A tale of a budding English major, a literary encounter, and the meaning of stasis
During my freshman year of college—a time of less cynicism and more youthful curiosity, if you will—I had the pleasure of reading The Sound and the Fury with a certain lovable and enthusiastic English professor. I say “pleasure” in hindsight; at the time, I found the novel both a torturous slog through the quagmire of Faulkner’s stream of consciousness and a revelation in language’s intricacies and symbolic capabilities. But something clearly went right, because I ended up adoring the book and majoring in English—an early sign of madness? Anyway, to the point.
I remember with rather impressive clarity—impressive because of the soporific state that plagued my brain in the post-lunch hour—a single focal point during our discussion of The Sound and the Fury. We had reached the novel’s poignant, wrenchingly beautiful second section: the Quentin section. I’ll be honest; I had no idea what was happening. Well, I caught the plot, but I had to read the entire section twice to get any deeper (I was a freshman; what can I say?). I entered the lecture with an open and slightly confused mind, professor presiding imperiously over us at his ever-present podium, microphone at the ready, watching his students entering the hall with that unique expression of wisdom, mischief, and superiority I’ve come to know well (and, let’s be honest, I admire that blend a lot—it appeals to my inner narcissist). The hall filled; the class waited.
“STASIS!” thundered that paragon of fierce literary opinions. We jumped. Honestly, it was shocking. That man has impressive lungs, and the aforementioned microphone was not unused. So we sat, rather dazed, waiting for an explanation of that introduction, which was unusual even by the standards of that class.
What came next remains one of the most moving lectures of my college career. First, a quick definition: stasis indicates a state lacking change or progress. Now, Quentin Compson’s state of stasis, marked by his profound inability to grapple with the conflicts that plague his psyche and drive him to suicide (spoilers, sorry), enthralled me, opening my thoughts to the psychological elements of literary analysis that would become my favored method of exploration. Of equal importance, though, is the effect that discussion of stasis has had on my own psyche. This is not a literary analysis. This is a reflection.
I found Quentin’s plight deeply disturbing, if fascinating. That sense remained with me for a long time, and I don’t think I quite understood why—I mean, it’s obvious why, considering that he has some serious repressive issues, a tendency to fixate, and a life ending at the bottom of the Charles River; but it was deeper than that (now that’s a bad pun)—until perhaps a year later. I had entered my own period of stasis: something that had been lurking at the gate to adulthood, held at bay by ambition and optimism for only a short time until it burst—not with a bang, but a whimper—into my life. For a long year, depression immobilized me, and I felt the meaning of stasis. There was no “change or progress” in my mental state; depression is less a state of misery than a state of nothing. But I’ve talked about that before, and it’s boring; I’ll keep moving. Point: my mind was basically in stasis.
Depressing as The Sound and the Fury is, it left me with a preoccupation with Quentin Compson that had the opposite effect. Reading Quentin’s section fills me with pain for his pain—Faulkner writes pain incredibly well, you should check it out sometime—and it scares the shit out of me to realize that his struggle really isn’t that uncommon. Fear can be a good thing; fear is not the nothingness of depression, and fear forces the mind to adjust instinctively. I was afraid to descend into a similar struggle (not that I’m anywhere near on par with Quentin), so that fear pushed my mind into action. I kept dwelling on stasis. That’s my problem, I realized. So logical. Find the source of the problem; fight it there.
And so I fought stasis. Honestly, I continue to do so; sometimes my brain feels stuffed with honey or sludge or some equally sticky immobilizing substance for weeks on end (let’s go with honey, shall we?). Most of the time I can’t even write. But that fear of stasis—that glimpse of what stasis did to Quentin Compson—always pushes me to counter it. I won’t discuss how; for one thing, that’s a constant work in progress but it’s also not the point of this reflection. The point is to acknowledge a static state, because awareness is the first and most important step to a solution. I feel it especially clearly at this moment, in between internships before the beginning of my senior year. The words “worthless layabout” describe me effectively at the moment. But I know that—and I know I need to fix it.
It’s a pretty odd anecdote. Studying a powerfully depressing novel that helped convince me to choose what might be the most depressing possible major ultimately gave me a handy little tool for pushing back against depression. Weird, isn’t it?
But now, when I feel it creeping up—when I feel that horrible sense of immobility paralyzing my mind—I catch myself. I bellow “STASIS!” at my mind. And I jump.
Here’s to keeping your mind jumping.