Joyshtick III: Ludonarrative in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

December 7, 2017

The third (and likely final) installment of the “Joyshtick” series of academic conferences.

Enjoying these conversations? Check out EpilogueGaming.com (@EpilogueGames)

Preston, Ben, and I will be launching a ludonarrative podcast in January.

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A Brief Tale of Sacrifice: The Unlikely Alliance of Jacques Derrida and Jordan B. Peterson

December 1, 2017

Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist who has risen to international fame in the previous year, regularly disparages Jacques Derrida in his talks and lectures. Peterson recently argued on the Joe Rogan podcast, for instance, that Derrida’s influence on the University system has been a “corrosive force,” the results of which are “absolutely pathological to the core.” Many of Derrida’s conclusions (e.g. lifedeath) are, for Peterson, “true, but…” because they always rest on the notion that categorization in society exists primarily to marginalize others, a notion Peterson finds “absurd” as a critique. The absurdity that Peterson attributes to Derrida momentarily disappears, however, when they discuss sacrifice and responsibility. Peterson, a champion polemic of post-modernism, at least within the scope of this discussion, sounds a lot like Derrida, the post-modernist who he claims to most condemn. Perhaps Peterson might take Derrida’s Gift of Death into account in the future, an act which might soften some of Peterson’s harsher blows against post-modernism.

Jordan B. Peterson’s arguments about Christian sacrifice in the story of Abraham most strongly coincides with Jacques Derrida’s recasting of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Derrida, through the writings of Jan Patočka and Martin Heidegger, argues that even Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham was insufficiently complete as an interpretation. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard epically interrogates the “faith” that many people claim to have, and yet “go further” in vain from their own mistaken presuppositions. Kierkegaard dismantles these presuppositions and painstakingly details the “anguish” that Abraham would have felt when he was commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard’s portrait of Abraham’s anguish underscores the multifaceted sacrifice that transpired when Abraham committed to the task that God has commanded of him. Abraham’s multifaceted sacrifice is threefold: (1) his son, (2) his ethics, (3) his future. The call is a call to accept the aporia of responsibility, as Derrida would have it, or the call to willingly adopt sacrifice in order to transcend suffering, as Peterson would have it. This aporetic (perhaps transcendent) responsibility cannot be refused but, simultaneously, will inevitably fail to manifest into being.

In the seventh installment of his wildly popular Biblical lecture series (“The Great Sacrifice”), Peterson argues at length that the sacrificial tale of Abraham and Isaac is an archetypal foundation for Western Culture. This archetypal foundation presents itself as a fundamental problem to contemporary life; that is, sacrifice is a religious notion. Sacrifice requires integration of pain and suffering. This religious notion has still not fully integrated itself into secular society. Reading from a draft of his forthcoming book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson concludes his characterization of Abraham’s sacrifice with a discussion of pain and suffering that echoes Derrida’s sentiments from Gift of Death:

“Pain and suffering define the world; of that, there can be no doubt. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering in abeyance to a greater or lesser degree. And greater sacrifices can do that more effectively than lesser. Of that, too, there can be no doubt: everyone holds this knowledge in their soul. Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering, who wishes to rectify the flaws in being, who wishes to bring about the best of all possible futures, who wants to create Heaven on Earth, will make the greatest of sacrifices: of self and child, of everything that is loved. To live a life aimed at the Good, he will forgo expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will, in that manner, bring salvation to ever-desperate world.”

Peterson’s evocation of salvation, in this conclusion, harkens Derrida’s notion of originary responsibility. For Derrida, responsibility is Biblical in origin: love thy enemy, love all children (not just one’s own). This responsibility produces an aporia, for Derrida. For, as finite beings with limited resources, one can only discharge one’s responsibility only incompletely. That is, one can never properly care for (love) all children, one’s enemies, etc. One’s mortality prevents oneself from properly caring for these others, as one can’t possibly discharge the eternal, infinite obligation present in human beings: responsibility through sacrifice.

Sam Kimball, in the twelfth lecture of his 2017 graduate-level literary theory course, tangentially argued against the ontological notion of responsibility. In Kimball’s terms, each of our decisions is urgent, yet problematic. A decision is only a decision, in other words, if one has inadequate knowledge; one must be uncertain. If one isn’t certain, then one is following a protocol. To make a free decision, a responsible decision, one has to make a decision under certain circumstances of inadequate information; but that makes one’s decision irresponsible, by definition. To decide responsibly is, thus, according to Kimball, to decide irresponsibly. Derrida’s ethical aporia of responsibility is thus evoked in this consideration of irresponsibility (again, in Kimball’s terminology): my responsibility will occur within a Darwinian world that is governed by the logic of the infanticidal, without which the sacred would not appear to me. This apparition of the sacred harkens back to the “salvation” that Peterson describes in his conclusion on the Abrahamic tale of sacrifice. That which is sacred, the ideal future, is achieved through sacrifice, through responsibility.

After arguing against the ontological notion of responsibility, Kimball retraced his logic back through the chronology of Derrida’s Gift of Death. This chronology begins with the Akeda, a text which makes infanticidal logic explicit. This explication complicates the notion of responsibility further, according to Kimball, because Abraham sacrifices Isaac even if he doesn’t. Abraham sacrifices all other sons, furthermore, even if he doesn’t. These “even if” conditionals reveal Derrida’s logic of responsibility: to sacrifice all other possibilities (decisions) even if they aren’t sacrificed.

The (or any) instant of life (or care) is an eternity (infinitude) of sacrificed futures, in Kimball’s terminology. As an individual, one can only be a parent to some kids – it’s encoded in the structure of existence. Parenthood is thus a matter of responsibility and irresponsibility, logically necessitating another form of the gift of death: by taking care of one’s own children, one is sacrificing others’. If one truly understood one’s implication in the infinitude of sacrificed futures, according to Derrida, one would tremble before this mysterium tremendum demanded by the wholly other (God). Every responsibility is thus a coming to face with the resurrection, the gift of death that one can never repay but must try to. This gift of death takes the form of the “bargain with the future” that Peterson emphasizes in the Abrahamic story. To bargain with the future, to sacrifice the present, is an ultimate responsibility – a gift of death willingly sacrificed to one’s future self.

Peterson offers the evolutionary anecdote of mammoth hunting to illustrate the biological origin of sacrifice in human culture. In human culture, unlike in animal life (culture?), massive food resources like a mammoth are preserved and shared in order to bring about a more sustainable future. Animals don’t participate in this bargain with the future, as humans do; rather, wolves, for instance, will eat entire carcasses at a time. Humans, however, distribute the carcass amongst members of the group, thereby conferring notions of sharing, trust, and sacrifice. One who shares, or, in Derrida’s terminology, gifts, is responsible. Peterson continues with the detailed account of the pre-Abrahamic sacrifices:

“Eventually, the utility of ‘for later,’ starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice begins to develop at the same time. If I leave some for now, I won’t have to be hungry later. That provisional notion then develops to the next level: if I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for. And then to the next level: I can’t possibly eat all this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some later. That’s a good deal.”

Hence, societies begin to organize and emerge out of the pleistocene, as Peterson would have it. This emergence, in Kimball’s terminology, does not guarantee an escape from the Darwinian economy of necessity. Rather, in the peace that follows the emergence, society invents culture. Culture, in this conception, is a collective noun for a series of manifestations that subvert the necessity to sacrifice (i.e. taboos, curses, prescriptions, anathemas, oaths, law, religion, customs, etiquette, and gift giving). This subversion is, like the gift of death, precarious. Eventually, this precarious contract will expire and the economic necessity for the group will undermine the peace from which the sacrifice has precluded itself (e.g. natural disaster, invasion, war, pestilence).

When this precarious contract expires, a new sacrifice will have to be made. Peterson might argue that, as sacrifice is a bargain with the future, the reemergence of the sacrifice is inevitable, and even good, if voluntarily undertaken by an individual:

“And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever. In such a manner, mammoth becomes future mammoth. And future mammoth becomes personal reputation: that’s the emergence of the social contract. To share does not mean to give away something you value and get nothing back. That’s only instead what every child who refuses to share is afraid that it means: to share means to properly initiate the process of trade. The child who can’t share, who can’t trade, can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade.”

Sacrifice, in Peterson’s conception, builds cultural trust. Trust through sacrifice is concretized in the social contract, and initiates trade between individuals. This reciprocal trade is precisely what is at stake in Derrida’s Gift of Death. Derrida’s argument about gifts and giftgiving is that a gift is only a gift if it is received and not acknowledged as a gift. A gift, ontologically, cannot be reciprocated, otherwise the intended “gift,” now profaned, enters the market of economic exchange, of Darwinian necessity. This reentry into the market of economic exchange, though necessary, precludes the possibility of the object of intent ever being received as a gift. A gift is thus sacrificed in one’s perceived responsibility to say “thank you,” and pay the gift-giver back for their generosity.

Derrida intentionally refuses to define precisely what he means by the “gift of death,” but repeatedly he emphasizes the “mystery” that the gift reveals. This mystery can be thought of in terms of sacrifice, as well. For all life survives on the sacrificed (gift of) death of other living beings. All life predicates itself on the sacrifice of other life. This sacrifice becomes a gift truly given, a gift which retains its ontological status as gift. That is, one doesn’t give one’s death to others; rather, one gives one’s life for others. This reciprocal relationship culminates in the deconstructed notion of “lifedeath.”

Lifedeath arises as a seemingly self-contradictory term because, as we have seen, life is never purely life. Life is always sacrificial of life. According to this explication, life is infanticidal. Similarly, life produces more life. This production of life is a production of future(s) at the cost of other, lost futures. The (present) instant of time in which the sacrifice is willfully adopted, as Peterson would have it, bears the trace of eternity. This trace implicates an infinitude of lost future, futures lost as permanent loss of infinitudes. If this line of logic holds, then each moment (the present) then inheres infinite value, infinite amplitude of importance. Each moment is infinitely valuable because of the infinitely infinite sacrifices inherited (or gifted) from the past (i.e. lost futures). Each moment of life, then, is a moment intimately bound with death. This intimacy, for Derrida, collapses the illusory semiotic opposition between the logocentric binaries of life and (as independent from) death. Perhaps Peterson’s dogmatic adherence to this logocentrism is at fault in the disconnection between these two great thinkers. Or, perhaps, the psychological truths embedded within the substructure of these Biblical stories are uniquely sufficient to unite the most disparate thinkers. 

 

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Bible Series XII: The Great Sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac.” YouTube, 19 August 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yUP40gwht0

Peterson, Jordan B. “Joe Rogan Experience #877 – Jordan Peterson.” YouTube. 28 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04wyGK6k6HE

Sloganeering: An American Critique of Identity and Place in the Neoliberal University

November 23, 2017

The University of North Florida boldly boasts its twelve-year-old slogan throughout campus: “No one like you, no place like this.” This slogan rings like an apology, vehemently denying an accusation that no one has made. The slogan promises to retain “that small college feel,” according to President John Delaney, without yielding to the fact that “we’re growing larger” (Kormanik). But, like all slogans, the vacuity and imprecision of these words – promising individuality and appealing to the neoliberal banking model of education – betrays Delaney’s intentions. The antecedent premise, “No one like you,” appeals to archaic notions of selfhood that are inscribed in the pronoun “you,” a signifier that the UNF slogan takes for granted. More accurately, the UNF slogan uncritically appeals to the shifter pronoun “I” implied in “you.” The UNF slogan appeals to what traditional American literature has revealed as the now-vacant status of the “I” pronoun, a vacancy to which the UNF slogan is now anachronistically performing. The UNF slogan’s consequent premise, “no place like this,” appeals to an outdated and mistaken metaphysics (of subjecting reference to essence). This mistake is effortlessly revealed by the self-examining writings of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These two writers warrant the call for a new slogan.

“No one like you.”

The interpellative and thereby obfuscating function of the pronoun “you” is one indication that the first premise of the UNF slogan (“No one like you”) rests on a faulty foundation. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s timeless essay, “Self-Reliance,” harshly accuses society of manipulating its citizens such that they thoughtlessly defer to authority: even one’s pronouns are not one’s own. Emerson’s description of thoughtless deference to authority that “you” provokes could just as easily apply to the UNF slogan’s invocation (though not explicit use) of the “I” pronoun, which signifies the same thing: “the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness” of rights and responsibilities within the University (149). Emerson does not (explicitly) define the pronoun “I” in this precise manner, but psychoanalytic and deconstructive thought have, for the past decades, mutually vacated the pronoun “I” in ways that might recast Emerson’s writings on authority such that it decays into a “hieroglyphic” that “obscurely [signifies (or, outdatedly, signified) one’s own] consciousness.” The hieroglyphic pronoun in the UNF slogan might be fairly described, then, as obscurely signifying one’s conscious relation to the University itself. That is, if the first premise (“No one like you”) obscures one’s relation to oneself, then the University of North Florida is implicated in a shell game of promising individuality, and attending to it, all while subordinating it to the incoherently assembled collective of “you.”

Walt Whitman modifies Emerson’s “hieroglyph” to explicate the interpellative effect of each utterance of “I” (or “you,” in the UNF slogan’s terms): each hieroglyph is uniform. Walt Whitman’s epic lyrical ballad, “Song of Myself,” openly interrogates the relationship of “I” with the rest of the world (not-I) through an anecdote of a child offering the narrator a blade of grass: “Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation. // Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic” (29). This “uniform hieroglyphic,” a simple blade of grass, is, according to Whitman, referentially identical to a child: an individual with potential. In other words, the grass is a yet-to-be (perhaps already) “I” pronoun. Indeed, a blade of grass even (uniformly) looks like an “I” pronoun. The uniformity might be the primary reason that UNF chose their current slogan; it masquerades as a caring, individualistic, hieroglyphic appeal to each student, while actually applying to everyone in a uniform way that applies to no one. One might even say that the UNF slogan appeals to no one (like you).

Whitman further distinguishes a “Me myself” pronoun which problematizes the lazy, uncapitalized pronoun “you” that the UNF slogan appeals to. Whitman crafts the curious phrase “the Me myself” first in place of the “I” pronoun, which is another reason to suspect the truth-claim to which the pronoun “I” (and, for the purposes of this argument, “you”) adheres. The opening stanza of the fourth section of “Song of Myself” loquaciously lists off gobs of gossip and nugatory news, concluding: “but [these externals] are not the Me myself” (28). The capitalization involved in Whitman’s diction of “Me” evokes the proper noun status of the pronoun “I,” but somewhat redundantly continues to modify “Me” with the common noun “myself.” This hierarchical redundancy serves to distinguish not only between “I” and “not-I,” but to distinguish the thoughts and cares of others with the narrator’s (Whitman’s?) own. It also breaks down the interpellative effect of “you” that the UNF slogan employs. But even further, the “Me myself” evokes a kind of spirituality: an inner life which isn’t immediately accessible in the presence of others. Whitman’s spiritual idea of the “Me myself” is precisely what’s missing in the UNF slogan.

The pronoun “I” thus ontologically collapses into the vagaries of UNF’s “no one like you” slogan; “I” becomes “you,” for Whitman. Emerson, for instance, condemns the timidity of the times, the unwillingness to declare “I think,” or “I am.” These declarations are antithetical to Whitman’s project throughout “Song of Myself.” That is, Whitman answers Emerson’s criticism to the extent that Whitman vacates the “I/you” pronoun of all distinction: “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (25). Hence, Whitman’s need to articulate the “Me myself” in contradistinction to Emerson’s charge. “I” and “you” are thus a self-reference, hyper-linking access points to sources of meaning in other parts (places) of the world. Whitman further develops this idea that the thoughts within his poem are, in fact, “the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands” (41). His ideas are, in other words, “not original” (41). And, in some sense, the opening lines of Whitman’s poem are not original: either they, the words, belong to you, or “I,” the narrator, belong to “you.” Yet, if these words belong to “you,” that is to say, everyone, then one can’t help but be timid and apologetic in a world where neoliberal institutions like UNF shamelessly rely on empty promises without nuanced distinctions regarding identity: “No one like you, no place like this.”

 

“No place like this.”

The second premise of the UNF slogan, “no place like this,” is similarly defeated by a cursory glance at the tradition of American literature. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” perplexingly evolves from an examination of the self, the “I,” into an examination of the self in a place. Or, more accurately, Whitman’s poem declares that “I resist any thing better than my own diversity, / Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, / And am not stuck up, and am in my place” (41). An overtly literal reading of these three lines might interrogate (in a similar fashion to the discussion above) the “I” in relationship to “my own diversity.” Furthermore, the buried double-negative in Whitman’s formulation “resist anything better than” could simply be rewritten as “can’t (or don’t) resist.” In other words, I can’t resist my own diversity. The diversity of the self, or the “I,” becomes present in the following lines, in which the the narrator describes the breath. Breathing entails an ebb-and-flow routine of inhalation and exhalation. In breathing, one takes a part of the world into oneself and then releases it back to itself. This reciprocal relationship of the body and external world (“I” and “not-I”) leads Whitman’s narrator to conclude that he is “in [his] place.” This feeling of being in one’s place might be a way to frame the following discussion of the UNF slogan’s second premise, “No place like this.” That is, if one is always in one’s place, then one is always in places “like this.”

This universal well-placedness of oneself, if Whitman is to be believed, fundamentally undermines UNF’s presupposition that there is, in fact, “no place like this.” And, to be charitable to the UNF slogan, Whitman isn’t as categorical about “always” being in one’s place. But the poem’s following (parenthetical) stanza warrants such a reading: “(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place, / The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place, / The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)” (41). At the risk of being obvious, moths and fish-eggs live and breed in vastly different ecological conditions: ocean vs. air, hot vs. cold, etc. Yet, the disparity between such diverse creatures is insignificant for Whitman’s narrator. Furthermore, bright suns and dark suns that the narrator can’t even see are “in their place” as well. Epistemological ambiguity, in other words – something to which the narrator has no epistemic access – is still confidently “in its place.” Finally, both the palpable and impalpable are “in their place,” suggesting a metaphysical certitude on behalf of Whitman’s narrator. Both what seems tangible and what seems intangible, or real and fake, etc., are to be confidently believed in as “in their place” as well. At each instance, Whitman’s narrator walks the reader down the path of understanding the universal well-placedness of things. Again, to the UNF slogan, there are many places like this.

Here, one might object to Whitman, defending the UNF slogan to the extent that there will never be a place like this again: one’s experience at UNF in 2017 will be different than one’s experience at UNF in 2018, and so on. Even if this objection holds, and Whitman’s discussion of the universal well-placedness of things is an eccentric oversimplification of the world, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” palliates this objection with a definitive discussion of temporal “place.” That is, Emerson writes of time in a fourth-dimension-evoking sense of place. Emerson argues further in “Self-Reliance” that, by civilizational disposition, “man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future” (151). By postponing or remembering something other than the present, one is, in effect, not where one is. And, in Emerson’s terms, one “does not live in the present.” One must thus avoid the “reverted eye” and “tiptoe,” for one will be “heedless” of that which surrounds oneself. Furthermore, if one rejects Whitman’s notion of the universal well-placedness of things, as Emerson does, then one is, in fact, never where one is (in time). Either instance – of spatial or temporal “place” – reveals the empty promise behind the UNF slogan that there is “no place like this.” Both defenses, spatial and temporal, fail. The situation is thus twofold: one is either always in a place like this, as Whitman would have it, or one is never in a place like this, as Emerson warns. Categorically, there can be no “no place like this.”

 

Symptoms of Sloganeering

For a place that claims to be unique, UNF spends an inordinate amount on advertising and facilitating international study abroad programs, a trend that Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (predictably) warns about. To travel, or to study abroad, for Emerson, is to pursue a “fool’s paradise” (160). This paradise is that of a fool because one who travels for amusement, or seeks some external fulfillment or insight into the self, “travels away from [oneself]” (159). That is, as was the case above, one who travels is never where one is. The question then becomes whether the promise of UNF’s uniqueness as a place conflicts with its honored commitment to multicultural globalism, sending its students to novel places: places not “like this.”

The UNF slogan promotes the “superstition” that Emerson condemns and attributes to the archaic urge, specifically amongst University students, to travel (159). Emerson associates this superstitious urge to travel with “all educated Americans” whose “fascination” still permeates educational spheres (159). One might suppose that students, as intellectuals or “all educated Americans,” would be immunized to superstition; obviously this is not the case. Rather, according to Emerson, “it is for want of self-culture” that students feel compulsion to study abroad (159). The compulsion to study abroad, seen as incompatible with UNF’s vain slogan, is the pathway towards growing old “even in youth,” according to Emerson (159). Surely, growing old is not the aim of students seeking fulfillment abroad or in travel. Rather, returning to Emerson’s earlier evocation of the temporal aspect of “place,” one travels to escape the present. Or, in this case, one travels to escape the present place: “this,” as UNF would articulately prefer.

The urge to travel manifests itself within the University’s culture and structure due to a deeper problem: intellectual morass. For Emerson, “the intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness” (160). Obviously, Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” in 1841, nearly two centuries ago, far before publicly funded high schools were mandatory, much less Universities. Emerson’s prescient problematizations for pedagogy thus presage this historical worry which, to this day, fails to undercut the persistent “restlessness” of studenthood and the isolating  “vagabond” feeling that attends one’s completion of a college degree. One graduates restlessly insofar as one’s education misleadingly “trains” oneself for an incongruent, unforgiving world. One is restless when confronted with the prospect of what one does not already know; as one is educated (or, as one might worry, indoctrinated), one becomes increasingly aware of one’s uncertain relation to the world. And, to Emerson’s second point, one seeks to study abroad because one’s intellect is already vagabond. One might say that the University structurally disassembles people, that the role of a classical education was to train students for the project of becoming who one is, living out the heroic archetype underneath the foundations of Western culture. Only vainly does the UNF slogan project the heroic archetype onto its students; there is, after all, “no one like you.” If UNF sincerely squared itself against Emerson’s mordant critique of what the UNF slogan’s second premise promises, then perhaps the dissonance between the UNF slogan and the experience of individual students subsides. Perhaps there can be a harmonious relation between the UNF slogan and its students, if the University were to critically examine and recast its own slogan.

 

Giving the Devil his Due

Emerson warns that, in polemically addressing the UNF slogan and thereby its contradictory relationship with travel, the “rejection of popular standards” will be seen as a “rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism” (155). This critique is not “mere antinomianism,” a cynical rendering of bureaucracy as such, or travel as such. Rather, the UNF slogan in particular reeks of detached corporate sterilization that seeks to please everyone, a task which no one need ever embark. Rather, UNF should rally around something else: laying out a path of coherent orientation for students who, ultimately, attend University in pursuit of direction and meaning in their lives.

Young people enter University with the primary intention of contributing meaning to the world. This seems to have been the purpose of the classical University structure, as Whitman’s “Song” suggests: to teach people how to meaningfully contribute to the world, to equip people with the vocabulary for generating significance in otherwise insignificant things like a blade of grass. But the University no longer participates in such activity; rather, the dominant narrative throughout the humanities departments is that the world is a corrupt and terrible place, that one’s sense of self (“you”) is conferred constitutive worth by one’s ability to undermine it. The problem with the impetus to undermine society is that it undermines the constitutive identities of the student. Then, undermined, students haphazardly search for that which is worthwhile, something which is easy to seek refuge in: the socially pressured escape in travel, partying, and the online advertising of identity. Hence the phrase that sounds equally lost: “No one like you, no place like this.” The attractiveness of these refuges, according to Emerson, arises from the University’s general cynicism towards cohesive, traditional meaning, the meaning that the classical University structure – as opposed to the banking model of contemporary Universities – once promised to produce.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph W. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Classics, 1981. Print.

Kormanik, Beth. “New logos, new slogan and a new angle for UNF.” The Florida Times Union, 19 August 2005, http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/081905/met_19541575.shtml#.WhRMz7Q-eRs. Accessed 10 November 2017.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. Penguin Classics, 1961. Print.

 

Joyshtick II: Ludonarrative discussion of SOMA and The Last Guardian

November 16, 2017

The second of academic conferences in which Blake Guthrie and Preston Johnston argue that video games have literary value. This video took place at the FCEA conference in Melbourne, FL, in October 2017.

In this conversation, we discuss the history of video games, arriving at a discussion of SOMA and The Last Guardian. We move into other concerns such as The Witcher: 3 and Fallout: New Vegas towards the end of the Q&A.

Ben, our originally scheduled copanelist, sadly could not attend this presentation. Our discussion thus took a more formless structure towards the end.

Our third and final panel will take place on December 6th at the University of North Florida. We will be condensing the content from these first two discussions and proposing some paths forward for this field of study.

Murray, the Trickster: Correcting Ernest Becker’s neglect of Carl Jung

October 12, 2017

 

Jordan B. Peterson remarked in the fourth installment of his biblical lecture series that Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, is “seriously flawed, but wrong in useful ways.” Becker, according to Peterson, “missed the point in the way that Freud missed Jung’s point,” and a “major mistake” of Becker’s work was only briefly referring to Carl Jung in the introduction to his book. Peterson quickly digressed and never followed up on his claims about Becker’s work, or what “the point” is, but much can (and should) be inferred from Peterson’s equation: Becker’s theoretical sketch of Heroism and its inescapable ubiquity is an astonishing but incomplete answer to Freud’s psychoanalytic writings on religion; Freud and Becker share the mistake of missing Jung’s point, according to Peterson; Jung’s point is more sophisticated, more all-encompassing, and better accounts for the situation that Becker outlines (in response to Freud); therefore, revisiting and correcting Becker’s and Freud’s mistake will yield a more accurate and more useful account of the human situation.

The most economical way to demonstrate this pattern of inferences from Peterson’s ambiguous thesis is to analyze Don Delillo’s novelization of Becker’s theories in White Noise, a book of death denial in which the character Murray is a clear instantiation of how Jung’s reading of the human situation, though similar in scope to Becker’s, is greater in explanatory power. Murray is better represented by Jung’s “trickster” archetype than Becker’s sketch of “heroism,” and, further, Delillo’s book could be more accurately read by a Jungian framework than a Beckerian reading – all the way down.

Peterson’s accusation that Becker missed Jung’s point can be sourced to the tepid conciliatory gesture at the end of Becker’s introduction, in which he dismisses Jung’s theoretical relevance. Instead of grappling with Jung’s arguments, Becker grounds many of his core arguments in the writings of Otto Rank, whose neglected writings become a sort of causa-sui revival project of Becker’s own. To these “heroic” ends, Becker attributes Jung’s absence to the then culturally prominent status of psychoanalytic literature, but doesn’t resist the temptation to jab (thus revealing a deeper-seated motivation to ignore Jung’s work): “I can’t see that all his tomes on alchemy [my italics] add one bit to the weight of his psychoanalytic insight.” That is, Becker conceived of his own central claims as operating independently of Jung’s more obscure works primarily because of Jung’s willingness to encompass seemingly any metaphysics within his own; Becker’s reading of Jung thus discards the nuance of Jung’s more central claims: the collective unconscious, the archetypes, the symbols of transformation – all of which litter the otherwise vacant cavities of Becker’s massive theory. Here is where Becker “misses the point,” as Peterson would have it: Becker confused Jung’s “needless esotericism” with his more important writings. Becker’s compartmentalization and thus misreading of Jung admits to a faulty first premise by which Becker (incompletely) argues the rest of The Denial of Death.

Even the explicit intertextuality of Don Delillo’s White Noise and Becker’s The Denial of Death is interrupted through a more patient inclusion of Carl Jung’s arguments, yielding a more complete sense of the work that Becker (and Delillo after him) was trying to accomplish. Delillo’s illustration of Becker’s work is most obviously present in White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, but Delillo’s illustration loses focus when peripheral characters, like Murray, collide with Jack’s heroism. Delillo’s focus on Jack’s heroism by definition excludes the heroic complexity of the novel’s less immediate characters, a subtlety that Becker’s account of heroism similarly omits. Becker stretches the theory of heroism across all swaths of society but Jung goes deeper, detailing and accumulating evidence of archetypal manifestations beyond the generalities of heroism.

Carl Jung’s illumination of the trickster archetype more powerfully explains Murray’s character than Becker’s rendering of heroism. Murray is an embodied counterexample to Becker’s claim that “our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic,” and that Jung’s archetypes – personified representations of instinctual systems – have a greater explanatory power than Becker’s heroism – attitudinal descriptions of terror management. Murray symbolically embodies Jung’s response to an ambiguity at the heart of Becker’s thesis: “If the basic quality of heroism is genuine courage, why are so few people truly courageous?” One might imagine that Murray has read Becker and is investigating this question of courage at different levels of analysis throughout the novel. White Noise’s protagonist, Jack, shores himself with the courage to pursue heroic projects like learning German, while Murray, Jack’s colleague and friend, is written into the novel as an unorthodox, brilliant, and foolish character. Murray’s absurd investigations into Becker’s question of genuine courage are best explained through Jung’s “trickster” archetype, a character that evades direct contact with powerful threats while at the same time more cleverly deals with these powerful threats than the “hero” archetype.

Murray’s presence as the Jungian “trickster” archetype first becomes clear at the Most Photographed Barn in America (Barn, hereafter). Becker’s heroism would interpret the following exchange as a demonstration of neurotic, learned, narcissistic character traits:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.’ He seemed immensely pleased by this.

Murray’s phenomenological remarks in this scene examine the “aura” that Becker describes with regard to psychological transference. The Barn’s aura is sustained by the masses who pilgrimage to the site, and Murray’s comments to Jack juxtapose their own silent presence to the unthinking, “incessant clicking” of the masses. This juxtaposition sustains Murray’s sense of heroism, and Jack’s own by extension, according to Becker. Jung’s account of this juxtaposition, however, in terms of the “trickster,” clarifies what Becker would call Murray’s heroism as the “therapeutic effect.” The therapeutic effect of Murray’s character, in Jung’s terms, presents the “low intellectual and moral level before the eyes of the more highly developed individual,” namely, Jack, “so that he shall not forget how things looked yesterday.” Murray’s presence reinforces Jack’s heroism, but Murray himself cannot be described in the same terms. Recall Murray’s supposition that “we can’t answer these questions […] we can’t get out of this aura.” Jung would argue that these remarks came straight from the mouth of the trickster: “We like to imagine that something which we do not understand does not help us in any way. But that is not always so.” Here, both Murray and Jung’s trickster archetype presuppose intrinsic worth in (seemingly) impractical knowledge, as well as take pleasure in the impracticability. Seen in this way, the questions Murray says we “can’t answer” are, as Jung’s portrayal of the trickster suggests, “helpful” – a claim that doesn’t traditionally make sense. The immediacy of this parallel demonstrates how Jung’s explanatory power outshines Becker’s with relation to the manifestations of heroism in Delillo’s novel. Heroism doesn’t sufficiently account for Murray’s presence in this scene; or, at least, Jung better details and contextualizes the uncanniness of Murray’s presence as it relates to Jack’s heroism.

Murray’s response to Babette’s uncanny television appearance is, similarly, only partially explained by Becker’s account of heroism. Babette’s television appearance startles every character except for Murray, whose “sneaky” smile and notetaking unhinge Jack’s sense of heroic certainty. In Becker’s terms, Murray calmly reasserts his heroism in this unexpected scene, a response which “covers over” the anxiety that Babette’s appearance has produced. A Beckerian reading of this nature might ignore Murray’s emphasis on “the wrong kind of attentiveness” so present in the characters’ attitudes towards television, and might renegotiate (or undermine) Murray’s palpable ambiguity within the Gladney family dynamic.

Jung’s characterization of this television scene would critique the generality of Becker’s reading of Murray, which allows for but does not predict Murray’s specific responses. Jung’s “trickster” explicates Becker’s vague reading of Murray to the extent that a primary feature of the trickster is “a reversal of the hierarchic order.” Murray argues that society has “reversed the relative significance” of higher and lower order consciousness in passive engagement with television. Murray goes on to say that “misuse” has lead to this reversal, a trend similarly found in Jung’s discussion of the trickster’s origin in which “a higher level of consciousness has covered up a lower one [while] the latter was already in retreat.” Murray thus embodies the revelatory aspect of Jung’s trickster as well, as evidenced in his critique of society’s “misuse.” Seen this way, Jung might correct Becker’s emphasis on the heroic aspects of Murray’s critique in terms of the “gradual civilizing” force of television. Murray, as does the trickster, behaves in the most uncivilized ways in situations when Jack’s heroic narrative fails; Murray is most alive in times when Jack is most flustered. Reading Murray’s character in this way further demystifies Jung’s remark that “the so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster” until the “shadow,” the dark force of the unconscious, arises. That is, Jack, like Becker’s heroic portrait of humanity, has forgotten the importance of recognizing archetypes – perhaps with mortal consequences at stake.

Murray’s encounter with the prostitutes during the Great Airborne Toxic Event (GATE, hereafter) most benefits from a Jungian revision to more obvious Beckerian readings throughout the novel. An unorthodox encounter with a car full of prostitutes undermines Jack’s relief at Murray’s familiar presence during the alienation of GATE. Jack, surprised, asks Murray what he’s solicited these prostitutes to do for “twenty-five dollars,” to which Murray’s deadpan answer shocks Jack into silence: “The Heimlich maneuver.” Murray’s answer subverts the casual reader’s expectations of lust, sexual fulfillment, and economic predation associated with prostitution. Becker might describe Murray’s justification to Jack that he will be satisfied “as long as she collapses helplessly backward into my life-saving embrace,” in terms of a way to reinforce his sense of heroism. Murray externalizes his anxieties in the form of what might otherwise be read as a “love object.” More accurately, however, the trickster’s “divine-animal nature” emerges in this scene. That is, two fundamental identifying aspects of the trickster archetype are “extraordinary clumsiness” and a “considerable eagerness to learn.” In this scene, Murray’s “extraordinary clumsiness” arises in his catechetical diction with regards to prostitution (e.g., “representative” and “fellow” clearly refer to a pimp), and Murray’s “considerable eagerness to learn” about the Heimlich maneuver serves to confuse Jack as to Murray’s “divine-animal nature.”

Becker might object that he accounts for Jung’s distinction when he writes that man’s “paradoxical nature” arises from “the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.” In other words, Jung and Becker may eventually agree about Murray. But Jung’s distinction is more subtle, in that the trickster is a “primitive ‘cosmic’ being,” something prior to the symbolic move towards the heroic on which Becker’s book focuses. In Jung’s revised account, then, Murray, the trickster, never quite makes the Beckerian move into the heroic. Murray’s role as the trickster in White Noise embodies more primitive elements of Jack’s character.

In contrast to the archetypes, Becker has much to say, but Jung says it better and more thoroughly – especially in the task of analyzing Murray’s character. One might suggest the ambitious project of nesting the totality of Becker’s heroism into Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious; for the trickster archetype is hardly all Jung has to offer in this theoretical domain. Jack Gladney, for instance, might benefit from a cross-examination of Becker’s heroism and Jung’s hero archetype. Babette, as well, might gain symbolic depth through a deeper integration of Jung’s writings on the mother archetype into her character. And so on. Delillo’s White Noise might not exist if not for Becker’s Denial of Death, but it might come back to life through a Jungian revival.

These brief examples of Murray’s better-suited role as the trickster archetype rather than a manifestation of heroism return to a higher-order theoretical concern: Does Ernest Becker’s theory of heroism warrant a full-scale Jungian revision? After all, Peterson’s adamant accusation that Becker “missed the point” still remains. In fairness, Becker’s avoidance of Jung’s more esoteric, amorphous, relativistic metaphysical investigations (on alchemy, on religion, etc.) wisely focuses the scope of Denial of Death’s arguments. Murray’s role as the trickster, however, demonstrates the imperfections of Becker’s oversights as they apply to individual cases and idiosyncratic characters – whether Becker intended for this or not. Parsing this relationship requires a patient negotiation of neglected Jungian nuance into the increasingly anachronistic isomorphism of Becker, a task which might be taken up by Jordan B. Peterson if he ever gets back to his point.

 

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Free Press Paperbacks, 1973. Print.

Delillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Adam and Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, and Death.” YouTube, 19 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ifi5KkXig3s

 

Joyshtick: Approaching Video Game Ludonarratives as Literature

October 8, 2017

Part One of the “Joyshtick” ludonarrative panel series:

 

The first of several conferences in which Blake Guthrie, Preston Johnston and Ben Vollmer argue in favor of the academic and literary benefits of video games. In this panel, we discuss games like Dark Souls, The Last Guardian, The Witcher 3, and so forth.

I organized this panel back in July when these ideas literally came to me in a dream. Preston is my podcast cohost who I consider to be perhaps the wisest friend in my life. Ben is my coworker and friend who I consider to be the unknowing incarnation of Siddhartha Gautama in terms of his patience and demeanor. The content of this panel was discussed independently between Preston and myself, as well as Ben and myself, but Ben and Preston hadn’t shared a lengthy discussion before this recording.

This first panel represents both the beginning stages of a larger series of projects, and the beginning stages of what I predict will grow into a vigorous triad friendship. Our second panel will take place in two weeks time, at the FCEA conference in Melbourne, FL. Look forward to the next series of discussions!

Instances of Irritatingly Terse Poetry (from “Wilpower”)

September 22, 2017

I’m happy to share that some of my experimental poetry has been accepted by a Floridian literary magazine. Thanks to Emily Wilson for the opportunity to interrupt the normal flow of literature. Click through to Wilpower’s website for my poems; stay for some adjacently pleasurable authorial content.

Asking the Ashplant: A Literary Investigation into Stephen Dedalus’ Walking Stick

May 9, 2017

ashplantcover

The image of the walking stick manifests itself in seemingly all cultures, in religious ritual, and in rites of passage ceremonies. One can find the image of the walking stick permeating some of the oldest tales in literary history, including early Biblical tales. Thus, it is no surprise that the walking stick makes an appearance in James Joyce’s penultimate work, Ulysses. For Ulysses gives the reader explicit clarity that it recycles imagery, themes, tropes, and narrative voices from the Western canon (as contemporaneous with Joyce). The presence of the walking stick in Ulysses Stephen’s ashplant – is no exception. Yet, like many “recycled” elements in Ulysses, the ashplant takes on uncanny, surprising roles throughout the novel. Most critics, for instance, have assigned the role of Stephen’s ashplant to be a manifestation of his (lack of) phallus. This simple reading of the ashplant neglects its larger significance for the novel. Not only is the ashplant a crucial symbol throughout Ulysses, it also solves Stephen’s artistic troubles from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, threading the conceptual needle between two of Joyce’s major works. Without the ashplant, there would be no realization of Stephen’s artistic vision, nor would the climax of “The Odyssey” in Ulysses be possible.

Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant first appears in Joyce’s preceding work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During a vision towards the end of the novel’s fourth chapter, Stephen picks up “a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks,” and clambers down the slope of the breakwater. This “salteaten stick,” though not immediately described as such, eventually takes the form of the ashplant that appears throughout Ulysses. The grasping of the ashplant in this scene coincides with some meditations of Stephen’s thalassophobia (fear of the ocean), and frustrated sexuality, as he gazes on the “birdgirl” in the water before him. As Benjamin Harder, in his essay, “Stephen’s Prop,” suggests, the salteaten stick, not yet an ashplant, is “a means of stability, a crutch,” which allows Stephen to navigate difficult terrain, both physical and emotional. Keeping in mind the title of the novel, Harder argues that the stick has incredible influence on the “young artist’s sight and self-image” throughout Portrait. For, in grasping this salteaten stick from the jetsam, Stephen begins his transition from boyhood into manhood. As Stephen develops into the “young man” that the novel’s title suggests, he must face the loss of his boyhood, the fact that he is now “alone.” Or, rather, the realization that Stephen was “unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life,” coincides with the consequence that he, with the aid of the salteaten stick, is on the cusp of achieving artistic and personal individuality.

The presence of the stick persists throughout the end of Portrait, entering into the final chapter when it finally changes symbolic form. Standing on the steps of the library, Stephen notices a flock of birds pass by, and is described as “leaning wearily on his ashplant.” Not a page later, this freshly described “ashplant” transmogrifies in Stephen’s imagination into “the curved stick of an augur.” This new form of the walking stick is described in Don Gifford’s book, Notes for Joyce, in which he adds the following description of what will later become, in Ulysses, the “augur’s rod”:

49:10 (48:19). Augur’s rod of ash – the Roman augur’s rod, the lituus, was a staff without knots, curved at the top. It was one of the principal insignia of the augur’s office and was used to define the templum, the consecrated sectors of the sky, within which his auguries (observations of the omens given by birds) were to be made.

The Roman connotations are not lost on Joyce’s character, Stephen, who makes innumerable references to Roman (and Greek) tropes, mythology, and history, throughout the novels. Nor is the aforementioned birdwatching simply an idle activity for Stephen. As Gifford notes, the “consecrated sectors of the sky” appear before him on the library steps. Another consideration for Stephen’s walking stick is the shift in diction across Portrait and through the narrative arc of Ulysses; tracing Stephen’s own growth, the stick evolves from the meager “salteaten” stick to the proper “ashplant.”

The transformation of Stephen’s ashplant into the augur’s rod brings with it some additional implications of potential violence. Harder elucidates these implications through an earlier scene in Portrait when Cranly snatches the ashplant from Stephen’s hand and chases Temple away with it. Harder writes, “Stephen’s prop, when appropriated by another, is susceptible to violent scenes. The question is whether Stephen can control his own use of the staff.” Harder’s suggestion that the ashplant develops pernicious symbolic potentials in the hands of other characters will become of greater concern in Ulysses, in which the character, Leopold Bloom, briefly handles Stephen’s abandoned walking stick. Not long after this exchange between Stephen, Cranly, and Temple, Portrait comes to a close.

It is curious that Joyce specified the nature of Stephen’s walking stick as an “ashplant” in these novels, for the botanical sources of walking sticks have varied greatly throughout human history. Materials such as bamboo, maples, hickories, walnuts, oaks, cedars, pines, cherries, rhododendrons, and so on, have been more common sources of walking sticks in adjacent cultures. The ash tree of which Stephen’s ashplant originates is a plant whose roots grow at such an oblong and horizontal direction that, when dug up from the ground and clipped back, makes for a perfectly shaped walking stick. The horizontal root serves as a smooth handle. One can see how Joyce’s choice to place Stephen’s walking stick within the roots of Ireland is, in fact, a pointed gesture, as Joyce would be well-acquainted with Ireland’s tallest, most common native tree: the ash tree. Thus, upon further reflection, Stephen’s ashplant seems to serve as an embodiment of Ireland (and Stephen’s Irish identity) itself.

The ashplant makes its first, rather innocuous, appearance in the opening chapter of Ulysses, entitled “Telemachus.” As Stephen and Buck Mulligan prepare to leave their living quarters for the day, Stephen takes his ashplant from its “leaningplace” (U 1.528). The walking stick isn’t mentioned again until Buck, in the middle of a chant, “tug[s] swiftly at Stephen’s ashplant in farewell” and exits the scene, leaving Stephen and Haines alone. Joycean critics have all seemed to neglect the bird imagery cloaking this exchange with the ashplant, however. Taking a look at the diction surrounding Buck in this scene, one can’t help but wonder if the “bird” elements are present to suggest that Buck’s “tugging” of the ashplant is also, in fact, a birdlike gesture (that of attempting to build a nest with sticks). For, he is described as “fluttering his winglike hands,” with “birdsweet cries,” and so on (U 1.600-02). This connection might be worth exploring further. The silence by literary critics on this matter, however, suggests that the connection between the birdlike elements of this scene and the tugging on the ashplant is not as strong as it might be.

As Buck leaves, Stephen and Haines continue discussing theological concerns, and here the ashplant makes yet another peculiar appearance. As the characters walk, Stephen’s ashplant is “trailing […] by his side” (U 1.627). Its “ferrule” – the end cap – is described as following “lightly” on the path with the characters, almost like a pet dog walking alongside them. Yet the ferrule’s light contact with the path produces a “squealing” sound, which generates the following moment of Stephen’s inner monologue: “My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen!” (U 1.628-29). Again, the descriptions resemble something pet-like. Furthermore, the ashplant’s presence in this scene produces psychological absence – it takes Stephen out of the scene. The connotations of the stick’s sound being “familiar,” like an old friend, following “after me,” as though it were evoking memories from the past, and the childishly embellished “e” sound in Stephen’s name all suggest a youthful quality about the ashplant. The “youth” of the ashplant, in these descriptions, manifests itself as an inherited quality from the “youth” of Portrait, one which remains rather implicitly acknowledged throughout the progression of Ulysses.

The ashplant disappears from the novel until the third chapter, “Proteus,” in which its role in the novel is first properly explored. This monologic scene in which Stephen plays at being blind allows for the ashplant to take on multiple symbolic functions at once. Stephen thinks, “I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do” (U 3.15-16). The “they” in Stephen’s interior monologue is undoubtedly the blind, as Stephen mimics the act of finding one’s way around with a probing cane. Harder notes how there is a symbolic tension within these few lines, in how the ashplant is plainly described as a weapon (“my ash sword”), and yet is “plainly a compensatory tool of vision.” And yet, one might suggest, there is no reason to suppose that either of the ashplant’s dual functions need necessarily preclude one another. In any case, Harder proceeds to link this scene with Portrait in that the ashplant conveys “extraordinary sight, which elevates his station in a moment of wish fulfillment.” The ashplant clearly functions in the opening scenes of this chapter as a visual prosthetic for Stephen, both in terms of his physical senses (the “ineluctable modality of the visible”) and his mental faculties.

The ashplant also functions as a tool for Stephen’s self-defense and the overcoming of fears in the “Proteus” chapter. As seen in Portrait, Stephen’s thalassophobia remains present throughout his wanderings on the Sandymount Strand. Stephen takes special caution to distance himself from the waters throughout the chapter and, as he situates himself on a rock to take a break from walking, he thinks, paranoidly, “The flood is following me” (U 3.282). As Stephen climbs up onto his perch, he “rest[s] his ashplant in a grike,” temporarily abandoning his crutch, and allows his mind to wander away from the scene at hand (U 3.284-85). Harder suggests that Stephen’s ashplant here functions as “a comfort against falling into the ocean,” and even goes as far to consider this action of releasing the ashplant is “a protection against suicide, and a means of approaching the rushing, frightening jouissance that is just under Stephen’s consciousness.” The connection to suicide is not unwarranted, however, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter in which Stephen encounters figures of the dead, including that of his mother.

Another of Stephen’s grave fears makes itself known in the “Proteus” chapter as well, and is dispelled by the comforting presence of his ashplant. Continuing its “violent” function from Portrait, Stephen considers using it on the dog running around Sandymount Strand. It has already been made clear by this point in the novel that Stephen is a cynophobe (one who fears dogs). Thus, his first thought upon seeing the “live” dog running across the sand is, “Lord, is he going to attack me?” (U 3.295). Stephen’s impulse is to expect the dog to become violent with him, hence his instinct to protect himself with the ashplant. As with the ocean, Stephen keeps his ashplant close so as to defend himself at any time. But, in keeping with Stephen’s character, he does not engage with this dog. Rather, he reassures himself: “Respect his liberty. You will not be master of others or their slave. I have my stick. Sit tight” (U 3.295-96). Here the thought “I have my stick” could be interchangeable with “I have my sword” or any other means for self-defense. Without the ashplant, as Harder has suggested, Stephen would become unmanned and even  “unselved” by these encounters with his fears. Indeed, Stephen allows himself to sink into morbid thoughts once more towards the end of the “Proteus” chapter.

The notion that Stephen’s subconscious is magnetized towards suicidal impulses is reinvigorated when he thinks about the flowing waters of Cock lake. Stephen imagines the waters flowing in, “covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand,” perhaps even the very beach on which Stephen has been walking, taking him back out into the waters (U 3.453-54). “My ashplant will float away,” thinks Stephen, rather detachedly, and he continues, “No, they [the waters] will pass on” (U 3.454-55). The ashplant, as critics have argued at length, is in many ways a symbol of Stephen himself; the notion that his ashplant would “float away” like the bloated dog carcass from earlier in the chapter implicates Stephen’s own life. Furthermore, Stephen’s diction regarding the waters – the notion that they will “pass on” – is uncannily that of someone describing a death, as though Stephen, without his sturdy ashplant at his side, would soon “pass on.” Luckily, these thoughts are interrupted once more, and Stephen’s chapter comes to a close. As he gathers himself up to leave Sandymount Strand, he takes the “hilt” of his ashplant, and briefly swings it around like a sword (U 3.489). “Yes, evening will find itself in me,” he thinks, “without me. All days make their end” (U 3.490). The evocation of “evening” in connection with “end” yet again restores the suicidal impulse in Stephen’s mind. The ashplant, faithfully at his side, serves as an emotional crutch to these feelings as much as it supports and protects him physically.

Joyce also describes the ashplant in performative terms, as though it were merely one of Stephen’s “effects” of dress. It is as though Joyce deliberately downplays the ashplant’s obvious symbolic role as a means of confusing those who track the ashplant’s movement throughout Ulysses. After “Proteus,” the ashplant vanishes from the novel until its ninth chapter, “Scylla and Charybdis,” in which Stephen’s “ashplanthandle” is hung over his knee (U 9.296). Later on in the chapter, Stephen examines himself: “Stephen looked on his hat, his stick, his boots” (U 9.946). These simple images immediately transform into more complicated ones, however: “Stephanos, my crown. My sword. His boots are spoiling the shape of my feet. Buy a pair. Holes in my socks. Handkerchief too” (U 9.947-48). The shift in description immediately connotes a kingly image, with “crown” and “sword” being the lustrous features of Stephen’s appearance. Yet, these connotations are simultaneously undermined by the peasant-like “holes” in the socks and handkerchief. The double-image of Stephen’s hat/crown and stick/sword seems to undermine the larger significance of the hat and ashplant throughout the novel. Yet, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter, that would be to misunderstand the ashplant’s role as more than a walking stick.

Though the ashplant does make a few cameos in the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of the novel, its role is rather subdued. The ashplant properly comes to life – almost taking on the role of a character – in “Circe.” This chapter, written as though it were to be performed on stage, mentions the ashplant more than any other. The ashplant first makes its appearance in the chapter’s stage directions, where Stephen is described as “flourishing the ashplant in his left hand” as he chants with other characters (U 15.73). Once again, the ashplant’s flourish provides for a kind of performative quality on Stephen’s behalf. Indeed, drunk and showing off in front of the ladies, Stephen tells Lynch, “Hold my stick” (U 15.118-19). Lynch begrudgingly accepts – or, rather, “Stephen thrusts the ashplant on him” – though not without complaint: “Damn your yellow stick” (U 15.120). This exchange is described in Randall J. Pogorzelski’s book, Virgil and Joyce, as paralleling Aeneas’ golden bough from the Aeneid. Pogorzelski writes, “It is hard not to recall the ‘aureus . . . ramus’ [golden bough] that gains Aeneas entrance to the underworld.” There are undoubtedly many references to Virgil throughout Ulysses; whether this exchange is one of such references, however, is contestable. If, in fact, Stephen’s “yellow stick” is to be thought of as Aeneas’ “golden bough,” then it serves to explain the mythic, quasi-supernatural characteristics of the ashplant in this chapter.

As the “Circe” chapter continues, and Stephen becomes progressively more drunk, the role of the ashplant becomes more and more perplexing. Stephen thinks to himself that he is “out of it now,” presumably (but not limited to) his drunkenness (U 15.2535). Following this thought, the siamese twins, Philip Drunk and Philip Sober, appear to reaffirm Stephen’s thought: “Out of it out of it. By the bye have you the book, the thing, the ashplant? Yes, there it, yes. Cleverever outofitnow. Keep in condition. Do like us” (U 15.2537-39). These rather sing-songy lines aside, it seems that Philip Drunk and Philip Sober bring up the ashplant in passing, especially considering how it is named offhandedly, as though the twins Philip were trying to remember the term for the ashplant. However, their inquiry ceases once they find the correct word. The twins Philip proceed to affirm its presence, repeat Stephen’s “out of it” comment, and then advise Stephen to “do like us” by keeping the ashplant in good condition. This scene, taking place as though it were a hallucination, prophecies the later culminating scene in which the ashplant’s violent potential displays itself.

The ashplant retains (and develops) its sense as a mythical object when Stephen refers to it, not as his stick or ashplant, but as his “augur’s rod.” In a scene of dancing and festivities, Stephen says, “Quick! Quick! Where’s my augur’s rod? (he runs to the piano and takes his ashplant, beating his foot in tripudium)” (U 15.4011-12). Stephen proceeds to dance with Zoe and other characters in this scene, eventually announcing “Pas Seul!” (a dance for one person) to the group. As Stephen dances, the descriptions of his movements always reference the ashplant (U 15.4120-4129), and as his moves become wilder, the grammar breaks down: “Stephen with hat ashplant frogsplits in middle highkicks with skykicking mouth shut hand clasp part under thigh” (U 15.4123-25). These descriptions are curious for a number of reasons. First, as the reader is undoubtedly supposed to infer, the ashplant serves as a walking stick for Stephen; presumably Stephen has a lame leg or needs the support when moving. Second, all of the dance moves described in this section refer to leg movements – “frogsplits,” “highkicks,” “skykicking.” The ashplant, acting as a kind of “third leg” becomes, for Stephen, a prosthetic device. For, with the aid of the ashplant to balance his movements, he performs more complicated dance moves than would otherwise be expected from a character carrying a walking stick.

The ashplant’s ultimate significance is brought about through visions of Stephen’s dead mother, towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Stephen’s mother proselytizes him, warning him to repent and to beware of God. In keeping with other religiously ambivalent overtones of the novel, Stephen attempts to rebel against his mother in this scene, replying “Non serviam!” (I will not serve) (U 15.4228). Harder suggests that this declaration mimics Peter’s denial of Christ, which is aligned with Stephen’s antipathy towards both religion and his mother’s death “No! No! No!” Stephen shouts, “Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!” (U 15.4235-36). And with this penultimate line, Stephen ceases to listen to reason; rather, he lashes out in an act of physical violence. “Nothung!” he shouts, and the stage directions describe the ashplant’s unforgettable apotheosis: “(He lifts his ashplant high with both hands and smashes the chandelier. Time’s livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry.)” (U 15.4243-45). It is notable that Stephen challenges those in the room to “break” his spirit before proceeding to physically break the chandelier. Furthermore, Richard Ellman suggests that Joyce’s reference to Wagner – “nothung,” Siegfried’s sword – is also a parallel to Odysseus’ “Noman,” the identity he gives the Cyclops after blinding him in The Odyssey. It’s as though Stephen doesn’t know how to channel his emotions in this scene, which, compounded by his excessive drunkenness, physically escapes his body through this violent gesture. He is, in other words, blinded to reason. As Ellman suggests, Stephen channels his spiritual rebellion into physical rebellion. And yet, this isn’t entirely a destructive act; rather, this scene represents the fact that Stephen has finally graduated from the “young man” he was in Portrait. In this scene, Ellman writes, “ the destruction-creation at the centre of the artistic process is realized.” Despite the resounding drama of this scene, Stephen proceeds to “[abandon] his ashplant” after someone yells for the police (U 15.4255). Bloom, in a moment of lucidity, has the sense to collect Stephen’s ashplant before making reparations with the owners of the “tenshilling house.” Though, in so doing, he mimics Stephen (“he raises the ashplant”) and startles the ladies in the room.

Bloom’s involvement with the ashplant is a source of all kinds of scholarly intrigue.

The most extensive conversation surrounding this act is to be found in Mark Osteen’s The Economy of Ulysses, in which he argues that Bloom becomes a “transvestite” towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Osteen writes, “by picking up the ashplant and preparing to strike the shade again, Bloom acts as Stephen as well as for him.” The ashplant, so central to Stephen’s identity, has the power to confer identity onto Bloom in this scene. Osteen argues that Bloom “becomes” Stephen through the final act of dressing and performing as him. This is borne out in moments where, for instance, Bloom “tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant” as he hears a dog bark in the distance (U 15.4945-46). But this reading goes against much of the overtones of fatherhood throughout the novel. That is, the paternal relationship of Bloom and Stephen is transfigured by this scene into a more homoerotic one. For, Osteen argues, this scene is the first in which Bloom intentionally touches Stephen (with concern), and calls him by his first name. These unique gestures are not repeated elsewhere throughout the novel. With these notions in mind, moments when Bloom “stands erect” with Stephen’s hat and ashplant further complicate their relationship to suggest something more overtly homoerotic (U 15.4946). Thus, between their newly altered friendship and Bloom’s possession of the ashplant – Stephen’s essential identity marker – this scene demonstrates how “extremes meet through exchange.” That is, the diametrically opposed dispositions of Stephen and Bloom are united through the act of dressing up in the role of the other character.

As Bloom’s character changes with the ascertainment of the ashplant, so too does Stephen’s with the loss of his stick. This is evident in the stage directions surrounding the ashplantless Stephen, as he “staggers,” needs to be propped up by Bloom, “sway[s],” and “falls back a pace” (U 15.4428-31; U 15.4481). Eventually Stephen realizes that his “centre of gravity is displaced” (U 15.4434). The “centre of gravity” almost undoubtedly refers to his still-missing ashplant. Joyce even takes the opportunity for Stephen to drop the pun, “How do I stand you?” (U 15.4590). Of course, Stephen’s lack of balance all has much to do with the fact that he has been drinking. That aside, Stephen’s newly unbalanced characteristics wear off almost immediately upon regaining his ashplant.

As many scholars have argued at length, Stephen’s ashplant is commonly seen as a phallus. The connection is obvious, if not juvenile. What seems to be omitted from the larger discussion is the moment that Stephen regains his “phallus” from Bloom. Running up to Stephen, Bloom offers up the ashplant, to which Stephen rejects: “Stick, no. Reason. This feast of pure reason” (U 15.4745). Recalling the fact that Stephen abandoned his stick after his physically violent, hyper-masculine outburst, the ultimate reason for his attack on the chandelier was that Stephen was unable to reason with his mother. Through excessive alcohol intake, and through the stupor of the evening, Stephen could not summon his adept reasoning and thus resorted to brutish violence. Upon regaining the ashplant, now seen as the weapon for which it always had potential, Stephen rejects its role as a violent object. Hence his insistence on “reason” being in opposition to the stick. If other scholars are correct in deeming the ashplant as a phallus, it then becomes a vexatious problem of how to sort out Stephen’s preference for the intellect over brute force. Keeping traditional notions of masculinity in mind, the phallogocentric path would be to accept the ashplant. Stephen rejects it at first, realizing, as he did not in Portrait and thus far in Ulysses, that his path forward in life would indeed require a different understanding: one primarily imbued with reason.

Following the “Circe” chapter, Bloom is finally able to return the ashplant to Stephen, and it goes unremarked upon for the remainder of the novel. However, in Bloom’s chapter, “Ithaca,” the ashplant makes its final appearance. Stephen, leaving Bloom’s house, is described in similar stage directions to that of “Circe”: “Lighted Candle in Stick / borne by / BLOOM / Diaconal Hat on Ashplant / borne by / STEPHEN” (U 17.1023-28). The presentation of this passage is with centered texts, lines breaking in such a way as to suggest performativity. As Stephen now realizes, the ashplant is “a tool that must be borne as a burden or punishment.” Throughout the novel, he has carried the walking stick around as a means of self-defense, of prosthetic aid, and to continue with it further brings with it the memories of his violent, drunken outburst in “Circe.” It is probable to suppose that Stephen finally abandons his ashplant, having learned the lessons – lessons of his identity as a man, as an artist, and so on – along the novel’s course. The ashplant does not reappear in Ulysses.

The ashplant is an object within the text which offers a host of interpretations. This is in keeping with the rest of Ulysses, a text that defies scrutiny and yet offers endless possibility for such scholarly inquiry. At times, the ashplant appears as a force of good in Stephen’s life. It keeps him upright, it helps him face his fears, and assists him in carving out his identity as a young artist. That said, the ashplant also carries with it the potential for violent action, not to mention its role as a “crutch” in the truly deprecating sense (i.e. relying on something too much). The ashplant, in any interpretation, is the connecting object between Portrait and Ulysses. It walks the reader along, through the treacherous paths that Joyce has written, and allows the reader a sense of efficacy that they, too, can be aided in their journey through the life of Stephen Dedalus.

 

From Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn: The Writings of Confinement

April 25, 2017

The majority of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are grim vignettes of a troubled and intellectually frustrated people of pre-revolutionary Russia. In many of Chekhov’s works, characters wax philosophically on such subjects as human nature, the contemporarily fraught political climate of Russia, life following the industrial revolution, and so on. Chekhov’s writings, however, always couch his own critiques through his characters, and it is not uncommon for Chekhov to interrupt (or outright ignore) these moments of seriousness and sincerity, leaving the reader with a rather fragmented sense of Chekhov’s own views on these matters. One of his short stories, Ward No. 6, however, is uniquely vivid, charged with mordant critique of the injustices inflicted upon the mentally ill. The degree to which Chekhov’s account is fictionalized remains unclear. It is accepted, however, amongst the Russian people, that Chekhov published Ward No. 6 as a case study depicting the simultaneously ignorant and malicious aspects of Russian medicine. Despite the morbid despair that Chekhov so masterfully captured, this story has influenced Russian intellectuals for a century. It’s a wonder, then, that the obvious links between Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have been rather un(der)explored by literary critics and scholars. For, in reading the works of Solzhenitsyn, one gets the impression that Chekhov’s prescient presence persists in a 21st century Russia.

Chekhov’s influence on Russian thought was such that Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary, once remarked to his sister of the “horror” of reading Ward No. 6. Chekhov’s story was so powerful that Lenin “could not bear to stay in his room” due to the “horror” that had seized him, and went out to find someone to confide in. “‘I absolutely had the feeling,’ he told his sister the next day, ‘that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!’” And indeed, the narrator of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 takes deliberate care to walk the reader into the ward, where they are then confined and forced to bear witness to its secrets. The story begins with a description of the “burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp” of the hospital yard. As if these thorny, unkempt, weedy images were not enough to deter the reader from entering the hospital – “if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles” – the bleak images only decay in invitingness. Chekhov’s narrator describes the hospital’s “rusty” roof of the hospital, the “tumbling” (presumably crumbling) chimney, the “rotting” steps of the entrance, and the overall overgrown nature of the lifeless place. Indeed, even the “grey” fence has nails on it which “point upwards,” deterring any possibility of cheerful visitors. Chekhov’s narrator concludes these observations by noting that the whole environment had “that peculiar, desolate, God-forsaken look which is only found in our hospital and prison buildings.” These observations take but a paragraph, and yet the tedium of detail contained within harbors the dread of an eternity – the opening paragraph feels, like Lenin said, real, as though the reader is in fact shut up in Ward 6.

Chekhov’s centripetal introduction to Ward No. 6 only worsens in detail as the reader enters the hospital, as the narrator forces the reader to endure the “sickly smell” of the building, the “heaps” of rubbish lining the building’s interior. The building’s walls are “dirty,” its ceiling is “sooty,” the windows are “disfigured” by iron bars, and the grey, wooden floor is “full of splinters.” Finally, after walking past this disgusting scene, Chekhov’s narrator introduces the “lunatics” of the ward.

Compared to the dismal setting, the five lunatics are surprisingly normal, one of which is described as “upper class,” while the rest are “artisans.” Each ward member’s mental illness is unique: the Jew Moiseika is described as a harmless simpleton (always begging for a kopeck), Ivan Dmitritch Gromov suffers from a (not altogether unreasonable) mania of persecution, and so on. With the exception of Nikita, the brutal porter, each member of the story is described in genuinely pitiable terms. Chekhov’s portrayal of the contextual and causal stories of degenerative mental health illustrates the compassionate view that, unfairly, the “dull” and “stifling” town was what drove people into the ward; that is, the Russian people were bound to end up in the “monotonous” ward. The ward, once entered, functions as all such isolating government institutions are designed: to prevent people from escaping.

It is with these aporetic insights into the inner machinations of the hospital that the morally aggressive tenor of Chekhov’s story first asserts itself. The character Ivan, with whom the doctor Andrey would later argue, muses on theories of justice in relation to his own position in the ward. Recalling Chekhov’s earlier likening of the hospital to a prison, Ivan’s observation that “the agelong experience of the simple people teaches that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from,” suggests a moment where Chekhov’s own moral indictments arise in the story. Ivan observes how a “judicial mistake” could be at the heart of some of the country’s worst sufferings, and concludes that “people who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings […] in the course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients.” One thing – “time” – is at the heart of this callousness.

Ivan’s indictment of the professional, callous relationship to suffering eventually manifests itself in the ward’s doctor, Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Chekhov introduces the doctor in optimistic terms. Andrey is described as shabby but intelligent, with a morally alert conscience: “Andrey Yefimitch came to the conclusion that [the ward] was an immoral institution and extremely prejudicial to the health of the townspeople.” Thusfar in the story, Chekhov has given the reader reason to agree with Andrey’s moral concern towards the ward’s institutional efficacy. As Chekhov’s descriptions continue, however, the “callousness” that Ivan described becomes evident. For instance, Andrey loses his status as a sympathetic character through the deadpan delivery of his cynical realization that he is only a cog in the inevitable social machine: “‘I serve in a pernicious institution and receive a salary from people whom I am deceiving. I am not honest, but then, I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” Thus, a culminating moment of the doctor’s waning moral convictions bursts forth in a discussion with Ivan: “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them’” [my italics]. This moment of realization seems to be one of the few moments when Chekhov’s own views bleed through the dialogue of his characters. Andrey’s suggestion that the evils of the ward were “inevitable,” that the very existence of the institution was “pernicious,” as their empty wards magnetically trapped their future patients – all of these observations speak to the existing institutions that Chekhov was clearly critiquing in his short story. Similarly, all of them undermine the attitude that the doctor was “an oracle who must be believed without any criticism even if he had poured molten lead into their mouths.”

Another trenchant critique in Ward No. 6 is displayed through Chekhov’s scrutiny of stoic philosophy, as argued by Andrey. During an exchange between Andrey and Ivan, Chekhov’s position on the question of how to properly address the problem of human suffering is illuminated. By this point in the story, the reader has good reason to scrutinize Andrey’s aphoristic suggestion that “the wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.” Here, Andrey is parroting Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic philosopher. It is very possible that Chekhov was sympathetic with the stoics’ existential project, as he demonstrates a deep understanding of their ideals, but the passion with which his character, Ivan, refutes Andrey suggests an opposing interpretation:

To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How do you not know that?

Ivan continues, arguing that Andrey’s adherence to stoicism is insincere, and in fact “quite unintelligible” to the majority of all men. The reason that the doctor is able to speak with such blasé regarding human suffering, Ivan argues, is that Andrey was “only theoretically acquainted with reality.” Similarly, the doctor is only theoretically acquainted with suffering, hence his stoic view. Chekhov’s own attitude towards human suffering, cloaked within this argument, starts to take shape through the bickering of the ward members.

Chekhov’s commentary on human suffering is left unspoken for the majority of the story’s final pages, until, suddenly, Andrey finds himself thrown in the ward with Ivan and the others. Upon realizing that the new ward member was the (now former) doctor, Ivan hoots with excitement, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours. Excellent!” In other words, Andrey no longer will be able to maintain his strictly “theoretical” understanding with suffering; he is now one of the “lunatics” that he was in charge of. “Cursed life,” grumbles Andrey, “and what’s bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis […] but with death.” As Andrey curses his new condition, he tries to find any possible way to break the monotony of the ward. He looks out the window, observing the yard, the moon, the fence, and thinks, “This [is a] prison.” Again, the analogy between prisons and hospitals becomes unignorable. The key connection, for Chekhov, seems to be in the forced “waiting” that is shared both in prisons and in hospitals; it is in the waiting that insanity truly develops, that psychological suffering becomes unimaginable:

[Andrey] bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?

It is with this realization that Andrey finally regains some sympathetic qualities to his character. After beginning to experience the suffering of others, he can finally begin to understand it as well. Like so many of Chekhov’s prescient writings, this discussion of human suffering would remain relevant throughout the eminent Russian revolutions, specifically in the labor camps where unspeakable, incalculable amounts of human suffering were inflicted on the Russian people.

One can find the perennial relevance of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, its critique of contemporary institutions, and its investigation into the problem of human suffering, all within the writings of another powerful Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Chekhov’s influence is most explicitly acknowledged in the “Interrogation” chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s infamous (and formerly banned) book, The Gulag Archipelago:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia […] not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

This insight must not be taken lightly, and is nested in a broader discussion – the topic Solzhenitsyn’s chapter refers to – of the tortures inflicted on Solzhenitsyn and others in the Gulag. Half a century divides Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, and so one senses in Solzhenitsyn’s writings a matured view of mental health from Chekhov’s 19th century understanding. To that end, one of the largest differences between these authors is the aforementioned normalcy with which Chekhov cloaks the conditions of the ward members. That is, the characters of Ward No. 6 all seem to have fallen ill gradually, with little explanation; Solzhenitsyn suggests that the Gulag was enough to reliably produce insanity. And it is no coincidence that Solzhenitsyn evokes the insane asylum in the same sentence that he mentions Chekhov’s characters.

As Chekhov’s story condemns the tendency of institutions to fill themselves (specifically the hospital, but also the prison system), so too does Solzhenitsyn indict the system of Russian prison camps. Though these prison camps were entirely unlike any prison contemporary to Chekhov’s life, one can still trace a similar critique through Chekhov’s writings and into Solzhenitsyn’s. The early chapters of Gulag Archipelago describe the soaring rates of arrest in Russia – which led to Solzhenitsyn’s own imprisonment – the contagiousness of which spared no one. “The circles kept getting bigger,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women.” The “circles” Solzhenitsyn describes refer to are the concentric social circles which grew exponentially as the definition of a “traitor” broadened. Whereas Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began arresting people on ostensibly evidential grounds, soon they were arresting people to inspire political fear, citing “incidental irrelevancies” as warrant for arrest. And thus one can see the connection to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the warnings embedded in Andrey’s observation that “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them.’” It’s as though Solzhenitsyn’s writings demonstrate the veracity of Andrey’s cynical pronouncement in Ward No. 6. For as soon as the parameters expand of what constitutes grounds for arrest, naturally more arrests were made in Russia. This influx of arrested citizens would require more, larger institutions and, thus, “someone must be shut up in them” [again, my italics].  

The parallels between the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov are so obvious, that even Solzhenitsyn’s gloomy description of the prison -an unintelligibly dismal venue – echoes the depressing introduction to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6. “We have been happily borne,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.” Immediately this description of the “crooked streets” recalls the “narrow footpath” leading to the hospital in Ward No. 6. Furthermore, the adjectives in Solzhenitsyn’s description – “rotting,” “rammed earth” – match with the objects in Chekhov’s story – the rusted roof, the iron gratings, barbed fences, crumbling brick, and so on. Solzhenitsyn goes further, however, to explicate the authorial intent which Chekhov has hidden in Ward No. 6, namely that “We have never given a thought to what lies behind [the walls of the institution]. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.” While Solzhenitsyn is writing of prison walls, as opposed to hospital walls, the broader principle rings true throughout Chekhov’s story. Not only has Chekhov already made the connection between the “God-forsaken” atmospheres of prisons and hospitals, but one can also find a double meaning in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. It’s as though Chekhov wrote Ward No. 6 because we have “never given a thought” to what lies behind the hospital walls; furthermore, “we have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.”

A final, crucial consideration regarding the similarities between Ward No. 6 and Gulag Archipelago is in the way both authors pull the reader into a confined space along with the prisoner or ward member. As Chekhov’s introductory description makes the reader feel like a patient being escorted into the ward, so too does Solzhenitsyn drag the arrested reader into the Gulag: “And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.” Solzhenitsyn’s description is startling in its brevity – “all of a sudden” the gate “swings quickly” open – and yet also suggests the agony, through precision of detail, that one must have felt while being grabbed. Solzhenitsyn names the series of body parts these prisoners are likely to be grabbed by, which evoke the multiple “white male hands,” indiscriminate in their treatment of the prisoners. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s analogy of the human body being treated like a “sack” reinforces the inhuman, impersonal nature of the prison guards. And, as the doors to the ward close forever on Andrey, a physical barrier between the doctor’s old “sane” life and his new “insane” one, so too do the prison gates close between Solzhenitsyn’s old and new life.

A less explicit connection between the writings of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn is to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Though the titles share the word “Ward” in their title, the narrative arc of the two stories – Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward – could hardly be more different. The ward of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, unlike Chekhov’s, is number thirteen, the cancer wing of the hospital. Time had progressed many decades since Ward No. 6, and the characters within Solzhenitsyn’s ward are written very differently. Yet, there are intense similarities as well throughout both stories. Early on in the novel, Solzhenitsyn repurposes a nearly identical description from Gulag of the “door to all your past life” being slammed behind you upon entry into the ward: “it frightened you more than the actual tumor.” This could also be said of Chekhov’s mental ward, and the fear Andrey feels upon his entry as a patient. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, Pavel Nikolayevich, shares the same disdain for the “uncultured creatures” of the town and the ward that is displayed in Chekhov’s character, Andrey, and his pretentious arrangements and tastes. And, as with Chekhov’s ward and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, characters in Cancer Ward remark on the idea that “even if [the hospital staff] do let you go home, you’ll be back here pretty quick […] once [the doctor has] grabbed you with his pincers, he won’t let go till you croak.” This common theme, as it runs through the works of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov, maintains the idea that institutions function to prevent escape, even if patients don’t belong in them.

The Chekhovian parallels in Cancer Ward continue, recalling Ivan’s accusation in Ward No. 6 that Andrey’s intellectualism was insincere, that his theoretical understanding of suffering was insufficient to truly understand suffering. Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, reminds Dyomka, another ward member, that “education doesn’t make you smarter.” Dyomka questions this, to which Kostoglotov clarifies, “Life, that’s what [makes you smarter].” Though the power dynamics of this scene differ from Chekhov’s ward, there is still the intense debate of ideas – distinguishing the differing values of theoretical versus practical education and understanding – which seems to be Solzhenitsyn speaking, like Chekhov, through the characters in the ward.

As Chekhov’s story describes the callous, professional relation to suffering that doctors have, so too does Solzhenitsyn’s story remark that “an unpleasant feature of all public hospitals is that nobody stops for a moment to exchange a few words.” The impersonal haste of hospitals is reflected more in the contemporary story of the cancer ward than in Chekhov’s mental ward. Likewise, even Solzhenitsyn’s doctor parallels that of Chekhov’s doctor, Andrey, recalling – through a more contemporary lens – the desensitization of doctors to their patients. Kostoglotov, in a rare moment of gentle conversation, remarks to the doctor in charge of his care:

‘No sooner does a patient come to you than you begin to do all his thinking for him. After that, the thinking’s done by your standing orders, your five-minute conferences, your program, your plan and the honor of your medical department. And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me.’

This exchange recalls, not only the “callous” professional interactions of doctor and patient, but also Andrey’s nihilistic declaration that “‘I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” The tone of Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, has the same tenor of feeling like “nothing” is of consequence for their position in the ward. Like Chekhov’s characters, the physical space of the ward – the sheer proximity of it, the closeness, the “God-forsaken” nature of the building – shapes the interactions more than any moral qualities of the characters themselves.

As though the parallels were not enough between the prose, plot, setting, and other crucial features of Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward, there is the deeper political critique of their stories. As John Arnold suggests in his book, Life Conquers Death, “just as Chekhov’s Ward 6 was read as an allegory of Tsarist Russia, so Cancer Ward can be read as an allegory of the contemporary Soviet Union.” Arnold’s analogy is apt, especially in that Chekhov’s critique of Russia was less overt than Solzhenitsyn’s. Though, the concern remains, that “the allegorical method of interpretation” tends toward “simplistic [political] exegesis,” thus, we should limit such speculation when explicit evidence isn’t present in these texts. And yet, as Jeffrey Meyers argues in his article, “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease,” there is an undeniable connection between the project of these two writers: courageously confronting disease, profound sympathy for the diseased, a “transformation of the clinical into the poetical,” and the moral examination of social pathology. Even if we are to ignore the similarities between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn in terms of style, detail, prose, or subject matter, these writers indisputably have overlapping moral concern with aspects of Russian medicine and confinement.

It would be impossible to exhaust the literary connections between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s writings within the space of a single essay. Rather, other critics have suggested, “[Chekhov] is indeed a cultural inheritance and always present in the consciousness of any Russian reader,” an inheritance which can certainly be seen in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. A plethora of possible connections remain between Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag Archipelago and Chekhov’s similarly autobiographical exploration of Russian penal camps, as recounted in Sakhalin Island. Natalia Pervukhin goes so far as to suggest that Solzhenitsyn practically litters his writings with references to Chekhov – forty in one book alone. These connections, rich as they surely are, would require an entirely additional literary investigation to bear out.

 

Works Cited

Arnold, John. Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. “Ward No. 6.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1983, pp. 54–68., http://www.jstor.org/stable/441143.

Pervukhin, Natalia. “The ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ (Čexov’s Saxalin and Solženicyn’s Gulag).” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 1991, pp. 489–502., http://www.jstor.org/stable/309247.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Cancer Ward. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956. an Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in Writing and Acting of History with a New Introduction. New York, NY: Noonday, 1999. Print.

 

Camera Violentia (from “Undistributed”)

March 15, 2017

spencerphotocreativewriting

1951: Beckett reminds us that the role of objects is to restore silence.

So we continue to build the loudest tools we can. Our objects must deafen us

with bravado, with mystery, with intrigue. We must be able to hear it and

proclaim that we could produce such heroic notes if the gods rattled our dense

bonecage.

 

1962: Malcolm argues that death is the price of liberty.

But do we keep our hands clean of the carnage when we can pull the trigger

ourselves? The fingerprints of history do not easily conceal the tribalistic vitriol

of violent human impulses. Resettling, negotiating, contesting the numbers. A

revolver is one thing, but nuclear holocaust would be like no other.

 

1970: Blue on blue disguised as black and white.

Ouroboros of Schopenhauerian tragedy. Kent turns the gun to his own temple

without realizing it. My Lai drowns its legacy; Ohio waterboards its memories.

We all bury our children. Nixon’s eventual eviction.

 

1985: No Explanation Offered.

Suicide [CLASSIFIED] season.

 

1992: The White Glove Debate.

Gloves don’t kill people; people kill people. Delicate raw rays of Rawls. Do I

have the right to conceal my hands with a license. Pull the trigger, pull the

trigger, pull the trigger. Don’t be diligent, be disciplined. Do it legally.

 

2001: Birds flying into the window.

Clear the desk, pay the scapegoat, burn the last match. Unforgettable physics.

Boxcutters. Vexatious, uncanny familiarity with the unknown weapon in your

hand: On the one hand, if you can take the whole barrel down your throat,

you’ll realize you have a future career in adult film. On the other hand, if you

gag halfway down, you’ll go beyond magic out the back of your throat.

 

2008: Hope & Change.

Columbia & Heller. No one is going to riddle holes into our future. Women in

menopause gravitate towards my garden. It’s where I provide for pollinators,

where I grow gunpowder, where I harvest my young and