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.”

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Use Your Words

On the first page of Absalom, Absalom!, one character is telling another a story.  The storyteller is speaking in a “grim haggard amazed voice,” and if you’re thinking how much fun it would be to be on the receiving end of that tale, now consider that she’s “talking…until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound.”  (This is happening in the book’s first paragraph.)  Less than a page in, and already one of Absalom!’s internal sub-narratives has caused the sense phenomenon of hearing, itself, to throw up its hands in mystification and contemplate a new career.

This is the point at which—the first page!—you’ve got to figure many a casual reader, having just picked this thing up, is thinking to him- or herself something along the lines of “Uh oh.”  For those souls stalwart enough to progress past this literary equivalent of a caution flag waving wildly by the side of the track, it is at least a warning that what lies ahead includes a lot of ambiguous instances of hearing and listening—examples of which will range from simple inattentiveness to occasions bordering on some kind of weird super power.

The captive audience being subjected to the tale described above—the story with the power to make the very act of listening stick its fingers in its own ears—is a young gentleman named Quentin Compson, who, bound by the shackles of propriety and misguided respect for one’s elders, is listening to the “grim quiet voice” of aging family friend Miss Coldfield as she recounts the story of her life.  That a person’s hearing might “renege” under such an assault seems like a natural enough defense mechanism, but Quentin is a man possessed of selective auditory abilities in all variety of circumstances.

In a different scene, he is having a conversation with his father—or conversation-of-sorts, I should say, since, as can be seen in this snapshot from the exchange, “Mr. Compson’s voice [was] speaking on while Quentin heard it without listening.”  Whereas this one moment might be mistaken for a garden-variety case of tuning the old man out, the young fellow’s ersatz-Buddhist state of non-aware awareness is remarked upon a second time—“Quentin hearing without having to listen”—and then finally reaches its silent crescendo in a vignette involving a college roommate and some courtyard chimes: “Quentin lay still too, as if he were listening too, though he was not; he just heard them without listening as he heard Shreve without listening or answering, until they ceased.”

Nor is Quentin the only character with this ability to hear trees falling in forests.  Thomas Sutpen, brother-in-law of the riveting raconteur Miss Coldfield, relates a three-way conversation of his own that failed to hold him spellbound: “he just listening, not especially interested he said, hearing the two of them without listening.”  Boring people to tears is, apparently, something that runs in the Coldfield family, as Miss C.’s nephew Henry is similarly given the deaf-ear treatment by a college chum he’s spent all semester chatting up, who dismisses “what it was that came out the three months of Henry’s talking that he heard without listening to.”  Even Miss Coldfield herself had, as a nosy child “lurking in dim hallways,” a counterintuitively attuned sense of hearing, always “listening beyond closed doors not to what she heard there.”  (That’s right—not to what she heard there.  Is that the sound of one hand clapping somewhere off in the distance, Grasshopper?)

It only stands to reason that, if there was listening-free hearing, there was speaking-free talking.  Miss Coldfield and her kinda-sorta niece Clytie (she’s Thomas Sutpen’s illegitimate daughter…this is a pretty gnarled family tree we’re talking about, here) “spoke to one another free of the limitations of speech and hearing.”  Quentin berates himself for not attending more closely to what he was told as a child: “[Y]ou were not listening,” he self-scolds, “[you had] absorbed it already without the medium of speech.”  Sutpen and his “official” daughter Judith commiserate “without the need of the medium of ear or intellect.”  (They do this to the degree that—as is reported not-at-all hyperbolically—“speech atrophies from disuse and…they no longer understand one another’s actual words.”  Which makes you think that maybe one of those greeting cards that plays music would be Judith’s best bet for Father’s Day.)

Henry and his college pal have their dorm-room powwows in “a dialogue without words, speech”—probably why the guy has been all but ignoring him these past three months.  Eventually this chap does deign to respond to Henry: “[He] would say…perhaps with words now.”  (Oh, with words this time, eh, fella?  Yeah, that might help facilitate the communication process a bit.)  In a moment of shock, Miss Coldfield cries out to her semi-niece Clytie, “‘And you too, sister, sister?’” (I told you the family tree was gnarled), although, to hear Miss C. tell it: “I cried—perhaps not aloud, not with words.”  A similar paradox informs interspecies confabs as well, as a buggy driver addresses his and his fellow drivers’ steeds with an equine version of this speaking-without-speaking routine: “[I]n the act of passing another carriage [he] spoke to that team as well as to his own—something without words, not needing words.”  (You’d think, since they’re called “horse whisperers,” that they’re actually whispering something, but no.)

Sometimes you wonder if there’s anybody in Absalom! whose ears just work normally.  Clytie, for example, displays—somehow—“a profoundly attentive and distracted listening” (the sort of description to which it is almost irresistible to reply, “Sorry, say again?”).  Miss Coldfield, as she tells her life story, reflects on her early education: “[M]y childhood…taught me…to listen before I could comprehend and to understand before I even heard.”  (The first half of which sounds very wise; the second half of which sounds like she grew up sharpening her ESP chops at the X-Men Mutant Academy.)  Some characters find it so hard to demonstrate active listening skills that their exchanges are no more intelligible “than the sounds which a beast and a bird might make to each other.”  Maybe the horses can translate.