Thursday, March 06, 2008

II. Roses, Dogwood, and Milkweed – An Application of Scalar Self-Similarity to a Novel

One way one could use chaos theory to helping one analyze a text is to search the text for elements of scalar self-similarity. Since “fractals consist of patterns that recur on finer and finer magnifications, building up shapes of immense complexity” (Richard P. Taylor, “Order in Pollock’s Chaos, Scientific American, Dec. 2002, 118). The more scalar self-similarity one can find in a novel, for example, the more complex the novel. One should find thematic unity at every level of scale in a great novel (great because more complex) – from chapters and episodes, to scenes and sentences – including word distribution. We have seeon one example of this in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. We can see another, even more complex example of this in William Faulker’s The Sound and The Fury.

In the section narrated by Quentin, Faulkner creates a text full of rich symbolic imagery, none perhaps more full and beautiful than that found on page 77:

She ran right out of the mirror, out of the banked scent. Roses. Roses. Mr and Mrs Jason Richmond Compson announce the marriage of. Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses. Cunning and serene.

Quentin’s obsession with his sister, with Caddy’s virginity, drives him to tell his father he committed incest with her, hoping his father will punish him, the first of several times Quentin mentions he told his father he committed incest, though the only time Faulkner combines this “confession” with the images of roses, dogwood, and milkweed.

Faulkner uses flowers throughout this novel, such as the “curling flower spaces” of the first sentence, but he mentions these flowers, roses, milkweed, and dogwood, only here in Quentin’s section and nowhere else in the text. Why, in this section, does Faulkner choose roses, dogwood, and milkweed? And what does he mean by “Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed?” Faulkner places the last two flowers together in an unusual sentence. “Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed.” Faulkner uses milkweed as a visual symbol. Milkweeds bleed when broken, just as a woman bleeds when her hymen breaks. The milkweed does not bleed red, but white. White represents purity and, thus, virginity. When broken, a milkweed bleeds virginal.

Faulkner uses the dogwood, a more complex symbol, because of its use in Christian mythology. According to this mythology, the Romans crucified Christ on a dogwood cross. Previously large, robust trees, after Christ’s crucifixion on a dogwood cross, the dogwood became small and twisted, so no one could ever again be crucified using the tree’s wood. It then began to bloom flowers in the shape of white crosses to commemorate the crucifixion. The white flowers represented the purity of Christ, the dark splashes on the tips of the “petals” (actually bracts), the blood of Christ, and the spiny buds of the true flowers, the crown of thorns. Many believe Christ remained a virgin throughout his life; his virginity and his mother’s virginity when she conceived him are also recalled in the white flowers. Faulkner uses the dogwood to bring to mind the whole of Christianity: purity, because of the dogwood’s white flowers, and virginity, since Christianity started with a virgin birth and because Christ supposedly remained a virgin to his death (according to Christian mythology), as well as the blood and the crown of thorns. The dogwood represents virginity on three levels: Jesus’ purity and presumed virginity, his mother’s virginity, and the color of the flowers - white representing purity and virginity. Quentin places particular importance on virginity, especially his sister’s virginity. He expects his sister to somehow maintain an ideal form of purity, like that represented by Mary and Christ (and milkweeds and dogwood). He does not realize that in the real world ideals cannot and do not truly exist, since we cannot control every aspect of everyone else’s lives (or even of our own), as would be necessary for anyone’s idealized world to exist.
Finally, Faulkner uses roses several times in this section. The first sentence evokes scent, as Quentin similarly remembers the odor of honeysuckles: “She ran right out of the mirror, out of the banked scent. Roses. Roses.” The odor of roses, which signifies sorrow and death, had accumulated and become overpowering, as the honeysuckles have become, as Quentin’s repeated references to the odor of honeysuckles in his chapter suggests. Quentin feels sorrow at the loss of his sister’s virginity, and her subsequent pregnancy, and his mind has become very much preoccupied with death on this particular day, since apparently if the world cannot live up to his idealized expectations, he does not want to continue living in it.

But Faulkner does not keep the rose symbolism relegated to odor: “Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed.” Roses have a complex and, oftentimes, contradictory symbolism. Roses do symbolize purity and, thus, virginity. Christian mythology says the red rose came into being by sprouting from the blood that dripped from the crucified Christ onto the ground, further emphasizing the purity and virginity Quentin wishes his sister still had. But roses, especially red roses, also represent earthly passion, blood, and lust. We give red roses to those we love. Which makes roses not virgins, like dogwoods and milkweeds. Milkweeds bleed white, and thus stay virginal, but roses are red, like blood, like the blood created by a broken hymen. Quentin sees Caddy as closer to a rose than dogwoods and milkweeds. The image of the red rose incites the image of passion, especially sexual passion, which explains why Quentin mentions roses four times. His sister, no longer a virgin, and now pregnant, gets married because of her sexual passions. In classical and medieval symbolism, the rose acts as a symbol of female genitals, which relates again to Quentin’s obsession with Caddy, through her virginity, and his “admission” of incest. Quentin begs his father to punish him by claiming to have committed incest because of the sexual passion he feels for his sister. We do not know if he has actually done this or if he wishes punishment simply for having the desires, but it is the latter which seems most likely, from the references to Quentin’s virginity (78).

Faulkner combines the scent of the rose representing sorrow and death, the thorns of the rose representing martyrdom and pain (which Quentin unquestionably feels), and the flower representing lust, passion, purity, and the female genitals, as well as Time and Eternity. Quentin dwells upon time and eternity throughout his chapter, thinking about the eternity of time, how it comes back on itself because of the curvature of space, making time eternal and causing us to repeat our lives over and over forever (as suggested by Einstein’s theory of relativity and the way Nietzsche’s Eternal Return was understood at the time), which Quentin fully believes will happen, ultimately making his suicide meaningless, since he will relive his life over and over, forever, to create in these sentences a full symbolic picture of the themes in Quentin’s chapter. The rose represents the way Quentin sees life, to the way Quentin feels about life, about his passions, about his sister. She has caused him sorrow and pain because of her passions, because of his own passions for her. The rose’s scent represents death, the thorns the martyrdom he thinks he commits (but a martyr to whom? To himself?). And finally, the flower represents time and eternity. Quentin views time as eternal since space curves time into a circle, making it continuous. Eternity encompasses human life too, as we eventually come back around to where we started to repeat our lives. This reading of Einstein and Nietzsche proves the pointlessness of death and life, meaning Quentin’s committing suicide will have as little meaning as the decision to commit suicide would if he had decided to continue living. The rose evokes all these things.

But what about the fourth invocation of “roses?” What does Faulkner mean by “Roses. Cunning and serene.” The serenity could refer to the serenity of Christ, to the serenity of Time and Eternity, to the serenity, perhaps, behind the final decision to commit suicide. Perhaps Faulkner uses it as another reference to lust and passion, which must be cunning in order to be fulfilled. Or does Faulkner use it as a reference instead to the sentence before, since Quentin thought it cunning to tell his father he committed incest, since his “admission,” or at least the prospect of his father punishing him for it, could bring him serenity? There is also the etymological connection between “cunning” and “woman” in such words as cunnilingus (from Latin cunnus, for vulva), queen, womb, and woman. Or perhaps Faulkner combines these. Quentin’s “admission” turns out not to be cunning, nor does it bring him serenity, because his father does not believe him and therefore refuses to punish him. Willing to allow the rose to grow wild, he refuses to keep Quentin’s passions in check. But Quentin does not want his father to allow him to have these incestuous desires. If he cannot find serenity in the Law of the Father (Freud), he must find it in the only other place where serenity can be found: in death, as represented by the rose’s scent. The rose, representing lust and passion, but also purity and virginity and the Law of God, through the invocation of the image of Christ, and death, represents Quentin’s desires and the moods he feels, of sorrow and pain.

In this short section, Faulkner gives us a richness of symbolic imagery in the invocation of these three flowers. Symbolically, Faulkner neatly summarizes Quentin’s entire section in the central half of this paragraph. Quentin’s attempts to hold Caddy narcissistically in a mirror, only to lose her, her wedding, the confession of incest, the obsession with virginity. With the rose, Faulkner summarizes all of Quentin’s pain and desires, all the themes he expounds upon throughout Quentin’s chapter. In this small section, we can see the beauty and richness of Faulkner’s prose and his symbolism, as well as the scalar self-similarity of this small section to Quentin’s chapter – and to the themes developed throughout the novel.

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