“He Squatted Among the Soft Womansmelling Garments” — A Strange Sex Scene from Faulkner

A strange, gross sex scene from William Faulkner’s  novel Light in August. As a child, the book’s anti-hero,Joe Christmas, an orphan of unclear parentage, sneaks off to suck sweet toothpaste from a tube. There, he surreptitiously witnesses a clandestine meeting between the orphanage’s dietitian and another worker:

In the quiet and empty corridor, during the quiet hour of early afternoon, he was like a shadow, small even for five years, sober and quiet as a shadow. Another in the corridor could not have said just when and where he vanished, into what door, what room. But there was no one else in the corridor at this hour. He knew that. He had been doing this for almost a year, ever since the day when he discovered by accident the toothpaste which the dietitian used.

Once in the room, he went directly on his bare and silent feet to the washstand and found the tube. He was watching the pink worm coil smooth and cool and slow onto his parchmentcolored finger when he heard footsteps in the corridor and then voices just beyond the door. Perhaps he recognised the dietitian’s voice. Anyway, he did not wait to see if they were going to pass the door or not. With the tube in his hand and still silent as a shadow on his bare feet he crossed the room and slipped beneath a cloth curtain which screened off one corner of the room. Here he squatted, among delicate shoes and suspended soft womangarments. Crouching, he heard the dietitian and her companion enter the room.

The dietitian was nothing to him yet, save a mechanical adjunct to eating, food, the diningroom, the ceremony of eating at the wooden forms, coming now and then into his vision without impacting at all except as something of pleasing association and pleasing in herself to look at—young, a little fullbodied, smooth, pink-and-white, making his mind think of the diningroom, making his mouth think of something sweet and sticky to eat, and also pink-colored and surreptitious. On that first day when he discovered the toothpaste in her room he had gone directly there, who had never heard of toothpaste either; as if he already knew that she would possess something of that nature and he would find it. He knew the voice of her companion also: It was that of a young interne from the county hospital who was assistant to the parochial doctor, he too a familiar figure about the house and also not yet an enemy.

He was safe now, behind the curtain. When they went away, he would replace the toothpaste and also leave. So he squatted behind the curtain, hearing without listening to it the woman’s tense whispering voice: “No! No! Not here. Not now. They’ll catch us. Somebody will—No, Charley! Please!” The man’s words he could not understand at all. The voice was lowered too. It had a ruthless sound, as the voices of all men did to him yet, since he was too young yet to escape from the world of women for that brief respite before he escaped back into it to remain until the hour of his death. He heard other sounds which he did know: a scuffing as of feet, the turn, of the key in the door. “No, Charley! Charley, please! Please, Charley!” the woman’s whisper said. He heard other sounds, rustlings, whisperings, not voices. He was not listening; he was just waiting, thinking without particular interest or attention that it was a strange hour to be going to bed. Again the woman’s fainting whisper came through the thin curtain: “I’m scared! Hurry! Hurry!”

He squatted among the soft womansmelling garments and the shoes. He saw by feel alone now the ruined, once cylindrical tube. By taste and not seeing he contemplated the cool invisible worm as it coiled onto his finger and smeared sharp, automatonlike and sweet, into his mouth. By ordinary he would have taken a single mouthful and then replaced the tube and left the room. Even at five, he knew that he must not take more than that. Perhaps it was the animal warning him that more would make him sick; perhaps the human being warning him that if he took more than that, she would miss it. This was the first time he had taken more. By now, hiding and waiting, he had taken a good deal more. By feel he could see the diminishing tube. He began to sweat. Then he found that he had been sweating for some time, that for some time now he had been doing nothing else but sweating. He was not hearing anything at all now. Very likely he would not have heard a gunshot beyond the curtain. He seemed to be turned in upon himself, watching himself sweating, watching himself smear another worm of paste into his mouth which his stomach did not want. Sure enough, it refused to go down. Motionless now, utterly contemplative, he seemed to stoop above himself like a chemist in his laboratory, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. At once the paste which he had already swallowed lifted inside him, trying to get back out, into the air where it was cool. It was no longer sweet. In the rife, pinkwomansmelling, obscurity behind the curtain he squatted, pinkfoamed, listening to his insides, waiting with astonished fatalism for what was about to happen to him. Then it happened. He said to himself with complete and passive surrender: ‘Well, here I am.’

When the curtain fled back he did not look up. When hands dragged him violently out of his vomit he did not resist. He hung from the hands, limp, looking with slackjawed and glassy idiocy into a face no longer smooth pink-and-white, surrounded now by wild and dishevelled hair whose smooth bands once made him think of candy. “You little rat!” the thin, furious voice hissed; “you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!”

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9 comments

  1. ccllyyddee · April 25, 2012

    It is revulsive, but fascinating in that ‘I can’t look away’ way. Good writing, Mr. Faulkner.

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  2. Cory · April 25, 2012

    One of the best passages in the book to be sure, but how could you omit the antecedent paragraph?

    In my mind this is not just a sex scene–it’s a weird, winding, trenchant memory of a sex scene that Faulkner is probing. And that is why the paragraph just before the passage you quote is so important.

    Contextual importance aside, it is one hell of a read too:

    “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.”

    Its because of prose such as this–so beautiful, staggering even!–that I agree wholeheartedly with what you said in an earlier post on the novel (a post that promised a more specific follow up, but… (?)): “Faulkner piles on his sentences in a gelatinous mass, smearing words on top of words into a deep swamp of meaning, motif, and symbol.”

    When I first read that passage I am pretty sure I had to start over a few times just to effectively inventory its many ideas and images. It is a terrific example of the “swamp” of words and meaning you describe. Although it consists of only three sentences, it is a deep bog of a paragraph. The length of the third sentence with its syntactic compounds (like “sootbleakened”) and its most anomalous lexical monster (“cinderstrewnpacked”) — these among other things contribute to the teleological essence of the passage: it is “a big long garbled cold echoing” paragraph to match the abyssal memory it represents.

    And is it just me or does this read (out loud at least) like a spell? I don’t think I can adequately translate my reasoning behind this. Perhaps it just the way I read it.

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    • Cory · April 25, 2012

      It’s obvious to me now that all I really wanted to do was toot my horn and, having re-read the post introduction, I can see that all you wanted to do was present “a strange, gross sex scene.”

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      • Biblioklept · April 25, 2012

        I wanted to write about abject sex in Faulkner, but it was too much, and ultimately, too obvious. I reviewed the book, but I think I linked to the review in this piece. But I liked your horn tooting. Nice reading of the passage(s).

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  3. Cory · April 25, 2012

    Yes but the review (which I did read) promises a more in depth analysis –

    “I feel like I’ve made, at best, some very broad, superficial scratches into the surface of a very dense, thick book; even worse, I’ve barely provided even a hint of Faulkner’s astounding prose. Mea culpa. I’ll take a second, more specific shot at Light in August in an upcoming post. For now: Very highly recommended.”

    I followed the recommendation and have read the book (and fell sincerely in love with it). Now I would love to read that more “specific shot” from you. Reason being: I am not too keen on medium specific literary criticism and I am dying to experience. I guess I’m more of a movie guy because it’s a little easier to specifically address the already explicit medium. But the form of Faulkner (and other brilliant writers: Joyce, Beckett, Wallace, Pynchon, Kafka, et al), I think, is especially apt for the Sontagian solution (formal description).

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  4. Cory · April 25, 2012

    tssk tssk (I can’t take a hint but, then again, neither can you so: tssk tssk)

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    • Biblioklept · April 25, 2012

      Cory, are you tskking me for not writing *another* review of the book in the “Sontagian” style you’d like me too?

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      • Cory · April 25, 2012

        Damn. I knew this was a lame thing to do. But yeah… I guess I was. Do as you will with your blog. It’s kinda your blog and all. (tail between legs)

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  5. josh · April 25, 2012

    While surfing Audible the other night I saw that Will Patton recorded an audio book version of Light in August. Dove in last night. Gorgeous narration, as usual. Glad that I waited until now to read it; Patton’s cadence and Faulkner’s language are quite a combination.

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