Around New Year’s Eve 2017/18, I was in Brooklyn visiting my sister and brother in law. There was a pretty significant blizzard, and we were completely snowed in, so I picked up the novel I had brought with me on the off chance that I would have time for pleasure reading. The novel was William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which I hadn’t read since high school. Though I hadn’t realized it when I packed it, it was the copy which had belonged to my (paternal) grandfather, who had passed away about a year and a half earlier.

My grandfather was a minister and a professor of philosophy at a tiny liberal arts college in Jefferson City, Tennessee. My grandfather was not a particularly talkative man, and I didn’t share his love of sports, so we mostly bonded over philosophy and literature. And in fact, we didn’t share many favorite figures or problems in philosophy, so we talked most often about literature. He loved modernist novels in general, but he had a special love of William Faulkner, one which he passed on to me.

Faulkner is one of only two prose writers I have encountered whose work is so beautiful that I often have to set it aside for a moment while I’m reading and catch a breath or two (the other being Toni Morrison, who wrote her dissertation on Faulkner). There’s something about the combination of almost unrelenting lyrical beauty (Hortense Spillers once described Absalom, Absalom! as going through a carwash without a car) with merciless plumbing of the unconscious and history of white Southern society that makes Faulkner unsurpassable for me.

Anyway, the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury, which narrates the day leading up to Quentin Compson’s suicide in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has always been one of my favorite pieces of Faulkner’s corpus, and I decided to read it on that freezing day in Brooklyn. The first paragraph is breathtaking in its own right, but as I read it, I noticed my grandfather had underlined, among a few other sparse notations, the word “Grandfather’s” in the following sentence:
“[The watch] was grandfather’s and when father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; its rather extruciating-ly apt 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 he said. 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.”

There was something haunting about the way the traces of his reading reached me after his death, not to mention the strange coincidences between my own situation in relation to this object and the text of the passage itself. Usually we have to step back from the texts we study, consider them systematically or theoretically; I enjoy that work, and it has its own pleasures and passions. But sometimes the conditions—history, text, place, etc—happen to align such that that scientific distance becomes unsustainable, or perhaps simply unbearable. The safety of that distance gone, your own specificity feels implicated, struck, perhaps (indeed often) in ways that can feel violent, powerful, unwelcome. In my life these moments haven’t been glorious or extraordinary, but they have been impossible to forget.

– Benjamin Brewer (Doctoral Candidate in Philosophy, Emory University)