The Highest Form of Flattery

Previously on the topic of dullards and fools, I mentioned a Far Side cartoon whose caption read, “Yes, they’re all fools, gentlemen … But the questions remains, ‘What KIND of fools are they?’”  Similarly, I might ask, “Yes, the character of Henry in Absalom, Absalom! has been established as a puritan—way past the point of any doubt, God knows—but what kind of puritan is he?”

He is the sort, we read on page 86, whose “puritan heritage” gives him “that ability to be ashamed of ignorance and inexperience.”  Fine-tuning this, the author explains two pages later that this is a “puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair” and “nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair.”

Tuned even more finely a page after this, the character is referred to as “Henry the puritan who must show nothing at all rather than surprise or incomprehension.”  This is because of his—same paragraph—“puritan’s provincial horror of revealing surprise or ignorance.”  (Fortunately, “Henry [is] not showing either.”)  Two pages later and just what kind of puritanism is Henry’s particular brand is left little in question—it is “that puritan character which must show neither surprise nor despair.”  (Surprise!)

Henry’s method for dealing with his up-and-comer’s socioeconomic anxiety is to pattern himself after his highfalutin college friend Charles Bon, who, big phony though he may be, is a very sophisticated big phony—Henry is among a number of star-struck fellow students who “aped his clothing and manner and (to the extent which they were able) his very manner of living.”

Yes, “Henry aped his clothing and speech.”  Nor were these the only subjects for his mimicry, which also occurred “while they rode together (and Henry aping him here too, who was the better horseman).”  Nor did it go without notice: “Bon…for a year and a half now had been watching Henry ape his clothing and speech.”  Bon, then, was “the mentor…whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape.”*

One could say that Bon was “the sybarite…which Henry had begun to ape at the University.”  Or that Henry was the person “whom he watched aping his clothing carriage speech.”  Or that the give-and-take of their entire relationship was a “proffering of the spirit of which the unconscious aping of clothes and speech and mannerisms was but the shell.”  Or that there was a mystique “about Bon to be, not envied but aped if that had been possible, if there had been time and peace to ape it in.”

And even the longing sentiment and mellifluous poetry of a phrase like “time and peace to ape it in” cannot distract from the fact that this is all clearly just too much monkey business.

• • •

*A.k.a. “the mentor, the corruptor”; “the mentor, the guide”; “the mentor…the gambler”; “the friend, the mentor”; he with “the mentor’s voice”—these all within the space of pages 88 to 91.

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The Question Remains

It’s one thing to drive a point home, but certain pieces of information in Absalom, Absalom! are delivered with all the finesse of a rhetorical nail gun—as if there might have been concern the intended audience suffered from short-term memory loss.  When the word fool is used, for example, it is not used sparingly—Miss Coldfield calls her sister a “blind romantic fool” three times in the first chapter, then later “blind woman mother fool” for good measure; and, as has been mentioned before, the phrase “self-mesmered fool” appears in the book twice as often as seems advisable (which is to say that it appears twice)—but Chapter 8, particularly as it concerns the characters of Charles Bon and a family lawyer, is the real fool’s paradise.

Bon is a fellow who, we have been told, has a tendency to wear a false smile (although “tendency” might not be a strong enough word considering that we are told this about nine times).  As to the mental acuity of the man behind the smile, we have the opinion of his attorney, “who considered Bon only dull, not a fool.”  Lest this evaluation slip from the mind in the space of a page and a half, we are almost immediately made further privy to the lawyer’s thoughts on his client—“even if he was too dull or too indolent to suspect or find out about his father himself, he wasn’t fool enough not to be able to take advantage of it.”

Ten pages after this—to ensure against any depreciation of the reader’s acquaintance with this relationship dynamic—we are reminded of Bon, “[l]ike that lawyer thought, he wasn’t a fool.”  (Aha, but now the dramatic complications deepen, as the sentence continues: “the trouble was, he wasn’t the kind of not-fool the lawyer thought he would be.”*)

The investigation into the complexities of this Bon-foolery persists eight pages on (although it has become so complex that the author himself seems to have gotten reversed which things the attorney thinks Bon is and isn’t): “Because, though the lawyer believed him to be rather a fool than dull or dense, yet even he (the lawyer) never for one moment believed that even Bon was going to be the kind of fool he was going to be.”**

Four pages later and, for those readers who might be thinking, “Seems like the finer points of Bon’s foolishness have gone underexplored in this chapter so far,” additional evidence arrives in epistolary form, “a letter…that boiled down to eighteen words I know you are a fool, but just what kind of fool are you going to be? and Bon was at least enough a not-fool to do the boiling down.”  (“Not-fool” now joining “self-mesmered fool” in the ranks of “fool-related terms and phrases one does not expect to see more than once within a single literary work.”)

Continuing on the same page, the subject somehow not yet exhausted, the lawyer offers some closing thoughts: “he still did not really believe that Bon was that kind of a fool, though he was about to alter his opinion somewhat about the dullness.”  Even with allowance for this final bit of wiggle room vis-à-vis the legal proceedings of Foolish v. Dull, surely the point has at last been more than driven home—it’s been driven home, taken inside, and put summarily to bed.

• • •

* Not-fool ?  (I guess I’m only surprised it wasn’t unfool.)

** 

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                                (Gary Larson, The Far Side)

And, footnote p.s.: the parenthetical clarification “the lawyer” in this sentence is the book’s, not mine.