Chapter 4, Chapter 2

Chapter 4 of Absalom, Absalom! has, as has been mentioned previously, a number of repeated elements: the word probation, the word durance, the phrase you see, and close to a century’s worth of four years-es, to name but a few.  So let’s name a few more.  Sardonic, for example: In Chapter 4, the character of Charles Bon is described as having “an air of sardonic and indolent detachment” (page 74); his manner is, we read, “passive, a little sardonic” (also page 74); his is a “passive and sardonic spirit” (page 79); occasionally he will display “sardonic and surprised distaste” (page 82) or “pessimistic and sardonic cerebral pity” (page 91); even his writing style is characterized as “gentle sardonic whimsical and incurably pessimistic” (page 102).  (As you may have noticed, Chapter 4 is not without a decent supply of pessimism and passivity, either.)

The same Charles Bon who is depicted on page 74 with an “air of sardonic and indolent detachment” is described, four pages after this, as “the man who later showed the same indolence…the same detachment.”  He is—also page 78—“this indolent old man”; he possesses “dilatory indolence” (page 81); he is “that indolent fatalist” (page 83); and his writing style (which seems to invite oddly comma-free lists of descriptors) is “gallant flowery indolent frequent and insincere” (page 102).  He also has—picking up the detached thread—the “detached attentiveness of a scientist” (page 74) and a “surgeon’s alertness and cold detachment” (page 90).

Charles Bon is—in addition to being sardonic, indolent, and detached—one majorly charismatic cat.  His much younger college buddy Henry has a huge man-crush on him and, when Henry takes his pal home with him for a visit, Henry’s sister Judith is just as gaga over him.  Henry and Judith are basically “that single personality with two bodies both of which had been seduced” by the dashing fatalist/scientist/surgeon Bon (this on page 73).  So casually charming is he that, we are told on page 74, he “seems to have seduced the country brother and sister without any effort or particular desire to do so.”  You might say that “he had seduced Henry and Judith both” (which the book says on page 75).  And Henry?  Well, “he loved Bon, who seduced him as surely as he seduced Judith” (page 76).

Or—wait—maybe it’s a bit more psychosexually complex than that: Maybe Henry is working out some incestuous feelings for Judith, and his buddy, Mr. Seducey Seducerson, is just a proxy.  “‘So it must have been Henry who seduced Judith, not Bon,’” says one spectator to the relationship, seemingly channeling a trenchcoated Peter Falk, “‘seduced her along with himself’” (page 79).  All of this triangulated, Dangerous Liaisons-y activity is done “‘with no volition on the seducer’s part…as though it were actually the brother who had put the spell on the sister, seduced her to his own vicarious image’” (page 85).  Or maybe it’s even more complex—and Judith is the stand-in, an “empty vessel” for the otherwise inexpressible feelings between the college chums, an intermediary for “the man and the youth, seducer and seduced”—page 95, still Chapter 4—“who had known one another, seduced and been seduced.”  Mercy me, is it getting hot in here?  Tonight on Cinemax After Dark…William Faulkner’s Seduction, Seduction!

Whatever exactly sort of Freudian quicksand Henry is splashing around in, he can’t really be held accountable; after all, Bon “corrupted Henry” (page 81).  This is apparent even from Henry’s mother’s perspective: “[T]hough the daughter might still be saved from him, [Bon] had already corrupted the son” (page 82).  This is apparent even to the resident Yoknapatawpha County Columbo, as he reconstructs how Bon dazzled his prey with his big city ways: “‘I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance’” (page 87).  Bon, to Henry, is “the mentor, the corrupter” (page 88); he works his “corruption subtly…by putting into Henry’s mind the notion of one man of the world speaking to another” (page 89); his machinations are the essence of “corruption itself” (page 91).  (At least the siblings’ mother is right about Judith, who is fortunately not as susceptible to corruption as she is to seduction: “Surely Bon could not have corrupted her,” we are reassured on page 95, as we are also informed [same page] that he “had not tried to corrupt her to unchastity”—a double negative construction that I’ll leave to readers better equipped with the necessary analytic lockpicks than I to disentangle.)

And, oh my, the glitter!  Chapter 4 includes “the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels,” soldiers’ uniforms adorned with “martial glitter of brass and plumes,” fireworks like “brave trivial glitter against a black night,” and—of course, surrounding the godlike Charles Bon—“a sort of Scythian glitter.”  Four glitters.  In one chapter.  I know there’s a lot of seducing going on, but it’s not set in a strip club, for God’s sake.

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Tales Well Calculated

You might be surprised at some of the things you can do while in a state of suspension—in Absalom, Absalom!, examples include one character, replying dreamily to a question, who “answered in some curious serene suspension”; an untroubled family, “the four members of [which] floated in sunny suspension”; and a freshly roused sleeper who is “waking in some suspension so completely physical as to resemble the state before birth.”  (I think I’d hit the snooze button for one more trimester.)

Still—while answering, floating, and waking in it are all perfectly good options—the default state of suspension remains the state of being held in it: Girls on the cusp of adulthood are “in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable”; a woman who feels imprisoned in her house by her marriage is “held there not in durance but in a kind of jeering suspension”; a man embroiled in a complex emotional triangle demands time to make a decision, “holding all three of them…in that suspension while he wrestled with his conscience.”  And as he ponders, the players are left “held in that probation, that suspension.”

And what, exactly, is this “probation”?  For answers—delivered, perhaps, in a curious serene suspension—we should look to Chapter 4 and its story of Henry Sutpen; after all, in the words of one observer, “‘It was Henry’s probation; Henry holding all three of them in that durance.’”  (More holding?  And more durance?)  Long story short: Henry’s best friend Charles Bon and Henry’s sister Judith are engaged to be wed, but Henry discovers his friend already has a previous, legally unresolved marriage in his past.  While Henry and Bon—as he is better known—are off fighting in the Civil War, Henry refuses to let his pal contact Judith until he, Bon, has broken things off with the other woman—and these four years of enforced noncommunication are the “probation.”  Now for the long story long.

Henry writes Judith from the battlefront to explain, “‘since doubtless he refused to allow Bon to write—this announcement of the armistice, the probation.’”*  Being an inordinately dutiful sister, Judith accepts the arrangement without objection, “‘she and Henry both knowing that she would observe the probation.’”  And Henry is like a hawk from the moment he and his buddy sign up: “‘They enlisted together, you see, Henry watching Bon and Bon permitting himself to be watched, the probation, the durance.’”  (Okay, all these probations are one thing, but durance again?)

Being inordinately dutiful, himself, Bon abides by his friend’s wishes and refrains from contacting his fiancée: “‘Henry would not let him; it was the probation, you see.’”  (The fellow recounting this story says “you see” a lot.**)  Henry is adamant that his future brother-in-law get his messy past straightened out—as reports Mr. You See, ultimately “‘[t]hat what was why the four years, the probation’”—but Henry feels conflicted, “‘still loving Bon, the man to whom he gave four years of probation.’”  But he is also resolute, and Judith is left to wait.  “‘She waited four years, with no word from him save through Henry that he (Bon) was alive. It was the probation, the durance.’”  (Durance?  Really?)

For as many times as probation is used in Chapter 4—and it is oodles—it pales compared to the mantra-like repetition of a certain span of time whose recurrence here you may have already noted (the rest of the quote mentioned in the previous paragraph is “‘the man to whom he gave four years of probation, four years in which to renounce and dissolve the other marriage, knowing that the four years of hoping and waiting would be in vain.’”).  Yes, the Civil War figures centrally in Absalom, Absalom!, and, yes, that conflict lasted four years, but come on.  This, for example, is from page 79: “‘And yet, four years later, Henry had to kill Bon to keep them from marrying.’”  (As you may infer, the probation doesn’t exactly end up fixing the whole Henry/Judith/Bon situation.)  Also from page 79: “‘[Judith endured] a period of four years during which she could not have always been certain he was still alive.’”  And from page 79: “‘[Y]et four years later [Bon] was apparently so bent upon the marriage…as to force the brother who had championed it to kill him.’”  And, lastly, from page 79: “‘[Henry had] become a follower and dependent of the rejected suitor for four years before killing him apparently for the very identical reason which four years ago he quitted home to champion.’”  Oh, and by the way?  Four years.

Bon’s first wife is not the only skeleton in his closet—“‘four years later Judith was to find the photograph of the other woman and [their] child’” (page 71).  “‘I don’t think she ever suspected,’” theorizes our narrator for this vignette, “‘until that afternoon four years later’” (page 73).  Bon does eventually write Judith, though, at the end of the war: “‘[F]our years later…she received a letter from him saying We have waited long enough’” (page 80).  “‘[H]ere is the letter, sent four years afterward,’” intones a rueful Mr. You See, “‘four years after she had had any message from him save the messages from Henry that he (Bon) was still alive’” (page 85).

You have likely gathered that Henry ends up killing Bon—an act of righteous eradication long overdue, or so figures the teller of the tale, who thinks Henry should have just gone ahead and done it right after finding out about Bon’s marital situation: “‘[T]hat afternoon four years later should have happened the next day, the four years, the interval, mere anti-climax’” (this also from Chapter 4, on page 94).  But instead, “‘he waited, hoped, for four years’” (page 94).  Yes, “‘Henry waited four years’”—yes, still page 94—all the while “‘holding the three of them in that abeyance, that durance.”  (What th?  You have got to be jok—  #@&%!!! )

• • •

*The Henry/Judith/Bon soap opera is largely related second-hand, thus all the quotations-within-quotations.

**From Chapter 4 (for completists only): “‘he (Henry) could not say that to his friend, I did that for love of you….He couldn’t say that, you see’” (p. 72); “‘he, the living man, was usurped, you see’” (p. 77); “‘You see? there they are: this girl…this father…this brother’” (p. 79); “‘You see? You would almost believe that Sutpen’s trip to New Orleans was just sheer chance’” (p. 81); “‘He had been too successful, you see; his was that solitude of contempt’” (p. 82); “‘So he dared not ask Bon to deny it; he dared not, you see’” (p. 85); “‘but we do not pretend to be God, you see’” (p. 91); “‘They didn’t tell one another anything, you see…Judith, that she knew where Bon and Henry now were’” (p. 96).  Plus the following, from page 90, in which a conversation—about a duel—is described (so handy an interjection is “you see” that not only is the fellow who’s telling the story partial to it, so is the fellow who’s in the story—two sentences in a row!): “‘[T]he guide [was] casually and pleasantly anecdotal:…. “They face one another inside the same cloak, you see, each holding the other’s wrist with the left hand.  But that was never my way”;—casual, chatty, you see, waiting for the countryman’s slow question…“What would you—they be fighting for?”’”

Use Your Words

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.

Poof!

In Absalom, Absalom!, there is a major character, Henry Sutpen, who kills a man who is not only his best friend but also engaged to marry Henry’s sister, Judith.  This may sound like I’m revealing a big plot twist, but we actually learn this information early on—it’s only page 6, and already old Miss Coldfield is sharing about her nephew and how he “shot the fiance to death…and then fled, vanished, none knew where.”

Henry the shooter may have vanished, never to be heard from again, but it’s hardly the last time we’ll hear about the fact that he’s never heard from again.  “Henry had just vanished,” we’re told on page 61.  And then a page later: “Henry just vanished.”  And five pages after that: “Henry up to now was just vanished.”

The incident is also revisited from Judith’s perspective: “her brother had quitted the house in the night and vanished, none knew why or where.”  The incident is also revisited from their father’s perspective—repeatedly: “[he] had been told that his son had done murder and vanished”; “one of [his] children vanished…doomed to be a murderer”; “[his] son gone, vanished.”  The incident will even be revisited many years hence: “was it…four years since Henry vanished [?]”

Funny, considering that it’s Miss Coldfield who first tells the story about her nephew Henry, because she once, as a much younger woman, lived with her own aunt—that is, until the occasion of her aunt deciding to abandon the family, i.e., “the night the aunt climbed out the window and vanished.”  (Miss Coldfield doesn’t seem to have a lot of luck in the kin-constancy department.)  Yes, she shared a house with her aunt “up to the time the aunt vanished”—although the older woman’s departure might not have been too heartbreaking, considering that, till then, the niece had been “the object and victim of the vanished aunt’s vindictive unflagging care and attention.”

Miss Coldfield also has a sister, Ellen—Henry and Judith’s mother.  And Ellen…?  Yes, vanished.  Metaphorically, though, in her case: The sublimation of her own personality into that of her horrible husband is described as her being “vanished into the stronghold of an ogre.”  As Miss Coldfield sees it, “her sister [was] a woman who had vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too.”  Like a brief-lived insect, “Ellen…completed…the butterfly’s summer and vanished.”*

As for Miss Coldfield’s niece, Judith?  In her life, “she had seen almost everything else she had learned to call stable vanish like straws in a gale.”  And Charles Bon, the fiance whom Henry shot?  Well, he was a very colorful character to say the least, a man to inspire such wildly poetic descriptions as “almost phoenix-like…born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust.”

And what of Charles Bon’s son, whom we meet later in the story as he is being abruptly plunged into alien circumstances?  “[A]ll that he had ever been familiar with was vanishing about him like smoke,” we learn of that moment, as he is stripped even of his clothing: His “shirt and stockings and shoes…vanished”—in a cloud of seemingly prerequisite vapor—“as if they had been woven of chimaeras or of smoke.”  (This character will fall out of the narrative for many years, only to reappear much later, now hitched: “a grown man…who had vanished and then returned with an authentic wife.”)

And getting back to Miss Coldfield—when we first meet her, we are told of an odd vocal characteristic that she has: “Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish.”  Or, to put it another way (which is pretty much the same way), hers was a “voice not ceasing but vanishing.”  A.k.a. a “vanishing voice.”  (Near the end of the book, there is a scene in which she is propositioned by her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen; so outraged is her response that she immediately takes her leave of his eponymous plantation—which is to say, she “vanished from Sutpen’s Hundred.”**)

It is not only members of the extended Coldfield/Sutpen family that can pull this vanishing act: In one crowd scene, a “circle of faces…seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish” until the participants have—same page—“vanished back into the region from which they had emerged.”  (This rather undulatory, literal-sea-of-faces facial aspect will recur in a later episode—“like a tide in which the strange harsh rough faces…swam up and vanished.”)

Vanish naturally lends itself to descriptions of ephemeral and indefinite phenomena: “an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing”; “events [that] transpire…and fade, vanish”; “all truth, evidence vanished into a moiling clump”; an idea that “touched and then vanished from…[the] mind”; and the “prisoner soul” that “dies, is gone, vanished.”  In that same and-to-dust-we-shall-return vein, we have a collapsing grave (“that mound vanishing slowly back into the earth”), some sinking tombstones (“slabs…vanishing into the hole”), and further proof—this time more sanguinary than cemetery—of the ground’s absorptive capabilities (“old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth”).

Also making (dis)appearances are—and if I may, for just a moment, before I begin this inventory, let down my otherwise devoutly maintained facade of cool scholasticism and say, What is the deal with this guy and the word “vanish”?!—handwriting so faint that it “might fade, vanish, at any instant”; “snow on [an] overcoat sleeve…vanishing”; a person gone missing who “seemed to vanish in broad daylight”; transients in a shelter who “lived beneath [the roof] and vanished”; “some tree, vanished, burned for warmth”; tears that are “vanishing, disappearing instantaneously”; “red spots [that] wheeled and vanished across the retinae”; an imploding house afire whose “whole lower hall vanished”; and a man reaching for a hidden weapon whose “hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol.”

At one point, a character reflects on a piece of vanishment-related advice handed down through his family—how, in life, it was best to avoid “that picayune splitting of abstract hairs while (Grandfather said) Rome vanished and Jericho crumbled.”  To this I can only reply that, when the occasions of a certain V-word in a certain novel start to near the half-century mark, maybe it wouldn’t hurt for the editor to be just a teensy bit more picayune.

• • •

*Mind you, to call Ellen’s vanishing metaphorical is not to suggest that Henry or his aunt’s aunt literally, you know, vanished.

Also, that same ogre (which is some kind of symbol of how Judith’s youthful traumas are being replayed through her relationship with her husband) has a few more magic tricks up its sleeve: “in which the ogre-face of her childhood would apparently vanish so completely that she would agree to marry the late owner of it”—until it finally steps off the stage for the last time: “[there] was no ogre, because it was dead, vanished.”

**During a flashback, it is mentioned that the young Thomas Sutpen had two brothers—“two brothers who had vanished.”

It Is What It Is

Each of Absalom, Absalom!’s various conspicuously repeated words is like a little weight with its own distinct measure of flamboyance: The degree to which any one of them tips the scale into flagrant exhibitionism is the product of how showoffy it is, multiplied by the number of reiterations you stack up on the weighing platform.  Fierce, for example, is hardly a vocabulary peacock, but—used over thirty times in a single novel—it does begin to call attention to itself.  (On our scale, fierce is, like, 2 grams.)  On the other hand, something like epicene—defined as “having the characteristics of both sexes”—even if used only twice (a stylish college dandy likened to an “almost epicene object d’art” and a period of prepubescence characterized as “one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial”)—well, it very much tips the scale.  (Epicene: kilo and a half.)  Especially if its appearances are in two successive chapters, only 35 pages apart.

So, upon first encountering a word like fatalistic—there’s a mention early on in the book of someone’s “expression of fatalistic and amazed determination”—one might not even register its heft.  (We’re talking 10 grams here; 15, tops.)  But even if each minor shift in a scale’s balance is unnoticeable with the addition of every tiny incremental weight, that scale is shifting nonetheless; eventually, it may just clonk over onto the table.

It is with the Chapter 4 introduction of Charles Bon—the epicene object d’art mentioned above and also an “indolent fatalist” who befriends Henry Sutpen at school—that one may begin to sense a serious tilt in the equilibrium; resignation may start to set in at the inevitability of this particular overuse as Bon is said to possess “fatalistic and impenetrable imperturbability” and is referred to as “the fatalist to the last” and “Bon the fatalist.”  (This all within a single chapter, which furthermore concerns Bon’s complicated relationship with Henry and his sister Judith—“[p]erhaps in his fatalism he loved Henry the better of the two”—and also establishes the chronological limitations of his deterministic influence—“[s]urely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days.”*)

Bon may not be Absalom!’s sole bearer of the weight of this weary surrender—another character at one point regards an unwelcome sight with “aghast fatalistic terror”—but he is certainly its standard bearer: In later chapters, others will recall his memory (“Bon whom Mr Compson had called a fatalist”), reminisce about his salient characteristics (“the weariness, the fatalism”), and gauge themselves by his standard (“[he] maybe even turned fatalist like Bon now”**).

Of course, Bon’s solemn perspective makes perfect sense within a fictional cosmos of such desperately tragic preordination that the word doom appears as many times as fierce.  It’s probably hard to lighten up when your every step is so perilously permanent and life offers no do-overs—every “decision instantaneous and irrevocable,” every move leading to “subsequent irrevocable courses of resultant action,” every positive development in the grand scheme of things met with the “irrevocable negation of the design.”  Here you are, trying to make your way in “the irrevocable world,” ever mindful of the passage of “all irrevocable time,” standing on the threshold—“that irrevocable demarcation”—of the rest of your life, serving the “irrevocable sentence” of your years on this planet, doing your best to protect yourself from “irrevocable and incalculable damage,” seeking to forge your own identify after “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity,” chasing after some “lost irrevocable might-have-been,” and trying to plumb—unsuccessfully—the “irrevocable and unplumbable finality” of your destiny.  You’ve got a right to be a little tetchy.

After all, things are tough all over—for the fatalistic female as much for the fatalistic fellow: a gal could find herself “irrevocably husbanded,” but then later (not so irrevocable after all, the husbanding, it would seem) “irrevocably estranged”—“not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from all reality,” just praying that her latest travail might fall “irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm.”  Maybe the family home is threatened because the once-husband has “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house”; maybe he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome and has “irrevocably lost count of his age.”

This can lead a person to say things like “it is irrevocable now” (p. 252) and “it was done, irrevocable now” (p. 272).  This can result in curiously tangled concepts such as “irrevocable undefeat” (it may not be clear what, precisely, undefeat is, but we do know that it’s permanent).  This can produce such snake-eating-its-tail configurations as “a curious and outrageous exaggeration in which was inherent its own irrevocability,” which, if a touch baffling, sounds way too self-contained to argue with.

To close, it would feel appropriate here to make some fanciful suggestion as to how much irrevocable would weigh on my proposed metaphorical scale—but I’m just afraid that once I suggested it, I wouldn’t be able to take it back.  Ever.

• • •

*Surely not.  She remains—next sentence—“anything but a fatalist.”

**For whatever reason—whether it’s regarding his fatalism, his “expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” his “cryptic” vocal stylings, or his fool/not-a-fool dualism—Bon’s is the character who really seems to kick Faulkner’s descriptive Xerox into high gear.

101 Uses for a Dead Cat

The character of Judith in Absalom, Absalom! is described as “cold” and “absolutely impenetrable” (a lot of fun at parties, this one), with an equally fetching physique to complete the package: “this small body with its air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness.”  With her brother Henry, the provincial puritan, she has a “curious relationship.” (Or, as it is helpfully elaborated upon, a “curious and unusual relationship.”)  When she looks at him, it is with “curious and profound intensity.”

She’s not the only one.  When Quentin, our audience surrogate from Absalom!’s first page on, is in a serious conversation with his college roommate Shreve, they pause and “[look] at one another, curious and quiet and profoundly intent.”  During the same exchange, Shreve also watches Quentin “with thoughtful and intent curiosity” and, later, “with intent detached speculation and curiosity.”

Perhaps it is Quentin’s style of speaking that invites these curious stares—“his voice [is] level, curious, a little dreamy.”  Elsewhere, it is a “curious repressed calm voice.”  (I say “elsewhere”—it’s actually in the same paragraph.)  It is also a “flat, curiously dead voice.”  (This, in all fairness, is 30 pages later.)

Other curiosities include characters sitting “in a curious quiet clump,” the “curious pleasures of the flesh,” a “curious lack of economy between cause and effect,” an unfortunate child “born into some curious disjoint of [his] father’s life,” “curious serene suspension,” and a “curious blend of savageness and pity.”  There is “curious and outraged exaggeration” and “curious terrified yet implacable determination.”  We meet “the curious and the vengeful.”  Settings include “architecture [that is] a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant”—on page 88 we behold a “closed and curiously monastic doorway” and then, three pages later, “inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways.”

Charles Bon, he of the phony grin and the dull foolishness (or foolhardy dullness, as the case may be), also has his own distinctive vocal style, “the bland and cryptic voice with something of secret and curious and unimaginable delights.”  (“Secret and curious and unimaginable delights”?  Is that the sort of voice that most people would describe as “bland”?*)  One character has “something curious and strange in his face,” while the face of another is “quiet, reposed, curiously almost sullen.”  One character finds himself in “a curious position”; one looks “curiously smaller than he actually was.”

Those seeking privacy try to “hide from the world’s curious looking”; those trying to repress painful historical memories are “talking not about the war yet all curiously enough (or perhaps not curiously at all) facing the South.”  One character with a philosophical bent offers “a curious and apt commentary on the times,” while another waxes existential about life, “the curious factor of which is…either choice…leads to the same result.”  At one point, Judith’s mother Ellen “did not know where her husband had gone and [was] not even conscious that she was not curious.”  Which is to say, I guess, that she wasn’t thinking about what she wasn’t thinking about.  I wonder what Descartes would make of that one?

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*It seems there is no aspect of Charles Bon’s character that can ever be depicted without repetition: He is described as “talking now, lazily, almost cryptically”; instances of his subtly corrupting influence on his friend Henry are “so brief as to be cryptic”; his voice is, as mentioned above, “bland and cryptic”; and, eleven lines later, “the mentor’s voice [is] still bland, pleasant, cryptic, postulating still”—and this is all in a single paragraph.

Serenity Now

When you see a particular word—for instance, calm—used almost 30 times within a single novel—for instance, Absalom, Absalom!—you might wonder of the author, Did he not have a thesaurus?  Wouldn’t a few synonyms have helped to spice up all that calmness?  Like maybe a serene or the occasional tranquil?

And then you start to notice all the serenes and tranquils.  Turns out they themselves are more than occasional.

No surprise that Judith, the character already described as calm a half-dozen times, is serene as well: she has, we are told, an “impenetrable and serene face.”  A page later, we are furthermore told—presumably to clarify that these are qualities not even one iota shy of 200-proof purity—that it is a face “absolutely impenetrable, absolutely serene.”  And then, a page after that, it is “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face.”  (In classes on how to give presentations, this principle is known as Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.*)

Judith not only looks serene, she listens serene—“Judith listening with that serenity, that impenetrable tranquility.”  (Yes, her tranquility is as impenetrable as her face.)  And even when she recedes into the background of the narrative, there’s no doubt how she’s coming back on the scene—“Judith was absent, returning at supper time serene and calm.”  With her around, one serene a sentence will simply not suffice—“something walked with Judith and Clytie back across that sunset field and answered in some curious serene suspension to the serene quiet voice.”

In addition to Judith’s “impenetrable tranquility” and her “face calm cold and tranquil,” Absalom! includes “tranquil anticipation,” “tranquil disregard,” “tranquil and astonished earth,” “tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “melodious and tranquil” music, and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  (It will likely not come as a great shock that this last item is far from the book’s only phenomenon to be deemed “profound.”)

Judith is calm even when irritated—“annoyed yet still serene”—which puts her in the relaxed company of a “serene and florid boast,” the “serene and idle splendor of flowers,” “the open door’s serene rectangle,” and “old age’s serene and well-lived content.”  One character in Chapter 6 speaks in a manner “serene, not even triumphant,” while another in Chapter 9 regards a situation “perhaps not even now with triumph…possibly even serene.”

The only things that get the serene treatment nearly as often as Judith are, oddly, various amorphous presences—“shapes fluid and delicate…parasitic and potent and serene”; “symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene”; and—in another demonstration of the can’t-have-too-much-serenity-in-a-single-sentence stratagem—“two shades pacing, serene and untroubled by flesh, in a summer garden—the same two serene phantoms.”

All of which makes you realize that apparently Faulkner did have a thesaurus, and it’s a good thing, too, or else this book would have been completely up to its neck in calms.

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*Such insistent repetition also reminds me of Dudley Moore in Arthur, completely undissuadable by the aunt and uncle he encounters in a restaurant that he has not adequately conveyed how small the country is that his date comes from: “It’s terribly small.  Tiny little country.  Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war.  That’s how small it is.”  (Aunt: “It’s small.”)  “Very little. It’s 85 cents in a cab from one end of the country to the other.  I’m talking small.”  (Uncle: “We understand it’s small, Arthur.”)  “They recently had the whole country carpeted—this is not a big place.”