It Is What It Is

Each of Absalom, Absalom!’s various conspicuously repeated words is like a little weight with its own distinct measure of flamboyance: The degree to which any one of them tips the scale into flagrant exhibitionism is the product of how showoffy it is, multiplied by the number of reiterations you stack up on the weighing platform.  Fierce, for example, is hardly a vocabulary peacock, but—used over thirty times in a single novel—it does begin to call attention to itself.  (On our scale, fierce is, like, 2 grams.)  On the other hand, something like epicene—defined as “having the characteristics of both sexes”—even if used only twice (a stylish college dandy likened to an “almost epicene object d’art” and a period of prepubescence characterized as “one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial”)—well, it very much tips the scale.  (Epicene: kilo and a half.)  Especially if its appearances are in two successive chapters, only 35 pages apart.

So, upon first encountering a word like fatalistic—there’s a mention early on in the book of someone’s “expression of fatalistic and amazed determination”—one might not even register its heft.  (We’re talking 10 grams here; 15, tops.)  But even if each minor shift in a scale’s balance is unnoticeable with the addition of every tiny incremental weight, that scale is shifting nonetheless; eventually, it may just clonk over onto the table.

It is with the Chapter 4 introduction of Charles Bon—the epicene object d’art mentioned above and also an “indolent fatalist” who befriends Henry Sutpen at school—that one may begin to sense a serious tilt in the equilibrium; resignation may start to set in at the inevitability of this particular overuse as Bon is said to possess “fatalistic and impenetrable imperturbability” and is referred to as “the fatalist to the last” and “Bon the fatalist.”  (This all within a single chapter, which furthermore concerns Bon’s complicated relationship with Henry and his sister Judith—“[p]erhaps in his fatalism he loved Henry the better of the two”—and also establishes the chronological limitations of his deterministic influence—“[s]urely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days.”*)

Bon may not be Absalom!’s sole bearer of the weight of this weary surrender—another character at one point regards an unwelcome sight with “aghast fatalistic terror”—but he is certainly its standard bearer: In later chapters, others will recall his memory (“Bon whom Mr Compson had called a fatalist”), reminisce about his salient characteristics (“the weariness, the fatalism”), and gauge themselves by his standard (“[he] maybe even turned fatalist like Bon now”**).

Of course, Bon’s solemn perspective makes perfect sense within a fictional cosmos of such desperately tragic preordination that the word doom appears as many times as fierce.  It’s probably hard to lighten up when your every step is so perilously permanent and life offers no do-overs—every “decision instantaneous and irrevocable,” every move leading to “subsequent irrevocable courses of resultant action,” every positive development in the grand scheme of things met with the “irrevocable negation of the design.”  Here you are, trying to make your way in “the irrevocable world,” ever mindful of the passage of “all irrevocable time,” standing on the threshold—“that irrevocable demarcation”—of the rest of your life, serving the “irrevocable sentence” of your years on this planet, doing your best to protect yourself from “irrevocable and incalculable damage,” seeking to forge your own identify after “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity,” chasing after some “lost irrevocable might-have-been,” and trying to plumb—unsuccessfully—the “irrevocable and unplumbable finality” of your destiny.  You’ve got a right to be a little tetchy.

After all, things are tough all over—for the fatalistic female as much for the fatalistic fellow: a gal could find herself “irrevocably husbanded,” but then later (not so irrevocable after all, the husbanding, it would seem) “irrevocably estranged”—“not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from all reality,” just praying that her latest travail might fall “irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm.”  Maybe the family home is threatened because the once-husband has “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house”; maybe he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome and has “irrevocably lost count of his age.”

This can lead a person to say things like “it is irrevocable now” (p. 252) and “it was done, irrevocable now” (p. 272).  This can result in curiously tangled concepts such as “irrevocable undefeat” (it may not be clear what, precisely, undefeat is, but we do know that it’s permanent).  This can produce such snake-eating-its-tail configurations as “a curious and outrageous exaggeration in which was inherent its own irrevocability,” which, if a touch baffling, sounds way too self-contained to argue with.

To close, it would feel appropriate here to make some fanciful suggestion as to how much irrevocable would weigh on my proposed metaphorical scale—but I’m just afraid that once I suggested it, I wouldn’t be able to take it back.  Ever.

• • •

*Surely not.  She remains—next sentence—“anything but a fatalist.”

**For whatever reason—whether it’s regarding his fatalism, his “expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” his “cryptic” vocal stylings, or his fool/not-a-fool dualism—Bon’s is the character who really seems to kick Faulkner’s descriptive Xerox into high gear.

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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:

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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.”

Unsleeping Beauty

If you’re going to use a word like ratiocination more than once in a book—five times, for example—you might try to gussy it up a bit for its assorted recurrences: not just plain old ratiocination every go-round, but maybe an “amazed and fumbling ratiocination” once in a while for variety’s sake.  But, then, I probably shouldn’t say “variety’s sake,” considering how much amazement there is in Absalom, Absalom!

Miss Coldfield from Chapter 1, as has been noted, has a grim voice—or, to be more specific (or, at least, more prolix), a “grim haggard amazed voice.”  Which puts it in the same category as the book’s numerous other amazed elements, such as “amazed determination,” “amazed speculation,” “amazed outrage,” “amazed recapitulation,” “amazed self-pity,” “amazed and tearless grief,” “amazed and passive uncomprehension,” and an “amazed and desperate child.”

Amazement, it seems, is a very nuanced thing—who knew it had so many fine shadings?  “Unbearable amazement,” “tentative amazement,” “embittered amazement,” “shocked amazement,” “uncomprehending amazement,” “aghast amazement,” “unalarmed amazement,” “erudite amazement,” and, lastly—anticlimax alert—“mere amazement.”

One other amazing bit of usage to raise the eyebrow comes at the beginning of this sentence: “Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth….”*  If you read that and thought, “‘Then in the long ’… what ?,” then you and my spell-check have something in common: unamaze is a new one on it, too, just as it is a bit puzzled by the likes of Faulkner’s undefeat and unregret.  And, while we’re at it—although they do not all turn up a goose egg in a dictionary search, together they certainly constitute an odd linguistic tic—unbelief, unchastity, undreaming, unkin, unorganism, and unvolition.  Plus such un-adjectives as unbrided, uncomplex, unchinked, unfree, unmaimed, unmediant, unobscure, unpaced, unrancorous, unrational, unravished, unreally**, unscarified, and unsistered.  (No, that first adjective is not unbridled, i.e., a word anyone has actually heard of, but instead in reference to “unbrided widows.”)

Unbelief, undefeat, and unregret are the favorites among these, appearing each more than once, but the alpha in this pack of underdogs has to be unsleeping—“unsleeping itch,” “unsleeping viciousness,” “unsleeping candle,” “unsleeping blood,” “unsleeping cabal”…“unsleeping care” is thought of highly enough to be pressed into service in both Chapters 2 and 4.  Unsleeping also pairs up with a fellow un-gerund for the spaghetti-western lineup of “the hate and the fury and the unsleeping and the unforgiving,” and, with its close cousin unasleep, even manages a multiple showing within a single sentence:

Yes, sleeping in the trundle bed beside Judith’s, beside…the Negress who…slept on a pallet on the floor, the child lying there between them unasleep in some hiatus of passive and hopeless despair…lying there unsleeping in the dark between them, feeling them unasleep too….

As the ellipses suggest, the above is whittled down (you’re welcome) from a much longer sentence—much, much longer, about 425 words or so (possibly even more, depending, as mentioned elsewhere, on how you interpret Absalom!’s wonky punctuation).  So maybe I shouldn’t tease: within the space of that many words, perhaps some vocabulary repetition is unevitable.

•••

*One of the book’s eight uses of the word tranquil, but that can wait for another day.

**Unreally?  Really?