was, meant anything to me. I remember that my only joy at the symphony was to wait until a movement was over, praying that some fool would clap when everyone else knew full well that we had to wait until the entire (seemingly unending) piece was done. Even as I got older and began to realize that there must be something to these musicians who those I respected deemed geniuses, I never could get a hold of the music, something eluded me. Last year I took Music theory, I began to love the notes and the cadences when on the page, but still when put together my only appreciation was in my ability to distinguish a Plagal cadence from a half cadence or a major scale from a minor one. Then one day my roommate played for me her favorite piece of music, Beethoven’s La Pathetique. All of a sudden, it made sense, those years of struggling to understand what it was all about disappeared, and I understood in an instant the genius of a man who could produce a sound that made the world, with all its shortcomings seem alright, that took the futility out of existence. All of a sudden I was desperate to hear as much classical music as I could, to make up for lost time.
Henri Bergson, in his essay, An Introduction to Metaphysics, explains as best one can, the meaning of that instant where, for me, classical music made sense. In Bergson’s terms, I was experiencing a moment of “intuition,” a moment in which I had an “absolute knowledge” of La Pathetique. I was experiencing a moment, which I could never have gleaned from all the symphonies or music classes in the world. In this instant of intuition I experienced as Bergson says: “the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible” (Metaphysics, 24). Without this moment of intellectual sympathy, classical music would never have made sense, no matter how many times I learned that it was the purest form of music, no matter how many times I distinguished the plagal cadence from the half cadence. All of these lessons were what Bergson terms “analysis” or, “the operation which reduces the object to elements already known” (24). No matter how many times one analyzes an object they cannot truly comprehend it until they have done so intuitively.
For all his talk of intuition being the only pure knowledge, Bergson’s article is extremely analytical. Because he is trying to place absolute knowledge in the debate between rational and empiricist philosophy, his essay is very complex. The intuition of which he speaks seems out of grasp for an every day person. However, it is just the opposite, intuition is the simplest feeling in the world. The simplicity of intuition becomes much clearer through reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay titled, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. Nietzsche clarifies Bergson’s notion of intuition by putting it in the context of history. His point is that history, be it individual or communal, is useful up to a certain point, but that all truly great deeds are done when the agent, if only for a moment, forgets all that he has known and becomes “unhistorical.” Therefore no matter how much import we place on a knowledge of history, “we must…consider the capacity to perceive unhistorically to a certain degree as the more important and fundamental so far as it provides the foundation upon which alone something right, healthy and great, something truly human may grow” (History, 11).
The startling similarity between Bergson’s moment of intuition and Nietzsche’s unhistorical moment can be clearly seen when we compare the two philosophers notions of the fleeting duration of these moments. Consider Bergson: “while we can…by…imagination, solidify duration once it has elapsed…this operation is accomplished on the frozen memory of the duration” (Metaphysics, 30). Nietzsche is essentially positing the same thing about an unhistorical moment when he writes, “[t]he unhistorical resembles an enveloping atmosphere in which alone life is generated only to disappear again with the destruction of this atmosphere”(History, 11). An unhistorical moment is, like a moment of intuition, expressible only in terms of the past, and yet it is in these moments of our lives that we discover the greatness of things or do the greatest actions. From a historical, perspective they are moments of greatness which are remembered by the ages, but from a personal perspective they are the moments in our everyday lives which push us on, remind us that there are great things to be done and be seen. Without these moments of intuition we never truly know anything but reduce everything to symbols. Further, without these moments in which we forget everything but what is right before us, as Nietzsche tells us, we can “like the true pupil of Heraclitus, hardly dare in the end to lift a finger”(11-12). Or, put more simply, we cannot achieve any satisfaction in our lives.
William Faulkner knows a thing or two about intuition himself, or else he would not ever have been able to write a character who entirely lacks any knowledge of it. Jason Compson is the literary equivalent to a man who has never had a moment of intuition, has never experienced a moment in which he is able to forget the rest of his life. Faulkner makes this clear through Jason’s inability to perceive any emotion, or existential moment in life, and therefore, his need to reduce all of these moments to their crudest symbols. What makes Jason such an ingenious character is further illuminated through Nietzsche, who posits that the only way to live without needing moments of unhistoricity, is to be superhistorical. The superhistorical man is one who realizes the “unhistorical atmosphere in which every great historical event came to be”(12). He has no unhistorical moments, neither does he have need for history whatsoever: “the past and the present is one and the same that is, typically alike in all manifold variety…and [has] eternally the same meaning” (13). Further, he has no need for the future; as Nietzsche tells us, no one would if asked, want to repeat the previous ten years of their lives, but most would give the reason for their answer as a hope that the next ten years will be better. The superhistorian, on the other hand, “does not see salvation in the process, for [him], rather, the world is complete and achieves its end at every single moment” (13). He would not relive the last ten years because they will be the exact same as the next ten. Faulkner’s Jason Compson, attempts to make up for his lack of intuition by being a superhistorian, and yet is constantly burdened by the past. Without having experienced an unhistorical moment, yet still unable to relinquish the past, Jason is doomed to be miserable and make others equally so.
The very structure of the Jason section in The Sound and the Fury, is emblematic of his inability to experience intuition. The chapter, like those which surround his brothers Benjy and Quentin, follows Jason through a day. Unlike Benjy for whom time has no meaning, or for Quentin whose notion of time is so intuitive he must kill himself to escape it, time for Jason is only its most obvious symbol, the clock. In class we termed Jason’s problem with time manic linearality. An unhistorical moment is one in which we lose time entirely; time, at least the conscious time of the clock, is of no import and has no meaning, for it is only a symbol. Since Jason is a man who has never experienced a moment out of clock time, he is entirely reliant on this symbol. He does not understand why anyone would mistrust the clock, as is clear when his boss looks at his watch and then at a clock on the town courthouse. Jason says “[you] ought to have a dollar watch….It wont cost you so much to believe it’s lying” (Sound, 306). He is constantly reminding the reader what time of day it is: “[a]long towards ten oclock I went up front. There was a drummer there. It was a couple of minutes to ten” (237). Every hour has some scheduled significance for Jason and we soon learn that ten is when the reports from the stock market comes into the town’s telegraph office.
As is clear from both aforementioned examples Jason is as manically obsessed with money as he is with clock time. Still, Jason does not take risks with money; he does not take risks with anything. Nietzsche posits that any great action requires unhistorical moments in which to conceive them: “no artist will paint his picture…nor any people [achieve] its freedom without first having desired and striven for it in…an unhistorical condition” (History, 11). Since Jason never strives for an unhistorical condition he never risks, nor achieves anything great. The stock market consumes Jason’s thoughts and yet he says: “I never risk much at a time” (Sound, 238). Jason has never experienced a moment of trust, therefore he does not even trust the symbol upon which he relies. Money, to Jason, is the symbol of everything he has lost, while at the same time the only thing he lives for. Money is only the approximate symbol of an object’s worth, and yet to Jason who is completely reliant on symbols, it is the trustworthiest judge. This is clear when a man comes in to his store to buy a hame string. Jason is annoyed that the man is spending so much time “deciding whether he wanted a twenty cent hame string or a thirty-five cent one”(242). He counsels the man to take the more expensive piece of machinery, but when the man inquires how he, who is not a farmer, knows which is better, Jason replies, “[b]ecause they don’t ask thirty-five cents for it….That’s how I know its not as good”(242). Without any inner notion of worth, Jason must rely entirely on monetary symbols to determine which machine is better.
More disturbingly Jason uses this monetary symbol of worth to qualify his relationships and emotions. Love is about the easiest way to relate an unhistorical moment, for it is probably the most widely experienced form of intuition. Nietzsche, in fact uses love in his essay to “illustrate with an example” the unhistorical: “think of a man tossed and torn by a powerful passion for a woman…how his world is changed!”(History, 11) Jason has never experienced this passion, and therefore can only relate to love with symbols. His only lover is a whore from Memphis named Lorraine. He exchanges money for sex in place of a real relationship, which, as anyone who has experienced any kind of love knows, he could not quantify. When Lorraine, who clearly has an affinity for him, sends him a letter complaining that Memphis is no fun without him and that she misses him. Jason, unable to imagine the emotion of longing, muses: “I reckon she [misses me]. Last time I gave her forty dollars” (Sound, 240). Love to Jason is only as worthy as the dollars and cents he puts into it.
Jason does not have any more intuition of familial love than he does the passionate love of a woman. Caddy, who knows her brother well, offers him fifty dollars for a chance to see her baby daughter. After getting her to give him a hundred dollars, Jason holds the baby up to the window of a moving car, as Caddy waits outside. When she goes to beg him for another chance to see the baby, and asks him how much it will cost this time he says, “[w]ell if one look through a hack window was worth a hundred…”(259). Jason, having no ideal of love himself quantifies even the love between mother and child. This inability to intuit love is no clearer than when he remembers a scene from his father’s funeral. In the memory, he is watching the gravediggers fill the grave, “like they were slapping mortar on it or building a fence, and I began to feel sort of funny” (251). There are two aspects to this quote which show Jason’s profound lack of conscious emotion: the images of mortar and fence building, two mundane scenes, are not those one would usually use to describe the profound grief at watching one’s father’s grave get filled. Even after a falling out with one’s parent the sight of their grave would evince more emotive similes. Secondly, Jason comments that watching this scene makes him feel “funny”; a page later, after seeing Caddy for the first time since she has left their home, standing over their dead father’s grave, Jason starts to feel “funny again”(252). Jason could be experiencing any number of emotions, and yet in both instances his inability to intuit them, let alone express them, is clear with the abstract use of the word “funny.”
It is clear that Jason is affected by his father’s death. Mr. Compson was an alcoholic, and died from a disease related to drinking. Jason makes very clear the fact that he never drinks: “I’d just as soon swallow gasoline as a glass of whiskey” (291). Yet he does not acknowledge his father’s memory, and in fact diminishes, every time he can, any connection to his father. This trend of diminishing the import of his personal past is Jason’s attempt to be superhistorical. This aforementioned Nietzschian term might be dubbed a super-intuition of history. A superhistorian is so aware that history is only a collection of unhistorical moments, that he sees no need to use it to help his present, nor any need to change it for the future: “one who has adopted [this standpoint] could no longer be tempted at all to continue to live and cooperate in making history” (History, 12). After all, if the past and the present are one “static structure…of unchanged meaning,” then what is the point of working towards a future that will soon be the present and will be the same as the present which has passed.
Throughout the Jason section of The Sound and the Fury, he makes comments that seem to be those of an unambiguous superhistorian. In fact, the chapter starts and ends with the line “once a bitch, always a bitch” (Sound, 223, 329). To whom he is referring is not clear; regardless, Jason’s lack of belief in the ability of people to change is apparent. Jason is his most superhistorical when talking to others or making general comments about race and gender. He condemns the entire Jewish population by saying: “its just the race. You’ll admit that they produce nothing. They follow the pioneers into a new country and sell them clothes” (238). The man to whom he is talking suggests that it is not even the Jews to whom Jason is referring, for even stereotypically the statement does not make sense. However, that is just the point of the superhistorian, all cultures are essentially the same: “[a]s hundreds of different languages correspond to the typically fixed requirements of men, so that one who understood these requirements could learn nothing new from all those languages” (History, 13). Thus the Jews might as well be the Armenians as Jason’s companion suggests, or the Buddhists, for to the superhistorian they are one and the same.
Jason uses this superhistorian logic to convince his mother she should burn a check that Caddy has sent for her daughter Quentin. What his mother does not know is that the check she is burning is a fake, that Jason is actually stealing the money for himself. Although she has repeated the same ritual for years, this time she questions her actions, and tells Jason that she will swallow her pride and leave this check in tact. To this he replies: “[w]hat would be the good in beginning now, when you’ve been destroying them for fifteen years….If you keep on doing it you have lost nothing” (Sound, 273). If no moment in history really ever changes its course, then why bother varying from routine or attempting to better one’s circumstances.
Further, Jason seems to say, if no one person ever betters history then what they have to say or do is really of no consequence. When his boss tells him that he knows Jason has been doing shady things with his mother’s money, Jason reasons that there is no point in trying to stop his boss from chastising him: “when a man gets into a rut, the best thing you can do is let him stay there” (284). Further, when his boss expresses concern over Jason’s recurring headaches and suggests that he go see a dentist, Jason thinks to himself, “[i]t’s a curious thing how no matter what’s wrong with you a man’ll tell you to get your teeth examined and a woman’ll tell you to get married”(311). This statement is ridiculous except from a superhistorical point of view, for if all advice leads to the same future and does not inform the present whatsoever, then every man may as well be telling him to get his teeth fixed and every woman telling him to get married.
Jason might convince us that he is a superhistorian, if Faulkner had not burdened him with so much history. The reader might believe that he is a superhistorian if he did not constantly contradict himself by letting slip his bitterness over his personal past and the past of his race, the white southern farmer. Jason remarks to himself as he watches some pigeons fly around the town courthouse: “It’s a good thing I don’t have anymore ties than a pigeon”(309). This is his inherent contradiction, and the key to understanding his inability to truly be a superhistorian. In explaining the superhistorian Nietzsche quotes a poem by Giacomo Leopardi. The poem has a few lines lamenting the world but resigning to its futility. The last stanza of the quote is, “Calm, calm” (History, 13). If Jason were a true superhistorian, if he truly had less ties than a pigeon, then he too would be calm. However, as is made clear from his eternal headaches, his griping and his downright rage, Jason is anything but calm.
Although he tries to rationalize the misery of his life by being above life itself, history is always there to tie Jason down. It reminds him constantly of what has been taken from his people. Throughout the chapter the reader learns how much Jason’s vision of his past informs his present. He is constantly lamenting the state of the south post-slavery. A number of times he makes derogatory comments about the laziness of the black servants who work for him and live in the town: “the only place for them is in the field where they’d have to work from sunup to sundown” (Sound, 313). Embarrassed by the reputation his family has in the town Jason, in an imaginary conversation with his mother says, “you don’t hear the talk that I hear…I shut them up too. I says my people owned slaves here when you all were running little shirt tail country stores and farming land no nigger would look at” (298). Jason reconciles the present state of his family by harkening back to what he sees as their proud past even though it is not a past in which he has any part.
The past in which Jason does take part also informs his present. The chapter is full of his lamentations about the treatment he is given by his family. He refers a number of times to the family’s sacrifice of a plot of land to send his brother Quentin to Harvard. When his mother tells him that he is the only child who has not gone against her, Jason replies that he has never had time to: “I never had time to go to Harvard…I had to work”(224). He laments Quentin’s ability to go to Harvard and yet is obviously burdened by his brother’s suicide. He says “at Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim”(243), and later lets on that he is barely able to look at water (291). If Jason were a true superhistorian, these moments of the past would not harm him, yet it is these moments which he blames for his present state of unhappiness, for his stagnant and miserable existence. Jason is not a superhistorian and yet has never had an unhistorical moment. He cannot forget his personal past nor let go of his communal one. This, says Nietzsche, is the worst kind of way to live life: “[a]ll acting requires forgetting…without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all….[T]here is a degree of…historical sense which injures every living thing and finally destroys it, be it a man, a people or a culture”(History, 10). Jason is, in many ways, a representative of the bitter and lost generations born during the Jim Crow era in the changing and fragmented south. However, Jason’s personal past is far more destructive, as we know, the ever-present knowledge of it drove his brother to suicide. I might aver that Jason is essentially the living symbol of Quentin’s death. He is breathing yes, but devoid of any joy, any kindness, any faith in the future. The reader often wonders right along with him, when he muses: “[s]ometimes I think what’s the use of anything. With the precedent I’ve been set I must be crazy to keep on”(Sound, 294). To many Jason is pure evil, he does not even have the passion it takes to be a real villain, he is just bad at the core. But I would argue for nurture over nature defense in his case. For a man never to experience a moment of intuition, watching a baseball game, seeing a painting, sitting on the porch, doing anything, this man has not had an enviable life. In rereading this novel for the umpteenth time, it is Jason that invokes my sympathy the most, for I wonder what would my life be, had I never experienced La Pathetique or a myriad other moments of intuition which, through fleeting instants of absolute presentness, make me want to participate in the future.
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