The Riddle of 'Absalom, Absalom!': Looking at the Wrong Blackbird?
Batty, Nancy E., The Mississippi Quarterly
At the center of Absalom, Absalom! there is a known fact, like a real stone enduring
centuries of words: in 1865 a man named Henry Sutpen, the son of Thomas Sutpen
and Ellen Coldfield, killed a man named Charles Bon.(1)
Taken out of its context -- Donald Kartiganer's 1979 book The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner's Novels -- this bold pronouncement strikes one as both more forceful and more positive than its author may have intended. Rather than emphasizing what is known fact in Absalom, Kartiganer's analysis of the novel incisively explores the role of the narrators' imaginative acts in reconstructing a truth, if not the truth, about Thomas Sutpen and his failed dynasty. Indeed, Kartiganer's work was characteristic of a new wave in critical approaches to the novel in the mid to late 1970s. Critics such as Kartiganer, John Irwin, Susan Resneck Parr, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan and later Peter Brooks and J. Hillis Miller have set the tonc for subsequent narratological approaches which privilege the performative, rather than constative, aspects of the text: such approaches suggest that the narrative, primarily through a process of repetition, produces its own truths, oblivious to so-called "facts." Long since buried in the wake of this critical revolution, it seems now, is the spate of critical exegeses in the sixties and throughout much of the seventies which doggedly attempted to "solve" the riddle of one of Faulkner's most indeterminate, enigmatic, and intriguing novels, that riddle being how Quentin Compson discovered the truth about the identity of Charles Bon, the vital clue which informs Quentin's and Shreve's penultimate reconstruction of the motives for the 1865 murder.(2)
While some of the arguments proposed by these would-be sleuths appear somewhat naive now and most critics are more than content to attribute the "riddle" itself to a valorized indeterminacy in the text, I propose in this paper to revive the discussion precisely by suggesting that subsequent critics of the novel have failed to consider the full implications of that indeterminacy. If, for example, Kartiganer can claim that the "fact [of Henry's murder of Bon] is what makes imagination necessary; and imagination is limitless, with the single exception that it cannot drive the fact from existence, from having occurred" (p. 71), how far has a performative analysis taken us from John V. Hagopian's assertion that his solution to the riddle "presupposes that Quentin and Shreve's conjecture that Bon is black is correct and must ultimately be accepted by the reader as a fact, a donne as indisputable as Henry's murder of Bon"?(3) In other words, are contemporary critics of the novel willing to extend the notion of indeterminacy in the text to what has always been assumed to be its very bedrock, the alleged murder of Charles Bon by Henry Sutpen? While every other "truth" in the novel has been revealed to be a production of narrative exigency, not a single critic in over fifty years has dared to push this line of enquiry to its logical conclusion, or its reductio ad absurdum, if you prefer: that even the facts of the murder, including those pertaining to the identities of perpetrator and victim, are speculative, heavily invested and highly motivated narrative constructions. I would argue that in approaching a novel which so steadfastly refuses to conform to traditional hierarchical structures of discourse, critics have too readily ignored the potentially performative nature of Henry Sutpen's anticlimactic deathbed confession, a performance which flies in the face of compelling narrative evidence in the text that Henry Sutpen could not have survived his fateful 1865 encounter with Charles Bon at the gates of Sutpen's Hundred!
I do realize the absurdity of this claim, and I anticipate, painfully, my readers' incredulous or even dismissive response to it. But in proposing and elaborating such a thesis, I take my cue from the novel itself and particularly from another intrepid Albertan, Shrevlin McCannon, who, according to the novel's Genealogy, inav still have been a "practicing surgeon in Edmonton, Alta [Canada]" at about the same time I was born there. …