William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is my favorite novel. The second section of the book begins with Quentin Compson, not much younger than I, hearing the ticking of the watch his father gave him before he went to Harvard. He pauses and his father’s words return to him: “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that 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. 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.”
Quentin is a neurotic, introspective 19-year-old searching for something, anything that can give him a foundation. He wants something concrete to give him hope. He tries to be a hero and abide by the gentleman’s code of honor, only to see himself fail time and again. He tries to rescue his sister from her terrible boyfriends only to be beat up. He tries to help a lost child only to be accused of kidnapping. He tries to save his family’s broken honor only to be reminded of the words of his father: “it used to be a gentleman was known by his books; nowadays he is known by the ones he has not returned.” And in his father’s words he is reminded that he can do nothing to secure that foundation. It can’t be found in an honor code; it can’t be found in grasping greatness in this short time on earth. Carpe diem becomes carpe absurdum to Quentin as he realizes with Macbeth that life is but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. His life is but a brief candle, always shifting and soon to be no more. The clock is ticking, reminding him that he has limited time to make something of his life–to make it meaningful, to make it worthwhile. But soon the ticking becomes the countdown to his death as he makes his way to a bridge and jumps off with iron weights tied to his ankles. And the clock stops.
* * *
I, too, hear that ticking. Every day I wake up and feel the burden of making something of my life, of justifying my own existence. And I wonder with Quentin at times, is victory really just an illusion of philosophers and fools? Am I but a walking shadow? And can the ticking, which promises so much opportunity and expectation and responsibility, that promises hope for a better day than the one before, that promises purpose and meaning, really just be that countdown to when my own candle is snuffed out by the winds of time?
I thank God that most days I don’t go that deep into introspection–who could function? But as I reflect on Quentin and his father, I wonder if that veracious desire to justify my own existence is a symptom of a Quentin inside me, fearing that maybe nothing can give me that foundation and that hope to carry on. I’ve found that I can’t go a day without thinking about my future in ministry or my future in whatever job God calls me to. And usually I ask myself: do I have what it takes? Can I really make something of my life, reach my aspirations, keep myself from fading into obscurity? Could I be famous? Could strangers know my name one day? Could I write a book? Could my music ever get produced? Could I do something that I and others can look back on and say: you didn’t waste your life–you made something that will last. And in that search for validation I see that it wouldn’t really matter if I attained all those things, for they’d all be vapor in the end. I realize that in some ways Quentin’s father is right: “man is the sum of his climatic [i.e vaporous] experiences [. . .] a problem in impure properties carried tediously to an unvarying nil: stalemate of dust and desire.” As long as my search for meaning and validation seeks its victory in achievements and honor, my future really becomes nothing more than a combination of dust and desire leading to a meaningless end. So where am I to turn, if not to the bridge, my own iron weights in my hands?
Thankfully, Faulkner doesn’t leave me there–and, more importantly, God doesn’t leave us there. The last section of the book centers on Dilsey, the old, worn-down black servant of Quentin’s family. It’s Easter Sunday and she’s singing while she works, fixing breakfast, heating the house, serving the ungrateful Compson family who never knew what it meant to hope or love. While the Compson family is decaying, she is standing strong and hopeful, humbly serving them with a faithful resolve to keep pressing on without praise or recognition. And we are left to wonder: why has she not joined Quentin on the bridge?
We see the answer as she joins a progression of Negros walking in community to worship that Easter. And as they stand and worship “their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words.” They hear the preacher call: “I got the recollection and the blood of the lamb.” And that is all she needs. For Dilsey, she finds hope in the recollection of Christ and His blood and that hope is confirmed in the community of saints as they worship the Risen Lamb. She is a simple servant–no money, no glory, no honor or praise or recognition. And yet she sings, and she hopes, and she serves in peace knowing that she has the recollection and the blood of the lamb.
In Dilsey I am reminded that I don’t have to lose my footing like Quentin; I don’t have to slip into seeking validation and hope in accomplishments, success, or honor. If I do, I become a walking shadow, a brief candle, a sum of my climatic experiences. But Christ has put flesh to this shadow and reminds us that He isn’t looking for those things. There is one thing needful: to faithfully serve in hope that He has already validated our existence, that there is nothing left to justify, that we need no longer fear the ticking of the clock. And we can rest in His achievement, knowing that with Christ the illusion of philosophers and fools has found victory in His death and resurrection.