Seinfeld fans may remember—from the episode in which she falls under the sway of a video store clerk and his highbrow film recommendations—that Elaine is a fan of bleak, ascetic arthouse cinema, jolly romps with titles like The Pain and the Yearning. (“An old woman experiences pain and yearning,” she reads from the helpful summary on the back of the video case. “192 minutes.”) Well, boy, do I ever have a book for her.
Absalom, Absalom! is, as we’ve seen, a grim parade of outraged puritanical fools who are, to a one, doomed (doomed, I tell you). A bounty for any enthusiast of all things painful and yearn-y, it is a book that takes us to “the very threshold of despair.” Within its pages, we can feel “the cumulative over-reach of despair itself.” Among its players, we encounter a lone figure and the “thunderous solitude of his despair.” In its soundscape, we discern “the despair now, the last bitter cry of irrevocable undefeat.” In its dialog, we hear (and are maybe just a tad confused by the mix of emotions in—?) “a voice calm and sweet and filled with despair.” Of its resolution, we feel a flicker of hope when one character “has peace now,” even if—I suppose we should have seen this coming—“even if the peace be mostly despair.”
No, no shortage of despair here, arrayed in the various abject hues of its forlorn rainbow—“hopeless despair,” “solitary despair,” “invincible despair,” “complete despair”—with only the slight respite of the aforementioned, less-to-be-expected “peaceful despair.” There is a “despairing cry,” a “despairing blow,” a “despairing Faustus,” “despairing conviction,” some “despairing fury”—there’s always some fury of some sort or another—and one little girl who hugs a man sadly but colorfully about the knees with her “soft despairing magnolia-colored arms.”
Also to be seen are “despair and shame,” “despair and pity,” and—wait for it—“despair and waiting.” Plus, “bitterness and despair” and, naturellement, “fury and despair.” While Chapter 1 has “victory and despair,” Chapter 8 has “despair and victory”; Chapter 4, “grief and despair,” Chapter 7, “despair and grief.” There is the choice of “surprise or despair” and the denial of “neither surprise nor despair.” And there is as well “suffering and bewilderment and despair”—which brings us to the yin to despair’s yang.
In Absalom! we are never free of “any human injustice or folly or suffering.” We must contemplate “all misfortune and defeat that the human race ever suffered,” remember that life is a “heritage of suffering,” and memorialize all those who have “courageously suffered”—those who have “suffered pain,” nay, “suffered excruciating pain,” those who have “suffered and endured,” nay, “suffered beyond endurance.” We must bear the weight of “the heavy organs of suffering and experience” and ask ourselves, Heavy organs? Is this something I should see a doctor about?
Warfare is, for a general, “suffering, these four years of keeping his men alive.” An injured soldier, “though suffering, clings…to the arm or leg which he knows must come off.” (In a fever dream, “the dear suffering arm or leg is strong and sound.”) One man’s business decision leads to “the loss, which, in withdrawing, he had suffered”; another, having erred, must “admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it.” One woman’s traumatic upbringing is a “holocaust in which she had suffered”; another such victim of childhood abuse recounts “how she had been scorned and suffered.” These despairing folk have “suffered temptation,” “suffered the farce,” and “suffered a situation”; they have sinned, “suffered for it and died for it”; they have even borne the onerous burden of the “sufferance of good manners.”
There is suffering in scripture quotes (“‘your grandfather said, “Suffer little children to come unto Me”’”) and suffering on tombstone inscriptions (“Born October 3, 1841. Suffered Indignities and Travails of this word for 24 Years.”). Suffering is so prevalent that things are measured by its absence or opposite—a house “not having suffered from invasion, but a shell marooned and forgotten”; eyes “not even suffering but merely filled with baffled incomprehension”; outrage “which the actual living articulate meat had not even suffered but merely inherited.”* One character imagines a world without war, in which he would have “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it.” Another speculates, “it’s not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anticlimax of it.”
Both plentiful and adaptable, suffer can shape-shift into different guises, from such Dr. Seuss-ian characterizations as a woman who is “the eternal female, the eternal Who-suffers,” to Yoda-esque turns of phrase like “if happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.” One dimestore philosopher worries of a future in which “there wouldn’t be anything left that mattered that much, worth getting that heated over, worth protesting against or suffering for,” but the universe of Absalom! hardly seems in danger of running low on source material over which to writhe in racked anguish—so grab your popcorn, it’s Movie Night!
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*My best guess is that the “articulate meat” here is we human beings, still only animalistic flesh and blood despite the pretensions to something more lofty that our powers of speech might tempt us to entertain (or something like that; I’m spitballing).