Academic journal article Style

Dirimens Copulatio and Metalinguistic Negation in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Academic journal article Style

Dirimens Copulatio and Metalinguistic Negation in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt

In response to a question about Sherwood Anderson's style, William Faulkner described writing as "a matter of imagining any number of things. The writer at the moment of putting it down has got to be a censor, to say Now, this is right, this is wrong, and to throw away the wrong" (Faulkner 229). According to Faulkner, Anderson did not follow this mandate, yet to his style the concomitant "fumbling and clumsiness" were essential. Faulkner may have inherited something from his old mentor in New Orleans, for although Faulkner's own writing style is decidedly more complex than Anderson's, its very complexity, the lengthy adjectival and adverbial clauses that endlessly refine their subjects, also seems to violate this rule of self-censorship, of keeping the right and discarding the wrong. What might be just a stylistic and rhetorical tendency in Faulkner's prose is raised to a formative structural principle in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). For a novel ostensibly obsessed with the recovery of history, its narrators contradict each other and themselves, couch their narratives in negative and conjectural terms, and cast upon each version of Thomas Sutpen's history an essential indeterminacy. Absalom's characteristic uses of rhetorical negative clauses give the impression of throwing wrong narrative possibilities away; it is through these performed instances of negative supposition, however, that the narrative voice betrays its reluctance to purge the imaginary or suppositional and, in bifurcation, releases its claim to certainty.

Critical reading and interpretative practices in Faulkner criticism, as well as in literary criticism in general, have turned away from poetics and toward questions of history, culture, and power. Andre Bleikasten identifies this moment, as it pertains to Absalom criticism, as the publication of Eric Sundquist's "Absalom, Absalom! and the House Divided" in 1983. Bleikasten complains, "Faulkner's importance, [Sundquist] argued, is not to be sought in his contribution to the art of the novel but in the seriousness with which he addresses social and historical themes.... Nearly all recent Faulkner criticism starts from similar premises" (206-07). Depending on how accurately this claim describes the current state of Absalom criticism, my own study would appear to be obsolete, in dialogue with critics who regard Faulkner's literary style as constructive of aesthetic effect. My hope, however, is to show how formalist questions can illuminate the dynamics of the social and political registers which have made Faulkner so appealing to New Americanist criticism of the past two decades.

This essay locates the nexus of Absalom's swarming narratives in negative and collaborative narration. An investigation into the poetics of negative narration at the syntactic level will yield a model for the narrative strategy--the rhetorical figure dirimens copulatio--deployed in the larger compositional structure of the novel itself. In brief, I suggest that Absalom's narrative structure--the successive attempts to tell Thomas Sutpen's story that continually "one-up" each other by negating and amending the story immediately prior--adopts the same formal logic as that of the rhetorical figure "it was not x, but y" (dirimens copulatio). Drawing attention to the metalinguistic and temporal elements of that figure, this essay provides a way to understand the formal interrelation between the novel's conflicting accounts of Sutpen.

Such an understanding of Absalom can account for both rhetorical and political approaches to the novel. Whereas this study begins from structural analyses of syntax and discourse, it finds that the new categories, like metalinguistic negation, needed to explain the narrative logic on a rhetorical level are the same ones that on a theoretical level define the novel's racial, legal, sexual, and political ontologies of identity. This essay may not give the final word to the questions of race, class, gender and law that have made the novel so successful in politically-oriented and identity-sensitive literary criticism, nor may it exhaust the endless debate over Faulkner's style that makes his writing so frequently the subject of rhetorical and linguistic analyses. …

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