- On Lamentation and the Redistribution of Possessions: Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and the New South
Lamentation is both a kind of language and a kind of time—a ritual language that claims a privileged relation to a singular, catastrophic moment. Like the fall of Jerusalem or the destruction of Troy—paradigmatic moments of lamentation in the West—lamentation is a moment when a social order has fallen, when structures of meaning have been shattered, when phenomena no longer fit into language, and when the world, radically remade, has become new, primeval, incomprehensible. And like the Biblical “Lamentations of Jeremiah” which memorialize the fall of Jerusalem or the Euripidean laments of Hecuba that mourn the destruction of Troy, the language of lamentation, faced with the impossible task of responding to the inexpressible and incomprehensible, is, accordingly, a tentative, fragmented, indagatory language that even at its most literal is inevitably fantastic for the literal has become unbelievable. 1 [End Page 730]
“Massive trauma precludes its registration,” writes Dori Laub in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History; “the observing and recording mechanisms of the human mind are temporarily knocked out” (Felman and Laub 57). Thus catastrophe must be speculatively and belatedly (re)constructed, for knowledge of catastrophe like that recorded by the lamentation is “not simply a factual given that is reproduced and replicated by the testifier, but a genuine advent, an event in its own right” (62). This is to say that the moment and the language of lamentation are ultimately indistinguishable, for the catastrophic moment that conditions the language of lamentation also overwhelms and thwarts that language; and the language of lamentation thus overwhelmed cannot simply record catastrophe but must also speculatively construct it. Thus the moment of lamentation is simultaneously phenomenal and rhetorical—recorded and produced by the language of lamentation; and the language of lamentation is simultaneously representational and performative—both a record and the creation of the moment of lamentation.
It is from the tradition of lamentation, albeit from a more personal lament—of David for his son Absalom—that Faulkner draws his title for the novel Absalom, Absalom!:
O my son Absalom,
my son, my son Absalom!
would God I had died for thee,
O Absalom, my son, my son!(2 Samuel 18:33, KJV) 2
While Faulkner’s title invokes a narrative that resonates in the novel’s father-son relationships, it also functions to place the novel in the tradition of lamentation. And such a placement seems apt enough for, as readers of Absalom have often remarked, the novel’s plot is comprised of a relentless torrent of losses: the Old South, the Civil War, the Sutpen estate, the majority of the novel’s characters, honor, pride, youth, and dreams are all ultimately lost, while the novel’s main character falls from an Edenic origin, loses his “innocence,” and subsequently embodies the Lost Cause. Meanwhile, narrators write elegies, allude obsessively to Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, render houses “mausoleums” and dorm rooms “tomblike.” The thematic losses and mortuary allusions of Absalom, as well as the epistemological losses of its narrative structure, have occasionally led critics to speak of Absalom, [End Page 731] justifiably if merely colloquially, in terms of lamentation. 3 Yet I wish to speak of lamentation in more specific terms—not merely as an expression of grief, but as a literary mode—and to read the appearances of that mode in Absalom. I wish, further, to focus on both a more specific aspect of the moment of lamentation and a more specific device of the language of lamentation.
The moment of lamentation is characterized not only by cognitive upheaval but also by the transfer of property, the redistribution of possessions, and the remapping of territorial boundaries. These transfers and redistributions include the redistribution of value, knowledge, and identity, as well as of material or “real” property. And the language of lamentation is not only characterized by the tentative and fragmented but also by a proliferation of privatives which rhetorically (re)enact dispossession. 4 Moreover, the phenomenal redistributions of the moment of lamentation and the rhetorical dispossessions of the language of lamentation follow that logic in which moment and...