On the first page of Absalom, Absalom!, one character is telling another a story. The storyteller is speaking in a “grim haggard amazed voice,” and if you’re thinking how much fun it would be to be on the receiving end of that tale, now consider that she’s “talking…until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound.” (This is happening in the book’s first paragraph.) Less than a page in, and already one of Absalom!’s internal sub-narratives has caused the sense phenomenon of hearing, itself, to throw up its hands in mystification and contemplate a new career.
This is the point at which—the first page!—you’ve got to figure many a casual reader, having just picked this thing up, is thinking to him- or herself something along the lines of “Uh oh.” For those souls stalwart enough to progress past this literary equivalent of a caution flag waving wildly by the side of the track, it is at least a warning that what lies ahead includes a lot of ambiguous instances of hearing and listening—examples of which will range from simple inattentiveness to occasions bordering on some kind of weird super power.
The captive audience being subjected to the tale described above—the story with the power to make the very act of listening stick its fingers in its own ears—is a young gentleman named Quentin Compson, who, bound by the shackles of propriety and misguided respect for one’s elders, is listening to the “grim quiet voice” of aging family friend Miss Coldfield as she recounts the story of her life. That a person’s hearing might “renege” under such an assault seems like a natural enough defense mechanism, but Quentin is a man possessed of selective auditory abilities in all variety of circumstances.
In a different scene, he is having a conversation with his father—or conversation-of-sorts, I should say, since, as can be seen in this snapshot from the exchange, “Mr. Compson’s voice [was] speaking on while Quentin heard it without listening.” Whereas this one moment might be mistaken for a garden-variety case of tuning the old man out, the young fellow’s ersatz-Buddhist state of non-aware awareness is remarked upon a second time—“Quentin hearing without having to listen”—and then finally reaches its silent crescendo in a vignette involving a college roommate and some courtyard chimes: “Quentin lay still too, as if he were listening too, though he was not; he just heard them without listening as he heard Shreve without listening or answering, until they ceased.”
Nor is Quentin the only character with this ability to hear trees falling in forests. Thomas Sutpen, brother-in-law of the riveting raconteur Miss Coldfield, relates a three-way conversation of his own that failed to hold him spellbound: “he just listening, not especially interested he said, hearing the two of them without listening.” Boring people to tears is, apparently, something that runs in the Coldfield family, as Miss C.’s nephew Henry is similarly given the deaf-ear treatment by a college chum he’s spent all semester chatting up, who dismisses “what it was that came out the three months of Henry’s talking that he heard without listening to.” Even Miss Coldfield herself had, as a nosy child “lurking in dim hallways,” a counterintuitively attuned sense of hearing, always “listening beyond closed doors not to what she heard there.” (That’s right—not to what she heard there. Is that the sound of one hand clapping somewhere off in the distance, Grasshopper?)
It only stands to reason that, if there was listening-free hearing, there was speaking-free talking. Miss Coldfield and her kinda-sorta niece Clytie (she’s Thomas Sutpen’s illegitimate daughter…this is a pretty gnarled family tree we’re talking about, here) “spoke to one another free of the limitations of speech and hearing.” Quentin berates himself for not attending more closely to what he was told as a child: “[Y]ou were not listening,” he self-scolds, “[you had] absorbed it already without the medium of speech.” Sutpen and his “official” daughter Judith commiserate “without the need of the medium of ear or intellect.” (They do this to the degree that—as is reported not-at-all hyperbolically—“speech atrophies from disuse and…they no longer understand one another’s actual words.” Which makes you think that maybe one of those greeting cards that plays music would be Judith’s best bet for Father’s Day.)
Henry and his college pal have their dorm-room powwows in “a dialogue without words, speech”—probably why the guy has been all but ignoring him these past three months. Eventually this chap does deign to respond to Henry: “[He] would say…perhaps with words now.” (Oh, with words this time, eh, fella? Yeah, that might help facilitate the communication process a bit.) In a moment of shock, Miss Coldfield cries out to her semi-niece Clytie, “‘And you too, sister, sister?’” (I told you the family tree was gnarled), although, to hear Miss C. tell it: “I cried—perhaps not aloud, not with words.” A similar paradox informs interspecies confabs as well, as a buggy driver addresses his and his fellow drivers’ steeds with an equine version of this speaking-without-speaking routine: “[I]n the act of passing another carriage [he] spoke to that team as well as to his own—something without words, not needing words.” (You’d think, since they’re called “horse whisperers,” that they’re actually whispering something, but no.)
Sometimes you wonder if there’s anybody in Absalom! whose ears just work normally. Clytie, for example, displays—somehow—“a profoundly attentive and distracted listening” (the sort of description to which it is almost irresistible to reply, “Sorry, say again?”). Miss Coldfield, as she tells her life story, reflects on her early education: “[M]y childhood…taught me…to listen before I could comprehend and to understand before I even heard.” (The first half of which sounds very wise; the second half of which sounds like she grew up sharpening her ESP chops at the X-Men Mutant Academy.) Some characters find it so hard to demonstrate active listening skills that their exchanges are no more intelligible “than the sounds which a beast and a bird might make to each other.” Maybe the horses can translate.