Into the Great Unknown

The name of this blog was taken from a line of dialogue in Absalom, Absalom! in which a woman is describing a distant relative of hers who has a tendency to play dumb.  This, she explains, is done to disguise a nest of knotty, sometimes perplexing contradictions at her core: “Clytie [is] not inept,” she clarifies, “anything but inept: perverse inscrutable and paradox: free, yet incapable of freedom.”  Clytie—illegitimate child of a slave mother and a plantation owner father—is, no doubt, a paradox.  She just happens to be one of the book’s many paradoxes.

These include the “bloodless paradox…of peaceful conquest” and—still peaceful but somehow way more bloody—“soil manured with black blood of two hundred years of oppression [that springs] with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery.”  A scene depicting the funeral of a unprepossessing woman juxtaposes a massive burial stone against the fragile remains it will memorialize, the body reposed in a grove “in powder-light paradox beneath the thousand pounds of marble monument.”  Absalom!’s paradoxical pairings include “paradox and inconsistency” and “paradox and madness”; paradoxical alternatives include “incongruity or paradox.”  An adolescent girl has an “air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness”; travelers find themselves in a “city foreign and paradoxical”; and—in a strenuously goofy example of aggrandizing the everyday (previously ribbed by me elsewhere)—the top half of a folded piece of paper rises off the table “in weightless and paradoxical levitation.”  (Remind me not to book whatever magician this is for the kids’ next birthday party.)

Nor is Clytie—inscrutable embodiment of paradox, she—the book’s only scrutiny-resistant person, place, or thing.  She may have an “inscrutable coffee-colored face,” but she’s hardly alone in this department (another character has “that still face…just sullen and inscrutable”), and she surely can’t hope to challenge her father’s carriage driver for po-faced primacy, he apparently the achiever of the Platonic ideal in this area (his mug is, we are told, “perfectly inscrutable”).  This same category also encompasses circumspect means of entrance (“inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways”), cagey but oddly soothing unfamiliar languages (“the words, the symbols…shadowy inscrutable and serene”), nonthreatening but hard-to-interpret quadrants of the sky (“a panorama of harmless and inscrutable night”), shifty land masses (“the dark inscrutable continent”—full of, presumably, cities foreign and paradoxical), and feline mathematics (“cold and catlike inscrutable calculation”).

You can imagine—as far as blog names go—that any number of phrases from the book suggested themselves as likely possibilities; before Perverse Inscrutable, I thought I had found the perfect candidate in a description of one character assigning another a nickname out of “incomprehensible affectation” (we have a winner!)—but then I realized that I had misread the sentence in question, which actually was referring to incomprehensible affection.  (Which perhaps does contain a grain of insight into my complicated feelings for Absalom!, but was still not quite on the nose, title-wise.)  And you can probably also imagine—just as there is much in these pages that is inscrutable, there is no shortage of that which is incomprehensible, either.  Or, while we’re in that same neighborhood, inexplicable.

Incomprehensible items include “incomprehensible ultimatums,” “incomprehensible children,” and “a dead incomprehensible shadow.”  There is a range of dumbfoundedness, from “baffled incomprehension” all the way to “incredulous incomprehension.”  There is—take your pick—“surprise or incomprehension.”  There is physical motion described as “furious and incomprehensible” and emotional abuse likened to a “busted water pipe of incomprehensible fury.”  (Man, you just know the plumber’s going to charge time-and-a-half for that one.)

There is also “the inexplicable unseen,” “the inexplicable thunderhead of interdictions and defiances,” “the brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live,” and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  There are “natural and violent and inexplicable volte faces”; “acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable”; and “bitter inexplicable (to the man mind) amicable enmities which occur between women of the same blood.”  There is a fellow—in the grip himself of some kind of existential paradox, it would seem—who feels “amazement… at the inexplicable and incredible fact of his own presence.”  There is “that quiet aptitude of a child for accepting the inexplicable.”  There is another fellow, regarding a situation and decreeing, “It was as if he found the whole business, not inexplicable, of course, just unnecessary.”  Tell me about it, brother.

And, on a final note—about the “author name” that accompanies these blog entries, that is from a description of the character Charles Bon, referred to twice in the space of four pages as “the esoteric, the sybarite” (pages 253 and 256).  Sybarite, of course, is very much one of those probably-shouldn’t-be-used-more-than-once-in-a-single-book sort of words that I’ve been on about before (it shows up also to characterize how Bon likes to lounge around in “the outlandish and almost female garments of his sybaritic privacy”), while esoteric is naturally in comfortable company with the likes of inscrutable, inexplicable, incomprehensible, and paradox.  So let us note here also the book’s mentions of an “esoteric milieu,” an “indolent esoteric hothouse bloom,” “the esoteric, the almost baroque, the almost epicene object d’art,” “some esoteric piece of furniture,”* and—Faulkner’s meaning here is not exactly a difficult code to crack, he might as well be writing this with a pinkie extended—“expensive esoteric Fauntleroy clothing.”

Here is a writer who loves words—loves certain words so much, in fact, that he lavishes attention on them till they’re in danger of their very lives like quivering mice imperiled beneath Lennie’s smothering caresses.  It’s enough to make one’s response to Absalom! feel almost…paradoxical.  If I had to describe the conflicted emotions it elicits, I’d say they were somewhere between incomprehensible affection and a busted fury pipe.

• • •

*This, also, I have made fun of in the past, but esoteric furniture, Good Lord.

Chapter 4, Chapter 2

Chapter 4 of Absalom, Absalom! has, as has been mentioned previously, a number of repeated elements: the word probation, the word durance, the phrase you see, and close to a century’s worth of four years-es, to name but a few.  So let’s name a few more.  Sardonic, for example: In Chapter 4, the character of Charles Bon is described as having “an air of sardonic and indolent detachment” (page 74); his manner is, we read, “passive, a little sardonic” (also page 74); his is a “passive and sardonic spirit” (page 79); occasionally he will display “sardonic and surprised distaste” (page 82) or “pessimistic and sardonic cerebral pity” (page 91); even his writing style is characterized as “gentle sardonic whimsical and incurably pessimistic” (page 102).  (As you may have noticed, Chapter 4 is not without a decent supply of pessimism and passivity, either.)

The same Charles Bon who is depicted on page 74 with an “air of sardonic and indolent detachment” is described, four pages after this, as “the man who later showed the same indolence…the same detachment.”  He is—also page 78—“this indolent old man”; he possesses “dilatory indolence” (page 81); he is “that indolent fatalist” (page 83); and his writing style (which seems to invite oddly comma-free lists of descriptors) is “gallant flowery indolent frequent and insincere” (page 102).  He also has—picking up the detached thread—the “detached attentiveness of a scientist” (page 74) and a “surgeon’s alertness and cold detachment” (page 90).

Charles Bon is—in addition to being sardonic, indolent, and detached—one majorly charismatic cat.  His much younger college buddy Henry has a huge man-crush on him and, when Henry takes his pal home with him for a visit, Henry’s sister Judith is just as gaga over him.  Henry and Judith are basically “that single personality with two bodies both of which had been seduced” by the dashing fatalist/scientist/surgeon Bon (this on page 73).  So casually charming is he that, we are told on page 74, he “seems to have seduced the country brother and sister without any effort or particular desire to do so.”  You might say that “he had seduced Henry and Judith both” (which the book says on page 75).  And Henry?  Well, “he loved Bon, who seduced him as surely as he seduced Judith” (page 76).

Or—wait—maybe it’s a bit more psychosexually complex than that: Maybe Henry is working out some incestuous feelings for Judith, and his buddy, Mr. Seducey Seducerson, is just a proxy.  “‘So it must have been Henry who seduced Judith, not Bon,’” says one spectator to the relationship, seemingly channeling a trenchcoated Peter Falk, “‘seduced her along with himself’” (page 79).  All of this triangulated, Dangerous Liaisons-y activity is done “‘with no volition on the seducer’s part…as though it were actually the brother who had put the spell on the sister, seduced her to his own vicarious image’” (page 85).  Or maybe it’s even more complex—and Judith is the stand-in, an “empty vessel” for the otherwise inexpressible feelings between the college chums, an intermediary for “the man and the youth, seducer and seduced”—page 95, still Chapter 4—“who had known one another, seduced and been seduced.”  Mercy me, is it getting hot in here?  Tonight on Cinemax After Dark…William Faulkner’s Seduction, Seduction!

Whatever exactly sort of Freudian quicksand Henry is splashing around in, he can’t really be held accountable; after all, Bon “corrupted Henry” (page 81).  This is apparent even from Henry’s mother’s perspective: “[T]hough the daughter might still be saved from him, [Bon] had already corrupted the son” (page 82).  This is apparent even to the resident Yoknapatawpha County Columbo, as he reconstructs how Bon dazzled his prey with his big city ways: “‘I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance’” (page 87).  Bon, to Henry, is “the mentor, the corrupter” (page 88); he works his “corruption subtly…by putting into Henry’s mind the notion of one man of the world speaking to another” (page 89); his machinations are the essence of “corruption itself” (page 91).  (At least the siblings’ mother is right about Judith, who is fortunately not as susceptible to corruption as she is to seduction: “Surely Bon could not have corrupted her,” we are reassured on page 95, as we are also informed [same page] that he “had not tried to corrupt her to unchastity”—a double negative construction that I’ll leave to readers better equipped with the necessary analytic lockpicks than I to disentangle.)

And, oh my, the glitter!  Chapter 4 includes “the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels,” soldiers’ uniforms adorned with “martial glitter of brass and plumes,” fireworks like “brave trivial glitter against a black night,” and—of course, surrounding the godlike Charles Bon—“a sort of Scythian glitter.”  Four glitters.  In one chapter.  I know there’s a lot of seducing going on, but it’s not set in a strip club, for God’s sake.