The Parallelism between Faulkner's Narrative Technique
in Absalom, Absalom! and Edmund Husserl's "Free Variation" Theory


The Thematization of Narrative Process and the Reappearance of Narrators

    William Faulkner, though still preserving the plural narrative perspectives of The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying, relinquishes the strict use of interior monologue in Absalom, Absalom! (1936); the effect of this change in narrative structure is what makes the novel significantly different from the preceding books. One of the results is a reappearance of an impersonal, transcendental narrator on the textual surface and a fluid shift of visual foci becomes possible once again. In addition to such a narrator (re-)appearing at the formal level of the narrative, the characters of the novel also enter the stage at the content level as speakers and listeners. What is happening here can be called a "thematization strategy" of narration itself. The method of interior monologue describes a duration of a certain person's consciousness completely from within, without any commentary about what is focused upon from an external point of view; therefore, the existence of a meta-functional (transcendental) narrator is obliterated on the surface level of the text. On the other hand, Absalom's characters always let their own voices verberate toward somebody, who is present and living before them. They are the stories, because not only the tales of the Sutpen family unfold (content level), but also they are told by someone for somebody else (formal level). In this paper, the term "narrative" or "story" will be understood in a broad sense, including basic patterns of linguistic structuring when a human being recognizes the World. An approach according to such a definition raises the question of ideology as an ontological basis in the Althusserian sense1 . Relevant to this point is Philip Weinstein's mention of internalizing "the voices of others" or "ideological becoming"(141-42), which is based on Mikhail Baktin's theory. This kind of argument belongs to a certain critical tendency in which narrative technique is considered in terms of ideology.
    Within an act of narration one transmits a perspective of a phenomenon to anther subject, and the converse is also possible. Through an exchange of several perspectives, the horizon of inter-subjectivity will be opened up. On the other hand, the method of interior monologue is usually employed to describe directly a focal point of a character's psychology without any commentary by an external narrator. These two types of narration are quite different from each other in terms of their possible domains of linguistic research. In this sense the thematic treatment of "history (his +story)" in Absalom can be understood in relation to narrative technique because a real history is written through an inter-subjective process of plural cognitive subjects. By thematizing the narrative act itself, or dramatizing narrator- characters' efforts to grasp the meaning of a historical event in their stories, does not the author try to present an elaborate analysis of the mechanism of human recognition? Once Faulkner himself said that in Absalom he had made the plurality of the truth its central theme, that is, the truth differs according to a person who sees it, interprets it (Gwynn 273). Therefore Absalom has some homogenous elements with the preceding multiple perspective novels at a purely formal level; however, the scope of this novel proceeds further at the level of content or meaning. The main point is the selection or identification of a supposedly true theory among various perspectives about a phenomenon. Apparently this question implies a project, whose purpose is to make an analysis about the process of "attesting the truth." Which one do we pick out as most plausible and true among various interpretations which are presenting a story about a past event? It is the question the author asks, or what he urges us to ask. Depicting a truth-establishing process which appears through an accumulation of narratives, Faulkner shows us our own cognitive condition as history=story. In light of the argument above, I will examine the novel in terms of a Husserlian problematic as follows. How do we convince ourselves of the correspondence of an event which exists as itself with our cognition? How does recognition arrive at the things in themselves? How do the things in themselves intervene in movements of our thought and the logical rules which control our thinking?

1. Narrative Technique in Absalom, Absalom!, Free Variation and Essential-Seeing
     Lynn G. Levins, hypothetically supposing that they have definite individual characteristics, elucidates the features of four narratives told by four narrator-characters. However, as John T. Irwin says, these stories have their own sufficient significance as long as they appear in the consciousness of Quentin Compson, who attends to all of these narratives when they happen. The stories, Miss Rosa's, Mr.Compson's, Shreve's cynical recounting of what Quentin had already informed him, and the two young men's collaborative narrative which proceeds seeking the answers to the successive questions Shreve asks, all pass through Quentin's mind. These stories are told by the narrators to give a coherent explanation to the mystery of Sutpen family's tragedy.
    Husserl's concepts of "free variation" and "essential seeing" are chiefly concerned with the showing of a corporeal object, but they can also be applied to the interpretation of an event. A glance toward a body, can apprehend only one aspect of the body as an image, at one moment. However, at the next moment, because of the movement of the object itself, or the movement of the vantage point of the observer, another aspect of the body can be cognized. The other side, which is invisible at the present time, can be recovered by imagination, for the images of that part were obtained at preceding moments and preserved in memory. 2
    In this case, we understand that even the most simple cognition, e.g. that of a bodily object, comprises a composition of plural images. The narrative acts in Absalom! are more complicated because their purposes are to capture the essence of the tragic drama that was Thomas Sutpen's life. However, there are obvious parallels between Absalom's narration and Husserl's theory. In the "free variation" theory, Husserl emphasizes the function of "fantasie." When we attempt to recognize one object we at first set up some perspective point for interpreting it by imagination. Then, through "free variation," the imagination poses another perspective. The same trial is repeated again and again to reach the state of "essential seeing". "It [the essential seeing] is based on the modification of an experienced or imagined objectivity, turning it into an arbitrary example which, at the same time, receives the character of a guiding "model," a point of departure for the production of an infinitely open multiplicity of variants. It is based, therefore, on a variation. . . . Thus, by an act of volition we produce free variants, each of which, just like the total process of variation itself, occurs in the subjective mode of the "arbitrary"" (Husserl 340-341). Thus, by such imaginative free variation, sometimes, through an inference drawn from the synthesis of the plural perspectives, or, through the discovery of the invariable thing which remains even after the free variation process, we can bring about "essential seeing." However, what we want to emphasize here is Husserl's statement about a qualitative difference between the state of free variation and that of essential seeing. Our imagination hovers around the object which we want to reach in its essence by free variation, therefore essential seeing is possible only by a leap from one state to another. "It then becomes evident that a unity runs through this multiplicity of successive figures, that in such free variations of an original image, e.g., of a thing, an invariant is necessarily retained as the necessary general form, without which an object such as this thing, as an example of its kind, would not be thinkable at all" (341).
    According to Husserl's phenomenological method, such a leap to the invariant among the variations depends on a suspension of the supposition of the being or non-being of the variations, what Husserl calls "bracketing." Without such a suspension of supposition, naive cognition always arrives at what is "supposed" to be seen; it never makes the leap to essential seeing. By thematizing narration itself, Faulkner compels us to make such a leap.
2. The Productive Activity which Consists in Running through the Multiplicity of Variations
The way Beloved and Denver work together in reproducing Sethe's experiences reminds us of the scene in Absalom, Absalom!, in which Quentin and Shreve endeavor to reproduce Sutpen's story.
     The first tale of Absalom, Miss Rosa's narrative, shows a strong emotional involvement toward Thomas Sutpen, who is the very center of her version of the Sutpen story. Joseph W. Reed, emphasizing the fact that Rosa is a participant in the event of which she tells, says she mythologizes the whole event to make it bearable for herself; therefore, her story is the most distant from the truth (162). According to Cleanth Brooks, Rosa does not understand the meaning of what happened. There is no "rhyme or reason" (12) and the murder took place because Thomas Sutpen was a devil, hence he brought about the origin of the curse on his family and caused the final catastrophe. Her strategy is mainly based on such mythic simplification of complicated, actual events.
    If we distinguish between "involvement" and "detachment," following Sonja Basic's "involvement" versus "distancing" distinction (141), Rosa's narrative can be seen as the most involved, while following narrator, Mr. Compson's narrative is supposed as the most detached. In Shreve's and Quentin's collaborative narrative that chronologically follows Mr. Compson's, excessive logic and rationality in his story and his detached attitude are severely criticized. Thus shifts from one narrative to another are demarcated by elements critical of antecedent narratives or narrators. As I will argue later, if we suppose the plural narratives turn into free variations within Quentin's mind, the greater the differences between succeeding narratives are, the more intensive the essential seeing as the last stage of the free variation process is.
    As many critics point out, Compson's narrative is very rational. It tends to avoid transference to its material as much as possible. His narration starts by talking about Miss Rosa, the quality of her narrative, and tries to tell which is genuine or spurious in her interpretation of Thomas Sutpen. The method by which Compson's narrative criticizes the antecedent narrative at first sets up a schema according to an artificial binary opposition. For example the conflict between Henry and Bon is explained as something caused by the meeting of a Puritan country boy and a weary amoralist (Vickery 89). He often generalizes this opposition into that of Anglo-Saxonness and Lateness, but the most important point is that after all he regards such a schema as inadequate for an explanation and gives it up. ". . . like the mask in Greek tragedy interchangeable not only from scene to scene but from actor to actor and behind which the events and occasions took place without chronology or sequence . . . " (49). This is the way he criticizes Miss Rosa's "demonizing" theory, but it is rather Mr. Compson himself who discovers a framework of Greek tragedy within Rosa's mythologizing and employs it for an ulterior motive. Proceeding from the comparison of Rosa with Cassandra, he attempts to structure his story as a means for explaining what actually happened, with an adaptation of a literary form, Greek tragedy. Though the method of methologizing is the main point when he criticizes Rosa, now he himself, actively, but not positively, uses the same tool for constructing his story. This is an expression of his cynical attitude toward life, and represents his will to fictionalize the actual. By the use of the typical characterization and narrative structure of Greek tragedy, what happened to the Sutpen family (which could happen only in a peculiar locality of the South) will be dramatically sublimated and generalized.
    To discard the use of binary opposition occurs parallel to mythologizing, or the schema itself seems to be the one which is set up for only a temporary use to be thrown away later. At any rate, what should be noticed is Mr. Compson's transference to Charles Bon. "He is the curious one to me" (74). He qualifies Bon as "completely enigmatic" (74) and shifts the focus of his interpretation to the relation between Bon and Henry. When he does so, he seems to be endeavoring to found a principle for explanation by projecting his own personality onto the figure of Charles Bon. His statement about Bon, "the calculation, the surgeon's alertness and cold detachment (88)," is apparently similar to his own character and attitude. The course of Compson's narrative is strangely analogous with that of Rosa; for her, the significance of Thomas Sutpen's infamous proposal was far beyond the scope of her understanding, therefore there was no other way except mythologizing Sutpen as a demon. It is a way that leads through an encounter with the unknowable to an inevitable mythologizing. Compson's narrative, which started as a criticism of Rosa's story, converges with the object of its critique. He was trying to construct a consistent explanation according to rational schemas, but he ran into a blank wall suddenly, necessarily. He murmurs "It just does not explain. Or perhaps that's it: they don't explain and we are not supposed to know (88)" and gains the right to create an arbitrary myth, based upon the legend of the Sutpen family as a law material to his story- telling. Northrop Frye points out there are two reductive formulas for explaining tragedy. The one assigns the origin of a tragic process to a hamartia of someone who participates in the process; Rosa's demonizing, in general, corresponds to this theory. The other is that a tragedy demonstrates the omnipotence of fate (209). We can see easily Compson's interpretation of the Sutpen tragedy follows such a direction. In spite of very different feelings and impressions they give to us, Rosa's and Compson's narratives are complementary. However, due to the maximum difference between the degrees of transference which they have with the objects of their narration, their interpretations exhibit a wide range of variation.
3. The Unitary Linking in Continuous Coincidence

    Although he tries again and again to reorganize the materials at his hand, Mr. Compson cannot produce a seemingly valid interpretation. ". . . you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens . . . " (80). At last he supposes it impossible and turns to arbitrary myth-making, but "what matters is that the variation as a process of the formation of variants should itself have a structure of arbitrariness, that the process should be accomplished in the consciousness of an arbitrary development of variants" according to Husserl (342). Self-consciousness about its own arbitrariness and groundlessness also already appears in Rosa's narrative. ". . . so who will dispute me when I say, Why did I not invent, create it?" (118). One function of Rosa's reappearance in chapter 5 could be understood as a self-criticism on her own demonizing theory.
    The dialogue of Quentin and Shreve sets out, already accompanied with such consciousness about the arbitrariness of their own interpretation. However, while Compson's attitude toward Rosa's tale changed, as I stated above, from a dissociation to an assimilation with it, the relation of the two young men's tale to the antecedent narratives moves in a contrary direction, that is, they start the telling by imitating the father's story. Or, more precisely, they begin with the confirmation that they are already imitating the father's tale involuntarily. Quentin's statement "Yes, we are both Father (210)" surely implies his masochistic self-denial concerning the disappointment about their own ineffaceable phallocentrism which is now repressing Rosa's feminine discourse. At the earlier part of their narrative, Quentin expresses his sense of abnegation about the resemblance of Shreve's discourse with his father's, but he discovers even his own discourse resembles his father's. Realizing such a situation in which both Quentin and Shreve are caught, Quentin recognizes an Oedipal yoke; all men, including himself, shall become the father. However at this point we should notice the fact that their narrative comes to show the differentiation with the father's tale after they have recognized that they were identical with the father.
    Preceding narratives are overlapped on Quentin's mind with a critical awareness of his own work. Through this process, commonalties and differences of plural narratives become clear at the same time. Although Quentin's word "Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished (210)" is that which immediately follows another statement of his own "Yes, we are both Father," we can suppose it to be Quentin's severe criticism, offered from within, of his father's discourse which went through agnosticism to mythologizing. For, here the famous "ripple" figure of Quentin's is forming a metaphorical expression of the continuity between past and present, or self and others, thereby becoming an antithesis to Compson's narrative which emphasizes the discontinuity of heroic past and dwarfish present. Here merging with the antecedent narrative and criticizing it make two sides of one coin. A pool of water barely connected with others by narrow streams like an umbilical cord, transmits a ripple which communicates the intensity of the original accident to another pool. This trope can be read as a metaphor for the inter-subjective structure of the World, and the relation of one subjectivity with another within the World. In the world of inter- subjectivity, the ripple is the sign of the original, the significance of which is not diminished by the many iterations of copying itself again and again, but rather remains continuous with the original event. Furthermore, if time is considered as irreversible, it will be natural to think that the reconstruction of the original should be done only by imagination.
    In the second stage of the free variation process, a cognition of the differences among diversities made by the free variation, will be produced. However in concert with this cognition, we can also clearly recognize the identity between them. "It is clear that things cannot enter into conflict which have nothing in common" (Husserl 347). Paradoxically, through the differentiation of the free variation process which produces different stories on arbitrary designs, a cognitive subject is led to the discovery of the essence, the invariable core of these plural stories. "Naturally, the presupposition of this is that the multiplicity as such is present to consciousness as a plurality and never slips completely from our grasp" (343). When multiple variants, that is, these many stories, pass through Quentin's mind one by one with diversities between them still unbroken, the passage to essential seeing is opened. Inspired by Mr. Compson's letter which notified them about Miss Rosa's death, the narrative of Quentin and Shreve started again. Because the letter was creased, most of it stood up from the desk at a strange angle during their dialogue. Indeed, this letter makes a symbol of the inter- textuality in which memories of preceding narratives are preserved. Yet, another important element for preserving diversities of the stories within Quentin's mind is Shreve's role in their dialogue.
    Let me point out the use of the pronoun "he" for an example. Early in their dialogue, whenever Quentin says "he" to refer to Sutpen, Shreve teasingly adds "demon" to Quentin's speech for the purpose of imitating Rosa's speech that makes up an interpretation by demonizing. Thereby he urges Quentin to be aware of preceding stories. When their talk continues on and the empathy between them increases, there is no longer necessity to confirm which one the "he" refers to between them (249). Even in such a use of one pronoun we can clearly see their moving through a conflict to accommodation. Perhaps because Shreve's narrative consists of the information that Quentin gave to him prior to their collaborative retelling of the Sutpen story, Shreve mainly takes up the method of parody, when he repeats the story to his own informant. ". . . instead of widowed Agamemnon to her Cassandra an ancient stiff-jointed Pyramus to her eager though untried Thisbe . . ." (144). Adding more pedantic flavor to it, Shreve wants to compose a parody of Mr. Compson's story, which tries to sublimate the Sutpen story by adopting the framework of archetype narratives.

4.The Active Identification Which Brings Out the Congruent over Against the Differences

     The narrative of Quentin and Shreve starts from imitating antecedent discourses with parodic tones and banters, examining mainly the truth and falsity of Compson's preceding narrative in its details ("And maybe this was one place where your old man is right" (273), "Because your old man was wrong here, too!" (275), goes further for building a more plausible hypothesis. However as we see in Shreve's comments like "Let me play a while now (224)", which can be taken as if he is merely playing a game, this process can be thought of as a free variation by imagination. Here very important imaginative changes are made, for example, it was not Bon but Henry who was wounded on the battlefield (275). This finally enables a leap, which lets them reach essential seeing. Donald Kartiganer examines this in terms of an imaginative identification of the narrators with the narrated. ". . . it does not depend on a closeness to historical fact, but on the vitality of the telling and the passionate involvement of the narrators with their subject and each other . . . " (92). According to this paper's argument, such a view can be supposed as valid only when it is understood as a qualitative change of the relation between the narrated object (phenomenon) and the narrators (cognitive subject) from passive to active. The most important thing is that we understand the two young men's narrative in the context of a mimic differentiation of the preceding stories, and this destruction by imitating the antecedents becomes a deconstruction of the father's story and gains an opportunity to attain the truth, or some aspect of the truth.
    The hypothesis of Bon's black blood which they reach at the very end, has no ground in the actual fact to be supposed as true; therefore, there is no way to judge whether the hypothesis is true or not. Nevertheless it appears with great plausibility that the truth may have been attained. The reason for their presentation of the most plausible theory in their narration is that, being conditioned by the strong empathy between the narrators and the narrated, Quentin, who was inspired by the similarity of the situations under which both of them were confined, projected his emotion upon Henry as narrated, and turned him (Henry) into his own persona, a mouthpiece of the narrator. Tempted by Shreve as a psychoanalyst, through the mask of Henry, Quentin expresses his own conflicts substitutively, that is, Quentin, to examine the greatest fear of Henry Sutpen a Southerner, is urged to confess his own deepest Angst, also as a Southerner, who lives in the twentieth century. It is the fear of miscegenation which threatens the identity of whites (Matsuoka 90-92).
    "This means that it is passively preconstituted as such and that the seeing of the eidos rests in the active intuitive apprehension of what is thus preconstituted?exactly as in every constitution of objectivities of the understanding, and especially of general objectivities" (343). If we paraphrase such a Husserlian discourse by Freudian terms, the essential seeing can be understood as a process of making unconsciously given things conscious. The story of Henry and Bon told by Quentin functions in the same manner as "dream-work" in Freudian psychoanalysis. By using Henry as a persona, Quentin expresses his repressed unconscious emotional conflict in the form of story. Shreve involuntarily plays the role of psychoanalyst and interprets Quentin's version of the Sutpen story as a dream.
    However due to the complete identification with Shreve, Quentin is coerced to reach the self-recognition as the discovery of his own repressed conflict. Hereupon the essential seeing of the phenomenon perfectly coincides with the cognition of the self. If we see this coincidence as a self- recognition, that their version of the story attains authenticity without any factual evidence, then it can be seen to retain a rational foundation. Added to this, also Husserl says that essential seeing is independent of whether it rests on fact or fancy. He says the validity of a general judgement of essence, which he descries in the same way as essential seeing, is not affected by any empirical fact, whether this derives from perception or fancy. A perception posits not only an entity but also an essence, and the content which is posited as what exists is handled in the same way whether it derives from corporeal perception or fancy.
    The method of stream of consciousness deals with the process of perception or recognition as its main theme, and phenomenology, which was the center of the philosophical trend during the twenties and thirties, is understood as an epistemological research of the human cognitive faculty. The conceptual framework of Husserlian transcendental phenomenology offers us several tasks; to clarify the connection between real existence and recognition, and hence, to elucidate the interrelations among action, meaning and object. This methodological framework of Husserl can be a great help when we attempt to examine the significance and function of the narrative structure in Absalom, because the novel, dramatizing the process which is led to the truth (or that which is supposedly true) through the accumulation of interpretive acts, is a questioning the basis of human cognition itself.


1. To indicate the variety of its meaning, Terry Eagleton lists some definitions of "ideology" currently in circulation (Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991. 1-2). If we use the definitions in the list, the Althusserian sense of ideology seems to be summarized as "socially necessary illusion"(i) or "the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure" (o). 
2. However, this recovery cannot be accomplished by memory alone because memory is a passive re-production of the aspect. In order for this aspect to be integrated with subsequent aspects, the work of a productive imagination is required. 


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