Friday, February 10, 2023

Quote of the Day (William Faulkner, on an Unsuccessful Demonstration of ‘Good, Gentle Ponies’)

“ ‘Them’s good, gentle ponies,’ the stranger said. ‘Watch now. He put the carton back into his pocket and approached the horses, his hand extended. The nearest one was standing on three legs now. It appeared to be asleep. Its eyelid drooped over the cerulean eye; its head was shaped like an ironingboard. Without even raising the eyelid it flicked its head, the yellow teeth cropped. For an instant it and the man appeared to be inextricable in one violence. Then they became motionless, the stranger’s high heels dug into the earth, one hand gripping the animal’s nostrils, holding the horse’s head wrenched half around while it breathed in hoarse, smothered groans. ‘See?’ the stranger said in a panting voice, the veins standing white and rigid in his neck and along his jaw. ‘See? All you got to do is handle them a little and work hell out of them for a couple of days. Now look out. Give me room back there.’ They gave back a little. The stranger gathered himself then sprang away. As he did so, a second horse slashed at his back, severing his vest from collar to hem down the back exactly as the trick swordsman severs a floating veil with one stroke.

“ ‘Sho now,’ Quick said. ‘But suppose a man don’t happen to own a vest.’

“At that moment Jody Varner, followed by the blacksmith, thrust through them again. ‘All right, Buck,’ he said. ‘Better get them on into the lot. Eck here will help you.’ The stranger, the severed halves of the vest swinging from either shoulder, mounted to the wagon seat, the blacksmith following.

“ ‘Get up, you transmogrified hallucinations of Job and Jezebel,’ the stranger said.”—Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and short-story writer William Faulkner (1897-1962), “Spotted Horses,” originally published as a short story, later incorporated into The Hamlet (1940)

A college professor of mine noted that William Faulkner, like James Joyce, may have made enormous demands on readers, but was also one of the great comic writers in the English language. The southerner’s posthumously published The Reivers is the most obvious example of his antic muse, but so, in a more concentrated fashion, was the novella “Spotted Horses.”

In the pre-automotive era in which so much of Faulkner’s work took place, horses took the place of automobiles as all-purpose vehicles of transportation and commerce, and the horse trader was about as trustworthy as user-car salesmen are today in attempting to conceal problems with what they’re selling.

The horse trader in this passage, “the stranger,” intends to pass off some abused and angry horses as “good, gentle ponies.” Naturally, he gets what’s coming to him.

Faulkner himself loved horses only too well. He once admitted to writing Sanctuary, the closest he came to a blatantly commercial novel, because "I needed it to buy a good horse." He kept riding horses and jumping fences into his 60s, even after his doctor and his family had strongly urged him not to.

In a painful irony that Faulkner himself might have appreciated, his own death was precipitated through an equestrian accident from which he never really recovered. Maybe he would have thought it was worth it: For a risk-taker like him, in life as in fiction, no “good, gentle ponies,” thank you very much.

(For those who want a full-scale investigation of the different forms of humor used by Faulkner throughout his career—including Southwestern humor, folk humor, black humor, and classical comedy—a group of scholars contributed to the 1984 book Faulkner and Humor, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie.)

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