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.

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.

Serenity Now

When you see a particular word—for instance, calm—used almost 30 times within a single novel—for instance, Absalom, Absalom!—you might wonder of the author, Did he not have a thesaurus?  Wouldn’t a few synonyms have helped to spice up all that calmness?  Like maybe a serene or the occasional tranquil?

And then you start to notice all the serenes and tranquils.  Turns out they themselves are more than occasional.

No surprise that Judith, the character already described as calm a half-dozen times, is serene as well: she has, we are told, an “impenetrable and serene face.”  A page later, we are furthermore told—presumably to clarify that these are qualities not even one iota shy of 200-proof purity—that it is a face “absolutely impenetrable, absolutely serene.”  And then, a page after that, it is “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face.”  (In classes on how to give presentations, this principle is known as Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.*)

Judith not only looks serene, she listens serene—“Judith listening with that serenity, that impenetrable tranquility.”  (Yes, her tranquility is as impenetrable as her face.)  And even when she recedes into the background of the narrative, there’s no doubt how she’s coming back on the scene—“Judith was absent, returning at supper time serene and calm.”  With her around, one serene a sentence will simply not suffice—“something walked with Judith and Clytie back across that sunset field and answered in some curious serene suspension to the serene quiet voice.”

In addition to Judith’s “impenetrable tranquility” and her “face calm cold and tranquil,” Absalom! includes “tranquil anticipation,” “tranquil disregard,” “tranquil and astonished earth,” “tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “melodious and tranquil” music, and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  (It will likely not come as a great shock that this last item is far from the book’s only phenomenon to be deemed “profound.”)

Judith is calm even when irritated—“annoyed yet still serene”—which puts her in the relaxed company of a “serene and florid boast,” the “serene and idle splendor of flowers,” “the open door’s serene rectangle,” and “old age’s serene and well-lived content.”  One character in Chapter 6 speaks in a manner “serene, not even triumphant,” while another in Chapter 9 regards a situation “perhaps not even now with triumph…possibly even serene.”

The only things that get the serene treatment nearly as often as Judith are, oddly, various amorphous presences—“shapes fluid and delicate…parasitic and potent and serene”; “symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene”; and—in another demonstration of the can’t-have-too-much-serenity-in-a-single-sentence stratagem—“two shades pacing, serene and untroubled by flesh, in a summer garden—the same two serene phantoms.”

All of which makes you realize that apparently Faulkner did have a thesaurus, and it’s a good thing, too, or else this book would have been completely up to its neck in calms.

• • •

*Such insistent repetition also reminds me of Dudley Moore in Arthur, completely undissuadable by the aunt and uncle he encounters in a restaurant that he has not adequately conveyed how small the country is that his date comes from: “It’s terribly small.  Tiny little country.  Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war.  That’s how small it is.”  (Aunt: “It’s small.”)  “Very little. It’s 85 cents in a cab from one end of the country to the other.  I’m talking small.”  (Uncle: “We understand it’s small, Arthur.”)  “They recently had the whole country carpeted—this is not a big place.”