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.

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*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.


Seinfeld fans may remember—from the episode in which she falls under the sway of a video store clerk and his highbrow film recommendations—that Elaine is a fan of bleak, ascetic arthouse cinema, jolly romps with titles like The Pain and the Yearning.  (“An old woman experiences pain and yearning,” she reads from the helpful summary on the back of the video case. “192 minutes.”)  Well, boy, do I ever have a book for her.

Absalom, Absalom! is, as we’ve seen, a grim parade of outraged puritanical fools who are, to a one, doomed (doomed, I tell you).  A bounty for any enthusiast of all things painful and yearn-y, it is a book that takes us to “the very threshold of despair.”  Within its pages, we can feel “the cumulative over-reach of despair itself.”  Among its players, we encounter a lone figure and the “thunderous solitude of his despair.”  In its soundscape, we discern “the despair now, the last bitter cry of irrevocable undefeat.”  In its dialog, we hear (and are maybe just a tad confused by the mix of emotions in—?) “a voice calm and sweet and filled with despair.”  Of its resolution, we feel a flicker of hope when one character “has peace now,” even if—I suppose we should have seen this coming—“even if the peace be mostly despair.”

No, no shortage of despair here, arrayed in the various abject hues of its forlorn rainbow—“hopeless despair,” “solitary despair,” “invincible despair,” “complete despair”—with only the slight respite of the aforementioned, less-to-be-expected “peaceful despair.”  There is a “despairing cry,” a “despairing blow,” a “despairing Faustus,” “despairing conviction,” some “despairing fury”—there’s always some fury of some sort or another—and one little girl who hugs a man sadly but colorfully about the knees with her “soft despairing magnolia-colored arms.”

Also to be seen are “despair and shame,” “despair and pity,” and—wait for it—“despair and waiting.”  Plus, “bitterness and despair” and, naturellement, “fury and despair.”  While Chapter 1 has “victory and despair,” Chapter 8 has “despair and victory”; Chapter 4, “grief and despair,” Chapter 7, “despair and grief.”  There is the choice of “surprise or despair” and the denial of “neither surprise nor despair.”  And there is as well “suffering and bewilderment and despair”—which brings us to the yin to despair’s yang.

In Absalom! we are never free of “any human injustice or folly or suffering.” We must contemplate “all misfortune and defeat that the human race ever suffered,” remember that life is a “heritage of suffering,” and memorialize all those who have “courageously suffered”—those who have “suffered pain,” nay, “suffered excruciating pain,” those who have “suffered and endured,” nay, “suffered beyond endurance.”  We must bear the weight of “the heavy organs of suffering and experience” and ask ourselves, Heavy organs?  Is this something I should see a doctor about?

Warfare is, for a general, “suffering, these four years of keeping his men alive.”  An injured soldier, “though suffering, clings…to the arm or leg which he knows must come off.”  (In a fever dream, “the dear suffering arm or leg is strong and sound.”)  One man’s business decision leads to “the loss, which, in withdrawing, he had suffered”; another, having erred, must “admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it.”  One woman’s traumatic upbringing is a “holocaust in which she had suffered”; another such victim of childhood abuse recounts “how she had been scorned and suffered.”  These despairing folk have “suffered temptation,” “suffered the farce,” and “suffered a situation”; they have sinned, “suffered for it and died for it”; they have even borne the onerous burden of the “sufferance of good manners.”

There is suffering in scripture quotes (“‘your grandfather said, “Suffer little children to come unto Me”’”) and suffering on tombstone inscriptions (“Born October 3, 1841. Suffered Indignities and Travails of this word for 24 Years.”).  Suffering is so prevalent that things are measured by its absence or opposite—a house “not having suffered from invasion, but a shell marooned and forgotten”; eyes “not even suffering but merely filled with baffled incomprehension”; outrage “which the actual living articulate meat had not even suffered but merely inherited.”*  One character imagines a world without war, in which he would have “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it.”  Another speculates, “it’s not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anticlimax of it.”

Both plentiful and adaptable, suffer can shape-shift into different guises, from such Dr. Seuss-ian characterizations as a woman who is “the eternal female, the eternal Who-suffers,” to Yoda-esque turns of phrase like “if happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.”  One dimestore philosopher worries of a future in which “there wouldn’t be anything left that mattered that much, worth getting that heated over, worth protesting against or suffering for,” but the universe of Absalom! hardly seems in danger of running low on source material over which to writhe in racked anguish—so grab your popcorn, it’s Movie Night!

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*My best guess is that the “articulate meat” here is we human beings, still only animalistic flesh and blood despite the pretensions to something more lofty that our powers of speech might tempt us to entertain (or something like that; I’m spitballing).