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.

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.

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*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.”

Tough Nut to Crack

There are a couple of artillery-style shells lying around here and there in Absalom, Absalom!, but otherwise the word is used almost exclusively either metaphorically or in the bones-of-a-building sort of way (along with an occasional combination of the two).

As the novel tells us (spoiler alert: moral of the story ahead), “the South would realize that it was now paying the price for having erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage,” so the recurring imagery of denuded or decaying buildings is certainly apt—just a bit redundantly depicted.

Various structures are built (“he erected that shell of a house”), inhabited (“he lived in the Spartan shell of the largest edifice in the county”), abandoned (“the store was now just a shell”), regarded with melancholy (“the house…but a shell marooned and forgotten”), revisited (“I went on up the drive…and reached the house, the shell”), plundered (“the rifled shell of the store”), acted upon by the elements and gravity (“the rotting shell of the house with its sagging portico”), eyeballed from a distance (“peering up the tree-arched drive toward where the rotting shell of the house would be”), and foreshadowingly described in the lead-up to the book’s fiery conclusion (“the house, the monstrous tinder-dry rotten shell”).

In a less architectural vein, Ellen Coldfield (not to be confused with her sister Rosa, better known as Miss Coldfield) is a character compared—repeatedly—to a butterfly, so she figures in such phrases as “some (even if invisible) cocoon-like and complementary shell in which Ellen had to live and die” and “[t]hen Ellen died, the butterfly of a forgotten summer two years defunctive now the substanceless shell” and “Ellen was dead two years now the butterfly…the bright trivial shell.”  (Spoiler alert: Ellen dies.)

Ellen’s husband Thomas—I guess it’s true what they say about old couples growing to resemble one another—is also something of a hollow man: “he himself was not there…[t]he shell of him was there.”  This being Thomas Sutpen, the book’s prime narrative engine, he who builds the house at the start of the first chapter that will wind up in ashes by the end of the last, it’s not unexpected that he is himself described as “the static shell,” “the sentient though nerveless shell,” and “the familiar dream-cloudy shell.”  Maybe less to be expected is that four such references would occur in the space of five consecutive pages, but—presumably goes the thinking—when constructing the framework of your man-as-a-house analogy, better to err on the side of being well-reinforced.