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.

And the Fury. And the Fury. And the Fury.

It’s hardly a surprise that fury might be a word to which William Faulkner is particularly partial—surprising only that it appears but twice in The Sound and the Fury, outside of the title itself.  (Twice, along with a small handful of furiouses.)

That rather restrained use of the word was apparently a mere warmup for the heated workout that fury gets in the pages of Absalom, Absalom!, which exercises such variations as “a fury of wild-eyed horses,” “the fury of the struggle for the facts,” “what fury which would not let him rest,” and, as noted in the previous grim itemization, “that grim virago fury of female affront.”

But that’s only the first lap around the track.  There is also “driving fury,” “irrational fury,” “alert fury,” “solitary fury,” “antic fury,” “repressed fury,” “despairing fury,” “immediate fury,” and “incompressible fury.”  In addition to the solitary brand of fury, there are many partnered variants as well: “fury and implacability,” “fury and despair,” “the hate and the fury,” and—it only stands to reason—“the fury and hate.”

As for the adjective form, a cannon “crumble[s] to dust in its own furious blast and recoil.”  We survey one character’s “state of impotent and furious undefeat.”  (Undefeat. You read that right.)  Among the book’s easygoing dramatis personae are a “furious mad old man,” a “furious lecherous wreck,” and a “furious grim implacable woman.”

There is “furious impatience,” “furious desire,” “furious protest,” and “furious thinking”; “furious and unbending will,” “furious and indomitable desperation,” “furious and almost unbearable unforgiving,” plus “furious and incomprehensible and apparently reasonless moving.”  And on the flip side of reasonless moving, in the too-angry-to-even-budge category: “furious inertness,” “furious immobility,” “furious immobile urgency,” and “furious yet absolutely rocklike and immobile antagonism.”

Quentin and Miss Coldfield, the characters introduced in the first chapter sitting in a dead room in a dead house with dead paint on its walls, are featured in the last chapter’s climactic conflagration, “Miss Coldfield screaming harshly, ‘The window! The window!’”—seemingly getting into the spirit of the whole repeated-word business.  Appropriately then, as rescuers attempt to tear the unwilling old woman away, the scene is described: “Quentin could see it: the light thin furious creature making no sound at all now, struggling with silent and bitter fury….”  Now that gal is mad. Furiouser and furiouser!