William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is my favorite novel, because of any book I’ve read it most powerfully reflects my own struggle with how to find hope in the midst of suffering, honor and dignity in the midst of brokenness, and endurance in the midst of despair. The second section of the book begins with Quentin Compson, not much younger than I, hearing the ticking of the watch his father gave him before he went to Harvard. He pauses and his father’s drunken words return to him:
I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
In this his father explains that the human experience is one of constant striving for and against time, the constant drive to make something of one’s life before it is done. But this is absurd to Mr. Compson, for life cannot be won or lost because it has no intrinsic meaning.
Quentin is a neurotic, introspective 19-year-old searching for something, anything that can give him a foundation, a footing to give him hope, meaning, and a reason to endure. His once honorable aristocratic family is now in debt, with little of its reputation or former glory remaining. The Compson family is collapsing and defiled. He is beset by the striking reality that his father is right, that there is nothing to give his life meaning, value, or significance—not a Harvard education, not his family’s name, not wealth or success. In his father’s words he is reminded that he can do nothing to secure that foundation, that footing, that hope. Carpe diem becomes carpe absurdum to Quentin as he realizes with Macbeth that life is but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. His life is but a brief candle, always shifting and soon to be snuffed out. The clock is ticking, reminding him that he has limited time to make something of his life–to make it meaningful, to make it worthwhile. But soon the ticking becomes the countdown to his own death as he makes his way to a bridge and jumps off with iron weights tied to his ankles. And the clock stops.
I, too, hear that ticking. Every day I wake up and feel the burden of making something of my life, of justifying my own existence, of finding a reason to endure in a world that often seems meaningless. And I wonder with Quentin at times if victory really is just an illusion of philosophers and fools, if I am but a walking shadow, if the ticking, which promises so much opportunity and expectation and responsibility, that promises hope for a better day than the one before, that promises purpose and meaning, is really just that countdown to when my own candle is snuffed out by the winds of time.
As I reflect on Quentin and his father, I wonder if that voracious desire to justify my own existence is a symptom of a Quentin inside me, fearing that maybe nothing can give me that foundation and that hope to carry on. I am daily plagued by countless questions about whether I have what it takes, whether I can truly make something of my life, whether I can keep myself from fading into obscurity. And in that search for validation I see that it wouldn’t really matter if I attained all those things, for they’d all be vapor in the end. I realize that in some ways Quentin’s father is right: “man is the sum of his climatic experiences [. . .] a problem in impure properties carried tediously to an unvarying nil: stalemate of dust and desire.” As long as my search for meaning and validation seeks its victory in achievements and honor, my future really becomes nothing more than a combination of dust and desire leading to a meaningless end.
But I have found hope in the last section of the book, which centers on Dilsey, the old black servant of Quentin’s family. While the Quentin narrative is a confusing, stream-of-consciousness reflection of the thoughts trapped and isolated in Quentin’s head, the Dilsey section is a straight-forward, third person perspective, underscoring that in Dilsey we find an answer that is at once meaningful and outside of ourselves. It is Easter Sunday and she sings while she works, fixing breakfast, heating the house, serving the ungrateful Compson family who never knew what it meant to hope or love. She is wearing purple, the color of royalty. While the aristocratic Compson family is decaying, she is strong and hopeful, serving them with a faithful resolve to keep pressing on without praise or recognition. And we are left to wonder why she has not joined Quentin on the bridge.
We see the answer as she joins a progression of black servants walking in community to worship that Easter. And as they stand and worship “their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words.” They hear the preacher call out, “I got the recollection and the blood of the lamb.” And that is all she needs. For Dilsey, she finds hope in the recollection of the blood of the lamb, and that hope is confirmed in her community. She is the only character not trapped in her head, not isolated from other people, not alone. She is a simple servant–no money, no glory, no honor or praise or recognition. And yet she sings, and she hopes, and she serves in peace among a community of faith.
In Dilsey I am reminded that I don’t have to lose my footing like Quentin; I don’t have to slip into seeking validation and hope in accomplishments, success, or honor. If I do, I become a walking shadow, a brief candle, a sum of my climatic experiences. My hope is not in myself. But faith and community can put flesh on this walking shadow, pulling me out of myself and the crushing weight of my own expectations, dreams, and desires. In Dilsey I am reminded that the illusion of philosophers and fools can become the victory of the community of faith.