El Pais, Spain
Light in August
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated By Jenny Westwell
27 January 2013
Edited by Kyrstie Lane
Spain - El Pais - Original Article (Spanish)
Faulkner’s novel exposes the most vile and sinister side of the human condition. Today, a good part of the world is doing its best to imitate the apocalyptic society described by the author.
There is only one pleasure greater than reading a masterwork, and that is rereading it. William Faulkner wrote “Light in August” in six months, between August 1931 and February 1932, and made only a few amendments on reading the proofs, which is astonishing given the complexity of the novel’s structure, the perfection of its prose and its lack of a single weak moment from beginning to end. It was translated into Spanish as “Luz de agosto” [August Light], but having just reread it after two or three decades, I tend to agree with those who think it might have been more accurate to call it “Alumbramiento en agosto” [Birth in August] in our language.*
Because the birth of the child, conceived by Lena Grove and the drunken, no-good scoundrel, Lucas Burch, and born in the height of the Southern summer into the hands of Reverend Hightower, is a pivotal incident which either triggers or converges with the main events of the story, one of the most brilliant and violent of the saga of Yoknapatawpha County. The world this defenseless creature comes to inhabit, though an impoverished, archaic, isolated and savage land on the margins of civilization, nonetheless bears a strong resemblance to our world today because, like ours, it is devastated by religious fanaticism, racial prejudice, despotism and a lack of solidarity that forces human beings to live in fear and solitude and often drives them to madness.
It is neither politics nor greed, but religion that most taints the lives of this society’s people. Here the biracial Joe Christmas suffers the evils of some and inflicts his own onto others, mostly women. It is true that Christmas is not murdered and castrated by a preacher, but by the white supremacist and patriot, Percy Grimm, convinced that “the white race is superior to any and all other races and that the American is superior to all other white races.” But he could as easily have been murdered and castrated by his own grandfather, old Doc Hines, who preached his racist convictions in the colored churches and, instead of being lynched, was respected and fed by the easily-frightened and reverent blacks who heard and believed him. Slavery has been abolished in the county, but not the mentality that sustained it, which endures in the customs, in the colloquial language, in the contempt and marginalization suffered by whites — especially women — who socialize with blacks as human beings, and in the lynchings of those who dare to transgress the invisible but strict racial boundaries that dictate their lives.
The fanatical Mr. McEachern, the adoptive father who saves Joe Christmas from the orphanage where he was abandoned by his grandfather, whips the young Joe into learning his catechism and tries to instill in him the idea that God created woman — that Jezebel — to tempt man, to make him sin and condemn himself to hell. The idea is widely held among the population of Jefferson, the county capital, and is even subscribed to by one of the locality’s least repellent characters, Reverend Hightower, who does everything he can to prevent good-natured Byron Bunch from marrying single mother (for which read “sinner”) Lena Grove. The extraordinary Hightower — whose sermons before he was expelled from his Presbyterian ministry combined Biblical allegories with tales of a cavalry charge his grandfather was part of during the Civil War — has a dread of women, exacerbated by his marriage: He was married to a woman who used to escape to Memphis on the weekends to prostitute herself and ended up committing suicide.
Like religion, sex in Faulkner’s puritanical world is something that both horrifies and attracts, a way to vent destructive feelings that trouble the conscience, to exert mastery and strength over the weak, to abandon oneself to the blind brutality of animals in the rutting season. Nobody enjoys the act of making love, nobody sees sex as a way to enrich their relationship with their partner and experience an uplifting of body and spirit. Quite the opposite. As it is for Joe Christmas — who makes the women he sleeps with pay for the abuse and humiliation he has suffered and the resentment he stores in his soul — the sexual act in this world of twisted and repressed fornicators is a way to achieve revenge, to inflict suffering on another, to sacrifice oneself on the altar of shame and guilt. When Percy Grimm mutilates the biracial Christmas, symbolically he mutilates himself. And in the murky depths of their hearts, all those Yoknapatawpha puritans, horrified by their sexual urges and convinced that they will burn in Hell for them, long to do the same.
What is it that so intrigues us about a world in which so many evil and stupid people use religion to justify their perverse inclinations, their defects and their prejudices? It is true that, among a horde of worthless wretches, there are a handful of sane and well-intentioned people, like Byron Bunch and Lena Grove herself, but even these seem to be good people more as a result of ingenuousness or stupidity than through generosity, conviction or principles. The fleeting appearance of the educated Gavin Stevens, hero of so many adventures and misadventures of the Faulknerian saga, momentarily reconciles the reader with this horrendous species.
Why the fascination, then? Because Faulkner’s genius, like that of Dostoyevsky — whom he so much resembles, in his obsessions and the larger-than-life characters he creates — allows him to weave a story which depicts, above all else, the most vile and sinister dimension of the human condition. And it does so with such astuteness, wisdom and elegance that this aesthetic valence — its verbal beauty, the subtlety with which certain details are concealed and thus infused with ambiguity and mystery, the judicious reconstruction of the time, the incisive examination of the psychological labyrinths that lead to certain behaviors — redeems and justifies the horror that it relates, in addition to generating the tension, the bewilderment, the intense emotions and trance-like state that the reader experiences. That is the magic and the miracle of great literature. From this stinking morass we emerge moved, disturbed, sensitized and better informed about what we are and what we do. But are we really like this, like this walking garbage? Is life so terrible as this? Not exactly. This is only a part of human truth, the raw material from which the storyteller has dreamed up a magnificent, skewed mythology of life. Happily, there is another truth, one not found in the mythical, partial radiograph conceived with such Machiavellian skill by the great American novelist.
Literature does not document reality; it transforms and adulterates it in order to complete it, adding that which, in real life, is only experienced through dreams, desires and fantasy. But Faulkner’s pessimism never strays too far from reality. The Deep South today is not what it was when Faulkner lived there. On this very day, Barack Obama, a black president, will be sworn in for the second time in Washington, on the day that the whole of the United States remembers Martin Luther King as an undisputed national hero. Racial prejudice, though it has not disappeared, is in decline, and, like discrimination against women, is driven underground by a moral code and legislation that repudiate it. In this sense, American society has advanced more rapidly than others, which make progress at a snail’s pace, or go backwards.
But today’s world is still Faulknerian as far as religion is concerned. In the major centers of Western civilization, like the United States itself, religion is still a refuge for fanatics and the intolerant who want to halt the march of history and return it to obscurantism, abolish Darwin and replace the theory of evolution with “divine intelligent design.” To say nothing of other regions of the world, such as Israel and the Muslim countries, where, in the name of a vengeful and implacable God like the one that thunders out of the mouths of the ministers in Jefferson’s churches, the seizure of territories, discrimination against women and sexual minorities, even the murder and torture of their adversaries are justified. In this morning’s New York Times, I read the story of a 16-year-old girl in Afghanistan who refused to marry the old man to whom her father had promised her. For this, her elder brother slashed and disfigured her face with a knife, thus satisfying the family’s honor. The article adds that in recent months, several dozen young Afghan women have been murdered or mutilated by their own fathers or brothers for similar reasons.
Eighty years after the publication of “Light in August,” a good part of the world is still determined to emulate the provincial, apocalyptic society of tormentors, victims and the insane that Faulkner dreamed up in this formidable novel.
*Translator's Note: Although some critics have speculated that the "light" of the title should be interpreted in the sense of giving birth, it seems that Faulkner himself denied this, stating that the title simply refers to a luminous quality to the light noticeable for just a few days around the middle of August in Mississippi.
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