Somewhere a Clock is Ticking: The Analysis of the Indistinguishable Past, Present, and Future in Absalom, Absalom!

25 Mar

Somewhere a Clock is Ticking: The Analysis of the Indistinguishable Past, Present, and Future in Absalom, Absalom!

Jessica Cannon

“We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound like Sanskrit or Choctaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable- Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them.”

                                                                   -Faulkner (pg. 80), Absalom, Absalom!


           William Faulkner employs many unique syntactical structures in his novel Absalom, Absalom! that both challenged and inspired the norm of literature and language in the early twentieth century.  What’s fascinating is that his novel still has the same affect on the today’s readers.  It has, and will continue to, withstand the test of time.  Similarly, the story of Sutpen withstands the test of time within the lives’ of the characters in the novel.  Faulkner was very adamant in his work about taking the matters of time into his own hands.  He intertwines time so that the past, present, and future are dependent upon one another.  He focuses on exposing the moral crises behind the downfall of the South through nesting narrations, altering perspectives, and jumping around on a blurry timeline.  He attempts to uncover the motives of the South as he thoroughly describes how the human mind reconstructs the past in terms of the present supposition.

           The quote above successfully encompasses the looming topoi of time that dominated the novel. Faulkner begins the sentence with the pronoun “we”.  His intention was to bring the audience into the story and have them dwell upon their own past so that they could experience Absalom, Absalom! alongside the characters.  “We”, meaning you, me, her, him; we all have stories that we hold on to from the past, stories that have embedded themselves into our present.  Those stories are taken from old trunks, boxes, and drawers.  These spaces are protection for the tales.  They are the safety vaults that preserve the past while paving the way for the future.  These time capsules are bridges that connect the past and the present.  When we “exhume” the tales “from old trunks and boxes and drawers”, we give them a chance to stretch into the contemporary culture.  We expose them to air, allow them to rust and develop a current identity.  We give the past a chance to evolve and adapt to the present.  This is what happens to Quentin and Rosa- what happens to them all.  As the Sutpen story unfolds, it shapes the character’s ethos, changes personalities, and influences action.  The tale enters Quentin’s present through a mouth-to-mouth tale (told by Miss Rosa to Quentin) and is passed on further from Quentin’s father to him, then from Quentin to Shreve.  A chain began that September afternoon in Miss Rosa’s office, one that will never cease.

In this quote, Faulkner points out that it isn’t necessarily the people in the tales that make them worth retelling, but the plot of the tale and it’s relevance to any time, culture or person.  This is why he describes the letters “without salutation or signature”.  The people who once lived part of a present time are now pieces of the past.  They have simply become initials.  The initials and nicknames are compared to Chocktaw and Sanskrit, two unfamiliar languages to those that don’t know them.  The identities of the people represented by the faded letters are metaphorically compared to the languages.  They are unfamiliar and meaningless to those who don’t understand them.  The people are described as “dimly people”, people covered by the past.  The only connections those who uncover the initials have to those represented by the initials are the story that is embodied in the letters.  When looking at the initials, one sees a groggy picture that houses a blurry plot.  That plot is a beginning.  The beginning was once dormant- just a seed.  After time, it grows and a new, present time takes the stage.  The initials fade, remnants of past life, finally giving way to a future.

Faulkner cleverly talks about the past in two terms: mouth-to-mouth tales and letters.  The first is an oral representation that is passed from person to person through means of ever changing, flighty words.  They must pass through the air and have the rhetorical significance to earn a place in a person’s mind, retain it, and exit in an appropriate conversation.  Miss Rosa relays her past in this form, a mouth-to-mouth tale.  She has hope that Quentin will record it since he aspires to go to Harvard for writing.  Miss Rosa needs the Sutpen story to become a record; a mouth-to-mouth tale that becomes a tangible letter.  She wants the entire world to know the reason for the demise of the South- because it was in the hands of demoralized men such as Thomas Sutpen.  The Sutpen story is a mouth-to-mouth tale told many times over.  Each time told it changes with every character’s perspective as they add a piece of themselves to the tale.  There are many perspectives and all shape the story.  The question then becomes: which character has the most ethos and which version should be labeled as truth?

            In chapter one, an older Miss Rosa asks Quentin to meet her so that she may recount her story of Thomas Sutpen.  Quentin simply listens as she paints her perspective.  In chapter two, Quentin confesses a few of his thoughts and feelings, questioning his father about his role in the wrongdoings of the past.  Perspective continues to switch from character to character throughout the book because “…no one individual can look at the truth (Faulkner: Absalom, Absalolm!).”  The fictional truth that struggles to reveal itself as the novel progresses becomes the oxymoron.  Then, the idea of discovering a true version of the Sutpen story becomes impossible because one person’s truth does not align with the others.  Eric Casero reaffirms this idea in his article Designing Sutpen by writing, “Consequently, it becomes impossible for a reader to know precisely what happens in Sutpen’s story or why and how it has attained any significance. This uncertainty can be read as a commentary on or a demonstration of the very process of creating and disseminating narratives.”  The character’s truths are based on experience and each person is biased because of how they see things.  Rosa sees Sutpen as a monster and blames him for ruining her life, and her sister’s.  Ellen viewed him as a husband and didn’t see, or pretended not to, the evil many say was in her husband.  Pieces of past perspectives are passed down from generation to generation with every retelling of the story, providing one of many bridges that allow the past to cross over into the present.  Peter Lurie connects perspective to a very fragile portion of the human mind- consciousness.  He artfully addresses the idea that a character’s conscience constructs a perspective unique to their personality.  That perspective then creates a narration that helps reconstruct pieces of the past into the present reality for all characters within the novel.

Faulkner characterizes the past as a translucent veil.  He builds the present and future beneath the past.  Each new step in time is a new, translucent film that is created just below the previous one.  The past weighs on the present and future events, burying them by the many veils that have accumulated.  From a bird’s eye view, the past layer is atop the many others.  It is just translucent enough to see through to the bottom layer, the layer that represents the present.  Beneath the present layer, one can see the beginnings of a new film forming- the upcoming future.  Faulkner makes the audience look through the past layers to understand the present and future.  As the layers build the story changes, altered by the different textures and colors specific to each veil.  The veils are a collection of memories and events, influenced by time, yet impervious to it. 

           The Sutpen story is encompassed in the characters.  They carry on the tale and create new veils by “…performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence…(Faulkner, 80).”  Their actions become the plot of Absalom, Absalom! and are “…impervious to time and inexplicable- Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them (Faulkner, 80).”  The characters themselves are the stories.  They create it, they tell it, and they leave the record of it.  Absalom, Absalom! makes the Sutpen story, and the characters, impervious to time.  It is a written record, never to be lost.  It will always exist, and will continue to be interpreted and evaluated by scholars as time meanders on.  Both Faulkner and New York Times writer John Jeremiah Sullivan seem to agree that the stories are enclosed in the characters.  He writes, “This is what Quentin is, we start to see, and what southerners are or used to be: walking concatenations of stories, drawn or more often inherited from the chaos of the past…” This directly relates to the quote above from the novel.  Together, the quote from the novel and the New York Times article stress how easily some leave the past behind, but how others obsess over it.  This obsession leads to the retelling of a past story through present events.  The retelling occurs through the characters- “…Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them (Faulkner, 80).”  They tell the story.

           Past, present, and future are not independent of one another.  Faulkner makes them indistinguishable.  The past dominates and incorporates itself into the rest of time.  Faulkner chooses to demonstrate how the past repeats itself.  The past becomes both the present and the future because no one can completely let the past go. Even Einstein said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.”  Through a series of veiled pasts and nested perspectives, Faulkner manages to demonstrate how the human mind imaginatively reconstructs the past in the present.


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