Mentioned here recently was the difficulty—when considering a fictional character who is prone to repeat herself, created by a writer who is…well, prone to repeat himself—of distinguishing what is being done by the author for effect from what is merely being done by the author out of habit (the same dilemma one might face in determining if a ventriloquist has Tourette’s syndrome or just a really potty-mouthed puppet).
As has been noted, the character of Miss Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! likes to say things like “Oh, I hold no brief for myself”—she really likes to say things like this—and is forever nattering on about her neighbors’ obsession with her, but she also has a previously unmentioned fondness for the word instant:
“[D]uring that instant”—she recounts of one fraught encounter—“while we stood face to face (that instant before my still advancing body should brush past her and reach the stair) she did me more grace and respect than anyone else I knew; I knew that from the instant I had entered that door.” (“[P]erhaps I knew already,” she amends a page later, “on the instant I entered the house.”)
The above is from Chapter 5, which is narrated by the indefatigable insta-matic herself and features also a “complete instant,” a “constant and perpetual instant,” a “forever crystallized instant,” an “unbroken instant of tremendous effort,” a “full instant of comprehended terror,” and “the last thin unbearable ecstatic instant of agony”—as well as “the instant’s final crisis” and “one red instant’s fierce obliteration.” Of her unexpected marital destiny and unlikely groom-to-be, she confides: “I had never for one instant thought of marriage, never for one instant imagined that he would look at me.”
But Miss Coldfield is certainly no more indulgent of this instant gratification than is Faulkner himself, as there are just as many examples that do not issue from his character’s lips, including a “reflex instant,” a “harried instant,” a “psychological instant,” an “instant of contact,” an “instant of dissolution,” an “instant of indisputable recognition,” and “some blind instant of revolt.”
Additional non-Coldfeldian occurrences: One character is “chivalrous for the instant”; another’s teeth are “glinting for an instant.” Two birds “leave a limb at the same instant”; a father and son reach a “rapport of blood” at the “same identical instant.” Momentous change can happen during “the instant which Fate always picks to blackjack you,” and destinies can intersect as “men’s secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant.” In one scene, a character is regarding handwriting on a page so faint as to be “like a shadow upon it which had resolved on the paper the instant before he looked at it and which might fade, vanish, at any instant while he still read.”*
Adjectival instances include reactions that are “instantaneous and complete” and decisions that are “instantaneous and irrevocable”; there is a dustcloud—a dustcloud—that is described as “instantaneous and eternal.”** Miss Coldfield reports witnessing “instantaneous and incredible tears” (which are coming on quickly and “disappearing as instantaneously”; later, in Chapter 7, there will also be “tears which ceased on the instant when they began”). Further Johnny-on-the-spot anatomical illustrations are one player’s “instantaneous unsentient hands”—already made fun of elsewhere by me—and another’s “rich instantaneous bosom.” (Sounds like something marketed to the lovelorn on late night cable TV—just add water.)
At one point, Miss Coldfield surveys her situation and declares, in an anachronistically you-go-girl sort of mood, “This was my instant.” And, hey, even if she and her creator have put an awful lot of miles on that word, at least she’s owning the moment.
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*Also: “He must have known that at the very instant when he gave his father the lie” (p. 85); “now would come the instant for which Bon had [prepared]” (p. 89); “during that instant in which, before he knew it, something in him had escaped” (p. 189); “Grandfather…had just seen her too for a second…a chin for an instant beyond a curtain of fallen hair” (p. 201); “for an instant as they moved, hurried, toward [the house] Quentin saw completely through it” (p. 293).
And she (Miss Coldfield) had on the shawl, as he had known she would, and the bonnet (black once but faded now to that fierce muted metallic green of old peacock feathers) and the black reticule almost as large as a carpet-bag containing all the keys which the house possessed: cupboard closet and door, some of which would not even turn in locks which, shot home, could be solved by any child with a hairpin or a wad of chewing gum, some of which no longer even fitted the locks they had been made for like old married people who no longer have anything in common, to do or to talk about, save the same general weight of air to displace and breathe and general oblivious biding earth to bear their weight;—that evening, the twelve miles behind the fat mare in the moonless September dust, the trees along the road not rising soaring as trees should but squatting like huge fowl, their leaves ruffled and heavily separate like the feathers of panting fowls, heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanized dust and, seen through the dustcloud in which the horse and buggy moved, appeared like masses straining delicate and rigid and immobly upward at perpendicular’s absolute in some old dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid, the dustcloud in which the buggy moved not blowing away because it had been raised by no wind and was supported by no air but evoked, materialized about them, instantaneous and eternal, cubic foot for cubic foot of dust to cubic foot for cubic foot of horse and buggy, peripatetic beneath the branch-shredded vistas of flat black fiercely and heavily starred sky, the dustcloud moving on, enclosing them with not threat exactly but maybe warning, bland, almost friendly, warning, as if to say, Come on if you like.
(Three dustclouds in this sentence and four dusts.)