Telling Questions in 'Absalom, Absalom!'


  • David Kelly


If one of the more welcome effects of the theoretical revolution in literary and cultural studies over the past three decades has been an increased recognition of the availability of all cultural forms for a kind of textual inquiry or a textual understanding, one of the less welcome effects has been a reflexive, largely unthinking devaluation of the aesthetic or literary text itself. This has reached the point lately where not only one's over-enthusiastic students but also scholars who should know better are willing to claim that the theoretical text has, or should, supplant the literary text as the main object of our critical and, I suppose, cultural attention. In this polemical context I wish to offer a reading of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, a text which could be considered valuable in a literary sense for any number of reasons, but especially so in this case because, first, it is an excellent example of that kind of Modernist text that resists an ordered, realist reading, and therefore invites - and perhaps even initiates - a shift in critical apprehension of the kind that has come to be associated with a more theoretical textual understanding; and second, because at a crucial level this text is concerned with dramatizing an endless but passionate effort of interpretation, and this, it seems to me, illuminates in some respects the character of contemporary critical reflection, which come both to rely upon and yet profoundly distrust the most sophisticated forms of interpretative analysis. That is, a fundamental ambivalence seems to mark the conduct and the conclusions of contemporary textual inquiry, and that ambivalence, or an aspect of it, seems to have been taken up by Absalom, Absalom! and made the subject of its textual inquiry. Here, then, is a literary text deeply concerned with questioning he motivations, the limits, and the legitimacy of interpretation lbsorbing questions, surely, for contemporary criticism. And further, here is a literary text that is equally concerned with the dilemma of representation, a dilemma which arises from this questioning, and which is dramatically figured here in the confusion of tongues that comprises this puzzling, reiterative, and ultimately contradictory narrative.