Into the Great Unknown

The name of this blog was taken from a line of dialogue in Absalom, Absalom! in which a woman is describing a distant relative of hers who has a tendency to play dumb.  This, she explains, is done to disguise a nest of knotty, sometimes perplexing contradictions at her core: “Clytie [is] not inept,” she clarifies, “anything but inept: perverse inscrutable and paradox: free, yet incapable of freedom.”  Clytie—illegitimate child of a slave mother and a plantation owner father—is, no doubt, a paradox.  She just happens to be one of the book’s many paradoxes.

These include the “bloodless paradox…of peaceful conquest” and—still peaceful but somehow way more bloody—“soil manured with black blood of two hundred years of oppression [that springs] with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery.”  A scene depicting the funeral of a unprepossessing woman juxtaposes a massive burial stone against the fragile remains it will memorialize, the body reposed in a grove “in powder-light paradox beneath the thousand pounds of marble monument.”  Absalom!’s paradoxical pairings include “paradox and inconsistency” and “paradox and madness”; paradoxical alternatives include “incongruity or paradox.”  An adolescent girl has an “air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness”; travelers find themselves in a “city foreign and paradoxical”; and—in a strenuously goofy example of aggrandizing the everyday (previously ribbed by me elsewhere)—the top half of a folded piece of paper rises off the table “in weightless and paradoxical levitation.”  (Remind me not to book whatever magician this is for the kids’ next birthday party.)

Nor is Clytie—inscrutable embodiment of paradox, she—the book’s only scrutiny-resistant person, place, or thing.  She may have an “inscrutable coffee-colored face,” but she’s hardly alone in this department (another character has “that still face…just sullen and inscrutable”), and she surely can’t hope to challenge her father’s carriage driver for po-faced primacy, he apparently the achiever of the Platonic ideal in this area (his mug is, we are told, “perfectly inscrutable”).  This same category also encompasses circumspect means of entrance (“inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways”), cagey but oddly soothing unfamiliar languages (“the words, the symbols…shadowy inscrutable and serene”), nonthreatening but hard-to-interpret quadrants of the sky (“a panorama of harmless and inscrutable night”), shifty land masses (“the dark inscrutable continent”—full of, presumably, cities foreign and paradoxical), and feline mathematics (“cold and catlike inscrutable calculation”).

You can imagine—as far as blog names go—that any number of phrases from the book suggested themselves as likely possibilities; before Perverse Inscrutable, I thought I had found the perfect candidate in a description of one character assigning another a nickname out of “incomprehensible affectation” (we have a winner!)—but then I realized that I had misread the sentence in question, which actually was referring to incomprehensible affection.  (Which perhaps does contain a grain of insight into my complicated feelings for Absalom!, but was still not quite on the nose, title-wise.)  And you can probably also imagine—just as there is much in these pages that is inscrutable, there is no shortage of that which is incomprehensible, either.  Or, while we’re in that same neighborhood, inexplicable.

Incomprehensible items include “incomprehensible ultimatums,” “incomprehensible children,” and “a dead incomprehensible shadow.”  There is a range of dumbfoundedness, from “baffled incomprehension” all the way to “incredulous incomprehension.”  There is—take your pick—“surprise or incomprehension.”  There is physical motion described as “furious and incomprehensible” and emotional abuse likened to a “busted water pipe of incomprehensible fury.”  (Man, you just know the plumber’s going to charge time-and-a-half for that one.)

There is also “the inexplicable unseen,” “the inexplicable thunderhead of interdictions and defiances,” “the brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live,” and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  There are “natural and violent and inexplicable volte faces”; “acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable”; and “bitter inexplicable (to the man mind) amicable enmities which occur between women of the same blood.”  There is a fellow—in the grip himself of some kind of existential paradox, it would seem—who feels “amazement… at the inexplicable and incredible fact of his own presence.”  There is “that quiet aptitude of a child for accepting the inexplicable.”  There is another fellow, regarding a situation and decreeing, “It was as if he found the whole business, not inexplicable, of course, just unnecessary.”  Tell me about it, brother.

And, on a final note—about the “author name” that accompanies these blog entries, that is from a description of the character Charles Bon, referred to twice in the space of four pages as “the esoteric, the sybarite” (pages 253 and 256).  Sybarite, of course, is very much one of those probably-shouldn’t-be-used-more-than-once-in-a-single-book sort of words that I’ve been on about before (it shows up also to characterize how Bon likes to lounge around in “the outlandish and almost female garments of his sybaritic privacy”), while esoteric is naturally in comfortable company with the likes of inscrutable, inexplicable, incomprehensible, and paradox.  So let us note here also the book’s mentions of an “esoteric milieu,” an “indolent esoteric hothouse bloom,” “the esoteric, the almost baroque, the almost epicene object d’art,” “some esoteric piece of furniture,”* and—Faulkner’s meaning here is not exactly a difficult code to crack, he might as well be writing this with a pinkie extended—“expensive esoteric Fauntleroy clothing.”

Here is a writer who loves words—loves certain words so much, in fact, that he lavishes attention on them till they’re in danger of their very lives like quivering mice imperiled beneath Lenny’s smothering caresses.  It’s enough to make one’s response to Absalom! feel almost…paradoxical.  If I had to describe the conflicted emotions it elicits, I’d say they were somewhere between incomprehensible affection and a busted fury pipe.

• • •

*This, also, I have made fun of in the past, but esoteric furniture, Good Lord.

Chapter 4, Chapter 2

Chapter 4 of Absalom, Absalom! has, as has been mentioned previously, a number of repeated elements: the word probation, the word durance, the phrase you see, and close to a century’s worth of four years-es, to name but a few.  So let’s name a few more.  Sardonic, for example: In Chapter 4, the character of Charles Bon is described as having “an air of sardonic and indolent detachment” (page 74); his manner is, we read, “passive, a little sardonic” (also page 74); his is a “passive and sardonic spirit” (page 79); occasionally he will display “sardonic and surprised distaste” (page 82) or “pessimistic and sardonic cerebral pity” (page 91); even his writing style is characterized as “gentle sardonic whimsical and incurably pessimistic” (page 102).  (As you may have noticed, Chapter 4 is not without a decent supply of pessimism and passivity, either.)

The same Charles Bon who is depicted on page 74 with an “air of sardonic and indolent detachment” is described, four pages after this, as “the man who later showed the same indolence…the same detachment.”  He is—also page 78—“this indolent old man”; he possesses “dilatory indolence” (page 81); he is “that indolent fatalist” (page 83); and his writing style (which seems to invite oddly comma-free lists of descriptors) is “gallant flowery indolent frequent and insincere” (page 102).  He also has—picking up the detached thread—the “detached attentiveness of a scientist” (page 74) and a “surgeon’s alertness and cold detachment” (page 90).

Charles Bon is—in addition to being sardonic, indolent, and detached—one majorly charismatic cat.  His much younger college buddy Henry has a huge man-crush on him and, when Henry takes his pal home with him for a visit, Henry’s sister Judith is just as gaga over him.  Henry and Judith are basically “that single personality with two bodies both of which had been seduced” by the dashing fatalist/scientist/surgeon Bon (this on page 73).  So casually charming is he that, we are told on page 74, he “seems to have seduced the country brother and sister without any effort or particular desire to do so.”  You might say that “he had seduced Henry and Judith both” (which the book says on page 75).  And Henry?  Well, “he loved Bon, who seduced him as surely as he seduced Judith” (page 76).

Or—wait—maybe it’s a bit more psychosexually complex than that: Maybe Henry is working out some incestuous feelings for Judith, and his buddy, Mr. Seducey Seducerson, is just a proxy.  “‘So it must have been Henry who seduced Judith, not Bon,’” says one spectator to the relationship, seemingly channeling a trenchcoated Peter Falk, “‘seduced her along with himself’” (page 79).  All of this triangulated, Dangerous Liaisons-y activity is done “‘with no volition on the seducer’s part…as though it were actually the brother who had put the spell on the sister, seduced her to his own vicarious image’” (page 85).  Or maybe it’s even more complex—and Judith is the stand-in, an “empty vessel” for the otherwise inexpressible feelings between the college chums, an intermediary for “the man and the youth, seducer and seduced”—page 95, still Chapter 4—“who had known one another, seduced and been seduced.”  Mercy me, is it getting hot in here?  Tonight on Cinemax After Dark…William Faulkner’s Seduction, Seduction!

Whatever exactly sort of Freudian quicksand Henry is splashing around in, he can’t really be held accountable; after all, Bon “corrupted Henry” (page 81).  This is apparent even from Henry’s mother’s perspective: “[T]hough the daughter might still be saved from him, [Bon] had already corrupted the son” (page 82).  This is apparent even to the resident Yoknapatawpha County Columbo, as he reconstructs how Bon dazzled his prey with his big city ways: “‘I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance’” (page 87).  Bon, to Henry, is “the mentor, the corrupter” (page 88); he works his “corruption subtly…by putting into Henry’s mind the notion of one man of the world speaking to another” (page 89); his machinations are the essence of “corruption itself” (page 91).  (At least the siblings’ mother is right about Judith, who is fortunately not as susceptible to corruption as she is to seduction: “Surely Bon could not have corrupted her,” we are reassured on page 95, as we are also informed [same page] that he “had not tried to corrupt her to unchastity”—a double negative construction that I’ll leave to readers better equipped with the necessary analytic lockpicks than I to disentangle.)

And, oh my, the glitter!  Chapter 4 includes “the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels,” soldiers’ uniforms adorned with “martial glitter of brass and plumes,” fireworks like “brave trivial glitter against a black night,” and—of course, surrounding the godlike Charles Bon—“a sort of Scythian glitter.”  Four glitters.  In one chapter.  I know there’s a lot of seducing going on, but it’s not set in a strip club, for God’s sake.

Tales Well Calculated

You might be surprised at some of the things you can do while in a state of suspension—in Absalom, Absalom!, examples include one character, replying dreamily to a question, who “answered in some curious serene suspension”; an untroubled family, “the four members of [which] floated in sunny suspension”; and a freshly roused sleeper who is “waking in some suspension so completely physical as to resemble the state before birth.”  (I think I’d hit the snooze button for one more trimester.)

Still—while answering, floating, and waking in it are all perfectly good options—the default state of suspension remains the state of being held in it: Girls on the cusp of adulthood are “in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable”; a woman who feels imprisoned in her house by her marriage is “held there not in durance but in a kind of jeering suspension”; a man embroiled in a complex emotional triangle demands time to make a decision, “holding all three of them…in that suspension while he wrestled with his conscience.”  And as he ponders, the players are left “held in that probation, that suspension.”

And what, exactly, is this “probation”?  For answers—delivered, perhaps, in a curious serene suspension—we should look to Chapter 4 and its story of Henry Sutpen; after all, in the words of one observer, “‘It was Henry’s probation; Henry holding all three of them in that durance.’”  (More holding?  And more durance?)  Long story short: Henry’s best friend Charles Bon and Henry’s sister Judith are engaged to be wed, but Henry discovers his friend already has a previous, legally unresolved marriage in his past.  While Henry and Bon—as he is better known—are off fighting in the Civil War, Henry refuses to let his pal contact Judith until he, Bon, has broken things off with the other woman—and these four years of enforced noncommunication are the “probation.”  Now for the long story long.

Henry writes Judith from the battlefront to explain, “‘since doubtless he refused to allow Bon to write—this announcement of the armistice, the probation.’”*  Being an inordinately dutiful sister, Judith accepts the arrangement without objection, “‘she and Henry both knowing that she would observe the probation.’”  And Henry is like a hawk from the moment he and his buddy sign up: “‘They enlisted together, you see, Henry watching Bon and Bon permitting himself to be watched, the probation, the durance.’”  (Okay, all these probations are one thing, but durance again?)

Being inordinately dutiful, himself, Bon abides by his friend’s wishes and refrains from contacting his fiancée: “‘Henry would not let him; it was the probation, you see.’”  (The fellow recounting this story says “you see” a lot.**)  Henry is adamant that his future brother-in-law get his messy past straightened out—as reports Mr. You See, ultimately “‘[t]hat what was why the four years, the probation’”—but Henry feels conflicted, “‘still loving Bon, the man to whom he gave four years of probation.’”  But he is also resolute, and Judith is left to wait.  “‘She waited four years, with no word from him save through Henry that he (Bon) was alive. It was the probation, the durance.’”  (Durance?  Really?)

For as many times as probation is used in Chapter 4—and it is oodles—it pales compared to the mantra-like repetition of a certain span of time whose recurrence here you may have already noted (the rest of the quote mentioned in the previous paragraph is “‘the man to whom he gave four years of probation, four years in which to renounce and dissolve the other marriage, knowing that the four years of hoping and waiting would be in vain.’”).  Yes, the Civil War figures centrally in Absalom, Absalom!, and, yes, that conflict lasted four years, but come on.  This, for example, is from page 79: “‘And yet, four years later, Henry had to kill Bon to keep them from marrying.’”  (As you may infer, the probation doesn’t exactly end up fixing the whole Henry/Judith/Bon situation.)  Also from page 79: “‘[Judith endured] a period of four years during which she could not have always been certain he was still alive.’”  And from page 79: “‘[Y]et four years later [Bon] was apparently so bent upon the marriage…as to force the brother who had championed it to kill him.’”  And, lastly, from page 79: “‘[Henry had] become a follower and dependent of the rejected suitor for four years before killing him apparently for the very identical reason which four years ago he quitted home to champion.’”  Oh, and by the way?  Four years.

Bon’s first wife is not the only skeleton in his closet—“‘four years later Judith was to find the photograph of the other woman and [their] child’” (page 71).  “‘I don’t think she ever suspected,’” theorizes our narrator for this vignette, “‘until that afternoon four years later’” (page 73).  Bon does eventually write Judith, though, at the end of the war: “‘[F]our years later…she received a letter from him saying We have waited long enough’” (page 80).  “‘[H]ere is the letter, sent four years afterward,’” intones a rueful Mr. You See, “‘four years after she had had any message from him save the messages from Henry that he (Bon) was still alive’” (page 85).

You have likely gathered that Henry ends up killing Bon—an act of righteous eradication long overdue, or so figures the teller of the tale, who thinks Henry should have just gone ahead and done it right after finding out about Bon’s marital situation: “‘[T]hat afternoon four years later should have happened the next day, the four years, the interval, mere anti-climax’” (this also from Chapter 4, on page 94).  But instead, “‘he waited, hoped, for four years’” (page 94).  Yes, “‘Henry waited four years’”—yes, still page 94—all the while “‘holding the three of them in that abeyance, that durance.”  (What th?  You have got to be jok—  #@&%!!! )

• • •

*The Henry/Judith/Bon soap opera is largely related second-hand, thus all the quotations-within-quotations.

**From Chapter 4 (for completists only): “‘he (Henry) could not say that to his friend, I did that for love of you….He couldn’t say that, you see’” (p. 72); “‘he, the living man, was usurped, you see’” (p. 77); “‘You see? there they are: this girl…this father…this brother’” (p. 79); “‘You see? You would almost believe that Sutpen’s trip to New Orleans was just sheer chance’” (p. 81); “‘He had been too successful, you see; his was that solitude of contempt’” (p. 82); “‘So he dared not ask Bon to deny it; he dared not, you see’” (p. 85); “‘but we do not pretend to be God, you see’” (p. 91); “‘They didn’t tell one another anything, you see…Judith, that she knew where Bon and Henry now were’” (p. 96).  Plus the following, from page 90, in which a conversation—about a duel—is described (so handy an interjection is “you see” that not only is the fellow who’s telling the story partial to it, so is the fellow who’s in the story—two sentences in a row!): “‘[T]he guide [was] casually and pleasantly anecdotal:…. “They face one another inside the same cloak, you see, each holding the other’s wrist with the left hand.  But that was never my way”;—casual, chatty, you see, waiting for the countryman’s slow question…“What would you—they be fighting for?”’”

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Thomas Sutpen is the malevolent colossus that bestrides the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! (he’s referred to in the course of the book as a “demon” about sixty-five times—not really the most nuanced of characterizations).  So when it’s revealed in a flashback near the end that, as a younger man, he turned his back on his first wife and child, it’s almost anticlimactic: After other characters have called you things like “this Faustus…this Beelzebub” and even your coterie of underlings has been described—in an amusingly stiff-sounding dab of legalese—as “twenty subsidiary demons,” the bar for rottenness has been set fairly high.

Still, it’s pretty rotten, even if you provide for them financially, for a man to have “repudiated that first wife and that child.”  Especially when it’s done with calculation: “[He] got engaged and then…had a wife to repudiate later”; “he would certainly need…to repudiate the wife after he had already got her.”  The post-separation support might provide some salve—his son will later reflect that Sutpen “‘must have surrendered everything he and Mother owned to her and me as the price of repudiating her’”—but it hardly improves the giver’s diabolic reputation, being “the money…that he (the demon) had voluntarily surrendered, repudiated to balance his moral ledger.”  (The moral ledger is better left to Satan’s accountants than to his subsidiary demons, I would assume.)  The intervening years will cloud Sutpen’s conviction at the wisdom of his decision, though, as he finds when later struggling with a similar quandary: “[T]his second choice [was] as obscure…as the reason for the first, the repudiation.”

Karma’s a you-know-what, though, and Thomas Sutpen eventually winds up on the boomerang end of some really primo repudiation himself at the hands of his second, “real” son, Henry.  When Sutpen makes an incendiary accusation against a cherished college friend of Henry’s named Charles Bon, it sparks “Henry’s violent repudiation of his father and his birthright.”  Furious at the allegations leveled at his comrade, Henry leaves his home without a trace, “vanished, his birthright voluntarily repudiated.”  So angry is Henry on behalf of his friend that “he repudiated blood birthright and material security for his sake.”  Naturally, it becomes the talk of the town, as one relative recounts (albeit without providing much in the way of additional detail), “‘I saw Henry repudiate his home and birthright.’”*

So Henry leaves his home (and birthright), “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house, his birthplace and all the familiar scene of his childhood and youth which he had repudiated for the sake of that friend.”  All for his friend—“the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing,” “the friend for whom he had already repudiated home and kin and all”—the man that Henry felt he must defend “to the extent of repudiating father and blood and home,” the friend for whom he would muster the “strength to repudiate home and blood in order to champion,” the compadre whose honor would justify Henry’s disavowal of his family and “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity.”  Together, Sutpens père and fils are “the father who decreed and forbade, the son who denied and repudiated.”

All of which makes for a total of four birthright-repudiations (six if you count abjurals), three blood-repudiations, three father-repudiations, three home-repudiations, two kin-repudiations, one “roof under which he had been born”-repudiation, and an assortment of general-category creature-comfort-repudiations (“food and shelter and clothing,” “material security”) and life-history-repudiations (“the familiar scene of his childhood and youth,” “the old heredity,” “and all”).  Repudiation, repudiation—yeah, in my head now, it totally just sounds like nonsense.

• • •

*Other such rebuffs also include two instances of birthright abjuring—a word surely not best behooved by being used more than once in a book (no matter how formally you dress it up): “Henry had formally abjured his home and birthright” and, fewer than 25 pages away from this, “Henry had formally abjured his father and renounced his birthright and the roof under which he had been born.”  Nor did that roof get off with mere formal abjurement, either: Henry also “had repudiated the very roof under which he had been born.”  So there.

Unabridged Too Far

In my last post I mentioned a character from Absalom, Absalom! who possesses the striking imaginative ability to channel the sensual experiences of other people so wholly that it’s as though he were swapping bodies with them in mid-throes—a “complete abnegate transference,” as it is described.  I had cited this fellow’s impressive talent for foxy metamorphosis mostly just to be childish, of course, but also in the context of making fun of how many times the book was using the word metamorphosis.  Less distracted by all the sexual shapeshifting and I probably would have thought to turn my attention to abnegate while I was at it, as well.  A book doesn’t need more than one abnegate.  It’s the same reason Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t keep popping up again over and over in the same movie once he’s made his cameo.

One character’s meager savings—accumulated through years of self-denying frugality—are “a symbol of [his] fortitude and abnegation.”  Another character, resigning herself to an unenviable but inevitable situation, feels “peaceful despair and relief at final and complete abnegation.”  (As has been noted elsewhereif you’re given your choice of despairs, definitely go with the peaceful variety.)  That “complete abnegate transference” referred to above occurs between two college friends, Charles and Henry, the latter of whom idolizes the former so much that he has graphic daydreams of what it must be like in his shoes—yes, let’s go with shoes—and also displays towards him (this only two pages after the complete abnegate transference) “complete and abnegate devotion.”  And if you’re thinking that maybe it seems like these examples have another repeated element in common, you’re not completely off-base.

Absalom, Absalom! includes not just “complete abnegate transference,” “complete and abnegate devotion,” and “complete abnegation” itself, but also “complete despair”—ah, full circle—along with such other all-present-and-accounted-for examples as a “complete instant,” a “complete affront,” a “complete pauper,” “complete chattel,” “complete nonsense,” “complete detachment,” “complete finality,” “complete inertia,” “complete irrelevance,” “complete surrender,” “complete mystical acceptance,” “the complete picture,” and—okay, now full circle—“a complete metamorphosis.”

Various items and persons are described as “rounded and complete,” “stillborn and complete,” “queenly and complete,” “accomplished and complete,” and “instantaneous and complete.”  (In a grayer area are those objects only “apparently complete” and Heisenbergianly “complete or not complete.”)  A precocious boy is said to have been “produced complete…entering the actual world not at the age of one second but of twelve years.”  A woman experiences a “reversal so complete” that she weds a man she’s hated since she was a little girl.  A gossip blankets an entire town with her latest news in the space of a morning: “It did not take her long and it was complete.”  A widower commissions two tombstones, “his wife’s complete and his with the date left blank.”  A butterfly—once it has emerged from its, yes, metamorphosis—is “complete and intact.”

In Absalom!’s 100% world, things are “completely gone,” “completely alone,” “completely static,” “completely outraged,” “completely indifferent,” “completely physical,” “completely unaware,” and—no argument here—“completely enigmatic.”  A man with impulse control issues is “completely the slave of his secret and furious impatience.”  An indecisive shadow has “faded again but not completely away.”  A hungry woman tragically has no tools to work her garden—paging O. Henry—“even if she had known completely how.” One sketchy gent, not intimately acquainted with morality during his lifetime, “dying had escaped it completely.”  A proud woman accepts her neighbors’ charity but takes steps to “carry completely out the illusion that it had never existed.”  The structure of a burning house has collapsed to the point that one witness can see “completely through it a ragged segment of sky.”  That strange wedding mentioned in the previous paragraph can only come about after the bride-to-be’s ugly adolescent memories “vanish so completely that she would agree to marry” the man she once considered “the ogre-face of her childhood.”  (I give it a year.)

Characters in Absalom, Absalom! are forever chasing an elusive sense of plenitude.  A social climber with grand schemes to “complete the shape and substance of that respectability” which he lacks, makes crazy-pariah predictions for his ultimate popular vindication: “‘my design [will] complete itself quite normally and naturally and successfully to the public eye.’”  (The bwa-ha-ha-ha at the end is implicit.)  Budding homeowners seek “money with which to complete [their] house” and, while eventually comes “the day…the house was completed,” the need remains for “a piece of furniture which would complement and complete the furnishing” and a plow in the garden to “complete the furrow”—and estranged relatives still prove disinclined to make holiday visits and “complete the ceremonial family group even four times a year.”*

At one point in the story, an older woman seeking closure looks back at her life and reflects that she “could get up and go out there to finish up what she found she hadn’t quite completed.”  Something not completed?!  Get crackin’, Madam!  In another scene, a character is considering the phenomenon of unhappy marriages (hmm, I seem to be getting the tiniest tingle on my Theme Sensor here); she asks, “‘So is it too much to believe that these women come to long for divorce from a sense not of incompleteness but of actual frustration and betrayal?’”  My answer would bewhatever the source of the problem is—in this book, it sure as heck isn’t incompleteness.

• • •

*I’ve taken a bit of license here in yoking together an assortment of the book’s domestic scenarios into a single, unhappy-in-its-own-way clan.

Limit One per Customer, Three

The problem with ten-dollar words is that they can price themselves right out of the business.  Once a fancy showboat like purlieu or miasma or effluvium has come on the scene saying, “Get a load of me,” it can be hard for the reader, upon subsequent encounters with those same ringers, not to think, “Didn’t I get a load of this already?”  No matter how long the book you’re reading is, when you hit that second circumambient, you probably still have a fairly distinct recollection of the first.  Making a splashy debut is one thing, but holding down steady work is another.

I’ve been to the well on this subject twice before* and have in those previous bucket-dunkings brought up such shiny attention-getters as unsentient, the sort of word that hardly needs to be used excessively for its use to feel excessive: Absalom, Absalom!’s “unsentient earth,” “unsentient barrow,” and—no, you are not reading this next one wrong—“unsentient plow handles” together constitute, I would argue, 200% more unsentience than any one novel should rightly contain.  (And as to my inconsistent practicing-versus-preaching policy in the area of not repeating oneself, I can only say in my defense that the well in question is pretty darn deep.)

Apotheosis, for example, seems like the kind of vocabulary seasoning that one would want to apply with some economy, but Absalom! is never less than a robustly flavored dish.  In one episode, kept women of multiracial heritage are described as “the supreme apotheosis of chatterly” and then, two pages later, as “the apotheosis of two doomed races,” while, in another moment, a man’s unobtainable self-ideal is characterized as “his own lonely apotheosis,” which, four pages after that, gets artily inverted into “the apotheosis lonely.”  (Elsewhere, for a final pinch of zest, there is “the dream which, conjunctive with the dreamer, becomes immolated and apotheosized.”  Oh, that dream again.)

transmogrifierTransmogrify is, no bones about it, an awesomely cool word.  External to the universe of Calvin and Hobbes, though, its frequency of use within a single work of fiction would likely best be capped at one (and even that might be pushing it).  If your book contains an unhappy woman whose married life has left her “transmogrified into a mask looking back with passive and hopeless grief upon the irrevocable world” and a couple of hardy, temperature-be-damned types who face the cold “in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirits’ travail,” you’ve got yourself an overegged pudding.

One click adjacent on the transmogrification knob is the setting for metamorphosis—and, fear not, the Absalom! stew will not go undersalted with metamorphoses, as unlikely as it is to see that word so well-represented outside of a lepidoptera textbook.  Fitting, then, that it should figure repeatedly in delicately winged metaphors of personal development—“Ellen went through a complete metamorphosis, emerging into her next lustrum with the complete finality of actual rebirth”; “[people] grow from one metamorphosis—dissolution or adultery—to the next…as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared.”  But it also comes into play in the rather tangled erotic imaginings of one character who not only fantasizes about assuming the form of his sister’s fiancée so he can sleep with her (“that complete abnegate transference, metamorphosis into the body which was to become his sister’s lover”; “in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband”), he also—and, hey, points for empathy—envisions what it would be like to be the female half of that coupling, to receive “the lover, the husband…by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride.”  So, once your therapist is done interpreting those immolated and apotheosized dreams of yours, see what she makes of that one.

The multi-stage arc of experiencing a word like importunate can be charted with a series of points: Upon one’s first brush (“to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man”), one may reach for the dictionary and offer appreciations, Ah, “urgent or persistent”—what lively word selection!; upon the second (“the surprised importunate traitorous flesh”), one may feel a flickering of concern, Ah, but Author, Good Sir, did we not see this rather noteworthy word in just the previous chapter, also in very similar context?; and upon the third (“any hushed wild importunate blood”), one may gently opine, Ah, man…another one?  And with “blood” again?!

I don’t know if I necessarily noticed the second or even the third occasion of recapitulation as it appeared in Absalom, Absalom!, but by the end, once it had fully transmogrified through the many phases of its recapitulative metamorphosis—“harsh recapitulation,” “outraged recapitulation,” “patient amazed recapitulation,” “vain and empty recapitulation”—its bright colors had definitely caught my eye.  At one point, a lawyer, apparently charging by the recapitulation, crafts a letter of introduction between two men—“an introduction (clumsy though it be) to one young gentleman whose position needs neither detailing nor recapitulation in the place where this letter is read, of another young gentleman whose position requires neither detailing nor recapitulation in the place where it was written.”  (Whatever gave him the idea that this was clumsy?)

Other nominations I would make for the One of Those Should Be More Than Enough, Thank You designation include repercussive (“the fierce repercussive flush of vindicated loyalty,” “the tedious repercussive climax”), volte face (“a volte face of character,” “one of mankind’s natural and violent and inexplicable volte faces”), and lugubrious (“some lugubrious and painless purgatory,” “lugubrious and vindictive anticipation,” “lugubrious and even formal occasions”—these last two separated only by the space of as many pages).  You get all of these together in the same recipe, and, mamma mia, that’s a spicy meatball.

• • •

*Physician, heal thyself!  (Those visits are here and here.)

Hunting Wabbits

While previously making light of a scene in Absalom, Absalom! that rather overuses both a particular sepulchral simile and the repeated imagery of steamy respiration (“their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly”; “their quiet breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air”), I did not even think at the time to note the other recurring element from these excerpts—although the oversight was easy enough to make since it’s a word that by its nature does not invite attention to itself, being as it’s so very quiet (“quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath”).

Much as with another quiet but persistent phenomenon—the dripping faucet—one may not immediately notice Absalom!’s incessant quiets, but, once one becomes aware of their steady rhythm, it is almost impossible to tune them out.  Within the space of the book’s first two pages there is already “the savage quiet September sun,” a poetically oxymoronic “quiet thunderclap,” a character who is “huddled quietly,” and a “quiet inattentive and harmless” pseudo-spirit who is metaphorically conjured up via an evocative recollection.

In a vignette that unfolds in a single paragraph over the space of pages 18 and 19, we are told of a “huge quiet house,” which has a “quiet upper hall,” off of which is a “quiet darkened room.”  That room has a “quiet door.”*  The events described occur on “a still hot quiet Sunday afternoon”; the occupants are enjoying “that Saturday afternoon’s quiet and peace.”  One of the few things to be heard is the voice of a young girl, who speaks “with that quiet aptitude of a child.”  The afternoon will be recalled later by another character, who reports, “I remember yet the utter quiet of that house” and “I could hear the sabbath afternoon quiet of that house louder than thunder” (yet another sonically-inverted thunderclap, apparently).  Did I mention this was all within a single paragraph?

[T]hat Saturday afternoon’s quiet and peace” is only one example of quiet buddying around with its usual partner in crime: Elsewhere we are told that “the family wanted only peace and quiet,” and throughout the book we will witness such permutations as “something like peace, like quiet”; “sunny and peaceful quiet”; the still-peaceful but somewhat-less-sunny “desolate solitude and peaceful quiet”; and, most simply, “quiet peace.”  (Unfortunately, by the final chapter, “that peace and quiet had fled.”**)

Absalom!’s players are a soft-spoken bunch; any one of them is likely to have a “grim quiet voice” or a “serene quiet voice” or a “voice [that] was just flat and quiet.”  (Get two of them together and they’re likely to have “two quiet voices.”)  If they give speeches, they are “speeches, quiet, contained.”  If they want to have a word with you, it is “a single quiet word.”  These citizens are quiet when addressing each other (“[he] spoke his name quietly”); quiet when agreeing with each other (“he stopped and said, right quiet: All right”); even quiet when gossiping about each other (“we talked of Henry, quietly”).  When it’s your turn to speak, they will be “listening courteous and quiet.”  And if you put a bunch of them together and make them wait to come in?  The result: “The crowd outside was quiet yet.”  These are polite folk.

Even their internal conversations are hush-hush: One character is pictured “arguing with himself quietly,” although—short of a crazy person—quietly is how you would expect someone to carry on that sort of inner conflict, which puts it in the same category as the previously mentioned “quiet September sun” (i.e., the As opposed to a noisy sun? category—joining such descriptions as the child who is “blinking quietly,” the man who is “thinking quietly,” and the fellow who “leaned against a pine, leaning quietly”).

Also on Absalom!’s silent roll call are “quiet and unflagging fury,” “quiet and incredulous incomprehension,” “quiet and unalarmed amazement,” “sober and quiet bemusement,” and “that attitude dogged and quiet and not cringing.”  There is “quiet regular breathing” and “quiet intermittent weeping.”  There is “quiet earth,” “quiet country,” and “a lake welling from quiet springs into a quiet valley.”  There is “quiet and monotony.”  There are people “wondering quietly”; “sitting quietly”; and, from whence they came, “returning quietly.”  A whipped man is “quiet and bloody”; a plainspoken man is “quiet and simple.”  Bedraggled laborers sit around in a “curious quiet clump” while a dispirited woman lies on the floor like “a small shapeless bundle of quiet clean rags.”  (As opposed to…?)

One character has “eyes quiet and sort of bright”; another has a “quiet bright expression about the eyes.”  Other examples of bodily muteness include a fellow in repose with “his face quiet” and one chap with a rather strange-sounding condition in which “the flesh on his bones had become quieter.”  One special case concerns a character with the unlikely name of Wash, who is described, in a second-hand flashback, with such pointed optimism—“‘Father said how for that moment Wash’s heart would be quiet and proud both’”—that you know something truly terrible awaits him in the future.

The very next page shows the first stirrings of a bloody family tragedy, but “‘Father said how Wash’s heart was probably still quiet’” and—same paragraph still (this will not be a point to go underemphasized)—“‘Father said his heart was still quiet, even now.’”  Three pages after this, with doom clearly on the horizon, the poor schmo remains untroubled (“‘Father said his heart was quiet then too’”) although the foreshadowing is now all but jumping up and down and gesticulating—“[he was] standing there maybe by the very post where the scythe had leaned rusting for two years.”  One fears that Wash’s let-a-smile-be-your-umbrella attitude (which perhaps borders on the oblivious at this point—“‘the granddaughter’s screams came steady as a clock now but his own heart [was] quiet’”) might not be adequate to spare him from the impending unpleasantness.  (Maybe this is what can happen when your quiet heart never raises its voice above a heart murmur.)

• • •

*The room has a quiet door.

**Calm is quiet’s other, slightly less popular, companion: “quiet and calm,” “quietly and calmly,” and—Fast and Furious style—“too quiet, too calm.”