Shirley Jackson’s Unsettling Freedom

June 27, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Posted in fiction | Leave a comment

In October, I decided on a whim to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959): because it was “in my period” (20th century American), because it was written by a woman, and because it seemed appropriately “Halloweeny.” Since then I’ve been on a minor streak: a few months ago I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1963), and I’ve just finished Hangsaman (1951), by far the strangest of the three. It seems that her books’ popularity is more or less in inverse proportion to their strangeness, which is a pity, because their strangeness is precisely what makes them so compelling. For example, The Haunting of Hill House, by far her most popular novel, would be not very different from any other ghost story were it not for the radical uncertainty of how much of the haunting is in the main character’s imagination — and this uncertainty is what makes the book truly creepy. Jackson is a master of what might be called, rather than “the uncanny,” “the unsettling.” Her stories literally unsettle us, they shake us up a bit and make us uncomfortable. They’re told in simple enough prose that I recently recommended them to a friend looking for “young adult fiction,” but they resist cohering in the expected ways, and their relatively straightforward style makes their deep weirdness somehow even weirder. All three of the books I’ve read so far have young female protagonists who are varying degrees of crazy, so you might call them “unreliable narrator” stories, except that the narration is in the third person, which contributes a lot to the creepiness: the liberal use of free indirect discourse makes it deeply unclear what is being reported by the narrator as fact, and what is skewed by the protagonist’s thoughts.

These books are therefore really interesting windows into young women’s minds, and reveal what odd places they are. All minds, surely, are odd, but the minds of girls becoming women in the 1950s offer Jackson a particularly rich sea of strangeness to draw from: the question of expected behavior vs. individual autonomy plays out in all three of these books in a variety of bizarre ways: in Hill House, accepting the invitation to visit the haunted house is the first independent choice Eleanor has ever made; in Castle, the Blackwood girls struggle with the question of whether to re-integrate with the community or continue to live defiantly on their own; and Hangsaman is quite literally a going-off-to-college, coming-of-age story, though a very weird one. Hangsaman in particular provoked shocks of recognition in me at regular intervals, as I realized I’d perhaps never read a book that captured so well the oddly self-absorbed marveling at the world that characterized my teenage years:

The sight of the mountains far away was sometimes so perfectly comprehensible to Natalie that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it — she was, of course, adequately hidden from the windows of the house — or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal to set up against the simultaneously real-and-unreal batterings of her family. (23)

What kills me in this passage is the word comprehensible — not incomprehensible, but comprehensible. This isn’t the overwhelming sublime, this is a feeling of mastery somehow, of being able to contain and understand the spectacle. Natalie must force the tears into her eyes, she must actively “turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it.” I’m not sure I could have articulated until now that a lot of my imagination in my late childhood and adolescence consisted of making the world significant, because I wanted it to be, because I was told (by fiction, I guess, and movies and TV) that it ought to be, and because on its own, it really wasn’t: I was just a kid, seeing normal things, living a normal life of very little consequence. But imagining my routine life into a life of significance was a way of exerting a measure of control over it: I could make boring things interesting, and I could make things forced on me feel like things intended for me by some kind of mystical fate rather than by mundane rules and expectations.

As I mentioned before, Hangsaman is a coming-of-age story with some standard markers of that plot, but the execution of that plot is “unsettling” in that it doesn’t actually hang together very coherently. The third act, in particular, comes seemingly out of nowhere and I kept thinking that I might have missed a crucial plot point that tied it all together — particularly since I read the middle hundred pages in the fog of an endless delay parked in an airport bar. But more than articulating a coherent plot, Hangsaman is concerned with feeling its way around the odd, drawn-out process of coming to own and control all of yourself: it operates on a stranger and more philosophical register than most coming-of-age stories. Following immediately after the above passage, we get this:

There was a point in Natalie, only dimly realized by herself, and probably entirely a function of her age, where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities. (23)

Exploring this point “where obedience ended and control began” is the central issue in this book. Natalie draws away from her overbearing father and enters a college world where she is socially defined in two very different contexts, which gives her a very unstable sense of her own identity: she is reviled by the girls in her dormitory, but becomes a pet of a fashionable young professor and his wife and therefore has some social standing among a different, older set of girls. Both social groups are governed by strict (and somewhat conflicting) norms which demand “obedience” (just as the rules of her father did) and Natalie rebels against both as she tries to figure out what part of her is really her own. This all is complicated by her near-hallucinogenic imagination, and to make matters worse and weirder, a sexual assault that Natalie experiences early on casts a pall over the whole book — it’s certainly a profound experience of the loss of control. In the last third of the book, Natalie suddenly finds that she has a (female) best friend named Tony, and the two of them go off on a journey away from the college and into town, skipping their classes, which is a dizzying experience of freedom and control for both of them (and is also, I theorize, meant to recapitulate the assault scene to a certain degree — but discussing this in more detail would give away too much). In the following passage, drunk on free will, the girls engage in some familiar solipsism:

“I wonder what the rest of them do with their time?” Tony said absently. “Do you think they go to their classes as usual? Or has the whole college faded away or blown into dust or collapsed — ”

” — or crumbled or snapped out like a light — ”

— Just because we’ve gone? Tony thought. “We are on a carpet,” she announced soberly. “It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.”

“The immediate spot where we are walking is the only immediate spot there is,” Natalie said. (185)

This passage, and the book as a whole, does a marvelous job of capturing what freedom is: an eternal but very narrow present. In the film Donnie Darko, we are occasionally shown watery, tentacle-like projections that emerge from characters and seem to draw them along their expected paths:

We’re meant to understand that it’s habit, intention, fate, or some combination of these that draws Donnie inevitably toward the refrigerator. The tentacle concretizes how expectations literally shape the future, and can give us an almost psychic ability to see it. When Tony and Natalie skip class and walk into town instead, they reject a planned, visible future in favor of a nebulous “red carpet” (as Tony says), or perhaps more accurately, in favor of simply an “immediate spot” (as Natalie decides). The rest of the world falls away: there is you and your will and the present moment. This pure world, free from consequences and complications, is not really the one we live in — as the girls quickly discover. Nor would we want it to be, I hope: functional societies and meaningful relationships both entail obligations as well as consequences for ignoring them. Yet we continue to hold “freedom” as a central American value, relatively uninterrogated in popular discourse. What Jackson excels at is bringing into focus is the narcissism, terror, and sociopathy that accompany freedom in its purest form. If that’s unsettling — well, it should be.

Revisionist Tragedy: Luhrmann’s Gatsby and the Knight of Faith

May 18, 2013 at 11:52 am | Posted in fiction, film, love | 1 Comment

I liked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — the visual extravagance was eminently appropriate, the movie was surprisingly willing to poke fun at its own absurdity, and I even liked the controversial hip-hop soundtrack, which I thought added to the dizzying disorientation of the party scenes and also marked the movie unmistakably as an artifact of the present moment rather than a “faithful” reconstruction of history. I’m just going to take issue with one little bit of the movie today, and that’s the end, where Gatsby dies (spoiler alert!) while waiting for a telephone call from Daisy. In the movie and the book both, Nick leaves Gatsby the morning after the accident promising to call him later, and Gatsby says “I suppose Daisy’ll call too,” and expects Nick to corroborate this hope. Then, in the movie, we see Gatsby waiting by the telephone, and having the telephone brought out to the pool, intercut with Nick moping at his office and with Daisy sitting by her own telephone, presumably thinking about calling Gatsby and taking him up on his offer of a life together. Finally the phone rings at Gatsby’s pool, and he thinks (and says) “Daisy!” as he climbs hopeful and starry-eyed up the pool ladder, only to be shot in the back and to fall backwards in stunned slow motion. After he’s dead it’s revealed that it was only Nick on the phone, worried about Gatsby.

It had been a long time since I’d last read The Great Gatsby cover to cover, but I was pretty darn sure this last gasp of hope, the ringing phone that might have been Daisy, was not in the book. And indeed it is not — at least, not exactly. Furthermore, I recognized this revisionist ending — it’s a version of the ending of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where Juliet wakes up from the sleep-drug before rather than after Romeo dies from the poison he’s just downed, allowing for the two of them to have an agonizing few seconds of “OH SHIIIIIIIT” eye-contact before Romeo succumbs. And that, of course, was also DiCaprio. So here we have, for the second time, Luhrmann giving DiCaprio an unauthorized minor revision to the source material in which his character sees both love and death in the same moment — the sudden, surprising promise of the one being unraveled before his eyes by the imminent certainty of the other.

In R + J, it’s certainly not in the original script, but it’s at least a choice a director could legitimately make — it involves no alteration to the spoken words. In Gatsby, it’s part of a pattern in which Luhrmann alters the text to remove ambiguities and make Gatsby more purely into a symbol of undying, incorruptible hope. Significantly, Luhrmann leaves out the punchline in what turn out to be Nick’s final words to Gatsby:

“’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’

I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, [because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.]”

The excision of the remark in brackets from the film’s narration is one of many small ways in which the film gives us a Nick who is more thoroughly starry-eyed about Gatsby than is the character in the book. The invented scene with the telephone call is another, more significant revision in this vein. First of all, the book is cagier about what phone call Gatsby is even waiting for. He certainly says to Nick that he hopes Daisy will call, but when Nick tries to call Gatsby he never gets through and is told that the line is being held open “for Detroit” — whereas in the movie, we see Gatsby specifically telling his butler not to take Detroit’s call, as well as shots of Daisy thinking about calling (which the book never gives us reason to think that she does). The book doesn’t actually “show” Gatsby’s death, but here’s Nick’s imagining of Gatsby’s final moments:

 “No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”

This is nearly the opposite of the scene in the movie — not only does no call come, but Nick thinks that Gatsby has finally lost hope, and rather than a final glorious moment of possibility, Gatsby’s death is imagined as almost being caused by giving up on hope. Letting go of hope has caused formerly lovely sights to become “frightening” and “grotesque,” and it is this terrible “new world” that sends forth the ghost-like form of Gatsby’s murderer in the final line here. Luhrmann, on the other hand, prefers Gatsby to remain a perfect, unspoiled symbol of hope until the end. His revision of this scene makes melodramatic tragedy out of Gatsby’s vision of love snatched away by death, and backs away from the deeper tragedy that Fitzgerald draws, of the world’s very animating soul draining out as hope dims.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Gatsby to the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who says to himself that even though his love is impossible, “I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.” The thing about the knight of faith, though, is that he has first to accept that his love is really not possible in this world, and I don’t think Luhrmann’s Gatsby ever gets there. For one thing, Luhrmann takes away the condition that the love be thoroughly impossible by showing those scenes of Daisy with the telephone, thinking about calling. She even reaches for the phone at one point, and the camera cuts back to Gatsby’s phone ringing, and his emergence from the pool only to be shot, allowing viewers to think along with Gatsby that this is in fact Daisy calling. The slow-motion tragedy of Gatsby falling back into the pool is the moment of Romeo seeing his future with Juliet being drawn away from him by the tunnel of his own death — it’s not until afterwards that viewers get the punchline that it was just Nick on the phone. Gatsby’s hope that Daisy will call is not at all unreasonable or absurd in the movie, which takes away some of its poignancy.

To be honest, I’m not sure that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby qualifies as a true knight of faith, either. Kierkegaard explains that “childlike simplicity and innocence” can also account for impossible hope that is just naïveté rather than true faith based on the renunciation of earthly possibility. But Fitzgerald’s vision of Gatsby is nonetheless darker and more complex than Luhrmann’s, and Gatsby’s last moments are an experience of a dead, empty world left lifeless when hope has gone: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…”. What’s striking about these lines is the transformation of natural beauty into uncanny horror. And is Gatsby himself one of these “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air”? If so, it’s another transformation, from a vision of himself as drawing strength and vigor from his dream to one of himself barely clinging to life through it. Another line of Kierkegaard’s comes to mind: “Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything.” It’s as though Gatsby’s faith has been giving him the world up until this moment, and now suddenly the world is taken away — even though it’s still in front of his face. It’s not just Daisy who vanishes in this tragedy, but everything — and not because of Gatsby’s death, but because he wretchedly remains alive. Fortunately, this world of shadows sends forth its avenging angel.

On Plots and Plotting: The Golden Bowl and All About Eve

May 24, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Posted in fiction, film, gender | 3 Comments

I recently saw the film All About Eve, and today I posted on Facebook that I’d noticed significant structural similarities between its plot and that of Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, but that I was resisting the urge to write a blog post about it because I was pretty sure that nobody cared. Some friends assured me that they did, in fact, care, so I am now writing that blog post. Note that this post will be full of spoilers, especially of the film, but both works have plenty to recommend them even if you know the broad contours of their plots already.

Basically, the similarity I see is this: both plots are divided into two distinct halves, and what happens at the turn in the middle is that we are given a new perspective on the situation which causes different characters to become sympathetic. This summary will be pretty rough-hewn, as it’s been years since I read The Golden Bowl, but it goes something like this: the first half of the book is from the perspective of the prince, who is in love with Charlotte, a plucky young American, but has to marry the princess because she has money and he, though of noble blood, is destitute. Charlotte (who is the princess’s best friend) marries the princess’s father so that she can continue to be near the prince, and she and the prince unsurprisingly begin to have an affair — but the princess and her father seem not to notice; they are homebodies and enjoy each other’s company immensely, and don’t mind that Charlotte and the prince are always going out to balls together. Throughout the first half of the book, we are basically rooting for Charlotte and the prince, since they have love on their side and it doesn’t hurt that they’re the only characters doing anything interesting. The princess strikes us as a pretty flat and pretty naive character who has failed to outgrow her attachment to her father, and thus her claim on the prince’s affections seems to be not nearly as urgent or genuine as Charlotte’s. But in the second half of the novel, we see things from the princess’s perspective, and we realize that she does know what is going on, and is genuinely wounded, and moreover has every right to be wounded. Is it so wrong for a woman to enjoy her father’s company? Is it so wrong for her to be a homebody? Does that really give her husband the right to have a semi-public affair with her best friend? We are left somewhat chagrined by having written her off so early, and we cheer her on as she finally gains some agency and deals with the situation.

In the first half of All About Eve, Eve is given to us as a slavish admirer of Margot Channing, a celebrated but aging star of the theater played by Bette Davis. Eve works tirelessly as Margot’s assistant — and though we know that she has acting aspirations of her own, Eve seems so genuinely selfless that when Margot turns on her, all we can see is crazy old Bette Davis getting drunk and having a persecution complex. But in the second half of the movie, something strange happens: Margot apologizes. Not to Eve, granted — she doesn’t get the chance — but to their mutual friends, she says something along the lines of “yeah, I’m sorry I acted so crazy the other day; I guess I’m just past my prime and starting to realize it, and it makes me flip out sometimes.” Sunset Boulevard came out just two months before All About Eve (in August and October of 1950, respectively), but I think I’m not wrong when I say that in 1950, the idea that a character who seemed so firmly in a downward, crazy, destructive spiral — especially one who was a woman and no longer young — could just turn around and apologize and start acting like a human being again must have been kind of surprising. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire hit the stage in 1947, though it wouldn’t be adapted to film until 1951, and I admit that a lot of the examples of the “crazy aging woman” plot that I was going to cite here turn out to be later — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane of course features an even older and even crazier Bette Davis. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that a 1950s audience would not have expected Margot to be able to do anything but get older and drunker and crazier.

But that’s not what happens at all — not only does Margot stop acting crazy, but it turns out she was right about Eve all along: Eve was trying to undermine her, to take over her dramatic roles and her romantic relationships, and it’s Eve who turns out to be the crazy one. What I’m proposing here is that the shift that happens in the middle of the film is similar to the one that happens in the middle of The Golden Bowl — our understanding of Margot for the first half of the film is shaped (quite deliberately, I think) by our preconceived notions of what a “crazy aging woman” plot looks like, much like our understanding of the princess is shaped by our preconceived notions about this sort of “love triangle” plot should look like. The suitor who offers wealth and stability is inevitably the “false” suitor; we assume that this person cannot also be offering true love, because if he or she were, then it would be a lot more difficult for our hero to feel noble about rejecting wealth and privilege in order to run off with his/her “true” lover. The Golden Bowl reminds us that our hero is never just rejecting wealth and privilege; he or she is also rejecting a human being. For the first half of the book, the princess is, if not a villain, at least a hapless victim who basically deserves her bad fortune — similarly, in the first half of All About Eve, we figure that even if Margot is right and Eve is scheming to further her own career, Eve deserves to further her own career and Margot ought to graciously step aside and let the next generation of actresses have their turn in the spotlight.

What both plots show us, then, is the power of plots themselves. At the turning point, they reveal the constructedness and contrivance of the first half, and the characters initially portrayed as unsympathetic get to have their say. There’s a lesson here about literature (and film), but there’s also a lesson about life, as there tends to be in this blog: pay close attention to the “plots” you impose on the things that happen to you — you may be the protagonist of your story, but everybody is their own protagonist, and if somebody looks like a flat character from where you’re sitting, that’s only because you are a poor writer.

The Writer, the Fragment, and the Hedgehog: R.I.P. David Foster Wallace

September 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm | Posted in contemporary, fiction, love, poetry | 5 Comments

As you probably already know if you are a literary type, David Foster Wallace has died. In the following thoughts about Infinite Jest, I will not divulge any plot details — but I will discuss the general shape of the plot arc in a way that, frankly, would have spoiled the reading experience for me in a pretty significant way if I had known it beforehand. However, if you’ve read even a single review of IJ, you’re probably already aware of the thing that I’m wary about disclosing; my reading experience was somewhat abnormally sheltered. Let’s put it this way: if this blog post were about The Usual Suspects, it would not tell you about the identity or even the existence of Keyser Söze, but it would tell you that the movie has a twist ending. (We all knew that, right? Sorry. I shed a lot fewer tears for watchers of a two-hour movie than for readers of a thousand-page book.) Anyway, this post will give you information about plot structure, but not about plot. The undeterred can continue reading below.

– “Continue reading”>

I Want a Woman I Don’t See

June 19, 2007 at 11:25 am | Posted in fiction, love, modernism, personal, travel | 6 Comments

“And if you don’t believe in love, what do you believe in?” she asked, mocking. “Simply in the end of the world, and grass?”

— D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love

When we made that last, familiar left turn just around the bend I was shocked. I had expected all the greenery of an east coast summer to come as a comfort, a sight for sore desert eyes, but instead the forest I grew up in just made me feel claustrophobic. When I was twelve, my family left the forest to visit New Mexico, and the desert terrified me. I was used to being wrapped in a sylvan blanket, and all those wide open spaces left me feeling exposed and vulnerable on all sides. Now that I’ve been living out west for three years, it’s the east that unsettles me.

In conversation, I’ve stopped referring to these trips as “going home” and started referring to them as “visiting my parents” or “going back east for awhile.” I may have only moved west three years ago, but it’s been fully seven since this town was a place I lived in for more than a few weeks at a time. And yet despite the shift in nomenclature, this place is incredibly important to me. I am continually blindsided by my own history: here is the pond where I never caught any fish, here is the movie theater where I had my exhilarating but awkward first date, here is the intersection where I forgot you can’t turn left on red.

But this place persists in my absence, and it changes. My parents have a new kitchen, my middle school has a new science wing, and they tore down the ghetto A&P and put up a shiny new Whole Foods. When I come back to visit, I can get into strange hallucinatory moods: I project the used bookstore on top of the Starbucks that has taken its place, and I prefer my daydream.

Over time, I’ve developed a series of rituals that help stave off some of this weirdness and make this place feel more like home. There is a local pub it is imperative I visit. There are records in my mother’s collection that I absolutely must listen to (I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama!, Pearl, American Beauty, Nashville Skyline). And I need to take a long luxurious bubble bath with a glass of wine and a good book. But by far the most significant ritual is the whirlwind visit to New York City in which I try to see as many old, dear friends as possible over the course of a single weekend. I just got back from one of these which was a stunning success; the complex scheduling came off perfectly, and every minute of all three days was spent in the company of completely marvelous people.

Of course, it’s easy to be a visiting celebrity. You become everybody’s number one social priority, and you don’t have to pay for your drinks. On these trips I feel like a comet, arcing brilliantly through the sky and making headline news, only to disappear and leave folks to their pedestrian local constellations until my orbit brings me back around again.

I always come back from these trips feeling supremely loved. Sometimes on these trips I receive actual confessions of love, which I am always careful to take kindly but with a grain of salt — it’s easy to love somebody you see twice a year; it’s much much harder to love somebody you see every day.

I am presently smack in the middle of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, a book whose mystical sensibilities appeal to me greatly but whose gender dynamics leave me a little queasy. Yesterday on the train I read the following marvelously interesting passage: Rupert and Ursula (the names in this book are fantastic) are acquaintances who have recently had one or two philosophical-type arguments, the most recent of which was about the nature of love. A few days later, Rupert invites Ursula and her sister Gudrun (I kid you not!) over for tea, and Ursula deliberately fails to bring Gudrun because she’s pretty sure that last conversation meant something important. Rupert immediately cuts to the chase: “I can’t say it is love I have to offer — and it isn’t love I want. It is something much more impersonal and harder — and rarer.” Rupert is suspicious of love for essentially the reasons that Kugelmass laid out and that I responded to a few months ago in our posts on Neruda. Rupert says, “There is a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you — not in the emotional, loving plane — but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me.” O, the infinite otherness of the other!

Ursula is hurt. The word “love” is important to her; she thinks Rupert is dodging the question. She asks him, mockingly, whether he thinks she’s good looking.

“Don’t you see that it’s not a question of visual appreciation in the least,” he cried. “I don’t want to see you. I’ve seen plenty of women, I’m sick and weary of seeing them. I want a woman I don’t see.”
“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you by being invisible,” she laughed.
“Yes,” he said, “you are invisible to me, if you don’t force me to be visually aware of you. But I don’t want to see you or hear you.”
“What did you ask me to tea for, then?” she mocked.
But he would take no notice of her. He was talking to himself.
“I want to find you, where you don’t know your own existence, the you that your common self denies utterly. But I don’t want your good looks, and I don’t want your womanly feelings, and I don’t want your thoughts nor your opinions nor your ideas — they are all bagatelles to me.”

Rupert’s wish here actually sounds a lot like a line in the Neruda poem that Kugelmass and I were writing about: “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.” It is intended to be an expression of not just love, but more than love. Where love concerns itself with trifles such as a person’s physical presence and thoughts and ideas, this kind of regard concerns itself with deep spiritual truth — a mystical truth that is beyond attributes and is only and purely essential. While I appreciate that Rupert’s vision tries to be honest about the isolated human condition, I also think that it’s total bullshit. Rupert is such a thoroughgoing narcissist — or such a coward — (and when is there much of a difference?) — that he cannot imagine what it would be like to actually deal with another person. He would rather strip away all of Ursula’s specificity than try to understand it. He keeps insisting that his ideal model for their relationship is two stars in orbit around one another, holding one another in balance. But the problem with loving stars or loving comets is that they are nothing but points of light. You can’t tell one from another, and you can’t ask them to tea. And what is this hidden inner self, and how would Rupert come to know it at all? All he can ever get from Ursula are the outward, physical signs of her inner self, and to reject those is to reject the real, material person in favor of a fantasy.

This is why I smile gently and change the subject whenever a person on the east coast tries to tell me about their undying affection. What is your affection for, sir? How often do you and I even speak to one another? This town is not the only thing that’s changed; the people in it must inevitably see me with the same hallucinatory vision, projecting the girl with pigtails on top of the one with short-cropped hair. And yet it would be entirely wrong to say that my friends here and I don’t share real love. I miss them when I’m gone; I care about them deeply. A case could even be made that my faraway friends and I take our relationships with each other much more seriously than my day-to-day friends and I generally do, because our time together is so precious. But if we call this love, is it not the love of shadows?

A Secular Miracle

December 26, 2006 at 6:47 am | Posted in fiction, interpretation, materiality, writing | 2 Comments

First of all, a confession: I haven’t read the new Pynchon, nor do I plan to in the near future. I am studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and I just don’t have time for “outside” reading on that scale. However, Joe over at The Kugelmass Episodes recently talked me into re-reading The Crying of Lot 49 with him, and has written a very insightful post on it, to which I will now respond. I should also take a moment here to thank Joe for pushing me into the academic blogging world in the first place; I had been toying with the idea for at least a year, but had mostly been too shy.

In my last post, I began with a quote by Dillard that I never particularly explained: “There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.” It’s an interesting line; you realize upon inspection that it doesn’t so much efface the artist as transmute her into light itself, into a force of nature. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon gives us a related image:

If it was really Pierce’s attempt to leave an organized something behind after his own annihilation, then it was part of her duty, wasn’t it, to bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around her?

The novel’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, has been named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will, and in the process of sorting out his large southern California real estate empire has stumbled across what she believes to be a vast conspiracy involving, among other things, an underground postal service. The “Driblette” mentioned here is the director of a play that Oedipa believes has something to do with all this. Here, Pynchon positions Oedipa the executor and Driblette the director as sources of light: both of their jobs are to sort things out and illuminate them so that others can understand. Unlike Dillard’s artist, their light is artificial, mechanical. But a line of Borges’ comes to mind. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he describes a world wherein a forged encyclopedia from a fictional planet slowly begins to infiltrate its way through scholarly channels into legitimacy:

How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön; how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: ‘inhuman laws’) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

The difference, then, is that while Dillard pounds her fists against a materiality that, divinely created or not, will always be mute, Pynchon and Borges find much more compelling the endless complications that arise when we try to communicate. If the light that shines through an artist must be “natural,” it makes sense that the critic/reader/interpreter must be man-made. Perhaps this is what is meant by the designation “post-modern”: Pynchon does not start with the natural world, or even with the “natural” interactions of humans, but with pieces of communication as such. Or rather, with pieces of possible communication. Early in the novel, the layout of the streets of San Narciso remind Oedipa of an electrical circuit: “Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meanings, of an intent to communicate.” Throughout her journey, Oedipa is continually confronting texts, items, and coincidences and continually having to decide whether and what they are supposed to communicate.

Joe, in the aforementioned post, gives the following account of the novel:

So Pynchon became a Robbins for me, one who is not outgrown. What he does is certainly not the only possible function of literature. He has merely created a story about the way narrative functions — the interplay of love and curiosity, the irresistible progress forward through revelations, and backwards through meanings, the re-minting of the world by metaphor, the symbolic death of final closure. In other words, he has created a story about the very peculiar and indispensable reason for prose, for teaching, and writing, and reading it.

While all of the things he lists here are good reasons for teaching literature, I would like to add another: The Crying of Lot 49 dramatizes the eternal problem of the reader. “Am I reading too much into this?” It’s a question they generally train us professional scholars of literature not to ask; if you think it’s there, it’s there, no matter what the author may or may not have intended. Generally I accept both Derrida’s notion of the instability of the signifier and Freud’s notion of the unconscious, but discounting authorial intent entirely seems like much too glib a solution. If literature is supposed to be communication (is it?), what the author intended to say ought to matter, at least a little bit. Oedipa’s fanatical search for authorial intent strikes us as hyperbolic, but poignant; for her, there are no alternatives besides cosmic, grandly-orchestrated meaning and mute, meaningless coincidence. Oedipa can’t see her way out of this problem because she will not allow for the possibility that she, as interpreter, can be more than just a projector, throwing somebody else’s map of the cosmos onto the wall. But her frustration resonates; even though we critics have wised up to our own role in all this, who among us has not wished she could talk to Shakespeare, Melville, Woolf, and find out for sure what they were up to?

The tragedy, of course, is that even if we could have this conversation, we would not really be able to find this out. The search for an underground postal service is a search for honest communication, “a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, and betrayals of spiritual poverty for the official government delivery system.” Oedipa needs to believe in this, that behind the banality of everyday life, real communication is happening somewhere.

The thing is, it is. Every time somebody really listens to somebody else, stops waiting their turn and scripting their reply instead of listening and considering another person’s ideas, real communication is happening. It’s certainly not perfect, and our failures to understand each other will always haunt us as the provocative “cul-de-sacs” that Joe points out towards the end of his post.

Pynchon calls communication a “secular miracle,” and I think it’s a telling phrase. It might be the secular miracle: that humans, whose minds must always be utterly separate, can make themselves understood. God’s miracles are utterly uncommunicative, if Dillard is to be believed — the proof of a miracle is its inscrutability. Rocks and trees are miraculous to her. As Joe points out, one of Pynchon’s characters defines a miracle as “another world’s intrusion into this one;” for Dillard, the created world itself is the mute testimony to this intrusion. But what Pynchon wants us to see is that communication between people can be a miracle too — when do we feel the presence of another world more fully than when we finally understand what somebody else has been talking about?

Create a free website or blog at
Entries and comments feeds.