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.

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—  #@&%!!! )

• • •

*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?”’”

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.

• • •

*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.

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.”

Hip Hip Hooray

I’ve referred elsewhere to the disproportionate amount of will in Absalom, Absalom!will as in the “free will,” “ruthless will,” “constant will,” “desperate will,” “unbending will” kind of will—and even mentioned then that, among the various will-pairings to be found in the book’s pages—e.g., “will and courage,” “will and intensity,” “will and strength”—there was some “will and endurance” to be had as well, but I don’t think I paid nearly enough attention at the time to the endurance component of that twin set…because we’re talking, like, Shackletonian levels here.

Turns out that will and endurance make for a pretty well-coordinated outfit—Absalom! dresses itself up in the combination repeatedly, showing off both an unadorned “will to endure” and the more colorful “blind instinctive will to endure.”  It sports some existential accessorizing with “the will to exist, endure” and also exhibits—although here it would seem our items may be starting to clash—“not the will but just the ability, the grooved habit to endure” and “the passive ability, not the volitional will, to endure.”  (Apparently ability will go with anything.)

I’ve also made light on another occasion of how much suffering goes on in Yoknapatawpha County—suffering as in the one character ill-served by life who reminisces about “all that he had suffered and endured in the past” or the other unhappy fellow who has gone the extra mile and “suffered beyond endurance.”  (A different gentleman is described as “exasperated beyond all endurance”—which is similarly phrased but frankly sounds much preferable as far as endurance-exceeding goes.)

Others in this overburdened assembly include a woman of constant labor whose “toil…only a beast could and would endure”; battle-fatigued soldiers who must “endure musketry and shelling”; and a hard-rode but taciturn hombre, the extent of whose “sacrifice and endurance and scorn…only he knows” since—as might be reasonably inferred—“he never told…how much he must have had to endure.”  (And some unfortunates aren’t even this lucky—some simply have “an inability to endure.”)

So stretched thin are these people that even their living areas are put to the endurance test, including a “plantation that supported and endured that smooth white house” and, elsewhere, another house—it would be funnier if it were the same house, but it’s a different house—“with an air, a quality of grim endurance.”  So constant are these people’s trials that the womenfolk seek rueful, Pyhrric consolation: “female victory,” says one, “is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.”  (This is officially the Yoknapatawpha High pep squad’s Worst. Cheer. Ever.)

In such soul-trying times as these, you can see why people would need to be drawing upon their reserves of will—their “implacable will,” drawn from a “bitter and implacable reserve.”  In an atmosphere of such “implacable and unalterable grief and despair,” one must seek inner strength—“something fierce and implacable and dynamic”—to make one’s way through this fallen world of “grim and implacable unforgiving.”  One regards the universe’s cruel tests through “implacable pouched black eyes” and either meets the challenge head-on with “terrified yet implacable determination” or withdraws into a protective shell of anger and numbness, cocooned in “fury and implacability and physical imperviousness to pain.”  In any case, one does one’s best to maintain one’s “stern implacable presence.”

Such ordeals as these could turn a person into “a character cold, implacable, and even ruthless.”  A person could become “imbued with cold implacable antipathy.”  A person could lose his or her identity and become a “cold implacable mindless…replica.”  (Whichever way it goes, the person’s gonna be pretty cold.*)  If nothing else, these tribulations—and all the “sullen implacability” and “hatred and implacability” that they elicit—seem to have growth-stunting side effects: Our Miss Coldfield is described alternately as an “implacable doll-sized woman” and a “small furious grim implacable woman not much larger than a child.”  And yes, boys, she’s single.

The oh-so-versatile implacable figures also in another real estate listing, this time in Miss Coldfield’s (ever-so-slightly convoluted) recollection of returning to a house from her past—which is now in a state of “desolation more profound than ruin, as if it had stood in iron juxtaposition to iron flame, to a holocaust which had found itself less fierce and less implacable.”  (Whatever you say, ma’am.)  As it happens, this is one of Absalom!’s three occasions of the word holocaust (Miss Coldfield is described, post-Civil War, as “a young woman emerging from a holocaust,” and her despised brother-in-law, a Colonel in the Mississippi Infantry, is “emerging from the same holocaust”).  In any ordinary book, multiple such uses of the word would surely border on the excessive, and yet here—Really? Only three?—it almost feels like a rare case of restraint.

• • •

*In Absalom, Absalom!, cold and ruthless characters are likely to display “cold and ruthless deliberation”—and also probably “cold alert fury,” “cold and inflexible disapproval,” “cold and attentive interest,” “cold and catlike inscrutable calculation,” and—every so often, and only if you’re lucky—“cold unbending detached gentleness.”  (They also speak with a “cold level voice,” have a “face calm, cold and tranquil,” behave with “grim and cold intensity,” and react with “alertness and cold detachment.”)

Less Is More

I don’t think anyone has ever accused William Faulkner of being the possessor of a light touch (not, at least, as evidenced by Absalom, Absalom!, a work whose crushing solemnity could convert coal into diamond).  So perhaps instead we could say that his is a delicate touch: The book, certainly—like the flowerbed which is depicted in its pages displaying ample evidence of a light-footed ruminant visitor—has its author’s “delicate prints” all over it.

For all their operatic histrionics—the outrage, the fury, the despair—the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County can be a pretty fussy lot, with their “various delicate scruples” and their “entire delicate spirit’s bent.”  This is, after all, a place where people give birth to “morose and delicate offspring”—a place where the girls are “not only delicate but actually precious,” the boys are “light in the bone and almost delicate” with “limbs almost as light and delicate as a girl’s,” and the Stepford spawn—or whatever you would call the “thin delicate child with a smooth ivory sexless face”—is apparently awaiting final gender-stamping by the lab.

This is a place of such topographical fragility that a farmer’s crops are planned for “a narrow delicate fenced virgin field” and even “roadside undergrowth” stands “delicate and rigid and immobly upward.”  Down these gentle byways, passengers ride in coaches (of questionable-sounding roadworthiness) that sport “proud delicate wheels.”  Any one of these hothouse flowers may be found at any moment putting up the pinkie on his or her “delicate hand” and making a gesture that is “delicately flattering.”  They possess wind chimes whose tones are “delicate and faint and musical.”  (OK, actually, all wind chimes sound like that.)

But get a load of their “delicate garments”—like one fellow’s coordinated getup seemingly from the underfed-Garanimals section (“his delicate shirt and stockings and shoes”) and another’s that manages to be both ethereal and hobo-esque (“delicate and overgrown tatters”).  This delicate sensibility informs everything from mystical thinking (“the delicate and perverse spirit-symbol”) to philosophical debate (“supported by legal and moral sanction even if not the delicate one of conscience”), from perceptual similes of looking at girls (“girls appear as though seen through glass…their very shapes fluid and delicate”) to animal similes of looking at women (“the woman…upon whom he had already come to look as might some delicate talonless and fangless wild beast crouched in its cage”*).

And speaking of that poor creature and its sorry state of talonless-ness and fangless-ness, it is yet another twisted creation of Dr. Faulkner-stein and his odd inclination for stitching words together, whether grafting un to the head of any number of seemingly inapt transplant recipients (to produce the likes of unamaze, unchastity, unfree, unkin, and unorganismamong many others) or, as in this case, affixing a less to the hindquarters of each ill-fated patient.  The results of these mad experiments I itemize here in ascending order of eccentricity, from the merely everyday (“soulless,” “pointless”) to the crimes-against-nature, locked-up-in-the-basement variety (“oxygenless,” “climaxless”).

Lab rats from the doctor’s operating theater, then, include one character’s “soulless rich surrender,” a “pointless formal door,” “moonless September dust,” a “sentient though nerveless shell,” a “blank fathomless stare,” “incomprehensible and apparently reasonless moving,” “busy eventless lives,” a “tearless and stone-faced daughter,” a “sonless widower,” “the fear of dying manless which…old maids have,” “fitless garments” and a “fitless house” (I don’t know if it’s better or worse that these appear in the same sentence), a “carpetless room,” “murdered women and children [who are] graveless,” a “masculine hipless tapering peg,” both “the saddleless mule” and “the spavined and saddleless mule,” “soilless and uncompelled peasantry,” “a sort of dreamy and destinationless locomotion,” a “dreamy and heatless alcove,” a—triple dreamy alert!—“dreamy and volitionless daughter,” “impossible and foundationless advice,” “the abashless and unabashed senses,” “water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid,” and—as was touched upon in a recent mention of epicene—“one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial.”  It’s alive…alive, I tell you!

Obviously, the nuptial which is both climaxless and unravished (as well as the peasantry both soilless and uncompelled) manages to incorporate displays of both phenomena, but it is with a touch of surprise that I have to report that Absalom! does not feature any combinations of the two—no delicate young girls who are unchastityless, for example—so you are, if nothing else, spared here a Human Centipede joke.

• • •

*Talk about a sad-sounding line of Garanimals!

Two, Four, Six, Eight …

If words can be said to paint a picture, there are certain scenes in Absalom, Absalom! that are like canvases with way too many layers of Pantone on them.  In Chapter 8, for example, some Harvard students are having a discussion in dormitory quarters that cannot keep out the winter chill—on page 236, the occupants are pictured as “their breathing vaporised faintly in the cold room.”  Four pages after this and the imagery receives a second coat: “They stared at each other…their quiet regular breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air.”

Three pages later and there is another touch-up: The room is as “quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath.”  Further on in the chapter, having presumably allowed for drying time, the artist dabs on a few final licks of pigment to the steamy exhalation concept—“[e]ven while they were not talking their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly” (p. 260)—while adding on a fresh overlay of tomblike air.  At one point even, it’s almost as if the author is replying to a sarcastic question from the audience: Hey, so is the room pretty tomblike?  Answer, page 275: “The room was indeed tomblike.”

The conversationalists here are Quentin and Shreve, hashing out the tangled family history at the center of the book’s narrative.  So vividly do their reminiscences evoke the memories of their subject—the decades-old story of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon—that at times it’s as if the tellers of the tale are sharing the stage with the players in their story.  (I say, “at times.”  It’s at a lot of times.)

This not-at-all-confusing fictional device—that Quentin and Shreve somehow accompany Henry and Charles during their various circa-Civil War experiences, just as the latter share space with the former in their early-1900s university settings—is rendered thusly: “in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four” (p. 236—hey, the whole gang’s hanging out in the dorm!) and so: “not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness” (p. 237—whoosh, now everyone’s on the battlefield in the 1860s!).

If this notion seems a tad fuzzy, allow the author to elaborate: “So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark…four of them and then just two—Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry” (p. 267).  Now allow him to elaborate some more: “So it was four of them who rode the two horses through that night” (also p. 267).  And a bit more after that: “[They were] still not talking since there was nothing to say, the two of them (the four of them)”—(yes, still p. 267).

So—the story of Henry and Charles (and Quentin and Shreve) continues: “So it was four of them still who got off the boat in New Orleans”; “four of them who sat in that drawing room”; “four of them there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860 just as”—Gentle Reader, are you getting the idea yet?—“in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910.”  (Where do I begin—that all four of these “four of them” quotes are from the same page, or about the return of tomblike?)

And, no, the author is not done yet.  At a certain point after this, our tale-tellers Quentin and Shreve are yanked abruptly out of their story and back into the present such that they are no longer “participants” in the recollection—“[f]irst two of them, then four; now two again” (p. 275).  This not-at-all-confusing development is helpfully explicated on the following page as “two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking”—until they all find themselves “the two the four the two facing one another in”—where else but?—“the tomblike room.”

Ah, and with that last brushstroke in place—fini!