Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) in James Franco’s 2013 adaption of As I Lay Dying. (Millennium Films)

William Faulkner (1897–1962) was a Nobel laureate who authored classic novels The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930) as well as many more. Here we explain how his characters in As I Lay Dying broach the struggle of expressing private experience, a struggle also described in the works of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A poor and rural family slowly traverse the Mississippi countryside to bury their deceased wife and mother, Addie Bundren, miles away in town, meeting tribulations along the way.

In one chapter—from beyond the grave or in a flashback—Addie narrates her inability to express her private experiences of being a teacher, a wife, and a mother (ironically, using language). Whereas in action she is able to feel her own presence—for example, by physically punishing her students—she believes words to be like ‘spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching’.

‘That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When [my son] was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.’

Words, she expands, are ‘just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that any more than for pride or fear’ or love.

This all should immediately remind us of the views of Wittgenstein, who argued that inner mental states cannot be known; that wouldn’t make sense, for they are incommunicable. There is a divide between mind and world, which is what Addie alludes to.

Nonetheless, in Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) Wittgenstein writes that meaning can be conveyed, practically, if the rules of a public language game are followed, for language is a social practice.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to bridge said gap? Here we can draw on Stanley Cavell’s distinction between (1) knowledge and (2) acknowledgement: (1) there is a limited capacity of language to capture truths about the world and others’ experiences; (2) however, through sympathy we can acknowledge in others what we cannot experience ourselves. Too stark a divide unduly abolishes our obligations to the world and that which we value.

Indeed, Addie is able to gain acknowledgement by forcing pain in others—her husband; her students—not by using words but by exacting revenge and violence. Of the students, she says:

‘I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh […] and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life.’

Addie is sceptical of language’s faithfulness to worlds privately and uniquely inhabited. But she seeks acknowledgement. Her daughter, Dewey Dell, unlike her mother, fears even acknowledgement: the obtaining of worldly connections is a violation of her aloneness. Of the recognisable changes to her body during an unwanted pregnancy, she says: ‘The process of coming unalone is terrible’.

The Bundrens are isolated farmers who live in simple fashion. Their thoughts are incoherent and stream-like. Faulkner and Wittgenstein both show that the private worlds from which we feel and sense are inaccessible to language. This limit is felt particularly strongly by the Bundrens, alienated countryfolk whose linguistic capacities and abilities to follow language games are already impoverished.

Words are signifiers. Your name, for example, signifies you, the signified. But perhaps saying is a cheap substitute for doing. Addie Bundren thought so.

'Sometimes I would lie by him [my husband, Anse] in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse? Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar […]

'I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terrible doing goes along the earth, clinging to it.'