Hip Hip Hooray

I’ve referred elsewhere to the disproportionate amount of will in Absalom, Absalom!will as in the “free will,” “ruthless will,” “constant will,” “desperate will,” “unbending will” kind of will—and even mentioned then that, among the various will-pairings to be found in the book’s pages—e.g., “will and courage,” “will and intensity,” “will and strength”—there was some “will and endurance” to be had as well, but I don’t think I paid nearly enough attention at the time to the endurance component of that twin set…because we’re talking, like, Shackletonian levels here.

Turns out that will and endurance make for a pretty well-coordinated outfit—Absalom! dresses itself up in the combination repeatedly, showing off both an unadorned “will to endure” and the more colorful “blind instinctive will to endure.”  It sports some existential accessorizing with “the will to exist, endure” and also exhibits—although here it would seem our items may be starting to clash—“not the will but just the ability, the grooved habit to endure” and “the passive ability, not the volitional will, to endure.”  (Apparently ability will go with anything.)

I’ve also made light on another occasion of how much suffering goes on in Yoknapatawpha County—suffering as in the one character ill-served by life who reminisces about “all that he had suffered and endured in the past” or the other unhappy fellow who has gone the extra mile and “suffered beyond endurance.”  (A different gentleman is described as “exasperated beyond all endurance”—which is similarly phrased but frankly sounds much preferable as far as endurance-exceeding goes.)

Others in this overburdened assembly include a woman of constant labor whose “toil…only a beast could and would endure”; battle-fatigued soldiers who must “endure musketry and shelling”; and a hard-rode but taciturn hombre, the extent of whose “sacrifice and endurance and scorn…only he knows” since—as might be reasonably inferred—“he never told…how much he must have had to endure.”  (And some unfortunates aren’t even this lucky—some simply have “an inability to endure.”)

So stretched thin are these people that even their living areas are put to the endurance test, including a “plantation that supported and endured that smooth white house” and, elsewhere, another house—it would be funnier if it were the same house, but it’s a different house—“with an air, a quality of grim endurance.”  So constant are these people’s trials that the womenfolk seek rueful, Pyhrric consolation: “female victory,” says one, “is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.”  (This is officially the Yoknapatawpha High pep squad’s Worst. Cheer. Ever.)

In such soul-trying times as these, you can see why people would need to be drawing upon their reserves of will—their “implacable will,” drawn from a “bitter and implacable reserve.”  In an atmosphere of such “implacable and unalterable grief and despair,” one must seek inner strength—“something fierce and implacable and dynamic”—to make one’s way through this fallen world of “grim and implacable unforgiving.”  One regards the universe’s cruel tests through “implacable pouched black eyes” and either meets the challenge head-on with “terrified yet implacable determination” or withdraws into a protective shell of anger and numbness, cocooned in “fury and implacability and physical imperviousness to pain.”  In any case, one does one’s best to maintain one’s “stern implacable presence.”

Such ordeals as these could turn a person into “a character cold, implacable, and even ruthless.”  A person could become “imbued with cold implacable antipathy.”  A person could lose his or her identity and become a “cold implacable mindless…replica.”  (Whichever way it goes, the person’s gonna be pretty cold.*)  If nothing else, these tribulations—and all the “sullen implacability” and “hatred and implacability” that they elicit—seem to have growth-stunting side effects: Our Miss Coldfield is described alternately as an “implacable doll-sized woman” and a “small furious grim implacable woman not much larger than a child.”  And yes, boys, she’s single.

The oh-so-versatile implacable figures also in another real estate listing, this time in Miss Coldfield’s (ever-so-slightly convoluted) recollection of returning to a house from her past—which is now in a state of “desolation more profound than ruin, as if it had stood in iron juxtaposition to iron flame, to a holocaust which had found itself less fierce and less implacable.”  (Whatever you say, ma’am.)  As it happens, this is one of Absalom!’s three occasions of the word holocaust (Miss Coldfield is described, post-Civil War, as “a young woman emerging from a holocaust,” and her despised brother-in-law, a Colonel in the Mississippi Infantry, is “emerging from the same holocaust”).  In any ordinary book, multiple such uses of the word would surely border on the excessive, and yet here—Really? Only three?—it almost feels like a rare case of restraint.

• • •

*In Absalom, Absalom!, cold and ruthless characters are likely to display “cold and ruthless deliberation”—and also probably “cold alert fury,” “cold and inflexible disapproval,” “cold and attentive interest,” “cold and catlike inscrutable calculation,” and—every so often, and only if you’re lucky—“cold unbending detached gentleness.”  (They also speak with a “cold level voice,” have a “face calm, cold and tranquil,” behave with “grim and cold intensity,” and react with “alertness and cold detachment.”)


Seinfeld fans may remember—from the episode in which she falls under the sway of a video store clerk and his highbrow film recommendations—that Elaine is a fan of bleak, ascetic arthouse cinema, jolly romps with titles like The Pain and the Yearning.  (“An old woman experiences pain and yearning,” she reads from the helpful summary on the back of the video case. “192 minutes.”)  Well, boy, do I ever have a book for her.

Absalom, Absalom! is, as we’ve seen, a grim parade of outraged puritanical fools who are, to a one, doomed (doomed, I tell you).  A bounty for any enthusiast of all things painful and yearn-y, it is a book that takes us to “the very threshold of despair.”  Within its pages, we can feel “the cumulative over-reach of despair itself.”  Among its players, we encounter a lone figure and the “thunderous solitude of his despair.”  In its soundscape, we discern “the despair now, the last bitter cry of irrevocable undefeat.”  In its dialog, we hear (and are maybe just a tad confused by the mix of emotions in—?) “a voice calm and sweet and filled with despair.”  Of its resolution, we feel a flicker of hope when one character “has peace now,” even if—I suppose we should have seen this coming—“even if the peace be mostly despair.”

No, no shortage of despair here, arrayed in the various abject hues of its forlorn rainbow—“hopeless despair,” “solitary despair,” “invincible despair,” “complete despair”—with only the slight respite of the aforementioned, less-to-be-expected “peaceful despair.”  There is a “despairing cry,” a “despairing blow,” a “despairing Faustus,” “despairing conviction,” some “despairing fury”—there’s always some fury of some sort or another—and one little girl who hugs a man sadly but colorfully about the knees with her “soft despairing magnolia-colored arms.”

Also to be seen are “despair and shame,” “despair and pity,” and—wait for it—“despair and waiting.”  Plus, “bitterness and despair” and, naturellement, “fury and despair.”  While Chapter 1 has “victory and despair,” Chapter 8 has “despair and victory”; Chapter 4, “grief and despair,” Chapter 7, “despair and grief.”  There is the choice of “surprise or despair” and the denial of “neither surprise nor despair.”  And there is as well “suffering and bewilderment and despair”—which brings us to the yin to despair’s yang.

In Absalom! we are never free of “any human injustice or folly or suffering.” We must contemplate “all misfortune and defeat that the human race ever suffered,” remember that life is a “heritage of suffering,” and memorialize all those who have “courageously suffered”—those who have “suffered pain,” nay, “suffered excruciating pain,” those who have “suffered and endured,” nay, “suffered beyond endurance.”  We must bear the weight of “the heavy organs of suffering and experience” and ask ourselves, Heavy organs?  Is this something I should see a doctor about?

Warfare is, for a general, “suffering, these four years of keeping his men alive.”  An injured soldier, “though suffering, clings…to the arm or leg which he knows must come off.”  (In a fever dream, “the dear suffering arm or leg is strong and sound.”)  One man’s business decision leads to “the loss, which, in withdrawing, he had suffered”; another, having erred, must “admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it.”  One woman’s traumatic upbringing is a “holocaust in which she had suffered”; another such victim of childhood abuse recounts “how she had been scorned and suffered.”  These despairing folk have “suffered temptation,” “suffered the farce,” and “suffered a situation”; they have sinned, “suffered for it and died for it”; they have even borne the onerous burden of the “sufferance of good manners.”

There is suffering in scripture quotes (“‘your grandfather said, “Suffer little children to come unto Me”’”) and suffering on tombstone inscriptions (“Born October 3, 1841. Suffered Indignities and Travails of this word for 24 Years.”).  Suffering is so prevalent that things are measured by its absence or opposite—a house “not having suffered from invasion, but a shell marooned and forgotten”; eyes “not even suffering but merely filled with baffled incomprehension”; outrage “which the actual living articulate meat had not even suffered but merely inherited.”*  One character imagines a world without war, in which he would have “no flesh and blood of his to suffer by it.”  Another speculates, “it’s not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anticlimax of it.”

Both plentiful and adaptable, suffer can shape-shift into different guises, from such Dr. Seuss-ian characterizations as a woman who is “the eternal female, the eternal Who-suffers,” to Yoda-esque turns of phrase like “if happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.”  One dimestore philosopher worries of a future in which “there wouldn’t be anything left that mattered that much, worth getting that heated over, worth protesting against or suffering for,” but the universe of Absalom! hardly seems in danger of running low on source material over which to writhe in racked anguish—so grab your popcorn, it’s Movie Night!

• • •

*My best guess is that the “articulate meat” here is we human beings, still only animalistic flesh and blood despite the pretensions to something more lofty that our powers of speech might tempt us to entertain (or something like that; I’m spitballing).