Violent in His Pacifism


from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

[Referring to Ellen and Rosa's Father, Sutpen's father-in-law] He had closed his store permanently and was at home all day now. He and Miss Rosa lived in the back of the house, with the front door locked and the front shutters closed and fastened, and where, so the neighbors said, he spent the day behind one of the slightly opened blinds like a picquet on post, armed not with a musket but with the big family bible in which his and his sister's birth and his marriage and Ellen's birth and marriage and the birth of his two grandchildren and of Miss Rosa, and his wife's death (but not the marriage of the aunt; it was Miss Rosa who entered that, along with Ellen's death, on the day when she entered Mr. Coldfield's own and Charles Bon's and eve Sutpen's) had been duly entered in his neat clerk's hand, until a detachment of troops would pass: whereupon he would open the bible and declaim in a harsh voice even above the sound of the tramping feet, the passages of the old violent vindictive mysticism which he had already marked as the actual picquet would have ranged his row of cartridges along the window sill. Then one morning he learned that his store had been broken into and looted, doubtless by a company of strange troops bivouacked on the edge of town and doubtless abetted, if only vocally, by his own fellow citizens. That night he mounted to the attic with his hammer and his handful of nails and nailed the door behind him and threw the hammer out the window. He was not a coward. He was a man of uncompromising moral strength, coming into a new country with a small stock o goods and supporting five people out of it in comfort and security at least. He did it by close trading, to be sure: he could not have done it save by close trading or dishonesty; and as your grandfather said, a man who, in a country such a Mississippi was then, would restrict dishonesty to the selling of straw hates and hame strings and salt meat would have been already locked up by his own family as a kleptomaniac. But he was not a coward, even though his conscience may have objected, as your grandfather said, no so much to the idea of pouring out human blood and life, but at the idea of waste: of wearing out and eating up and shooting away material in any cause whatever.

What spoke to me here is the idea of extremism. Any view held in extremis as it were, results in the same end--the person holding it nails himself away in his own attic, there to starve to death. As with Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner deals in grotesques--people who have become so distorted through the choices they've made and the circumstances of the time that they stand out. The grotesques of Winesburg, Ohio ( a lovely little burg if one every has the chance to wander through--though not to be found on the banks of the Ohio as implied in several of the stories) differ from Faulkner's groteques only in the way the North differs from the South (and I'll leave that to the gentle reader to determine).

What is more interesting in this passage--spoken by Quentin Compson's father to Quentin, is the way that it subtly alters information given earlier in the narrative when we are asked to see Mr. Coldfield in a light not quite so flattering--there was something a little suspicious in Mr. Coldfield's initial dealings with Mr. Sutpen. Something sufficiently suspicious that Mr. Coldfield found himself going out of his way to make it up.

The strength of this narrative is its characters. The prose is often tortured, self-interrupting, convoluted, involved. And as with the prose of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is worth a reader's time to take a moment, sit with it and let it unravel so that the literal meaning becomes clear, because underneath that literal meaning there are any number of levels of implication, recrimination, and rock solid understanding of the things that drive people to do what they do. Faulkner is not an author for the young. A young reader of Faulkner often carries away nothing more than the sense of the grotesque and absurd, none of the humor and deep humanity that marks Faulkner's work.

Once again, put aside that romance, those mysteries, that latest science fiction novel, a take up a Faulkner, a James (particularly at this season--"The Turn of the Screw" or "The Altar of the Dead"--and liven up an already rich literary life with a seasoning of the long-tried classics. It's more difficult work than much of what I read, but it is infinitely more rewarding than the vast majority of it as well.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 14, 2007 7:30 AM.

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