Air Quality

Absalom, Absalom!’s descriptions often read like the prose equivalent of cinematic soft focus—what with every sort of and kind of like another layer of mystifying gauze between the camera and its subject (not “astonishment” but “a sort of astonishment”; not “condensation” but “a kind of condensation”), or the oft-used some imparting its diffused aura of amorphousness to all variety of topics (“some interval of sanity,” “some blind instant of revolt”) like Vaseline smeared on the lens to better enshroud in a forgiving haze the aging star at which it’s aimed.

The eyes of an Absalom! character, then, are not simply visionary and alert—they have “a quality at once visionary and alert.”  A moment of contemplation is not just peaceful and harmless—it has “that quality peaceful and now harmless.”  An object is not solid and permanent but possesses “a quality almost of solidity, permanence.”  A voice, not tense, suffused, and restrained, but “with its tense suffused restrained quality.”

Maintaining this level of quality are such further examples as “the quality of curiosity,” “the very sober quality of his gestures,” “that quality of gaunt and tireless driving,” “some puny quality of faint heat,” and “the unbearable quality of bloodlessness.”  There is a “quality dark and sullen,” a “quality stale static and moribund,” and a “quality strange, contradictory and bizarre.”*

A dream is described as having “that logic- and reason-flouting quality,” which is, of course, “the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer.”  One character’s crooked stance has “some quality, some gathering of [his] still laxed and hunched figure,” while, in a winter scene, we are told “the chill had a compounded, a gathered quality” (which highlights a quality that wind chill and poor posture have in common, i.e., gather seems like a weird word to use to describe either one).

I’ve mentioned before that Absalom! has more than its fair share of swaggering—or, perhaps I should say, in keeping with the current topic, “that quality still swaggering but without braggadocio or belligerence.”  (Without belligerence? you might ask, to which the book would reply, from later in the same sentence: “the quality had never been belligerence.”)  Or perhaps, if quality is needing a bit of a breather, I could tag in an equally shapeless synonym to do its work and say instead “a swaggering gallant air”—air as in “an air dreamy remote and aghast” or “his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran” or “an air Cassandralike and humorless and profoundly and sternly prophetic.”**

This air fare also includes “that air of scaling desolation,” “that air of children born too late into their parents’ lives,” and “that air which had nothing whatever of furtiveness in it,” plus the “grim mausoleum air of puritan righteousness” and an “air something between a casual and bitterly disinterested spectator.”  (Strange to think what spectacle one must be rubbernecking at to be disinterested and bitter about it.)

Air features most frequently as a component in the Mad Libs equation of “air of” + frequently used adjective + other frequently used adjective + angsty noun.  Witness “air of tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “air of curious and paradoxical awkwardness,” “air of impotent and static rage,” “air of sardonic and indolent detachment,” and—maybe not so angsty here with the noun but…again with the indolent ?—“air of indolent and lethal assurance.”***

A weatherbeaten but plucky house is lucky enough to get the tag-team treatment from both soft-focus filters—“a little shabby, and yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance.”  Which is, like, Warren Beatty treatment.  Or, as Robin Williams waggishly dubbed Barbra Streisand’s 1996 vanity project, “The Mirror Has Two Key Lights.”

• • •

*I realize the comma usage in these excerpts is also strange, contradictory, and bizarre, but I’m trying to reproduce them faithfully.

**As compared to, in a different chapter, “a Cassandra-like listening beyond closed doors” (sic on the hyphen here, which does not figure in “air Cassandralike”).  Nor are these Cassandra’s only appearances in the book.

***Okay, lethal and unwitting are not used all that frequently.  Curious, impotent, paradoxical, sardonic, static, and tranquil, though—easily 80 occasions among them.

Total Heavy-ocity

Some probably seems like an awfully milquetoast word to get much exercised over, but I’m not thinking here of the everyday, approximate-amount, “Would you care for some tea?” incarnation, but rather the “occurrences which stop us dead as though by some impalpable intervention” variety—the “some pure dramatic economy,” “some almost omniscient conviction” sort.

Clearly, some is not meant in these cases to suggest “a rough measure of intervention” or “a nonspecific supply of economy” or “a shtickle of conviction”—instead, in Absalom, Absalom!, some is insistently employed as the all-purpose spice of “meaningful”-sounding vagueness, ever at the ready to preface any phrase with a dash of portentous indeterminacy.

This is, of course, the same gambit as all of Faulkner’s sort ofs and kind ofs—these conceptual targets at which he aims are so abstrusely unstrikable, you see, that a near-miss is one’s best hope.  No, it is not a particular lugubrious and painless purgatory to which he refers, but “some lugubrious and painless purgatory”; not any precise sophisticated and ironic sterile nature, but “some sophisticated and ironic sterile nature.”  (Such Deep Thoughts put me in mind of Alvy Singer asking Annie Hall about a rock concert she has attended without him—“Was it heavy? Did it achieve total heavy-ocity?”)

Not only is this device used repeatedly, it is done so in a very non-nonspecific fashion: not just “some blankety-blank,” but “some blankety-blank of blankety-blank.”  So while there are a lot of examples like “some perverse automotivation” and “some heathen Principle, some Priapus,” there are a lot of examples like “some opposite of respectability” and “some stubborn coal of conscience” and “some ascendancy of forbearance” and “some esoteric piece of furniture.”  (Esoteric furniture.  Yes.)

As it happens, this device even manages on a number of occasions to incorporate a few other notable Absalom! buzzwords like effluvium (“some effluvium of Sutpen blood and character,” “some tangible effluvium of knowledge”) and undefeat (“some incorrigibility of undefeat,” “some indomitable desperation of undefeat,” “some bitter and implacable reserve of undefeat”).  As for the rest of the list, well—it really is some sight to see:


On a related note, Absalom, Absalom! also contains “something of pride,” “something of pity,” “something of sanity,” “something of shrewdness,” “something of leisureliness,” “something of shelter and kin,” “something of weariness and undernourishment,” “something of will and intensity and dreadful need,” “something of that invincible despair,” “something of the old flavor of grim sortie,” “something of the ruthless tactical skill of his old master,” “something of that fierce impersonal rivalry between two cadets,” and “something of secret and curious and unimaginable delights.”