Outcast from Life’s Feast

Epiphanies False and True in James Joyce’s “A Painful Case”

James Joyce peoples the universe of Dubliners with tattered lives, rendering the moment when the characters realize they are irreparably broken. These moments are epiphanic, but the epiphany, rather than showing the characters their potential, shows them their limitations, and the delusions under which they are doomed to live. Epiphany does not free these characters from the bleak paralysis in their souls. The stories in this slim book move from childhood through the sexual initiations of adolescence to meditations on aging and dying, but each concerns a character confronting himself and finding himself and his belief system lacking, even injurious. A strong exemplar of this pattern is “A Painful Case,” a story about a middle-aged bank clerk, Mr. Duffy, whose staid, “adventureless” life, in his own estimation, suits him (Joyce 71), until the possibility of love comes his way. When he repulses it, the ensuing tragedy sets him face to face with his botched life. The tragedy of his epiphany is threefold: first, the realization comes at the cost of his love interest’s life, and his only opportunity for potential escape; second, Mr. Duffy’s dawning awareness of his faults makes him also aware of his culpability; and finally, his epiphany stops short of where traditional literary epiphanies lead us—for Mr. Duffy, there will be no redemption. His paralysis allows access to knowledge and voice, but not to change.

Most of Joyce’s stories give us some dramatic irony, and this one is no exception. Mr. Duffy has so little self-awareness, that we must understand him through his environment. Unlike Mr. Duffy himself, we see the paucity of his life as exemplified by where he lives: he occupies “an old somber house and from his windows he could look into [a] disused distillery” (Joyce 70). In Dubliners, the buildings are often more eloquent about the souls of their occupants and neighbors than the people are, who, until their grim moment of realization, are as blind and mute as the empty building’s windows. Mr. Duffy’s soul is like that unused distillery, full of the intellectual potential for generation and fruitful production, but shut down for reasons of self-protection, a victim of Dublin’s “paralysis.” As Michael West and William Hendricks note in “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce’s Irony in ‘A Painful Case,’” “The austerity of [Mr. Duffy’s] room is not merely economical but satisfies his aesthetic soul” (707), and, further, the arrangement of his books, which are “arranged from below upwards according to bulk” (Joyce 70) suggests an intellectual poser rather than a true intellectual, proposing that “Duffy is more interested in [the books'] appearance than their contents” (West and Hendricks 707). Moreover, Joyce says of his anti-hero, Mr. Duffy “had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed” (70-71). Mr. Duffy’s “saturnine” exterior does all the talking for him, and though he fancies himself a writer and intellectual, the rotten apples on his desk tell us that he rarely sits at it (Joyce 70).

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Mr. Duffy finds a voice eventually. When he meets Mrs. Emily Sinico at the opera, a woman whose husband “had dismissed [her] so sincerely from the gallery of his pleasures that he did not suspect anyone else would take an interest in her” (Joyce 72), he begins to emerge from layers of insulating armor. The two talk, and “He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all” (Joyce 72). In a Romantic tale, this—or perhaps a relationship less narcissistic and one-sided than this—would be the recipe for love. But this is a starkly Modernist tale, and the love must contend with Mr. Duffy’s repression, moral rectitude, and obsession with appearances, defense mechanisms he comes to loathe by the end of the story, after it is all too late. Such defense mechanisms, he comes to see, are results of cowardice, not goodness. In “Isolation as Motif in ‘A Painful Case,’” J. Mitchell Morse remarks that Mr. Duffy “dooms himself to sterility and a woman to death through presumption and pusillanimity” (186), and this fight between sterility—which surrounds Mr. Duffy’s life and neighborhood like a miasma—and fertility, as exemplified by plant imagery once he meets Mrs. Sinico, becomes a fight to the death. Death, of course, wins, for both characters, and this—the fact that both have suffered as a result of this cowardice—is the story’s true “painful case.”

The relationship between Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico begins auspiciously enough. They take walks, meet frequently in her parlor with the permission of her absent husband, and the language Joyce employs undergoes incremental changes. “Little by little” says Joyce, Duffy “entangled his thoughts with hers” (72). The images of empty, angular, man-made sterility as exemplified by the disused distillery give way to images of natural growth, “entanglement,” eventually even lushness. Mr. Duffy comes to regard his friendship with Mrs. Sinico as “like a warm soil about an exotic,” and it “emotionalized his mental life” (Joyce 73). As their talks move from the intellectual to the personal, following a familiar trajectory of a burgeoning, scholarly, middle-aged love, we feel hope for the healthy growth of this “exotic,” narcissistic as he might be, for even Mr. Duffy is a preferable companion for Mrs. Sinico than a husband who has no interest in her. But when Mrs. Sinico violates the terms of the friendship by making it physical, pressing Mr. Duffy’s hand against her cheek (a gesture that merely borders on sexual passion), his reaction is cold—and terrified. He spurns her, and Joyce’s language once again takes a turn, this time with religious overtones: he calls their union a “ruined confessional” (73). Mr. Duffy cuts off all contact with her. It takes four years—and Emily Sinico’s death—for him to realize his mistake. She is hit by a streetcar as she crosses the street, drunk, for after their break-up she developed a habit. In keeping with the religious overtones, Mr. Duffy is primed to receive his epiphany.

For the first time, he begins to question his beliefs and behavior. This is new to a man such as Mr. Duffy, who lives, out of fear, a life free of self-examination. Sitting in the bar, Mr. Duffy’s thoughts undergo an almost religious transformation from judgement to empathy. The reader cannot help but note their significance. For one, these are his thoughts. He doesn’t need buildings and rooms to speak for him any longer. He first thinks of Mrs. Sinico as “unfit to live… one of the wrecks upon which civilization is reared” (Joyce 76). He is embarrassed of her and ashamed of himself for spending any time with her.  But after a few drinks in a bar he experiences an increasing disquiet with his own fictions, and begins to feel “ill at ease.” Finally, he thinks, “Now that she was gone, he understood how lonely her life must have been” (Joyce 76). The apotheosis of his epiphany occurs as Mr. Duffy is walking home through the park:

He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying. Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair. He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast (Joyce 77).

Life’s feast: his lost opportunity with Mrs. Sinico. This is an epiphany about his human weaknesses—about how the strengths he had always been proud of (though never out loud) were actually based on timidity and failure—not strengths at all. In a final bout of dramatic irony, we come to see that even Mr. Duffy’s epiphany is tainted, as it does not include a path to self-recovery. As West and Hendricks contend:

Enmeshed in a web of authorial irony, the automaton Duffy scarcely becomes human, even in his final anguish and remorse. For these feelings Joyce resolutely limits our sympathy by making them deluded, exaggerated, and temporary. The ending thus completes a pattern of ironic disjunctures with which Joyce bedevils this unfortunate character from the beginning of the story (706).

Mr. Duffy takes full responsibility for Mrs. Sinico’s alcoholism and death, but even this concession rings false and narcissistic. Mrs. Sinico developed her habit two years after their break-up, and Mr. Duffy forgets that she has been living with a husband who ignores her. His epiphany is useless because it is only a part of the picture: it, too, lies.

The true irony in Joyce’s epiphanies is this: they are true—but only to a point. They are not—the reader wants to shout at the characters—deterministic, and they could be leveraged as a point of access to grace. But the characters do not read them that way, and herein lies the true tragedy of paralysis—knowledge about ourselves does not make us better or happier. It offers no relief, because it offers no future. As Seamus Perry notes in “City, Paralysis, Epiphany: An Introduction to Dubliners,” “The stories are studies in incapacity and self-replicating unhappiness.” In this, the author says more about the effects of the city in which these hapless occupants live and less about the occupants themselves. Perry goes on to note that Joyce “liked to present himself heroically as a kind of stiff cathartic medicine, purging the Irish imagination of its toxins, surrounded by lesser talents peddling an obsolete kind of romanticism.” Romantic tale of religious conversion this story is not. Indeed, none of the stories in Dubliners are. The false epiphanies that plague the characters in its pages are not true epiphanies.

The epiphanies in Dubliners belong not to the lost eccentrics populating the book, but to the reader, who might yet find grace—with a little purging of the toxins of modernity.

Works Cited

Hendricks, William. “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce’s Irony in ‘A Painful Case.’” ELH, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 1977. 701-727.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Dover Thrift Editions, 1991. 70-77.

Morse, J. Mitchell. “Isolation as Motif in ‘A Painful Case.’” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1966. 186.

Perry, Seamus. “City, Paralysis, Epiphany: An Introduction to Dubliners.” Discovering Literature: 20th Century. British Library Publications Online, 25 May 2016.

Art and the Void

As a student I wondered at it. As an English instructor I find it an indispensable font; a reminder I can dip into again and again that the goal is to practice empathy, not dogma. Empathy is a lesson one has to learn again and again, especially at a college with over half of its students from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds. "It" is “Sonny’s Blues,” in my opinion James Baldwin's opus. My students nod their headsthe lessons contained here are familiar to them. But I wonder anew with every rereading.

Baldwin's short story (publication date, 1957) is a tapestry, tightly woven of complementary motifs and themes, rich and dense. Not a word out of place. How to land on a single topic to discuss? Here is one obvious motif: on it’s surface, it’s a story of the prodigal’s return. A comfortable trope, certainly rife with cultural resonance, and still worthy of exploration. The unnamed narrator—the straight brother—has escaped his circumstances through stalwart moral rectitude: he fights for country, marries well, educates himself, and teaches at-risk boys in his old, ailing neighborhood of Harlem a few decades after its Renaissance and before the Civil Rights movement. He is circumspect in all things. Emotional distance is the cost of his prudence. He grapples with ungenerous feelings toward his dreamier, more inward-looking and self-destructive brother, Sonny. Even though his mother has entrusted our narrator to look after the wayward boy, he can’t bring himself to reach out. Sonny confounds him. The narrator commits the sin of silence, which, the story suggests, is complicity with the void. He doesn’t even write when Sonny, a heroin addict, goes to prison. Sonny, to the narrator, is merely a ghetto stereotype, is an affront to him, the escapee, and all the work he's done to elevate his people. But ultimately it is the narrator’s moral righteousness that the story questions, not Sonny’s transgressions, just as the bible story stacks our prejudices against the resentful brother, angered not to have been granted primacy in the family hierarchy as payment for his piety.

Baldwin carefully crafts a world of sinister, inhuman evils. In Harlem, unnamable malignancies bare their teeth from every tenement building. They poison the very air. They drag the inhabitants into darkness, even the ones that have escaped (through drugs or through education or through music). Against this evil, Baldwin’s people have only communication—art, music, stories—to fight with. It is Sonny, the narrator realizes, who has all along been battling these ominous forces. The narrator apprehends this while Sonny is playing his blues, and his moment of epiphany is heartbreaking. Over the course of the song he experiences a sudden dilation of perception. The chasm between himself and his brother is bridged a little, for a little while. It is, the story suggests, the best we can hope for: a rickety, temporary bridge between people.

“Sonny’s Blues” remains above cynicism, even though it suggests that life—not just life in economically depressed areas, but everywhere—is unbearable. This gives the story its power. As we face the abyss, we develop coping strategies. We escape however we can. The narrator escapes through what he deems proper channels. Sonny escapes with drugs and music. The narrator is surprised to find that his own strategies are not qualitatively better. His erudition is not superior to the strategies he condemns. Sonny, with music, talks back to the void. He tries to explain it. “There’s no way not to suffer,” Sonny tells the narrator. “But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it."

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The first relief from drowning in it occurs when the narrator hears, between the derisive cursing and laughing of adolescent boys, one boy whistling. He likens it to birdsong, barely holding its own through all the evil talk. The paragraph serves as a miniature of the structure of the story itself, in which a thin, futile good threads through all the reduplicated evil. Empathy breaks open in the narrator’s heart, if only for a moment, a break of sunlight through a crack in the blinds. This boy’s whistle initiates a metaphor carried through the story with remarkable consistency (because in Baldwin, not a single word is missing or extraneous). The whistle is a rebellion, and a refuge. Later, the narrator listens to the singing of a barmaid whose life is otherwise doomed. Another refuge. Sonny sends a condolence letter from prison, conferring sympathy for the death of the narrator’s daughter (both events precipitate a change in the narrator’s worldview: create the conditions for deepening empathy). Finally, in the ultimate scene, music provides temporary sanctuary from the darkness outside. These coping strategies are communiqués in both directions. They speak to the chaos that exists beyond our control, darkness beyond words, saying you will not have me yet. And of course, they talk to the living. The narrator’s tale, the reader realizes by the final paragraph, is the last of these communiqués, shared with us, and we are duly honored by it.

“Sonny’s Blues”, notably, has no human cruelty in it. The void, discrete from human agency, does have a metonymy within the story: it is silence. It is a formless, motiveless entity that does harm, but makes the communion between souls all the more precious for its inevitability. Death takes us; terror and loathing win in the end. The transcendence of the story is not mastery over the inevitable. There is, however, transcendence in the temporary staving off. The antidote to cruelty is not its eradication. Rather it is the creation of spheres of intimacy, patterns of survival. Silence is the story’s villain. Silence is redeemed through art, a sanctuary. A sanctity.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Edited by Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Indiana UP, 2009. 17-48.

More Truth Than Fact

Finding Truth in an Allegorical Read of the Bible

God is… an amalgam of several personalities in one character. Tension among these personalities makes God difficult, but it also makes Him compelling, even addictive.
— Jack Miles, God: A Biography
Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
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Human beings, in our meaning-making toolbox, have truth and we have fact. But are “Truth” (in the Platonic sense) and “fact” synonyms? Nothing makes the distinction between these words greater than when we apply them to the bible, a work that is almost impossible to categorize as “fact.” When we endeavor to literally interpret the bible, we get into some trouble. Quite a few wars have been fought (and continue to be fought) over literal interpretations of the bible. There is a reason fiction and mythology are more suited to the exploration of ethics and the building of cohesive cultural memories than historical, scientific, or “divinely-authored” texts. When reading metaphorical or allegorical texts, readers don’t need to get bogged down by accuracy: They feel the moral repercussions more immediately, their place in the world more tangibly. Fiction creates a safe space for readers to explore, without the need to refute or prove, cultural history, cultural taboos, the law, and human beings’ place in this confusing cosmos. Certain sects of Christianity, of course, argue that the bible is the literal word of God—the Logos—meaning that God is not merely the story’s protagonist; He is also its author. But one need only glance at the bible’s first book to see overwhelming evidence that it was written over a long period of time by multiple (human) authors. Were it truly the word of God, we would expect to see greater internal consistency in style and content. We might expect God’s character to remain constant for the duration of the story. But the bible means much more for being a work that harnesses the power of fiction and myth—a work that is living, growing, accretive, rather than static; interpretive rather than absolute—to impart a sense of faith and awe, even if, for non-believers, that awe is more literary than spiritual.

The first piece of evidence that the bible is neither Logos nor history is the lack of internal consistency in its narratives. In Understanding the Bible, Steven Harris points out many of them. Rather than being the work of a single author, like the Quran, the bible is, according to Harris, “the product of a long process of composition, revision, and repeated editing by different writers and redactors,” which account for the multiple “duplications, contradictions, and other discrepancies” that litter the text (Harris 62). Similarly, in the introduction to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, editor Michael Coogan notes that “modern scholarship has persuasively argued that each [book of the Pentateuch] is composite, consisting of many sources from different periods of Israel’s history” (3). Take the first story of the creation of the world. First, God creates the world and then creates human beings in His image: “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1.27). But a few lines later he creates woman from Adam’s rib: “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man” (Gen. 2.22), suggesting that only man was created in God’s image. Coogan, in his annotation of this section, calls this shift unfortunate: “The man’s rule over the woman… is a tragic reflection of the disintegration of original connectedness between them” (15). Why would an infallible divine author create two discreet origin stories that fail to cohere? As Harris contends, the “documentary hypothesis” of biblical authorship—largely undisputed among scholars—assumes that the old testament has at least four authors, each with a slightly different goal that correlates with the political and spiritual issues that were contemporary to the writing (67).

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This multiple-author hypothesis is borne out by the bible’s syntactical and grammatical style shifts that clearly divide the prose into distinct categories. As Harris points out, most scholars assume that the Old Testament is a mash-up of four authors’ words and he credits the varying styles in grammar and syntax as evidence to support this theory: J, or the “Yahwist” author (because that is what he calls God, God's actual name), is likely the oldest and in it God is anthropomorphic, quasi-human, interacting freely with His creations (67-9); E, or the “Elohist” source (“Elohim” is what he calls God—the plural for the generic term for "god"), creates a more standoffish deity, who nevertheless finds ways to communicate, directly and indirectly, with humans, though he doesn’t walk-and-talk with them (69-70); D is the Deuteronomist source, and is concerned with an inculcation of Jewish law (70); and P, or the “Priestly” source is the most recent of the biblical authors, and retroactively sanctifies the tradition and authority of priests, while simultaneously solidifying the structure and purpose of the Pentateuch after the Babylonian exile (70-71). Indeed, “When sources are separated,” says Harris, “they not only reveal internal consistencies in style and vocabulary… each of the Torah’s different literary strands consistently exhibits grammatical and other traits characteristic of a particular stage of Hebrew language development” (67). The earlier sources likely come from the oral tradition, and bear more relationship to creation myths of older cultures than do the more recent redactions, which are far more concerned with establishing laws and practices, justifying the rule of specific bloodlines, and post facto justifications of wars, murders, and—in some cases—genocides.

The duality and placement of the stories, moreover, suggest that what these authors meant to communicate is something other than factual. One early anachronism in Genesis contends that Cain, after killing his brother (and reducing the number of human beings on earth—if one parses out the etiology—to three), the Lord “put a mark on Cain so that none who came upon him would kill him” (Gen. 4.16). It’s just possible to imagine that this mark protects Cain from his own parents until section 17: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city” (Gen 4.17). Unless his wife is also his mother, we see here that the story of Cain and Abel belongs in another part of the bible, after the world has been populated. But it is more likely that the bible’s redactors gave the story pride of place because it has a special resonance or importance. As in Medieval artwork, where the more important figures are larger than the lesser figures, the bible is arranged more symbolically than realistically. It’s a text that creates a literary hierarchy among the players and events that emphasize their relative importance in the ordering of events. Straight chronology can’t do this. The placement of the Cain and Abel story by one of the biblical authors, in other words, has a significance that makes the anachronism worth it.  Presumably, something can be read into God’s unexplained preference for Abel’s sacrifice of animal flesh over Cain’s in other senses equal sacrifice of harvested grain. Perhaps, as some scholars suggest, the text is showing God’s preference for a nomadic people over a settled people. In Traditions of the Bible, Talmudic scholar James Kugel suggests that this could correlate to when this story was composed: God approves of the nomadic sacrifice, right when the Israelites were expelled from the land of Canaan, and forced into nomadic exile (54). One cannot argue that this is a factual telling: But that does not mean it is barren of some form of Truth.

God, too, changes as much as the styles change. In fact, even He doesn’t seem sure what he is or what he wants from biblical book to biblical book. In God: A Biography, Jack Miles treats the Abrahamic creator as a fictional character, and goes so far as to suggest that “much that the bible says about [God] is rarely preached from the pulpit, because, examined too closely, it becomes a scandal” (6). God makes mankind in his own image, but then expects mankind to behave according to His laws, even before the laws are written or expressed. That becomes difficult for creations who are only privy to God’s character as man’s creator. God provides no account of his own adventures that don’t relate directly to man, and God seems preoccupied only with the doings of mankind. Such is the lot of the solitary Creator: for a pantheon of other gods might provide some company, sure, but also some context: what is this deity like? If the purpose of the bible is to instruct human beings on how to build themselves in God’s image, created and creator both seem to learn by trial and error what God’s image actually looks like. In Miles’ words:

That quest [of man becoming God-like], arising from the protagonist’s sole stated motive, drives the only real plot that the Bible can be said to have. But that plot, God’s attempt to shape mankind in his image, would be far more comprehensible if God had a richer subjective life, one more clearly separate from, more clearly prior to, the human object of his shaping (87).

Despite this, Miles says, or maybe because of this, the West trusts a flawed, inconsistent character more than a complete, comprehensible one. Whether God created us in His image, or we created Him in ours, the relationship is fraught, but not without love, understanding, and the ability to learn and grow on both sides, somewhat like a new parent with his (His?) children.

Along with inconsistency in the story, grammar, and character, the bible’s lessons feel more concerned with creating an ongoing sense of cultural cohesion and united purpose than casting God and humanity as stable and unchanging. That goal is more in line with today’s philosophical valence than the stable eschatology and worldview espoused by Medieval and Renaissance theologians. We’ve seen, in the 20th century, a movement from the search for capital-T “Truth,” in the Platonic sense, to the ascendancy of the “micronarrative,” which, Deconstructionists like Jean-Francois Lyotard contend, can, in aggregate, get us closer to Truth than a single history-by-consensus. After all, he says in The Postmodern Condition, a unified history almost always serves the powerful, not the truth, and “facts” and “stats” are the worst offenders (Lyotard 504). If we want truth, the deconstructionists say, we need contradictions, paradoxical as that might sound. What is the bible, if not a series of loosely connected micronarratives, rife with comforting contradiction?

In an environment that rich in fiction, that is where we might find some Truth.

Works Cited

Harris, Steven L. Understanding the Bible, 8th Edition. New York: The McGraw Hill Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996. 481-513.

Kugel, James L. Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard UP, 1998. Pp. 54-7.

Miles, Jack. God: I Biography. Kindle Ed. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1996.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Michael T. Coogan et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1929.

The Abyss Gazes Back

Madness, Blindness, and Armageddon in King Lear

…nothing himself, [he] beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

The 20th century finally invited King Lear in off the heath. Its post-industrial bleakness found him apt company, bid him come out of long exile to rest his weary bones next to his spiritual brethren: “The Snow Man,” Endgame, Beyond Good and Evil, and all the other nihilistic works of existentialism, deconstruction, and Eastern ideas of “nothing” as a desirable state—much of the work to spring from the late Victorian era to the present. It took long enough. Early modern audiences found the play’s godless rejection of Christian eschatology unbearable; Nahum Tate produced a grotesque comedy out of it (which was what people read and produced for centuries); Samuel Johnson could stand to read it only once, after which he quickly edited it; even A. C. Bradley, who admired the play, called it “Shakespeare’s greatest work, but not… the best of his plays” (248). In “King Lear or Endgame,” Jan Kott remarks of Lear that “All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding” (112), and that, like the listener in “The Snow Man,” fits just fine in the 20th century. We can take it. God is dead, after, all; the world is brutal and uncaring and ruled by competition for survival; and we all know that, in Beckett’s words, “We give birth astride the grave.” The very fact that the word “nothing” appears 34 times in the play makes it a great fit within the worldview of late-stage capitalist meaning-making, where we watch the procession of simulacra with horror, but without recourse. In King Lear, Shakespeare presents an abyss that, when we gaze into it, truly gazes back into us.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play, for its raw, crazed energy, is Lear in his initial stages of madness on the heath, provoking the storm to do its worst:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned our cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Crack Nature’s molds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man. (III.ii.1-9).

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Lear’s rage at the storm is pointless… and admirable. Lear, abandoned by his children, fallen, in less than a month, from king to pauper, makes believe that he is controlling the weather, in a heartbreaking negotiation with the pathetic fallacy. He is at once child-like and god-like. On the one hand, he exercises a child’s omnipotence fantasy, imagining he has control of forces out of his control; on the other, the audience wonders if he is indeed controlling the weather—if the tempest in his own mind has actually been expressed outside himself. It is an act that inspired awe in the Romantic poets. This is a roiling I suspect we all feel at times: faced with the void, what are we to do but imagine we can control it? In King Lear in Our Own Time, Maynard Mack comments on the universal appeal, to 20th century man, of Lear: the “…abysses of the play,” he says, “are in fact wrapped in the enigma of our own ignorance of the meaning of existence, its peals echo with cries of triumph and despair so equivocal that we are never sure they are not ours” (84). One can see why the suggested meaninglessness in the cosmology of the play would have distressed early modern audiences (and Restoration audiences even more), leading to its exile. After all, the Medieval and Renaissance worldview was one of an ordered universe with a just and comprehensible God. Lear offers no such comfort. Mack goes on to opine that the play has no true hero in the traditional tragic sense. Moreover, the lack of a hero, he says, sits “…more easily with our present sensibility (which is pathologically mistrustful of heroism) than the heroic resonances of the usual Shakespearean close” (Mack 84). We don’t believe in heroes, and, as in Waiting for Godot, the play gives us none, just the all-too-human struggle of a man stripped bare and forced to confront the often-malign indifference of the universe.

Blindness, too, like frenzied madness, is a current that runs through the play, this time exemplified literally by the story’s secondary plotline. Blindness and madness seem to be the only clear paths to a rarified kind of sight: self-knowledge, true love of others, and freedom from the fear of death. They, metaphorically or literally (the play does not make it entirely clear), prepare the old for a peaceful—at least a resigned—death. Lear’s ally Gloucester, blinded and, like Lear, abandoned by his child, somehow finds the mad Lear on the heath, and there begins a journey of the blind truly leading the blind. The culmination of Gloucester’s plot is his “suicide” off the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester is with his disguised son, Edgar, but does not recognize him. Edgar describes the terror of the void below them:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
…The murmuring surge
That on the unnumb’red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong (IV.vi.11-24).

The problem? He is lying. They are not at the cliffs of Dover, but on a small rise near the cliffs, and he is not describing what is actually below them: he is describing a seascape to a blind man, in order that he might jump, and survive, and be metaphorically reborn. Gloucester does jump, and does survive, and is reborn in what Edgar (now pretending to be a fisherman down on the beach) labels a marvel: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again,” he says (IV.vi.55). This prepares Gloucester for a loving reunion with the former king, and finally, his own actual death. A cold comfort, perhaps, but the only one afforded the old man, even though the audience feels more ambivalent about his ordeal. In our contemporary world, within the Weltanschauung of existentialism/deconstruction, we can hope for little more than a brief access to grace before we die. The play understands us—clearly more than it understood our antecedents.

Along with human disaster—blindness and madness—the entire world of the play seems to be careening toward eminent catastrophe, and the ending does not correct that trajectory. Everywhere are allusions to Armageddon. As Mack says, “Intimations of World’s End run through [the play] like a yeast. In the scenes on the heath, elements are at war as if it were indeed Armageddon” (85). Armageddon has agency and energy, unlike the passive depression of, say Hamlet, which presents a foul, stilted world in need of resurrection. The characters in Lear, in contrast to Hamlet, (and at times the weather and the environment are characters), all seem to be heading toward a precipice of non-being, but it is a place of creative action, not stasis. Says Mack:

Under [the play] run tides of doomsday passion that seem to use up and wear away people, codes, expectations, all stable points of reference, till only a profound sense remains that an epoch, in fact a whole dispensation, has forever closed… To this kind of situation, we of the mid-twentieth century are… sensitively attuned (86).

This apocalyptic rhetoric also includes, in Mack’s words, a “strong undertow of victory” (87). In Gloucester’s case this victory arrives with his rebirth on the false cliffs; for Lear in his erroneous belief that his daughter, after their heartrending reunion, has been resurrected. For both, the victory is illusory, but no less poignant—and no less real a triumph—for not being true. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear finally abandons his power and releases himself into the care of family, and to true grace:

…Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies (V.iii.8-13).

When Cordelia perishes, and Lear holds her in his arms, he says, “Do you see this? Look, her lips, / Look there, look there” (V.iii.312-13). He then expires. In all the “nothings,” this small hint of a “something” must suffice… a hint at redemption, or resurrection (though perhaps not in a Christian sense). Lear dies, perhaps, thinking that his child lives, and as such he dies happy. The world, at the end of Lear, is not restored to rights by a tragic death (for Mack is right: there is no hero here to sacrifice himself for the restoration of equilibrium). Rather, we are in a world still heading we know not where—a world of teleological uncertainty—that eerily resembles the world that we now know ourselves to inhabit. After revolutions in science, after World Wars and cosmological upheaval, after the invention of massive weapons of destruction, and the knowledge that we are the tiniest speck in an immense universe, after the knowledge that the universe will likely end with a whimper and we will not even be a footnote—in this world, the barren heath of Lear finally makes sense to us.

King Lear confronts the abyss, is chewed up by it, and finds a way to make meaning anyway. It finds a way to live with it. Finding a way to live with it is something we are all of us trying to do: existence is, by definition, uncertainty. We have left the garden of blissful ignorance, and no system of beliefs feels complete any longer: religion, once comprehensive and far-reaching, has been sufficiently contradicted by science for reasonable doubt to creep in (except in our most stalwart adherents to faith—and maybe even in them). If we need to deceive ourselves into surviving in all this uncertainty—whether through the pathetic fallacy, through intentional blindness, through madness, through (ideally) love and kindness, or through self-delusion—so be it. Welcome home, Lear.

Cited Sources

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuan, 1963, pp. 100-33.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. Routledge, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Tr. Helen Zimmern. Millennium Publications, 2014. 41.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Signet Classic, Published by New American Library, Penguin Group, 1972.

Our Small Forever

Code Confusion as Female Trope in Louise Erdrich's The Round House

“Gynocide… is known by the colonized peoples of yesterday… the nations… off whose backs the history of men has made its gold.”
           — Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Our guide through Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is a young man. But Joe Coutts—real, tangible, effervescent teenager that he is—is birthed, definitively, from a female mind. Erdrich, in a move of great virtuosity, creates a tale that exists in both cyclo-mythical time and in linear time; in which the language and alternative reality of the spirit world coexist and intermingle with the language of the law; through which Christian crosscurrents traverse and mingle with shamanistic codes; and in which characters are both their corporeal, temporal selves, and universal archetypes who must repeat ancient patterns. Cultural stories radiate from the main narrative like ripples in a pond. And at its center—the round house. It’s no coincidence that the pivotal object is circular in shape: it is the novel’s many-chambered heart, and the story, in a sense, “orbits” around this richly symbolic monument to good and evil.

 We might call Erdrich’s inclusive, circular narratives characteristic of “feminine” writing, a genre Hélène Cixous defines in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The feminine writer’s speech, she asserts, “…even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or ‘objectified,’ generalized: she draws her story into history” (Cixous 881). In Erdrich’s world, we aren’t allowed to make phallocentric hierarchies of information or codes: varying systems coexist and compete, resisting synthesis. Neither Erdrich nor her characters are subordinate to western/patriarchal history’s “truth,” but by collaborating with it they manage to achieve a deeper truth. Years after his mother is brutally raped on a reservation and he enacts lethal revenge, Joe retells the story in complex layers, weaving folklore and supernatural intervention into a text also brimming with legal realities that we—Erdrich and her readers—must objectively measure and judge in our “real” world. According to Sarah Deer’s article, “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law,” the Justice Department has in fact under-reported the statistic that one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime (almost always by non-native men): “…the rates of sexual assault” she says, “…are actually much higher… [and] elders in Indian country [say]… that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence [emphasis mine]” (456). The matter is real. The matter is urgent. But Erdrich makes us feel this “gynocide” all the more acutely for not letting it fall merely into the “simple or linear… history” of legal or journalistic language. We feel it, as Cixous might say, in the body.

How does Erdrich accomplish this distinctly female corporeality in her writing? In “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Catherine Rainwater explores Erdrich’s ability to create an almost physical sense of “temporary marginality” in her readers. Erdrich’s texts, she says, contain structural features that “frustrate narrativity,” and that, “This frustration amounts to a textually induced or encoded experience of marginality as the foremost component of the reader’s response." Erdrich achieves this effect, Rainwater contends, chiefly through her use of “code confusion” (Rainwater 406). For instance, in the novel time works both cyclically, in what Rainwater refers to as “ceremonial time,” and linearly, in what readers understand as chronological time. Joe’s story begins with him uprooting the saplings “attacking” the foundation of his parent’s house, and ends with him, innocence lost, family shattered, driving out of town after the time-stopping rape and murder, and into a paradox: “…in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever” (Erdrich 317). In between, we hear an account of events in the order in which they occurred. But bits of family lore, dream sequences, tribal memories and ghosts—vestiges of “ceremonial time”—festoon the narrative, enriching it, complicating it, radiating from its center, or floating above it, in ghostly parallel. Early in the novel, when Joe and his father realize that his mother is missing, Joe remarks that, “…her absence stopped time” (Erdrich 3). In a sense, from the moment her absence is registered to the moment the family drives off the reservation, time is both suspended and sequential: the narrative alerts us early to time’s malleability. We are told at the outset that Mooshum, Joe’s eccentric grandfather and teller of a parallel legend of filial love and revenge, lives “…in a timeless fog” (Erdrich, 4), and that is the vantage from which he dispenses his crucial wisdom. Rainwater notes that Erdrich’s temporal idiosyncrasies hint at the narrative limitations of chronological time: “…linearity,” she says, “is often disrupted by many flashbacks, lateral narrational pursuits, flights of free association, and other indications of the failure of chronology to contain the story” (414). This kind of time confusion—combined with these pyrotechnics of craft—reminds us of Cixous’s theory about feminine writing: “Woman,” she says, “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (882). Ceremonial time set against linear time may disorient readers, but it’s this temporal vertigo that makes us feel these events—these conflicts—in our very bones.

Through marginality we come to understand the intersection of tribal, spiritual and legal justice. Each of these legal systems is incomplete: none alone manages to achieve perfect justice, but by forcing us to examine them all together, Erdrich creates a patchwork that approaches justice, however asymptotically. In a seminal scene, Joe’s father spends a few pages educating Joe, and the readers, on the history of Native American jurisprudence since European settlement, the slow, unsatisfying climb to tribal sovereignty. He informs us of Oliphant v. Suquamish, which “Took from us the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on our land” (Erdrich 229). In “Sovereignty of the Soul,” Deer remarks that since Columbus landed, rape has been used as a “tool of colonization and a tool of war against Native peoples and… as a weapon of conquest” (458). Fighting back against what Deer refers to as “…attack[s] on the human soul” is no easy task for Joe and his father, or for real indigenous peoples armed with limited legal tools. But the book proposes an alternative route to justice for Joe: what his grandfather refers to as “wiindigoo justice.” Wiindigoog, explains Mooshum, are “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others” (Erdrich 213-14). A wiindigoo must be killed by tribal consensus, and when Joe kills his mother’s rapist, his father, the judge, argues that there is a “traditional,” rather than a legal, precedent for the murder: “It could be argued,” says Joe’s father, “That [the rapist] met the definition of a wiindigoo, and that with no other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law” (Erdrich 306). We have here another example of Rainwater’s “code confusion.” The simultaneous presence of cultural codes—legal and traditional—that are “…epistemologically, experientially and teleologically different,” contends Rainwater, “…vexes the reader’s effort to decide upon an unambiguous, epistemologically consistent interpretive framework. Encoded ‘undecidability’ leads to the marginalization of the reader by the text” (407). Erdrich unsettles her readers by refusing to place tribal justice on a higher moral plane than legal justice (or vice versa). Even Mooshum warns that wiindigoo justice is often undertaken rashly or unjustly when tribal elders aren’t consulted, and in a queasy scene toward the end of the book, Joe realizes that with a bit more investigation the rapist would have been caught, and that western law might have garnered Joe’s family sufficient justice without recourse to murder. In this way, Erdrich’s narrative resists code hierarchy. “Narrativity usually includes an impulse to resolve… textual tensions through privileging of one code or through synthesis,” says Rainwater, “but Erdrich’s texts preclude both options for dealing with these conflicting… paradigms” (409). This resistance to pat resolution falls in line with Cixous’ analysis of the “woman militant”, who splits struggle open, “…so as to prevent… struggle for the liberation of a class or people from operating as a form of repression” (882). Arguably, the privileging of one system of justice over the other would operate as a form of phallocentric repression in that it reduces the importance of one code, implying the necessity of creating code hierarchy. Here neither traditional nor western law takes primacy. But nor do they synthesize: they remain discrete, incompatible codes, and the refusal to choose one over the other causes discomfort in characters and readers both. It causes, in Rainwater’s words, a “…permanent state of irresolution” (409).

Another set of conflicting codes Erdrich explores is the intersection between Christianity and indigenous shamanism. “Competing with the syntagmatic chain of references to Christianity,” says Rainwater, “is another chain of references to Native American beliefs about material and spiritual life, which… are not as distinctly separate as they are according to Christianity” (408). Nowhere is this juxtaposition of faiths felt more strongly than in the round house itself, a space devoted to native worship which, pre-1978, when traditional religions were outlawed on the reservation, could be hastily converted into an ersatz church. The space is a liminal crossroads between creeds, between good and evil, and between legal jurisdictions. Mooshum, talking in his sleep, explains its origins: a raffish figure of legend, Nanapush (a figure the reader is often urged to compare to Joe himself), was communing with a female spirit of the disappeared buffalo, who sacrificed herself that Nanapush might have meat to eat and the shelter of her body in a storm. “Your people were brought together by us buffalo once…” she says. “Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart” (Erdrich 214). The round house is a sacred cadaver: loss and memory inspired its creation. Ceremonies conducted at the round house still heal Joe and his Ojibwe people. But in this novel, what heals also harms, and what kills also saves, and we the readers must live with these contradictions. The rapist selects the round house as the scene of his crime because by doing so he will almost surely avoid prosecution: the land on which it sits is a tangled boundary of state, federal and tribal jurisdiction. When Joe visits the scene of the crime, we hear the round house “speak:” “There was a moment of intense quiet,” Joe remarks, “Then a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself” (Erdrich 59). The house, a living character in its own right, speaks to the novel’s protagonist from a tortured Native American past, both ancient and recent, spiritual and legal. Later, Joe gets direction from Father Travis, the reservation’s Catholic priest, about “Sins Crying Out to Heaven for Vengeance” (Erdrich 250). Both traditional and Christian codes cry out with voices that are almost human, pulling our hero in different directions, neither one louder or more persuasive than the other. Joe makes his fatal decision within the clamor of this chorus of voices. Rainwater notes that, “With several avenues of meaning remaining open, the text does not overdetermine one avenue of interpretation and thus endorse one theological view over the other” (410). Not even the novel’s characters definitively favor a single dogma: many reservation inhabitants, in response to Christian pressures to convert, “…decided to hedge their bets by adding the saints to their love of the sacred pipe." (Erdrich 250).

Time, religion, the law, exist on multiple planes, dipping, circling, weaving, intermingling with alternative codes in what Cixous considers a distinctly feminine manner. The woman writer, she contends, discovers a new history through the “…process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another… woman always occurs simultaneously in several places” (882). Paula Gunn Allen, author of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, comments on the inherent femaleness of Native American life and storytelling: “Traditional tribal lifestyles [and literature],” she argues, “are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal… American Indians [base] their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused worldviews” (2). This is a good thing, because the specter of male-dominated colonial tyranny and coercion hangs ominously over the world of Erdrich’s novel—over the round house, over Joe and his mother, over the Ojibwe people, over Erdrich herself—and Erdrich, as a warrior in Cixous’ feminine army, refuses to fight this enemy with the enemy’s weapons alone. In “American Histories, Native American Narratives,” ethnographer Arnold Krupat outlines the difficulty of squaring Native American history—which includes magic, circular narratives and ceremonial time—with western ideas of “legitimate” history:

Is it possible, then, to write history ethnocritically, somehow reconciling competing narratives and values? The question is of acute importance both to native people and to postcolonial historians who do not wish their work to be part of an ongoing record of might establishing right. For there is little doubt that the rationalist-secularist paradigm for writing history in the West has unfailingly trivialized native, indigenous, and traditional ways of doing and living knowledge, presenting to Native people the impossible choice, “be yourself or choose knowledge”(Kraput 168-9).

Erdrich proves that it is possible to write an ethnocritical novel. To tell Joe’s story in linear time alone, to subordinate traditional justice to American law, to give up native religious tropes for the tropes of Christianity, or to privilege any code over another in an effort to avoid code confusion—all of these would be examples of might establishing right: of subordination to the phallocentrism of the male western narrative. It is Joe who negotiates this razor’s edge of history, carves a semblance of justice into his “small forever.” but it is Erdrich herself who wears Cixous’ righteous armor, fighting her good fight, placing at the center of her novel—at the center of all these great, rippling narrative ellipses—an object that beats with a female heart: the round house, container and creator of stories, time and history.

 

Cited Sources

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. Boston. 1986. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith and Paula Cohen. Signs. Vol. 1, No. 4. Summer 1976. Print.

Deer, Sarah. “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law.” Suffolk County Law Review. Vol 38. 2005. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “American Histories, Native American Narratives.” Early American Literature. Vol. 30, No. 2. 1995. Print.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature. Sep 90, Vol. 62 Issue 3. Print.

Trickster in the Modern City

In Science Fiction Studies’ “Symposium on Slipstream,” authors and critics spill a fair amount of vitriolic ink raging against the codification of the slipstream genre (when not raging against the genre itself). Neil Easterbrook quips that the impulse to create a stable and static definition of it is the point at which “taxonomy becomes taxidermy” (13), and Jonathan Lethem urges us to reject “…brand new nomenclatures, apparently expressing the yearning for brand new self-referential politics of exclusion, defiance, caste-shame, and resentment” (15). So censorious is the polemic against slipstream that these authors do more to prove its dastardly hold over the psyche of the millennium than to reject it. It’s a genre that has, apparently, hit a nerve. Perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. We know—and many of us are affected by—slipstream when we see it. And boy do we see it in Michael Swanwick’s Dragons of Babel. Dragons is a novel that, through its fusion of realism and mythology, suggests slipstream might be an emergent phenomenon, rising organically from the ashes of modernity in order to synthesize the two halves of our fragmented modern souls.

Joseph Campbell can be seen everywhere in Dragons. His hero-orphan thwarts the dragon, discovers his noble parentage, and is apotheosized when he assumes the mantle of king. In parallel to this template of the monomyth, in almost every paragraph, our protagonist Will navigates our world: the dismal hyper-realism of late capitalism, full of urban blight; democratic principles stagnating in a swill of bureaucracy; institutionalized bigotry; and relentless, brutal, and meaningless war. We know this latter world—we recognize it as our own—even as we yearn for the former, the mythic. We have gritty, indifferent New York City. We long for its magical analogue, Babel. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell warns us that in current progressive societies around the world, “…every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay,” and that, within such a structure, “the timeless universe of symbols has collapsed” (Hero 334). He talks about the deterioration of social cohesion: that which served as the ethical, religious and mythological memory-keeper has been replaced by individualism and the secular state, engaged in “…hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources” (Hero 334). Where is the magic—where are the heroes—in this world of “rationalized avarice” (Hero 337)?

Most fantasy novels (The Lord of the Rings is a prime exemplar) provide respite from the “real.” Readers, nostalgic for something they sense but haven’t experienced, seek refuge in fantasy in order to luxuriate for a time in a world alive with “grand narrative”—Campbell’s “human heritage of ritual, morality, and art.” Such novels replace the modern with a world unified and organized by myth. What Swanwick gives us—what perhaps the best of slipstream fiction gives—goes beyond pleasurable escape. He asks us to imagine our contemporary world with our old coordinating mythologies intact, by superimposing one upon the other. We know dragons don’t exist in this world of science and rationality, but we still have what dragons are a metaphor for—violence, greed, the seductively dangerous will to power. Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, making the dragon at once a sentient animal, capable of malice, persuasive discourse, and abuses of power, and a war machine, running on jet fuel and requiring a pilot: he is both the potential evil in the human mind and the machines of war such a mind creates. John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, notes that one of the hallmarks of slipstream fiction is the literalizing of metaphor (“Symposium” 15), and Swanwick literalizes everywhere, from the crusty old drunk who has fused bodily with her seedy downtown bar to the solipsistic power-monger who creates a whole army out of thin air so he can watch his soldiers die. With such literalization, Swanwick strives to resurrect Campbell’s “universe of symbols,” but his signifiers aren’t mere backward-pointing diversions. Rather, he endeavors to make these hieroglyphs legible in today’s world. It’s no surprise that when Will slays the dragon he merely internalizes the evil—he doesn’t vanquish it—a particularly modern trope of psychology’s “control and mastery” theory. Through narrative maneuvers like this, Swanwick shows us that our metaphors still have juice, still have the power to unify and organize our experience into coherent, interpretable shape. He invents a hero who, in Campbell’s words, attempts to “bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul” (334). Our souls may be different now, but they can still be understood—co-ordinated—through metaphor; through pointing to the signified (which is modernity-proof) with the rich signifiers of our heritage.

In addition to literalizing the god-and-monster metaphors, Swanwick literalizes the holistic nature of Campbell’s monomyth. His characters are self-consciously drawn from mythologies the world over. Classical Centaurs, Germanic elves, Japanese onis and Southern American haints coexist—often imperfectly—in the melting pot that is the novel, and the city Babel (like the languages in its biblical namesake). Such democracy evokes Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which transcends any particular tradition, touching on the universality of human experience. This is our story, all of us, this negotiation between our heritage, in the form of myth, and the bleak here-and-now, in the form of progress and modernity. There isn’t a single place on earth—no remote forest tribe, no Himalayan village—safe from the encroachment of industrialization, a reality to which we have no choice but to adapt. Now that our world has globalized, and we all face many of the same enemies, our belief structures must negotiate not just with industrialization but with each other. Rationality has freed us all from what Campbell ironically calls the “bondage of tradition” (334): it strives to jettison myth—all that is “untrue”—from our lives. But, Dragons suggests, we might just need our myths, our resplendent metaphors, to guide us through the rites of passage in a world where individualism has replaced the group. In “Symposium on Slipstream,” Lance Olsen suggests that the art that connects us to earlier forms of reality-representation offers antidotes to the “hypermediatized, late-stage capitalist ‘reality’ that is no longer perceived as real” (16). Though we know they aren’t strictly “true,” our myths can lend a foundational reality the “real” no longer has; and by not privileging one mythological pantheon over another, Swanwick suggests that it hardly matters which symbolic framework we choose to organize our experience: we just need one of Campbell’s myths, those “spontaneous productions of the psyche” (Hero 2), or many of them—or all of them.

Campbell describes an emergent phenomenon when he says myths emanate spontaneously from the psyche, because the psyche, in this case, stands in for both the individual’s psyche and the collective one (2). In Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson explains that emergent phenomena are decentralized processes whereby millions of units of individual input make, collectively, decisions for the good of the whole, without benefit of leaders, or “pacemakers” (17). Myths, like cities, grow of their own accord out of the needs of the many. Intelligent decisions appear like magic, but “who,” asks Johnson, “is doing the conjuring?” (33). Once again, Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, here in the form of the emergent city. An urban denizen informs Will that Babel was built not as a city, but “…the framework of one—a double-helix of interlocking gyres…” where “Buildings are thrown up and torn down as needed, but the city goes on” (Swanwick 122). The city, in essence, is a character with a will (Will?) and a genotype, and at the same time it isn’t—it’s a swarm of self-interested individuals doing what they do to get ahead. Like the dragon, it exists as two things at once, its scientific taxonomy and the living idea for which it’s a metaphor. Johnson reminds us that even in science this “couple-coloredness” can exist, for a city is literally the sum of its residents, and also “…more than the sum of its residents—closer to a living organism, capable of adaptive change” (52). The process of myth-making, like the living city, arises out of the collective unconscious, and it’s just possible to see slipstream as a manifestation of a very specific human gene: our myth-making gene, our need for an organized social cohesion, sired not by our “pacemakers” but by our hearts.

To this end, Swanwick conflates two hero archetypes in the novel: the king and the trickster. While traditionally the king is a “pacemaker” who restores order and inculcates the law, the trickster’s job is to queer the pitch, or, as Campbell notes in the short film “Mythology of the Trickster,” he serves as the “Disruptor of Programs.” The trickster is the best man for the job of synthesizing the modern and mythological, because, by operating “bottom up” rather than “top down,” he endeavors to integrate a new way of thinking, not replace the old one. He is a catalyst for emergence. In “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal,” Larry Ellis calls the trickster, “a creature of low purpose who establishes precedent, [and] dabbles in the creation of the world that will be” (55). Moreover, he notes the invaluable place of the trickster in myth:

The world of myth is a place of creation in which things and events, from the seemingly insignificant to the momentous, are altered in preparation for the world to come. Trickster is a figure of myth, and in singular fashion sets out to change the mythic landscape in every area imaginable (Ellis 57).

Nat, Will’s father and the novel’s absent king, primes his son to be this catalyst, ready to reach “every area imaginable.” He explains the role of the trickster this way: “We keep things stirred up. Without us, the world would grow stale and stagnant. Every life we’ve touched today has been made richer and stranger” (Swanwick 234). What Will learns about kingship is that its main function is not to embody justice and power, as his advisors counsel; nor to destroy the evil Babylon, as the dragon within him urges; nor to impose order over a chaotic city, as the citizens of Babel expect. No. Nat puts the king’s role best when he contends that, “It isn’t for me to increase or decrease the total amount of virtue or vice in the world—just to keep things stirred up. To keep us all from dying of predictability” (Swanwick 234). Swanwick could be teaching us to negotiate a world whose prime directive is to slaughter magic and erect the static “real” in its place. Or, correspondingly, he could be writing a treatise on slipstream itself.

Whatever we call slipstream—magical realism, metafiction, experimental fiction, counter-realism—it is, like the trickster himself, our agent provocateur, the “Disruptor of Programs,” the creature “of low purpose” who changes the world. Many signifiers, the rational and the irrational, can point to the same signified, and no single definition is sufficient—is even possible. No wonder the folks of the slipstream symposium are enraged with the necessity of pinpointing, of defining a category genetically blueprinted to resist stasis. How do you create a taxonomy when the basis is manifold, when the genre emerges out of spiritus mundi to fulfill whatever collective need produced it? Pinning it down changes it—makes it taxidermy rather than taxonomy. Will realizes that after he changes the world he must disappear, because the world needs a disruptor, not a pacemaker. So he does, only to resurface later, as legends do, when they’re needed, to start the cycle over again. He, and slipstream itself, are Campbell’s modern heroes, “…rendering the modern world spiritually significant” (Hero 334) by allowing the myth-making half of our soul to sooth the restless, rational, post-modern half, the one hungry for co-ordination, for our lost “universe of symbols.”

Cited Sources

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, California: New World Library. 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “Mythology of the Trickster.” Magic, Myth and Folklore Videos. BOAS Network. Feb 17 2014. Web. Dec 6 2015.

Easterbrook, Neil. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Ellis, Larry. “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. Ser. 2, Vol. 5, No. 4. Winter 1993. Print.

Johnson, Steven. “The Myth of the Ant Queen.” Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner. 2001. Print.

Kessel, John. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Olsen, Lance. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Swanwick, Michael. The Dragons of Babel. New York: Tor Books. 2007. Print.

Entirely in Your Hands

The Search for Authority in Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who guards the guardians themselves? [1]
— Decimus Junis Juvenal, Satura VI

The question Just who are the watchmen? sounds facile when asked of Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s graphic masterpiece Watchmen. The superheroes, of course: this is, after all, a comic book. But a closer examination of the title, like so much else in the book, reveals its complexity. The reader sees the Juvenal quote scrawled on walls and storefronts in virtually every chapter of the novel, diegetically referring to the masked vigilantes. But then it finally appears in epigraph (epitaph?) alone on the final page, after the world has been “saved” by its masked heroes. Neither generational cadre of superheroes calls itself “The Watchmen” (the older generation dub themselves “The Minutemen;” the younger group, ridiculously, “The Crimebusters”). The book’s epigraph, taken from the Tower Commission Report (post facto even from the standpoint of the book’s publication), places the question unsettlingly into our world. The characters, too, seem alarmed at the intrusion of the “real” world into their comic book universe, where morality is meant to be a simple choice; where good prevails, evil is thwarted, due to the drive, determination, and cooperation of the heroes. The moral framework of the protagonists is as unwavering as it should be in the superhero genre. The problem is they don’t share the same moral framework, and thus find themselves embroiled in a battle royale of warring philosophies—not the dialectic of good and evil we all expect from comics, but in the messy and godless way it plays out in the world around us—between and among the “good guys.” Ozymandias embodies utilitarian principles; Rorschach is a deontologist, exercising the categorical imperative; and Dr. Manhattan becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum Übermensch—but at the novel’s heart lies the unsettled and, by all measures unsettlable, question of authority: who gives authority to the watchmen, who polices them, and, more unsettlingly still, who, at the end of the day, at the end of the story, are the watchmen?

Ozymandias

Extra-diegetically, the watchmen are almost certainly not the superheroes. The novel’s “winner,” “savior,” “villain,” as you like, is Ozymandias, the superhero moniker of Adrian Veidt, a man of almost superhuman intelligence and physical prowess, possessed of an ego to match. The only thing distinguishing him from a supervillain is that instead of seeking world domination when he destroys New York City via a lab-manufactured monster, he is seeking (no, really) world peace. Veidt successfully staves off nuclear war between terrestrial enemies by forcing warring nations to unite against a common alien enemy. He doesn’t even want credit in the traditional sense; he’s satisfied to quietly pull the strings from the sidelines. His actions are utilitarian in the extreme, in that they enact, perfectly, “the greatest good for the greatest number:” he kills a few million to save billions. His maniacal self-aggrandizement, however, complicates beyond repair our sympathies. He delivers a protracted, two-chapter speech about his plot, first to his dead servants and then to other masked comrades (his servants he kills, along with the others who know his machinations; his comrades he spares only because he has stalemated them into silence). This speech, too, compromises his heroism, for the simple reason that, per the comics trope, prideful oration is commonly (and hubristically) delivered by villains. Instead of a comeuppance at the close of the speech, as the trope would have it, Ozymandias reveals that his plan already happened: “I’m not a republic serial villain,” he says in response to the threat of being stopped, “Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting the outcome?” (Moore & Gibbons 375). Some readers might be sympathetic to the ends-justify-the-means philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but the comics conventions curtail the sympathy of such readers for Veidt.

Rorschach

Rorschach, the “true” identity of one Walter Kovacs, has a worldview that stands in direct opposition to Veidt’s. He is beholden to a rigid, unflinching moral code, and feels obsessively duty-bound to carry it out. He outlines it in his journal: “There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this” (Moore & Gibbons 32). In the carrying out of this code, he reasons, he must break a few eggs. Most of the eggs are the fingers of criminals, but he doesn’t balk at taking their lives either. He, like the traditional superhero, is a true Kantian, in that the moral imperative by which he lives is entirely without compromise (Kant 21). But his heroism, like Veidt’s, is compromised— by reality: for who gives any one of us the right to decide what deserves punishment? The social contract forbids such vigilantism, and for good reason: we must make such decisions collectively or risk the arbitrary judgment of others, however mentally unsound (Hector Godfrey, the gruff, right-wing editor of the New Frontiersman quips, significantly, when his assistant Seymour reads him the first few lines of Rorschach’s journal, “Jesus, who’s it from? Son of Sam?” [Moore & Gibbons 338]). When, at the end of the book, Rorschach is asked to go along with Veidt’s plan, he repeats his mantra, though he knows, this time, it is literal: “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise” (Moore & Gibbons 402). He will reveal the plot even at the cost of his own life and the lives of the billions saved from nuclear apocalypse, because for a Kantian, no one man (let alone millions) can ever be a means—humans, in Kant’s moral universe, are all ends in themselves (Kant 21). Rorschach’s stalwart adherence to a code, however perverted, makes him far more of a tragic antihero than Veidt, and the reader pities him when Dr. Manhattan implodes him outside Veidt’s artic lair, Karnak.

Dr. Manhattan

Friedrich Nietzsche

In Dr. Manhattan, Moore and Gibbons give us a true superman. Nietzsche might not recognize his Übermensch. But Dr. Manhattan behaves in ways the theoretical Übermensch, taken to its logical conclusion, likely would behave: he is depicted throughout the book as a man locked in a losing battle with his own indifference to human morality, agency, politics, and allegiances. If humanity did evolve, as Nietzsche speculated, into something mentally and physically superior, with the attributes of a god, he might, instead of becoming a ruler of men, become another species entirely, losing interest in men and their small preoccupations. And indeed, after Jon Osterman’s nuclear accident transforms him into Dr. Manhattan, giving him actual superpowers, he acts first as a political tool, aligned, by default, with American interests: he wins the Vietnam war and allows himself to be used to intimidate the rest of the world into submission to America’s will (allowing for a fourth term for Richard Nixon). But, as he can see and understand matter on an atomic level, isn’t beholden to time’s linearity, and is functionally immortal, he loses interest in the petty, violent, short-sighted dramas of human politics and emotions. When asked about Dr. Manhattan’s political allegiance in an interview, Veidt quips: “Which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?” (380). Russians, we assume, are the red ants in his metaphor. Lest we fail to see that this Übermensch is by all measures a god, we see him, in his final moments before leaving earth forever, walking on water, after one of his only smiles—at the sleeping bodies of his former lover in the arms of another (this is the book’s subtle suggestion that human love, frailty, and sympathy are the only causes worth fighting for, putting to shame the lofty abstractions of philosophy). After walking on water, Dr. Manhattan then engages in the following exchange with Veidt:

DR. MANHATTAN: Human affairs cannot be my concern. I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated.
VEIDT: But you’d regained interest in human life.
DR. MANHATTAN: Yes, I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some (Moore & Gibbons 409).

After this comes one of the most profound exchanges in the book, when Veidt’s confidence falters, and we see the shortsightedness of his plan (the shortsightedness that curses all mortal beings):

VEIDT: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
DR. MANHATTAN: “In the end?” Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends (Moore & Gibbons 409).

That the two are standing in front of an orrery is surely no accident, for earlier in the novel Dr. Manhattan opines that the universe is a “makerless mechanism,” a clockwork that runs without end, bereft of a creator (Moore & Gibbons 138). And here, in front of this clockwork solar system, he decides to become, at last, a watchmaker.

The book's final panel

The haunting strains of “Nothing ever ends,” and the imagery that unites the book’s closing with its opening, prompt the reader to reread the book. Rereading Watchmen is crucial to understanding it, so on a fundamental level, Dr. Manhattan is right: even the book, in a sense, doesn’t end. It’s an ouroboros swallowing its own tail. The cyclical impulse causes some of the clockwork pieces, on a second and third read, to fall into place. The book opens with an image of a smiley face, its bilateral symmetry violated by a bloodstain: the pin worn by The Comedian, whose murder sets the book’s events in motion. In text boxes above the images we get Rorschach’s rambling journal. The final scene shows Seymour of The New Frontiersman, reaching toward the “crank pile,” where Rorschach’s journal lies (a journal exposing Veidt’s plan), waiting to be burned. Seymour wears a smiley face shirt, and we watch ketchup spill over the smiley face’s eye in the exact pattern of the book’s opening. We can’t help but wonder whether the book’s events have been told in retrospect by the furthest thing from a hero: Seymour, the chubby, right-wing slob with buck teeth and very little demonstrated agency. Godfrey’s words accompany Seymour’s reaching hand, prompting him to choose from the crank file whatever he wants to run in the magazine: “I leave it entirely in your hands” (Moore & Gibbons 414). Has Seymour been the orchestrator of the book’s omniscient narration? The idea seems implausible, but it’s there in his name—a homophone for “see more” —and yes, if he sees the contents of the journal, he “sees more” than any other living being in the book, whose view of events are partial, contingent, or compromised (even Dr. Manhattan cannot see futures beyond his own, and thus does not anticipate Veidt’s potential failure). His name might also be prompting us, the readers, to “see more” through another read. So, is Seymour, as potential omniscient narrator, a possible Watchman (the “watch-man” or watchmaker who turns the gears of the plot)? Has he already orchestrated the destruction of the world by exposing Veidt’s plan? Or is he one of many cogs?

Clockwork

The superheroes, no Watchmen, are clearly cogs in this clockwork universe. Countries, with their petty policies, are cogs of even less significance (in our world as well as the novel’s world). Even Dr. Manhattan apprehends himself as a cog (though one with the power to uncog himself, should he choose): he tells his ex-girlfriend, “We’re all puppets… I’m just a puppet who can see the strings” (Moore & Gibbons 285). The characters themselves, though they may believe in their own omniscience, are held captive by that most tyrannical of despots: the omniscient narrator. Though each superhero is a storyteller, through journals, monologue, or dialogue, though many narrative frames are layered together, diegetically and meta-diegetically, providing a patchwork of possible truths, the truths are all at the mercy of some mysterious, remarkably literate narrative voice, who titles chapters, chooses epigraphs, and obtains the rights to various copyrighted materials to compile information for us (this narrator is beholden to copyright law, apparently, suggesting that he or she is a diegetic member of the cast). At the novel’s close, Godfrey’s voice says the future is “entirely in your hands.” “Godfrey,” of course, is a homophone for “god” and “free,” no less significant than “Seymour” considering the book’s questions about theology and free will. The final panel before the Juvenal epigraph is the moment at which readers become aware, as they always do on a final page, that they are holding a book, that a book is literally in their hands, and that straightening out the ouroboros of events, untangling the multiple narrative layers, determining which philosophical standpoint is right, or at least the least evil, falls to them. Moreover, the books epigraph reminds us that we live in a world far more nuanced, violent, and ideologically fractious than the book’s tapestry (as referenced by the real-world Iran-Contra allusion). We, then, the readers—the “Seymours,” not the “great men,” in our big, complicated clockworks—are Watchmen, witnessing all our human philosophies fail us on the page (just as they do in real life), and wondering, as we’ve all wondered since Juvenal: who, if not us, is authorized to appoint, watch, or be, the watchmen?

Cited Sources

Juvenal, Decimus Junis. Satura VI. The Latin Library, 27 Nov. 2016. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/juvenal/6.shtml

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. 3rd Ed. Tr. James W. Ellington. Hackett, 1981.

Mautner, Thomas. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin Books, 1998.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper Collins, 1993.

Moore, Alan, and David Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 2004.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Tr. Walter Kaufman. Penguin, 1954.

[1] Translation Mine

Truth in the Gutter

Metonymy and Memory in Spiegelman’s Maus

Figure 1

Art Spiegelman ushers us into the second chapter of the second volume of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale with a visual pun. The title page contains mice, their partially-anthropomorphized mouths agape with torment, their eyes round with terror, surrounded by flames or gas (Fig. 1). The title, hand-drawn in Teutonic block letters, reads “Auschwitz: (Time Flies).” The “S” is bent and angular as in the Nazi logo. These letters hang above the image, and blend with it in conceptual (if not emotional) harmony. It could be a movie poster for our tacitly agreed-upon, collective narrative of the holocaust, with its cast of stock characters, images, and icons. But around the image—violating it, contaminating it—buzz drawings of flies (the “flies of time,” perhaps). They are the size they would be in our world, the wr­iter’s world, and they crawl over the image, over the blank space around the image, partially obscuring the genteel “Chapter Two” above it. They remind us that the text is a superimposition of the author’s own memories, experiences, and biases over the memories of his father. While the words are Vladek’s, the pictures are Spiegelman’s triply-mediated account of those words. The flies become a metonymy for many things at once: the corruption of memory by time; the rank, guilt-poisoned writer’s block preventing Spiegelman from completing the second volume; and the contamination of our culturally-ingrained holocaust iconography, which, the novel seems to suggest, we must carefully protect from becoming prurient melodrama instead of what it is—sacred cultural and personal truth.

Figure 2

Spiegelman inoculates against this corruption with his triple-narrative strategy—a strategy unique to comics. Through deliberate artificiality, he replaces brittle fact with lush Truth; not the surface truth of raw data, but the invisible Truth (in the Romantic sense) at the core of those data. The first narrative is Vladek’s recollection of the Holocaust. It is harrowing, largely chronological, and often recognizable in its iconography. The second, existing interstitially within the first, and often out of sequence, is Spiegelman’s record of obtaining his father’s story. His father in this narrative layer, unlike the hero of the Holocaust narrative, is domineering, difficult, manipulative, selfish, and sometimes cruel. At times, Spiegelman must wrest the narrative from his father’s clutches (clutches so strong that Vladek, who never throws anything away, has destroyed his wife’s journals—the only thing that could contradict his account of events). It could be a dirty business, to coopt someone’s greatest trauma and repurpose it to one’s own ends, but Spiegelman always fesses up, makes the theft transparent, creating a narrative tier that, while casting doubt on the accuracy of his father’s memory, serves not to contradict Vladek but to allow more than one reality to exist at once—to gently expose the fallibility and limitations of memory. In Figure 2, Spiegelman draws two tiers of time. The first, on the right side of the page, records a present-day conversation between Artie and his father in which Vladek recounts marching out of Auschwitz. On the left-hand side of the page, Spiegelman draws the marching prisoners, and includes an orchestra in the background, a fact about which he has read in other accounts of the camps. His father protests: “From the gate guards took us over to the workshop. How could it be there an orchestra?” (Spiegelman 54). Spiegelman grumbles that the facts are well-documented, but concedes by redrawing the march in a panel right below the first, filling in the orchestra’s space with marching prisoners. But the reader can see the tips of the instruments in the background. The ghost of the orchestra is still nestled there: Spiegelman keeps it as one amid a palimpsest of memories. In this way, he includes both his father’s lower-case “t” truth, and the lower-case truth of other survivor’s documented histories. In image form, these two truths, which should contradict one another, instead coalesce. Together, through the imperfection of each, they show that we can approach a capital “T” Truth, however asymptotically. And Spiegelman both complicates and resolves these interwoven tales with his third tier of narrative representation; a metanarrative that exists outside the story—outside of time itself.

In Understanding Comics, one of the most approachable textbooks on semiotics ever written, Scott McCloud tells us that simplified images, with detail stripped away, have a singular power to represent ideas rather than forms. He remarks that:

By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within (McCloud 41).

Figure 3

Spiegelman leverages this phenomenon throughout the novel by rendering different races and nationalities as different animals, and by creating the world in simple, blocky, crosshatched line drawings. But nowhere do we see this effect used to such perfection as in Spiegelman’s third tier, in which he creates a pure “world within,” and lets it both interact with the world outside and exist free of it. The flies, which are now operating on numerous levels through visual pun, follow us from Chapter 2’s title page into the chapter itself, as does the assertion that “Time Flies…” We are confronted with the artist, slumped over his drafting table. He isn’t a mouse, but a man in a mouse mask (for to expose the artificiality of the storytelling is a classic metanarrative strategy). Flies circle around him, and after a few panels we pan back to see that the drafting table rests on a pile of emaciated human/mouse bodies (fig. 3). The flies have become a triple metonymy—for the passing of time, for artistic stagnation, and for the feeling Artie has that his book has defiled the dead. We have reached a narrative level that exists outside of temporal logic: this is an artist visually grappling with interior demons in the purely sensory space where emotions intersect with ideas. He gives us a unique front-row seat to someone else’s timeless reservoir of identity, the place in which we wrestle with and invent ourselves, and this space can best be explored through the tension between words and images. The words here give one set of data—we learn Vladek has died, that several years have elapsed since the publication of the first volume of Maus, and that it was a critical and commercial success—but combined with the images we see an entirely different data set: we see an identity ripped asunder; a success that feels like murder; a profound guilt that the author has profited from his family’s tragedy. Such conceptual tripling isn’t accomplishable with words alone. Only the interplay of images and words can weave so many layers together.

Spiegelman elbows in on truth by braiding these multiple localized and highly personal narratives together, including his own. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard would approve. It is what, in “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” he calls “small narrative.” He offers “small narrative” as an antidote to “grand narrative,” or history-by-consensus, which tends to calcify into overly-simplistic tropes of good and evil, written and maintained by the victors (or survivors) of any given conflict. He insists that:

Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value… We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus… it must be local, in other words, agreed upon by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation… limited in space and time (Lyotard 504).

Figure 4

Spiegelman fights the over-simplification of the past through, paradoxically, simplification: his images are metaphoric and metonymic—they are, in other words, so simple they are patently “untrue.” Men are not mice; we do not live in a sketchy black-and-white world; and the swarms of reporters stepping over the dead bodies in Spiegelman’s apartment amidst buzzing flies are there only in Artie’s imagination (Fig. 4). In the same image, these reporters, who cheapen and trivialize the war in their quest for profit, lob their solicitations at a masked Artie, while he shrinks and shrinks until he is child-sized, emitting an infant’s “WAH!” This is not strict verisimilitude, we all know, but we also see how it gets at something deeper, something that exists on a purely experiential level, and that collapses the strict hierarchy we like to maintain between “history” and “emotion.” Simplified forms, as McCloud notes, illustrate the complexity of the concepts.

Spiegelman is wise to use the comics form to tell his threefold tale: comics offer what other mediums can’t, in that the reader becomes a collaborator. McCloud makes much of what he terms the “gutter,” or the space between the panels in a cartoon, as a space where readers commit “closure.” “Comics panels fracture both time and space,” he says, “offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud 67). What better way to reconstruct a shared Truth than to make the reader complicit by asking her to add her own interpretations to a story at risk of becoming clichéd by concensus? McCloud remarks that comics is, “…a medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change” (65). If the project is to present multiple, local, Lyotardian “small narratives” in order to patchwork facts and feelings into a unified (if sometimes contradictory) history, the best way to do so is to make the reader an aider and abettor. History, in our postmodern world, must be apprehended in aggregate, not by consensus, or we risk corrupting it, and the most honest way of getting at it is asking us all to participate. This is our story, Spiegelman seems to say—all of our history. The Truth, in other words, is hidden in the gutter, among the flies.

Works Cited

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996. 481-513.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus, A Survivor’s Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books. 1991.

Landscape and Loneliness

Images of Alienation in Adrien Tomine’s “Translated, from the Japanese,”

The bullet train shoots through Tokyo. Snow sidles down from the hazy ochre sky above the electrical wires, and the muted scene expresses a world in winter. Cold seeps off the page. The handwritten text that hovers far above the drab cityscape (in a sky that takes up 4/5 of the page) is close and so neat it’s almost right- as well as left-justified. It clearly expresses, like the scene, a heart in winter. The text begins a circumspect and somewhat cagey second-person narration indicating that the speaker is a parent, taking her child to California against the wishes of her family. But we get a sense of distance and loneliness from this first panel, a sense that the text alone doesn’t reveal. Or perhaps that the visual of the text reveals.  Though she mentions people, this world is free of them. The only life in the image is the life of machines.

Tomine blends clarity in word and image with mystery, and this has something to do with the way the words and images interact. The images are meticulously drawn, and evoke a certain kind of commercial art. They feel vaguely instructional, like the diagrams that show airplane passengers how to disembark in case of a water landing. Perhaps that’s what this story is: a representation of a state of emergency, carefully rendered, but about which its characters are in denial, and toward which their hearts are frozen. The words throughout the… (what do we call this? A graphic short story? A series of vignettes? A visual haiku? I can’t find an apt term) …the words throughout the piece acknowledge some form of confusion and heartbreak, but mother and child interact with people in nearly every panel in a normal, neighborly way. The Osaka professor sitting next to the child on the plane is kind and generous, and we get quite a bit of detail about him in the text; the stewardess mistakes him for the speaker’s husband, and when they disembark, he becomes again the stranger that he was before the flight; the child’s father, from whom, we learn, the speaker is estranged, embraces the child and has made arrangements for the two of them to stay in California; the family drives together, eats together, and the speaker makes reference to the birthday party the child will enjoy the following day. But juxtaposed with the images, this text betrays the speaker’s internal loneliness, which her interactions with the other characters cannot penetrate. Combined with the images, the text shows us a world of precision and cleanliness, but an empty world, a world of supreme isolation, bereft of humanity. We get no faces on the plane, just physical details of the space and the tops of heads. When our speaker reports that the professor “laughed very much at the strange things you said” (Tomine 77) all we see is an airplane tray table littered with candy and a notebook; when she asks the man to look after the child, we see the overhead baggage compartment, and in the bottom left corner the top of someone’s head; the closest we come to seeing the child is his/her arm, clutching a child’s blanket, while in a separate seat the speaker holds a cup of coffee, cut off by the image border. When our speaker looks at the world, the story suggests, she sees only fragments of objects, the gorgeous heartache of everyday things. In this way the images defy their verisimilitude: they appear true to life visually, but, filtered through the speaker’s emotional state, they have been unpeopled to an unrealistic degree. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud analyzes the way abstraction takes us out of the real world: “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form,” he says, “the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within” (41). In this case, however, we are confronted with extreme realism in the images, but with elisions we can’t square with realism. The speaker’s mind rejects the people around her. But does she admit that to us when she speaks? She can’t. This character is crippled by her inability to get through the frozen landscape of her emotions, and the world she observes reflects her inner state. This cognitive dissonance foreshadows the revelation on the final page.

The barely-perceptible shadow of death lurks here and the devil, as always, is in the details. The second-to-last panel is of a light fixture, seen from below. The lamp’s cover is missing, exposing its innards. There are fittings for two bulbs, but only one bulb present. “I fell asleep in my clothes on the floor beside you,” says the narrator, “listening to the sound of your breath” (Tomine 81). The fixture, we assume, is what she’s looking at as she lies there awake beside her sleeping child. Reporting about a broken marriage and an impending abandonment, what her brain registers is a broken object with two of its parts missing. The story that is implied in this image is not the one the narrator tells us (that two things will soon be missing from her own life). McCloud says that, “The platonic ideal of the cartoon may seem to omit much of the ambiguity and complex characterization which are the hallmarks of modern literature, leaving them suitable only for children. But simple elements can combine in complex ways… great power is locked in [a] few simple lines. Releasable only by the reader’s mind” (45). Tomine’s brown-drab world has, if anything, more complexity than a true-to-life image would. His images, combined with his words, show, experientially, a very specific mind in crisis, a coy mind, a mind struggling with the unnameable.

We are left with the most beautiful panel in the piece. A view of San Francisco, at night, green fog rolling in above a city warm with lights. But we, the speaker and the reader, are on the other side of an unbridgeable divide: the dead, dark-olive Bay separates us from the life on the other side. Eight stars peek out above the cityscape. Here we get the revelation that the images foreshadowed: “I wonder how old you are now,” says the speaker. “How long have I been gone?” (82). She is no longer with her child. There is the same clarity… and the same mystery. Is she dead? Has she hidden the note for the child to find? Why doesn’t she know her child’s age? We, like the speaker, are exiled, on the other side of the cold Bay—a divide as metaphorical as it is literal—and our hearts remain in winter.

I highly recommend Adrian Tomine's collection of illustrated short stories from which this story comes, titled Killing and Dying.

Cited Sources

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993. Print

Tomine, Adrian. Killing and Dying. US: Drawn and Quarterly, Client Publisher of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2015. Print

Never Quite Disclosed

Epistemological Hijinks in the Poems of Emily Dickinson

Literature is not religion, and it doesn’t address itself to belief. But if we shut the vision of it completely out of our minds… something goes dead inside us, perhaps the one thing that it is really important to keep alive.
— Northrup Frye, The Educated Imagination

Emily Dickinson wrote during a revolution in epistemology. Scientific inquiry, from the time of Francis Bacon, had endeavored to uncover the stable, static, unchanging design behind God’s universe. But what was becoming increasingly clear, from Charles Darwin onward, was that the scientific method uncovered, despite itself, not nature’s divine stability but its chaotic stochasticity. Scientists and theologians of the time scrambled to reevaluate knowledge itself: why we gather it and to what purpose to put it. Enter Emily Dickinson, educated in both theology and the sciences, and highly observant of the way the inner (spiritual) life interacts with the natural world. She joins the debate on the one hand as a Victorian scholar, representing 19th century religious ideas of an unchanging, stable, and discoverable Truth with a celestial creator, and on the other as a naturalist who doesn’t just accept but celebrates contingency, chance, and change. She places the two worldviews in tension by employing metaphors that destabilize rather than coordinate the world—emphasizing, rather than reducing, difference—in an attempt to suggest that it’s process, not product, that gets us closest to the divine.

In her article “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor,” Michelle Kohler notes that the scientific method had “…long held the promise of gradually revealing a fixed, divine order to the material world” (61). But, she goes on to say, these methods were dismantling the very ideas of permanence and fixity they were meant to reinforce. In response, she notes, “Dickinson seeks a new way of thinking about revelation that embraces process and provisionality” (Kohler 61). Let us examine poem 1140 as an exemplar of this phenomenon. The poem starts without surprise: “The Lightning is a yellow fork” (Dickinson 457). Forks and lightening are an oft-paired metaphor, and represent the way lightening branches into frightening and destructive “tines.” But the poem veers dramatically from the expected in the next few lines: “From tables in the sky / By inadvertent fingers dropt / The awful Cutlery.” This lightening fork, far from being a representation of God’s terrible power (a cliché the reader is primed to expect), is actually a domestic, almost womanly metaphor of mislaid flatware. This fork is dropped by accident from a heavenly table during, we have no choice but to presume, a heavenly meal. Even in God’s “mansion,” accidents happen. Randomness reigns supreme. Note what Dickinson chooses to capitalize. The Fork, the Table, and the Cutlery, are given proper noun status, while the “fingers” and the “mansions” of God are generic. The poem employs the passive voice: the Fork is dropped. God is undermined as the agent. It is the mistake, the movement, the downward motion, as well as, to a certain extent, the end viewer’s ability to see the metaphor, that Dickinson emphasizes. Further, the reader is asked to imagine this accident as revealing a spiritual truth. But it is the falling object’s accidental disclosure, not the object itself—the God-made lightening, table, mansion, or observer—that delivers this spiritual truth.  The cutlery is dropped from “…mansions never quite disclosed / And never quite concealed,” and the moment of observation causes “The Apparatus of the Dark” to be, for a brief, accidental moment, exposed to those who otherwise have no access to the mysteries of the divine. Through destabilized metaphor, our poet approximates revelation.

Dickinson places herself in competition with God by offering up this exposé. As Claudia Schwarz notes in her article “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time,” “Whereas God has the power to give and to take away, the poet’s imagination transcends the boundaries he has set up and even turns his concepts upside down” (94). Just as science was challenging—albeit queasily—God’s hegemony, Dickinson, too, shifts the focus from God’s power to nature’s mutability and contingency. To an almost blasphemous degree she places herself in the role of its record-keeper and even, at times, as its creator. We see this in poem 787, in which she claims that had she the seed, her own “bloom” would surpass the bloom of sunset (Dickinson 351). Humble, in a way, because she admires the “Efflorescence” of sunset while admitting she isn’t equipped with the right material to enact her one-upmanship. But it takes nerve to suggest that with the right tools she could out-create God. In The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne, Evan Carton notes how paradoxically Dickinson makes herself powerful: Dickinson’s language, he contends, “…exercises its power as it seems to announce its impotence; and… intricately involves itself with its object while ostensibly opposing itself to it” (83). Sure, the mountain, “Indicating by no Muscle / The Experience,” doesn’t expend effort to create so gorgeous a sunset. But, insists the poem’s speaker, with the right “seed,” her “…Purple Sowing / Should endow the Day / Not—a Tropic of a Twilight— / Show itself away—.” Though it might take effort, her sunset wouldn’t be something that died in twilight, but would be an efflorescence worthy of the day. Like Carton, Kohler notes that, “…it is precisely in the act of laboring for and against itself, of claiming success and incapacity, that Dickinson’s metaphor locates meaning” (82). Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in Emily Dickinson, agrees with Schwarz that Dickinson’s poetry turns God’s concepts “upside down,” and even invites her readers to share the power: her verse, Wolff says, though the poet herself is mortal, can, “…confound death and transcend time by springing to life anew for every reader. Her poetry, then, stands as rival creation to God’s” (185). It is this brazenness that, despite her reclusive life, makes Dickinson one of the world’s most beloved iconoclasts.

Dickinson throws her gauntlet not just before God, but before all prevailing 19th century notions of the very purpose of knowledge-gathering. Previously, scientists assumed that, sans a priori assumptions, close observation would reveal the “intelligent design” behind the world’s outward variability. Instead, scientific observation was again and again undermining its theological end. Literature, Dickinson suggests, can mend this rift. She seeks, in Kohler’s words, a way to “…redress the growing rupture between empirical methods and spiritual truth” (61). Dickinson uses what, in “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self,” Simon du Plock calls her “paradoxical pronouns—often grammatically or generically unstable” (275) to celebrate the dual (and often multiform) nature of all things; metaphorical, rhetorical, and literal (and these become quite tangled: a sunset is at once real, the signified, and a metaphor of a bloom; her written bloom is a facsimile of that metaphorical bloom, but also, in the subjunctive, outblooms the real sunset’s bloom, etc.) Her poems breathe life into the inanimate while exposing the mechanisms behind the omnipotent. Kohler contends that an unstable Dickinson metaphor can, “…accommodate the incongruity that erupts amid her repeated efforts to make words adhere to their referents” (77), which goes a long way to explaining Dickinson’s obsession with the limits of knowing: with half-obscuring and half-revealing (like her shadowy diner with His—Her?—effulgent cutlery). Literature can bridge the split in epistemology, but only imperfectly—in the way an asymptote approaches its axis.

In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, Charles R. Anderson comments upon her keen sense of the bounds of human perception:

What seem like objects to the limited mortal view are really aspects of nature as process, nature going down to the “death” of eternity. And conversely, what man sees as process and change are the illusory pictures cast by the immutable on his time-trapped senses (134-5).

Nature—God—shows us only a bit at a time, and shows it to us provisionally. And art, because it self-consciously creates an incomplete replica of its referent, is more suited than science or religion to approach “the immutables:” Truth, Revelation, etc. Perhaps that is why Northrup Frye, in The Educated Imagination, cautions us that without literature “…something goes dead inside us” (48), because the formal mechanisms by which we find truth—science and religion—speak in absolutes, whereas our minds apprehend only fragmentarily. Dickinson describes the artistic process best in poem 1263, when she urges us to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies” (Dickinson 495). We must approach truth asymptotically, she tells us, else “every man be blind.” Dickinson embraces the paradox syntactically as well as rhetorically by creating an infinite loop within the reader’s mind. We have “truth” in the middle of the first line, equated with the Circuit that “lies”—the terminal word of the second line. Of course the denotation of the word “lies” in this context is “rests,” but the reader must also confront “lies” as truth’s opposite. Similarly, the word “slant” recalls a number line on a Cartesian coordinate system, elegant, infinite, while “circuit” evokes an ellipse… a known, limited, closed system. Du Plock comments that Dickinson seeks to “…satisfy our increasing need to have our intelligence resisted” (279), and this poem, with its paradoxes, does just that. It suggests we use our own limitations to glimpse the infinite; and lie to tell the truth. What better metaphor is there for art in general—for literature?

There is mischief in Dickinson’s metaphors. They’re pranks on the whole epistemological paradigm shift and its polarizing effects. And through her metaphorical roguery, her poetry synthesizes two prevailing worldviews—the randomness and chance that science reveals, and the spiritual Truth that religion espouses—and does so with pathos, humor, and humility. She understands something that neither side alone does: that divine truth can be found in nature’s very unpredictability, so that even as we lose truth as an unchanging entity, we gain something richer and truer to the human sensual and spiritual experience; we gain, in Kohler’s words, a truth that “…is true only insofar as it is of use to a person and… because usefulness is determined by constantly changing methods, needs, and environments, truth is always in the process of being made and remade” (84). Dickinson spent her life writing and rewriting, hardly considering the fruit of her labors. She, almost more than any other poet, privileged process over product. It was the labor itself that sustained her—and that continues to sustain us in a world that, despite our best efforts, can never be quite disclosed.

Cited Sources

Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Rinehart and Winston. 1960. Print.

Carton, Evan. The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 1985. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press. 1999. Print.

Du Plock, Simon. “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self.” The International Conference of Psychology and the Arts. Univ. of Porto. 26-28 July 2013. Presentation.

Frye, Northrup. The Educated Imagination. Concord: Anansi Press. 1997. Print.

Kohler, Michelle. “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor.” Nineteenth Century Literature Vol. 67, No. 1 (June 2012): pp 58-86. Print.

Schwarz, Claudia. “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time.” Arbeitenaus Anglistik und Amerikanistik Vol. 32, No. 1 (2007): pp 83-99. Print.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 1988. Print.

A Small Island Is Not a Country

History and Landscape in Jamaica Kincaid's "Song of Roland"

Jamaica Kincaid foregrounds a love story in “Song of Roland." But the love story quickly becomes a backdrop for the story’s true preoccupation: the highly charged power asymmetries roiling beneath its surface. Political and gender struggles leave traces in the flesh and behaviors of the characters, so that the struggles become larger, more elemental than the characters, who are often only partially aware of them. Even the island setting—its topographical features and its moody weather—becomes a character of sorts, with agency and motives, almost more real than the unnamed protagonist and her lover. Despite the story’s surface, its undercurrents concern power: power’s uses and power’s limits, and the way power is exercised by the powerless.

Most of the story is told in iterative time. The narrator and her lover meet again and again in an ongoing tryst, lending the romance a sense of the timeless, the mythological. Three exceptions, each including pages of sensual detail, anchor the narrative specifically in time and place: first, when the lovers meet during a rainstorm (indeed, the rainstorm seems partially responsible for their meeting). The narrator’s dress is plastered alluringly against her body; she must take shelter beneath a gallery. Her mood—which we eventually recognize as one of her chief coping strategies—is one of sublime desolation: “I was standing under the gallery,” she says, “enjoying completely the despair I felt at being myself” (147). She is receptive, in such a mood, to the aesthetic pleasures of romance. It seems as though Roland is as well, for she manages to communicate with him over a din of sadness: the people around them, speaking loudly of “…their disappointments… for joy is so short-lived there isn’t time to dwell on its occurrence” (148). The narrator derives her power from her ability to turn sadness and squalor into transcendent beauty so as not to be subsumed by it—she possesses the power of the artist.

The second instance of specific time occurs when the narrator has a confrontation with Roland’s wife. While the older woman hurls exaggerated invective at her—“…[she] called me a whore, a slut, a pig, a snake, a viper, a rat, a low-life, a parasite, and an evil woman” (151)—she keeps herself emotionally distant from the insults and blows, safe within another source of her power: her youth, beauty and indifference. “I was then a young woman in my early twenties,” she confides, “my skin was supple, smooth, the pores invisible to the naked eye” (151). While Roland’s wife, enraged, rips the narrator’s dress from her body, listing the names of his other lovers, the narrator coolly observes that “The impulse to possess is alive in every heart, and some people choose vast plains, some people choose high mountains, some people choose wide seas, and some people choose husbands;” adding, significantly, “I chose to possess myself” (152-3). The narrator is assured victory over her body and mind—unlike the other battlegrounds over which the characters fight and exhaust themselves.

The story’s ultimate scene sets the narrator and Roland facing the sea that can’t free them, with their backs to the island that traps them, the “…small world we were from, the world of… steep mountains… covered in a green so humble no one had ever longed for them, of three hundred and sixty-five small streams that would never meet up to form a majestic roar… of people who had never been regarded as people at all” (155). The narrator looks in the direction of the horizon. She can’t see it but knows it’s there, and she likens this unseen limit to the limit on her love for Roland. It will end, she’s foreseen, like the island’s three hundred and sixty-five streams: “[it would]… spill out of me and run all the way down a long, long road and then the road would come to an end and I would feel empty and sad…” (149). The island’s geography serves as an extended metaphor for the emotional limits it imposes on its inhabitants.

These three specific scenes, set within skeins of recursive time, do little to make the romance more concrete. Instead, what they highlight is the story’s preoccupation with themes of power and powerlessness. From their first meeting, the narrator asserts that Roland, “…was not a hero,” and unlike the emblem of chivalry to which the story’s title alludes (Childress), “…he was a small event in someone else’s history” (148). In her tenderest explorations of love, the narrator employs the language of war and conquest: “When our eyes met,” she says, “we laughed, because we were happy, but it was frightening, for that gaze asked everything: who would betray whom, who would be captive, who would be captor…” (148); Roland’s mouth, she asserts, was “…like a chain around me” (148); when he kisses her breasts, she can’t decide “…which sensation I wanted to take dominance over the other” (152); and when Roland’s wife confronts her, she tells the younger woman, “…[Roland’s] history; it was not a long one, it was not a sad one, no one had died in it, no land had been laid waste, no birthright had been stolen; she had a list, and it was full of names, but they were not the names of countries” (152). In this story, a romance is a conquering, with a victor and a loser. The lovers have been robbed of country, history, birthright and even personhood (a people “…who had never been regarded as people at all,”) and their attempts to reclaim are enacted on one another’s bodies. In this way the subtle shadow of colonial slave heritage stretches over the story, as inevitable as the weather (which, as the narrator asserts, is, “by now beyond comment” [148]). If the story’s landscape circumscribes, its history binds with an even tighter chain.

Roland.jpg

The narrator triumphs because she refuses Roland’s “silent offering” (154). She remains in control of her fertility, which Roland wants—without understanding his want—to plunder, like he plunders the wombs of the ships whose lading he steals. She is so confident in her victory, she can empathize with her would-be possessor: for “…no mountains were named for him,” she says, “no valleys, no nothing… no history yet written had embraced him” (154). She can see that his need to conquer women is a proxy to remedy the shame of these losses, and that he can’t fully understand the “small uprisings” within him that urge him to all this small-scale conquering. Roland, like the narrator, wants a story of his own. But once again, as in times past, he has been hijacked by history. He has only the narrator—the artist—to sing his small and humble song.

Cited Sources

Childress, Diana. “The Song of Roland.” Calliope. March, 1999. Vol. 9 Issue 7. Web.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “Song of Roland.” More Stories We Tell: The Best Contemporary Short Stories by North American Women. Ed. Wendy Martin. New York. Pantheon Books. 2004. 146-55. Print.

Trickster in the Modern City

In Science Fiction Studies’ “Symposium on Slipstream,” authors and critics spill a fair amount of vitriolic ink raging against the codification of the slipstream genre (when not raging against the genre itself). Neil Easterbrook quips that the impulse to create a stable and static definition of it is the point at which “taxonomy becomes taxidermy” (13), and Jonathan Lethem urges us to reject “…brand new nomenclatures, apparently expressing the yearning for brand new self-referential politics of exclusion, defiance, caste-shame, and resentment” (15). So censorious is the polemic against slipstream that these authors do more to prove its dastardly hold over the psyche of the millennium than to reject it. It’s a genre that has, apparently, hit a nerve. Perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. We know—and many of us are affected by—slipstream when we see it. And boy do we see it in Michael Swanwick’s Dragons of Babel. Dragons is a novel that, through its fusion of realism and mythology, suggests slipstream might be an emergent phenomenon, rising organically from the ashes of modernity in order to synthesize the two halves of our fragmented modern souls.

Joseph Campbell can be seen everywhere in Dragons. His hero-orphan thwarts the dragon, discovers his noble parentage, and is apotheosized when he assumes the mantle of king. In parallel to this template of the monomyth, in almost every paragraph, our protagonist Will navigates our world: the dismal hyper-realism of late capitalism, full of urban blight; democratic principles stagnating in a swill of bureaucracy; institutionalized bigotry; and relentless, brutal, and meaningless war. We know this latter world—we recognize it as our own—even as we yearn for the former, the mythic. We have gritty, indifferent New York City. We long for its magical analogue, Babel. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell warns us that in current progressive societies around the world, “…every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay,” and that, within such a structure, “the timeless universe of symbols has collapsed” (Hero 334). He talks about the deterioration of social cohesion: that which served as the ethical, religious and mythological memory-keeper has been replaced by individualism and the secular state, engaged in “…hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources” (Hero 334). Where is the magic—where are the heroes—in this world of “rationalized avarice” (Hero 337)?

Most fantasy novels (The Lord of the Rings is a prime exemplar) provide respite from the “real.” Readers, nostalgic for something they sense but haven’t experienced, seek refuge in fantasy in order to luxuriate for a time in a world alive with “grand narrative”—Campbell’s “human heritage of ritual, morality, and art.” Such novels replace the modern with a world unified and organized by myth. What Swanwick gives us—what perhaps the best of slipstream fiction gives—goes beyond pleasurable escape. He asks us to imagine our contemporary world with our old coordinating mythologies intact, by superimposing one upon the other. We know dragons don’t exist in this world of science and rationality, but we still have what dragons are a metaphor for—violence, greed, the seductively dangerous will to power. Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, making the dragon at once a sentient animal, capable of malice, persuasive discourse, and abuses of power, and a war machine, running on jet fuel and requiring a pilot: he is both the potential evil in the human mind and the machines of war such a mind creates. John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, notes that one of the hallmarks of slipstream fiction is the literalizing of metaphor (“Symposium” 15), and Swanwick literalizes everywhere, from the crusty old drunk who has fused bodily with her seedy downtown bar to the solipsistic power-monger who creates a whole army out of thin air so he can watch his soldiers die. With such literalization, Swanwick strives to resurrect Campbell’s “universe of symbols,” but his signifiers aren’t mere backward-pointing diversions. Rather, he endeavors to make these hieroglyphs legible in today’s world. It’s no surprise that when Will slays the dragon he merely internalizes the evil—he doesn’t vanquish it—a particularly modern trope of psychology’s “control and mastery” theory. Through narrative maneuvers like this, Swanwick shows us that our metaphors still have juice, still have the power to unify and organize our experience into coherent, interpretable shape. He invents a hero who, in Campbell’s words, attempts to “bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul” (334). Our souls may be different now, but they can still be understood—co-ordinated—through metaphor; through pointing to the signified (which is modernity-proof) with the rich signifiers of our heritage.

In addition to literalizing the god-and-monster metaphors, Swanwick literalizes the holistic nature of Campbell’s monomyth. His characters are self-consciously drawn from mythologies the world over. Classical Centaurs, Germanic elves, Japanese onis and Southern American haints coexist—often imperfectly—in the melting pot that is the novel, and the city Babel (like the languages in its biblical namesake). Such democracy evokes Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which transcends any particular tradition, touching on the universality of human experience. This is our story, all of us, this negotiation between our heritage, in the form of myth, and the bleak here-and-now, in the form of progress and modernity. There isn’t a single place on earth—no remote forest tribe, no Himalayan village—safe from the encroachment of industrialization, a reality to which we have no choice but to adapt. Now that our world has globalized, and we all face many of the same enemies, our belief structures must negotiate not just with industrialization but with each other. Rationality has freed us all from what Campbell ironically calls the “bondage of tradition” (334): it strives to jettison myth—all that is “untrue”—from our lives. But, Dragons suggests, we might just need our myths, our resplendent metaphors, to guide us through the rites of passage in a world where individualism has replaced the group. In “Symposium on Slipstream,” Lance Olsen suggests that the art that connects us to earlier forms of reality-representation offers antidotes to the “hypermediatized, late-stage capitalist ‘reality’ that is no longer perceived as real” (16). Though we know they aren’t strictly “true,” our myths can lend a foundational reality the “real” no longer has; and by not privileging one mythological pantheon over another, Swanwick suggests that it hardly matters which symbolic framework we choose to organize our experience: we just need one of Campbell’s myths, those “spontaneous productions of the psyche” (Hero 2), or many of them—or all of them.

Campbell describes an emergent phenomenon when he says myths emanate spontaneously from the psyche, because the psyche, in this case, stands in for both the individual’s psyche and the collective one (2). In Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson explains that emergent phenomena are decentralized processes whereby millions of units of individual input make, collectively, decisions for the good of the whole, without benefit of leaders, or “pacemakers” (17). Myths, like cities, grow of their own accord out of the needs of the many. Intelligent decisions appear like magic, but “who,” asks Johnson, “is doing the conjuring?” (33). Once again, Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, here in the form of the emergent city. An urban denizen informs Will that Babel was built not as a city, but “…the framework of one—a double-helix of interlocking gyres…” where “Buildings are thrown up and torn down as needed, but the city goes on” (Swanwick 122). The city, in essence, is a character with a will (Will?) and a genotype, and at the same time it isn’t—it’s a swarm of self-interested individuals doing what they do to get ahead. Like the dragon, it exists as two things at once, its scientific taxonomy and the living idea for which it’s a metaphor. Johnson reminds us that even in science this “couple-coloredness” can exist, for a city is literally the sum of its residents, and also “…more than the sum of its residents—closer to a living organism, capable of adaptive change” (52). The process of myth-making, like the living city, arises out of the collective unconscious, and it’s just possible to see slipstream as a manifestation of a very specific human gene: our myth-making gene, our need for an organized social cohesion, sired not by our “pacemakers” but by our hearts.

To this end, Swanwick conflates two hero archetypes in the novel: the king and the trickster. While traditionally the king is a “pacemaker” who restores order and inculcates the law, the trickster’s job is to queer the pitch, or, as Campbell notes in the short film “Mythology of the Trickster,” he serves as the “Disruptor of Programs.” The trickster is the best man for the job of synthesizing the modern and mythological, because, by operating “bottom up” rather than “top down,” he endeavors to integrate a new way of thinking, not replace the old one. He is a catalyst for emergence. In “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal,” Larry Ellis calls the trickster, “a creature of low purpose who establishes precedent, [and] dabbles in the creation of the world that will be” (55). Moreover, he notes the invaluable place of the trickster in myth:

The world of myth is a place of creation in which things and events, from the seemingly insignificant to the momentous, are altered in preparation for the world to come. Trickster is a figure of myth, and in singular fashion sets out to change the mythic landscape in every area imaginable (Ellis 57).

Nat, Will’s father and the novel’s absent king, primes his son to be this catalyst, ready to reach “every area imaginable.” He explains the role of the trickster this way: “We keep things stirred up. Without us, the world would grow stale and stagnant. Every life we’ve touched today has been made richer and stranger” (Swanwick 234). What Will learns about kingship is that its main function is not to embody justice and power, as his advisors counsel; nor to destroy the evil Babylon, as the dragon within him urges; nor to impose order over a chaotic city, as the citizens of Babel expect. No. Nat puts the king’s role best when he contends that, “It isn’t for me to increase or decrease the total amount of virtue or vice in the world—just to keep things stirred up. To keep us all from dying of predictability” (Swanwick 234). Swanwick could be teaching us to negotiate a world whose prime directive is to slaughter magic and erect the static “real” in its place. Or, correspondingly, he could be writing a treatise on slipstream itself.

Whatever we call slipstream—magical realism, metafiction, experimental fiction, counter-realism—it is, like the trickster himself, our agent provocateur, the “Disruptor of Programs,” the creature “of low purpose” who changes the world. Many signifiers, the rational and the irrational, can point to the same signified, and no single definition is sufficient—is even possible. No wonder the folks of the slipstream symposium are enraged with the necessity of pinpointing, of defining a category genetically blueprinted to resist stasis. How do you create a taxonomy when the basis is manifold, when the genre emerges out of spiritus mundi to fulfill whatever collective need produced it? Pinning it down changes it—makes it taxidermy rather than taxonomy. Will realizes that after he changes the world he must disappear, because the world needs a disruptor, not a pacemaker. So he does, only to resurface later, as legends do, when they’re needed, to start the cycle over again. He, and slipstream itself, are Campbell’s modern heroes, “…rendering the modern world spiritually significant” (Hero 334) by allowing the myth-making half of our soul to sooth the restless, rational, post-modern half, the one hungry for co-ordination, for our lost “universe of symbols.”

Cited Sources

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, California: New World Library. 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “Mythology of the Trickster.” Magic, Myth and Folklore Videos. BOAS Network. Feb 17 2014. Web. Dec 6 2015.

Easterbrook, Neil. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Ellis, Larry. “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. Ser. 2, Vol. 5, No. 4. Winter 1993. Print.

Johnson, Steven. “The Myth of the Ant Queen.” Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner. 2001. Print.

Kessel, John. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Olsen, Lance. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Swanwick, Michael. The Dragons of Babel. New York: Tor Books. 2007. Print.