Throwing Down the Gauntlet

DonquixoteWhen I read, in Absalom, Absalom!, of “the regiment moving no faster than the wagon could, with starved gaunt men and gaunt spent horses knee deep in icy mud,” the image of Picasso’s famous Don Quixote sketch pops into my head.  When I read, from a later chapter, “They faced one another on two gaunt horses, two men, young, not yet in the world, not yet breathed over long enough, to be old but with old eyes, with unkempt hair and faces gaunt and weathered,” I get the image of an editor on a lunch break.

To say that the repetitive use of gaunt in these excerpts seems, in the first case, purposefully crafted for pleasing rhythmic effect and, in the second, an oversight is, certainly, de gustibus territory—but what can be argued is that the landscape of Absalom! feels populated to excess by skeletal figures such as these, both two-legged and four-.

Other equine examples include a “gaunt and jaded horse,” a “strange gaunt half-wild horse,” and a “gaunt black stallion.” Among their human counterparts are “gaunt and ragged men,” “a gaunt gangling man,” “a man with a big frame but gaunt now almost to emaciation,” and an old woman who manages to be “not thin now but gaunt” (that’s a good trick—presumably she was more of the pleasantly plump variety of gaunt?).

As would be expected, these lanky players have accordingly angular features: an architect with a “gaunt face, the eyes desperate and hopeless,” soldiers with “gaunt powder-blackened faces,” a student with a “gaunt tragic dramatic self-hypnotised youthful face like the”—makes sense, what with the tragic face—“tragedian in a college play.”  One gentleman has a “gaunt worn unshaven face” while another’s face is “gaunt and ragged and unshaven.”  (Nonfacial gaunt items include a “gaunt and barren household” and an anthropomorphized wagon that shares with its driver “that quality of gaunt and tireless driving.”)

Absalom!’s evil overlord Thomas Sutpen is himself the possessor of a “gaunt ruthless face,” and we are told that the aforementioned big-framed but gaunt man is also “ruthless and reposed”—neither of which description surprises much since Sutpen isn’t exactly on the receiving end of a lot of flattering characterizations in this book, and it is furthermore a novel with a generous helping of ruthlessness.

[O]nly an artist”—this being the gaunt architect—“could have borne Sutpen’s ruthlessness.”  “We talked of him, Thomas Sutpen…and when he would return…he would undoubtedly sweep us up with the old ruthlessness.”  “They did not think of love in connection with Sutpen.  They thought of ruthlessness.”

Sutpen—a.k.a. “the Sutpen with the ruthless Sutpen code,” wielder of “Thomas Sutpen’s ruthless will”—does not, however, have the market completely cornered in this area; other characters have “ruthless eyes,” display “ruthless pride,” command “ruthless tactical skill,” suffer “the ruthless agony of labor,” and offer—like the services of some kind of ninja nanny—“fierce ruthless constant guardianship.”

Rounding out the cast are “the ruthless and the strong,” those who are “generous but ruthless,” one man who acts with “cold and ruthless deliberation,” and another frosty fellow with a “character cold, implacable, and even ruthless.”  Wherever that editor has been, I just hope lunch was good.

The Mirror Crack’d

It’s got to be a tricky business for an author to portray a character as having irritating habits without the results becoming a bit irritating themselves.  Absalom, Absalom!’s Miss Coldfield, for instance, is predisposed to a variety of somewhat grating conversational mannerisms and, just our luck, she narrates an entire chapter, in the first paragraph of which she calls her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen, “that brute” four times (including “that brute progenitor of brutes”), a plain old unmodified “brute” once, and also a “brute instrument”—for a grand total of seven brutes on Chapter 5’s initial page.  (With an opening salvo like that, you can hardly say that you weren’t warned.)

For Absalom! to shift fully into the voice of a person already inclined to repeat herself is one of those infinite-regression, holding-a-mirror-up-to-a-mirror type of propositions, like an edgy undercover cop movie in which the ethically tainted protagonist starts feeling his own identity getting confused with that of the role he’s playing.  We’ve already seen that Miss Coldfield has issues with whimpering and—as the book has indelicately informed us—old-woman smell, but she also comes equipped with her own reticule of personal catch phrases.

“‘Oh, I hold no brief for Ellen,’” she says of her sister in the recollection that forms the book’s first scene.  “‘No, I hold no more brief for Ellen than I do for myself,’” she continues, and then, later, “‘No.  I hold no brief for myself.’”  Which you might think would be sufficient to get across this little bit of character coloration until you get to Chapter 5, which proceeds in the space of six pages to completely redefine “sufficient”: “Oh, I hold no brief for myself” (p. 128); “No. I hold no brief for me” (also p. 128); “I hold no brief for myself, I do not excuse it” (p. 131); “I do not excuse it.  I claim no brief, no pity” (p. 132); “No, no brief, no pity” (also p. 132); “No, I hold no brief, ask no pity” (p. 133).  This is your second warning: Run while you can!

Miss Coldfield is a fan of the word thousand, whether applied to questionable reasoning (“Now you will ask why I stayed there. I could…give ten thousand paltry reasons”; “I…could give you a thousand specious reasons good enough for women”) or to matters insignificant (“I did not say one of the thousand trivial things with which the indomitable woman-blood ignores the man’s world”; “talk, talk, talk of…the weary recurrent triviata of our daily lives, of a thousand things but not of one”).  Triviata?  I’m sure there’s some great pun to be made here about a trifling opera, but I am sadly lacking the music-literacy bona fides to do it justice.

When Miss Coldfield is in denial, she might as well have a sign around her neck: regarding her sister, she says on page 118, “I was not spying when I would follow her.  I was not spying, though you will say I was.  And even if it was spying, it was not jealousy.”  Not spying, got that?  No?  Let’s see if these selections, all from page 119, help convince you: “No, it was not that; I was not spying”; “Oh no, I was not spying”; “No, not spying, not even hiding”; “I became again that…woman…who was not spying, hiding.”  You should have run when you had the chance—you were warned!

Miss Coldfield finds herself at one point so startled to see an unexpected character that her brain seizes up even as the rest of her physical processes continue on about their business, a sensation she tries repeatedly to put into words—“the face stopping me dead…not my body: it still advanced, ran on”; “and I (my body) not stopping yet”; “I did stop dead. Possibly even then my body did not stop”; “I stopped in running’s midstride again though my body…still advanced”—until she eventually ends up sounding like the Eveready Bunny caught in the throes of a philosophical mind/body debate.

Of all the grooves the old gal’s broken Victrola gets stuck in, the deepest is a paranoiac one.  You know the “they” in “that’s what they say”?  Well, they would seem to have plenty enough to say about Miss Coldfield—her preoccupation with what she imagines is the town’s preoccupation with her is established in Chapter 5’s very first sentence: “So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule.”  Nor is any disinclination in her conspiracy-theorizing evident in the sentence that immediately follows: “That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag.”  And after that, well…just as Miss Coldfield does, “they” do have a tendency to repeat themselves (even if sometimes it’s a matter of what they can’t tell you rather than what they can), so I’ll provide an easy-to-skim list:

if not in my sister’s house at least in my sister’s bed to which (so they will tell you) I aspired (p. 107)

But they cannot tell you how I went on up the drive, past Ellen’s ruined and weed-choked flower beds and reached the house (p. 108)

But it was gone; and this too they cannot tell you: How I ran, fled, up the stairs and found no grieving widowed bride but Judith (p. 114)

Once there was (they cannot have told you this either) a summer of wistaria (p. 115)

the fear of dying manless which (so they will doubtless tell you) old maids always have (p. 128)

They will have told you how I came back home…. Oh yes, I know (and kind too; they would be kind): Rosa Coldfield, warped bitter orphaned country stick…they will have told you: How I went out there to live for the rest of my life (p. 136)

Yes, they will have told you: who was young and had buried hopes only during that night which was four years long…—they will have told you: daughter of an embusque who had to turn to a demon, a villain (p. 137)

Yes, Rosie Coldfield, lose him, weep him; caught a beau but couldn’t keep him; (oh yes, they will tell you) found a beau and was insulted (p. 138)

But I forgave him. They will tell you different, but I did. (p. 138)

One begins to wonder if this is intentional but overdone (Faulkner supplying Miss Coldfield an excess of these persecution-complex oratorical hiccups and his editor doing nothing to rein him in) or just the usual unintentional (Faulkner going about his standard once-to-the-well-is-never-enough routine and his editor doing nothing to rein him in).  This would be the part in the movie when the cop is looking at himself in the broken mirror that he’s just punched and his wife is standing behind him crying, “I don’t even know who you are anymore!”

Limit One per Customer, Two

I’ve mentioned before certain words in Absalom, Absalom! that seem “overused,” not in the sense of racking up disbelief-inviting tallies on the stat sheet (does curious really merit nearly 40 times at bat?), but in the sense that their being used even more than once feels excessive—words like brigandage, cherubic, circumambient, effluvium, ratiocination, shibboleth, and substanceless.  Words that make readers—I assume I am not alone in this boat?—say, “Hold on a second…didn’t I see ‘substanceless,’ like, 15 pages ago?”*

As I speculated then (so now who’s repeating himself?), I may just be parading my ignorance—maybe purlieu, for example, is more of an around-the-dinner-table kind of word than I realize.  But, still, I would think it incumbent upon any self-respecting editor to say to his or her client, “You know how you have ‘purlieu’ in Chapters 2, 3, and 4?  Maybe we could think about losing one or two of those, what do you say?”

Perhaps I am being too touchy about purlieu.  And maybe I shouldn’t be so ticklish about the book’s four total uses of miasma, either (as in “the shadowy miasmic region something like the bitter purlieus of Styx”).  But when it appears twice in one sentence?**  When that happens, you’ve got to figure that somebody’s red pen has run out of ink.

Outside of a science-fiction novel, sentient strikes me as a one-per-book word.  That is not an opinion shared by the author of Absalom, Absalom!, which features “sentient forces,” a “sentient victim,” one traumatized personage’s “sentient though nerveless shell,” and “the old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn’t even know any difference between despair and victory.”  (Is undreaming what happens while you’re unasleep?)  And speaking of un-words, there is also “the blind unsentient earth” (emphasis, I am ethically obliged to add, mine); the human body described in a similarly sightless metaphor as a “blind unsentient barrow of deluded clay and breath”; and—in some kind of bizarre agrarian instance of seeming mind-transference that does sound like it’s from a sci-fi novel—a farmer “stopped dead…the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands.”***

Just as sentient is maybe a 4 or 5 on the “Hey, check out this fancy word” meter and then adding the un- prefix bumps it up to a 7 or an 8, satiated does not in and of itself register all that high on the scale of lexical grandstanding—whereas the cumulative effect of satiated, satiations, satiety, insatiation, and insatiability definitely gets the needle twitching.  Ditto for the relatively anonymous volition, which only calls progressively more attention to itself as it is cycled through a series of variations—volition, volitional, volitionless, and—but of course—unvolition.

Sometimes it’s less a matter of frequency than density.  I don’t suppose it’s so terribly egregious within a single book to read “the granddaughter…asked querulously what it was” and then later “the granddaughter spoke querulously again” and then “they heard the granddaughter’s voice, fretful and querulous”—just not so good within the space of two pages (232-233).  And it’s bad enough that Absalom! could manage to contain the “lost cause’s unregenerate vanquished,” an “aura of unregeneration,” and a character “chivalrous for the instant even though still unregenerate”—but it contains them all in the first chapter!  I would say that it beggars belief for this sort of redundancy to occur with no editorial redress, but maybe none of this is for real and I’m just undreaming the whole thing.

• • •

* “He seems to hover, shadowy, almost substanceless, a little behind and above” (page 74); “the beam filled with substanceless glitter of tinsel motes” (page 59).

** There is no way—within the limited purlieu of my own excerpting abilities, at least—to excise from the body of the original sentence the twin miasmas (or in this case, miasmals) at an appropriately abridged length while still maintaining their sense.  I offer it here in its entirety, then, although be warned—it just so happens to be among my personal nominees for the book’s very most opaque, aneurysm-inducing head-scratchers.  (Yes, I realize what sort of first-among-equals rarefied company that places it in and, no, it is not a contention I would make lightly.)  Were there any explanatory context that I thought could possibly lend assistance in negotiating its meaning, I assure you I would provide it.

Or perhaps it is no lack of courage either: not cowardice which will not face that sickness somewhere at the prime foundation of this factual scheme from which the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward, tugs its tenuous prisoner arteries and veins and prisoning in its turn that spark, that dream which, as the globy and complete instant of its freedom mirrors and repeats (repeats? creates, reduces to a fragile evanescent iridescent sphere) all of space and time and massy earth, relicts the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death but only how to recreate, renew; and dies, is gone, vanished: nothing—but is that true wisdom which can comprehend that there is a might-have-been which is more true than truth, from which the dreamer, waking, says not ‘Did I but dream?’ but rather says, indicts high heaven’s very self with: ‘Why did I wake since waking I shall never sleep again?’

*** For completeness’ sake: There is also, in Chapter 1, a from-beyond-the-grave essence that “seem[s] to possess sentience” and, in Chapter 3, an if-these-walls-could-talk house that is described “as though [it] actually possesses a sentience.”  Neither of which, of course, is even close to being as enticingly nutjob as “unsentient plow handles.”

Total Heavy-ocity

Some probably seems like an awfully milquetoast word to get much exercised over, but I’m not thinking here of the everyday, approximate-amount, “Would you care for some tea?” incarnation, but rather the “occurrences which stop us dead as though by some impalpable intervention” variety—the “some pure dramatic economy,” “some almost omniscient conviction” sort.

Clearly, some is not meant in these cases to suggest “a rough measure of intervention” or “a nonspecific supply of economy” or “a shtickle of conviction”—instead, in Absalom, Absalom!, some is insistently employed as the all-purpose spice of “meaningful”-sounding vagueness, ever at the ready to preface any phrase with a dash of portentous indeterminacy.

This is, of course, the same gambit as all of Faulkner’s sort ofs and kind ofs—these conceptual targets at which he aims are so abstrusely unstrikable, you see, that a near-miss is one’s best hope.  No, it is not a particular lugubrious and painless purgatory to which he refers, but “some lugubrious and painless purgatory”; not any precise sophisticated and ironic sterile nature, but “some sophisticated and ironic sterile nature.”  (Such Deep Thoughts put me in mind of Alvy Singer asking Annie Hall about a rock concert she has attended without him—“Was it heavy? Did it achieve total heavy-ocity?”)

Not only is this device used repeatedly, it is done so in a very non-nonspecific fashion: not just “some blankety-blank,” but “some blankety-blank of blankety-blank.”  So while there are a lot of examples like “some perverse automotivation” and “some heathen Principle, some Priapus,” there are a lot of examples like “some opposite of respectability” and “some stubborn coal of conscience” and “some ascendancy of forbearance” and “some esoteric piece of furniture.”  (Esoteric furniture.  Yes.)

As it happens, this device even manages on a number of occasions to incorporate a few other notable Absalom! buzzwords like effluvium (“some effluvium of Sutpen blood and character,” “some tangible effluvium of knowledge”) and undefeat (“some incorrigibility of undefeat,” “some indomitable desperation of undefeat,” “some bitter and implacable reserve of undefeat”).  As for the rest of the list, well—it really is some sight to see:


On a related note, Absalom, Absalom! also contains “something of pride,” “something of pity,” “something of sanity,” “something of shrewdness,” “something of leisureliness,” “something of shelter and kin,” “something of weariness and undernourishment,” “something of will and intensity and dreadful need,” “something of that invincible despair,” “something of the old flavor of grim sortie,” “something of the ruthless tactical skill of his old master,” “something of that fierce impersonal rivalry between two cadets,” and “something of secret and curious and unimaginable delights.”

As a Newborn Babe

It’s one thing to lose your innocence—it’s another just to lose track of it.  In Absalom, Absalom!, the book’s demonic paterfamilias Thomas Sutpen gets a how-it-all-began flashback in which his childhood virtue is run through more convolutions than a bunny with a log trying to teach about prepositions.

His trouble was innocence.  All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do, but what he just had to do.”  So begins, innocently enough, Sutpen’s journey of self-discovery (with emphasis on the discovery).  “And at the very moment when he discovered what it was, he found out that this was the last thing in the word he was equipped to do.”

Young Thomas’s education in life’s disillusioning lessons proceeds in something of an epistemologically fuzzy, knowing-without-knowing-you-know-it fashion—the difference between the treatment of races, for example, “he had begun to discern…without being aware of it yet.”  His lack of self-perception is redressed, though, “when he found it out, because that was the same second he discovered his innocence.”

The evolution of this discovery, however, unfolds in fits and starts—“he had not only not lost the innocence yet,” we learn on page 185, “he had not yet discovered that he possessed it.”  Although we are told on the same page that “[h]e didn’t even know he was innocent that day,” a page later “he was still innocent…[h]e knew it without being aware that he did.”  This case of the left brain not knowing what the right brain is doing persists on the following page as the adolescent Sutpen is described as “without knowing…since he had not yet discovered innocence.”

The stubborn unwillingness of this fugitive phenomenon to be identified continues two pages later: “[h]e couldn’t even realize yet that his trouble, his impediment, was innocence.”  Finally, a page hence, teen Thomas has his eureka! moment and at last detects “that innocence which he had just discovered he had.”  (And, boy, it does not go down without a fight: “like an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing, no ashes nor refuse”—nor lack of melodrama, apparently—“just a limitless flat plain with the severe shape of his intact innocence rising from it like a monument.”)

No surprise that this overwrought spectacle will be, a few pages on, regarded in retrospect as “that innocence which he had never lost”—although less predictable is how quickly the “monument” will slip back into the rearview-mirror blind spot of Sutpen’s memory: “after it finally told him what to do that night he forgot about it and didn’t know that he still had it.”  Later in the story, during a violent incident, it will make a reappearance—although not without its attendant knowledge-scrambling side-effects: “he was not afraid until after it was all over…since his innocence still functioned and he not only did not know what fear was until afterward, he did not even know that at first he was not terrified.”*

That innocence again,” rhapsodizes one character, “that innocence which believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie”—it would seem almost to have mind-clouding properties; even in retrospect, details of the aforementioned fracas are warped through its prism: “the steps leading up to it…he apparently did not know, comprehend, what he must have been seeing every day because of that innocence.”  Oh man, it’s like my moral vision is suddenly getting all blurry…what the heck was in that pie?

• • •

*This would seem to be the flip-side to Absalom!’s various characters who don’t know they know something—i.e., those who don’t know they don’t know something (cf. the woman “who did not know where her husband had gone and [was] not even conscious that she was not curious”).  I believe this is called Donald Rumsfeld Syndrome.

The Highest Form of Flattery

Previously on the topic of dullards and fools, I mentioned a Far Side cartoon whose caption read, “Yes, they’re all fools, gentlemen … But the questions remains, ‘What KIND of fools are they?’”  Similarly, I might ask, “Yes, the character of Henry in Absalom, Absalom! has been established as a puritan—way past the point of any doubt, God knows—but what kind of puritan is he?”

He is the sort, we read on page 86, whose “puritan heritage” gives him “that ability to be ashamed of ignorance and inexperience.”  Fine-tuning this, the author explains two pages later that this is a “puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair” and “nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair.”

Tuned even more finely a page after this, the character is referred to as “Henry the puritan who must show nothing at all rather than surprise or incomprehension.”  This is because of his—same paragraph—“puritan’s provincial horror of revealing surprise or ignorance.”  (Fortunately, “Henry [is] not showing either.”)  Two pages later and just what kind of puritanism is Henry’s particular brand is left little in question—it is “that puritan character which must show neither surprise nor despair.”  (Surprise!)

Henry’s method for dealing with his up-and-comer’s socioeconomic anxiety is to pattern himself after his highfalutin college friend Charles Bon, who, big phony though he may be, is a very sophisticated big phony—Henry is among a number of star-struck fellow students who “aped his clothing and manner and (to the extent which they were able) his very manner of living.”

Yes, “Henry aped his clothing and speech.”  Nor were these the only subjects for his mimicry, which also occurred “while they rode together (and Henry aping him here too, who was the better horseman).”  Nor did it go without notice: “Bon…for a year and a half now had been watching Henry ape his clothing and speech.”  Bon, then, was “the mentor…whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape.”*

One could say that Bon was “the sybarite…which Henry had begun to ape at the University.”  Or that Henry was the person “whom he watched aping his clothing carriage speech.”  Or that the give-and-take of their entire relationship was a “proffering of the spirit of which the unconscious aping of clothes and speech and mannerisms was but the shell.”  Or that there was a mystique “about Bon to be, not envied but aped if that had been possible, if there had been time and peace to ape it in.”

And even the longing sentiment and mellifluous poetry of a phrase like “time and peace to ape it in” cannot distract from the fact that this is all clearly just too much monkey business.

• • •

*A.k.a. “the mentor, the corruptor”; “the mentor, the guide”; “the mentor…the gambler”; “the friend, the mentor”; he with “the mentor’s voice”—these all within the space of pages 88 to 91.

Why? Why? and Why?

For all the fury in Absalom, Absalom!, there’s surprisingly little rage.  There is one instance of some standard-issue “jealous rage”; one occasion of “static rage,” which is in keeping with Faulkner’s odd fondness for depicting people as being simultaneously really angry and also completely stationary (“blazing immobility,” “furious inertness”); and one French fellow’s “gallic rage,” but that’s about it.  Outrage, on the other hand?  Outrage the book has out the yin-yang.

It has “unbearable outrage,” “smoldering outrage,” “bitter and hopeless outrage,” and “stubborn and dreaded outrage.”  It has “outrage and injustice,” “hatred and outrage,” “folly and outrage,” and “amazement and outrage.”  It has “scorn and outrage,” “horror and outrage,” and—wait for it—“scorn and horror and outrage.”

It has “the final outrage,” an “outrage to sensibility,” the “abstract carcass of outrage,” “a breathing-point in outrage,” “the objects of the outrage,” one pregnant player who feels the “outrage of her swelling loins,” and another who “died young of outrage.”

Characters are “completely outraged,” “outraged and betrayed,” and “outraged and dreaded”; one experiences the “privilege of being outraged” (which frankly doesn’t seem like much of a privilege considering that it ain’t exactly in scarce supply).  There is “outraged horror,” “outraged recapitulation,” and “outraged female vindictiveness.”  There are “outraged hearts,” an “outraged face,” and—as part of an elaborate metaphor in which a community’s efforts to preserve order are likened to an enormous head trying to restrain miscreants within its clenched teeth—an “outraged jaw.”  (It was tempting to include that last one without explanation.)  On page 135 there is “aghast and outraged unbelief” and on page 136, “outraged and aghast unbelieving.”

Also in the book’s lineup are indignant representatives from both the spirit world and our own—some “outraged baffled ghosts,” an “outraged father,” and an anticlimactically-described “scorned and outraged and angry woman.”  (And angry, eh?)  There is some rather clinical-sounding “general affronting and outraging” going on and a couple of experiences that can only be described in terms of how not outraging they were: “it was not outrage that I waited for…it was some cumulative overreach of despair” and “the shock which was not yet outrage because it would be terror soon.”

In related news, the book contains “outrageous bravado,” “outrageous exaggeration,” an “outrageous husband,” “the most simple and the most outrageous things,” and both “bald outrageous words” and “bold blank naked and outrageous words.”  That last phrase appears in a discussion of “some things for which three words are too many, and three thousand words that many words too less.”  As the speaker explains, “I could take that many sentences…and leave you only that Why? Why? and Why?”  Which, I’d say, describes the trade-off the book offers pretty accurately.