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Monday, February 6, 2012

Absalom, Absalom–Sutpen the Ubermensch

On my first trip to the Mississippi, looking over the vast, flowing white cotton fields; and after reading Mississippi State history, I was amazed at the story of plantation owners, like Faulkner’s fictional Thomas Sutpen, who came from the East to realize great wealth from the rich bottom land of the Delta.  Many of these planters came from tobacco lands in Virginia and North Carolina which, because of over-farming, had lost their productivity; and others, like Sutpen, made the journey from the mountainous backwoods.  In all cases, they had to clear the land of cypress and thick semi-tropical underbrush; remove stumps, rocks, roots, and the natural detritus of the forests and swamps; clear swamps; and finally till the new land.  It was a herculean task, all done with the sweat of manual labor, usually by slaves that the planters had brought with them from their old plantations. 

I was amazed not only because of the physical labor of clearing virgin land, but the entrepreneurial passion that moved men to undertake long journeys through undeveloped country – through forests, swamps, mountains, land infested with insects, snakes, wild animals, alligators, and disease, and vulnerable to Indians and bandits.  These men could have stayed in Virginia – and many of them did – but they chose to risk the journey, and the malaria, dengue, and yellow fever of their promised land. This was early America (Sutpen moved to Mississippi in 1833) – an America still wondering at the vast new lands opened by the Louisiana Purchase only twenty years earlier, touched by Manifest Destiny, and with the desire and indomitability of the earliest settlers.  What moved these new Southern planters is what still moves America – the desire for wealth, more wealth, and still more wealth.  The development of the Delta is just a microcosm of America and the rapid, inexorable move West.  Less than 150 years passed until the last of the continental United States territories were incorporated as states.

Absalom, Absalom is Faulkner’s finest book.  It is an operatic story of power, incest, murder, jealousy, and hatred – the rise and fall of a Southern family; but it is also a chronicle of Southern history, a story of class, race, and family within the context of the Civil War; and a lyrical narrative told by many tellers.  The language of the book is some of the finest in English.  Here is the very first paragraph of Chapter 1, perhaps one of the very best openings of any novel:

From a little after two o’clock 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 old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window 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 no 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 bold 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.

In this one paragraph, Faulkner creates the atmosphere of the novel, introduces future events (dead sister, father, a husband who might not have been); and introduces the bitter, angry, and frustrated character of Miss Coldfield who dominates the book (in a sense, she is the main character of the book and not Sutpen). 

The rest of the book continues in the same lyrical, expressive way, telling the story of Thomas Sutpen principally through the words, reminiscences, and speculations of Miss Coldfield, Quentin Compson, Quentin’s father and grandfather.  The life of the main characters – Sutpen and his many children, their wives, mistresses and children; their interwoven stories – is created through these narratives.  Like Browning and others before him, Faulkner tells one story through many different observers.  “There are thirteen ways to see a blackbird”, said Faulkner once, quoting Wallace Stevens, referring to the impossibility of arriving at one truth, one true story, one factual event.

I have always preferred the Nietzschian supermen of Elizabethan theatre who are ‘beyond good and evil’.  Tamburlaine (Marlowe) and Richard III (Shakespeare) are men whose ambitions are pursued for purely personal gain, without regard to morality.  Perhaps this is because villains are so much more fun – we prefer to watch Richard or Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Edmund, Goneril and Regan, or Iago in their is evil pursuits than the more temperate (and less powerful) Richard II or Henry VI – but there is something else as well. Society by its very survival-first nature is conservative and intolerant of the outliers, those who challenge received wisdom, and in particular those who reject conventional morality.  The marauding hordes of the historical Tamburlaine and especially his countryman, Genghis Khan,  are well-known.  Tens of millions of people were slaughtered in his absolute, pure, and complete path of dominance and extension of empire as Genghis Khan swept out of the steps to the east and west.  Nietzsche does not advocate for the literal unfettering of the immoral man, but that Supermen with their pure will, indomitability, and single-minded pursuit of power, and expression are necessary and admirable.

Nietzsche calls for exceptional people to no longer be ashamed of their uniqueness in the face of a supposed morality-for-all, which Nietzsche deems to be harmful to the flourishing of exceptional people. However, Nietzsche cautions that morality, per se, is not bad; it is good for the masses, and should be left to them. Exceptional people, on the other hand, should follow their own "inner law." A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: "Become what you are." (Wikipedia)

Nietzsche had an influence on a number of writers – G.B.Shaw, Jack London, and James Joyce – and although there is little scholarship on the matter, I believe that he may have had an influence on Faulkner as well, at least in Absalom, Absalom. Or, perhaps more possibly that Faulkner simply thought like Nietzsche in creating Thomas Sutpen.

Sutpen has what he calls ‘my design’, a plan to become the wealthiest, most powerful landowner in Mississippi if not beyond.  He comes to Mississippi out of the West Virginia hills by way of plantation experience in Haiti and buys ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’ – 100 square miles of land bought from the Indians and worked by his wild (Haitian) slaves, overseen by an indentured French architect, and created out of his vision and realized through the force of his will, all very Nietzschean.  As part of his design, he knew he had to take a wife who would give him the respectability, if not Southern noble name, which would lend legitimacy to his enterprise.  He understood the way of the South with its strict social codes, differences between whites and blacks, and among blacks and whites themselves.  He felt that marrying Ellen Coldfield would provide the remaining piece to the design.  Little did he know that his life would be dramatically caught up in the politics of class and race.  As each unforeseen and tragic consequence of his first ‘mistake’ – having a mixed-race child by an octoroon mistress/wife in Haiti – occurred, he did not waver, but pursued his design and his dream of wealth, acceptance, and respectability.

Sutpen was a heroic figure.  He resisted an armed slave insurrection in Haiti, saving the plantation owner and his family; and he fought with distinction in the Civil War.  From this perspective – his worthy pursuit of land, respectability, and power – was within the framework of traditional morality; but his obsession with his own succession and the complicating factor of race were outside it and the reasons for his ultimate failure.  He was indifferent to his wife, daughter, and son; dismissive to his dead wife’s sister Rosa (Miss Coldfield), suggesting that they see if she can produce a son, then they would marry; manipulative of his white sharecropper tenant; and abusive and egomaniacally dismissive of his newborn daughter, born of the granddaughter of the sharecropper. 

In other words, his Nietzschean will to succeed carried him through the simpler phases of the plan.  It was relatively easy to dominate the plantation society of Haiti, through the sheer force of will create Sutpen’s Hundred, build the house, and work the land; but will was not enough to dominate his son, Henry; his first-born, mixed-blood Charles Bon, Bon’s mother, Rosa Coldfield, his mixed-race daughter Clytie, or the sharecropper who in an act of rage and outrage and social frustration, finally kills him.

There was no doubt that he could do anything.  Even the tenant farmer, who admires Sutpen before the outrage, acknowledges that anything he, Sutpen, touches, turns out the way he wants it.  However, his will becomes twisted and obsessive.  His hauling of family gravestones across half the country is a sign of perverted obsessive design if not madness and is emblematic and symptomatic of the destruction of the man:

It seemed to Quentin that he could actually see them: the ragged and starving troops without shoes, the gaunt powder-blackened faces looking backward over tattered shoulders, the glaring eyes in which burned some indomitable desperation of undefeat watching that dark interdict ocean across which a grim lightless solitary ship fled with in its hold two thousand pounds –space containing not bullets, not even something to eat, but that much bombastic and inert carven rock which for the next year was to be part of the regiment, to follow it into Pennsylvania and be present at Gettysburg, moving behind the regiment in a wagon driven by the demon’s [Sutpen’s] body servant through swamp and plain and mountain pass, the regiment moving no faster than the wagon could, with starved gaunt men and gaunt spent horses knee deep in icy mud or snow, sweating and cursing it through bog and morass like a piece of artillery, speaking of the two stones as ‘Colonel’ and ‘Mrs. Colonel’….

Thomas Sutpen, like all the super-villains mentioned above, is destroyed by his own delusions.  ‘My horse, my horse! My kingdom for a horse’ shows how Richard, despite his pure will, has misunderstood the practicality and reality of survival.  Macbeth is destroyed because his belief in his innate and bestowed power is far beyond reality.  Iago and Edmund are found out.  The bloody Titus is such a blood-thirsty tyrant that he cannot possibly survive.

To me, Sutpen is not only a Nietzschean figure to be admired for the power of his will and the very American nature of his vision, but he is the most tragic figure of all.  He tries his best to negotiate the tangled web of race and class and to maintain the clarity of his vision, but he is doomed from the start.

This was ultimately Faulkner’s vision – the winning of the South was heroic, but had the seeds of its own destruction within it from the very beginning.

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