Senses Without Names: Affective Becomings in William Faulkner and Carson McCullers

  • Jill Marsden
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Affect Theory and Literary Criticism book series (PSATLC)


This chapter argues that Nietzsche’s philosophy is of central importance to affect theory, particularly in the field of literary criticism. Marsden explores the idea that literary texts generate new and strange affective forces but that these are frequently commuted to normative models of human experience when analyzed by literary critics. Inflecting Brian Massumi’s influential work on affect theory with a Nietzschean critique of value, Marsden offers a reading of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, which remains alert to the power of affective becoming to communicate “senses without names.”

Somewhere between excitement and uncertainty, there is a thrill that grips the reader in the midst of reading . The encounter is vital, stirring, its pull intensely pleasurable. Pervading the literary work is an affective element, a strange weather both subtle and wild. The remarkable power of the literary text to instill this feeling of otherness is something this chapter seeks to explore. When we “identify ” with characters or describe their vicissitudes, we try to draw the text into our “world” of recognizable feelings as if literature were a vast repository of all the throbs of desire or stabs of regret that a human being might own. In this appeal to literature as an archive of representation , what gets missed are those affects experienced only in reading, those ripples in the stream of sensibility upon which our certainties float. Contrary to the common sense view that we are receptive to such affects because we have felt similar things ourselves, I maintain that readers encounter them in the process of their creation and “recognize” them as they come to be. To attend to this encounter, we need to resist the familiar concepts we reach for as readers and scholars of literature. A different approach is required, one that calls into question the values of representation and identity that condition literary understanding. As we shall see in what follows, Nietzsche’s philosophy is of central importance to this endeavor.

Literary theory to date has not had much recourse to Nietzsche’s philosophy. This may be because prevailing accounts of textual interpretation remain inherently subjectivist . To concede that human beings are shaped by material conditions beyond their control would seem to negate the agency that makes human thinking and judging meaningfully “ours.” However, for Nietzsche thinking is an expression of affect , not a technique for disclosing its discrete domain. Seen from this perspective, affectivity is constitutive of the literary text and is already involved in interpretations. The task then is to explain how certain ways of thinking or “affective economies ” are at work in literary texts, to identify how and why the norms of self-reflexive subjectivity persist in literary criticism, and to explore how such conventional readings might be resisted.

To develop this approach, I draw on two richly suggestive examples of idiosyncratic affective experience, the unusual time sense of William Faulkner’s Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and the nameless and disturbing feelings attributed by Carson McCullers’ narrator to the 12-year-old Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding (1946). The opening of Faulkner’s novel is narrated from the perspective of the mentally impaired Benjy who has no sense of time, his “narrative” a non-chronological stream of moments from across the course of his life. McCullers’ protagonist, by contrast, appears to be clearly positioned at the threshold between childhood and adulthood, although her “nameless feelings” do not obviously betoken typical adolescent confusion. I contend that writers such as Faulkner and McCullers succeed in conveying what it feels like to live at odds with the received certainties of normal physiology. Considered in terms of “affective becoming ,” the impersonal forces that compose these narratives can be interpreted critically as sites of resistance to cultural norms of disability, gender, and sexuality. As we shall see, what Nietzsche’s philosophy affords is a means of reading the aesthetic and political significance of these “nameless” literary affects.

Nietzsche and Affective Becoming

The relationship of affect to signifying systems has been much discussed in recent affect theory . Brian Massumi influentially distinguishes emotion from affect on the grounds that only the former functions within existing social codes and a shared grammar of meaning. An emotion, he observes,

is a subjective content, the socio-linguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity , the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned. (1995, 88)

Whereas emotions are legible as signs for others (hence the notion of emotional display), “affect” as unassimilable intensity is disconnected from circuits of meaning, from those “semantically and semiotically formed progressions” that make narrative possible. In Massumi’s lexicon, affect is associated with a “suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality” (89); it is embodied intensity , “outside expectation and adaptation, as disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration, as it is from vital function” (85). Remarks of this nature have prompted debate about whether this renders affect independent of signification and meaning.1 But to say that affects cannot be “fixed” socio-linguistically is not to say that affects are independent of ideas and beliefs; the crucial question is how they resist the conventional narrative codes. Massumi’s tantalizing claim is that “affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is” (96). Yet this proposition begs the question of how affects as pre-subjective, visceral forces come to be captured and confined in particular bodies in the first place . To achieve clarity on this fundamental point, we need to be able to articulate how specific feelings and beliefs become embodied and ingrained in our thinking while others do not. Here we might turn to Nietzsche’s understanding of affects as “embodied evaluations” to appreciate both how narrative ways of thinking are somatically encoded and how certain modernist writings succeed in resisting this confinement.

It is well known that for Nietzsche art is a counterforce to all discourses that privilege “being ” over “becoming ” (e.g. knowledge, science, religion, metaphysics). Conceptual thinking in particular is culturally prized because it offers the security of predictability, the familiarity of the self-same, whereas art tends toward the creation of novelty and the resistance of cultural norms. However, while literary works may communicate affects that circulate independently of the consensual and conventional semiotic codes, there is a tendency for literary theorists to default to these codes because it feels so natural to do so. Although it may not be obvious, the vocabulary of literary theory is supported by an affective economy suffused by moral values. Nietzsche’s philosophy is extremely illuminating here. According to Nietzsche, “affects are a construction of the intellect” to account for “all general bodily feelings that we do not understand” (1968, sec. 670). After long habituation, certain general feelings are associated with certain incidents, and it becomes a commonplace to say that a particular emotion is “aroused” (sec. 670). In this way, the anticipatory habits of perception help to determine what is perceived. The apparent “causal” relation between stimulus and affect is an interpretation of events rather than a necessary connection. However, this interpretation is largely unconscious and is dictated by the ruling forces holding sway in the body. As Nietzsche provocatively declares, “Moral evaluation is an exegesis, a way of interpreting. The exegesis itself is a symptom of certain physiological conditions, likewise of a particular spiritual level of prevalent judgments: Who interprets?—Our affects” (sec. 254). Lest it seem biologically determinist to claim that judgments are affective interpretations, it is important to note Nietzsche’s claim that judgment already inheres in supposedly “fundamental” states such as pleasure and displeasure (sec. 670). Nietzsche speculates that the “entire evolution of the spirit is a question of the body” (sec. 676) and that thought in all its varieties is a manifestation of matter. Even the concept of a purely “ideal,” immaterial realm remains materially continuous with the matter of becoming , which is formative, primary, and in an on-going process of development and change.

These assertions make sense within Nietzsche’s broader claim that the impersonal forces constitutive of becoming vie with one another for ascendency and that all phenomena, including thinking, feeling, and moral judgment, are products of this warring interplay. This encapsulates Nietzsche’s philosophy of affective becoming or will to power.2 Ideas that are embodied and felt instinctively to be “right” are the victors in a struggle for dominance, both within individuals and broader social systems. Within the specific context of Judeo-Christian morality, Nietzsche reads moral judgments as “symptoms and sign languages which betray the processes of physiological prosperity or failure”; in short, it is a question of whether a feeling of power is exerted or constrained (sec. 258). The key point for our purposes is that moral judgments are regarded in the main by Nietzsche as “signs of decline” and denial of becoming . This is because in the western Platonic tradition constancy over time is a value that is imbued with a sense of the “good,” the “ideal” counterpart to “material” transience, which is a beguiling stream of illusion and duplicity. This is also why so many judgments that have become “instinctive” are also moral “prejudices ”: embodiments of this Platonic–idealist prizing of being over becoming .

Preeminent among these prejudices is the belief that human action is the product of an autonomous subject, acting according to the exercise of personal “will ” rather than the product of the body as an affective multiplicity. On Nietzsche’s view, there is nothing “given” prior to the differential interaction of forces in which material becoming articulates itself, so a “self” is simply a name given to the affect of a command in this agonistic interplay, a name that erroneously implies the existence of a sovereign. The comforting illusion that a self-identical subject corresponds to a self-identical object within a fixed and stable world is reinforced by an essentially theological order of accountable subjects, universal principles, and predictable consequences. These coherent “truths” form a dominant affective economy that represents the triumph of conservative, Judeo-Christian values over the darker, disturbing forces of becoming . Culturally embodied in the social fabric of language and ideas, these values reinforce the concepts that enable the human animal to endure.

Nietzsche asserts that “It is improbable that our ‘knowledge’ should extend further than is strictly necessary for the preservation of life” (sec. 494). If this is so, then it is not difficult to see how a dominant mode of thinking enslaves us to illusions of truth. In fact, the problem might seem to be one of imagining how it is possible to think otherwise. Here the relevance of Nietzsche’s thinking to literary analysis comes to the fore. For Nietzsche , art is the license to create something illegible and enigmatic: something that troubles the culturally established habits of thought. Indeed, the impersonal matter that selfhood must repress or deny in order to function as a self returns with seismic force in the experience of art. Accordingly, it is to the “dark modernism ” of Faulkner and McCullers that we now turn.

Migrant Becomings in Faulkner and McCullers

The powers of wild becoming surface in their stirring and unsettling otherness in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding , both texts that liberate affectivity from its location in “personal” experience and its confinement in particular bodies. The problem that confronts the critical reader is one of articulating this otherness without recuperating it within the standard schemas of thought. As Massumi notes, our cultural-theoretical vocabulary derives from theories of signification and in the absence of “an asignifying philosophy of affect” it is all too easy to default to received “psychological categories” (1995, 88). However, as we have seen, from a Nietzschean perspective, the issue is not simply one of language but of being alert to the values that our ways of thinking imply. This point applies to signification itself. To the extent that it functions within the epistemology of the subject, signification represents the promise of truth—of agents acting on objects within a horizon of ends. As Nietzsche’s philosophy of will to power suggests, the value of a phenomenon reflects the forces at play in a body, and it is not inevitable that all signification should equate to humanist goals.

In fact both novels challenge the conventions of signification by disrupting the narrative order within which their stories unfold. This is seen most obviously in The Sound and the Fury, which tells of the decline of the once genteel Compson family of Mississippi and is narrated by the three Compson brothers in turn, with the final chapter told from a more conventional third-person viewpoint. The first section, oriented from the inner perspective of the cognitively impaired Benjy Compson, is a non-chronological jumble of moments from across the course of Benjy’s life. Compelled to inhabit this often confusing vantage point, the reader is prompted to reconsider moments of Benjy’s account as the novel progresses and as fleeting coherences emerge through the testimony of others. By contrast, The Member of the Wedding, which tells of a young girl’s fixation on her brother’s wedding, has a seemingly more accessible narrative structure, but the pattern of the three sections appears to repeat rather than progress. In fact, the major events of the novel (the announcement of the wedding and its realization) are told analeptically and in each of the three sections the narrative re-begins with the protagonist re-named (as Frankie, as F. Jasmine, as Frances) . Both texts have narrative orders that signify, if only to signify their difference from chronological order.3

The section comprising Benjy’s narration (dated April 7, 1928) is told in advance of sections dated as earlier chronologically. It is with this passage that the novel opens:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. (3)

There are a number of unusual elements contained in this simple lexis and repetitive syntax. Benjy’s sentences are excessively syndetic with lots of coordinating conjunctions, almost no subordination, few adverbs, and minimal information about “how” things happen (or when or where). While the references to “hitting” and moving the flag indicate that a game of golf is being observed, Benjy’s account gives no hint of discerning that the purpose of the game is to hit the ball. Similarly, when Benjy relates that Luster was “hunting” in the grass, it is only later that we learn that he is looking for a lost quarter. Benjy does not appear to draw connections between events or make inferences of cause and effect. Elsewhere in the first section when Benjy appears to have burned his hand, we are told “my voice went louder” and “my hand tried to go back to my mouth” as if his voice and hand were agents acting independently of his will (40). It is notable that throughout the “April 7th 1928” segment of the novel, Benjy describes occurrences as if things in the world move independently: “the spoon came up … the bowl went away” (17). For the reader of Benjy’s narrative there is a sense of being buoyed along on a wave of experience that has drifted free of its moorings in the human, of exhilaration in feeling the limits of things dissolve. There is also much disorientation because, as Nietzsche reminds us, the belief in causal agency is a prime example of a “species-preserving” axiom of thought. The assumption of a direct relation between cause and effect is a regulative principle of knowledge, a prejudice of reason rather than the fruit of experience, for there are no predictable outcomes within the restless flux of becoming. In a radical sense, Benjy does not function as a stable “subject” who then comes to know a “world”; rather, there are streams of perceptions and sensations that are ordered into “Benjy” by the powers of language.
There is a tendency, however, to default to humanist values in reading The Sound and the Fury, despite the fact that Benjy’s testimony offers no indication of agency or reflection on the events he relates. Arguably, the temptation for the literary critic is to secure the meaning of his ambiguous affects through the restoration of narrative order because this seems to offer the reassuring stability of “truth.” For example, later sections of the novel indicate that Benjy is castrated for a putative assault on a girl who passes the fence where he has habitually waited for his sister Caddy. It is significant, though, that such information is not available to the reader when the event with the girl is related in the novel’s first section:

They came on. I opened the gate and they stopped turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes. (35–36)

Benjy is punished for assumed sexual depravity because he is positioned as morally defective according to the prevailing eugenic scripts of biological degeneration.4 No evidence of any crime is given beyond the bigoted testimony of Benjy’s brother which is offered later in the novel; however, it is not obvious from Benjy’s account that repeatedly “trying to say” is freighted with malign intention. Nor is it clear to what he is referring when he says “I tried to get it off my face.” “Trying to say” implies an attempt at communication (recalling in turn Caddy’s efforts to interpret Benjy’s moans and bellows), but the affects at play here remain elusive for the reader. Despite the recent efforts by disability scholars to challenge the “ableist”5 readings of Benjy as “mindless” and “devoid of active consciousness,”6 it is not inevitable that Benjy’s subjectivity must be vindicated in order to read the “truth” of this incident otherwise. There is no textual support for the suggestion that Benjy is alert to the injustices of his treatment and no means of reliably reading what he “tries to say” as a speech-impaired subject. However, it is not imperative that Benjy’s “meaning” be retrieved. Beyond what is available for comment at the level of representation, the scene still remains affectively significant, impacting intensely in its opacity. As the affective experience of failing to signify, it is a moment that signifies in all its futile ardor.

We shall return to the question of affective signification . For now, it must be added that no solution to the puzzles of this passage will be found by seeking meaning in the novel more generally. The “bright shapes” that come and go may suggest sleep—in which case the mysterious “it” that Benjy tries to get off his face could be the chloroform mask used in the punitive emasculation. In fact, Edmond Volpe argues that “the memory merges into the castration operation” and that he is “fighting the anesthesia mask.”7 Such a claim assumes, however, that Benjy links the “punishment” with the “crime”; this inference depends on imputing to him a notion of causality nowhere in evidence. The section must remain open to other readings of these details, not least because of the order in which the narrative unfolds. As Cheryl Lester comments, “to examine the novel from the perspective of temporal order is to relinquish the radical form in which it questions the temporality no less than the spatiality of signification” (1988, 146). This suggests that the critical consensus that The Sound and the Fury progresses from obscurity to clarity might have less to say about the novel than the values associated with signification in general. The lack of an antecedent for the pronoun “it” in Benjy’s report unsettles the referring function but it does not negate it. As Lester remarks, in relation to a different part of the text, “a pronoun that precedes its antecedent has something to say about the topography and chronology of signification” (148). In short, the desire to resolve the difficulties of Benjy’s narrative by attempting to make sense of it in light of the totalizing perspective of the whole suggests a will to disregard the peculiarities of “his” narrative stream as such. A text that dismantles the conventions of narrative order, of cause and effect and coherent point of view, is a text that charts new continents of sensibility . We must resist re-inscribing it within the territory of the knowable.

The opening to McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding raises a similar question about the missing antecedent we have noted in relation to the Benjy passage. In the enigmatic “it” with which the novel begins we have sense without reference. Again, something is being signified without being represented in this opening passage:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was a summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. (7)

The reader might assume that the “it” refers to the unexpected visit paid by Frankie’s brother Jarvis to announce his imminent wedding and to introduce his fiancé, Janice. Frankie, utterly enamored with the prospect of the marriage, is adamant that after the wedding she will go off “with the two of them” to whatever place they choose to go (56): “She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together” (57).

If the “it” refers to the “arrival” of the wedding as a prospect in Frankie’s world, it is never made clear what kind of a possibility it represents. Unlike a “couple,” a wedding does not typically have members. As a desiring position, membership of a wedding lacks an obvious object. We are told that Frankie is an “unjoined” person who is “afraid” but it is not safe to assume that her fear is a corollary of her unjoined status. Here the conjunction functions rather like the excessively syndetic sentences in Benjy’s narrative in The Sound and the Fury: details are linked together but the nature of the relation remains undetermined. The reader learns that Frankie suffers from social exclusion by the local girls but this merely accounts for her loneliness and not for her more mysterious unease. Her troubled and “crazy” feelings impact on the reader in the force of their vagueness. This is the kind of experience that language tends to cover over rather than to reveal. McCullers’ text abides with sensations in their process of coming to be, feelings that for the most part fail to materialize as recognizable emotions.

On the face of things one might attribute Frankie’s disconsolate state to the turbulence of adolescence, to its social pressures and unwelcome surprises. After all, Frankie fears that she is growing too tall too quickly and that the local girls are gossiping about her smelling bad. Indeed, for Katherine Dalsimer (1979), 12-year-old Frankie “typifies the preadolescent tomboy, with feelings of estrangement from her own body, her family, and friends” (445). On Dalsimer’s account, “the power of the work depends on its evocation of affective states and conflicts that are almost universally characteristic of this stage of adolescence ” (445). However, invoking a concept of “adolescence” seems to be an example of setting up what Nietzsche calls “a word at the point at which our ignorance begins” (1968, sec. 482). As a technical term, “adolescence” has a “truth” value which is comforting as a social designation rather than illuminating as an experiential state.

Frankie’s lingering anxiety is not simply inevitable, not simply a stage that is developmentally explicable, and hence ultimately negligible. As Nicole Seymour has noted (2009), the model of adolescence as a distinct period preceded by childhood and succeeded by adulthood is a partial one, based on a view of heterosexual reproductivity as the “idealized telos of human development,” and excluding post- and non-reproductive adult life (296). As a psychological and social norm, the concept of adolescence embodies patriarchal and heteronormative values about the kinds of bodies that matter. Frankie’s queer feelings do not figure on a continuum between childish beginnings and an adult endpoint. Moreover, as Seymour also observes, the notion of “human development” is “first and foremost, a classical narrative paradigm—a forward-looking schema with strict criteria for progress and closure, and one that is exceedingly difficult to interrogate, precisely because of its natural appearance” (193). If adolescence is a reified element in a narrative arc that serves the ideals of heteronormativity and reproductive sexuality, it is interesting that Frankie does not appear to “see” these narrative sequences and does not anticipate a traditional female destiny. For example, she seeks the authority of the poor, black, female and disabled housekeeper Berenice to recount the elements of Jarvis’ recent visit and to project the wedding to come. In fact, she is unable to envisage Jarvis and Janice and after their visit she remembers them “more like a feeling than a picture” (38). Berenice conjures the image of Frankie thrusting herself between the bride and groom as they walk down the aisle but Frankie’s unorthodox desire to be a member of the wedding never resolves itself in a fantasy of marriage. Importantly, Frankie does not suffer a failure of vision that could be corrected by adequate knowledge of societal norms. On the contrary, her desire is failed by a dominant affective economy within which feelings only register if they can be matched with a socially established form.

Berenice is too swift to decide that Frankie is jealous of her brother Jarvis, just as the characters in Faulkner’s novel are too swift to decide that Benjy’s “trying to say” is predatory and sexual. It would be too swift, again, for the reader to endorse these views but the issue here is not simply one of envisaging other possible readings. Just as there is a recursive relationship between the ideas a body forms of itself and what it is then capable of, the anticipation of certain narrative possibilities is made possible by narrative itself. We draw on a cultural reserve of narratives when we analyze texts and to this extent our interpretations are mediated by the values they embody. This is why affirmation of the autonomy of affect needs to be complemented by a Nietzschean critique of the value of values .

Nietzsche’s philosophy enables the reader to question the cultural narratives that shape our understanding of literary affects. We might concur with the Spinozist sentiment that we do not know what a body can do, but still our conception of the body is shaped by our ideas about what it “should” do. Benjy’s wayward affects are judged in terms of their deviance from normal structures of perception and consciousness, while Frankie’s queer, illegible desires are easily commuted to the confusions of adolescence , a stage that she “should” relinquish on her way to future femininity. As we have seen, these imperatives are supported by the species-preserving habits of the human that privilege order and stability . Moreover, the values that prevail in our critical interpretations of literature are the values that are culturally prized and socially incorporated in bodies, institutions, and discourse. This means that we cannot simply separate the act of thinking the body from the (cultural) body that thinks . The norms of thought that privilege representation and the assumption of a knowable world are embedded within the syntax of interpretation itself. Normative values persist in literary criticism because narratives themselves are broadly moral phenomena, not in what they tell but in how they structure their telling. The challenge is to find ways of signifying otherwise, to subvert the narrative arcs of “good” order that hold Judeo-Christian values in place.

Senses Without Names

Texts that subvert paradigms of semiotic progression and semantic unity potentially subvert as well the elitist and discriminatory values those paradigms underpin. Both Faulkner and McCullers evade what Massumi describes as the “socio-linguistic fixing” of the quality of an experience as personal (1995, 88), resisting the politics of naming associated with textual truth. In this respect, each of these novels may seem to function privatively, announcing the ways in which things fail to signify and the means by which commonplaces are avoided. However, this would seem to be the case only from the perspective of the dominant values of human subjectivity . In the alternative affective economies of Faulkner and McCullers, affects are formative of worlds of encounter and register their impact in radically exterior ways. For example, when describing a rainy afternoon indoors Benjy reports: “I could hear the clock and the roof and Caddy” (38). No obvious priority is accorded to the plaintive tones of Caddy weeping above the ticking of the clock or the drumming of the rain. Benjy’s aesthetic horizon is one of flows, not the actions and reactions of subjects and objects. When he narrates the act of running indoors, the event is not registered in terms of change in location but in terms of change in light and temperature: “We ran up the steps and out of the bright cold, into the dark cold” (5). Instead of remarking the boundary between inner and outer, Benjy notices those elements that differ in themselves. His attention falls less on the meaning and function of things and more on their aesthetic and sensuous impact. Yet in many respects, Benjy’s world is much fuller than one might suppose. He sees the “curling flower spaces” when he looks through the fence, assigning shape and movement to them. He sees and touches “the dark place on the wall like a door only it wasn’t a door,” a place that comes only when the light is switched on (41). These are “things” in the world rather than absences and it is this access to other sensible possibilities that Benjy’s narrative reveals .

Like Benjy’s world, Frankie’s affective space is fluid and unpredictable. Contemplating becoming a member of the wedding, Frankie imagines constant travel in different lands: “We mean to keep moving, the three of us” (138). There is no projecting ahead in terms of adulthood and domestic closure. Moreover, in place of a description of Frankie’s feelings, there is a description of the space in which her feelings evolve: “They sat together in the kitchen, and the kitchen was a sad and ugly room” (10). Feelings that cannot be elucidated or understood are evoked through this grim and displeasing space. We are told that Frankie’s cousin, John Henry, had covered the walls with “queer, child drawings as far up as his arm would reach” and that this had given the kitchen a “crazy look, like that of a room in the crazy house” (10). Here the surroundings seem to define something that no self-examination could resolve. “And now the old kitchen made Frankie sick. The name for what had happened to her Frankie did not know, but she could feel her squeezed heart beating against the table edge” (10). The life of Frankie, spent in this kitchen with Berenice and John Henry, has been interrupted. What this feels like, or indeed, what it “means” is never available to Frankie as an item of knowledge, yet it is clear that she has been disturbed, just as illness prompts attention to the distresses of the flesh without revealing the health it has displaced. The kitchen makes Frankie feel sick because her body is oriented in this space. The question of what is the “matter” with her is just as much a question about the materiality of this space, which is arguably more defining than any paradigm of human development .

The affective experiences summoned by Faulkner and McCullers impact upon the reader in their brutal illiteracy. What Benjy and Frankie “try to say” is nameless not ineffable. Their experiences lack names because they lack both constancy and precedent. What one tries to say is effaced by what one ultimately says (or in Benjy’s case, fails to say). Conceptually, this experience is indeterminate, “lacking” the finality of form. But there is nothing actually lacking in the real experience of becoming . We cannot say why Frankie (F. Jasmine/Frances) does what she does; her behavior makes little sense at the level of meaning and her stated feelings are without obvious referent. Similarly, Benjy’s thoughts and actions raise questions that Faulkner’s novel cannot definitively resolve. However, what escapes capture in the narrative circuits of meaning does not simply go missing. These senses without names impact on the reader with the power of the unknown. In this uncanny encounter, affects “signify” their difference from the norms of thought, without presupposing a prior ground of meaning that pre-exists their relation. As with the “withheld antecedents ” in The Sound and the Fury and The Member of the Wedding, we might say that when bodies fail to signify as they “should,” they signify as they do.

Such release of affective becoming from its capture in the norms of thought brings our non-cognitive encounter with the world more directly to our attention. The writings of Faulkner and McCullers provide a sensual access to a world without the certainties of normative physiology. This is not a thought of difference that can be represented but it impacts in its untimely intensity. The reader does not understand what is happening to Frankie or to Benjy, but we feel something of the affective charge of their alien and bewildering worlds. In each case, the reader is prompted to enter into a vital encounter with otherness , to feel coursing through us affects that are not our own.


  1. 1.

    In an influential article critical of recent theorizations of affect, Ruth Leys (2011) takes the argument to be that “affects must be viewed as independent of, and in an important sense prior to, ideology—that is prior to intentions, meanings, reasons and beliefs—because they are nonsignifying, autonomic processes that take place below the threshold of conscious awareness and meaning” (437).

  2. 2.

    In his notes for The Will to Power project, Nietzsche proposes “that the will to power is the primitive form of affect” and “all other affects are only developments of it” (sec. 688). This might be usefully thought in conjunction with Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg’s remarks (2010) that “affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter” and that affect “marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters” (Introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, 2).

  3. 3.

    This is a point that Cheryl Lester (1988) makes about the various sections of The Sound and the Fury (145). I gratefully borrow her formulation here in extending the point to McCullers’ text.

  4. 4.

    See Oswald (2016).

  5. 5.

    See Marsden (2017).

  6. 6.

    See Iser (1974), 139.

  7. 7.

    See Volpe (1964), 359.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jill Marsden
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishThe University of BoltonBoltonUK

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