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Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
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Feb 17, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: fictions-of-the-big-it, top-shelf, shattering, re-readers
Read in October, 2002

** spoiler alert ** I don't know what it was about this book but it absolutely blew me away. I needed cliffs notes (actually spark notes which are a whole lot better) to understand what was happening. I'm a bit of an ADD reader, I guess, so it was and usually is hard for me to follow dense plots...I prefer dense language, which Faulkner does magisterially.

But, with the trusty notes handy, I got way way into this story. Different people retell the same tale and its about the South. (Ha! Did you think I was gonna give away more than that!)

It also contains what I believe is the longest sentence on record....15 pages! I admit I couldn't go through the entire thing but it came damn close.

Faulkner said his ambition was to put the entire world into one sentence. And if he did, its still frightening to try and gulp the whole thing down.

It made me literally want to call up a friend of mine in the middle of the night and demand he give me an answer to some blazingly personal questions about character and morality and self-doubt.

I "saw" this book...its vision was revealed to me, thanks to Ol' Bill's magnificent prose and SparkNotes.

One of the most profound reading experiences of my life.


And now I'll be re-reading it for class this semester. I don't think anything can be taken away from the first time reading it. the power remains. But I am curious how we'll weave it into a political criticism. It lends itself extremely well to such a reading, I'm just curious exactly what form it will take...


Here's the paper I wrote about it, in context with a certain vein of Marxist criticism:

In the chapter entitled The Classical Form of the Historical Novel, Georg Lukacs makes a crucial distinction between what he considers to be ‘so- called’ historical novels and what he considers to be a true, essentially historical novel. The ‘so-called’ or inauthentic variety of historical novel is, he claims, “historical only as regards their purely external choice of theme and costume. Not only the psychology of the characters, but the manners depicted are entirely those of the writer’s own day.” (19) He rejects this as “mere costumery” and criticizes it for not being “an artistically faithful image of a concrete historical epoch.”(22) He praises Sir Walter Scott’s novels for containing what, for Lukacs, is “precisely the specifically historical, that is, derivation of the individuality of characters from the historical peculiarity of their age (24).” One cannot be an individual without a social context, and the social context arises from history.
Lukacs emphasizes that ordinary people were able to see that history was not, in fact, the creation of isolated individuals or something happening ‘over there’ but were instead thrust into active participation in social upheaval: “the masses no longer have the impression of a ‘natural occurrence’…if experiences such as these are liked with the knowledge that similar upheavals are taking place all over the world, this must enormously strengthen the feeling first that there is such a thing as history, that it is an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual.” (23)
Lukacs praises the novels of Sir Walter Scott for containing characters who do just that- characters who are social types (even socially advantageous ones) who are engaging with the historical circumstances in which they live. He quotes Balzac’s reading approvingly: “Scott’s novels marched towards the great heroes in the same way as history itself had done when it required their appearance. The reader, therefore, experiences the historical genesis of the important historical figures, and it is the writer’s task from then on to let their actions make them appear their real representatives of these historical crises.” (39) Lukacs praises Scott because he renders intelligible to the reader the actual social conditions of his character’s lives and depicts the problems which arose out of historical necessity.
Scott’s novels don’t give the impression of a complete, hermetically sealed, bottom-line historical moral but instead the social conditions which create a character: “(the historical novel is) the portrayal of the broad living basis of historical events in their intricacy and complexity, in their manifold interaction with acting individuals.” (43) Lukacs also says that because of Scott’s writing during a pivotal turning point in history his work is a turning-point in the history of the novel itself. It’s not just about the explanation of events but what Lukacs calls “the poetic awakening” of the people who played a part: “what matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act as they did in historical reality.” (42) This attention to what produces a character’s consciousness is aesthetically connected to the historical novel, specifically what makes it most relevant and successfully brought to life: “a total historical picture depends upon a rich and graded interaction between different levels of response to any major disturbance of life. It must disclose artistically the connection between the spontaneous reaction of the masses and the historical consciousness of the leading personalities.” (44) Thomas Sutpen is clearly one of these.
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! has a complex relationship to Lukacs’ theoretical stance. Lukacs does not advocate Romanticism, it being too overblown with great men and distractingly stylized language. (63) Faulkner’s language is indeed radically subjective in that it focuses on the inward mental states of the characters, densely ornate, extremely poetic and atmospheric. Stylistically, Absalom, Absalom! seems Romantic. Lukacs, in praising Scott, mentions that he “does not command the magnificent, profound psychological dialectics of character which distinguishes the novel of the last great period of bourgeois development.” (34) Faulkner seems to dwell very much in that realm- the psychology of the characters is integral to the narrative. It seems unlikely that Lukacs would approve of the grandiloquence and the mythologizing of a character like Thomas Sutpen who is referred to early on as “man-horse-demon” (4), compared to Faust and epic popular cinema: “it‘s better than Ben Hur, isn‘t it” (177) as a sort of primal force of nature, rather than the product of a historical process. He is powerful, relentless, and mysterious, not given to explanations or introspection, what Faulkner tends to call “ratiocination.”
Absalom, Absalom! does harmonize with Lukacs’ theories in the self-evident fact that Sutpen acts within the framework of the narrative as a historical force, one which powerfully determines the social sphere around it. Sutpen is pure capitalism in motion; his actions are absolutely in keeping with his goal of production, accumulation and the social status which follows. What subjectivity he has is entirely entwined with the accumulation and circulation of capital. It is not what Lukacs scornfully calls ’a natural occurrence’ in that Supten’s actions are not undertaken ex nihilo- the reader and the characters as well are very much aware of his deliberate machinations: importing slaves from Haiti, buying and establishing Sutpen’s Hundred, gaining power, and thus setting up the economic reality, which is to say the social reality, for all the people within his sphere of influence. His economic power creates the social context which the other characters inhabit, directly or indirectly and not merely through Romantic charisma but through his control of property, capital and social space.
Lukacs would surely agree with Marx’s statement that “It is not men’s consciousness which determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.“ The power Sutpen holds within the social sphere is manifested throughout the narrative- indeed, it is central to the reason why the narrative exists at all. There literally is nothing else to the story (in Lukacs’ terms) other than the various characters’ testimonies, the grappling with how their social existence has determined their lives. The story is largely of Sutpen, but more specifically it is of the reaction different characters have to Sutpen’s influence. His rising tide, as it were, rocks and sinks all boats.
The radically subjective, Rashomon-like structure of the narrative is partly (but not completely) evidence for the difference in social standing the characters possess. Quentin’s father can have a dialogue with Sutpen because of his privileged place as a propertied man in society. His interpretation is different than that of Rosa Coldfield, who is after all, not only a woman but the sister of Sutpen’s (unknowingly) second wife, and becomes his third wife for the plain reason that she might be able to bear him a son, a male heir for his dynasty. There couldn’t be anything more indicative of social circumstance determining one’s consciousness than this. Sutpen’s influence can also be applied to Quentin Compson’s reflection on the unfolding narrative, his tormented response to the tragedy and squalor at the end of the novel: “I don’t hate it! I don‘t hate it!” (303) Rosa Coldfield is only wife number three for Sutpen; there is still the daughter of the poor white squatter Wash Jones, which is a profoundly evident connection between economic power, class, and sex.
This connection applies equally strongly to the issues of race throughout the novel. We know that Sutpen has a previous wife and son from his time in Haiti, and that he had rejected them after learning that they were racially mixed. Such a state of affairs would not be socially acceptable to a southern man trying to found a dynasty, of course, which is why he rejects them. The drama between Henry, Charles, and Judith comes about, as we learn, in part because Charles’ racially mixed ethnicity is why he is in exile from the Sutpen dynasty in the first place. His courting of Judith, his half-sister, is shown in terms equally incestuously creepy and malicious (94-95). Charles’ existence is, socially speaking, a curse. His interest in Judith is motivated by a brooding sense of revenge and a desire to ruin the estate which categorically bars him and (ironically) to which he owes his entire existence.
Lukacs praises Scott’s novels for showing a positive agency on behalf of the characters- they are fully engaged with their social, historically created circumstances and have the capacity to change them. (50) Charles Le Bon’s creeping seduction of Judith is a darker, more perverse form of his historical agency. He knows full well how his attempt at wedding Judith is socially apocalyptically destructive. Henry’s anguished reaction to this is motivated equally by this social context- a large section of the narrative is almost wholly concerned with whether or not he will kill Charles, and when he does, the reason goes far beyond his individual desire (in this case, his incestuous longing for his sister), it’s also because Charles Le Bon’s existence as an octoroon is unacceptable to his social standing, to Sutpen’s dynasty, and his having fought alongside Le Bon in the Civil War. This part of the narrative is a powerful irony, indeed- could there be a better example of a war which readily lends itself to a materialist reading of history?
Quentin (and, later, Shreve) exists in the narrative to parse out the effects Sutpen’s capital and its influence on the society at large. Quentin is sifting through the fragments of the testimonies of the intervals whose existences would have been profoundly different were it not for Sutpen’s economic power, his control of his social class. The fragments he sifts through are remnants of the individual traumas of Sutpen’s sheer capitalism. Rosa Coldfield’s understanding of her life is essentially defined by the power Sutpen had over her and her family. Surely it is his wealth, power, and prestige (brought on by the capital he controls), which enables him to marry her sister, and later herself, not his charm and good looks!
The fragmentary, elliptical, deductive feature of Absalom, Absalom! is central to the lives of the characters. and the way that they interpret and engage with their social circumstances. Formally, it suggests something else. Lukacs praises the novelist who is concerned with the reality of the effect history has on its characters. This is a kind of activism as aesthetic form- a “committed” way of writing and interpreting a text. Lukacs is encouraging a politicized reading in order for the reader to gain a deeper awareness of their own role in history, a message about political agency and one‘s role in the progress of history.
Adorno in The Politics of Autonomous Art has a particular critique of this stance. Adorno says that art with an overt message, even if radical, “already contains an accommodation to the world” which is that when an artist offers an overt stance they “conceal a clandestine (agreement) with the listeners, who could only be truly rescued from illusions by refusal of it.” (88) Adorno criticizes the literature of commitment in that it may ostensibly think of itself as being engaged in some kind of radical critique, yet the very nature of the critique becomes a sort of ideological hook, a sales pitch of sorts, which interrupts what is supposed to be autonomous: “this type of literature that, in accordance with the tenets of commitment but also with the demands of philistine moralism, exists for man, betrays him by traducing that which alone could help him, if it did not strike a pose of helping him.” (89) It is problematic for a work of art to tell it’s audience what and why it is so very good for it, politically or otherwise. Art for art’s sake, however, is equally problematic for Adorno, in that it equally “degenerates into ideology no less.” (89) Art is a part of society whether it is actively opposed to it or not, according to Adorno, and all the politically engaged historical novels in the world can’t change that. What Adorno then suggests is something a bit more ironic and subversive than Lukacs’ stubbornly historicizing intelligence- “even in the most sublimated work of art there is hidden ’it should be otherwise’…as eminently constructed and produced objects, works of art, even literary ones, point to a practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life…the content of works of art is never the amount of intellect pumped into them: if anything it is the opposite.” (89)
As we read the testimonies of (among others) Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson, and Quentin’s father we are experiencing the effect of the history and social structure which Lukacs finds so important. The overlapping structure is a radically ambiguous structural approach which forces the reader to consider the reactions of the different characters in terms of history but also- crucially- denies us as readers a firm grasp of what the literal, chronological spine of the story actually was. We are left with fragments, not a “committed” statement as to the final political moral of the story, as Lukacs may well demand. This subverts the idea of Luakcs’ historicity and gives Absalom, Absalom! its true autonomy as a work of art. The characters experience the pressure of their history and their social contexts as strongly as anything historically minded could hope to be, but they do not have the last word. No one does, not even Quentin’s last anguished denial.
What the elliptical structure of the narrative offers the reader is similar to Adorno’s approval of Kafka and Beckett: “…This is what human beings have become. As though with eyes drained of tears, they stare silently out of his sentences. The spell they cast, which also binds them, is lifted by being reflected in them…they have an effect by comparison with which officially committed works look like pantomime. Kafka and Beckett arouse the fear which existentialism merely talks about.” (86, italics mine) Interestingly, we as readers might be said to be interpreting the history of Sutpen alongside them, participating in the creation of the narrative as it unfolds, doubles back on itself, is re-written. The characters in Faulkner’s text do not tell us what to make of what they (and we) experience, because ultimately they are unable to. They are free. And so, as readers, are we.
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My favorite Faulkner. I immediately re-read it. To freedom!

Matt To freedom, indeed!

Mariel Returning to this. It's one hell of a review.

"The characters in Faulkner’s text do not tell us what to make of what they (and we) experience, because ultimately they are unable to. They are free. And so, as readers, are we."
Yes. Thank you for this.

Matt Right back 'atcha...I sweat blood over this paper, since this book cracked me open when I read it in undergrad a million years ago and I loved it the second time over, too and I wanted to do justice to it.

I didn't, but that's ok. Paper turned out well, the ideas started flowing, and that's pretty much all that matters....

Mariel I feel you did do it justice. It's a living and breathing thing.

Matt Agreed.

*Bows deeply*

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