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Through Rosa's looking-glass: narcissism and identification in Faulkner's 'Absalom, Absalom!' (Special Issue: William Faulkner)

The last section of Absalom, Absalom!(1) provides the novel with a dramatized but psychologically suitable conclusion. Mirroring Sutpen's sudden appearance in town, his mansion abruptly vanishes from the Yoknapatawpha landscape. Beyond Sutpen's Hundred's unquestionable symbolic value, the actors of the denouement reveal at this point their most hidden ambitions, for they are at last seen in action. Paradoxically enough in this male-dominated story, women then play the leading parts. Not only is Clytie the final agent of the holocaust, but Rosa Coldfield, convinced that "there was somebody hidden in it" (p. 221), conducts a decisive raid on Sutpen's Hundred, which eventually leads the Sutpen story to its conclusion.

That after almost fifty years she couldn't reconcile herself to letting him lie dead in peace. That even after fifty years she not only could get up and go out there to finish up what she found she hadn't quite completed, but she could find someone to go with her and bust into that locked house because instinct or something told her it was not finished yet. (p. 451)

Whereas Quentin's presence has been largely commented, Miss Rosa's motivations may remain unclear. It has been argued that she was willing to take her revenge on the man who once offered to marry her under unacceptable conditions. The sordid, displeasing proposition of her brother-in-law - Sutpen was only looking for a male heir, not a wife - has unquestionably nourished Rosa's desire to wreak vengeance upon him, even post mortem. Presumably, the raid should have been directed against all of Sutpen's last representatives, yet Henry alone seems to have been the actual target of Rosa's wrath. In this paper, I try to demonstrate that she was prompted by a single psychic combination which made her assimilate the father and the son in her avenging thirst.

Rosa had good reasons to hate the murderer of Charles Bon, the man she vicariously considered her fiance. However, it is hard to believe that her incredibly secret love story with her niece's suitor involved a man whom she actually never met: "I had never seen him (I never saw him. I never even saw him dead. I heard a name, I saw a photograph, I helped to make a grave: and that was all)" (p. 181). As a matter of fact, the photograph and the grave are not the only meeting points of Rosa and Charles Bon:

he had been in my house once, that first New Year's Day when Henry brought him from nephew duty to speak to me on their way back to school and I was not at home. . . . it was as though that casual pause at my door had left some seed, some minute virulence in this cellar earth of mine. (p. 181)

The seed image suggests that Miss Rosa was fancying her love for Bon in terms of pregnancy, though not as the logical result of some natural intimacy, but rather as the unexpected consequence of a missed rendezvous, as though her sterile body made her mind swell with phantasies to make up for the missing lover. Charles Bon, who "as a man ... did not exist at all" (p. 128), who spent but a few days in Sutpen's Hundred and only reappeared to get killed, was, thanks to his absence, the ideal object of love for Rosa who felt vulnerable at the sole idea of any physical contact.

Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both: - touch and touch of that which is the citadel of the central I-Am's private own: not spirit, soul. (p. 173)

Under the touch of somebody else's skin Rosa experienced a "shock which was not yet outrage because it would be terror soon" (p. 173). Her hysterical anguish when she is confronted with a real body accounts for her inexplicable attachment for a man who was "a myth, a phantom" (p. 128) and whose existence is only referred to in terms of vacuum or absence, for in Rosa's immature mind, Bon existed only through

the nooky seat which held invisible imprint of his absent thighs just as the obliterating sand, the million finger-nerves of frond a leaf the very sun and moony constellations which had looked down at him, the circumambient air, held somewhere yet his foot, his passing shape, his face, his speaking voice, his name. (p. 184)

How could she have learned about love at all, as she was raised by a rigid puritan father and a cold embittered aunt? For Rosa had never had a true mother, nor any acceptable substitute, the aunt being just "that strong vindictive consistent woman who seems to have been twice the man that Mr Coldfield was and who in very truth was not only Miss Rosa's mother but her father too" (p. 75) and who taught Miss Rosa "to look upon her sister as a woman who had vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too" (p. 75).

So it seems that Rosa's life had always been organized around missing objects of love: the mother she would never know, the father who nailed himself in his attic, the aunt who eventually ran away, but also her older sister retired in Sutpen's Hundred. It is little wonder then that she would eventually fell in love with somebody whose very nature was absence. Nevertheless, she was loath to admit it openly:

I did not love him (How could I have, when I had never seen him?) And even if I did, not as women love, as Judith loved him, or as we thought she did. If it was love (and I still say, How could it be?) it was the way that mothers love. (p. 182)

In her phantasm, Rosa joined the mother and the daughter in a single desire fed with more maternal craving than amorous ambition. Indeed, Bon was nothing but an image cultivated in Rosa's troubled mind.

[There was] a picture casual and framed upon a littered dressing table --- [but] even before I saw the photograph I could have recognized, nay, described the very face. (p. 183)

Rosa knew perfectly that this image was only a creation of her imagination: "who will dispute me when I say, Why did I not invent, create it?" (p. 183). Then she unveiled an interesting section of her phantasmal life:

if I were God I would invent out of this seething turmoil we call progress something (a machine perhaps) which would adorn the barren mirror altars of every plain girl who breathes with such as this - which is so little since we want so little - this pictured face. (p. 183)

Now the face in the mirror became blurred, and was replaced by a vague profile that "would not even need a skull behind it; almost anonymous it would only need vague inference of some walking flesh and blood desired by someone else even if only in some shadow-realm of make-believe" (p. 183). This is convincing evidence that Rosa's love was not really directed to Bon but basically to herself, to her own image reflected in the mirror. At this point, narcissism is presented as a fundamental universal principle.

I who had learned nothing of love, not even parent's love - that fond dear constant violation of privacy, that stultification of the burgeoning and incorrigible I which is the meed and due of all mammalian meat, became not mistress, not beloved, but more than even love; I became all polymath love's androgynous advocate. (p. 182)

The lack of differentiation between the ego and the other reveals itself after Bon's death, when Judith, Rosa and Clytie are living under the same roof at Sutpen's Hundred: "It was as though we were one being, interchangeable and indiscriminate" (p. 194). Clearly enough Rosa had never been able to become emotionally adult.

[Il turned twenty true enough yet still a child, still living in that womb-like corridor where the world came not even as living echo but as dead incomprehensible shadow, where with the quiet and unalarmed amazement of a child I watched the miragy antics of men and women - my father, my sister, Thomas Sutpen, Judith, Henry, Charles Bon - called honor, principle, marriage, love, bereavement, death. (p. 202)

A short analysis may clarify that archaic psychic position: the word "miragy" evokes the mirages of her desire but also Miss Rosa's reflected face in the mirror, hence Charles Bon's picture. The word "antic" describes some meaningless agitation re-emerged from the past - "antic" calling up "antique." The word "antic" is also connected with Rosa's unbearable bizarre childhood which she tried desperately to elude through identification.

the child who watching him was not a child but one of that triumvirate mother-woman which we three Judith, Clytie, and I, made, which fed and clothed and warmed the static shell and so gave vent and scope to the fierce vain illusion and so said, |At last my life is worth something, even though it only shields and guards the antic fury of an insane child.' (p. 202)

Rosa's identification with Judith is undoubtedly a desperate attempt to escape mental disorders. As for the two series previously set forth by Rosa, they are unquestionably linked to each other: when she associates "father," "sister" and "Thomas Sutpen" respectively with "honor," "principle" and "marriage," she is saying in her own words that her sister's marriage was just a matter of respectability. By enumerating the names of Judith, Henry and Bon, she conjures up the dismal triptych of her desire - love, loss, death - which happens to be the very formula of the novel, if we are to believe the author himself.

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. (p. 124)

Indeed, when Rosa enumerated the persons who haunted her childhood, it appears that she never mentioned her mother who "died in that childbed" (p. 70). Now this could be the unnamed missing element mentioned by the author, "the incomprehensible shadow" (p. 202) hovering not only over Rosa's youth but also above Thomas Sutpen's who never knew his mother either. This establishes an unexpected parallel between them as both were deprived of identical essential emotional components.

Miss Rosa's final expedition to Sutpen's Hundred reveals through many details the unconscious drives reactivated by the situation. For instance, her bearing reveals strong emotions: "[She was] leaning forward as if by leaning forward she would arrive the sooner, arrive immediately after the horse" (p. 452). Faulkner wrote here more than a metaphor of impatience. Few episodes in the novel convey the idea of such a high speed, though it can also be found significantly in one of Rosa's childhood memories staging the dramatic arrival of the Sutpen family:

a glimpse like the forefront of a tornado, of the carriage and Ellen's high white face within it and the two replicas of his face in miniature flanking her, and on the front seat the face and teeth of the wild negro who was driving, and he, his face exactly like the negro's save for the teeth (this because of his beard, doubtless) - all in a thunder and a fury of wild-eyed horses and of galloping and of dust. (p. 24)

That is clearly no reliable account of reality: the recollection is probably inspired by an event which actually occurred in Rosa's past, but her description contains more emotional vigor than accurate, realistic details. Moreover, her appraisal of the scene could not be produced by a three-year-old child and the reminiscence has no doubt been reshaped by a more mature mind. This "vision of [her] first sight of them which [she] shall carry to [her] grave" (p. 24) can indisputably be analyzed like a screen-memory.

The word "dust," often associated in the novel with galloping horses, is an evident symbol of the past, like in the following passage:

The dustcloud in which the buggy moved [was] not blowing away because it had been raised by no wind and was supported by no air but evoked, materialised about them, instantaneous and eternal, cubic foot for cubic foot of dust to cubic foot for cubic foot of horse and buggy, peripatetic beneath the branch-shredded vistas of flat black fiercely and heavily starred sky, the dustcloud moving on, enclosing them with no threat exactly but maybe warning, bland, almost friendly, warning as if to say, Come on if you like. But I will get there first. (p. 220)

The dust curls around the buggy are also emblematic of the torments of the characters in the novel, whether alive or dead. As for little Rosa, she was "waked early for the occasion, dressed and curled as if for Christmas, for an occasion more serious than Christmas even, since now and at last this ogre or djinn had agreed for the sake of his wife and children to come to church" (p. 23). Though he is the central figure of Rosa's memory, Sutpen is never depicted directly; Rosa merely underscores the resemblance of "his face exactly like the negro's" (p. 24). Then this unexpected double of Sutpen is in turn ironically connected with another fascinating creature, "looking exactly like a performing tiger" (p. 24), just as Sutpen himself was explicitly compared with some wild beast when he wrestled with his black half-savage slaves:

Ellen [saw] not the two black beasts she had expected to see but instead a white one and a black one, both naked to the waist and gouging at one another's eyes as if their skins should not only have been the same color but should have been covered with fur too. (p. 31)

The animal part in Thomas Sutpen contributes largely to his seductiveness not only within his family circle but for the reader as well. Sutpen speaks little but he is all mouth and teeth, like a wild animal. Psychoanalysis provides here a timely explanation: Sutpen's charm "lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey" (emphasis added).(2)

One can conclude then that Rosa had been seduced by her brother-in-law the very first time she saw him, probably because his narcissistic attitude was mirroring her own. Moreover, Rosa's ineffable love for Sutpen followed the same rules as her imaginary love affair with Bon,(3) for he also was always absent, as if it were an inevitable necessity: "Not absent from the place, the arbitrary square of earth which he had named Sutpen's Hundred: not that at all. He was absent only from the room, and that because he had to be elsewhere" (p. 200). Even when she was a child, "the aunt would have arranged the visit to coincide with his absence; and probably Miss Rosa would have tried to avoid meeting him even if he had been there" (pp. 74-75). No wonder that under crucial circumstances Sutpen became the too obvious aim of Rosa's phantasms, for his omnipotent position(4) sustained the ideal reflection of her own narcissism. Some details of Rosa's life confirm her early identification with Sutpen. Like him, she had developed a queer relationship with money:

Miss Rosa actually could not count money, change, ... she knew the progression of coins in theory but ... apparently she had never had the actual cash to see, touch, experiment and prove with; that on certain days of the week she would go down town with a basket and shop at certain stores which Mr Coldfield had already designated, with no coin nor sum of money changing lip or hand, and that later in the day Mr Coldfield would trace her course by the debits scratched on paper or on walls and counters, and pay them). (p. 93)

Thomas Sutpen met a somewhat similar situation a few years before when "he was arrested for stealing" and "someway ... persuaded Mr Coldfield to use his credit" (p. 323).(5) Moreover, Rosa's male identification is here beyond question: "I lived out not as a woman, a girl, but rather as the man which I perhaps should have been" (p. 179).

Rosa kept on denying her femininity throughout the story, her male psychic leanings culminating in the last episode when she "struck Clytie to the floor with a full-armed blow like a man would have" (p. 460). Her identification with her sister's husband also comes to light during her stay at Sutpen's Hundred with Clytie and Judith. Feeling as if there were "one being" (p. 194) Rosa reveals that she unconsciously considered that she also bore the distinctive traits of the Sutpen's children, making her features indistinguishable from Clytie's "Sutpen coffee-colored face" (P. 169) and Judith's "face which was at once both more and less than Sutpen" (p. 174). The mixture of both her identification and her basic narcissism also reveals itself in the funeral stone which Sutpen hung in the hall of his house, and "where Miss Coldfield possibly (maybe doubtless) looked at it every day as though it were his portrait" (p. 238), thus reactivating the mirror/picture effect she had already experienced with Charles Bon's portrait.

This analysis clarifies her offended refusal to bear Sutpen's child, which would have meant the end of the identification process and above all would have endangered her narcissistic mental structure.(6) Clearly enough, Rosa was unable to escape "that warped and spartan solitude which [she] called [her] childhood" (p. 174). Moreover, by accepting Sutpen's proposition, she would have had to abandon not only this "strong egoism [which] is a protection against falling ill" (Freud, p. 78) but also the perfect image she identified with, for Sutpen would no longer appear like the omnipotent figure he had embodied so far, but necessarily like somebody incomplete thus castrated. This twofold renouncement was a price the fragile Rosa, who had only survived by clinging vicariously to somebody else's life, could not afford. As a consequence, Sutpen's confession that he wanted another son radically discredited him in her eyes. She felt rightly betrayed, but not so much because he showed so little respect for her, but because he was unable to embody any longer the ideal character she needed to support her fragile personality, and her vexation ranked probably far behind the narcissistic wound inflicted by his fall.

One must conclude now that Rosa's basic narcissism led her to refuse both the loss of her imaginary lover and the fall of her ideal psychic model. By persecuting Henry she eventually took revenge both on the one who deprived her of an idealized lover and indirectly on the man who once ruined the ideal image she felt identified with. The burning of Sutpen's Hundred becomes then the epitome of Rosa's desire for vengeance, the emblem of her heart still consuming with narcissistic frustration and sorrow.

Eudora Welty Collection Added to Ward M. Canaday Center,

University of Toledo

Dr. William U. McDonald, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Toledo, donated his Eudora Welty collection to the Ward M. Canaday Center in July 1992. McDonald, a noted Welty scholar, began teaching at Auburn University in 1955 and became Professor of English at the University of Toledo in 1966. His research and publications treat Eudora Welty and Southern literature, bibliography and the teaching of college composition. Also, he edits the Eudora Welty Newsletter.

The William U. McDonald, Jr. Eudora Welty Collection is an extensive one which documents the evolution of Welty's texts and the revisions she has made to her works over the years. It consists of approximately 523 printed items by Welty and includes first editions/first printings (with multiple copies of first printings of 10 major works); three published collections of her photographs; limited editions; later printings; dust jacket notes written by Welty; and the first periodical publication of most of her fiction and essays. Also in the collection are 10 letters from Welty, 30 items of memorabilia, 173 printed items of scholarship and criticism about the author and a scrapbook of newpaper clippings. Professor McDonald maintained his own catalog of the collection and he has made this finding aid available to the Canaday Center, also.

(1) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936; New York: Vintage Books, 1987). (2) Sigmund Freud, "On Narcissism: an Introduction," in On Metapsychology, The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 83. (3) Cleanth Brooks underscored the similarities between Bon and his father: "Bon is a mirror image, a reversed shadow of the father. . . . Like his father, he stands beyond good and evil." (The Yoknapatawpha Country [New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1976], p. 302). Their dark aloofness irresistibly attracted Miss Rosa's narcissism. (4) Given the occasion and this man can and will do anything" (p. 53). (5) Rosa was actually suspected of having stolen some cloth from her father's store to make garments for Judith's trousseau, not unlike Sutpen who was believed to have stolen the money he built his house with. (6) Freud saw an opportunity for a narcissistic woman to abandon her libidinal organization through the child she may bear: "A part of [her] own body confronts [the child] like an extraneous object, to which, starting out from narcissism, [she] can give complete object love" (p. 83).
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Author:Geoffroy, Alain
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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