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.

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Hip Hip Hooray

I’ve referred elsewhere to the disproportionate amount of will in Absalom, Absalom!will as in the “free will,” “ruthless will,” “constant will,” “desperate will,” “unbending will” kind of will—and even mentioned then that, among the various will-pairings to be found in the book’s pages—e.g., “will and courage,” “will and intensity,” “will and strength”—there was some “will and endurance” to be had as well, but I don’t think I paid nearly enough attention at the time to the endurance component of that twin set…because we’re talking, like, Shackletonian levels here.

Turns out that will and endurance make for a pretty well-coordinated outfit—Absalom! dresses itself up in the combination repeatedly, showing off both an unadorned “will to endure” and the more colorful “blind instinctive will to endure.”  It sports some existential accessorizing with “the will to exist, endure” and also exhibits—although here it would seem our items may be starting to clash—“not the will but just the ability, the grooved habit to endure” and “the passive ability, not the volitional will, to endure.”  (Apparently ability will go with anything.)

I’ve also made light on another occasion of how much suffering goes on in Yoknapatawpha County—suffering as in the one character ill-served by life who reminisces about “all that he had suffered and endured in the past” or the other unhappy fellow who has gone the extra mile and “suffered beyond endurance.”  (A different gentleman is described as “exasperated beyond all endurance”—which is similarly phrased but frankly sounds much preferable as far as endurance-exceeding goes.)

Others in this overburdened assembly include a woman of constant labor whose “toil…only a beast could and would endure”; battle-fatigued soldiers who must “endure musketry and shelling”; and a hard-rode but taciturn hombre, the extent of whose “sacrifice and endurance and scorn…only he knows” since—as might be reasonably inferred—“he never told…how much he must have had to endure.”  (And some unfortunates aren’t even this lucky—some simply have “an inability to endure.”)

So stretched thin are these people that even their living areas are put to the endurance test, including a “plantation that supported and endured that smooth white house” and, elsewhere, another house—it would be funnier if it were the same house, but it’s a different house—“with an air, a quality of grim endurance.”  So constant are these people’s trials that the womenfolk seek rueful, Pyhrric consolation: “female victory,” says one, “is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.”  (This is officially the Yoknapatawpha High pep squad’s Worst. Cheer. Ever.)

In such soul-trying times as these, you can see why people would need to be drawing upon their reserves of will—their “implacable will,” drawn from a “bitter and implacable reserve.”  In an atmosphere of such “implacable and unalterable grief and despair,” one must seek inner strength—“something fierce and implacable and dynamic”—to make one’s way through this fallen world of “grim and implacable unforgiving.”  One regards the universe’s cruel tests through “implacable pouched black eyes” and either meets the challenge head-on with “terrified yet implacable determination” or withdraws into a protective shell of anger and numbness, cocooned in “fury and implacability and physical imperviousness to pain.”  In any case, one does one’s best to maintain one’s “stern implacable presence.”

Such ordeals as these could turn a person into “a character cold, implacable, and even ruthless.”  A person could become “imbued with cold implacable antipathy.”  A person could lose his or her identity and become a “cold implacable mindless…replica.”  (Whichever way it goes, the person’s gonna be pretty cold.*)  If nothing else, these tribulations—and all the “sullen implacability” and “hatred and implacability” that they elicit—seem to have growth-stunting side effects: Our Miss Coldfield is described alternately as an “implacable doll-sized woman” and a “small furious grim implacable woman not much larger than a child.”  And yes, boys, she’s single.

The oh-so-versatile implacable figures also in another real estate listing, this time in Miss Coldfield’s (ever-so-slightly convoluted) recollection of returning to a house from her past—which is now in a state of “desolation more profound than ruin, as if it had stood in iron juxtaposition to iron flame, to a holocaust which had found itself less fierce and less implacable.”  (Whatever you say, ma’am.)  As it happens, this is one of Absalom!’s three occasions of the word holocaust (Miss Coldfield is described, post-Civil War, as “a young woman emerging from a holocaust,” and her despised brother-in-law, a Colonel in the Mississippi Infantry, is “emerging from the same holocaust”).  In any ordinary book, multiple such uses of the word would surely border on the excessive, and yet here—Really? Only three?—it almost feels like a rare case of restraint.

• • •

*In Absalom, Absalom!, cold and ruthless characters are likely to display “cold and ruthless deliberation”—and also probably “cold alert fury,” “cold and inflexible disapproval,” “cold and attentive interest,” “cold and catlike inscrutable calculation,” and—every so often, and only if you’re lucky—“cold unbending detached gentleness.”  (They also speak with a “cold level voice,” have a “face calm, cold and tranquil,” behave with “grim and cold intensity,” and react with “alertness and cold detachment.”)

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.”

Skins Game

I’ve noted before the recurrence in Absalom, Absalom! of a particularly pungent line of description regarding the elderly Miss Coldfield—twice mentioned is the odor of her “female old flesh” (a.k.a. “old woman-flesh”), which is depicted as, alternately, “rank” and “heat-distilled.”  This, we are told, is the smell of “female old flesh long embattled in virginity” (a campaign her hard-fighting epidermis has apparently been waging for quite some time now, as her birthday suit is also characterized as “lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years”).

Elderly skin—and its relative elasticity—is discussed furthermore elsewhere (we meet a different grande dame, “more than seventy now yet…whose flesh had not sagged”) and additional time is given to contemplating the scent of a woman (a minor female player is notable for “the heavy fainting odor of her flesh”), but these are only a small handful of samplings from the wide array of fleshy delights to be had in Absalom!’s pages.

Some of the book’s flesh is sensual and valiant (“curious pleasures of the flesh,” “passionate and inexorable hunger of the flesh,” “brute inexplicable flesh’s stubborn will to live”), while some is merely poundage (“the leisure and ease put flesh on him,” “the flesh came suddenly,” “Ellen had lost some flesh”).  Some is symbolic (an independent young man “free of the flesh of his father”) and some idiomatic (a past-his-prime older gentleman who feels “nobody would want him in the flesh”).  Some occupies a gray-area intersection of the weight-related, the symbolic, and the perplexing (“he was not fleshier…it was just that the flesh on his bones had become quieter”).  Some is icky (“rotten flesh,” “sweating flesh,” “dead flesh”).

When there’s metaphorical heavy lifting to be done, flesh will often partner up with its frequent companion blood to make lighter work of it: A woman uncomfortable with her own body is “a maidservant to flesh and blood”; an adolescent’s imaginary suitor is “some walking flesh and blood … in some shadow-realm of make-believe”; otherworldly spirits are “shadows not of flesh and blood”; a war-weary man fantasizes a future free of conflict in which there will be “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it”; soldiers in uniform are “deluded blood and flesh dressed in martial glitter”; the same soldiers are overseen by calculating generals who will “swap them blood and flesh for the largest amount of ground.”

Sometimes flesh swaps blood for bone—“willing flesh and bone”; “flesh and bone and spirit”; “black bones and flesh”; a brave man who has “no more doubt of his bones and flesh than he did of his will and courage”; a driven man who, despite pushing sixty years, will not let “the bones and flesh of fifty-nine recuperate”; beleaguered long-sufferers who are “bearing more than they believed any bones and flesh could or should”; devoutly treasured illusions that are “a part of you like your bones and flesh and memory.”

Naturally, with all this flesh on display, things are bound to get a bit touchy-feely, even among unlikely participants.  After all, “there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh…which enemies as well as lovers know”—“let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of…caste and color too.”  One love-starved, incest-minded fellow craves “the living touch of that flesh warmed…by the same blood which…[warmed] his own flesh.”  Another gent, in eager anticipation of an upcoming encounter, says, “‘He will not even have to ask me; I will just touch flesh with him’” (this promised man-on-man action is, anticlimactically, only in reference to a handshake).

There is all of this as well as the “pigmentation of … flesh,” a “smooth cupid-fleshed forearm,” and “a face whose flesh had the appearance of pottery.”  There is “boy flesh” and “white woman’s flesh.”  There is “weak human flesh” and “human flesh bred…for that sale” into slavery.  There is “tender flesh” and “tired flesh,” “living flesh” and “lifeless flesh.”  There is—deep breath—“dreamy flesh,” “articulated flesh,” “incorrigible flesh,” “hot communicated flesh,” “annealing and untroubled flesh,” and “surprised importunate traitorous flesh.”  There is the “vain evanescence of the fleshly encounter,” instincts that are “as rooted in the flesh’s offices as the digestive process,” more otherworldly spirits “serene and untroubled by flesh,” and a house that burns with “the smell of desolation and decay as if the wood of which it was built were flesh”—and whether or not that is the distinctive smell of old-woman flesh is left to one’s imagination.

Kings Have Done It

Life in the South is supposed to unfold at a leisurely pace, but the whiz-bang world of Absalom, Absalom! hurtles forward with the breathlessness a Carolyn Keene cliffhanger: “Suddenly Henry grasps the pistol”; “She said ‘Stop’ suddenly”; “She moved suddenly”; “he thought, knew, said suddenly to himself, ‘Why she’s not afraid at all.’”  For all of the book’s developments that seem to occur—as has been mentioned beforeinstantaneously, there are plenty enough events happening suddenly as well: call it Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Yoknapatawpha County.

Frolicsome swimmers are depicted “turning suddenly to face one another.”  Tinsel motes in midair are “darting suddenly.”  An uprooted child is “picked suddenly up out of…the only life he knew.”  A tract of land is “overrun suddenly” by builders in order that quickly-constructed houses can be “put suddenly down in place.”  One character, trying to do some rehabilitation on the otherwise unpalatable concept of incest by giving it a bit of royal window-dressing, is enthused to a suddenly-squared level of exponential urgency: “Henry said suddenly, cried suddenly: ‘But kings have done it!’”

Another character contemplates the unexpected midlife acquisition of a spare tire: “The fat, the stomach, came later.  It came upon him suddenly.”  (Redundancy comes no less swiftly, as the very next sentence begins, “The flesh came upon him suddenly.”)  One speaker, reflecting on shifting expectations, recounts: “‘Suddenly it was not outrage that I waited for.’”  A different speaker, elsewhere in the book, realizing that no one is paying his story any mind (“he had no listener”), falls silent mid-recitation—“Then suddenly he had no talker either.”  (And, no, that last phrase is not, to the best of my knowledge, translated from a different language.*)

Absalom!’s resident archfiend Thomas Sutpen, not generally portrayed in the book in the most glowing of terms, is both “this Faustus who appeared suddenly one Sunday” and “the demon who would suddenly curse the store empty of customers” (a demon as well as a self-sabotaging small business proprietor, it would seem).  One fellow tells a family tale of an abrupt interaction between his kinfolk and the Faustus-grocer: “‘Then Grandfather heard Sutpen move, sudden and sharp’”—which is apparently the guy’s go-to velocity and preferred acuteness level, as the story continues three pages later, “‘[he was] not even hearing Sutpen when he said, sudden and sharp, “Stand back. Don’t you touch me.”’”

It is, however, with one particular, repeatedly employed variation that Absalom! achieves its special sudden impact, goosing the story’s incidents forward like the boldfaced italics of a comic book speech balloon:

you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over (p. 101)

All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do, but what he just had to do (p. 178)

All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house (p. 188)

then he said that all of a sudden, it was not thinking, it was something shouting it (p. 192)

his father decided all of a sudden to send him [to school] (p. 194)

he realised all of a sudden and without warning that when he passed the men on the gallery they would look after him too (p. 227)

then all of a sudden [he] kind of reared back (also p. 227)

all of a sudden you knew you didn’t want to go back there even (p. 258)

all of a sudden … you find that you don’t want anything (also p. 258)

he would not know until all of a sudden some day it would burst clear and he would know (p. 273)

then one day all of a sudden he though of it, remembered (p. 277)

nevertheless she told you, or at least all of a sudden you knew—— (p. 280)

All of a sudden, this is starting to look like Nancy’s most baffling case ever!

• • •

*Speaking of excerpts rendered near-nonsensical when unmoored from their context, brace yourself for another double shot of suddenly: “[it was shrewdness] which got him engaged to Miss Rosa … shrewdness acquired in excruciating driblets through the fifty years suddenly capitulant and retroactive or suddenly sprouting and flowering like a seed lain fallow in a vacuum.”  (This has been taken from a wonderfully roundabout sentence chock full of suddenness and shrewdness and any number of other densely packed ingredients—to view it in its entirety, see here.  Although, now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure how “sensical” this passage is even in context.)

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.)

Doomed as Doomed Can Be

William Faulkner: not a big proponent, it would seem, of the famous Fiction 101 directive “show, don’t tell.”  What’s wrong with telling, after all?  If you’ve to something to say, don’t go dropping a bunch of hints about it—say it.  If, for instance, you want to get across that one of your characters is a puritan, there’s no reason to piddle around with assorted vignettes of him acting all “puritan-y”—just call him a puritan, for Heaven’s sake.  Time is money.

And let’s say you want to convey that the players in your novel Absalom, Absalom! are doomed.  Why bother with ominous mood-setting or grave harbingers or any such circumlocution when there’s already a perfectly good word to accomplish your goal?  It’s quite versatile, too: “the very situation to which and by which he was doomed,” “children which she had doomed by conceiving them,” “the current of retribution and fatality which…doomed all his blood,” “caught and sunk and doomed too,” or—this last one also quite comprehensive—“the oblivion to which we are all doomed.”

Doomed pitches a pretty big tent: it encompasses “doomed children,” “doomed ships,” a “doomed house,” “doomed and frustrated youth,” “doomed and tragic flower faces,” a “doomed and fatal war,” and two—count ’em—“two doomed races.”  Also “the lonely and foredoomed and indomitable iron spirit” (which is distinguished, presumably, from a post-doomed spirit, whatever exactly that would be.)

And if your characters’ doom is dooming them to some doom in particular, it works for that, as well: “doomed to marry,” “doomed to be a widow,” “doomed to be a murderer,” “doomed and destined to kill,” “doomed to contemplate all human behavior” (said human behavior involving a lot of marital and homicidal impulses, apparently).  It can be used for dramatic counterintuitive effect, like “doomed to live”—and then this permutation can be paired with various different subjects, as in “those who are doomed to live,” “I am doomed to live,” and “she and I both are doomed to live.”  It is also resilient, standing up to repeated, concentrated use in such iterations as “doomed to spinsterhood” (p. 146), “doomed to spinsterhood” (p. 147), and “doomed to spinsterhood” (p. 148).

Nor need there be any namby-pambying about the ultimate orchestrator of all these characters’ sorry fates: doom!  (Crash of thunder.)  “[T]he mistake…which, since he refused to accept it or be stopped by it, became his doom”; “that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure”; “the knell and doom of her native land”; “the family’s doom which Sutpen seemed bent on accomplishing” (this last one proving to be a family affair indeed as we are told that Thomas Sutpen’s son, Henry, also “play[ed] his final part in his family’s doom”).

At one point, two characters are discussing a third (doomed) character, in the light of some inherited insight: “‘Maybe he knew there was a fate, a doom on him, like what the old Aunt Rosa told you about some things that just have to be.’”  Not like what old Aunt Rosa showed you—what she told you.  QED.