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.

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The Fault in Our Fierce, Aloof Stars

There are more immobiles in Absalom, Absalom! than, by rights, any one book should have—a regal seated woman is “enthroned and immobile,” an emotionless little girl “immobile of face,” a hirsute horseman “immobile, bearded,” a directionless boat “suspended immobile and without progress”; various moments of stillness and arrest are described as “immobile and pontific,” “monstrous and immobile,” “immobile, impotent, helpless,” and—leaving little here to doubt—“not moving, immobile.”

But all this immobility probably wouldn’t be nearly so conspicuous were it not for its previously noted frequent pairing with a bunch of furiouses—“furious immobility,” “furious inertness and patient immobility,” “furious immobile urgency,” “furious yet absolutely rocklike and immobile antagonism.”  Faulkner seems to like heightened emotion juxtaposed with bodily stiffness—one weepy mannequin bursts into tears after a prolonged ordeal thusly: “burst, as if that entire accumulation of seven months were erupting spontaneously from every pore in one incredible evacuation (she not moving, not moving a muscle).”  So, immobility on the muscle front, but a vigorous pore workout, apparently.

Widening the frame on some of the above examples, I would point out that the emotionless little girl was actually “rigid and still and immobile of face,” and that one of those enraged statues was “rigid in that furious immobility”—phrases that jibe with other motionless-yet-bordering-on-vibrating formulations involving rigid such as a “bonnet…clapped fast onto her head rigid and precarious with rage” and the “fierce dynamic rigidity of impatience” and “something fierce and implacable and dynamic driving down the thin rigid arm.”

And speaking of that unfortunate character’s arm, you could pretty much assemble a Frankenstein’s monster from all the—no jokes, please—rigid body parts to be found in Absalom!: the arm, the girl’s immobile face, “legs [which] hung straight and rigid,” “two fierce rigid knees,” a “back rigid and irrevocably turned,” a hand described alternately as “gripping…with that lifeless and rigid strength” and as having “a dead rigid hard grip,” even—yikes—“a fierce rigid umbilical cord.”  (Fortunately, that last one is merely a vivid simile.)  And then there’s this bit, which pretty much covers all the bases: “He lay still and rigid on his back with the cold New England night on his face and the blood running warm in his rigid body and limbs.”  Key word here is rigid.

You may have noticed that not only those knees but also the creepily nonelastic umbilical cord were both “fierce” as well (as were the dynamic rigidity of impatience and the implacable dynamism running down that one guy’s ulna).  There are also “fierce, hysterical faces” and “two hands fierce,” but fierce is not a word that will be limited to simple Igor-esque limb-cataloging, no.

Absalom, Absalom!’s ranks feature a “fierce paranoiac” and a “fierce brooding woman.”  A cannon fires “one more fierce shot.”  There is “fierce yearning,” “fierce exultation,” “fierce manipulation,” and “fierce obliteration.”  There is a “fierce demoniac lantern,” “fierce vain illusion,” “fierce constant will,” “fierce impersonal rivalry,” “fierce provincial’s pride,” and “fierce proud mysticism.”  There is a “fierce and arid aura” and “fierce and overweening vanity.”  In winter, there is “fierce (it had quit snowing) still air.”

There is the “fierce hissing of words” and the “fierce repercussive flush of vindicated loyalty.”  There is “fierce unflagging jealous care,” “fierce ruthless constant guardianship,” and a “fierce muted metallic green.”  In Chapter 6 there is a “fiercely and heavily starred sky”; in Chapter 9, “fierce and aloof stars.”  One character’s body language includes a “gesture a hundred times more fierce than the level murmur of vituperation.”  Funny, even if my memory is a bit fuzzy from my grade school math days on how to do vituperation times tables, all of this fierce constant fierceness definitely puts me in mind of a particular gesture.