Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nothing More Than the Traveling Hands of Time

V. and I went on Friday night to see the UGA Theater production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a play I loved in high school but have not really looked at since I read it for my master's comps in 2005. It's an odd play, in that you remember it as Main Street U.S.A. when it's actually The Sound and the Fury. I remembered it as sweet and a little corny--a traditional play if there ever was one--but that's a great disservice. It was as Modernist as anything Eliot or Faulkner or Joyce ever wrote, what with the whole "Stage Manager" conceit breaking the fourth wall and stopping the play every 15 seconds to trot out another "expert." (Those experts, I suppose, are a bit like Eliot's footnotes to The Waste Land, obfuscating rather than elucidating the thing in itself.)

If you read my post on Meet the Robinsons, you probably picked up on my recent interest in time. The party line--repeated nearly ad nauseum in the brutal third act of Our Town--is that we should live in the moment, appreciate each second for what it is, let go of the past, and not fixate on the future, which is of course imaginary. This clashes with the Southern Agrarians I've been reading this semester. Andrew Lytle specifically condemns the Wilder system, calling the human results of it "momentary man":
that man who no longer has location, who is forever on his way, speeding from one inn to another, to the same bed that is not the same bed, to poor cuisines served in the same false ornament of supposedly foreign architecture.
Lytle demands allegiance to the past, and in fact, out of the twelve I'll Take My Stand guys, he's the only one who could have a reasonable claim of actually living in the past, living on a farm and whatnot.

And then there's Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury posits three systems. Quentin Compson, the world's most famous suicidal neurotic, can live only in the past, both personal (watching his sister get her underpants dirty) and corporate (the antebellum chivalric system he can't let go); his brother Jason lives in the future, and is a monster for it. Only Benjy Compson lives in the present--and he's an idiot man-child, certainly no role model.

Faulkner's solution is to present us with Dilsey, the Compsons' black servant. Dilsey receives the final section of the novel, and her chapter is marked by its third-person narrator and its more or less coherent voice. There's no wild shifting back and forth between present-day and thirty years previous in Dilsey's section--we see things as God must see them, from above them. And so Dilsey comes off stable, happy, dependable--three words no one would ever use to describe Quentin, Jason, or Benjy.

And so I submit that Faulkner wants us to follow Dilsey's lead. In a book about the way the past, present, and future conspire to destroy your mind, only Dilsey escapes. I'm sure you could blame that on Faulkner's racism if you wanted to--perhaps Dilsey escapes because she lacks the mental capabilities to analyze time. But I don't think so. He has a real and obvious affection for her, and he gives her section the weight of the novel's structure (it closes the whole ugly story) and its themes (she receives Easter Sunday and the resurrection that day implies).

And Dilsey's secret is that she's too busy to think about time at all. She works non-stop taking care of Benjy, Jason, and Miss Quentin Compson--not to mention her own children and grandchildren--and has no time for the type of poisonous self-reflection that wrecks the Compson family. She's no idiot, but she's no intellectual, which is to say that she lives neither and simultaneously in the past, present, and future.

Wilder might agree, whatever Emily Webb screams from her grave at the end of Our Town. After all, his play--whatever else it does--collapses and twists time. First it invents an era that may never have really existed (at least the way he portrays it); further, he does so in a blatantly nostalgic move, writing the play on the cusp of World War II and setting it before World War I. But then he destroys that era. Death is all around his characters, and the Stage Manager alerts us to the eventual deaths of the people we meet nearly as soon as we meet them. So past and future have been collapsed into an amorphous blob.

And as far as the present goes, Wilder subverts himself. If the important thing is for us to live in the present, then why present a nostalgized past? And why bother talking about material progress (which is going to make us look ahead, even when the progress takes place in the past--that's what the Carousel of Progress is all about)? No, the present is not as simple as Emily Webb wants it to be, and Wilder is well aware of it. The present is important but not distinct--Our Town makes the audience into Dilsey; it collapses and combines past, present, and future and hands it to us in a ball.

Do whatever you can with it.


Joel said...

Another interesting post, Michial. Have you read Winesburg, Ohio? A little north for you, perhaps, but I can see some similar time-related elements. If it weren't right before class, I'd go into a bit more into detail.

Michial said...

I actually wrote a song ("The World Is on Fire," if you remember that one) that cribbed from both "Our Town" and "Winesburg." I haven't read the Anderson book in probably five years, though, and I remember little about it--except that it deals with a similar small town and that the newspaperman sadly leaves it at the end.