Tales Well Calculated

You might be surprised at some of the things you can do while in a state of suspension—in Absalom, Absalom!, examples include one character, replying dreamily to a question, who “answered in some curious serene suspension”; an untroubled family, “the four members of [which] floated in sunny suspension”; and a freshly roused sleeper who is “waking in some suspension so completely physical as to resemble the state before birth.”  (I think I’d hit the snooze button for one more trimester.)

Still—while answering, floating, and waking in it are all perfectly good options—the default state of suspension remains the state of being held in it: Girls on the cusp of adulthood are “in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable”; a woman who feels imprisoned in her house by her marriage is “held there not in durance but in a kind of jeering suspension”; a man embroiled in a complex emotional triangle demands time to make a decision, “holding all three of them…in that suspension while he wrestled with his conscience.”  And as he ponders, the players are left “held in that probation, that suspension.”

And what, exactly, is this “probation”?  For answers—delivered, perhaps, in a curious serene suspension—we should look to Chapter 4 and its story of Henry Sutpen; after all, in the words of one observer, “‘It was Henry’s probation; Henry holding all three of them in that durance.’”  (More holding?  And more durance?)  Long story short: Henry’s best friend Charles Bon and Henry’s sister Judith are engaged to be wed, but Henry discovers his friend already has a previous, legally unresolved marriage in his past.  While Henry and Bon—as he is better known—are off fighting in the Civil War, Henry refuses to let his pal contact Judith until he, Bon, has broken things off with the other woman—and these four years of enforced noncommunication are the “probation.”  Now for the long story long.

Henry writes Judith from the battlefront to explain, “‘since doubtless he refused to allow Bon to write—this announcement of the armistice, the probation.’”*  Being an inordinately dutiful sister, Judith accepts the arrangement without objection, “‘she and Henry both knowing that she would observe the probation.’”  And Henry is like a hawk from the moment he and his buddy sign up: “‘They enlisted together, you see, Henry watching Bon and Bon permitting himself to be watched, the probation, the durance.’”  (Okay, all these probations are one thing, but durance again?)

Being inordinately dutiful, himself, Bon abides by his friend’s wishes and refrains from contacting his fiancée: “‘Henry would not let him; it was the probation, you see.’”  (The fellow recounting this story says “you see” a lot.**)  Henry is adamant that his future brother-in-law get his messy past straightened out—as reports Mr. You See, ultimately “‘[t]hat what was why the four years, the probation’”—but Henry feels conflicted, “‘still loving Bon, the man to whom he gave four years of probation.’”  But he is also resolute, and Judith is left to wait.  “‘She waited four years, with no word from him save through Henry that he (Bon) was alive. It was the probation, the durance.’”  (Durance?  Really?)

For as many times as probation is used in Chapter 4—and it is oodles—it pales compared to the mantra-like repetition of a certain span of time whose recurrence here you may have already noted (the rest of the quote mentioned in the previous paragraph is “‘the man to whom he gave four years of probation, four years in which to renounce and dissolve the other marriage, knowing that the four years of hoping and waiting would be in vain.’”).  Yes, the Civil War figures centrally in Absalom, Absalom!, and, yes, that conflict lasted four years, but come on.  This, for example, is from page 79: “‘And yet, four years later, Henry had to kill Bon to keep them from marrying.’”  (As you may infer, the probation doesn’t exactly end up fixing the whole Henry/Judith/Bon situation.)  Also from page 79: “‘[Judith endured] a period of four years during which she could not have always been certain he was still alive.’”  And from page 79: “‘[Y]et four years later [Bon] was apparently so bent upon the marriage…as to force the brother who had championed it to kill him.’”  And, lastly, from page 79: “‘[Henry had] become a follower and dependent of the rejected suitor for four years before killing him apparently for the very identical reason which four years ago he quitted home to champion.’”  Oh, and by the way?  Four years.

Bon’s first wife is not the only skeleton in his closet—“‘four years later Judith was to find the photograph of the other woman and [their] child’” (page 71).  “‘I don’t think she ever suspected,’” theorizes our narrator for this vignette, “‘until that afternoon four years later’” (page 73).  Bon does eventually write Judith, though, at the end of the war: “‘[F]our years later…she received a letter from him saying We have waited long enough’” (page 80).  “‘[H]ere is the letter, sent four years afterward,’” intones a rueful Mr. You See, “‘four years after she had had any message from him save the messages from Henry that he (Bon) was still alive’” (page 85).

You have likely gathered that Henry ends up killing Bon—an act of righteous eradication long overdue, or so figures the teller of the tale, who thinks Henry should have just gone ahead and done it right after finding out about Bon’s marital situation: “‘[T]hat afternoon four years later should have happened the next day, the four years, the interval, mere anti-climax’” (this also from Chapter 4, on page 94).  But instead, “‘he waited, hoped, for four years’” (page 94).  Yes, “‘Henry waited four years’”—yes, still page 94—all the while “‘holding the three of them in that abeyance, that durance.”  (What th?  You have got to be jok—  #@&%!!! )

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*The Henry/Judith/Bon soap opera is largely related second-hand, thus all the quotations-within-quotations.

**From Chapter 4 (for completists only): “‘he (Henry) could not say that to his friend, I did that for love of you….He couldn’t say that, you see’” (p. 72); “‘he, the living man, was usurped, you see’” (p. 77); “‘You see? there they are: this girl…this father…this brother’” (p. 79); “‘You see? You would almost believe that Sutpen’s trip to New Orleans was just sheer chance’” (p. 81); “‘He had been too successful, you see; his was that solitude of contempt’” (p. 82); “‘So he dared not ask Bon to deny it; he dared not, you see’” (p. 85); “‘but we do not pretend to be God, you see’” (p. 91); “‘They didn’t tell one another anything, you see…Judith, that she knew where Bon and Henry now were’” (p. 96).  Plus the following, from page 90, in which a conversation—about a duel—is described (so handy an interjection is “you see” that not only is the fellow who’s telling the story partial to it, so is the fellow who’s in the story—two sentences in a row!): “‘[T]he guide [was] casually and pleasantly anecdotal:…. “They face one another inside the same cloak, you see, each holding the other’s wrist with the left hand.  But that was never my way”;—casual, chatty, you see, waiting for the countryman’s slow question…“What would you—they be fighting for?”’”

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It’s Not You, It’s Me

Thomas Sutpen is the malevolent colossus that bestrides the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! (he’s referred to in the course of the book as a “demon” about sixty-five times—not really the most nuanced of characterizations).  So when it’s revealed in a flashback near the end that, as a younger man, he turned his back on his first wife and child, it’s almost anticlimactic: After other characters have called you things like “this Faustus…this Beelzebub” and even your coterie of underlings has been described—in an amusingly stiff-sounding dab of legalese—as “twenty subsidiary demons,” the bar for rottenness has been set fairly high.

Still, it’s pretty rotten, even if you provide for them financially, for a man to have “repudiated that first wife and that child.”  Especially when it’s done with calculation: “[He] got engaged and then…had a wife to repudiate later”; “he would certainly need…to repudiate the wife after he had already got her.”  The post-separation support might provide some salve—his son will later reflect that Sutpen “‘must have surrendered everything he and Mother owned to her and me as the price of repudiating her’”—but it hardly improves the giver’s diabolic reputation, being “the money…that he (the demon) had voluntarily surrendered, repudiated to balance his moral ledger.”  (The moral ledger is better left to Satan’s accountants than to his subsidiary demons, I would assume.)  The intervening years will cloud Sutpen’s conviction at the wisdom of his decision, though, as he finds when later struggling with a similar quandary: “[T]his second choice [was] as obscure…as the reason for the first, the repudiation.”

Karma’s a you-know-what, though, and Thomas Sutpen eventually winds up on the boomerang end of some really primo repudiation himself at the hands of his second, “real” son, Henry.  When Sutpen makes an incendiary accusation against a cherished college friend of Henry’s named Charles Bon, it sparks “Henry’s violent repudiation of his father and his birthright.”  Furious at the allegations leveled at his comrade, Henry leaves his home without a trace, “vanished, his birthright voluntarily repudiated.”  So angry is Henry on behalf of his friend that “he repudiated blood birthright and material security for his sake.”  Naturally, it becomes the talk of the town, as one relative recounts (albeit without providing much in the way of additional detail), “‘I saw Henry repudiate his home and birthright.’”*

So Henry leaves his home (and birthright), “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house, his birthplace and all the familiar scene of his childhood and youth which he had repudiated for the sake of that friend.”  All for his friend—“the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing,” “the friend for whom he had already repudiated home and kin and all”—the man that Henry felt he must defend “to the extent of repudiating father and blood and home,” the friend for whom he would muster the “strength to repudiate home and blood in order to champion,” the compadre whose honor would justify Henry’s disavowal of his family and “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity.”  Together, Sutpens père and fils are “the father who decreed and forbade, the son who denied and repudiated.”

All of which makes for a total of four birthright-repudiations (six if you count abjurals), three blood-repudiations, three father-repudiations, three home-repudiations, two kin-repudiations, one “roof under which he had been born”-repudiation, and an assortment of general-category creature-comfort-repudiations (“food and shelter and clothing,” “material security”) and life-history-repudiations (“the familiar scene of his childhood and youth,” “the old heredity,” “and all”).  Repudiation, repudiation—yeah, in my head now, it totally just sounds like nonsense.

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*Other such rebuffs also include two instances of birthright abjuring—a word surely not best behooved by being used more than once in a book (no matter how formally you dress it up): “Henry had formally abjured his home and birthright” and, fewer than 25 pages away from this, “Henry had formally abjured his father and renounced his birthright and the roof under which he had been born.”  Nor did that roof get off with mere formal abjurement, either: Henry also “had repudiated the very roof under which he had been born.”  So there.

Unabridged Too Far

In my last post I mentioned a character from Absalom, Absalom! who possesses the striking imaginative ability to channel the sensual experiences of other people so wholly that it’s as though he were swapping bodies with them in mid-throes—a “complete abnegate transference,” as it is described.  I had cited this fellow’s impressive talent for foxy metamorphosis mostly just to be childish, of course, but also in the context of making fun of how many times the book was using the word metamorphosis.  Less distracted by all the sexual shapeshifting and I probably would have thought to turn my attention to abnegate while I was at it, as well.  A book doesn’t need more than one abnegate.  It’s the same reason Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t keep popping up again over and over in the same movie once he’s made his cameo.

One character’s meager savings—accumulated through years of self-denying frugality—are “a symbol of [his] fortitude and abnegation.”  Another character, resigning herself to an unenviable but inevitable situation, feels “peaceful despair and relief at final and complete abnegation.”  (As has been noted elsewhereif you’re given your choice of despairs, definitely go with the peaceful variety.)  That “complete abnegate transference” referred to above occurs between two college friends, Charles and Henry, the latter of whom idolizes the former so much that he has graphic daydreams of what it must be like in his shoes—yes, let’s go with shoes—and also displays towards him (this only two pages after the complete abnegate transference) “complete and abnegate devotion.”  And if you’re thinking that maybe it seems like these examples have another repeated element in common, you’re not completely off-base.

Absalom, Absalom! includes not just “complete abnegate transference,” “complete and abnegate devotion,” and “complete abnegation” itself, but also “complete despair”—ah, full circle—along with such other all-present-and-accounted-for examples as a “complete instant,” a “complete affront,” a “complete pauper,” “complete chattel,” “complete nonsense,” “complete detachment,” “complete finality,” “complete inertia,” “complete irrelevance,” “complete surrender,” “complete mystical acceptance,” “the complete picture,” and—okay, now full circle—“a complete metamorphosis.”

Various items and persons are described as “rounded and complete,” “stillborn and complete,” “queenly and complete,” “accomplished and complete,” and “instantaneous and complete.”  (In a grayer area are those objects only “apparently complete” and Heisenbergianly “complete or not complete.”)  A precocious boy is said to have been “produced complete…entering the actual world not at the age of one second but of twelve years.”  A woman experiences a “reversal so complete” that she weds a man she’s hated since she was a little girl.  A gossip blankets an entire town with her latest news in the space of a morning: “It did not take her long and it was complete.”  A widower commissions two tombstones, “his wife’s complete and his with the date left blank.”  A butterfly—once it has emerged from its, yes, metamorphosis—is “complete and intact.”

In Absalom!’s 100% world, things are “completely gone,” “completely alone,” “completely static,” “completely outraged,” “completely indifferent,” “completely physical,” “completely unaware,” and—no argument here—“completely enigmatic.”  A man with impulse control issues is “completely the slave of his secret and furious impatience.”  An indecisive shadow has “faded again but not completely away.”  A hungry woman tragically has no tools to work her garden—paging O. Henry—“even if she had known completely how.” One sketchy gent, not intimately acquainted with morality during his lifetime, “dying had escaped it completely.”  A proud woman accepts her neighbors’ charity but takes steps to “carry completely out the illusion that it had never existed.”  The structure of a burning house has collapsed to the point that one witness can see “completely through it a ragged segment of sky.”  That strange wedding mentioned in the previous paragraph can only come about after the bride-to-be’s ugly adolescent memories “vanish so completely that she would agree to marry” the man she once considered “the ogre-face of her childhood.”  (I give it a year.)

Characters in Absalom, Absalom! are forever chasing an elusive sense of plenitude.  A social climber with grand schemes to “complete the shape and substance of that respectability” which he lacks, makes crazy-pariah predictions for his ultimate popular vindication: “‘my design [will] complete itself quite normally and naturally and successfully to the public eye.’”  (The bwa-ha-ha-ha at the end is implicit.)  Budding homeowners seek “money with which to complete [their] house” and, while eventually comes “the day…the house was completed,” the need remains for “a piece of furniture which would complement and complete the furnishing” and a plow in the garden to “complete the furrow”—and estranged relatives still prove disinclined to make holiday visits and “complete the ceremonial family group even four times a year.”*

At one point in the story, an older woman seeking closure looks back at her life and reflects that she “could get up and go out there to finish up what she found she hadn’t quite completed.”  Something not completed?!  Get crackin’, Madam!  In another scene, a character is considering the phenomenon of unhappy marriages (hmm, I seem to be getting the tiniest tingle on my Theme Sensor here); she asks, “‘So is it too much to believe that these women come to long for divorce from a sense not of incompleteness but of actual frustration and betrayal?’”  My answer would bewhatever the source of the problem is—in this book, it sure as heck isn’t incompleteness.

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*I’ve taken a bit of license here in yoking together an assortment of the book’s domestic scenarios into a single, unhappy-in-its-own-way clan.

Limit One per Customer, Three

The problem with ten-dollar words is that they can price themselves right out of the business.  Once a fancy showboat like purlieu or miasma or effluvium has come on the scene saying, “Get a load of me,” it can be hard for the reader, upon subsequent encounters with those same ringers, not to think, “Didn’t I get a load of this already?”  No matter how long the book you’re reading is, when you hit that second circumambient, you probably still have a fairly distinct recollection of the first.  Making a splashy debut is one thing, but holding down steady work is another.

I’ve been to the well on this subject twice before* and have in those previous bucket-dunkings brought up such shiny attention-getters as unsentient, the sort of word that hardly needs to be used excessively for its use to feel excessive: Absalom, Absalom!’s “unsentient earth,” “unsentient barrow,” and—no, you are not reading this next one wrong—“unsentient plow handles” together constitute, I would argue, 200% more unsentience than any one novel should rightly contain.  (And as to my inconsistent practicing-versus-preaching policy in the area of not repeating oneself, I can only say in my defense that the well in question is pretty darn deep.)

Apotheosis, for example, seems like the kind of vocabulary seasoning that one would want to apply with some economy, but Absalom! is never less than a robustly flavored dish.  In one episode, kept women of multiracial heritage are described as “the supreme apotheosis of chatterly” and then, two pages later, as “the apotheosis of two doomed races,” while, in another moment, a man’s unobtainable self-ideal is characterized as “his own lonely apotheosis,” which, four pages after that, gets artily inverted into “the apotheosis lonely.”  (Elsewhere, for a final pinch of zest, there is “the dream which, conjunctive with the dreamer, becomes immolated and apotheosized.”  Oh, that dream again.)

transmogrifierTransmogrify is, no bones about it, an awesomely cool word.  External to the universe of Calvin and Hobbes, though, its frequency of use within a single work of fiction would likely best be capped at one (and even that might be pushing it).  If your book contains an unhappy woman whose married life has left her “transmogrified into a mask looking back with passive and hopeless grief upon the irrevocable world” and a couple of hardy, temperature-be-damned types who face the cold “in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirits’ travail,” you’ve got yourself an overegged pudding.

One click adjacent on the transmogrification knob is the setting for metamorphosis—and, fear not, the Absalom! stew will not go undersalted with metamorphoses, as unlikely as it is to see that word so well-represented outside of a lepidoptera textbook.  Fitting, then, that it should figure repeatedly in delicately winged metaphors of personal development—“Ellen went through a complete metamorphosis, emerging into her next lustrum with the complete finality of actual rebirth”; “[people] grow from one metamorphosis—dissolution or adultery—to the next…as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared.”  But it also comes into play in the rather tangled erotic imaginings of one character who not only fantasizes about assuming the form of his sister’s fiancée so he can sleep with her (“that complete abnegate transference, metamorphosis into the body which was to become his sister’s lover”; “in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband”), he also—and, hey, points for empathy—envisions what it would be like to be the female half of that coupling, to receive “the lover, the husband…by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride.”  So, once your therapist is done interpreting those immolated and apotheosized dreams of yours, see what she makes of that one.

The multi-stage arc of experiencing a word like importunate can be charted with a series of points: Upon one’s first brush (“to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man”), one may reach for the dictionary and offer appreciations, Ah, “urgent or persistent”—what lively word selection!; upon the second (“the surprised importunate traitorous flesh”), one may feel a flickering of concern, Ah, but Author, Good Sir, did we not see this rather noteworthy word in just the previous chapter, also in very similar context?; and upon the third (“any hushed wild importunate blood”), one may gently opine, Ah, man…another one?  And with “blood” again?!

I don’t know if I necessarily noticed the second or even the third occasion of recapitulation as it appeared in Absalom, Absalom!, but by the end, once it had fully transmogrified through the many phases of its recapitulative metamorphosis—“harsh recapitulation,” “outraged recapitulation,” “patient amazed recapitulation,” “vain and empty recapitulation”—its bright colors had definitely caught my eye.  At one point, a lawyer, apparently charging by the recapitulation, crafts a letter of introduction between two men—“an introduction (clumsy though it be) to one young gentleman whose position needs neither detailing nor recapitulation in the place where this letter is read, of another young gentleman whose position requires neither detailing nor recapitulation in the place where it was written.”  (Whatever gave him the idea that this was clumsy?)

Other nominations I would make for the One of Those Should Be More Than Enough, Thank You designation include repercussive (“the fierce repercussive flush of vindicated loyalty,” “the tedious repercussive climax”), volte face (“a volte face of character,” “one of mankind’s natural and violent and inexplicable volte faces”), and lugubrious (“some lugubrious and painless purgatory,” “lugubrious and vindictive anticipation,” “lugubrious and even formal occasions”—these last two separated only by the space of as many pages).  You get all of these together in the same recipe, and, mamma mia, that’s a spicy meatball.

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*Physician, heal thyself!  (Those visits are here and here.)