Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The Poetics of Ruptured Mnemosis: Telling Encounters in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

The Poetics of Ruptured Mnemosis: Telling Encounters in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt

Come on if you like. But I will get there first; accumulating ahead of you I will arrive first, lifting, sloping gently upward under hooves and wheels so that you will find no destination but will merely abrupt gently onto a plateau and a panorama of harmless and inscrutable night and there will be nothing for you to do but return and so I would advise you not to go, to turn back now and let what is, be . . . (AA 143)

So warns the dust as Quentin Compson and Rosa Coldfield drive through the hot August night toward their apocalyptic encounter with the ghostly, half-dead Henry Sutpen in the ruins of Sutpen's Hundred. It may serve as a warning to anyone who seeks out lost time.

Absalom, Absalom! emerges from a paragraph suffused with dust:

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that-a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children's feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust. (3-4)

This passage's most disturbing and powerful effect is the way it uses dust to bind atmosphere to articulation: the motes of dust suspended in the air seem coextensive with Rosa Coldfield's speech and the acts of recollection and transmission it embodies. The inward-blownness of the dust motes establishes the age-old metaphoric association of wind with breath, inspiration, and narrative, but the passage also creates the far more unusual association of dust with memory. Memory, in this passage, is like "dead old dried paint," a once-cohesive surface, or covering, or protective screen now loose, fragmented, and dissociated. The motes of dust are tiny fragments of a onceobscuring coating that, with age, has lost its power to occlude and has now become an enlightening medium through which the agency of the visible becomes visible itself. The strangely soporific atmosphere, at once peaceful and threatening, is the air produced by recollection: a narcotic medium of reception and transmission. The dust from which the novel rises is part of a sensory concoction composed of heat, light, and voice, suspended in a matrix of recollection from which ghosts are evoked-not by means of a blood offering, but through a compound of dust and narrative the text calls "outraged recapitulation." The dreamy atmosphere established by the dust obscures the sense of danger, threat, and possible harm presented by a past that destroys Thomas Sutpen, his family, Rosa Coldneld, and ultimately Quentin himself.

Just as the opening pages of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-1927) announce Proust's project and his method-an inquiry, a (re)search for time lost to the narrator's memory but recalled through the associative medium of the madeleine-so the opening paragraphs of Absalom, Absalom! …

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