The Problem with Being There: The Distorting Effect of Personal Experience in Absalom, Absalom

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Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 4354|Pages: 10|22 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Absalom displays two narrators standing at opposite poles in their understanding of time. The first, Rosa Coldfield, narrates to a patiently listening Quentin Compson what one might call the life and times of Thomas Sutpen. This rather faulty description of her act, though, immediately suggests something that is missing from her notion of Sutpen, namely a life and times. She takes Sutpen out of time and treats him as immortal, alternately considering him to be a god and a demon. Quentin, the second narrator, has an opposed sense of time: a near philosophically complete understanding of time in the sense expounded by Henri Bergson. This understanding comes through the cultural process of osmosis, through which full understanding is inherited. While Rosa’s problem might appear as an isolated insensitivity to this heritage, Faulkner delicately traces Rosa’s problem, not to Rosa, but instead to her relationship with the story she is telling, her involvement in it. In this tracing, we see Rosa’s problem not as an isolated one, but as a crisis of understanding at the very heart of Faulkner’s own struggles in writing.

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The monologues of Rosa Coldfield to which Quentin is listening have one thing at their center: Thomas Sutpen. At the core of her understanding is her belief in his immortality. When she learned of his death she denied it: “‘Dead’ I cried. Dead? You? You lie; you’re not dead, heaven cannot, and hell dare not, have you/”. This denial of Sutpen’s end is complemented by a denial of his beginning when recalling the first time she saw Sutpen: “he first rode into town out of no discernible past” . In these first and last moments, Rosa states her belief in Sutpen that came from nowhere and is going nowhere. In her mind, he is not a creation moving from beginning to end, instead, he is perpetually suspended somewhere in between, outside of time. When he goes off to war, she simply “stayed there and waited for Thomas Sutpen to come home,” with never a doubt in her mind that he would survive in even the bloodiest of wars.

This view is not present only in Rosa’s recollection of the macro-structure of Sutpen’s life, but also in the microstructure. When describing her memory of his marriage proposal to her, she says, “he had never once thought about what he asked me to do until the moment he asked it” . Just as in his life as a whole, in his actions, she sees no cause, no beginning, no thought, only pure action. As these actions came from nowhere, they “left no ripple to save those instantaneous and incredible tears” . His actions seem to be a single point of energy with no density, and no matter and no existence outside of their pure energy. Even the words that he says are “not to be spoken and heard but to be read carved in the bland stone” . Spoken sentences assume a progression of individual words, one coming after another, and thus a progression of time. Rosa rejects this and instead understands his words as occurring all at once, in an inscription. The lack of dialogue spreads to Rosa’s entire monologue. While she occasionally remembers something that she said or that was said directly to her, her story is primarily bereft of any dialogue. The denial of Sutpen’s existence between moments extends to her entire story. She sees time as a series of points, not a progression or succession.

If the essence of time is, as Henri Bergson defined it, two things: “points,” but “in addition, the obscure and mysterious passage from one position to the next” , then Rosa has clearly stripped her story of the second as the passage from one position to the next. It is this succession from one to the next that creates the thing Bergson posits as essential to all beings in time: duration. In stripping her characters of duration, she becomes one of the two degenerate types of historians that Nietzsche talks about: the antiquarian. She “mummifies” her past by varnishing each past moment like a piece of furniture and then set it aside to deny its existence in a larger set of moments, as you would deny a piece of furniture a place in a room. In doing this Nietzsche says one “envelops himself in an odour of decay” . Perhaps this is just what Quentin detects when he smells a “dim coffin-smelling gloom”  in the room where he sits listening to Rosa’s story. In the mummification and the stripping of both Sutpen and her entire past of any flux, she strips the past of its temporality.

The problem of her temporality is compounded by the small number of moments that she sees in the past; if she provides the reader snapshots, she provides very few snapshots. She sees each set of time as composed of only a few isolated moments. Recounting the three months immediately after Sutpen returned home, she says, “And then one afternoon in January Thomas Sutpen came home; someone looked up where we were preparing the garden for another year’s food and saw him riding up the drive. And then one evening I became engaged to marry him” . She reduces this three months to two single moments. Her reduction of time is even more apparent on a large scale. As the reader might believe from Rosa’s story, her life was but a few moments: the moment of Bon’s death, the moments of handing food to her father in the attic, the moment where Thomas Sutpen proposed to her, and a few others.

Nothing else in her life is revealed except these moments. Thus she is also like the other of Nietzsche’s two degenerate historians, the monumental historian. As Nietzsche describes, “very great portions of the past are forgotten and despised, and flow away . . . and only single embellished facts stand out as islands” . In antiquating and monumentalizing her past, she does a similar thing to her past that Gail Hightower does to his in Light in August. Thinking of the past, Hightower says “the world hangs in a green suspension in color and texture like light through colored glass” . He sees the past as a still life, more specifically, in both the description of the material as glasslike and green, it seems possible that this is a reference to Keats’ green Grecian Urn. Whether it is or isn’t, the urn is a good objective correlative for what Rosa has done with time. By picking a few monumental moments out of her past and depriving these moments of any movement she makes of her past something like a freeze on an urn.

Quentin is patient during Rosa’s monologue but towards the end, the narrator reveals that Quentin “was not listening.” He was not listening because there was “something which he could not pass” . He needs to go back and recollect something, and from the first moments of recollection, he shows himself to be interested in all about the life and times of Thomas Sutpen that Rosa was not, namely the time and his existence as a living, breathing creature. In a phrase, he was interested in re-temporalizing the story that Rosa told him. Just moments after Rosa’s voice had trailed off into the warm Mississippi night, he draws into the story one primary element that had been missing from Rosa’s hours of monologue: dialogue. He imagines the dialogue between Henry and Judith just after Henry had killed Judith’s lover, Bon:

Now you can’t marry him. Why can’t I marry him? Because he’s dead. Dead? Yes. I killed him.  By assuming this past as a medium in which one word could follow another, Quentin assumes a temporal succession in a way immediately foreign to Rosa’s creation. But the description that immediately precedes this Quentin’s re-creation of Judith’s running to the door upon hearing the shot that killed Bon already revealed Quentin’s interest in temporal succession. Littering his description with signifiers of temporal flux, he tells of Judith “pausing, looking at the door,” “then caught swiftly up by the white girl and held before her as the door crashed in and the brother stood there hatless . . . the pistol still hanging against his flank.” Words like, pausing, swiftly, and still all fundamentally suggest an understanding of time conscious of its quality as a succession of moments, each passing into one another. All of this: “He (Quentin) couldn’t pass that.”

Quentin re-conceptualizes this climactic moment as having all that Rosa never saw in her own past and then extends this to the whole of Sutpen’s story. At the beginning of his own story, he still refers to Sutpen as a demon: “Jones squatted against a post, rising from time to time to pour for the demon from the demijohn” (183). But in the very moment that he refers to the demon, he also refers to the demon as existing in a situation in which moments followed one upon another flowing time is suggested in the phrase “from time to time.” Quentin deepens the awareness of this flux by fixing Rosa’s notion of Sutpen’s actions coming out of nowhere. In each of Sutpen’s action, Quentin imagines the uncertainty of Sutpen before acting. Considering the moment in Sutpen’s childhood where Sutpen was rejected entrance into the big plantation house, Quentin imagines Sutpen arguing with himself: “But I can shoot him: he argued with himself and the other: No. That wouldn’t do no good: and the first: What shall we do then and the other: I don’t know” . The extent to which Sutpen’s decisions come from timely deliberation is nearly exaggerated in this one passage, but the display of each decision underscores the way each moment arises out of the one before. In this false internal argument, he also sees a child who is aware of the consequences of his action, where Rosa saw his actions as somehow preordained. The causal, straightforward movement apparent in Sutpen’s life is a testament to the re-temporalization that Quentin has completed. Rosa’s description ignored that second aspect of Bergson’s definition of time, but Quentin grasps what Bergson called the “ the obscure and mysterious passage from one position to the next.” Quentin sees the time of Sutpen as “a succession of states, each of which announces that which follows and contains that which precedes it” .

At that moment where he imagines the child Sutpen arguing with himself, there is another assumption missing from Rosa’s telling, and another element that serves to place Sutpen in a temporal continuum: a young Sutpen. Quentin sees a definite beginning to Sutpen’s life: “he was born in West Virginia in the mountains” (220). And he also narrates Sutpen’s death. The larger structure of Sutpen’s life gains a sense of continuity that is not only present in Quentin’s story, but also in character ’s within Quentin’s story. Sutpen realizes within this story that “he still knew he had courage, and though he may have come to doubt lately that he had acquired that shrewdness which at one time he believed he had, he still believed that it existed somewhere in the world to be learned and that if it could be learned he would learn it yet”. Quentin does not merely imagine a man existing in time, he also presents a man who is aware of his existence in time. This awareness underscores the interiority of Quentin’s view of Sutpen. In order to understand the duration of another thing, Bergson says you must “enter into it.” Duration is the absolute of the being it is the core and to understand this about another person implies that you understand its “states of mind;” that you are in touch with that own being’s subjectivity. In order to do this, Bergson says, “I insert myself in them by an effort of imagination” . But this act, and the absolute understanding that comes with it can only be given by what Bergson says is the highest act of understanding: intuition. As the constant use of the word “imagination” suggests, along with the interiority of Quentin’s view, Quentin has this intuition of the absolute with his characters.

The origin of the distinction between the narration of Rosa and Quentin is elucidated by Faulkner’s distinction between the terms memory and knowing in Light in August. The dense and tangled description begins: “memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects”. Memory precedes knowledge, or things that can be recollected we can temporarily assume that it is inherited rather than learned experientially. As the entire story of Thomas Sutpen occurred before Quentin was born, his understanding clearly comes to him from something innate.

Shreve tells Quentin “you knew it all already, had learned, absorbed it already without the medium of speech somehow from having been born and living beside it” (212). Without the medium of speech, the clearest stand-in for experiential knowledge at this moment, Quentin still understands. In this very same passage Faulkner draws an incredibly subtle but obvious connection between Quentin’s mode of understanding and the definition of memory just mentioned: Shreve continues on, saying that all Rosa and his father had told Quentin “did not tell you anything so much as it struck, word by word, the resonant strings of remembering” (my emphasis 213). Remembering, in its more traditional sense, would not make sense here because it would imply that Quentin actually had experienced something. By assuming memory to be something that comes before knowledge, as Light in August directs us, this moment suddenly makes sense. Quentin’s possession of memory brings with it something vital in his recreation of Sutpen. In contrast to knowing, which recollects information, memory brings with it belief. Belief implies subjectivity, and while Quentin is able to imagine more about Sutpen’s subjectivity than just his beliefs, the word “belief” suggests the subjective conjuring powers of memory. In its ability to let one individual inside another, memory thus seems close to Bergson’s intuition or rather it seems that memory provides intuition.

What Rosa works from is knowing, the recollection of events in her own life. “Knowing” is giving a more clear, contextual definition a moment after the already mentioned definition when it is said that the young Joe Christmas, “knew that. He had been doing this for almost a year” . Knowing comes from his personal experiences, just like Rosa’s knowledge in Absalom, Absalom. Rosa says that her story comes from “sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory”. In another apparent reference to the Light in August definition, we learn that there is no such thing as memory in Rosa’s story because she is overwhelmed by experiential data from the past. Rosa’s knowledge leads her to mythologize the story, while Quentin’s knowledge allows him to fictively create Sutpen’s life. As Frank Kermode tells us “myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change”. This stillness of Rosa’s story in contrast to the change in Quentin’s is just what we found in the Bergsonian distinction between the two narrators.

But why does Rosa not also have access to the absolute she also was born and raised in this climate? Is it Quentin’s Harvard education that differentiates him? Upon consideration of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury (Quentin (SF) from here on) the difference in narration methods seems not tied to the individual, but instead to the individuals' relation to the story, he or she is telling. While Quentin (SF) is not consciously telling a story as Quentin (AA) is, he is still trying to make sense of his past, so much so that Jean-Paul Sartre says, he appears to be a “man sitting in an open care and looking backward ” . But in looking backward, he falls into extreme temporal confusion. He remembers a series of moments disconnected from any temporal grounding. One moment is his mother proclaiming, “We have sold Benjy’s pasture so that Quentin may go to Harvard a brother to you. Your little brother” . He returns to this moment a number of times, elsewhere recollecting his mother saying “On what on your school money the money they sold the pasture for so you could go to Harvard” . In both of these memories there is a syntactic sense of suspension in which the remembrances of the past have neither start nor finish. In one long page of remembered dialogue he remembers: Get out of that water are you crazy But she didn’t move her face was a white blur framed out of the blur of the sand by her hair Get out now .

Faulkner leaves out the capitalization and punctuation to underscore the lack of boundaries for each statement in Quentin’s mind. In addition to not having clear beginnings and ends, there are very few recollected moments. In the entire Quentin monologue, he obsesses over a select set of events; as Sartre noted, “around a few central themes (Caddy’s pregnancy, Benjy’s castration, Quentin’s suicide) gravitate innumerable silent masses” (268). From this short description, it should be clear that Quentin, even with his Harvard education, has sunk down to the same understanding of the past that Rosa holds in Absalom, Absalom. Now Rosa brings slightly more coherence to her understanding of the past than Quentin (SF) does, but this seems a result of Rosa’s conscious effort to tell a story in Absalom, Absalom. Both share essential characteristics in their recounting of the past. Both understand time as a series of points isolated from any temporal succession from past to future.

What can account for the difference between the two Quentins and the similarity between Quentin (SF) and Rosa? Quite simply both Rosa and Quentin (SF) are working from recollections of their own experience, in contrast to Quentin (AA). They are working from knowledge as opposed to memory, and as that definition giving earlier reveals, memory provides the subjectivity of a time past, while knowing is only information. But why do Quentin (SF) and Rosa not also have this memory they too were born into the South? The lower level of understanding that Quentin (SF) brings to his own understanding of the past seems due to the corrupting influence of personal involvement in his own story. In that moment already discussed, where Rosa refers to the source of her knowledge, she says all the “sense, sight, smell,” all the experiential involvement, “its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false” (143). As a tentative hypothesis, we might say that personal experience, rather than being the only doorway into understanding, actually obscures the understanding of other times and other people.

What Faulkner seems to be putting forward here is an extended version of Marcel Proust’s hypothesis in A Remembrance of Things Past. In this novel, the narrator comes up against a constant problem when confronting a physical object in the present: “they appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take but which despite all my efforts I never managed to discover . . . I would stand there motionless, looking, breathing, endeavouring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt” .

The narrator realizes that there is something in the intensity of present-ness that never allows you beyond your perceptions. Getting beyond perceptions is the way to the Bergsonian absolute because, “that which constitutes a thing’s essence, cannot be perceived from without” . In Proust’s idea, the physical involvement not only does not help you reach the absolute, it actually hurts your effort. The narrator’s solution and the one that Proust followed in his own life was to lock himself in a corked room, away from the sensory world. But Faulkner seems to take this theory further in suggesting that not only does physical involvement obfuscate the essence of something while in the presence of something, it also obscures your vision of it in recollection. In thinking about his own past. Quentin (SF) agrees with his father in saying; “only when the clock stops does time come to life” . The forward progression of time seems to great a burden to allow the processing of personal experiences, and only by taking something out of its temporal context the context that provides its essence can one even begin to come to terms with it. The same is not true for Quentin when dealing with the past in Absalom, Absalom.

Faulkner seems to put his finger on what Dorrit Cohn says is “the altered relationship between the narrator and his protagonist when that protagonist is his own past self.” This alteration causes a “profound change in narrative climate” . The nature of this change is found in the shift from Quentin (SF) and Quentin (AA). The latter Quentin’s possession of a Bergsonian temporality leads to the opportunity for morality in his story where a non-Bergsonian temporality virtually excludes morality. With the succession of moments comes the opportunity for one moment to affect the next, comes causality. Intricately tied to causality is the notion of consequence, or “something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition.” Finally when one recognizes the multiple possibilities for action in situation when one stops seeing action as preordained judgement and morality is possible. This comes out more forcefully in Quentin’s differentiation between his and Rosa’s view of Sutpen. In Quentin’s story, Sutpen’s death is met by the same thing it was met by in Rosa’s story: “He’s dead. I know he is dead and how can he, how can he be?” But Quentin quickly says that this phrase was “not meaning what Aunt Rosa meant: where did they find or invent a bullet that could kill him but How can he be allowed to die without having to admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it” . Rosa denies Sutpen’s death because of a belief in Sutpen’s immortality. In contrast, Quentin denies him death because of his belief in morality, and the punishment for derelict behavior.

It would appear that Faulkner came upon the problem of personal involvement not only in his characters, but also in his own writing. In between the writing of the two separate Quentins, Faulkner wrote Light in August, a book in which, “Faulkner’s surging narrative dislocations of time have received more attention than any other aspect of the novel” (Sundquist 77). Eric Sundquist sees this novel, about the mulatto Joe Christmas, as possessing a more “distorted shape” than any other Faulkner novels. Sundquist’s central argument is that these temporal dislocations and distorted shape are a result of Faulkner’s own interaction with the questions at hand in the novel. The tragedy of the mulatto was “the only tragedy he could thoroughly imagine,” or perhaps we could better say, thoroughly know. He knew this problem because “Faulkner was born in 1897 and virtually grew up with the resurgence of Jim Crow” . The essential problem of the mulatto was the contradiction and “simultaneous rhythms of repulsion and union, of hatred and embrace” . Faulkner’s involvement in this problem is clear from Irving Howe’s quote that the “mulatto” excites in Faulkner, “a pity so extreme as often to break past the limits of speech” (quoted in Sundquist, 76). This hysteria meant that in the novel Faulkner, Sundquist says, seems to “surrender to something beyond his control”. This surrender of control and its results the novel’s shape and temporal dislocations both mark the problems that Faulkner threw into contrast in Absalom, Absalom with Rosa and Quentin.

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In the meta-fictive aspect of Absalom, Absalom Faulkner puts on display the crisis he came upon while writing Light in August, while also turning back to a more ordered, controlled form. In both of these aspects of Absalom, Absalom Faulkner seems to be recognizing and exposing the crisis of understanding he came upon in his own writing. In his speech upon winning the Nobel Prize Faulkner discussed the problem of a seemingly random universe, in which people’s thoughts are determined by the question of “when will I be blown up” by a completely unpredictable nuclear bomb. By 1950, when he presented this speech, he thought that it is “the poet’s, the writer’s duty” to write not about such a universe, but instead about the moral universe in which “compassion, sacrifice and endurance” are central; qualities only possible in a moral universe. In the transition from his earlier novels, like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying where there are only personally involved narrators to narrators like Quentin, we see the fermentation of these beliefs in Faulkner’s own writing.

Works Cited

  1. Bergson, Henri. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Macmillan, 1903.
  2. Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1978.
  3. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: The Modern Library, 1964.
  4. Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
  5. Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism. Ed. David Minter. New York: Norton, 1994.
  6. Faulkner, William. “Speech of Acceptance upon the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Dec. 10, 1950.
  7. Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2000.
  8. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. 1874. Trans. Peter Preuss. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. 7-22.
  9. Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  10. Sartre, Jean-Paul. “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner.” 1939. In The Sound and the Fury:An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism. Ed. David Minter. New York: Norton, 1994, 265-271.
  11. Sundquist, Eric J. “The Strange Career of Joe Christmas.” Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. 63-95.
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The Problem With Being There: The Distorting Effect of Personal Experience in Absalom, Absalom. (2018, Jun 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from
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