Time As Compresence in William Faulkner’s ”The Bear”
William Faulkner did a tremendous number of things right as a writer. One of them was using a mixture of literary devices to create a timelessness in his writing and creating a “compresence” of time — where past events, present actions, and future expectations merged into almost every sentence. (NOTE: “Compresence” is a term first coined by H. Richard Niebuhr, the theologian.) In this way, Faulkner’s combined use of foreshadowing and flashback, especially in the short story “The Bear,” and in doing so adds to the mystery of what is yet to come.
Initially this seems contradictory: It’s like present-day people watching the movie The Titanic — we all know the ship is going to sink, but the journey there is interesting, suspenseful and even exciting. With Faulkner, not only is the journey interesting and suspenseful and exciting, but this technique of foreshadowing and history and general “compression” of time adds to his work a sense of immortality and something beyond — a universality, much more than the present-day expression, action and meaning. Malcolm Cowley , Faulkner scholar, friend, and editor of The Portable Faulkner, said in his introduction, comparing his 1945 perceptions with his (revised edition) 1967 perceptions: (p. xxxii, Introduction)
Faulkner in his early novels is indubitably a Southern nationalist and an heir of the Confederacy — for all his sense of guilt about the Negroes — but he is something else besides, a fact I failed to make sufficiently clear [in the first edition]. What he regarded as his ultimate is not the South or its destiny, however much that occupied his mind, but rather the human situation as revealed in Southern terms — to quote from one of his letters (the one dated “Oxford, Saturday,” early November 1944), “the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere.” He approached that steeplechase in Southern material because, as he also said, “I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time.” There was of course another reason, for it was the South that aroused his apprehension, that deeply engaged his loyalties… and that set his imagination to work. He always dreamed, however, that his fables might stand for a universally human drama.
Through his writing style, then, we get an image of Faulkner’s reality – of time compressed, of past and present and future blended together in all that happens, on a very large scale.
It’s not that Faulkner “just” used action, foreshadowing, and flashbacks in his writing. Many good authors do that. It’s that Faulkner used them all, and sometimes used them all at once, often in the same sentence and/or paragraph. The short story “The Bear” is one example, and starts like this (p. 197):
There was a man and a dog too this time. Two beasts, counting Old Ben, the bear, and two men, counting Boon Hogganbeck, in whom some of the same blood ran which ran in Sam Feathers, even though Boon’s was a plebian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible.
Isaac McCaslin was sixteen. For six years now he had been a man’s hunter. For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness…It was of the men, not white nor black nor red, but men, hunters with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and the deer juxtaposed and reliefed against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremittable contest according to the ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter; — the best game of all, the best of all breathing, and forever the best of all listening…
In the first sentence of “The Bear,” we see the phrase “this time,” presumably as opposed to all past times and/or “that” time (whenever “that” was). The word “blood” has dual meanings, of course — “blood” as in family, but also “blood” as in bleeding (note too the multiple meanings of the word “ran”). A more subtle connotation of the type of blood that is family is that it also implies generations, ie time past (heritage) and generations yet to come.
In the second paragraph, we learn that a third human character, Isaac McCaslin, is sixteen. For a moment we feel grounded. The only problem is we don’t yet know when in time the story is happening — Faulkner makes us feel like we finally have a solid time reference, yet we really don’t. We have a definite reference for Ike’s time, but none other. Faulkner uses this quantitative reference over and over to make us readers feel grounded — Ike was sixteen and for “six years now“ Ike was a “man’s hunter” (a contrasting of men and boy references, ie age as time or something else?), and “for six years now” he had heard the best of all talking. Besides the direct numerical references, we get the word “now” repeated in close succession. “Now” is obviously a time reference — but we still don’t know when “now” is, other than the opening reference to “this time.” So we are left with assuming that Faulkner’s “now” is our “now.”
Faulkner has firm control of time in this story. He is using all his stylistic devices to paint us a picture of his reality, and from the outset we realize that we’re living within a tale of an “ancient and unremittable contest” (life and death) played according to “ancient and immitigable rules” which is “forever” the best, the highest good.
What does all this do to the reader? In some sense the reader is both lost and yet at the same time drawn deeper into the story. We get references to the present (this time, now) but also to the past (ancient) and to the future (forever). A word like “forever” encompasses ALL of these standard “times” as we know them (compresence). There is a resemblance to a dream-state, where we all know that time is altered and/or irrelevant – that time just “is.” Interestingly enough, the human brain can’t distinguish between time — that’s why the memory of something that happened to you ten years ago can be so realistic. You are actually experiencing that time again, you are mentally “there” once more. The fairly good psychiatrists all know this. The really good writers know this, too.
One other major contributing stylistic item creating and giving us a sense of “timelessness” is Faulkner’s sentence structure. It’s hard to draw sentences out of the text to point to, because (1) there aren’t a lot of them, (2) they are unusually long, and (3) they are both compound and complex. Much has been made of the fourth segment of “The Bear” in terms of sentence structure and length. Cowley (editor) tells us in the introduction to “The Bear”: (p. 196)
It is in the fourth section that Faulkner carries to an extreme his effort toward putting the whole world into one sentence, holding it suspended (my emphasis) between one capital letter and one period. There is a sentence that occupies six pages of the present volume (259-265), with a two-page parenthesis in the middle…[that] runs to more than eighteen hundred words, and it was quite probably – until Faulkner himself exceeded the length in a sentence of “The Jail” (1951) – the longest in American fiction.
I emphasized the word suspended above because other than being physically “hung in space,” suspended also implies ”frozen in time.” Even Cowley can’t avoid using time references when speaking of Faulkner’s sentences! To an earlier point: Section 4, besides having the most words in a sentence, also has the most date references – Section 4 is littered with nineteenth century dates and other numbers. One of this section’s most important images/symbols is the plantation Warwick’s ledger: “the yellowed pages in their fading and implacable succession were as much a part of his consciousness and would remain so forever…” (p. 267). Again we see words associated with time used to describe the keeper of the family history record itself – succession and forever.
A final impression from Faulkner’s sentence structure — the reading pace slows to the point of flowing, to the point of harmony and rhythm and meter, and finally (to me at least) to music. I get a lyrical sense of the words along with their meaning and implied meanings — which of course just adds to the sense of timelessness and universality.
Yet another technique Faulkner uses as he floats back and forth in “compresence” is structure. Let it suffice for now that if we did a chronological accounting of time in “The Bear” and laid it side-by-side to the order in which the story revealed these same time elements and milestones to us, the two accounts would look significantly different. We could do the same comparison of time progression and segmentation by doing similar plots for each of the five sections of “The Bear.” Faulkner uses not only sentence structure but also overall story structure to create a world of timelessness and immortality. In short, Faulkner is using his writing technique to express and create his world view in art.
Still within the first five pages of the story “The Bear,” Faulkner uses a beautiful combination of foreshadowing and flashback (foreback? Flashshadowing?) to tell Ike’s story. Consider this sentence referring to Ike’s journey from boy to hunter into manhood: “He realized later that it had begun long before that.” There are both past and future references here — present too if you allow “he realized” as happening sometime after the past reference of “later.” “Begun” and “before” play into timelessness as well.
Faulkner continues his assault of time and goes on to use several other time references just in that paragraph:
“It had already begun on that day when he first wrote his age in two ciphers and his cousin McCaslin brought him for the first time to the camp… (p 198)
“He had already inherited then, without ever having seen it, the big old bear…(p. 198)
“-a corridor of wreakage and destruction beginning back before the boy was born…” (p. 199)
“It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it…” (p. 199)
“It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods..” (p. 199)
“it was if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet…”
Not only are there numerous references associated with time, several are used repeatedly for emphasis.
One final example (still within the first five pages of the story) of Faulkner’s compression of time is his conscious interlacing of foreshadowing and flashback and present states and creating a sense of immortality and universality and timelessness: (pp. 199 – 200)
Still a child, with three years, then two years, then one year yet before he too could be one of them, each November he would watch the wagon containing the dogs and the bedding and the food and [the men] and Sam Fathers too, until Sam moved to the camp to live, depart for the Big Bottom, the big woods. To him, they were going not to hunt bear and deer but to keep yearly rendezvous with the bear which they did not even intend to kill. Two weeks later they would return, with no trophy, no skin. He had not expected it. He had not even feared that it might be in the wagon this time with the other skins and heads. He did not even tell himself that in three years or two years or one year more, he would be present and it might even be his gun. He believed that even after he had served his apprenticeship in the woods which would prove him worthy to be a hunter, would he even be permitted to distinguish the crooked print, and that even then for two November weeks he would just make another minor one, along with [the men], and the dogs which feared to bay it, and the shotguns and rifles that failed even to bleed it, in the yearly pageant-rite of the old bear’s furious immortality.
His day came at last….
The final result is that Faulkner creates a sense of timelessness that evokes not only a universality but also tension and suspense — again seemingly contradictory elements — because even though the reader feels lost in time while feeling immortal, the reader knows that time will eventually win, and death and/or an end will eventually come. Because Ike is central to Faulkner’s compresence, we know that he will play a special, immortal part in the story — even though it is Boon and Lion that kill Old Ben. And because the story continues with Ike long after Old Ben is finally killed in that beautiful classic confrontation, we know that “The Bear” is not just about the bear and the hunters and the wilderness and encroaching civilization, but something more — something even bigger. Timelessness. Compresence. Faulkner’s reality.
Faulkner, William. The Portable Faulkner. Edited by Malcolm Cowley. Revised and Expanded Edition. Penguin Books. New York. 1967.