Absalom, Absalom! and Incantation

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Of Absalom, Absalom! of transgression, of the demon most feared infinitely cursed and infinitely cunning, in whose resource and endeavor makes naught but corruption; that is – humanity, in our efficiency and ingenuity, embody not just the “better angels,” of Lincoln, but the specters and ogres we ascribe to nightmare… In The Devil And Sonny Liston, Nick Tosches writes that man

“will cling to any rationalization that masks or justifies, however fatuously, the part of our nature that seems to belie our humanity: the part of our nature that, in our vanity and denial, we have come to call inhuman, a word that has barely changed since the Latin inhumanus, of the ancient Romans, whose empire was built upon slavery.”

Here, in this unchanged word – in its prehistoric accusation of some fictional other – we find all that Conrad's Marlowe could intone, we find our kinship with Milton's fallen angel. We are the nemesis, we are the ogre-child, the cursed and corrupt.

Absalom, Absalom! is the story of a cursed man. A man whose existence seemed to come from nothing – nihil, Hades – who rose up from a dark country and with his dark art took land and rooted a house out of the earth. In the town of Jefferson, none had heard the name Sutpen before him – and his half-demon progeny would eliminate itself in his name and the last of them would die on the same day that the demonhead itself – Thomas Sutpen – would finally be excised from the earth.

The narrative begins with the voice of Rosa Coldfield, sole survivor of Sutpen's reign. And her voice from the warm still room, brown and gold in the September afternoon, though fragile and bitter, contains the power of her hatred for Him and her Hateful Icon of Him is evoked in her telling. Faulkner writes, “out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon)… faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard… Immobile… and hand palm-lifted the horseman sat.” Her voice is the perfect invocation and thematic drone for the story. Quite simply, I see in this novel echoes of Jane Eyre in the mad Haitian wife, of Frankenstein in the tormented soul whose children destroy him as he destroys them, I see a Kurtz whose unerring will has overridden all other human concerns and in whose stubbornness lies his defeat – all these ghosts of literature are invoked in the invocation of the Sutpen line. A.B. Bernd, writing for the Macon Telegraph, in October 1936, writes that Faulkner “wastes in a single novel a dozen minor incidents that would make masterful short stories.” But, in structure, Faulkner uses the voices of his narrators as in a canon, the voices enter staggered and follow one another through the hazy and speculative origins of the beast, to his precise and final end; as each instrument has its timbre, each narrative voice lends its distinct tone to the tale; and as their compounding consonance and dissonance overlap, as the chorus swells in number and volume, we, the audience, fall under the shadow of Sutpen; through Faulkner's use of repetition, his mastery of voice and character, his placement of darkness and light, the Ghost arrives and commands our attention, if only for 378 pages (my edition). And it is through the endless incantation of His cursed deeds, His cursed tale, that His presence is accomplished. Through the repetition, a vibration, an emanation of that story takes the shape of its principal villain and guiding hand.

I have always been fascinated by ghost stories. Due to being born the day before Halloween, I always saw it as my holiday. They say, Scorpio is supposed to have a death obsession, as well. Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of terrifying and literate gothic horror. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, he has taken The Nemesis, The archetype of Corruption, and made of him Man; but, unlike Milton his perspective is less sympathetic. I have read that Sutpen's early transgressions are meant to represent slavery in the South, whose corruption, like his own, could only be exorcised by violence. And certainly that is a mode of reading this story. But, viewing it more simply, as a tale of a curse, as a work of fiction whose purpose is not to confound through trickery and wordplay, but to entertain, to engage, and to challenge the reader, this novel is beautiful and terrifying.

“Inhuman” we have called it for millennia. Those feats of cruelty so great that we ascribe them to some other species. And for millennia, we have told and recorded stories of the ogre-people of night. These are lies we tell ourselves. We are the demon-child as often as we are the child of light, probably less often. Caine is the Alpha and Damien the Omega, but they are both Human-born.

And we are all haunted; the voices of the absent and the dead sound in our ears every moment, be they malicious or kind, loved or despised, they speak like the bells of Notre Dame and we can not escape them. Nor should I like to. I am never alone. The silence never consuming, but filled with the voices and thoughts of the gone and goners – and I am comforted by their presence, like a melody I have always known repeating endlessly. I love them. And music is the same, we just sing for their voices, we repeat their stories (our stories) – the same plots, same melodies, same I/IV/V, same I/vi/ii/V, same curse – and we sing our same story of ourselves to ourselves forever. And that makes me happy; the world will never end, death will never come, eternity is ours simply for our eternal repetition of our own name into the timeless universe.

This began as a rumination on what was supposed to be “repetition and Absalom, Absalom!,” but as I thought about the book and re-read passages, it became clear that it was not just repetition, but the repetition and variation, constant revision, the hearing of a whole chorus that sings from the beginning of time to this moment that I am writing and that moment in which you are reading, that we repeat our own joyous and ruined songs endlessly to ourselves… Fuck composition, fuck some point about structure, the ghost that haunts the pen, the throat, the hands on the neck, will find its way out, whether we like it or not.

To quote Tosches, once more:

Hang tough, you got no choice.

Jesse Anderson Ainslie

Tuesday, 14 February, 2012