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!