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.

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.

• • •

*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.

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.

• • •

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

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.

Poof!

In Absalom, Absalom!, there is a major character, Henry Sutpen, who kills a man who is not only his best friend but also engaged to marry Henry’s sister, Judith.  This may sound like I’m revealing a big plot twist, but we actually learn this information early on—it’s only page 6, and already old Miss Coldfield is sharing about her nephew and how he “shot the fiance to death…and then fled, vanished, none knew where.”

Henry the shooter may have vanished, never to be heard from again, but it’s hardly the last time we’ll hear about the fact that he’s never heard from again.  “Henry had just vanished,” we’re told on page 61.  And then a page later: “Henry just vanished.”  And five pages after that: “Henry up to now was just vanished.”

The incident is also revisited from Judith’s perspective: “her brother had quitted the house in the night and vanished, none knew why or where.”  The incident is also revisited from their father’s perspective—repeatedly: “[he] had been told that his son had done murder and vanished”; “one of [his] children vanished…doomed to be a murderer”; “[his] son gone, vanished.”  The incident will even be revisited many years hence: “was it…four years since Henry vanished [?]”

Funny, considering that it’s Miss Coldfield who first tells the story about her nephew Henry, because she once, as a much younger woman, lived with her own aunt—that is, until the occasion of her aunt deciding to abandon the family, i.e., “the night the aunt climbed out the window and vanished.”  (Miss Coldfield doesn’t seem to have a lot of luck in the kin-constancy department.)  Yes, she shared a house with her aunt “up to the time the aunt vanished”—although the older woman’s departure might not have been too heartbreaking, considering that, till then, the niece had been “the object and victim of the vanished aunt’s vindictive unflagging care and attention.”

Miss Coldfield also has a sister, Ellen—Henry and Judith’s mother.  And Ellen…?  Yes, vanished.  Metaphorically, though, in her case: The sublimation of her own personality into that of her horrible husband is described as her being “vanished into the stronghold of an ogre.”  As Miss Coldfield sees it, “her sister [was] a woman who had vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too.”  Like a brief-lived insect, “Ellen…completed…the butterfly’s summer and vanished.”*

As for Miss Coldfield’s niece, Judith?  In her life, “she had seen almost everything else she had learned to call stable vanish like straws in a gale.”  And Charles Bon, the fiance whom Henry shot?  Well, he was a very colorful character to say the least, a man to inspire such wildly poetic descriptions as “almost phoenix-like…born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust.”

And what of Charles Bon’s son, whom we meet later in the story as he is being abruptly plunged into alien circumstances?  “[A]ll that he had ever been familiar with was vanishing about him like smoke,” we learn of that moment, as he is stripped even of his clothing: His “shirt and stockings and shoes…vanished”—in a cloud of seemingly prerequisite vapor—“as if they had been woven of chimaeras or of smoke.”  (This character will fall out of the narrative for many years, only to reappear much later, now hitched: “a grown man…who had vanished and then returned with an authentic wife.”)

And getting back to Miss Coldfield—when we first meet her, we are told of an odd vocal characteristic that she has: “Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish.”  Or, to put it another way (which is pretty much the same way), hers was a “voice not ceasing but vanishing.”  A.k.a. a “vanishing voice.”  (Near the end of the book, there is a scene in which she is propositioned by her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen; so outraged is her response that she immediately takes her leave of his eponymous plantation—which is to say, she “vanished from Sutpen’s Hundred.”**)

It is not only members of the extended Coldfield/Sutpen family that can pull this vanishing act: In one crowd scene, a “circle of faces…seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish” until the participants have—same page—“vanished back into the region from which they had emerged.”  (This rather undulatory, literal-sea-of-faces facial aspect will recur in a later episode—“like a tide in which the strange harsh rough faces…swam up and vanished.”)

Vanish naturally lends itself to descriptions of ephemeral and indefinite phenomena: “an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing”; “events [that] transpire…and fade, vanish”; “all truth, evidence vanished into a moiling clump”; an idea that “touched and then vanished from…[the] mind”; and the “prisoner soul” that “dies, is gone, vanished.”  In that same and-to-dust-we-shall-return vein, we have a collapsing grave (“that mound vanishing slowly back into the earth”), some sinking tombstones (“slabs…vanishing into the hole”), and further proof—this time more sanguinary than cemetery—of the ground’s absorptive capabilities (“old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth”).

Also making (dis)appearances are—and if I may, for just a moment, before I begin this inventory, let down my otherwise devoutly maintained facade of cool scholasticism and say, What is the deal with this guy and the word “vanish”?!—handwriting so faint that it “might fade, vanish, at any instant”; “snow on [an] overcoat sleeve…vanishing”; a person gone missing who “seemed to vanish in broad daylight”; transients in a shelter who “lived beneath [the roof] and vanished”; “some tree, vanished, burned for warmth”; tears that are “vanishing, disappearing instantaneously”; “red spots [that] wheeled and vanished across the retinae”; an imploding house afire whose “whole lower hall vanished”; and a man reaching for a hidden weapon whose “hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol.”

At one point, a character reflects on a piece of vanishment-related advice handed down through his family—how, in life, it was best to avoid “that picayune splitting of abstract hairs while (Grandfather said) Rome vanished and Jericho crumbled.”  To this I can only reply that, when the occasions of a certain V-word in a certain novel start to near the half-century mark, maybe it wouldn’t hurt for the editor to be just a teensy bit more picayune.

• • •

*Mind you, to call Ellen’s vanishing metaphorical is not to suggest that Henry or his aunt’s aunt literally, you know, vanished.

Also, that same ogre (which is some kind of symbol of how Judith’s youthful traumas are being replayed through her relationship with her husband) has a few more magic tricks up its sleeve: “in which the ogre-face of her childhood would apparently vanish so completely that she would agree to marry the late owner of it”—until it finally steps off the stage for the last time: “[there] was no ogre, because it was dead, vanished.”

**During a flashback, it is mentioned that the young Thomas Sutpen had two brothers—“two brothers who had vanished.”

Skins Game

I’ve noted before the recurrence in Absalom, Absalom! of a particularly pungent line of description regarding the elderly Miss Coldfield—twice mentioned is the odor of her “female old flesh” (a.k.a. “old woman-flesh”), which is depicted as, alternately, “rank” and “heat-distilled.”  This, we are told, is the smell of “female old flesh long embattled in virginity” (a campaign her hard-fighting epidermis has apparently been waging for quite some time now, as her birthday suit is also characterized as “lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years”).

Elderly skin—and its relative elasticity—is discussed furthermore elsewhere (we meet a different grande dame, “more than seventy now yet…whose flesh had not sagged”) and additional time is given to contemplating the scent of a woman (a minor female player is notable for “the heavy fainting odor of her flesh”), but these are only a small handful of samplings from the wide array of fleshy delights to be had in Absalom!’s pages.

Some of the book’s flesh is sensual and valiant (“curious pleasures of the flesh,” “passionate and inexorable hunger of the flesh,” “brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live”), while some is merely poundage (“the leisure and ease put flesh on him,” “the flesh came suddenly,” “Ellen had lost some flesh”).  Some is symbolic (an independent young man “free of the flesh of his father”) and some idiomatic (a past-his-prime older gentleman who feels “nobody would want him in the flesh”).  Some occupies a gray-area intersection of the weight-related, the symbolic, and the perplexing (“he was not fleshier…it was just that the flesh on his bones had become quieter”).  Some is icky (“rotten flesh,” “sweating flesh,” “dead flesh”).

When there’s metaphorical heavy lifting to be done, flesh will often partner up with its frequent companion blood to make lighter work of it: A woman uncomfortable with her own body is “a maidservant to flesh and blood”; an adolescent’s imaginary suitor is “some walking flesh and blood … in some shadow-realm of make-believe”; otherworldly spirits are “shadows not of flesh and blood”; a war-weary man fantasizes a future free of conflict in which there will be “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it”; soldiers in uniform are “deluded blood and flesh dressed in martial glitter”; the same soldiers are overseen by calculating generals who will “swap them blood and flesh for the largest amount of ground.”

Sometimes flesh swaps blood for bone—“willing flesh and bone”; “flesh and bone and spirit”; “black bones and flesh”; a brave man who has “no more doubt of his bones and flesh than he did of his will and courage”; a driven man who, despite pushing sixty years, will not let “the bones and flesh of fifty-nine recuperate”; beleaguered long-sufferers who are “bearing more than they believed any bones and flesh could or should”; devoutly treasured illusions that are “a part of you like your bones and flesh and memory.”

Naturally, with all this flesh on display, things are bound to get a bit touchy-feely, even among unlikely participants.  After all, “there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh…which enemies as well as lovers know”—“let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of…caste and color too.”  One love-starved, incest-minded fellow craves “the living touch of that flesh warmed…by the same blood which…[warmed] his own flesh.”  Another gent, in eager anticipation of an upcoming encounter, says, “‘He will not even have to ask me; I will just touch flesh with him’” (this promised man-on-man action is, anticlimactically, only in reference to a handshake).

There is all of this as well as the “pigmentation of … flesh,” a “smooth cupid-fleshed forearm,” and “a face whose flesh had the appearance of pottery.”  There is “boy flesh” and “white woman’s flesh.”  There is “weak human flesh” and “human flesh bred…for that sale” into slavery.  There is “tender flesh” and “tired flesh,” “living flesh” and “lifeless flesh.”  There is—deep breath—“dreamy flesh,” “articulated flesh,” “incorrigible flesh,” “hot communicated flesh,” “annealing and untroubled flesh,” and “surprised importunate traitorous flesh.”  There is the “vain evanescence of the fleshly encounter,” instincts that are “as rooted in the flesh’s offices as the digestive process,” more otherworldly spirits “serene and untroubled by flesh,” and a house that burns with “the smell of desolation and decay as if the wood of which it was built were flesh”—and whether or not that is the distinctive smell of old-woman flesh is left to one’s imagination.

It Is What It Is

Each of Absalom, Absalom!’s various conspicuously repeated words is like a little weight with its own distinct measure of flamboyance: The degree to which any one of them tips the scale into flagrant exhibitionism is the product of how showoffy it is, multiplied by the number of reiterations you stack up on the weighing platform.  Fierce, for example, is hardly a vocabulary peacock, but—used over thirty times in a single novel—it does begin to call attention to itself.  (On our scale, fierce is, like, 2 grams.)  On the other hand, something like epicene—defined as “having the characteristics of both sexes”—even if used only twice (a stylish college dandy likened to an “almost epicene object d’art” and a period of prepubescence characterized as “one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial”)—well, it very much tips the scale.  (Epicene: kilo and a half.)  Especially if its appearances are in two successive chapters, only 35 pages apart.

So, upon first encountering a word like fatalistic—there’s a mention early on in the book of someone’s “expression of fatalistic and amazed determination”—one might not even register its heft.  (We’re talking 10 grams here; 15, tops.)  But even if each minor shift in a scale’s balance is unnoticeable with the addition of every tiny incremental weight, that scale is shifting nonetheless; eventually, it may just clonk over onto the table.

It is with the Chapter 4 introduction of Charles Bon—the epicene object d’art mentioned above and also an “indolent fatalist” who befriends Henry Sutpen at school—that one may begin to sense a serious tilt in the equilibrium; resignation may start to set in at the inevitability of this particular overuse as Bon is said to possess “fatalistic and impenetrable imperturbability” and is referred to as “the fatalist to the last” and “Bon the fatalist.”  (This all within a single chapter, which furthermore concerns Bon’s complicated relationship with Henry and his sister Judith—“[p]erhaps in his fatalism he loved Henry the better of the two”—and also establishes the chronological limitations of his deterministic influence—“[s]urely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days.”*)

Bon may not be Absalom!’s sole bearer of the weight of this weary surrender—another character at one point regards an unwelcome sight with “aghast fatalistic terror”—but he is certainly its standard bearer: In later chapters, others will recall his memory (“Bon whom Mr Compson had called a fatalist”), reminisce about his salient characteristics (“the weariness, the fatalism”), and gauge themselves by his standard (“[he] maybe even turned fatalist like Bon now”**).

Of course, Bon’s solemn perspective makes perfect sense within a fictional cosmos of such desperately tragic preordination that the word doom appears as many times as fierce.  It’s probably hard to lighten up when your every step is so perilously permanent and life offers no do-overs—every “decision instantaneous and irrevocable,” every move leading to “subsequent irrevocable courses of resultant action,” every positive development in the grand scheme of things met with the “irrevocable negation of the design.”  Here you are, trying to make your way in “the irrevocable world,” ever mindful of the passage of “all irrevocable time,” standing on the threshold—“that irrevocable demarcation”—of the rest of your life, serving the “irrevocable sentence” of your years on this planet, doing your best to protect yourself from “irrevocable and incalculable damage,” seeking to forge your own identify after “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity,” chasing after some “lost irrevocable might-have-been,” and trying to plumb—unsuccessfully—the “irrevocable and unplumbable finality” of your destiny.  You’ve got a right to be a little tetchy.

After all, things are tough all over—for the fatalistic female as much for the fatalistic fellow: a gal could find herself “irrevocably husbanded,” but then later (not so irrevocable after all, the husbanding, it would seem) “irrevocably estranged”—“not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from all reality,” just praying that her latest travail might fall “irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm.”  Maybe the family home is threatened because the once-husband has “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house”; maybe he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome and has “irrevocably lost count of his age.”

This can lead a person to say things like “it is irrevocable now” (p. 252) and “it was done, irrevocable now” (p. 272).  This can result in curiously tangled concepts such as “irrevocable undefeat” (it may not be clear what, precisely, undefeat is, but we do know that it’s permanent).  This can produce such snake-eating-its-tail configurations as “a curious and outrageous exaggeration in which was inherent its own irrevocability,” which, if a touch baffling, sounds way too self-contained to argue with.

To close, it would feel appropriate here to make some fanciful suggestion as to how much irrevocable would weigh on my proposed metaphorical scale—but I’m just afraid that once I suggested it, I wouldn’t be able to take it back.  Ever.

• • •

*Surely not.  She remains—next sentence—“anything but a fatalist.”

**For whatever reason—whether it’s regarding his fatalism, his “expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” his “cryptic” vocal stylings, or his fool/not-a-fool dualism—Bon’s is the character who really seems to kick Faulkner’s descriptive Xerox into high gear.