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02 May 2016

As I Lay Dying: Cash Bundren’s Sado-Masochistic Materialism as a Sign of Faulkner’s Modernism

Cash Bundren’s life experiences and personal desires influence his practical preference for the masochistic insanity of sado-masochistic and materialistic society over the sadistic anti-materialistic insanity of individuals like his younger brother, Darl. Or, as Urgo states: “[As I lay Dying] is a drama where human understanding is created and projected by the mind, reflected in the structures and the products of social realities, overturned by human conflict with inherited meaning and value, and created again” (Urgo 13). From the beginning of the novel, initially through Darl’s perspective, we see Cash as a man fixated on materials, who places man-made above natural. Through multiple character perspectives, Cash is depicted as a “good carpenter” (Faulkner 3) dedicated to building his mother, Addie, the best handcrafted coffin possible (Faulkner 20), through use of the new tools he purchased from a catalog (Faulkner 91). The reality is that Cash works to earn money to supply himself with material goods meant to ease his life (new tools make jobs easier; the graphophone makes rest easier).
Cash is the product of a mass production, cash-for-trade society that values things (coffin, barn, etc.) created over people (Addie, Cash, Peabody, etc.) created. In such a world, Cash acts as a contradiction between high-regard for the efforts (man’s sweat) put into creation and the natural inclination to sympathize with individuals (Cash himself, Darl) in horrendous situations. Every perspective is situational; in Cash’s perspective, no situation legitimizes the destruction of man-made materials, not even a forty mile trek with the rotting carcass of his dead mother and the pain of his broken and concreted-over leg (Faulkner 138). Analyzing Cash’s progression from coffin carpenter to graphophone listener enables the reader to view Cash as a masochist successfully assimilated into a sadistic society. In this kind of materialistic and sado-masochistic world, an individual focused on the practicality of materials sanely puts the well-being of other individuals behind the acquisition of materials. As such, Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, effectively captures the contrariness of a society based in collective materialistic understanding tainted by personal motivations, cynically driven to procure at the cost the ephemeral “Other,” and destined to destroy any who refuse to assimilate.

Collective Materialism Tainted by Personal Motivation
Cash was personally motivated to build the casket for Addie, his mother. The reasons went beyond what one might consider love of one’s parent. In his 1988 essay, “William Faulkner and the Drama of Meaning: The Discovery of the Figurative in As I Lay Dying,” Joseph R. Urgo wrote, “What [Addie] bequeaths to Cash, her first born, is her literal-minded approach to life, her ledger-book morality and her sense of measured justice—all of which Cash converts into the principles of craftsmanship and physical productivity” (Urgo 16). He built the casket because he had to, no other casket would be obtained, and no other person would step forward to create it. Cash is a carpenter, his mother needed a casket, his family had the materials on-hand and the tools required, but not the funds to purchase a casket, knowing the state of affairs as he does, Cash sinks into the task of building, creating.
Cash’s first chapter lists the reasons he “made [the casket] on the bevel” (Faulkner 48). The list offers post-production reasons because his rhythm, overthrown by the act of satisfactory completion, was thwarted by familial incompetence. In his “mind,” he isn’t checking off completed acts, he’s checking off reasons for building, justifications for past completed actions reviewed during the process of completion. The casket isn’t a finished creation until its filled, buried, and the dirt settled “on the bevel” (Faulkner 48). Cash knows the casket is meant to house the body of his dead mother, who happens to be living while he is creating. Later, when she is put into the casket in reverse, he contemplates the reasons for his earlier actions—building on the bevel—the material item (casket) was designed to hold weight in a specific way, non-adherence to that design creates instability in the product. Rosemary Franklin tells us that, “The key that unlocks the puzzle of the thirteen points is ‘Animal magnetism,’ the eighth. Cash’s entire theory of carpentry is built upon his understanding of this pseudo-science. Indeed, the concept of magnetism metaphorically permeates the entire novel and, in many cases, helps to clarify problems encountered in characters other than Cash” (Franklin 25). In this case, the magnetism of one item acts upon the magnetism of another item, Cash’s superimposition of this theory upon his carpentry reflects the depth of his materialism, he is hyper-aware of material forces. She goes on to explain:
The followers of animal magnetism, a kind of hypnotism, believed that a vital principle coursed through all living things in the form of a fluid or current. The devoted magnetizer was serious: he viewed himself as a healer more than an entertainer. With the powers of his will and of the magnetic vapors said to issue from the patient, he believed that he was able to direct the vital fluid to the diseased part of the body and thereby to effect a cure. Certain persons had more will, or magnetic powers, than others; and some persons made better subjects, especially those who lived a simple, rural life (Franklin 25).
Cash worries about his product because he is an impoverished carpenter living in a materialistic society. He must be skillful enough to obtain enough business to gain enough capital to procure the materials he needs (tools) to fulfill his desires (graphophone). In this sense, Cash’s hyper-awareness has assimilated into society through a measure of materialism that he prides himself in, possessions obtained through labor. Interestingly, there is nothing but humiliation in the way Cash actually achieves the fruition of his desire (graphophone), broken, bloodied, and bruised. With every ounce of his early efforts thwarted by the ineptitude of others, the injured Cash has no recourse but to noncommittally bear the sadistic brunt of the Bundren’s frustrations and anticipation.

Procurement Regardless of Cost to Ephemeral “Other”
The focus of balance, for Cash, is simple logic dictating that a body directionally balanced within a coffin is not only easier to carry, but the “correct” way to use the created materials. The craftsman, Cash, has produced a presumably well-built coffin for Addie that is misused by the living who thrust her backwards into the box; that action throws off every minutia of energy Cash invested in perfecting the product. He obsesses over the loss of balance, his every warning going unheard, his second chapter hangs unfinished in mid-sentence, emulating the nothing heard by those within his own society. There in the empty space of Cash’s second and third chapters hangs the useless expectation of the conclusion of the warning that future dangers are just as uselessly pleaded against. His family’s focus is not on the journey, but the destination (the procurement of goods/services).
At the river-crossing, during which Cash’s leg is rebroken, the casket nearly lost, the mules drowned, and his tools swallowed by the river only to be saved by Jewel and Vernon; Cash has reached what should be the emotional climax of a carpenter’s nightmare. Cash lays despondent and helpless on the bank, broken and vomit-y, while others retrieve his tools (Faulkner 90-94). Cash doesn’t complain simply because doing so would not alter the situation. “But the realism is of an epistemological nature, and the reality projected in the novel comes into perpetual conflict with the reader’s own ‘better’ judgments. Nonetheless, the ammunition in this conflict is identified by Faulkner as consisting of a magazine of images, metaphors, and projections—of figurations—that the characters volley at one another (and at the reader) in an effort to ‘know’ what is happening to themselves, to each other, and to the environment” (Urgo 14). This materialistic reality represented through the social interactions of imagery and sound is merely in the early transitional stages, but the seeds of technological extravagance have been planted in the hard-baked clay of Southern poverty. The Bundrens each attempt to obtain some form of fulfillment at the cost of the ephemeral “Other,” arguably, Cash suffers the most for the fulfillment of both himself and the others.

Destined to Destroy Any Who Refuse to Assimilate
Peabody confronts Cash about the journey at his first encounter with Cash’s concreted-over broken leg that supposedly didn’t “bother” him (Faulkner 138). While Cash doesn’t complain of the pain, vocally, signs of his physical duress are seen throughout the pages of the novel—“sweat as big as marbles running down his face” (138)—practically speaking, to complain of the pain would waste time and energy, simultaneously accomplishing no change in condition. To complain would mark Cash as refusing to assimilate. From Dorothy Hale we understand “Cash’s success at composing the trauma of the journey allows him to continue on as a survivor in the diminished world that is left to him” (Hale 17-18). Cash can easily “forgive” Anse for the pain, because Anse provides the means for months of rest listening to music on the graphophone. Urgo agrees with Hale though he takes it a step further, when he says, “Whether life is meaningful or not is really of little consequence to Cash, and his craftsman’s attitude…Cash will never challenge the way the world is defined for him” (Urgo 19). In other words, Cash has come to terms with the sado-masochistic society in which he lives, he has found materialism agrees with his sense order, thus he masochistically keeps his mouth shut and suffers through silently.
Cash’s last chapter spatially exists in multiple time-frames (before Peabody’s, during Peabody’s, and after Peabody’s). Here we see Cash ignoring (or, disassociating) himself (and the pain of his leg) for the actions of Anse, that ultimately lead to Cash’s one “desire” being fulfilled. In this section, Cash brushes over the visit with Dr. Peabody and focuses on the actions that Anse takes to acquire his new wife and her graphophone; which means that even though Anse used Cash’s money and Cash’s injury made him unable to work to earn more money, Cash still acquired the item he was earning money for: the graphophone. Darl’s inability to wait it out silently, like Cash, is only part of what lands Darl in the asylum. Elizabeth Kerr claims Cash’s materialistic “…analysis of Darl may be the ironic equivalent of the ‘unusual wisdom or power’ gained by mutilation, but it cannot aid Darl. Cash also dwells upon the idea that ‘nothing justifies the deliberate destruction of what a man has built with his own sweat’ (514-515), referring to the coffin which Darl had tried to burn and reflecting his craftsman’s pride” (Kerr 12). Attempting to burn a corpse and destroying a barn are physical manifestations of Darl’s anti-materialism and proof of his distaste for the sadistic Bundren society.
In the End, They Lived for Stuff
In later chapters, it appears as if Cash were resigned to the horrors of the journey, nonchalant (perhaps even, despondent). Fine is the line which exists between cold practicality and callous disinterest: “In pretending to give a direct quotation of the character’s mind, interior monologue…necessarily equates consciousness with plausible language use and, as a result, distinguishes an individual’s private world as being only what he chooses not to say aloud” (Hale 9). Cash chooses not to speak about his leg, though in earlier sections he would not stop speaking about the beveling of the coffin. For Cash speaking about his injuries vocalizes the pain but does not change the pain, besides, he spoke of the beveling while there was an opportunity to correct the imbalance. After the river-crossing, Cash becomes fully aware of the futility of pleading with his family, therefore he stops trying: “…although Cash has the capacity to understand these truths about human nature, he ultimately puts the protection of the social over the individual good…” (Hale 19). The sado-masochistic contrariness of the Bundren’s society is preserved by the silence of Cash, the institutionalization of Darl, and the acquisition of new materials.  Every nuance of Cash is masochism idealized in the name of materialism; everything from his capitalistic name to his brutalized physical condition to his last materialistic act (listening to new records), and even, his passing nostalgia for Darl (Faulkner 149) testifies to the sado-masochistic nature of the individual’s internal struggle with external assimilation.
­­­­            The very nature of Faulkner’s chosen subjects, the Bundrens, gives rise to the perspective that each individual sees only a portion of the picture and that picture is tainted by the views, needs, and wants of others within the immediate social circle. As such, Cash’s masochism becomes but one painful road to materialistic fulfillment and one horrifying exodus into depressingly cynical modernist canon.


Works Cited
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Michael Gorra. W.W. Norton Company, Inc.: New York. 2010.

Franklin, Rosemary. “Animal Magnetism in ‘As I Lay Dying’.” American Quarterly. Vol. 18. No. 1. (Spring, 1966). Pp. 24-34. The John Hopkins University Press. . Accessed: 14 Sept. 2010.

Hale, Dorothy. “‘As I Lay Dying’s’ Heterogenous Discourse.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. Vol. 23. No. 1 (Autumn, 1989), pp.5-23. Duke University Press. . Accessed: 12 Sept 2010

Kerr, Elizabeth M. “’As I Lay Dying’ as Ironic Quest.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature. Vol. 3. No. 1. (Winter, 1962). pp. 5-19. University of Wisconsin Press. . Accessed: 14 September 2010.

Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of VisionAmerican Literature. Vol. 61.No. 1. (Mar., 1989). pp. 16-30. Duke University Press. . Accessed: 14 September 2010.

Urgo, Joseph R. “William Faulkner and the Drama of Meaning: The Discovery of the Figurative in ‘As I Lay Dying’.” South Atlantic Review. Vol. 53. No. 2. (May, 1988), pp. 11-23. South Atlantic Modern Language Association. . Accessed: 14 Sept. 2010.

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