Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Powering the Distraction Engine: Black Mirror, Slavery, and the Abstraction of Power

April 15, 2018

 

The British television show Black Mirror often envisions a dystopian future, mostly surrounding our impending and pernicious relationships with technology. The series’ second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” is often received in this same way: a critique of smartphone culture, social media avatars, and social isolation. These critiques seem to miss the underlying relationship that the episode’s characters have with energy production and consumption, however, as they neglect an ecocritical approach. Ecocriticism, the interdisciplinary study of storytelling and environmentalism, has taken on narratives that reveal much about the energy culture from which cultural stories emerge. Such stories reach beyond the historical canon of literature, and certainly beyond our contemporary relationship with energy in the twenty-first century. “Fifteen Million Merits” inherits the nineteenth and early twentieth century tradition of “energy slaves,” using sources of electrical power – human beings – to reinforce social power structures. These social power structures are abstracted from the lives of the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits,” rendered invisible until the episode’s protagonist suffers a grave injustice. Once the power structures become visible to the protagonist, “Fifteen Million Merits” becomes a tale about how power can destroy relationships, societies, even one’s own identity and convictions. Black Mirror suggests that our problematic relationships to contemporary energy sources won’t be solved by a technological panacea. Such a future might, in fact, be worse.

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes place in an enclosed facility that houses hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) people. The characters in the story wake up each day and head towards endless rows of stationary exercise bikes. Each meter travelled on the bike translates to a “merit” (i.e. currency) that can be redeemed for resources within the facility: toothpaste, water, food, etc. These merits are predominantly used in the consumption of digital entertainment, however, as each character is locked into cramped, isolated bedrooms each night. These bedrooms feature all four walls entirely covered with digital screens, almost in an Orwellian manner, and these screens forcibly advertise to the residents of the rooms. To skip these mandatory advertisements requires a substantial cost, something to the effect of 10,000 merits – more than a day’s work. Thus, unless someone is willing to be mindlessly subjected to ads for crude digital entertainment, they are virtually trapped on the exercise bikes forever.

It is relatively unclear where energy comes from in the episode’s beginning, but the showrunner Charlie Brooker’s notes reveal a post-petroculture that still inherits metaphors from past non-renewable energy resources. The first instance of petroculture in the screenplay describes Bing’s toothpaste dispenser in his bedroom. Brooker writes, “Using a wall-mounted mini-pump, like a miniature petrol pump nozzle, he dispenses a small amount of bright green toothpaste onto a brush.” The question for Brooker would be whether this description should be taken as a mere artistic flair, or whether he was commentating on the collective unconscious of a post-petroculture in this episode. As evidenced by a description further in the episode, Brooker’s answer would assuredly be the latter. For the next instance is equally petrol-centric, towards the end of the episode, when Bing is saving up merits. In the process, Bing becomes extremely frugal with his expenditures. This frugality is best captured when Brooker writes, “Bing keeps an eye on the screen — he’s trying to stop the nozzle at a nice round number, like someone filling a car with petrol trying to stop on an even figure.” Again, this nozzle is explicitly described in terms of petrol and energy consumption. The merits stand in for Bing’s reckoning with his own relationship to the culture of excessive energy production and consumption. To complicate this relationship further, the episode never once mentions fossil fuels. Energy seems to come from somewhere else: the bikes.

The exercise bikes in “Fifteen Million Merits” often appear as set pieces that facilitate character proximity, representing how hard it is to remain isolated while exercising in a public space like a gym. Characters can of course stop riding these bikes, but will be relegated to a lower class almost immediately. Overweight people, in the episode, are downgraded from the bikes to become “Lemons,” or yellow-dressed custodians for the (relatively speaking) middle-class bikers. Those who don’t participate in energy culture are doomed to be crushed by its powerful machine. Thus, the plot unfolds in a way that, despite intense character motivations to accumulate enough merits to escape this labor-demanding facility, reinforces the hierarchies of power throughout the society in which they find themselves. One way to escape the facility is to earn fifteen million merits, which buys a “golden ticket” to join a game show not altogether unlike America’s Got Talent. Escape is not guaranteed, however, even if they pay into the system. One can infer the motivations of those in power based on the ubiquity of these stationary bikes: these bikes generate electricity, and the human power required to generate these bikes is too valuable to allow people emancipation.

The digital interface of the exercise bikes in Black Mirror serves to obscure, render “opaque to ordinary perception,” the mechanisms by which characters enslave themselves to endless hours on the bikes (Shannon 312). The bikes feature digital technology integrated into each unit that functions in a lot of ways like social media. This digital technology becomes important for questions of energy’s and power’s (in)visibility, and why the inevitable reveal of power at the episode’s climax is so devastating for Bing’s character. Laurie Shannon writes of how “Western culture has transitioned to forms of energy whose origins are opaque to ordinary perception, whose material workings are comprehended only by specialists, and whose business operations are shielded and securitized” (312). Only the “specialists,” or those who are in charge of the facility in which the episode’s protagonists find themselves, have a deep understanding of how these bikes work, how the factory works, why this mode of energy generation is the way humanity – or, “Western culture” – has transitioned into this unorthodox and labor-intensive mode of producing power. When characters are motivated to investigate and challenge their relationship to the system, their dissent is squashed by the system itself.

Throughout the course of the episode, energy remains implicit within the factory. As we’ve seen, for the majority of “Fifteen Million Merits,” energy is rendered invisible and somewhat magical to the characters. By virtue of the episode’s sophisticated technology, and how seamlessly it is integrated into the characters’ lives, it seems like this facility has moved beyond crude, non-renewable forms of energy like fossil fuels. But to see this technological advancement as a kind of moral advancement would be too simple a reading, neglecting the power structures that demand human bodies to be used as capital. As Bob Johnson recounts in his history of energy slaves in the 20th century, “Fossil fuels did not replace human labor, they displaced it by rendering physical exploitation less visible to the privileged” (974). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” human labor has been displaced entirely from the eyes of those in power; the countless lives spent entirely on the exercise bikes is one indication; the mindless digital “dopples” (avatars) from the episode reinforce how futile the characters’ efforts are; and the relegation of the laboring class of bikers to this facility is a way of masking a kind of human slavery from who are later to be revealed as the upper, privileged classes.

The relationship between energy-producing bikes and the larger facility trapping these people finally becomes visible in the episode’s culminating tragic scene, in which Bing loses his merits to the arbitrary whims of the privileged class, represented by three obdurate judges. These judges listen to a song by the young woman Abi, for whom Bing has bought the golden ticket, but they don’t hear her beautiful voice. Rather, they crudely offer her a career in Judge Wraith’s porn industry with the tempting offer, “You’ll never have to pedal again, not one minute. We could really work with you.” Abi resists this dehumanizing remark, but Judge Hope persists:

“Who do you think’s powering that spotlight? […] Millions of people, that’s who. All out there right now, putting in an honest day on the bike, giving back to the world, while you stand in the light they’re generating and dither. And you know what? They would give anything, do anything to be where you are now, to have what you have.”

At this point in the episode, the energy-producing role of these exercise bikes can no longer be ignored. One key phrase that indicates that these bikes are explicitly acting as electrical generators is the idea of “giving back to the world.” Their efforts, their “honest day on the bike,” somehow give back, notably in the form of “generating” power, as indicated by Judge Hope’s first question: these people, everyone in the facility, are powering those spotlights. (Who knows what else they’re powering?)

Energy’s presence, revealed as the invisible heart of this episode’s factory, shapeshifts into what Imre Szeman calls “an absence inescapably present through negation” (324). This “absence” borrows from in Jean-Paul Sartre’s mode of “nothingness.” Nothingness, in Sartre’s conception, is a present lack, something you’re looking for but don’t see mise en scene. As Szeman relates to Black Mirror, then, this absence – this nothingness – becomes a “gap,” one which arises out of “the apparent epistemic inability or unwillingness to name our energy ontologies, one consequence of which is the yawning space between belief and action, knowledge and agency” (324). The ignorance of self-circumstance displayed by the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits” plays to the upper-class’ advantage. It’s within the scope of interests for the (absent) nameless people in charge of this episode’s facility to keep people in the dark, on the bike. In not being able to name their own “energy ontologies,” they aren’t equipped to stand up to the unfair conditions in which they find themselves. But, as will be seen in the episode’s cynical conclusion, it’s not unthinkable to imagine an akrasiatic response to the revelation of energy’s dark role in these characters lives: that “we know where we stand with respect to energy, but we do nothing about it” (Szeman 324). Or, returning to Sartre’s terminology, our epistemic inability leads to “inaction and bad faith” (Szeman 324).

Our historical relationship to energy anticipates this perverse relationship between the people and energy bikes in Black Mirror. Returning to Bob Johnson’s 2016 essay, “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy,” he traces the pejorative terms from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that referred to the first “energy slaves” (955). Energy slaves were considered to be “any labor-saving device that could convert energy into the functional equivalent of a laboring body,” and emerged as a remedy to household labor (956). Energy slaves, replacing human slaves, perform(ed) “ideological work on behalf of modernity’s privileged classes” (956). In this light, the characters of “Fifteen Million Merits” perform as energy slaves: they convert energy from the toils of a laboring human body; they reinforce the ideological agenda and do the work of the upper, privileged classes (e.g. the Judges). The most these characters receive as compensation is a made-up digital currency: merits. The energy slaves of Black Mirror are “obedient and docile,” given all their technological distractions (Johnson 960). As long as there’s something new to pedal for, Johnson suggests, the characters will remain on the bikes, subjected to the abstract power structures in which they find themselves embedded.

Though “Fifteen Million Merits” begins in medias res, the visual context of this episode suggests that these energy slaves may have “submitted to being ‘shackled,’ and ‘obeyed,’” their enslavement due to economic pressures (Johnson 960). As with Johnson’s historical energy slaves, the characters of Black Mirror “go to ‘sleep’ when ordered to do so” (960): their digital cubicle rooms artificially mimic sunrise and sunset, and are monitored by the anonymous powers that run this facility. The energy slaves are responsible for powering the very system that enslaves them. As the episode suggests, it would be impossible for any single person (energy slave) to throw off their shackles (bikes) and overthrow the system that oppresses them. But why the universal complacency? Greg Singh offers a convincing explanation, warning that the energy slaves of “Fifteen Million Merits” are in, what he calls,

a permanent waking-sleep, a zombification of sorts that is seductive precisely because it shuts off so much of the relentless affect felt through the pressures of supermodernity. This disconnection is desirable in the first place because the affect alerts us to the alienated state to which we may succumb at any moment, through the always-on relationships we have with and through technology – the very last thing that many would wish to be reminded of (127).

The fact that the facility in this Black Mirror episode is always on means an enormous demand of energy needed to keep the place running. These imposed “always-on relationships” alienate the characters within, who have hopes of eventually escaping, thus renewing the cycle (pardon the pun) of their lives being spent on energy bikes.

A final consideration about human relationships to energy arises out of Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrialized Societies, when he writes of how, over the course of centuries, humanity’s “increasingly utilitarian frame of mind led them to begin treating other human beings as tools” (27). With the rise of energy-capturing and energy-reliant tools, writes Heinberg, sources and systems of energy have consolidated and allocated energy distribution to non-local places (27). Further, the growing complexity of human societies has lead to hyper-specialization within individual “technological-economic ‘ecosystem[s]’” (27). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” for instance, each corridor of exercise bikes serves as a microcosm of both familiarity and social currency. Each character can feel better about themselves when another out-of-shape, overweight person is kicked off the bike, bound to become a “lemon.” Dominance is established by characters like Dustin, throughout the episode, as they mindlessly buy into the internal dominance hierarchies within the facility. Dustin thinks that he can treat others contemptibly simply because he’s “put his time in on the bike.” In the same way, historical sources of energy have formed these “ecosystems” that Heinberg describes, rendering a kind of meritocratic contempt for the unsuccessful society to be treated as subhuman. Heinberg claims that we use tools to “adapt ourselves” to a variety of habitats,” which function like “prosthetic devices” (25). In this instance, the compulsory exercise and energy generation on the bikes is a way of demonstrating human adaptation; people don’t wield tools, tools wield people. By this conception, the oppressive relationships between human and bike in this episode becomes a kind of “prosthetic device,” allowing rapport and social cache to develop with the hopes of working hard enough to retire the bike for good.

Over the course of the episode’s second arc, Bing furiously works towards achieving fifteen million merits once more. This time, his efforts are not for Abi, but rather for himself. Rage, resentment, and bitterness have consumed Bing’s heart since the atrocious conscription of Abi into the pornographic Wraith Babes channel. The episode frames a montage of Bing now getting up impossibly early, cycling far more than anyone else, climbing back high with a newfound determination. He endures watching all the adverts, even the porn ones. He miserly monitors his spending, ensuring he uses only one merit for toothpaste. He waits for the vending machines to jam up so he can fish the food out for himself. He waits for people to leave their scraps behind before snatching them up greedily. Eventually, weary from merciless determination and effort, Bing reaches 15,000,000. He stops, gets off the bike. Now, with enough merits, Bing purchases another Hot Shots ticket, and slips a shard of glass into his waistband, along with the used Cuppliance from Abi’s visit. Bing fakes a dance routine, sneaking past the guards, concealing the shard of glass. On stage at last, Bing raises this shard of glass to his throat and, shaking, delivers an impassioned speech, the highlights of which are worth reproducing here at length:

“It’s not people, you don’t see people up here […] Real pain, real viciousness: that we can take. Stick a fat man up a pole and we’ll laugh ourselves feral because we’ve earned the right. We’ve done saddletime and he’s slacking, the scum, so ha ha ha at him. We’ll happily meld with the sheer callous madness of it because we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves; buying shit. ‘I have a dream’? […] We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful? You couldn’t. Cos it’d break us. We’re too numb for it; our minds would choke.”

Embedded in Bing’s captivating and extemporaneous rant is a fusion of the ideas of energy and power that have been explored here. Putting in the “saddletime,” according to Bing, is a way of justifying the status quo. For inside this facility, the status quo is social stratification, enslavement, and the worst parts of consumerist capitalism – all perpetuated by bike pedals.

Bing doesn’t have access to the outside world; these ideas are all raw, his own. But his psychological insight rings in harmony with the ideas of energy and power reinforcing each other. The production of energy in this bike-bound society is what allows any of them to have their own lives; the maintenance of their lives allows corrupt power structures to end up controlling them. Bing, and perhaps many others, recognizes this fusion when he concludes his ardent monologue:

“We’ve grown inside this machine, breathed its air too long. There’s only so much wonder we can bear. That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions — and only then when it’s been augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights to stare into while we ride, day in, day out: going where? Powering what? Powering the whole distraction engine. All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and FUCK YOU.”

Bing – impassioned, tired, adrenaline burnt out – goes silent. The hall goes silent. Stunned but composed, dignity on public display, the unexpected occurs. Shockingly, Judge Hope offers Bing a 30 minute show twice a week where he’s encouraged to “perform” like this again, this “gimmick” of ranting with a shard to his throat.

This moment of truth for Bing’s character toes the line of what Tim Jordan describes as “culture jamming.” For Jordan, culture jamming is “an attempt to reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or be someone” (102). Culture jamming bears particular relevance to ecocriticism and its relationship to viral marketing, attempting to stop or change a particular politically salient conversation and shed light on otherwise obscured or silenced issues (e.g. the BP oil spill). In Black Mirror, Bing is conscripted into the very “distraction engine” that has kept him on the bike, that took away his brother, that took away Abi. His protest has succeeded and, when presented with this prisoner’s dilemma, his resolve comes into question.

Bing’s reaction can be usefully described in Eleftheria Lekakis’ article on the relationship between climate change activism, culture jamming, and what she describes as “the logic of appropriation” (312). For Lekakis, forms of “discursive political consumerism” tend to recycle themselves (e.g. the Truth campaign against the tobacco industry). Culture jamming, seen through the logic of appropriation, “appears to be a modality of creative activism creative activism that both asserts the power of consumer politics and contests the commercialization of social change” (312). Protest and resistance can quickly be appropriated by those in power, however. For, at this point in “Fifteen Million Merits,” it appears that Bing has won. He has made his point, left the world speechless, and perhaps generated true activism within the episode’s facility. Black Mirror offers a darker conclusion. Instead, offered with a life off the bike, offered bigger living quarters, merit-free amenities, Bing caves into power. The culture jamming has been reinscribed, rebranded, and, as Bing’s rant points out, repackaged, into the culture.

The episode doesn’t entirely wrap up Bing’s complicit relationship with the power structure that has enslaved him and so many others. Rather, the episode provides small snippets that suggest, amongst other things, that nothing has changed for the people inside the system, still toiling away on the bikes. Kai, a young man who has biked in Bing’s corridor throughout the episode, is seen at the end of the episode to be purchasing a “Bing Shard” for his dopple. Bing’s enraged rant, seen by everyone, has evidently become part of a fashion trend. It’s now cool, edgy even, to tack on this little sign of rebellion to one’s dopple. Of course, this shard doesn’t actually get anyone off the bikes. Implied in Bing’s absence is the fact that the powers that be won’t let another incident like Bing to be aired for all to see. Rather, the episode concludes in Bing’s newly expanded apartment. We see Bing’s new show end, and watch him carefully rest his shard of glass perspex in a velvet case. This “gimmick” has indeed become a gimmick. Bing has bought into the machine that he sought freedom from. And it seems that the amenities have coerced him into complacency: he drinks from a chilled carafe of orange juice, stretches out over the wide apartment, and saunters over to the windows on the other side of his apartment. But these windows are deceptive. The episode’s script reads, “And he stands before an immense window overlooking a beautiful green forest, resplendent beneath deep blue skies.” And yet, clearly, this immense window is just another series of digital screens. It looks real, but the viewer gets the ominous sense that even this newly found freedom from the energy bikes is its own kind of imprisonment. The power structures, momentarily rendered visible by Bing’s righteous indignation, are once again obscured, made invisible by the dominant culture.

“Fifteen Million Merits” presents the kind of future that most technocratic thinkers denounce as far behind societal progress. It’s thought that technological advancements will bring about a more fair, equal society that provides energy access to all who seek it. This attitude is also borne out of the sorts of intersectionality that Ecocriticism adheres to; it’s thought that paying attention to how issues of social justice overlap with environmental and energy issues will be enough to solve the problem. Black Mirror suggests something more bleak: as long as there are dominant modes in control of energy and energy production, as long as we are mindlessly enslaved to our digital lives at the expense of our real ones, these problems of energy, social power, and social justice will only compound in their pernicious consequences. Individual efforts, like Bing’s, to subvert the dominant modes of discourse and power, will be squashed by the strength of the system itself. Collective efforts, virtually impossible within the world of “Fifteen Million Merits,” are also doomed to fail because of social complicity and political apathy. Culture jamming, in this instance, is doomed to be conscripted into the very culture itself.

If “Fifteen Million Merits” teaches anything, it’s that optimistic vignettes of the future fail to seriously engage with the all-pervasive forces of entrenched capitalism and unregulated technological development. As technology increases in scope and scale, so too will inequality increase. If we don’t stare this brutal fact in the face now, far before any such energy bike-driven dystopia comes into being, then the future might look something not altogether unlike the Black Mirror hellscape. “Fifteen Million Merits” mordantly critiques the picturesque mirages of the future, not out of some kind of sadism (although that too, at times), but out of an authentic need to think about these questions now. Even better, Black Mirror insists, start thinking about them yesterday.

Works Cited

Heinberg, Richard. The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. New Society Publishers, 2008.

Johnson, Bob. “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy.” American Quarterly, vol. 68 no. 4, 2016, pp. 955-979.

Jordan, Tim. Activism! Direct action, hacktivism and the future of society. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Eleftheria J. Lekakis. “Culture jamming and Brandalism for the environment: The logic of appropriation.” Popular Communication, vol. 15, no. 4, 2017, pp. 311-327.

Shannon, Laurie. “Greasy Citizens and Tallow-Catches: Early Modern Equivocations on Fuel.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 2, 2011, pp. 311-313.

Singh, Greg. “Recognition and the Image of Mastery as Themes in Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011–Present): An Eco-Jungian Approach to ‘Always-On’ Culture.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 120-132.

Szeman, Imre. “Literature and Energy Futures.” PMLA, vol. 126, no.2, 2011, pp. 323-325.

Advertisements

Lord Byron’s Complex Relationship with Time

March 6, 2018

Lord Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is packed with nostalgic meditations on youth. The very fact that this poem is centered around a “child” figure, which archetypally indicates the temporal meditations that will plague Byron’s narrator in the poem’s final canto. Particularly in the fourth canto, the framing of this topographical survey poem in terms of a temporal perspective proves crucial. In Childe Harold, Byron visits Italy, longing for the past zenith of the country’s great cities and empires. The ruins (and occasional superfluities) evoke the greatness of Italy’s past, and, in a similar way, call Byron’s “Harold” into question. That is, Harold’s journey, though topographical, is grounded more fundamentally in a temporal quest. In the way that Proust’s great narrator searches in recovery of lost time, so too does Byron’s narrator seek, through travel, to negotiate his own relationship to mortality – a morbid intimation that bleeds throughout his otherwise romantic poetry.

Byron’s temporal lamentations begin at the third canto’s inception, and carries on throughout the final canto of the poem. This preferatory stanza anticipates the narrator’s travel from Dover to Waterloo:

In my youth’s summer I did sing of One,

The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind;

Again I seize the theme then but begun,

And bear it with me, as the rushing wind

Bears the cloud onwards: in that Tale I find

The furrows of long thought, and dried-up tears,

Which, ebbing, leave a sterile track behind,

O’er which all heavily the journeying years

Plod the last sands of life, – where not a flower appears. (19-27).

 

Here, Byron opens the third canto’s journey from the frame of youth, but more symbolically, the youth’s “summer” in which time passes like the “rushing wind.” The “Tale” that Byron’s narrator tells begins with moribund perseverations, namely the language that Byron’s narrator invokes: “dried-up,” “ebbing,” “sterile,” and so forth. In other words, Byron’s narrator feels that his life-force is washing away in the proverbial tide; Byron’s narrator feels the “journeying years” “heavily” which is to say that the “sands of life,” that is, an hourglass’ sands, passing by like a momento mori – and an indication of Time’s (Byron’s capitalization) passage. In the end, presumably in apocalypse, no flower – a biological symbol of reproduction – appears. The earth will die; time will run out.

Byron’s fourth canto, in Venice,  is where the meditations on Time influence the outcome of the poem’s narration. Byron’s narrator feels moved by the surrounding city, its history, all the lost time that it evokes:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:

A thousand years their cloudy wings expand

Around me, and a dying Glory smiles

O’er the far times, when many a subject land

Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,

Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles! (1-9).

Implicitly, Byron evokes the past, namely through Venetian memories that are indelibly etched into the landscape around Byron’s narrator. The balance of “palace” and “prison” within this opening stanza self-contradicts within these Venetian memories; this contradiction bears the weight of “a thousand years” and simultaneously dusts itself off as its “cloudy wings expand.” These wings expand around Byron’s narrator, casting memories of sacrifice (“Glory”), smiling through the landscape. The peopling of Venice’s past peers through the landscape, through time.

Structurally, Byron’s lamentations about time continue in the poem’s fifth stanza, deepening the doubts that plague the poem’s narrator throughout the poem’s eventual unfolding:

The beings of the mind are not of clay;

Essentially immortal, they create

And multiply in us a brighter ray

And more beloved existence: that which Fate

Prohibits to dull life, in this our state

Of mortal bondage, by these spirits supplied,

First exiles, then replaces what we hate;

Watering the heart whose early flowers have died,

And with a fresher growth replenishing the void. (37-45).

It’s safe to say that the “beings of the mind” that aren’t clay are simply memories. The “beings,” or perhaps, figments, of the memory’s object are “essentially immortal.” For memories “create” and “multiply” versions within us that cast a “brighter ray” and “more beloved existence” on the meaning within our lives. Byron’s narrator here suggests that “Fate,” fickle as it is, requires the adoption of sacrifice and responsibility – as evidenced by the invocation of prohibiting a “dull” (expedient, perhaps, instead of meaningful) life. By calling “our” state into question, Byron’s narrator here bonds himself to every human’s “mortal” fate. These fates are doomed to a cycle: first exiling our ‘selves’ from ourselves, and then burning off those parts, like dead wood, allowing “fresher growth” to appear, replacing “what we hate.” Time thus replenishes “the void,” and interpolates us to improve; as Jung would later suggest: our future selves are beckoning to us in the present.

The poem’s sixth stanza begins with brief but premoniscent predictions for how Time becomes an object of obsessive fixation for Byron’s narrator. Here, Byron’s observations about Time arrive in his mind “like truth,” and disappear “like dreams” (55):

Such is the refuge of our youth and age,

The first from Hope, the last from Vacancy;

And this worn feeling peoples many a page;

And, may be, that which grows beneath mine eye” (46-49).

Here, Byron equates “youth” with “refuge,” which suggests how one can retreat into the confines of youth as a means of escape from, presumably, adulthood – the very condition that Byron’s narrator in Childe Harold is attempting to escape from. Furthermore, the indication that “Hope” and “Vacancy” are places to seek refuge “from” wears on the narrator’s conscience; this is indicated by the “worn” feeling that, as it “peoples many a page,” simultaneously “grows,” like a cancer, “beneath mine eye.” Time takes its toll. It can’t be stopped.

Byron’s narrator lingers in Italy, prasing its virtues while simultaneously lamenting its faults. Here, we will fast-forward through the key stanzas in which Lord Byron accentuates and (fittingly) accelerates the importance of Time’s passage in Childe Harold:

These are four minds, which, like the elements,

Might furnish forth creation: — Italy!

Time, which hath wrong’d thee with ten thousand rents

Of thine imperial garment, shall deny,

And hath denied, to every other sky,

Spirits which soar from ruin: — thy decay

Is still impregnate with divinity,

Which gilds it with revivifying ray;

Such as the great of yore, Canova is to-day. (487-495).

“Time,” capitalized at last by Byron’s narrator, becomes a sort of agent: a character for Byron’s “Harold” narrator. Here, Time has “wrong’d thee with ten thousand rents / Of thine imperial garment,” which is to say that all objects are torn apart by Time. The attainment of objects is a plethoric act that is in vain, according Byron’s narrator, for all will disappear. The “imperial garment,” or architectural decay, is transparent to Time; the “wrongs” committed by either self, neighbor, or government, shall be rectified by Time’s judgment. In this stanza, Time denies even the sky, and the “spirits which soar from ruin.” The “decay” of the landscape – the topographical element – is supplanted by the “impreg[nation]” of “divinity” within the history – that is to say, Time – of the landscape: Italy (or, appropriately, “Italia!”).

Time becomes a teacher – not just for Harold, but for the reader of Childe Harold as well. This first becomes clear when Byron’s narrator realizes that these beautiful Italian landscapes and architectural achievements are “Too much, to conquer for the poet’s sake” for there would never be time to write it all “forced down word by word” but that there is still “pleasure to record” (673-675):

Aught that recalls the daily drug which turn’d

My sickening memory; and, though time hath taught

My mind to meditate what then it learn’d,

Yet such the fix’d inveteracy wrought

By the impatience of my early thought,

That, with the freshness wearing out before

My mind could relish what it might have sought,

If free to choose, I cannot now restore

Its health; but what it then detested, still abhor. (676-684).

At the risk of redundancy, Byron here equates memory with a drug. Time instructs, even for the addict. The mind, then, evolves to “meditate” on these lessons – whether drug-induced or Time-induced. Thus, “inveteracy” sets in, stubbornly reducing the narrator’s experiences into easy packages; this is borne through the “impatience” and “wearing out” of the narrator’s thoughts. Further, calling back to memory, the narrator’s mind fails to “restore” the “relish” with which its memory would otherwise find in “health.” That is to say, even repressed memories (“what is then detested”) are still abhorrent.

To refute the reader that casts a skeptical glance on this thesis of Time in Byron’s poem, I’d appeal first to the poem’s eightieth stanza, in which Byron’s narrator puts Time on equal footing with God. In love with Rome, the “city of the soul” (694), Byron’s narrator realizes just how “fragile” (701) the world is, how fragile human beings are:

The Goth, the Christian, Time, War, Flood, and Fire,

Have dealt upon the seven-hill’d city’s pride;

She saw her glories star by star expire,

And up the steep barbarian monarchs ride,

Where the car climb’d the capitol; far and wide

Temple and tower went down, nor left a site: —

Chaos of ruins! who shall trace the void,

O’er the dim fragments cast a lunar light,

And say, ‘here was, or is,” where all is doubly night? (711-720).

Byron’s narrator lines up some otherwise transcendent, Platonic ideas next to each other in this first line: “The Goth, the Christian, Time, War, Flood, and Fire.” This might be a gesture towards the fundaments of human nature. It might otherwise be a condemnation of these six forces, as they tempt and corrupt human societies. Time, again capitalized – afforded agency – becomes associated with War in terms of its sociological and psychological impact on Byron’s narrator.

Byron’s obsession with Time becomes prescriptive when he is taken aback by the “Imperial Mount” that all, even the “mighty” falls (963):

There is the moral of all human tales;

‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,

First Freedom, and then Glory — when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption, — barbarism at last.

And History, with all her volumes vast,

Hath but one page, — ’tis better written here,

Where gorgeous tyranny hath thus amass’d

All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,

Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask — Away with words! draw near, (964-972).

The “moral” edge to this stanza is where Byron’s prescription becomes apparent, that is to say, learn your damn history (“History”). For “wealth, vice, corruption,” supervenes on the redeeming aspects of human nature, for Byron’s narrator. “Barbarism,” unfortunately, emerges from the unrefined mind, from the unrefined relationship with “Freedom” and “Glory.” “History,” then, personified, “hath but one page,” and that page is reflective of all human nature: Time corrupts even the noblest of intentions; further, “Tyranny” emerges from those who perseverate on these temporal matters: “All treasures, all delights” dissolve in the face of corrupt cravings, urges to “ask” for more than mortal lives can (or should) bear.

The ego of Byron’s narrator, dwarfed by Time and history, finally submits in the presence of a ruined palace and crumbling arches. As Harold begins to see himself anew, as unquestionably and inexorably mortal, he supplicates a gift from Time, himself:

Oh Time! the beautifier of the dead,

Adorner of the ruin, comforter

And only healer when the heart hath bled —

Time! the corrector where our judgements err,

The test of truth, love, — sole philosopher,

For all beside are sophists, from thy thrift,

Which never loses though it doth defer —

Time, the avenger! unto thee I lift

My hands, and eyes, and heart, and crave of thee a gift: (1162-1170).

At last, Byron’s narrator submits himself to the fatalistic (deterministic) force of Time’s passage. Time then becomes the “beautifier” of the dead, the “adorner” of the ruin, the “comforter” and “only healer” for the broken heart that “hath bled.” Time, nuanced in this passage, becomes paradoxical: signifier and signified. Time, thus, is the existential “corrector” for mistakes in judgment; Time, thus, “never loses,” which is to say, is always correct; Time, thus, always avenges (moral wrongs?); Time, finally, offers the power of bestowing a gift – maybe not just for the poem’s narrator, but as a reinforcing gesture, harkening back to the poem’s aforementioned “moral” that was promised. Time becomes the great equalizer for Byron’s narrator.

The fourth canto’s most iconic stanza, stanza 137, recursively incorporates Byron’s narrator’s lamentations about Time and Time’s passage. Several stanzas precede this penultimate moment of realizing the “mountain of [Harold’s] curse” (1205):

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:

My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,

And my frame perish even in conquering pain;

But there is that within me which shall tire

Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;

Something unearthly, which they deem not of,

Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,

Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move

In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love. (1225-1233)

Here, Byron’s narrator confronts the inevitable decline of his bodily and mental faculties. Harold’s quest throughout this poem has been, in some sense, to recover his youth – whether that means age or spirit is an undecided question. But Byron’s narrator, here, at last, collapses the distinction between a lived life: a long life and, more importantly, a well-lived life. Byron’s narrator at last acknowledges that “conquering pain” is part of what makes life a meaningful endeavor. Byron’s narrator at last acknowledges that a life well-lived will “tire” him at the end of the day, as opposed to the privileged, restful existence that he’d been existing with so far. “Torture and Time,” now twin forces, equally and tyrannically supplant the narrator’s initial quest: to recover inspiration out of the act of traveling. Again, Proust’s great narrator is anticipated in Childe Harold’s temporal meditations throughout this fourth canto. Time, perhaps, is what Byron’s narrator means by “something […] not of,” hence the “remembered” lyre, and the remorseful, rocky “hearts.”

Time emerges as a cohesive conceptual unit, particularly when Byron writes of the great Roman Colesseum and “Saxon times” (1300). Rome confronts Byron’s narrator as irreparable and “Ruin[ed] past Redemption’s skill” (1304).

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime —

Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,

From Jove to Jesus — spared and blest by time;

Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods

Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods

His way through thorns to ashes — glorious dome!

Shalt thou not last?  Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods

Shiver upon thee — sanctuary and home

Of art and piety — Pantheon! — pride of Rome! (1306-1314).

The span from “Jove to Jesus” indicates the kinds of temporal span within Byron’s narration in this canto. This span is “spared and blest by time,” which, curiously, is not capitalized here. Time, thus begins to fade in existential importance for this poem hereafter. But, for the time (pardon the pun) being, the theme of Time continues: empires rise and fall, while human nature persists. Further, humanity “plods / [their] way through the ashes” of past civilizations, past cultures, such that they (humanity, people) culturally appropriate that which is perceived to be valuable from disparate civilizations. When Byron’s narrator then asks, “Shalt thou not last?,” Time’s “scythe” and tyrant’s “rods” come in to punish the asker of the very question. Returning to the comparison between Jove and Jesus, it’s as though Satan himself emerges, reprimanding Byron’s narrator for the audacity to suggest that Time and mortal finitude is unfair.

Byron thinks of Rome as the Garden of Eden, of a kind of paradise lost that still offers a “fruit” (1341) from the “deep pure fountain of young life” (1333). Byron’s narrator puts his concerns with Time to rest, as “youth” offers a gift to him:

But here youth offers to old age the food,

The milk of his own gift: — it is her site

To whom she renders back the debt of blood

Born with her birth.  No; he shall not expire

While in those warm and lovely veins the fire

Of health and holy feeling can provide

Great Nature’s Nile, whose deep stream rises higher

Than Egypt’s river: — from that gentle side

Drink, drink and live, old man!  Heaven’s realm holds no such tide. (1342-1350).

“Youth,” as a predominant theme, resurfaces at the poem’s end. The initial place of embarkment from which this poem began becomes a recursive loop to which the poem’s narrator emancipates himself from in this stanza. This emancipation happens when Byron writes that youth “offers” to old age the “food,” or the “milk,” of “his own gift.” This gift is time, age, experience – in other words, the potential with which one is “born with [one’s] birth.” The inevitability of one’s fate to “expire” is bound in fate (capital Fate, in Byron’s language), but that should – for the poem’s narrator – never diminish the “fire” in one’s veins. “Health” will be maintained, in accordance with “Great Nature’s Nile,” if one drinks from the stream of life, so to speak. That is, as Byron writes, “Heaven’s ream holds no such tide.” Earthly existence, impermanent as it is, holds treasures that no poem can quantify.

Time unwelcomingly appears for its final volley when Byron’s narrator concludes, “Farewell! a word that must be, and hath been – / A sound which makes us linger; – yet – farewell!” (1666-1667). The past-tense evocation that the word “farewell” brings with it suggests that the poem’s narrator has had to work up to this utterance. Saying “farewell” is emotionally difficult for Harold; Time is a virtue that Byron’s narrator has only just begun to acquaint himself with. But, as the poem continues, the “sound” of the word “farewell” makes us “linger.” We, in other words, are contradictorily bound when this utterance occurs. The intent of the message, “farewell,” is interrupted by the emotions undergirding the phrase itself.

Afterword

For further thoughts on Byron’s complex relationship with Time, one might turn to the 43rd International Byron Conference in 2017, a conference that themed itself around “Byron, Time and Space.” The element of “Time” was heavily explored in this conference, but never touched the elements of Chile Harold that so obviously complicate Byron’s relationship with Time. Of this conference, Stephen Minta writes of Tatevik Movsisyan from Yerevan State who stringently argued that The Giaour, one of Byron’s most acclaimed works, was fundamentally tethered to this idea of “Time and Space” (Minta 2). Further, Byron himself authored a poem five years before the publication of Childe Harold’s fourth canto, entitled “To Time.” In this poem, Byron explores these themes that occur throughout Childe Harold. Those interested in the innumerable connections between Byron’s narrators and Time would be wisely advised to explore “To Time.”

 

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon Byron, and Jerome J. McGann. Lord Byron, the major works. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Minta, S. “‘Byron, Time and Space’ 43rd International Byron Conference, Yerevan 29 June–1 July 2017 [2–4 July: excursions].” The Byron Journal, vol. 45 no. 2, 2017, pp. 177-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/683077.

 

Life is Tumblr: A Refutation

January 28, 2018

My latest column for Epilogue argues against critics like E;R who say Life is Strange is a bad game. My problems with these critiques are that they are lazy, boring, and misogynistic. For a game that capitalizes on what I’ve called the “Telltale genre,” they represent some serious innovations in videogaming and storytelling that deeply move me as a player.

 

My Defense of the videogame Life is Strange

January 17, 2018

So I can officially say that I get paid to write about videogames. That’s pretty cool. Take that, mom!

Here is the article in question: “Life is Strange: A Ludonarrative Lighthouse in the Darkness”

It would mean the world to me if any of you read through my piece on Life is Strange. I put a lot of work into everything I do, but this piece stands out as something that I truly believe is important work. Any feedback, as always, is cherished.

And if you like it, please check out the rest of Epilogue Gaming’s website. They’ve done a lot for me so far, and I want to help them grow as much as possible. They’re doing a stellar job of carving out a space for intelligent discussions about storytelling that I’ve never seen before.

And if you enjoy my article, which I think you will, then please head over to the Epilogue Gaming Patreon. For as little as $1 per month, you can promote my ability to write more articles like this one. 🙂

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.

 

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

 

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.

 

Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017

godottree

“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?

 

Threading the Temporal Needle: The Dada Movement’s Flight From Time

December 11, 2016

 

dadaeye

Many Dadaist authors accept the malleable and elusive nature of trying to aphoristically define “Dada” in a traditional line definition. To that end, my own survey of the Dada movement has been tailored towards proposing my own definition. But, as one might expect, this aim has yielded little in the way of conceptual motif. One idea, however, is constant throughout the works of each Dadaist author: a hyper-sensitivity and resistance to time passing. Embedded in this line of inquiry is the implicit division between scholarly understanding of the Dada movement as a historical phenomenon–as “creatures of their epoch”–and as state of mind, something enduring beyond its historical situation. Inevitably and inexorably, the Dadaist’s attempt to escape time failed–time moved on–but looking at the Dada movement as “anti-time” serves as an example as to how we can better understand our mortal relation to time’s passing.

Creatures of their Epoch

Looking back on the Dada movement, Hans Richter concluded that “each generation must have its own avant-garde.” Given that the Dada movement was, in essence, the definitive avant-garde around the time of World War I, the immediate aim of the avant-garde, for Richter, “was an action directed against the conventional routine with which the generation preceding [them] made war, rules, art, and [the Dadaists].” The negation of convention and historical precedent “broke up what was past & dead, and opened the way to emotional experience from which all the arts profited and still profit.” Thus, ironically, despite the Dada movement’s recalcitrance to their own epoch, we have inherited the Dada movement as a tradition in art, an emotional experience (often of shock or liberation) that is both immediate and historical.

The Dada movement didn’t announce itself as the self-appointed avant-garde, though they readily adopted the title and exploited it. “It wasn’t Dadaists who made Dada;” writes Jed Rasula, “the times themselves propitiously excreted Dadaists like lava from a volcano…they were merely holding a mirror up to the audience to cull its opposite, a pure distillation straight from the age itself.” Reflected in the mirror, the tempestuous conditions of their time would have appeared so disgusting to the Dadaists that their art would have very consciously, according to Tristan Tzara, presented the “thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”. Tzara continues to argue that the “true” artist would be one who, at every hour, would “snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.” The “frenzied cataract of life,” the historical epoch in which the Dadaists found themselves, was to be torn away as an ultimate project of the “true” Dadaists.

The essence of how the Dada movement responded to their historical epoch, is captured in Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle: “But the mechanism turns / turn turn Baedeker nocturnes of history / brush the teeth of the hours.” The “mechanism” Tzara refers to can be understood as the rise of industrialism and nationalism that swept the turn of the century, almost as if history itself–the myth of human progress–was a machine that ground up all in its wake. As this machine turns, Tzara points us to “Baedeker nocturnes of history.” Understanding “Baedeker” as a term for map or guide to the “nocturnes” of history, Tzara suggests that an understanding of the “mechanism” of time serves as a roadmap through human history, specifically the dark parts: namely, war. Thus, we understand Tzara’s final line, “brush the teeth of the hours,” to convey our need for a hygienic cleansing of the temporal palette–so as to live better, more harmonious lives–which Modernism had, in Tzara’s view, corrupted.

Tzara’s jabbings at modernity are echoes in Hans Arp’s Notes from a Dada Diary, in which Arp jabs instead at expressions of modern economics, namely, capitalism: “was there ever a bigger swine than the man who invented the expression time is money. time and space no longer exist for modern man.” If we ignore Arp’s resistance to punctuation and capitalization, the critique of modernity embedded within his writings suggests a similar account to Tzara’s own. For instance, in asserting that the cliche, “time is money,” came from the mouth of a swine, Arp echoes the grumblings of Marx and the anti-capitalists, Tzara’s notion of the “Baedeker nocturnes” of Modernism’s unhygienic palette. Arp’s critique of modern values, specifically capitalistic currency and its commodification of time, is yet another instance of the Dadaists undermining the imposing presence of both modernity and time’s passage.

In considering the question of Dada’s relation to time’s passage, the question inevitably arises regarding the dualistic nature of the Dada movement: that of being a historical phenomena and/or an attitudinal state of mind. “Dada is ageless,” proposes George Hugnet in his The Dada Spirit in Painting. Hugnet’s conception of Dada as “ageless” is clear evidence to ground an understanding of the Dada movement as a state of mind, a flight from time. But Hugnet’s indelible image of Dada being a “scarecrow erected at the crossroads of the epoch” is ample reason to take both views into serious consideration. As scarecrows were first invented to protect the land of Egyptian farmers, so too was the Dada movement itself a scarecrow to protect art (and reason) from itself, as manifest in modernity. “Dada made a clean sweep of the past,” writes Hugnet, “the state of mind represented by Dada was only a state of mind.” In negating the past as a value, Hugnet clarifies how the Dada movement repudiated time’s passage by rendering itself an “an astonishing halting-place, an escape, a liberating, shocking force”; in this instance, Hugnet’s diction is revealing, as it implicitly endorses the notion that the Dadaists succeeded in their attempt to flee from time though the Dada state of mind.

Think Like a Child

The Dada movement, understood as a state of mind which seeks to escape and negate the passage of time, implies the question of what kind of “state of mind” is most characteristic of the attitude of Dadaism. An answer is suggested in Hugo Ball’s Dada Fragments, namely the entry labeled “August 5, 1916,” and its discussion of childhood. Ball writes of childhood as a “new world” which embraces the phantastic, direct, and symbolical “opposition to the senilities of the world of grown ups.” This opposition indicates an implicit duality between adulthood and childhood, the former of which can be characterized as rational (or orderly/boring), indirect, and literal (or, as I prefer, material). The “senilities” to which Ball refers are to be found in these qualities of adulthood, “of a youth which never knew how to be young.” The child, in other words, has access to something alert and real, something not senile, which we as adults have lost access to.

Further on in Ball’s Fragments, he states that “Childhood is not at all as obvious as is generally assumed. It is a world to which hardly any attention is paid, with its own laws, without whose application there is no art.” If we “generally assume” childhood to be “obvious,” then the obviousness of it must be in relation to age. Childhood, in other words, is a very explicit period that our society recognizes; childhood is understood to eventually cease. Furthermore, Ball’s suggestion that the “obvious” characterization of childhood is mistaken, that we are “senile,” invites us to explore childhood as something else, which I’d argue is to be understood as a process of perception. That is, childhood is not just a period of time but a way of being in time. Childhood, then, is accessible to all of us, even now.

In asserting that without the application of childhood there would be no “art,” Ball commits to the claim that all art requires a childlike state of mind. If we consider the Dada movement to be “art” (as opposed to anti-art), then it follows that the Dada movement was, at its heart, a return to a childlike state of mind, a way to escape time.

To further embolden the notion that childhood is an activity of mind (and body), rather than a straightjacket of prepubescence, consider what children are best known for doing: play. Playtime is a common activity in which children are allowed to have fun, that is obvious; but recall, Ball warned us not to buy into “obvious” understandings of childhood. Play–at its essence–is the manipulation of objects and ideas, altering their function in the world; this can be understood as a manifestation of the “credulous imagination” of children that Ball describes. That is, a credulous and imaginative mind is the mind of a child at play (i.e. role playing, acting, even sports, etc.). Due to necessity and responsibility, it is not characteristic of adults to spend time “playing.” To see an adult pretending that a toy airplane is real, or to see them having conversations with a stuffed animal, would lead most bystanding adults to the reasonable conclusion that the “playing” adult were a bit mad. In considering this example of anachronistic childhood (adulthood?), we arrive at the critical component linking Dadaism to childhood: play. Thus, we can see how the Dadaists willingly and actively subverted their “sanity” as adults to escape time’s passage. They became children to avoid going mad.

Our discussion of the Dadaist “childlike” state of mind can be grounded in empiricism through Henri Bergson’s book, Duration and Simultaneity, which discusses the relationship between simultaneity and time. “Ageing and duration belong to the order of quality,” writes Bergson, “no work of analysis can resolve them into pure quantity. Here the thing remains separate from its measurement, which besides, bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself.” Bergson’s distinction between the quality and quantity of ageing (and duration) harkens the Dada movement’s regard for childhood as a (qualitative) state of mind. In dividing the “thing” from its “measurement,” Bergson, like the Dadaists, complicates the self-evidence of childhood. Childhood, then, “bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself,” which is to say that we no longer have “obvious” (recall Ball) means to discuss what childhood is and isn’t.

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows flows Time flows flows

flows flows flows drop by drop

drop drop by drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop

Tristan Tzara, “Handkerchief of the Clouds”

We’ve seen how the child is allowed to play–an activity that otherwise, in adulthood, equates with madness and the absurd–but the adult is not, per se. Adults have professions, not playtime. This lack of play is evidence of what Ball describes as the “corruption and deformation” of the child’s imagination; in learning the rules of society and adulthood, no longer playing, our imaginations–once that of a child–are corrupted and deformed. The antidote, for Ball, is to “surpass oneself in naivete and childishness.” Ask yourself, dear reader, if naivete and childishness of the mind isn’t precisely the right frame from which to participate in producing Dada works. Recall Tristan Tzara’s prescription to cut out every word of the newspaper, gently shake it in a bag, and assemble a poem resembling yourself. Tzara offers us a literal process by which we can, I’d argue, access childhood through the act of playfulness–or, with Ball in mind, a cultivated naivete and childishness.

A final consideration regarding Dadaism and its commitments to a childlike state of mind arises (again) from a rather unexpected discussion of war. War, as discussed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, is another activity which challenges our understanding and experience of time. Huelsenbeck writes of war as “the highest expression of the conflicts of things, as a spontaneous eruption of possibilities, as movement, as a simultaneous poem, as a symphony of cries, shots, commands, embodying an attempted solution of the problem of life in motion” [my italics]. War, in other words, is a quintessentially Dadaist facet of humanity. Life, understood as “in motion,” for the Dadaist, is not to be understood simply in terms of physical movement, but rather through movements in time. Hence, the “problem of life,” is that of approaching one’s mortality, of finding oneself in the world, being-towards-death, yet with every action affirming one’s own will-to-live (Nietzschean life-affirmation). Time, in the Dadaist conception, as we’ve explored, is something to be rallied against, a force to be objected to and (simultaneously) obeyed. This temporal function of war yields a particularly odd view of time, namely, simultaneity.

Huelsenbeck continues these aporetic threads of war and simultaneity, regarding Bruitism, as a “return to nature,” and as “the music produced by circuits of atoms,” thus “death ceases to be an escape of the soul from earthly misery and becomes a vomiting, screaming and choking.” Death, for the Dadaists, was likely more real and terrifying than it is for those of us who are not so incriminated in war as they were. In fact, their draft dodging–as opposed to the millions who faced combat in the early 20th century–speaks to their attitudes towards time, as death positioned itself as more immanent for those who’d otherwise be drafted. In avoiding the “vomiting, screaming and choking” of war and death, they were seeking out a creation of the opposite: that which consumes (instead of vomits), which listens (instead of screams), and which breathes (instead of chokes). These qualities are at the essence of life, the essence of childhood, once again; kids don’t do much but consume (food and information), listen (eventually speaking back), and breathe back into the world (as we all must do). In the childlike state of mind, there is no thanatos, only eros; the Dadaist had to confront thanatos to rediscover eros. Furthermore, in understanding the simultaneous nature of childhood–the barrage of new experiences–we now turn to a specific, refined instance of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time: the simultaneous poem.

Hurrah for Simultaneity!

The word “simultaneous,” is first explicated in Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, where he describes simultaneity as that which is “an abstraction, a concept referring to the occurrence of different events at the same time.” Simultaneity, though straightforward as a concept, is complicated by its “abstraction,” in the same way that, when we try to pin down what defines “childhood” (apart from the arbitrary markers of psychological development and physical age) we are faced with capricious distinctions. “[Simultaneity] presupposes a heightened sensitivity to the passage of things in time,” Huelsenbeck writes, “it turns the sequences a=b=c=d into an a-b-c-d,” confusing our distinctions between positions in time, “and attempts to transform the problem of the ear into a problem of the face.” We, in other words, try to falsely identify the distinct moments of transition between the sounds of simultaneity, as manifest in the Dadaist simultaneous poem. “Simultaneity,” for the Dadaist, “is against what has become, and for what is becoming.” It’s as if one could replace the word, “simultaneity” with “childhood”: childhood is against what has become, and is for what is becoming (i.e. Kids are the future!). The simultaneity of the childlike experience was understood by the Dadaists to be a more authentic state of being, a state in which, Huelsenbeck writes, “I become directly aware that I am alive.” This awareness is such that Huelsenbeck concludes, “And so ultimately a simultaneous poem means nothing but ‘Hurrah for life!’” Through this rejoice, one can find further justification for seeking refuge in the childlike state of mind–a celebration for life and a rebellion against death–through simultaneity, as means for escaping the horrors (death) of adulthood.

Returning to the works of Bergson, we find an empirically grounded and philosophically nuanced discussion of simultaneity. It turns out that the Dadaists, lunatics though they might have been, were anticipating contemporaneous (simultaneous!) developments in physics. Bergson first rhetorically asks what simultaneity is, to which he responds, “First, [it is] an instantaneous perception; second, the capacity of our attention to divide itself without being split up.” Thinking of the Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” one can imagine how the experience of either performing or spectating the act of poetic simultaneity would be “instantaneous,” as Bergson writes, and “[divided] without being split up.” That is, perception oscillates between noticing multiple and singular instances of the simultaneous performance. Bergson continues with an appeal to our own faculties: “I open my eyes for a moment: I perceive two flashes in that instant, coming from separate points.” The two “flashes” can be understood as the multiple languages of the simultaneous poem, while the “separate points” represent the performers, separate on stage. “I call them simultaneous because they are both one and two at the same time: they are one in that my act of attention is indivisible, yet they are two in as much [sic] as my attention is at once shared between both of them, divided but not split up.” Thus, an aporia of the mind arises between an “indivisible” perceptive capacity, and the fact that the simultaneous poem demands of the audience to “divide but not split up” this “indivisible” perception. This tension between performer and audience, between indivisible and forcibly divided perception, noticeably alters the experience of identity and time’s passage throughout the performance.

Bergson’s description of simultaneity in physics, as well as in terms of the Dadaist simultaneous poem, has been further explored in modern psychology. These experiences of simultaneity, in which one’s sense of identity is lost and one’s sense of time is distorted, are known in the modern vernacular as “flow states.” Though in their scientific infancy, the study of flow states, specifically the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, reveals that we can improve both our quality of life and our quantity of it by accruing more “flow” in our everyday lives. Understood through the empirical lens, Hugo Ball’s charge to “rewrite life every day!” seems all the more prescient, as Csikzentmihalyi’s work accounts for flow states being a way to escape one’s sense of time’s passage; that is, flow-inducing activities reduce one’s sense of the past and the future. In these states, Bergson might suggest, “I can also conceive how every part of the universe which is mathematically linked to the present and past — that is, the future unfolding of the inorganic world — may be representable in the same schema.” In describing the future as an “inorganic” unfolding of the world, Bergson subtly critiques the conventions of clock time without explicitly naming it. The collapsing of time into one continuous “flow,” as it were–understanding, as the Dadaists did, that “now” is the only moment ever experienced by humans–is best exemplified in the energy of the simultaneous poem, and serves as a successful instance of the Dada movement’s perpetual flight from time.

Be Drunk

Through a temporal survey of the Dada movement, we know that many of the Dadaists had scholarly backgrounds, borrowing from Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. What is often scantily explored in the relevant scholarly literature, however, is Charles Baudelaire’s influence on the Dada movement. Regarding our question of how time’s passage appears in the Dada movement, Baudelaire’s figure looms above our discussion. An essential project of the Dada movement was to escape the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time,” according to Hugo Ball. The language of Ball’s declaration is uncannily similar to the language of Baudelaire’s poem, “Be Drunk”, which beautifully wraps up the varying projects of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time.

“You have to be always drunk,” begins Baudelaire’s poem, “That’s all there is to it–it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.” From the outset, this poem strings together the ideas of time’s passage, death, and drunkenness. The senseless and commonplace death of World War I would have intensely revealed to the Dadaists the “horrible burden” of time, as described by Baudelaire. But, as far as we know, the Dadaists weren’t all raging alcoholics, so Baudelaire continues: “But [drunk] on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.” Baudelaire’s broad definition of drunkenness, as achievable through wine, poetry or virtue, is further revealed in his book, The Painter of Modern Life, through a discussion of the child: “The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always drunk.” As we’ve seen, the Dadaist imperative to think like a child can be said in another way: the Dadaist imperative is to be drunk. Drunk on wine, drunk on poetry, drunk on virtue or, in the case of the Dadaists, drunk on art, so as to escape time’s “horrible burden.”

Baudelaire’s poem continues with a discussion of sobriety, which is a state that, if we find ourselves in it, we must ask “everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking” what time it is, to which they unanimously reply, “It is time to be drunk!” This beautiful series of images recalls, like childhood, another crucial feature of our discussion: simultaneity. For, if “everything” replies, then everything is happening at once, everything is simultaneous. The response of simultaneity, in Baudelaire’s poem, is an impulse towards drunkenness, an impulse away from time’s “horrible burden.” The Baudelairian sense of drunkenness was, for the Dada movement, at the heart of all their spontaneity, simultaneity, and creativity. They got “drunk” on playfulness, childishness, and were able to forget, for the time, their own passage through time.

In concluding our discussion of Baudelaire’s poem–its precise encapsulation of the Dadaists’ time anxiety and the means to escape it–there is one final consideration. That is, Huelsenbeck’s notion that “everyone can be a Dadaist.” The recurrence of the openness and accessibility of the Dada movement to all individuals is, like time, at the heart of the Dada movement. However, an exploration of Dadaism as a democratic ethos would require another discussion entirely. For our purposes, we are to understand Huelsenbeck to be offering a similar account to Baudelaire’s; that is, the notion that we must always be drunk (regardless of our means and social status) coincides with the notion that we must rewrite life every day (because we all can be (and are!) Dadaists). If we take the Dadaists at their word, and Baudelaire’s drunken proffering, then it becomes apparent that both the Dadaists and Baudelaire found their own unique ways to escape time’s “horrible burden.” Furthermore, if we reinterpret their solution through the lens of modern psychology and its affinity with “flow states,” then we have a road map to reinvigorate the immortality projects of Baudelaire and the Dadaists, recreating them in the twenty-first century, one hundred years later.

The Clock is Ticking

Understanding the Dada movement as a flight from time, the writings of Ball, Tzara, Huelsenbeck and Arp, all propose one constant: the notion that we can, at any moment, escape our epoch, return to childhood, steep ourselves in the simultaneity of the world, allowing for a temporary (temporal) escape from the clutches of clocktime. All of this can be achieved, simply by being a Dadaist. The Dadaist formula is thus one that allows us to veritably “rewrite life every day!”