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.

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Foe News

The rather extravagant malignance of Absalom, Absalom!’s tryannical big daddy Thomas Sutpen is not a character trait evoked with much in the way of what you would call finesse (he’s referred to as a “demon” four times in the book’s first six pages and described upon his introduction as having a “faint sulphur-reek”).  That he is so offhandedly loathsome as to be oblivious to the enraging effect he has on others is not something meant to escape our attention: At a family get-together in which everyone else is united against him in a “grim embattled conspiracy,” for example, the blissfully ignorant Sutpen “did not even know that he was an embattled foe.”  This we are told, for the first time, on page 49.

On page 50, Sutpen’s sister-in-law (not a fan) stares at him across the dinner table, into “the face of a foe who did not even know that it was embattled.”  One might think this quick-on-the-heels corroborating statement would cement fairly conclusively Sutpen’s inability to take the emotional temperature of a room (not to mention the author’s predilection for the word “embattled”) but, later on the very same page, our unwitting combatant is designated yet again “a foe who did not know that he was at war.”  And six lines after that, even as family hostilities are subsiding, the portraiture remains essentially unchanged: He is “the foe who was not even aware that he sat there not as host and brother-in-law but as the second party to an armistice.”  (To which any reader would surely be entitled to respond, “All right, all right, he didn’t know he was a foe—sheesh.”)

One could view this charitably and chalk it up to unbridled writerly enthusiasm—apparently Faulkner just really, really wanted to convey the lengths of Sutpen’s social disengagement, broken-record concerns be damned.  Maybe he thought this was a super-important aspect of the character and argued about it passionately with his editor—“No, I want it in there four times!  What?  No, three is not enough!  Three?!  Are you mad?”  However charitably inclined, though, one could find oneself harder pressed to rationalize the motives behind other, later such occasions of deja vu.

In Chapter 7, Quentin, our audience proxy, is regarding a piece of correspondence.  Here is the tableau:

He sat quite still, facing the table, his hands lying on either side of the open text book on which the letter rested: the rectangle of paper folded across the middle and now open, three quarters open, whose bulk had raised half itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation.

One might roll one’s eyes at even so prosaic a phenomenon as a letter not lying flat meriting the poetic curlicues of “weightless and paradoxical levitation,” but, hey, this is page 176—complaining at this point would be like grumbling about the barn door lock with the horses already in the next county.  Here, Faulkner’s enthusiasms seem to be focused on the precise rendering of object orientation, as he reiterates the stacking order on page 177—describing Quentin speaking distractedly, as if “to the table before him or the book upon it or the letter upon the book or his hands lying on either side of the book.”

Faulkner proceeds to drill this in like a schoolteacher hitting the bullet points he knows are going to be on the standardized test that will determine his future salary.  When the narrative, having shifted into flashback mode to relay the contents of the letter, returns to Quentin 15 pages later, we get a refresher course:

Quentin [looked with] brooding bemusement upon the open letter, which lay on the open textbook, his hands lying on the table before him on either side of the book and the letter, one half of which slanted upward from the transverse crease without support, as if it had learned half the secret of levitation.

(Clearly this letter-levitation jazz was deemed way too snazzy to be squandered on a one-time usage.  And what exactly is half the secret of levitation?  The getting-up-in-the air half?  So, like, good luck on getting yourself down?)

Thirteen pages on, and Quentin is still “talking apparently (if to anything) to the letter lying on the open book on the table between his hands.”  And 16 pages after that, his posture remains fixed and his bemusement remains brooding, “still brooding apparently on the open letter upon the open book between his hands.”  Harder indeed to imagine exactly what impassioned argument Faulkner would have made for the necessity of belaboring this particular imagery—“No, his hands can’t be in his lap! In his lap?! Are you insane?”