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.

Swaggering Genius

One instance of fury that went unmentioned in the previous entry appears in this description from Chapter 7: “a little island set in a smiling and fury-lurked and incredible indigo sea.”  I didn’t mention it because, frankly, I have no idea what it means, which makes it harder to poke fun at.  Of course, one could argue that it’s unfair to suggest a phrase is impenetrable without putting it in its full context, but the context is an approximately 500-word sentence, so I’m not sure how much help that would be.*

Incomprehensible—a word which merits its own digression, but one enormous footnote is enough—or not, that “fury-lurked” phrase is a reminder that there’s an awful lot of lurking going on in Absalom, Absalom!  Characters lurk behind fences, around camps, in the backs of houses, around gutted chimneys, and “in dim halls filled with that presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.”  (You know, that kind of hall.)

There is also “lurking dark,” “lurking circumstance,” “lurking harborage,” a “lurking triumphant face,” and various vaguely-defined threats that are “waiting, almost lurking, just beyond…reach,” emerging “from whatever place it was they lurked,” and hiding noisily in places “beyond which somewhere something lurked which bellowed.”

At the other end of the spectrum from those who would skulk in the shadows are the more show-offish players—the swaggerers.  One man has “a swaggering gallant air.”  Another contrives “somehow to swagger even on a horse.”  A character salutes a group “with that florid, swaggering gesture to the hat,” while later, another military figure’s uniform is described as “fitted…to the swaggering of all his gestures.”  (Although, “even with his martial rank and prerogatives he did not quite swagger like he used to.”)

There are different types of swaggering—“darkly swaggering,” for example, or “that quality still swaggering but without braggadocio” (which, minus the braggadocio, is not any type of swaggering I’ve ever encountered), and what can only be described, coming as it does within a single sentence, as really swaggering:

[H]e was as tall as his father now and … sat the mare with the same swagger although lighter in the bone than Sutpen, as if his bones were capable of bearing the swagger but were still too light and quick to support the pomposity.

(The auto-commentary here on the weight of pomposity will be allowed to stand without comment.)

Eight instances of swagger or swaggering—twice as many occasions of lurk or lurking…I feel compelled to do some repeating myself, myself: Where was the editor?


*Three-part note: By my count, the sentence is 497 words, although it contains a parenthetical section within which are two …subsentences, I guess you would call them, each of which ends with a period and after each of which the parenthetical material continues begun by a capital letter, so your guess is as good as mine whether this qualifies as a single sentence or more.  (Plus, any individual’s word count presumably depends on whether one considers things like “fury-lurked” and “pariah-interdict” [!] one word or two.)

It just so happens that impenetrable is, itself, a word used with distracting frequency in Absalom, Absalom!  Examples include “impenetrable dreaming,” “impenetrable tranquility,” and—a mouthful if ever there was one—“impenetrable impertubability,” along with “impenetrable and insurmountable circumstance” and “impenetrable and shadowy character.” But what really prove impenetrable are faces—“calm impenetrable faces.”  Or, as it is phrased elsewhere to erase any possible doubt, “that calm absolutely impenetrable face.”  Or, if you don’t like the word calm, “the same impenetrable and serene face.”  Or, if you prefer the word mask, “the impenetrable mask which she used for a face.”  Or, if you just really want to take the long way around it, “the face which had long since forgotten how to be young and yet absolutely impenetrable.”

In all fairness, and for the masochistically curious, here is—with phrase in question highlighted (along with the periods-inside-parentheses stuff)—the full sentence:

Because he was not afraid until after it was all over, Grandfather said, because that was all it was to him—a spectacle, something to be watched because he might not have a chance to see it again, since his innocence still functioned and he not only did not know what fear was until afterward, he did not even know that at first he was not terrified; did not even know that he had found the place where money was to he had quick if you were courageous and shrewd (he did not mean shrewdness, Grandfather said. What he meant was unscrupulousness only he didn’t know that word because it would not have been in the book from which the school teacher read. Or maybe that was what he meant by courage, Grandfather said) but where high mortality was concomitant with the money and the sheen on the dollars was not from gold but from blood—a spot of earth which might have been created and set aside by Heaven itself, Grandfather said, as a theater for violence and injustice and bloodshed and all the satanic lusts of human greed and cruelty, for the last despairing fury of all the pariah-interdict and all the doomed—a little island set in a smiling and fury-lurked and incredible indigo sea, which was the halfway point between what we call the jungle and what we call civilization, halfway between the dark inscrutable continent from which the black blood, the black bones and flesh and thinking and remembering and hopes and desires, was ravished by violence, and the cold known land to which it was doomed, the civilized land and people which had expelled some of its own blood and thinking and desires that had become too crass to be faced and borne longer, and set it homeless and desperate on the lonely ocean a little lost island in a latitude which would require ten thousand years of equatorial heritage to bear its climate, a soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation until it sprang with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery and crimson flowers and sugar cane sapling size and three times the height of a man and a little bulkier of course but valuable pound for pound almost with silver ore, as if nature held a balance and kept a book and offered a recompense for the torn limbs and outraged hearts even if man did not, the planting of nature and man too watered not only by the wasted blood but breathed over by the winds in which the doomed ships had fled in vain, out of which the last taller of sail had sunk into the blue sea, along which the last vain despairing cry of woman or child had blown away the planting of men too; the yet intact bones and brains in which the old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth they trod still cried out for vengeance.