Thoughts on How to Travel with a Salmon and Five Moral Pieces

I recently read two short books of talks, columns, and essays by Umberto Eco, and their differences could not be greater. One is largely satirical or personal, and the other full of critical analysis of society. They do have in common Eco’s extraordinary erudition and wisdom and a consistent theme of advocating logic. Explosive flashes of epigrammatic brilliance smolder from the lines as they blister the pretensions and vacuities of modern life. Many of these columns were written from the 70’s up through the early 90’s, and likewise, the moral pieces were composed mostly before new millennium – though most of the insights and commentary remain timeless. For decades, Eco wrote columns for newspapers and the news magazine L’Espresso, and the first book is a collection of selected columns.

While his novels are often witty and satirical, like Foucault’s Pendulum, they are not often funny in the manner of provoking laughter. But reading excerpted columns from How to Travel with a Salmon[1] I laughed out loud, by myself, several times. I was, in fact, shocked at how funny some of them were. These columns are mostly on the topic of, or somehow related to, travel – and most of them are making vicious fun of bureaucracies. He also tackles common, even stereotypical, topics of travel gripes, like airplane food. Though this particular comedy cliché may remind the reader of the Seinfeldian-style of observational comedy (often stylized as “What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?”), his take is original and humorous. Many of these stories are autobiographical fictionalizations of Eco’s own extensive travel for his academic work, though some are pure fiction without the pretense of reality.

A Cellini salt cellar, I had to look it up, beautiful- uploaded to Wikipedia by user Jononmac46

Here is one that is so good, entitled “How to Go Through Customs,” I want to include the entire opening paragraph:

The other night, after an amorous tryst with one of my numerous mistresses, I did away with my partner, bludgeoning her to death with a rare Cellini saltcellar. I was inspired not only by the strict moral code instilled in me since childhood, according to which a woman who indulges in the pleasures of the senses is unworthy of mercy, but also by an esthetic motive: namely, to experience the thrill of the perfect crime. I waited, listening to a CD of English baroque water music, until the corpse was cold and the blood had congealed; then, with an electric saw, I began dismembering the body, trying at the same time to adhere to certain fundamental anatomical principles, thus paying a tribute to our culture, without which refinement and the social contract would not exist. Finally, I packed the pieces in two suitcases of oryx hide, put on a gray suit, and caught the wagon-lit for Paris. Once I had handed over my passport and a scrupulous customs declaration to the conductor, listing the few hundred francs I was carrying on my person, I slept like a log, for nothing encourages repose more than the sense of having performed one’s duty. Nor did customs venture to disturb a traveler who, merely by purchasing a private berth in first class, asserted ipso facto his membership in the hegemonic class and thus his status as a person above suspicion. (pg. 23)

There is even a column that is in the form of an epistolary sci-fi story which satirizes our foolish tribalism and nationalism, and of course, government bureaucracy. Through these columns you really get a sense of his exasperation toward the everyday foibles of Italy, while also receiving his wariness of Italian political extremism (and the vacuity of Italian politics). Eco’s character pokes through the writing: at base he was an incessant intellectual laborer. Yet for all his relentless learning, Eco remains grounded in the mundane sorrows and strivings and joys of his life and retains self-awareness. Eco pokes fun at himself and his own voluminous learning in columns like “How to Take Intelligent Vacations” where he produces a “summer vacation reading list” that includes obscure medieval treatises on subjects like optics, and makes fun of his own status as literary celebrity and public intellectual in pieces like “Editorial Revision”:

On the other hand, after I ended a novel of mine with the verse of Bernard de Morlay beginning, “Stat rosa pristina nomine,” I was informed by some philologists that certain other extant manuscripts read, on the contrary, “Stat Roma,” which, for that matter, would make more sense because the preceding verses refer to the disappearance of Babylon. What would have happened if I had in consequence entitled my novel The Name of Rome? I would have had a preface by John Paul II, who no doubt would have made me a Papal Count. Or someone would have made a movie with Sean Connery in a toga. (pg. 178)

It is interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Travel has changed in significant cultural manners, if not in substance, and the most notable change is probably in the culture of train travel. In America at least, train travel is almost exclusively used in commuting now, not a method of popular travel outside of inner-city movement. This is the context in which reading Eco now resembles looking into the past. Though more significant cultural changes can be detected in how he speaks about the people of the “Third World” and the “lower classes.” Eco does not self-censor, saying what he means to say, even if it would often be considered indelicate now. He seems to disdain political correctness for having the form, but lacking the substance, of acceptance and non-discrimination.

Eco was also a keen observer of the impacts of media and technology on society, particularly in the impact of television and the press on how we view the world, often noting how these mediums have disconnected us from reality. Eco is forever concerned that we stay within the confines of the real and corporeal – the human body is ever-present in his writing and is the touchstone of his ethics and fears.

Personification of the virtue of Prudence – the ability to govern oneself by use of reason (according to Merriam-Webster) – etching from the Met by Abraham Bosse, 1636

In contrast to these columns are his serious reflections on serious topics in Five Moral Pieces[2], revealing a profound sense of fairness and an ethics grounded in those same deep-seated values of realism and inquiry.

The five moral pieces are: “Reflections on War” – written during the Gulf War, “When the Other Appears on the Scene” – Eco’s side of an epistolary debate where he defends a secular morality against a Cardinal, “On the Press” – a speech on the nature and characteristics of the modern press and its relationship with politics and television, the famous “Ur-Fascism” – a (now-famous) examination of the fundamental characteristics of Fascism, and “Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable” – an agglomeration of meditations about discrimination and fundamentalism. Eco sparkles when discussing the impacts of communications technology on the world, and on how we view the world. Fascism and war in Eco’s youth were not abstractions, but formative experiences, revealing the depth of illogic and inhumanity of which we are capable. Ethics, therefore, is no abstraction, but a tangible necessity of Eco’s conception of the life of the intellectual. And it is the life of the intellectual which is the core of all of Eco’s commitments. The embrace of rationality leads to wherever it may lead for Eco, but he is dedicated to this as the first principle of humanitarianism.

Eco’s commentary on the Gulf War acknowledges the changing nature of war in an era of global communications, and the changes in the perception and commentary on war those changes have themselves engendered. He maintains a steadfast opposition to war, no matter its perceived righteousness, as an intellectual imperative of humanity. War is now, by definition, all-encompassing in nature because of modern communications and transportation technology – it negatively impacts everyone across the entire earth, involved or not, opposed or allied to one side or the other, says Eco.

The complexity and interconnection of both modern war and the modern world ensures that clear goals can never be attained, and that, instead of war being a continuation of politics, politics is now a continuation of war. It is interesting that he should see this shift from Clausewitz’s “war as a continuation of politics” to “politics as a continuation of war” as a positive development, insisting that the morality of the Cold War, though full of its violence and injustices, was much preferable to the horrors of a hot war. This argument underscores his dedication to following the logic of his positions, and for maintaining a consistency in his anti-war view, despite the circumstances and nature of any particular war.

I cannot say that all of the essay holds up well, it is a certain reflection of the place and time of its writing and he grapples with the new realities of war appearing for the first time at scale in the Gulf War. Eco would probably be dismayed (maybe he was) by the de facto censorship in American media of the grim images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A large part of his description of modern war here involves the media being everywhere and not capable of being censored. In America the last 20 years, censorship (if not official) did exist, but perhaps more importantly, as a whole, the American people didn’t care about the wars, and they did not impact the “peaceful” economy. Burnout, which he says is the inevitable outcome of using new technology in his essay on the press later in this volume, impacted Americans in a way he did not anticipate. On the uncertainties of war, he is definitely correct, as recent events in Ukraine can attest.

The second essay, a letter to a Cardinal on the subject of the possibility of morality in a state of atheism, Eco explicitly draws a universal ethics out of universal principles that do not involve the supernatural. All global ethics can be derived, Eco argues, from merely understanding what causes pain for ourselves and our own bodies, and in the case of remorse, in our own minds. Freedom for ourselves, literal physical freedom from confinement, freedom to evacuate our waste and other basic, fundamental imperatives of being a living organism can inform how humans should act toward one another. This offers an almost mathematical axiom on the order of Euclid for human morality that perhaps a Christian would recognize: “what causes pain or discomfort to me must also cause pain and discomfort to other creatures like me.” A topic evolved in the humanism of the Renaissance, the focus on the human body, even with its unpleasant grotesqueries, is placed at the forefront of our lives and minds. This a stance almost like Rabelais, with the heightened focus on corporeality serving as a counterweight to the abstraction of the complex symbolism of modern societies. As a matter of fact, this argument could possibly be made in much the same way in a Rabelaisian voice of the early 16th century as it is here with the Cardinal. I’m not sure a civil debate involving the advocation of atheism would’ve been a cause for celebration to Martin Luther or Pope Paul III, but the form of the argument could be translated without difference. Eco’s argument is completely from logical precepts extending into a moral function, it does not require any knowledge of modernity or modern science. This has the value of displaying to us the power and force of logic, which does not need any props from scientific advances.

In Eco’s commentary on the press he delineates the impact that television has had on the newspapers, and, in turn, the impact the change in the focus of politicians to the medium of television has had on society. Television’s fight for the attention of the citizen and its tendency to be self-referential leads to more and more extreme divisions and a devaluation of intellectual discourse. The press is used as a tool of politicians instead of a tool of the citizens holding politicians to account. Any claim made by a politician gets repeated ad infinitum, until the actual substance and context is lost and the full control of content and opinion is in their hands. The delirious hunt for content and its incessant elevation of trivialities into scandals creates distrust in the reader and systematically destroys the authority of the press.

The loss of “authority” has initiated some of the most noticeable and drastic phenomenon of the internet age. If we don’t trust the news, and we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust Church or school, where are we to find the organizing principles of mass society? Some would argue that we don’t need organizing principles, or that they can be localized, I would point to the forms of spontaneous organization swirling around us and disagree. We have to live in the context of our era, and the institution of the nation-state will not just dissolve, it will change, but it won’t disappear tomorrow. As long as we have any point of singular control (or overwhelming influence) for law, policy, wealth distribution, and the military as we do with our national governments, we will fight over the organization of society and form larger groups to achieve larger aims. Media in all its forms continues to influence social organization.

It is notable that the ever-increasing volume of printed media and television programming started to undermine authority before the internet was ubiquitous, according to Eco. As part of a natural process involving the specific types of competition that newspaper and television engaged in, the natural consequences led to devaluation of intellectual discourse and increased self-reference. At the end of this piece, after noting all these phenomena, which I think have generally held-up well, he does consider the future impact of the internet. Perhaps in this the complexity of the current situation was far too great to make predictions, but I think he makes a generally good point when mentioning the fact of information overload and how that could lead to a kind of renewal of gatekeeping by “educated elites” through the mechanism he calls the “censorship of excess.” This may be correct, except it doesn’t appear to be the “educated elites” who are curating the news so much as the complexity has created multiple, uneven centers of new authority.

Fasces, symbol of strength in unity, justice, and authority in Ancient Rome – created by user Viseslav on Wikipedia

“Ur-Fascism” is probably Eco’s most internationally famous work of non-fiction. In this piece he lays out what he considers to be the defining features of Fascism, the general rules of the functioning of the Fascistic society. He begins by recounting his childhood in Fascist Italy and defining Mussolini’s version of Fascism. Right in the second paragraph Eco states that “…freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric” (pg 66). Later on in the essay, it becomes clear that what he means is that the fundamental lack of meaning contained in the constant rhetoric of Fascism, with Mussolini’s version as an exemplar, is restrictive of the free and open discourse which characterizes a democratic society. If words don’t represent ideas or reality, they confuse and stultify their hearers. This foreshadows his groupings of the features of the Platonic form of Fascism, which all involve the suppression of reason. Eco says that any single item on his list can be used as a basis to form a Fascist political group, but that the presence of any of these features does not mean a political movement is Fascist. I will list them briefly here, because who doesn’t love a good list?[3]

  1. The Cult of Tradition
  2. Rejection of Modernism
  3. The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
  4. Disdain of Critical Analysis
  5. Exploitation of the Natural Fear of Difference
  6. Direct Emotional Appeals to a Frustrated Middle Class
  7. Obsession with a Plot/Group of Plotters
  8. Viewing the Plotters as Simultaneously Powerful and Weak
  9. Pacificism as Weakness/Life as Eternal Warfare
  10. Contempt of the Weak Combined with Popular Elitism (the common adherent is viewed as a member of the elite of society, regardless of their commonality)
  11. The Cult of the Hero/Cult of Death for a Heroic Cause
  12. Selective Populism (holding a minority of adherents to be the Vox Populi and acting as if they were the majority)
  13. Reliance on Newspeak (without a complex vocabulary, people cannot discuss complex ideas) (pgs. 78-86)

As the list lengthens, the natures of the features grow more interconnected despite Eco’s caveat that any of the ideas can be a source of Fascism. Starting with the cult of tradition, the heart of these ideas is that knowledge and rationality should be rejected in favor of the basic impulses of humanity. The idea of the cult of tradition that there is a profound and hidden ancient wisdom that exists and therefore there can be no new knowledge, flows logically to the next ideas of syncretic culture (since no new wisdom can be imagined), rejection of modernism (because the Enlightenment produced moral failure), the cult of action (because thinking is a product of rational enlightenment), and disdain of critical analysis (because that threatens the cult of tradition, since it is an illogical belief). The first four items, then, are all derived from the rejection of coherent ideology. Traditionalism is used to mask the fact that there is no intellectual content in the belief system, papered over instead by an uncritical syncretism which combines various aspects of previous ideologies despite any contradictions.

Exploitation of the natural fear of difference allows for the theme which connects the next few points. Amongst humans’ most primitive instincts is distrust of those not connected to their immediate social group. Education and complex ideas and institutions are necessary to allay this fear and allow broad cooperation, but it is always lurking deep in all of our minds. This primordial instinct can be used by those seeking power by appealing to a specific audience, enunciated in point 6, where Eco writes: “Ur-Fascism springs from individual or social frustration…” (pg. 81). It is a fearful middle class that is under economic distress or perceived disenfranchisement that wants to protect itself from those above and below in the social hierarchy. This is the nexus where conspiratorial thinking becomes the connecting principle between several of these points. The plotters and amorphous groups which are a threat to the adherents of the Fascistic political movement are forever hidden and resilient, unable to be clearly defined or destroyed, they serve as a perpetual tool to describe and animate the political movement and its supporters. Conspiracy theories are not falsifiable by nature (evidence against the conspiracy existing is taken as proof of a coverup or some other aspect of the conspiracy) and innuendo and association serve the purposes of evidence, and therefore can be used to justify anything, including the delusion of a minority being the majority, or that a person can be heroic fighting against a non-existent enemy.

Instead of a guide to the explicit nature of Fascism which it is often presented as, it can be read as a type of warning of the kind of features which an intellectually-degraded society exhibits. A Fascistic society is one in which logic has failed and the moral weight of the society has sunk to the level of the meanest individuals. Force and emotion have overcome reason. As in all things with Eco, one cannot escape the topic of semiotics, and this is perhaps one of his best examples in non-fiction where he incorporates this framework. Eco believes that cultural phenomenon are also signs, and therefore social and political movements can be understood through the functions of signs and the encoding of symbols. In the Fascistic society the symbols of politics and social organization are altered from a well-functioning, tolerant society by various types of cognitive distortions, by ruptures in logic. So rather than say, “these are fundamental aspects of Fascism,” I would say that a feature of anti-democratic and intolerant political movements is that their intellectual underpinnings are hollow. When you dig there is nothing there besides rhetoric.

There is something like the tendency of medical students to diagnose themselves with illnesses in the nature of the description of Fascism here. It is easy to point to almost any political movement and observe at least some of these principles, or even many of them. I think it is almost trivial at this point to equate Trump’s MAGA movement with these principles, since it conforms to almost every entry. This essay was popularly used to point this out at the time Trump entered the public consciousness as a serious political entity (look up Ur-Fascism on Google and at least half of the early results are articles using it to diagnose Trump/MAGA as Fascistic). I will not bother with that now but would point out that the list of ideological or rhetorical features are common around the world, in dictatorships and free societies. This is not to be dismissive, because in fact, it is fearsome. The endless appeal of conspiratorial thinking is its ability to form order from chaos and to relieve the believer of responsibility for their lives. As a political tool the appeal to irrational beliefs finds success in Brazil just as it does in Thailand, and has worked when it flowed from the pen of Marat in the late 18th century as it works in the production of video segments by Alex Jones in the early 21st.

Ur-Fascism packs a lot of explanations of organized human behavior in a small space. While it is sometimes abused to point beyond its intentions (and misquoted), it is right that it is so celebrated and reproduced. It also serves as yet another defense of intellectualism and science extending to morality, this time in the political realm.

In keeping with the theme of the dangers associated with politics in the previous two pieces, he focuses on the vicious impacts of intolerance on society, and the ultimate moral duty of the intellectual to frame our decisions using logic, instead of in animalistic tribalism and violence. First, he distinguishes between immigration and migration, with immigration being a controlled process that involves assimilation and migration being an uncontrolled process where entire groupings of humans move and bring their culture with them. Intolerance is easy in a society that controls immigration, as immigrants can be confined to ghettos, but intolerance becomes an ineffective stance when dealing with the overwhelming nature of migration. And, he warns with prescience, that migration is coming to Europe whether people like it or not, and that it will probably lead to violence. After the dislocations of the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War, when migration from Africa and the Middle East caused severe social and political disruptions in the nations of Europe (and the tragedies of exploitation, internment, and the numerous instances of mass drownings visited on the migrants themselves), it is easy to place this essay in context of actual, historical events. It is no abstraction or idle musing of moral philosophy: intolerance is pervasive and harmful. Eco writes that intolerance itself can take numerous forms, and it is dangerous when it becomes a doctrine, a form of fundamentalism that will not allow dissent, and disables a logical appraisal of situations and circumstances. Combatting this intolerance with education is his solution, and also with laws where appropriate, but he warns that the expansion of intolerance into doctrine can become a political problem. No doubt the reference made here to a regime of fundamentalism in intolerance, where he says the wealthy theorize and the poor put into practice, is again referring to the danger of Fascism. Intellectuals must combat intolerance before the praxis of fundamentalism takes hold, because then it is too late.

Through Eco’s compendium of knowledge, we can almost see the ascent of humanity from ignorance and poverty to knowledge and wealth – and the errors that attended that transformation. We are still venal, and tribal, and vicious. In that aspect of humanity Eco, though an academic, is not naïve. He manages to say profound and piercing statements in every other sentence when taking up the mantle of a moralist as part of his duty as a public intellectual. In the form of the observational comedian he produces a mirror to reflect to us the absurdities and arbitrary roles and rules we’ve inflicted upon ourselves. What these pieces reveal about Eco himself is the strength of his powers of observation. His ability to distill the aspects of a thorny problem, or a feature of modern life, or a change in political communication to its most basic nature is extraordinary. Not quantitative, but based in empiricism nonetheless, these columns and essays attempt to define the boundaries of the definitions of cruel, ignorant, and foolish behaviors and actions and to place the living and breathing human in the abstract debate over the nature ethics and forms of government. While attempting these definitions there is also an exhortation to accept the incompleteness of any definition, to accept the irreducibility of the complexities of reality. There is an implicit proclamation to stop trying to systematize and categorize unnatural concepts and forcefully impose a meaning on the events and attitudes of the world. For this simple yet difficult-to-accept injunction alone it is worth reading these works.


[1] Eco, Umberto, and William Weaver. How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays. Trans. William Weaver. First edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994. Print.

[2] Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

[3] Eco was obsessed by lists and their power to be greater than the sum of their parts (that would be a different post altogether) and organized this just as I have here, though with explanations of each item. I have changed some of the wording to make it simpler and clearer.

Thoughts on As I Lay Dying

Note: This book is over 90 years old…this post contains spoilers. I also mention an episode of sexual assault which happens in the book.
First edition cover of As I Lay Dying – via Heritage Auctions

William Faulkner’s famous novel begins with a set of descriptions of uncertain gravity and significance, but with an almost geometric precision (bolded lines and words mine, as well as ellipses):

…following the path in single file…The path runs straight as a plumb-line… to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again… Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window…  (1)[1]

And the novel proceeds in this manner, slipping unpredictably between abstraction and precision, asking us, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what do we know about the world around us? What do we know about one another? What do we know about how others think and how do we convey our thoughts to others? How do we make sense of our lives, and of the fact that our death waits for us? These are nothing less than the fundamental questions of our lives, especially if you stand idle, thinking too much.

Published in 1930, the book describes a family, in a rural and isolated portion of Faulkner’s invented county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, and their odyssey to bury their deceased matriarch next to her parents, grandparents, and other direct kin in the nearby town of Jefferson – pointedly not next to her husband’s family. Proceeding with horses and mules and wagons, as the world around them begins to team with cars and conveniences of modern life, this is an absurd family marooned in the rural past. The dirt-poor family with the hard life could be a source of pathos – and the novel is often dark, even depressing and maybe nihilistic, but Faulkner has us smiling at the family’s ignorance and mocking their duplicity.

Each chapter in the novel is voiced by a different character, with most of the chapters being spoken by members of the family which is the focus of the novel: the Bundrens. The family consists of the children Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Cash, the father Anse, and even the dying mother from beyond(?) the grave, Addie. As far as stream-of-consciousness goes, the label often given to the writing in this novel, it is readable, unlike Joyce’s fevered works. We do get the different perspectives of people with unusual viewpoints, levels of education, intelligence, and age all in their own unique voice.

Things go wrong for the family from the beginning. While Addie lays dying, the family prepares for her departure and the impending travel to the town of her birth and upbringing. A storm that begins the night of her death which portends suffering and difficulty all around. All the normal routes over the river are impassable because flooding has destroyed the bridges, so they struggle, with the help of their neighbors, along their journey – sleeping in barns or being threatened out of small towns. During this journey, we also get to know the past and the various experiences and viewpoints of the family – their sins and aspirations.

Cash builds his mother’s coffin and breaks a leg, Jewel quarrels and curses, and loves and hates his horse, Vardaman dreams of buying a toy train and is convinced his mother is fish, Darl questions the nature of reality, starts a fire, and gets arrested, Dewey Dell seeks an abortion, and Anse laments his lack of teeth, and claims that if he has to work and sweat that he’ll die. He is passive and incompetent, maybe in order to manipulate everyone he meets. Anse drives the journey forward though, with his insistence that he promised Addie he would bury her in the town of Jefferson and that they must proceed no matter what.

The novel rewards deep reading as repetitions stream before your eyes to fill the pages after you orient yourself in the cataracts of the snaking chapters. In the chapter after that first one, described by Darl in mathematical terms, with its circles and squares and ones and twos, the next chapter also has many ones and twos as Cora Tull, the self-righteous, religious neighbor, counts her chickens and eggs and their output. And there’s repetitions of colors, and horizontal and vertical, and differences of perspective, and an importance attached to wood, and incessant references to characters’ eyes – windows to the soul as the cliché goes, after all. There is the confusing division between the living and dead (and the animal and human, apparently), the ill and healthy, the town and country, the educated and ignorant – all are subjective differences (to some at least) that have impact and import to the characters in the novel.

What stayed with me, after I had finished, and thought the novel curious because it was hard to categorize as a story, were the things that didn’t make sense to me. They returned to me over and over again, as I found myself wondering why Darl sets a fire, interpreting how comic the dark scenes are and the absurdity of dragging the rotting corpse in the coffin around with them, why the discussions of lineage, is the novel really about itself – the novel’s own structure revealing something about what Faulkner was hinting at without the use of inadequate words, especially in all that geometric language and repeated motifs of verticality (variously associated with living, immobility, the past…) and horizontality (associated with movement, change, and the future…)?

The primary narrator, Darl, stretches into abstraction to the point of madness throughout the novel, with early chapters lucid, if not odd, and later chapters growing increasingly bizarre. Darl also describes events in places where he is not present. He narrates early chapters about the completion of Addie’s coffin by Cash while he is on the road, attempting to bring a load of lumber into town. He seems to know things about other characters through uncertain means and his internal monologues underscore the existential questions posed by the novel, about what it means to live and die in a temporal world.

Addie turns up at the hinge of the novel, after a climactic scene just past halfway through, to narrate her own chapter from the grave (or perhaps, out of time altogether), and provides the missing context for understanding the family and adds depth to the motifs. Addie’s chapter is stunning in presenting her harshness, aloofness, and a streak of cruelty. She is presented as intelligent and educated in a way that her children and neighbors are not. Her psychological burdens and philosophical agonies load her from her youth, where she begins her chapter, telling the reader she found pleasure in whipping the children when she was a schoolmaster. Addie marries Anse and eventually cheats on him with her minister, producing the child Jewel, who, it is remarked over and over, never treated her well. Each character in some ways mirrors their mother’s experience as well. Jewel loves a horse that is ill-tempered, just as his mother loved him though he did not reciprocate. Dewey Dell is impregnated in an “immoral” manner, just as Addie was by the minister.

Faulkner’s sharpest commentary about the family comes from the mouths of his quirkiest (and least intelligent) characters, take these sentences from Dewey Dell’s first chapter:

Pa dassent sweat because he will catch his death from the sickness so everybody that comes to help us. And Jewel dont care about anything he is not kin to us in caring, not care-kin. And Cash like sawing the long hot sad yellow days up into planks and nailing them to something. And pa thinks because neighbors will always treat one another that way because he has always been too busy letting neighbors do for him to find out. And I did not think that Darl would, that sits at the supper table with his eyes gone further than the food and the lamp, full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land. (23)

This may not be an explication of the symbology of the entire novel, but it’s a good summary of the basic characters and natures of her family members.

The most expressive and poetic prose is within the thematic confines of the characters of the novel. Take Darl’s expressions in a middle chapter and a chapter near the end, as his madness grows:

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again. (123)

How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls. (183)

Some of the foreshadowing of the slight mysteries of the novel that keep you turning the pages is almost heavy-handed, and their revelations are not a surprise – but the ending of the novel almost made me reimagine the entire preceding length. Not just “the ending” but, literally, the final two lines of the novel makes all the earlier chapters a set-up for a punchline:

“It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,” pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. “Meet Mrs Bundren,” he says.

Addie’s psychological agony and the humiliation of the Bundren family are played for dark humor but are also so tragic as to make the reader wince. Dewey Dell is impregnated out of wedlock (certainly a social disaster in 1930), an ignorant and stupid girl being taken advantage of, and then is subjected to what would now probably be considered a form of rape by a clerk in a pharmacist’s office. Darl’s mental illness condemns him to incarceration, Cash breaks his leg and almost drowns and then, out of miserliness, has a cast for his broken bone made from concrete – causing him intense pain and suffering. Jewel is burned, and Vardaman is left confused.

Photo of marker for Faulkner’s grave – photo by Natalie Maynor

Like other great works of fiction, its plasticity and ambiguity and richness will ensure a long life amongst readers, long after most of the social circumstances familiar to readers dissipates (as it mostly already has). It is hard to say what cultural context I’m missing reading this now, I have not read Faulkner’s other novels, and I know that most of them take place in his fictional county, and even contain similar characters. I know that a doctor who shows up at the house and in Jefferson, Peabody, is a recurring character in his works, and what I would be able to glean from that, I’m unsure. The South, and the position of the former Confederacy in American culture, is something that I do know has radically changed since 1930, as well as the nature of rural poverty. There is also a brief mention of, and encounter with, black people near the end of the novel, and I do not know what to make of it or what it may signify, or signified, to American readers at the time of the book’s publication.

Isolation from washed out bridges and fording rivers with teams of mules is something that would be familiar to generations of readers up through 1930, but is in an alien past now. Physical hardship of the level described throughout the novel was banished in America decades ago, and I doubt people would even stand for it now – I know I wouldn’t. The encroachment of civilization into their rural hideaway disturbs members of the Bundren family, but that kind of hermetic atmosphere is impossible, if nothing else it is impossible in a cultural sense because of television and the internet and the pervasive saturation of mass-produced goods into every community in America.

Some things still stick though. The stigma of social isolation and mental illness, quieter and less visible now but perhaps more prevalent strike home in the presentation of Darl as unfairly treated by the community. Dewey Dell’s exploitation by both the farmer who impregnated her and by the druggist’s assistant who extorted and defrauded her into having sex with him may not be far off from the mass objectification of women we see throughout social media – and that is without mentioning her futile quest for an abortion…

In other ways too, Faulkner’s book remains relevant. A collage of perspectives and uncertainties and constructed realities is not foreign to generations stretched out inside the metaverse, on discord and Twitter, watching videos on TikTok and, like someone I know, talking to their boss about their work schedule on Snapchat.

Uncertainty, metaphysics, and a collage of geometric precision and abstraction make this short novel profound, and it remains radical in its non-traditional construction (though readable). The story of the long, perilous journey toward a distant goal is as ancient and universal as stories themselves. This southern version is a vivid transformation of that odyssey into a psychological and parochial – and almost supernatural – examination of an absurd but realistic family, struggling with the most basic questions of life and death.

Miscellaneous Quotes:

“But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.” Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart.

  • Pg 7

The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree.

  • pg 8

Now and then a fellow gets to thinking. About all the sorrow and afflictions in this world; how it’s liable to strike anywhere, like lightning.

  • pg 70

Vardaman Chapter:

My mother is a fish.

  • pg 84

I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping.

  • pg 114

“Who’s talking about him?” she says. “Who cares about him?” she says, crying. “I just wish that you and him and all the men in the world that torture us alive and flout us dead, dragging us up and down the country——”

  •  pg 117

The land runs out of Darl’s eyes; they swim to pin points. They begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and then my dress is gone: I sit naked on the seat above the unhurrying mules, above the travail.

  • pg 124

It was as though, so long as the deceit ran along quiet and monotonous, all of us let ourselves be deceived, abetting it unawares or maybe through cowardice, since all people are cowards and naturally prefer any kind of treachery because it has a bland outside. But now it was like we had all—and by a kind of telepathic agreement of admitted fear—flung the whole thing back like covers on the bed and we all sitting bolt upright in our nakedness, staring at one another and saying “Now is the truth. He hasn’t come home. Something has happened to him. We let something happen to him.”

  •  pg 134

Addie’s Chapter:

I would hate my father for having ever planted me.

  • pg 169

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

  •  pg 171

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook.

  • pg 173

I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land. I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary because he was he and I was I; the sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin, to sanctify that sin He had created. While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin. I would think of him as thinking of me as dressed also in sin, he the more beautiful since the garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified. I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air. Then I would lay with Anse again—I did not lie to him: I just refused, just as I refused my breast to Cash and Darl after their time was up—hearing the dark land talking the voiceless speech.

  • pg 174

Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

  •  pg 233

[1] Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. First Vintage international edition. New York, Vintage Books, 1990.