Tuesday Faulkner: She sells sanctuary

(Since I’ve been reading the proprietor of Yoknapatawpha County a lot lately, I’m instituting a new feature: Tuesday Faulkner. But please, as with most things around here, don’t expect any regularity.)

Under English common law, people seeking immunity from prosecution could find refuge in a church, where they could safely stay for up to forty days, after which time they had to declare either their innocence, in which case they would face a trial, or their guilt, which earned them eternal banishment from the country. Both the sacred place of refuge and the legal process became known as sanctuary, which of course derives from the Latin word sanctus, meaning holy. Sanctuary, then, was the place and the process in which the accused were afforded a respite from the law, in which the holy entity of the church suspended the state’s juridical functioning.

It’s this double sense — as sacred site and as refuge — that the men in William Faulkner’s 1931 pulp novel Sanctuary conceive, not of the church, but of women. Lee Goodwin, the wrongly convicted murderer, relies on his unnamed wife’s sleeping with the warden in order to get out of prison but nonetheless beats her for doing it. Popeye, the actual murderer, kidnaps the young, upper-class Temple Drake so that he can repeatedly rape her at his whim while keeping her imprisoned, but otherwise chaste, in a Memphis brothel. After Gowan Stevens is refused comfort and respectability by an older wealthy woman, he seeks consolation from Temple before eventually offering her up as a sacrifice to Popeye. Horace Benbow, Goodwin’s defense attorney, at first rejects refuge, but after he hears of the defiling of Goodwin’s wife — “Good God, what kind of men have you known?” — he returns to the haven (he imagines) his wife offers.

These men are convinced not only of the sacredness of women but of the essential discreteness of the sacred and the secular law. Faulkner will have none of this, however. He insists on their ultimate inseparability, which why he has district attorney Eustace Graham, the prosecutor of Goodwin, speak these words in the book’s climactic chapter:

“You have just heard the testimony of the chemist and the gynecologist — who is, as you gentlemen know, an authority on the most sacred affairs of that most sacred thing in life: womanhood…”

Faulkner has the man of the law himself state the link explicitly and has Goodwin and Popeye live it out: both men, having desperately sought out sanctuary, are by the end of the book swinging from the hangman’s noose.

And so sanctuary is in most of its forms. Rather than offering protection from the state, it is more like a juridical dress rehearsal, a sort of preadjudication; its suspension of the law is decidedly temporary and purely procedural. The secular and the sacred, the state and the church, form a judicial assemblage, one in which the primary function is to regulate and purify the nation.


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