Recursion in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
“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 defeat watching that dark interdict ocean across which a grim lightless solitary ship fled with in its hold two thousand precious 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 a 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 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’; then through the Cumberland Gap and down through the Tennessee mountains, traveling at night to dodge Yankee patrols, and into Mississippi in the late fall of ’64, where the daughter waited whose marriage he had interdict and who was to be a widow the next summer though apparently not bereaved, where his wife was dead and his son self-excommunicated and –banished, and put one of the stones over his wife’s grave and set the other upright in the hall of the house, where Miss Coldfield possibly (maybe doubtless) looked at it every day as though it were his portrait, possibly (maybe doubtless here too) reading among the lettering more of maiden hope and virgin expectation than she ever told Quentin about, since she never mentioned the stone to him at all, and (the demon) drank the parched corn coffee and at the hoe cake which Judith and Clytie prepared for him and kissed Judith on the forehead and said, ‘Well, Clytie’ and returned to the war, all in twenty-four hours; he could see it; he might even have been there.” (189-190)
Recursion is often used to describe a process of repeating objects (images, words, ideas, etc) in a self-similar manner. Linguist Noam Chomsky posits that the extension of the English language is unlimited because of recursion. The above sentence demonstrates this property of recursion. Faulkner uses embedded clause after embedded clause after sentential complement (my count comes to twenty-eight distinct clauses) to construct this monstrosity of a sentence, spanning two pages in my edition. The sentence occupies, however, far more than two pages of print. It occupies two distinct periods of time and numerous space locations. We begin with Quentin at Harvard in 1910 but we are immediately tossed back to 1864, location indeterminate, positioned amongst miserable Confederate troops. The sentence carries us on a tour of the war torn South, through hill and bog and over ice and snow. We return with Sutpen (and the two headstones) to Yoknapatawpha County to visit with Judith and Clytie before abruptly returning to Harvard and Quentin’s fantasy.
Labyrinthine sentence structure is not the only example of Faulkner’s use of this linguistic property. Recursion pervades this novel. (Even the title is self-referential!) His intentional repetition, perhaps for emphasis, is to be noted. In the above-quoted section he repeats the parenthetical phrase “(maybe doubtless)” twice, in one form or another. This is a technique that he often repeats. Take for example Henry’s struggle to accept Charles Bon’s morality: “I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe!” (111).
Particularly notable is the final, and uncharacteristically brief, paragraph of the novel. This paragraph is so conventionally structured that, after nearly four-hundred pages of recursive sentences, it seems almost terse: “I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I don’t hate it,” he said. I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” (378).The repetition of the phrase simultaneously reinforces the sentiment and calls it’s honesty into question. Faulkner impresses upon us that this idea belongs to Quentin by using ‘Quentin said’ and ‘he said’ and finally ‘he thought’.
The plot of the novel is likewise recursive. Sutpen's appearance in Jefferson as a dark, mysterious man is self-referenced later by the introduction of Charles Bon (likewise, a swarthy man lacking history). As the plot develops we discover that Charles Bon is more than simply a mirror of Thomas Sutpen, he is actually his progeny. The intended marriage of Charles Bon and Sutpen's daughter Judith would result in a perverse ouroboros, a recursion of the Sutpen gene. The incestuous program is terminated, however, when Sutpen's son Henry intervenes and murders Charles Bon.
The novel is presented through the voice of five narrators: Rosa (pages 7-30; 134-173), Mr. Compson (43-134), Quentin (174-292; 358-378), Shreve (293-345) and an omniscient author (31-43; 346-358). These narrators continually rehash the narrative, adding details or contradicting prior notions. Though no single narrator is particularly reliable their combined narratives present a cohesive story.
The details of Sutpen's history are presented by Faulkner (and his narrators) without regard for chronology in a dramatically non-linear manner. Viewpoints may shift drastically and with little warning. The only clue Faulkner provides for this shift may be italics, a parenthesis, quotation marks (double or single), a dash or some combination of these things. These indicators often have a tendency to spiral inward. One finds quotes within quotes and parentheses within parentheses and is left to guess what effect these signals may have on narrative voice, time and space. Largely, we find that these marks are faithful indicators of the narrative shift. Interior monologues situated in the present are italicized whereas thoughts from the past are set in single quotation marks. Directly quoted speech is presented traditionally within double quotation marks.
I believe that Faulkner's presentation of the narrative in a circular manner, without regard for chronology and without structuring it as integrated units, establishes Absalom, Absalom! as an experiment in time and space. There is not a distinct beginning or end to this novel, we must simply submit to the endless circling inward of the author.