Paradise Lost: The Tragic Vision
It is instructive to read Eugene O’Neill’s historical cycle, A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed, alongside Faulkner’s Yoknatapawpha saga. Though O’Neill, an Irish-Catholic New Englander, takes the whole nation as his canvas and Faulkner writes of the South, his “small postage-stamp of a world,” as he put it, both attempt a similar project: to tell the story of a culture by telling the stories of inter-connected families. In O’Neill’s case, the family is that of the Melody-Harford clan, which he intended to track through six generations, from 1755 to what was then the present, the early 1930s; Faulkner’s saga covers a roughly similar timespan, ranging from the antebellum period through mid-20th century. Though both are writing at approximately the same time, the worlds they create come from different universes. Yet the works of these two artists, giants in their respective fields, have much in common. In this paper I would like to explore the structural parallels between O’Neill’s historical cycle and Faulkner’s multi-novel saga, as well as the tragic vision they share, arguing that both have a post-lapserian view of the world—life “after the fall.”
In his monumental undertaking, the eleven play “A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed,” O’Neill set out to write the history of America by tracking the history of the Melody-Harford clan, as seen against a backdrop of pivotal historical, economic, and societal events. Travis Bogard calls it a work of “astonishing scope and scale. . . . Nothing in the drama, except Shakespeare’s two cycles on British history, could have been set beside it” (369). The project posed considerable technical challenges. As O’Neill wrote to Robert Sisk at the Theatre Guild in 1935, describing the project, “Each play will be concentrated around the final fate of one member of the family but will also carry on the story of the family as a whole.” Each would be “complete in itself while at the same time an indispensable link in the whole. . . A difficult technical problem, this, but I think I can solve it successfully” (Bogard 375). The underlying theme of the plays, according to O’Neill, was the Biblical notion, “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Dismayed by what he saw as the materialism and greed of American culture, he set about portraying the destructive impact of ambition run amuck in each new generation, tracing the decline and fall of the nation through the disintegration of a family. He took the entire globe as his canvas, with action in the various plays set in San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C., the Midwest, Paris, and Shanghai.
Faulkner’s Yoknatapawpha saga, though limited to the South, takes on a similar challenge. In telling the stories of the families who live in and around Jefferson, Mississippi from before the Civil War up through the mid-twentieth century, Faulkner chronicles the history of the South as a whole. Writing of wealthy, land-owning families like the Sutpens, Compsons, McCaslins; tenant farmers and poor whites; African-Americans and native Americans, he traces their inter-connected stories, with a minor character in one tale becoming a major character in another. Each work is self-contained, yet taken together they comprise a single history – that of a Golden Age, whether real or imagined, gone glimmering. The sins of the South, as Faulkner sees them, are the rape of the land and the people—native American and blacks—necessary to tame the land. Though he didn’t set out to write a cycle as such, the effect is much the same.
Another parallel: In the works of both authors, time—the relationship of past to present—plays an enormously important role. It would be hard to over-estimate the importance of time in Faulkner’s work. Generally, though not always, it is conceived of in historical terms. Characters are impelled by events from their individual pasts as well as—and often, more compellingly—events from the shared past of all Southerners, the watershed event being, of course, the Civil War. The present moment always takes place in the shadow of the past, which for the Southerner means the war and all its repercussions. This position is effectively summed up in a well-known passage by Gavin Stevens in Intruder in the Dust, which begins, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863....” He goes on to imagine in vivid detail that moment before Pickett’s charge when the outcome of the war was hanging in the balance.
“ It hasn’t happened yet,” he says; “it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin . . . yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain . . . (194-95). If the war is the defining moment in Southern history, that point at which the fall from grace begins, Stevens argues, one can always return in one’s memory to that point where the outcome was still hanging in the balance as if to change the ending by sheer force of will and come forward to a different present.
Clearly Faulkner’s characters’ consciousness of the past, specifically here the historical past, permeates their experience of the present. The above passage is preceded by the line, also said by Stevens, “Yesterday won't [sic] be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago” (194). This line, especially the phrase “ten thousand years ago,” shades over into another manifestation of time frequently encountered in Faulkner, that of a mythic past not unlike Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, though embedded specifically in Southern culture. Characters like Lena Groves, Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and Doc Hines in Light in August, for instance, are impelled by memory, but of things they can’t necessarily recollect. Witness the passage which begins the chapter where the five-year-old Joe Christmas accidentally sees the dietitian at his orphanage having sex, an episode which will change his life forever: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders” (111). When the enraged and frightened dietitian is caught in the act and calls Joe a “little nigger bastard” though his skin is “parchment colored,” this epithet becomes part of his identity. Though the specific memory eludes him, the experience will shape his life and ultimately contribute to (one might even say “cause”) his murder of Joanna Burden. Many of Faulkner’s other characters, in this novel and elsewhere, seem to move through life with a kind of clairvoyance, as if compelled by a memory larger than themselves. Whether the memory is individual, historical, or mythic, the presence of the past is palpable and determinative. And always what is critical is the history of the South as a whole rather than any single, individual experience of it.
Eugene O’Neill, too, is obsessed with time, particularly in his later plays, both those of the unfinished historical cycle, and the autobiographically derived The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, Long Day’s Journey, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. The predominant mode of time in these plays is linear time, time of the clock and calendar. In one way or another, each of these plays is structured around an ideal which is located in the past, whether a moment of past glory or hopes realized, or the obverse, the loss of a dream. As the characters move forward upon a linear continuum into the future, the distance between themselves and their ideal inexorably increases. Thus time becomes the enemy, a measure of ever-greater loss.
The characters’ present is saturated by memory, a second crucial modality of time as it functions in these dramas. Haunted by the ticking clock and the loss it brings, they alternately seek forgetfulness and oblivion, often in alcohol, or live in memories of glory gone a-glimmering. One thinks of the bums who live at Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh, for instance, forever repeating their “pipe dreams” in a collective litany, or Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet, who ritualistically re-enacts the highpoint of his life on the yearly anniversary of the Battle of Talavera, when the Duke of Wellington singled him out for praise. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the endless arguments among the four Tyrones, an effort to escape their shared sense of guilt, have been repeated so many times the characters anticipate each other’s lines; they, too, are drenched in memory, trying to make sense of a past gone awry. That the past casts a shadow over the present and determines the future is perhaps most succinctly summed up by Mary Tyrone’s well-known line, “The past is the present. It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us” (Long Day’s Journey 87).
The nature of time, that is, the relationship of past to present and the function of memory, however, is different in O’Neill and Faulkner. While it is true that in both cases the present moment is always responding in some way to the pressure of the past, so much so that one might say with Mary Tyrone that the past isn’t really past at all, in Faulkner the past is a collective one, whether historically or mythically construed. While characters of course act out of their awareness of their own individual pasts, behind that history, whatever it is, always looms the backdrop of the South’s collective history: slavery, the rape of the land and the Native Americans from whom it was stolen, the Civil War. Ike McCaslin’s discoveries about his grandfather, old Carothers McCaslin, in section 4 of The Bear is both an excursion into his individual history and a coming to terms with the ills of slavery. In The Sound and the Fury, as Quentin contemplates his personal history on the last day of his life, several times specifically recalling his grandfather, the last important Compson, we are aware that he was a Brigadier General in the Confederate army and that his greatest defeat occurred at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6th and 7th, 1862. These dates, significantly, are the days of the action of the first and third section of the novel (Geffen 178). Thus again, behind individual history stands Southern history. In O’Neill, on the other hand, characters’ memories are limited to their own individual pasts: Con Melody’s moment of glory in the Battle of Talavera (A Touch of the Poet), Simon Harford’s idyllic memories of his childhood experiences in his mother’s garden (More Stately Mansions), Erie Smith’s fond memories of his dead friend Hughie (Hughie).
Memory also functions differently in the two artists’ work. Faulkner’s characters either are compelled by a kind of collective unconscious they don’t even recognize as such (“Memory believes before knowing remembers...”) or they live with a vague sense of longing for a past they themselves have never experienced: the Edenic myth of the South before the “fall.” Here there is some overlap with O’Neill’s characters, who lull themselves with memories of a lost ideal, though those moments are located in their own individual histories, somewhere on a linear continuum.
Both authors, however, and this is my final point, write from a tragic sensibility, a sense of a world determined by limitation, not promise. Faulkner’s characters, like those of O’Neill, live and move and have their being, to paraphrase St. Paul, in a world characterized by a sense of loss. In Go Down, Moses, for instance, the image of the vast and pristine wilderness before old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief, sold it to Thomas Sutpen, the white man, looms like a lost Eden, casting its shadow forward into the present and tingeing all with darkness. Thus we read in the opening passage of Section 4 of “The Bear,” where Ike McCaslin learns the truth about his past as he reads through the ledgers in the old commissary:
The original sins of the rape of the land and the exploitation of both the red and the black race have led to the post-lapserian state in which Ike finds himself. Although Ike narrates this section of the novella in 1888 at the age of twenty-one, in a sense his life is already over, determined by events which took place long before he was born. Faulkner’s vision of the South’s decline goes beyond the loss of the Civil War and the erasure of a way of life which inevitably followed (however romanticized in its conception) to the original rape of the land and the people, black and red, who were subjugated to support it. Thus Ike, in discovering his grandfather’s perfidy in committing both miscegenation and incest, fathering his own grandchild, feels he has no choice but to repudiate his inheritance, which he sees as fatally tainted.
Likewise Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury cannot simply live out his life between the years of 1891 and 1910, his actual lifespan, making autonomous choices in the present moment, since the sins of the fathers, both literally (i.e., his Compson forebears) and figuratively (the white, Southern, aristocratic males who have preceded him) have to a large extent already determined his fate. In the Old Testament sense, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons “unto the third and fourth generation.” The opening of Quentin’s section of the novel, like that of Ike McCaslin above, establishes this fact from the outset:
Linear time, the ticking watch, is indeed the death of hope in this novel.
Faulkner’s is essentially a tragic vision, shaped by a sense of human limitation rather than potential; he tells tales of lives lived out in the shadow of loss, both personal and communal. His essential concerns are not so much with political or social realities as they are with mythical ones; his is a world without a redeemer. Except for individuals who experience or dispense grace (one thinks of Dilsey and Lena Groves, for instance), Faulkner’s characters live out their lives in a fallen world, burdened by time. It is crucial to keep in mind, however, that anterior to this sense of loss hovers the Eden of the wilderness, the “before” to this “after.”
Many of O’Neill’s characters, too, especially those of his late plays, live under the shadow of loss. Unlike Faulkner’s characters, however, it is not a cultural or historical loss but an individual one. Time becomes the enemy since it moves them ever further away from a moment in their pasts when ideals seemed within reach. This is true both of the autobiographical late plays as well as the historical ones. Act IV of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for instance, is structured around a series of confessions which articulate these lost ideals. For James Tyrone, it was the moment when he reached the pinnacle of his acting career, and Edwin Boothe, the premier Shakespearean actor of his day, claimed that Tyrone was doing Shakespeare better than he was. This moment is coupled with Mary’s love, which for the moment hangs in the balance with his ambitions. For Jamie it is a lost ideal: the moment he first caught his mother “in the act with a hypo.” His life from that moment has been a falling off, a downward spiral. Mary’s ideal is dramatized in her final midnight entrance, deep in a morphine trance, trailing her wedding dress and talking of wanting to become a nun. Her wedding represents an ideal moment when she could be both virginal and pure (the nun image) and on the brink of marriage and motherhood.
Other examples follow this same pattern, with variations: Erie Smith remembers his dead friend Hughie (Hughie), Con Melody recalls his days of former glory (A Touch of the Poet), Simon Harford longs for his childhood hours in the garden with his mother Deborah (More Stately Mansions), and the bums at Harry Hope’s saloon dream about real or imagined past triumphs (The Iceman Cometh). In each case a sense of goodness and integration is associated with the past, located for individual characters somewhere along the linear continuum of their lives. A second important feature of many of these ideals is the fact that they reconcile tensions which in the ordinary course of their lives cancel each other out. For James Tyrone, for instance, his ambitions as an actor, which require an itinerant lifestyle, preclude a settled family life. His desire for personal achievement and his need for a family pull in opposite directions. Thus also Jamie’s need to be an autonomous adult and his desire to remain a dependent child, like Simon Harford’s conflicting feelings about his wife and his mother, cannot be reconciled in “real”—i.e., linear time.
This, of course, is the lure of the ideal, which beckons precisely because it seems to hold forth the promise of opposites reconciled, differences canceled out. The ideal of democracy, for example, rests on the notion that all people are equal and yet each individual is supreme—an irreconcilable opposition. O’Neill understands, as does F. Scott Fitzgerald, another Irishman, that once the ideal enters the stream of time and hence the world of reality, it is tainted. Only as it hovers somewhere out of time and space can it exist as ideal. Like the green breast of the New World beckoning to the Dutch sailors in the closing passage of The Great Gatsby, it alone is “commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder” (182).
The concept of the ideal, then, functions differently in O’Neill and Faulkner. Though both are in the past, casting a long shadow over the present, in Faulkner the ideal is communal rather than individual. It is not so much a specific moment in the past as it is a vague, mythologized state that precedes the history of the South’s decline. Imaged variously as the pristine wilderness, the moment before Pickett’s charge, or a state of harmony with nature, we are aware of it primarily by its absence. It is a lack, a void. In O’Neill’s plays, individuals believe (or have convinced themselves) that at some point in their past the ideal was within reach, a conviction which casts a pall over their present experience. Both cycles, however, O’Neill’s and Faulkner’s, emerge from a tragic sense of the world, a world in which goodness—such goodness that exists—is in the past: a paradise lost.
Both write of characters obsessed with the past, though the nature of the relationship of past to present and the function of memory differ in each case. While it is true that for both the present moment is always responding in some way to the pressure of the past, so much so that one might say with Mary Tyrone that the past isn’t really past at all, in Faulkner the past is a collective one, whether historically or mythically construed. In O’Neill, even though his cycle characters live out their lives against a backdrop of historical events and forces, their pasts –and their lost ideals—are individual ones: Con Melody’s moment of glory in the Battle of Talavera, for example, or Simon Harford’s idyllic memories of the hours he spent in his mother’s garden as a boy.
Both however, I would argue, share an essentially tragic vision, shaped by a sense of human limitation rather than potential, of lives lived out in the shadow of loss, whether personal or communal. It is a post-lapsarian view of experience; life “after the fall”—a paradise lost.
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