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.

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!”

Balance Overdrawn

Not only does Absalom, Absalom! have a sizable stable of favored words that get trotted out repeatedly to pepper the prose, it also regularly recycles a number of eye-catching phrases (presumably thought too precious by their author to be wasted on a mere single use).  A “balance of spiritual solvency,” for example, impresses with its poetic euphony when first employed to describe one character’s attempt to navigate a moral dilemma—but feels rather like sloppy seconds when it gets used again only eight pages later.  By the time “spiritual solvency” has made its third appearance within the space of two successive chapters, the law of diminishing returns is fully in effect.

Faulkner must have liked the sound of his description of an exterior light beset by insects as a “bug-fouled globe,” as it gets retooled into “the single globe stained and bug-fouled” for use elsewhere, just as lunar metaphors for eyewear are modulated for their repeat performances in Chapters 6 and 7 (“twin moons of his spectacles” and “lamp-glared moons of his spectacles,” respectively) and the constructive efforts of the book’s foul patriarch to “drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing” are reviewed a chapter later: “he had dragged house and gardens out of virgin swamp.”

The notion that the passage of a season is personally transformative is well captured in the description of a woman who “preened and fluttered out of her unwitting butterfly’s Indian summer,” but once we have furthermore read about “the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer” and “the bright pointless noon and afternoon of the butterfly’s summer” and “the butterfly of a forgotten summer two years defunctive now,” the imagery is pretty much dead in the jar.

Some turns of phrase set off such distinctive echoes it’s almost hard to believe they were composed previous to the control-X, control-V days of cut-and-paste. Miss Coldfield, the old woman with the grim voice, grim house, and grim front yard whom we met conversing with Quentin in Chapter 1, is described in Chapter 4 as having “even now in her hand or on her lap the reticule with all the keys, entrance closet and cupboard, that the house possessed.”  Then, two chapters later: “Miss Coldfield…had…the black reticule almost as large as a carpet bag containing all the keys which the house possessed: cupboard closet and door.” (Who knows? Maybe there was actual cutting and pasting going on back then—those computer terms had to come from somewhere.)

Other phraseological double-visions include “self-mesmered fool,” a characterization used twice in four pages, and—falling rather firmly into the category of things you probably don’t want to see on the page even once—from Chapter 1, “the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity,” which is served anew in Chapter 6 (with the appetizing addition of an increase in temperature), again featuring Miss Coldfield and Quentin, the latter getting a whiff of the former, “smelling the heat-distilled old woman-flesh.”  Now there’s a mental picture to bug-foul the twin moons of your spectacles!