I’ve noted before the recurrence in Absalom, Absalom! of a particularly pungent line of description regarding the elderly Miss Coldfield—twice mentioned is the odor of her “female old flesh” (a.k.a. “old woman-flesh”), which is depicted as, alternately, “rank” and “heat-distilled.” This, we are told, is the smell of “female old flesh long embattled in virginity” (a campaign her hard-fighting epidermis has apparently been waging for quite some time now, as her birthday suit is also characterized as “lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years”).
Elderly skin—and its relative elasticity—is discussed furthermore elsewhere (we meet a different grande dame, “more than seventy now yet…whose flesh had not sagged”) and additional time is given to contemplating the scent of a woman (a minor female player is notable for “the heavy fainting odor of her flesh”), but these are only a small handful of samplings from the wide array of fleshy delights to be had in Absalom!’s pages.
Some of the book’s flesh is sensual and valiant (“curious pleasures of the flesh,” “passionate and inexorable hunger of the flesh,” “brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live”), while some is merely poundage (“the leisure and ease put flesh on him,” “the flesh came suddenly,” “Ellen had lost some flesh”). Some is symbolic (an independent young man “free of the flesh of his father”) and some idiomatic (a past-his-prime older gentleman who feels “nobody would want him in the flesh”). Some occupies a gray-area intersection of the weight-related, the symbolic, and the perplexing (“he was not fleshier…it was just that the flesh on his bones had become quieter”). Some is icky (“rotten flesh,” “sweating flesh,” “dead flesh”).
When there’s metaphorical heavy lifting to be done, flesh will often partner up with its frequent companion blood to make lighter work of it: A woman uncomfortable with her own body is “a maidservant to flesh and blood”; an adolescent’s imaginary suitor is “some walking flesh and blood … in some shadow-realm of make-believe”; otherworldly spirits are “shadows not of flesh and blood”; a war-weary man fantasizes a future free of conflict in which there will be “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it”; soldiers in uniform are “deluded blood and flesh dressed in martial glitter”; the same soldiers are overseen by calculating generals who will “swap them blood and flesh for the largest amount of ground.”
Sometimes flesh swaps blood for bone—“willing flesh and bone”; “flesh and bone and spirit”; “black bones and flesh”; a brave man who has “no more doubt of his bones and flesh than he did of his will and courage”; a driven man who, despite pushing sixty years, will not let “the bones and flesh of fifty-nine recuperate”; beleaguered long-sufferers who are “bearing more than they believed any bones and flesh could or should”; devoutly treasured illusions that are “a part of you like your bones and flesh and memory.”
Naturally, with all this flesh on display, things are bound to get a bit touchy-feely, even among unlikely participants. After all, “there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh…which enemies as well as lovers know”—“let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of…caste and color too.” One love-starved, incest-minded fellow craves “the living touch of that flesh warmed…by the same blood which…[warmed] his own flesh.” Another gent, in eager anticipation of an upcoming encounter, says, “‘He will not even have to ask me; I will just touch flesh with him’” (this promised man-on-man action is, anticlimactically, only in reference to a handshake).
There is all of this as well as the “pigmentation of … flesh,” a “smooth cupid-fleshed forearm,” and “a face whose flesh had the appearance of pottery.” There is “boy flesh” and “white woman’s flesh.” There is “weak human flesh” and “human flesh bred…for that sale” into slavery. There is “tender flesh” and “tired flesh,” “living flesh” and “lifeless flesh.” There is—deep breath—“dreamy flesh,” “articulated flesh,” “incorrigible flesh,” “hot communicated flesh,” “annealing and untroubled flesh,” and “surprised importunate traitorous flesh.” There is the “vain evanescence of the fleshly encounter,” instincts that are “as rooted in the flesh’s offices as the digestive process,” more otherworldly spirits “serene and untroubled by flesh,” and a house that burns with “the smell of desolation and decay as if the wood of which it was built were flesh”—and whether or not that is the distinctive smell of old-woman flesh is left to one’s imagination.