From Faulkner to Melville, Paul Lynch discusses the writers who capture the strangeness of the human condition and the eternal truths that define us 

Paul Lynch

Written by Paul Lynch

Publication date and time: Published

Consider for a moment William Faulkner’s classic novel, As I Lay Dying, and its profound simplicity. There is a house on a hill. There is a storm and a flood. There is a death and a burial. Before her demise we meet Addie Bundren dying in bed while her son Cash saws and planes her coffin ‘right under the window’. The bewildered paterfamilias Anse sits on the porch rubbing his knees. The buzzards ‘hang in soaring circles’ and it’s fixing to rain like end days. Despite this, two of his sons, Jewel and Darl, make a trip into town to earn three dollars, and miss the death of their mother. The misfortunes tumble one into the other as Addie’s final request to be buried in Jefferson goes terribly awry. 

Faulkner relates these events in a torrent of voices, each one a discrete universe locked into their own way of being. They move through the world forever at odds with each other, devoured by grief, pride, rage, deceit, bewilderment and stupidity. The world of As I Lay Dying is archetypical in its clarity – life, death, nature and cosmos – and yet the sentences probe reality to its very limits, pushing past the known and the visible into the plane of the metaphysical. This is Faulkner’s grand statement about the human condition.  

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster wrote of the ‘prophetic novelist’ whose theme is the universe, ‘or something universal’, whose strangeness of song ‘is bound to give us a shock’. In such fiction, he wrote, ‘the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them; though yet they remain individuals they expand to embrace it and summon it to embrace them’. Forster saw Melville, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence and Bronte as the ideal prophetic novelists, though he misread Hardy and Conrad, and missed Faulkner entirely.  

Consider the following passage from Conrad’s Typhoon where the boatswain, in the midst of a shipwrecking storm, drops into a coal bunker, blind within darkness, then proceeds to the hold packed with Chinese ‘coolies’ returning home after years away doing hard labour. As the ship is tossed, the men have been thrown into a sprawl of limbs and belongings, their sea chests smashed open, and in the darkness of the hull, within a ship in the midst of a typhoon upon an abyssal ocean, the men tear at each other to retrieve their silver dollars. Now hold that layered image in your mind, a metaphysical Matryoshka of startling complexity. Throughout his fiction, Conrad displays an unsurpassed ability for crafting an image that conveys a profound truth about humankind.

William Faulkner, 1945

The secrets of the world remain profound but the cosmic writer steps forward to be its interpreter

In her essay ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, Flannery O’Connor developed Forster’s thoughts. She noted how all novelists are fundamentally seekers of the real, but ‘the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality’. The prophetic – or the grotesque, as she considered the fiction of the Southern Gothic – is a fiction that pushes its own limits towards the mysterious because such a writer is more interested in what we don’t understand than what we do. ‘The prophet is a realist of distances,’ she wrote. ‘Prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus seeing far things close up.’ Such a writer is ‘looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him…’ 

The fiction that Forster and O’Connor describe is the fiction that has captivated me as a reader and nourished me as a writer. There are many supreme writers whose gaze slides effortlessly into the infinite – Woolf, Kafka, Borges and Lispector chief among them. Though for me, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Faulkner, and McCarthy form an echoing conversation across time.  

Such writers in their familial resemblances might better be described as cosmic realism. For they are defined by their cosmic eye, their ability to gaze as though from on high at the human condition in all its agony and confusion and grand gestures, to hold within their gaze not just the table and chairs and the chatter in the room but the fundamental strangeness of our condition – the infinite spaces that enfold us, the eternal truths that define us throughout the ages. Theirs is a gaze that reaches into the farthest reaches of reality and into the very stuffing of what we are. The secrets of the world remain profound but the cosmic writer steps forward to be its interpreter. 

The writers of cosmic realism are often misunderstood and are rarely read by the public at large in their own time. Melville was forced into early retirement. Until late in his career, Conrad scraped by. The greatest works of Faulkner were largely out of print when he won the Nobel Prize. While the cosmic writer seeks to symbolise the universal, the public seeks writers who define the moment, so often realised in the social novel. What use can the cosmic novelist be in the white-hot minute of the now?  

Flannery o'Connor, 1952

We have smoked the opium of one failing god after another – capitalism, nationalism, fascism, communism, consumerism, and now information technology

For some time, though, I have been troubled by a sense that modern fiction has been letting go the threads to a deeper conversation espoused by cosmic realism. The philosopher John Gray reminds us that, ‘if science serves the demand for knowledge, religion serves the need for meaning’. But when the enlightenment banished the idea of God, the need for meaning found a home in literature. The highest wisdom can be found in the classics and a line of thought began in the 19th century that sought to sound the depths of our modern alienation.  

You can hear it in Melville’s Bartleby, who declares, ‘I would prefer not to’, after being overcome by acedia, the torpor that overcomes one’s spirit upon the discovery that life no longer has meaning. It is there in Dostoyevsky’s Underground man, who struggles with the good, who finds he cannot raise his consciousness in a moral vacuum, succumbing to self-loathing, hatred and despair. Conrad was troubled, too, and continued the conversation in Heart of Darkness. The Kurtz we find up-river has assumed the role of Nietzsche’s over-man and elevated himself to demigod. He has seized upon the absolute freedom afforded to man by an empty universe. But the freedom in which everything is permitted is no freedom at all and the source of Kurtz’s horror is that he has seen all the way into the abyss of man’s degradation. In Kurtz, the prophet Conrad saw clearly the totalitarianism that was to come. 

Writers grappled with the soul of humankind well into the mid-twentieth century until Beckett, wailing and gnashing his teeth, drove it into the ground in language that became a dead-end of absurdism and despair. The loss of the soul was deemed an intractable problem and the passions of today’s writers have been absorbed by the abundant problems of society. 

According to Google, usage of the word acedia peaked in the 1950s. The reading public, too, lost interest in a fiction that confronted the problem of our essential condition. The question of meaning that lies at the heart of our modern alienation remains as a background hum in a few serious writers, while few would dare go balls to the wall as McCarthy does in The Road – think about the transmission of the highest good between father and son within a void universe, a cosmic image if ever there was one. 

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road, 2009, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

This is not to say the public is not concerned with the problem of how to live, but we have become ensnared in the faith that society can provide the answers to all our problems. Modern life has created a religious problem that for many can no longer be solved by religion, and yet we keep looking within society for a solution to what lies outside its grasp. We have smoked the opium of one failing god after another – capitalism, nationalism, fascism, communism, consumerism, and now information technology – and the distraction serves for a time until we sense that something is still deeply wrong with us but do not know what it is. We are disconsolate without cause and cast about for blame. We lope about angry and confused, nursing some vague grievance. Something deep in the seat of the individual is trying to speak but we cannot hear and so it manifests as dread.  

We find ourselves in an era of profound distraction and alienation from the self. Beware a society where the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ is a timeless reminder of a metaphysical law – that a society that has lost the keys to the house of the spirit is a society that invites destruction. You can sense it right now in the air. Meanwhile, the crowd cannot look up from their phones as we replace self-knowledge with information and the people informate themselves to death. 

Our trembling and awe in the face of existence is not a problem that can be solved by society. Happy is the house of fiction that speaks not just to daily grievance but to the problems of the spirit, and it is to cosmic fiction we must turn. Though they do not seek to provide any answers, their thundering whisper in the ear sets the whole scale of our experience before us and reawakens our connection to the cosmos. 

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch