However it came to pass that a rediscovered WWII-era motivational slogan became the wildly prolific progenitor to seemingly thousands of mutant variations, there is now no end to signs, buttons, T-shirts, etc., telling us to “Keep Calm” and fill in the blank as the case may be. As it happens, the original poster was designed in Britain in 1939, only three short years after Absalom, Absalom! was itself first published. This interesting coincidence is, of course, neither interesting nor what anyone would define as a “coincidence,” but it will serve nevertheless as the rickety scaffolding from which I will launch into a number of wisecracks about how much William Faulkner likes to use the word calm.
There are a lot of “impenetrable faces” in Absalom, Absalom!, as has been mentioned elsewhere, and those impenetrable faces are usually of the calm variety—whether it’s “that calm absolutely impenetrable face,” “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face” or, combining the both for a whole that is indeed no greater the sum of its parts, “two calm impenetrable faces.”
For all the fury going on around them, the book’s characters maintain surprisingly relaxed kissers (even if not always impenetrably so)—Absalom!’s provincial puritan Henry has a sister, Judith, who is alternately described as having a “calm face,” a “calm frozen face,” and a “face calm cold and tranquil.” This is, genetically, to be expected, since Henry and Judith’s mother, Ellen, has, at various times, a “face white and calm” and a “face absolutely calm.” (Henry himself has a touch of the same DNA, with his own “cold calm face.”)
There are not only calm faces on display—sometimes with their “eyes wide open and calm”—but “calm and sweet” voices to be heard, “repressed calm voice[s]” and “voices…sober enough, even calm.” Some characters are “calm but logical” while others are “calm and undeviating”; positions are “stated calmly” and “argued calmly”; one woman is “saying ‘Yes, Rosa?’ calmly” and another is “standing calmly in a gingham dress”; there is “icy calm” to be seen as well as “calm incorrigible insistence.” But it’s not until late in the book that the calm really begins to run riot.
Of the 30-plus calms and calmlys in Absalom, Absalom!, over half are in Chapter 7, where they sometimes double up even within the same sentence: “He was quite calm about it, he said, sitting there…arguing with himself quietly and calmly.”* And, two pages later, as this unusually laid-back internal conflict continues to roil: “the two of them argued inside of him, speaking in orderly turn, both calm, even leaning backward to be calm.” (The fiery conclusion to this epic moral conundrum? “[H]e had argued calmly and logically with his conscience until it was settled.”)
“I was calm,” says another cool customer, still in the same chapter, “quite calm.” Seems to be the order of the day! The overriding eerie hush of Chapter 7’s placid trip is encapsulated in a moment featuring a minor character, a sheriff named Major de Spain: “[I]t was too quiet, too calm; so much too quiet and calm that de Spain said he did not realise for a moment that it was too calm and quiet.”
The resignation one might feel in the face of such tranquilizing repetition is given voice by the book itself in this final soothing nugget of ancestral wisdom: “Grandfather said that his very calmness was indication that he had long since given up any hope.”
*For those who need things repeated to them and who prefer their adverbs written like adjectives, the sentence after this reads, “[t]here was only himself, the two of them inside that one body…arguing quiet and calm.”