I just started reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I’m having a hard time with the first chapter, but I’m enjoying the fact that I’m having a hard time. The first chapter is approximately 90 pages long and in the point of view of Benjy, a mentally challenged thirty-three year old man. Benjy has no sense of time. Every event in his life is blurred together, making the 90 pages seem like utter nonsense. One minute, a character in the book is only seven-years-old, and then the next they are fourteen. His memories shift back and forth constantly, without much warning to the reader. It’s like when you have a dream – you’re at the beach, and you go to step in the ocean only to find yourself in your mother’s kitchen and not understanding how or when you got there. Luckily, after a few dozen pages, I’ve gotten the hang of identifying the shifts in time.
Every once in a while, I have to turn to SparkNotes to understand what it is I’m supposed to be paying attention to. If I didn’t know Benjy or his sense of time, I would have thought this chapter was complete gibberish, especially since the chapter is titled April Seventh, 1928. All of these events seem to take place on this particular date, but they don’t.
The way Faulkner wrote this book reminds me of art in the form of text and film. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a moving text window near the gift shop, and I always find myself sitting on the bench staring at it. The few dozen times I’ve visited the museum, I’ve been irritated by the fact that I can’t just stay where I am and see where the text goes because it never truly ends. The text spits out sentence after sentence, and each one doesn’t seem to relate to another by any means, but it keeps flowing, and I keep reading.
The same can be done in film. When I visited the Tate Modern in London, I sat in the theater and watched a film play on a loop. It was a series of random images. Have you ever seen The Ring? It’s kind of like that but less scary. But there’s still something creepy about it. I remember seeing multi-colored bubbles, a lone chair, mountains, birds, balloons, a close up of an insect. But it had the same effect. I couldn’t stop watching it. I still walked out of the theater thinking, what the hell did I just watch?
Andy Warhol created a 1964 film called Empire. The film is eight hours and five minutes long. It’s a single shot of the Empire State Building from when the sun sets until about 3am. All you see are the changing of lights inside the building, and for a short period of time, complete darkness. Every once in a while, you can see Andy Warhol’s face in the reflection of the glass window in the Time-Life Building as he changes the reel.
A few years ago, as an art major, you would see me scratching my head when learning this material, trying to find the reason behind all of it. As an artist, I can relate to the idea that things just exist because they exist. But since it’s art, viewers want a reason. I remember in high school for the senior art show, I had to fill out notecards explaining my pieces, and what my purpose and focus was. That was the hardest part. It wasn’t the frustrating moments of not getting the shape done correctly, or trying to mix the right colors, or spending hours after school trying to finish a painting on time. It was the fact that I had to sit down and actually ask myself why I painted this or that.
There’s an episode of Gilmore Girls that gets me laughing every time. Rory is at the Yale Art Show covering for the newspaper and she grabs a cup of water from the bubbler. The show introduces a new character named Lucy who scolds Rory, claiming she’s trying to drink her friend Olivia’s art piece. They call it Olivia’s “self-portrait”. After Rory awkwardly tries to put the water cup down and apologizes, Lucy laughs and says, “I’m kidding! It’s just a water cooler.” I can appreciate a scene like this because even some of the most bizarre art pieces I’ve come across, such as the Tate Modern film or Andy Warhol’s Empire, we can certainly find art and reason behind anything.
While the first chapter in The Sound and the Fury got me a little loopy, confused, dazed, and bewildered, I knew that each piece of information given to me was important to Benjy and the story. Each moment Benjy experienced throughout the day gave him a memory. And he has a lot of them.
Next time I watch a random series of images in a film, or flowing texts in a window, I’ll have to remind myself that they exist for a reason.