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.”

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*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.

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Serenity Now

When you see a particular word—for instance, calm—used almost 30 times within a single novel—for instance, Absalom, Absalom!—you might wonder of the author, Did he not have a thesaurus?  Wouldn’t a few synonyms have helped to spice up all that calmness?  Like maybe a serene or the occasional tranquil?

And then you start to notice all the serenes and tranquils.  Turns out they themselves are more than occasional.

No surprise that Judith, the character already described as calm a half-dozen times, is serene as well: she has, we are told, an “impenetrable and serene face.”  A page later, we are furthermore told—presumably to clarify that these are qualities not even one iota shy of 200-proof purity—that it is a face “absolutely impenetrable, absolutely serene.”  And then, a page after that, it is “the impenetrable, the calm, the absolutely serene face.”  (In classes on how to give presentations, this principle is known as Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.*)

Judith not only looks serene, she listens serene—“Judith listening with that serenity, that impenetrable tranquility.”  (Yes, her tranquility is as impenetrable as her face.)  And even when she recedes into the background of the narrative, there’s no doubt how she’s coming back on the scene—“Judith was absent, returning at supper time serene and calm.”  With her around, one serene a sentence will simply not suffice—“something walked with Judith and Clytie back across that sunset field and answered in some curious serene suspension to the serene quiet voice.”

In addition to Judith’s “impenetrable tranquility” and her “face calm cold and tranquil,” Absalom! includes “tranquil anticipation,” “tranquil disregard,” “tranquil and astonished earth,” “tranquil and unwitting desolation,” “melodious and tranquil” music, and “that profound and absolutely inexplicable tranquil patient clairvoyance of women.”  (It will likely not come as a great shock that this last item is far from the book’s only phenomenon to be deemed “profound.”)

Judith is calm even when irritated—“annoyed yet still serene”—which puts her in the relaxed company of a “serene and florid boast,” the “serene and idle splendor of flowers,” “the open door’s serene rectangle,” and “old age’s serene and well-lived content.”  One character in Chapter 6 speaks in a manner “serene, not even triumphant,” while another in Chapter 9 regards a situation “perhaps not even now with triumph…possibly even serene.”

The only things that get the serene treatment nearly as often as Judith are, oddly, various amorphous presences—“shapes fluid and delicate…parasitic and potent and serene”; “symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene”; and—in another demonstration of the can’t-have-too-much-serenity-in-a-single-sentence stratagem—“two shades pacing, serene and untroubled by flesh, in a summer garden—the same two serene phantoms.”

All of which makes you realize that apparently Faulkner did have a thesaurus, and it’s a good thing, too, or else this book would have been completely up to its neck in calms.

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*Such insistent repetition also reminds me of Dudley Moore in Arthur, completely undissuadable by the aunt and uncle he encounters in a restaurant that he has not adequately conveyed how small the country is that his date comes from: “It’s terribly small.  Tiny little country.  Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war.  That’s how small it is.”  (Aunt: “It’s small.”)  “Very little. It’s 85 cents in a cab from one end of the country to the other.  I’m talking small.”  (Uncle: “We understand it’s small, Arthur.”)  “They recently had the whole country carpeted—this is not a big place.”