Karma Chameleon

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.

• • •

*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).

**Here’s the context for that one, about 2/3rds of the way down into the sentence: 

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.)

The Mirror Crack’d

It’s got to be a tricky business for an author to portray a character as having irritating habits without the results becoming a bit irritating themselves.  Absalom, Absalom!’s Miss Coldfield, for instance, is predisposed to a variety of somewhat grating conversational mannerisms and, just our luck, she narrates an entire chapter, in the first paragraph of which she calls her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen, “that brute” four times (including “that brute progenitor of brutes”), a plain old unmodified “brute” once, and also a “brute instrument”—for a grand total of seven brutes on Chapter 5’s initial page.  (With an opening salvo like that, you can hardly say that you weren’t warned.)

For Absalom! to shift fully into the voice of a person already inclined to repeat herself is one of those infinite-regression, holding-a-mirror-up-to-a-mirror type of propositions, like an edgy undercover cop movie in which the ethically tainted protagonist starts feeling his own identity getting confused with that of the role he’s playing.  We’ve already seen that Miss Coldfield has issues with whimpering and—as the book has indelicately informed us—old-woman smell, but she also comes equipped with her own reticule of personal catch phrases.

“‘Oh, I hold no brief for Ellen,’” she says of her sister in the recollection that forms the book’s first scene.  “‘No, I hold no more brief for Ellen than I do for myself,’” she continues, and then, later, “‘No.  I hold no brief for myself.’”  Which you might think would be sufficient to get across this little bit of character coloration until you get to Chapter 5, which proceeds in the space of six pages to completely redefine “sufficient”: “Oh, I hold no brief for myself” (p. 128); “No. I hold no brief for me” (also p. 128); “I hold no brief for myself, I do not excuse it” (p. 131); “I do not excuse it.  I claim no brief, no pity” (p. 132); “No, no brief, no pity” (also p. 132); “No, I hold no brief, ask no pity” (p. 133).  This is your second warning: Run while you can!

Miss Coldfield is a fan of the word thousand, whether applied to questionable reasoning (“Now you will ask why I stayed there. I could…give ten thousand paltry reasons”; “I…could give you a thousand specious reasons good enough for women”) or to matters insignificant (“I did not say one of the thousand trivial things with which the indomitable woman-blood ignores the man’s world”; “talk, talk, talk of…the weary recurrent triviata of our daily lives, of a thousand things but not of one”).  Triviata?  I’m sure there’s some great pun to be made here about a trifling opera, but I am sadly lacking the music-literacy bona fides to do it justice.

When Miss Coldfield is in denial, she might as well have a sign around her neck: regarding her sister, she says on page 118, “I was not spying when I would follow her.  I was not spying, though you will say I was.  And even if it was spying, it was not jealousy.”  Not spying, got that?  No?  Let’s see if these selections, all from page 119, help convince you: “No, it was not that; I was not spying”; “Oh no, I was not spying”; “No, not spying, not even hiding”; “I became again that…woman…who was not spying, hiding.”  You should have run when you had the chance—you were warned!

Miss Coldfield finds herself at one point so startled to see an unexpected character that her brain seizes up even as the rest of her physical processes continue on about their business, a sensation she tries repeatedly to put into words—“the face stopping me dead…not my body: it still advanced, ran on”; “and I (my body) not stopping yet”; “I did stop dead. Possibly even then my body did not stop”; “I stopped in running’s midstride again though my body…still advanced”—until she eventually ends up sounding like the Eveready Bunny caught in the throes of a philosophical mind/body debate.

Of all the grooves the old gal’s broken Victrola gets stuck in, the deepest is a paranoiac one.  You know the “they” in “that’s what they say”?  Well, they would seem to have plenty enough to say about Miss Coldfield—her preoccupation with what she imagines is the town’s preoccupation with her is established in Chapter 5’s very first sentence: “So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule.”  Nor is any disinclination in her conspiracy-theorizing evident in the sentence that immediately follows: “That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag.”  And after that, well…just as Miss Coldfield does, “they” do have a tendency to repeat themselves (even if sometimes it’s a matter of what they can’t tell you rather than what they can), so I’ll provide an easy-to-skim list:

if not in my sister’s house at least in my sister’s bed to which (so they will tell you) I aspired (p. 107)

But they cannot tell you how I went on up the drive, past Ellen’s ruined and weed-choked flower beds and reached the house (p. 108)

But it was gone; and this too they cannot tell you: How I ran, fled, up the stairs and found no grieving widowed bride but Judith (p. 114)

Once there was (they cannot have told you this either) a summer of wistaria (p. 115)

the fear of dying manless which (so they will doubtless tell you) old maids always have (p. 128)

They will have told you how I came back home…. Oh yes, I know (and kind too; they would be kind): Rosa Coldfield, warped bitter orphaned country stick…they will have told you: How I went out there to live for the rest of my life (p. 136)

Yes, they will have told you: who was young and had buried hopes only during that night which was four years long…—they will have told you: daughter of an embusque who had to turn to a demon, a villain (p. 137)

Yes, Rosie Coldfield, lose him, weep him; caught a beau but couldn’t keep him; (oh yes, they will tell you) found a beau and was insulted (p. 138)

But I forgave him. They will tell you different, but I did. (p. 138)

One begins to wonder if this is intentional but overdone (Faulkner supplying Miss Coldfield an excess of these persecution-complex oratorical hiccups and his editor doing nothing to rein him in) or just the usual unintentional (Faulkner going about his standard once-to-the-well-is-never-enough routine and his editor doing nothing to rein him in).  This would be the part in the movie when the cop is looking at himself in the broken mirror that he’s just punched and his wife is standing behind him crying, “I don’t even know who you are anymore!”