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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Absalom, Absalom–The Sexual Complexity Of Faulkner And Shakespeare, And The Sorry, Failed Sexual Ambitions Of Bill Farley

Maggie the Cat, angry and her drunken husband Brick for his dissolution, depression, and indifference and  destroying the dream she had always had of wealth, position, and respect, says to him, “Born poor, raised poor”, but I  have no intention of dying poor.  Unless Brick shows himself to be a responsible heir, the Pollitt family fortune will go to his brother, Goober.  Maggie is single-minded and determined, and lets nothing stand in the way of her ambition.  She destroys Brick’s friend Skipper, taunting and ridiculing him for his sexual incompetence.  She lies to the family about her pregnancy and her love for Brick, and tries to seduce him out of his entropy and disillusion.

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Bill Farley was also born poor and raised poor and had ambition.  If Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Lyndon Johnson could raise themselves up out of poverty and become President, then so could he. 

There are many ways to get ahead in America, and the honest way is but one – an often time-consuming, tedious affair and one which involves endless apologies, confessions, and promises.  Bill’s father, for example, was a sexual renegade, a Lothario, and a Casanova.  It was women – or rather woman – that he loved, and cared little for their integrity, compassion, or respect for him.  He was as much a roué of the back alley whore houses of the Latin Quarter as he was in his native Philadelphia.  He was a latter-day Charles Bon, son of Thomas Sutpen, powerful, nouveau riche grandee of Sutpen’s Hundred, who introduced his step-brother to the world of octoroons, mixed race black women bred as courtesans and often mother of further mixed race children.  Bon’s octoroon mistress was the mother of his child, and Bon wanted his prudish, Calvinistic step-brother to at least see the nether world of race, sex, and concubinage.

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There is no truth in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, only surmise and doubt; resentment, suspicion, and life-long vendetta. Sutpen’s family – two children by octoroon mistresses, and two legitimate children by a marriage of convenience – becomes tangled in jealousy, revelations, and history.  No one knew where Sutpen bought the 100 wild Negroes, or why he left Virginia, and what was his purpose of clearing 100 square miles of impenetrable swamp and brush for a cotton plantation.   Why his sister-in-law, Rosa, harbors such hate for the man, an anger far more vicious than any slight to her sister by Sutpen might have caused; or any neglect of her niece and nephew.

The sexual affairs of Henry, Judith, and Bon are more complex than Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20 in which the poet admits his love for a young man, but since he can not admit homosexual desire, speaks of the young man’s feminine side, his own feminine side, and the legitimacy of God’s creations interacting with grace.

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

      But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,

      Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

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Charles incestuously loves his sister Judith whom Bon is to marry.  Because Charles loves Bon, he wants to be Judith and be made love to by him.  He also wants to be Bon, and if he were, then love with Judith would then be complete, Lawrentian, and perfect.  Charles kills Bon because he would deny him Judith, because he is jealous of both of them, and because he finds out he, Bon, is a mixed breed.   The triangle is tangled by incest, jealousy, love, and race.

Bill Farley was awed by his father’s appetites.  He wanted to be him, to cruise the lowlife, to abjure any notions of normal sex and sexuality, and to live in a Faulknerian world of dangerous uncertainty; but he had gotten his mother’s genes.  He, like Charles Sutpen who got the Coldfield genes of rectitude, moral abnegation and Calvinist righteousness, was by nature conservative.  He, like Charles, could only watch his father and his step-brother from afar; and he, like Charles, became swamped by the sexual desires he felt, the impossibly twisted ways in which they could be satisfied.  Their frustration – his and Charles’ – turned to violence.  There was no way that Charles could ever make sense out of these powerful, unspoken, urges; and there was no way for Bill to sort his way out of far less complicated and complex relationships.

Lawrence gave no exit for Lady Chatterley or Mellors, her gamekeeper.  They had come together in the perfect sexual union that, according to Lawrence, intimated immortality; but after that there was no place to go, nor further exploration of desire, psyche, or ambition.  It was a false sexual dawn as all existential promises are.  Dostoevsky wrote about Ivan Karamazov’s chastisement of the returned Christ.  Why had he offered the promise of eternal life and salvation and added conditions to it?  By suggesting than man does not live by bread alone, that his spiritual needs are far more essential and pressing than more secular ones, he condemned humanity to a life of penury, misery, and hopelessness; and opened the way for a manipulative, exploitative Church. 

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There were no certainties in religion, sex, or human destiny.  The best one could hope for was to jump blindly into a passionate uncertainty.  Nietzsche said that the only validation of human life is in its expression of pure will – an amoral, temporal, individualistic statement of will, power and worth.  Thomas Sutpen was a Superman, an ubermensch, an over-reacher who had no idea how every action was consequential, and had layers and layers of complexity.  The Sutpen saga could never be completed because there were offspring, and only until and unless there was some resolution about Bon’s son, a third generation mulatto, or by now 1/32 black; or Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson. the Sutpen epic would continue indefinitely.

There can be but few Thomas Sutpens in the world.  Most men are well harnessed and tethered; or fearful of God, retribution, or moral infidelity; or permanently and dutifully married.  They show their moral fiber by such complaisance; but they secretly admire the likes of B.B. King who fathered fifteen children by 15 different women, who had no patience for fidelity; or Bob Marley who had eleven children by an unknown number of sexual partners.  There is no prize for monogamy, no special place in heaven for those who toe the line.

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Bill Farley wanted to be like his father, B.B. King, and Bob Marley.  He wanted to live the incestuous, murderous world of the Mannon family (Mourning Becomes Electra); or the even more murderous and incestuous family of Sophocles’ Elektra; and yet he was as trapped by his genes as the observer in Plato’s cave – all he could see were shadows, and action was beyond him. He made inept sorties as a young man, had sex incidentally with no real purpose – sad, protected, self-serving sex – and drifted along unsatisfactorily without recourse.  If Thomas Sutpen was a Nietzschean Superman, Bill Farley was Everyman, No Man.  The older he got the more he regretted….what? His inability to match his father? To shake off the nagging pull of his genes?  He could never relax in the chaise lounge and think of better days (of which had none) or of the future which was, to a spiritual drifter like him, of no account.

Such is life, he thought at times, but even that nostrum and existential answer was frustrating and unmanning. 

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