Into the Great Unknown

The name of this blog was taken from a line of dialogue in Absalom, Absalom! in which a woman is describing a distant relative of hers who has a tendency to play dumb.  This, she explains, is done to disguise a nest of knotty, sometimes perplexing contradictions at her core: “Clytie [is] not inept,” she clarifies, “anything but inept: perverse inscrutable and paradox: free, yet incapable of freedom.”  Clytie—illegitimate child of a slave mother and a plantation owner father—is, no doubt, a paradox.  She just happens to be one of the book’s many paradoxes.

These include the “bloodless paradox…of peaceful conquest” and—still peaceful but somehow way more bloody—“soil manured with black blood of two hundred years of oppression [that springs] with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery.”  A scene depicting the funeral of a unprepossessing woman juxtaposes a massive burial stone against the fragile remains it will memorialize, the body reposed in a grove “in powder-light paradox beneath the thousand pounds of marble monument.”  Absalom!’s paradoxical pairings include “paradox and inconsistency” and “paradox and madness”; paradoxical alternatives include “incongruity or paradox.”  An adolescent girl has an “air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness”; travelers find themselves in a “city foreign and paradoxical”; and—in a strenuously goofy example of aggrandizing the everyday (previously ribbed by me elsewhere)—the top half of a folded piece of paper rises off the table “in weightless and paradoxical levitation.”  (Remind me not to book whatever magician this is for the kids’ next birthday party.)

Nor is Clytie—inscrutable embodiment of paradox, she—the book’s only scrutiny-resistant person, place, or thing.  She may have an “inscrutable coffee-colored face,” but she’s hardly alone in this department (another character has “that still face…just sullen and inscrutable”), and she surely can’t hope to challenge her father’s carriage driver for po-faced primacy, he apparently the achiever of the Platonic ideal in this area (his mug is, we are told, “perfectly inscrutable”).  This same category also encompasses circumspect means of entrance (“inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways”), cagey but oddly soothing unfamiliar languages (“the words, the symbols…shadowy inscrutable and serene”), nonthreatening but hard-to-interpret quadrants of the sky (“a panorama of harmless and inscrutable night”), shifty land masses (“the dark inscrutable continent”—full of, presumably, cities foreign and paradoxical), and feline mathematics (“cold and catlike inscrutable calculation”).

You can imagine—as far as blog names go—that any number of phrases from the book suggested themselves as likely possibilities; before Perverse Inscrutable, I thought I had found the perfect candidate in a description of one character assigning another a nickname out of “incomprehensible affectation” (we have a winner!)—but then I realized that I had misread the sentence in question, which actually was referring to incomprehensible affection.  (Which perhaps does contain a grain of insight into my complicated feelings for Absalom!, but was still not quite on the nose, title-wise.)  And you can probably also imagine—just as there is much in these pages that is inscrutable, there is no shortage of that which is incomprehensible, either.  Or, while we’re in that same neighborhood, inexplicable.

Incomprehensible items include “incomprehensible ultimatums,” “incomprehensible children,” and “a dead incomprehensible shadow.”  There is a range of dumbfoundedness, from “baffled incomprehension” all the way to “incredulous incomprehension.”  There is—take your pick—“surprise or incomprehension.”  There is physical motion described as “furious and incomprehensible” and emotional abuse likened to a “busted water pipe of incomprehensible fury.”  (Man, you just know the plumber’s going to charge time-and-a-half for that one.)

There is also “the inexplicable unseen,” “the inexplicable thunderhead of interdictions and defiances,” “the brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live,” and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  There are “natural and violent and inexplicable volte faces”; “acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable”; and “bitter inexplicable (to the man mind) amicable enmities which occur between women of the same blood.”  There is a fellow—in the grip himself of some kind of existential paradox, it would seem—who feels “amazement… at the inexplicable and incredible fact of his own presence.”  There is “that quiet aptitude of a child for accepting the inexplicable.”  There is another fellow, regarding a situation and decreeing, “It was as if he found the whole business, not inexplicable, of course, just unnecessary.”  Tell me about it, brother.

And, on a final note—about the “author name” that accompanies these blog entries, that is from a description of the character Charles Bon, referred to twice in the space of four pages as “the esoteric, the sybarite” (pages 253 and 256).  Sybarite, of course, is very much one of those probably-shouldn’t-be-used-more-than-once-in-a-single-book sort of words that I’ve been on about before (it shows up also to characterize how Bon likes to lounge around in “the outlandish and almost female garments of his sybaritic privacy”), while esoteric is naturally in comfortable company with the likes of inscrutable, inexplicable, incomprehensible, and paradox.  So let us note here also the book’s mentions of an “esoteric milieu,” an “indolent esoteric hothouse bloom,” “the esoteric, the almost baroque, the almost epicene object d’art,” “some esoteric piece of furniture,”* and—Faulkner’s meaning here is not exactly a difficult code to crack, he might as well be writing this with a pinkie extended—“expensive esoteric Fauntleroy clothing.”

Here is a writer who loves words—loves certain words so much, in fact, that he lavishes attention on them till they’re in danger of their very lives like quivering mice imperiled beneath Lennie’s smothering caresses.  It’s enough to make one’s response to Absalom! feel almost…paradoxical.  If I had to describe the conflicted emotions it elicits, I’d say they were somewhere between incomprehensible affection and a busted fury pipe.

• • •

*This, also, I have made fun of in the past, but esoteric furniture, Good Lord.

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Foe News

The rather extravagant malignance of Absalom, Absalom!’s tryannical big daddy Thomas Sutpen is not a character trait evoked with much in the way of what you would call finesse (he’s referred to as a “demon” four times in the book’s first six pages and described upon his introduction as having a “faint sulphur-reek”).  That he is so offhandedly loathsome as to be oblivious to the enraging effect he has on others is not something meant to escape our attention: At a family get-together in which everyone else is united against him in a “grim embattled conspiracy,” for example, the blissfully ignorant Sutpen “did not even know that he was an embattled foe.”  This we are told, for the first time, on page 49.

On page 50, Sutpen’s sister-in-law (not a fan) stares at him across the dinner table, into “the face of a foe who did not even know that it was embattled.”  One might think this quick-on-the-heels corroborating statement would cement fairly conclusively Sutpen’s inability to take the emotional temperature of a room (not to mention the author’s predilection for the word “embattled”) but, later on the very same page, our unwitting combatant is designated yet again “a foe who did not know that he was at war.”  And six lines after that, even as family hostilities are subsiding, the portraiture remains essentially unchanged: He is “the foe who was not even aware that he sat there not as host and brother-in-law but as the second party to an armistice.”  (To which any reader would surely be entitled to respond, “All right, all right, he didn’t know he was a foe—sheesh.”)

One could view this charitably and chalk it up to unbridled writerly enthusiasm—apparently Faulkner just really, really wanted to convey the lengths of Sutpen’s social disengagement, broken-record concerns be damned.  Maybe he thought this was a super-important aspect of the character and argued about it passionately with his editor—“No, I want it in there four times!  What?  No, three is not enough!  Three?!  Are you mad?”  However charitably inclined, though, one could find oneself harder pressed to rationalize the motives behind other, later such occasions of deja vu.

In Chapter 7, Quentin, our audience proxy, is regarding a piece of correspondence.  Here is the tableau:

He sat quite still, facing the table, his hands lying on either side of the open text book on which the letter rested: the rectangle of paper folded across the middle and now open, three quarters open, whose bulk had raised half itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation.

One might roll one’s eyes at even so prosaic a phenomenon as a letter not lying flat meriting the poetic curlicues of “weightless and paradoxical levitation,” but, hey, this is page 176—complaining at this point would be like grumbling about the barn door lock with the horses already in the next county.  Here, Faulkner’s enthusiasms seem to be focused on the precise rendering of object orientation, as he reiterates the stacking order on page 177—describing Quentin speaking distractedly, as if “to the table before him or the book upon it or the letter upon the book or his hands lying on either side of the book.”

Faulkner proceeds to drill this in like a schoolteacher hitting the bullet points he knows are going to be on the standardized test that will determine his future salary.  When the narrative, having shifted into flashback mode to relay the contents of the letter, returns to Quentin 15 pages later, we get a refresher course:

Quentin [looked with] brooding bemusement upon the open letter, which lay on the open textbook, his hands lying on the table before him on either side of the book and the letter, one half of which slanted upward from the transverse crease without support, as if it had learned half the secret of levitation.

(Clearly this letter-levitation jazz was deemed way too snazzy to be squandered on a one-time usage.  And what exactly is half the secret of levitation?  The getting-up-in-the air half?  So, like, good luck on getting yourself down?)

Thirteen pages on, and Quentin is still “talking apparently (if to anything) to the letter lying on the open book on the table between his hands.”  And 16 pages after that, his posture remains fixed and his bemusement remains brooding, “still brooding apparently on the open letter upon the open book between his hands.”  Harder indeed to imagine exactly what impassioned argument Faulkner would have made for the necessity of belaboring this particular imagery—“No, his hands can’t be in his lap! In his lap?! Are you insane?”