The Question Remains

It’s one thing to drive a point home, but certain pieces of information in Absalom, Absalom! are delivered with all the finesse of a rhetorical nail gun—as if there might have been concern the intended audience suffered from short-term memory loss.  When the word fool is used, for example, it is not used sparingly—Miss Coldfield calls her sister a “blind romantic fool” three times in the first chapter, then later “blind woman mother fool” for good measure; and, as has been mentioned before, the phrase “self-mesmered fool” appears in the book twice as often as seems advisable (which is to say that it appears twice)—but Chapter 8, particularly as it concerns the characters of Charles Bon and a family lawyer, is the real fool’s paradise.

Bon is a fellow who, we have been told, has a tendency to wear a false smile (although “tendency” might not be a strong enough word considering that we are told this about nine times).  As to the mental acuity of the man behind the smile, we have the opinion of his attorney, “who considered Bon only dull, not a fool.”  Lest this evaluation slip from the mind in the space of a page and a half, we are almost immediately made further privy to the lawyer’s thoughts on his client—“even if he was too dull or too indolent to suspect or find out about his father himself, he wasn’t fool enough not to be able to take advantage of it.”

Ten pages after this—to ensure against any depreciation of the reader’s acquaintance with this relationship dynamic—we are reminded of Bon, “[l]ike that lawyer thought, he wasn’t a fool.”  (Aha, but now the dramatic complications deepen, as the sentence continues: “the trouble was, he wasn’t the kind of not-fool the lawyer thought he would be.”*)

The investigation into the complexities of this Bon-foolery persists eight pages on (although it has become so complex that the author himself seems to have gotten reversed which things the attorney thinks Bon is and isn’t): “Because, though the lawyer believed him to be rather a fool than dull or dense, yet even he (the lawyer) never for one moment believed that even Bon was going to be the kind of fool he was going to be.”**

Four pages later and, for those readers who might be thinking, “Seems like the finer points of Bon’s foolishness have gone underexplored in this chapter so far,” additional evidence arrives in epistolary form, “a letter…that boiled down to eighteen words I know you are a fool, but just what kind of fool are you going to be? and Bon was at least enough a not-fool to do the boiling down.”  (“Not-fool” now joining “self-mesmered fool” in the ranks of “fool-related terms and phrases one does not expect to see more than once within a single literary work.”)

Continuing on the same page, the subject somehow not yet exhausted, the lawyer offers some closing thoughts: “he still did not really believe that Bon was that kind of a fool, though he was about to alter his opinion somewhat about the dullness.”  Even with allowance for this final bit of wiggle room vis-à-vis the legal proceedings of Foolish v. Dull, surely the point has at last been more than driven home—it’s been driven home, taken inside, and put summarily to bed.

• • •

* Not-fool ?  (I guess I’m only surprised it wasn’t unfool.)

** 

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                                (Gary Larson, The Far Side)

And, footnote p.s.: the parenthetical clarification “the lawyer” in this sentence is the book’s, not mine.

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!