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The poetics of ruptured mnemosis: telling encounters in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

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 once-obscuring 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 Coldfield, and ultimately Quentin himself.

Just as the opening pages of A 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! illustrate Faulkner's search for the dynamics of recall and their representation in language. Both the madeleine experience and the vision in these opening paragraphs are notable for their astounding vividness and for the way they summon events heretofore unavailable to consciousness. But the mnemonic trigger for Proust's narrator is an object, while for Quentin, it is a voice. If the madeleine inaugurates a wonderful, though unsettling, recovery of past events lost to Marcel, Quentin's experience in Rosa Coldfield's office triggers not a recovery, but rather an uncanny reception, for the memories that emerge dreamlike from Quentin's unconscious are not his own. For Proust, memory-making is surpassingly productive and ultimately redemptive: the search restores self-knowledge and integrates the past with the present. For Faulkner, writing a decade later and a world away in the wake of World War I's traumas, the quality of memory-making has changed. It has become simultaneously shocking and remote, self-divisive rather than self-integrative. And while it still has the power to produce narrative, that production is urgently compelled and its reception imposes a strange burden. Along with the quality of recollection, the form of its expression has changed, in ways that reflect a new research into the nature of memory and its representation in literature.

In this essay, I claim that Absalom, Absalom! is an allegory of reading whose structure constitutes a critique, not only of narrative as a form and of mnemonic representation in narrative, but of epistemology itself, in which the very possibility of reading is called into question. The ground of this allegory is a dynamic of recall and transmission fundamentally different from that of narrative. Inherent in both the novel's thematics and its structure, it is the dynamic of psychic trauma, whose articulation by Freud in the aftermath of World War I became a basis not only for a new model of mental disorder but of epistemology and articulation. For the traumatized subject, the purpose of linguistic production is not narration but telling; its aim not communication or dissipation but transmission. In the place of narrative, Faulkner's text offers a new kind of writing and consequently a new kind of reading based on a poetics of ruptured mnemosis, a means of representing--and invoking--disrupted memory processes. The tropes of ruptured mnemosis are of two kinds, amplification and disruption; these correspond to the Freudian dreamwork modalities of condensation and displacement, which Lacan links more generally to the tropes of metaphor and metonymy and to the axes of selection and sequence articulated by Roman Jakobson. (1) In the first class are tropes of repetition and superfluity; in the second are a variety of syntactic, structural, and thematic intrusions into an ongoing narrative flow, of which Sutpen's abrupt appearance is a crucial and telling example. (2)

In the opening passage of Absalom, Absalom! Quentin experiences what can best be characterized as a vision. Rosa's voice "vanishes" and is apparently replaced by a vision of Thomas Sutpen at a moment of demonic genesis--his own, that of the Haitian slaves and the shackled French architect, and that of his plantation, Sutpen's Hundred. The vision then recedes, and Quentin experiences a kind of treble consciousness: one Quentin (the apparent Ego) listening to two other Quentins in dialogue. The first is the Quentin Compson from before the encounter (the Southern Harvard matriculate); the other is the Quentin Compson awakened by the encounter with Miss Rosa and the vision of Sutpen: a doomed Southern ghost, an inheritor and recipient of Miss Rosa's telling of "impacted distilled and hyperdistilled" Southern experience. These "two separate Quentins" speak to one another in a "notlanguage" through which, in a paratactic and hyperdistilled form anticipating the more extended dialogue between Quentin and Shreve in the latter half of the novel, they recapitulate, in anticipation of any initial exposition, the story of Sutpen: the one voice (Harvard Quentin/Shreve) summarizing while the other (Quentin/Rosa), first using Miss Rosa as a reference and then speaking entirely in its own voice, corrects him. The passage ends with a capitulation to Rosa's lonely perspective in a clause that is also a kind of signature: "Without regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says--(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson" (AA 5). The suggestion of authorship is reinforced by the next paragraph, a flashback to a moment earlier in the afternoon when Miss Rosa has apparently suggested to Quentin that "maybe some day you will remember this and write about it" for profit. "Only she dont mean that," Quentin thinks. "It's because she wants it told" (5).

Quentin's disintegration and its attendant vision are precipitated by a curious sensory breakdown. In "until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound," "hearing-sense self-confound" is a chiasmus whose unfolding shows it is the hearing self whose senses are confounded, for whom listening and seeing and speaking become a single sensation. Renege signifies a break or a breakdown: it is the willing or willful suspension of a rule; a breach of contract; a failure to respond in the expected way; a failure to "follow suit." Reneging--the thematics of the Civil War and the civil wars of returning sons in rebellion against fathers, of men breaking the wider and narrower taboos of incest and miscegenation--is a major theme of Absalom, Absalom! But here, a renege is a fault; it is not necessarily a cheat. It is an error of a particular type, a failure to respond in kind when one could do so. Listening and speaking are in a contract with one another, and for listening to renege is for listening to fail to respond to speaking in the appropriate way. The result is superfluity leading to breakdown: Miss Rosa's incessant narration produces an overflow condition--outraged recapitulation--in which listening faults or misplays, and hearing-sense and speaking-sense become linked in a self-confounding cycle. The result of this fault is a gap in which Sutpen's ghost not only appears or is evoked, but very specifically and very strangely abrupts.

Faulkner denies voice its ordinary qualities--duration, audibility--and gives it visual properties instead: in the reneging of listening and the self-confounding of hearing-sense, the "voice would not cease, it would just vanish" (AA 4). The language reinforces the appearance of the ghost out of the voice: the voice ceases to be a voice; it becomes the medium of a vision, and, having evoked or brought (back) into being the ghost--perhaps, indeed, having become the ghost--it, now visible, vanishes. The text also establishes a temporal distinction between ceasing and vanishing: ceasing seems to be a normal sort of stopping for a voice, while vanishing not only confounds the modalities of the audible and the visible, it is also a sign of an abrupt, unplanned stop. Cessation is structured, but vanishing is a sudden, unanticipated disappearance, an unforeseen and unforeseeable interruption.

Surely this richly ambiguous moment is not, as Miss Rosa says ironically, simply a young Harvard matriculate's tedious afternoon with a tedious old woman; to view it as such is to assume the viewpoint of Shreve, who must ask of the South, "What's it like there.... Why do people live there. Why do they live at all" (AA 142). To understand the disturbing power of Rosa Coldfield's voice, we must ask instead, how does this moment function in the story and the plot? How does it serve to introduce and structure the text that follows it? It is, among other things, an oracular moment: Miss Rosa, outraged and rigid in her chair, is the very figure of a Greek oracle, the Sibyl, in trance, pronouncing. The oracular, Frank Kermode tells us, is a kind of encounter in which a peculiar form of transmission occurs, in which a god speaks through the voice of another: Sutpen haunts Miss Rosa's voice "where a more fortunate ghost might have had a house" and in the way a god haunts the voice of the Sibyl. If dust is the quiet, abiding mnemonic medium out of which ghosts are evoked, Rosa Coldfield is the awful Sibylline medium at this seance to which Quentin has been summoned, and at which the distinction between hearer, teller, and told breaks down.

Miss Rosa's voice calls Sutpen's ghost into being (crucially, perhaps, in Quentin's mind, but also in ours), and Sutpen's ghost, with "up-palm immobile and pontific," creates Sutpen's Hundred, "the Be Sutpen's Hundred like the oldentime Be Light" (AA 4). It is a moment of diabolic creation: Sutpen the demon, reeking of sulfur yet raising a pontific hand; the band of Haitian slaves, simultaneously beasts and men in attitudes "wild and reposed," free while the white French architect in his formal frock coat is manacled (4)--the French architect who, as a figure of European culture and bearer of cultured (neoclassical) art, is a dedalean figure, forced to contrive a labyrinth at the heart of which lurks the offspring of a monstrous union.

Thus Absalom, Absalom! announces itself as a creation myth--the autochthonous generation of a demon. This creature springs not from a single omnipotent mind but from the fusion of two: the interiorization of Miss Rosa's voice with Quentin's imagination and the consequent split in his own consciousness. Telling, memory, and creation combine in the medium of encounter, attended, indeed evoked, by dust motes--or perhaps dust mots. (3) For the vision of Thomas Sutpen, his creation, and his story, and the encounter and narration that produce them--indeed the entire novel itself--arise, not from biscuits and tea, but from a brew of words: a haze of dust-motes, word-fragments, or words-as-fragments, the crumbling pieces of a once-cohesive narrative covering now being blown inward. The opening scene of Absalom, Absalom! establishes an astonishing fusion and diffusion of words and recollection that results in the seemingly impossible: the creation of a memory in the mind of one who never experienced the event. It is a most disturbing haunting, for it strikes not only Quentin Compson's mind but our own.

How and why do we remember? How and why do we recall and recount what we remember? Curiously, the process of representing, storing, and retrieving events (as opposed to the store itself--the memory as repository--or the contents of the store--memories) has no satisfactory name. Remember is the word we commonly use, but remember has connotations that are not always appropriate. To re-member means to put back together again, to assign membership to something that was once part of a known quantity or to reintegrate a collection of things that once constituted a whole. The re- prefix implies an articulation (a "membering") of something articulated once before. Remember thus implies another primary, primal act of articulation of which the remembering is simply a repetition. But is it always the case that remembering is a secondary act? Can it not be that remembering sometimes articulates something for the first time? To articulate this primary condition a more primary word is needed, and we can do no better, I think, than to articulate a new word and call this phenomenon of primary remembering mnemosis. (4)

Mnemosis is the active process of recollection, distinct from memory, which I take to refer to the objects of recollection and to their nondynamic representation. And it is a feature of mnemosis that it is always failed: its "long dead object" is well and truly dead, though the function of mnemosis is to bring it back to life, to insert it into the present time. (5) There is, therefore, always a gap in mnemosis between the memory and what it represents. What it represents is, in all cases, an event: specifically, it is the event of perception, whether it is the perception of some object or person, or of some action, or of some inner, cognitive activity. Insofar as perceptions are themselves representations of objects in the real world, a memory is a representation of a representation: it is already a second-order trope, or figure, and mnemosis could just as well be called by another name: reading.

The moment of oracular encounter and demonic genesis at the beginning of Absalom, Absalom! elevates the ensuing tale above the level of mere recounting, of simple history--it supercharges recounting and history with a peculiar, hard-to-define quality of urgency, explosiveness, and power even as it diffuses it in quiet, peacefulness, and dust. Quentin's father makes this curious quality manifest:
 Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them. They are there, yet
 something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed
 along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the
 paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded,
 almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense,
 the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces; you bring
 them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens;
 you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have
 forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together
 again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the
 shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that
 turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human
 affairs. (AA 80)

Mr. Compson's is the puzzle confronting readers and critics of Absalom, Absalom! and of similar Modernist texts. The familiar old forms are there, but they are fragmented, the crumbling letters the matrix for a manifest but inscrutable explosion. Something has happened, but it is curiously irreproducible. Signifier and signified are there, but they cannot be brought together into signification. The irreparable rupture comes to denote its own signification--of a particular event or series of events whose nature is so volatile that it defeats attempts at normal signification, representation, and recollection.

With its inattentive ghosts, its quiet thunderclaps, its materializing photographs, its strangely nonvolatile chemical formulas, its dust motes, its troths that do not plight, its excess of verbal production that nevertheless "just doesn't explain," it is not too much to say that Absalom, Absalom!, with its thematization of unrelieved narrative energy, is an allegory of reading in which the very possibility of reading is brought into question. The question of what compels the linguistic production in Absalom, Absalom! is thus akin to its corollary: what compels our reading of Absalom, Absalom!?

In "Narration and the Psychoanalytic Dialogue," Roy Schafer views transference and resistance as narrative structures and finds the common view of transference wanting:
 In the traditional transference narration, one tells how the
 analysand is repetitively reliving or reexperiencing the past in
 the present relationship with the analyst. It is said that there
 occurs a regression within the transference to the infantile
 neurosis or neurotic matrix, which then lies exposed to the
 analyst's view. This is, however, a poor account. It tells of life
 history as static, archival, linear, reversible, and literally
 retrievable. Epistemologically, this story is highly problematic.
 Another and, I suggest, better account tells of change of action
 along certain lines; it emphasizes new experiencing and new
 remembering of the past that unconsciously has never become the
 past. More and more, the alleged past must be experienced
 consciously as a mutual interpenetration of the past and present,
 both being viewed in psychoanalytically organized and coordinated
 terms. (32)

Schafer's new account of the transference narrative in psychoanalysis is equally an account of the fundamental structures of Absalom, Absalom! The novel as a whole figures a past that refuses to become past, of ghosts that will not stay laid, and the novel's principal organizing structure is the "telling encounter" between two people who try to present the Sutpen story in a way that explains, satisfies, and thus lays the past to rest in the past, into death. In this attempt the telling encounters almost always fail.

This failure of telling, of explanation, of transference is fundamentally a failure of reading, and Faulkner's novel is a text that teaches a new way of reading: of reading for form, not just for plot(tedness); reading for other symptomatic forms that reveal and transmit, rather than simply narrate. Absalom, Absalom! presents (at least) two models of reading: Mr. Compson's way and Quentin's way. (6) The urge to explain, to bring the signifiers of "volatile and sentient forces" together in a cohesive, satisfactory narrative, is the way of Mr. Compson, Shreve, and Rosa Coldfield--and time and time again in Absalom, Absalom! it fails to produce the mutual interpenetration of present and past that can discharge them. Reading this way, the novel seems to say, produces only a faded formula or the echo of a shot. On the other hand, Quentin's telling encounter with Rosa Coldfield, set in a mixture of atmosphere and articulation, of dust and voice, succeeds in producing an explosive effect: an abrupt transfer of unclaimed experience from one mind to another. (7) Quentin's encounter with Henry Sutpen is likewise an enactment, an allegory, of this transference narrative, this experience of the mutual interpenetration of past and present. (8) The shot, the explosion, is the result of reading; the echo and the abruption are symptoms of a past that has not yet become past, something that has not yet been recovered or claimed.


Of the tropes of intrusion, parenthesis is perhaps the most prevalent in Absalom, Absalom!; it is certainly the most obvious. (9) Faulkner often employs parenthesis conventionally: as a means of straightforward amplification or elaboration, as a perspective-shifting device (moving from speaker's view to narrator's point of view, for example), and as a form of apposition, as in "(they cannot have told you this either)." But the text also features parenthetical passages that are notably lengthened, stretched, and displaced. In the aftermath of Sutpen's sudden appearance, listening to Rosa Coldfield's outraged recapitulation, Quentin experiences a self-rupture in which the two Quentins--Harvard matriculate and haunted inheritor--engage in a further recapitulation:
 ... the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the
 long silence of notpeople in notlanguage, like this: It seems that
 this demon--his name was Sutpen--(Colonel Sutpen)--Colonel Sutpen.
 Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a
 band of strange niggers and built a plantation--(Tore violently a
 plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)--tore violently. And married
 her sister Ellen and begot a son and a daughter which--(Without
 gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)--without gentleness.
 Which should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and
 comfort of his old age, only--(Only they destroyed him or something
 or he destroyed them or something. And died)--and died. Without
 regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says--(Save by her) Yes, save by her.
 (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson. (AA 4-5)

Quentin's ghosts transmit their otherworldly tragedy through a peculiarly tangled language in which narrative threads are repeatedly warped: twisted, perverted from the true, folded back upon themselves. Warp, from the Anglo-Saxon wearp, to throw or cast, includes among its definitions the thread running lengthwise in a loom through which the woof is woven and the sediment or precipitate dropped by water, as by a stream. The dust in the room--and the dust that speaks to Quentin on the road--is a kind of warp. A warping of Levi-Strauss's Le cru et le cuit might therefore be "The Warped and the Trued": the contrast between something imbued with tangled, alluvial, and allusive fertility and something processed, straightened, rendered linear.

The paradoxical product of warping is a nonlinguistic medium of transmission necessarily defined and represented by and through its resistance to language--notlanguage, but knotlanguage. (10) The knotlanguage of Absalom, Absalom! is marked by parenthetical passages that intrude upon and warp the lines of narrative and plot, that tie together narrative elements and pull them apart. Consider the following passage:
 It should have been later than it was; it should have been late,
 yet the yellow slashes of mote-palpitant sunlight were latticed no
 higher up the impalpable wall of gloom which separated them; the
 sun seemed hardly to have moved. It (the talking, the telling)
 seemed (to him, to Quentin) to partake of that logic- and
 reason-flouting quality of a dream which the sleeper knows must
 have occurred, stillborn and complete, in a second, yet the very
 quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer
 (verisimilitude) to credulity--horror or pleasure or
 amazement--depends as completely upon a formal recognition of and
 acceptance of elapsed and yet-elapsing time as music or a printed
 tale. (15)

In this passage, parenthesis marks the displacement of significations that intrude parenthetically elsewhere. The first parenthetical phrase (the talking, the telling) qualifies the unanchored pronoun it. The lack of grammatical antecedent unsettles it, but it has already been rendered temporally and grammatically unstable in the first clause. "It should have been later than it was" is a clause that states its own condition: the displacement of a signifier forward in the syntactic chain. Repetition motivates its repetition, thereby necessitating the first parenthetical qualification, which in turn is unsettled by the repetition of the parenthetical figure (to him, to Quentin). The third parenthetical, (verisimilitude), belongs in apposition to quality yet is displaced to a point later in the syntactic chain, where it intrudes in an unsettling way.

This passage describes Quentin's perception of telling time (so important in The Sound and the Fury for Quentin the time-teller, the watch-breaker, the desirer of stopped and stoppable time), a perception in which telling time, mnemonic time, and dream time are united. Mnemosis has two components: recall, or the representation of past experience being summoned and articulated by the speaker; and transmission, or the communication of that experience to another with the attendant production of new structures of recollection for the other. Both activities transpire in warped temporality, in which time is either extremely compressed or dilated. It (the telling) is in temporal parentheses, just as dreams are: both seem simultaneously to lack and entail duration, to bypass temporal sequencing even as they acknowledge its necessity. The repetition of it and its ambiguous temporal status are in fact the passage's subject: "It should have been later than it was." If the parenthetical intrusions are removed, the entire passage is an elaboration on it and the way this pronoun functions like a dream, dependent upon the formal recognition of temporal sequence.

Temporal sequence is formal and conventional, not "natural"; it is predicated upon the recognition of past and present (of "elapsed and yet-elapsing time"). The sleeper knows the actual event of the dream must have occurred in a second, while the dream requires for its perception (and the effects it produces, horror or pleasure or amazement) the verisimilitude produced by "a formal recognition and acceptance" of temporal sequence. The dependence of the dream upon verisimilar sequence is as ineluctable as that of music, or, particularly, of a "printed tale." The dream is "stillborn," without the admixture of temporal sequencing that makes it live by making it available to consciousness. Its lifelike quality, its verisimilitude (its truth, or its appearance of truth or of being true, not warped) depends on temporality. In truth, it is its appearance of being true--"the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer (verisimilitude) to credulity"--that produces affect (horror or pleasure or amazement). The sentence produces a syntactic bind that somehow requires verisimilitude to be mis- and displaced; the normal placement of such an apposition is already filled: truth has been replaced with horror, pleasure, and amazement. The sentence enacts its own sequence-flouting content.

Parenthetical intrusions abound in Absalom, Absalom! Most characteristic is the lengthy parenthetical intrusion that so separates the elements of the sentence it invades as to make the sentence unfollowable, as here (I will return to this passage later):
 ... and one day Henry showed it to him and there was no gentle
 spreading glow but a flash, a glare (who not only had no visible
 father but had found himself to be, even in infancy, enclosed by an
 unsleeping cabal bent apparently on teaching him that he had never
 had, that his mother had emerged from a sojourn in limbo, from that
 state of blessed amnesia in which the weak senses can take refuge
 from the godless dark forces and powers which weak human flesh
 cannot stand, to wake pregnant, shrieking and screaming and
 thrashing, not against the ruthless agony of labor but in protest
 against the outrage of her swelling loins; that he had been
 fathered on her not through that natural process but had been
 blotted onto and out of her body by the old infernal immortal male
 principle of all unbridled terror and darkness) in which he stood
 looking at the innocent face of the youth almost ten years his
 junior, while one part of him said My brow my skull my jaw my hands
 and the other said Wait. Wait. You cant know yet. You cannot know
 yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are
 believing. Wait. Wait.-- (251)

Like "verisimilitude," the parenthetical phrase in this passage is delayed and displaced from its expected syntactic position as a modifier of "him." Faulkner does not rely on typography alone to create parenthetical intrusions; in the following passage (to which I will also return), a repeated phrase functions as a parenthetical mark: (11)
 Once there was--Do you mark how the wistaria, sun-impacted on this
 wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though
 (light-unimpeded) by secret and attritive progress from mote to
 mote of obscurity's myriad components? That is the substance of
 remembering--sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see
 and hear and feel--not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as
 memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more,
 no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and
 worthy only of the name of dream.--See how the sleeping outflung
 hand, touching the bedside candle, remembers pain, springs back and
 free while mind and brain sleep on and only make of this adjacent
 heat some trashy myth of reality's escape: or that same sleeping
 hand, in sensuous marriage with some dulcet surface, is transformed
 by that same sleeping brain and mind into that same figment-stuff
 warped out of all experience. Ay, grief goes, fades; we know
 that--but ask the tear ducts if they have forgotten how to
 weep.--Once there was (they cannot have told you this either) a
 summer of wistaria. (115)

The repeated phrase "Once there was" functions like a parenthesis, a mark to demark "Do you mark...." The principal clause of the passage, "Once there was a summer of wistaria," is interrupted twice by parenthetical intrusions.

Parenthetical intrusion also functions at the plot level, and also to interrupt and displace. Abrupt interpolation is a major structuring figure of the novel as a whole. Mr. Compson's letter to Quentin at the beginning of chapter six, for example, in which he announces Rosa Coldfield's death, is an interlaced parenthetical intrusion. This chapter inaugurates the Harvard section of the book--the transition from one place and time (September 1909 in Mississippi) to another (January 1910 in Cambridge)--but after a paragraph the Harvard setting is interrupted by the interpolation of the letter from the deep South. The letter is itself interrupted after a paragraph, in mid-sentence, to conclude a few lines before the end of the text. Mr. Compson's letter and Rosa Coldfield's death thus bracket, and are bracketed by, the Harvard time frame.


In the passages I have cited, parenthesis is a syntactic aberration that marks and makes up for the sequence-flouting quality of mnemosis. Syntagmatic progression cannot be interrupted--what comes after comes after--yet the progression implied by syntactic arrangement is being disrupted and another kind of sequence followed, at least temporarily. The parenthetical mark raises several questions. How more precisely does parenthesis represent and enact mnemosis? It is a rupture in the syntagmatic chain--it announces a gap and simultaneously fills it--but what kind of rupture? It is not replacement, for there is an eventual return. Is it superimposition, the simultaneous unfolding of two sequences? What is the nature of what is intruding? What particular kind of mnemosis is being represented? Can the content of the material be distinguished from its placement, its nature as a rhetorical parenthesis? What is being recalled, and what is being transmitted? How is the material's parenthetical nature related to the content of the material--that is, how is its rhetorical mode of representation related to its content?

Mnemosis is not noesis; the kind of memory-making at work in these parenthetical intrusions is "no gentle spreading glow," not a conscious act, not a direct function of mind. Rather, it is a "flash, a glare," or a flare: "an explosion--a bright glare that vanished and left nothing" (AA 192). A flash is a too-brief and too-intense stimulus that does not reveal but instead exposes, leaves traces. It is the burst of light too brief to be perceived itself but which leaves a glaring registration on perception in its wake. In the passage above describing Bon's recognition of himself in Henry, the flare illuminates the content of the parenthesis, allows it to burst forth and intrude into the sequence of rising identification. Bon does not perceive in a gently spreading glow but in a flash, when knowledge of his paternity, long suppressed by the "unsleeping cabal" of mother and lawyer, is triggered by a letter. In that letter, the word is made flesh: the father signified by the letter Henry shows Bon appears abruptly in the features of its bearer, which are his own. Comprehension is identification, and it is delayed until a metaphorical flash of light reveals it.

Rosa's telling creates the flash of abruptive vision for Quentin in which telling is transmuted into seeing: Rosa's telling transmits her own memory to Quentin like a developing photograph (AA 9). As the telling continues through the novel, figures develop out of the picture--Bon, Bon's mother, the lawyer--but they are constructions, additions supplied by the receivers of the transmitted memories that nevertheless do not account for the explosion that etched their images. As in Mr. Compson's chemical formula, the elements are all there but can't somehow be made to precipitate; "the troth does not plight."

The trace of the present in the past intrudes at the outset of narrative and leaves its mark. "Do you mark how the wistaria ...?" arrests the fairy-tale beginning of Rosa's story of arrested sexual awakening and marks a return to the beginning of the novel (the "sun-impacted" wistaria and the dust motes). The dust motes--the figure for words themselves--have been transmuted to metaphors (carriers) of both libido and mnemosis: "That is the substance of remembering." The warp of remembering is thus the distillation of libido into shared narrative space through the agency of the word, and words are the fragmented bearers of recollection that lose their substance through the abrasive and grief-laden transmission of memory.

Likewise, transmission of these mnemonic particles is not narration, but part of mnemosis itself. Remembering is motes and their motion; it moves like a wave for Rosa "by secret and attritive progress from mote to mote of obscurity's myriad components" and it also has this motion for Quentin:

"Yes," Quentin said. "The two children" thinking Yes. Maybe we are both Father. Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn't matter: that pebble's watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm thinking Yes, we are both Father. Or maybe Father and I are both Shreve, maybe it took Father and me both to make Shreve or Shreve and me both to make Father or maybe Thomas Sutpen to make all of us. (AA 210)

For Quentin, "happen" is not an event but mnemosis; being is fabrication in a pattern established by past but unseen perturbation. The condition of belatedness is to be the brief site of a structured motion. It is significant (for the Quentin of The Sound and the Fury) that the signal, inaugural event is the sinking of an object into water: the substance of remembering is fluid but still particulate, subject to the reflexive, progressive motion of a force inaugurated by an event distant in space and in time. Ripple-space replaces ripples-pace; space replaces time in the rippling movement of a hyphen through a compound word. (12) Judith, too, sees remembrance and being as reflexive activities compelled by an unseen force:

'Yes,' Judith said. 'Or destroy it. As you like. Read it if you like or dont read it if you like. Because you make so little impression, you see. You get born and you try this and you dont know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they dont know why either except that the strings are all in one another's way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it cant matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better, and yet it must matter because you keep on trying or having to keep on trying and then all of a sudden it's all over and all you have left is a block of stone with scratches on it provided there was someone to remember to have the marble scratched and set up or had time to, and it rains on it and the sun shines on it and after a while they dont even remember the name and what the scratches were trying to tell, and it doesn't matter. (100-01)

For Judith, as for Quentin, being and remembering are conflated, and the union is communal. Being and community accrete around the echoes of past damage, rupture, or trauma. The absurd activity of communal weaving in a pattern that is no pattern has meaning only in its transmission:
 And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better,
 and give them something--a scrap of paper--something, anything, it
 not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep
 it, not even to bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it
 would be something just because it would have happened, be
 remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one
 mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something,
 something that might make a mark on something that was once for the
 reason that it can die someday, while the block of stone cant be is
 because it can never become was because it cant ever die or
 perish.......'.... (101)

The memory-making at work here is therefore profoundly made: it is substantial and constructed. The flare leaves traces that cannot be reconstructed into a sensible, logical, or reasonable whole; the lines that connect elements of perception are fitful and broken, stretched and overwritten by other connections, and they must be fabricated. The dream of reconstruction is revealed in the afterglow, in the traces, to be "warped out of all experience": unstraight, untrue, but simultaneously the warp on which the woof of constructed memory is woven and the fertile residue of experience. Time is also warped in this way: revealed to be unreliable and aberrant yet structurally necessary for the work. Narrative is fabricated by, and out of, "the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking," and the material is narrative in both senses of the word: narrative as that which is told and narrative as the act of telling. It (the talking, the telling) is realized, resolved, and fabricated in encounter with another.


Absalom, Absalom! has two temporal and structural layers: the told layer, consisting of the tragedy of the Sutpen and Coldfield families, the events outlined in the chronology appended to the novel's main text; and the telling layer, comprising the interview between Quentin Compson and Rosa Coldfield on a September afternoon, Quentin's conversation with his father later that night, and the conversation between Quentin and his Canadian roommate Shreve at Harvard in December. In both layers, the telling encounters exhibit characteristics that we may, carefully, describe as traumatic; indeed, their traumatic nature is what makes them telling.

The novel begins with a lyric invocation of the traumatic complex Quentin Compson has been summoned to witness:
 Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a
 scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint
 sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind
 him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright
 like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them
 the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran....
 Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun
 suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth
 and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless
 Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the
 uppalm immobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen's Hundred, the Be
 Sutpen's Hundred like the oldentime Be Light. (4)

Sutpen is not a novelistic character who emerges through gradual memorial narration; he is not recalled so much as recapitulated. His appearance, like Absalom, Absalom! itself, violates the decorously painted backdrop of traditional narrative with its "schooled" temporal structurings. The qualities conveyed by "quiet thunderclap" and "abrupt" are signs of a peculiar state: much like the vanishing of Rosa's voice, the catachresis of "quiet thunderclap" signals the astonishing cessation of the thunder before it sounds--the paradoxical condition of an event that interrupts itself. Thus in the told layer of the vision, Sutpen emerges from a static backdrop brought into being by the very event that disrupts it. In other words, Sutpen's emergence is an event that comes into being always already interrupted; it is an event for which interruption is the constitutive feature.

As at so many other points in this novel, it is a peculiar deformation of language that draws attention to the complex work within the text. Here it is the word abrupt, used strangely and almost archaically as a verb. Insofar as there is a standard usage, it is as a transitive verb, but Faulkner employs it intransitively, thereby eliding the verb's object and thus the event or action being interrupted. The verb abrupt appears twice in the novel, the second time in the rich warning of the dust to Quentin as he and Rosa drive to the decaying Sutpen mansion:
 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.... (143)

In both instances, abruption occurs in catachresis: Sutpen abrupts "out of quiet thunderclap," and Quentin "abrupt[s] gently." And in both cases, abruption has the structure of a traumatic nightmare, with a vividness strangely divorced from affect. Sutpen's abruption is much like the traumatic symptom of flashback, with the crucial difference that Quentin never experienced the inaugural traumatic event. Faulkner's usage carries the force of an emergence effected by means of an unanchored interruption or cessation, an appearance that is a disappearance.

Like parenthesis, abruption functions as a text-generating figure; however, an abruptive event paradoxically creates the very event it interrupts. An abruption is something that interrupts itself, an event whose origin is its own interruption. Human subjectivity is conditioned by temporal sequence; to put it another way, consciousness is founded upon, and inextricably bound to, the perception of time. (13) Abruption is a condition of subjectivity, arising from the unusual condition of traumatic perception in which the end, or cessation, of something is perceived before its beginning: the perception of something is evoked by its cessation. This temporal disjunction is unassimilable: how, in Judith's words, can something become was if it isn't is? As an interruption in the progressive flow of temporal ordering, abruption is a manifestation of primal chaos. Because it fails to follow temporal sequence, the abrupted event is a renegation, an act that "breaks the law." Because it reneges, it cannot be assimilated as experience. The condition of abruption produces a need to transmit (declaim), and this transmission takes the form of telling rather than narration. If an abruption occurs, a declamation is needed to make it available to experience. Abruption is constituted, then, by the abruptive event (which is not experienced) and the telling encounter called into being by it. Abruption, in the context of narrative function, is a binary structure of event and telling encounter.

So prevalent is abruption in Absalom, Absalom! that it acquires the quality of a full-fledged trope. Abruptions and their attendant phenomena appear at the novel's major plot-points, where they structure the actions of the characters. Sutpen's initial abruption onto the Yoknapatawpha landscape is itself an echo of an earlier abruptive event, one that initiates his relentless quest. Sutpen's trajectory is set by his boyhood encounter with a black house servant at the Tidewater plantation to which his family has come after their dim journey down from the Appalachian hills. In this arresting encounter, the young Sutpen is forbidden entrance to the house through the front door and told to go to the back. In the bottom, while the hounds have faulted, Sutpen tells Quentin's grandfather of the fault this experience produced in him:
 Because what he was thinking about now he hadn't asked for. It was
 just there ... and then he said that all of a sudden it was not
 thinking, it was something shouting it.... He never even give me a
 chance to say it. Not even to tell it, say it: it too fast, too
 mixed up to be thinking, it all kind of shouting at him at once,
 boiling out and over him like the nigger laughing: He never gave me
 a chance to say it and Pap never asked me if I told him or not and
 so he cant even know that Pap sent him any message and so whether
 he got it or not cant even matter, not even to Pap; I went up to
 that door for that nigger to tell me never to come to that front
 door again and I not only wasn't doing any good to him by telling
 it or any harm to him by not telling it, there aint any good or
 harm either in the living world that I can do to him. It was like
 that, he said, like an explosion--a bright glare that vanished and
 left nothing, no ashes nor refuse: just a limitless flat plain with
 the severe shape of his intact innocence rising from it like a
 monument.... (191-92)

Sutpen's experience takes the abruptive form already discussed: a sudden sensory overload out of which a vision emerges. Afterwards, like Quentin's, Sutpen's consciousness is split while he holds a dialogue with himself, and like Rosa Coldfield's, Sutpen's speech takes the form of outraged recapitulation, "too fast, too mixed up to be thinking."

Sutpen's sensory overload is produced, as it is for Rosa, by physical impediment and, as it is for Bon, by a consequent flare of self-recognition. For Sutpen, self-recognition is the discovery of difference: from primitive backwoods egalitarianism he is traumatically thrown into the hierarchical Southern world of social difference based on class and race. Through Sutpen's eyes, Faulkner shows that racial difference is "differance": a value-free genetic diversity which becomes a socially valued mark that maintains its status through the work of history. The blinding glare of arbitrary difference exposes Sutpen to the helpless inconsequentiality and existential absurdity that haunt and animate so many of Absalom's characters. The "balloon-face" of the black house servant is a stand-in, a metaphor, a symbolic displacement of a barrier it is vain to lash out against. It blocks the way, just as Clytie blocks Rosa, just as the dust blocks Quentin, just as Henry blocks Bon at the gate to Sutpen's Hundred, and, most important, just as Quentin's vision of Sutpen himself appears to block the way into the novel with his pontific upraised palm.

Sutpen's consequent vision is like Quentin's: his monumental innocence resembles that upraised palm. Because the explosive flash of discovery destroys Sutpen's social innocence yet leaves it paradoxically intact, his vision is of an outrageous survival. Like Rosa's sexual innocence, left outrageously intact after Sutpen's indecent proposal, Sutpen's own innocence is a phallic signifier marking the gap out of which it has emerged and to which it denies access, signifying desire and its repression. Sutpen's innocence is a mark of a trauma that has passed by unseen, leaving reverberating, animating echoes in its wake that ripple back and forth between ancestors and descendants. Sutpen's abruption is the cessation of innocence that simultaneously preserves the innocence it destroys and propels him into relentless generation.

The novel's most telling encounter, of course, is the one between Henry and Bon at the gate of Sutpen's Hundred. It is the crux of the told layer, the climax of the "Greek tragedy" of the House of Sutpen, the inevitable outcome of Sutpen's rejection of Eulalia Bon, and the result of Southern culture's hysterical denial of its simultaneously split and yoked identity. And yet, the most telling property of this encounter is the astounding aporia that surrounds it. It is an event without witnesses, a happening that can only be inferred. "I heard an echo," Rosa tells Quentin, "but not the shot":
 No, there had been no shot. That sound was merely the sharp and
 final clap-to of a door between us and all that was, all that might
 have been--a retroactive severance of the stream of event: a
 forever crystallised instant in imponderable time accomplished by
 three weak yet indomitable women which, preceding the accomplished
 fact which we declined, refused, robbed the brother of the prey,
 reft the murderer of a victim for his very bullet. (127)

Henry's encounter with Bon, and his subsequent encounter with Judith; Sutpen's with Wash Jones; Rosa's with the aged Henry at the end of the novel--these are events to which we, as readers, are given no direct access: there is no third-person omniscient narrator to bring us to the scene. They are encounters without witnesses, confrontations that can be inferred only by the trace of their explosive passage through time. The events leave evidence in their wake: a behavior or a character trait, like Sutpen's drive to build the House of Sutpen; Rosa's fierce hermitage; or Henry's disappearance. And bodies: dead bodies (Bon's, Sutpen's), living bodies (Bon's, signifying the union of Sutpen with the planter's daughter, or Clytie's body, or Bon's son's body, or the body of the little daughter begotten by Sutpen on Wash Jones's granddaughter). Often it is a body that materializes as the enigmatic, ambivalent sign of an encounter, the resultant, the remnant, the remainder, that which is left over after the encounter is spent, the tangible remains of an intangible temporal phenomenon. (14) Yet the "body of evidence," because it is severed from its source, can be rendered sensible only through hermeneutic speculation, appropriation, or exploitation. Its severance not only invites interpretation, it demands it: its abruption is the motive for the novel's telling layer.

In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks sees this compulsion to narrate in the absence of access to the novel's telling events as a crisis in narration itself:
 How can narrative know what happened and make sense of the motives
 of events? And if it cannot, what happens to the lines of descent,
 to the transmission of knowledge and wisdom, and to history itself?
 ... If we ever are to be able to define the status of plot in this
 novel, we will first have to discover the motives of storytelling.

The impulse behind ordinary narrative, Brooks says, derives from the same urge to abreact stimulus that Freud describes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a reluctant call to life that produces an insistent, "arabesque squiggle" toward the end. Freud observes in the case of traumatic neuroses that if the memories of the traumatic event can be coaxed into consciousness, they then become susceptible to the ordinary emulsifying functions of the psychic apparatus. Thus, in the Preliminary Communication of 1893, On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena, Freud and Breuer note that the foundational aim and function of psychoanalysis is to assist in that bringing-into-consciousness of traumatic memory. It is this psychoanalytic function, this "talking cure," Brooks suggests, that motivates storytelling in Absalom, Absalom!
 As the psychoanalyst Stanley Leavy has written, perhaps in too
 optimistic a tone, "All desire aims at the future, and this
 especially, because it is a desire for a revelatory knowledge to
 come, often first and naively experienced as the desire for the
 recovery of a buried memory, a lost trauma. To speak at all is to
 express the desire to be recognized and heard, whether the speech
 is in the form of a demand or not." The seemingly universal
 compulsion to narrate the past in Absalom, Absalom!, and to
 transmit its words, may speak both of an unmasterable past and of a
 dynamic narrative present dedicated to an interminable analysis of
 the past. Faulkner's present is a kind of tortured utopia of
 unending narrative dialogue informed by desire for "revelatory
 knowledge." That knowledge never will come, yet that desire never
 will cease to activate the telling voices. (311-12)

Brooks's observation in my view applies only to certain narrators, and perhaps not wholly even to them. For Quentin's father, and for his Harvard roommate Shreve, the desire for revelatory knowledge, the urge to explain, does appear to account for their narration. Shreve, personally detached from the content of the told layer, is motivated primarily by a desire for understanding. Shreve, like Freud the scientist, is interested not in the trauma itself, but in the fact of the trauma. Likewise, Mr. Compson assumes the detached perspective of the scientist, the chemist striving to understand an observed phenomenon. Neither, to some degree, is affected by the story in the told layer. Each professes to be seeking revelatory knowledge, but his primary motive and modus operandi are literary: each uses the associative powers of free-play to come nearer the truth. "[Y]ou wait," says Shreve to Quentin, "Let me play awhile now" (AA 224). It is Shreve, for example, who invents the story of Bon's growing up in New Orleans, complete with a character, the lawyer, fashioned wholly out of his imagination, in order to explain why Bon takes an interest in Henry and Judith in the first place. And it is Shreve who adopts Rosa's epithet for Sutpen (the demon) and uses it repeatedly as a parenthetical mark of appositive punctuation. Mr. Compson also employs invenio as a method for discovering the truth, though like Shreve he allows his own fancy to intrude detrimentally. In trying to imagine the first meeting between Henry and Bon, for example, Mr. Compson proposes several scenarios; they are all frankly hypothetical, and he prefers the one that is most exotic. Mr. Compson has a formula, but it is not the right one; whether from lack of information or excess of fancy, he cannot bring his compound to critical mass. So he experiments: he invents plots to make the plot make sense. For both Mr. Compson and Shreve, attempts at "revelatory knowledge" devolve into creative "readings for the plot."

Mr. Compson and Shreve are detached from the story in ways that the other tellers are not. For those tellers--Rosa, Quentin, Sutpen, Judith, for example--the urge is not revelation, but testimony. For Rosa, telling is a transmission:
 (Or try to tell you, because there are some things for which three
 words are three too many, and three thousand words that many too
 less, and this is one of them. It can be told; I could take that
 many sentences, repeat the bold blank naked and outrageous words
 just as he spoke them, and bequeath you only that same aghast and
 outraged unbelief I knew when I comprehended what he meant; or take
 three thousand sentences and leave you only that Why? Why? and Why?
 that I have asked and listened to for almost fifty years.) (AA

For Rosa, the content of the traumatic event consists in the words Sutpen spoke to her and the examination through which she has tried to dispel their traumatic effect, without effect. Her telling encounter with Quentin is therefore not a revelation, but a testament: she intends to bequeath to Quentin either the superflux of affect she absorbed at the moment of the event's occurrence, or the frustrated accumulation of undischargeable energy engendered by a half-century's worth of fruitless speculation. Yet she confesses to the aporia that is a hallmark of traumatic telling, the urge to convey in words what cannot be captured in words. The event can be told, though it is strictly untellable ("three words are three too many, and three thousand that many too less"); she can repeat to Quentin word for word the insult Sutpen gave her, though she never does. In neither case is comprehension, revelatory knowledge, being handed on.

Rosa herself cannot discharge the energy engendered by the trauma, so she must pass it on to someone else in an effort to dispel it. "Do you want to know the real reason why she chose you?" Mr. Compson asks Quentin. "It's because she will need someone to go with her--a man, a gentleman, yet one still young enough to do what she wants, do it the way she wants it done" (AA 8). Likewise, passing on the content of Bon's final letter (the content that would constitute the material for revelatory knowledge), is not what motivates Judith to give it to Quentin's grandmother. It is the act of passing on that drives her, because it is only through transmission that the event the letter represents can have happened at all. Transmission aims at injecting the event into time, making it possible to remember only because it might be possible to forget. (15)

Such was the foundational aim of psychoanalysis: by making a distressing event available to a consciousness, one renders it susceptible to abreaction and associative dissipation. As Freud observes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the patient's ego, which in the case of ordinary neurosis was responsible for the original repression of material, is likewise responsible for the resistance to its discovery: obeying the pleasure principle, the ego seeks to avoid the unpleasure that would attend such an unveiling. The compulsion to repeat arises from the unconscious, which repeatedly seeks to force the repressed material past the ego's defenses. In a traumatic encounter, however, the introjection of stimulus into the psychic system bypasses the ego and consciousness, installing memory of the event without the event's ever having been experienced:
 On the basis of impressions derived from our psycho-analytic
 experience, we assume that all excitatory processes that occur in
 the other systems leave permanent traces behind them which form the
 foundation of memory. Such memory-traces, then, have nothing to do
 with the fact of becoming conscious; indeed they are often most
 powerful and most enduring when the process which left them behind
 was one which never entered consciousness. (Freud, Beyond 27)

Thus in Absalom, Absalom!, although the aim of telling is transmission of traumatic material with the hope for its retention by consciousness and its eventual dispersal, the telling encounters themselves become traumatic events. Reception of traumatic telling in Absalom, Absalom! is itself traumatic, the inheritance of a traumatic bequest characterized by time compression, dilation, and repetition. The trauma enters memory directly, bypassing conscious reception:
 But you were not listening, because you knew it all already, had
 learned, absorbed it already without the medium of speech somehow
 from having been born and living beside it, with it, as children
 will and do: so that what your father was saying did not tell you
 anything so much as it struck, word by word, the resonant strings
 of remembering.... (AA 172)

Assimilation of the contents of the telling encounter does not result in liberating, revelatory knowledge, nor does repeating it reduce its effect; instead, it subjects it to endless repetition and return:
 Am I going to have to hear it all again he thought I am going to
 have to hear it all over again I am already hearing it all over
 again I am listening to it all over again I shall have to never
 listen to anything else but this again forever so apparently not
 only a man never outlives his father but not even his friends and
 acquaintances do:--(AA 222)

The story is not abreacted for Quentin through telling; instead, he experiences it as an event in endless repetition. Transmission of a traumatic event through telling does not succeed in wearing it down; it merely subjects the traumatic event to an endless series of repetitions that return to the teller with no diminution in force. The experience of traumatic telling is of endless repetition and time dilation; the experience of traumatic reception is of time compression and timelessness. The event is not experienced, perceived as something that happens in time; rather, it is perceived as being out of time, as repetition in no linear, temporal sequence. Because it is not experienced, it is not assimilable by consciousness, and cannot be mastered through construction. Indeed, it is the trauma that constructs consciousness, not the other way around: the tellers are constituted by the story they tell. (16) In Absalom, Absalom!, then, the telling encounters become indistinguishable from the events they tell. The text of Absalom, Absalom! is thus called into being by the trauma it attempts to tell--it is not a novel, or even a narrative, but a testimony, a telling encounter with the untellable that is the trace of its inscrutable meaning.

(1) See Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams; Jacques Lacan, "L'Instance de la lettre dans l'inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud"; and Roman Jakobson.

(2) I discuss the figures of repetition and superfluity in "Outraged Recapitulation and Artful Garrulousness."

(3) For a discusssion of Faulkner's polyglot play on mots, see Candace Waid, 208-49.

(4) I derive the term mnemosis from mneme, the capacity which a living substance or organism possesses for retaining after-effects of experience or stimulation undergone by itself or its progenitors (OED).

(5) See Paul de Man.

(6) There is thus a generational, and perhaps Oedipal, dimension to the struggle of reading Absalom, Absalom! Of the problem of narrative in the novel, Peter Brooks says, in Reading for the Plot, "another way of stating the problem might be to say that in this novel which pre-eminently concerns fathers, sons, generation, and lines of descent, there seems to be no clear authority, not even of a provisional sort, for the telling of the story, and as a result no suggestion of how to achieve mastery of its interpretation" (291-92).

(7) I derive the rhetoric of claiming in relation to psychic trauma from the work of Cathy Caruth; in particular see Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. For a more extensive discussion of my use of trauma theory in the analysis of Absalom, Absalom!, see "Outraged Recapitulation and Artful Garroulousness," op. cit.

(8) Martin Kreiswirth also sees Absalom, Absalom! as an allegory, or model, of reading, while viewing the novel's telling encounters in terms of psychoanalytic transference, although he uses the term transference in its more strictly psychoanalytic sense (109-23).

(9) In another recent examination of parenthesis in Faulkner, Noel Polk and Richard Godden discuss the structure of a parenthetical intrusion in the ledgers of "The Bear"; they call it a "parenthetical intervention."

(10) See Hugh Kenner on the language of knots in The Pound Era. Karen McPherson, in an analysis similar to mine, notes that the notlanguage is "clearly vulnerable to intrusion and occupation by outside voices" (434-35).

(11) I use the term "parenthetical mark" to distinguish the typographical symbol from the rhetorical concept under discussion.

(12) This movement resembles the sign in language of what Julia Kristeva calls the chora. Of this movement, Patrick O'Donnell writes: "The appearance of the chora in language ... comes in the form of a figure of speech that resists articulation in time and space as it moves across language (as rhythm moves through music) and thus acts to disfigure representation" (108-09).

(13) For the function of time in narrative, see Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative, 260ff, as well as Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative.

(14) For representations of the body in Absalom, Absalom!, see O'Donnell, 93-115.

(15) O'Donnell, via Kristeva and de Man, links the compunction to tell in Absalom, Absalom! to a condition like trauma, though he also associates telling with recovery: "Clearly the speakers and hearers of Absalom, Absalom! are compelled to figure forth and pass on a story of identity that evokes while forswearing the 'foundationless' origins of identity in the body. For Kristeva, it is the mother's body that is rejected in the formation of the 'subject-in-process,' because 'she' is the abhorred embodiment of all that precedes self, story, and history in Western culture--lack, formlessness, rupture, utter difference. 'Telling,' in this sense, or the transmissions of voice in the oral transferences of Absalom, Absalom! ... provide a way of re-covering or, through the trope of prosopopoeia, giving voice to the precession" (108-09).

(16) Freud says in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that "consciousness may be, not the most universal attribute of mental processes, but only a particular function of them" (26). And in Tuche and Automaton, Lacan notes that consciousness coalesces around the stimulus that arouses it (53-64).


Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.

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Clifford E. Wulfman

Brown University
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Author:Wulfman, Clifford E.
Publication:The Faulkner Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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