18 November 2008

Getting in the spirit

There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan's base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them.

--William Faulkner (from "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses)

Now that's a sentence. It is preceded by one about three times longer. Patrick O'Brian can uncork sentences that go halfway down the page, but he'll drop in a colon and a couple of semicolons along the way. Faulkner's sentence that precedes this one has a construction I've never seen, a semicolon followed by a dash (;--). The dash sets off a clause which ends with another dash, immediately followed by a clause set off by a dash. That's three dashes, one dash starting and ending one of the clauses. Stuff makes my head spin. (There's even a phrase in parentheses just past the third dash!)

This sentence, of course, is about whiskey. Or "whisky" as Faulkner spells it. Ms. Taylor, my high school English teacher (junior year), tried to get us excited about "The Bear." She was a good teacher, smart and earnest, but Faulkner was just too weird. I'm trying again, Ms. Taylor, I really am. Faulkner is some seriously impenetrable stuff. Thirty-plus years later I'm still struggling with it. I guess if I was a mixed-race Southerner who lived on the land my great-great-grandaddy farmed and I hunted a lot I might get it.

But I get the whisky drinking.

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