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.

Advertisements

Two, Four, Six, Eight …

If words can be said to paint a picture, there are certain scenes in Absalom, Absalom! that are like canvases with way too many layers of Pantone on them.  In Chapter 8, for example, some Harvard students are having a discussion in dormitory quarters that cannot keep out the winter chill—on page 236, the occupants are pictured as “their breathing vaporised faintly in the cold room.”  Four pages after this and the imagery receives a second coat: “They stared at each other…their quiet regular breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air.”

Three pages later and there is another touch-up: The room is as “quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath.”  Further on in the chapter, having presumably allowed for drying time, the artist dabs on a few final licks of pigment to the steamy exhalation concept—“[e]ven while they were not talking their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly” (p. 260)—while adding on a fresh overlay of tomblike air.  At one point even, it’s almost as if the author is replying to a sarcastic question from the audience: Hey, so is the room pretty tomblike?  Answer, page 275: “The room was indeed tomblike.”

The conversationalists here are Quentin and Shreve, hashing out the tangled family history at the center of the book’s narrative.  So vividly do their reminiscences evoke the memories of their subject—the decades-old story of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon—that at times it’s as if the tellers of the tale are sharing the stage with the players in their story.  (I say, “at times.”  It’s at a lot of times.)

This not-at-all-confusing fictional device—that Quentin and Shreve somehow accompany Henry and Charles during their various circa-Civil War experiences, just as the latter share space with the former in their early-1900s university settings—is rendered thusly: “in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four” (p. 236—hey, the whole gang’s hanging out in the dorm!) and so: “not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness” (p. 237—whoosh, now everyone’s on the battlefield in the 1860s!).

If this notion seems a tad fuzzy, allow the author to elaborate: “So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark…four of them and then just two—Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry” (p. 267).  Now allow him to elaborate some more: “So it was four of them who rode the two horses through that night” (also p. 267).  And a bit more after that: “[They were] still not talking since there was nothing to say, the two of them (the four of them)”—(yes, still p. 267).

So—the story of Henry and Charles (and Quentin and Shreve) continues: “So it was four of them still who got off the boat in New Orleans”; “four of them who sat in that drawing room”; “four of them there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860 just as”—Gentle Reader, are you getting the idea yet?—“in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910.”  (Where do I begin—that all four of these “four of them” quotes are from the same page, or about the return of tomblike?)

And, no, the author is not done yet.  At a certain point after this, our tale-tellers Quentin and Shreve are yanked abruptly out of their story and back into the present such that they are no longer “participants” in the recollection—“[f]irst two of them, then four; now two again” (p. 275).  This not-at-all-confusing development is helpfully explicated on the following page as “two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking”—until they all find themselves “the two the four the two facing one another in”—where else but?—“the tomblike room.”

Ah, and with that last brushstroke in place—fini!

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?”

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?

• • •

*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.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Some of Absalom, Absalom!’s favored words are sprinkled consistently throughout its length—grim is there on the very first page and manages at least one appearance per chapter (almost, that is—carefree Chapter 7 excepted) until its final showing four pages before the last.*  Other words, what they lack in frequency of use, they make up for in concentration—one densely employed example doesn’t even debut until the book’s final fifteen pages but really makes up for lost time once on the scene.

Quentin and Miss Coldfield—characters whose relationship we’ve watched develop over the course of the story, bonding through such olfactorily memorable moments as Quentin imbibing the scent of Miss Coldfield’s “heat-distilled old woman-flesh”—are reunited as the narrative comes full circle for its climax.  (The two engage briefly in a game of “what’s that smell” for old time’s sake as Miss Coldfield’s shawl is twice described as “fusty” within a single paragraph, but the really serious word-recycling is reserved for characterization of our geriatric heroine’s behavior in the finale.)

Anticipating conflict? “‘She’s going to try to stop me,’ Miss Coldfield whimpered.”  Anticipating revelation?  “‘And now I will have to find it out,’ she whimpered.”  Quentin’s impression?  “It seemed to him that he could still hear her whimpering panting.”  Her respiratory status?  “Still breathing in those whimpering pants.”**  Quietly needing assistance?  “‘I will have to take your arm,’ she whispered, whimpered.”  Anticipating discovery?  “‘I just know she is somewhere watching us,’ she whimpered.”  Momentarily impeded vocal status?  “Not saying words, yet producing a steady whimpering.”  Anticipating ingress via bladed force?  ““I’m going inside,’ she whimpered. ‘Give me the hatchet.’”  Quentin’s largely redundant second impression?  “He could hear Miss Coldfield’s whimpering breathing.”  These nine quotations?  Pages 291-294.

This short-lived but bright-burning bit of vocabulary finally extinguishes itself a few pages later, going out with a bang on page 297 and breathing its last “whimpering panting breath.”  (Happily, Miss Coldfield herself manages to linger a bit longer.)  Although it might boggle the mind to think such flagrant repetition could escape editorial intervention, consider that this version is the corrected text drawn from Faulkner’s original typescript—as the process is explained in an endnote, “We have attempted in this volume to reproduce that text faithfully.”  Whimper fidelis.

•••

*My copy is the 1990 Vintage International Edition (pictured, sidebar), which is where I get my page counts and numbers.

**Not unlike overalls, no one looks good in whimpering pants.

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!  

And the Fury. And the Fury. And the Fury.

It’s hardly a surprise that fury might be a word to which William Faulkner is particularly partial—surprising only that it appears but twice in The Sound and the Fury, outside of the title itself.  (Twice, along with a small handful of furiouses.)

That rather restrained use of the word was apparently a mere warmup for the heated workout that fury gets in the pages of Absalom, Absalom!, which exercises such variations as “a fury of wild-eyed horses,” “the fury of the struggle for the facts,” “what fury which would not let him rest,” and, as noted in the previous grim itemization, “that grim virago fury of female affront.”

But that’s only the first lap around the track.  There is also “driving fury,” “irrational fury,” “alert fury,” “solitary fury,” “antic fury,” “repressed fury,” “despairing fury,” “immediate fury,” and “incompressible fury.”  In addition to the solitary brand of fury, there are many partnered variants as well: “fury and implacability,” “fury and despair,” “the hate and the fury,” and—it only stands to reason—“the fury and hate.”

As for the adjective form, a cannon “crumble[s] to dust in its own furious blast and recoil.”  We survey one character’s “state of impotent and furious undefeat.”  (Undefeat. You read that right.)  Among the book’s easygoing dramatis personae are a “furious mad old man,” a “furious lecherous wreck,” and a “furious grim implacable woman.”

There is “furious impatience,” “furious desire,” “furious protest,” and “furious thinking”; “furious and unbending will,” “furious and indomitable desperation,” “furious and almost unbearable unforgiving,” plus “furious and incomprehensible and apparently reasonless moving.”  And on the flip side of reasonless moving, in the too-angry-to-even-budge category: “furious inertness,” “furious immobility,” “furious immobile urgency,” and “furious yet absolutely rocklike and immobile antagonism.”

Quentin and Miss Coldfield, the characters introduced in the first chapter sitting in a dead room in a dead house with dead paint on its walls, are featured in the last chapter’s climactic conflagration, “Miss Coldfield screaming harshly, ‘The window! The window!’”—seemingly getting into the spirit of the whole repeated-word business.  Appropriately then, as rescuers attempt to tear the unwilling old woman away, the scene is described: “Quentin could see it: the light thin furious creature making no sound at all now, struggling with silent and bitter fury….”  Now that gal is mad. Furiouser and furiouser!