Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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.


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.


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,


The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.2 Shadow of the Colossus

February 8, 2018

In this month’s episode of the Ludonarrative Podcast, Preston and I spend time unraveling the hauntingly beautiful “Shadow of the Colossus” (2005). This game, designed by Fumito Ueda, adheres to the design principle, “design by subtraction.” The game’s mechanics come alive, even today, as we anticipate the forthcoming redesigned release for the PS4.

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.2 Shadow of the Colossus

Check back with Epilogue this month for more on “Shadow of the Colossus.” And, if you’d like to see more of this kind of content, head over to Patreon to support us.

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. 🙂

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.1 Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

January 7, 2018

I’m excited to release a new project that I’ve been working on for weeks: The Ludonarrative Podcast. This podcast investigates the relationship between videogames and storytelling; or, more specifically, the intersection between gameplay and narrative: how do game mechanics tell stories?

The Ludonarrative Podcast – 1.1 Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

This podcast was born out of a literal dream that I had in June, after beating The Last Guardian for the first time. It was the first videogame I’d had time to play in almost a year. I had just wrapped up a grueling semester. And this game made me cry. I was so moved by The Last Guardian‘s ending, that I went down a rabbithole of research, trying to find discussions about how powerful this game is/was. And there was almost nothing deep, almost nothing compelling. There was a noticeable absence of critical discourse about videogames.

A maxim that I’ve picked up from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s lecture courses is that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated. This maxim becomes truer with each iteration that I say it. In this case, the absence of critical discourse about videogames gripped me: it was my responsibility. And so here we are. This is a project that to say I’m proud of would be to understate the case entirely: it’s one of the best things I’ve ever worked on. And I get to do this podcast with two great, generous, sagacious friends: Ben and Preston. Thank god for them.

Please give this a listen. If you like it, check out Epilogue where I’ll be publishing a minimum of two articles per month about ludonarratives. And, if you’d like to see more of this kind of content, head over to Patreon to support us.

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

December 7, 2017

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

Enjoying these conversations? Check out (@EpilogueGames)

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

Joyshtick II: Ludonarrative discussion of SOMA and The Last Guardian

November 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

October 12, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

Peterson, Jordan B. “Adam and Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, and Death.” YouTube, 19 June 2017,


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.,

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.,

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


“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?