And yet ‘sin’ is not at all the right word: Faulkner’s vision is never deterministic. His characters, though sometimes given little choice by the pressures of time and place, are never absolved of their actions. His understanding of the human condition is profoundly American: we may be shaped by forces larger than ourselves, but that does not mean that our consciousness is false. His characters shape and discover themselves as they enact their destinies, though ‘destiny’ as a concept seems thin and fragile against richness of their lives.
In Light in August, the most accessible of his masterpieces, Reverend Gail Hightower’s fixation on his Confederate grandfather, and Joe Christmas’s enactment of a racial archetype, are obsessions at once chosen and chosen for them. Faulkner never believed in anything as reductive as unencumbered choice or as banal as inevitability, a point that should be taken on board by both right and left in American discourse. His refusal of absolute divisions between ‘individual’ and ‘community’ led him in the same direction as William James and John Dewey, though he came at it not from a theoretical background—Faulkner was a largely unschooled and un-apprenticed writer—but from a thoroughgoing exploration of human character.
This is his refashioning of humanism in the American mould: a refusal to carve a model of human consciousness that privileges reason above history and bloodlust and faith.