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 elsewhere, if 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 be—whatever the source of the problem is—in this book, it sure as heck isn’t incompleteness.
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