When you see a particular word—for instance, calm—used almost 30 times within a single novel—for instance, Absalom, Absalom!—you might wonder of the author, Did he not have a thesaurus? Wouldn’t a few synonyms have helped to spice up all that calmness? Like maybe a serene or the occasional tranquil?
And then you start to notice all the serenes and tranquils. Turns out they themselves are more than occasional.
No surprise that Judith, the character already described as calm a half-dozen times, is serene as well: she has, we are told, an “impenetrable and serene face.” A page later, we are furthermore told—presumably to clarify that these are qualities not even one iota shy of 200-proof purity—that it is a face “absolutely impenetrable, absolutely serene.” And then, a page after that, it is “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face.” (In classes on how to give presentations, this principle is known as Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.*)
Judith not only looks serene, she listens serene—“Judith listening with that serenity, that impenetrable tranquility.” (Yes, her tranquility is as impenetrable as her face.) And even when she recedes into the background of the narrative, there’s no doubt how she’s coming back on the scene—“Judith was absent, returning at supper time serene and calm.” With her around, one serene a sentence will simply not suffice—“something walked with Judith and Clytie back across that sunset field and answered in some curious serene suspension to the serene quiet voice.”
In addition to Judith’s “impenetrable tranquility” and her “face calm cold and tranquil,” Absalom! includes “tranquil anticipation,” “tranquil disregard,” “tranquil and astonished earth,” “tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “melodious and tranquil” music, and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.” (It will likely not come as a great shock that this last item is far from the book’s only phenomenon to be deemed “profound.”)
Judith is calm even when irritated—“annoyed yet still serene”—which puts her in the relaxed company of a “serene and florid boast,” the “serene and idle splendor of flowers,” “the open door’s serene rectangle,” and “old age’s serene and well-lived content.” One character in Chapter 6 speaks in a manner “serene, not even triumphant,” while another in Chapter 9 regards a situation “perhaps not even now with triumph…possibly even serene.”
The only things that get the serene treatment nearly as often as Judith are, oddly, various amorphous presences—“shapes fluid and delicate…parasitic and potent and serene”; “symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene”; and—in another demonstration of the can’t-have-too-much-serenity-in-a-single-sentence stratagem—“two shades pacing, serene and untroubled by flesh, in a summer garden—the same two serene phantoms.”
All of which makes you realize that apparently Faulkner did have a thesaurus, and it’s a good thing, too, or else this book would have been completely up to its neck in calms.
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*Such insistent repetition also reminds me of Dudley Moore in Arthur, completely undissuadable by the aunt and uncle he encounters in a restaurant that he has not adequately conveyed how small the country is that his date comes from: “It’s terribly small. Tiny little country. Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war. That’s how small it is.” (Aunt: “It’s small.”) “Very little. It’s 85 cents in a cab from one end of the country to the other. I’m talking small.” (Uncle: “We understand it’s small, Arthur.”) “They recently had the whole country carpeted—this is not a big place.”